Defense Media Network

Interview: Dr. Penrose (Parney) C. Albright

President and CEO of HRL Laboratories, LLC

Dr. Parney Albright is president and CEO of HRL Laboratories, LLC. Dr. Albright joined HRL in 2014 after serving as director and associated director at large, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and senior advisor, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), on assignment under an Interpersonal Agreement (IPA), where he supported IARPA as well as ODNI senior leadership on a variety of issues.

Before he joined LLNL, Dr. Albright served from August 2005 to November 2009 as president and vice chairman of the board of Civitas Group, LLC. He led the analytic team in support of the first Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, and in addition, led the development and publication of a comprehensive Biodefense Net Assessment under DHS sponsorship.

In October 2003, Dr. Albright was confirmed by the Senate as assistant secretary of homeland security in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He served in that position until July 2005. His responsibilities included developing the multi-year strategic planning guidance and budget execution for the complete portfolio of programs comprising the Science and Technology Directorate. Dr. Albright served as principal scientific advisor to the secretary of homeland security on issues associated with science, technology, and the threat of biological, nuclear, and chemical terrorism. On these issues he served as the department’s primary representative to other U.S. government agencies, the Homeland Security Council, the National Security Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and foreign governments.

Between January 2002 and the startup of the DHS, Dr. Albright concurrently held the positions of senior director for research and development in the Office of Homeland Security and assistant director for homeland and national security within the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was the lead official within the White House responsible for providing advice to the Executive Office of the President on science and technology issues surrounding homeland security, and on the threat of biological, nuclear, and chemical terrorism. In July 2002, he was asked to lead the planning for the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Directorate of the proposed Department of Homeland Security; this later evolved into the Science and Technology Directorate.

Between 1999 and being asked to serve in the White House after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Albright worked in the Advanced Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). While there he developed and managed programs associated with special operations, intelligence collection, molecular biology, communications, and maritime operations.

From 1986 until joining DARPA, Dr. Albright worked at the federally funded Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). While there, he became an internationally recognized expert on ballistic and cruise missile defense systems; space-based infrared and launch detection systems; and weapons and sensor system design and analysis.

He has authored several policy papers for internal or public consumption, primarily in the areas of homeland and national security. He has also been the author of numerous technical publications and briefings, in both the open and classified literature, primarily in the areas of statistical physics; infrared phenomenology; space-based tactical warning and attack assessment systems; intelligence collection systems; and ballistic and cruise missile defense systems.

Dr. Albright received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the George Washington University (1979), and his master’s and doctorate in physics from the University of Maryland (in 1982 and 1985, respectively). 


Defense R&D Outlook: How have you seen the nature of defense and national security research and development change over the decades you’ve been involved in various projects and agencies?

Dr. Penrose (Parney) C. Albright: Well, the largest swings I have seen were: (1) the focus on the Soviet Union and NATO; then (2) pivoting to maintaining order in a unipolar moment and the subsequent shift toward homeland security and counterterrorism; and then (3) most recently the shift back to a focus on Russia and China. 

Both the first and last of these were and are heavily colored by the fact the adversaries are nuclear-armed states. Hence, U.S. R&D was substantially focused on denying the adversary a path to conventional victory in an environment of strategic nuclear parity: in central Europe, stopping the large-scale flow of forces from the east, and in today’s world preventing a rapid fait accompli in the Baltic states or western Pacific. This current focus puts the R&D focus on efficient, high-volume weapons supported by rapid C3I timelines – foreclosing the adversaries’ path to success and hence deterring them from acting.

In contrast, the period extending from the collapse of the Iron Curtain until recently was more directed toward counterinsurgency (the First Gulf War being an exception), very much about keeping casualties (military and civilian) to a minimum, exquisite ISR&T [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaisance, and targeting], small unit combat, and extremely surgical strikes. Significant R&D attention was placed on force protection, disseminating (and collecting) intelligence of all sorts down echelon, and delivering effects from a distance.

Despite all of this, there are R&D priorities that are timeless in nature: these include air defense, EW [electronic warfare], weapons delivery platforms, logistics, anti-submarine warfare, intelligence collection, C3, and, going forward, counterterrorism.

How much has the civil/military research divide been eroded from a hard line into a gray area?

There are many areas where the research interests of the commercial world and those of the national security community overlap. The most obvious area is information science and technology, where at both the hardware and software levels the commercial market dominates R&D funding; the military R&D in this area has to strongly leverage that. A further area is in the realm of sensors – vehicles on the road, the farm, or on the factory floor have basically become computers on wheels that need to sense their environment with a variety of phenomenologies and make sense of it. What you are seeing is commercial companies treading the same path the defense aerospace industry did decades ago, but now at scales that need to be much larger and with hardware price points that need to be far lower than the national security community is used to. The R&D challenges are in important ways different, but the basics remain. As a perhaps interesting aside, these areas of overlap will have a significant impact on how we think about export controls.

Dr. Penrose (Parney) C. Albright during his time as director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.

Dr. Penrose (Parney) C. Albright during his time as director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.

At one time, defense research drove advances that spread into the civilian world. Has that model been flipped, with areas of research from the private sector now informing, driving, or even supplanting defense research?

As noted above, in some areas, yes. Certainly in information sciences. Quite a bit of the DOD communications infrastructure is also heavily leveraging commercial developments. But the national security community will always have important needs that require dedicated development. The DOD needs munitions, weapons delivery platforms, exquisite sensing capabilities, the ability to operate in a non-cooperative environment. In addition to all that, some things that are often lost in the discussion include: Much of DOD hardware is used episodically vs. 24/7/365, and can be serviced by a well-trained cadre supported by dedicated logistics vs. the local mechanic; DOD capabilities are used in an area of accepted risk, with performance requirements that reflect that fact; DOD hardware and software (and the associated capabilities) are usually classified. Given that, even in areas where the national security sector has led the way, the commercial side often (perhaps almost all of the time) has to re-develop the hardware and software. A great example of this is the suite of sensors that have been proposed and in some cases deployed in support of automotive autonomy. The radars, lidars, cameras, and software all can trace their lineage back to DOD, but considerations of cost, durability, maintainability, export control, etc., require novel new ideas and designs. What is also interesting, and it is something we see here at HRL due to our relationship with both Boeing and GM, is how those developments can migrate back to the aerospace sector.

Do we invest in defense-oriented research and development as much as we have in past years? 

I don’t have the actual number before me, but I think the general answer is yes. In some places, there has been long neglect where catch-up is needed; an obvious example is R&D surrounding the nuclear deterrent.

What proportion of the defense budget do you think should go to R&D and why?

The “canonical” answer often given is around 3 percent, running from basic research to dem/val [demonstration/validation]. In reality, however, the answer to this depends heavily on the environment, and just stating a number without context is fraught. As I said earlier, for several decades the focus has been on a very different set of priorities. Now we are confronting near-peer competitors who have made heavy investments aimed at negating the U.S. and its allies’ approach to warfighting. We need to modernize with that fact in mind. There will need to be change in how we operate our forces, the mix of needed forces, and the need for disruptive new capabilities. We are also in a new arena with regard to information warfare writ large. We have enjoyed a long holiday, and now we need to get back to work. That will mean both re-allocating R&D funds toward this new reality and an uptick in R&D investment as we catch up. 

What areas of research do you see today as being most crucial for the nation’s security and defense?

This is a question that would require a far longer answer than I can give here, but here are a few thoughts:

Bending the cost curve is crucial, and one of the most obvious ways to do that is to develop autonomous systems. For some problems, available techniques such as adversarial machine learning can be very useful, but for others, where the training sets are never going to be available and where the situations that need to be dealt with are nearly endless, we must take our cues from neuroscience and be able to operate autonomously through heuristics and by analogy. This is a really hard problem. Warfare has a long history of developing and deploying autonomous weapons, but there has to be an attentive eye placed on the ethical issues surrounding each development effort.

Related to this is that, whether or not there is a human in the loop, the time from target detection to the firing of a weapon needs to be reduced from tens of minutes to single digit minutes. This puts a premium on rapid target classification, almost certainly at the sensor platform, and is a rich research area where big performance improvements would make a big difference. 

A further research focus has to be on developing capabilities to expose the inherent societal fragilities of our adversaries. This implies developing a deep understanding of those societies and the (truthful) messaging that would have an impact, developing techniques to understand the informal and formal networks within the population, developing the technical means to deliver those messages, and developing techniques that assess the impact. 

Finally, often lost in these discussions is the need to invest in those areas where the U.S. already holds an advantage – staying on the cutting edge and not allowing the threat to catch up should be the highest priority. Undersea warfare, EW, and sensors all come to mind as examples.

Over the last several years, there have been numerous mentions of the crisis in finding qualified scientists and engineers for research fields. Has there been progress in shepherding more young American graduates into national security and defense research, or is that problem yet to peak? 

Obviously, it depends on the field. In areas like information science, where there is a high level of commercial investment, the overall workforce has grown, but the national security community is competing with the commercial sector; I don’t see this abating anytime soon. Another example is in quantum sensors, communications, and computing – in this case the qualified workforce is limited in size, and there are a lot of commercial efforts. I do see this as abating soon, for two reasons: the investments being made at NSF [National Science Foundation] and DOE  [Department of Energy] aimed at expanding the academic programs in this area, and what I see as a future decline in commercial interest. 

All that being said, in general there has always been a substantial fraction of young scientists and engineers who want to make their mark in the world by contributing to the nation’s security; that remains true today.

HRL has a highly distinguished history and pedigree. Can you tell us a little about groundbreaking research undertaken by the laboratory?

Of course, HRL started out as Hughes Research Laboratories; as consolidation in the aerospace community occurred, we ended up where we are today: HRL Laboratories, jointly owned by Boeing and General Motors.

Hence, the history is long, with a great number of “firsts” that have had an enormous impact. Perhaps the best known is Ted Maiman’s demonstration of the first laser; interestingly, the laboratory he used is still a working optical sciences laboratory, although we got out of the laser development business long ago. HRL developed the first RF MEMS switch; the first GaN W-band MMIC, the first graphene FET. We developed the world’s lowest density metallic material. We pioneered GaAs solar cells, and were a pioneer in HgCdTe IR detector materials. More recently, we are the first and only firm to develop and produce powders of high-strength common alloys such as 7000-series Al that can be additively manufactured while maintaining their bulk strength. We are pioneers in III-V IR detector material development and their transition to the field. 

There is plenty more; every day HRL is developing disruptive innovations aimed at deployment to our owners Boeing and GM, and to the nation.

What are the most important or exciting research areas for HRL today?

In the sensors arena, we are focused on transitioning our III-V detector material and recently developed read-out electronics to the field, with a particular emphasis on large format IR arrays. We are also developing low-cost radars operating at, e.g., 77GHz, and photonic integrated circuits coupled to low-cost semiconductor lasers, with an initial focus on automotive applications. I already mentioned our efforts in weldable and additively useful high strength alloys. We believe we have disruptive technology in compact precision, navigation, and timing devices that we are, again, bringing to the field. Our capabilities in information science are among the world’s best; our focus here includes what we believe are novel approaches to autonomy. I would also be remiss if I also did not highlight our efforts to leverage our cleanroom to bring the most recent RF GaN technology (also HRL-developed) to the field at affordable cost, at yield.

This interview originally appears in Defense R&D Outlook 2019.


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