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Innovation Offense vs. Defense

Should the U.S. focus on enhancing innovation or protecting the products of innovation from theft?

Innovation Offense vs. Defense
Credit: Depositphotos

Washington is awash in proposals to enhance technological innovation, while at the same time limiting the extent to which that innovation spreads to competitors like Russia and China. As the United States cannot rely on massive economic advantage over its adversaries (China, anyway), technological innovation appears to be the way to maintain U.S. military advantages worldwide. In this context, does it make more sense to focus on offense (enhanced innovation) or defense (protecting that innovation from snoopers)?

Many of the proposals for enhanced innovation, whether in legislation or in think tank projects, have a few things in common. They involve developing human capital to pursue high-tech fields, making it easier for government to consistently access high technology, improving government funding for primary and applied research, and laying the infrastructural foundations for further research and development. On the defensive side, they envision better cybersecurity, tighter export controls on advanced technologies, and better monitoring of foreign investment in the technology sector. 

None of these are bad things, per se. It cannot be overstated, however, that the question of military technological supremacy is intimately tied both to overall economic performance and to global economic integration. The United States won the technological race in the Cold War in large part because it created and then could rely upon a global network of trade and innovation. China’s export-driven economy has benefited immensely, from a technological point of view, from its integration into global supply chains.

This is another way of saying that the technological aspect of U.S.-China competition will not focus fundamentally on the appropriation or theft of particular kinds of military technology. That was certainly an aspect of the Cold War, in large part because the technological preconditions of the U.S. and the USSR were so radically different. Defensive measures should not be ignored, but enhancing the productivity of the defense industrial base will bring higher dividends than protecting its products. Rather, both Beijing and Washington need to focus on creating the preconditions of consistent military technological innovation, remaining attentive to but not paranoid about what the other side is doing. 

It seems likely that technological competition will not play out in terms of a single sharp break, with the jagged edges then protected by walls of export controls and travel restrictions. The political, social, and economic logics of China-U.S. trade relations are too deeply twined together to allow a relationship similar to that which held between the U.S. and the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s. The best defense, it seems, will be to lay the foundations of a healthy, productive, and innovative defense industrial base.