Pentagon Research Chief: Science Investment Should Be Protected

By Dan Parsons
As the Defense Department’s budget begins its forced decline, investment in research and development of technologies should be protected, said a top Pentagon scientist.
The Obama administration emphasized research and development spending in its defense strategic guidance release in January 2012, which states that leaders should “protect and prioritize key investments in technology and new capabilities.”
Al Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said President Obama himself is a “big believer” in funding science and engineering efforts. Facing budget uncertainty, Shaffer argued for preserving research funding over other line items.
“As the budget grows, early on R&D should not grow at the same rate as the budget,” Shaffer told a meeting of the Precision Strike Association on March 19. “But when it declines, [R&D] shouldn’t decline as much. The most important thing for R&D is stability because it’s a people-driven product. We don’t want to grow too fast, we don’t want to come down too fast.”
The U.S. is winding down the second of two wars in which its technology and capabilities were overwhelmingly superior to the enemy’s. That likely will not be the case in future, especially as the military shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific region, where China and Russia hold sway and North Korean continues to rattle the saber, officials have warned.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast, said it is time to invest in affordable technologies or risk falling from global power status. Kwast has been making the speaking rounds in recent days explaining his role as the service's director of the upcoming 2014 quadrennial defense review. He believes the budget downturn must be seen as an opportunity to innovate  and reform stale acquisition methods or risk writing checks federal coffers can’t cash.
“If we continue to try to solve new problems with old methodologies, I dare say we will find ourselves on a path where we will spend ourselves into oblivion and the enemy will just be licking their lips,” Kwast said at the PSA conference.
Industry can help by providing interoperable, affordable technologies that have been thoroughly tested and prototyped before they are offered to the Defense Department, Shaffer said.
“The most difficult thing is getting to affordable prototypes, working with the operators and the requirements communities so we stop trying to get the exquisite but start trying to deliver capabilities,” Shaffer said. Both the government and industry must begin “thinking about affordability as part of the tradespace,” he added.
If industry continues offering platforms that consistently outgrow cost projections, the Defense Department will hold back on future contracts, he said. “We will only pull back if industry continues to have unaffordable solutions,” said Shaffer. “That sounds harsh, but I can’t tell you the number of times industry will have someone come in to meet me and say ‘Hey, I got a cheap solution for you. It’s only $400 million. Well … if you think of that as not real money then we need to take a step back and do a reality check.”
In that context both governmental and industry research and development funding should aim to accomplish three overarching missions, as identities by Shaffer’s office.  The first is “mitigate emerging threats,” a fancy way of saying prepare to defend against and attack technologies peer nations are likely to employ against the United States. In the era of “anti-access, area-denial” scenarios, those include digital and electronic jammers, cyber weapons and offensive short- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, Shaffer said. The latter particularly are becoming cheaper and more widely available, creating “ incredibly formidable emerging threats,” he added.
Modern air defense systems are increasingly sophisticated and difficult to disable, which could force the U.S. military to operate further from an objective and at greater risk. They are increasingly networked, with mobile radars and built-in redundancy.
“There are a lot of countries out there that are doing things like knitting together integrated air defense systems, they’re creating capabilities to deny our space layer, that are developing exquisite electronic attack capabilities that will affect our capability to operate,” he said.
An issue that keeps Shaffer awake at night, he said, is the U.S. military’s slipping grasp on dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum. Computing technology has progressed and become so ubiquitous that delivering crippling attacks on electronic infrastructure can now be done cheaply and quickly. Even non-state actors and undeveloped nations  can interfere with communications, munitions guidance systems and navigation, Shaffer said.
“The potential threat systems are more lethal,” Shaffer said. “They deliver effects at longer range and they’re mobile.”
Scientists and engineers should also be focused on bringing space-based capabilities back into the atmosphere where they are far less vulnerable. Troops on the ground rely on space for communications, navigation, missile warning and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information.
“How do we fight without those four capability sets?” Shaffer asked. “Even though simultaneously losing all of them is a difficult thing to do, having different [ones] go to a degraded mode is not that difficult to accomplish. If we can do the same capability set without an overhead constellation … it’s time to think about doing that.”
Research dollars must go toward designing smaller satellites that can orbit lower to Earth. Efforts to transition precision navigation and timing to non-space platforms must be a priority, in case an enemy disables global positioning satellites, Shaffer said.
Engineers must also think first and foremost about affordability in regards to current and emerging platforms, he said. With dwindling stocks of cash, the military must find ways to increase the capabilities of existing systems as much as possible. Shaffer and Kwast harped on industry’s role in building more affordable systems.
“We’ve just come through 11 or 12 years of unprecedented budget growth,” Shaffer said. “We’ve had more money to throw at the problem than we probably should have had. Now we’ve got to think about affordability. It’s up to industry to push back on requirements that may be a cost driver.
“One of the advantages of going through change forced from outside is it makes you take stock,” he said. “This is probably the best time to think about change and a change in emphasis than it is when you’re awash with cash.”
Photo Credit: Thinkstock, Navy

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Science and Engineering Technology

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