Congress has finally passed the long-awaited $770 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—setting the nation’s defense expenditures and priorities for the next fiscal year.
Experts from CNAS' Technology and National Security program are weighing in on the technology-related aspects of the sweeping annual legislation.
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National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology
The 2022 NDAA has many important provisions for tech policy, addressing near-term tactical needs and long-term visions. I see the most consequential one being the establishment of a National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology. The commission’s duties mirror those of the successful National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, of which many recommendations are now law. The remit includes identifying means and mechanisms for how to maintain U.S. technological advantages in biotechnologies, promote U.S. competitiveness, expand public and private sector R&D spending, bolster the workforce, and formulate ethical frameworks. Given the potential of biotechnologies such as synthetic biology to transform manufacturing, medicine, and agriculture, the work of this commission could impact not just the missions and activities of the Department of Defense but profoundly shape the U.S. bioeconomy and American competitiveness in biotechnologies for decades.
The NDAA takes important steps on cybersecurity, particularly to promote strengthened public-private sector partnerships across the government. CyberSentry—which allows DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to monitor critical infrastructure networks on a voluntary, by-request basis—has been upgraded from a pilot to established program. Cyber Command has also been directed to explore how to work with the private sector to address international cyber threats.
Given the scale of the cyber challenge, however, the NDAA lacks the necessary sustained urgency. Most significantly, requirements for even some industry reporting of cyber incidents and ransomware payments to the government were not included—despite being key for the government to get better insight into cyber threats. Other timelines are too long. While Congress calls for an assessment of the progress of the United States and China to implement modernized military technology, the report regarding cyberspace capabilities is not due until the end of 2024—a year after the report on hypersonics and directed energy systems is due. While this assessment is a significant undertaking, 3 years for a report risks slowing efforts that must begin sooner
The NDAA reflects the expansion of policymakers’ attention to supply chains from beyond security and product availability issues to include human rights. The bill prohibits the Department of Defense from knowingly procuring goods that are mined, produced, or manufactured using forced labor from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Forced labor from XUAR is implicated in such a wide range of products—from clothes to remote controls—that this requirement will sweep a vast number of industries into the remit of supply chain assessments. The NDAA, however, puts the onus on suppliers to certify sourcing “in good faith.” Given the business incentives not to find problems, a comprehensive capability in the Department or interagency to account for all steps in product supply chains—and the resources to apply it—would be necessary for this provision to have true impact.
Several recommendations from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) made it into the 2022 NDAA. The NSCAI’s final report, which was released earlier this year, provided a number of recommendations aimed at shaping U.S. strategy on AI – tackling such themes as talent, R&D investments, and institutional processes. The NDAA addresses exactly these themes by authorizing new investments in AI, creating pathways for “digital career fields,” and setting up a pilot program aimed at the “agile acquisition of technologies for warfighters.”
I would have liked to see more of the NSCAI’s recommendations included in the NDAA, such as more robust measures for talent recruitment and increased investment in AI research infrastructure. The NDAA does represent, however, a solid first step in executing the Commission’s roadmap for AI competitiveness.
It is encouraging to see that the NDAA has a number of provisions related to enhancing U.S. capabilities and progress in AI. For example, requiring DoD to establish a national network for microelectronics research and development, promoting AI education for military officers and civilian DoD staff, and keeping Congress updated on efforts to implement the recommendations made by the National Security Commission on AI. There is also a provision asking for a review of how AI and related digital technologies can be applied to U.S. military platforms, processes and operations, as well as outlining metrics to assess AI adoption progress. Relatedly, Congress has also asked for a report on integrating autonomy software into selected major weapons systems and plans to leverage AI for such systems where appropriate—with a notable emphasis on ensuring the safety and security of these systems.
Defense Innovation Unit
I was glad to see the 2022 NDAA's authorization of the Secretary of Defense to expand the work of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to better coordinate with U.S. communities and private industry that currently lack a DIU presence, "including in economically disadvantaged communities." This move is consistent with the Biden Administration's Build Back Better emphasis on supporting the contributions and livelihoods of rural America, and shows an encouraging coherence between rhetoric and policy via concrete commitment to bolstering the U.S. innovation base in these more remote areas.
Digital Talent Development
It is refreshing to see that Congress recognizes the importance of our nation developing a digital talent pool, especially as we transition into an era of great power competition with technologically advanced adversaries. The NDAA adopts many of the recommendations put forth by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, including increased investment in our recruiting and talent management systems and creating the Digital Talent Recruiting Officer position within the Department of Defense.
Unfortunately, little dialogue surrounds the establishment of a U.S. Digital Service Academy which would revolutionize our government’s efforts to supply the necessary talent needed to win in the information age. As the dialogue between Congress and the Defense Department continues, I am hopeful that our nation will continue to recognize the need for this new service academy and lay the groundwork for American competitiveness in artificial intelligence and other capabilities.