Pentagon R&D chief Al Shaffer ()
WASHINGTON — The US Defense Department is set to roll out a new strategy this week that is designed to make sure researchers know about ongoing technological developments around the world, and can take advantage of spending by close allies to fill gaps in capabilities and cut costs.
The document, called the “International S&T Engagement Strategy,” aims to use advances in big data technology to create easily searchable databases for use by the Pentagon’s “communities of interest,” 17 groups of experts from across the services and Pentagon offices focused on specific areas of technology.
Once that data is proliferated, the Pentagon intends to take a look at where it can do a better job of using partner investment to cut the cost of developing some technologies, and where it can take advantage of investments by allies for technologies that might fill US gaps.
Although the document doesn’t mention it, the strategy is focused on joint work with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, according to acting Pentagon research and development (R&D) chief Al Shaffer.
Shaffer said that while the document explores improving awareness of technological developments, it’s less about gathering the intelligence and more about making sure the right parties are aware of it.
“We have complete insight into our partner and allies’ laboratories, and they have pretty good insight into ours, so what I’m really interested in is using some of the tools of our international structure,” Shaffer said. “If you take a look at our footprint already, we already have a network of literally hundreds of people. So this is really a structure of how do we put in place a capability back here in the United States and layer it into our capability road maps.”
To do that requires absorbing volumes of data on developing technologies and distributing that to the communities of interest. Those communities were set up in January as part of an effort to streamline development and avoid redundancy, and the Defense Technical Information Center is being tasked with making the new system work.
“I don’t need every community of interest to look at everything that comes in worldwide,” Shaffer said. “We can have an automation machine take all that information and route the relevant information to the right [communities].”
Shaffer cited that automation as being one of the prime reasons the new effort is being undertaken, as the technical challenges might have been insurmountable previously but can be overcome because of rapid improvements in the commercial big data sphere.
“Three years ago we could not have even begun to think about doing what we’re trying to do now,” he said.
The new IT system should be up and running in the fall, with the database operational Sept. 9 and the search tools ready near Oct. 1. Both are being tested.
But once the systems are in place it will be up to officials to take advantage of the information they’re getting.
“This isn’t three guys and a coffee pot, this is a significant staff,” said James Hasik, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The good news is that two senior Pentagon people are saying that we need to pay attention, this is important.”
But Hasik pointed to the broad strokes with which the strategy is painted as being a potential flaw.
“There’s a remarkable lack of prioritization,” he said.
Shaffer acknowledged that much of the success of the effort will ride on how well the officials work with each other.
“This is not my plan, this is our plan,” he said. “If we have the right senior executives in the right areas, we will not have a stovepipe. If we have the wrong senior executives we will devolve into stove piping and all this will just be more paper. Washington’s great at producing paper that never has any impact.”
That need to coordinate was of concern to one industry source familiar with the plan.
“There’s some kumbaya here, but not much substance,” the source said. “The devil is in the details, and there are no details.”
One of the sources of skepticism that the Pentagon is facing is a lukewarm response to its last major IT effort, the Defense Innovation Marketplace. That was designed to allow contractors to get a handle on where the Pentagon is looking for new technologies.
“The DoD marketplace effort has met with limited success,” the industry source said. “What makes you think extrapolating it to an international level will work?”
Shaffer said his office has learned from the experience, and is focusing on making sure they’re improving the user interface as well as taking an iterative approach to development.
“The other thing that I think we learned was not to go for everything in the first increment,” he said.
Shaffer is also sorting out how the agency will measure success, a difficult task given the stated goal of improving technology partnerships. That’s another area where much work is left to be done, as the strategy is designed to lay the groundwork for improved international efforts by making sure there’s data in place to make decisions, but can’t outline what those changes to partnering might be.
On that front, the bigger shift already underway has been the communities of interest concept, as US partner countries aren’t confronted with officials from each of the services and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in every technology area, but rather a single figure from each community of interest.
“We were overwhelming our closest friends and allies,” Shaffer said. “By bringing it in through the communities of interest we’re still bringing in the best technology but we’re not hitting them up five times.”
Joint development also ensures that the eventual products will work effectively from an interoperability standpoint.
The one major stumbling block that could surface is interoperability within the Pentagon — getting all of the different groups to agree on where to push technologies and who should do it.
“There are many days that I wish I could go back to being a laboratory commander where I was king and I could just go back to snapping my fingers and stuff happens,” Shaffer said. “But at [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] OSD we cannot work it alone. We have to work and bring our partners in the services and agencies with us.” ■