Defense IT

Carter again pushes for DOD-commercial tech links

Carter DARPA Wait What forum

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who has been touting a public/private approach to innovation, recently reemphasized the need for closer cooperation between the U.S. commercial sector and Defense Department research agencies as the technology base goes global.

"We at the Pentagon need to think outside the five-sided box," Carter told the “Wait, What?” technology forum in St. Louis sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "DOD has to tap into all the streams of innovation," from commercial startups to large military contractors. "And it has to do so much more quickly."

The technology flow is running both ways. Carter cited a DARPA project based on so-called "formal methods" to ensure that software used to run the physical systems on, for example, aircraft, is mathematically "unhackable." The agency has made some changes to the source code openly available for applications that could help provide a foundation for cybersecurity on the Internet of Things—"which it's going to need," Carter stressed.

Carter, a physicist who worked his way up through the civilian ranks at the Pentagon, noted that, at the start of his government career, most of the technology innovation in the world was coming out of the United States. Moreover, much of it was developed with government support, especially from DARPA. Now, however, the commercial sector leads in technology innovation and the overall technology base is global.

The globalization of technology also has allowed Russia and China to modernize their forces and close the technology gap with the United States in nearly every domain, including space and cyberspace. "Our reliance on things like the Internet and satellites have led to real vulnerabilities that our adversaries are eager to exploit," Carter warned. That was a thinly veiled reference to cyber-attacks likely originating in both countries along with a growing "counterspace" threat.

The latter has prompted DOD to field more resilient satellites while stepping up research in areas like lasers and other weapons that could be used to disable satellites without creating debris fields in low-Earth orbit.

Hence, Carter told the technology conference, "We are investing aggressively in innovation," adding, "We're pushing the envelope with research both into new technologies and innovative ways to apply them."

Looking to evolve the DARPA model to tap into commercial technologies, the Pentagon recently launched a DOD Innovation Hub in Silicon Valley. In August, Carter also launched a partnership with more than 160 tech companies, labs and universities to manufacture flexible hybrid electronics. Among other applications, flexible electronic circuits could be used as lightweight, rugged sensors in harsh environments.

DOD is contributing $75 million to the manufacturing program over the next five years. The Air Force Research Laboratory is managing the electronics initiative.

"We have to make ourselves more agile to work with startups, commercial companies and small businesses," Carter stressed.

The DARPA forum was designed to bring together technology innovators with program managers working on a growing list of breakthrough technologies and applications. DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar summarized them this way: "We're working to outpace cyber attacks, to turn the tables on infectious disease; we're working to rethink complex military systems. We're also working to figure out how to navigate and keep time when GPS isn't available and we're starting to figure out some radically different ways to use the electromagnetic spectrum."

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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