A version of this article appears in the May 26 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), spoke recently about one path forward for defense. The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014, as marked up by the House Armed Services Committee, shows another. There is much to be debated in what Prabhakar is suggesting, but at least she has posed some questions and possible answers.

At an Atlantic Council event on May 14 and at the Rand Corp.’s annual Haskins Lecture on Science Policy, Prabhakar set down some markers that should prompt more exploration and action by the Defense Department and industry. She believes the cost of our major operational weapons systems is a threat to national security. These systems are not only expensive but inflexible in their ability to keep up with globally available commercial information and semiconductor technologies.

In response to a question at the council event about what she is hearing from the military, Prabhakar stated that normally at this phase of the defense spending cycle she would have expected to see a demand for more incremental technological solutions. Instead, she is surprised to hear of ferment based on concerns that the U.S. is not “on a sustainable path because of the diversity of threats and the costs of our approaches to deal with them.” This time is different.

The House committee markup of the fiscal 2015 defense act set down a very different set of criteria. It’s worth recounting that among the many actions in the act, the committee rejected administration requests to increase Tricare fees, reduce commissary subsidies or shrink the basic housing allowance. Retirements of A-10 aircraft were banned and no more than four E-3 AWACS can be retired. Advances in U-2 aircraft requirements were prohibited pending a report from the Defense Department on airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaisance. Funding was provided for five more EA-18G aircraft (see photo). Even though no cuts were proposed in the fiscal 2015 request, the markup includes a provision forbidding retirement of KC-10s. Another round of  base realignments and closings is prohibited.

Clearly not all of the committee actions preserved legacy systems, cost structures and infrastructure, but a reading of the act shows little evidence of the alarm expressed by Prabhakar or even stepped support for some of the options Darpa is trying to provide for the Defense Department. Total research, development, test and evaluation was increased fractionally in its fiscal 2015 markup, and the bulk of this increase was for the Israeli cooperative programs in missile defense. 

Prabhakar has mentioned space launch and satellites, electronic combat, radar and precision navigation advances that could help change the economics of major weapons systems. While there may be classified programs that address some of these needs, if the House committee added funding, it was not apparent.

Somehow the U.S. was able to make major transitions from prevailing technologies and weapons platforms to newer ones. The shift from horse cavalry to mechanized scout units, from battleships to aircraft carriers and airpower, and from manned to unmanned strike and reconnaissance all come to mind. These transitions did not happen overnight but involved multi-year periods of development and experimentation, to the point where the unacceptable became the norm.

The solutions to the issues Prabhakar has underscored will require a similar transformation, and she recognizes the cultural challenges to get there. There are political ones, too. These transformations should not be taken lightly. The effectiveness of new concepts and new weapons needs to be proven in exercises.  

Calls for industry to step up the innovation and research needed for the sorts of changes that Prabhakar sees are needed will be wasted if the Defense Department and Congress do not create programs that can at least be tested, then validated or discarded. Companies and enterprises cannot be expected to spend resources on science projects for which there is no hope of them entering production. Industrial shareholders will oppose conducting science experiments that have no hope of earning returns. Talent and capital will move to other sectors where it will be rewarded. 

There is another risk here and that is if the U.S. does not change, adversaries may instead. That could present the U.S. with a far uglier catalyst for change including military failure, or strategic surprise. Prabhakar observed that Darpa was founded in the wake of the surprise of the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and that one of the agency’s missions is to help spawn surprises that can catch U.S. adversaries off guard. Clinging to the old at a time of rapid technological change is not a recipe for surprise or for success. 

Contributing columnist Byron Callan is a director of Alpha Capital partners in Washington.