Show, Don’t Tell: Emerging Tech Needs Funding, Not Rhetoric

Show, Don’t Tell: Emerging Tech Needs Funding, Not Rhetoric

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Several years ago, the National Defense Industrial Association board of directors responded to calls from both our membership and Pentagon leadership to increase its activities to help win the ongoing technology race with the People’s Republic of China.

NDIA enthusiastically embraced this call by standing up the Emerging Technologies Institute, an internal research organization focused on providing leadership, bolstering public awareness and offering high-quality, nonpartisan research and analysis that informs the development and integration of emerging technologies into the defense industrial base.

Since its founding, ETI has convened workshops, published research and hosted regular technical webinars on technologies such as hypersonics, directed energy, microelectronics, quantum computing and supporting activities including defense budgeting and acquisition policy.

Throughout these efforts, some overarching themes have begun to emerge. The most consequential theme is the lack of consistent programming and budgeting demand signal from the Defense Department for emerging technologies. This has frankly come up in almost all of ETI’s work, but it especially stood out in the hypersonics and directed energy supply chain studies and in ongoing efforts focused on microelectronics.

Hypersonics is an area where this challenge is particularly stark. It is not a new technology, and U.S. research and development stretches back decades. However, the hypersonics industry has weathered cyclical funding, resulting in very fragile supply chains for certain components.

One example is carbon-carbon, a lightweight, strong and stiff material that remains durable even at very high temperatures and is the only option for coatings for higher speed hypersonic systems.

And supply chain component challenges extend beyond just carbon-carbon. During a series of industry working groups, business leaders raised supply chain challenges repeatedly, illustrating the impact of uneven demand at every level of the hypersonics supply chains. From the industry perspective, companies have a fiduciary obligation to see a return on investment. While industry is eager to invest in hypersonics technology, the business case must exist for companies to make their own internal investments in the necessary infrastructure and personnel.

Directed energy weapons are another critical technology where a lack of demand signal is hurting supply chain resiliency and the technology’s unit cost. While ETI’s research on directed energy supply chains is ongoing, this theme has already been raised by multiple industry participants. There are some mitigating factors — including the overlap between commercial and defense applications for select components — that keep the impacts from straining industry too severely.

Directed energy weapons have always been the “weapon of tomorrow,” and unfortunately, they will remain that way until the Defense Department commits to fielding them at scale. Industry will only be incentivized to build out the supply chains necessary for directed energy when the federal government signals dedicated and consistent resourcing.

ETI is also in the final stages of writing a white paper on microelectronics modernization, with a focus on finding ways to rapidly upgrade parts and to streamline requirements. In this report, the institute found yet another technology in which the Pentagon has not expressly invested in what it needs — in this case, modernized and upgradable microelectronics — through funding and a dedicated push to reform outdated processes and practices.

While these are just three examples, this theme has emerged across ETI’s work. The solution is deceptively simple. Currently, the Defense Department provides a consistent demand signal to industry only when technologies are deemed mature enough. The department needs a paradigm shift. While statements by senior officials may be helpful, industry will only perceive serious demand signals to mature critical technology areas via programs of record, contracts and actual defense spending.

To this end, ETI is also trying to formally study how the Defense Department funds research and development. The team collected and analyzed public budget justification and appropriations data from the department and Congress. Using the data on defense science-and-technology funding, ETI has analyzed spending trends and patterns when put in context with a variety of 21st-century strategic documents and world events.

All in all, ETI is seeking to help translate an onerous budget request and appropriation process into full-fledged understandings for all NDIA members, policymakers and the public.

NDIA is committed to supporting ETI and its member companies with this important work. This includes ongoing work within the interagency and with Congress to identify potential policy, regulatory and other barriers that may prevent building secure and resilient supply chains, both within the United States and with allies and partners.

As part of the efforts to address this and other policy challenges, NDIA and ETI are hosting the first Emerging Technologies for Defense Conference and Exhibition Aug. 28-30 in Washington, D.C.

The conference is being run in close collaboration with Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu and Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante and is intended to provide a forum to explore how government and industry can best partner to develop emerging technologies at scale and transition them into the hands of warfighters.

The speakers include Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and leaders from organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Innovation Unit and Indo-Pacific Command. ND

Rebecca Wostenberg is a research fellow at NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute.


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