Technology Gap Closing, Top Acquisitions Official Warns
The technological dominance enjoyed by the U.S. military force that fought the first Gulf War a quarter century ago is threatened today, the undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, technology and logistics said today.
Speaking at a Navy League special topics breakfast in Arlington, Virginia, Frank Kendall said he reviews defense intelligence data -- particularly technical intelligence -- every morning.
“I look at weapons systems that others are developing and try to make some determination as to what impact they're going to have on our abilities on the battlefields of the future -- or the present, in some cases,” the undersecretary said.
When he came back to work at the Pentagon four and a half years ago, Kendall said, it wasn’t long before he realized the United States had a problem.
“The problem was the modernization rate of other powers, in particular of China,” the undersecretary said. “China has been investing for a long time in a number of systems which are essentially focused on keeping the United States out of the part of the world that's closest to China.”
The Challenge of China
The Chinese are able to benefit from a number of factors, Kendall said, acquiring commercial technology and building an organic capability to develop technology. “And they're benefiting from the technology that they can obtain from the Internet without other people's permission,” he noted.
China’s investments are strategic, Kendall said. “They're designed to present us with a very difficult problem if we want to operate in the vicinity of China,” he added. “And it's structured in a way that they can, perhaps, control escalation, so they can force us to back down.”
While he doesn’t envision a war with China, the undersecretary said, he does envision a time when China’s military plays an important role in its regional influence.
“I also envision that whatever systems China develops, they will put onto the international marketplace -- and they may very well show up in other places that we might be more likely to engage in conflict,” Kendall said.
Budget, Complacency Drive Decline
The situation hasn’t improved in the time he’s been watching, the undersecretary said. “It continues to deteriorate,” he said. “It deteriorates in large part because of our budget situation.”
Sequestration -- which is scheduled to return in fiscal year 2016 -- and other budget uncertainties have made it difficult to maintain efficient, forward-looking acquisitions programs, Kendall said. “We've worked very, very hard to get as much as we can for the money,” he added, “and we've gotten to a point through a series of political events, really, which have put our budget in a place where it's really inadequate.”
The narrowing of the technological superiority gap also is due, in part, to complacency, the undersecretary said.
“When I talk to people on the Hill and I mention that I'm concerned about technological superiority, … I get a reaction that is a sort of surprise, first of all, and disbelief. … I think we have gotten so accustomed to our technological superiority militarily that it's just a given, and it's one of the things I kind of fight against when I try to have these conversations,” Kendall said.
Under a Microscope
The United States tends to rely on a small number of very expensive, but very capable, assets, the undersecretary said, and that makes the military vulnerable once an enemy learns how to attack those assets, noting that no one has a monopoly on technology, warfighting power or doctrinal and operational concepts.
“People have been studying us,” the undersecretary said, “and no one's studied us more -- including immediately after the first Gulf War -- than the Chinese. And they have been building systems since then designed to counteract some of the things that we have.”
While the United States is cutting its defense budget, China's budget is growing at about 12 percent a year, Kendall said. And while China’s budget is not yet as large as that of the United States, “at the rate that it's going, it will be before too many years go by,” he said.
“So I'm worried about whether we're keeping up or not,” Kendall added.
(Follow Claudette Roulo on Twitter: @roulododnews)