Sequestration already taking toll on DoD's research and development

Thursday - 4/18/2013, 5:25am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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Like everything else in government, science and technology programs in the Defense Department are being sliced by sequestration. But DoD officials say the effects of the across the board cuts already are being felt across the research and development spectrum.

All told, the sequestration cut to DoD S&T in 2013 is about $1 billion. Because of the indiscriminate nature of the budget cuts, the Pentagon must cut each of the research programs in DoD, including at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and in the military services, by roughly 8 percent midway through the fiscal year.

That means significant cutbacks not just in government labs, but also to the grants and contracts the military issues to industry and academic institutions, said Alan Shaffer, the acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering.

Alan Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering

"This reduction will result in delay and termination of efforts. We will reduce awards," Shaffer told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

For instance, DoD will cut university grants this year by $200 million and may entirely eliminate scholarships for science and mathematics students under the SMART program.

"Because of the way the sequester was implemented, we will be very limited in hiring new scientists this year. Each of these actions will have a negative impact on the department and on national security," Shaffer said.

DoD officials have said that in many cases, sequestration will have a cascading effect that will only show up later in fiscal 2013 as sequestration drags on. But in the world of science and technology, the effects already are apparent.

100 programs lose some funding

The Navy, for example, said it terminated more than 300 grants to universities and half of its efforts to build future naval capability.

Dr. Arati Prabhakar, DARPA's director, said her agency pulled back on awards to outside institutions. Sequestration, she said, pared money away from roughly 100 of DARPA's programs.

"At the specific contract level, there are universities and companies, large and small, that are finding out that a contract that they thought was about to get signed is going to get pushed off or has now gone away," she said. "We've worked very hard to minimize the impact as much as we can, but with the level of cuts we're dealing with in fiscal 2013, we are seeing real consequences."

Prabhakar said DARPA's Plan X, the agency's effort to integrate cyber weapons into traditional, kinetic warfighting operations, is among the near-term casualties of sequestration. DoD cut the program's 2013 funding by 43 percent.

Dr. Arati Prabhakar, director, DARPA

"Because it's a relatively new program, we chose to take a delay of four or five months rather than having to stop a bunch of things that were already fully ramped up in other programs," she said. "The consequence of that is that the schedule for starting to deliver capabilities to the military services who have expressed a lot of interest is just going to keep getting pushed to the right."

The cuts to science and technology could get even larger as the Pentagon scrambles to use some of the limited tools at its disposal to shuffle money between its accounts for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Reprogramming request to go forward

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said earlier this week during a budget hearing that DoD will soon present a massive reprogramming request to Congress, primarily to offset large shortfalls in this year's operation and maintenance accounts.

Shaffer said he doesn't expect science and technology programs to be completely raided to pay for those O&M costs, but there will be an impact.

"There will be some pressure," he said. "We have a situation right now where we have underfunded our troops who are serving the nation right now. But right now we are very fortunate that the leadership in the Pentagon understands that science and technology needs a long-term, stable base. I am using that understanding every chance I can get."

Prabhakar said beyond the funding cut to programs, sequestration will hit DARPA in other ways in the coming months when civilian workers begin to be furloughed. Current plans call for virtually all DoD civilians to take one unpaid day off per week beginning in mid-to-late June.

"For our program managers, that's a big impact. These are people who have come to DARPA for a short time to do something big. When they see these program delays, when they're told that they aren't allowed to work for one day a week, those are enormous negatives for these driven individuals," she said. "It's not a death blow to us, but it is corrosive, and if it continues, this kind of action erodes our fundamental ability to perform our mission."

Taking a double hit

The Pentagon also expects the furloughs to even further reduce the number of research contracts it's able to issue, simply because of the loss of manpower in the military services' contracting workforce. Most contracting offices are already shorthanded and require their contracting officers to put in overtime during 50-60 hour work weeks just to keep up with demand.

"So it's a double hit," Shaffer said. "It's not going to be just a 10 or 20 percent reduction, it's going to be more like 40 percent, because that overtime will have to stop under sequestration. That means we're going to have a tremendous slowdown in being able to get money on contract. That will have a trickle-down effect to our lower-tier suppliers. We don't know the impact of how that will play out, but it will hurt our subcontractors, our big contractors, and our people who come in and try to make things happen for the nation."

The 2014 budget proposal DoD released last week assumes sequestration will be repealed by Congress in the coming months and proposes $12 billion in science and technology spending next fiscal year.

Nonetheless, the military services say they're focused on allocating those dollars in ways that produce capabilities that are unique to the needs of their specific services and finding ways to develop weapons systems that deliver combat capability at a much lower cost.

"We're striving to get away from using $3 million weapons to defeat $50,000 threats," said Rear Adm. Matt Klunder, the chief of naval research. "We must get on the right side of that equation. We have weapons under development and being fielded that will allow us to reverse that asymmetrical cost advantage that's currently held by some of our adversaries. The bottom-line imperative is that we can't just make effective systems anymore. They also need to be extremely affordable."

The Navy's poster child for low-cost weapons systems is the Laser Weapons System (LAWS) it unveiled last week.

The Navy released video footage (view below) of the directed energy system successfully destroying a drone aircraft in midflight. Klunder said the Navy figures the cost to be less than $1 to fire a single shot from the laser system, as opposed to using a multi-million dollar guided missile for the same task.

"LAWS leverages advancements we discovered and worked with in commercial technology," he said. "It's capable of identifying, illuminating, tracking and lasing enemy surface and air threats. And it works. Thus far, we are 12 for 12 in our prototype testing. We have not failed yet."

Shaffer said the 2014 budget also includes a new DoD-wide approach to allocating scarce funding for science and technology research: $45 million of the S&T budget for applied research projects would be allocated in a merit-based system, rather than just handing money over to individual programs.

"That pot of money will be up for bid by cross-cutting groups led by senior executives who want to do specific ideas to prove out some concepts and move forward rapidly. Rather than breaking things down into little stovepipes and telling one community they're going to have their $5 million and another one is going to have another $5 million, we're bundling up old programs, and they'll have to compete for it," he said. "The concept now is we're going to fund the best ideas, not just tell folks that they're going to have money just because they wake up and breathe."

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