WASHINGTON ― The new undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, Heidi Shyu, has laid out some of her top priorities for the Pentagon in its innovation race with China during the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting Tuesday.
Experimentation: Next year, Shyu wants to launch a series of annual rapid joint experiments to quickly field new weapon systems. Based on capability gaps and scenarios identified by the Joint Staff and geographic combatant commanders, Shyu’s office collected 200 ideas from the services for capabilities, and she wants to experiment with the best 32.
She’s seeking an undisclosed amount of fiscal 2023 funding to hold the first one, where troops will assess the products.
“If there’s utility, then let’s head toward rapid fielding,” she said. “If you want to add some additional capability where you go through one more cycle … we plan to do [that] every single year.”
Sustainment costs: To drive down sustainment costs for weapon systems, Shyu is seeking to create a new sustainment director position ― and, to that same end, she’s emphasizing additive manufacturing; modular, open systems; and breakthroughs in more durable materials.
The armed services collectively face tens of billions of dollars in sustainment costs that they project will be unaffordable, the Government Accountability Office reported in July. For example, the Air Force needs to reduce estimated annual per-plane costs by $3.7 million, or 47 percent, by 2036; otherwise, costs in that year alone will be $4.4 billion more than it can afford.
Supporting small business: Shyu is asking Congress for more flexibility in the funding to bring research and development projects to the market. That effort is performed through Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grants.
Shyu wants there to be a special new tranche of funding that would continue supporting the most promising projects that are not quite ready for Phase III, aimed at commercialization.
Shyu ― a former Army acquisition chief turned private consultant ― said working with small companies made her realize how difficult it is for them to navigate the Department of defense. She hailed the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office, which has performed matchmaking between acquisition program officers and small companies. Those small firms are paid $5,000 to brief officials.
“Once you go through a scoring process, they will take the best in class of the ideas they really want, and they get the full funding to move ahead,” she said. “That is a great process, but it took time for them to learn and figure out what’s the best process.”
“Affordable” hypersonic weapons: Days after the Army completed its delivery of the first Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, dubbed “Dark Eagle,” to a unit, Shyu expressed confidence the service will fully field it on time, by 2023.
The Navy, which co-designed a common hypersonic missile with the Army, plans to field a ship-launched capability in 2023. “I just want to see the same capability fielded rapidly by the Navy as well,” Shyu said.
The Pentagon’s FY22 budget request for hypersonic research was $3.8 billion, up from $3.2 billion in the FY21 request. With the services worrying about the costs, Shyu said she wants to help industry focus on developing “affordable hypersonics materials and processes to drive down costs.”
“As we start to buy more than onesies and twosies, the price curve will come down.” she said.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.