Experts in the Field: Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering Discusses Building Tomorrow Together

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“Every challenge that I faced in my career, I ended up learning a very valuable lesson,” Heidi Shyu shared recently during a Women in Technology session. Shyu, who earned several degrees in Mathematics and Engineering, has held leadership positions within industry and the United States Department of Defense during her long career before being appointed to her latest role by President Biden. As Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, she serves as the Chief Technology Officer for the DoD, responsible for research, development, and prototype activities across the department.

Often during the early part of Shyu’s career, she was the only woman in her department and was often tested, by both peers and leaders. She quickly learned lessons along the way about speaking up and standing up for herself. With her combined expertise in mathematics and engineering, Shyu demonstrated that she rightfully belonged in the industry and began to earn the respect of her peers by solving some of her teams’ biggest challenges.

“I looked at every opportunity possible as an opportunity to continue to learn,” Shyu reflected. She didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into any particular area, so she chose to move around and broaden her knowledge base and expand her skills. Shyu held several positions at Hughes Aircraft Company, Northrop Grumman Corporation, and her last industry role was as Vice President of Technology Strategy at Raytheon Company’s Space and Airborne Systems before becoming a consultant.

In her government service, Shyu served a decade in several leadership and advisory position including the Air Force Scientific Board and later as Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology. “The United States has given me so many opportunities to excel,” Shyu said, explaining why she decided to follow a government career path. “It was time for me to give back to the country.” With the Army, Shyu was the oversight for the evaluation, acquisition, logistics, fielding, and lifecycle management and sustainability of weapons systems.

Now with her combined experience both in industry and government, Shyu is prioritizing how the DoD will approach the budgeting of future modernization, as well as collaboration with academia, peers, and industry partners for the latest advancements and shared practices.

During a recent media briefing, Shyu shared that she sees the opportunity to bring together innovation from across the country. “My goal, as I stepped into the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, is to harness the incredible innovation that exists across this nation, and to extract the innovation to enable us to seamlessly integrate the capabilities into a force multiplier for the U.S. military.”

To accomplish this, Shyu laid out three priorities. “The first thing is the mission focus, leveraging technology, innovation, to enable us to solve the toughest operational problems. That is informed by intelligence.” Shyu noted that rapid joint experimentation that is in place will map to joint warfighting capability gaps. Through this experimentation, Shyu said, “we can quantify the effectiveness of the prototypes and can enable rapid transition into operations.”

The second key focus for Shyu and her team is to build a foundation of talent. “We need to invest in our people, in our laboratories, and in our facilities.” Shyu highlighted a new scholar’s program that currently has welcomed 416 new scholars that are pursuing undergraduate, Masters and Ph.D. programs in one of 21 STEM areas that are of interest for the DoD. “Their education is paid for by the DoD and once they finish their degree, they will fulfill employment obligations at one of the labs. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

The third area is to “succeed through team,” which Shyu noted requires that “we work collaboratively across the nation and the technology ecosystem of universities and commercial defense industry to establish a stronger collaboration to solve the toughest challenges.” She also said this requires establishing much stronger ties with allies and partners. “This is where we can share results in research,” she said. “We can share lessons learned and really push forward and accelerate our capability quickly as we work together.”

Yet, research, development, and experimentation all require investment. “The key piece here is to leverage the commercial industry and their billions of dollars of investment into R&D as well as leverage our bilateral research and development with allies and partners.”

Shyu is also looking to reduce sustainment costs and put that budget into research and development. “I really want to flip the ratio of sustainment and at least migrate towards reducing those costs.” To do this, she pointed out that a modular open systems architecture (MOSA) approach is necessary. “This way we can move to plug-and-play rather than redesigning everything from the beginning. Once we have an open architecture, we have energy manufacturing, which can literally take a complex piece or subsystem and redesign it to employ additive manufacturing. We reduce the parts count and increase the reliability.”

Focusing on materials technology that can be stronger, lighter, and withstand higher temperatures is another key factor to heighten reliability and reduce sustainment costs. From a software perspective, Shyu said, “Software has to be affordable and modular.”

To this end, Shyu is creating a new position within her organization to oversee processing and software. “There are several key positions that we’ll be creating that are new,” Shyu shared. These positions will oversee the technology developments that can drive down sustainment costs.

Overall, Shyu laid out her strategy and her technology priorities even before her confirmation. After talking with leaders in the Services, she knew that she was going to have the opportunity to “steer the ship” and shape the future of the battlespace as the country faces new threats. “Day One at the Pentagon, and I was already sprinting,” she reflected. And she will continue to face the challenges head-on as she strives to solve the toughest challenges of the future fight.

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Senior Vice President at Strategic Communications Group and Managing Editor of The Modern Battlespace, Seawright oversees the direction of the publication and manages the editorial staff. She also manages and writes content for other publications in the defense military, government IT, and aviation industries.