DOD's Top Tech Priorities Shift to Microelectronics and 5G
Department director of defense research and engineering for modernization provides update.
Mark Lewis, director of defense research and engineering for modernization at the Pentagon, provided an update on the Department of Defense’s modernization efforts during his keynote on day one of the AFCEA/GMU Critical Issues in C4I Symposium.
Lewis is focused on the modernization priorities that will inform the warfighter of the future and will set them up to be successful in the 5-, 10- and 15-year time horizons.
The priorities come from the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). “I think it’s a marvelous document. It is in many respects the first national defense strategy that we’ve seen in a long time that actually is a strategy, that isn’t tactical but is strategic,” stressed Lewis.
It identifies a number of key features. One of those is the fact that the United States is once again in a peer competition. China and Russia have positioned themselves to compete with the U.S. in many different venues.
The NDS also calls out a series of technology areas that are going to be important for the future fight. These areas include: microelectronics, autonomy, cyber, 5G communications, fully networked command, control and communications, space, hypersonics, quantum science, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI) and direct energy. Each one has a unique challenge and opportunity.
The DOD’s top tech priority has recently shifted from hypersonics to microelectronics. Why? "Because [microelectronics] is so ubiquitous and because it is so fundamental to everything we do,” Lewis stated. “In a nutshell, we want the Department of Defense to have access to state-of-the-art capabilities, which we do not have today.”
This is due in large part to the fact that the DOD does not buy on the commercial curve. In the mid-1990s, the department moved to a model of "trusted foundry," “the idea that in order to deliver parts that we could trust, we would enable foundries that would manufacture our microelectronics where we had control over every step of the process, or so we thought” explained Lewis.
That model has failed, says Lewis. It’s failed from a business standpoint because the DOD does not buy a large percentage of the microelectronics market. Therefore the companies that have been handling the trusted foundries have had trouble making the business case. As a result they have not been investing, and the chips or microelectronic components the DOD buys are in some cases two generations behind what’s available on the commercial, state-of-the-art market, Lewis added.
Now the DOD’s preferred approach is zero trust. “That means enabling the capabilities, the validation, the verification and other technologies so that we can utilize components that are not coming from trusted foundries, that are coming from places where we haven’t done the full certification but we know the capabilities that they are delivering are in fact trustworthy,” said Lewis.
The goal is to allow the DOD to purchase on the commercial curves and put the U.S. on par with its strategic competitors. “China has no problem with purchasing commercial state-of-the-art microelectronics, where as we have self-imposed limitations,” Lewis stated.
5G is also an essential, high priority modernization effort for the Department of Defense. The goal for 5G communications is straightforward. “We want to be able to operate and utilize the capabilities of 5G in any environment, that’s a friendly environment but also potentially a hostile environment,” said Lewis.
The implications for the DOD are quite profound. “We think 5G is enabling for capabilities including the IoT, it brings low-latency, it brings a volume of data that will be far greater than what we operate with today,” Lewis said.
He also likes to point out that there’s no finish line in 5G. There’s no point where the DOD will say, “OK we’re done with 5G.” It’s a continuing process.
“We want to make sure that the United States has a loud voice in setting the international standards for 5G and that the needs and the requirements for the DOD help drive the direction in which that technology is moving,” stressed Lewis.
To that end, the department is doing a series of technology demonstrations at a number of military bases to probe and explore various aspects of what 5G can do for defense.
Lewis also discussed biotechnology. Given the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, “everyone has signed up to the realization that biotechnology is a critical capability,” he said.
Obviously part of it is responding to the threat of a global pandemic and biological warfare. “But it’s more than that. Biotechnology also is using synthetic biological processes to enable and enhance new manufacturing capabilities,” said Lewis.
For example, there are microorganisms that can produce materials that have concrete-like properties. “Today, through some of the work from organizations like DARPA, we know you can actually grow a runway; you can sprinkle these organisms and have them produce runway material instead of the old fashioned way,” Lewis explained.
One of the DOD’s big initiatives is the Bioindustrial Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which was just kicked off a couple weeks ago.
Lewis stressed that hypersonics is still a very high priority for the department. “The term game changing gets used a little bit too often but in this case we do think hypersonics is game changing. It gives us the ability to operate at long range, through enemy air defenses, through very very highly contested environments,” stressed Lewis.
He hopes to see more hypersonic projects move out of prototyping and into delivery of capabilities and scale.
For well over a decade, the AFCEA/GMU Critical Issues in C4I Symposium has connected academia, industry and government annually to address important issues in technology and systems research and development. This year's sessions are being streamed online. For more information visit www.afcea.org/event/GMU-Home.