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NDAA 2020: SASC Emphasizes Tech Race With China

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

A failed microcircuit. (Naval Sea Systems Command)

CAPITOL HILL: From missile defense sensors in space to 5G networks at Air Force bases, from developing software to mining rare earth minerals, the Senate Armed Services Committee draft of the annual defense policy bill puts an extraordinary emphasis on high tech. Not only does SASC create a Space Force — click here for our in-depth story — and add $1.4 billion to Pentagon R&D programs, it takes a broad look at the global competition between the American private sector and China.

“To keep up with our adversaries, we have prioritized investment in next generation equipment [and] weapons,” SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe said in a prepared statement that was read by ranking minority member Sen. Jack Reed. (Inhofe didn’t appear at the press briefing today because his wife broke her leg this morning).

Along with the usual lists of ships and aircraft the bill would fund, the executive summary SASC released today — the full legislation is still being finished — offers a lot of detail on technology investments and policies. (There’s a whole section headlined “Maintaining our technological advantage through innovation,” but relevant proposals are sprinkled through other parts of the bill as well). Echoing the Trump Administration, which launched a major study of the defense industrial base and has sanctioned Chinese firms accused of espionage such as Huawei, the SASC spends considerable energy on what could be called industrial policy, if that term hadn’t fallen out of favor.

The bill allocates additional funding — albeit with few specific figures — to a range of targeted tech efforts, such as

  • producing rare earth elements — minerals crucial to modern electronics, on which China has largely cornered the market — from coal ash;
  • building secure 5G networks — a technology today dominated by Chinese giant Huawei –at two unspecified Air Force facilities;
  • increasing Pentagon investment in “advanced manufacturing [technologies], materials and printed circuit boards” — another Chinese-dominated industry — by about $50 million.

(It’s worth comparing investments in similar areas by the House Appropriations Committee).

A senior committee staffer told reporters that “in general, we are very concerned about the [electromagnetic] spectrum” and DoD access to it for its missions. He said that the SASC “would have addressed it more robustly if we were able,” but point out that the issue of access to radio frequency spectrum comes under shared jurisdiction, withe Senate Commerce Committee in the lead.

There are plenty of R&D plus-ups for military-specific programs as well, with the bill adding:

  • $108 million to develop new satellites to detect and track incoming missiles, the so-called space sensor layer for missile defense;
  • $125 million to research technologies for future warships;
  • $66 million for US Cyber Command;
  • $57.5 million for “cyber basic and applied research”;
  • $9 million for Marine Corps trials of civilian 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) technologies; and
  • unspecified increases in research, development, and deployment of hypersonic weapons, missile defenses, and artificial intelligence, some of it through the Defense Innovation Unit (by contrast, the House Appropriations Committee would slash funding for DIU).

There are also policy moves that, while not requiring significant funding, might have a major long-term impact. The bill orders the Pentagon to:

  • create a special, streamlined acquisition process for software;
  • compile a list of academic institutions in China and Russia that do research for their militaries, with an eye to monitoring those universities’ contacts with the US;
  • monitor “foreign ownership, control, or influence within the defense industrial base” and work on “mitigation of the risks” such foreign investment poses;
  • add an assessment of Chinese investments overseas to the annual report on Chinese military power; and
  • follow the committee’s new strategy to secure a “trusted supply chain” of microchips and other advanced electronics — which Chinese manufactures at least sometimes ship with spyware — for both the US and its partners.

“There were a number of areas where there are challenges to the defense industrial base that we wanted to address,” a staff member explained. “One thing we wanted to do was mitigate risks from foreign ownership.”

Now, not all the bill’s investments are cutting edge technology. Even as it adds 16 more high-tech F-35s than the administration requested — for a total of 94 planes at a cost of $10 billion — the bill also finds $948 million for eight F-15X fighters, an upgraded version of a venerable aircraft, and even $50 million for low-cost Light Attack aircraft. (House Appropriators bought 8 F-15X and 90 F-35s).

“We don’t to want to buy so many [F-15Xs] to try to replace the F-35s. Not at all,” one senior staff member explained. But the current F-15 is no longer fit for its dogfighting purpose, and there is a need to supplement the F-22s that were never bought in the full amount envisioned by the Air Force, the staffer said.

Reed noted that one “area where disagreement continues” within the SASC was President Donald Trumps request to move military construction money “to build the wall” at the border with Mexico. The SASC did not authorize the extra $3.6 million the administration had asked for.

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