What worked on the Soviets may not work on the Chinese.


Chuck Hagel’s speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum this past weekend may have been one of the most important by an American defense secretary in recent years. His new ‘Defense Innovation Initiative’ seems neither a DARPA program writ large nor a mere exhortation to industry to ’think different’. Rather, if we are correctly assessing the speech, and all the preparatory work preceding it by Bob Work and his former colleagues at the CNAS and the CSBA, then this is something very different. Hagel is expressing a firm belief that robotics, miniaturization,computing, and additive manufacturing are changing the art of the possible in military matters, and that force structure and investment must adjust to reflect reality.

That is, these trends naturally lead to a change in emphasis, admitted in the speech,towards what Admiral Jonathan Greenert termed “payloads over platforms”. And acknowledging the origins of many of these technologies, the secretary emphasized that Defense “will actively seek proposals from the private sector… and from those firms and academic institutions outside DoD’s traditional orbit.” The question, however, is how sustainable any American advantage in those technologies may be. At our recent roundtable breakfast for André Gudger, the Pentagon’s new industrial policy chief, a consultant mused to me about whether defense-specific research was worth the money. What’s the point of innovating, he asked, if the Chinese are just going to cyber-steal our plans anyway? He was exaggerating, of course, but he had a point.
For while Hagel’s articulation of the strategy invokes Eisenhower’s New Look, this is not that.That idea provided the US with global, nuclear strike capabilities that the Soviets lacked, at least at the start of the 1950s. Nor is this quite Harold Brown and Bill Perry’s Offset Strategy, and DARPA’s accompanying Assault Breaker concept. Those ideas leveraged the rapidly growing Western lead in computers and sensors in the 1970s to turn Soviet tanks into so many targets. Reacting to both initiatives, the Soviets theorized a great deal about that military-technical revolution, but could not put ideas into practice. In numbers, the Soviets tried to keep up, until they bankrupted themselves. This third offset strategy, as enthusiasts have termed it, still aims to offset enemy numbers and will with American technology.
But think here of the historical antecedents. The British Admiralty’s opposition to steam propulsion in the 1820s may be overblown in the retelling, but the leveling effect of the new technology was threatening. After they provided the example, could their enemies the French just steam across the Channel in a surprise attack? Lord Fisher’s Dreadnought was a great accomplishment in 1906, of course, but by rendering all other battleships obsolete, it almost gave Tirpitz a hope of catching up. In the 1930s, petroleum-poor Germany and Japan developed military strategies that depended heavily on petroleum. Perhaps only oil fuels modern warfare, but offensive plans that depend on it do require it.
There is some danger, then, if Pentagon strategists choose to invest simply in tomorrow’s war-winning technologies, rather than in those technologies in which the United States can maintain an advantage over time. Already today, by sheer numbers, the largest drone maker in the world is China’s DJI. The US Navy can put 3D printers on its carriers, but the Chinese are watching those carriers, and can get their own printers too. American forces seem much better networked, but Chinese penetrations of those networks have been at least deeply troubling. And if money is the matter, the Chinese, unlike the old Soviets, have lots of that.
This is not to say that the situation is hopeless, and that cyber-stealing Chinese plans is somehow a better investment. The United States has remarkable leads in many areas of technology and knowledge, and in hard-to-dulicate know-how like logistics. No one military can so easily project power on its scale around the world. It is simply to say that if that lead is to be extended with selective investments, those investments must be chosen carefully, with a clear eye to the competition.
James Hasík is a senior fellow, and Alex Ward is an assistant director, at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.