The 2017 National Security Strategy, and the more recent 2018 summary of a National Space Strategy, explicitly referenced the importance of the advancement of scientific knowledge as a fundamental pillar for their success. Space, as a potential warfighting domain, will become one of the most scientifically complex environments ever engaged in, and might even require the creation of a new military branch, as charged by the Trump administration. Space activities will no longer be dedicated strictly to reconnaissance or communications, but strategic deterrence of potential adversary activities. The Chinese, for example, initiated a program to develop kinetic and non-kinetic anti-satellite capabilities. The method of deployment, and the implications in the space domain, are different than in land, air, or sea domains, although linked. Understanding the difference between orbit types and even space-based platforms will be required in our leaders.
Despite the overwhelming importance science and research play domestically and abroad, there is a dearth of Senate-confirmed cabinet-level appointees, directors of intelligence agencies, or congressmen serving in key oversight committees who have scientific backgrounds. Coupled with an understaffed White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, this observation translates to a National Science and Technology Council – composed of the vice president, cabinet secretaries and agency heads – with a paucity of scientific leadership experience as an authoritative body. Ultimately, this could prove harmful to national security.
Presently, some of the discussion between deputies at the Pentagon, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Reconnaissance Office centered on the new “Space Force” are based on its organizational alignment and whether or not the acquisition community can evolve into a more effective body to support technology procurement. Few, however, have deliberated publicly on the kind of leadership required to make national security decisions in this domain – in action or through oversight. The U.S. intelligence community understands the importance of modifying the threat information it conveys in science, technology, and space in a manner that’s respectful of the decision-maker’s backgrounds, but, no matter how artful the analyst, there reaches a point where communicating highly technical information to a national security generalist can become more harmful than good. We’ve already seen challenges occur in the emerging fields of artificial intelligence, 5G technology, and advanced semiconductor supply chains.
If the administration is reluctant to staff a body like the Office of Science and Technology Policy with even half as many members as the previous administration, it would behoove them, if the rumors of upcoming changes within senior appointees are true, to use this opportunity to nominate more national security leaders after the 2018 midterm elections with scientific backgrounds as a foundation to complement their unique experience. Among the cabinet-level leaders in the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Energy, and State, in addition to the intelligence directors, only Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a degree in engineering management from the United States Military Academy. The rest, while highly capable in their own right, hold multiple degrees in social science and law, but not disciplinary science or engineering. In turn, new appointees can act as true renaissance men or women who can reduce the level of uncertainty surrounding many of these security issues, promote diversity of experience, and critically test uninformed assumptions within a larger team.
The scientific community, however, is not without blame for this predicament. There is a longstanding assumption that it’s “good enough” to have scientists in deputy positions, such as the Honorable Stephanie O’Sullivan, or as consultants. It’s not, and they shouldn’t be overly willing to accept it. A rare counter example was former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who majored in physics and history before rising through the Pentagon’s ranks as their top weapons buyer. That means there needs to be a major change in the culture of the community to better prepare potential leaders to be considered in the first place. Important Science and Technology Policy Fellowships, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s, help enlighten quality non-federal scientists and engineers about policymaking, but the program doesn’t necessarily create an obvious road to the top for its applicants, or create elite renaissance leaders in the intelligence and national security arena.
The fact is that many of today’s cabinet secretaries and intelligence directors were built from within, have military backgrounds, and/or come from political positions. These leaders were willing to take the professional risks necessary to realize their potential – not something scientists are generally known for anymore, particularly in the political arena. This is far different than the precedent our founding fathers created after the birth of our nation. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and later Theodore Roosevelt were not only statesman, diplomats, and intelligence leaders but scientific practitioners. Each were truly renaissance examples.
Ultimately, potential leaders in national security with scientific backgrounds need to broaden out their education and experience to ever be considered a practical candidate. If more former scientists are nominated during the next term, or in the future, it can better position us to realize the intent of the National Security Strategy and the National Space Strategy, serve as a positive blueprint for leadership in these fields, and follow the precedent our forefathers set over two centuries ago.
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