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Jeff Child, Editor-in-Chief, COTS Journal

The Long Game

I have now officially lost count of how many U.S. Secretaries of Defense have come and gone since I first joined the COTS Journal staff back in 2002. But if it seems like I’ve given more attention to outgoing SecDef Ashton Carter than any other, you’re not imagining it. I must admit I’m a fan. The main reason I suppose is that his interest and emphasis on technology fits with my own point of view as a technologist. As this issue goes to print, it’s looking certain that Retired Marine General James Mattis will be approved as the Defense Secretary for the next Administration. But here I will devote this column to Ash Carter one last time.

Aston Carter was recently a guest on the Charlie Rose show and he said something that seems obvious but is perhaps an overlooked part of the SecDef role. Carter said that among his important responsibility was to make sure the Department of Defense is prepared for the 30 years just as his predecessors handed over to him a DoD time that was likewise prepared for today. My interest of course is the technology portion of that preparedness.

Secretary Carter devoted a good portion on that subject in his Exit Memo to President Barack Obama published early this month. The memo outlines Carter’s many accomplishments of the Department of Defense over the last eight years, my vision for the country’s future, and the work that remains in order to achieve that vision.

That the memo’s section “Acquisition Reform: Driving Smart and Essential Technological Innovation” was toward the end of the 10,000-word piece makes it no less important. The section Carter said that today other countries trying to catch up with the advances the United States has enjoyed for decades in areas like precision-guided munitions, stealth, cyber, and space. That makes it all the more vital that “America pioneers and dominates the technological frontiers related to military superiority.” Under Carter’s leadership the DoD has pursued new technology development to maintain our military’s technological superiority.

Gone now are the days of the Cold War arms race characterized mostly by strength, with the leader simply having more, bigger, or better weapons. Today’s era of technological competition is uniquely characterized by an additional variable of speed, such that leading the race now depends on who can out-innovate faster than everyone else. “It’s no longer just a matter of what we buy; what also matters is how we buy things, how quickly we buy them, whom we buy them from, and how quickly and creatively we’re able to upgrade them and repurpose them to be used in different and innovative ways to stay ahead of future threats,” said Carter.

Carter cited one of the Obama Administrations first legislative accomplishments: the passing of the Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009. It put greater rigor on cost estimates and lead to cancelling or truncating troubled and unaffordable weapons platforms, including the Future Combat System, combat search and rescue helicopter, and the VH-71 Presidential helicopter. Hard choices to end programs that were no longer affordable including production of the C-17 aircraft and the alternate engine program for the Joint Strike Fighter.

According to Carter these decisions to cut underperforming acquisition programs left the defense program in better health. That allowed the Department to pursue a realistic modernization program despite a constrained defense budget?-?investing in and operationalizing our security by leveraging advances in cyber, space, electronic warfare, neuroscience, biotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous learning systems, human-machine collaboration, advanced materials, data analytics, and other areas.

Another important effort under Ash Carters watch was the creation of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), which identifies and does business with companies outside the traditional defense orbit; encouraging the adoption of Other Transactions Authority to partner with commercial firms. Also established was the Defense Digital Service, which brings in talent from America’s vibrant, innovative technology community for a time to help solve some of our most complex problems, from speeding development of next-generation GPS to modernizing the Defense Travel System.

In his memo Carter also cited the establishing of six Manufacturing Innovation Institutes (MIIs) over the past four years, focused on emerging technologies that hold strategic promise for both DoD and commercial industry, including digital manufacturing, photonics, and flexible hybrid electronics. Moving forward, DoD has plans to open two additional institutes focused on advanced tissue bio-fabrication and robotics in manufacturing environments, committing nearly $500 million in DoD funding for the MII program and achieving over $1 billion in matching funding from non-federal sources.

DoD has also invested in its own DoD Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) enterprise It is a network of laboratories and engineering centers that help make the U.S. military the most innovative in the world. In FY 2017 alone, DoD is proposing to spend nearly $72 billion on research and development. To put that in perspective, that’s more than double what Intel, Apple and Google spent on R&D last year combined.

All those efforts to prepare the U.S. for the next 30 or more years remind me that a prepared U.S. DoD requires a long-term view. Even if judged only on those merits, Secretary Ashton Carter has done his job superbly and with honor.