How We Won the Cold War, but Are Losing This Time

March 24, 2020 Updated: April 7, 2020

Commentary

The United States won the Cold War because, despite inferior numbers of weapons, its aircraft, ships, submarines, and ground forces had far better equipment.

And it had far better equipment because there was a major industrial shift in the commercial world that the Pentagon exploited.

This great shift was to microelectronics. Around 1981, the Russians were two or three years behind the United States in using microelectronics in their weapons systems. By 1986, the gap between Soviet and U.S. military equipment based on electronics had grown a lot, and, with an in-place and a largely effective U.S.-led export control system, there was no chance the Russians could get either the electronics or computers they needed for their military.

The Russian military buildup went from high optimism to massive frustration. When the Israelis, using mostly American planes, killed the Syrian Air Force flying mainly Russian MIGs and Sukhois, Russia’s top military leaders knew they were in deep kimchi. And when Afghan Mujahiddin wielded U.S.-made Stinger missiles to trash powerful Russian gunships and fill body bags flowing back to mother Russia, the Russian people revolted, and it wasn’t long before the Communists collapsed.

The revolution in military affairs, something the Russians predicted before we thought of it, materialized in the Cold War in the United States. It was powered by microelectronics—integrated circuits, microprocessors, small computers—all of which could be embedded in weapons to make them smarter and more lethal, and having a tremendous force multiplier effect.

The result was that one U.S. fighter aircraft was worth 20 Russian aircraft, one tank was worth 30 Russian tanks, and one submarine could find, track, and destroy the best subs the Russians had.

That is how the Russians were beaten at their attempt to outgun the United States.

Restrictions Lifted

But today, despite far outspending all potential rivals when it comes to military outlays, we are in trouble. There is more than a good chance that we could lose a fight with China.

When the Cold War ended, the United States started to lift its restrictions on the export of high technology and especially on advanced computers and on microelectronics. By 1996, only five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the multinational institution to protect technology, known as the Coordinating Committee, or COCOM, had been disbanded by the Clinton administration.

America began shifting its industrial base to China, and thousands of companies rushed to build factories and sign deals with Communist-backed companies. Meanwhile, China smartly adapted its own approach allowing local entrepreneurs space to get rich, provided they backed the Party and regime.

China began sending more and more of its young engineers, physicists, scientists, and doctors to the United States for training, creating strong bonds with U.S. universities and research institutions. That provided universities with cash, and led them to believe they would be influential in China in the future. These benefits and notions mesh well with the social and political agenda of “progressive” U.S. schools of learning; no limits of any kind were put on collaboration or on the protection of vital intellectual property.

Industry was no better, and, in fact, the nexus between manufacturing and markets in China and U.S. politics taught many U.S. companies that they needed to stand up against any tampering with the gold mine they thought they discovered. As a result, the United States adopted a policy of promoting U.S. technology transfers to China, shifting the U.S. economy from a center of manufacturing to a so-called center of services. The bottom fell out of the high-end labor and scientific markets unless it was linked to China.

American politicians jumped on the bandwagon, supporting the export of U.S. technology and manufacturing, while often saying they backed measures to deal with unemployment and job retraining at home. But the net result—the bottom line—is that Americans stopped training for jobs that weren’t there. Even when they were there, U.S. companies preferred importing cheap, high-end labor in the form of engineers, software specialists, and even doctors to fill the void.

They got special visas with the help of the U.S. government at the same time the same politicians let millions of untrained and uneducated illegal immigrants pour across our borders, sucking up many of the low-end jobs that remained. But illegals offered off-the-books and off-the-tax rolls, cheap hourly workers who still took advantage of the United States’ medical infrastructure, welfare benefits, and schools at the expense of taxpayers, mostly working-class people.

Many important technologies have migrated from the United States—everything from jet engines and aerospace know-how, to nanotechnology, to advanced computers, artificial intelligence, sensors and coatings, automation machines, and much more. What didn’t flee over the table, or was covered up by companies trading prized intellectual property ostensibly for market access, has gone through subterfuge, spying, and electronic cyber stealing.

It’s not unacceptable to say that the United States has two defense budgets: one for ourselves and the other for China. When China steals stealth technology and the plans to the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, they not only rob us blind but they exploit billions we invested in our defense, which goes into Chinese analogs such as the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang FC-31 fighter-bombers. The list of thefts is extremely long, and it isn’t surprising to see China operating in the global arms market with products that either trace to Russia or the United States.

Clearly Losing

And there are areas we are clearly losing.

One of the most critical areas is quantum computing and quantum cryptography. If the trend in that sector continues, China will be able to read anything we’ve tried to protect with encryption and, inversely, our National Security Agency will be hogtied, because NSA supercomputers won’t be able to break China’s codes. A new generation of cellphones and internet of things devices will be accessible to China but not to the United States.

In a world where cyber is the new third dimension of national security, this is a looming disaster. Making it worse, the Pentagon wants to align itself more with Silicon Valley.

The United States is also losing in nanotechnology, because a large number of scientists working on nanotechnology in U.S. universities and research labs are Chinese. China is more than willing to underwrite such efforts because of the huge payoff.

Nanotechnology is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most important new military technologies, as the key coating system for stealth in airplanes, missiles, ships, and submarines. It’s playing an important role in composites.

Nanotechnology promises a new generation of protective clothing for troops, of propulsion systems mixed into solid fuels for rockets, of chemical and biological nanosensors can be used to detect harmful chemicals and biological weapons—weapons China is developing, of ballistic protection in the form of body armor and other cladding; and of anti-corrosion, making weapons able to operate longer in the field or to operate at higher temperatures.

Should the trend, already very far along, continue to rise exponentially, the United States is the sure loser.

We aren’t prepared to meet the challenge. There are no real limits on industry, on universities, on research labs, or on individuals selling their knowledge. And investing more in science and technology won’t produce positive results only for the United States, because our security is so lax.

No guidance has emerged to halt the transformation of the United States into a China surrogate. No limits have been placed on most, if not all exports. There is no general understanding of the threat, and no grasp of the implications.

If there is a next war, we may very well lose.

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 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.