National Defense Strategy Tech Annex Would Help Emphasize Need for Innovation, Top DOD Tech Official Says


And service-level officials called for year-of execution funding to help avoid the valley of death

Top science and technology officials at the Defense Department suggested tweaks to strategy and processes that would help emphasize the need to develop and integrate next generation tech during a Thursday hearing. 

Barbara McQuiston, who is performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said that the recommendation from the National Security Commision on Artificial Intelligence to add a technology annex to the National Defense Strategy would be useful during a hearing before the House Armed Services cyber and IT subcommittee. The hearing comes as Congress awaits the arrival of President Joe Biden’s first budget request, expected May 28, which lawmakers say is delaying work on the annual National Defense Authorization Act. 

“Having a technology annex would be able to … emphasize the fact that science and technology plays that critical role,” McQuiston said, referring to modernization. 

NSCAI’s final report suggests such an annex should “include roadmaps for designing, developing, fielding, and sustaining critical technologies that are needed to address the operational challenges identified in the strategy.” 

Other officials testifying also offered ideas for overcoming the so-called valley of death, a problem that has become a near-constant issue raised to and by lawmakers when it comes to innovation at DOD. The current planning, programming, budgeting, and execution, or PPBE, paradigm, which dates back to the 1960s, often hamstrings innovation because it takes two or more years to be included in the budget. 

A February report authored by the former deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial policy Bill Greenwalt and Dan Patt, a Hudson Institute fellow, describes PPBE as an inflexible construct that “increases the difficulty of rapidly shifting funding to emergent innovations that appear promising.” 

Dr. Philip Perconti, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology, said he wants consideration of changing processes to allow for year-of execution or year-of-execution minus-one funding. 

“The issue is always if you're trying to do something year of execution-wise to make sure that Congress is well informed of where we're going and what we're doing with those resources,” Perconti said. “So I think you also have to add more reporting, perhaps quarterly or otherwise, to come back to Congress and describe to you where we're going and how our priorities are changing sooner rather than later.”

Kristin Baldwin, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics for science, technology, and engineering, agreed with Perconti’s suggestion, and added that a study of PPBE is needed. She also advocated for greater ability to partner across various entities—like technologists, production, and sustainment groups—that utilize separate budget accounts. 

“The ability to make shifts, and perhaps to divest as we understand and identify risk and seek to move on, is also very important,” Baldwin said, “And I think joint, if there's more opportunities to incentivize joint activities would be of great interest.” 

Throughout the hearing, including during questioning around the valley of death problem, McQuiston emphasized that the department’s recently launched innovation steering group would take a look at the factors helping and hampering tech integration at DOD. 

“So people, process and technology is going to be what we're looking at for inserting innovation across the board,” McQuiston said.