Keeping US Defense Technology Secure in the Global Arena

In the global arena, America is a strong competitor and our consumers benefit from efficient markets and lower cost goods.  But globalization presents us with challenges, among the greatest of which is keeping America’s superior military technology secret.

American defense contractors partner with foreign suppliers for all sorts of materials and manufactured goods.  That’s fine up to a point, but what if the materials and manufactured goods we import become too technologically sensitive or too crucial for American security interests?

For example, if a soldier’s MRE contains some pasta imported from Italy, we can probably sleep well at night.  But if we depended on China to make our missile defense systems that would be another matter.

The Chinese and other rising powers aggressively seek our military technology. They are engaging in the same military and corporate espionage tactics used during the Cold War — infiltrating businesses and exploiting relationships with weak links in the security systems.

Chinese espionage on US missile technology during the Clinton Administration is one clear example.  The security breaches at the Los Alamos nuclear facility, where many foreign nuclear scientists interact, is another.  Keeping valuable secrets from determined adversaries is hard, disciplined work. 

So what happens when the US lets go of one or more levels of control over sensitive military technologies?  The Financial Times reported earlier this month that the Pentagon’s Inspector General found that secret technology on the $300 billion Joint Strike Fighter program may have been compromised by unauthorized access at BAE Systems (British Aerospace), a defense contracting firm headquartered in Britain, arguably our strongest military ally.

I will not venture to guess the nature or seriousness of this breach.  I simply point out that if security was compromised on one of our most sensitive and important air defense projects with our closest military ally, what is likely to happen when sensitive projects are controlled or infiltrated by less-friendly governments that may not share our interests regarding foreign policy or national security?

The Air Force has recently awarded a $40 billion air refueling tanker contract to French-based European Aerospace Defense Company (EADS), partnered with U.S. based Northrop Grumman which plans to assemble the tankers (not manufacture them) in a new plant near Mobile, Alabama.  Air tankers keep US planes flying in remote locations across the world on crucial missions.  They are the backbone of our strategic air superiority and our vital to power projection around the globe.

The problem with having a French company building this crucial component of our defense system is that they do not share the same security goals as America.  French-based EADS wants to lift the arms embargo on China, presumably so they can sell the Chinese weapons systems.  That runs counter to US interests, since America is allied with Japan, Taiwan,and Australia, who are not at all comfortable with China’s massive military buildup. 

France’s Total Oil company is one of the largest Western companies doing business with Iran.  Other French companies are similarly involved in Iran and other terrorist nations. Including EADS.

We may wish that the French would see things our way, but hope is not a strategy.  And we should not expect the French, Germans, Russians or Dutch to treat our concerns about China as seriously as we do.  EADS has been seen at a recent air show in Iran, and they are reported to be seeking business from Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.  Again, these actions run counter to US foreign policy goals.  We should not be naïve enough to expected EADS to put US interests over its own profits, or European government policies.

It’s time to take our national security interests more seriously when it comes to maintaining America’s technological military superiority.  Keeping our military secrets here at home is a large and difficult task.  The job gets harder when we involve other governments, even our closest allies Britain and Israel.  That’s why handing crucial defense projects to governments with competing foreign policy goals and interests seems needlessly risky.

We still live in a dangerous world.  Congress should be more vigilant about defense contracts with our closest allies, and should not allow EADS to build our next air tanker without considering the consequences of that technology finding its way into the hands of America’s adversaries.