News   Armed With Science

Official Says DOD, With Help From Partners, on Cusp of Cutting-Edge Innovations

Nov. 8, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Artificial intelligence, quantum computing, bioengineering and other leap-ahead technologies were topics addressed by the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.

Heidi Shyu provided keynote remarks today at the virtual Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute's Research Review 2021.  

"The challenges facing our military are both diverse and complex, ranging from sophisticated cyberattacks to supply chain risks, to defense against hypersonic missiles, to responding to biothreats. To address these challenges, the department must harness the incredible innovation ecosystem, both domestically and globally, in order to stay ahead of our adversaries," Shyu said.

A soldier operates a military drone.
Drone Launch
Army Pfc. Benjamin Sargent, assigned to 82nd Airborne Division, prepares a multi-mission payload Unmanned Aerial System for launch during Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., Oct. 26, 2021.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Marita Schwab
VIRIN: 211026-A-JT723-0002

"I believe the way to build confidence amidst the technology disruptions is to embrace these changes and move forward rapidly. Furthering science, technology and innovation across the department could not be more important than it is today. Many potential adversaries will have greater access to commercial state-of-the-art technologies than ever before, and that could greatly disrupt our nation. We cannot afford a leveling of technology advantage," she said. 

Shyu said to meet these challenges the Defense Department has a three-pillar strategy: harnessing American technology innovation to solve the toughest operational challenges, setting the foundation to build a future workforce and, relying on industry, academia, allies and partners. 

As far as spending for research and development for items that have great utility for the warfighter, Shyu said the department is focused on developing innovative technologies in which the commercial industry has no business interests that warrant their investment. 

"To more effectively do this, we are working to shift away from the traditional linear systems development process to a nimbler approach that seeks to iterate the design to build prototypes, experiment and rapidly transition systems for operational use. This can dramatically shorten the cycle time and enable us to fuel capabilities more rapidly and deliver the military advantage that our nation needs," she said.

A soldier operates an unmanned ground vehicle.
Project Convergence
Army Pfc. Daniel Candales, assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, uses the tactical robotic controller to control the expeditionary modular autonomous vehicle as a practice exercise in preparation for Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Oct. 19, 2021.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Marita Schwab
VIRIN: 211019-O-JT723-076

The department's Innovation Steering Group, or ISG, serves as a forum to drive systemic strategy, policy, programmatic, cultural and budgetary changes that will allow the department to more effectively identify, to invest in and to transition capability to the warfighter, she said, mentioning that she chairs that group.

To achieve this, the group is focused on three priority areas: mapping the department's innovation organizations, bolstering joint experimentation and enhancing the research laboratory and test infrastructure. 

In mapping the department's innovation organization, ISG will provide information on how disparate innovation organizations can better align their efforts, she said, mentioning the Defense Innovation Unit, the Air Force program known as AFWERX that fosters a culture of innovation, Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office and others.

"There's multiple entities all rapidly innovating and doing things. What I'm trying to do is get my arms around who has the best process, who's doing what, what problem are they trying to solve, who have they funded and how well have these technologies or products transitioned? We should be able to share this information across the board," she said.

An unmanned vessel floats in front of a ship.
New Horizon
A U.S. MANTAS T-12 unmanned surface vessel, front, operates alongside Royal Bahrain Naval Force fast-attack craft RBNS Abdul Rahman Al-fadel, during exercise New Horizon in the Persian Gulf, Oct. 26, 2021.
Photo By: U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dawson Roth
VIRIN: 211026-N-KZ419-1195C

The ISG oversees the Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve, or RDER, an initiative designed to encourage prototyping and experimentation to support joint warfighting concepts, such as the information advantage, joint fires, joint all-domain command and control, and contested logistics, she said.

RDER specifically looks for capability gaps and solicits feedback from the services and combatant commands on their ideas for how to best address them, she said.

As a result, Shyu said that 203 ideas were forwarded to her office within five weeks. Those ideas were then prioritized and the top 32 were selected for funding which could best fulfill the joint capability gaps.

That process was briefed to the vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the deputy defense secretary and the combatant commanders. "There was a lot of excitement in terms of what we're doing," she said.

Shyu mentioned some of the innovation areas DOD is focused on:

  • Developing trusted AI and trusted autonomy that is resilient to spoofing.
  • Building an integrated network system of systems that are secure and resilient. "We have many disparate nodes of communication and disparate platforms. What I want to do is be able to stitch those together to enable them to communicate," she said.
  • Producing high energy lasers that can counter missiles and unmanned systems. "We are finally at the cusp of delivering prototypes to the warfighter," she said. 
  • Pioneering resilient space situational awareness and space control that's robust enough to provide redundancy. 
  • Manufacturing integrated sensors that have the ability to operate in the intersection of cyber, electronic warfare and radar communications to counter advanced threats with agility. 
  • Employing an ergonomic human-machine interface with interactive, virtual 3D operations centers, enabling geographically distributed and dispersed command and control in a low bandwidth environment to rapidly conduct mission planning and mission command. 
  • Driving down the cost of hypersonics so the department can purchase many of these and also developing materials that can handle high temperatures that can withstand speeds at which these missiles will be flying.
  • On-shoring critical defense industries such as microelectronics. 
  • Developing quantum computers and sensors.
  • Employing biotech to increase situational awareness and to reduce the logistical burden. 
  • Developing advanced materials that are stronger and lighter.
  • Leaping past 5G to develop a 6G network that will ensure American leadership in this sphere.

Other items Shyu mentioned were 3D beamforming, software-defined radios, dynamic spectrum utilization, zero-trust architecture, continuous risk monitoring and waveform diversity.

To attract top talent and bring innovation into the department, DOD is awarding STEM scholarships to those who show promise, with a stipulation to work at a department laboratory for a set period of time, she said. The department is also funding STEM summer camps for junior high school students in an effort to bolster America's talent.

Shyu also mentioned that Americans value national security and that is reflected with bipartisan support from lawmakers.