Editor’s Note: The analysis reflected in this commentary draws on work completed as a part of the Naval Postgraduate School Acquisition Research Symposium where the materials were first presented in May. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.
In 2015, China’s president, Xi Jinping, elevated “military-civilian fusion” (MCF) to a national-level strategy. Since then, U.S. analysts have seized on the buzzword of MCF – and with it a dangerous misunderstanding of the strategy’s ends, means, and ways. They frame it as something akin to America’s “civil-military integration”; an attempt to mimic the U.S. approach to military innovation. MCF is anything but. Rather than copying the U.S. orientation, MCF manipulates it – as well as Beijing’s asymmetric position within the globalized world.
Beijing does not innovate according to the conventional Western definition of the term — that is too expensive and too risky. Instead, it leverages ostensibly civilian and private actors to obtain foreign research and development (R&D) from the open, global system at low cost. Beijing carries that innovation home, optimizes it in a protected sandbox, and deploys it offensively abroad – benefiting from scale and centralized state support. The People's Republic of China (PRC) does so with both civilian and military actors targeting both civilian and military domains, as illustrated in Figure 1. The U.S. military seeks modern technology as the route to the next determinative military capability. Beijing looks well beyond that. It pursues a holistic information competition – one that extends the battlefield to encompass global networks, military and civilian, writ large. (See Figure 2)
This is a deliberate, long-term approach. The goal is not to fund and project military power or fundamental science and technology (S&T) globally, as does the United States. Rather, the PRC seeks worldwide control over international information flows – military and civilian – through which it can handicap adversary military power while establishing total, self-fueling, PRC domination over international resources. If successful, Beijing would be able to consistently hold U.S. information and communication at risk, including in areas and domains that have previously been considered uncontested. It would do so while asymmetrically ensuring the invulnerability of its own: Beijing will prefer to keep its networks closed to the rest of the world. And, it would claim global information superiority.
BeiDou forges space and navigation cooperation agreements worldwide. The information it collects as a commercial entity fuels Beijing’s global ambitions. Chinese strategic communications portray ostensibly civilian players, such as BeiDou, as the paragon of MCF success. The same strategy applies to the PRC building smart cities abroad, navigation platforms for cars, facial recognition for surveillance systems, and 5G networks.
The result is what retired PLA colonel and Beijing University professor Wang Xiangsui calls a “subversive, coercive deterrent.” If Beijing can control information and information networks, “the U.S. will not fight.”
The PRC fuels its offensive strategy with American R&D. That must stop. The U.S. system writ large, and the Department of the Navy within it, need to understand the reality of China’s MCF approach and craft a strategic response. This response must be tailored to the threat environment, U.S. strengths, and the larger competitive balance. (See Figure 3)
This is no simple task. The U.S. Defense organization is not necessarily geared toward a long-term, peacetime contest. However, it does house enduring, competitive strengths; strengths that can shore up larger system-wide weaknesses, signal American resolve, and target PRC vulnerabilities.
The first step will be to use American advantages and legacy capabilities to impose costs. Take, for example, Beijing’s obvious fear of a “high-tech blockade.” The Chinese strategy rests on access to Western scientific and technological R&D. The US and its allies can, at least for the moment, threaten that access. They should do so. Rhetorically now – with actions to follow. U.S. superiority in complex, combined arms operations offer another example. The DON could use that to demonstrate novel concepts for and willingness to operate in denied environments to sow uncertainty about the value of resources Beijing has allocated to its anti-access/area denial (A2AD) architecture. Such a starting tack promises a means to reclaim initiative in the U.S.-China defense competition. It will also generate the strategic discourse necessary to orient strategically for competition.
The next step will be to follow through on that re-orientation. The broad contours of a responsive strategy would feature three additional thrusts – all of them necessary – none of them sufficient.
First, the DON will have to take active, defensive measures to protect isolated R&D environments and supply chains in critical areas. That will mean a prioritization logic based on U.S. vulnerabilities, adversarial ambitions, and the direction of future competition. It will also mean strengthening existing relevant investment review mechanisms – and partnership review mechanisms more broadly – to address the scope and scale of Beijing’s MCF strategy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) subtly and subversively deploys ostensibly private, often masked investment, to coopt U.S. dual-use technology. Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer has referred to this as “weaponized capital.” Beijing uses the same strategy to manipulate educational, research, and military exchange: This is the weaponization of cooperation writ large.
The U.S. also needs to seek offensive initiative. This will mean seizing the winner-take-all future networks that Beijing targets: Effectively – as opposed to efficiently – defining the backbones of emerging techno-economic and military competition. This too will require a prioritization logic; one that identifies the networks critical to projecting power and that defense investment can incubate, while weighting both factors against adversarial weaknesses. Where possible and necessary, such efforts should foster independent and vertically integrated defense-specific supply chains. This could be framed in the context of updating practices of preclusive purchasing for the 21st century.
Both of these thrusts will need scale if they are to compete with China’s centralized approach and market size. It will mean encouraging allied cooperation – leveraging weapons sales and military cooperation where necessary as both carrots and sticks. Where and when appropriate, it will also mean encouraging joint ventures and mergers and acquisitions (M&A).
In a third, final thrust, the DON must develop new operational concepts designed for the threat environment. The U.S. faces a great power challenger. It does so in a novel technological environment supported by world-leading innovative capacity. However, that capacity will only bear fruit if the U.S. applies it in an innovative fashion. Otherwise, the PRC siphons American R&D to reach parity at low cost and low risk.
The U.S. innovative edge has to do more than perfect precision strike or fuel predictive maintenance: It must be used to empower new modes of warfare; modes geared at Beijing’s competitive threat. The PRC seeks to paralyze the U.S. military tool by compromising its access to information – by extension its command and control (C2). The DON could respond by developing operational concepts for operating in denied environments. And, it should pay particular attention to honing speed, surprise, and penetration; all three features that promise to stymy the PRC’s subversive offensive.
Throughout, the DON will have to support its efforts with a strong narrative; it will have to stress competitive language, effectiveness over efficiency, and a new conception of innovation. That promises to send a signal to adversarial audiences as well as the U.S. and allied industrial bases. It promises orienting guidance that can reverberate throughout the defense and broader security ecosystem. Broadly, it promises the rhetorical marshaling that can create the scale and scope to compete with China.
Emily de La Bruyere (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Nathan Picarsic (email@example.com) served as contributors to the 2019 NPS Acquisition Research Program. Recent examples of their related public commentaries can be found at The Octavian Report and Bloomberg.