One great disconnect afflicting American society is between earning a profit and safeguarding our national security. On one side are those who support free trade in the belief that open markets and shared technology trade strengthen the economy. On the other hand, there is something categorically wrong with the free trade paradigm if free trade means selling or sharing technology critical to national security. Then, the cost of free trade is very high, so much so that it could be fatal to the long-term survival of the state.
The United States is justifiably proud of its technological prowess; in fact, much of our military might is based on our superior technical smarts. But is this an artifact of a fast-evaporating past?
Starting in the early 1970s, or even perhaps a little before, the then-Soviet Union embarked on a massive military buildup, committing a huge portion of their Gross National Product (GNP) to military development and production, starting with nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The Soviet aim was to shift the balance of power between East and West, and secure for the Soviet Union something better than equality with the United States. By threatening to overrun NATO in a general war, the Soviets were looking for economic and political concessions — principally in Europe, although they also promoted a big push in the Middle East, rich in oil and in markets for Soviet military goods.
Rather quickly, the Soviet Union proved to be a close competitor to the United States in space-related technology, especially nuclear-equipped ballistic missiles. Whether it was MIRVs or MARVs, or sub-launched ballistic missiles, or SS-20s, the Russians were quite confident they were close to threatening a credible first strike on the United States, a posture that led to arms control agreements that ratified Soviet equality, and even marginal superiority.
On the ground, too, Soviet military might looked exceptionally good. Arraying conventional weapons in Egyptian hands against Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War showed that American hardware, such as M-60 tanks and A-4 aircraft, were liabilities. Likewise, the continuous shock in Vietnam, fueled by Soviet and Chinese weapons, put America on the defensive.
Luckily for the United States, after a depressing period in the Middle East and Asia, the tables started to turn. The Soviet weapon-production mill had some critical deficiencies, especially in modern electronics, computers, and networking. Feeding off breakthroughs in the civilian sector for microelectronics, automated machine tools, robotics, and computer processing and networking, the U.S. launched a “revolution in military affairs,” something the Soviets had hoped to do but succeeded in only limited sectors such as space and underwater technology.
The application of new technology revitalized sagging military systems in the United States by acting as a force multiplier. Suddenly we could do things the enemy couldn’t do. By 1982 these new capabilities and platforms will put to the test: Israel and Syria battled over the Bekaa Valley where hundreds of Israeli warplanes (F-15s, F-16s, F-4s and Kfirs) tangled with Syrian warplanes (MiG-21s, MiG-23s, MiG-25s, and Su-25s). The result was a box score that could have put the Washington Nationals into the World Series: nearly 90 to 0 — that is, no Israeli plane was shot down in an air-to-air encounter (two were lost to ground fire) and approximately 90 Syrian planes, including the Mach 3 MiG 25, were knocked out. A number of new technologies contributed to the huge win, but most important was the “look down-shoot down” radar in American-made F-15s. Until then, the computers did not exist to process out ground clutter from radars flown above the battle; but with fast Fourier transform algorithms and dozens of special-purpose computer circuit boards, the advantage went decisively to the F-15s. It would be 20 years before the Soviets caught up – and by then they weren’t Soviets.
This unique advantage fueled the superiority of American systems, epitomized by how a cheap ground-to-air, man-portable weapon, the Stinger missile, decimated Soviet air operations in Afghanistan and spelled the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Nothing could be more dramatic than the decisive defeat of an empire based on technology.
So it would seem to make sense for the United States to protect technology to its utmost, to prevent the rise of a capable competitor or adversary that would be able to undermine the newly founded Pax Americana.
Make no mistake about it: Pax Americana is, in the author’s opinion, good for the world as long as America supports democratic values and champions human rights.
But any thought that the Pax Americana would persist turns out to be, at best, wishful thinking. America’s century has gone in the dumpster largely because we have squandered our technology by proliferating it abroad.
Looking at a modern Russian or Chinese factory one will see the same equipment, or even better equipment, than might be found in the United States. CAD-CAM, robotics, advanced autoclaves and isostatic presses, networked systems or supercomputers — and much more — can be found promoting military production outside the United States.
There are new generations of Russian and Chinese made weapons at least as good as what America has. The latest Su-35 and PAK-50 fighters being built by Russia may be as good as or even better than the F-35, which is still not combat ready. Indeed, the only brake on Russia these days is money (it doesn’t have any). But sometimes ambition can replace money.
It is hard to believe that in thirty years the United States has managed to go from top dog to a country whose military might is weakening. We are a country that has squandered a good part of our technological leadership by putting some of our best manufacturing abroad, and some of our most sophisticated systems in China and Russia, taking a great risk and making a bad bet on the future.
Are the profits some of our top companies are raking in sufficient compensation for the risk to national security? Perhaps in the short run Silicon Valley profits have helped our sagging economy indirectly, but the commercialization of vital technology also has created some very tricky problems. For example, 70 percent of Silicon Valley’s work force comes from foreign countries, and much of Silicon Valley’s production is outside the United States, dominantly in China. Our aerospace industry, to stay alive, has set up coproduction of commercial and semi-commercial aviation systems (airliners and helicopters) in Europe and Asia, and our top companies have helped the Russians improve their aviation industry. All of this has de-Americanized our technology and added to our vulnerability as America’s critical infrastructure now is exposed to exploitation and existential risk in the form of cyber spying and cyber-attacks.
But perhaps the biggest risk is the approaching neutralization of our conventional war fighting systems. America, as a democratic country, cannot fight wars where the best it can hope to achieve is a draw, and where the results are so damaging to our fighting personnel, to our prestige, and to our economy.
America has to wake up to a threat it has largely created on its own by failing to protect its technological edge. Depending on profits as we export technology and jobs will not save us.