Is military research coming back into style?

For a while I've worried that theoretical technology research for military applications-the high-risk, high-potential kind of stuff-has been headed toward the endangered species list. After all, the Pentagon for a long time now has emphasized practical technology that can get onto the battlefield and make a difference-fast.

Another thing, the Pentagon's budget for research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) isn't what it used to be. The U.S. military research budget peaked in 2010 at nearly $81 billion after several years of steady increases, but since then the RDT&E budget has been headed south. The Pentagon's research budget request to Congress for next year dips below $70 billion, which would be a seven-year low. Suffice it to say that the Pentagon's prevailing modern attitude toward technology development-we need it fast, cheap, and immediately applicable-doesn't lend itself easily to the kinds of sand-box research projects that enjoyed a golden age back in the 1980s.

The research projects that military officials pursued decades ago led to enabling technologies that we take for granted today, like machine vision and reasoning and autonomous unmanned vehicles. The research programs that led to these kinds of enabling technologies had little immediate military payoff; they were intended not to yield applicable technologies, but to push the state of the art forward in anticipation that years down the road the technologies could be perfected and applied to real-world military challenges.

That was the height of the Cold War, and things were different. The balance of global power was largely known and accepted, and U.S. adversaries of the day presented predictable threats. We didn't have U.S. soldiers fighting in several areas of the world, and the widespread threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) was still in the future. Yet, I'm starting to see a crop of new military research programs that remind me of that golden age so many years ago.

The U.S. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) Systems Center Atlantic in Charleston, S.C., awarded a sole-source contract to Imagine One Technology and Management Ltd. in Colonial Beach, Va., to use artificial intelligence to automate decision making on key Navy and joint platforms ranging from navigation and ship control to tactical analysis, sensors, and weapons.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the research arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, issued a solicitation asking for industry's help to improve tools and training available to intelligence analysts. Knowledge Representation in Neural Systems (KRNS) will develop computer algorithms that interpret neural activity in the human brain and help explain conceptual knowledge, or how we understand the characteristics of objects and how they relate to one another. KRNS also seeks to develop ways to evoke and measure human thought using neural imaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and magnetoencephalography.

Not to be outdone, DARPA wants industry to develop a plug-and-play, sensor-fusion prototype able to accept inputs from sensors as dissimilar as laser rangefinders, cameras, and magnetometers, in addition to traditional navigational sensors like GPS and inertial measurement units, so that warfighters can maintain navigation capability with or without the global positioning system (GPS), which is vulnerable to jamming and spoofing.

I realize these projects do not represent the kinds of technologies we could put into the field tomorrow. Instead, they seek to develop and perfect technologies that could help warfighters decades in the future. It's good to see some of that far-ranging research work again.

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August 2015
Volume 26, Issue 8

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