Exponential technologies, including robotics and artificial intelligence, will be the core driving force of the future. Economic growth, education, healthcare improvements, abundant clean energy and national security will hinge on the products and platforms that result from these technologies. Applied effectively, exponential tech can create domestic capacity to ensure an ever improving quality of life for the American people, build global competitiveness for American products and secure the nation from internal and external threats.
While other nations have put strategies in motion that prioritize exponential technologies such as artificial intelligence, the US risks falling behind through relative inaction, ceding the leadership it enjoyed for decades. In order to avoid a slide into the ordinary, we must set national goals encouraging innovation and then ensure their accomplishment via enabling policies.
From the days of Benjamin Franklin, the idea of technology and the idea of America have been deeply intertwined. And defenseled innovations have played a huge part in the advancement of technology in our country. World-changing innovations such as modern cryptography, GPS systems, the cell phone, the microprocessor and the internet, all trace their origins to defense innovation. At a time when competitors are gaining the lead on US technology, it may be time to revisit goals and strategies that could revitalize defense-led technological development. Over time, the innovations that result from these goals won’t just make our military competitive, they will also lead to benefits for our economy and for the world at large. What might such a list of such practical goals be? One that would provide immediate benefit and competitive differentiation, while also ensuring investment in key technologies to accelerate their development. I propose one such list below. And while this list is not exhaustive, my hope is that it will encourage further thought along these lines, and lead to a deeper investigation of policies to secure America’s position as a global technology leader, well into the 21st century.
Aerial view of oil tankers in port concept copyright a_medvedkov via Creative Market
From Conventional, Legacy Platforms to AI-Powered Systems
America will field completely autonomous aircraft for air superiority, airborne early warning and SEAD roles. These aircraft will cost between 5-30% of a manned, top of the line fighter and will be produced in large numbers to maintain global operations with reduced human risk and a significantly lower logistics burden.
The Marine Corps. will field a fully autonomous unmanned ground vehicle capable of operating alongside infantry and aid in expeditionary operations while undertaking anti-tank, anti-infantry and anti-air missions via multiple configurations.
The US Navy will deploy a large fleet of autonomous surface vessels and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) that will create an integrated “digital picture” and allow us to reimagine how we secure sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and monitor the world’s oceans. These systems will revolutionize undersea detection through the employment of swarm control and AI-based sensor fusion. They will extend protection to our manned vessels and act as a force multiplier in support of Marines, Naval Air, Surface and Sub-surface components.
Applying Autonomy at Scale
The US Navy will work to ensure that by 2040, 50% of the ships and capabilities in a carrier strike group or typical expeditionary group can be undertaken by autonomous craft operating in concert with manned ships.
Augmenting Existing Investments, and Creating New Investment Mechanisms
The US will multiply research investments in America’s universities. For example, investments in DARPA’s AI/Exponential Technology research funding that assist universities and researchers working on areas relevant to national security will be doubled.
Removing Friction in the Federal Acquisition system
The Federal Acquisition Regulations will be revamped to enable real partnerships with small-medium businesses (SMBs) that are innovators and producers of technology, not mere middlemen. While there are numerous existing regulations encouraging partnerships with small businesses, these are often misused, and the small business becomes a no-value-added vehicle to source products from larger companies, drowning out the true technology SMBs. To encourage new ideas from a larger set of sources and to allow innovation to go beyond the established, large government contractors, America’s leadership will work to simplify and accelerate participation by smaller companies that can contribute mightily to national competitiveness.
Creating an Allied Autonomous Force Interoperability program
In 2018, the DoD established the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), an organization dedicated to transforming the Department with innovative AI systems. In just two years, un-der the leadership of Lt. General Shanahan, the JAIC made tremendous strides in shaping the framework for DoD to test and deploy sophisticated AI technology, which is no small feat. Under the auspices of the JAIC, now led by Lt. General Groen, DoD will create a new Allied Autonomous Force Interoperability program to develop, test and validate autonomy-centric strategies and systems, and provide a collaborative environment for the Joint Force as well as allied forces, to learn from each other and develop true force interoperability.
Partnering With U.S. Investors
To accelerate investment in critical technologies that deliver benefit to the American people and the people of the world, the Department of Defense will partner with America’s top venture capitalists. As a concrete example, the DoD would allocate a meaningful sum – at least $10B – over five years to invest with the nation’s top 50 venture funds, evaluated on objective performance and ecosystem-wide value creation metrics. Rather than create its own venture fund—an activity for which DoD expertise and culture is ill-suited—the Department can be a partner to high performing venture capital funds with impressive track records. These investments will be conditioned on VC firms allocating a percentage of their funds toward national security, health or transportation technologies. Gains from these investments will be reinvested over time to scale the DoD/Venture partnership program.
Ultimately, the lesson of history is that betterment of humanity and society lie in the application of knowledge and technology to create abundance and save us from those base instincts that take over when we find ourselves grasping with scarcity. To write a better, more optimistic history, we must embrace innovation as never before. Competition can be a good thing when it pushes us to innovate faster and invest in foundational technologies. And ultimately, only competitiveness creates deterrence.
Technology waits for no one, and future prosperity is not owed to any nation. Progress must be built on the basis of effort, commitment and perseverance. The US may not remain the largest economy on the planet, but it can continue to be a global pivot. Not all innovation will come from the US, but if we enact policies and do the hard work necessary, many of the most critical, world changing ideas and systems will continue to be made in America.