Sequestration threat looms over defense innovation

Frank Kendall included a dire warning about sequestration as he told a Senate panel about the importance of DOD's research and innovation efforts.

I downloaded Frank Kendall’s testimony before the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee because the topic was innovation and research.

Kendall, under secretary of Defense for acquisition, was joined at the Wednesday hearing by Alan Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of Defense for development, research and engineering, and Arati Prabhakar, director of DARPA.

I thought they might have some insights worth reporting on technology priorities and other tidbits of where DOD is putting its research muscle. The hearing was part of a review of the fiscal 2016 defense budget.

While Kendall eventually got to DOD’s strategic tech investments, he kicked off his testimony issuing some dire warnings about sequestration and how a poor and inefficient procurement system hurts innovation.

So, yes, he made a pitch for the importance of Better Buying Power 3.0 and how it should help fuel innovation and support a strong industrial base.

But it was the warnings about sequestration that really caught my eye. It was a good reminder that the danger of the automatic, across the board budget cuts are still with us.

The relative quiet and calm brought in by the budget compromise at the beginning of fiscal 2014 has an end date. And it is approaching soon.

“If sequestration is allowed by the Congress to occur in [fiscal] 2016, the combined demands of global operations, a readiness deficiency caused by sequestration in [fiscal 2013], the expenses associated with force structure we are still in the process of reducing, and the Congress’ refusal to accept recommended sources of savings will all combine to ensure a disproportionate and devastating impact on our modernization accounts,” Kendall told the committee.

I’ve had my disagreements with Kendall in the past, but he is spot on with that statement, and he does a great job of laying out the challenges posed by China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.

“Globally, the United States’ technological superiority is being challenged today in ways not seen since the Cold War,” he said. “As all of this is occurring, the Department lives under the debilitating threat of sequestration.”

While the rhetoric has yet to heat up, the potential is there for a repeat of 2013 with both sides claiming that no one wants sequestration, but with neither side being willing to step up or compromise. Perhaps the growing attention the 2016 presidential race will work in our favor, but it also can work against us.

Kendall’s testimony reviews several R&D efforts and innovation initiatives and how these initiatives will fuel technological advances and help the United States keep its technological edge.

But he ends his testimony again with a warning: “Nothing we can do, however, will overcome the harm done through sequestration and the resulting lack of adequate research and development funding.”

Let’s hope someone is listening.