The new head of the Department of Homeland Security’s research and development branch said that he plans to expand the use of high-priority, high value programs that are aimed at meeting unique mission needs of the department’s components, although he also plans to expand the duration of these Apex programs currently defined as being rapidly paced.

Reginald Brothers, under secretary of Homeland Security for Science and Technology (S&T), told a House panel in his prepared remarks on Tuesday that the Apex programs will continue to be “cross-cutting, multi-disciplinary efforts intended to solve problems of strategic operational importance, but the projects are being scaled to apply to a wider portion of the portfolio and will operate on longer five-year timelines.”

Dr. Reginald Brothers, Under Secretary for Science and Technology, DHS
Dr. Reginald Brothers, Under Secretary for Science and Technology, DHS.

There will also be more money put toward the Apex programs and the milestones for them will be clear, Brothers said at a House Homeland Security hearing of the Security Technologies and Research and Technology Subcommittees.

“The new Apexes will include some current projects rolled up with expanded or new ones,” he said. “With high-profile programs, concrete deliverables, precise milestones and timelines, and significant increases in dollar and workforce investment, we believe that the new, scaled Apex efforts will bring substantial gains for our operational partners involved with screening, cyber security, flood resilience, bio-detection, and emergency response.”

In the biological detection area, Brothers said that a replacement effort for the Generation 3 BioWatch program, which was canceled earlier this year due to numerous cost overruns and schedule delays, will have an Apex program. Brothers said he is looking at shifting the detection effort from signature-based to anomaly-based, which is similar to the way threat detection is done in the cyber security space. The project is in the process of being defined, he added.

Brothers said that S&T’s technology foraging efforts, which has been going on for several years and involves understanding what already exists in the private and public sectors, is factoring into an Apex program for first responders. The first responder of the future Apex program is looking at how to use “current and emerging technology in wearables and ruggedize it and then apply it to the first responder mission sets,” he said.

S&T currently has two ongoing Apex projects, the Air Entry and Exit Re-Engineering effort with Customs and Border Protection, to improve confirmation that non-U.S. citizens have departed the United States from an airport through the use of biometrics and the Border Enforcement Analytics Program with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations Directorate that uses data analytics to create investigative leads for the unit.

Brothers has been the chief of the S&T branch for four months and is in the process of creating a new strategy for his directorate.

Part of this strategy includes “a more focused, strategic relationship with our partners and will address the need for a jointly calibrated investment risk profile,” he said. This means making sure there are programs with higher technical risk that also have a high payoff, Brothers said.

“As such, I plan a portfolio that spans quick success projects integrating off-the-shelf technologies to potentially disruptive technologies that, out of necessity, will be high risk,” Brothers said. This also means that high risk programs have to fail quickly if they have a problem, which in turn means that S&T needs to have metrics in place to know if a program is failing, he said.

The strategy document will look out five to 10 years and is expected to be completed later this year.

Brothers’ team has already drafted a set of long-term visionary goals and has been inviting feedback on them from stakeholders throughout the larger homeland security community. He said about 1,500 people have provided comment on the goals, which have 30-year horizon points.

The draft goals are:

  • Screening at Speed: Matching the Pace of Life, which entails being able to conduct non-invasive screening of people, baggage and cargo with minimal impact on traveler speeds and the pace of commerce;
  • A Trusted Cyber Future: Protecting Privacy, Commerce, and Community, which means that users have to trust the networks they use and that security must work automatically in the background;
  • Enable the Decision Maker: Providing Actionable Information Ahead of Incident Speed, which is essentially improving situational awareness; and
  • Responder of the Future: Protected, Connected, and Fully Aware, meaning that first responders will have “comprehensive physical protection, interoperable, networked tools,” better threat detection technologies, and improved situational awareness.

These goals provide a “North Star” for DHS and its stakeholders of “where we want to go in the next 20 to 30 years,” Brothers said.

David Maurer, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office, told the joint panel that the S&T Directorate continues to make positive progress in working with the department’s operating components and in tracking R&D investments. He also said the directorate’s creation of a definition of R&D this summer was a good step.

Still, Maurer said more work needs to be done by S&T to better coordinate with department components and to track the progress of its deliverables to various agencies. He also said that S&T’s workforce remains near the bottom of federal rankings in terms of motivation and morale.