Foreign adversaries increasingly are incorporating technological superiority into strategic planning to gain advantage over the U.S. While sometimes coming from true scientific advances and genuine research and development (R&D), for some adversaries reverse engineering, intellectual property theft, corporate espionage, and cyber intrusions constitute official state policy. Our adversaries have endeavored to ramp up their own capabilities, at times surpassing our own to pursue their strategic interests. In a 2021 interview, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley cited “artificial intelligence, hypersonics, biotechnologies,” as examples of where China and Russia are ahead of the U.S.
Much of the technology advances and innovations are driven by microelectronics. In accordance with Moore’s Law, computer chip speeds have doubled every 18 months since 1965. Lately, however, technological development has surpassed this pace. The U.S. has not been the only beneficiary of these advances that help to drive many of the foundations of our economy and contribute to qualitative military superiority. It is therefore imperative that the U.S. strive for competitive technology advantage in general, while pursuing a strong national defense, powered by leading technological breakthroughs.
To address this challenge, in September 2020 the Department of Defense released its “Unleashing Data to Advance the National Defense Strategy” framework that stresses the need to “transform the Department into a data-centric enterprise.” The U.S. Army and Air Force subsequently agreed to jointly develop joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) to transform how we manage, secure, and leverage data as strategic assets. JADC2 will ensure rapid and efficient dissemination of military messages, strategies, and tactics, without threat of interception. Vice Adm. Jeffrey Trussler, deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare explained “it’s about that speed of decision … We [must] link our systems, sensors, weapons, platforms together like we never have.”
There is no time to lose; our adversaries are not standing still. As an example, China has made artificial intelligence dominance by 2030 the centerpiece of its 2017 strategic plan. And the hackers in China’s cyber-Ministry of State Security have arguably become an even more important state asset than the traditional military. According to the 2021 Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) annual threat assessment, “China presents a prolific and effective cyber-espionage threat, possesses substantial cyber-attack capabilities, and presents a growing influence threat.” Recently a U.S. Trade Representative investigation of intellectual property theft found “Chinese theft of American IP currently costs between $225 billion and $600 billion annually.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said, “Whoever … [leads the artificial intelligence] sphere will … [rule] the world.” Cyber espionage and related activity supports this objective. In January 2019, Russia’s hacking group Nobelium launched a devastating supply chain attack on the SolarWinds Orion platform, compromising intellectual property at over 18,000 different organizations. The Nobelium hackers were inside these organizations for 14 months, pivoting through networks and exfiltrating the most sensitive proprietary secrets. The Russians have even penetrated the cybersecurity giant FireEye and stolen 300 of its top proprietary cybersecurity tools.
It’s said that “data is the new oil” and sorting through unprecedented volumes of big data at a rate that exceeds our adversaries is “the real challenge facing commanders,” according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. Security officials report cybersecurity threats accelerating in 2021, far outpacing the dangers of 2020. Threats of interception by enemy forces have never been higher and are less centralized. Therefore, communications must be secured by advanced encryption protocols.
Many new players in the tech space are seeking defense contracts. While bringing fresh ideas and innovation, they need partnerships with experienced contractors that can lead the efforts. Silicon Valley is known for rapidly developing consumer-grade technologies, with a “first to market” mentality. This drives security breaches, cyber leaks, and Zero-Day vulnerabilities. While seriously harming consumers, in the military arena such breaches could have deadly consequences.
To succeed, JADC2 needs to be led by a company that has reliably supported the national security community and has done the work for decades. While no system is immune from data breaches and vulnerabilities, these companies are detail oriented and can draw upon their experience to build systems that are cyber hardened and less likely to experience failures during critical moments in military operations. The stakes are just too high to do otherwise.
JADC2 will revolutionize defense communications and data transfer, but without secure communications, and a reliable company leading, we will fall even further behind our foreign adversaries. Our military leaders and Congress must properly invest in these programs and entrust the development to those able to handle it.
Michael Marks leads Intelligent Decision Partners, a consultancy specializing in competitive intelligence, opposition research, technology scouting, forecasting, and predictive analysis. He was assistant director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy from June 1986 to January 1988.