Pentagon approves first Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve projects

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SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The Pentagon’s chief technology officer is preparing to transition the first slate of joint, rapid experimentation projects to production this fiscal year, following approval from Defense Department leaders.

Undersecretary of Research and Development Heidi Shyu said Dec. 2 that the deputy’s management action group — a panel of senior officials, service leaders and combatant commanders — approved three projects at a recent classified meeting.

The efforts are part of Shyu’s Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve initiative, or RDER, which takes prototypes offered from the military services and combatant commands, verifies their production readiness and operational utility and pushes the most promising ones to production.

Speaking with reporters at the Reagan National Defense Forum here, Shyu declined to provide details on the projects that moved forward, but the first round of capabilities focused on long-range fire needs in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

The intent is to begin manufacturing and fielding the systems with fiscal 2024 funding, but that plan is dependent on Congress passing defense appropriations legislation. For now, the government is operating under a continuing resolution, which means the Defense Department can’t spend money on new start programs like RDER.

Shyu said if that continuing resolution continues through the rest of the fiscal year, it would be a major setback for the program.

“My biggest fear is we have a year-long CR this year,” she said. “We’re demonstrating capability. . . . The things that work really, really well, we want to push forward. You have a CR, that’s going to create problems.”

The Pentagon requested $687 million for RDER in its fiscal 2024 budget — nearly double the $358 million it asked for the prior year. Congress appropriated $272 million for the program in fiscal 2023, which ends Sept. 30, up from $34 million the previous year, for the effort, which helped the department start the first series of demonstrations.

Shyu noted that her office has worked closely with Bill Laplante, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, to ensure that once procurement funding is available the systems can move right into production.

During a panel at the conference, Shyu said RDER’s focus on validating prototypes to address high-need capability gaps is complementary to another Pentagon innovation initiative known as Replicator. Through the effort, announced in late August, the department wants to field thousands of attritable, autonomous systems across multiple domains over the next 18 to 24 months.

The larger goal of Replicator, however, is to create a repeatable process by which the Pentagon can quickly field innovative capabilities in large quantities.

RDER’s experimentation and validation process, Shyu said, could be used to demonstrate Replicator candidates when there’s overlap between the capabilities both efforts are pursuing. While the first slate of RDER projects don’t have any Replicator cross-over, she said that could happen in the future.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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