Robots running the Navy? Not quite. But artificial intelligence and similar technologies are becoming ever more important in improvements to the U.S. military. The Senate Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Defense met Wednesday to discuss the importance of such research to the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Navy, focusing on innovation and research funding. The three main topics were Naval autonomous technology; partnerships with small companies, commercial enterprises, and academia; and cyber security.
Senator Jon Tester (MT) opened with optimism that research remains a DOD priority in light of the many national security challenges. Mr. Robert O. Work (Deputy Secretary of Defense) agreed, calling for innovation and agility as China and Russia close the military technology gap. Dr. William B. Roper, Jr. (Director, Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO)) emphasized that national security challenges are global and increasingly interconnected. He described how new technology is helping to save lives for example, his company (SCO) converts existing naval vessels into “semi-autonomous ghost fleets” to avoid putting sailors at risk. Dr. Steven H. Walker (Acting Director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)) cited DARPA’s involvement with radio frequency arrays, GPS improvements, and the development of an autonomous 132-foot ocean-going vessel – innovations that are being operationalized. Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK) queried DOD’s role in Arctic security, concerned that Russia could position itself to control the far north regions and those sea lanes. She also stressed that “infrastructure is more than just the icebreakers” – highlighting the importance of other mechanisms of defense beyond icebreaking ships. Dr. Walker agreed, explaining the DOD is looking to develop sensors, focusing on underwater acoustics and surveillance, above and below the sea ice.
When the panel was asked how the DOD views partnering with outside groups, Mr. Work affirmed the military’s “very vibrant connection with academia,” a sentiment seconded by Dr. Walker. Senator Tester remarked that small businesses are on the forefront of technology and invoked his home state’s Adelos, Inc. as a prime example – a fiber-optic sensor company that has teamed with specialized groups at the Navy and the DOD to develop surveillance and monitoring technology used around the world.
In the end, the panel agreed cyber security is the top priority to keeping military superiority, regardless of new technological advances. “If our industry base is not able to keep its secrets from being stolen, then we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot,” Dr. Roper remarked. Yet with the funding proposed for defense research and development he remains optimistic – “I like our chances.”