Pentagon Must Harness Commercial Tech to Deter China in Taiwan Strait, Former Officials Say

Gallo Images / Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2019

The Defense Department’s national defense strategy includes investments to deter China’s global ambitions, but a lag in implementation provides opportunity for Beijing to invade Taiwan.

The Pentagon needs to take advantage of commercial markets and encourage the speedy acquisition and deployment of emerging technologies to help counter China’s growing aggression toward Taiwan, two former Defense Department officials said during a discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute on Thursday.

The event, which focused on using the current “window of opportunity to deter a conflict over Taiwan,” stressed the importance of quickly developing and deploying commercial technologies for the U.S. military to use, as a way of averting a possible military confrontation with China over its ambitions in the Taiwan Strait. 

The panel discussion featured Michèle Flournoy, the co-founder and managing partner of WestExec Advisors and the former undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012, and Michael Brown, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who led the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit from 2018 until last month.

The event expanded on a Foreign Affairs article that Flournoy and Brown wrote in September, which warned that the window of opportunity for the U.S. to deter a possible invasion of Taiwan was narrowing. The authors argued in their piece that DOD must quickly undertake an operational shift to ensure the use of more experimental and emerging commercial technologies. 

“To effectively prepare for the approaching window of vulnerability in which [Chinese President Xi Jinping] may conclude he has the best chance of taking Taiwan by force, the Pentagon must do a better job of balancing its need to invest in long-term capabilities with what it needs today,” Brown and Flournoy wrote in the article. “In so doing, it can create an element of strategic surprise, a stronger deterrent and a more modern force that combines traditional large weapons platforms with new and transformative capabilities.”

During the Hudson Institute event, Flournoy warned that Xi views the “Taiwan problem” as a legacy issue, and has “specifically instructed the [People's Liberation Army] to be ready by 2027.”

Flournoy said that DOD’s national defense strategy—a classified version of which was shared with Congress in March—is “absolutely spot on” in its focus on deterring future conflicts with Beijing, but noted that “the bulk of the department’s investments around China will come to fruition in the 2030s.” 

In a statement released on Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the department “will rely on integrated deterrence”—which will be further detailed in the soon-to-be publicly declassified national defense strategy—to defend against the threat posed by China, Russia and other adversaries. The White House’s national security strategy, released on Wednesday, also noted that the U.S. has "an abiding interest in maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait." 

“We will seamlessly combine our capabilities to convince potential adversaries that the costs of their hostile activities far outweigh any possible benefits—in all theaters, in all domains and across the spectrum of potential conflict,” Austin said. “Meanwhile, we will continue to move boldly to strengthen and modernize our outstanding military, which provides the foundation of deterrence and makes clear our ability to prevail in conflict.”

Flournoy said, however, that without DOD quickly harnessing the power of newer commercial technologies, China is likely to move on Taiwan before these enhanced deterrents are operational in the next decade. 

“Given our transparent democracy, if [Xi] sees and understands that the U.S. posture in the region and our capabilities for deterring and defeating China are going to get much, much stronger in the 2030s, my worry is that he could decide to move more quickly and make that 2027 timeline not just a goal to be ready, but a time to contemplate action before it gets more difficult for him,” Flournoy said. 

Brown echoed that sentiment, noting that it can take between nine and 26 years “to bring new capabilities into the DOD,” and that the Pentagon “needs to be scrappy in using technology today to craft a more agile response in deterring China.” Brown said that DOD should develop what he called a “fast-follower strategy,” which would enable the Pentagon to more easily adopt commercial technology. 

“80% of what we need is coming from commercial suppliers, not necessarily from the defense enterprise world,” Brown said. “AI, autonomous systems, cyber tools, things like that. It’s extreme arrogance to think we can, at the Department of Defense, define what we would need and ask exactly for that. Instead, we should do what the commercial world does when it thinks about what it needs for the future.”

To supercharge these efforts, both Flournoy and Brown cited the importance of accelerating the adoption of commercial technologies that can be used to successfully deter Beijing by prioritizing the most important operational challenges and needs now.

“It’s like an Apollo 13 effort: shake out the bag of all the stuff on the table, see what you’ve got to work with and start putting it together in new ways to try to solve your urgent problem,” Flournoy said. “That is the kind of effort that’s needed—and it may be happening in little pockets on the margins by smart, dedicated people—but it is not really organized and set and structured and resourced as the main effort by the department at this point.”