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Work: U.S. at Risk of Losing Military Technology Edge to China in Two Years

China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier leaves the pier at the Dalian shipyard on May 13, 2018. Xinhua Photo

The United States will lose its military technological superiority to China in two years if it does not put its $700 billion defense budget into areas that really matter, like artificial intelligence, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former deputy secretary of defense warned on Thursday.

“We should be prepared to be surprised” in any conflict with China, not only because it has invested heavily in modernizing its armed forces but also how it has invested in next-generation military technology, said former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work speaking at a forum sponsored by the Center for a New American Security.

To show how serious Beijing is, Work said Chinese President Xi Jinping set down a marker for his military to be able to successfully invade Taiwan by 2020 and 10 years after to that be the world’s leader in artificial intelligence.

China “wants to be a first mover” in A.I., incorporating the Internet of things, big data, robotics and machine learning. “That will be how they will get ahead of the United States,” Work said.

For its part, the Pentagon needs to invest in research and development that would give the United States an asymmetric advantage in any potential conflict with Russia and China, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva said later at the same event.

“I’m not countering what they’re doing. I’m going around it,” Selva said.

Beijing’s defense spending rose 620 percent from then until 2015 and continues to rise. Work said the emphasis initially was on systems that could target with precision and have them become increasingly effective over longer ranges. Beijing and Moscow saw great advantages in putting money into ballistic missiles over heavily investing in all the necessary components of a global air force, especially maintenance and logistics to keep the United States at a distance or make it pay a high price for closing.

Both Russia and China also spent money on how to “duel” American battle networks with the aim to “cripple an enemy’s operational systems [and the] internal links” that could launch a concerted, concentrated attack or response, Work said.

He said for the Chinese, their progress is evident in electronic warfare, cyber, counter-space systems, hypersonic and rail-guns.

“Attack effectively fast” and in salvos, pre-emptively to overwhelm defenses, he said. The Chinese “are looking deep and shooting deep.”

Work said there were five reinforcing legs to this build-up, starting with state-sponsored industrial and technological espionage that continues today, now often in targeting sensor technology where the United States still has an edge.

To leapfrog ahead of the United States militarily, Selva said the Chinese have been pursuing a strategy of “learning, buying and stealing” from American and foreign companies, thus avoiding research costs and putting that money to use elsewhere.

Where the Chinese found they lagged behind, Work added they applied themselves “to close that technological gap [and] do it as quickly as they could.” The desired end-strength “is outright technological superiority” across the board.

Work said in his address the new national security strategy was correct in identifying China and Russia as major competitors. “This race is one we have to win,” he said.

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John Grady

About John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense, GovExec.com, NextGov.com, DefenseOne.com, Government Executive and USNI News.