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Pentagon Launches New Future Weapons Research Effort

The Pentagon is starting a massive research and development effort aimed at finding and developing next-generation technologies able to ensure the U.S. military retains its technological edge.

Described as an effort to create a new technological offset strategy like that which the U.S. pursued in the 1950s and 1980s, the Long Range Research and Development Plan, or LRRDP, involves a solicitation to industry, academia, and small business to begin enterprising ideas on areas of focus for new weapons and technology research and development.

“The nature of future military competition suggests we cannot take our future military dominance for granted. We need to continue disruptive innovation and be sure that we have that differential advantage in the future,” Stephen Welby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering, told reporters Dec. 3.

The research effort it part of the Pentagon’s recently announced Defense Innovation Initiative designed to preserve U.S. military technological superiority.

Welby, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall and other senior Pentagon officials have often emphasized that the pace of global technological change is such that the U.S. can no longer be assured of the technological superiority it has experienced in recent decades.

What this means is that technologies such as precision-guided munitions, unmanned systems, sensors, long-range weaponry such as anti-ship guided missiles, large naval platforms and stealth fighter aircraft are increasingly being developed by rival nations and potential adversaries around the world. The U.S. no longer enjoys as large of a technological margin of difference when compared with other countries and non-state actors today.

As a result, the research will be sure to explore technologies for countering anti-satellite rockets, precision guided munitions and low-observable or stealth technology in the hands of potential adversaries, among other things.

The new plan, which resulted in the release of a formal request for information to industry Dec. 3, is intended to identify breakthrough technologies for the future. The idea, Welby explained, is to discover new technologies, build and test prototypes and help establish new systems and platforms giving the U.S. a continued strategic edge.

The idea is to learn enough about areas of focused research in order to inform the Pentagon’s 2017 budget submission, Welby added.

The LRRDP effort breaks up concentrated technology research and innovation into five working groups; they are space, undersea, air dominance and strike, air and missile defense and a technology-driven group geared toward identifying and integrating promising commercial technologies.

Welby compared the current effort to two successful technological offset strategies in recent decades where focus research preceded military technological progress and strategic global advantage for the U.S.  He referred to President Eisenhower’s “New Look” national security policy in the 1950s which placed military assets in Europe as a counter to the Soviet threat during the early years of the Cold War.

A second offset strategy took place in the 1980s following a focused research and planning effort in the late 70s. This research led to the development of many of the technologies still used today’s by U.S. military such as precision-guided munitions, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and fighter jets like the F/A-18.

“We’ve had a good 40 years run on those capabilities but both the Secretary (Hagel) and Mr. Kendall have been very active in talking about how our technology in the future may be challenged. Adversaries have had 40-years to study way we fight and build responses and global trends are making technologies more available,” Welby said.

While Welby was clear to say the effort was not geared toward a particular adversary, he did say the initiative was focused on near-peer competitors, leaving one to assume he meant Russia and China, among others.

“We’re largely focused on the future of near peer competition. Our real goal is to identify concepts that will shape future investments,” Welby said.

The LRRDP effort plans to work closely with the individual services and the Pentagon’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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