Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks during a news conference in 2022.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks during a news conference in 2022. Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

A ‘Modern National Security Strategy’: Q&A with Rep. Ro Khanna

The ranking member of a HASC tech subcommittee has thoughts on China, chips, and how the Pentagon should integrate its approach to both.

The United States has an “incredible advantage” in terms of traditional military forces and weapons, but must make sure it has the same advantage in new tech, and needs a “modern national security strategy” to make that happen, the ranking member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on cyber, information technology, and innovation told Defense One.

“I think we have work to do to ensure the lead in AI, in quantum, in small drones, in hypersonics, in having the most advanced semiconductors. We have superiority when it comes to our Navy, when it comes to our Air Force, when it comes to our Army,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat whose California district includes Silicon Valley. “But we need to give them the modern tools and not handicap them by falling behind in one of these technology areas.”

Khanna, who is also a member of the House China Select Committee and co-chair of the India caucus, said in an interview that he sees those three roles as intersecting “to create an overarching mission to have a modern national security strategy” as well as an economic strategy he calls “a new economic patriotism.” The following Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.

Defense One: Let’s talk about the U.S.-China economic relationship. Where do you feel that relationship is now, and how would you like to see that change?

Rep. Khanna: The most immediate need is to make sure we're secure, and that there's no military invasion of Taiwan. And that requires clarity now that if there are ever future balloons or things coming into our airspace, they're shot down before they get close to us.…It requires clarity that China shouldn't be crossing the median line, or there are going to be consequences, in the Taiwan Strait, that they can't be conducting these missile tests over Taiwan, in Taiwanese air space. So we have to prioritize basic security, especially in light of the recent balloon incident. Americans are understandably on edge about what happened.

But beyond the security, we have to look at the loss of our industry to China. We lost our steel, our aluminum, our textiles, our drug manufacturing, our battery manufacturing all to China. And it was a colossal mistake. When Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken goes to China, when the President goes to China, top three priorities, one of them has to be economic rebalancing. Open up your markets to U.S. goods, stop artificially depressing your currency. Make sure that you're not dumping products into the United States. Have an explicit goal that we're going to reduce the trade deficit by 10, 15% every year.

D1: What should we be doing to deter an invasion of Taiwan? What consequences should there be if China crosses the median line of the Taiwan Strait?

Khanna: Well, the administration's current move to have bases in the Philippines, temporary bases where we can have our troop presence, is important, and a deterrent. And we need to look at what we can do in Japan, what we can do in Australia, what Japan, Australia, India can commit to, to deter any possible military invasion of Taiwan. A strengthening presence in that region will provide a deterrent effect. 

There have to be some consequences to China crossing the median line. I don't think that should result in an escalation of military force, because we don't want to have a war over a crossing of a median line. But there have to be other options that we look at, whether those are economic sanctions, whether they are a political consequence, and that's something the committee should explore with the administration. What are the consequences for China engaging in crossing the median line? What are the consequences for testing over Taiwanese airspace? What is the consequence for launching balloons again at the United States?

D1: What is your opinion on the tech competition between the U.S. and China? Where does the United States need to improve? Adm. Harry Harris said [in a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing] that the United States is behind on hypersonics, as one example.

Khanna: The biggest place where we need to do better is the adoption of technology. We lead in semiconductor design, but are our most advanced chips getting into the military? How do we compare, not on who's leading in semiconductors, but [who is] leading in using advanced semiconductor chips in the military?] And that's something we have to explore. How are we getting the most advanced AI, quantum, into the military? How are we getting commercial technology into the military? China doesn't have that challenge, because everything is the government's in China, they’re an authoritarian government. There is no such thing as a truly private company. We have private companies, and it's a challenge to get that adoption, and that's going to be a big focus of mine. And, I think of [Rep.] Mike Gallagher’s [chair of the CITI subcommittee and also chair of the China select committee].

And so the main thing is that there have to be DOD budgets for the adoption of technology, not just, ‘OK, here's some startup and we're supporting that startup.’ Who's going to buy at scale those products, and how are they going to be adopted? And how do we give the people who are responsible for bringing new technology into the DoD more authority, or budgetary authority, more discretion? Those are things that CITI needs to explore.

D1: How do you feel the Defense Innovation Unit has been performing?

Khanna: I think it’s good. There are a number of examples, but one, I would like to see the Department of Defense consider funding directly, like some of the agencies have. I think the challenge is the adoption. So you have this innovative technology, and in certain cases it gets purchased, but it's hard to get it purchased at scale….The DOD needs budgets and authority to actually implement some of the technology. There has to be some maybe expedited way for advanced technology to make it in.

D1: What do you think are the most pressing innovation gaps for DOD?

Khanna: I think the adoption is the gap, because a lot of the innovation is happening in the commercial sector, and the adoption of that into the DOD is where the challenge lies. We could debate how else we can stay ahead on AI and quantum, and part of that was the CHIPS and Science Act. Maybe we fund DARPA more, though they're at capacity. So what we really need to do is how do we adopt that and think about the use cases for that.

D1: How would you like to see the U.S. relationship with India change?

Khanna: We need a much stronger partnership, continue to build a strong partnership. But if there ever was a time for India to realize that a dependence on the Russian military is problematic, it's now. One, because the equipment didn't work that well. Two, Russia is basically becoming a client state of China. And China is on India's border, in Arunachal Pradesh. If you look at Indian public sentiment, they see China as even a bigger threat than Pakistan. That's a shocking statistic for anyone who's studied, or knows India. And so the dependence on Russia is very problematic, and Russia is dependent on China. And so this is the moment where the United States can really come in and help expedite the transition away from India's dependence on Russia. The two things that we're going to have to figure out how to compete on price, and we're going to have to figure out how to allow some domestic production. Those are the two ways that Russia sort of has gotten India’s business.