The Pentagon’s shift toward a focus on competition with China and Russia will require the department to continue divesting from legacy systems to prioritize modernization programs and improving technology development coordination with industry, the Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday.

Esper told attendees at a Center for Strategic and International Studie he intends to continue acquisition reform efforts, including expanding the defense-wide review process, to ensure the department is able to stay ahead in the emerging technology space.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

“Both of these revisionist powers, [China and Russia], are trying to use emerging technologies to alter the landscape of power and reshape the world in their favor, and often at the expense of others,” Esper said. “Our success is contingent upon a cohesive strategy across public and private sectors. For the Department of Defense, this means overhauling our policies and reshaping the culture within the department, between the department and industry, and indeed with our allies and partners around the world.”

Esper noted his ongoing push to drive modernization efforts by “divesting from legacy systems and lower priority activities,” which started with a review of the department’s Fourth Estate agencies, will continue with the upcoming FY ’21 budget. 

“We will use these savings to drive progress on critical technologies like artificial intelligence and hypersonic missiles,” Esper said. “We have to bridge this gap now between the Cold War-era systems and counterinsurgency, low-intensity fight of the last 18 years and make this leap into great power competition with Russia and China,” Esper said.

The Pentagon’s ongoing Fourth Estate reform effort has already resulted in $5 billion worth of cost savings, Esper noted in December (Defense Daily, Dec. 9). 

Program cuts will likely be detailed in the Pentagon’s roll-out of its next budget set for mid-February, with Esper adding that Congress has been supportive of the department’s push for reforms. 

“I think many members do [understand the importance], especially those on the defense committees. I’ve been telling the Pentagon now for two and a half years that our budgets aren’t going to get any better. They are where they are, and so we have to be much better stewards of the taxpayer’s dollar. And that means divesting of legacy things, divesting of things that don’t deliver a high [return on investment] relative to others,” Esper said. “Congress is fully behind that. But then there’s that moment where it hits their backyard, and you have to work your way through that.”

Esper also affirmed the department’s emphasis on improving technology development coordination with industry as the commercial sector continues to lean further ahead on emerging capabilities.

“We need to be fast followers of the commercial sector. It is the private sector that is leading on many fronts, such as cloud computing and machine learning,” Esper said. 

The Pentagon will continue cautioning U.S. firms from working with Beijing and facing potential intellectual property theft challenges, according to Esper, as well as specifically push against the purchase of 5G technologies from Chinese firms.

“U.S. companies have unwittingly, or in some cases tacitly, transferred IP, control or made other compromises to the Chinese government in their pursuit of market access, low-cost manufacturing or other gains,” Esper said. “China understands this and that’s why I’ve warned our allies and partners against allowing Chinese firms to put their security of their networks at risk with attractive, low-cost [5G] solutions.”