According to the DOD official who’s performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, technology development that’s competitive with that of adversaries is something the Defense Department can’t accomplish on its own. Instead, it must be done in partnership with academia, partner nations and the U.S. private sector technology industry.
“Presenting a credible deterrent to potential adversaries requires us to develop and field emerging technologies,” Barbara McQuiston, Director of Defense Research and Engineering for Research and Technology, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. “We must innovate at speed and scale. Success requires more than a go-it-alone approach.
“We must explore more flexible partnerships with the private sector and academia, with small businesses and [historically black colleges and universities]. We must reinvigorate our federal research capabilities, elevate science, promote technology and expand partnerships with our allies.”
In addition, McQuiston said that Defense Innovation Unit is where that effort is happening now. The DIU was designed to more quickly bring technology being developed within the private sector into the DOD. “With the activities to date, they have 189 companies now on contract,” McQuiston told senators. “75% are small business, 32% are first-time vendors and 10% have already transitioned into military use — and that’s the key, to be flexible and to work at speed, at commercial speed, in order to integrate the technology rapidly into the service.”
Also part of research and engineering is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has been at the very edge of technology development of the Defense Department for more than 60 years, said Stefanie Tompkins, DARPA’s director. Tompkins told senators DARPA has partnered with academia and the private sector to bring to fruition technologies, including stealth, precision-guided weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, the internet, automated voice recognition, language translation and GPS receivers.
She said: “At DARPA, we think not just about scientific and engineering innovation, though, but also about the ‘innovation ecosystem.’ That ecosystem includes many overlapping and adjacent communities from academia, industry and government. Program managers come from outside DARPA, do time within the organisation on specific projects, and then return to other places in government, academia or the private sector. In the process of doing that, they enrich both DARPA and the organisation from which they came.”
According to Tompkins, she often discussed ongoing investments and work DARPA had been involved in regarding messenger RNA vaccines. Messenger RNA, or mRNA, induces the body to produce some harmless spike protein, enough to prime the immune system to react if it later encounters the real virus. “mRNA vaccines are pretty much a household word today, but at the time, they were much, much more obscure,” she said.
Tompkins added that the DARPA investments in mRNA vaccines were based on insight from forward-thinking program managers who saw value in mRNA vaccines for both military use and for public health applications. “The research that DARPA first initiated more than a decade ago is now playing a leading and catalytic role in today’s fight against COVID-19,” she said.
Today, Tompkins said, DARPA is involved in vaccines and diagnostics, defensive and offensive hypersonic technologies, artificial intelligence, quantum systems, microelectronics solutions and more. She concluded, “DARPA has forged new paths and continues to deliver on our mission.”