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Congressional task force to examine long-term defense strategy for Russia, China

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WASHINGTON ― The U.S. House has launched an ambitious new task force to examine how to maintain Pentagon’s technological edge against Russia and China, and take on sacred cows along the way, its chairmen said Tuesday.

Led by House Armed Services Committee members Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Jim Banks, R-Ind., the bipartisan Future of Defense Task Force has a six-month charter, and a broad scope. It’s expected to step-back from the annual budgeting cycle that dominates the committee’s work to examine long-term national security strategy and help the Pentagon become more innovative technologically.

The new group has a charter to “review U.S. defense assets and capabilities and assess the state of the national security innovation base to meet emerging threats and ensure long-term strategic overmatch of competitors.” To that end, it’s expected to hold a series of hearings and closed-door briefings and eventually issue a report with recommendations, even if they’re unpopular.

“We’re saying we don’t think enough people are asking the big-picture questions about how we prepare for 30 years from now―and I think a lot of people at the Pentagon will agree with that,” Moulton said, adding that America must match China’s efforts at leap-ahead technologies and long-term planning. He and Banks held a roundtable with reporters Tuesday.

“There’s no question that the model has changed, and innovation is no longer coming from big government contracts,” Moulton said. “The United States has to be smarter about adapting to this world. There’s a joke inside the Pentagon, if only the Chinese would hack our acquisition rules and copy them, we’d be more competitive. That’s a reality.”

The task force’s first hearing is set for Oct. 29, with the former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy under President Barack Obama and former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and rumored candidate for defense secretary in the current administration.

Future hearings, Banks and Moulton said, could feature defense industry and “outside-of-the-box” witnesses. Potential topics for scrutiny include disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, biotechnology, 5G and hypersonic weapons, and the Pentagon’s existing innovation organizations, like DIUx.

The task force’s formation comes as the Pentagon has not only been looking at some of these technologies itself but working to absorb Congress’s last round of acquisitions reforms. Senior leaders at the Pentagon have themselves been fundamentally rethinking modernization priorities amid fears Russia and China will outstrip the U.S. technologically.

A year after the Army’s began holding its “night court” to weed out inessential programs, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger issued planning guidance in July aimed at reshaping the force and shrinking it if necessary to pay for modernization and the Pentagon has launched a department-wide “night court.”

By Moulton’s reckoning, the Pentagon is not truly embraced the authorities Congress has granted it. “When you talk about creating a culture of innovating, it’s not just about replacing weapons systems, it’s how do we get the Pentagon to continually be asking [tough] questions themselves,” he said.

The task force’s members include several new members of Congress who have practical national security experience and few senior HASC members―and both Banks and Moulton are recent military veterans. The two chairmen said they sought lawmakers willing to ask tough questions.

Among the other members are Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., and a former Air Force officer who studied technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; as well as Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin and Florida Republican Michael Waltz, who have both served in senior Pentagon policy positions.

Both Moulton and Banks said the idea was to have these younger members continue to ask challenging questions and energize the conversation.

“The task force’s work will complete in six months, but that doesn’t mean that Seth and I’s work ends at that point,” Banks said. “We’ll be here for a long time, and our work on the [annual defense policy bill] happens on a daily basis. This will set a platform for that work.”

HASC members Reps. Susan Davis, D-Calif.; Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., have also agreed to serve on the task force.

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