China's military capabilities are gaining on the U.S. The Pentagon needs to take bold steps.

American war games indicate that the current U.S. force may be insufficient to deter or defeat Chinese aggression in the future.
Soldiers of People's Liberation Army (PLA) march in formation during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China
People's Liberation Army soldiers march in formation during the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in Beijing on Oct. 1.Thomas Peter / Reuters file
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By Michèle A. Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Gabrielle Chefitz, senior associate at WestExec Advisors

The next U.S. administration will face an increasingly emboldened and aggressive China — one that has shown a growing willingness to use coercive measures to stake its territorial claims from the South China Sea to Taiwan to the Indian border region. Although neither Washington nor Beijing wants a war, there is a real risk that miscalculation could cause a crisis to spiral into a conflict between these two nuclear-armed powers.

Although neither Washington nor Beijing wants a war, there is a real risk that miscalculation could cause a crisis to spiral into a conflict between these two nuclear-armed powers.

To prevent conflict, the United States must maintain the military capability to deter China by demonstrating the ability to deny the success of such aggression or impose costs so high that Beijing steps back from the brink. The problem is this: If the Pentagon's own reported war games and analysis are to be believed, the current force may well be insufficient to deter or defeat Chinese aggression in the future.

The Pentagon's analysis shows that the U.S. military is equipped to fight the last war. But many of the weapon systems that gave U.S. forces the edge in conflicts in the Middle East are incredibly vulnerable to attack by the advanced electronic warfare, cyber-capabilities and precision-guided missiles of China and Russia.

The U.S. must take urgent action to reverse this worrying trend. Maintaining and ultimately extending its military-technological edge over great-power competitors like China must become the Pentagon's highest investment priority — or it could lose that edge within the decade.

To stay on top, the next secretary of defense must advance a much bolder vision for sharpening the U.S. military-technology edge, as recommended in our recent Center for a New American Security report, "Sharpening the U.S. Military's Edge: Critical Steps for the Next Administration." Few U.S. national security challenges are of greater consequence and urgency than preventing conflict with China and promoting a peaceful Asia-Pacific region. It is fundamental to safeguarding global trade and shipping routes, democratic norms and ideals, the future of technological governance and the security and independence of key partners and allies.

The next secretary must begin by underwriting this innovation strategy with a series of "big bets" to drive investment by both the Defense Department and the private sector, align resource allocation across the military services and send a strong signal to the military services and industry on the direction of future funding.

These big bets, or key areas for technological innovation and investment, could include a next-generation command-and-control network that connects military systems across space, air, land, sea and undersea; artificial intelligence that can help commanders and operators make decisions better and faster than the adversary; and fleets of unmanned vehicles and vessels that can reduce the need to put service members at risk and resupply troops in the field.

Each military branch is working on developing these solutions. However, these efforts are too slow and small in scale. There needs to be a departmentwide approach that can put significant funding behind each priority area, coordinate research and development efforts across the services and demonstrate to private industry that it makes financial sense to work with the Defense Department.

Whether our proposed big bets are the right ones can and should be debated. The important thing is for Pentagon leadership to determine its priorities and coalesce around them and then build the team, processes, plan of action and investment strategy to pursue them relentlessly.

This vision should be supported by a committed team of senior officials appointed by the next secretary and able to work well in a team of strong peers (applying President Barack Obama's opening guidance to his transition team: "No ego, no drama, this is not about you"). This team should have diverse backgrounds, expertise, experiences and perspectives to contribute to better decision-making and organizational performance.

The secretary should be crystal clear on who in the team is empowered and accountable for what, as well as on how to realign incentives to support the plan's success. The deputy secretary and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be tasked with driving the implementation of this agenda, and engaging Congress as a critical partner should be an important part of the strategy.

For this agenda to succeed, however, the secretary needs to develop an investment strategy that puts substantial funding behind every big bet, working with each of the military branches to tee up a series of demonstrations and competitions for private companies to secure early-stage contracts that could lead to large-scale contracts.

Maintaining and ultimately extending its military-technological edge over great-power competitors like China must become the Pentagon's highest investment priority.

This approach would help pull the most innovative prototypes across the Pentagon's acquisition "valley of death" — the dreaded gap between an innovative product's Pentagon-funded research and development and the eventual production contract — by showing the innovative companies that there is real political will and funding to make the transition from current platforms to new capabilities. It would also create a road map for industry, sending a strong signal that the Defense Department is committed to future funding and sponsorship, which is critical to securing private-sector investment.

The U.S. is at a high-stakes military inflection point and, potentially, a political turning point. This November, we must elect an administration that will make sharpening the U.S. military's advantage and strengthening deterrence its top defense priority. Achieving these goals is critical to maintaining the country's ability to prevent conflict and protect its people, interests, democracy, allies and partners in Asia — the very region on which the future prosperity and security of Americans most depends.