A digital strategy to defend the nation

Image of Brad Smith before the Senate

Editor’s note: On Feb. 23, Microsoft President Brad Smith testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on emerging technologies and their impact on national security. Later, he also testified at the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the SolarWinds hack.

Read Brad Smith’s written testimony from the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing here and watch the testimony here.

Read Brad Smith’s written testimony from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing here and watch the testimony here.

UPDATE (2/26/2021, 7:30a.m. PT): On Feb. 26, Brad Smith testified before the House Committees on Oversight and Reform and Homeland Security on SolarWinds. Read his written testimony from the hearing here and watch the testimony here.


A digital strategy to defend the nation

By Brad Smith – President

For two centuries, technology has changed the nature of what it takes to defend a nation. In early 1940, improved tanks rendered worthless two decades of French investment along the fortified Maginot Line, as the German army simply plowed around it. And in late 1941, the United States learned that advances in naval aviation meant that battleships could no longer defend Pearl Harbor. Today, foreign cyberweapons pose a similar threat for the future.

Congress this week will explore the role digital technology’s influence on American power and security. While committees in both the House and Senate will rightly focus on the threats cyberweapons pose, the broader topic of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing focus on the higher stakes represented: digital technologies across the board are rapidly redefining the way we secure the peace, maintain our defense and, when necessary, fight wars.

But today one would be hard-pressed to say that the country has a comprehensive strategy to harness these technologies for the country’s defense. A more cohesive approach is needed, in terms of infrastructure defense, military expertise and global engagement.

The recent SolarWinds cyberattack on the tech sector’s supply chain was a wake-up call. And just last week in Texas, nature demonstrated the vulnerability of our power grid. Yet, since 2014, Russian agencies have intruded into the U.S. electrical grid, and we shouldn’t assume they were alone or had benign intent.

This means we must prepare for more sophisticated foreign attacks. We need to strengthen our software and hardware supply chains and modernize IT infrastructure. We must also promote broader sharing of threat intelligence, including for real-time responses during cyber incidents.

Let’s start with the need for more open sharing of information. Today, too many cyberattack victims keep information to themselves. We will not solve this problem through silence. It’s imperative that we encourage and sometimes even require better information sharing, including by tech companies.

But cybersecurity is just the start. Emerging technologies such as cloud and edge services, AI and 5G will redefine the requirements for military operations at mission speed, based on their ability to harness massive amounts of data and computational power.

The Pentagon needs to move more quickly to use, secure and adapt commercial advances for military applications. This will require more agile procurement, more digital skills in personnel training, and a closer partnership between the government and the tech sector.

The development of digital technology often starts with commercial technology and then moves to military and intelligence adaptations, rather than the other way round. This is the opposite of the Cold War, and it changes almost everything.

It means that military supremacy in digital technology is dependent on broader national leadership in the field. And, while the computer revolution took root on American soil, it is now a worldwide endeavor with global powers, including China, competing in and sometimes leading the race.

This requires a holistic approach to government-sponsored basic research and technology trade policy. The United States has unmatched capability for basic research through our research universities. Yet government research spending has declined, and within the next few years China is expected to surpass us.

We also need to strengthen ties with our allies, building on the global nature of technology innovation. Microsoft’s quantum computing efforts illustrate this well, with labs in Indiana, California and Washington, as well as Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia.

Finally, global technology leadership requires successful work to promote standards and technology protocols that reflect American inventions. The U.S. has excelled in these fields through decades of international outreach. This can’t stop now.

A lot is at stake, including the nation’s unique role in providing global leadership. When we think about the role of technology for the country’s defense, our ability to establish and defend the most important connective tissue of the international order – in areas such as finance, cybersecurity, healthcare and transportation – marks one stronghold of American power and security.

We will need to lead with moral authority and not the strength of technology alone. As in the past, there is no substitute for technology the world can trust.

For the last 70 years, the United States has provided what we might think of as the global public operating system. The next 70 years will witness this not just as a metaphor, but as real software power. Our national security strategy therefore must continue to offer the best options for countries around the world as they transition every part of their national lives to a digital age.