China's major investment in its military comes at a time when President Donald Trump also is calling for "one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history." Trump had previously been critical of the Obama administration for "deep cuts in our military, which only invite more aggression from our adversaries."
Given Trump's animosity to former President Barack Obama's policies, it's probably no surprise that the billionaire president has shied away from endorsing the past administration's so-called Third Offset concept, an innovation push and outreach to Silicon Valley firms. The initiative was designed under Ashton Carter, the former Defense secretary, to promote cutting-edge tech innovation and give the Pentagon more expertise outside the traditional defense industrial sector.
However, one Pentagon official who was hired in the Obama administration said this week during a South by Southwest panel in Austin, Texas, that the military needs to work and learn from the non-defense side.
"Once we have those bridges built, we're going to have to keep them strong and treat them as a strategic resource," Will Roper, the director of the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office, said during a Wired panel at SXSW on Monday. Roper, who has held the post since 2012, indicated that the U.S. military's learning could include something as basic as a better understanding of total logistics from a package delivery company or capabilities in development by major tech firms.
Even so, Trump's Defense Secretary James Mattis — a retired Marine general — appears more focused these days in the nuts and bolts of military readiness rather than an outreach to tech.
To be clear, China's outreach to the civilian side is broader than the Obama administration's Third Offset, which included setting up so-called Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (or DIUx) tech hubs in Silicon Valley, Austin and Boston. China's military-civilian industry efforts include working in at least eight regions of the country with companies engaged in everything from advanced chip production and information technology to aerospace manufacturing.
One area where DIUx could make a major difference is helping the U.S. military develop technology to better protect against cyber attacks and breaches from adversaries such as China and Russia.
The rapid development of stealth fighter aircraft by China's military coincided with reports back in 2009 of a cyber breach of sensitive national security information from Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
The F-35 stealth fighter is the Pentagon's costliest weapons program and includes the acquisition of aircraft for all three of the U.S. military services. Foreign allies such as Japan, the U.K., Italy, Israel and others also are participating in buying the aircraft.
"China has already copied major sub-systems for the F-35, especially its advanced optical detection systems, which until recently helped give it a major combat advantage," said Fisher. "These optical systems appear to now be in production in China."
As a result, Fisher expects the overall advantage the F-35 will give American and allied forces will be "much less" over time than might have been originally anticipated.
Several reports last week indicated that China's new J-20 stealth fighter entered into service, a major milestone for China's military. The J-20 resembles the F-22 Raptor air-to-air combat aircraft introduced into the U.S. Air Force in 2005.
Also, China's smaller stealth fighter called the FC-31 Gyrfalcon in development is seen as a knockoff of the F-35. Then again, some observers suggest even the Russians have had their Su-35 Flanker fighter copied by Chinese state-owned firms.