Chinese special operations soldiers participate in night training, March 10, 2022.

Chinese special operations soldiers participate in night training, March 10, 2022. Future Publishing via Getty Images / Costfoto

Hicks: Today’s Russia Problem Mustn’t Distract from Tomorrow’s China Problem

An increasingly complex security environment is complicating the Pentagon’s efforts to ease tech firms’ frustrations.

LOS ANGELES—As terrible as Russia’s war in Ukraine is, it pales in comparison to a potential fight against China, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian said.

The Ukrainian conflict “is not the degree of difficulty that we are looking at in terms of what we need to have to fight in the future,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks told reporters traveling with her to visit startups and technology partners in California this week. “You even see the Ukrainians asking for more and more advanced systems themselves. But, the [United States], we're very focused on how to make sure we have a really combat credible capability,” to deter China. 

Hicks said that’s why the new 2023 defense-spending proposal seeks historically large allocations: $146 billion to buy weapons of today and $130 billion for research and engineering to develop the systems of tomorrow: better and cheaper hypersonics, more secure communications, cyber defenses, and artificial intelligence to guide autonomous drones and help commanders react more quickly to complex problems.

“We really took kind of a three-step, five-year-increment look, with a lot of near-term investment going in, in alignment with what the INDOPACOM commander says he needs, in alignment with what [U.S. European Command commander Gen. Tod Wolters] says he needs in Europe,” she said, adding,“We're going to keep adjusting as we go.” 

In the near term, relatively simple weapons are proving effective in Ukraine, she said. 

“The Stinger and Javelin are both weapons that are easy to train on and use and they are performing well…to date against the Russian tactics that we've seen.” Hicks said. 

But she cautioned that better weapons would be needed in a fight against China. That’s a big part of the reason she’s been meeting with U.S. technology luminaries in California. 

Hicks visited Stanford, Microsoft, Caltech, Space Systems Command and other key sites, meeting with software providers, space startups, students, top scientists and a variety of others to hear concerns about how hard it is to work with the Defense Department on emerging technology and where the department is getting in its own way. The discussions touched on everything from the classification process to the unpredictability of government funding streams to the capriciousness of policy and programs when administrations change.

While many of the players were new, the complaints had a familiar ring. They sounded a lot like the ones that led then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter to create the Defense Innovation Unit in 2016. Many of the companies said that if not for that unit, they would never have known how to begin work with the government. 

The need to get new technologies into the hands of operators faster has also encouraged greater use of work-arounds to get small companies on contract, shortcuts like increased use of Other Transaction Authorities. But the need for work-arounds underlines an obstinate problem in the way the Pentagon develops and deploys new technologies.

Entrepreneur and innovation expert Steve Blank, who met Hicks on Stanford on Tuesday, said the Defense Department has “world-class people and organization for a world that no longer exists.” He was heartened by Hicks’ focus on changing the culture of bureaucracy of the Defense Department to accelerate technology development. But, he told Defense One in an email, “A radical reinvention of our civil/military innovation relationship is necessary if we want to keep abreast of our adversaries. This would use DoD funding, private capital, dual-use startups, existing prime contractors and federal labs in a new configuration. Not just one that moves the deck chairs around.” 

Read that to mean that the Defense Department continues to pursue new technologies as though it was buying a warship that would be relevant for 30 years, rather than information technology that becomes obsolete much more quickly. 

Hicks told reporters that she was reassured by the fact that so many people across the tech sector reached out with similar complaints. “That's a good-news thing that we're hearing the same problem statements. So we know we know the problem.”

She pushed back against the idea that there was a single new approach to innovation that would solve all the Department’s woes. But, she acknowledged, the Department could better organize and publicize its multiple efforts. She pointed to a new steering group chaired by the Heidi Shyu, defense undersecretary for research and engineering. The group’s forthcoming website will list 45-plus organizations within the Defense Department that “use ‘innovation’ somewhere in their branding or mission statement,” Hicks said. “What does that mean for them? What are they actually innovating on? What are their key issue areas?”

Hicks pointed to a Competitive Advantage Pathfinders initiative launched just this month to speed the development of programs of record in long-range fires, counter command, control, and cyber and joint all-domain command and control, with new areas to be announced next year.

“I'm asking for feedback on milestones you can show me in a year,” she said, so Pentagon leaders can take the next budget proposal to Congress and say,  “‘We know we have to move faster. Here are the following programs we've picked in these areas that are important to the warfighter and here's what we did.’”

Yet as the Pentagon works to scale up its years-old efforts to ease tech firms’ frustrations, it must do so amid an increasingly chaotic environment that leaves little time to contemplate the future.

“We're not picking…the future over the present or the present over the future. We're picking a very focused look at China, and then also Russia as an acute threat, to make sure we have that credibility to deter and fight and win in the near term,” Hicks said.