Secretary of Defense Mike Esper said today that Department of Defense (DoD) partnerships with the private sector are vital to the Pentagon’s aim to remain the global leader in emerging defense technologies.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Security Forum, Esper discussed the need for private sector partnerships and collaboration to address ongoing threats from China, to modernize DoD capabilities, and to develop cutting-edge technologies.

Esper stressed that China is using nefarious means – including cyberattacks and exploiting U.S. intellectual property laws – in a bid to gain global dominance in the technology sphere. To counter those efforts, the United States needs to take a “whole of nation approach,” he said.

The Defense Secretary said that some U.S. companies have either “unwittingly, or in some cases, tacitly” assisted the Chinese government by giving it access to U.S. technological advancements. Some strategies to advance that goal of acquiring U.S. technology include foreign investments and corporate buyouts. And he stated that some American companies have made “compromises to the Chinese government in pursuit of market access, low-cost manufacturing, or other gains.”

Esper said that many U.S. company CEOs he has spoken with have realized the error if their ways, and are “now putting U.S. security first” by changing their strategies and approaches to China, and by working more closely with the Pentagon.

Looking within DoD, Esper said the military needs to overhaul policies, reshape its culture, and make better investments.  To invest in cutting-edge technologies, DoD will have to “make tough choices today,” he said. In order to do that, Esper said DoD is divesting legacy technologies and moving on from  lower priorities, while simultaneously implementing aggressive reforms to free up time, money, and manpower.

One of the ways DoD is shaping overall reform is through the Defense-Wide Review. “In just four months of work we focused on reforming the fourth estate and we saved over $5 billion,” Esper explained. “We will use these savings to drive progress on critical technologies like artificial intelligence and [other technologies],” the Secretary said. Partnering with the private sector will help stretch those investments further, he said.

Esper touted DoD’s investment in government-funded research, but said the Pentagon still needs to be “fast followers” of the commercial sector. “It’s the private sector that is leading on many fronts, such as cloud computing and machine learning,” he said.

DoD, he said, needs to make changes in its approach to the private sector and become “a better customer” and partner. “That is why we are implementing the most significant acquisition reform in years,” he explained. “Doing so will make it easier for companies of all sizes and sectors to do business with the department while enabling the Pentagon’s leadership to identify and provide the advanced solutions our warfighters need.”

Esper also took a deeper dive into two of the Pentagon’s primary technology priorities – 5G wireless and artificial intelligence technologies.

On the 5G front, he emphasized the race by both the U.S. and China to become world leaders in the technology, and the dangers of China winning that contest. Esper said he has warned international allies and partners against using China-based firms for 5G equipment, saying that doing so “compromises interoperability and intelligence sharing.” To counter the threat, he encouraged allies and the private sector to identify alternative 5G solutions.

And Esper praised DoD’s ongoing efforts to take the leading role in AI development. “We stood up the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) to integrate the power of AI across the many levels of the department,” he said. “Our goal is to get the warfighter into the cloud to pull our vast streams of data and deliver AI capability out to the tactical edge as soon as possible.”

He said JAIC “not only plays a leading role in modernizing our warfighting systems, cultivating a premier workforce, and strengthening our partnerships across the sector, but it is also developing principles for the lawful and ethical use of AI.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.