Hearing Spotlights Defense Lab Needs Under DOD Innovation Strategy

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At a hearing last week, the House Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee discussed the role and health of the Defense Department’s research laboratories in the context of the department’s Third Offset Strategy to leverage innovation to preserve U.S. military superiority. Witnesses from the labs focused on administrative obstacles and aging facilities as the primary burdens preventing the labs from fully realizing their potential.

On Sept. 28, the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) held a hearing to discuss the Defense Department’s network of research laboratories. Witnesses at the hearing represented the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), and the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Witnesses agree DOD labs are integral to Third Offset Strategy

As reported in FYI #88, over the past two years DOD has been pursuing what it refers to as the Third Offset Strategy—a broad-ranging effort to maintain the technical warfighting superiority of the U.S. military against near-peer adversaries. The strategy focuses on late-stage technology development and testing, and on improving the department’s ability to partner with innovative, fast-moving businesses. In support of these goals, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has been heavily promoting special initiatives such as the department’s growing set of Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) offices in such high-technology hubs as Silicon Valley.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), the subcommittee chairman, introduced the hearing by asserting the importance of remaining mindful of DOD’s labs in view of the department’s overarching strategy:

While the Secretary of Defense has been highlighting the need for increased partnerships with commercial providers in Silicon Valley, Boston, and elsewhere, I think it’s important to remember that the Defense Department also maintains its own in-house sustained source of innovation. … As we look to make the department more flexible and adaptable to take on new innovations, it will be vitally important to ensure that the labs maintain the workforce and infrastructure needed to keep them relevant for the future warfighting environment.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), the subcommittee’s ranking member, echoed these sentiments, and asked throughout the hearing about the connections between the labs’ work and the military’s warfighting priorities.

In reply, the panel reported that the labs are well integrated into the Third Offset Strategy, describing their extensive relationships within and beyond the military as well as their alignment with the military’s higher-level policies. For instance, Edward Franchi, acting director of NRL, remarked:

For our science and technology, our basic research, early technology development, we’re well aligned with the Naval Science and Technology Strategy, and that derives from higher-level strategies. [NRL has] divisions that represent over 15 different disciplines, and that means that we’re working on problems that are part of and will be important to the Third Offset Strategy. ... The challenge for us is to see those areas where we have sufficient expertise, sufficient people power to do it, and emphasize those areas more, such as in cybersecurity expertise, synthetic biology, people who know about … autonomous and manned interactions and things of that nature.

Langevin later asked the panel to comment on the labs’ successes in transitioning research results and new technologies to the field. Again, witnesses agreed that the labs had the tools needed to facilitate rapid turnaround. Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry, the commander of AFRL, remarked that a key to success was making sure that labs can match their capabilities with problems experienced in the field.

For us, we use a Center for Rapid Innovation, and they tear that problem apart and look at it as ‘what’s the real problem’ not ‘what’s your preferred solution’ … And we end up providing capabilities that meet the need as opposed to capabilities that meet the expected solution. And when we do that, we tend to do it at a lower cost and a shorter rate.

However, McMurry went on:

The thing that prevents transition—it’s hard to say, but I think it’s really just getting the agreement that we’re going to transition and how we’re going to bring that into the operational fold and which service will pick that bill up and when. Because usually the bills aren’t that big, but everybody’s so tight on money, just trying to figure out how to plan for that in a timeline is a challenge.

Administrative rigidity, aging facilities cited as major burden

McMurry’s complaints about difficulties in negotiating the transfer of technology to the field reflected a theme that witnesses expressed throughout the hearing: despite some improvements, DOD administrative practices are a major burden on department labs.

Asked by Wilson to name a top concern, each witness pointed to different administrative obstacles. McMurry cited difficulties in executing contracts quickly. Franchi mentioned that his lab had trouble retaining contracting officers, supply officers, accountants, and other essential business operations staff. Philip Perconti, acting director of ARL, observed that, even with special hiring authorities, security processing and other administrative delays sometimes caused the lab to lose “very high-quality candidates” for scientific positions. Jeffery Holland, director of ERDC, pointed to the need to modernize facilities—a point echoed by the other witnesses as well.

The campus of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. At the hearing, NRL’s acting director reported that the average age of the buildings on the campus is 59 years, but that within the past 15 years the lab has completed new buildings for nanoscience and quantum science and for autonomous systems research.

The campus of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. At the hearing, NRL’s acting director reported that the average age of the buildings on the campus is 59 years, but that within the past 15 years the lab has completed new buildings for nanoscience and quantum science and for autonomous systems research. (Image credit – Naval Research Laboratory.)

The subjects of maintenance and recapitalization came up throughout the hearing, with witnesses recounting some difficulties in obtaining prioritization for military construction projects. Perconti remarked that reductions in the Army’s Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization budget had created a “big problem” for ARL. McMurry said that AFRL was working to better explain “how the facilities impact mission” in order to argue for higher priority. Holland suggested that it is important for the military to better understand the distinction between maintaining lab facilities “versus a standard barracks or a standard office space.”

Asked by Langevin to comment on researchers’ ability to attend conferences, Franchi replied that the Navy had been working to streamline the approval process and that the main current complaint is with the “fair amount of paperwork” that must be submitted.

The witnesses all praised direct-hire authority as essential to DOD labs’ ability to hire and retain talented research staff. They also praised the authority granted DOD labs under section 219 of the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2009, which allows them to spend up to three percent of their budget on special projects, including facilities maintenance and modernization. Witnesses supported congressionally proposed augmentations to their “Section 219” authorities, including raising the cap to four percent, allowing these funds to accumulate from year to year, and permanently allowing labs to use the funds for minor construction projects while raising the threshold delineating “minor” construction from $4 million to $6 million.

Such administrative reforms may seem to bear a tangential relationship to the day-to-day concerns of R&D. However, it is evident that the hearing panel viewed them as critical to DOD labs’ ability to keep up the pace in a department taking its inspiration from the innovation frenzy of Silicon Valley.

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