Why We Need A Civil-Military Alliance In Today’s Volatile Climate

What America and its allies can learn from China, and what it should leave behind

Pete Newell

June 1, 2023

The adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” is apt today. The number of strategic hotspots around the world is growing, increasing pressure on the U.S. and its allies to advance defense capabilities and adopt new strategies to prevail. As part of this effort, we can learn from successful strategies led by China – both in what the Department of Defense should and should not do.

I spoke on this topic with Federal Drive host Tom Temin. We explored the organizational roadmap I co-authored that calls for reorganizing DoD to use private capital and commercial technology to advance national security innovation to quickly get important solutions into the hands of our warfighters. We also discussed what the DoD can do now to maintain the country’s strategic edge, and which countries should be taking notes.

A closer look at our adversaries

To overtake our adversaries, we need to be better, faster, more agile and fix our flawed systems. There are lessons to be learned from our adversaries’ approach to national security innovation, especially from China. 

The Chinese are astute observers of the ongoing conflicts on the global stage. Not only have they silently viewed global powers’ strategic and tactical efforts without showing their own hand, but they’ve been diligently building up a powerful hand to play when the time comes to lay out their cards. For several decades, the Chinese have focused on a whole-of-nation approach to the nexus of commercial and military capacity and how to generate solutions at scale and speed. They have merged government needs with commercial capabilities to address emerging threats. As a result, China not only knows the performance of our systems in battle and our technologies in action, they know how to quietly undermine them. They have the opportunity and dangerous capacity to make our advancements irrelevant. And they do this all while keeping a close eye on Taiwan, where they hope to take control and undermine its pro-West sentimentalities. 

I’m not suggesting we become like the Chinese, using force and intimidation tactics among corporations to press an agenda. I am suggesting that we become better than the Chinese by learning from their success to enable better collaboration between civil and military entities to solve problems fast. 

Reawakening the ‘Sleeping Giant’

In World War II, America was able to develop game-changing solutions rapidly, and at scale. Whether it was the Higgins boat developed for the landings in France, bombers, or radar, we had speed because commercial companies were recruited to the effort. Today, speed counts in a way that it never has before, yet our current system cannot handle it. 

While there is some progress from military accelerators like AFWERX and NavalX that increase the number of commercial capabilities coming into the national security innovation pipeline, we haven’t fixed the pipes themselves. It’s like increasing the volume of water you’re trying to shove through the same garden hose. The current acquisition system continues to hinder progress. While the acquisition system exists for a reason, it wasn’t designed to foster innovative efforts. We not only need to improve the capacity of the current acquisition system, we also need a separate system for speed and scale – one that modernizes how the government hires talent, how it moves money, confronts issues, and the scale and capacity which it’s allowed to control.

Congress can address this by creating a new undersecretary whose role is innovation and commercialization; who has the budget and the authority to create a different system, with a different set of rules; and to operate it alongside the current system.

For more on how Congress can act to reorganize DoD, listen to my full conversation with Tom Temin here, or skip to the timestamps below:  

00:54: Why China will be the only winner of the war in Ukraine

5:00: Shipyards and the difference between U.S./China military capabilities

6:30: How to get our priorities straight

8:56: How Congress can improve our defense innovation capacity  

13:00: How the U.S. can get its mojo back 

Other posts