The Future of Defense Task Force, which released its final report on September 29, was charged by the House Armed Services Committee with reviewing the nation’s defense assets and capabilities. Its goal was to identify what reforms and innovations the Department of Defense should pursue to ensure it is ready to meet the security threats of the future. Chaired Rep. Seth Moulton and Rep. Jim Banks, the members of the task force are a bipartisan group of distinguished veterans and intelligence professionals: Congresswomen Chrissy Houlahan, Elissa Slotkin, and Susan Davis, and Congressmen Scott DesJarlais, Paul Mitchell, and Michael Walz. They spent nearly a year studying a range of challenges confronting America’s defense apparatus, from maintaining the superiority of the nation’s innovation base and technology infrastructure to examining the Pentagon’s strategic priorities, capabilities, and operational concepts.
On September 30, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon hosted Reps. Moulton and Banks to discuss the task force’s recommendations.
Banks asserted that the nation faces a “Sputnik moment” with adversaries like China and Russia, which makes it both a challenge and an opportunity to ensure America’s defense capabilities and technology remain responsive to new security threats. Both he and Moulton framed the report as consistent with the National Defense Strategy (NDS), which presents Russia as the most concerning immediate threat, but China as “the most significant economic and security threat to the United States over the next 20 to 30 years.” Moulton said that where the task force report diverges with the National Defense Strategy is “in saying we need to make much more dramatic changes to how we’re addressing these threats in order to truly meet them.” He added that we must “keep up with the revolution that … China and Russia are really undertaking in how they fund their national security, what sorts of technologies they’re investing in, and how they see themselves meeting the challenge of the United States.”
Banks said while the NDS “laid the groundwork … we’ve done too little in four years to foster the type of attitude at the Pentagon that it’s going to take to develop the environment that fosters innovation.” Banks said a key finding of the report was that
we need greater innovation in artificial intelligence. AI is in the air, at sea, surface, underwater, space. Where is that technology coming from? Much of it is fostered in the commercial market. And what we have heard over and over and over from our partners in the private sector is that the barriers to innovation at the Pentagon prevent the same type of innovation occurring in the United States that’s occurring in China, Russia, and elsewhere.
Banks said the task force studied existing programs like AFWERKS, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the new Cyber Command, and Space Command. “If they had additional resources, they could do even more to foster this type of innovative mindset the Pentagon needs to go to where we need to be.”
Moulton said that instead of getting into specific weapons systems and legacy platforms, the task force decided to recommend that a reputable third organization study legacy platforms and determine their relevance and resiliency to emerging threats over the next 50 years. He said: “The number one recommendation is not to spend a mere … single percentage digit amount of money on AI. It’s literally to have a Manhattan Project-scale effort to lead the world in artificial intelligence.” But he went on to stress “rather than just think about this in terms of numbers … what we need to think about is what does our force look like to truly meet these new threats?”
O’Hanlon asked whether there are any structural reforms the Department of Defense could implement to promote the task force’s recommended changes. Moulton cited the example of the Marine Corps, which is undergoing a fundamental assessment of all the assumptions that underlie the Corps’ mission. Banks said that “if the department utilized the authorizations it already has that grants the type of flexibility that already exists, it could foster the type of innovation that it’s going to take to compete … Yet the attitude within the department of the Navy [and] the Air Force is very much in contradiction to what [we] have determined through our efforts in developing this report.” He stressed “I do think this is far more attitudinal and far less structural.”
On how to pay for their proposals, Moulton stressed that even without further growth in the defense budget following the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, their recommendations are achievable, particularly if needed investments in areas like artificial intelligence are made by making difficult choices about what existing systems and capabilities are obsolete.
On supply chains, O’Hanlon asked if the nation’s reliance on foreign suppliers is a weakness. Moulton pointed to the difficulty the U.S. has faced in acquiring personal protective equipment from abroad during the pandemic, and said: “The United States has to ensure supply chain resiliency within both the military and civilian sectors.” On the future of the defense industrial workforce, Banks noted:
There are a lot of other items that we tackle from fostering the type of talent that we need domestically through legislative efforts to increase the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] skills of American students to foster this type of innovation. And also, better partnerships with Silicon Valley, with innovators around the country to foster the type of technology and innovation that we need to compete with China and Russia as well.
Moulton pointed out that in order to invest in future technologies, “it also means you have to invest more in things like education, which we’ve known since the 1950s is so critical to our leadership in national security.”
O’Hanlon asked about the report’s suggestion that in addition to developing better defense concepts, the department needs to develop more of a whole-of-government approach to find what may be non-kinetic, non-lethal responses to threats that don’t involve core U.S. security interests. Moulton said: “We’ve got to be better prepared for it in terms of how we train our troops [and] in terms of the general operational concepts that we study at the Department of Defense.” On the importance of alliances, Banks raised the example of Huawei, and said: “We can’t fight back against Huawei if all our strongest allies are adopting it. And this is why these alliances matter, this is why our relationships with our NATO allies especially in the fight against Huawei is so significant.”
One of the final points O’Hanlon raised was the role of Congress in protecting expensive, obsolete bases and legacy systems, making it an obstacle to the implementation of the reforms the task force recommends. Moulton said:
We’ve said this isn’t a race that we might lose, this is a race that right now, today, we are losing. And if that does anything to appropriately strike fear in the minds of American citizens but also of our colleagues in Congress, I hope we’re successful there … [and] we’ve come to these truths in a fully bipartisan way.
Banks said that he doesn’t know if the report will change attitudes in Congress, but stressed that newer members like him and Moulton are a sign that the next generation in Congress will take these issues more seriously.
DiscussantMichael E. O’Hanlon Director of Research - Foreign Policy, Director - Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy