Promise and Peril: House Hearing on Defense S&T

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Publication date: 
7 April 2015

Three major themes were discussed during the March 26 hearing of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee reviewing defense science and technology programs.  On each, there was consensus on both sides of the witness table. 

All agreed on the importance of a vigorous defense S&T program to national security.  There was universal recognition that the backbone of this program is a strong STEM workforce.  Not unexpectedly, an overarching theme was the level of funding for the Department of Defense’s programs in basic research, applied research, and applied technology development.

“Technological superiority depends upon a steady stream of investments in research and development. In constant Fiscal Year 2015 dollars, the Research and Development accounts have declined from $88 billion in Fiscal Year 2009 to $64 billion in Fiscal Year 2015. This level of decline, during a period where the United States is still at war, impacts the delivery of new capabilities most severely,” said Alan Shaffer, Principal Deputy, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Defense Research and Engineering.  Shaffer was joined at the witness table by senior officials of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 

“We are all aware of the intense downward pressure the Department is under these days and the ever growing universe of threats that we are forced to deal with” said Subcommittee Chairman Joe Wilson (R-SC) as he opened this hearing.  Wilson lauded the defense S&T programs as a counter to these threats and spoke of protecting the funding for these programs.  While acknowledging requested increases for the two of the three programs in FY 2016, Wilson, as have other subcommittee and committee chairmen, noted that the Administration’s overall request is well above the caps in the Budget Control Act and would trigger sequestration.  

Legislatively-mandated limitations on defense and civilian discretionary spending will make it difficult for Congress and the Obama Administration to agree on FY 2016 appropriations bills.   Funding will remain essentially flat as compared to this year.  If the appropriations bills total more than the cap allows automatic cuts – or sequestration – will occur.  Sequestration occurred once, and then was forestalled for two years by a budget deal.  While there is speculation that another deal could be reached, nothing on that front is likely to occur until much later this year.

Chairman Wilson asked each witness for an example of what impact sequestration would have on their programs.  Shaffer described a hard-to-replace loss of defense scientists and engineers, and described the loss of two aerospace programs supported by DARPA, the Air Force, and the Navy.  “Think about a Department of Defense with no significant long term research project for the next generation of air capability.  That is what sequestrations means” he told Wilson.  Mary Miller, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology spoke of the impact that sequestration would have on the modernization account, and described the “dramatic impact” it previously had on the S&T workforce.  The possibility of sequestration is, she told the subcommittee, causing some employees to reconsider their careers.  Rear Admiral Mathias Winter, United States Navy Chief of Naval Research, described programs ranging from advanced communications to torpedo research and cautioned, “they are all at risk.”  David Walker, Deputy Assistant Secretary (Science, Technology and Engineering) of the Air Force reiterated the impact sequestration would have on the modernization account and degradation in the ability to transition R&D into its capabilities.  “Sequestration is such a negative message” to people considering employment in defense S&T programs DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar told the subcommittee, who also describing delays in air and sea tests of new technologies.

Questions were asked about other programs and projects, such as the Rapid Innovation Fund, which Ranking Member Jim Langevin (D-RI) said he would seek to reauthorize.  The focus of the hearing was funding, the impact of sequestration, and the risks that it poses.  Said Shaffer, “Over the past decade, the budget has declined precipitously. Coupled with the rise in capabilities developed by others, the nation is at increased national security risk.”

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