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Congress, Pentagon and Innovation

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“Do you need those cruisers or don’t you? Do you need that carrier or don’t you?” was one way the chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee described Congress’ role in fostering innovation in the armed forces.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), speaking Thursday at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, said what is needed now is having the right strategy, clearly articulated to allies and potential foes alike, and having both the capacity and capability to back that strategy up—such as size of the fleet to keep the United States a superpower.

It also requires a long-term examination of what is needed in the future, Forbes said, noting that shipbuilding programs cover 30 years, not a single year.

Asking tough questions makes Congress a catalyst to stimulate innovation, Forbes and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), agreed. Forbes added he is “worrying about the next game changer” in an increasingly dangerous world of state actors and terrorist and criminal organizations.

Forbes said Americans tend to focus on technology when they speak about innovation. “It is far more than that. [It's about] how we create the culture, how we train.”

“The approach at the Pentagon is to do exactly the opposite.” Reaching back into the 19th century for an example, he cited the Army’s slow fielding of the Colt .45 because the service did not know how to have soldiers use it in combat.

Langevin said Congress spurred the Pentagon in recent years to invest in Predator unmanned aerial systems first for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and later armed to operate in high threat areas, and to buy and field Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected [MRAP] vehicles to better protect soldiers and Marines from roadside bombs. Forbes added the Tomahawk missile to that list of congressional action that led to military innovation.

“The military really needed to be pushed” on those weapons programs, he said.

Forbes hailed the pre-World War II the work of longtime House Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Vinson (D-Ga.) in staying on the Navy to build aircraft carriers and submarines and how to use them in war. In a similar vein, he said the development and integration of the Navy’s UCLASS [Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft] with manned aircraft “will help decide the role of aircraft carriers 20 years from now.”

A similar situation exists today with how to invest in, develop and employ directed energy weapons in aircraft carrier missile defense, a specific point defense and in the not-too-far distant future area missile defense, Langevin said. “Directed energy is getting to the point is reaching a maturity level when some of it ready to field.” He mentioned the Navy’s work on board the USS Ponce and sending the ship to the Persian Gulf as a start. “There are places we are not going to be able to get into” with manned systems in the future—off China, North Korea, and Iran with their anti-access, area denial weaponry.

He added, “We have to be more forward thinking” as the nation was during the Cold War when it held a qualitative, not quantitative edge over the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.

Forbes said “all too often “R&D is something to reach out and cut” to protect legacy programs inside the Pentagon and in a Congress that is more isolationist than in the past. This is occurring when defense spending is coming down, even without the across-the-board cuts called for in sequestration.

Citing cyber as an area where investment is correctly rising, Langevin said, “The Internet was never built with security in mind” and it “will be 100 percent secure,” so the challenge is to keep the risk at more acceptable level. The question that has to be asked in spurring innovation in those areas and others is “how long [will it be] when the worst weapons are in the hands of the worst actors?”

He said the CIA views the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) as more dangerous to the United States than pre 9/11 al Qaeda operating in Afghanistan.

“We’re now [seeing] tens of thousands of foreign fighters” there and a “number of them Westerners”— including some from the United States—”who eventually will come home.”