What does the U.S. military need to confront Russia and China? A broad-ranging study of the required technologies and workforce that has been commissioned by the Ronald Reagan Institute, host of the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, hopes to identify just that.
The effort is expected to look beyond large defense companies and their suppliers into the commercial technology sector—including companies whose employees have resisted executives’ push to seek more business with the military.
“It does give us an opportunity to engage with the non-defense community, because we’re going to be talking to the world of tech and the workforce community,” Institute Director Roger Zakheim said Monday. “We’re trying to get at the people, the companies, the government organs that are relevant to national security even though they don’t know it.”
The study will be performed over the coming months by 12 commissioners, including current and former members of Congress, former senior defense officials, industry, academics and think tankers.
“Embedded in the composition of our commissioners, as well as the people the commission will engage with, it will go beyond the traditional aerospace and defense community,” Zakheim said.
He said he expects the group to produce “a sharp set of findings and recommendations” for Congress, the executive branch and the private sector. The findings are also expected to drive the panel discussions at this December’s Reagan Forum, the so-called “Davos of Defense” that brings top U.S. and foreign security officials, lawmakers and defense executives in Southern California.
“Issues of workforce and technology, as it pertains to national security, are the shiny new object,” he said.
Part of the study’s remit is to better define the “National Security Innovation Base,” a term introduced by the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy as “the American network of knowledge, capabilities, and people” in academia, national laboratories, and the private sector. Though various think-tanks have since written about this Innovation Base, the concept remains ill-defined. Zakheim compared it to a bunch of kids running after a soccer ball, not knowing what to do when they reached it.
The study comes amid as the Pentagon still pushes to engage more with Silicon Valley and the commercial technology sector, some of which have been reluctant to do work with the military. For instance, Google decided it would not renew for contract a Pentagon-led artificial intelligence program to identify objects in drone video feeds. More recently, Microsoft employees are protesting the company’s participation in an Army project to develop glasses that display battlefield information to soldiers.
Yet much of the technology and workforce needed for the coming national-security era “resides outside the traditional industrial base,” Zakheim said.
The National Security Strategy puts it this way:“The landscape of innovation does not divide neatly into sectors…Technologies that are part of most weapon systems often originate in diverse businesses as well as in universities and colleges. Losing our innovation and technological edge would have far-reaching negative implications for American prosperity and power.”
The strategy calls out China for stealing intellectual property from American firms. It also mentions foreign governments gaining access to American technology and know-how through the legal acquisition of U.S. companies.
The effort is part of a larger initiative by the Reagan Institute to influence national security policy decisions in Washington.
Last year, Zakheim — a former general counsel and deputy staff director for the House Armed Services Committee — left his job as a lawyer for Covington & Burling to become director of the Ronald Reagan Institute. The institute also opened an office in Washington.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure everything has continuity and coherence with our programming,” he said.
The institute recently hired Rachel Hoff—former communications director and policy advisor to the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.—as its policy director. Hoff will oversee the National Security Innovation Base study.
Here are the study’s five focus areas:
- Scoping the national security innovation base.
- Unleashing and harnessing private sector innovation.
- Cultivating the 21st-century national security innovation base workforce.
- Competing in the 21st-century technological environment.
- Leveraging alliances and partnerships.