Congress Passes National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020

This year’s National Defense Authorization Act includes numerous provisions bearing on science and technology policy, including ones establishing a Space Force, creating a Climate Security Advisory Council, and directing the Defense Department’s research security efforts.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) discusses the National Defense Authorization Act on the floor of the House.

An array of policies for defense R&D, the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, and other science-related matters is set to become law later today when President Trump signs the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Following months of negotiations over the annual legislation, a final compromise version has garnered broad bipartisan support, with the House passing it on Dec. 11 on a vote of 377 to 48 and the Senate following suit on Dec. 17 with a vote of 86 to 8.

Congress has now successfully passed the NDAA for 59 years in a row, though negotiations over it proved particularly contentious this year. In addition to the high-profile fight over Trump’s border wall, lawmakers were locked into disputes over several issues related to science and technology, including the deployment of a new low-yield nuclear warhead, Trump’s proposed Space Force, and cleanup requirements for toxic PFAS substances.

Ultimately, the warhead and the Space Force survived the process, as did provisions bearing on matters such as research security and climate resiliency that attracted less attention. A statement accompanying the final legislation details which proposals from the House and Senate versions of the bill were included and excluded and how they have been amended.

DOD research security initiatives. Last year’s NDAA directed the Department of Defense to undertake an “initiative” to support efforts by academic institutions to protect research relevant to national security from exploitation by foreign governments. The department was further instructed to establish policies to “limit or prohibit funding … for institutions or individual researchers who knowingly violate regulations developed under the initiative, including regulations relating to foreign talent programs.”

DOD, though, has reported that “implementation of the initiative, specifically gathering information on persons performing Department of Defense research at universities and participants of foreign talent programs, has presented policy challenges relating to privacy and civil liberties, and sharing of data between federal agencies.” Accordingly, this year’s NDAA directs DOD to “establish streamlined procedures to collect appropriate information relating to individuals, including United States citizens and foreign nationals, who participate in defense research and development activities (other than basic research),” and to maintain the privacy of that information.

The same provision in this year’s NDAA also elaborates on how DOD should collaborate with academic institutions to disseminate best practices and directs the department to maintain a list of academic institutions in Russia, China, and other countries that are considered to pose research security risks.

Intelligence report. The director of national intelligence is instructed to periodically produce reports that include lists of “sensitive research subjects that could affect national security”; lists of foreign entities deemed to pose risks with respect to those subjects; and lists of known or suspected attempts by foreign entities to “exert pressure” on academic institutions, including efforts to “influence professors, researchers, or students.” The reports are also to recommend means of improving collaboration between academic institutions and the intelligence community to mitigate threats, including any necessary legislative actions

Civil liberties protections. The director of national intelligence is instructed to recommend ways to guard against stereotyping or racial profiling of Chinese Americans, which the NDAA states might accompany intelligence agencies’ efforts to thwart attempts by the Chinese government to target them for “intelligence purposes.”

Forums for consultation. The NDAA backs the creation of two bodies at which stakeholders can confer about ways to enhance research security without compromising the benefits of open scientific exchange. The first is an interagency working group, which has already been established in the form of a subcommittee of the Joint Committee on the Research Environment that the White House set up earlier this year. The second is a National Academies roundtable aimed at facilitating dialogue between the federal government and leaders from academia and industry, which has likewise already begun to meet. The provision also directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to issue policy guidance to federal agencies on research security within 270 days.

Policy upkeep. DOD is directed to establish a “process” to ensure the department formulates and continuously updates policies relating to emerging technologies, including how they may bear on treaties. DOD is to determine which technologies count as “emerging,” though the bill lists quantum computing, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomous technology, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology as examples.

Quantum information science. The NDAA clarifies that the DOD QIS program authorized in last year’s NDAA may partner with international entities and should coordinate with efforts initiated under the National Quantum Initiative Act. It also explicitly authorizes each military branch to create QIS research centers and directs DOD to develop a “taxonomy” for QIS.

Biotechnology. In lieu of a Senate proposal to establish a coordinated DOD research program in emerging biotechnologies, the NDAA directs the Defense Science Board to study the subject and recommend appropriate legislative and administrative actions.

5G. DOD is directed to develop a plan for harnessing 5G telecommunications technology that addresses, among other items, testbed development, spectrum-sharing technologies and frameworks, and engagement with industry and academia. The NDAA did not adopt a Senate proposal requiring DOD to establish an R&D program in 5G spectrum sharing that would include the construction of two technology demonstration testbeds.

JASON. Although Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin has sought to terminate the department’s contract supporting the JASON science advisory group, the NDAA requires the under secretary for acquisition and sustainment to maintain a contract with the group. It also requires DOD to notify Congress 180 days in advance of any decision to terminate the contract. Separate provisions direct DOD to initiate a JASON study on electronic warfare and NNSA to initiate one on the replacement of the W78 nuclear warhead.

Strategic Capabilities Office. SCO is a relatively new DOD initiative that seeks to develop innovative uses for equipment that is already in use or soon will be. Earlier this year, Under Secretary Griffin proposed to transfer responsibility for it to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, arguing the agency has the administrative capacity needed to oversee SCO’s billion-dollar portfolio. However, a major goal of the office, which once reported directly to the defense secretary, is to respond rapidly to changing military requirements. Rather than move it further down in the military bureaucracy, the NDAA moves it back up so that it reports to the deputy secretary, who is granted authority to delegate some of its administrative duties to DARPA.

Space Force. This year’s NDAA establishes a Space Force within the Department of the Air Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. military. Although the provision marks the first time a new service branch has been established since the Air Force’s creation in 1947, the immediate implications are fairly modest. Primarily, the Space Force will take over activities currently carried out by Air Force Space Command, such as launches and satellite operations. It will also incorporate the Defense Department’s new Space Development Agency, which is focused on a relatively small portfolio of high-priority technology development efforts. However, Space Force will not subsume many other military space programs, such as those currently operated by the Army, Navy, Missile Defense Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Space-based missile defense. The NDAA repeals a requirement enacted two years ago for the Missile Defense Agency to develop a “space testbed” for conducting R&D on space-based missile interceptors and directed energy platforms. The legislation does direct MDA to develop space-based sensors for tracking hypersonic and ballistic missiles but does not adopt the Senate’s proposal to set the end of 2021 as a target date to begin in-space testing.

Earth observing satellites. A proposal to require the National Reconnaissance Office to procure and launch a “pathfinder” environmental monitoring satellite by 2023 has been amended to place responsibility for the effort with the Air Force and to clarify it may be either a standalone satellite or a hosted payload. Frustrated with the Air Force’s prior performance in acquiring such satellites, Congress has previously considered entirely transferring responsibilities for them to NRO. The NDAA also adopts a related requirement that the Air Force launch an electro-optical/infrared weather system satellite by October 2025.

Joint Hypersonics Transition Office. Previous NDAAs have directed DOD to coordinate various R&D efforts in hypersonics through a central office. Now, Congress is looking to shift that effort into gear, providing $100 million for it in its fiscal year 2020 appropriations legislation while the NDAA directs the office to partner with one or more academic institutions. Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame are already in position to be central players in that effort.

Purdue University aerospace engineering professor Steven Schneider works with the university’s Mach 6 wind tunnel.

Low-yield warheads. Democrats relented on a contentious proposal they included in the House version of the NDAA to bar the Trump administration from deploying a new type of low-yield nuclear warhead. Critics argued the warhead increases the prospects a conventional armed conflict could escalate into nuclear war, while proponents argued it is needed to deter Russia from using similar small-scale nuclear weapons.

Plutonium pit production. The NDAA adopts a Senate proposal directing the National Nuclear Security Administration to expand production of the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons, known as pits, to at least 80 per year by 2030. Pit production is part of NNSA’s long-term plans to maintain the existing U.S. nuclear stockpile and the agency is planning to split the work between Los Alamos National Laboratory and a future facility at its Savannah River Site. However, an Institute for Defense Analyses study released last May found that no option for pit production is likely to meet the NDAA’s mandated schedule.

Weapons design expertise. Although the House proposed a major cutback in funding for NNSA’s Stockpile Responsiveness Program, the final NDAA recommends an increase from $40 million to $81 million. Appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2020 ultimately provided $70 million. The program aims to give scientists and technicians opportunities to exercise a broader skillset associated with nuclear weapons design and engineering. The NDAA clarifies, though, that prototyping foreign nuclear weapon designs should only be pursued through the program “if needed to meet intelligence requirements.”

High energy density physics study. The NDAA requires NNSA to arrange a National Academies assessment of the field of high energy density physics, particularly as it pertains to the agency’s nuclear security mission.

Low enriched uranium for naval applications. Splitting the difference between a House proposal to establish a program to research the possibility of converting naval reactors to use low enriched uranium and a Senate proposal to prohibit such work, the NDAA does not include any provision on the issue.

Electromagnetic pulses. The NDAA repeals a requirement to reestablish a commission charged with assessing threats posed by EMPs, a posited form of attack in which electrical systems are disrupted, generally using a nuclear detonation. A separate provision modifies the responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security for enhancing national preparedness for EMPs and the extreme geomagnetic disturbances that can be caused by rare solar events.

Climate Security Advisory Council. The director of national intelligence is instructed to establish a Climate Security Advisory Council that will help intelligence agencies analyze the global security implications of climate change and facilitate the exchange of relevant information across federal agencies. The council’s mandate expires after four years.

Climate resilience. A series of provisions direct DOD to develop or adapt tools for measuring risks associated with climate change and extreme weather, remove institutional barriers that inhibit efforts to increase military installations’ climate resilience, and incorporate costs related to climate change and adaptation efforts into DOD’s annual budget submission to Congress. Another series of provisions modifies DOD facility planning policies to expand their consideration of climate-related factors.

Carbon removal R&D. The NDAA incorporates the Securing Energy for our Armed Forces Using Energy Leadership (SEA FUEL) Act, which establishes an interagency R&D program for technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and seawater and convert it into fuels or other militarily useful products. Another bill that aims to initiate carbon dioxide removal and utilization programs at the Environmental Protection Agency was not included.

Use of special authorities. In previous NDAAs, Congress has provided DOD lab directors with special administrative authorities to hire science and engineering personnel rapidly, initiate research projects, and take other discretionary actions to build up lab capabilities. However, a recent Government Accountability Office report documented how those authorities are not being used to their full potential. Accordingly, this year’s NDAA requires DOD to develop a “master plan” that lays out how defense labs will use the authorities going forward and identifies any institutional barriers to implementing the plan.

Personnel authorities. The NDAA increases from 100 to 140 the number of staff positions at DARPA reserved for specially recruited “eminent experts” and establishes five such positions at DOD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. It also expands intelligence agencies’ authority to offer higher pay rates for up to 100 STEM-trained individuals and modifies DOD’s direct hire authority, including by broadening the sorts of positions requiring STEM expertise to which it applies.

Workforce diversity. DOD is required to assess the diversity of its research and engineering workforce, including its geographical diversity. It is also instructed to develop a plan to increase that diversity, in part by implementing recommendations from a 2013 RAND Corporation study on the matter.

R&D infrastructure. DOD is directed to assemble a “master plan” to assess and address infrastructure deficiencies at its labs, test facilities, and ranges. The plan is to identify and prioritize specific infrastructure projects and provide associated cost estimates.

Laboratory Directed R&D. The NDAA extends for one year a pilot program that prohibits NNSA labs from covering overhead costs using funds reserved for LDRD projects. The Senate had proposed making the policy permanent.

Minority Serving Institutions study. DOD is directed to initiate a National Academies study on the status of defense research at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority Serving Institutions. The study is to evaluate these institutions’ success in competing for and executing DOD contracts and grants and offer recommendations for strengthening their position and improving their capabilities. The study is to be done in lieu of a House proposal to establish an independent commission on the matter. A separate provision authorizes DOD to establish “incentives” for other academic institutions to collaborate with HBCUs and MSIs on defense-related research and education.

Technology and National Security Fellowship program. DOD is authorized to establish a new fellowship program that places individuals with STEM backgrounds in one year positions at DOD and defense-focused congressional offices.

Lab-embedded entrepreneurship program. In lieu of a proposal to create a DOD program that would offer two year opportunities for entrepreneurial researchers to work in federal labs, the NDAA adds the Department of Energy’s existing lab-embedded programs to the list of innovation and entrepreneurial programs DOD is authorized to support.

National labs apprenticeship program. The NDAA incorporates the DOE National Labs Jobs ACCESS Act, which authorizes DOE to award five year grants to apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs providing technical skills and qualifications that are needed at its national labs.

STEM education for dependents of military personnel. The NDAA makes permanent a pilot program established five years ago that provides STEM education opportunities at elementary and secondary schools attended by children of U.S. military personnel.

Small business innovation. The NDAA amends and incorporates the Accelerating Defense Innovation Act, which implements reforms to several DOD programs that are designed to encourage new partnerships with small, innovative companies. Among them is a provision that permits small businesses majority-owned by venture capital firms or similar entities to participate in DOD’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

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