Michael Griffin for Secretary of Defense

(Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)

President Trump should promote Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, to the top job at the Pentagon. Outgoing SecDef James Mattis is a deservedly honored soldier and an American patriot, but he was not necessarily the best man for the job. Mattis is a light infantry commander, and there are very few opportunities today for light infantry to solve America’s strategic problems. The overriding strategic risk to the United States is the loss of our technological edge, and the Defense Department needs a leader with the vision and expertise to restore it. Michael Griffin would be an excellent choice. A first-rate physicist, Dr. Griffin headed NASA under the Bush 41 administration.

Undersecretary Griffin set forth his strategic vision in an April 2018 interview with Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute.  It is sobering and tough-minded. He understands the problem and has a clear idea of the solution. It bears close reading. Here are a few key extracts:

For at least a couple of decades, the United States enjoyed a degree of alumnus at the top of the global power ladder that really we’d not seen for a while in history. It has been quite a while since a single great power was so unchallenged.

And my personal opinion is we kind of went to sleep….In the early and mid-‘90s I frankly was quite cynical about the peace dividend. I was quite cynical about the practice that the Defense Department and other agencies of government aided and abetted of allowing companies to merge from many competitors into a few large super companies.

I did not think that — I did not believe that there would be a peace dividend that would last out the rest of my life and certainly not into my children’s and grandchildren’s. And I did not believe that reducing our ability to have internal competition among many corporate competitors was in our long-term best interests….So if we fast forward a couple of years, a couple of decades, I think it is now observable in hindsight that we failed to continue to fund the practices that had gotten us where we were, which was at the very top of the technological heap.

…It was America’s technological preeminence that brought an end to World War II, that won the Cold War and that got us to the place where we could fall asleep at the switch in terms of maintaining that preeminence.

By the time we looked around in call it 2015, 25 or so years later, it was and remains today observably true that while in many categories America still leads the world and in company with our allies and partners in the western nations it still leads the world in many areas of technology, with regard to certain areas in defense, science and technology, really we just don’t anymore. That’s a hard thing to say and a hard thing to hear.

But the fact of the matter is that in the area of hypersonics, to pick one, both China and Russia are observably ahead of where our current state of practice is. It’s not ahead of where we could be, but it’s ahead of our current state of practice and we’re playing catch-up ball.

In the area of microelectronics in the time of which I spoke of, early ’90s, everybody bought American microelectronics because they were the best. They didn’t buy them because we were making people buy them. They bought them because we had the best stuff.

Now, 80 percent of microelectronics, if I understand the figure correctly, come from Taiwan, not that Taiwan is not a reliable partner, but they’re not coming from America and Taiwan is uncomfortably close to a nation which in many ways has declared itself to be an adversary of the United States, a World War II ally which is not an adversary, meanwhile our other are World War II adversaries are now allies. This is an unfortunate turn of events, but it’s something we most pay attention to.

Microelectronics undergirds everything we do in a way today that it did not even 25 years ago and certainly not when I started in the business 25 years before that. Today, even if, and this is a big if which is not even true, even if our defense industry were not dependent upon or solely dependent upon civilian microelectronics, I often ask if we are victims of malware or undesired features in the microelectronics that we buy from offshore, if another nation can bring about the collapse of the civilian economy through such features or through such malware, in what sense can the Department of Defense have been said to defend the nation?

Dr. Griffin is magnficently right. Defense procurement priorities are set by the handful of super companies that Dr. Griffin mentioned in cozy alliance with Congress. We will spend $1.5 trillion on the F-35 at the twilight of the age of stealth, and peanuts on cutting-edge technologies. Meanwhile our industrial base is disappearing. Taiwan Semiconductor will build a $20 billion facility to produce state-of-the-art 3 nanometer chips, leapfrogging Intel, the last fabricator of high-density chips in the US.

Despite the hand-wringing over Gen. Mattis’ resignation, it could turn out to be an opportunity for a desperately needed shift in American defense policy. The only thing that really matters is American technological superiority. We can play cat-and-mouse with the Russians and Chinese in Syria or the South China Sea, but the only thing that impresses Moscow and Beijing is raw power. Russia dominates Syria because its S-400 air defense system is the best such weapons system out there. We know in theory how to defeat it (drone swarms, for example), but we haven’t put the necessary funds into development. Whether we keep 2,000 special forces in Syria or not is a minor issue next to the fact of Russian superiority in air defense systems. Russia and China have already tested hypersonic missiles that fly at 5 to 10 times the speed of sound, and can take out American aircraft carriers (so, by the way, can China’s silent diesel-eletric submarines and its DF-26  surface-to-ship missile).

We also are playing catch-up in quantum computing, which will be a game-changer for cryptography, communications, and weapons design.

We’ve come from behind before. Russia beat us into space with the Sputnik launch in 1957, and the Eisenhower administration responded with a massive program to upgrade space research, missile development, and science education. Russian weapons ruled the skies during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Russian surface-to-air missiles took down more than 100 American-made Israeli aircraft. By 1982, American breakthroughs in avionics along with some home-grown drone technology allowed Israel to wipe out the Russian-built Syrian air force in the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot.

It wasn’t easy then, and it won’t be easy now. China is a far more dangerous competitor than Russia at the height of the Cold War. It has four times our population, invests twice as much (by the purchasing power parity measure) as we do, and graduates four times as many scientists and engineers. We still have the capacity to recover from our complacency. What we need is a leader who understands the problem and has the breadth of knowledge to solve it.