Can the Pentagon keep up with rivals in tech?

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Lawmakers are concerned that China, Russia and other rival nations are advancing much faster than the United States when it comes to defense technology innovation.

"I am very concerned with state of our federal investment in research and development," Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), ranking member for the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said on April 20. He stressed that the share for research and development has gone from being 17 percent of the defense budget to 9 percent. "What are we thinking? While our investments are on the decline in the United States, other nations are surging ahead."

Frank Kendall, the under secretary Of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics at the Department of Defense, told the committee that he is troubled by the adversaries' efforts in this arena.

"We are deeply concerned about the adverse trends in maintaining U.S. military technological superiority," the Pentagon's top acquisition official told the panel. "The department-wide focus on innovation, technical excellence and acquisition process improvement are intended to help sustain our long-term competitive advantage and make most effective use of the resources provided by the Congress."

Citing China, Russia and Iran as nation-states looking to surpass U.S. modernization efforts, Kendall said: "The globalization technology in general and the increasing ability of potential adversaries to invest in military modernization have in part leveled the playing field. Potential adversaries have taken advantage of fast-moving broadly available commercial technology -- as well as on technology often acquired through cyber theft and espionage. Potential adversaries have also carefully studied the American way of war to identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities to exploit."

The proposed fiscal 2017 budget request by the administration includes $12.5 billion for science and technology investment, which is 1.9 percent higher than what was requested for 2016. The fiscal 2017 budget seeks $2.1 billion for basic research, $4.8 billion for applied research and $5.6 billion for advanced technology development.

Reforming the way the DOD purchases weapons and IT has come with its fair share of obstacles and appears to be evolving process. Kendall took the opportunity of the hearing to note that there is "continuous improvement" being made across the defense acquisition enterprise. In particular, he stressed the expansion of initiatives such as the "Force of the Future," which focuses on retaining and hiring the best personnel, and the "Third Offset Strategy," which aims to use technology to counter both competing powers and asymmetrical threats. 

"The Third Offset Strategy is based on the idea that we need to be as creative and innovative as we can, to find some new ideas and new technologies that we can apply in operational concepts that will pose a very difficult problem for people that have been investing in the ways to defeat us," Kendall told the committee members.

Stephen Welby, DOD's assistant secretary for research and engineering, echoed Kendall's remarks. He stressed that this is a pivotal moment in history where the U.S. is being "challenged by the military technology investments being made by increasingly capable powers." He added it is all the more important to sustain and advance military technological innovation.

The Subcommittee will reconvene on April 27 to hear testimony from the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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