"Taking the long view" as the Defense Department undergoes a broad strategic rebalance to confront an array of challenges, Defense Secretary Ash Carter emphasized the technological edge as a major theme in the fiscal 2017 budget and accompanying strategy.

Speaking in Washington Feb. 2, Carter gave a preview of the forthcoming $583 billion Pentagon budget, noting that in "a new strategic era" the budget must reflect competing military priorities and operations, current and future.

"Today's security environment is dramatically different than the one we've been engaged with for the last 25 years, and it requires new ways of thinking and new ways of acting," Carter said. "We know we'll have to deal with them across all domains—and not just the usual air, land and sea, but also particularly in the areas of cyber, space and electronic warfare, where our reliance on technology has given us great strengths but also led to vulnerabilities that adversaries are eager to exploit."

To that end, the budget includes some key tech-focused areas, including $71.4 billion for research and development and "even more than" last year's budgeted $5 billion for space. Significantly, Carter called out DoD investment in cyber—$7 billion in 2017 and almost $35 billion over the next five years "to improve DoD's network defenses, build more training ranges for our cyber warriors and also develop cyber tools and infrastructure needed to provide offensive cyber options."

Carter promised full-spectrum support to counter "a high-end enemy," and he pointed to both long-term and faster, nearer-term investments in technology necessary to combat evolving adversaries such as the Islamic State terror group.

In particular, Carter highlighted DoD's Strategic Capabilities Office, which he created in 2012 as deputy Defense secretary "to reimagine existing DoD, intelligence community and commercial systems by giving them new roles and game-changing capabilities to confound potential opponents," he said. "SCO is incredibly innovative, but also has the rare virtue of rapid development and the even rarer virtue of keeping current capabilities viable for as long as possible. So it's good for both troops and taxpayers alike."

Among the high-tech SCO innovations Carter singled out:

  • Advanced navigation that augments bomb-targeting using the tiny cameras and sensors found on the common smartphone. "This will eventually be a modular kit that will work with many other payloads—enabling off-network targeting through commercial components that are small enough to hold in your hand," he said.
  • Swarming autonomous vehicles "in multiple domains," including resilient micro-drones in the air and self-driving boats that can network and provide surveillance in the water.
  • Gun-based missile defense using the same hypervelocity smart projectile developed for the electromagnetic railgun, applied to point defense using existing artillery. "This way, instead of spending more money on more expensive interceptors, we can turn past offense into future defense—defeating incoming missile raids at much lower cost per round, and thereby imposing higher costs on the attacker," Carter said. Tests already have proven out the idea, he noted.
  • The arsenal plane, which takes DoD’s oldest aircraft platforms and "turns them into a flying launch pad for all sorts of different conventional payloads," Carter said. "In practice, the arsenal plane will function as a very large airborne magazine, networked to 5th-generation aircraft that act as forward sensor and targeting nodes—essentially combining different systems already in our inventory to create wholly new capabilities."

Carter acknowledged that tradeoffs must be made to support the kind of military technological edge the SCO's activities represent.

"Where tradeoffs among force structure, modernization, and readiness posture needed to be made, we generally pushed to favor the latter two. This is important, because our military has to have the agility and ability to win not only the wars that could happen today, but also the wars that could happen in the future," he said.