WASHINGTON — The Defense Department’s science and technology effort has two overarching missions: to help today’s warfighters and prepare capabilities for tomorrow’s servicemembers.
The trick is to put these two missions in synch, said Zachary J. Lemnios, director of defense research and engineering.
During a Defense Writers’ Group breakfast yesterday, Lemnios said the Defense Department faces a range of challenges. When he arrived as director last year, he said, he framed four imperatives to ensure the office gets it right.
“The first is accelerating delivery of technical capabilities to win the current fight,” he said. Second, he added, is to prepare for an uncertain future.
These two imperatives are at the heart of the organization. The office must get technology to servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan to win today’s fights, but no one knows what type of threat will face the nation in the future, and science and technology money must be spent to combat as yet unknown enemies.
The third imperative is reducing the risk, time and cost of acquisition systems, Lemnios said. “And the fourth is to make sure we have the underlying math, science and technology foundation that we need.”
Responding to the needs of servicemembers in the field, Lemhnios said, is the most important imperative. Lemnios said he has met with all 10 combatant commanders, and it has helped him shape how the department looks at science and technology base.
“We are trying to put in place a science and technology portfolio that isn’t there just for fundamental science, it’s there for the combatant commanders and services and to support the future needs of the department,” he said.
Lemnios receives joint urgent operations requirements directly from the combatant commanders. A requirement is a need that is “so urgent it has to be addressed in order to save lives,” he explained.
“There have been several hundred of these requests,” he said. Lemnios’ office connects the science and technology community with the combatant commanders so they understand the art of the possible.
Right now, these needs are centered on the fight to counter improvised explosive devices, on persistent surveillance and on body protection and armor, Lemnios said. “All [of the combatant commanders] want the 80 percent solution today rather than perfection five years from now,” he said.
Examples of an urgent need rushed to the front are Aerostat balloons that contain surveillance cameras and other hardware to help in protecting forward bases, the director said.
Forward operating bases in isolated areas need perimeter surveillance, he said, noting the balloons loft up to 1,500 feet and don’t take much manning to operate.
“We’re now delivering these [balloons] to all forward operating bases,” he said.
The office also is moving a helicopter alert threat system along. This system answers the need to protect helicopters from small-arms fire, and it was adopted from a system in place for Humvees. Sixteen microphones mounted on the choppers can pinpoint where ground fire is coming from. The system now is mounted on Black Hawk helicopters at Fort Drum, N.Y., and will deploy to the combat theater in October, he said.
“Both systems were fielded in less than six months,” Lemnios said. “We blew through a bunch of barriers to make this happen.”
The office also is working to detect improvised explosive devices – the leading killers of U.S. personnel. “Think of the IED problem as a system, in which the enemy has a vote,”
Lemnios said. The department is addressing the threat through technology, foiling the triggers, attacking the networks and coming up with new tactics, training and procedures.
Science and technology can help in all of these areas, Lemnios said.
“This is less about individual technology and more about the system construct,” he added.
All of this IED technology and surveillance results in tera-bytes of data, and sorting through it is a major stumbling block, he acknowledged. Lemnios said the department is going to tackle the data-to-decision challenge head on. His office has a tight tie with trainers at Twenty-nine Palms in California and Fort Polk, La., to see “where technology really does supply a lever and how do we supplement that technology concept with tactics, techniques and procedures.”
But personnel 20 years from now will need capabilities, and the seed corn for these ideas is the basic research paid for today, Lemnios said. Industry looks for payouts and generally doesn’t fund basic research, he noted; historically, the federal government or universities do that.
The Defense Department generally funds basic research when the department needs to have a pre-eminent position for a long time or when private industry finds the risk too high to fund it. A large effort is under way in the Air Force to open the next frontier in propulsion, Lemnios said. The Air Force is developing an engine that will use 25 percent less fuel at Dayton Lab in Ohio.
Lemnios said he wants the department to fund the high-risk, critical technology development, then for industry to optimize the results and provide the technology back to the department. A simple example is the way the global positioning system was put in place 23 years ago. “That was a [Defense Department] investment,” he said. “Today, that’s a shrink-wrapped product that … is ubiquitous.”
Another example is microelectronics. Originally, the Air Force drove that investment. Today, it’s private industry.
The partnership still works. An example is the all terrain mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle that has been deployed to Afghanistan in the thousands and is going to coalition partners also. It went from the idea to industry producing 1,000 vehicles a month in less than a year.
“This was sort of on par with what the department did in World War II to produce aircraft,” Lemnios said.
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