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A Divided America Finds Common Ground on Defense Technology

Arthur Herman

The recent midterm elections have exposed a political landscape that’s more divided than ever, with a Republican Senate pitted against a Democrat House, with Trump supporters pitted against Never Trumpers, and all deeply at odds on issues from guns and illegal immigration to tax cuts and health care.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided cannot stand.” A house divided can’t defend itself, either, against growing threats around the world, unless it can find grounds for agreement on what needs to be done to keep America strong and safe.

Fortunately that common ground exists, on advanced defense technology. My meetings and discussions with members of Congress, their staffs and those at the White House, reveal that there are three key propositions that can lead this country forward to a new consensus on how high-tech can strengthen America’s national and economic security, and restore American leadership for the future.

The first is, we are in a race with China for high-tech supremacy that we and our democratic allies cannot afford to lose. From AI and quantum to robotics and supercomputers, China has made the high-tech frontier a battlefield in its effort to oust America as a global hegemon by means fair (economic competition and scientific innovation) and foul (cybertheft and predatory trade practices). Across Washington, and increasingly in corporate board rooms (full disclosure: I consult with American companies involved in defense technology), people are realizing that this can’t be allowed to stand.

We’ve already seen a pushback led by the White House with summits on AI, quantum computing, and on 5G wireless technology, where China has now convinced 62 countries to let it lead on building their 5G networks—but where our armed services won’t appreciate relying on networks in foreign countries where the Chinese can control access. But a lot more work remains to be done, to strengthen all these technologies’ role in future national security, including at the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, as well as to boost our coordination of resources with our allies, who see a future dominated by China as bleak as we do.

For example, bipartisan bills on boosting quantum research have appeared in the House and in the Senate, where Senator Marco Rubio has provided key leadership. Meanwhile, Senator Kamala Harris also sponsored a bill to focus quantum research on national security priorities.

Further, a bipartisan effort to spur U.S. leadership on 5G can also break China’s momentum on this crucial front, and draw the support of allies in Asia and Europe who would prefer not to have their wireless future dictated by China.

The second is, America needs its young people to help build the high-tech future. The numbers of American students involved in science and engineering, including computer science, are dwindling. By any measure the outlook is alarming. But building a bipartisan consensus to address our growing high-tech STEM crisis shouldn’t be hard, especially since this presents an opportunity to incentivize women and minorities to lead the way in this vital high-tech frontier.

The third is, America needs to protect itself and our allies from the threat of missile attack by a rogue nation. The two rogues in this case are North Korea and Iran. While Trump initiatives have slowed NORK’s missile tests, Iran’s program shows little sign of abating. Indeed, the range of countries Iran can threaten steadily grows, from Israel to Jordan to Turkey to Eastern and Central Europe.

Fortunately, technology offers key answers. We have ground-based and terminal-phase systems to defend against missiles targeting the U.S. But another technology is waiting in the wings, a system that can detect and kill ballistic missiles in the earlier boost phase even as they leave the launch site, using a new design of two-stage interceptor missile together with today’s drones or unmanned aerial vehicles—and which experts think could become reality within two years.

One thing stands in the way of making this system also available to U.S. allies most directly threatened: the terms of an international agreement known as Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) created thirty years ago, which still treats large drones like the MQ-9 Raptor and Global Hawk as if they were ballistic missiles instead of airplanes, and restricts their sale even to close allies. The Trump administration hopes to make incremental changes in the next MTCR plenary next month; barring those changes, however, there’s a powerful need for a bipartisan Congress to take a leadership role together with the administration, on this issue.

Congress can help in another way, as well. While it’s been looking ahead to spending billions on directed-energy (using lasers) and even space-based systems for missile defense that won’t be realized for decades, this boost-phase intercept system is both affordable (cost estimates run to less than $100 million) and feasible in two years or less, if funding and a coordinated push comes now.

Lifting the threat of rogue nation missile blackmail will go a long way to restoring international stability and rebuilding trust in American leadership with our allies.

On all three fronts, what’s needed is not huge increases in funding, but a big boost in political will and partisan cooperation, instead of partisan conflict. America and the world await the result.