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Emerging Capabilities Policy Office to Speed Policy Considerations of New Technologies  

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The speed of war is getting faster, with new capabilities, such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic technologies, and more, entering the services.  

A new Pentagon office seeks to do for policy what the research and acquisition communities have been doing in regard to new capabilities.  

Small unmanned vessel sails in Jordanian waters.
Saildrone Explorer
A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel sails in the Gulf of Aqaba off Jordan's coast, Dec. 12, during exercise Digital Horizon. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command began operationally testing the vessel as part of an initiative to integrate new unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into U.S. 5th Fleet operations.
Photo By: Army Cpl. DeAndre Dawkins
VIRIN: 211212-A-AI379-0450C

Michael C. Horowitz leads the new Emerging Capabilities Policy Office. His mission is to help integrate emerging capabilities into the department strategy, planning guidance, and budget processes in "ways that accelerate the adoption of emerging capabilities."  

Horowitz spoke in his Pentagon office recently, and said that the new office reports to Mara E. Karlin, the assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities.   

"There are a lot of people that have raised concerns over the years saying the department needs to be faster in a variety of ways to adapt to changes in the security environment," Horowitz said. While this is typically done in trying to accelerate technology development, or the tactical or operational employment of new capabilities, the policy aspects of this process sometimes lagged. This office is an effort by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl to get ahead of the power curve.  

Policy has many roles to play including how new capabilities affect defense strategy writ large, Horowitz said. Policy has a role in how these new capabilities are envisioned in the planning guidance the department issues, and in the program budget review. Policy also has an active role in coordinating new capabilities with allies and partners.  

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Troubleshooting Issues
Space Force Sgt. Trey Richardson troubleshoots communication issues during RED FLAG-Alaska 22-1 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 4, 2022.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Moses Taylor
VIRIN: 220504-F-PU391-1015

But the emerging capabilities office must be involved in more than the simple employment of capabilities: The office needs to understand and consider the implications of game-changing capabilities at the strategic level.  

The office is looking at what autonomous systems will mean for strategic competition. They must do the same with hypersonic technologies and directed energy weapons. They must also ask how these technologies will impact strategic stability, Horowitz said.  

And the office cannot be myopic and look solely at a new technology. Often, it is the combination of a new technology with an existing capability that can affect strategic balance, he said.  

These new capabilities can also raise ethical questions: How "autonomous" should weapon systems be? How does the Department of Defense keep a human in that kill loop?   

"There are types of weapon systems, where the department has decided that we need some additional level of scrutiny or review in addition to the many existing checks that the department has for the approval of weapon systems," he said. "This office will be managing policy about some of those processes and advising the undersecretary of defense for policy on other emerging capabilities; those where additional policy guidance is necessary."  

Unmanned boat operates autonomously in Bahrain harbor.
Devil Ray
A T38 Devil Ray unmanned surface vessel operates during a demonstration off the coast of Bahrain, April 29. In September 2021, U.S. 5th Fleet launched Task Force 59 to integrate new unmanned systems and artificial intelligence.
Photo By: Army Sgt. David Resnick
VIRIN: 220429-A-ZV876-2020C

The office works at the intersection of technology and policy. Members of the office will work closely with scientists, acquisition and sustainment personnel and Joint Staff operators in assessing all these policy consequences.  

It is a lot to do, Horowitz said, but strategy, planning and budgets, ethical issues, strategic stability issues and working with allies and partners is important to the defense of the United States. Given the speed of war, these considerations must be done with responsible speed. Horowitz said these decisions must occur in a mindful way. Still, they cannot let the "requirement to make those choices slow us down, given how fast our competitors are moving," he said.  

"We live in a world now, where innovation happens so quickly," he said. "This office can, I think, do important work in helping coordinate some of these activities to ensure that you don't have technology development happening in one place, and strategy development happening in a totally separate place. We can try to bring those things together."  

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