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The U.S. private sector is still the most advanced in the world in almost all strategic technologies in the struggle for technological leadership in the face of an emerging totalitarian power like China. But while Beijing relies on its own technological “private” sector to steal, copy, and if possible improve upon Western technologies by rapidly adopting them in its government security and defense agencies, U.S. government defense agencies would remain bureaucratically wedded to slow technological development processes totally outdated in the very American private sector that Beijing is copying.
This would not be limited to the Pentagon; NASA, for example, spent more than $23 billion to develop its new single-use Space Launch System (SLS) to replace the space shuttles. NASA’s new SLS is more than five years behind schedule, would already be obsolete, and its costs of more than $4 billion per launch will be significantly higher than those of the U.S. private space sector.
Beijing, on the other hand, has swiftly copied the American private space sector. The Long March 2C rocket launched by China in 2019 has grid fins virtually identical to those that steer SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. According to Eric Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, Beijing revealed plans to be able to reuse the Long March 8, a kerosene-fueled rocket like SpaceX’s reusable ones. By 2025 Beijing announced rockets capable of landing on an offshore platform as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 already does.
The U.S. government would not be able to defend the United States in the age of artificial intelligence – AI – warned the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in March 2021. China instead would be close to taking the lead in AI in the world. Nicolas Chaillan, who was the first Air Force software director resigned in 2021 in protest of the Pentagon’s slow pace of technological development citing China’s rapid advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and general cybersecurity capabilities. The Pentagon, Chaillan asserted in August 2021, is lagging in cyber, AI and other key strategic areas in the face of Beijing. At the Defense Department, different agencies work on the same tasks and do not share information, he explained.
For the same reasons Preston Dunlap, the Pentagon’s first chief architect, resigned, Dunlap wrote that the Pentagon was far behind the American private sector in distributed computer processing, software, AI and cybersecurity, noting that the Pentagon must stop “reinventing the wheel” and work together with the private sector.
Pentagon Defense Innovation Unit Director Michael Brown asserted in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 6 that as China steals our technologies and carefully studies how we fight back, private American advances in technology are a unique opportunity because 11 of 14 technologies critical to national security are commercial. The lack of an effective approach for the military to rapidly adopt American commercial technology, such as advanced communications, AI software, small drones, synthetic aperture radar – SAR, satellite imagery and many others, would be a “glaring weakness” because the Defense Department does not control the global diffusion of those technologies and by not adopting them quickly it has disadvantage against adversaries like Beijing, which do adopt them quickly, Brown said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks warned reporters at the Defense Writers Group in Washington in April that innovation was being held back by resistance to technological risk in programs such as hypersonic weapons. Meanwhile, Beijing tested its first hypersonic missile last summer and Moscow revealed that it had employed a tactical hypersonic missile in Ukraine. The Pentagon’s sequential process is much slower than current commercial product cycles because the Defense Department still clings to the process Secretary McNamara established in the 1960s for defense technologies, a luxury Washington can no longer afford in the face of Beijing.
Guillermo Rodríguez is a professor of Political Economy in the extension area of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Monteávila, in Caracas. A researcher at the Juan de Mariana Center and author of several books // Guillermo es profesor de Economía Política en el área de extensión de la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas de la Universidad Monteávila, en Caracas, investigador en el Centro Juan de Mariana y autor de varios libros