Military Scientists Press Lawmakers to Upgrade Research Labs

One of many creative work areas available at the Maker Hub in Dayton, Ohio. When fully-equipped, the space will contain a wide variety of entry-level, desktop versions of advanced manufacturing equipment, including 3-D printers, Computer Numerical Control mills, a laser cutter, sewing machine, printed circuit board prototyping tool, and a full electronics workstation. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lori Hughes)One of many creative work areas available at the Maker Hub in Dayton, Ohio. When fully-equipped, the space will contain a wide variety of entry-level, desktop versions of advanced manufacturing equipment, including 3-D printers, Computer Numerical Control mills, a laser cutter, sewing machine, printed circuit board prototyping tool, and a full electronics workstation. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lori Hughes)

The average age of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ research and development facilities is 41 years. For the Naval Research Laboratory centers, it’s 59.

Scientists at each of the military services say they need to renovate and rebuild the labs before they get any older.

Testifying last week before the House Armed Services Committee’s Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, four research lab directors said they’re concerned tightening budgets will lead to infrastructure woes that make it harder to create and test new weapons critical to defeat future threats.

“Modernizing facilities is a major issue for us,” said Jeffery Holland  director of the Engineer Research and Development Center, part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “The department has extraordinary issues associated with readiness and modernization of its installations.”

Despite building three new labs over the past five years, the average age of the buildings remains unchanged because of the number of older facilities, Holland said.

“There needs to be a better understanding of what it costs to maintain lab space,” he said. The work involved is much different from ordinary “barracks or standard office space,” he said.

Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina and chairman of the committee, indicated his panel would be willing to authorize more funding to revitalize the infrastructure.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, and Edward Franchi, acting director of research for the Naval Research Lab, said the labs are also struggling to retain workers and streamline how research is done with contractors.

Franchi called for sustaining facilities with the right people and maintenance, as well as multi-year funding. “Being able to accumulate funding for facilities over years and then use it, that would be helpful,” he said.

Philip Perconti, acting director of the Army Research Laboratory, agreed. “We get to hire people into the system only to be caught by things like delays for security processing … human resources … which causes you to lose very high quality candidates,” he said.

During the hearing, the directors cited programs in early stages, but didn’t elaborate. For example, the Air Force referenced areas of interest as nanotechnology and hypersonics; the Navy, laser weapons and railguns; and the Army, new advancements in technology to counter improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

About the Author

Oriana Pawlyk
Oriana Pawlyk is a reporter for Military.com. She can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.