As featured on Just Security
How often have we heard, “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight?” Arguably, the U.S. government continues to do just that by not leveraging the inherent advantages in the diversity of our nation to combat national security threats. Understanding the psychology — motivation, environment, and influences — of the adversary is key to quickly comprehending, adapting to, and mitigating attacks. As former Australian Air Force Captain Peter Layton wrote, “American grand strategy is too important to allow myopia to unintentionally limit debate.” And British Professor Patrick Porter noted the need to overcome groupthink and re-imagine a grand strategy suitable for confronting today’s threats.
Operationalizing the intellect and lived experiences of a diverse workforce is the best way to confront the wide spectrum of global risks and competition today: cybersecurity threats, the spread of pandemic diseases like EBOLA, rival interests in space and in the Arctic, nuclear proliferation from rogue states, etc. While a number of systemic changes are required to better cultivate diverse talent and recruit minorities into national security, an important solution that can be implemented right now is to invest in historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions (HBCU-MIs).
“African-Americans, Latinos or Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians represent 34 percent of the workforce of the United States,” according to the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2017. But in 2016, only 10 percent of senior positions in the State Department’s civil service and 13 percent in the Foreign Service were occupied by members of these groups. Similar disparities exist across national security agencies, particularly in leadership roles.
The U.S. military, of course, takes up the lion’s share of America’s national security apparatus, and often is a source of thought leadership and operational innovation in the field. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs are a great example of an investment in recruiting diverse talent from HBCU-MIs. However, there is still room to bolster recruitment of diverse candidates for the military, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and among officers. According to the 2017 act, minorities represented only 22 percent of the overall officer corps in the military, far less than the 40 percent of the enlisted force.
Without representation in leadership, the United States is ill-equipped to effectively respond to rapid changes in our global environment. To promote and ultimately achieve a diverse national security workforce, we must especially make investments in research and development. And this cannot be a “check the box” approach, but a means to train, recruit, retain, and promote talented people of color.
The FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) recently passed by the House of Representatives includes two provisions to promote diversity in the military. It calls for an assessment of “critical skill-sets required across the science, technology, research, and engineering workforce of the Department of Defense to support emerging and future warfighter technologies.” This assessment will include a review of current workforce diversity and workforce recruitment and retention. The results of the assessment would inform “a plan to diversify and strengthen the science, technology, research, and engineering workforce of the Department of Defense,” including investments in HBCU-MIs.
Section 240 of the NDAA establishes the National Security Commission on Defense Research at HBCUs and Other Minority Institutions. The commission would address inequality in defense funding and identify ways to build research capacity at HBCU-MIs. Additionally, the bill requires an assessment of university subcontracts with HBCUs as part of the evaluation in the award of future research grants.
Together, these provisions would increase funding for such programs at HBCU’s and other minority-serving institutions to $50.7 million, $20 million more than President Donald Trump’s budget and $10 million more than the FY2019 authorization. According to House Armed Services Vice Chairman Rep. Anthony Brown, “The program funds scholarships and research opportunities for minorities. Additionally, the bill reinforces the importance of minorities to defense research, to include explicit language supporting minority women.”
While HBCUs account for only 3 percent of four-year nonprofit colleges, their alumni make up 80 percent of black judges and 50 percent of black lawyers and doctors, and their students account for 25 percent of black undergraduates who earn degrees in STEM. Bringing research and development funds and opportunities to HBCU-Mis, coupled with investments in recruitment and retention, has the potential to meaningfully increase diverse representation not only among practitioners but in the research output that informs national security strategy.
If passed, this HBCU-MI STEM initiative will be the only high-visibility pipeline that grooms diverse candidates directly from undergraduate programs into a career in defense and STEM. Many HBCU-MI graduates struggle to secure STEM jobs in the defense industry because they lack networking opportunities, sponsorship and awareness of job opportunities. There are countless HBCU-MI students that are earning their degrees in STEM. Bright, capable students studying relevant and even essential fields like cybersecurity, engineer and nuclear science need to know that the defense industry values their talent — and not just at war time.
While a focus on HBCU-MIs is an important step towards further diversifying the military, similar investments are needed to cultivate, recruit, and retain diverse talent from all backgrounds across other national security agencies too — the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Treasury Department, and others.
This change in demographics will necessitate institutional reforms that expand legacy definitions and constructs to make room for new voice and lived experiences. For example, the federal government needs to re-evaluate the security clearance process to ensure candidates with low income backgrounds, immigrant roots, and/or foreign family ties can be effectively and efficiently evaluated, with an eye toward bolstering the diversity in the national security workforce.
Building a vibrant, diverse workforce that is adaptive in countering emerging global threats is vital to U.S. national security. This requires investment, institutional evolution, and a commitment to change. As two of the three founders of the Diversity in National Security Network, we believe the United States will only be stronger for having made this commitment.