The military technology market is a battlefield. This was perhaps an inevitable outcome of the success of decades of investment by the United States to create and then sustain a durable technological edge. In 2019, the trouble comes not from an absence of technology but an abundance of it, and all in the commercial market, too. At a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing March 28 on science and technology programs at the Pentagon,, experts and representatives wrestled with the challenge of plotting military acquisitions in an age when the most exciting products are commercial.

“If it’s developed by a company in country X, it can be used by everyone,” said William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. There are two implications in this. The first is that anything on the market, from AI services to 3D printers to commercial drones, can be in the hands of anybody who can afford them, ally, rival, and nonstate actor alike. The second implication is that, because these tools are in the commercial world, they’re hard for the Pentagon to secure.

Rep. Jim Langevin, chairman of the subcommittee, recognized as much in his opening remarks.

“It is no secret that China is stealing our intellectual property to further their objective to be a research and engineering powerhouse and compromise our warfighting edge. Make no mistake however, China is not the only nation conducting these activities,” he said. “China is, though, one of the few state actors that has coupled such tactics with considerable investments and resources behind a national strategy that involves a whole-of government effort and leverages society to promote ‘indigenous innovation.’”

If the Pentagon struggles to secure intellectual property within and beyond its regular supply chain, it also has difficulty incorporating new developments in the private sector into approved programs. Langevin noted that the past three National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs) granted “almost two dozen authorities” to improve how the Pentagon’s science and technology wings can hire, improve facilities, develop better infrastructure, and get better at acquisitions.

“I remain disappointed that many of those authorities have been underutilized by the Department,” Langevin noted, dryly.

It’s a problem the witnesses at the hearing said they were aware of, and are working on taking advantage of. When Rep. Elise Stefanik, the subcommittee’s ranking member, asked specifically about military adoption of 3D printing technologies, James F. Geurts assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, noted that “we have 3D printers on ships, we have 3D printers with marines, we are 3d printing cement bridges.”

“We’re trying to go after certifying materials so even parts we haven’t thought of can be certified,” Roper said later, indicating some of the difficulty in adapting old acquisition processes to new techniques.

More than the specifics of the technologies was the fraught environment in which that technology exists. Langevin opened the hearing by talking about research as a complex ecosystem, comprising agencies, offices, labs, universities, and the private sector, among others. Roper revisited the ecosystem metaphor later, noting that part of what makes an ecosystem is competition for resources, and that the United States isn’t the only entity in the ecosystem.

Exempting nuclear arsenals, there are no threats in the modern world at parity with the capabilities of the United States like there was during the Cold War. But the changed ecosystem, and the entire improved technological landscape, was hardly cause for comfort in the hearing.

“We cannot take comfort from parity, from the fact that in some areas we are ahead. We have to recognize that much of what is being done is in the commercial world, and available to everyone. We need to keep up our own efforts,” said Mike Griffin, under secretary of defense for research and engineering, “We need to keep up the national security capabilities that have broadly kept peace in the world for the last 70 years. There’s no deadline. We have to keep it up if we want to keep the peace in the world.”

The nature of that 70 years of peace went unremarked upon in the hearing, with witnesses and representatives alike offering similar assessments of the military’s Science and Technology mission.

“The paradigm we have to adjust to is not being a military that has technologies no one else has, but having those technologies first,” Roper said.

In military tech as in commercial tech, there’s still an advantage to being a first mover. It’s just less of an advantage than it used to be.

Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.

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