Technology, Innovation and Great Power Competition

For 25 years as the sole Superpower, the U.S. neglected strategic threats from China and a rearmed Russia. The country, our elected officials, and our military committed to a decades-long battle to ensure that terrorists like those that executed the 9/11 attacks are not able to attack us on that scale again.  Meanwhile, our country’s legacy weapons systems have too many entrenched and interlocking interests (Congress, lobbyists, DOD/contractor revolving door, service promotion of executors versus innovators) that inhibit radical change. Our economic and foreign policy officials didn’t notice the four-alarm fire as we first gutted our manufacturing infrastructure and sent it to China (profits are better when you outsource); then passively stood by as our intellectual property was being siphoned off; and had no answer to China’s web of trade deals (China’s Belt and Road). The 2018 National Defense Strategy became a wakeup call for our nation.

National power is ephemeral. Nations decline when they lose allies, decline in economic power (the UK in the 20th Century); they lose interest in global affairs (China in the 15th Century); internal/civil conflicts (Russia in the 20th Century); a nations military can miss disruptive technology transitions and new operational concepts. One can make the case that all of these have/or are happening to the United States.


Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I are about to start our second year of teaching what was our Technology, Innovation and Modern War class. (See all the class sessions here.) The goal of last year’s class was to explain how new emerging technologies have radically changed how countries fight and deter threats across air, land, sea, space, and cyber. And to point out that winning future conflicts requires more than just adopting new technology; it requires a revolution in thinking about how this technology can be acquired and integrated into new weapons systems to drive new operational and organizational concepts that change the way we fight.

This year we’ve expanded the scope of the class to look beyond just the effect of new technology on weapons and operational concepts. We’re now covering how technology will shape all the elements of national power (our influence and footprint on the world stage). National power is the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances), information/ intelligence and its military and economic strength. The instruments of national power brought to bear in this  “whole of government approach” were long  known by the acronym, DIME (Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economic) and in recent years have expanded to include “FIL”- finance, intelligence and law enforcement-or DIME-FIL. Given the broadened scope of the class, we’ve tweaked the course title to Technology, Innovation and Great Power Competition.

Our goals in this year’s class are to:

  1. Help our students understand how each component of our national security and instruments of national power are now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology. We will explore the complexity and urgency of the impact of the 21st century onslaught of commercial technologies (AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, commercial access to space, et al.) in all parts of the government — State, climate change, Department of Defense, economic policy, et al.
  2. Give them hands-on experience to propose and prototype solutions to these problems.

Much like last year’s class, this one has three parts – teaching team lectures, guest speakers, and most importantly team projects. We’ll be using the concept of commercial technologies’ impact on DIME as the connective element between each week’s class.

In addition to the teaching team lectures and assigned readings, last year we had 20+ guest speakers including two Secretaries of Defense, a Secretary of State, members of Congress, Generals, Admirals and policy makers. We hope to enrich the student experience with similar expertise and experience this year.

Last year, team projects started with a mid-term paper and finished with what was supposed be a final paper project. However, one team took their project, got out of the building, and interviewed and presented a radically new operational concept for the South China Sea. It’s an idea that has caught fire. So this year we’re going to build on that success. Teams will form on week 1, pick an area of interest across DIME and spend the quarter interviewing key stakeholders, beneficiaries, policy makers, etc. while testing proposed solutions.

If the past is a prologue, our students, a mix between international policy and engineering, will be the ones in this fight. They’ll go off to senior roles in State, Defense, policy and to the companies building new disruptive technologies.

This is the first in a series of classes from the new Stanford Gordian Knot Center for National Security. (More on this in later post.)

Lessons Learned

  • Technology, Innovation and Great Power Competition will focus on how our national security and national power is intertwined with commercial technology. We will explore:
    • AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, commercial access to space, et al.
    • In all parts of the government; State, climate change, Department of Defense, economic policy, et al.
  • Give our students hands-on experience to propose and prototype solutions to these problems

2 Responses

  1. The first paragraph of your email is a powerful and accurate indictment of the lack of wisdom and seriousness of the political class and the ineptitude of the general officer corps of the American military.

    It exposes a gross lack of patriotism at the highest levels of government.

    America always prepares for the last war and loses the first battle of the next war.

    We just lost a war in which our general officer corps — West Point grads, basic/advanced branch courses, company commander course, battalion commander course, Command & General Staff College, War College, and grad school educated — got beaten at the strategic level by a bunch of goat herders with not one semester of community college.

    We empowered our military with superior numbers, high quality troops, complete mastery of the skies, a smothering intel cloud, weapons superiority, an incredible supply chain, and gobs of funds.

    Yet, they made mistakes we had supposedly overcome after Vietnam — allowing the enemy a geographical and weather enclave from the fray.

    It took us a decade to recognize we were dealing with a corrupt, narco, tribal enterprise rather than a country with zero nationalistic yearnings or appreciation for basic freedoms and democracy.

    If you have never tasted freedom or democracy, how can you want it? Be willing to fight for it?

    The enemy did not win; we lost.

    Well played.

  2. Interesting, related Twitter thread on this subject with a reference to the book, The Kill Chain…

    https://twitter.com/marceloplima/status/1441843121336299520?s=21

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