The United States must consider investing in next-generation technologies over legacy programs, developing new arms control policies for autonomous systems and building fresh alliances to counter China in the decades ahead, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), now a 2020 presidential candidate, said April 29.

Speaking Monday afternoon at New America’s Future Security Forum in Washington, D.C., Moulton outlined portions of his national security policy, and stated that as president in 2020, he would push for the Pentagon to invest more in new tech including unmanned systems and cybersecurity versus large, storied programs such as the Navy’s aircraft carrier.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) speaks with Heather Hurlburt
Director, New Models of Policy Change at New America, April 29 in Washington, D.C. (Screenshot: New America)

“Spending 16 times more money on aircraft carriers over cyber … makes no sense,” he said. Moulton announced his candidacy for the Democratic nominee for president on April 22 (Defense Daily, April 22).

When it comes to a potential conflict with China specifically, “the idea that we are going to go to war in the South China Sea with China with a massive invasion force is … totally unrealistic,” he said. The U.S. military should instead seek to pressure China with a carrier presence in regions such as the Panama Canal or in East Africa where Beijing is building up its military and economic presence, he said.

Moulton, a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he would like to see the defense budget go down over time “because we are making much smarter investments.”

“That means investing in the next generation of technologies rather than the legacy systems that consume so much of the budget today,” he added.

He noted that the U.S. military’s peer competitors, Russia and China, have “an inherent advantage” because their defense budgets are more constrained. “They are not … going to try and build 13 or 14 aircraft carriers to match our number,” he said. “They’re just going to build the missiles to defeat them.”

Moulton questioned the need to procure additional aircraft carriers in the future, but stopped short of calling for an end to the ship entirely. “We at least need to have a serious debate about their efficacy in the modern world,” he said.

Investing in next-generation technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles and underwater vehicles, along with artificial intelligence systems, are necessary to maintain global economic competitiveness and are also less expensive weapon systems, he noted.

“There is a real question” as to the operational capability of maintaining a large troop presence and carrier fleet in the South China Sea, he noted. “We need to really … bring a new generation of thinking to these potential conflicts” to involve next-generation arms, next-gen arms control and a new set of alliances, he added.

Moulton said he supports the creation of a “Pacific NATO,” that would bring together some often contentious allies in the region that could help contain China and North Korea, similar to how the original NATO agreement brought together former adversaries such as France and West Germany.

The U.S. government must also rethink its arms control policies for autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and cyber products, he said. “The fact that fleets of autonomous weapons conducting warfare against another is no longer a matter of science fiction but merely a matter of development timelines and military budgets, I think should concern everybody in the world, frankly.”

The U.S. government must place a greater emphasis on cyber security investment, Moulton said. While he said he does not support President Donald Trump’s plan to build a new Space Force within the Air Force, there may be a better argument for standing up a separate military department dedicated to cyber, he added.

“We are getting attacked every single day through the Internet by Russia and China,” Moulton said. “The fact that these continue to happen on a daily basis is more than enough evidence that we are neither investing appropriately nor responding appropriately to the threat.”

Cyber is “distinct enough” from other domains that it may make more sense to create a new branch, he added.