WASHINGTON — A little-known military construction funding policy will likely prevent Congress from granting most of the Pentagon’s $5.7 billion unfunded priorities list for lab and testing infrastructure projects, many of which are too early in the planning and design process for lawmakers to consider.
The U.S. Department of Defense in March sent lawmakers a list of 126 high priority projects across the military services’ labs and testing facilities that were left out of the fiscal 2023 budget request for military construction. Defense News obtained the report, which lists minor and major initiatives in areas including directed energy, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.
In order to give lawmakers confidence in cost projections and execution timelines, Congress requires the services to have completed at least 35% of a project’s planning and design activities before it will consider providing funding. For fiscal 2023, only 26 of the 126 projects on DoD’s unfunded laboratory and testing infrastructure list meet that threshold. Those 26 projects represent about $486 million of the $5.7 billion gap for these efforts, which department officials say are critical for maintaining a technological edge and attracting talent.
The story was similar in fiscal 2022. The Pentagon submitted a $3.3 billion list that included 81 projects, and lawmakers were ready to support many of them until they learned that the department had not completed the minimum required design work for most of the efforts, according to a source familiar with the process who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details on the budget. In the end, Congress added $800 million to the Fiscal 2022 Omnibus Appropriations Act to address lab and testing facilities projects on the list.
Of the projects not funded in fiscal 2022, 45 appear again on the fiscal 2023 list and only 14 of those now meet the 35% planning requirement.
Heidi Shyu, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said during a May 12 congressional hearing her top priority is upgrading the department’s labs and test ranges.
“That piece is absolutely critical for us to put some additional funding against,” she told the House Armed Services cyber, innovative technologies and information systems subcommittee. “There’s a huge deficiency.”
Addressing the infrastructure gap has been one of the early initiatives of a new integration steering group, which Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks created last March to identify impediments to innovation within the Pentagon. Shyu leads the steering group, which last year conducted a review of lab and testing facilities.
Subcommittee Chairman Jim Langevin, D-RI, said he’s concerned about the backlog and wants to help put the department on a more “sustainable path” to science and technology facilities investment.
“These challenges affect not just the pace and breadth of innovation, but also our ability to attract and retain the top-tier talent that we depend on,” he said. “I’m committed to doing everything in my power to address it.”
The fiscal 2023 list includes 62 projects from the Navy, and 32 each from the Army and Air Force. For the 100 projects that are not yet eligible for congressional funding, DoD estimates it would cost $368 million to bring them to the 35 percent threshold.
One of the largest projects is a $495 million effort to build a mostly classified Weapons Technology Integration Center for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The center would support AFRL’s munitions directorate, which develops precision munitions, bunker destroying bombs, hypersonic weapons and autonomous systems.
“A highly classified and secure laboratory space is required for the scientists and engineers working on improving existing operational systems while discovering and delivering the next generation of weapons capabilities,” the document states, adding that existing facilities are “functionally obsolete” for conducting the level of prototyping and testing the directorate needs.
Another $291 million project would construct a facility for Naval Air Systems Command’s integrated product team, which would house more than 3,000 acquisition and headquarters personnel. The Navy expects the new building would “substantially improve acquisition and program management support” for Navy research and development efforts.
Shyu said if she had a larger science and technology budget, she would focus on funding these types of projects. She wrote in her submitted testimony that the department’s lab and test infrastructure serves as “the proving grounds of our most important discoveries.”
She pointed to a “plateau” in military construction budgets in recent years that has contributed to “degraded facilities and a continual necessity for maintenance and repair work.”
“This raises significant concerns about the performance, reliability and long-term viability of the department’s lab and test infrastructure,” she said. “The department looks forward to working with Congress through the development of spend plans for the use of military construction funds and on ways to address the recuring challenges with lab and test infrastructure in the future.”
Paul Mann, the Navy’s acting deputy assistant secretary for research, development, test and evaluation, said during the hearing that the science and technology portfolio struggles to compete with the other infrastructure demands across the department. He echoed Langevin’s concerns that the lack of investment in modern facilities makes it harder to attract and retain a skilled workforce.
“Building the laboratories so that these professionals can execute their mission will go a long way to sustaining our enduring advantage,” he said.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.