Defense Science Establishment Due for Makeover
The Pentagon’s science-and-technology bureaucracy — 60,000 employees across 62 agencies in 22 states — is under review. Some of the military’s laboratories and research organizations are in dire need of updating. Others simply need new management and business models to better respond to the needs of troops in the field, senior Pentagon officials said.
“While our laboratories are positioned for success today, I believe it's important to challenge our existing practices and consider new business models,” Zachary Lemnios, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, told lawmakers last week.
During a hearing of the Senate Armed Services emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, Lemnios said his office has launched a sweeping review of defense laboratories. “Our study will examine and compare existing models of research, development and transition against emerging models that other organizations are using,” he said.
Lemnios testified along with the science and technology civilian leaders of each branch of the military in support of the president’s $12 billion funding request for fiscal year 2013 Defense Department S&T programs.
They all agreed that defense S&T organizations need to improve their ability to transition technologies into new and relevant products. The review will investigate whether the silo-style structure of current laboratories — which report to different chains of command and do not necessarily share their resources — hinders innovation and promotes inefficiency.
“A key element of this assessment will be to examine the balance between the service-specific responsibilities and the joint effectiveness of this enterprise,” said Lemnios.
Also on the agenda is a survey of the Army’s 2,000 facilities that make up its 22 laboratories, many of which are the nation’s oldest and in most need of modernization. Marilyn Freeman, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology, told the committee that she has “major concerns with the long-term health of our S&T enterprise.”
With the Army projected to suffer larger personnel cuts than the other services, Freeman said she worries that S&T will take a disproportionate share of the pink slips. Aging infrastructure also is a problem, she said. Approximately 72 percent of Army S&T facilities are more than 25 years old, and 48 percent are over 50 years old, she said. “We currently have one building that was constructed in 1828.” The Army, said Freeman, does not have a “good long-term solution to the problem of aging facilities.”
A survey of Army laboratories should be completed by October, said Freeman.
Freeman’s Navy counterpart, Mary Lacey, deputy assistant secretary for research, development, test, and evaluation, said naval facilities also are due for a comprehensive survey, but one has not yet started, and could take at least a year.
The Air Force’s S&T enterprise, meanwhile, appears to be the one in less need of change, as it underwent a major reorganization over the past five to six years.
“Our single, unified lab structure has brought Air Force S&T to a new level of efficiency, collaboration and innovation,” said Steven Walker, deputy assistant secretary for science, technology and engineering.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has 539 facilities at 40 sites. The 2005 round of Base Realignment and Closure actions provided AFRL with $450 million to build several new state-of-the-art facilities, said Walker. Nonetheless, he added, “We must continue to be vigilant and upgrade our S&T infrastructure in a timely manner so that major research programs are not put at risk due to aging facilities.”
Lemnios said that one of the dilemmas that the Pentagon now faces is how to invest S&T dollars fairly across all branches of the military while also ensuring that “joint” priorities are addressed, such as growing demands for robotic technologies and cybersecurity.
The panel’s chairman, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., pressed the witnesses on whether the Pentagon’s laboratories are doing enough to expedite the fielding of new technologies.
“While increased basic research obviously is important, there are concerns over decreases in more applied research funding and for activities that can help transition technologies across what has classically been labeled the ‘valley of death,’ the gap between the labs and the military users,” Hagan said.
The executives agreed that more attention should be paid to that problem. “I do feel like we have been skewed a bit too much towards basic research in the last few years,” said Walker. “One of the things we're trying to do in AFRL is transition technologies that our war fighters care about.”
In the Navy, said Lacey, “I would like to see more of an investment in our [applied research] accounts that can help us transition across the valley of death.”