A Defense Department (DoD) research official said this week that his office’s “number one priority” is making sure the military has access to advanced microelectronics, while calling quantum technologies a much longer-term play.

“We want the Department of Defense to have access to state-of-the-art capabilities [in microelectronics], which we do not have today,” said Mark Lewis, Director of Defense Research and Engineering for Modernization at DoD.

Speaking at a joint AFCEA-George Mason University online event on May 19, Lewis attributed the department’s deficit in microelectronics to its use of the “trusted foundry” model, where factories produce microelectronics through a process in which every step is DoD-controlled.

“That model we think has failed,” said Lewis, who serves under Michael Griffin, DoD’s Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. The microelectronics produced by trusted foundries can be two generations behind “the commercial, state-of-the-art,” Lewis said.

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The department’s new preferred approach is “zero trust,” Lewis said. This approach enables the department to procure a final product that is trustworthy while utilizing components that are not coming from trusted foundries, he said.

“China has no problem with purchasing commercial, state-of-the-art microelectronics,” said Lewis, “whereas we have self-imposed limitations.”

The DoD official’s remarks came amid action by the Commerce Department to curtail the ability of  China-based equipment maker Huawei to use U.S. technologies in its semiconductor production. The U.S. considers Huawei a security risk due to its connection with the Chinese government, and has taken numerous steps to restrict the company’s participation in the U.S. supply chain because of that.

‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ in Quantum

In addition to microelectronics, Lewis’ office has identified 10 other priority areas including 5G; Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning; Autonomy; Biotechnology; Cyber; Directed Energy; Fully Networked Command, Control, and Communications; Hypersonics; Quantum Science; and Space.

“There is a lot of hype associated with quantum science,” said Lewis, “and frankly, a lot of it is promising, but it is very, very far term.”

Among the most promising of “low-hanging fruit” in quantum science, Lewis said, is its application “to enable Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT), giving us alternatives to the GPS system.”

Under Secretary Griffin and others emphasized the importance of Global Positioning System (GPS) networks for DoD earlier this month at a Senate hearing on the FCC’s Ligado spectrum award decision. Griffin said that the Ligado equipment would cause interference with GPS networks.

“We want to be robust enough that, frankly, no one is tempted to take out our GPS,” Lewis said at this week’s event.

“There are quantum capabilities, for instance, cold trap to atom technologies, that can provide exquisite timing capabilities in a relatively small package,” said Lewis, “so we think we can do onboarding of quantum sensors that can replicate the precision that we know is associated with GPS.”

Director of National Intelligence nominee Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, called for more investments in quantum at his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month.

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Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.