FY21 NDAA: Dual-Use Technology Proposals

Publication date

The House and Senate versions of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act propose numerous provisions aimed at increasing U.S. competitiveness in commercial technologies that have important national security applications, including microelectronics, artificial intelligence, 5G telecommunications, and advanced nuclear reactors.

Congress is expected to convene a conference committee this fall to reconcile the House and Senate versions of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Passed annually, the legislation comprehensively updates policy for the Department of Defense and National Nuclear Security Administration, including policy relating to military technology and the defense R&D enterprise.

A key focus of this year’s bills is securing an advantage for the U.S. military in accessing commercial technologies that have a dual use in national security applications. This bulletin focuses on proposals relating to specific dual-use technologies such as microelectronics, advanced telecommunications equipment, and nuclear reactors. Throughout, numbers in brackets refer to corresponding bill section numbers and pages from the accompanying House and Senate Armed Services Committee reports.

The previous bulletin in this series covered proposals broadly aiming to strengthen the “national security innovation base” and protect its work from exploitation by China and other rival nations. Future coverage will address provisions relating to defense-specific technologies, DOD labs, the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, and STEM workforce development, among other matters.

Emerging technologies

Industries of the Future. The Senate bill adapts standalone legislation that directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to elaborate on its “Industries of the Future” initiative to promote artificial intelligence, quantum information science (QIS), advanced communications, advanced manufacturing, and biotechnology. The provision does not delimit the “industries” in question, though, instead directing OSTP to establish a definition that “includes emerging technologies” and to develop a plan to increase federal non-defense spending on the industries to $10 billion per year by fiscal year 2025. The office is also instructed to make plans for doubling annual non-defense spending on AI and QIS by fiscal year 2022 and to establish an interagency Industries of the Future Coordination Council. [Secs. 6094A to 6094C]

Emerging technologies committee. The House proposes establishing a “steering committee on emerging technology and national security threats” co-chaired by the deputy defense secretary, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and under secretary of defense for intelligence and security. It would be charged with developing a “strategic vision” for harnessing technologies such as artificial intelligence, QIS, and hypersonics, and assessing threats presented by adversaries’ development of such technologies. [Sec. 241]

Microelectronics, quantum computing, and AI

A high-speed, amplified probe tip used to collect reliability data on microelectronics technologies at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

A high-speed, amplified probe tip used to collect reliability data on microelectronics technologies at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

(Image credit – Erik Secula / NIST)

Congress and DOD have been concerned for some time about U.S. reliance on microelectronics manufactured in foreign countries, and particularly about China’s increasing influence in the sector. Accordingly, there is an ongoing effort to repatriate supplies and increase the trustworthiness of components, especially in national security applications.

As part of these efforts, both of this year’s NDAA bills include provisions aiming to bolster microelectronics R&D, which has become a national priority alongside R&D in emerging computing areas such as QIS and AI.

Microelectronics initiative. The House and Senate bills both adapt proposals from standalone legislation to establish a major initiative focused principally on bolstering domestic microelectronics manufacturing through Commerce Department-administered grants of up to $3 billion each for facilities construction and modernization. In addition, DOD would organize a consortium of U.S. companies to ensure the development of “advanced, measurably secure” microelectronics for national security uses, while a Treasury-administered Multilateral Microelectronics Security Fund would finance such development through international partnerships. A multiagency public-private National Semiconductor Technology Center would conduct research and prototyping. For fiscal year 2021, the House bill recommends that Congress fund the center at $914 million and provide the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology with $300 million and $50 million, respectively, to support additional semiconductor research efforts. [House Secs. 1821 to 1825; Senate Secs. 1094 to 1099]

National lab for microelectronics. The House proposes updating Congress’ directions for the trusted microelectronics strategy it mandated in the fiscal year 2017 NDAA, including by requiring an assessment of the “feasibility, usefulness, efficacy, and cost” of establishing a national lab focused “exclusively” on microelectronics R&D. The same provision would also establish an advisory panel on microelectronics competitiveness comprising the heads of relevant departments and agencies, including DOD, NSF, NIST, and the Department of Energy. [Sec. 247]

National AI Initiative. The House bill incorporates the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act, which would establish a multiagency effort to advance AI R&D that is akin to the initiative recently launched for QIS. The initiative would direct federal science agencies to support AI research grants and workforce development activities, including through a network of AI research centers that NSF has already started to establish. The bill recommends that in fiscal year 2021 Congress provide $868 million for NSF, $215 million for DOE, $64 million for NIST, and $10 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to support initiative activities. [Secs. 5001 to 5502]

Joint AI Center. Provisions in the House bill would elevate responsibility for DOD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center from the department’s chief information officer to the deputy defense secretary, grant the center director new acquisition authorities, and organize a board of directors to provide the center with strategic guidance. The bill would also require DOD to take steps to “ensure that any artificial intelligence technology acquired by the department is ethically and responsibly developed.” [Secs. 217, 224, 248, and 805] The Trump administration “strongly objects” to elevating the center to the deputy secretary level.

Semiconductor and AI supply chains. The Senate proposes that DOD assess “critical technology trends relating to artificial intelligence, microchips, and semiconductors and related supply chains,” covering matters such as vulnerabilities, international partnership and diversification opportunities, and partner nations’ efforts to impose export controls and other protective measures. [Sec. 9504]

Quantum computing and cryptography. The House and Senate bills both seek a DOD assessment of the national security implications of quantum computing, including analysis of cryptographic standards, the feasibility of quantum-resistant cryptographic methods, and shortfalls in public and private funding for quantum-resistant cryptography. The Trump administration objects to this provision on the grounds that NIST has already conducted such an assessment. [House Sec. 1614; Senate Sec. 1633]

5G and spectrum allocation

The Trump administration has prioritized the development and implementation of 5G telecommunications capabilities for both military and commercial applications. However, the expansion of 5G services has created pressure to free up spectrum previously allocated to other users, including the military.

This month, the White House announced the rapid transfer of mid-band spectrum previously reserved for defense radar applications to commercial 5G applications, as enabled by a new spectrum-sharing framework. DOD has objected, though, to a separate order the Federal Communications Commission issued in April that allows the company Ligado Communications to use “L-band” spectrum adjacent to frequencies employed by the global positioning system, claiming it will cause unacceptable interference.

This year’s NDAA bills include provisions addressing the Ligado controversy as well as more general provisions to reform federal spectrum governance, improve spectrum sharing, and set appropriate engineering standards. Such broader efforts could have implications for scientific fields such as astronomy and meteorology that are facing analogous concerns about interference in other parts of the spectrum.

GPS interference. The House and Senate both propose prohibiting DOD from expending funds to mitigate GPS interference from Ligado equipment. While FCC’s order requires Ligado to assume costs to DOD stemming from its use of L-band spectrum, the Senate Armed Services Committee asserts not all costs would be covered and the department would still bear a “large” burden. [House Sec. 1609; Senate Secs. 1083 and 6082, report p. 275] The House also proposes prohibiting DOD from entering, extending, or renewing contracts with any company operating in the bandwidths in question unless the department certifies such operations do not interfere with its GPS devices. [Sec. 1608] The Senate proposes initiating a National Academies study of the Ligado order’s effects on DOD, examining how the commission assessed potential interference, the potential effects on GPS, and the practicality of proposed mitigation measures. [Sec. 234] 

Federal spectrum management. The Senate proposes that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) develop a process to modernize federal spectrum management, leveraging capabilities such as AI, modeling and simulation, and automated methods of spectrum sharing. [Sec. 1084]

5G innovation and standards. The Senate also proposes establishing an NTIA-administered Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund for issuing grants of up to $50 million each to support research on 5G and successor wireless technologies as well as research on wireless technology standards, interoperability, and security. A separate State Department-administered fund would support international efforts to develop secure and trusted telecommunications technologies. A related provision would direct the State and Commerce Departments and FCC to “consider how to enhance representation of the United States at international forums that set standards for 5G networks and for future generations of wireless communications networks.” [Secs. 1091 to 1093]

DOD 5G governance. The Senate proposes designating DOD’s chief information officer as the point person for department-wide 5G policy and as head of a cross-department team charged with coordinating R&D, acquisition, and spectrum policy, and public-private partnerships for 5G technologies. The committee report expresses appreciation to the under secretary of defense for research and engineering for leading DOD’s 5G efforts but asserts that “a broader enterprise-wide approach is needed for the department to fully leverage and operationalize the technology effectively.” [Sec. 212, report p. 68]

Energy technologies

Advanced reactor demonstrations. The Senate bill incorporates proposals from the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, directing DOE to promote the development of commercial electricity-generating nuclear reactors that employ advanced design concepts. The provision would specifically require DOE to construct and maintain associated research infrastructure, help establish a domestic supply of high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel, and complete at least two reactor demonstration projects by the end of 2025 and one more by the end of 2035. The Senate NDAA bill does not adopt a provision from the original bill requiring DOD to enter into a long-term agreement to purchase power from such a reactor. [Secs. 6701 to 6706]

Microreactor deployment. The Senate proposes that DOD report to Congress on prospective operational uses for mobile and fixed small-scale nuclear reactors, addressing matters such as potential cost and schedule, physical security requirements, and legal and diplomatic implications. [Sec. 235] The House bill recommends that Congress provide $50 million more than DOD requested for Project Pele, an effort by the department’s Strategic Capabilities Office to design and prototype a mobile nuclear reactor by 2024. Earlier this year, the project awarded contracts to three teams to conduct preliminary design work. The House committee report directs DOD to elaborate on its plans for deploying such reactors and partnering with DOE to obtain fuel for them. [p. 65]

Naval reactor fuel. The House and Senate bills repeat proposals from last year’s NDAA process that respectively require and prohibit NNSA from establishing an R&D program on the conversion of naval reactors to use low-enriched uranium fuel. [House Sec. 3116; Senate Sec. 3154] DOE and the U.S. Navy’s joint Naval Reactors program has long held that such a conversion would be impractical and, accordingly, the Trump administration objects to the House proposal. Last year, the standoff resulted in no provision on the subject being included in the final legislation.

Long-duration energy storage. The Senate proposes that DOD and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy establish a joint initiative to demonstrate and help commercialize long-duration energy storage technologies. [Sec. 318]

Other provisions

Sustainable chemistry. The House and Senate bills both adapt provisions from the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act that would establish an interagency initiative to reduce the environmental impacts of chemical processes and products. The effort would entail creating a new coordinating body, developing a national strategy, and supporting sustainable chemistry through existing grant programs and public-private partnerships. [House Secs. 251 to 259; Senate Secs. 5221 to 5227]

Social, management, and information science. The House bill proposes that DOD establish an R&D program in “social science, management science, and information science.” The program is to prescribe “long-term challenges” that include analyzing national security data sets, improving defense management, bolstering the defense workforce, and fostering understanding of “the fundamental social, cultural, and behavioral forces” shaping U.S. strategic interests. [Sec. 221] The House committee report frames the provision as a response to the Trump administration’s proposal to shut down DOD’s Minerva Research Initiative, which supports defense-related academic work in the social sciences. The House and Senate reports each include language defending the initiative, with the House report stating, “At a time when peer and near-peer adversaries are increasingly employing elements of malign influence, disinformation, and predatory economics in concert with technological capabilities, the department should be increasing its investment in social science research programs, not ending it.” [House p. 73; Senate p. 113]

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