President's Commentary: Who Holds the Keys to the Technology Kingdom?

June 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

Technology has given U.S. forces an immutable edge for more than three decades. No nation dared confront the most powerful military in the world head-on. But over time, the technological benefits enjoyed by our military have waned, and adversaries are rapidly cutting into our technological warfighting strength.

While the United States has been focused on combat operations in the Middle East, countries such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have begun rebuilding their militaries. Much of the intellectual property these countries are leveraging was developed in the United States and stolen through espionage and theft of government and commercial proprietary information, which they obtained via cyber maneuvers. Rapid advances in the dual-use technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and autonomous vehicles, also complicate this situation. Adversaries are now able to leapfrog generations of technology and close the technological gap the United States has traditionally enjoyed.

A new, sustained thrust is needed to provide our military with badly needed solutions to confront future adversaries. Ultimately, regaining superiority may depend as much on humans as it does on silicon.

Many of the capabilities that we used to think belonged exclusively to the military, such as drones, satellites and imagery, have transitioned into the commercial sector. Conversely, the commercial side is leading the way with AI, machine learning and autonomous vehicles, while the military is striving to take advantage of these breakthroughs. Such dual-use technologies benefit both military and commerce, but they often come with a cost to the military.

The race to bring new technologies to market can bring an accompanying dramatic increase in cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The general public seems willing to accept a reduced level of cybersecurity. Consequently, dual-use technologies used by the military often require “bolt-on” security. These add-ons were not part of the original design, so they often bring vulnerabilities of their own and increase the attack surface.

Adding to this challenge, in the recent past we have not paid enough attention to the effects of electronic warfare. This is an area that requires significant and rapid development. Many military systems are subject to the effects of jamming and can be shut down. We have to come to grips with this reality and develop countermeasures integral to our military systems. It is costly, but our forces will not be well-served by a robotic resupply system disabled by a barrage of enemy artillery deploying jammers throughout the battlespace.

We have to understand that technology is a commodity, and we must make the commitment to continuously modernize and upgrade to prevent adversaries from gaining an advantage or denying us our operations. With the pace at which technology is evolving, countries that lead in technological capability today could be dead last in five to eight years.

We are starting to increase our investment in research and development, but significantly more money is needed. With a very narrow window of opportunity, one option may be to skip a generation of technology. However, a key question is, are we in a period of acceptable risk? We must carefully assess risk and how we define it across the entire joint force.

Adversaries will come to the fight prepared to disrupt or deny our technological advantage. We can expect that, but we can’t always anticipate how this will be done. Consequently, it is critical to ensure that our tactical units and small unit leaders are adequately trained, prepared and equipped to deal with the unexpected. Part of the solution is to increase emphasis on training and apply more resources to support it. Unfortunately, training resources are often the first to suffer when the budget axe is applied.

We must improve our modeling and simulation of varied threat scenarios to ensure our small unit leaders are realistically prepared for a greater variety of situations. Future adversaries will have superb situational awareness of our forces and capabilities. That capability used to belong exclusively to us. To counter it, we will have to train our service members more than ever before in as realistic an environment as possible.

Another often overlooked part of the solution is to use technology to relieve unit leaders of the unnecessary, onerous, often legislatively driven administrative burdens. These duties are too frequently levied upon these leaders, taking them away from critical military training. This is as much a unit readiness and morale issue as it is an administrative one.

In the end, we need an increased emphasis on the technologies that support both operational and tactical capabilities.

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