EVERETT, Wash. — As they conduct bombing and surveillance missions around the globe, today's U.S. military pilots rely on aerial refueling aircraft built as early as 1957, when the Soviet Union dominated American security fears, the average home cost $12,000 and "I Love Lucy" was debuting new episodes.
The Air Force’s two-decade effort to field a 21st-century tanker, one of several premier air systems whose development has been beset with problems, is emblematic of the challenges Pentagon leaders face in seeking to maintain the U.S. military’s shrinking edge over its chief competitor, China.
The United States, once the world’s undisputed military superpower, has been struggling for years to efficiently update its arsenal and field new technology in cutting-edge areas such as hypersonics and artificial intelligence, at a time when some senior officials warn that China could be within five years of surpassing the U.S. military.
Experts point to myriad problems with the U.S. system, including a slow, calcified budgeting process, unwieldy congressional requirements and the Pentagon’s inability to effectively piggyback on private-sector advances in digital know-how.
“It’s like the Pentagon is finding itself staring in the rearview mirror in the face of oncoming traffic,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
As the Biden administration formulates its defense priorities, it must confront an increasingly urgent question: How will the United States stay ahead of an authoritarian competitor that is able to marshal industry and espionage to leapfrog decades of military technology?
Since taking office, leaders in the Biden administration, like their predecessors under President Donald Trump, have identified China as the top threat to U.S. security. They have voiced concerns about America’s eroding edge as Beijing showcases its growth in satellites, ballistic missiles, bombers, fighter aircraft, submarines and naval vessels.
In his inaugural overseas trip, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed the importance of Asian alliances to meet China’s military rise. “Our goal is to make sure we have the capabilities and the operational plans and concepts to offer credible deterrence to China or anybody else who would want to take on the U.S.,” Austin told reporters traveling with him to Japan and South Korea in March.
Officials acknowledge the challenges are formidable. Only in February did the military begin using Boeing’s KC-46 tanker, developed to replace the 1950s-era KC-135, on a limited basis. After a decade of development, and 20 years since the Pentagon first launched efforts to field a new tanker, the plane has still not been deemed ready for combat. A leading general recently described it as a “lemon.”
Even more well known is Lockheed Martin’s F-35, the stealth fighter whose two decades of development have been plagued by setbacks and mechanical problems. The plane, which costs between $77 million and $100 million, has yet to hit full-rate production. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee called it a “rathole.”
The military is racing to keep up with advances by China and Russia in hypersonic weapons, which travel at five times the speed of sound or faster. Although Beijing already has fielded a hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17, the United States is just scaling up its research funding and prototyping.
A recent report by a government-backed commission on AI, which the Pentagon hopes to use to analyze imagery and data and, potentially, in combat, cited a dearth of needed skills among government personnel.
It warned that the United States has a finite window to up its game against China, which already uses AI in a vast domestic surveillance network and has staked out a goal of AI primacy by 2030.
“The scope for action remains, but America’s room for maneuver is shrinking,” said the commission, which includes former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
The challenges are just as urgent in other digital areas. The Pentagon may be forced to abandon a years-long attempt to create a $10 billion cloud infrastructure because of legal challenges, a problem that has plagued other acquisition efforts. Experts say officials have underestimated the importance of software and underinvested in digital security.
'Valley of Death'
The United States was once capable of quickly fielding cutting-edge military equipment. Following World War II, it developed the formidable B-52 bomber in record speed, building and improving on 13 versions of the aircraft in just over a decade.
But the pace of military innovation slowed in the 1960s with the advent of a centralized procurement system that prioritized performance and predictability over speed. That didn’t matter much back then, because the Soviet Union was not moving fast either, as Bill Greenwalt, who worked on acquisition reform as a staffer to now-deceased Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), describes in a new research paper.
Today, it typically takes more than a decade to develop and field new weapons systems, Greenwalt found, which sometimes means technology is out of date by the time it becomes operational.
Part of the problem is a planning and funding process that typically requires two years before a new weaponry or technology program can be included in the budget. This leads to what insiders call the “Valley of Death,” the long lag time between when a company develops a new technology and when the Pentagon fully funds it. That is particularly hard on smaller companies, contributing to the dominance of a handful of large “defense prime” firms.
In addition, navigating the labyrinthine military procurement system requires specialized knowledge and resources — which many smaller firms don’t have.
Will Roper, who sought to accelerate Air Force innovation as the service’s top acquisition official during the Trump administration, said that unlike during the Cold War, the bulk of U.S. research and development funding is in the private sector, not in government.
“So, by not being able to tap commercial innovation, the military is losing out on most of its opportunities,” he said.
In recent years, the military has created a number of smaller funding initiatives that aim to sidestep its clunky acquisition system and quickly channel government money to new technologies.
Another factor slowing down U.S. innovation is the Pentagon’s focus on long-term investments in a small number of weapons systems, some of which don’t play out as planned. China, meanwhile, tends to experiment with many versions of similar technology.
Experts say Congress, while providing important oversight, has at times hindered innovation by blocking the Pentagon from retiring weaponry. In addition, requirements designed to reduce waste or accelerate innovation sometimes backfire, as when lawmakers required the Pentagon to simultaneously develop several variants of the F-35, said J.J. Gertler, a veteran military aviation analyst.
“People say DOD should be run like a business,” Gertler said. “Well, in business you fail, you go on. If DOD fails, there are new laws and procurement rules.”
China’s defense transformation has been guided by a principle known as “military-civil fusion,” which aims to allow the state to seamlessly capitalize on private-sector advances. Overseen personally by President Xi Jinping, the strategy can include exploitation of dual-use products or even forced technology transfers.
Roper said the U.S. military, with China’s 1.4 billion population in mind, should focus on hardware and other ways to power major advances in software or AI. “Scale is going to be against us in almost every case against China,” he said. “We’re going to be looking for technologies that are leaps ahead.”
Some experts caution against overstating the challenge. Despite Beijing’s economic heft, the United States retains strategic advantages, including defense alliances and favorable geography. China borders 14 countries, including four nuclear powers.
Although experts disagree on the extent to which the Chinese state has successfully commandeered commercial technology, the situation is far different in the United States, where courts, the media and even corporate culture sometimes function as a brake on public-private collaboration.
That was the case in 2017, when Google pulled out of a Pentagon AI initiative, Project Maven, after employees protested use of company algorithms by the military.
Even more problematic has been China’s use of espionage to snap up military innovations that reflect billions of dollars in research funding. Examples of weaponry believed to have been fueled by U.S. plans include the Chinese versions of the F-22, F-35 and the C-17 transport plane.
“So long as they continue to do that, the playing field will always favor the Chinese,” said a defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “They’re getting away with as much as they can, because, frankly, the pushback has been weak.”
'Victim of our own success'
Pentagon leaders, stressing the need to embrace new ways of waging war, have sought to project confidence in U.S. preeminence while also voicing frustration at the pace of innovation.
When Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid a recent visit to an aircraft production facility in Everett, Boeing executives welcomed him for what they described as a tour of the KC-46.
“I think of it as an inspection,” the general quipped in response.
Milley said delays are common when creating first-of-its-kind technology. “They’re not going to be coming off the factory line perfectly in the first run,” he said. Still, he added, “it puts us behind.”
After the visit, a Boeing spokeswoman, Jane McCarthy, said in a statement that the company “stands ready to support the Air Force as they begin phasing the KC-46 into operational missions.”
Experts point to bright spots for the military, including Special Operations forces’ ability to partner with the private sector via a separate procurement system, or the rapid development of explosive-resistant vehicles to protect troops at the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Those conflicts, which have consumed military attention for two decades — with little relevance to today’s competition with China — represent another aspect of the challenge.
“We’re sort of a victim of our own success coming out of the unipolar moment, not feeling particularly stressed or challenged for a long period of time,” said Ryan Hass, a former White House official who is now a China expert at the Brookings Institution.
“For a lot of senior military leaders, feeling that strategic stress from an adversary that’s a near-peer competitor is not a place that they have spent a lot of their career,” he said. “So there probably hasn’t been the same sense of urgency and alarm.”
Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.