The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing celebrated our nation’s technical prowess and rekindled the spirit of pride Americans share when we achieve great things.
The United States’ well-deserved reputation as a global technology leader stems in part from government and industry’s strong investment in innovation and talent. This is most evident in the aerospace and defense industry, where government agencies and A&D partner companies develop world-leading aviation, space and defense technologies. Many of these evolve into popular commercial applications that we use every day, such as GPS.
Neil Armstrong's small step ushered in an era of government as innovation leader.
Today, our technical leadership is being challenged by near-peer adversaries, particularly in areas related to national security – such as cyber, artificial intelligence, hypersonics and space capabilities. This challenge, similar to the race to reach the Moon, creates a clear opportunity for America: to establish a vision and rededicate itself to invest in the innovation and talent necessary to deliver new technologies that will extend our leadership for decades to come.
The first step is establishing a stable funding platform that allows government agencies and partner companies to plan for and invest in the technology and highly-trained people that make breakthrough innovations possible. Innovation, whether for commercial or government markets, doesn’t occur overnight. It requires sustained, multi-year investments.
That has been extremely difficult under the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, continuing resolutions and government shutdowns. These budget-limiting actions impact government and industry’s ability to plan for and invest in our nation’s military readiness and modernization efforts.
The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), and leaders from its more than 330-member companies, are encouraged by the recent bipartisan congressional deal raising the BCA caps over the next two years. It sends a strong signal to industry and represents a significant move in the right direction.
Completing the appropriations process will go a long way to spur government and industry partners to invest in the innovation that will help secure our country.
Another important step is streamlining the current cumbersome acquisition process, which is based on complex rules that challenge government and industry partners alike.
DoD acquisition leaders are looking into ways to overhaul the rules and simplify the process. They advocate for changing their culture to one that takes smart risks and champions rapid prototyping and agile acquisition.
Industry is doing its part by adopting more agile commercial business models, employing open system architectures that enhance innovation and interoperability across different platforms, and transitioning to more iterative software development methods embraced by Silicon Valley.
Engineers recently used the iterative DevOps software approach to develop a new mid-size robot designed to remotely dispose of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – safeguarding warfighters on the battlefield. Leveraging DevOps helped reduce software build times by half, enabling developers to quickly add advanced features and field the final system faster than traditional software approaches.
In addition, government and industry need to step up investments in the talent that will drive this innovation. Every day, thousands of high-paying technical positions remain unfilled due to a lack of available talent.
Government, industry and academia are working to close this workforce gap – dedicating funding and initiating a variety of programs, such as apprenticeships that provide more affordable pathways to good paying jobs and workforce partnerships to develop a steady talent pipeline that meets the changing needs of growing industries.
But we need to do much more to close the gap, particularly among women and minorities who are significantly underrepresented in STEM professions. Research shows women make up only 16 percent of the engineering workforce and African Americans and Hispanics occupy 5 and 6 percent of STEM professions respectively.
Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act would help by expanding access to Pell grants, streamlining regulations, creating incentives for employer-academia partnerships and producing more opportunities for students to learn different skills.
The challenge before us is significant, but not insurmountable. Throughout history, our nation has proven our ability to accomplish great things once we first establish a clear vision and strong commitment to succeed. Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to invest in the innovation and talent that will return us to the Moon and beyond, maintain our national security and sustain our technology leadership for generations to come.
Bill Brown is chairman and CEO of L3Harris Technologies, and chairman of the Aerospace Industries Association.