Top Pentagon Scientist Pushing to Fund Technological Demonstrations (UPDATED)

By Dan Parsons

To ensure that budget cuts don’t cost the U.S. military its technological superiority, a senior Pentagon engineer proposed shifting money into large, rapid-fielding programs that can more quickly fulfill future needs.

Alan R. Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said engineers and scientists need to continue their work despite impending fiscal austerity, or the nation risks being unprepared when new technical challenges arise.

“You can’t really predict when technologies will be developed,” he said during a June 6 breakfast hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association outside Washington, D.C. “You’ve got to keep a steady stream [of funding] going through. Technologies are demonstrated and don’t necessarily need to be fielded. We need to continue developing prototypes and whether or not we field them is a different question.”

Shaffer gave the ongoing X-Plane program as a case in point. The program began in the 1950s with the Bell X-1, which was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight. The program most recently tested the Air Force’s experimental scramjet hypersonic missile. But it was the early stages of the program — designed to test technological advances in aeronautic engineering rather than field operational platforms — that was most influential, he said.

“In the 40s, 50s and 60s with the X-planes … none of those were going to be actual capabilities, but we developed the world’s best aerospace industry through that process,” Shaffer said.

The military must continue funding science and engineering endeavors, even at the expense of procurement programs, Shaffer said. Continuous innovation and development of prototype capabilities is needed to mitigate emerging and existing threats, he said. Experimentation can also drive affordability in both existing and future platforms, he added.

“We also develop technology surprise,” Shaffer said. “We still have to make things that challenge other people. The thrusts we’re making big bets on are autonomy, big data, and human systems.”

Shaffer vowed to buoy programs like the joint capability technology demonstration that funds projects seeking to fulfill needs of combatant commanders. In partnership with the military services the 

JCTD pays to demonstrate prototypes that have the potential for near-immediate transition to either an acquisition program or direct fielding.

When the program began, it produced influential technologies like the Global Hawk and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, Shaffer said. It has since devolved into funding small, 12- to 24-month-long programs that have not produced similar capability leaps, he said. Shaffer has directed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Rapid Fielding Earl Wyatt, to return to allocate half the JCTD funding for large prototypes.

“We did not have enough funding to do new starts this year. I took that as an opportunity … to recast that program,” Shaffer said. “We are starting bigger projects in FY 14 and … we’re going to be working on things to support the [combatant commanders] but I’m looking for other ideas … the best ideas from industry in concert with the combatant commanders.”

JCTD funding was cut in fiscal year 2013 for “a number of reasons” on which Shaffer would not elaborate. The Government Accountability Office in March published the results of an audit of that and other technology “transition” programs to evaluate how effective they were at delivering capabilities.

The programs reviewed by the GAO consumed about $7.9 billion of the Defense Department’s research, development, test, and evaluation funding for fiscal years 2010 through 2012 to support technology transition.

There are seven transition programs managed by civilians under the office of the secretary of defense, including JCTD. The military services have a slew of similar programs, all aimed at funneling new and improved technologies to troops as quickly as possible.

The OSD technology transition programs GAO reviewed spent $1.75 billion for fiscal years 2010 through 2012.

JCTD and rapid innovation fund — another similar program designed to speed technology to troops in the field — accounted for more than $1.2 billion of that total, GAO found. JCTD alone was allocated $538 million from fiscal year 2010 to 2012.

Most OSD technology transition programs limit the projects they fund to two years or less, because “their focus is rooted predominately on providing funds to accelerate transition for technologies that rapidly respond to current or near-term military needs,” according to the report.

Individual projects average less than $3 million, with JCTD traditionally funding in the high range of expenditures, GAO found. Typical projects funded through the program include an airborne weapons surveillance system that can detect, classify, and relay locations of enemy fire and radar-jamming technologies.

Future needs include technologies that can counter digital electronic jamming systems that threaten high-end U.S. weapon systems like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and satellite communications, Shaffer said. There is also a need for electronic warfare weapons and defenses, space-based communication and spy technologies, non-GPS inertial navigation and precise timekeeping.

“We’ve got be able to deliver capabilities in space. Just about every space platform we have can be denied or degraded,” Shaffer said. “How does our military operate if we don’t have access to GPS? It will be hard right now because we don’t train that way.”

GAO investigators found that many of the technology transition program managers are responsible for their projects only to the point where they are fielded. That “limits their ability to know and report final outcomes for transitioned technologies and the associated benefits realized from those technologies,” the report said.

It was recommended that rapid fielding programs follow the technologies they deploy to measure their overall benefits rather than continuing to throw money at new devices and capabilities as they appear.

Shaffer said the government science and engineering community has “gotten very lazy” over the past decade because a glut of funding. Given that the faucet is about to flow much more slowly,

Shaffer said engineers should focus on large, revolutionary technologies.

Clarification: A previous version of this story stated that Shaffer would "funnel money" rather than "shift" it. 

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

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