Frank Kendall: U.S. tech superiority under siege
- By Mark Hoover
- May 19, 2015
The United States has a tendency to be optimistic about its future, but it is dangerous when that optimism blinds us from uncomfortable possibilities if problems are left unchecked.
Speaking at the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s TITANS breakfast on Tuesday, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall said that what keeps him up at night are his concerns about the United States losing its technological superiority.
To people outside the defense community, this may come as a surprise, Kendall said, but for those who deal in defense, it is clear as day that the United States will not always be technologically superior if things remain as they are.
During the first Gulf War in 1991, Kendall said, the United States showed the world a slew of new applications of technology that resulted in quantum improvement in military capability on the conventional battlefield.
“There was this new way of fighting,” Kendall said, “and no one studied that more carefully than China. Fast forward 20 years: They have been evolving a set of weapon systems designed more than anything else to defeat those capabilities [the United States demonstrated in the Gulf War].”
While China was hard at work developing similar technologies, the United States spent between 10 to 15 years in a period of relative complacency after the Cold War ended, up until Sept. 11, 2001, when the country became involved in fighting terrorist organizations. “So, we have been complacent and distracted for a long time,” Kendall said.
To retain the United States’ technological edge, the country must focus on a suite of capabilities that starts with extensive cyber capabilities and moves onto counter space capabilities, the latter of which accounts for “assets that we presumed are safe, but are not,” Kendall said.
This is, of course, easier said than done. “While China has been growing its budget by 10 or 12 percent a year, we’ve been dealing with sequestration,” he said. With cuts being made uniformly, agencies looked for areas that they could afford to eliminate or draw down; often, these areas were training and funding for buying spare parts for weapon systems.
“So, when sequestration was implemented, there was not a dramatic negative impact. There was a lot of damage, but it was concealed damage. It became an acceptable outcome,” he said.
Another issue in the mix is acquisition reform, a phrasing Kendall prefers to avoid. “I think there’s this allusion that we can do some dramatic thing and after it, we’ll suddenly do much, much better,” he said. “What we have to do is a hundred things to get better results."
That takes time. “If I start a program today, it’ll be three or four years before I find out whether that program is being successful or not,” he said. He and his team are trying through its acquisition reform initiative, Better Buying Power 3.0, which Kendall, together with now defense secretary Ashton Carter, created.
“The history of Better Buying Power started out about best practices. What are the things we need to be doing more of that we’re not doing right now.” Better Buying Power 2.0 was about giving decision makers the tools to make better buying decisions. The third iteration—the current Better Buying Power 3.0—is about innovation, Kendall said. “It’s about technological superiority. It reflects the concerns I mentioned earlier.”
Kendall reassured his audience, “I do not expect there to be a conflict with China. I don’t expect there to be a conflict with Russia. It’s not in anybody’s interest to do that. But I do expect that China will try to exert influence on us. I do expect that China will export things that it evolves for its own defense to others, and I do expect we will have confrontations with China in which the military balance of power will be a factor in how those confrontations are resolved,” Kendall said.
The problem right now is not the availability of technology, it’s the availability of the resources to exploit that technology, he said.
Mark Hoover is a senior staff writer with Washington Technology. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with him on Twitter at @mhooverWT.