Two decades ago, few in the Pentagon viewed China and Russia as major threats to the U.S. military’s battlefield technological superiority.
A lot has changed since then.
Today, as the military tries to recover from more than a decade of constant war and planners struggle to prepare for contingencies amid unprecedented budget pressures, China and Russia — America’s long-time economic competitors and potential adversaries in a growing number of hotspots around the globe — are making significant investments in military modernization.
“The intelligence estimates when I left in 1994 were that China was not much of a problem for us but they possibly could be in 10 or 15 years, based on their economic rate of growth at that time,” Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall said, testifying Wednesday at the House Armed Service Committee’s first hearing of the 114th Congress. “I became, I think it’s fair to say, alarmed as soon as I started seeing technical intelligence reports on China’s modernization programs. And I can say the same about Russia’s modernization programs.”
Among Kendall’s biggest concern is China’s and Russia’s focus on defeating specific technological capabilities that have provided the U.S. military with the ability to project power around the globe. Specifically, Kendall pointed to “a few high-value assets” that the U.S. relies upon to project power that could soon be vulnerable to Chinese or Russian electronic warfare or similar advanced capabilities.
“We start with space-based assets — satellites, which in relatively small numbers provide an important function for intelligence, targeting and communications,” Kendall said. Other elements are aircraft carriers and airfields, both of which are critical elements of an expeditionary military force, he said.
China has invested in modernization efforts “beyond what we have done … and it’s designed to threaten largely those high-value assets,” Kendall said. “I am very concerned about the increasing risk of loss of U.S. military technological superiority. We’re at risk and the situation is getting worse. The department is recognizing this [and] doing some things to try to address the problem.”
Kendall is not alone in his concerns. In November, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel launched the Defense Innovation Initiative to accelerate the pace of development of “game-changing” technologies.
On the technology front, the centerpiece of the new innovation initiative will be a so-called Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program that will help identify, develop and field breakthroughs in cutting-edge technologies and systems – especially from the fields of robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data and advanced manufacturing, including 3-D printing. The effort is expected to run into the next decade and beyond.
Kendall said there are specific “shortfalls” in the military’s electronic warfare programs that had been identified during a recent study by the Defense Science Board. Some of the recommendations by the board have been incorporated into the Pentagon’s budget proposal, while others require additional research and development, he said. “It’s an area that’s getting a lot of attention right now. Electronic warfare is a fundamental concern,” said Kendall.
Satellite communications remain a critical power projection capability for the Pentagon, and Kendall said planners are very concerned about the survivability of those systems given the work being done by China and Russia to develop capabilities to degrade or destroy that architecture. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., pushed Kendall on whether the Pentagon was considering options for using commercial space capabilities that can provide 20 times more bandwidth.
“I think the short answer is yes,” Kendall said. “We’re looking at a wide range of alternatives. We have to have satellite systems that provide communications that are secure against jamming, secure against cyber attack and provide encrypted communications. We have leveraged commercial satellites to some degree, but we are looking now at our architectures,” he said.
“One of the things we do have to look at,” Kendall said, “is whether we can effectively disaggregate by reliance on commercial systems.”
Air Force Lt. General Mark Ramsay, the director of force structure, resources and assessment for the Joint Staff, said all options for commercial satellite communications services are on the table. But while there are military satellites that do not provide nearly the same amount of bandwidth that commercial satellites do, there are questions about the ability of commercial providers to meet the Pentagon’s security, reliability and availability requirements.
“We really are very much wedded to the commercial backbone,” Ramsay said, “and I just see that increasing over time. But it’s finding that right balance.”
Watch the full hearing here.