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President's Commentary: Heed the Coronavirus Wakeup Call

The coronavirus has justifiably prompted deep concerns over the security and stability of the U.S. supply chain and major portions of the critical infrastructure upon which our nation and our partner nations have become so dependent.

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

The coronavirus has justifiably prompted deep concerns over the security and stability of the U.S. supply chain and major portions of the critical infrastructure upon which our nation and our partner nations have become so dependent. Prompted by the shift to globalization, over time this has led to the outsourcing of many products, services and technologies that were once considered core national capabilities. Consequently, we have created dependencies and vulnerabilities that conflict with our national security. Some of these liabilities are evident in our efforts to bring the necessary resources to bear against the coronavirus. 

One of the key lessons is the need to increase focus on not only the security of the supply chain but also on capabilities that we as a nation produce—or fail to produce. There have been many supply chain-related studies over the years, but the coronavirus must serve as a catalyst to transform the findings of these studies into action. The security of the nation and our allies is at risk of failing to do so.

One of the Communist Chinese Party (CCP) newspapers recently wrote that China could impose export controls on pharmaceuticals, after which the United States would be “plunged into the mighty sea of coronavirus.” That poorly veiled threat highlights one of our more disconcerting vulnerabilities. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that we purchase from abroad—primarily from China—80 percent of the active ingredients used to make drugs. Further, China’s strategic plan, “Made in China 2025,” calls for China to become the world leader in biomedicine, replacing the United States and other Western countries in biomedicine research and nine other key high-tech sectors by 2025. Dating back centuries, China’s strategy has been to act from a position of strength using coercion, extortion and threats to achieve its geopolitical goals. Such threats as posited in the CCP newspaper suggest the lengths to which the CCP will go in creating leverage in a variety of security scenarios, such as trade negotiations and territorial disputes. This is not a threat to be taken lightly and should serve as a call to action!

We also must consider the vulnerability of intellectual and technical property. There are scores of examples of the CCP stealing the intellectual property of American industry and government. One need look no further than the design of the F-35 and the Chinese J-31 fighters or the U.S. Air Force F-22 and the Chinese J-20. The similarities are hardly a coincidence. As FBI Director Christopher Wray pointed out in a February 2019 Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing, “Naive academics have allowed nontraditional collectors of intelligence to infiltrate the U.S.’s very open research and development environment in universities.”

The need to reinforce the supply chain and critical infrastructure has been made painfully obvious through the Jack Voltaic series of exercises conducted by the Army Cyber Institute with partners from government, industry and academia. These exercises highlight a wide range of issues with the critical infrastructure, supply chain and logistics that require increased attention and resources if we are to lessen our dependencies on offshore suppliers and adversaries.

Looking to the near future, the ability for adversaries to interrupt the technology infrastructure that increasingly underpins much of the economy quickly comes to the fore. Technologies such as the Internet of Things and 5G will soon become deeply foundational to the supply chain, the economy and national security. In many cases, they are evolving at a rapid pace with little or no regard for security, leaving us increasingly open to espionage, sabotage, the further theft of intellectual property and information warfare. One can easily envision a Chinese ship moving into a port, “sucking” all the information out of a Chinese-built network and sending that information back to China, where it is quickly transformed into intelligence that gives the CCP strategic information and a temporal advantage in political, military and economic matters. If we don’t protect our supply chain and reinforce the security of the technological base, it is highly likely our adversaries and competitors will be collecting information and acting inside our decision cycle politically, economically, financially, militarily and academically.  

The Chinese suggestion that they could deny access to materials needed to develop drugs must serve as a wakeup call to reexamine and fortify our supply chains and critical infrastructure, not just as it is today, but as it will be tomorrow. The wakeup call has been delivered. Has it been received?