WASHINGTON — If the U.S. wants to maintain its military edge over competitors Russia and China, it has to be smart with how it invests its relatively limited research and development funds.

The good news for the Pentagon? Mike Griffin, its technology head, has a plan.

Griffin, speaking Wednesday at the 2019 Defense News Conference, argued that the strategic picture around the world has dramatically changed in the last 20 years, with the long-standing global order shifting and the Pentagon adjusting accordingly.

“New weapons have been built. New strategic alliances have been formed. New behavior has emerged, behavior we had hoped we consigned to the past. So what might work? Realistically, we’re not going to change the values of our peer competitors. We’re not going to outnumber them,” Griffin said. “What we can do is maintain a clear overmatch in both capability and capacity, and those two axes are different.”

So where will the Pentagon get its capability overmatch? Griffin outlined a few areas in which he wants to invest.

Directed energy: Griffin said laser weapons are the future of warfare, and always will be. But he believes certain systems are showing more promise than others.

“We haven’t had money for everything that we might like to do, so we’re focusing on nearer-term applications of directed energy, particularly lasers of higher power than we currently have,” Griffin said. That means aiming for systems in the “hundreds of kilowatts” as well as investing in high-powered microwave technology, he noted.

One area previously discussed was a neutral particle beam system, which could be posted in space and used for missile defense. However, Griffin said his team is “deferring” work on that system “indefinitely,” as it is not near-term enough for R&E’s limited funding.

Biotechnology: Griffin warned the crowd that the Defense Department must improve its understanding of biotechnology, “especially with bioengineering and the use of biological systems to manufacture things that we’ve been doing the old-fashioned ways.”

“The petroleum that we mine and use was the result of nature’s bioengineering. The other things we use today are the result of nature’s bioengineering. We need to figure out how it’s done and do it on an industrial scale.”

The tech head pointed to penicillin as an example of where humankind took something that was naturally occurring and synthetically reproduced it, noting that a major push for the medicine occurred only during World War II when a need became acute. Rather than wait for a disaster to strike, Griffin seemed to argue, the Defense Department should invest now toward discovering ways to bioengineer solutions.

Unmanned systems: Across land, sea, air and space, Griffin said unmanned capability is an area of needed investment.

“We can’t afford to put our people at risk” in the battlefields of the future, he said. “We need advances in autonomy. Self-driving cars may be out there on the horizon, self-driving logistics trains may be closer,” but more work is needed.

Hand in hand with that are new developments in “persistent and timely global awareness” as well as the use of artificial intelligence to handle the infamous “tsunami” of data coming in from the Pentagon’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

“How do we find and identify and track and maintain custody on potential targets? How do we know when the situation has changed, how do we monitor patterns of life?" he said. "It is not useful if we have to have people looking constantly at the data.”

Other key tech: Quantum technology — in particular, quantum clocks to enable positioning in the event of GPS-denied environments — "are critical,” Griffin said.

And the next-generation network known as 5G will be vital for enabling multiple capabilities, which is why Griffin wants to work with industry partners now, involving the Pentagon early in 5G development.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

More In Defense News Conference