Hardest Challenge in Military Tech Race is Risk Aversion, Says Esper

January 24, 2020 Updated: January 27, 2020
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The military needs to shed its culture of risk aversion if it wants to outpace China in the competition for technology-driven supremacy, said Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

In a speech on defense innovation and security on Jan. 24, Esper said that being the first to harness new technologies can be a key to a decisive advantage on the battlefield for many years to follow.”

Many analysts believe that Chinese technology is already a match in some fields such as AI, cloud computing, and hypersonic missiles.

Esper said that a “whole nation” approach was needed to harness the innovative power of American enterprise. He said that the “hardest part” of reshaping the military for the fast-paced technological race with China was changing the culture around acquisition and risk.

“You have to get the culture right so that folks in DoD—military and civilian alike—are willing to put money down on something that may not be 100 percent or 90 percent or 80 percent,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to take some risk, and you’ve got to prepared to accept some failure.”

After 5G technology, longer-range missiles were top of the list of priorities, he said. Speaking to the audience at a CSIS, Esper noted that the DoD had nearly doubled its investment in the next generation hypersonic missiles in this year’s budget.

Epoch Times Photo
An artistic rendition of DARPA’s Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (HTV-2). The Chinese regime recently held its fourth test of a hypersonic missile. (DARPA)

The proposed 2021 budget–due to be published in the spring–will include an “even stronger” investment in the hypersonic missiles, he said.

Esper noted that the military’s modernization course was set by the National Defense Strategy, published in 2018.

The National Defense Strategy priorities China first and Russia second in this era of great power competition,” he said.

“Both of these revisionist powers are trying to use emerging technologies to alter the landscape of power and reshape the world in their favor–and often at the expense of others.

“Beijing, for example, is combining direct state investment, forced technology transfer, and intellectual property theft to narrow the gap between the United States and Chinese equipment and weapons systems.”

China is determined to “obtain and exploit U.S. intellectual property and know-how at any cost,” he said.

On July 23, FBI Director Christopher Wray told senators that the agency has more than 1,000 active investigations into the theft of U.S. intellectual property, “almost all leading back to China.”

“The current FBI caseload of 1,000 is a fraction of the actual volume of theft committed by the Chinese Communist Party,” Fleming said.

A new bill to prevent Chinese spies from stealing sensitive U.S. technology at academic institutions was introduced on Oct. 29.

Before he became Secretary of Defense, Esper was head of the army, where he oversaw a modernization approach that orientated the army away from a counter-insurgency outfit kitted out with 20th-century gear, toward an ever-evolving 21st-century machine able to outwit China and Russia.

The Army Futures Command (AFC), tasked with modernizing the army, was set up in 2018 near the tech hub of Austin, Texas, precisely to increase collaboration with the tech community and incorporate approaches outside of the traditional defense acquisition cycle.

Esper has tried to replicate the approach of the army across the military.

The military needs to be careful not to overreact to failures, to allow a cycle testing and failure to play out, he said. “That’s the cycle that we were trying to do in the army where you test, you fail, you test again, you succeed a little more, you test again, you succeed a lot,” he told the CSIS audience.

Follow Simon on Twitter: @SPVeazey