WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top technology officer said she’s working closely with her acquisition counterpart to ensure capabilities demonstrated through a series of joint experimentation efforts, the first of which will focus on long-range precision fires, can quickly transition to production.
Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu said that as her team prepares for the first Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve demonstrations early next year, she’s working “hand in glove” with Pentagon acquisition chief Bill LaPlante to ensure the most promising projects don’t languish — a concern expressed by Senate lawmakers, who are proposing cuts to the program’s fiscal 2023 budget.
“The best critical prototypes that we define, he will look to accelerate the acquisition pathway to get [them] into production as quickly as possible,” Shyu said during the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s DARPA Forward conference in Atlanta this week.
Shyu initiated the RDER effort as a means to help the Department of Defense address joint, high-need capability gaps by partnering with the services to fund experimentation. The first RDER sprint, which is the process the program uses to gather ideas from industry and the services, focused on long-range fires and the second on contested logistics. The third group of demonstrations will center on base defense technology. The program held an industry day in July and drew nearly 500 people from 190 companies.
The department chose its first projects, which haven’t been disclosed publicly, last summer and plans to begin to execute them as soon as Congress approves fiscal 2023 appropriations. Since the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, DoD has been operating under a continuing resolution, which holds funding at fiscal 2023 levels.
‘Valley of Death’
Lawmakers approved $324 million in RDER funding for fiscal 2022, and DoD requested $358 million in fiscal 2023. The Senate Appropriations Committee wants to cut that request in half to $176 million, saying officials haven’t made sufficient plans to transition RDER technology to the field.
“Experimentation and innovation absent defined program goals merely widen the ‘valley of death’ instead of addressing core programmatic and process challenges inside the department,” the committee said in a July report accompanying its version of the fiscal 2023 defense spending bill.
Shyu said this week that RDER was designed, in part, to help address “valley of death” concerns, a phrase used broadly to describe the often drawn-out — and sometimes terminal — phase between when a technology program starts and when it is adopted by a service user.
“If you have a great prototype that’s solving a capability that I need, we want to test it out,” she said. “Let’s test it out in a contested environment. Does it still work [outside] your lab? If it still works, there’s an option. We can go into rapid fielding.”
The department is making plans for its fiscal 2024 RDER funding request. Shyu said she had a meeting scheduled this week to discuss RDER resourcing with the Defense Management Action Group, a panel of Pentagon officials who make budget recommendations to the defense secretary.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.