Pentagon Is Clinging to Aging Technologies, House Panel Warns

Politics|Pentagon Is Clinging to Aging Technologies, House Panel Warns

Despite the Pentagon’s talk of embracing quantum computing and artificial intelligence, the politics of killing off old weapons systems is so forbidding that the efforts often falter.

Credit…Josh Smith/Reuters

David E. Sanger

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan House panel said on Tuesday that artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space and biotechnology were “making traditional battlefields and boundaries increasingly irrelevant” — but that the Pentagon was clinging to aging weapons systems meant for a past era.

The panel’s report, called the “Future of Defense Task Force,” is one of many underway in Congress to grapple with the speed at which the Pentagon is adopting new technologies, often using the rising competition with China in an effort to spur the pace of change.

Most reach a similar conclusion: For all the talk of embracing new technologies, the politics of killing off old weapons systems is so forbidding — often because it involves closing factories or bases, and endangers military jobs in congressional districts — that the efforts falter.

The task force said it was concentrating on the next 30 to 50 years, and concluded that the Defense Department and Congress should be “focused on the needs of the future and not on the political and military-industrial loyalties of the past.”

“We are totally out of time, and here is a bipartisan group — in this environment — saying that this is a race we have to win and that we are currently losing,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, who served with the Marine Corps in Iraq and was a co-chairman of the task force. “There is a misalignment of priorities, and diminishing time to make dramatic changes.”

The report calls for the United States to undertake an artificial intelligence effort that uses “the Manhattan Project as a model,” citing the drive in World War II to assemble the nation’s best minds in nuclear physics and weapons to develop the atomic bomb. The task force found that although the Pentagon had been experimenting with artificial intelligence, machine learning and even semiautonomous weapons systems for years, “cultural resistance to its wider adoption remains.”

It recommended that every major military acquisition program “evaluate at least one A.I. or autonomous alternative” before it is funded. It also called for the United States to “lead in the formulation and ratification of a global treaty on artificial intelligence in the vein of the Geneva Conventions,” a step the Trump administration has resisted for cyberweaponry and the broader use of artificial intelligence.

But questions persist about whether such a treaty would prove useful. While nuclear and chemical weapons were largely in the hands of nations, cyberweapons — and artificial intelligence techniques — are in the hands of criminal groups, terrorist groups and teenagers.

Nonetheless, the report’s focus on working with allies and developing global codes of ethics and privacy runs counter to the instincts of the Trump administration, making it more surprising that the Republican members of the task force signed on.

“I think this is a case of pushing for a different path at the Pentagon,” said Representative Jim Banks, Republican of Indiana and a co-chairman of the group.

In an interview, he was careful to avoid criticizing the White House — “this president has been good for defense budgets,” he said — but Mr. Banks praised the work of Ashton B. Carter, President Barack Obama’s last defense secretary, for beginning initiatives to force the Pentagon to explore and adopt technologies already developed in the private sector.

This week, House Republicans plan to issue another report, aimed at containing Chinese power.

Arguing for an end to reliance on legacy systems is one thing; executing that policy is another. Usually each of those weapons systems has a constituency that can step in to save it, often wielding the argument that the Pentagon would be putting workers and military contractors out of a job. Notably, the task force did not identify which systems needed to be retired.

But the task force concluded that approach had squelched risk-taking, and could “hinder the military’s ability to fully utilize private sector innovation.”

“The Pentagon knows how to acquire large programs,” like “fighter jets or aircraft carries, but it is less adept at purchasing at scale the types of emerging technologies that will be required for future conflict,” it said.

Defense Department officials have sought to address that problem. But the task force found that while those efforts sometimes succeeded, they were too small, and “the Pentagon has so far only been able to tap into a fraction of the innovation being developed in the United States.”

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David E. Sanger