Facing Down China’s Technology Challenge

March 27, 2020 Updated: April 1, 2020

Commentary

Today, we increasingly face a situation not much different from what we faced when the now-defunct Soviet Union went on a massive military buildup.

The Soviets stole technology just as China is doing, but they were stopped by restrictions on their own people and by U.S. export controls that denied them access to what they wanted. While the Soviets tried cyberespionage in the 1980s, there was far less information in computer network pipelines.

China has a huge technology infrastructure in place today and might well find a way to beat us in war in the not-too-distant future.

The United States’ objective should be to regain the lead in technology, protect that technology from Chinese avarice, and convince China that their military programs will not be capable of overcoming American power.

It would be nice to be able to say that the United States is prepared and organized to handle the challenge. It isn’t. While we spend more than any country in the world on arms and military technology, we continue to lose ground because it is the Chinese who are prepared and organized to exploit myriad opportunities to grab everything we have. The U.S. defense budget supports China as much as it supports our defense needs.

Some will say that China isn’t a threat, that it is a good trading partner, and that we should make deals with the Chinese behemoth. But what kind of deals? Acquiesce in the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, or allow China to take over Taiwan, a functioning and impressive democratic country, by force? Allow China to control all the waterways and airspace around allies including Japan and Korea? Agree that the United States will pull its air, naval and land forces back to Hawaii or even to the American mainland?

Vulnerability

America’s military, its command and control components, and virtually every desktop computer and computer network from the Pentagon on out to every soldier, sailor, and airman, and every researcher working on sensitive defense projects, uses a Chinese computer, or Chinese networking elements, even products that have American names but Chinese guts. And it isn’t just computers: China already controls global production of cellphones and will soon have in place 5G networks among our allies, giving them unprecedented access to information and the know-how to neutralize their adversaries.

Just ask the Brits, who hear about the Chinese 5G networks all the time.

In the past, the Pentagon tried to protect itself by understanding the technology it needed to control and protect. Understanding those elements was made possible by the Military Critical Technology List, a compendium of the most important technologies put together by leading experts, mainly volunteers from defense companies, and by DOD scientists and engineers.

The list, known as the MCTL, formed the knowledge backbone, but was systematically destroyed mainly during the Obama administration, where funds to do the work (only around $5 million a year) were severely reduced (to around $1.5 million) and DOD workers were told not to keep the list up to date.

In 2019, Congress quietly killed the entire MCTL program. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis set up a sort of alternative program called the Protecting Critical Technology Task Force, but it has not made much progress and was never intended to replace the MCTL. It relies on inputs from field generals and admirals to propose technology that needs protecting. This is not a bad idea, but most of the fielded stuff can be assumed already to be on China’s short list, or already stolen.

What to Do

So we need to do these things:

1. Replace all computers and networks in the critical infrastructure with U.S.-made, secure computers and networks that are end-to-end encrypted with layers of information protected on a need-to-know basis. The cost of a secure computing program, including replacing all the Chinese equipment that now litters the critical infrastructure, probably falls into the $3 billion to $5 billion range. However, some of that cost will be offset by creating a new home industry, new jobs, and purchases by nongovernment critical infrastructure components.

A secure computer system is a first line of defense against China’s cyberstealing. The idea that we can patch up the disastrous computer infrastructure we currently have has soaked up tens of billions of dollars and hasn’t worked. There is no empirical evidence that any of the cybersecurity measures we have in place have protected anything. The cost of dumping the whole lot and setting up a safe system is doable and will work. Why not do it?

2. Develop a New Critical Technology List with special rules and regulations to protect intellectual property. Today there are no clear-cut rules, and the way the Defense Department goes about security hasn’t worked. Again, the methods are largely outdated, the use of classification as a protection scheme hasn’t worked very well, and spies and malcontents have had free reign to take what they wanted.

That’s why we have a Wikileaks, a Chelsea Manning, and an Edward Snowden. Intellectual property isn’t properly safeguarded, and even where the DOD has contractual arrangements that supposedly give it some exclusivity over what it buys. The system has plenty of loopholes and there is no organized guidance for any DOD component on how to handle intellectual property. As a result, industry benefits from trillions of Defense dollars and the American people end up with no direct return on their investment.

3. Build an automated Security Oversight and Management System (SOMS) that is designed to enforce need to know, compartmentalization, and all other measures not just for classified documents and data, but for all technology information that is under the responsibility of the Defense Department. A proper SOMS would use artificial intelligence to search for anomalies and correct them before they spiral out of control.

4. If credit card companies can detect theft by watching consumer spending profiles, and do so with increasing effectiveness, let’s get them and their forensics to help build the SOMS.

5. Fix a long lingering unsatisfactory problem with universities and research centers that like to take as many government dollars as they can so long as they can do whatever they want with the R&D that results. The scandal of professors sharing DOD and other government-funded research with their Chinese counterparts needs to be stopped. Professors with government contracts who travel to China need to declare they intend to do so, and the government should cut off research grants if there isn’t cooperation.

Inviting Chinese scientists to work on projects that are Defense Department-funded also must stop. Some of the most important sectors such as quantum computing and encryption, nanotechnology, augmented reality, hypersonics, exotic materials, smart autonomous systems, and robotics are just some of the topics that need better protection where possible. Therefore, the government–university relationship needs to be reformed and focused on protecting vital research and development programs.

6. Invite allied and friendly countries to support common defense efforts and programs but insist that our allies and friends put in place effective measures to protect information, designs, and products that are on the New Critical Technologies List.

Today, the only controls in place cover U.S. classified programs that are shared abroad. In its place would be a comprehensive new technology security program that goes well beyond current efforts. To achieve this goal, the United States should propose bilateral agreements with strong oversight. A key benefit is that under this program the United States would guarantee a real two-way street for technology sharing and defense systems procurement.

Finally, put the Defense Department and CIA in charge of all critical technology exports instead of State or Commerce. Today our broken-down export control system for munitions is run out of the State Department, and dual-use technology is “handled” (if that is the right word) by the Commerce Department. That may be OK for the export of diaper wipes or screwdrivers, but it isn’t OK when it comes to the export of technology vital to national security. Exports should be controlled under the New Critical Technology List by the Pentagon, with intelligence from the CIA on what our adversaries are up to and how to block them.

To make the new system work, we must educate the American people about the urgency of these measures. No program can ever work unless it has public support. This is especially true because previous administrations and the Congress have spent more than 25 years working to destroy export controls and globalize America’s defense programs.

It’s time to undo all that damage, but the public has to understand what is at stake. The Trump administration needs to launch a nationwide educational effort using all available media to tell the story.

When the public demands change, it will usually happen. Without public support, our risk is very high.

Stephen Bryen is regarded as a thought leader on technology security policy, twice awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor: the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His most recent book is “Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers.”

Michael Ledeen is a freedom scholar at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served as a consultant to the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense, and as a special adviser to the Secretary of State. He is the author of 35 books, most recently “Field of Fight: How to Win the War Against Radical Islam and its Allies,” co-authored with retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.