Senate Hearing on Defense S&T

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Publication date: 
6 June 2014

A recent hearing of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee reviewed the Obama Administration’s FY 2015 budget request for the science and technology programs of the Department of Defense.  Senior Pentagon officials discussed the potential of revolutionary offensive and defensive systems and the impacts on their programs of significant budgetary pressures.

Subcommittee Chairman Richard Durbin (D-IL) opened the May 14 hearing by stating “Science and technology investments have led to stunning advances on behalf of our military men and women and the nation.   . . . these investments are critical in keeping the U.S. at the top when it comes to new ideas and new innovation.  I’m worried that the budget decisions we have made over the past several years may be putting this leadership at risk.”  In danger, Durbin said, was America’s technological edge over its adversaries and the nation’s scientific and engineering workforce. 

Under the Administration’s FY 2015 request, total Pentagon funding for the basic research, applied research, and advanced technology development programs would decline 4.1 percent as compared to this year’s budget.  Total basic research funding would fall 6.9 percent. 

Testifying at this ninety minute hearing were senior officials from the Department of Defense, DARPA, Air Force, Navy, and the Army.  Each described the impacts budget restrictions have had on their operations. 

Alan Shaffer, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, described “early stages of stress due to downsizing and the combined sequester furlough and government shut down challenges of the last year” in DOD’s 100,000 scientists and engineers.  The department is in its third year of a budget drawdown.  DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar described efforts to rethink major military systems that have become so complex and inflexible that they will not be effective in meeting future challenges.  Mary Miller, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Army for Research and Technology described "a declining defense budget and a strategic landscape that continues to evolve,” and warned “Modernization will be slowed over the next five years.  New programs will not be initiated as originally envisioned . . . . ”  David Walker, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology, and Engineering told the subcommittee “The Air Force as a whole had to make difficult trades between force structure, readiness and modernization,” although S&T funding has “actually fared well versus the RDT [budget] as a whole.”  He later added, “As a result of sequestration in FY 2013, we canceled or delayed or re-scoped over 100 contracts, resulting in a cost and extended technology development schedule, ultimately delaying improved capabilities to the war fighter.”  Terry Rauch, Director of Medical Research for the Assistant Secretary of Defense told the subcommittee that normally three thousand new scientists across the department are hired in a typical year; that number was cut to one thousand last year. 

Durbin posed three questions to the witnesses.  He spoke of what the director of the National Institutes of Health has described as a “crisis in confidence” in young scientists because of funding shortfalls and he wanted to know the extent to which that was true for DOD’s S&T workforce.  Durbin was also interested in the witnesses’ views on the differing roles of federal and private R&D funding.  The coordination of federal medical research in programs such as the BRAIN Initiative was Durbin’s third concern.  Other senators asked about cybersecurity, a long range anti-ship missile program, an Army air and missile defense program, weapons developed under the High Energy Laser-Joint Technology Office, a malaria vaccine, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, Small Modular Reactors for use in remote areas, a Naval high-power density waterjet research program, the Joint High Speed Vessel, and DARPA’s Assured Arctic Awareness program.

The hearing gave the witnesses an opportunity to highlight new systems.  Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research, described a laser weapons system that will deliver a round of pulsed energy for less than a dollar.  Another system he described is an Electromagnetic Railgun that will launch a projectile, without gun powder, over 110 nautical miles at a speed of Mach 7.

Durbin ended the hearing by thanking the witnesses for their testimony, adding “we’re going to pursue this topic at the next level . . . we’ll try to help.”

Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.