Pentagon casts wide net to build its next long-range technology strategy

New request for information kicks off DoD's long-range R&D planning initiative, an effort to regain technological superiority that Defense officials fear is...

The Defense Department says it’s looking far and wide, not just to its usual suppliers, as it starts to build a long-range plan to maintain U.S. military superiority in 2025 and beyond. Beginning Wednesday, DoD is asking for technology ideas from anyone and everyone.

With its forthcoming Long-Range Research and Development Plan (LRRDP), DoD is hoping to replicate the success of another identically-named initiative that began in 1973. That effort began to deliver stealth technology, precision guided munitions and networked warfighting systems about a decade later, but Pentagon officials are growing increasingly concerned that potential adversaries are catching up with the technological edge those systems provided.

Under a request for information DoD issued Wednesday, officials say they’re looking for innovative ideas in five broad areas: space, undersea warfare, air dominance, defense from other countries’ precision weapons, plus a catch-all category for other emerging commercial and military technologies.

“We’re really looking to open the aperture and engage the broadest possible community as we try to think through what the future of the department looks like,” Stephen Welby, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for systems engineering told reporters Wednesday. “We’re often criticized for not engaging broadly in long-term planning. Here, we’re really trying to invite non-defense commercial industry, think tanks, academia, small business and the general public to help us think about the future capabilities that might be important to the department and the technologies that might enable those capabilities. We’re not constrained to current portfolios or investment plans, and we’re asking our own folks to come in with a clean sheet of paper, take their blinders off and look at the art of the possible. We have a strong emphasis on engaging non-traditional sources, and part of that includes the notion that the department needs to be a fast follower on commercial technologies, where we’re not going to be the sole driver of capabilities that contribute to future military dominance.”

The department wants the proposals to be limited to technologies that are far enough along that they can be deployed in the 2025-2030 time frame, or emerging technologies that can be quickly accelerated with more development and fielded by then. Responses to the RFI are due Jan. 14.

From there, five working groups that DoD says it’s assembled from its best and brightest science and engineering minds will pore over the responses in each of the five areas as part of a broader long-range technology study that’s due to be delivered to the Defense secretary by next summer. The final long-range plan — at least some of which is likely to remain secret — will start informing DoD’s acquisition decisions starting in 2017.

“Right now we’re just after ideas,” Welby said. “Once we assess those ideas, we’ll look at the budget impacts and what’s required to support them, but frankly I think much of what we’re going to be looking at is how we prioritize our investments. We’ve largely protected our science and technology portfolio even during the current budget pressures, so that’s one resource that we can reallocate against these key objectives. And where we see opportunities to accelerate, we’re going to do so. We see rapid prototyping and experimentation as an important way to take these ideas and assess them in an operational context, and that’s something we’re talking about enhancing.”

Even though the new long-range R&D effort was inspired by the planning the department did in the 1970s, DoD officials say several things are different this time around.

For one, industry and academia were heavily and directly involved in the actual panel that conducted the study. This time around, that’s not possible because of acquisition rules that didn’t exist back then.

“We’re going to provide formal advice to the secretary as an output of this, and so the panels themselves will be government only,” Welby said. “But we’re casting a wide net to get ideas into us, and the panels will be inviting folks to come brief them. So the RFI isn’t the only way of engaging. We intend to use that as an entry point to invite folks in for a greater degree of dialogue as we go forward.”

Another big difference: DoD says the innovations it’s looking for this time around are likely to be found outside the traditional defense industrial base, compared to the 1970s, when DoD itself was the major driver of new technologies. And whatever capabilities the long-range R&D plan winds up developing, Welby says the department is clear-eyed about the fact that it’s not likely to get as much mileage out of them as the U.S. did from the last version.

“The technologies that wound up emerging in the ’80s had kind of a 40-year run, and that’s pretty remarkable in a competitive environment. The reality is we’re unlikely to get a 40-year run out of any technology that emerges in the future,” Welby said. “The pace of technology change has accelerated, and we know we need to reduce our cycle times to turn faster. The things that are likely to emerge from the study are going to need to be robust and flexible and extendable, because the competition with other countries will not end with the introduction of a new technology. But having the initiative, being able to shape that course of technology competition is critical, and that’s one of the things we’re looking for through this approach.”


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