WASHINGTON – The U.S. government must commit to “meaningful” spending on emerging technologies to keep up with China and other competing nations, according to a report from data analytics firm Govini.
The report, Govini’s National Security Scorecard: Critical Technologies Edition, said that the Russia-Ukraine conflict shows that the future of warfare lies with emerging technologies, such as autonomous and semi-autonomous drones and artificial intelligence.
“As a result, the United States’ intensifying techno-military confrontation with the People’s Republic of China will hinge not on which side can build the best weapons, but on who can best harness critical emerging technologies,” the report said.
Across multiple administrations, the U.S. has stated the importance of emerging technology to strategic competition with China and future national prosperity. Despite their efforts, keeping pace with China remains a challenge for the U.S., according to the report.
Govini issues several scorecards evaluating the performance of the federal government. They are intended to give decision makers a baseline view of what the government spends and what companies have partnered to design better procurement strategies.
Spending from the U.S. government on critical technologies nearly doubled to $117.2 billion in fiscal 2021 from $60.7 billion in 2017. However, the report said the magnitude of the increase is somewhat misleading given spending increases associated with funding for COVID-19-related research.
When the defense budget topline is held constant, tradeoffs are zero-sum between emerging technologies and other defense spending, said Tara Murphy Dougherty, CEO of Govini, in a statement to C4ISRNET.
Over the past year, the Biden administration has been willing to invest in defense capabilities, particularly in research, development, testing and evaluation, Dougherty said.
In order to make sure it gets something for these growing investments, she said the Pentagon needs to do a better job of diversifying the companies that it is working with beyond the traditional set of defense contractors and it needs to pick winners.
‘Meaningful spending’ needed to engage tech companies
“It is only through meaningful spending — not just big budget numbers — that both venture capitalists and innovative technology companies will continue to pursue work with the Department of Defense,” she said.
Although spending comparisons serve as useful benchmarks, she said they only tell part of the story.
To keep pace in emerging technologies, she said the government should reinforce success where they are falling short but also stop investing in efforts that are unlikely to be successful regardless of funding levels.
Dougherty added that while comparisons between the U.S. and China’s spending on emerging technology in general or in specific areas can be useful, they must be done with careful consideration.
In some cases, numbers reported for China are for the entire economy rather than for the Chinese government, so comparing them to U.S. government numbers is a bit of an apples to oranges situation, she said.
Dougherty said one of the great advantages for the U.S. is the strength of innovation in the larger economy. The government must get better at tapping into the fruits of that innovation, she said.
The report used supervised machine learning and natural language processing to analyze large volumes of federal contracts data, including prime contracts and grants. After categorizing the data based on field, the report compares the spending levels with those of competing countries.
Of the three military departments looked at by the report, the Army appeared to spend the most on critical technologies over the period, with the Navy and Air Force trailing behind.
After accounting for the $30 billion put toward combating the COVID-19 pandemic, Army spending on critical tech was in line with what the other military departments spent over the period, Dougherty said.
Catherine Buchaniec is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where she covers artificial intelligence, cyber warfare and uncrewed technologies.