Hicks’ multi-state tour to focus on emerging and disruptive defense tech

Deputy Secretary of Defense nominee Kathleen Hicks reacts to the start of her Senate confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C. Feb. 2, 2021. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

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Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks will tour government and research facilities across four states this week, where she will be briefed on and observe advanced technology projects the Pentagon is increasingly prioritizing to prepare for future — and likely more digital — warfare.

As the Pentagon’s No. 2 official, Hicks has been a driving force behind the department’s efforts to adopt artificial intelligence across the force, implement Joint All-Domain Command and Control, and other high-profile initiatives. Departing on a whirlwind two-day trip on Wednesday, she is set to visit Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and Purdue University’s hypersonics hub in Indiana. 

The trip marks one of multiple engagements Hicks is leading in the near term to promote tech collaboration across sectors and, explicitly, support U.S. strategic competition with adversaries.

“This is [all about] building our capacity and capabilities to compete against China,” a senior Defense official told reporters Tuesday during a background briefing to preview the trip. The briefers spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.

In Tennessee, Hicks will meet with Oak Ridge National Lab Director Thomas Zacharia and other Energy Department leaders and scientists to learn about ongoing efforts to bolster American supply chains — particularly as nations everywhere grapple with a semiconductor shortage exacerbated by the pandemic. Hicks will also meet with researchers and students, see the first U.S. exascale supercomputer, and tour two manufacturing facilities.

“From a broad perspective, what the unjust invasion of Ukraine has shown us is our ability to really network together — from a second-, third- and fourth tier-supplier base — what we need, and we’re reprioritizing that,” another senior Defense official noted during the briefing. “We obviously, from a domestic perspective, have stepped forward and you’ll see the next generation from procurement contracts of some of these weapons systems. But these older systems do have strategic relevance. And so we’re now rethinking exactly how we make sure, using things like additive manufacturing, we’re helping industry be responsive and flexible.”

After visiting Oak Ridge, Hicks will head to Wright-Patterson to visit the Air Force Research Laboratory. There, she will be briefed on counter-directed energy weapons experimentation and initiatives — and other cutting-edge capabilities being developed to advance national security objectives. 

At Scott, where U.S. Transportation Command is based, Transcom officials will brief her on efforts to integrate artificial intelligence into their logistics systems, among other topics.

For the last destination on the tour, Hicks will meet with faculty and students at Purdue University, and visit the Hypersonics Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center, where she’ll deliver a speech and be briefed on efforts to bolster the nation’s pipeline of professionals with microelectronics and hypersonics expertise, which will be critical for the Pentagon’s modernization efforts.

“We let our hypersonics capability sort of atrophy over time,” a senior Defense official said. “So, we are now trying to reengage — and that’s why the workforce has to be reengaged as well.”

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Air Force Research Lab, directed energy, hypersonics, Kathleen Hicks, Oak Ridge National Lab, Purdue, U.S. Transportation Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
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