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Globalization has sped up the age-old quest for national competitive advantage. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. competed with each other in terms of ideas and military power but never in terms of consumer goods. No American wanted to buy a Soviet toaster.
Now, the lines are blurred, and countries are fighting for advantage across their whole economies and in every area of war. The great power race for air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace is directly affected by who has the best consumer and business products.
Startup founders and engineers are becoming more and more aware of their part in this fight. These people are not nationalists like George W. Bush, but they do want to support liberal democracy and make sure that people on the front lines have the best tools to do their jobs.
That’s a big change from the last few decades, when antiwar feelings in the Bay Area grew out of protests against the Vietnam War and spread to the wars in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq. In recent years, there have been some high-profile protests against working on national security contracts. However, we are now seeing a return to Silicon Valley’s original culture of developing cutting-edge defence technology to protect the United States and its allies from enemies. In fact, more and more people want to only work on defence technology with the Pentagon and our allies. This is especially true now that facing the rise of China is one of the few truly bipartisan issues in Washington, which has become very divided.
For engineers who want to work in defence technology, there are a lot of challenges and opportunities in every area. China is thought to have successfully tested a hypersonic missile in the air. This is a technology that the United States is thought to be years away from getting. A hypersonic missile would make most of America’s air defence systems useless because it would move so fast that sensors wouldn’t be able to find it.
We’re also seeing the rise of a brand-new threat in the air: swarms of cheap, violent drones that can be sent into action quickly and without a human operator in sight. Recently, U.S. general Frank McKenzie called these weapons “Costco drones” after the warehouse store, and it’s likely that countries with small defence budgets will be able to beat U.S. forces that are well-equipped.
In the same way, on the sea, big, expensive aircraft carriers with thousands of sailors are giving way to small, cheap, and self-driving boats. Now, governments or non-state actors can interfere with important trade routes at sea in ways that are hard to defend against. At the same time, enemies are getting better at tapping into and disrupting the undersea internet cables that carry more and more of the world’s economy.
A few weeks ago, Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon that can destroy each satellite on its own. Such an attack could wipe out GPS and global communications, along with the trade, transportation, and logistics that depend on them. The resulting debris could also make much of the space near Earth useless for satellites. With the defence technology we have now, it is hard to find these weapons and even harder to stop them.
Even though tens of billions of dollars have been poured into cybersecurity over the past ten years, companies and governments are still very vulnerable to ransomware and espionage with large-scale denial of service and information exfiltration projects. A year after the huge SolarWinds hack, we still don’t know how to stop or defend against cyber warfare that is ordered by a government.
All of these problems in all of these areas are still very open, and the United States has the most to lose—economically, politically, and militarily—if it doesn’t deal with them.
In the end, this means that top engineers and startup founders want to work on problems that are both hard and complicated. There is a growing chorus of criticism, even from senior civilian defence officials, against Washington bureaucrats who keep doing business as usual even though there is more and more evidence that our defences are not up to the challenges our enemies pose.
In the world of defence today, the enemy is us: the Pentagon’s old ways of buying things make it hard for new companies to get started. We need to get around this bureaucracy right away and move the very comfortable, entitled, and entrenched monopolies and oligopolies that don’t have the best technologies but do have the best lobbyists. We need to move the “big primes,” which are the largest defence contractors in the country. We would never send our once-great but now-losing, slow-moving, and least competitive athletes to the Olympics to represent the United States in a tough race. We would definitely lose. So why do we do nothing and let this happen in the very important area of defence?
The Defense Department has set up a number of ways for startups to work with them. These programs have good intentions, but they miss the point. The Pentagon needs to throw out its procurement playbook and rebuild its defences for the weapons our enemies actually use today. We live in a world where “Costco drones” can move better than an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which costs more than $100 million per unit. Because America’s defence has been better for a long time, other countries have had to come up with different ideas, and now they are catching up.
The good news is that Silicon Valley and startup founders engage in this kind of competition all the time. Because they are hardworking and have few resources, they are always able to do more with less. They go up against companies that have been in business for a long time, find their weaknesses, and use them relentlessly to gain a competitive edge. We have the technology, the know-how, and more and more people who are ready to help defend America. Now, all we need is for the Pentagon to start asking more of itself and to be willing to give big contracts to the most competitive new American startups.
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