Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific illustration.

Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific illustration.

Biden Requests Less Than 1% Boost to Pentagon R&D, Despite Hyping New Defense Tech

As the Defense Department shifts its focus toward more technologically advanced potential adversaries, it will have to research and develop more and sustain less.

After a half-decade in which the Pentagon’s research budget saw larger increases, the Biden administration will request a real boost of less than one percent. 

If inflation stays around 4 percent, the Defense Department’s 2022 request for $112 billion for research, development, test, and engineering would be about 0.6 percent more than the $107 billion requested for the current fiscal year. That follows several years of larger increases in research dollars, reflecting the Pentagon’s slow but steady shift toward countering the quickly advancing capabilities of China and Russia.

“I think it's generally a good news story from an [research, development testing and evaluation] standpoint,” a senior Defense official told reporters on background Thursday. The large request reflected the challenge of “getting after the higher-end fight against a peer adversary like China and Russia...You have to really kind of make those leaps in technology. And I think, you know, this budget...certainly does put that foot forward.”

RDTE spending had grown quickly in the previous several years, according to analysis from Govini, an artificial intelligence-driven analysis firm. As enacted by Congress, DoD’s research budget was $70.6 billion in 2016, $74.8 billion in 2017, $92 billion in 2018, $96 billion in 2019, and $105 billion in 2020. If lawmakers approve the 2022 request, that would mean an inflation-adjusted increase of 43 percent over six years.

“We're in a concerted military-technical competition with a peer adversary. After 30 years of letting R&D slip, or focusing it on near-term problems, this is a clear and serious statement from the Biden administration that they are going to take the long-term competition with China seriously. In sum, hallelujah,” Govini CEO Tara Murphy Dougherty told Defense One. 

Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow in the technology and national security program at CNAS told Defense One: “This budget request shows that the White House and Pentagon are clear-eyed that mastery of emerging technologies is at the core of the geostrategic competition with China. This is an essential investment in the U.S. military’s future capabilities.”

The Defense official highlighted artificial intelligence, microelectronics, quantum science, space, cyber, directed energy, biotechnology and the hypersonics investments taking place across the Defense Department as a big part of the research and development push. That list reflects a set of modernization priorities first laid out in 2018 by the office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. They include artificial intelligence, hypersonics, space technologies, quantum science, joint, all-domain command and control, microelectronics, autonomy (as distinct from AI), cyber (including influence warfare), and biotechnology.

The office may ultimately decide to change or adjust some of those priorities. But during her confirmation hearing this week, Heidi Shyu, the Biden administration's pick to lead that office, didn’t suggest getting rid of any. She did talk up some of her priorities for the Pentagon’s R&D budget, including “artificial intelligence, hypersonics, and synthetic biology.” 

 Shyu listed as a key priority the creation of a “networked systems-of-systems that collect and share information securely, and are robust against cyber and electronic warfare threats,” a reference to the Pentagon’s ongoing joint-all domain command-and-control effort.

She said the U.S. military must use new research and engineering concepts to improve processes. The Pentagon has been experimenting with digital design and production technologies that could allow for much faster and more efficient weapons design. Those new methods include digital twinning, which the Air Force used to create a new next-generation fighter prototype in record time, an effort that they unveiled last September. 

In April, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that similar digital processes could help the Pentagon reduce the expected costs of developing big next-generation weapons programs, such as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. 

Shyu said the Defense Department must also develop ”secure, robust, and upgradable software” and attract new (and diverse) talent from science and technology fields. 

But the most important thing that the department can do now, she said, is shift money it spends on sustaining existing weapons toward researching and developing new technologies. 

“Today, sustainment makes up 70% of total weapon system cost, with development and procurement making up 30%,” she told lawmakers. “DoD should strive to flip this ratio and invest more in the development of new technologies than it does in the sustainment of legacy systems.”

The new money for research and development will help. But questions remain, such as the willingness of defense contractors to put forward more of their own money into developing new technologies. A Government Accountability Office, or GAO, report from last September showed that while defense contractors make big claims about the money they put forward into independent research, GAO’s analysis showed that “the majority (67 percent) of IR&D projects completed between 2014 and 2018 focused on incremental, rather than disruptive, innovation.” 

Tara Copp contributed to this report.