In January 1991, coalition forces led by the United States launched the opening moves in the Gulf War with an air campaign that demonstrated America’s overwhelming technological superiority. The entire world watched in awe as stealth aircraft, nearly invisible to radar, flew unhindered over the skies of Baghdad; video- and laser-guided munitions struck military targets with exquisite precision; and anti-radiation missiles made easy work of defenders’ surface-to-air radar systems.
The fruits of America’s investments in research and engineering were on full display as the armed forces achieved not only superiority, but total supremacy over the Iraqi military.
In the intervening 30 years, peer competitors have had ample time to study our way of war. This means not only emulating and copying U.S. technologies, but also probing for vulnerabilities. For example, potential adversaries have realized that we are highly reliant on space and have invested in ways to hold our systems at risk. As former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson described the dilemma we face with our space capabilities, “We built a glass house before the invention of stones.”
But even more concerning, peer competitors have not only focused on negating our advantages; they have learned from us the value of investing in future technologies and are moving forward in a very big way.
In the key area of hypersonics, both Russia and China have made investments that built on research and development done in the United States, having moved quickly to operational systems while we wrung our hands and failed to capitalize on our own successes. China especially recognized the value of hypersonic weapons — highly maneuverable missiles capable of flight beyond five times the speed of sound — and the ways they could be effectively employed against our systems. In hypersonics they saw a range of technologies that could offer significant advantages against the Navy and U.S. air bases, and which they could make operational before we did. Russia has bragged openly about its already deployed hypersonic systems.
China has stated its intention to lead the world in areas of artificial intelligence, quantum science and biotechnology. The Chinese government has made significant investments in each of those topics, building infrastructure and expanding its workforce. China recognizes that those are technologies that will drive not only the future of defense, but the future of their nation’s economic well-being into the decades to come.
Those are also areas that, without appropriate ethical guidelines, could lead to morally questionable applications.
China has also emerged as a leader in 5G technology, and is advancing quickly in space and directed energy.
The U.S. National Defense Strategy that former Defense Secretary James Mattis signed in 2018 acknowledged the reality that we have peer competitors who have studied and learned from us, and are investing heavily across a spectrum of new technologies.
That strategy clearly explained that the battlefield of the future will be won with systems that leverage advances in the areas of artificial intelligence, autonomy, cyber, command-and-control, directed energy, hypersonics, quantum science, biotechnology, microelectronics, 5G and space. The nation that leads in these areas will not only lead the world economically, but will have the most secure and robust defense posture.
That’s why the National Defense Industrial Association has created the NDIA Emerging Technologies Institute, or ETI. It is a non-partisan organization dedicated to research, analysis and open discussion about emerging technologies and their role in the defense industrial base.
Leveraging the vast resources of NDIA with its network of industrial partners and individual members, we intend to be the premier source of trusted information for decision-makers in government and industry on the technologies that are essential to the modernization of our forces.
Starting immediately, you will see reports and reviews, workshops, and other events that will offer deep dives into the various emerging technologies. You will also see a regular podcast and this monthly column. We won’t just be advocating for more spending on research and engineering, but rather will be providing advice and commentary on exactly where dollars should be invested to have the greatest impact, as well as sponsoring early career scholars so that we can help build a cadre of future thought leaders.
We will also be addressing the systemic challenges that make it so difficult to shepherd promising technologies from the laboratory into the hands of warfighters. Along the way, we will explore the conundrum facing the military services on how they balance sustaining their legacy systems with the need to invest for the future.
The stealth technology that the United States first employed in the early 1990s was actually the culmination of decades of research. The F-117s that flew unimpeded over Baghdad were directly descended from the Have Blue aircraft of the late 1970s. Decisions that were made by forward-thinking leaders in government and industry turned basic research ideas into highly successful operational systems. In a similar way, the decisions we make today regarding emerging technologies can ensure success on the battlefields of tomorrow. Better yet, if we make the right investments in critical technologies, no potential adversary will even risk a military engagement with the United States.
For these reasons and more, ETI’s mission of informing the development and integration of emerging technologies into the defense industrial base is critical for industry and the nation. Please join us as we embark on this exciting new journey.