As the world heats up, data shows the U.S. technical edge keeps eroding

Using artificial intelligence, analysts at Govini have build a digital twin of the U.S. industrial base. It is a disturbing picture. Govini's analysis shows how...

Using artificial intelligence, analysts at Govini have build a digital twin of the U.S. industrial base. It is a disturbing picture. Govini’s analysis shows how far behind the United States military is in bringing new technology to bear. The technical edge is dulling. For details on its latest National Security Scorecard, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Govini CEO Tara Murphy Dougherty.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And this latest addition, I noticed in the foreword, which you and Bob Work, of course, the chairman have mentioned this digital twin of the defense industrial base. Tell us what that is exactly.

Tara Dougherty So if we just start with the concept of a digital twin, I’m sure many of your readers are familiar with this in various capacities, but I would just describe it as a virtual representation of a physical object of some kind. And what we’ve done in creating a digital twin of the US defense industrial base is map all of the companies, the capabilities and the capital that flows among them that underpin national security. That’s actually a global picture, not just an American one, but it’s the best representation from a data driven perspective of all of those facets of the industrial base, which, as you mention in your opening, are absolutely critical to the US military competition with China.

Tom Temin And the military, it’s safe to say, knows that it needs to get new technology over the valley of death and so on into operational capability for war fighters. And golly, the events of the last few weeks seem to really drive this point home, the importance of it. But what does the digital twin cry out to us? What is it saying?

Tara Dougherty It’s saying that acquisition process that you just described, which is how the Department of Defense gets military capabilities to the warfighter eventually, is too slow. It’s overly complex and it’s burdensome nature, it’s preventing the United States from getting the best capabilities out into the field. I actually think you put it perfectly the technological edge of the United States is doing. And what the scorecard highlights out of the digital twin of the industrial base are a range of problem areas that are essentially creating that feeling effect. One would be a gap between strategy and spending. Another would be the fact that our supply chains are replete with Chinese entities, including prohibited ones. And then certainly there’s an aspect as well of reduced or unavailable capacity within the industrial base from a production and manufacturing perspective, something that absolutely ties in to how we support our allies abroad.

Tom Temin And the gap in technologies is not just things like artificial intelligence, which is software, but we have hardware gaps, and those derive from a technological base like where we need to be, say, in hypersonics, for example, where you throw a thing really, really fast. But also in that capacity area, I think of the 155 millimeter Howitzer shell, which are consumed by sometimes tens of thousands a week in ground combat operations, which are going on in two really bad places right now in the world. So is it safe to say this gap spans basic hardware things, as well as some of these cutting edge so-called technologies like AI?

Tara Dougherty It definitely does. And your examples of hypersonics and artillery ammunitions are excellent ones. I would add to that list space capabilities. And space is a really interesting area highlighted in this scorecard because there’s such a worrisome trend in this regard that the data really highlights. And one would think, given all of our focus on space technologies at the national level and the national security level, that this is something that is a major area of investment. Yet, what we saw over the past five years or so, if you look at [Department of Defense (DoD)] wide spending from 2018 through 2022, investment in space technologies actually decreased. And simultaneously we see China demonstrating, launching space capabilities that a decade ago only the United States had. So you have to assume the two are correlated and it’s a great example of where data can really highlight what’s actually happening, not just what we perceive to be happening because of a certain area of focus or topic of discussion.

Tom Temin And why is this spending off in these areas? Is it because DoD is unaware and hasn’t made the case to Congress, or have they made the case to Congress, and Congress doesn’t believe them? Because there’s always a lot of interplay that goes down the, let’s say, the intellectual supply chain between appropriations and requirements.

Tara Dougherty Absolutely. And boy, isn’t this the year you see that play out. I think there are a lot of factors at play here. One is the push and pull of changing priorities. And some of that is driven by events that are happening around the world. One would never have projected a few years ago that we would be spending what we are spending today on munitions and trying to restart production lines of capabilities that the United States hasn’t used in decades, but here we are. Then there are our domestic priorities. So just to stay within the space example for consistency, despite the fact that we’ve seen overall spending in space, areas of technology go down. One area that has seen an increase is in space systems that are related to climate. And that’s an understandable area of investment. And those kinds of tradeoffs are made within different administrations at different times. And then there’s what happens with Congress, which I don’t think I could even begin to weigh in on, to be honest.

Tom Temin All right. We’re speaking with Tara Murphy Dougherty. She is the CEO of Govini. And we’re talking about the national security score card for this year. So what’s the big wake up call? What has to happen, do you think?

Tara Dougherty A variety of things have to happen. And I’d put a few at the top of the list. The first and foremost is that, in addition to all of the policy debate, the statutory debates with Congress, the reforms recommended by a seemingly endless number of commissions. One of the major aspects of acquisition that needs to be fixed is just process improvement. And the defense acquisition process is an area that has been really underserved by commercial technology. Giving these flagship product, the ARC aims to bring premium data, high fidelity commercial data in the form of this digital twin of the industrial base, in addition to modern software in order to help execute the process. That alone will have tremendous impact in modernizing our force. And then the second thing I would highlight is once those systems are fielded or frankly, along the way of getting those systems fielded, we have to pay attention to the presence of prohibitive suppliers in those supply chains and in those platforms and weapons systems. Whether you’re talking microelectronics, you’re talking AI or you’re talking hardware elements. That is still an area that, despite being a major priority of DoD for the past several years, there remains a lot of work to be done.

Tom Temin Right. So there is a major acquisition reform commission. They did an interim report a couple of months back and they said they’re going to try to speed up processes and improve these processes. But often these commissions come up with long recommendations and a few of them get adopted, but otherwise they become shelf aware. So it seems like it’s up to the people that are doing the planning within DoD to move on these things in every possible way they can that does not require statutory change.

Tara Dougherty Exactly, Tom. And I think that while it’s perfectly reasonable that we’ll have experts in this field and officials in the executive branch and members of Congress continue to grapple with what changes need to be made to the process. The reality is the process might be slow, but it does work. Eventually, we not only do get capabilities into the hands of the warfighter, but the United States has the strongest, most able military in the entire world. Now, we’ve talked about that technological edge doubling and changes that need to happen to make sure that we maintain that position as the world’s strongest military. But I would argue we haven’t lost that position yet. So if we have a process that works in setting aside the changes that need to be made to it, why don’t we just focus on ensuring that it is operationally relevant from a timing perspective and faster and more modern today? And I think that’s how the private sector thinks about process improvement. I would call upon the Department of Defense to think similarly.

Tom Temin And just a final question. This report is about new technologies from bio to space to artificial intelligence, all those things we’ve been talking about. But there is also sustainability, maintenance, logistics. You look at the F-22 program, the most capable fighter perhaps ever built. But there’s dwindling numbers of them and they’re getting rusty and the Air Force can’t afford to maintain them at all top operating conditions. So half of them are in mothballs at a given time or being cannibalized. So that long tail that I would lump under logistics, does the report look at that? And isn’t that one of the big problems is sustainability here.

Tara Dougherty Absolutely. And you touched on a number of important aspects that are probably not addressed as often. The sustainment of legacy systems, think about in addition to the F-22, which is a great example, think about the upcoming Columbia class submarine. It has a 90 year expected lifespan. The vast majority of spending investment capabilities that are going to go into that platform are actually going to happen in the sustainment phase of that system. And so sustainment, as well as affordability, are essential and addressed in the scorecard, primarily through the perspective of what suppliers does the United States have today, what capacity do we have in the industrial base and manufacturing ecosystem in order to support these systems? That’s an area to where we’re seeing the numbers begin to decline in terms of both capacity and availability. We can address that nationally through initiatives such as additive manufacturing. But the reality is we need companies to continue to support defense systems and these legacy programs for decades to come.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories