Defense Superiority Relies on Investment, Research, Acquisition Chief Says


Cheryl Pellerin

WASHINGTON—The Defense Department’s ability to maintain U.S. technological superiority for the 21st century depends on research and development investments requested in the fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics told a Senate panel today.

Frank Kendall testified before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on the department’s innovation and research request for FY 17.

Joining him were Stephen Welby, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, and Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Focus on Innovation

Kendall said the department-wide focus on innovation, technical excellence, and acquisition process improvement is intended to help sustain a long-term competitive advantage and make the most effective use of resources.

“We were able to increase our research and development request in the FY17 budget by about $3 billion over the previous year’s appropriation level,” Kendall said.

“This budget increases the use of prototyping, demonstrations, and experimentation to help the department more rapidly mature technology and assess the impact these innovative technologies can have on the future force,” he added.

DoD investments create options for future investments in full-scale development and production, Kendall said, noting that the department must rely on Congress and others to remove the threat of sequestration and make sure the next administration has the resources it needs to put such innovative technologies into the hands of warfighters.


DoD Science, Technology

Welby told the subcommittee that the FY 17 budget request contains $12.5 billion for science and technology, including $2.1 billion for basic research, and confirms the department’s commitment for a stable and robust DoD science and technology program.

“We are at a pivotal moment in history,” he said, “where the advanced technical capability and capacity that the nation has relied upon to provide us with unmatched advantage on any battlefield is now being challenged by the military technology investments being made by increasingly capable and increasingly assertive powers.”

Today the department employs more than 39,000 scientists and engineers in 63 defense laboratories, warfare centers, and engineering centers across 22 states, Welby said, all working to sustain the department’s ability to support and field critical military technology that often has no commercial equivalent.

“Our defense laboratory enterprise touches the broadest range of emerging concepts through our deep engagement with academia, industry, and our international partners to keep the DoD smart, knowledgeable, agile, and responsive in the face of new and emerging threats,” he said.

DoD laboratories have produced important innovations in vital defense areas such as electronic warfare, propulsion and weapons design, Welby added, “and maintaining this unique technical expertise is critical for insuring the department’s ability to prepare for future threats.”
Pivotal Investments

Prabhakar told the senators that DARPA works closely with colleagues across DoD and directly with defense companies, commercial companies, universities, and labs of all sorts.

“Within that ecosystem DARPA has one particular role,” she said, “and that is to make the pivotal early investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.”

Today, DARPA does that work in a shifting global security landscape filled with technologies moving at a furious pace, said Prabhakar, who then provided the panel an example of the agency’s work.

“When our aircraft go out today on a mission they have a set of jamming profiles. These are very specific frequencies and wave forms that they can transmit to jam the adversary and protect themselves,” she explained.

But sometimes when the aircraft go out, Prabhakar said, they encounter a radar that’s transmitting a signal that doesn’t match anything in their library. If that happens in a time of conflict, it leaves them dangerously unprotected, she added.

A Completely New Approach

Upgrading the system and getting the upgrades out to all the aircraft can take weeks to months to years, Prabhakar said, reflecting “the simple fact that when those systems were built we were in a world in which the adversary didn’t change that often.”

Now a DARPA program takes a completely new approach to the problem, she said.

“Onboard the aircraft, our system looks across the radio spectrum, [using] artificial intelligence to learn what the adversary radar is doing and then right there on the spot it generates a specific jamming profile to counter that specific threat,” Prabhakar said.

That means aircraft will be able to protect themselves immediately in the battlespace even when the environment around them is changing, she added, noting that there are many more examples of such new technologies across the DARPA portfolio.

“We have work,” she added, “that ranges from radical new military systems—for example, we just christened a ship a few weeks ago that will navigate across the ocean without a single sailor on board—and it also includes research that is harnessing everything from photons to algorithms to even living cells to create possibilities that no one could even imagine before today.”