Defense Technologists: We Do Things the Private Sector Does Not
The Navy more than a decade ago decided it needed a jet ski that military operators could safely take out to sea for rescue missions and other risky assignments. It bought several jet skis from a commercial vendor that had agreed to “militarize” the vehicle so it could survive in rough ocean waters.
But the supplier eventually decided that selling to the military was a money-losing proposition. The orders were too small to justify the cost of customizing the jet ski, so it discontinued the product.
So for the past six years, engineers at the Navy Surface Warfare Center in Carderock, Maryland, have been developing a military-focused jet ski, called “small assault vessel expeditionary.”
“It's still a work in progress,” said a Carderock engineer who declined to be identified and was showing off the custom-designed jet ski at the Pentagon May 14. The NSWC and other military laboratories were there displaying dozens of technologies for the Defense Department’s first ever “DoD Lab Day” event.
The Navy’s jet ski is just one example of the many pieces of equipment that the military is designing in-house because the commercial industry won’t do it. “The supplier wanted orders for hundreds and we were only buying a handful,” said the Carderock engineer. Commercial vendors are all about manufacturing volume and low cost, but what about the performance the military needs? “We were able to build one from the ground up, it is durable and oceangoing,” he said. “As an engineer, this has been a fun project.”
The reality is that “some things we are going to have to continue to do for ourselves,” said Alan R. Shaffer, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering.
The Pentagon soon will be setting up shop in Silicon Valley in an effort to recruit private sector innovators. But its massive in-house technology enterprise is not going away. The Defense Department today employs more than 100,000 scientists and engineers, including 38,000 who work at 60 laboratories spread across 22 states.
“The DoD is the largest employer of engineers in the country,” Shaffer said in an interview at the Pentagon during the lab day event.
The Pentagon needs the private sector, but the labs are just as essential because they bridge the gap between military-unique requirements and commercial innovation, Shaffer said. “What we have to do in our defense laboratories is to be flexible to either build it ourselves or work with industry to put the special military wrapper around a commercial product.”
The Pentagon’s 2016 budget request for technology research, development and testing is $69.6 billion — $6.1 billion higher than the 2015 funding.
Defense technology spending might pale in comparison to commercial R&D investment, but the Pentagon has many specialized needs that the private sector will not fund. Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook are generating amazing innovation, but “we can’t win a war with that,” Shaffer said. “That’s a lot of money but not a lot of product.”
Defense laboratories increasingly are teaming up with private firms so they can inject commercial innovation into military products. These so-called “cooperative research and development agreements” are extremely valuable, Shaffer said. “I think CRADAs are terrific.” DoD currently has more than 4,000 agreements with private businesses. One of the private sector’s biggest success stories in the space business, SpaceX, began its inroads into the military market via a CRADA.
At DoD lab day, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work presented the directors of three military laboratories with a $45 million prize for their work in quantum information science — an area of study based on the idea that information science depends on quantum effects in physics. There is commercial investment in quantum information science, Shaffer said. But many applications, like submarine detection or remotely mapping a tunnel, are unique to the military.
Work said the Pentagon is looking for commercial innovations in robotics, analytics, big data and additive manufacturing. The military labs are being asked to scour the market for these technologies “so we understand what’s going on, and use that innovative technology in our products.”
Outside the Defense Department, company executives and industry analysts have been hugely skeptical of the Pentagon’s outreach to commercial industries.
The cultural divide between defense and commercial business is too wide, said Michael Horowitz, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “We know the DoD process is too slow and not nimble. It discourages innovation,” he said May 13 during an online forum hosted by the Atlantic Council.
As long as the U.S. military remains the world's most technologically advanced, there is little motivation to change, he said. “It's hard to innovate when you're number one.”
The Defense Department often does not understand the pace of play in the private sector, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and senior vice president of a startup company in Silicon Valley called Alphabet Energy. The Pentagon, for instance, created a “rapid innovation fund” in 2011 to quickly transition promising technology from the private sector to the military. It was a “great idea,” said O’Reilly, but it’s not rapid enough. Proposals this year are due in June, but contract awards are scheduled for June 2016. “Small companies can't wait a year for a decision.”
Topics: Research and Development