Why Congress holds the key to DOD tech

architecture concept (Yurchanka Siarhei/

Congress may have to relax its oversight -- or at least learn to take leaps of faith -- when funding defense technology research if it wants to see dramatic improvements in capabilities.

That was the takeaway from the House Armed Services Committee's hearing for its Future of Defense Task Force Feb. 5. The task force, co-chaired by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.), was chartered in October for six months to evaluate the Defense Department's technological needs and capabilities through a series of briefings and hearings. Those findings are expected to culminate in a report with recommendations.

At the Feb. 5 hearing, defense industry leaders seemed to reach consensus on what has prevented DOD from advancing tech-wise: too few incentives and resources.

Raj Shah, the former director for the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), the Pentagon's innovation arm, said program executive offices inside the services make the calls on investments, but there's no incentive to take a risk.

"No one gets fired for going slow, no one gets promoted for going faster," testified Shah, current chair and co-founder of cybersecurity risk firm

"Many of the things that a PEO or a service does to invest in a particular technology will have implications that go far beyond the Department of Defense," Shah said, mentioning low-cost drones and the 5G infrastructure markets as dominated by China-run companies.

To help with this, DOD should take the lead in growing the manufacturer base, which would assist allies, improve national security and have economic impact, he said.

"There are lots of these R&D, trial programs -- AI to solve driving ships and planes -- pick two or three that we think are promising and bet big on them," Shah said.

Congress has to draw those lines, witnesses said.

Christian Brose, who used to be the Senate Armed Services Committee's staff director and advisor to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), agreed with Shah, saying more competition is key to tech advancement.

"Technology is not going to save us," testified Brose, who leads strategy at Anduril Industries. "Unless we're experimenting with how to use that technology to do different things, we're just going to be continuing the way that we have."

But to change current practices Congress may have to back off or grant more flexibility during the fiscal year to accommodate experimentation. To make that more palatable, Brose suggested Congress track which companies and programs were "bridging the valley of death" -- the period between an experimental pilot and the establishment of a program of record. Brose said companies that proved more successful here deserved more money.

"Congress always wants to know how the department is spending its money," said Brose. "We have a proliferation of organizations that are trying to bring new entrants, research and capability into the department. Where does it go?"

A recent Govini report found that DOD's investments shrank from a 19% share of global R&D in 1967 to just 4% in 2017. China's grew from 3% in 1997 to 27% in 2017.

"We're in a really unique, great power competition right now with China in particular, where for the first time in a very long time ... we truly lack a definitive technological advantage against our competitor," Tara Murphy Dougherty, the CEO for the research firm Govini, told FCW. She said recent increases to R&D are "necessary but insufficient."

"Spending in emerging technology areas is definitely increasing when you look across the board at things like advanced autonomous systems," but spending is still much higher on traditional systems such as manned platforms, she said.

"Over the past five years, really the department spent almost four times more RDT&E funding on manned systems than it did on unmanned capabilities."

Govini's report also showed that DOD's artificial intelligence and cyber investments were nearly matched at $4.5 billion and $4.6 billion, respectively, from fiscal 2015 to 2019. But cyber's growth rate was higher, which could be the beginning of a trend, Murphy Dougherty said.

"I suspect that what we're seeing is the beginning of a shift in that trend and that there are continuing demands in the area of cyber that are going to warrant big-time investment. But I wouldn't be surprised if you see the rate of AI spending increase from 5.5% over this time period," she said.

The task force, which is halfway through its six-month term, has previously looked into autonomous systems, biotechnology, cyber, AI, hypersonics and the effects of Chinese influence.

Moulton, the task force's co-chair, said during the hearing that harnessing emerging tech is key to "military and economic superiority" and ultimately funding has to align with that.

"With an initial funding of $520 million, which would be $4.5 billion in today's dollars, [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] led to current initiatives like DIU, which while particularly noteworthy, simply doesn't enjoy the same level of support with a mere $41 million budget," Moulton said.

"We cannot expect the same success without the same level of commitment."

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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