Defense Department Previews New Future-Facing Technology Aims

Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd/Getty Images

A fresh memorandum marks a key element informing the Pentagon’s in-development science and technology strategy.

The Defense Department released a broad plan to expand and ensure its technological edge on the shifting global conflict stage—equipped with a list of more than a dozen technologies it is prioritizing in the near term—via a six-page memorandum published on Thursday.

Penned by Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering and DOD Chief Technology Officer Heidi Shyu, the USD(R&E) Technology Vision for an Era of Competition previews the impending National Defense Science and Technology Strategy and its development. Shyu’s office will also steer the making of that future-facing blueprint.

President Joe Biden’s administration is placing a sharp focus on strategic competition, particularly with Russia and China, as it crafts the latest National Defense Strategy that’s expected to be released early this year. 

A DOD spokesperson told Nextgov on Thursday that the S&T strategy’s release will depend on that of the National Defense Strategy, as the latter is considered the “guiding document.”

In the new memo, Shyu wrote that the United States’ “strategic competitors” have greater access to ultramodern commercial technologies “than ever before,” which can be used to disrupt America.

“The challenges facing our country are both diverse and complex, ranging from sophisticated cyber-attacks to supply chain risks, and from defending against hypersonic missiles to responding to biological threats,” she wrote, later adding that it’s “imperative for the department to nurture early research and discover new scientific breakthroughs to prevent technological surprise.”

Three pillars that will “anchor” the Pentagon’s forthcoming technology strategy are detailed in this memo. They are listed as:

  1. Mission Focus: Leverage the United States' incredible technology innovation potential to solve the department's tough operational, engineering and mission-focused challenges. 
  2. Foundation Building: Set the foundation to attract and build a strong, talented future technical workforce that works in modernized laboratories and test facilities.
  3. Succeed through Teamwork: Maximize asymmetric advantages by partnering with the larger innovation ecosystem, from industry to universities and to laboratories, allies and partners.

The undersecretary further emphasized that this “era of strategic competition demands collective cooperation.” Among others, DOD will need to work with the defense industrial base, academia, startups, international partners and “even with our competitors,” she wrote, to confront the challenges of this century.

Also in the memo are 14 “critical technology areas,” that DOD considers “vital to maintaining” U.S. national security. They are spread across three categories. The list will be updated as capabilities and the defense strategies evolve, but for now, it includes:

  • Seed areas of emerging opportunity: biotechnology, quantum science, future generation wireless tech—or FutureG—and advanced materials;
  • Effective adoption areas: trusted artificial intelligence and autonomy, integrated network system-of-systems, microelectronics, space technology, renewable generation and storage, advanced computing and software, and human-machine interfaces;
  • Defense-specific areas: directed energy weapons and systems, hypersonics, and integrated sensing and cyber.

In the memo, Shyu confirmed that her office intends to create new operational concepts, rapidly prototype the referenced technologies and enable joint experimentation campaigns with partners to push them ahead. She added that her team will pursue fresh pathways and reforms to accelerate the fielding of those capabilities. 

“Successful competition requires imagining our military capability as an ever-evolving collective, not a static inventory of weapons in development or sustainment,” Shyu wrote. “In many cases, effective competition benefits from sidestepping symmetric arms races and instead comes from the creative application of new concepts with emerging science and technology.”