The August 2016 launch of the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) satellite—the first satellite capable of producing and transporting delicate “entangled” quantum states—was a crucial step toward developing a secure intercontinental quantum network and established China as a forerunner in the quantum space race.1 Less than a year after the experiment’s inception, QUESS’s record transmission distance enabled a video conference between China and Austria to be securely encrypted via quantum communication.2 Jian-Wei Pan, who conceived and led the research, noted its “enormous [defense] prospects.”3
While many in the scientific community likely would dispute claims of a fully developed “quantum arms race,” ceding leadership in a cutting-edge technology could have unforeseen consequences for national security. So how can the United States continue to lead the development of breakthrough technologies?
Answering this question is central to the success of transformative naval technologies. However, numerous analyses indicate the Navy is challenged by a risk-averse culture that favors assured, incremental technology advances over “breakthrough” innovation. Transitioning tech from the laboratory to the fleet is what former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson called the “Achilles heel” of naval innovation.
The speed and impact of the QUESS experiment provide insight into a solution: renewed academic collaboration. MIT professor and quantum computing pioneer Isaac Chuang specifically noted this collaboration as key to the QUESS program’s success. For the Navy, an improved partnership with the academic community will help the department to:
• Rapidly discover and evaluate transformative technologies
• Focus and develop these technologies to address the needs of the fleet
• Repair the cultural divide between the tech and defense sectors to ensure new technologies can be effectively deployed
Thus, while it is difficult to postulate which future technology will have the greatest warfighting impact, a symbiotic relationship between academia and the Navy will accelerate its discovery, development, and deployment.
By definition, discovering transformative technologies is the mission of the research enterprise. Fortunately, the results of these state-of-the-art investigations are publicly available in academic publications and unveil a host of solutions to pressing defense issues. Professor Sinisa Vukelic’s group at Columbia University, for example, recently reported progress on a noninvasive vision correction technique that uses ultrafast laser pulses to alter the cornea.4 Further exploration of this procedure and related medical breakthroughs could reduce Department of Defense (DoD) healthcare expenditures. Other recent advances in optical technologies, such as a broadband, graphene-on-silicon camera capable of simultaneously imaging ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light, have clear implications for the Navy’s intelligence and information warfare communities.5
With funding support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), researchers at the University of Illinois found location metadata collected on Twitter could be analyzed to predict a user’s home address with more than 90 percent accuracy.6 Future algorithms that similarly analyze the trove of open-source intelligence generated by the nearly 4 billion internet users could have immediate ramifications for naval information operations.
These examples illustrate the noteworthy impact of high-risk research that would have been difficult to justify commercially and showcase the academic community’s prowess in building proof-of-concept demonstrations with direct military application. Coupling these discoveries with DoD leadership could have revolutionary warfighting impact. The internet, efficient jet engines, semiconductor technology, and GPS are just a few prominent examples of disruptive advances that resulted from government–academia collaboration.
Initial development of these discoveries into custom-tailored naval technologies is arguably more effective in academia than in the commercial sector because of DoD’s greater leverage in the academic research enterprise. While the growth of research and development (R&D) funding at the “Big Four” tech companies dramatically outpaces that of the defense industrial base, collaboration between DoD and Silicon Valley is increasingly threatened. Google’s recent withdrawal from the Pentagon’s Project Maven—in response to employee complaints—shows the growing divide between DoD and U.S. tech firms.7 But the Maven case exposes a more pressing question: Should DoD rely on commercial R&D?
Google’s $9 million Maven contract represented a minute percentage of the company’s annual revenue. It is difficult to envision DoD having significant influence over the company’s operations but easier to see why the company would prioritize its employees’ interests over relatively insignificant profit. This lack of influence is why the Center for Strategic and International Studies added “Expecting the Private Sector to Drive Innovation in National Security” to its list of “bad ideas.”8
Conversely, more than half of university research is funded by the federal government.In 2016, DoD accounted for nearly half of this federal funding, and the Navy accounted for approximately 30 percent of that.9 This funding dominance gives the Navy exceptional leverage; it can guide research programs toward naval applications and fund new projects to solve existing or future national security challenges. In return, the academic community has the opportunity to see the real-world impact of its work in the form of deployed systems.
A team of MIT aerospace graduate students saw that impact when their 2012 project on micro-UAV swarms was deployed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory (a federally funded R&D center, or FFRDC) and DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office.10 By 2014, DoD had conducted initial launch experiments of the “Perdix” drones from an F-16, and follow-on experiments were featured on 60 Minutes. This rapid innovation process exemplifies high-speed lab-to-field transition, but perhaps more important, it illustrates how the Navy can foster positive relationships with young technologists. After all, what cooler outcome could graduate students imagine than having their project launched from a fighter jet on prime-time television?
Exposing researchers to the fleet’s diverse technical challenges early in their careers could help mend the cultural rift between DoD and the tech sector. This bridge is required for efficient deployment of future technologies by U.S. industry.
In short, although the traditional role of academia is to be the primary discoverer of transformative next-generation technologies, the Navy must seek to extend the enterprise’s reach into development and deployment.
Practical steps toward these goals can be found in each phase of innovation. On publication, state-of-the-art basic research is publicly available worldwide—the naval force that is able to quickly and accurately evaluate its war-fighting significance will be able to study, refine, and field the technology before its adversaries. The Navy must capitalize on the skills and knowledge of its technical cadre to provide this early assessment.
Subsequent collaborative development with researchers should be led by technical organizations—such as the national and service laboratories and FFRDCs—that are capable of transitioning ideas from prototypes to provable systems. The Army’s university-affiliated research centers, such as the Institute for Soldier Nano-technologies at MIT, assist this joint development by providing a physical connection between the defense community and academia. The Navy should emulate these organizations to connect operational experts with skilled innovators.
Certain R&D efforts, such as classified projects, will never be suitable for the open environment of academia; however, these limitations should not preclude the Navy from collaborating on unrestricted topics. Historically, this alliance has bolstered the service and offered unparalleled war-fighting capabilities.
Yet, recent high-profile demonstrations such as the QUESS experiment show the accelerating rate of innovation abroad. If the Navy’s innovation ecosystem relinquishes command of breakthrough technologies, how will it counter future QUESS-like scares?
1. Amit Katwala, “Why China’s Perfectly Placed to Be Quantum Computing’s Superpower,” Wired, 14 November 2018.
2. Austrian Academy of Sciences, “Austrian and Chinese Academies of Sciences Successfully Conducted First Inter-Continental Quantum Video Call,” 29 September 2017.
3. Ben Blanchard, “China Launches ‘Hack-Proof’ Communications Satellite,” Reuters, 15 August 2016.
4. Chao Wang, et al., “Femtosecond Laser Crosslinking of the Cornea for Non-invasive Vision Correction,” Nature Photonics 12 (May 2018): 416–22.
5. E. A. Stijn Goossens, “Broadband Image Sensor Array Based on Graphene–CMOS Integration,” Nature Photonics 11 (May 2017): 366–71.
6. Kostas Drakonakis, et al., “Please Forget Where I Was Last Summer: The Privacy Risks of Public Location (Meta)Data,” 26th Annual NDSS Symposium, 3 January 2019.
7. Daisuke Wakabayashi and Scott Shane, “Google Will Not Renew Pentagon Contract That Upset Employees,” New York Times, 1 June 2018.
8. Sam Brannen, “Bad Idea: Expecting the Private Sector to Drive Innovation in National Security,” CSIS, 20 November 2018.
9. “Historical Trends in Federal R&D,” American Association for the Advancement of Science, April 2018, and John F. Sargent Jr., “Defense Science and Technology Funding,” Congressional Research Service, 21 February 2018.
10. T. S. Tao, Design and Development of a High-Altitude, In-flight-deployable Micro-UAV, master’s thesis, MIT (2012), and “Perdix Fact Sheet,” Strategic Capabilities Office, 9 January 2017.