China has shot ahead of the United States in developing futuristic military technologies like hypersonics and artificial intelligence because the Pentagon’s risk-averse culture repels the innovative talent needed to tackle those problems, according to a prospective Defense Department scientist.

The United States is falling behind its most potent strategic competitor not because it lacks the scientific and engineering innovation needed to catch up, but because that talent pool either is not or does not want to work for the Defense Department, Lisa Porter, the nominee for Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, said May 10.


 “We do have a significant amount of talent,” she told the Senate Armed Services Committee during an uncontentious confirmation hearing. “Our private sector is, frankly, crushing it in many aspects of the machine learning domain. We’ve got to figure out how to get them to work on our problems rather than just the problems they are solving. How can we harness that talent? That’s the key challenge that we have.”

Porter, who has worked at both the Defense and Intelligence Advanced Research Project agencies, NASA and in the private sector, sailed through the hearing but was asked several times about the strategic advances China is making in the key areas of hypersonics, artificial intelligence, space and machine learning. Echoing her would-be boss, USD for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin, Porter warned that the United States and Defense Department in particular has lost its “spirit of experimentation.”

Since his confirmation, Griffin has been on tour repeating his claim that the U.S. military has been on innovation “holiday.” Porter agreed, but said the talent necessary to launch a Manhattan Project for hypersonics is available in the nation’s universities and national and defense laboratories.

“It’s a question of how do you focus that energy and talent and create a sense of urgency that I believe we’ve lost,” Porter said. “That’s quite an expansive challenge. … To focus on things like hypersonics, AI, cyber, all of those elements, the ingredients are here. We’ve got to focus them.”

A “culture of extreme risk aversion” has taken root in the Defense Department, especially in the research and development fields, and that has been “stifling to innovation,” she said. The startup culture that the Defense Department has courted since then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter launched the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) excels by taking risk, Porter said.

“Those two things do not go together,” she said. “Risk aversion and innovation cannot co-exist. We need to get back to the spirit of innovation that DoD used to have and I believe we can do that.”

As evidenced when thousands of Google [GOOGL] employees publicly balked at working with the Pentagon to weaponize artificial intelligence, many in the tech sector refuse to join forces with the military on moral grounds. Porter did not address that issue during the hearing.

All is not lost, and though China has declared it will become the world leader in AI within a decade, Porter said the United States can overtake it in that and other technologies where it currently enjoys a slight advantage.

“I believe we’d have a real problem if we don’t start getting into the business of pushing ourselves much faster,” Porter said. “They’ve got a head start on us in hypersonics. … They’ve got a head start on us in come other areas, as well. … We have to recognize that we can catch up if we are deliberate and focused.”

Sharing the confirmation hearing was assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs nominee James N. Stewart, assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs Gregory Slavonic, assistant secretary of defense for strategy nominee James Anderson and Charles Verdon, nominee for deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Committee members voiced support for confirming all five nominees.