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Pentagon on watch for disruptive technology worldwide

Jan. 8, 2014 - 08:28PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Concerned about the surge of potentially disruptive technological advances in China and around the world, the Pentagon is creating a program to track and analyze patents and other signs of emerging technologies, military records and interviews show.

China has long been considered a threat to U.S. manufacturing because of its low wages and huge population, but now the nation is seeing a boom in innovation as well. Patents for new technologies in China have taken off, and a graph showing the rise in new patents looks like a “hockey stick,” said Patrick Thomas, a principal and director of analytics for 1790 Analytics.

In September 2012, China’s defense ministry reported that military-related patents there had increased by 35 percent a year over the previous decade. U.S. national security policy has shifted in recent years to a greater focus on Asia, and Pentagon policymakers have developed plans to counter China’s growing influence.

“The rapid rise of China ... is focusing minds on the geopolitical power balance again and leading to a small revival of military-centered long-term strategic studies,” said a 2013 analysis of government “foresight” programs around the world by the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

The Pentagon has launched a new project called Technology Watch/Horizon Scanning, which aims to track developing technologies around the world that could either aid U.S. military efforts or seriously disrupt existing military plans. Thomas’ company — based in Haddonfield, N.J. — is one of the chief contractors for the project.

Brian Beachkofski, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Technical Intelligence, said the program is meant to keep the military ahead of technological developments 10 to 20 years ahead of time. “When you look at particular data,” he said, “it’s a long time before it becomes reality.”

That program, which follows similar efforts in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, focuses on two elements that can dictate future policies:

■ Technology Watch tracks key technology buzzwords to see where they are being used, Beachkofski said. “We look at them and find out what is being developed and whether there could be any future uses for the Department of Defense.”

■ Horizon Scanning was designed to look for ‘the emergence of new scientific concepts and technology applications with disruptive potential,” according to a 2011 Pentagon document outlining the program. A 2008 report for the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense defined horizon scanning as the ability to “identify technologies which have not previously been considered relevant, and to propose the possible value of developments that are being made for non-defense applications.”

Beachkofski said the program, which is still in development, can mine university and other research journals, as well as patent filings, to track new technologies “on the university level or in early stages of research and development at private companies.”

Analysts can then look deeper into each category to determine if there are so-called “emerging clusters” of technological development that need further examination, Thomas said. For example, researchers could find that China is developing new types of technology that could be used in missiles or other weapons that could affect U.S. policies.

New military technologies, expensive or otherwise, can force armed forces to radically shift their priorities.

The rise of the improvised explosive device in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed how a cheap weapon can eradicate the U.S. technological advantage on the battlefield. IEDs devastated the military’s flat-bottomed vehicles, like Humvees, forcing the Pentagon in 2007 to start what became a $50 billion program to develop the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, featuring a hull that is blast-resistant.

Pentagon budget documents released last April said the technology watch program “will develop insight into our relative position in science and technology around the world, as well as determine potential impacts on DoD capability and future threat environments.”

“One thing of interest is if you went to track technology and found the United States was absent from (that area of science), you’d want to do something about it,” Thomas said.

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