Beth Meinert speaking at an all-employee meeting

Great Power Competition: The Ultimate Systems Engineering Challenge

What actions can the U.S. take to come out on top in today’s great power competition with China and Russia? MITRE VP and Army veteran Beth Meinert looks to early trend lines for answers.

The U.S. is locked in an ideological, military, and economic battle with China and Russia. This competition has been simmering since the end of the Cold War, but domestic issues and peacekeeping dominated U.S. attention in the 1990s, and counterterrorism efforts took the lead after 9/11. China and Russia steadily built their infrastructure, military, and influence—while the U.S. largely concentrated on threats elsewhere.

Today’s great power competition (GPC) is 30 years in the making, although it has only recently risen to the top of America’s priority list. The U.S. now needs a whole-of-government strategy to secure its position as world leader, says MITRE Vice President Beth Meinert, who’s leading the company’s GPC Strategic Initiative.

An Army veteran and director of MITRE’s Center for Enterprise Modernization–Financial and Economic Transformation, Meinert stresses that GPC encompasses more than military might and 5G dominance.

In our Q&A, Meinert shares her insights into what actions the U.S. must take to come out on top—and how MITRE is uniquely qualified to help the nation win.

Q: Can you give us an overview of great power competition—what it entails and its significance?

A: Some say that dominating 5G [fifth generation wireless technology] is the primary aspect of the great power competition. But it is much broader than 5G. What we’re doing is applying a whole-of-government approach.

We’re looking at citizen-centric metrics across the expanse of government and developing a situational awareness tool to overlay across measures of national wellbeing—including economic, educational, defense, healthcare, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, R&D [research and development], innovation, manufacturing, and many other sectors.

There are thousands of metrics you could track, but we want the right indicators and warnings. A way to do this is to let what the public cares about lead our GPC strategy. It really comes down to what’s happening to people and their families. Fears and questions like, will my child(ren) receive a good education? Will they have access to opportunities I didn’t?

We need to ensure that as we prioritize where we’re going to compete, versus cooperate on a world stage, it aligns with what benefits and provides security to citizens across America. This is key to public security in an economic and personal well-being sense.

It’s up to us to make the case and use our resources to connect what citizens care about with national security.

Q: What do the metrics reveal and how are they used?

A: We’re looking at trend lines across the data—seeing where things are becoming imbalanced or where and why the U.S. is losing its ability to provide in these certain categories.

When we’re early to identify trends, the federal government can do a lot—through grants, subsidies, tax policies, and other available instruments and resources—to bring things back into balance. These actions can also help industry be part of the solution. It’s much harder when we’re late to the game, as we’ve seen in the case of 5G.

Without situational awareness, we can’t see early trend lines developing, or know whether our policies or actions are working in the current environment. The environment is dynamic. We need to be able to track within that dynamic environment and make adjustments early, versus moving from one crisis to another.

Q: How would MITRE flag an early indicator and work with an agency to help calibrate its strategy?

A: There are many indicators, and key to our initiative is determining a subset that matters and understanding the periodicity of available data. From that data, you have data sets that provide the early indicators, as well as data that provides your current status.

The great thing is most of this data is available on the open market. For example, the number and location of PhD students and the number of patents provide early indicators, where trade and financial data is a current indicator. We analyze the data, evaluate current position and causality, then use modeling tools to posit the future and evaluate potential courses of action. 

By being able to play it forward from a whole-of-government and economic impact perspective, one can show the largest returns on investment or where policies or legislation may provide the largest impact. 

We help sponsors determine whether they need to act, demonstrate how those actions may play out, and help them align their investment priorities with where they want to head strategically. This can be applied to a particular technology or industry, diplomacy, policy, health, or issues of national security.

We’ll be sharing our models and frameworks this summer. Right now, we have several pilots in progress with partner organizations and testing that we’re tracking the right indicators.

Q: How does GPC compare to the Cold War and other times in history?

A: What makes it different is that in the past we tended to put nation states in two categories, formal or informal allies or those who we were in direct conflict with. The perceptions of our actions and policies were viewed through a black-and-white lens.

Today, we’re cooperating and competing with countries that are threats. We cooperate on the International Space Station, yet we have tensions with Russia in other areas. We’re in conflict with China over human rights, IP, and launching cyber-attacks, yet they’re a lifeline for supplies. Also, as American industries have become more international and our supply chains have become tightly integrated, many gray areas emerged that didn’t exist to this extent during the Cold War.

Q: You’ve said that healthcare is an important sector in GPC. How so?

A: Yes, healthcare is absolutely part of GPC. COVID-19 has brought our supply chain limitations into public conversation, but it’s been a problem for some time because it doesn’t afford the U.S. and our citizens the resilience we need.

COVID-19 has brought out the best of what it means to collaborate and work together, but it has also brought out the worst, as each affected population tries to obtain and control the parts of the supply chain that they need to ensure the well-being of their citizens.

Supply chains in the future need to ensure that there are fewer single points of failure, more transparency. And that for a short list of critical supplies, there’s a mechanism for assured production and access.

We’ve also seen that accurate information-sharing not only across governments, but also across citizens, is important. Other nation states can introduce misinformation on health topics such as vaccine effectiveness or side effects that can sow discord or create vulnerabilities.

Q: What unique expertise does MITRE bring to GPC strategies and tactics?

A: No other organization covers the whole-of-government the way MITRE does. We have the privilege of operating a broad set of a FFRDCs [federally funded research and development centers] on behalf of the federal government. Our seven FFRDCs let us engage with all parts of government. Our heritage is all about pioneering solutions to large-scale, complex problems.

Through those FFRDCs, we have deep expertise in defense and national security, aviation and transportation safety, cybersecurity, healthcare, economics and finance, standards development, civil systems modernization, and more. I can’t think of a better place to reach across all aspects of the federal government. There has been an uneven recognition of GPC’s significance across these different sectors, but MITRE’s unique vantage point can help connect the dots.

GPC is the ultimate systems engineering challenge. Systems engineering is about understanding what end-state objective you have for a system, and then optimizing all the different parts of the system to achieve that end objective. That’s what MITRE’s good at.

MITRE has always innovated to stay ahead of the curve on critical solutions. We’re keeping our GPC approach proactive, not reactionary, by pinpointing when indicators and warnings are just starting to show up. That’s the point at which we can enable decision-making to take early, effective action.

Q: What does winning the great power competition mean?

Our systems of government are so different: China takes a long-term view, and national priorities don’t change over with new administrations. They’ve been effective at executing their national strategy. The same with Russia. They follow a very different set of rules, so this is not about defeating their system, but enabling our system to be effective for our citizens in the current environment.

It doesn’t mean we need to give up on capitalism and our democratic principles and adopt government industrial policies or other artifacts of our competitors. Not everything is a zero-sum game. Our ability to provide great healthcare and economic prosperity for our citizens does not mean that others have to fail. But it does mean they we have to use our government to continue to enable greater resilience and capacity than at present. We cannot do this alone, so continuing to build coalitions with partners and allies—a U.S. strength—is an important component of winning as well.

Within government, normally a team forms around an issue, they develop solutions, and there’s an assumption that things will get better. But without regular, ongoing attention, we lose focus as a country. We must constantly and consistently monitor and analyze. MITRE does just that with its government sponsors. GPC requires this same approach on a larger scale.

by Karina Wright