The Department of Defense’s RDT&E budget would continue a rapid rise beyond an already historic high under President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2020, though recent increases provided to basic and applied research programs would be rolled back.
(Image credit – U.S. Air Force / Joshua Armstrong)
Over the past three years, the Department of Defense’s budget for Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) programs has surged to a historic high, growing 36 percent since fiscal year 2016 to $96 billion this year. This growth would continue under President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2020, with the RDT&E budget rising 9 percent above the current level to about $104 billion.
As in recent budget cycles, the increases are concentrated in accounts funding late-stage development, prototyping, and testing activities. Meanwhile, funding for earlier-stage R&D activities that comprise DOD’s Science and Technology program — Basic Research, Applied Research, and Advanced Technology Development — would drop 12 percent to $14.1 billion.
Under the Trump administration, DOD has requested S&T funding each year that is higher relative to its previous requests, but Congress has consistently surpassed these amounts in final appropriations. DOD’s budget summary for this year observes that the proposed amount is 3 percent higher than requested last year and notes Congress’ current enacted amount includes targeted increases for numerous programs in which it has taken particular interest.
The proposed cuts are spread across types of research and each of the military service branches, though some accounts would see small increases. Details for each program and links to key budget documents are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.
Basic research. Programs that fund basic research would decrease 8 percent overall to $2.3 billion under the administration’s proposal, just above their fiscal year 2017 level. The administration’s proposals for key basic research sub-accounts are also detailed in the Budget Tracker. These include Defense Research Sciences, which supports both in-house and extramural research; University Research Initiatives, which funds the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) and the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP), among other activities; and the National Defense Education Program, which supports STEM outreach and scholarship programs.
Return to ‘great power competition’ shapes request
When rolling out the budget request, DOD officials stressed that the record amount of RDT&E spending is shaped by modernization priorities identified in the National Defense Strategy. Issued in 2018, the report states that advancing technologies such as artificial intelligence, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology is critical to prevailing in future conflicts. DOD officials have also pointed to the increasing technological sophistication of China and Russia in key areas as reflecting a return to “great power competition” that requires the U.S. to reconsider its R&D investments.
These efforts have been guided by Mike Griffin, who was confirmed to the newly created position of under secretary of defense for research and engineering in February 2018. Griffin has structured his office around these modernization priorities, appointing assistant directors for artificial intelligence, quantum sciences, directed energy, and microelectronics, among other areas. In testimony at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 28, Griffin summarized DOD’s current approach to investing in these technologies.
Quantum science. Spending on quantum R&D is spread across many programs and a total amount is not reported. According to Griffin, the department is focusing on developing timing and sensing technologies, while also contributing to interagency efforts in quantum computing. He contrasted the “media hype” surrounding quantum computing with the “justifiable optimism that quantum clocks, magnetometers, and inertial navigation sensors could be available in a few years.”
Directed energy. The budget request includes $235 million for advancing both offensive and defensive directed energy technologies, such as lasers and high-power microwaves. The administration seeks to accelerate the transition of such technologies from laboratory devices into weapons systems. According to Griffin, the department seeks to field 300-kilowatt lasers by 2022 and 500-to-1000-kilowatt lasers over the next decade through a Laser Scaling Program.
The administration has expressed interest in using directed energy technologies for missile defense applications, as articulated in its Missile Defense Review released early this year. As part of this effort, the Missile Defense Agency requests $34 million to begin a 4-year, $380 million effort to develop a neutral particle beam and “conduct a feasibility demonstration for a Space-Based Directed Energy intercept layer.” Such technologies were previously explored through President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.
Space Development Agency. DOD requests $150 million to stand up a new agency that is “dedicated to rapidly developing, acquiring, and fielding next-generation space capabilities.” Of this amount, $105 million would go toward RDT&E activities. Griffin indicated the agency’s “first priority” would be to develop a “proliferated low Earth orbit space sensors system in support of a number of mission areas.”
Microelectronics. DOD has embarked on a major effort to develop a trusted supply of microelectronic components for national security applications. As part of this effort, Congress added $281 million above the administration’s request for the new Microelectronics Innovation for National Security and Economic Competitiveness (MINSEC) program, giving it a total of $429 million in fiscal year 2019 to support advanced foundry systems, secure design environments, and radiation-hardened semiconductor fabrication. DOD now requests $459 million for MINSEC, a 7 percent increase.
Hypersonics. The budget includes $2.6 billion for efforts related to developing hypersonic weapons across the military services. Griffin stated DOD intends to nearly double its previously planned investment in hypersonics over the coming years and to conduct about 40 flight tests.
DARPA. The budget for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would receive a 4 percent, $129 million increase to $3.6 billion. Griffin highlighted that DARPA has begun a $2 billion, multi-year campaign to advance machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies.
Strategic Capabilities Office. DOD seeks essentially level funding for SCO, which grew over a period of years from a small experimental effort to develop new uses for existing and near-term warfighting capabilities into a $1.4 billion program. DOD regards the office as integral to its efforts to improve its ability to innovate, and Congress asked the department to submit a plan for the office’s future in its most recent annual defense policy bill.
Defense Innovation Unit. The budget includes $164 million for the Defense Innovation Unit, which engages with commercial sector companies that do not typically interact with DOD. The department proposes that DIU receive $75 million for a new National Security Innovation Capital program that will focus on “dual-use, hardware-based technologies,” which it states are “severely under-served by the private U.S. venture capital industry and often funded by strategic and persistent capital from China.”