By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Defense Department is expanding its dialogue with weapons makers about emerging threats and potential technology solutions, a top U.S. official said on Tuesday, urging companies to invest in areas such as "big data" and quantum sciences.
"Technological superiority is not assured," Katrina McFarland, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, told executives at a conference hosted by the TechAmerica Foundation. "The firms that make strategic investments now will succeed."
McFarland said she and other defense officials were meeting with the chief technology officers at the biggest U.S. arms manufacturers so that both sides could get smarter on emerging threats and new technology developments to combat them.
The department was also trying to gather data from companies earlier in the acquisition process to better understand emerging capabilities as it shaped requirements for new weapons systems.
Big weapons makers such as Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co, and Northrop Grumman Corp say they are focusing on innovative approaches, but industry executives say they need the Pentagon to be more specific about its needs as it decides where to focus limited research dollars.
McFarland said the Pentagon was particularly focused on ways to counter current and emerging threats, including weapons of mass destruction, electronic warfare, attacks that could disable satellite services such as communications, navigation and timing; and assaults on U.S. computer systems.
"What we need from industry is an expensive but innovative counter to these low-tech threats," she said.
To help the U.S. military develop "technological surprise," she urged industry to invest in research on such things as quantum, or particle, sciences; and "big data": computer analyses of very large sets of data for patterns, trends and associations.
McFarland said there has been improvement in this research in recent years but said further gains were urgently needed.
"A great deal of emphasis is being put on these areas because we believe that’s going to create us an advantage and we’re very interested in that," she said. "If we want to continue to be the superior force, we need to take chances, and taking risks is not optional."
Bill Greenwalt, a former senior Pentagon official who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, welcomed the increased focus on innovation and dialogue with industry.
But he said the Pentagon's recent initiatives to drive down the cost of weapons had imposed new burdens on use of commercial products, discouraging the very companies at the forefront of technological innovation from entering the weapons market.
"To get innovation, they're going to have to make it easier for the defense industry and commercial interests to partner," Greenwalt said in an interview at the conference.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)