Book Review: Essays in Technology, Security and Strategy, Vol. III, by Stephen D. Bryen with Shoshana Bryen. 537 pages. $19.95 paperback/$9.95 Kindle.
Steve Bryen is a brilliant and high-qualified defense analyst who cuts through the baloney and tells you exactly what is going on. His lead article today in Asia Times on coronavirus problem on the USS Theodore Roosevelt argues that the carrier never should have been sent to Vietnam, where the crew mingled with locals in the middle of an epidemic. The State Department had already advised U.S. citizens not to travel overseas, yet the Navy put the crew at risk by exposing them to the locals in what boiled down to a public relations exercise. As so many times in the past, Bryen writes about key issues that no-one else talks about.
His latest volume of essays, many published originally in Asia Times, is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how technology shapes national security. His range of expertise is as broad as his background. He was an engineer, fighter pilot, senior staff director of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the executive director of a grassroots political organization, the head of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Trade Security Policy, and the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration during the Reagan years. His brilliant wife Shoshana Bryen is senior director of the Jewish Policy Center.
Among other things, he reminds us that once upon a time, America had real leadership. The technological achievements of the United States during the Reagan years were the wonder of the world. They won the Cold War and made the United States the world’s only superpower–a status that neglect, complacency and corruption have whittled away during the intervening three decades. This didn’t happen by accident. As Steve reports, the Pentagon has gone back to Reagan-era proposals to put thousands of missiles into space, poised to destroy enemy missiles in their launch phase. Our existing missile defenses are no match for the new Russian and Chinese hypervelocity weapons, and the Reagan vision of space-based defense has returned to the Agenda.
America’s technological leaps, Bryen reports, didn’t occur at random. We had the world’s best scientists, many of them refugees from Hitler. Edward Teller, the father of the H-Bomb, began campaigning for missile defense during the 1960s; during one of his lectures in 1967, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan was in the audience. Teller was the head of Lawrence Livermore Laboratories when our system of national labs bristled with talent and invention, at a time when the top U.S. corporations maintained their own labs with tens of thousands of scientists, and the Pentagon subsidized basic research with the equivalent of $300 billion a year in today’s dollars.
Another essay in this volume exposes the insecurity of military electronics. To save money, the Defense Department went from bespoke systems to “commercial off the shelf” systems. That includes computer chips manufactured in China or Taiwan, where China has extensive influence, as well as antiquated easy-to-hack Windows XP operating systems on our Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines. China, Russia and Iran probably have hacked our drones already.
The long-term solution, Bryen argues, is to ditch Chinese (and other suspect) parts and manufacture all of our key defense goods in the U.S. He’s absolutely right, and I’ve made similar arguments myself. There’s a lot of brave talk about “decoupling” the U.S. economy from China. We should start with chip foundries, display manufacturers and other critical defense goods. That won’t be easy. Taiwan is now the best chip fabricator in the world, and its production engineers are the world’s best. To restore chip production to the U.S. would require not just an investment of perhaps $100 billion but the training of thousands of high-qualified engineers. But without doing this, an adversary might have the capability to shut down our defense systems at the push of a button.
Bryen’s expertise extends to active defenses for tanks, stealth aviation, drone warfare and a dozen other subjects of critical importance to U.S. national security. I can’t think of a better use of time during quarantine than a tour d’horizon of our national security needs with Steve Bryen. I’m proud to be his colleague at Asia Times.