Panting warnings that the United States is falling dangerously behind our opponents in the race for military innovation are commonplace. The United States is a strange country in which outside critics and defense insiders, both in government and in private industry, are quick to attack the very innovation system that has produced the many incredible weapons that give the United States its global reputation for military-technological leadership.
Once it was the Soviet Union or Japan who were outpacing us. Today, they claim that China or Russia or Middle Eastern terrorists are the ones applying the latest technology faster. They fear that we are, or soon will be, lagging in cyberspace, drone swarming, hybrid warfare, or long-range strike, and they blame our dysfunctional government, so tangled in its own regulations that it can no longer innovate. The Department of Defense needs, we are told, to reorganize and trim its oversized bureaucracy to become more fleet of foot like the Wizards of Silicon Valley and the hawk-eyed investors of venture capital.
There are many things wrong with these assessments. The United States is not lagging in any major area of military relevant technology. Yes, the Europeans produce good armored vehicles. The Russians are good at air defenses, and several nations, including Russia and China, are good at hacking computer networks. But truth be told, so are we.
Our major defense contractors seem always in trouble, but that is because they are working at the very edge of technology, where problems are constant. Our armed services are the best equipped in the world, and well they should be, given that we are spending at more than Cold War levels. On defense-focused research and development alone, we spend about two-thirds of what the entire world spends. That is about $70 billion this year, which is more than any other nation (save only China and Saudi Arabia) spends on all of its defenses.
And we have been spending vast amounts, often $60 billion to $80 billion per year in constant dollars, for decades, building a foundation of knowledge and experience that guides further efforts to push the state of the art. The United States takes on a difficult job in seeking true innovation; others generally focus on what is innovative for them but would not produce technology new to the United States. Moreover, the U.S. level of effort creates innovative capability in many technical areas, while other countries focus at most on one or two. Breadth reduces the risk that the United States might be surprised by a breakthrough in an underexplored area and allows us to counter adversaries’ one-off capabilities with its broader system-of-systems approach.
U.S. investment has created a thick infrastructure of laboratories, test facilities, technology development centers, and program analysis units that is unmatched anywhere. It includes government agencies, universities, and firms, and it involves the efforts of hundreds of thousands of individuals. It is an amazing system, devoted entirely to developing better weapons, better ways of killing with advanced technologies.
Three uniquely American factors drive the system. First, there is inter-service rivalry. Most nations have a dominant service, their army or their navy, determined by their geography. The United States, a continent away from troubles, has rivalrous services, each vying for prominence and pushing for technologies that further its role as America’s best defender. Despite pledges of jointness, we have several armies (the Army, Marine Corps, Special Operations), several air forces (the Air Force, Navy, Army, Marine Corps), and a Navy and a half (Coast Guard), and we have just added a Cyber Force and are talking about a Space Force. Decentralization and competition spur innovation.
Another factor is the desire to avoid casualties. Surely people in all countries love their children and wish to avoid having them killed in wars, but the United States has done something about it, perhaps because it fights mostly wars of choice, is very democratic, and is very rich. That is surely the drive behind our leadership in aviation, nuclear weapons and precision weapons, drones, and robots. We are at the cutting edge of technology because we have to be.
Third, the United States is a nation of immigrants, drawing talent from across the globe. Jewish refugee scientists helped give U.S. nuclear weapons; German engineers, our ballistic missiles. More recently, the Predator drone had an Israeli immigrant father.
Yes, Silicon Valley and technology investors are impressive. But much of what leads to very rapid success in the commercial sector has little to do with defense. Many fast-growing companies, for example producers of sports-related cellphone apps or new lifestyle concepts for food and exercise, do not avoid defense work because they fear its bureaucratic rules.
In relevant technical areas, there should be little fear that the United States won’t set the pace. Our major defense contractors are skilled systems integrators, used to brining complex technologies together into viable weapon systems that can survive in difficult battlefields great distances from our shores. Systems integrators have two contracting faces, one to deal with complex government politics and rules and the other to make commercial arrangements with “regular” companies. They are skilled bridgers and brokers.
The complaints that the United States is falling behind are part of the political process. So are new government organizations like the Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental. Because we already have the best weapons, proponents for new systems must claim that we are failing and need new initiatives. That is how they gain their budgets. And just as we have a thick infrastructure to develop weapons, we have also a thick network of threat assessors worrying that we aren’t worried enough.