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How universities can support the National Defense Strategy

Collage of the image of an American flag and the image of a computer's motherboard.
November 01, 2022

The U.S. Department of Defense released the National Defense Strategy (NDS) on Oct. 27, the first in nearly five years. This comes on the heels of the Biden administration’s recently released National Security Strategy earlier in October. Together, these foundational strategic documents outline the federal government's priorities and approaches to core defense and security challenges. 

The DoD is the largest federal funder of research and development projects, with a heavy focus on critical and emerging technologies. Unsurprisingly, the National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy both place United States leadership in the development of new technologies as central to the nation’s security and international stability.

Nadya Bliss

Executive Director Nadya Bliss

ASU News spoke with Nadya Bliss, the executive director of the Global Security Initiative, about the role of critical and emerging technologies in geopolitical competition and how universities can support these priorities.

Question: What are your biggest takeaways from the new National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy?

Answer: My biggest takeaway is how central United States’ continued leadership in technological development and operationalization is to both of the strategies. Both documents note the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as our greatest strategic competitor, with the National Defense Strategy referring to the PRC as a "pacing challenge." U.S. efforts to keep up with the PRC are in part centered around the contest for global leadership in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, microelectronics and quantum computing. This technological competition will have major impacts on what our future looks like and is part of the reason President Biden has called this a "decisive decade."

Technological development permeates many of the other challenges and strategies outlined in the document, from the need to build resilience and adaptability to transborder challenges like climate change and pandemics, to how we deter and respond to "Gray Zone" activities aimed at altering the status quo without leading to direct conflict. Challenges like disinformation and cyber attacks often fit into this definition. Additionally, the NDS often refers to the cyber and space domains as presenting a unique, common challenge that can create unpredictable pathways to conflict escalation due to the lack of “collective experience, common understandings and established norms of behavior.”

A second big takeaway is how focused the DoD is on investing in the future of the military workforce and aligning that workforce to make sure it is supporting the U.S. technological advantage. As the document says, “People execute the strategy,” and upskilling and diversifying the military workforce is key to the strategy’s success. The strategy says the DoD will aggressively seek to fill specific technology gaps in cyber, data and artificial intelligence specializations and will look to work with universities to do so through a variety of pathways, from revising professional military education to rotational assignments with the private sector. The ability to train and educate a diverse universe of STEM learners interested in defense and national security careers is key to this effort, and an area ASU — with the largest engineering school in the country by enrollment — can clearly help.

Third, there is a heavy focus on the need to work with allies if the U.S. is to be successful in this geopolitical competition. President Biden has said the grand challenge of our time is the competition between autocracy and democracy as governing models, and both of these strategies clearly outline how important alliances and security partnerships like AUKUS are to U.S. strategy.

Q: One portion of the strategy reads: “Technology is central to today’s geopolitical competition and to the future of our national security, economy and democracy. ... In the next decade, critical and emerging technologies are poised to retool economies, transform militaries and reshape the world.” What are some of the technologies that will "reshape the world"?

A: The NDS outlines a few key critical and emerging technologies the DoD will focus on, some as the driving force for advancements and others as a "fast follower" to advancements made primarily in the private sector.

Areas where the DoD expects to "fuel research and development" are cyber, integrated sensing, hypersonics and directed energy, while seeding opportunities in biotechnology, quantum sciences, advanced materials and clean energy technology. Areas where the DoD anticipates the market taking the lead are microelectronics, artificial intelligence and autonomy, space and human-machine interfaces, with DoD taking on the "fast follower" role.

These strategies clearly build on recent legislation that is aimed at transforming the scale of research, development and production of new technologies in the U.S. The CHIPS and Science Act, for example, is a massive investment in building in-country capabilities to develop and produce microelectronics, mitigating our reliance on foreign supply chains and negating a major national security threat considering how vital microelectronics are to our society, defense capabilities and economy.

Q: The National Defense Strategy mentions the need for more resilience and agility across domains multiple times in order to meet today’s complex challenges — whether a targeted cyber attack from an adversary or the consequences of climate change. What does resilience and agility mean, and how can universities support the DoD’s goals?

A: Both strategies are premised on the idea that the world is growing increasingly complex and interconnected. In that environment, it is hard to predict and plan for exactly what is going to happen — better to build resilience to future shocks and agility to be able to pivot quickly based on changing circumstances. An integrated deterrence approach is a key element of the NDS and maps out the need for a holistic response to the most complex challenges and the ability to align “policies, investments and activities.” Effective deterrence shores up resilience.

Additionally, the NDS in particular calls out transborder threats like climate change and pandemics as major security challenges and drivers of the need to build more resilience into the system. One example is physical resilience around infrastructure like military installations — think multiple and redundant energy supplies so when one goes down, another takes its place.

Another element of resilience is being able to withstand coercive activities conducted by an adversarial nation — so building up people’s defenses against disinformation efforts or our cyber networks’ abilities to withstand sophisticated attacks. As the National Security Strategy notes, autocracies often abuse technology and the connectivity it can provide to undermine stability. The ability of the U.S. and our allies to be able to withstand those efforts is critical. One U.S. advantage in this competition is our emerging focus on socio-technical resilience — our ability to develop tightly integrated cross-disciplinary approaches that bring in advanced tech capabilities with expertise from social sciences, humanities, policy and law.

The Global Security Initiative is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled hands-on training for tens of thousands of students across Arizona’s universities, thousands of scientific discoveries and patented technologies, and hundreds of new startup companies. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Written by Nathan Evans

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