House Appropriators Take Aim at Some of the Pentagon’s Most Ambitious Tech Ideas

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The new Congress is cold on many of the Pentagon’s most elaborate projects and plans.

A $10 billion data cloud, giant ray guns in space, a sixth-generation fighter jet—these are just some of the biggest ideas out of the Pentagon in the last several years. But they’ve failed to impress the House Appropriations Committee, which released its version of the 2020 defense spending bill report yesterday.

The biggest hit may be to the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, a program that seeks to hire a commercial cloud provider to house a large portion of the Defense Department’s data. The appropriators said the proposed contract deviates from Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, best practices “and may be failing to implement a strategy that lowers costs and fully supports data innovation for the warfighter.” Therefore, the report says, “the Committee directs that no funds may be obligated or expended to migrate data and applications to the JEDI cloud” until the Defense Department starts sending regular reports on how the JEDI program will be changed to comply with OMB guidelines.

The committee also chopped $42 million out of the $208 million request for Joint Advanced Artificial Intelligence, presumably connected somehow to the Department's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, which seeks to harmonize AI efforts across the department, bringing the number down to $166 million.

The appropriators stripped all but $17 million from the Defense Innovation Unit, or DIU’s, $92 million request for advanced prototyping as part of the unit’s National Security Innovation Capital effort. The program, authorized in the 2019 defense authorization act, is to “make investments in dual-use hardware and strengthen U.S. supply chains where they are most vulnerable.”

The appropriators aren’t particularly excited about a new fighter jet. They halved the $1 billion in proposed funding for the Next Generation Air Dominance effort to develop and deploy a sixth-generation fighter by 2030.

The committee also knocked $80 million off the Pentagon’s $670 million request for drones that fly from aircraft carriers, citing “excess to need.”

On the missile defense front, the committee reduced by $50 million from an $85 million request for space-based missile defense interceptors. The Missile Defense Agency wants to see whether satellite-mounted directed energy weapons—either lasers or neutral particle beams—might be able to shoot down enemy missiles as they are lifting off. The Missile Defense Agency had wanted to conduct a space-bound test of a neutral particle beam in 2023.

Kingston Reif, who leads disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, says that the concept, championed by Michael Griffin, the first defense undersecretary for research and engineering, is flawed fundamentally. “First, space-based interceptors, whether kinetic or non-kinetic, would be costly and massively destabilizing. The costs and risks vastly outweigh any potential benefits. Regarding the workability of a neutral particle beam, among other technical and operational challenges, the weapon would be big and vulnerable to attack from ground-based [anti-satellite] weapons or space weapons an adversary might develop to counter it.”

But not all of the Pentagon’s big, whiz-bang ideas saw cuts. The report adds money for several areas of basic research across a variety of departments and services.

There’s $85 million to develop new hypersonic missiles—but there’s a catch. “The Committee is concerned that the rapid growth in hypersonic research has the potential to result in stove-piped, proprietary systems that duplicate capabilities and increase costs.” Therefore, the money is to develop a “science and technology roadmap for hypersonics and to establish a university consortium for hypersonics research,” to better integrate the Defense Department’s efforts.

For all the emphasis on cost-cutting, the appropriators are big fans of drones you can just throw away, specifically the Air Force’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology, or LCAAT, a program that seeks to create a family of drones that are cheap enough to replace easily if destroyed (attritable) but dexterous and precise enough to serve alongside fighter jets or conduct their own missions. The Air Force Research Lab completed a demonstration flight of its prototype XQ-58A Valkyrie, in March.

The appropriators are looking to give the program $50 million more. “The Committee believes that LCAAT has the potential for game-changing capability and capacity across both permissive and contested environments while avoiding the high cost, long development timelines, and inflexible production lines of traditional aircraft programs,” they write.

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