Video Above: China's Growing Nuclear Arsenal
China may have operational hypersonic weapons, advanced quantum computing, next-generation anti-satellite weapons and paradigm-changing AI-enabled data networks designed to push ahead of US innovations and become the dominant global power. The Pentagon’s annual China report estimates that the country plans to be the dominant global power by 2049, if not before. The PRC already has a larger Navy than the US Navy and is moving quickly to try to close the gap with 5th-generation aircraft and aircraft carriers.
Russia claims to operate 5th-generation stealth aircraft such as its Su-57, and while they have far fewer planes than US F-35s, they are planning to build 70 more in coming months. Russia also claims to possess and be able to demonstrate nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons, and has already fired a hypersonic weapon in Ukraine as of earlier this year.
These well known circumstances are a large part of why the Pentagon is pushing intensely to rev up its science and technology efforts, research initiatives and collaboration with industry innovators aimed at finding disruptive or “breakthrough” technologies capable of propelling and sustaining US military technological superiority.
In order to accelerate this, the Pentagon is taking a number of ambitious steps to include reforming the traditional acquisition process to “fast-track” promising technologies into operational status, providing large R&D budgets for continued basic and near term research, and massively revving up partnerships with industry and academia to strengthen innovation. Much of this includes outreach and coordination regarding small businesses less likely to connect with the DoD or be on their radar.
National Security Innovation Network
One particular entity, called the The National Security Innovation Network, is specifically designed to accomplish this by setting up a series of initiatives and programs intended to support, inspire and fast-track innovation.
“To accomplish this mission, NSIN collaborates with major universities and the venture community to develop solutions that drive national security innovation. Our work focuses on three distinct areas that form a pipeline of activities and solutions that accelerate the pace of defense innovation,” Scott Augenbaugh, Strategic Engagements Director, NSIN, told Warrior in a written statement.
One such NSIN program is called the X-Force Fellowship, an initiative which places 139 undergraduate and graduate students from 66 universities with operational military commands. This helps expose talented young professionals to military culture and innovations.
“The X-Force Fellows are using their technical and entrepreneurial skills to deliver rapid, early-stage prototypes to help solve military mission partner problems,” NSIN told Warrior.
Another critically important initiative involves both NSIN and the DoD military services’ in various efforts to reach out to small businesses, inspire collaboration and encourage paradigm-changing innovations. The Air Force, for example, has established its AFWERX unit tasked with finding and developing promising small businesses in position to offer enterprising new technologies to the service.
“One of the most successful statistics that I like to quote about AF works is that 75% of the industry that they have partnered with are new entrants to the DoD realm, that is fantastic. That means we've really opened our aperture beyond our consistent great performers to include so many more. What does that do? It opens our eyes to new ideas, new ways of doing business and enables technology to accelerate even more,” Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, Commanding General of the Air Force Research Laboratory, told Warrior in an interview.
Video Above: Air War in 2050 - Air Force Research Lab Commander
Fast-growing small and medium-sized businesses are stepping up efforts to increase cooperation with the Pentagon and military services and also spend internal research and development dollars to pursue new technologies. Much of this, when it comes to both large and small defense companies, is intended to anticipate emerging military requirements for future warfare. One such innovator, for instance, called MAG Aerospace, has established a new group of specific high-tech innovations laboratories around the country to accelerate internal research and increase collaborative efforts with the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) and the military services’ research laboratories.
MAG, which began as a small ISR company years ago, has exploded its growth into a medium-sized defense company specializing in leveraging dual-use technology and engineering solutions to enhance situational awareness,, , command and control technologies, cyber security, satellite systems and electronic warfare, among other things.
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MAG new innovation centers are multi-faceted in that they cover a range of technological areas, yet with expertise, depth and the intent to conduct groundbreaking research and experimentation. They have Innovation centers in the Mid Atlantic, New Jersey and North Carolina along with a Southern Interoperability Innovation Center and a Space Innovation Center in Florida.
The MAG-Operated Mid-Atlantic Innovation Center is invested in looking for new technologies in the areas of software defined radios, AI and network operations among other things. The entire rationale is based upon bringing dual use technology from the commercial sector with partnership and collaboration with government customers such as the military services. The facility includes a radio frequency lab, mobile lab outfitted for airborne satellite terminal development and performance certification testing, MAG President Mathew Bartlett explained.
“MAG personnel manage day-to-day operations of a large customer
lab facility consisting of 33 independent laboratories supporting development, integration, testing, and certification of enabling technologies in Artificial Intelligence, Network Operations, Software Defined Radios, open-source software, 5G, and software defined radios,” Bartlett said. “At this innovation center, we ensure that industry radio, software defined radios and waveform development efforts are cost-effective and align with our customer’s domain architecture.”
As part of the process of the Pentagon exploring new avenues of outreach to small and medium sized business, NSIN is increasing partnerships with industry innovators in an effort to accelerate an often cumbersome and elongated development process.
This kind of government-private sector integration is precisely what NSIN envisions as central to its core mission, which it refers to as a “collaboration portfolio.”
“The Collaboration Portfolio increases the intellectual diversity of the DoD by bringing together innovators from defense, academia, and the venture community to solve national security problems,” NSIN officials told Warrior in a written statement.
One longtime DoD partner MAG Aerospace, has grown from a small to medium sized contractor over the last ten years and is an example of the kinds of defense companies now in a position to deepen its own internal research and development.
For instance, MAG has partnered with Pentagon developers and embarked upon a massive, national initiative to stand up “innovation centers” aligned with specific areas of scientific focus across the country. MAG’s New-Jersey Innovation Center, for example, is focused upon software development to create what MAG leaders called an “innovative Secure Software Development Life Cycle that “combines software engineering, cybersecurity, risk management, quality management, and project management processes.”
A software emphasis would seem extremely key given its significance to weapons upgrades, as performance parameters such as guidance technology, targeting and energetics or explosive effects can be massively improved with software adjustments. This has been in practice for quite some time, as a former Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper said a few years ago that “software” will likely determine who wins the next war. The importance of information and its management and communication has become so critical and ubiquitous across military operations, that there continues to be a growing imperative to include or add “information assurance” to the equation. This is something MAG is specifically focused on.
“The MAG Innovation Team injects security-based requirements directly into the initial requirements gathering process to help identify what the applicable security reviews, tests, and implementations requirements are for any given release. This provides the most secure path and inherently increases security posture as the life cycle progresses,” Matt Bartlett, President of MAG Aerospace, told Warrior.
Much of the focus is upon networking, referring to the process of finding and advancing new, secure methods of organizing and sharing information across a multi-domain joint force. This is the concept behind the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) program, an interoperability initiative the MAG innovation centers are specifically designed to address. One of the centers is called a “mobile interoperability” center which includes a customized test vehicle with racks, LRU mounting trays, cabling, wiring, power systems and satellite terminal equipment.
“The mobile innovation center enables Over-The-Air satellite testing in conjunction with the CONUS satellite network. Our interoperability innovation lab has a full suite of Ku-band, L-band and modem test equipment. The innovation center also has test fixtures and troubleshooting tools supporting repair of advanced communication products,” Bartlett said.
MAG developers say the innovation center houses an environmental chamber instrumented for Ku-band and L-band devices, which is used primarily for environmental screening/testing of modems and antenna RF components using cold and heat cycles.
Satellite technologies also figure prominently in MAG”s Space Innovation Center, a place with manufacturing, prototyping, advanced engineering and technology integration areas designed to test paradigm-changing elements of new space technology. This is critical, particularly in light of the US effort to launch a new Space command, put up hundreds of new Low and Medium-Earth Orbit satellites and develop new weapons and defenses for space.
In particular, large numbers of dispersed, yet securely networked LEO satellites could prove essential to new efforts to develop a continuous “track” on an enemy hypersonic weapon between otherwise segregated radar apertures or fields of view. Many of these satellites not only build in redundancy and seek to seamlessly cover expansive and otherwise disconnected areas, but they are also specifically engineered with high-throughput technology and a growing AI-enabled ability to process information at the point of collection.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.