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America’s Military Is Unprepared for Our Age of Advanced Technology

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Admiral Owens (retired) served for 34 years in the U.S. Navy and was third vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1994 to 1996

Kasich served a governor of the state of Ohio from 2011-2019, and served as a member of congress from 1983-2001.

President Joe Biden’s proposed $886 billion defense budget sets a U.S. record for peacetime military spending. It’s a new record, perhaps, but also an old story. America’s military forces, defense industries, and a supportive Congress have spent many decades and trillions of dollars preparing to defend our nation against a multitude of threats across the globe. Unfortunately, far too much of this effort has served only to prepare us for facing the threats of yesterday. This is a failure of vision distorted by support for favorite, outworn systems and strategic mindsets that are of declining use against the fast-changing threats we face today, much less those we will face tomorrow.

Complicating attempts to address this challenge is the fact that our defense establishment is likely the most complicated business enterprise in the world. It is a convoluted, cross-threaded system, driven in part by a “military-industrial complex” that is far too influenced by outside factors, constituency pressures and inefficient acquisition systems to allow for a truly effective approach to defending the nation. Even worse, there are very few people who truly understand the system’s complexities well enough to make it work.
While artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, machine learning, quantum computing, and other advanced technologies have transformed the way business and industry are conducted throughout the world, the Department of Defense and its supply-chain industries have yet to fully incorporate these tools to better defend our county. In the face of these systemic shortcomings, Americans have every good reason to scrutinize our military expenditures and ask fundamental questions about the effectiveness of our military’s defense systems.
To be clear: our purpose in this discussion is not to argue, as some do, for indiscriminate defense-spending cuts solely to reduce the federal budget or to chip away at the national debt. These are worthy goals, but our imperative in this discussion is for a smarter defense budget, one that reflects the latest technologies and acquisition systems needed to enhance our security and protect our future. And yes, a smarter defense budget should also eliminate much waste and inefficiency, but that is not its primary goal.
The necessary reforms aren’t easy. From our years of experience with military spending and procurement, we’ve seen how reluctant the Department of Defense, the armed forces and Congress have been to embrace new technologies or to adapt to uncomfortable change. We know how they prefer to make do with trusted methods, redundant facilities, and outdated systems. Inevitably, this preference for the status quo is matched with an appetite for increased spending, a craving that congressional appropriators are quick to feed.
In large part, this is due to the political pressures that drive military spending and force continued funding of programs, facilities, and industries that have long outlived their relevance. Priority is granted to the needs of particular congressional districts and industries, allowing them to continue draining the federal budget and weakening military preparedness.
We must change this culture and prioritize the incorporation of new technologies into our military systems. This will require a fundamental shift in the way all parties involved approach defense spending and military decision-making, placing their stress on national security priorities rather than political considerations. And this will further require the Pentagon to initiate these reforms from within, embedding them into every aspect of its operations.
Reform must begin with congressional support for a defense system focused on rapid deployment and implementation of advanced technologies that have so quickly revolutionized other sectors of the economy. By aggressively utilizing these tools to their fullest extent, our military will better manage logistics and personnel, analyze vast amounts of data and improve the effectiveness of combat operations.
To support these reforms, the Department of Defense needs to take better advantage of opportunities already available. Long-ago reforms by the Goldwater-Nichols Act (1986) have stood the test of time by building lasting coordination between the Army, Navy, and Air Force in mobilizing and going to war. This level of cooperation needs to be extended to the support areas of weapons acquisition, people systems and logistics, where it’s been sorely missing. Technological advances and data must be leveraged to gain more visibility over the battlefield and streamline supply, personnel and logistics.
The 40-year-old Nunn-McCurdy Amendment created ways allowing Congress and the Pentagon to get their arms around the cost of weapons systems. It’s time to renew and expand the spirit of this legislation, which entails an after-the-act assessment of spending, by making it a before-the fact-analysis – with enforcement teeth. This would require our defense culture to better evaluate the future strategic relevance of our weapons systems and capabilities vis-à-vis the existing and emerging threats from our adversaries. Another urgent need is a streamlined approach to acquisition testing and evaluation that would get these capabilities into the hands of our commanders in time to be relevant.
U.S. forces are facing significant military threats – land, sea, air, space and cyber – in an era of unceasing technological change. This makes it essential that our military industry, with the support of its congressional oversight, adapt and incorporate new technologies in order to better protect our country and ensure the safety of our troops. These include a need to embrace new technologies in stand-off systems, advanced drones, missiles and autonomous vehicles, battlefield-domain awareness, data analysis and cyber-attack technologies. These are the tools our adversaries are working to master and we will face in the near future as “asymmetric threats.”
We are not the first to call for reform. Countless studies and recommendations for change have flowed from the Pentagon and Congress in recent decades. But few of these reforms have materialized because a weak oversight structure and a military-industrial culture that often continues to invest in outmoded systems with the encouraging support of Congress. The Department of Defense is currently spending billions on a comprehensive audit of its vast bureaucracy, which we can hope sets the stage for a realistic and lasting plan to shed duplicative and unnecessary programs.
True reform, representing new and smarter ways of thinking, organizing and spending will allow America’s military decision-makers to create the right priorities, improve efficiency and effectively defend our country against the increasingly complex threats of the future.