Hagel: US is losing its tech edge, needs new R&D strategy

The defense secretary says troops in future conflicts could face disruptive technologies that foil U.S. advantages.

Increasingly worried that its technological edge is being eroded, the Defense Department is expected to launch a long-range strategy for technology research and development.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has frequently warned that DOD must choose between "capacity" and "capabilities," signaled this week that budget pressures and 13 years of warfare are forcing the military to focus on maintaining technological superiority.

"Our military could arrive in a future combat theater facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that thwart our technological advantages, limit our freedom of maneuver, and put American lives at risk," Hagel told the South Eastern New England Defense Industry Alliance in Newport, R.I., on Sept. 4.

"We will not send out troops into a fair fight," Hagel continued. "A world where our military lacks a decisive edge would be less stable, less secure for both the United States and our allies, and the consequences could ultimately be catastrophic."

Hagel’s words followed those made the day before at the National Press Club in Washington, where Alan Shaffer, the Pentagon’s research and engineering chief, said, “We have lost the electromagnetic spectrum,” Breaking Defense reported. Shaffer said the loss of frequencies to the commercial sector and the easy availability of digital technologies have contributed to the dilemma, and that DOD needs to “regain some dominance in the electromagnetic spectrum, or at least parity…”

The long-range R&D effort is expected to be led by Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. Hagel said the panel would aim "at assuring our technological edge through the next several decades."

As the Pentagon struggles to reduce its force structure, Kendall called earlier this year for a "balanced approach" as a way to avoid deeper cuts in investment accounts like R&D. Failing to find the right balance between force structure and modernization could result in a "hollow force," Kendall told an aerospace industry conference in January.