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The bipartisan House task force on America’s future defense is path-breaking

Late last month, a bipartisan congressional task force issued a timely report that, apart from purely security-oriented outlets, received far less media coverage than it deserved. Congressional bipartisanship has become virtually an oxymoron in the current political climate. Nevertheless, Republicans and Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee Task Force on the Future of Defense were able to come together to produce a serious, thought-provoking essay that focuses on implementing a defense strategy that is responsive to the threats that will confront America far into the future, indeed as far as the end of this century.

Many of the task force’s proposals have been outlined in previous studies and in congressional testimony. They include a greater focus on funding and developing advanced technologies and incorporating them into military systems and structures; concluding a new arms control agreement with Russia; and controlling the leakage of technology by expanding the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States’s (CFIUS) purview and the scope of Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) legislation.

Similarly, as others have done, the report called for revitalizing — indeed, “modernizing” — America’s relationships with allies, partners and friends. It went even further, however, by calling on Washington to establish “new alliances to meet emerging threats.” Whether the United States can do so is an open question, not merely because Washington has walked away from a host of international agreements in the past several years, but also because states have become chary about formalizing alliance relationships. On the other hand, America certainly can deepen its political and military ties to friendly countries, in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, as it has done with Sweden, Finland and Singapore in recent years. 

The report recognizes that America’s security fundamentally depends on a civilian and military workforce that is open to innovation and experimentation; meaningful cooperation with the non-defense commercial sector; and an overhaul of budgetary priorities to move away from legacy programs and incorporate cutting-edge technology in the “program of record.” In particular, the report recognizes that the national security workforce is woefully ignorant of the latest technological developments. 

The Department of Defense (DOD) bureaucracy relies far too heavily on consultants and contractors as intermediaries between government and private industry. Moreover, the bureaucratic culture in the Pentagon is suspicious, if not downright hostile, to advances in technology that emerge from the commercial sector. While former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, in particular, strived to close the psychological gap between the DOD and Silicon Valley, the report correctly posits that there is considerable room for improvement — in terms of funding for advanced technologies and contracting with the non-defense industrial base to obtain them. 

Most significantly, the report underscores the importance of a “whole-of-government” approach to national security and recommends that the State Department lead such efforts. Regrettably, the term “whole of government” has become a mantra that bureaucrats utter but do not act upon. Unfortunately for them, and the nation they serve, America’s most dangerous potential adversaries, China and Russia, have been drawing upon their own whole-of-government national security apparatuses for some time. 

These activities include, but are not limited to, Chinese theft of Western intellectual property and aggressive employment of merchant marine and fishing vessels, and Russia’s hacking, jamming  and interference in European and American elections and its employment of mercenaries and “little green men” along its borders and in the Middle East. It is time for the United States government to take the concept seriously, as its adversaries have done for some time.

In fact, the report addresses the whole-of-government concept beyond what normally is understood to be the realm of national security. For example, it advocates for immigration as a source of economic and technological advancement. It argues for more government resources to be poured into STEM education. And it promotes an expanded program for national service — though it might have gone even further and argued for a mandatory national service “draft.” Young people would benefit from the experience of working to help others, and doing so alongside counterparts from different backgrounds, whether regional, racial, ethnic or religious. Such a program would truly enhance the nation’s security.

The four Republicans and four Democrats who signed the report have done the nation a major service. Not only have they outlined a comprehensive approach for the next administration — of whatever political stripe — to follow, but they have demonstrated that even in these chaotic political times, serious men and women can work together across the political divide to advance the security of all Americans.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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