Cover: Measuring China's Science and Technology Progress

Measuring China's Science and Technology Progress

A Framework for Assessing Advances Affecting Military Capability

Published Apr 24, 2024

by David A. Shlapak, Chad J. R. Ohlandt, Jon Schmid

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Research Question

  1. How can the United States assess China's S&T programs to gain insight into military capabilities that the U.S. military might confront in the future?

The United States might get very little early warning of the specific science and technology (S&T) programs that China could use to create important new military capabilities that the U.S. military might confront in the future. For this reason, a tool that could identify activity to develop these capabilities early in the pipeline is of immense interest to the military and intelligence communities.

The authors developed the Military Advances in Science & Technology framework for gaining insights in these areas. Its top-down, analytic approach begins with the China's leadership's strategic aspirations for China, works through the military missions implied by those goals, and identifies new or improved capabilities required to execute those missions. The authors specified the technological bases for these capabilities and explored Chinese S&T activity as far back as the basic research phase. This resulted in a graphical dashboard, backed by qualitative and quantitative data, which indicates the status and trends of China's progress in these S&T domains.

The indicators supplied by this framework can focus U.S. research and development objectives and shape modernization priorities, point the intelligence community to new areas of China's S&T activity and assist in allocating intelligence assets and resources effectively, facilitate combatant commands and Pentagon planners in assessing the potential results of China's S&T undertakings, and help the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) inform its governmental, academic, and industrial partners about S&T areas in which caution should be exercised in both Chinese investment in U.S. firms and collaboration with Chinese researchers.

Key Findings

  • RAND researchers developed a framework that can measure S&T progress of foreign competing nations to help determine what should warrant the attention of DoD decisionmakers.
  • The four phases of the framework progress in a structured and transparent way—from the subject country's highest-level strategic goals to the critical technologies supporting its military capabilities to achieve those goals—identifying requirements, screening S&T activity, comparing baseline historical progress, and supporting decisionmakers.
  • A prototype of the framework, which was applied to three cases studies in China, demonstrated that it can generate timely and useful insights.

This research was sponsored by the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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