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The US isn’t investing nearly enough in critical tech to outpace China: Report

Pentagon grapples with growth of artificial intelligence. (Graphic by Breaking Defense, original brain graphic via Getty)

WASHINGTON: Based on rhetoric around Washington, it would seem government agencies, including the Defense Department, have skyrocketing investments in advanced technologies. But a closer look reveals the US isn’t investing nearly enough in order to outpace adversaries like China in areas like artificial intelligence and machine learning, warns data analytics group Govini in a new report. 

“In recent years, the U.S. Government has recognized the importance of emerging technology to both strategic competition with China and our future national prosperity, and multiple administrations and congresses have taken action accordingly,” Govini’s 2022 Federal Scorecard report states. “But despite these efforts, moving fast enough to beat China remains a pernicious challenge.”

Govini’s analysis is derived from a list of critical technology areas revealed earlier this year from the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. The list includes 14 technologies, among them artificial intelligence, quantum science, biotechnology and space technology, according to a Feb. 1 memo obtained by Breaking Defense

Overall, US government spending on critical technologies nearly doubled from $60.7 billion in FY17 to $117.2 billion in FY21, with a significant increase in FY20 and FY21, according to Govini’s report.

And yet, “it certainly doesn’t say we have a strategic approach and we’re going to double down in these areas because we understand not just the importance of the technology, but the concepts for applying them on the battlefield,” Govini CEO Tara Murphy Dougherty told Breaking Defense on Tuesday. “And that’s where I think…the risk is.”

The area of biotechnology saw the biggest increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with government agencies outside of the Defense Department spending nearly $40 billion in FY21. Out of the military branches, the Army had the biggest increase in investment in the area, with the report showing in FY21 the service spent more than $20 billion in biotechnology.

Government-wide spending in the area of AI/ML and autonomy was $50 billion, with $12 billion in FY21. The report breaks down AI/ML and autonomy into subsegments and shows the largest investment increase was in the “data-at-scale” area – things like data architecture storage, data acquisition and fusion. 

RELATED: ‘Responsible Speed’: DoD Emerging Capabilities Official On Race For New Tech

The report states the US isn’t investing what it needs to avoid losing the battlefield of the future in AI/ML as those areas continue to shape the war in Ukraine.

That conflict “makes it clear that the future of warfare has arrived,” according to the report. “Autonomous and semi-autonomous drones prowl above the battlefield; artificial intelligence-driven intelligence fusion gives commanders unparalleled understanding of the battlespace; hackers wage largely unseen cyber battles in the shadows; and powerful mobile communications and computing devices enable individual soldiers to tap into unprecedented levels of awareness and lethality.”

Billy Fabian, vice president of strategy at Govini, told Breaking Defense that lessons learned from the war “will certainly likely drive future budgets.” 

“The US has invested a good amount of money in [AI] and…those types of technologies are providing the Department of Defense [and] the US intelligence community with an unprecedented level of situational awareness of what’s happening in Ukraine,” he said.

“The ability to pull these different streams of…information together and turn that into actual real intelligence and then we’re sharing [and] providing intelligence support to Ukraine and it seems to be giving them an advantage on the battlefield.”

DoD is continuing to increase investment in AI, however: In its FY23 budget request, DoD requested its largest ever budget for research and development, with heavy investments in AI. The Pentagon also has several AI efforts underway and recently stood up a new office dedicated to overseeing the Pentagon’s AI and data efforts. 

The only area that didn’t see an increase in yearly spending levels from the government is space technology, with investment remaining essentially flat in FY21 compared to FY17, according to the report.

However, the report states this is likely to change in the future because of DoD’s increasing focus on the space domain. 

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