Great Power Competition – New Capabilities for New Challenges, with David D. Perkins

Interview with Danny Nsouli and David Perkins

Danny Nsouli (left) and David D. Perkins (right). Graphic: Danny Nsouli

Interviewer: Danny Nsouli

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Cyber Security Software Engineer Danny Nsouli interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice.

In this episode of the MITRE Knowledge Driven Podcast, Science and Technology Advisor David D. Perkins, discusses MITRE’s role in our continuing series of podcasts on the work of the Great Power Competition initiative. Join us, as we take a dive into the inner workings of the data-driven processes that influence government actions regarding strategic competition and national resilience.

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Podcast transcript

Danny (00:13):

Hello everyone, my name is Danny Nsouli and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Podcast. Today we’ll be discussing the Great Power Competition and its new capabilities and challenges with David D. Perkins. David, would you like to introduce yourself and tell the listeners a little bit about your role and experience at MITRE?

David (00:29):

Sure. I’m glad to have this opportunity to talk a little bit about something I’ve been looking at for about the last seven years, I guess. My background: I grew up in the military. When I first entered government, I spent time in special forces intelligence for about 20 years. Learned about agility, adaptability, perseverance, and the willingness to adjust on-the-fly when you had to get the mission done. That’s what you learn in the military. From then, I joined MITRE. I’ve been there for approximately 23 years. Took a lot of those skills I learned and went right into doing not the same thing, but being able to have opportunities, to take on challenges and move out on areas that were of concern to the government and to our sponsors.

Danny (01:19):

To start off, can you give us a basic overview of the GPC and what it does with the types of data it gathers?

David (01:26):

Sure. The Great Power Competition is a broad term. I think people are still trying to figure out what it means. As I learned earlier, you just have to start calling some plays and making some things happen. And so, the Great Power Competition was an effort, a corporate initiative to start moving forward on a lot of those challenges that we were seeing. I guess the good term I like to use or the metaphor is: we wanted to skate to where the puck is going and not wait for it to get there and be told and asked what to do.

David (02:00):

So, the corporate initiative and the Great Power Competition in that framework is how we went forward. We’ve done a lot of thinking about it, and I think we’ve picked some areas that were not being looked at and are now, over probably the last five years, have started to pick up a little bit of energy. And one specific area is the economic domain, and what’s happening in the commercial and financial sectors across the globe as we exist in a global economy now. And I think that’s where we have spent a lot of our focus in our Great Power Competition initiatives.

Danny (02:37):

Could you go into more detail on the data-driven side of things, more specifically how the quantitative and qualitative data work together to inform decisions that are made?

David (02:47):

That’s a great question. And I think the best way to look at it is how does our national security apparatus currently exist and make decisions? And a lot of it’s data-driven, which would be quantitative. And then we have qualitative subject matter experts throughout the government and throughout MITRE that also have input to those decisions. So, it’s a complex issue and so how do you start to sort through it and make sense of it? And we look at different tools that are out there. Some have been around a long time; some MITRE has built to try to show the causal relationships of all these moving parts. Because none of these problems are simple and there’s no black-and-white answer, and they’re all very difficult to the national security apparatus to try to make the right decision and then to understand the unintended consequences.

David (03:41):

So, you’d like to run different scenarios, and I think the Great Power Competition initiative at MITRE has worked with various tools. And depending on our modeling and SIM (Simulation) folks that do a great job of bringing some of these tools forward, we’ve put in qualitative as well as non-traditional data sets for lack of a better term. This term’s been around for a long time. But commercial and economic data, lots of different data. And as you talk to your data scientists, all data’s good but there’s always a downside. It never arrives the way you’d like it. So, whether you have to curate it, condition it, whatever term you want to use, a lot of work goes into that to make it work within various tools, modeling, and simulations.

David (04:26):

So, we’ve spent a lot of time sorting through that. We want to get to do it faster because you don’t have a lot of time to make some of these decisions. And therefore, you have to have these things ready to go. So again, that’s back to: “let’s move to where the puck is going” and that’s hard to do. So, we’re trying to better understand these capabilities and also work with sponsors to engage with them to see if these will help take on some of the toughest decisions that we have to make now and into the future.

Danny (05:01):

To paint a picture for our listeners, can you give an example of challenges faced in the GPC and what a win or success looks like regarding working with allies and partners?

David (05:12):

Sure. There’s lots of commercial activity happening in the marketplace and we’ve looked at these. However, you want to describe Great Power Competition, lots of things happen globally. A great example is, last year when the United States government supported a UK company, I believe it was Vodafone Group with Ethiopia that went in and countered an offer that was being made by the Chinese to come in with their 5G infrastructure and the Development Finance Corporation, which probably a lot of people don’t know exists. And then other types of mechanisms: EXIM Bank, Millennium Challenge Corporation, these are all kind of terms that if you were to walk up to somebody on the street say, “Well, what’s the Development Finance Corporation do for the United States government?” They might not understand it and they’d have to go to Google like a lot of us.

David (06:08):

But they put together a deal for about $500 million to help finance the Vodafone Group, which is made up of different companies. Some from, I believe it was Ericsson and Nokia. So, this is just a great example of working with allies, partners, and in the commercial space to put other solutions on the table that may be as good or better than some of the offers that come in from other places. So, it’s complex. It takes a lot of time to set these up. It takes a lot of work by a lot of people behind the scenes to make a deal like this happen. So, it’s kind of what a win looks like when you can, in that competition space, ensure that the U.S. and allies and partners are part of the deal. And it shows countries, some of those middle-tier, low-income countries, that the U.S. is there for them and their allies and partners. We’re trying to help them.

David (07:10):

That’s one of very small deal, $500 million. You multiply that across the world of the billions of dollars that move for different types of–whether it’s putting in a canal or a railroad or high-speed rail or a port, and getting a port ready for 5G and smart port technology–all these things have a commercial and financial aspect to them that we have to engage, and understand that we can’t just necessarily let business happen without trying to ensure that our commercial activities and the U.S. industry and our allies’ industry get a fair shot at these opportunities.

Danny (07:53):

Great. And regarding what you mentioned before about tools MITRE uses to inform certain GPC decisions, could you discuss what you think MITRE is specifically doing that may be different from other contributors regarding working with sponsors?

David (08:07):

Sure. As a systems engineering company, it’s one of our strengths. It’s a great approach to use when you’re trying to solve very complex problems regardless of their “Is it a technical issue? Is it a political or a geopolitical issue?” The same kind of approach can be taken to break the problem apart, better understand it, and to determine what types of capabilities you need to help you gain insight and to come up with the optimum solution without unintended consequences or surprises as you move through to action. So, a lot of the tools we’ve been working with, I talked a little bit about them in the causal loop diagram.

David (08:49):

Again, is one of those efforts to systematically break apart a complex problem, understand relationships that may not be apparent? Or the experts who provide qualitative input may see it much differently when they see all these nodes in a causal loop diagram interacting together. And then if you were to take that and move forward into Bayesian belief networks (which Bayesian belief networks have been around a long time). But I think the technology’s matured and you’re able to bring a lot of data into these different types of networks which you couldn’t do before to help you. And you can bring in qualitative information to help you look at it from a more rigorous process and use some of these technical capabilities that we now have available to us.

David (09:43):
So, that’s an example of what we’ve used. And we’ve used them in different areas. We’ve also done a lot with gaming. I wasn’t too involved in that, but there’s different types of serious games that we have used. And if you look at the gaming industry and how they do gaming and modeling and simulation, very helpful. And we engage on a daily basis with the industry trying to find the best that’s out there, potentially testing it with some different data sets or prototyping it, working with those other companies, and then bringing it forward to various sponsors in the government and showing how they might be able to use tools or capabilities or technologies that were built for one thing. However, with a little nuance and a little effort you can use them for other things, and it’ll be very beneficial to you, specifically in the decision-making process.

Danny (10:42):

Focusing in on the idea of always looking at where the puck is going, I was wondering: what does that process look like at MITRE to ensure that sponsors are prepared for future challenges?

David (10:53):

Well, that’s a great question. It’s a hard question. We try to hire smart people that are not confined by some of the different bureaucratic elements that you can get caught up in. And just try to think about the problem differently and come at it a different way. It’s a challenge. I think that we have a diverse… As you know, at MITRE, if you look over your shoulder at MITRE you need help, there’s always someone there with the expertise. If you need a mathematician or if you need a geologist or if you need a data scientist or a software developer, we have a myriad of experts that are dealing with the latest and greatest technology out there, or creating the technology. MITRE creates technology every day to try to solve some of these problems. And again, that comes from having a very diverse cross-cutting type of workforce.

David (11:49):
And that kind of gets back to, it’s key is our investment in human capital. And I think having been at MITRE for 23 years, I’ve seen that investment become the very top of the list as opposed to not necessarily chasing technology. But if you hire the right people, you’re not chasing technology. You’re driving it to work for you and developing what’s needed to be developed.

David (12:15):

The Great Power Competition that is challenging our nation right now is being described in many different ways. And I think MITRE has taken the right approach on experimenting with different capabilities and using the experts that we have available to us and taking on this challenge and helping our sponsors across the government to try to forge ahead and move outside of our comfort zone. Because clearly, the Great Power Competition has been happening and it is going to take some significant changes in investment. And I think MITRE has led the way and said, “We’re going to do some of this on our own and see how we can call some plays to get things moving forward.” And I think we’ve been successful in doing that.

Danny (13:02):

Are there any resources or pieces of public information that you’d recommend to those listening who may want to learn more about this?

David (13:09):

Another great question. And I’ve spent the last few years reading many, many documents that came out, whether it’s on One Belt, One Road or Military-Civil Fusion that China is pursuing or their 14th year plan or their Made in China 2025 and their Strategic Emerging Industries plan. Much of it’s in English. What we find is in this competition that they’re not shy about writing down exactly what they’re going to do, going back to the 1998 Unrestricted Warfare. So, no surprises, there’s a lot out there now. I would say that five years ago, maybe seven years ago, if you tried to find a lot on these kinds of topics, the search would’ve been much more difficult.

David (14:06):

Now there are some great experts that have been watching this happen over the last 20 years who it’s kind of their time now and they’re writing about what they’ve been watching and what they’ve been seeing happen and making some very good recommendations on what should be done about it. I would say, if somebody really wants to go deep on this, the U.S.-China Economic and Securities Review Commission, they have a website. They have 20 years’ worth of documents that provide different views of this challenge and different recommendations. They’ve been funded by Congress for 20 years. So, this is not something that… For them, they’ve been very serious about it. However, only within the last probably seven years have we started to see the think tanks and a lot of others publish on this topic. And again, like I said, it’s the China experts. This is their time. So, very exciting.

Danny (15:06):

Do you have any ideas you’d like to impart on the audience regarding lessons learned from your experience that may be helpful to those wanting to do or currently doing similar work?

David (15:17):

Sure. Just a couple of takeaways that working with different sponsors over the years and whether it’s the Great Power Competition or other major challenges that we have at MITRE and other institutions and corporations and FFRDCs across the board, academia, is to… Sometimes you’ve got to be patient and realize that you have a great idea or you see a solution, you have a vision for a solution or for a way to move the needle forward as part of a larger solution. Just don’t give up on it. And you just have to be patient and wait for your time. Sometimes it takes personalities, resources, and timing for it to happen. I’ve waited five years for things that I… I’ve got some funny examples. But if you wait, sometimes it’ll happen. And five years later you say, “Oh, I had that idea five years ago and they asked me to pull out this old briefing and yeah, now we’re doing it and it’s got $10 million behind it.” So, you just don’t know when the need may arise for that, whatever you were thinking about. And so, keep all your information close at hand when those opportunities avail themselves.

David (16:41):

Another thing to do is, well, listening to your sponsors or whoever’s asking for help. Listening, you have to listen hard. When you’re dealing with a bunch of Type-A people in the room, sometimes it’s hard to listen hard, but that’s a key aspect. And then I’ve also politely, many times you have to sometimes say, “You might want to look at this a different way.” And reach into your brain power or look over your shoulder at MITRE and say, “We have to look at this a different way. Who’s got some ideas that can help us?” Because doing things the way we’ve been doing them over the last… Well, this is the way we’ve always done it, is not necessarily going to take on the challenges of the future. So, we need that innovation, that creativity which a lot of people talk about, but it’s really an environment that you create wherever you go or whatever. You can’t label an organization and say, “Oh, we do innovation.”

David (17:45):

I’m still kind of struggling. Well, what does that mean? It’s hard, but I’m big on human capital. And you hire the right people and put them in a team and everyone wants to be on a winning team. So, you have to set that up and somebody’s got to be the coach. And when you’re on a winning team and the idea goes forward and you make things happen, that’s what success looks like in this very challenging times.

David (18:14):

So, the other thing on where to go for more information. Again, if you go into Google and type in things if you’re not familiar with, you can check Belt and Road Initiative, One Belt, One Road, Made in China 2025, and 14th year plan. These will start to give you some indications of what’s happening. You can [find] also a lot of open-source information. One of the companies we work with, Rhodium Group, publishes a lot of information on this and they’ve got some real good experts that MITRE depends on and we talk to them often. Also, the different companies out there that have been collecting data for many years, RWR, publishes a lot of information on this stuff and they have some great data sets that we use. And a lot of it’s a detective work too, to find what people are doing and what’s going on. And I think you can very quickly realize that there’s been a lot of things that don’t make the headlines and you wake up one day and you go, “How did that happen?” And that’s what we try to not have happen.

Danny (19:28):

Great. And before we wrap up, do you have any remaining thoughts on the GPC that you’d like to end the show with?

David (19:34):

Just some final thoughts on the topic of the Great Power Competition and new capabilities and challenges. The key to any good idea is to have it last until the next good idea that does it, whatever you’re doing, better and faster. But the transition of these new capabilities is really hard to do to get it into a program. You can walk into a lab and see a thousand good ideas and you have to understand that only three of them may make it into a program, an educational institution, the military educational programs, and it’ll become a part of the DNA of the services or combatant commands. Very few capabilities make that journey, but it’s always, you got to keep trying and they will get traction when they’re needed.

David (20:27):

We’re going to have to invest more in our human capital. The people make the technology. Technology just doesn’t appear on the… You don’t pick it off a tree; it’s the human capital that creates that technology and those capabilities. So even within MITRE but within our country, we have to continue to invest heavily in our human capital. And that is, again, a bigger question, a bigger challenge. But that’s the key to maintaining a technological edge and our way of life.

David (21:06):

We’re going to have to make readjustments across the government. We love to build machinery and we stick with our DIMEFIL. That’s another one to kind of wrap your head around this Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic. Let’s see if I can remember all this. Financial, Intelligence, and Law enforcement–DIMEFIL. There we go. It may be time for another characterization of what is national power, and I think MITRE has worked on that. But the people are the key. And how do you invest your resources is going to be a very difficult question across our country in our allies and partners, because there are less resources available, and we can’t keep investing in capabilities that aren’t made for the challenge that we’re facing. And there are a group of people that I think believe and they understand that, but it’s a very difficult corner to turn to get those investments to change. So, I’ll kind of close with that. And it’s human capital and teamwork that’s going to move us forward as it always seems to be.

Danny (22:22):

Alright, well, thank you for coming on to discuss your work with the GPC. I’d like to give a quick thank you to MITRE and the Knowledge-Driven Enterprise for making the show possible. And again, thank you David for coming on to share. I’m sure our listeners learned a lot.

David (22:34):

Thanks a lot, Danny. And hope to talk to you again.

Danny Nsouli is an Associate Cyber Security Software Engineer. He has a passion for computer graphics and enjoys learning about front-end solutions for consumer-facing project components such as data visualizations.

© 2022 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 21-0943

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