WASHINGTON — The United States is at risk at falling behind China in the realm of computing, Northrop Grumman’s top executive said Wednesday.

China has not yet caught up with the United States in most areas of advanced military technology, and the U.S. industrial base is well positioned to retain its edge, said Northrop CEO Kathy Warden, speaking during an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. But one sector that is “particularly problematic” is China’s growth in advanced computing, including in the development of artificial intelligence and applications used to process and interpret large amounts of data.

“If there were an area I would point to where that capability has shrunk to an alarming state, that would be the one that I would highlight,” Warden said. “It’s not an area that the U.S. has been investing significantly in in previous years.”

There are signs that might be changing under the Biden administration, she said.

The Pentagon boosted funding in its fiscal 2022 budget request for a variety of areas closely related to advanced computing. It aims to spent $2.3 billion on microelectronics, $398 million for 5G network capability and $874 million on artificial intelligence.

President Joe Biden’s proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure package also includes $50 billion for domestic research and production of semiconductors. That investment would match spending on semiconductors made through the CHIPS Act, which became law as part of the 2021 defense authorization bill. (The bill’s entire name is “Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors for America Act.”)

Warden said the bipartisan support for the act shows “strong progress being made” to incentivize semiconductor production in the United States. Currently, companies in China, Taiwan and South Korea lead in the manufacturing of advanced semiconductors and other microelectronics.

“Having the ability to control a supply chain in semiconductor and chip production could become a national imperative,” she said. “And we don’t want to wait until a conflict puts us into a position where it is a national imperative to realize that we don’t have the necessary capacity under U.S. control. That doesn’t mean it needs to all be onshore, but we do need to have clear access deep into the supply chain for semiconductors.”

While microelectronics are used in commercial products such as smartphones and personal computers, Warden argued that private industry is not incentivized to develop and manufacture the novel, advanced chips and semiconductors needed to ensure the U.S. military’s superiority.

Warden likened U.S. spending on microelectronics to investments made by the Pentagon during the 1950s and 1960s, which ultimately resulted in the invention of GPS and major advances in computers — both of which ultimately filtered to the commercial sector.

“I would submit that those [technologies] would not have matured at the rate they would have if we didn’t have strong government [research and development] spending,” she said. “And we certainly wouldn’t have found competitive differentiation from a national security perspective … if they’d have all originated in the commercial space because they would have been in the hands of all nations more simultaneously.”

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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