Home / Industry / With threat of narrowing military lead, US DOD expands its global tech-scouting to sustain its technological edge

With threat of narrowing military lead, US DOD expands its global tech-scouting to sustain its technological edge

The technology environment across the world today is evolving to one where having one country have a technological advantage over another is not just going to be in our future,” said Air Force Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force Material Command headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. With the proliferation of technology in the information age, “our near peers are comparable to us in many areas,” the four-star general said. “I think the key to the future of the United States is our ability to quickly field this new technology and to adapt and change and to be agile in how we do technology development,” she said.

Continuing to push the technology envelope is central to maintaining U.S. preeminence in military capability, said Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter  in his Silicon Valley speech, “threats to our security and our country’s technological superiority are proliferating and diversifying.” “The U.S. global lead in defense technology is being actively eroded by potential competitors who themselves are pursuing advanced technologies to develop asymmetric capabilities that challenge the U.S. ability to carry out critical missions.”

A Report of the CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and the CSIS International Security Program, authored by Andrew P. Hunter & Ryan A. Crotty, explored the context of the global innovation environment that is driving the need for DoD to better connect with the global commercial economy and proposing recommendations to expand and enhance DoD’s awareness of and access to outside innovation.

“As changes in the nature of the global economic system have made advanced technologies and technical know-how widely available, many key technologies are increasingly commercial in origin and globally sourced. Most of these sources lie outside the traditional sphere of defense technology development, but these technologies are increasingly applicable for military purposes.”

US Navy expands its global tech-scouting

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is increasing its spending on basic research and technology scouting outside the US. Captain Kevin Quarderer, commanding officer of ONR’s global division, says he expects a “substantial” rise in the budget for early-stage, international research grants of perhaps 50 per cent in the year ahead, from $12 million in the year ended 30 September 2017.

Another factor driving the increase is a gradual, global shift of cutting edge technology development from public to private sector, as multinationals pump money into artificial intelligence, driverless vehicles, new materials and other emerging technologies. That means the military has to put more effort into tracking, not just university research, but also corporate R&D programmes.

ONR Global has added 20 to 30 extra staff in the past few months, and Quarderer told Science|Business he aims to open two more international tech scouting offices, in Hyderabad and Melbourne, adding to the seven offices outside the US currently. Currently, some of the international research of most interest includes artificial intelligence, unmanned vehicles, energy systems, nanotechnology, new materials and “lethality.”

Quarderer cites “amazing” research on nanotechnologies in Prague, unmanned vehicles in the Nordic region, and artificial intelligence and synthetic biology in several countries. Unmanned ships – surface or underwater – are another emerging area, with ONR scouts looking at technologies in the Nordic countries, Israel, Singapore and China. A special problem, is how to control drone ships efficiently.

At present, the technology is new so it takes several technicians to control one craft remotely. What is needed for an effective military technology, is to develop systems that can think for themselves enough that one technician can manage 50 drone vessels at once. The Global unit’s annual report lists one such approach: researchers at Tel Aviv University looked at the possibility of applying the way bats naturally swarm together to find new ways of controlling multiple drones.

The ONR Global annual report lists several other “success stories” in early-stage collaborations. Researchers at the India Institute of Technology have worked with ONR on finding new ways to predict instabilities inside jet engines. A researcher at Oxford demonstrated a more-efficient “perovskite” solar cell. A Cambridge researcher, working with ONR and the US multinational GE, worked on a new model of turbine blade materials. And working with the Swedish Defence Research Agency, ONR has been developing a new chemical that can “substantially increase underwater explosive bubble energy.” Quarderer notes that more than 40 per cent of ONR’s projects are co-funded by other agencies, such as the Air Force and Army. Indeed, tech scouts for those services work alongside Quarderer’s staff in Ruislip.

The Global unit makes about 300 grants a year to researchers outside the US, publishing regular calls for proposals in technology areas in which it is interested. The early-stage grants come with no requirements of secrecy or patent protection. It is only if the work moves towards weapons development that normal military procurement rules would apply, and that gets handled by central ONR offices in the US.


The Global Innovation Environment

“Four key characteristics of the global innovation environment, globalization, privatization, commercialization, and acceleration, combine to threaten DoD’s future technology dominance.” “Globalization and privatization represent characteristics of the world today, while commercialization and acceleration are traits of technology itself, intertwining to make the global innovation environment.”

Secretary Hagel was absolutely clear in defining the problem that DoD faces in today’s global innovation environment: Many, if not most, of the technologies that we seek to take advantage of today are no longer also in the domain of DoD development pipelines or traditional defense contractors. We all know that DoD no longer has exclusive access to the most cutting-edge technology or the ability to spur or control the development of new technologies the way we once did.



“A strong DoD R&D program remains a necessary foundation for maintaining military technological dominance, but it is no longer sufficient for ensuring future DoD technology superiority. It remains necessary because there will always be military-unique products that have no commercial market and where commercial industry on its own will not invest.”

“Perhaps even more crucially, the federal government makes strategic investments in basic science and technology that lay the foundation for developments critical to both defense and commercial technologies. However, focusing on innovation resulting directly from DoD’s R&D program is insufficient today due to the rapid expansion of innovation occurring outside the DoD sphere of influence.”

“In order to harness cutting-edge technology in a world where innovation is increasingly occurring beyond the traditional jurisdiction of government investment,” DoD must continue to look beyond traditional industrial and geographic boundaries and proactively leverage outside innovation.” “This new environment requires an expanded set of tools for improving awareness and gaining access to these technologies,”


The Imperative for a New DoD Approach

“As technology, talent, and capital become more mobile, flexible, and available in the new global innovation environment outlined above, the open innovation paradigm is gaining dominance, incentivizing lower barriers between an organization and the global market to better harness the R&D investments occurring outside of the organization.”


Gaps and challenges

The study team found that, there is a gap within the defense community of knowledge of new technology and processes being developed in the global nondefense market, innovation with relevance but no physical connection to any defense activity.
“In addition, those bridging that gap are often on the margins and doing so in relative isolation without any structures to either “push” or “pull” that information between the communities of other gap-fillers. We call this set of issues the “Awareness” challenges.”

“Second, there are structural and institutional barriers to accessing and leveraging this outside innovation once it has been identified. From requirements generation to acquisitions and funding, many processes in DoD serve to raise barriers instead of enabling practitioners. These barriers run the gamut from internal processes and procedures, to cultural barriers, budgetary roadblocks, legislative requirements, and statutory and regulatory hurdles.”



The focus of the paper is: identifying opportunities for the Department of Defense to develop new processes and tailor old ones to realize the gains of the ongoing global technology innovation revolution underway today.
The study team has developed a set of recommendations to address the two sets of challenges posed by this new innovation environment: 1) encouraging better awareness of outside innovation, and 2) enabling better access to that outside innovation once it has been identified.



This stage of awareness is critical for delivering “blue team” (i.e., U.S. and partner) solutions, but also necessary for “red team” analysis. As George H. Heilmeier, the former Director of DARPA, explained, “The real difference between the surpriser and the surprised is usually not the unique ownership of a piece of new technology. The key difference is in the recognition or awareness of the impact of that technology and decisiveness in exploiting it.”


Recommendations for expanding awareness of outside innovation:

1. DoD should create and share a better knowledge base of emerging technologies and processes across the Department.

2. DoD should more extensively utilize efforts to promote operational innovation and support the use of small “demonstration” projects and operational experimentation to identify and incorporate outside innovation in the field. This includes encouraging and supporting more warfighter-innovator collaboration, and expanded use of field-testing for quicker evaluations of outside innovations.

3. DoD should expand and connect initiatives at OSD and in the military departments that search for specific technology development from outside innovation. Furthermore, DoD needs to expand the search to identify outside innovations with military value, particularly including innovations that could be used by potential adversaries.


Recommendations for improving access to outside innovation:

Once better awareness is achieved, the goal must be to break down the many barriers (statutory, regulatory/policy, cultural, methodological) that hinder DoD’s ability to access potentially valuable outside innovation

1. DoD should develop forcing functions within the warfighter and acquisition communities that identify capability gaps, match available and emerging technologies and concepts with those gaps, and rapidly pull those technologies and concepts into operational use.

2. DoD policy and practice should create and foster requirements flexibility that allows consideration of potential solutions that don’t fit existing programs or requirements. This could be enabled by focusing on expanding modularity and use of open systems architectures, which can provide flexibility in approaches to meet specified outcomes.

3. DoD policy should, as part of identifying options to address capability gaps, support consideration of disposability (i.e., planned obsolescence), not updating, as a viable acquisition strategy where circumstances warrant such an approach.

4. DoD must capture and leverage wartime rapid-fielding lessons learned, under which DoD has accepted more risk, accepted commercial/civil solutions for operationally essential capabilities, and enticed commercial and non-U.S. firms to compete.

5. DoD should continue to expand mechanisms for warfighters to fund urgent operational capability needs, this will enable more timely and effective warfighter efforts to speed transitions from innovation to application: concept to prototype, and prototype to capability.

6. Ensuring that innovation is a prized quality, both in setting up a competition and in source selection (through best value focus instead of best price), will be critical to enticing cutting-edge firms to do business with DoD.

7. DoD should expand Better Buying Power goals and encouragement of prototypes to include prototypes for proof of concept, validating requirements, defining requirements, and as a basis for experiments and tests. DoD needs a limited amount of prearranged set of funds to be available to verify, evaluate, and begin to incorporate outside innovation discoveries.


The narrative of the Department of Defense to date has centered on minimizing the harm of the features of the global innovation environment. The more revolutionary approach needs to focus not on minimizing damage, but on maximizing opportunity. These same leaders are blazing paths from the Pentagon out to Silicon Valley, and Boston, and Singapore, looking for new ways to deliver national security in this new era. The Department of Defense needs to continue developing lasting processes and incentives that drive the organization to continuing to become more a part of the solution and less of the problem.


References and Resources also include:


The full report can be read here: Keeping the Technological Edge: Leveraging outside Innovation to Sustain the Department of Defense’s Technological Advantage

Check Also

Enhancing Performance and Safety: The Role of Wearable Technology in Modern Military Operations

In recent years, smart wearable devices like Google glasses, smart bracelets, and VR have become …

error: Content is protected !!