Pentagon Leaders Try to Reassure House Panel on U.S. Defense Science and Technology Superiority
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
Pentagon and service leaders in science and technology assured a key congressional panel March 28 that they are working to get the maximum efficiency out of their limited budgets and are emphasizing moving innovative technologies quickly from the labs into the operating forces for early testing.
But the overall Defense Department efforts on S&T were questioned by members of both parties of the House Armed Services Committee’s Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee.
Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, and the assistant secretaries for technology development and acquisition for the three service departments said they were prioritizing the S&T spending on meeting the future military requirements set by the National Defense Strategy (NDS), including artificial intelligence, machine learning, hypersonics, directed energy and additive manufacturing, or 3D printing.
James F. Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, cited as signs of progress the at-sea trials of the midsize unmanned surface vessel Sea Hunter and plans to put a high-energy laser on a littoral combat ship for trials.
Geurts said the use of additive manufacturing “is transforming us.” As an expeditionary force operating across the globe, “we have fully leverage that,” with 3D printers on ships and fielded Marine units. They have “spent a lot of time” getting lists of certified parts that can be produced by 3D printing either by Navy units or through competition with private firms.
Geurts noted that the Navy is the executive agent for a Defense Department’s 3D Printing Center that is charged with accelerating the use of the rapidly developing technology.
Bruce Jette, the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, and William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, gave similar lists of programs to move technology through early research into early testing and fielding of proven systems.
But subcommittee chairman, Rep. James R. Langevin (D-Rhode Island), complained that the Trump administration’s fiscal 2020 defense budget requested only $14.5 billion for S&T, which means that “when normalized for inflation and labor costs escalation, this S&T budget has effectively been shrinking for years.”
Langevin said that while he supports the efforts to get new technologies “across the valley of death” from innovation to procurement “and into the hands of our service members, we must be cognizant of the fact that we must also invest in the long-term basic and early stage applied research that will allow for revolutionary advances down the line.”
The chairman said the low rate of funding “is also hard to reconcile” with the NDS, “which highlights long-term strategic competition with China and Russia and the need for an unparalleled national security innovation base.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the subcommittee’s top Republican, similarly noted that the NDS “framed the current security environment as one of rapid technological advances. … Now, more than any time in recent history, our military superiority is determined by our technological superiority.”
“I am concerned that our S&T investments represent an alarmingly small percentage of our overall defense budget — and a shrinking percentage of our total RDT&E [research, development, test and evaluation] budget — at a time that our adversaries are significantly increasing their S&T spending.”
Griffin, who is the first holder of the new Research and Engineering office that Congress created specifically to accelerate technology innovation, acknowledged the threats posed by China and Russia and said, “We will not succeed by fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s technology.” He said the department is working to build a level of technology superiority “so no adversary would dare to challenge us.”
Griffin rejected the common view that China leads the United States in artificial intelligence and said the U.S. military retains its technological superiority but conceded “there are areas we need to catch up on.” He cited China’s fielding of the DF-26, a “hypersonic missile they refer to as a carrier killer.” That missile could reach Guam, he said. “We don’t have a match.”