The House and Senate have completed work on their respective versions of the annual legislation that updates U.S. defense policy. The bills include numerous proposals related to DOD’s research laboratories, innovation policy, nuclear weapons, research security, and climate change, among other areas.
Before the House and Senate departed for August recess, both chambers passed their respective versions of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The annual legislation updates policy for the Department of Defense and National Nuclear Security Administration and always includes numerous provisions bearing on R&D, the nuclear weapons complex, and other science-related matters.
When lawmakers return to Washington in September, a conference committee will convene to reconcile the bills into a final version. Traditionally, the committee reaches a bipartisan compromise, which has enabled the enactment of an NDAA for 57 years in a row. Congress moved unusually quickly last year, completing its work well in advance of the new fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1. However, things are unlikely to go quite so smoothly this time around.
Democrats’ takeover of the House has empowered them to hold their ground on some of their highest priorities, which led them to pass the House NDAA bill without any Republican votes. Now, it will be up to conferees to work through a number of contentious issues, among them a proposal to block the Trump administration from deploying new low-yield nuclear weapons. There is, though, less dispute about creating a new space-oriented military service branch — President Trump’s widely publicized “Space Force” — which is set to begin its existence in a relatively modest form.
Another question is whether the final NDAA will incorporate legislation setting policy for U.S. intelligence agencies, which the Senate included in its bill but the House passed separately. The two versions of that legislation contain their own science-related provisions, which are included in this review.
Innovation and emerging technologies
Policy upkeep. Over the last several years, Congress has directed policy and organizational changes at DOD that aim to improve the department’s ability to develop pathbreaking technologies and to transition them rapidly into acquisition programs. The House proposes requiring that DOD establish a “process” to ensure its policies relating to emerging technologies are continuously updated as those technologies develop. A separate House provision would require DOD to report to Congress on its efforts to improve “innovation investments and management.” The report would address such broad matters as how DOD assesses whether innovation is “incremental” or “disruptive,” and how it includes “acquisition stakeholders” in technology development programs.
Quantum information science. The House and Senate bills both include provisions affirming the DOD QIS program authorized in last year’s NDAA should coordinate with entities established under the National Quantum Initiative Act. The House further backs the creation of an “innovation center” that would aim to accelerate Air Force QIS R&D by providing an environment for collaboration with industry and academia. Notably, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Information Directorate in Rome, New York, is currently establishing a “Quantum Hub” in partnership with the State University of New York that will be part of the IBM Q Network.
5G spectrum sharing R&D. The Senate proposes that DOD establish an R&D program for technologies and methods that will “facilitate electromagnetic spectrum sharing between fifth-generation wireless networking technologies, federal systems, and other non-federal incumbent systems.” The program is to include “at least two test beds” for technology cohabitation demonstrations and it would be created in consultation with the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
(Image credit – NIST)
Biotechnology. The Senate proposes policies to govern DOD’s R&D efforts in emerging biotechnologies, which it defines to encompass the application of engineering principles to small-scale biological systems, nervous system interfaces, human performance enhancement, gene editing, and biomolecular sequencing and synthesis.
Strategic Capabilities Office. A relatively new creation, the office develops innovative uses for equipment that is already in use or soon will be and is regarded by DOD as an important component of its efforts to become more technologically agile. Mike Griffin, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, plans to transfer it into the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which he maintains has the capacity to effectively oversee the office’s expansive $1.4 billion portfolio. The House and Senate both propose requiring DOD to submit a detailed report on the transfer before going through with it.
JASON science advisory group. Earlier this year, Griffin declined to renew DOD’s standing contract to support JASON, a group of elite scientists that has for decades advised the department on often highly classified technological matters. NNSA, which also requests studies from the group, has arranged a short-term extension of support for it. The House proposes requiring DOD’s under secretary for acquisition and sustainment to enter into a new contract, stipulating that it may not be terminated without congressional approval. A separate House provision more broadly directs DOD to engage JASON on “an ongoing basis” on “matters involving science, technology, and national security, including methods to defeat existential and technologically amplified threats to national security.”
Space and missile technologies
Space Force. The House and Senate both propose creating an independent branch of the armed services for space operations within the Department of the Air Force, analogous to the position of the Marine Corps in the Navy Department. The Senate bill adopts President Trump’s “Space Force” nomenclature, whereas the House retains the “Space Corps” label it used when it proposed a similar idea two years ago. The objective of the move is to elevate and harmonize DOD’s various space programs. However, the new branch would not subsume certain space-oriented military and intelligence entities, including the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Weather satellites. The House proposes requiring NRO to procure a “pathfinder” satellite for launch by the beginning of 2023 to mitigate the risk of a potential gap in weather and cloud characterization data. The provision would also require the Air Force to procure an electro-optical/infrared weather satellite for launch by the end of September 2025. Frustrated over ongoing difficulties with DOD’s weather satellite programs, the House Armed Services Committee has previously moved toward transferring responsibility for them to NRO.
Space-based missile defense. The last two NDAAs authorized DOD to begin developing a space-based missile defense system if funds are appropriated for it. However, critics of such systems contend they are infeasible and strategically destabilizing. This year, the House proposes to rescind a provision directing the Missile Defense Agency to build a “space test bed” for conducting missile defense R&D.
Neutral particle beams. Both the House and Senate also propose denying funds for the administration’s proposal to build and test a neutral particle beam missile defense system. The Senate’s committee report on its bill states such a program is premature given that pending policy reviews are incomplete and a space-based sensor architecture has not been finalized.
Space-based sensor architecture. DOD is currently authorized to develop a new space-based sensor architecture for detecting hostile missiles, pending the appropriation of funding. The Senate bill encourages DOD’s Missile Defense Agency to pursue the system “as soon as technically feasible,” with the goal of beginning testing in space by the end of 2021. The House bill would specifically authorize DOD to develop a “hypersonic and ballistic missile tracking sensor payload” for the architecture.
Hypersonics. The House proposes the establishment of a “university consortium” for “foundational hypersonic research.” The House’s committee report on its bill directs DOD to update Congress on the “health” of the hypersonic testing workforce and test facility infrastructure, stating that resources are currently strained. A separate House proposal calls for DOD to commission an independent study of other nations’ development of hypersonic weapons and the threats they may pose to the U.S. and its allies.
Nuclear weapons and research
Low-yield warheads. The House proposes blocking the deployment of the new submarine-launched low-yield nuclear warhead that NNSA is developing in accord with the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons policy. Proponents of the warhead claim it is needed to deter Russia from using small-scale nuclear weapons, while opponents claim it will increase the danger of conflicts escalating into full-scale nuclear war.
Nuclear modernization. The House proposes that the federal government’s annual report on the modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise include a 25-year plan that provides timelines for associated R&D and production programs, as well as lifecycle costs for modernizing or recapitalizing each of the nation’s nuclear weapons system. The Congressional Budget Office estimated earlier this year the Trump administration’s modernization plans will cost almost $500 billion over the next decade but did not project costs further into the future. A 2017 report estimated the Obama administration’s plans would cost $1.2 trillion over 30 years.
Stockpile Stewardship Program. The House report directs NNSA to identify and detail its plans for addressing “major science questions” over the next two decades as it continues to certify the reliability of its nuclear warheads without resorting to explosive testing.
Stockpile Responsiveness Program. As a complement to the stewardship program, NNSA recently established a Stockpile Responsiveness Program that aims to give nuclear weapons scientists and technicians opportunities to exercise a fuller set of skills associated with weapons design and engineering. The Senate report expresses support for expanding the program to incorporate NNSA’s production plants, while the House proposes to sharply reduce funding for the program and states that prototyping of foreign nuclear weapon designs should only be pursued “if needed to meet intelligence requirements.”
High energy density physics. The Senate proposes that NNSA commission a National Academies assessment of the state of research in high energy density physics, including materials phases, radiation–matter interactions, “plasmas atypical of astrophysical conditions” and “conditions unique” to NNSA. NNSA pursues studies in this area primarily in view of its importance for thermonuclear weaponry.
Plutonium science. The Senate report expresses concern that plutonium science and metallurgy efforts across the Department of Energy are “not fully coordinated” and directs NNSA to produce a report in consultation with the DOE Office of Science identifying key research questions to be addressed over the next decade.
Plutonium pit production. The U.S. is currently planning to build up its capacity to produce new explosive cores for nuclear weapons, known as plutonium pits, to ensure the long-term reliability of its nuclear stockpile. It plans to divide this production between a facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a future, larger-capacity facility at NNSA’s Savannah River Site. The Senate bill urges expanding production to at least 80 pits per year by 2030, while the House bill states NNSA should focus on scaling up capacity at Los Alamos to meet its production goal there of 30 pits per year.
Low-enriched uranium for naval applications. The House proposes that NNSA initiate an R&D program to explore the viability of using LEU in naval nuclear propulsion reactors. The Senate’s bill reiterates previous congressional prohibitions on such work. U.S. policy has long encouraged the use of LEU as a nuclear fuel in place of highly enriched uranium to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. However, the Navy has argued that converting its existing reactors to LEU without reducing performance would be prohibitively difficult.
Electromagnetic pulses. The House proposes disbanding a commission charged with assessing threats posed by electromagnetic pulses. The provision cites President Trump’s executive order earlier this year codifying the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies related to threats connected to both high-altitude nuclear explosions and natural geomagnetic disturbances.
DOD laboratories and STEM personnel
(Image credit – U.S. Air Force / Keith Lewis)
Use of special authorities. In previous NDAAs, Congress has provided DOD lab directors with special administrative authorities to hire science and engineering personnel rapidly, initiate their own research projects, and take other discretionary actions to build up lab capabilities. The House proposes that DOD produce a detailed “master plan” for how it will use these authorities going forward. Earlier this year, a Government Accountability Office report found they are not being used to their full potential.
Personnel authorities. The House proposes extending DOD’s direct hire authority to cover additional positions, including ones requiring science and engineering expertise. The House also proposes to increase from 100 to 140 the number of positions at DARPA reserved for specially recruited “eminent experts.” The Senate proposes to increase that number to 130 while reducing the number of such positions at DOD laboratories from 40 to 10. The House also proposes to temporarily establish five such positions within DOD’s new Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.
STEM personnel in intelligence agencies. The Senate proposes authorizing U.S. intelligence agencies to offer special pay rates for up to 100 STEM-trained individuals. The House included this provision in its intelligence agency policy bill.
STEM jobs action plan. The House proposes requiring DOD to assess its STEM workforce, particularly in view of an anticipated wave of retirements, and to formulate a “plan of action” that encompasses hiring strategies, timelines for personnel replacement, and the possibility of using reimbursable and working capital fund dollars for new hires.
STEM workforce diversification. The House also proposes requiring DOD to assess the geographic diversity of its STEM workforce and determine the fraction of it who are women and minorities, as well as the percentage of grants, fellowships, and other forms of funding provided to those groups. The provision would also require DOD to develop a plan to increase workforce diversity, adopting recommendations from a 2013 RAND Corporation study on the matter.
R&D infrastructure. The House proposes requiring DOD to develop a “master plan” for addressing the infrastructure requirements of its labs, ranges, and test facilities. DOD lab heads have reported that their facilities face severe maintenance challenges and are often given low priority when they seek construction funding.
Laboratory Directed R&D. The Senate proposes prohibiting NNSA laboratories from using funds designated for the Laboratory Directed R&D program to cover overhead costs.
Extramural relations and STEM workforce development
Cooperative agreements. The Senate proposes eliminating certain cost-sharing requirements for cooperative agreements that DOD enters into to support research projects.
Transfer of dual-use technologies. The Senate proposes that DOD review its strategy for awarding to its industrial partners the intellectual property rights for dual-use technologies developed with department funding, with a view toward facilitating those technologies’ commercial availability.
Venture-funded small businesses. The House makes several proposals that aim to encourage partnerships with small, innovative companies. Among them is the creation of a “Domestic Investment Pilot Program” that would permit “small business concerns that are majority-owned by multiple venture capital operating companies, hedge funds, or private equity firms” to participate in DOD’s Small Business Innovation Research program.
HBCU commission. The House proposes creating an independent “National Security Commission on Defense Research at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Other Minority Institutions” that would recommend ways to promote these institutions’ competitiveness in pursuing and executing DOD contracts and grants.
STEM fellowships. The Senate proposes creating a “Technology and National Security Fellowships” program that would place individuals with STEM backgrounds in positions within DOD and Congress. Meanwhile, the House proposes that DOD study the merits of creating a “lab-embedded entrepreneurial fellowship program” that would offer two-year opportunities to work in a federal research facility.
National labs apprenticeship program. The House bill incorporates the DOE National Labs Jobs ACCESS Act, which would authorize a program to award five-year grants for developing apprenticeship or preapprenticeship programs providing technical skills and qualifications needed at the labs.
STEM education for dependents of military personnel. The House proposes making permanent a pilot program that provides STEM education opportunities at elementary and secondary schools at which children of U.S. military personnel are enrolled.
In last year’s NDAA, Congress took its first steps toward addressing what the FBI and a number of lawmakers from both parties take to be systematic efforts by rival governments, primarily China’s, to exploit U.S. research and technology through both licit and illicit means. Since then, congressional interest in the subject has grown considerably and proposals for further action have proliferated, a few of which are included in this year’s NDAA bills.
Forums for consultation. The House bill incorporates the Securing American Science and Technology Act, which would establish in statute an interagency committee for coordinating efforts to protect federally funded research from foreign interference and exploitation. It would also call for a new National Academies roundtable devoted to convening stakeholders in the research and security communities. Scientific societies and higher education institutions have backed the provision as an alternative to more restrictive approaches to bolstering research security.
Lists of bad actors. The Senate proposes requiring the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to report annually to Congress about “risks to sensitive research subjects posed by foreign entities.” The report is to include a list of “foreign entities, including governments, corporations, nonprofit organizations and for-profit organizations,” including subsidiary and affiliated entities, that pose an espionage or national security risk. The report would also list known or suspected attempts by such entities to “exert pressure” on institutions of higher education, including efforts to “influence” faculty, researchers, and students. The House report directs the compilation of similar lists, including one of “Chinese and Russian academic institutions that have a history of improper technology transfer, intellectual property theft, cyber espionage, or operate under the direction of their respective armed forces or intelligence agencies.”
Civil liberties protections. The House intelligence agency policy bill proposes that the Director of National Intelligence report to Congress on how counterespionage efforts “affect policies, procedures, and practices relating to the privacy and civil liberties of Americans of Chinese descent who may be targets of espionage and influence operations by China.” The report would also include recommendations for protecting the rights of Chinese Americans.
Climate and extreme weather resiliency. The House proposes that DOD augment its consideration of projected climate change impacts in its planning, including by: incorporating climate-related risks into the president’s annual budget request, removing institutional barriers inhibiting resiliency efforts, and developing a “climate vulnerability and risk assessment tool.” Another cluster of provisions would require DOD to factor in climate change and associated extreme weather events into its facilities planning. The Senate proposes some counterpart provisions that refer to “extreme weather” events without mentioning “climate change” directly.
Climate Security Advisory Council. In its intelligence agency policy bill, the House proposes that the Director of National Intelligence establish a Climate Security Advisory Council to assess and respond to the implications of climate change for national security.
SEA FUEL Act. The House and Senate bills both incorporate the bipartisan Securing Energy for our Armed Forces Using Energy Leadership (SEA FUEL) Act. The provision calls for the creation of an interagency R&D program for technologies that capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and seawater, and that may potentially convert it into fuels for military use.
USE IT Act. The Senate version also incorporates the bipartisan Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies (USE IT) Act, which would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to create a carbon dioxide utilization program and offer financial awards for direct air capture technology projects.