Deputy Secretary of Defense Highlights Modernization, Innovation Activities as Budget Priorities

Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks, left, arrives at the Pentagon, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Washington.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks, left, arrives at the Pentagon, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Kathleen Hicks also suggested DOD still needs the cloud capabilities JEDI is supposed to provide.

Pentagon leadership is formulating its first budget request for Congress under the Biden administration and, according to the deputy secretary of defense, the 2022 request will support the kind of testing and evaluation activities that lead to the creation of “breakthrough technologies.” 

Kathleen Hicks, the second-highest ranking civilian at the Defense Department, spotlighted innovation as critical for competing with China, a nation often referred to as the “pacing threat” for the U.S., in her remarks during an Aspen Security Forum event Friday. The budget request will both support defense research, development, test and evaluation, or RDT&E, as well as fund activities associated with phasing out old systems that are no longer up to par, Hicks said. 

“We are in an era where, you know, platforms will always matter, but it's the software, it's the quick turn, it's the munitions, it's those pieces that make such a critical difference in our capability set,” Hicks said in response to a question from Defense One’s Patrick Tucker about modernizing in a constrained budget environment, “and that's a different funding picture, I think I would say.” 

Last month, President Joe Biden sent his skinny budget proposal to Congress. For DOD, Biden asked for $715 billion, a 1.6% increase. The rather flat 2022 budget number has critics on both sides of the aisle, with Republican lawmakers demanding 3% to 5% increases each year and progressives calling for up to 10% in cuts.

In the meantime before the budget is finalized, Hicks said DOD is making “departmentwide, cross-cutting adjustments” to spur innovation. She emphasized that the department is continuing with the vision for a data-centric DOD laid out in the first enterprisewide data strategy released during the Trump administration. 

A day before Hicks’s remarks, DOD Chief Data Officer David Spirk said the deputy secretary and her team are providing direct support for activities related to realizing the vision laid out in the data strategy.

Hicks also indicated the data-centric imperative along with the need for vigilant cybersecurity practices as highlighted by the string of recent intrusions pointed to the need to solve a problem not likely to be resolved by the new budget: what to do with the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract. 

Last week, a federal judge denied motions to dismiss allegations made by Amazon Web Services in November that the Trump administration politically interfered in the JEDI contract award, which went to Microsoft for the second time in September. The Pentagon in January hinted it may be forced to drop the JEDI project if the judge did not dismiss the AWS political interference motion. 

“[M]oving to a cloud architecture is going to be vital to how we innovate in this department and we're going to have to assess where we are with regard to the ongoing litigation around JEDI and determine what the best path forward is for the department,” Hicks said after first declining to comment on the litigation and what DOD plans to do with JEDI. 

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