Senate Committee Passes Defense Policy Bill with Tech Investments to Counter China

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Lawmakers call for research into artificial intelligence, quantum computing and 5G networks to counter near-peer adversaries.

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 25-2 to approve annual authorization of Defense Department spending that exceeds levels requested by the administration in a number of areas, including emerging technology investments to keep pace with China, according to a summary the committee released today. 

Text of the bill won’t be released until it is brought to the Senate floor, which committee aides on a press call with reporters said they expect will happen next week. The markup process for the House version of the NDAA is scheduled to begin June 22 by the House Armed Services Committee’s panel on intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities. 

In the meantime, the Senate committee’s summary offers insight into where $740.5 billion it’s authorized in spending for the department might go next year. 

“Unfortunately, in key technologies and capabilities, we’ve fallen behind our near-peer competitors,” the summary reads. “The FY21 NDAA accelerates innovation so we can compete effectively and regain our comparative advantage over China and Russia.”

The bill covers research and development, management of acquisitions and increased joint capability practices and workforce training and development for these areas, much of which relate to cybersecurity, according to the summary.

Broadly, the Senate Armed Services Committee “authorizes more than $300 million above the president’s request for DOD science and technology research, and extends or adds authorities that accelerates research [and] authorizes $200 million above the president’s request to prototype new critical subsystems for naval vessels, including unmanned vessels,” it reads, for example.

But officials also want to know how the U.S. research and development capabilities stack up when compared to adversaries—especially China.

The bill calls for “an assessment of U.S. efforts to develop biotechnologies compared to our adversaries; development of Artificial Intelligence use-cases for reform efforts; enhancements to the Quantum Information Science research and development program,” and, to requires a study “comparing methods for recruiting and retaining technology researchers used by both the U.S. and Chinese governments.” 

It would also authorize a pilot program allowing university students and faculty to work at Defense labs on critical technologies and research activities, the summary says. 

Other critical technologies the DOD will focus on include the development of fifth-generation networking technology. 

The bill supports the development of 5G wireless networks by “establishing a cross functional team for 5G wireless networks and designates the DOD Chief Information Officer to lead the team and serve as the senior designated official for related policy, oversight, guidance, and coordination at DOD.” 

The management of the electromagnetic spectrum would be more centrally controlled under the bill, with “all functions and responsibilities” related to those operations transitioning from the head of the U.S. Strategic Command to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

The summary also notes that the bill would delay the implementation of a Federal Communications Commission decision to allow satellite company Ligado access to a contested section of the spectrum by requiring the study of related costs and testing. The decision split executive branch agencies: DOD, the Transportation Department and others argued the decision would interfere with the functioning of the Global Positioning System, but the attorney general and the Secretary of State praised the FCC for enabling 5G in the face of China. 

“As our warfighters rely on these signals, the bill prohibits the use of DOD funds to comply with the FCC Order on Ligado until the Secretary of Defense submits an estimate of the costs associated with the resulting GPS interference, and directs the Secretary of Defense to contract with the National Academies of Science and Engineering for an independent technical review of the order to provide additional technical evaluation to review Ligado’s and DOD’s approaches to testing,” the summary reads.

Drilling Down into Cybersecurity

The Senate NDAA demonstrates concerns lawmakers have over the use of Chinese telecommunications equipment at bases around the world. For example, the bill would require the Secretary of Defense to submit a report on risks and potential mitigation strategies for host countries that use of Chinese telecoms and to consider 5G and 6G security risks posed “by vendors like Huawei and ZTE” when making overseas basing decisions.

In general, the bill takes a long term view and calls for supporting the development of a resilient and innovative defense industrial base that would be less dependent on China altogether.  

The bill would require “analyses of a variety of materials and technology sectors, such as microelectronics, rare earth minerals, medical devices, personal protective equipment and pharmaceutical ingredients, to determine actions to take to address sourcing and industrial capacity, [and] Directs additional steps for certain items, such as microelectronics, printed circuit boards, critical raw materials, and unmanned aircraft systems to mitigate risk of relying on foreign sources for products, materials, components, and manufacturing.”

For the national technology and industrial base, the bill would create a regulatory council and direct DOD to establish a process for admitting new members. 

Acquisitions in general continue to be a focus for the department.  

The bill would see DOD more actively involved in nuclear modernization, improving cybersecurity requirements for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s contractors and subcontractors, for example.

For software acquisition, it would enforce implementation of reforms around having more frequent delivery of features to end-users, balancing open-source software usage with security and add a lead to the software program management team. 

The bill would support allowances to recruit and retain the appropriate talent for such positions, according to the summary. 

“Improving the training and retention of highly qualified cyber personnel, including providing Cyber Command with the same hiring authority for technical talent as exists at [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], the Strategic Capabilities Office, and the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, and by allowing for pay that is more competitive with commercial industry,” would be supported, for example.

Workforce considerations are included in 11 recommendations from the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which the bill would support.

Among those is a call for an independent assessment “on the feasibility and advisability of establishing a National Cyber Director.” 

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-RI, a member of the commission and chairman of the subcommittee where members of the House will soon begin their markup of corresponding authorization, stressed the importance of the national cyber director in an email to Nextgov.

“There is a reason the National Cyber Director is so central to the Solarium report: it represents a significant shift in how we organize to defend the nation in cyberspace, and I appreciate my Senate colleagues’ exercising due diligence,” he said. 

Langevin said the language in the senate committee’s summary, calling for a study on the feasibility of the role rather than for a the position to be established, is “a placeholder as the Commission works to answer some specific questions posed by leaders in the Senate Armed Services and Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committees.” 

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