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Senate Panel Explores Speed of U.S. Military Technology, Weapons Development

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)

The staggering rate of change and the unacceptable time it takes the Pentagon to introduce weapon systems is leading to “a steady erosion of U.S. technological superiority” over peer competitors and non-state actors such as the Islamic State. Those were consensus views at a Tuesday hearing on the future of warfare before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

SASC chair Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) compared private industry’s operating on an 18-month cycle of introducing innovative technologies to the Defense Department’s 18-year cycle to bring major new systems to the force.

That fast pace of technological change will produce tremendous good in warfare, health care and society overall, said retired Army Gen. Keith Alexander, former head of the National Security Agency and Cyber Command. He added that speed comes at the cost of “tremendous vulnerability” especially to the power grid and financial sector in the United States. Those are the areas that countries such as Russia and Iran would try to disrupt.

“Russia sends an indirect message . . . to its hackers” that is permissible to go after the United States in this asymmetric way, as it did against Georgia and Estonia.

Alexander said the hacking from China was different, in that it concentrated on the theft of intellectual property.

In looking at the North Korean hacking of Sony entertainment, he said, “We would not allow Sony to attack back. Who does this for Sony? . . . The government.”

Alexander called for private companies “to up their game on cyber-security.” He added, “We need industry to tell us what’s going on” and also to allow them the ability to tell the government what’s going on quickly. He also said procedures in the federal government need to be smoothed out so unnecessary delays in sharing information between the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and the FBI are eliminated.

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the nation needs to realize it is “transitioning from several decades of military dominance [in technologies, such as stealth and undersea warfare] into competition.” Near-peer competitors realize that the United States’ allies are far away and, in the case of China, it has an advantage in numbers.

With that in mind, Clark said, for the future the United States should seek new ways to avoid detection to keep its edge in undersea warfare, employing active sonar over passive; examine large aircraft that can carry big payloads and new kinds of sensors over small and fast planes.

Instead of “watering all the flowers and hope that they turn into trees,” he suggested concentrating on investing in technologies that show promise and to “build requirements as we are developing prototyping. Clark added, “That would be how business goes about it.”

One way to accelerate the introduction of new technologies into the Pentagon is to create less complicated acquisition process for the smaller programs, below ships and aircraft, Clark said.

Now, the Defense Department is trading quantity for quality, but Paul Scharre, director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, said that means “putting more and more eggs into vulnerable baskets.” To counter that is to disperse forces and “to fight as a swarm with low-cost assets.”

Peter Singer, fellow at New America and author of “Wired for War,” suggested investing in new generations of unmanned systems, using energy itself as weapons, exploiting artificial intelligence, hypersonics and 3-D printing.

When asked if the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter would be the last manned fighter, he said the question should be, in looking to the future will the investment be in something like the then-radically new Spitfire in World War II, or a Gloucester Gladiator, the best biplane of the same era.

Singer said, “many of the concepts” of warfighting today “were set . . . the year I was leaving college” decades ago.

Schaare said an approach to developing better concepts is to separate wargaming from training, as was done at the Naval War College in the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s. Having technologists participating with operators in war games is another means, Clark said.

In looking to the future of warfare, a “new attitude in the Pentagon and the Congress on risk-taking” is needed, said ranking committee member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).