U.S. Defense Department Chief Engineer: We Want Your Help With 2030's Tech

Have an idea for some crazy new technology that won't be ready until 2025 or later? The DoD's Stephen Welby wants to hear from you

6 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

U.S. Defense Department Chief Engineer: We Want Your Help With 2030's Tech
Photo: Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Defense has been responsible, in one way or another, for a huge number of technological innovations. Over the past half century or so, defense research (or funding) has resulted in ubiquitous technology like GPS, unmanned aircraft, and even the Internet itself. For decades, it’s been at the forefront of science and technology research, but the world is changing. Or at this point, it may be more accurate to say that the world has changed: innovation now happens at the speed of startups. In other words, far faster than the government is used to, comfortable with, or prepared for.

It's not like the DoD hasn't realized that it’s starting to get left behind, but understanding that and doing something about it are very different things for an organization with so much inertia. To try to shake things up a bit, DoD is trying something outside of its comfort zone—actively soliciting ideas from anyone who will talk to them about what kinds of technologies are going to be critical for the military in 2030. They want to hear from you, even if you send them your ideas on a cocktail napkin. Seriously.

The Department of Defense is developing a Long-Range Research and Development Program Plan (LRRDP), to:

...help the Department better understand and prioritize new or unconventional applications of technology that will have significant impact in the 2025-2030 timeframe, and to identify the steps the department should be taking today to nurture the technology development required to make those system concepts a reality.

imgDeputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineeering Stephen Welby wants your crazy ideas.Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

The immediate dive into a ponderous acronym and long-winded definition made us a little bit suspicious of this whole business, but at the same time, it sounds like DoD really is trying to talk to some new people, including academics, anyone in industry or small business, and even members of the general public. To figure out what this is all about, and (more importantly) who should care and why, we spoke with Stephen Welby, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering

Who’s Welby? “Effectively, I'm the chief engineer for the Department of Defense,” Welby says. “I'm responsible for assessing programs and advising the Secretary [of Defense] on major decisions.” 

IEEE Spectrum: Where does the Long-Range Research and Development Program come from?

Stephen Welby: “In 1973, there was a Long Range Research and Development Program that was conducted by the department. At the time, it looked out on a 20 year horizon and asked, "what is the environment going to look like? What are the tools that we'd like to have available that might offer an advantage?" Once those things were identified, we asked, "what are the technologies that we'd need?"

In 1973, we were at the beginning of the microprocessor revolution. We were flying the Navy Transit System, which was early satellite-based navigation, and could picture a GPS constellation. We could think about the emerging science and technology and imagine the practical applications of it in systems, and think about how those systems might matter in a military context. So we're trying to do that again today: we see ourselves at a potential inflection point. We'd like to think now about how we could prepare, how we would think about harvesting science and technology to enable new systems. We’re trying to imagine the systems that the department will need in the future, and then asking "what do we need to do to identify and accelerate technologies that will help us get there.”

Spectrum: Why are you starting a similar program now?

Stephen Welby: We're concerned that a big difference between the 1970s and today if you think about the technologies that came out of that study—like stealth, GPS, and precision weapons—were all things that were completely developed internal to the department. The inklings of the Internet were in that 1973 report too.

Today, we see that many of the technologies that we're likely to depend upon in the future are things that are likely to come from outside the department. Things that are now being driven by the marketplace. If you look at our 30 year plans, they're not nearly as aggressive as some of the interesting things that are going on around us. What we're doing today is very much an effort to reach out to people outside of traditional defense sector. It's very different than the way that the department normally operates.”

Spectrum: What kinds of ideas are you hoping that people will bring you?

Stephen Welby: We've asked folks to take a clean sheet of paper and think about the tools that the department might need in the future. Send us your cocktail napkins. Tell us what the big ideas that you think are going to be important to the department, the technologies that might be outside of the space that we're looking in. We want to make sure that we're informed by the art of the possible."

Specifically, the LRRDP has five focus categories that the DoD is particularly interested in:

  1. Space technology
  2. Undersea technology
  3. Air dominance and strike technology
  4. Air and missile defense technology
  5. Other technology-driven concepts

Number five is the catch-all for whatever other crazy ideas you might have. Really, the only restriction is that the idea has to be able to meet a 2025-2030 deployment timeframe. This means that your idea has to fall into one of three categories (yay, more categories!):

  1. Relatively mature technologies that may be applied in novel or unique ways to field a fundamentally different type of system capability
  2. Emerging technologies that can be rapidly matured to offer new military capability
  3. Technologies under development for, or being applied in, non-defense applications which can be repurposed to offer a new military capability

By way of example, consider SpaceX’s recently announced plans to provide global Internet with a swarm of microsatellites. The DoD knows some stuff about microsatellites and global connectivity, but SpaceX and Google are headed way beyond anything that DoD is familiar with, at a (relatively) blistering pace. The DoD wants someone to come in and tell them, “hey, here’s how swarming microsatellites could be used by 2030 to do something awesome, and you guys should start working on it now.” Otherwise, the DoD is worried that they’re going to be left in the dust by forward-thinking and fast moving industry, although (to be honest) this may happen anyway.

And now we come to what’s probably the most relevant question.

IEEE Spectrum: What’s in it for people who participate in the program?

Stephen Welby: The Department of Defense has a very large technology budget, and we have a large influence on both academic and industrial research directions. There isn't a check sitting at the end of this, but it's an opportunity to make sure that we’re aware of your better mousetrap. It might be a way to help shape the way the department thinks about its future. 

We’re not asking people to invest a lot of time or energy. We'd like an introduction, and we’ll invite as many of those folks as we can to have a conversation.

Some of this is, unfortunately, going to be one way. As we think through the implications of these things and think about system designs, we might not want to be sharing those with folks. We'd like to have a dialog about technologies, but some of the implications of those technologies might not be shared at the end.

So basically, the DoD wants you to send them your ideas about how technology might shape the military of 2030. If they like your idea, they might invite you to the Pentagon to talk to some experts about it. They might even buy you a plane ticket. Then they’ll politely thank you, and send you on your way. And perhaps at some point down the line, the DoD might toss some funding towards an area related to your idea, which you might be well-positioned to take advantage of.

For what it's worth, there's a reason that the DoD wanted to talk to IEEE Spectrum (and by extension IEEE members), and it’s a pretty straightforward one: they want to hear from people who aren't part of the traditional defense ecosystem. They don’t need to talk to Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman or any other big defense contractors, because they talk to those guys all the time, and they’re not learning anything new. At the same time, DoD is seeing all kinds of amazing things happen in areas that they're just not involved in, and this is their attempt to branch out a bit.

While the effort here is certainly a commendable one, we’re not sure how successful it's going to be with some of the people the DoD is targeting: academics and entrepreneurs with big ideas. Big ideas are valuable, especially technological big ideas, and sharing your big ideas with the government without any clear and tangible benefit is a lot to ask. We’re not suggesting that the DoD is going to take your idea and run with it or anything like that; it’s more like, without a well-defined upside, why would anyone bother?

At the same time, some of the most successful and exciting government-sponsored technology development has come through agencies like DARPA. I’m a bit biased on this one, but think about how much DARPA funding has done for robotics and autonomous vehicles. It’s impact has been huge, and it's all because the DoD (on some level) said “we think that robotics and autonomous vehicles are going to be big, let's put some money there and see what happens.” Now, if you back up one step from that, the DoD had to get that idea about robotics and autonomy from somewhere, and the LRRDP is an opportunity to inform that level of thinking.

So perhaps that’s the thing to focus on here. This is an opportunity to tell the Department of Defense about your ideas, although maybe not your business plans. And it really is a chance to, potentially, have some influence on the next several decades of defense priorities. More information, along with details on how to get in touch with the DoD, is available here.

And whether or not this is something that you decide to do, we’d be interested in hearing what you think about what the DoD is trying to do here. Is it a good idea? A dumb idea? A good idea that will never work? Let us know, and we can pass your comments on to the Department of Defense.

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