DoD tasks innovation experts with stretching out technology dollars

Under sequestration, technology research has suffered disproportionately in the Defense Department. Leaders say those limited dollars need to be focused on maki...

The Pentagon has fewer dollars to invest in technology, but it’s trying to make the best of a bad situation, officials say. Among the military’s efforts to cope with declining dollars is a greater emphasis on making use of commercial technologies and using the process of innovation to improve the acquisition process itself.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), famous for lighting the fire beneath once-in-a-lifetime innovations such as network computing and GPS, is best known for making investments with a huge potential payoff, and sometimes a huge amount of technology risk.

Its director, Arati Prabhakar, said that’s not about to change. But inside DARPA, there’s a greater push toward innovating based on the fruits of its past labors, and not necessarily always building better mousetraps from the ground up.

For example, DARPA’s early investments in the miniaturization of microelectronics for military purposes built the foundation for what Prabhakar said now is a commercial “juggernaut” that’s pushed that particular ball forward tremendously, and advanced those circuits to the point where they’re ubiquitous in consumer electronics around the planet.

“Now, it’s a huge opportunity for DoD to try to surf on top of that,” Prabhakar said in an interview with Federal News Radio as part of our special report, A New Era in Technology. “We need to take all of that power and repurpose it so that we get all of that capability, including the ability to move fast and be agile as technology keeps changing.”

Prabhakar offered a DARPA program called ADAPT as an example. Its goal is to quickly and cheaply build new sensor systems for the military, with the recognition that past DoD endeavors in that space have taken an average of three-to-eight years. Commercial industry generally gets the job done in one or two years.

Cost reduction comes first

At its core, for the moment, is the low-cost commercial Snapdragon chip found in many modern smartphones.

“Essentially, that program recognizes that the same things in your smartphone are the same things we need to build a huge number of the sensor networks and communications systems we need in DoD,” she said. “You need high-speed processing; you need a bunch of sensors; you need to know your global position and orientation; you need to communicate. Why don’t we leverage all of that capability? The ADAPT program has created a set of nodes that are built on this commercial technology, and it’s a great backbone so that when you want to build a new sensor network, something we need to do for national security all the time, you can start with that capability and very quickly design something at the systems level.”

While DoD’s science and technology enterprise always will be focused on creating breakthroughs, Prabhakar said that doesn’t mean those breakthroughs will all take the form of new technology systems. The department is putting more energy toward using innovation to reduce the cost of everything it buys, she said.

“For the high-tech national security community, this whole theme is new and none of us are very good at it. It’s a challenge that I really want to put out to all of us, because we’re on a path where we’re just going to build PowerPoint slides instead of actual systems if we don’t use innovation to change cost,” she said. “We have some examples in our portfolio, and ADAPT is one, but a very different example might be rethinking the deep reasons for cost in an area like space, the most costly domain we try to operate in.”

Prabhakar is not alone in her desire to invent ways around the persistent problems that cause cost overruns in DoD systems over and over again. Making existing and near-future systems more affordable is one of the top priorities for the Defense Department’s top science and technology official.

“I have to start to think about affordability,” said Alan Shaffer, the acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. “That means I have to prioritize things that will help me understand things like interoperability and interfaces so that I can interact more easily with other nations.”

Modeling and simulation

Likewise, Shaffer said during an appearance on Federal News Radio’s On DoD radio show, the department needs to direct its research attention to projects that offer the promise of making more use of modeling and simulation in the design of new systems.

“That’s something you don’t think about DoD Research and Engineering doing, but in the commercial world they’re using computers to do design,” he said. “We want to carry that one step further and develop a capability to do system trades on the fly, so you understand if you do design X, how that will affect the performance, and then you can vary the parameters of whatever that particular factor is to very quickly optimize your system. And if we develop these tools, if the requirement changes, I don’t have to go back to ground zero for design, I can move much more quickly. So these are areas I can’t afford not to invest in, because my community is responsible to the rest of the department for breaking the cost paradigm.”

At the moment, the overseers of DoD’s research, development, test and evaluation accounts have a strong incentive of their own to try and stretch their dollars further.

During the first year of sequestration, those pots of money and the military’s procurement accounts shrunk disproportionately in comparison to other parts of the DoD budget as the department scrambled to pay short-term bills at the expense of longer-term investments.

And according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the pullback in RDT&E funds has happened at an unusually fast clip compared to prior Defense spending drawdowns.

“We’ve already, in the first three years of this drawdown, reduced the RDT&E budget by 25 percent,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at CSBA, in a recent briefing with reporters. “That’s as much or more as it has declined during all three previous downturns. So, if historical trends were to hold true, we might already be done cutting RDT&E. It might already have declined as much as it’s going to.”

Not doing enough to sustain the force

But the Pentagon’s top acquisition official isn’t exactly sanguine about the near-term outlook for R&D spending inside the department.

Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said he’s worried that the level of investment DoD is making in research right now is one precursor to the “hollow force” senior defense officials have been forecasting as a result of sequestration.

“The hollow force for readiness is right now. The hollow force because you didn’t do enough R&D and procurement is a few years down the road, but it’s going to be there. There’s a pipeline of things we have to do in terms of what we need to do to sustain the force,” he said at a recent event held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Research and development is essentially a fixed cost for the department or, at least, it ought to be. It’s, essentially, the account that governs how fast we can modernize. If you want to keep your ships, planes, tanks at a state of superiority relative to any adversary, you have to do R&D regardless of how many ships, planes or tanks you have. You can change the production rate based on the size of your force and how old you’re willing to let your equipment get, but I’m worried about R&D because it tends to be one of those things that tends to get cut first.”

And if those R&D accounts are constrained at the levels sequestration would require, Shaffer said the survivors of the cuts are more likely to be applied research programs, those that aim to solve a specific problem. Investments in basic research — efforts to advance the nation’s fundamental understanding of science and how to apply it to the military — are more vulnerable.

For example, he said the department likely would spend less money to fund university-based design teams focused on military needs and more money on prototyping potential systems for near-term fielding.

“That’s not a space I want to be in, but it’s kind of where we are,” he said. “If you look at basic research, it’s very hard to draw a thread from a particular research problem to a system. But DoD’s basic research investments over history gave the nation the Internet, GPS, stealth and military capabilities that have been unmatched for an incredibly long period of time. If I reduce the number of grants I’m putting out at our universities by 10 percent, I increase the probability that someone else will get to those solutions faster. It’s not a linear equation; it’s more the law of large numbers. If you assume that 10 percent of basic research projects will end up going into a final product somewhere at some time, if I start 1,000 fewer projects, I reduce the amount of things that go into long-term capabilities.”


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