The U.S. Defense Department announced in late 2014 an initiative to reinvigorate American military technology innovation known as the “Third Offset Strategy,” and after a year of classified investigation and secret deliberation some early components of this strategy are being revealed. Initial reviews of the approach have highlighted the futuristic (almost sci-fi) vision for next-generation U.S. weapons programs – robots, swarming drones, “Iron Man” suits and the like – but equally noteworthy are new aspects of the concept for how these systems might be developed and deployed more efficiently. Key changes include proactively tapping non-defense high-tech companies for targeted contributions and deepening collaboration with trusted allies like Japan to help catalyze breakthrough applications, but these new concepts face many hurdles.
Tucked inside the 2017 U.S. defense budget request (announced in February) is about $15 billion to place relatively small research bets on over-the-horizon technologies that can help the United States military maintain a leading edge over any competitor over the long term. Close allies like Japan have an interest in seeing this effort succeed. Priority investments range from energy production and storage to so-called lethal endgame technologies, including lasers or directed energy weapons, but a particularly intriguing focus is the broad arena of robotics, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence.
Of course, the Pentagon has been experimenting with many of these autonomous technologies for several years, but the level of outreach recently to U.S. tech hubs in Silicon Valley (where Google and others are developing self-driving cars, among other gadgets) and with potential Japanese contributors has risen considerably. The effort to work with new partners, however, is challenged by concern on the part of many firms about becoming associated too closely with military programs and adversely affecting their reputations with average consumers.
This “reputation risk” dynamic was clearly evident at a robotics challenge event organized by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from 2012 to 2015, but the sponsors and participants were at times able to transcend such inhibitions, which could open doors for collaboration in the future. At the start, the U.S. Defense Department sought to facilitate cooperation with new partners in Japan, negotiating its first ever terms of reference agreements with the Japan Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, & Technology. The key was to focus on robotics applications for humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery and to limit cooperative projects to dual-use technology....