DOD official: Focus on tech transition, not gross spend

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The Defense Department would be better off focusing on more quickly fielding new technologies rather than trying to outspend adversaries on new gadgets, Stephen Welby, a top defense official, told Congress on Feb. 24.

In an array of fields, including advanced electronic warfare, "it's going to be increasingly difficult to compete" with adversaries' capabilities on an "investment-for-investment, dollar-for-dollar, system-for-system basis," he told the House Armed Services Committee's Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee.

"We want to ensure that we have asymmetric advantage that we can deploy in the future," said Welby, assistant secretary of Defense for research and engineering. The goal should be moving new capabilities from DOD labs "much faster into tactical application and arranging those into strategic concepts that will allow our forces to shape future battlefields."

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has cited China’s and Russia's cyber and electronic warfare capabilities in justifying DOD's fiscal 2017 request for nearly $7 billion toward cyberspace operations. In doing so, he sought to put more money toward addressing an erosion of U.S. technological advantages that he and other officials have lamented.

The fiscal 2017 defense budget's investments in modernization are welcome, but they might be "too little too late," said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), the subcommittee's chairman. "As I see it, starting major initiatives at the end of an administration makes it difficult to ensure that these programs will survive the new budgetary and policy priorities that will naturally arise with a new president."

In an interview with FCW after she testified before the subcommittee, Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said DOD officials have sought investments in emerging technologies for years.

"It's been very clear for a number of years that we had to get on a new curve for a lot of our complex military systems," Prabhakar told FCW. "We're at the point of diminishing returns," she added, echoing Welby's testimony about the need to get more yield from technological investments.

DARPA's fiscal 2017 budget request is $2.97 billion, roughly the same as its 2016 request.

"I feel very confident that DARPA will have the room to do what we need to do," Prabhakar said.

One of Carter's signature initiatives for more rapidly fielding new technologies is a Silicon Valley outpost known as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. He will be in Silicon Valley next week to gauge the efficacy of his outreach.

But at the Feb. 24 hearing, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) said it is unclear to him how DIUX will fit in with the broader defense acquisition system. "I want to ensure the department is fully leveraging its existing toolbox" for acquisition, he said.

Later in the hearing, Welby said DIUX's purpose is to make it easier for smaller companies to get innovative ideas in front of defense officials. As an example, he said more than 200 firms turned out for an event at DIUX last week, and he spent a couple hours in one-on-one-meetings with representatives of the companies.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.


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