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Course Motivation

The years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War are often referred to as America’s “unipolar moment” with the U.S. enjoying global dominance measured across all indices of national power. Since then, rival great powers like China and Russia have sought to undermine the U.S. led international order through deliberate and concerted whole of government efforts aimed at leveling the playing field with the U.S. and, wherever possible, tilting it to their advantage.

The return of strategic competition between great powers became a centerpiece of the Trump Administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy. Then U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis led the effort to develop the current National Defense Strategy which admonishes: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.”

The risks of failure for America in this competition are especially acute for U.S. national defense. For the first time since the start of the Cold War, Americans must confront the prospect of being unable to prevail in a future conflict. In 2017, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, warned that “In just a few years, if we do not change the trajectory, we will lose our qualitative and quantitative competitive advantage.” Those few years have since passed and this dire warning is arguably coming to fruition.

The Biden Administration is embracing a similar view of the nature of the prevailing challenges in U.S. foreign policy. A preview of the Administration’s approach can be seen in the Interim National Security Guidance released in March 2021 that counsels: “We must also contend with the reality that the distribution of power across the world is changing, creating new threats. China, in particular, has rapidly become more assertive. It is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system. Russia remains determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage. Both Beijing and Moscow have invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world. 

A range of technologies are emerging today that will radically change how America can compete in this great power competition by leveraging all instruments of national power e.g. diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement. and across all domains—air, land, sea, space, and cyber. Prevailing in this competition will require more than merely acquiring the fruits of this technological revolution; it will require a paradigm shift in the thinking of how this technology can be rapidly integrated into new capabilities and platforms to drive new operational and organizational concepts and strategies that change and optimize the way we compete.

Course Description

This course explores how new technologies pose challenges and create opportunities for the United States to compete with China, Russia, and other rivals in the international system. The course will examine the new operational concepts and strategies that will emerge from acquiring, funding, and fielding these technologies and the roles of Congress, incumbent contractors, lobbyists, and start-ups in adopting these technologies. The course emphasizes the challenges of competing with cutting edge technologies when U.S. government agencies, our federal research labs, and government contractors no longer have exclusive access to the most advanced technologies.

The course begins with an historical overview of the drivers and determinants of competition between powerful states in the international system.  US strategies developed since World War II to gain and maintain our technological competitive edge are introduced with emphasis on explaining contemporary US strategies and plans for defending America’s interests in this era of great power rivalry and competition. The course develops an appreciation for historical patterns in the innovation of military and other capabilities of the state: technological innovation > new capabilities > experimentation with new operational concepts/strategies > pushback from incumbents > first use of new operational concepts and strategies. Then the course examines the Trump and Biden Administration’s responses to the challenge of great power competition. Next, we explore the nature of America’s current and anticipated competition with China and Russia and select other strong states. 

In the second part of course, we examine applications of emerging technologies and how they are impacting, and will impact, great power competition with an emphasis on US competition with China across all instruments of national power. Recent and currently serving US Government officials will describe the challenges and opportunities their respective agencies are confronting as they strive to compete with China and other rivals in the international system. Student teams formed in Week 1 around a specific challenge facing a US government agency will work throughout the course to develop their own proposals for harnessing emergent technologies in new and creative ways to compete more effectively across the interagency e.g. through the employment of new operational concepts, organizations, and/or strategies all the while heeding the funding and political hurdles to get them implemented. Student teams will present their recommendations in a presentation and final paper at the end of the course.

The course draws on the experience and expertise of guest lecturers from industry and from across U.S. Government agencies to provide context and perspective. The course builds on concepts presented in MS&E 193/293 “Technology and National Security” and provides a strong foundation for students interested in enrolling in MS&E 297 “Hacking for Defense”.