Panel: China Copied Silicon Valley’s Model to Outpace the Pentagon in Weapon Development

March 8, 2021 5:16 PM
The launch of the Type 75 big-deck amphib in Shanghai on. PLAN Photo

The Pentagon’s complicated and time-consuming acquisition process impedes the United States’ ability to innovate and keep up with China’s technology development, several experts said last week.

In contrast to the Department of Defense, China “effectively copied” Silicon Valley’s quick-decision investment strategies with start-ups in its technology race with the United States, according to the director of the Pentagon’s innovation unit.

Michael Brown, the director of the Defense Innovation Unit, said in an online Hudson Institute forum on Friday that China is not following the path of the Soviet Union in concentrating on its armed forces, but “is very focused on the economy.”

This allows China to harness ideas like artificial intelligence and machine learning flowing through its academic, commercial, governmental and military sectors that also have major implications in advanced weapons systems.

Stating China “is not 10-feet tall,” Brown said that through this strategic model, it is a leader in 5G, owns 90 percent of the small drone market, builds artificial intelligence into weapon systems including anti-ship ballistic missiles and pursues “very aggressive cyber activities.”

Brown added, “the technology race is at the heart of this competition” between Beijing and Washington.

And speed is of the essence in technology innovation, he said.

“The budget cycle is not moving at speed” when it takes two years in its first stages to make something a program of record in the Pentagon’s spending request to Congress, Brown said.

Bill Greenwalt, now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official responsible for industrial policy, said policies adopted under the Kennedy administration to manage defense spending have shown “limited success” in delivering innovative programs and systems since the Soviet Union collapsed.

This five-year planning and spending cycle adopted from the automobile industry worked adequately in the 1960s. “Who were we competing with? The Soviet Union’s five-year plans,” but that is not the competitive economic model China is pursuing, he said.

Greenwalt said the lag in delivery times keeps occurring despite warnings from “hundreds of studies, commissions and Congress tweaking the system over and over again” granting new authorities to speed acquisition and development. The reality is “these timelines [from concept to fielding] have been increasing,” he said, adding that in order to drive innovation, the Pentagon must reassess its budget process.

Speaking at a Brookings Institution online forum earlier Friday, House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said that when tech companies look at the Defense Department they see “an impenetrable bureaucracy.”

The Washington Democrat said what turns these firms off is “the clog of the whole system,” from paperwork to layers of decision-makers who can stall a project while technology continues to advance.

At the Hudson forum, former Pentagon comptroller Elaine McCusker recalled how “messy and labor-intensive” it was to push the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected [MRAP] program through the defense acquisition system. At a time when casualties among soldiers and Marines were skyrocketing from roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, the system resisted change. Even up-armored Humvees offered little protection from the hidden explosives.

Now, more than ever, there is a need for a “competitive urgency” that the acquisition system thwarts. McCusker added that former Defense Secretary James Mattis’ emphasis on the need to “operate at the speed of relevance” still held true.

That “clog” in the system and “messy and labor-intensive” efforts needed to push life-saving, urgent programs through rapidly remain the problem, Air Force Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote said. The Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements said “we’re building several budgets right now,” one for Fiscal Year 2022 and one that looks out five years from that. While he’s comfortable plugging in numbers for known long-lead items, he said he doesn’t know what kind of requirements need to be in the budget for 2027.

“Putting dollar figures [on that unknown requirement] in ’27 is really, really difficult,” he said.

Among McCusker’s suggestions to make the budget cycle more flexible was to end the practice of continuing resolutions and passing budgets after the start of the fiscal year. “You can’t buy back lost time,” nor restore wasted dollars.

“We need to close the kill-chain factor” to deploy needed systems more quickly, she said.

John Grady

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,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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