Defense and Emerging Technology: A Conversation with Senator Joni Ernst

Tuesday, June 18, 2019
Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Joni K. Ernst

U.S. Senator from Iowa (R); Chair, Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities

Margaret E. Talev

Senior White House Correspondent, Bloomberg News

Senator Ernst discusses the importance of advancing U.S. defense technology to counter the emerging capabilities of China and Russia, and how threats resulting from advanced technology are influencing global power competition.  

TALEV: Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us and welcome to today’s—welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Senator Joni Ernst. I’m Margaret Talev, senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News. And I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

We’ll be talking, of course, about defense and emerging technology. Senator Ernst spends a lot of time thinking about these issues, of course, as chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. And Senator Ernst, as I think all of you know, is also the first woman combat veteran to be elected to the U.S. Senate. And she's a co-sponsor of legislation that reauthorizes the DOD’s mentor-protégé program, as she’s looking at ways to give small business more opportunities for Pentagon contracting.

As the Senate and House versions of the NDAA make their way through the process, and I know a lot of you are following this this week, this seemed like a timely moment to discuss U.S. defense technology and efforts to counter emerging capabilities from China and Russia. So now I’m happy to turn the microphone over to Senator Ernst to make some introductory remarks. And she and I will get the conversation going. And then after that, I think both of us want to leave a lot of time for questions from all of you. So without further ado, Senator Ernst. (Applause.)

ERNST: Thank you, Margaret. And thanks to all of you and the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this breakfast this morning. I think we’ll have a very interesting conversation.

And as Margaret said, I’m Joni Ernst. I’m the junior senator from the great state of Iowa. It is such a privilege and an honor representing my dear home state. So, again, I want to thank you so much for hosting this morning. I am the chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. And I’m very glad to be here to actually discuss that role and the importance of these emerging technologies in the context of a great power competition. And I’d like to just make a few remarks to kick us off and then, of course, we’ll have plenty of time, as Margaret said, for discussion.

So over the last few decades, the United States has enjoyed not only global economic and military supremacy, but the luxury of developing new battlefield technologies on our own terms and at our own pace. Certainly the global war on terror demanded new ways of operating and new systems to degrade and destroy the enemy, but our adversaries in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the deserts of Iraq, where I served, were not outpacing our technical, strategic edge, and did not require us to innovate more quickly than was necessary. So we have been able to continue at our own pace over the past decade or so.

But, folks, all of this has changed. And as the National Defense Strategy aptly points out, Russia and China have emerged as our great power competitors. They have studied the way we fight, they have expanded and upgraded their own capabilities, and they have rapidly developed advanced weapons systems designed to offset our greatest strengths. And alarming example is Russia’s effective use of cyberwarfare, modernized conventional forces, and development of hypersonic glide vehicles that can threaten our NATO allies in the Baltics and could ultimately change the fundamental nature of nuclear deterrence.

And looking at China, always top of our mind, their advancements in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and anti-ship ballistic missiles could very well hamper our ability to respond and support our allies in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s technological rise and military expansion doesn’t just threaten their neighbors, it is part and parcel of a whole of government strategy to be the world’s preeminent superpower by 2049, the one-hundredth-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. As if serious threats from Russia and China aren’t enough, Iran and North Korea, along with violent extremist organizations, continue to demand our attention as well. Both Iran and North Korea possess sophisticated cyber capabilities and, in the case of North Korea, nuclear weapons capable of reaching America’s shores.

But, folks, what I’m here today to tell you is that while it might seem like all bad news, it’s not. It’s not all bad news. The Department of Defense is fully aware of all of these threats, and my colleagues and I on Capitol Hill are working very hard to ensure that we have everything we need in order to deter and, if necessary, defeat any threat to our homeland. And that is evidenced by the work that we are doing on the NDAA. And in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, we have prioritized emerging technologies such as AI, hypersonics, directed energy, and quantum computing to ensure we can maintain our military advantage well into the future, of course, by blazing a trail of technological advancement.

Through research and innovation at defense organizations like DARPA, the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, and the Defense Innovation Unit, coupled with our leading universities and industry partners, we are pushing the boundaries of our tech so our war fighters remain the most advanced, agile, and lethal fighting force on the planet. And, folks, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have so many things going on in this realm. I’m very excited about it. I think we’ll go ahead and move into—move into questions. And we can visit a little more about what’s on your mind too.

So, again, I just want to thank you very much for the opportunity. Margaret, I think we’ll have a—hopefully, a lively discussion. You maybe all need some more coffee. But, no, I’m looking forward to it. Thank you so much for allowing you to share some time with you this morning. Thank you. (Applause.)

TALEV: Thank you. I was going to do the journalist way, and just sit on it and take notes on it later. (Laughs.)

So we have a pretty good mix in the audience of people who are in the defense world and not. So for the uninitiated or the bewildered, can you bring us up to speed a little bit on where the NDAA process stands now in the Senate and the House, and how that comes together?

ERNST: Certainly. Thanks, Margaret.

Yes, every one follows this every year. This is a big deal on the Hill, not just for those of us on the Armed Services Committee, but for everyone. There is interest from all senators regarding this process. So it is through our committee. And it came out widely bipartisan. A lot of support for the Senate version of the bill. So it will be taken up tomorrow on the floor of the Senate. And the leader has stated he would love to see this done, completed in the Senate, by the July 4 recess.

TALEV: Easy-peasy, because there are, at last count—did you tell me—more than five hundred—

ERNST: Over five hundred. I think Sheri said we are closer to six hundred, I think, at this point, maybe. So a lot. (Laughs.) A lot. A lot of amendments.

TALEV: And then there—then, of course, the House has to proceed with its own version.


TALEV: The makeup of the House and Senate majorities are slightly different. That may have an impact on the two different versions of the legislation that emerge. How political do you see the process being this year? Is it par for the case? I that the case every year? Or is this different this year?

ERNST: Well, I think it’s par for the course. We’ve seen this in the past before, when we have split chambers. But there will be disagreement over the types of policies that are included in the NDAA, but that can be ironed out through conference committee. But also the top line as well will be up for debate. I think in the Senate we’re hitting a target of right around $750 billion. And the House is looking at $733 billion. So there’s a sizable difference between top lines, and how we iron that out, that will come down to conference committee.

TALEV: There’s also a sizable difference between even that lower number in the House and what the past range of the NDAA has been. I mean, is this really sustainable in the long term?

ERNST: I think it was Jim Mattis that had said: We can afford to survive. I mean, we can afford to put that type of dollar into a program that needs to be modernized and sustained. So that’s my feeling as well. I know that there are other opinions out there. But we certainly do need to be putting forward the dollar amount that will help us modernize. And that’s why I get so excited, because it’s the emerging technologies that we really do need to focus on, put a little more effort into, because our adversaries are doing the same. So we don’t just want to keep up with our near-peer adversaries, like China and Russia. We want to outpace them when it comes to these areas. And we need to do that by committing those dollars to those areas.

TALEV: I hope that the audience will have some good highly technical questions. But as a—as a simple country White House reporter—(laughter)—I wanted to start with a political one, which is that the president, of course, has taken this action that would call for—that does call for redirecting funds, including MILCON funds, from the Pentagon toward the border wall. And I wanted to ask you how this is shaping the debate around and the passage of the NDAA. I know there is Democratic legislation that’s going to be one of those six hundred amendments to the NDAA that’s going to seek to tie his hands, or future presidents’ hands, from doing that sort of shifting. But can you give me a sense of whether this is a fait accompli already? Anyway, is this going to slow the legislation? Are you comfortable with the president’s order?

ERNST: Well, I would say I would truly like to have seen things done differently. But because we were not able to get dollars allocated through a regular process in Congress, the president then utilized a national emergency declaration to redirect dollars towards the border. I do believe we need dollars at the border. You know, I am not thrilled at the prospect of taking those dollars from the DOD and redirecting to the southern border, but I do understand that we do have a humanitarian crisis at the southern border. And then that does bleed over into a security crisis at the border as well. If we just really don’t know who’s coming across that border.

So the president did what he believed was the right thing to do, but it does take away from the military. I’m OK with doing it temporarily, but in the long term we, as Congress, need to figure out how to handle the southern border, and make sure that funds are being directed in a responsible manner. But then we also need to focus separately on funding our military appropriately.

TALEV: Do you think the NDAA debate this year is going to be the place where that gets decided, where future restrictions are imposed? Is there bipartisan will to do this? Or do you think this is a test vote, everybody goes on the record, and you move on with—

ERNST: Yeah, I don’t think it’ll be decided for the long term. I do think there will be some debate over the border included in our NDAA discussions. But will it be deciding? No, I don’t think it will decide it for the long term. I think we take a vote, we move on, but we still as Congress need to come back and make that decision. We need to make sure we’re focusing on our southern border as well.

TALEV: Can that happen this year?

ERNST: I don’t think it can happen this year.

TALEV: OK. One other politics question, although there is substance underneath this question too. (Laughter.) But do you—do you support the creation of a human rights commission that would be named after the late Senator John McCain and that may come as an attachment to the NDAA process?

ERNST: I do. I do.

TALEV: OK. And that’s new. Are we making news here?

ERNST: That is—yes. (Laughter.) I am signing on to that bill. You know, I get mixed reactions from so many people when I talk about John McCain. John McCain was a dear friend to me. And he had told Tom Cotton, Dan Sullivan, and I—three of us veterans of the global war on terror—that if we, the three of us were elected, and we were in 2014, that all three of us would be on his Armed Services Committee. I mean, he was bound and determined that we serve in those positions, just bringing that fresh perspective. Having worn our boots, our boots were on the ground, each of us in different areas, different responsibilities. But something uniquely situated for us to be able to bring not necessarily a general’s perspective, but a soldier’s perspective onto the committee.

And so he has worked and fought very hard for human rights. Obviously everyone knows John McCain’s story. And that was something that was very, very important to him. And while we disagreed on a number of issues, John McCain was a—he truly was the maverick and always stood up for what he believed was the right thing to do and would not back down in those areas. So, yes.

TALEV: And do you believe this will pass?

ERNST: Yes, I do.

TALEV: Do you believe President Trump will accept that?

ERNST: I do. Yes. Yes.

TALEV: Over the course of the last year there has been a sizable, measurable pushback from technology companies, like Google, about concerns about working with the Pentagon. And we’re talking about emerging technologies. The U.S. development of emerging technologies relies on private sector talent as well as folks who are already on the inside. Google’s concerns, some of the employees’ concerns, as you well know, about renewing work on AI had to do with their minds being used to facilitate work on lethal drones—drone programs, drone strikes. How much of a concern is it—but we should say, it’s not uniform. There are a lot of technology companies that are still working with the Pentagon, happy to work with the Pentagon. How much of a concern is this for you in terms of the relationship going forward with technology companies? And what do you see as Congress’ role in trying to manage this?

ERNST: I guess I’m not overly concerned, because I still think that there is a great amount of talent that exists out across the United States, where we can really tap into that talent and use it for the right purposes, to support our military systems. But I tend to look at the Googles, and maybe other types of private industry organizations, where they did push back on our federal government in the use of that technology in developing certain tools, like facial recognition. They pushed back against our government, and yet they were still working on those programs with China. So, you know, while they may say, oh, we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do, well, no, they’re doing it because they’re pushing back against our administration. They’re not necessarily pushing back on other countries, you know, in developing that type of technology.

So I think that—

TALEV: Are those conversations that you’re having with any of these companies, or?

ERNST: You know, yes, those have been conversations. But they are private industry. So, you know, they can pick and choose who they want to work with, what types of programs they want to work on. That’s understood. But that’s why we need to continue developing that great talent pool out there across the United States and drawing those that will support the mission of protecting the United States.

TALEV: I think we’re going to end up getting to this question later, I’m just going to predict, in the question and answer session. Speaking of developing the next generation of talent, we were talking offstage just before we sat down. And you have a roommate this summer.

ERNST: (Laughs.) I do.

TALEV: Tell us about your roommate this summer.

ERNST: I have a young, nineteen-year-old roommate this summer. She is my daughter. She is interning out at the Pentagon this summer, just through the month of June. And at that point, at the end of June, she will return to West Point, where she will go back out into the field for the remainder of the summer. And then she will start her yuk year, or yearling year. She’ll be a sophomore this year at West Point.

TALEV: And we were talking—I was asking you about the makeup of that class, because we were talking about what percentage of the West Point would need to be sort of combat technology educated. I probably used the wrong expression for that, layman’s terms. But I was asking you, what percentage of the class are women? And I was actually—I was surprised by this.

ERNST: Yes. She—entering into her sophomore year or yuk year at West Point, that class—that particular class has 25 percent female out of roughly 1,100 students. And that is the largest percentage of females in any class so far at West Point. Now, the incoming class, I’m not sure what the percentage is there. But so far, her class had been the largest percentage of females. And out of that entire class then, General Milley, chief of staff of the Army, had told that class that up to 80—perhaps even up to 90—80-90 percent of that class would have to be combat arms to fill in those gaps. So Libby is very interested in armor, which would be a combat arms. She didn’t want to consider infantry because they walk too much, is what she said. (Laughter.) But her dear friend who is also at West Point is considering infantry. And, you know, that’s really new for a number of young women choosing to go into combat arms.

TALEV: OK, I’ll add—I have one more political question, but there is substance behind this one too. (Laughter.)

ERNST: OK. Of course. (Laughs.)

TALEV: Pat Shanahan.

ERNST: Yes. Mmm hmm.

TALEV: The president said last week that he—that Shanahan had been recommended, which was an interesting word, but he did not say that he had been nominated for the position formally, or that he definitely would be. He was—that’s what he was asked directly, but it’s not how he answered the question. And I’m just wondering if you could give us a sense of your understanding about what is going on, and whether you believe that the acting Pentagon chief is, in fact, going to become formally—

ERNST: Well, we have not seen the formal nomination yet. I do know that the acting secretary has been making rounds on the Hill. So we are waiting for that nomination to come forward, and—

TALEV: Have you had that visit yet?

ERNST: I have not. I think a little think like Iran had some up. (Laughs.) So we actually were not able to meet. We were scheduled last week to sit down and visit. But if that nomination comes forward, then I will sit down once again—now, we did meet for the position that he had held previously as deputy. And so I just would like to vet him again, like to talk through any issues that might exist, and just get a good feel for him. But we are waiting on that nomination, mmm hmm.

TALEV: OK. Another question that President Trump has been asked about recently is the idea of a Raytheon-United Merger. And he had hinted that he might have some heartburn over it, but then in the same interview seemed to suggest he probably wasn’t really that concerned, but he sort of left it up in the air. Is this something that you think is facing any real problems? And do you have any concerns about it?

ERNST: You know, I don’t. And I visited with the United Technologies CEO last week, Greg Hayes. And we visited. And specifically we visited because as part of that merger Collins Aerospace falls under UTC Right now. And they are located in Iowa. They do have a large, large presence in Cedar Rapids.

TALEV: So you have an economic—you had a jobs concerns about this.

ERNST: So—yeah. So I had a—I had a jobs concern. I was very worried. Anytime we see mergers, we tend to see jobs shifting one—from one state to another. But we don’t see any jobs in jeopardy with this merger. And—

TALEV: In Iowa, or anywhere?

ERNST: Anywhere, really. For now we don’t see that. So he was very reassuring. But very different technologies, between the two businesses—Raytheon and UTC. So I don’t see an issue with a merger. And I believe that the president, after visiting with the CEO, I think he was reassured also that it would be OK.

TALEV: OK. Huawei Technologies.

ERNST: Huawei.

TALEV: Yeah. You can’t—actually can’t have a conversation about 5G, or China, or trade—(laughs)—as it turns out—our national security, or emerging technologies, without talking about Huawei. Put Huawei into the context of what we’re here to talk about today, and emerging technologies. I think when we sort of think about emerging technologies superficially, from a defense authorization perspective, you think about weapons systems and developing things that look like weapons. But where does Huawei fit into this debate about emerging threats and capabilities?

ERNST: It is centermost of thought as we see Huawei trying to expand and develop 5G networks, not only in areas that we would consider—or, in countries that we would consider adversaries, but the fact that they are trying to push into European countries and develop in the United States, and the products are readily available in all kinds of electronics, phones, things like that, it is concerning because we don’t know what also is embedded also in that technology. So if they are expanding internet networks across an allied country, what are they able to pull from data and utilize their government? So we have concerns about China, you know, as being a near-peer adversary. We do have concerns, then, about the technologies. And Huawei, of course, is subsidized by the Chinese government. Are they using it as a tool to tap into other countries? So there’s just a lot of concern out there. And I would state that it’s not overblown. I think this is a true concern that we have for those that are studying foreign affairs or armed services. It’s something that we need to pay attention to.

TALEV: Do you have concerns—the president was just in the U.K. And ahead of that visit—the U.K. has not publicly committed to, I think, the level that the president would want to hear—that’s, like, no, Huawei gets nowhere near anything. Did you see that more as a function of the fact that it’s hard to make pronouncements about an incoming government when the prime minister is changing over, or do you think the U.K. and other Western allies really are still trying to figure out where to draw the line for Huawei?

ERNST: I think they understand the threat. I think they understand the threat. It’s very appealing dollar-wise, if you’re looking at the type of technology that’s being brought to the table, of course anything proposed by Huawei is going to be much less than any other competitor, like an Ericsson. So, you know, you get what you pay for. And if you are going with a lowest bid, which would be Huawei, then you have to recognize the threat that accompanies that. I think the folks in the U.K. understand that. So we hope that everybody is on board.

TALEV: We talked a little bit about trade in the context of Huawei. But do you—how, if at all, do you think that the president’s trade negotiations right now with China are affecting the DOD threats, the defense threats, and the emerging capabilities threats?

ERNST: It is all tied together.

TALEV: How is that—how is that so?

ERNST: It is all tied together. I have always believed that trade and national defense go hand-in-hand—good trade partners good make good allies, typically. (Laughs.) But in the case of China, it’s just a—it is a mixed bag. We want to be good trade partners with China, but they have for long—for a very long time not been good trade partners with the United States. And that is a tricky one to balance. It’s important that we have good trade deals with China, but it’s important that we also keep an eye on them because they are a near-peer adversary.

So when we look at the region—and I like to focus more on trade in the region rather than specifically trade with China because for many years we have done the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, where the Pacific nations come together and talk about defense issues. When I attend those forums, the countries that we visit with, they talk about trade issues with the United States, because what they are telling us is that if we’re not engaging in trade in that region, then there is another prominent country that will engage in trade in that region, and that’s China. And those countries in that region state that we do not want any additional Chinese influence in our country. So they want the United States to be their primary trade partner. So I think we need to be those good friends and good trade partners with the other countries in the region, so that we can push back on China.

TALEV: Are you concerned when the president sometimes suggests that while Huawei is a national security threat it also could become part of trade negotiations? Do you think that that’s what he really means? Are you concerned that he would trade away some security firewalls on technology? Or do you think that—do you see that more as rhetoric to keep a trade path open? Do you think his mind is pretty set?

ERNST: I would certainly—I would certainly hope we don’t trade any—you know, any concerns with Huawei to get a trade deal done. And I think the president is very intent on getting and enforceable trade deal with China. But I certainly hope that we don’t end up giving on Huawei and their technologies as part of that deal. I think we need to stand firm there.

TALEV: I have two. I’m going to try to get them in before we move to questions. OK, here’s an easy one. What are hypersonics—(laughter)—what are hypersonics?

ERNST: Hypersonics, projectiles that can be delivered up into the atmosphere.

TALEV: Really fast, right?

ERNST: And then really unbelievably fast.

TALEV: I think I read that hypersonics move at five times the speed of sound, is that true? What?

ERNST: And then the challenge is to develop a system that can intercept a hypersonic projectile.

TALEV: Is China ahead of the United States in the game?

ERNST: I cannot state that. What I can state is that we need to stay ahead of our near-peer competitors.

TALEV: Wait, you can’t say that because it’s classified information, or?

ERNST: (Laughs.) I think it’s out there. No, I think that we are probably along the same development path as China and as Russia.

TALEV: OK. And is that—

ERNST: Maybe keep an eye on this.

TALEV: OK. We’re keeping an eye on hypersonics. OK, there’s going to be some hypersonics questions. So I’m going to move to my other question.

The New York Times recently reported that the U.S. is increasing experiments into Russia’s power grid—its ability to make incursions into Russia’s power grid. Is this also part of the emerging capabilities discussion? And does Congress have full visibility yet, or do you have full visibility yet, on what those programs are?

ERNST: (Laughs.) Let me answer the last question first, because I have not been briefed on that.

TALEV: Would you like to be briefed?

ERNST: I would love to be briefed on that. So if it actually does exist, I would love to be briefed on that.

TALEV: OK. Well, you’ve heard it on the record..

ERNST: There you go. There you go.

TALEV: OK, great.

ERNST: Breaking news.

TALEV: Breaking—(laughs)—two bits of breaking news.

ERNST: (Laughs.)

TALEV: So we’re going to keep the schedule rolling on time. Let me make sure I do this right. I think I have some instructions here. Yes, indeed. OK, I would like to invite now members of—members here to join our conversation. You’ve got your hands up. Just to remind you again, this conversation is on the record. When I call on you, wait for the microphone. If you would be so willing, please share your name and your affiliation. And we will take as many as we can.

OK, let’s start over here.

Q: Thank you. Good morning, Senator.

TALEV: See, you already broke the rule. You have to wait for the microphone. (Laughter.)

Q: Oh, yeah, all right. I just never follow directions. My mother used to tell me that. (Laughter.) Good morning, Senator. Tom McDonald, partner of the Vorys law firm, former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe. My compliments to your daughter at West Point.

ERNST: Yeah, thank you. Thanks, Tom.

Q: I was there during embassy bombings. Obviously Harare was never hit. It was Dar and Nairobi. But interestingly enough, we had a Latina deck commander of my Marine security guards. So you have a deck of seven and one, and this obviously a while ago, and so this young Hispanic female sergeant led the team and, you know, it was all hands on deck.

But let me, Margaret, just pivot the conversation to Africa. I follow, through clients and just my own studies over the years, both Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. I’ve spent time on business in Nigeria. I’ve been all over the country. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Kenya. I am a bit concerned, Senator, about sort of what the pronouncements have been as to support for AFRICOM. And obviously I’m now—you’re wearing your full committee hat, not necessarily the subcommittee you chair. And so I wonder, you know, what’s thought about—of American deployment there? And, you know, these are—these are threats that are coming out of the Sahel, out of various countries in Africa. And we certainly don’t want them ending up on our shores. Even in the Zimbabwe context we had a pretty active mil-to-mil cooperation. And I would like to see, you know, a continuing robust Pentagon involvement in Africa, as it’s, I believe, in our national interest, and would like to hear your comments.

ERNST: You bet. Thank you, Tom. And, yes. And while we don’t specifically talk about AFRICOM I think as much as we should, just please be reassured that the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe, has an affinity for Africa. He is very—

Q: His adopted kid’s from there.

ERNST: Yes. And he is very, very attuned to the various groups that exist, the violent extremist organizations that exist within Africa. So he is well-aware of that.

One thing that we did not cover as we were talking about the emerging threats and capabilities is that with that subcommittee I also have oversight then of Special Operations Command. And so while we may not have a large traditional presence in Africa, we do utilize a number of those different types of special operations groups to counter those violent extremist organizations in Africa. So we do have a watch on it. We do have a presence. But it’s not as typically as what you would think of as a presence that we might have in Europe, or along the eastern front towards Russia. So it’s just—it’s a different type of presence, but it’s one that we do pay attention to. Thanks, Tom, very much.

TALEV: Thanks, Ambassador.


Q: Greg Thielmann, board member of the Arms Control Association and native of Newton, Iowa.

ERNST: Thank you. Wonderful. Come back anytime. (Laughter.)

Q: You had mentioned the emerging threat of hypersonic weapons. I would note that we have an emerged threat of hypersonic weapons called intercontinental ballistic missiles. They’re faster than hypersonic weapons—mach eight not mach five. They’re extremely difficult to intercept. All three countries—China, Russia, and the U.S.—have tested the technology from maneuverable reentry vehicles on top of the ICBMS, which make it essentially impossible to intercept. So comparing and contrasting, why so little attention on this? And when I say little attention, I mean we’re getting out of the INF Treaty which banned—effectively and verifiably—banned Russian ballistic missiles that could threaten Europe. And the administration seems to be stalling on extending at least a freeze on Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles in the New START Treaty. So I don’t get it.

ERNST: Well, a treaty only works, or a ban only works, if that country will actually abide by a treaty. And oftentimes what we have seen, and with the administration—and I can’t speak for the administration. But what I see is that the administration understands a number of the countries involved in various treaties, they don’t actually abide by those treaties. So we—and we’ll continue—we’ll continue working on that. Those are discussions that we do have. I think it’s important that we continue to discuss that. But in the meantime, what we can focus on as well is working on those various systems—whether it’s intercepting ICBMs, putting technology towards that, or towards the hypersonics, and understanding how we can provide defense systems for that.

So that’s what we’ll focus on in this year’s NDAA and making sure that we’re promoting and putting the dollars where necessary to protect our country. But leaving those discussions with the administration, it is something that we do engage in.

TALEV: I’m just curious, journalists don’t have to raise their hands but everyone else, who in this room agreed with the idea of pulling out of the INF—withdrawing from the INF? Anyone have concerns about it? OK. And then a lot of undecideds, or don’t ask me questions I’m eating breakfast. (Laughter.)

Thank you, yes.

Q: Dov Zakheim, CNA.

I have a hypersonics question, but a different one. In the first Bush administration, I was funding hypersonics as comptroller. It’s still not fully there. When I was funding it, the Chinese weren’t there at all. So you’re going to throw money at it, how do you know you’re going to get anything out of it? It really worries me.

ERNST: Mmm hmm. Well, and I think that that’s a decision that’s made with any program that we have, is if we are putting money into it what do we expect? And making sure that those program managers are on top of that and clearly defining what they expect to achieve with the dollars that we have given them, as Congress. So we know that we have near-peer competitors that are advancing in those areas, and we need to be advancing as well. So that’s what we have as Congress, is to set that directive and hopefully then, by partnering—leveraging with our partners, whether it’s universities or through some of our innovation labs—that we actually get what we are paying for.

Q: I guess my question is are you going to do anything different because, as I say, I was funding this thing sixteen years ago.

ERNST: Mmm hmm. Well, the point’s well-taken. But new technologies, new developments, I say just because you funded it sixteen years ago, you know, things have advanced. You know we can fund it now as well. We know that our near-peer competitors are doing it. So I think it is something—we can’t just say, well, we’re not going to engage in that area, if our competitors are doing it. So if we have a way we can utilize the dollars and stay either—you know, we don’t want to just be equally matched with near-peer competitors. But if we can outpace them, still think we need to do that.

TALEV: In the back. Yes.

Q: Senator, I’m Kevin Sheehan, managing partner of Multiplier Capital, a private investment firm, and also a proud member of the West Point class of 1978.

ERNST: Thank you very much.

Q: So I’m sure that our daughter’s going to enjoy what’s always been called the best summer of her life. (Laughter.)

ERNST: My goodness, yes. Lovely. (Laughs.)

Q: We had—we had Senator Warner here yesterday, and he presented a chilling account of what China is doing not only to develop emerging technologies but, in effect, to steal ours, and some of the things that he cited were Chinese investment in early-stage companies on a no-names basis, allowing them access to that technology, Chinese blackmail of graduate students in the United States, in effect, holding their families hostage and, of course, substantial supplements to those who would do business with China.

And my question is, in addition to the artificial intelligence development what should a counterintelligence program look like directed towards China in particular, given the fact that the list of issues with China are so expensive, in addition to this and trade and North Korea and the South China Sea? How do we continue to make this a priority in a continuing way?

ERNST: Well, boy, he was rough on China. I’ve been kind of kind on China. I think we need to be rougher on China. But yes, absolutely. We just need to make sure that, again, we’re matching what they do. But they do it in a different way. We’re certainly not going to hold families hostage.

We have to remember that they operate under different acceptable standards than we do. Some of the things that China will engage in is not acceptable to us. When you talk about holding families hostage, you know, forcing people into whatever circumstances, we won’t engage in that same manner.

Do we need to engage? Absolutely we need to engage. So I visited the other day with the CEO of a company. I’m not going to name which one. But they do have facilities in China, and they had technology—sensitive technology—that was stolen from them. And they did that by sending in a Chinese operative and—able to work their way into the system. Found a vulnerable person within their company and then utilized that person to download over thirty thousand sensitive files from their system, stealing that technology. And then, of course, the company tried to work it out through the court system, which—

TALEV: Didn’t work?

ERNST: —you know, is virtually—


ERNST: Yeah. And so did not work.

TALEV: How did they find out? How did they find out that they had been—

ERNST: Compromised?

TALEV: Yeah.

ERNST: When the other company starts developing that technology—that same technology. They were able to trace where the files had been downloaded and was able to identify who that company person was that actually downloaded it. But they are. We know that. We know that the Chinese are bad actors. So we should just expect that they are going to do that. And then your question is how do we push back.

Well, I’m going to leave that to other folks. You know, I’m going to stick with the Armed Services Committee and make sure that we’re developing the technologies to make sure our nation is strong. But there are other means and other types of agencies then that can push back against the Chinese. But this is why, with this trade deal and the negotiations, it’s so important that we get it right and that some way we find something that is enforceable because we know that they do forced technology transfers.

We know that they are stealing sensitive information. It’s gone on for years. Biotechnology—my gosh, in Iowa we have had seeds—specifically developed seeds—that were stolen by Chinese tourists—“tourists”—coming through and doing field tours. So it’s a tough situation to be in. So from the national security standpoint, we have to do everything that we can without violating human rights like China does, but then also work on negotiations, trade deals, that are enforceable and how we can push back against them.

And that’s why American farmers still are hanging in with President Trump even though the trade deals and the tariffs have been very hard on them. They have been treated so badly in—you know, in purchasing and exporting of commodities that they’re, like, sock it to ’em, President, because we’re not going to take it anymore. So that’s a tricky question.

TALEV: Do you—to follow on the kind of law enforcement or intel side of this question, is it your sense that both intel agencies and maybe domestically U.S. law enforcement agencies are—that this isn’t a part of the program, trying to understand Chinese efforts to—

ERNST: Mmm hmm. Absolutely.

TALEV: —steal or manipulate or hack, and is this—is this something that requires, you know, more legislation, basically, or is this something that is already being worked through the Pentagon and the intelligence—

ERNST: I think it’s already being worked through, and even private industry has really worked in this area for a long period of time. They will see certain hacks coming from very specific countries and China would be one of those. So yes, it is something that law enforcement needs to be aware of.

In Iowa, we do have a unique relationship with China. President Xi Jinping had visited Iowa in 1985 and since that time has kept very strong relations and ties to the state of Iowa. So we do have a large Chinese presence in Iowa. We do a lot of commodities trading with China.

But one thing—and our former governor is now ambassador to China. He has long had a relationship with the president, and—the president of China—and one thing that I have noticed, even when I was sworn in to the United States Senate many of those Chinese members from Iowa, the students and the group that they are in, they came out for that swearing in, and I noticed that anytime that group was around they always had their phones out with their recorders on and they’re recording everything, and it’s just fascinating.

So you just know just to have normal conversation; don’t say anything inappropriate. But it’s so funny to see them walking around and standing by you with their phone held like this, you know.

TALEV: Right. Although it could just be, like, it’s a 15-year-old also. So—

ERNST: So but—yes, and—videos. (Laughter.) But also visiting in China with the ambassador he did let me know before we went into his residence that, you know, Joni, please understand that anything you say anywhere here is being recorded.

TALEV: Will be on YouTube later.

ERNST: Absolutely.

TALEV: Before we move to the next question, I wanted to quickly ask you, some of—sort of related to this, there’s been discussion about how Chinese nationals or visa holders would be affected by immigration policy or perhaps changes to visas, to educational visas, to students, to professors visiting at universities. Kind of where are you on the spectrum of does the U.S. need to increase limits on who’s visiting this country for academic reasons?

ERNST: Well, I think they need to be carefully vetted and then we need to think about—and this is just part of an overall immigration thought process anyway is to have merit-based immigration, and if we are educating Chinese here then, and again, making sure that they are carefully vetted, but keeping them here. And, again, that goes both ways because the thought would be are they sending information back; what kind of field are they going into.

But I do think that exposure to Western culture is really important as well. So, again, going back to the vetting process, we just need to move ahead carefully with folks coming from near-peer competitor countries. Are they here to receive an education and then stay on in the United States? And depending on what their career field is, we need immigration. We know that. But we have to do it in a careful and thoughtful process. So, you know, I have mixed feelings about it. But I do think that exposing people from other countries to the way we live, our wonderful country, and the freedoms that we have, hopefully, that they would assimilate and want to stay on here.


Q: Good morning, Senator. Fred Roggero. I’m president of Resilient Solutions, which is a drone safety and security company, and I’m also an Air Force vet.

Thank you very much for your service and what you do for vets. But in this day and age of emerging threats, drones particularly—the smaller commercial drones—can be both an emerging threat and an emerging benefit, and we have to sort of treat that technology as we do other developing technologies sort of even handed and find that balance.

However, the leading producer and seller of commercial drones in this country is a Chinese company, of course, and our public safety folks, our media, critical infrastructure inspections are all being done using these Chinese drones, which that’s fine. That’s great technology. They all do report back to servers back in China, of course.

But what’s interesting is the signals that our own government sends us in this regard because on the FAA’s Drone Advisory Council (sic; Committee), which I know you don’t have anything to do with, but the Chinese company has a seat on that council, advising the FAA on new rules and making new regulations for the use of drones in our airspace here in the States.

So that begs the question, do we have the right government processes in place to sort of make that balance between trading partner and not exactly ally but perhaps competitor in that regard? Are those processes currently there?

ERNST: I don’t know that they are, and I would love to see if we have technology, especially any technology which will bleed over from civilian uses like a farmer using a drone to survey crop damage, you know, in a field—something like that—not so much concerned about the transmittal of information there. But, certainly, if it has a military application or a national security application, I would rather that we’re not utilizing Chinese technology. I would rather we’re using either U.S.-developed technology or allied technology instead of Chinese.

So no, I don’t believe we have the right processes in place as of yet. But that’s why we’re working on not only the drone technology and swarming technology with drones but we’re also developing directed energy applications, which would be able to counter some of these drones that we see used or UAVs used in other places.

So no, just to answer your question. No, I don’t believe the processes are there.

TALEV: It’s very interesting. Thank you for your question.

Yes, in the back.

Q: Good morning. I’m Tara O’Toole from In-Q-Tel.

Thank you for being here, Senator.

ERNST: Thank you.

Q: I’d like to bring it back to biotech. Many people think that the most exciting advances happening now in science and technology are in the life sciences and in the applications in biotech. China has made biotech one of its top five R&D priorities. It has a strategic plan. It is pouring money into R&D, into building infrastructure, and so forth.

But biotech is not part of the national securities community’s DNA and I worry that it is going to become one of the fundamental pillars of the twenty-first-century economy. It’s going to become, I think, the major manufacturing platform for all kinds of things in the next twenty years and, of course, it’s going to be very important to agriculture and medicine. But we’re paying very little attention to biotech in DOD and in other parts of national security.

Could you comment on that?

ERNST: Yes, and I think you are spot on, and it was either last year or the years before NDAA I had to fight very hard to get a line in there about supporting our immunization bank for animal diseases, and everybody on the Armed Services Committee staff was, like, why is this relevant; why are we trying to support this through the NDAA. Because it is so important. It is our national security interest to protect our livestock and to protect our food chain. We are nothing if we have no food chain.

So we are very vulnerable in that specific area because maybe DOD is not paying as much attention. There are other areas. Now, USDA does a great job in looking at that. You’re kind of shaking your head. But I would say, you know, that’s where the emphasis is is in USDA—it’s not necessarily DOD—and other organizations as well. I tend to think agriculture and biotechnology. So we do have it there.

But could it be more cohesive and focused? Yes, we certainly could do that. And do I think it’s important to DOD to follow? Yes, I think DOD needs to follow that. But it’s a great point. Point well taken.

TALEV: Tara, not to put you on the spot but I will anyway. Do you know what kind of money we’re talking about in terms of Chinese investment or what you would think would be more responsible U.S. investment?

Q: Yes. Well, Chinese are investing heavily in U.S.-based biotech companies. Their VC investments in 2018 accounted for 40 percent of the first quarter investments in U.S. biotech companies.

TALEV: That’s a big number.

Q: We have an enormous number of Chinese students in biology and the life sciences in this country, which I do not think is a bad thing. I think we should keep them once we train them, if we can. But they—China has, admittedly, enormous problems in health and agriculture. So it needs great biology. But one worries about other motives, given the intensity with which China is going at this, not to mention the stealing secrets.

TALEV: Are you talking about weaponization or sabotage, or both?

Q: All of the above.


Q: Yeah. And I think economic competitiveness to a great degree is going to depend more and more on biotech, certainly in creating sustainable food supplies and also in terms of manufacturing things with synthetic biology, which is going to be faster, cheaper, much more agile, and less polluting in coming years than it is now. We’re beginning to see the first unicorns coming out of synthetic biology such as Ginkgo Bioworks and so forth.

I just worry that this is an area that we were the chief innovators in. We’ve spent over a trillion dollars in NIH since World War II. But we do not have a strong translational arm in the life sciences as we built in the physical sciences since World War II, and China is building that translational arm.

ERNST: Absolutely.

TALEV: Thank you for your question.

We have one over here.

Q: Thank you. I’m Linda Robinson. I’m a researcher at RAND, also a book author on special operations.

I wanted to bring you back to that topic, which is under your purview, and ask you what specifically you feel the Special Operations community needs whether with regard to emerging technologies or other requirements that you see.

I know the previous commander, Tony Thomas, was very big on AI. He installed a chief data scientist and they’ve done a lot. They’ll benefit from the investments in the bill. But I’m just curious what your specific interests are and also the HASC has a mark to do a full assessment of force structure and requirements per the NDS. So I’m just curious whether that’s something that you might support being in the final bill.

ERNST: Right. With our Special Operations Command—and you’re right, General Thomas was a remarkable advocate in making sure that AI was well integrated into the type of research and development that they were doing specific to their needs. But, truly, whenever I ask our commanders within SOCOM what more do you need, what more can we provide, they will tell us that they have all of the authorities that they need. They have the dollars necessary. It’s just allowing them to remain flexible.

They do develop different types of technologies at their own pace, which is a little quicker than what we might see for the rest of our conventional forces. Just making sure that they’re able to do that is very important to them. Their missions may require different types of delivery systems, whether that’s weapons, whether that is platforms to deploy from, and they are able to develop that within their own construct.

So allowing them to continue to do that is probably of utmost importance to those operations commands or those Special Operations Commands. So we will continue to allow them—at least that’s my thought—as we allow them to continue to do that. But looking at force structure, I think that that is important any time that we’re moving forward.

But, again, making sure that we have the right structure for SOCOM to take on the missions that we have given them, whether it’s counter WMD, whether it is countering those violent extremist organizations. Whatever it might be we need to make sure that we are taking the advice from those commanders—those that are on the ground—understanding the needs of their organizations.

And that’s why it’s so important for me and for many others that have worn those boots, you know, we understand that maybe Congress is out there and they may have some idea what they think is best for our military members without actually understanding what those missions entail.

So I think it’s really important having a number of veterans, those that have experienced life on the ground, to be able to interpret some of those needs and desires versus a member of Congress that maybe hasn’t served and has some brilliant idea that’s been recommended by a staffer. (Laughter.)

So, you know, so I’m—sorry. Sorry. Nick actually wears the uniform. So, yeah, but I think there’s a difference there, and understanding that if we are looking at force structure that we’re actually getting the right advice from the right people on what is actually necessary and needed to protect our national interests.

TALEV: OK. Well, that seems like a fitting way to end our conversation for this morning. I want to thank you so much for spending the time with us.

ERNST: Yeah. Thanks, Margaret. Thank you very much. (Applause.)


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