DoD 2020 budget puts heavy emphasis on development of emerging technologies

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After spending the last few spending cycles focused on rebuilding readiness within the military, the 2020 defense budget is expanding its aperture and asking for increased funds to invest in the development of emerging technologies.

The $750 billion budget request for 2020 asked Congress for almost $104 billion for its research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) fund. The request is $8 billion more than what was allocated in 2019 and $12 billion more than what was given to the Defense Department for RDT&E in 2018.

“The budget is the largest research, development, test and evaluation request in 70 years,” David Norquist, who is performing the duties of the deputy defense secretary, said at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

A budget request from 70 years ago had similar themes to the 2020 request. In 1950, the world was cleaving further into competition between the USSR and the United States. In 2019, DoD seems to think the world is in a similar separation between China, Russia and the United States. Both budgets were focused on posturing between world superpowers and both budgets have an emphasis on technological superiority to keep the United States ahead of other militarily advanced nations.

For that reason, DoD is putting an emphasis on developing emerging technologies after years of putting it on the backburner in terms of investment.

“Relying on the quality of training is too close of a margin for me,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said Wednesday during the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Programs Conference in Washington. “We want our worst pilot to beat their best pilot because our aircraft is vastly superior.”

Richardson said the Navy’s 2020 investments will accelerate the development of emerging technologies, especially in lasers, unmanned vehicles, hypersonics, additive manufacturing, prototyping and cyber operations.

Where’s the money?

All of the military services’ budgets and the defense-wide budget increased the development side of their RDT&E budgets for 2020.

DoD is asking for about $25 billion for RDT&E for defense-wide accounts — those unaffiliated with any military service. The request is about $1 billion more than last year. About $10 billion of the 2020 funds have also been set aside for prototyping and advanced development; another $5 billion goes to operational system development.

Prototyping is something DoD is placing significance on because it allows the department to explore currently emerging technologies quickly and cast off those that don’t work without a huge investment.

The investment in prototyping also reflects the will of Congress after it gave DoD expanded powers to move faster on prototyping and to come to early development agreements with companies in order for the Pentagon to move its acquisition and development process quicker.

Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy said Wednesday that the Army and DoD as a whole want to fail fast, much like the tech companies of Silicon Valley, and that is reflected in the prototyping budget.

As for the services, the Air Force request holds the biggest RDT&E increase of $4.5 billion from 2019, making the 2020 budget Air Force RDT&E budget $35.4 billion.

“This year’s budget invests heavily in innovative technologies and focuses on modernization of key capabilities shaped by the National Defense Strategy,” said Air Force budget deputy Carolyn Gleason. “We continue to modernized our aircraft fleets, recapitalized two-thirds of the nuclear triad, accelerate defensible space capabilities and invest in technologies to maintain our edge against emerging threats.”

The Air Force RDT&E budget funds hypersonics, directed energy and adaptive engines. The Air Force is trying to do more prototyping by working with small businesses. Last week, it held its first Pitch Day, which rapidly awarded small contracts to companies with innovative ideas.

The Navy’s RDT&E budget request is $20.5 billion for 2020; up from $18.7 billion in 2019 and $18.5 billion in 2018. In the 2020 RDT&E request, $17.2 billion of those funds would go to the development of emerging technologies.

The Army, while being the largest service, requested the smallest RDT&E budget. The service asked for $12.1 billion, a $1.1 billion increase from last year. Most of those funds would go into later stage research like demonstration and validation, engineering manufacturing development and operational system development.

The next generation

While prototyping and development saw large increases across the board, things like basic research, applied research, science and technology and advanced technology development actually declined.

Early stage research totaled about $14 billion in the 2020 budget, about $1 billion less than last year. That early stage research starts the efforts on what will be the emerging technologies of the future.

Richardson said the stagnant investment in early research does not reflect its priority or importance.

“I think it’s about what we are doing with that money,” Richardson said. “We are using the money to be disruptive enough in things like quantum computing and swarming technologies.”

While the Defense budget does not take its foot off the gas pedal when it comes to restoring readiness, multiple military leaders said recently that readiness is moving to more acceptable levels.

DoD signaled in the past that once readiness is up to par, that the Pentagon would start focusing on the future with its investments. The 2020 budget is the first to do that.

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