China’s rapid and aggressive investment in its military is a “pacing challenge,” a new report by the Department of Defense (DoD) found – noting specifically that Beijing increased defense spending by 7.1% to modernize its capabilities and improve its proficiencies across all warfare domains, though many estimate actual spending is much larger. Central to this approach is China’s vision for future conflict, which it calls “intelligentized warfare”— a concept that encompasses the extensive development of dual-use AI and cutting-edge technologies across all levels of warfare, from traditional battlefields to cyberspace.
Given the threat this poses to the United States and its allies, Washington must redouble its efforts in adopting and fielding advanced technology to effectively counter China’s rise and maintain the nation’s standing as the preeminent military force.
This “intelligentized” strategy is not some distant-future concern; it’s already being executed, as evidenced by China’s actions against our key regional partner, Taiwan.
One aspect of “intelligentized” warfare involves the use of cyber capabilities to disrupt or infiltrate enemy networks, communication systems, and infrastructure. We received a glimpse of this in 2022 when then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. China noted their displeasure by launching widespread cyber-attacks, targeting everything from convenience stores to public transportation in the lead up to and during her visit. While some experts dismissed this incident as more theater than a genuine threat, the Pentagon’s report warns that China is developing cyber capabilities “to counter the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific region, and compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table on the PRC’s terms.”
The Pentagon’s report corroborates what Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly warned a few months ago — that a widespread attack on U.S. operations in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is “not terribly far-fetched.” Easterly added that such an attack could involve “the detonation of multiple U.S. gas pipelines, the contamination of our water systems, the hijacking of our telecommunications networks, and the crippling of our transportation hubs.”
The good news is that experts believe that China’s modern military can still be contained if the U.S.’s private and public sector comes together to create a more resilient defense infrastructure – something that, as the Pentagon report notes, China’s government is already actively encouraging to scale its own modern defenses.
Many of our nation’s defense startups and small businesses already possess the tools and know-how to help the U.S. maintain its technological superiority. One prominent challenge, however, is that these companies face numerous barriers to entry that prevent their products from quickly being implemented by our nation’s military and intelligence services.
The Pentagon clearly has an innovation adoption problem. The Reagan’s Foundation’s innovation scorecard gave the DoD an “F” for funding and acquiring critical technology, while the Atlantic Council’s Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption interim report urged for swift action to remedy this lack of federal investment.
The Pentagon should consider taking three steps to more quickly adopt cutting-edge solutions: expedited procurement of commercial software; greatly increased private-public experimentation exercises; and streamlined software certification and integration without sacrificing security.
To help the best technology and newer entrants scale, the Pentagon should increase its use of existing appropriations and acquisition authority, including BA 8, a pilot program that allows purchase of commercially available software through ‘colorless’ money. Congress has already provided many authorities to engage with newer innovators, but it requires execution of those existing tools. Though the DoD is making strides – having just graduated its first cohort of four “Acquisition Innovators” in October – the U.S. must do more if it hopes to keep pace with China.
More broadly, the Pentagon must also cultivate a culture that rewards risk and experimentation and has an increased comfort with failure. Joint public-private experimentation exercises like the Department’s Technology Readiness Experimentation (T-REX) and the Air Force’s BRAVO Hackathon are steps in the right direction, but more swift and comprehensive action must be taken to transition from prototype to program of record.
Finally, Congress should uphold policies that streamline the certification process for small businesses to work on military systems. This would reduce both time and cost, and continue to fund organizations like the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), which fielded a record-breaking 17 technologies in FY22, and the $1 billion hedge portfolio.
By adopting these strategies, the U.S. can improve its ability to harness the power of American innovation to maintain our competitive edge in the ever-evolving landscape of AI and cybersecurity.
Today’s military leaders face an ever-evolving landscape of 21st-century warfare where code is quickly becoming as important as combat. China’s ambitions are clear, and we must counter them with a whole-of-nation approach to expedite the integration of readily available emerging tech.
This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.
Gia DeHart leads communications at Rebellion Defense after a decade-long career as a Naval Officer. She previously studied the intersection of technology and national security policy at Duke University, where her team won the Atlantic Council Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge.
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