DoD tasks its innovation experts with driving out cost of technology

November 19, 2013

The Pentagon has fewer dollars to invest in technology, but it’s trying to make
the best of a bad situation, officials say. Among the military’s efforts to cope
with declining dollars is a greater emphasis on making use of commercial
technologies and using the process of innovation to improve the acquisition
process itself.

The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, famous for lighting the fire
beneath once-in-a-lifetime innovations such as network computing and GPS, is best
known for making investments with a huge potential payoff, and sometimes a huge
amount of technology risk. Its director, Arati Prabhakar, said that’s not about to

But inside DARPA, there’s a greater push toward innovating based on the fruits of
its past labors, and not necessarily always building better mousetraps from the
ground up.

For example, DARPA’s early investments in the miniaturization of microelectronics
for military purposes built the foundation for what Prabhakar said now is a
commercial “juggernaut” that’s pushed that particular ball forward tremendously,
and advanced those circuits to the point where they’re ubiquitous in consumer
electronics around the planet.

“Now, it’s a huge opportunity for DoD to try to surf on top of that,” Prabhakar
said in an interview with Federal News Radio as part of a special report,
A New Era in Technology
. “We need to take all of that power and
repurpose it so that we get all of that capability, including the ability to move
fast and be agile as technology keeps changing.”

Prabhakar offered a DARPA program called ADAPT as an example. Its goal is to
quickly and cheaply build new sensor systems for the military, with the
recognition that past DoD endeavors in that space have taken an average of three-
to-eight years. Commercial industry generally gets the job done in one or two.

Cost reduction comes first

At its core for the moment is the low-cost commercial Snapdragon chip found in
many modern smartphones.

“Essentially, that program recognizes that the same things in your smartphone are
the same things we need to build a huge number of the sensor networks and
communications systems we need in DoD,” she said. “You need high-speed processing,
you need a bunch of sensors; you need to know your global position and
orientation; you need to communicate. Why don’t we leverage all of that
capability? The ADAPT program has created a set of nodes that are built on this
commercial technology, and it’s a great backbone so that when you want to build a
new sensor network, something we need to do for national security all the time,
you can start with that capability and very quickly design something at the
systems level.”

While DoD’s science and technology enterprise always will be focused on creating
breakthroughs, Prabhakar said that doesn’t mean those breakthroughs will all take
the form of new technology systems. The department is putting more energy toward
using innovation to reduce the cost of everything it buys, she said.

“For the high-tech national security community, this whole theme is new and none
of us are very good at it. It’s a challenge that I really want to put out to all
of us, because we’re on a path where we’re just going to build PowerPoint slides
instead of actual systems if we don’t use innovation to change cost,” she said.
“We have some examples in our portfolio, and ADAPT is one, but a very different
example might be rethinking the deep reasons for cost in an area like space, the
most costly domain we try to operate in.”

Prabhakar is not alone in her desire to invent ways around the persistent problems
that cause cost overruns in DoD systems over and over again. Making existing and
near-future systems more affordable is one of the top priorities for the Defense
Department’s top science and technology official.

“I have to start to think about affordability,” said Alan Shaffer, the acting
assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. “That means I have to
prioritize things that will help me understand things like interoperability and
interfaces to that I can interact more easily with other nations.”

Modeling and simulation

Likewise, Shaffer said during an appearance on Federal News Radio’s On DoD, the
department needs to direct its research attention to projects that offer the
promise of making more use of modeling and simulation in the design of new

“That’s something you don’t think about DoD Research and Engineering doing, but in
the commercial world they’re using computers to do design,” he said. “We want to
carry that one step further and develop a capability to do system trades on the
fly, so you understand if you do design X, how that will affect the performance,
and then you can vary the parameters of whatever that particular factor is to very
quickly optimize your system. And if we develop these tools, if the requirement
changes, I don’t have to go back to ground zero for design, I can move much more
quickly. So these are areas I can’t afford not to invest in, because my community
is responsible to the rest of the department for breaking the cost paradigm.”

A New Era in Technology,
research and development,
Arati Prabhakar,
Alan Shaffer,
Frank Kendall,
Todd Harrison,
Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments,
Jared Serbu

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