During Engineers Week, the Defense Department is highlighting its efforts to develop a diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce and to increase understanding of and interest in engineering and technology.
There's a lot that engineers within the Defense Department have in common with counterparts in the private sector, but it's what's different that makes them so important to the defense of the nation, said the department's acting deputy director for engineering and director for engineering policy and systems.
"First and foremost, we are responsible for national security," said Stephanie L. Possehl. "We provide the systems that keep our warfighters safe. We are focused on the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, above all. What we keep foundational to what we do every day is how what we are doing in our problem-solving aspects serves the warfighter, how it keeps them safe, how it gives them better tools to do their job."
Engineers are the focus of the Defense Department during this year's National Engineers Week, February 21-27. The importance of engineers and engineering was first recognized in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers. It's something the DOD has been observing as well for years now.
This year, due to COVID-19, the usual activities highlighting the week have been scaled back, Possehl said. But the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering will co-host an event with Washington Headquarters Services, Facilities Services Directorate on Wednesday that features presentations by Vivek Lall, Chief Executive, General Atomics Global Corporation; David W. Pittman, who serves as director of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center and director of research and development and chief scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and Daniel Ragsdale, the acting director of defense research and engineering for modernization.
Ragsdale said it's an exciting time now to be an engineer, especially so for those in the Defense Department who are working on modernization projects that will provide direct benefits to the warfighter.
The theme of this year's Engineers Week, "Imagining Tomorrow," is aptly named, he said. "I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to speak about how we, as scientists, as technologists, as engineers, have the opportunity not only to imagine tomorrow but, through our professional activities, to make a positive difference.
"It's a time of great challenge, but it’s also a time of great opportunity; opportunity, not only to foster the development of new concepts, but also to develop and deploy vastly enhanced capabilities that will provide overmatch against our increasingly formidable, and capable great power competitors. This represents a clarion call to the [engineering] community, to the science community, to the technology community, a call which enlivens, inspires and brings a heightened sense of urgency to all of our activities," he said.
Just what is an engineer, exactly? According to Possehl, an engineer is more than just a tinkerer or mechanic.
"I think that most engineers will tell you that fundamentally, we are problem solvers," Possehl said. "We turn concepts into reality. I think that if you think about a phrase that applies to engineers, it is that necessity is the mother of invention. We're those kind of people [who] take a problem and find a solution to it."
In years past, Defense Department engineers have greatly advanced the capabilities of both the military and society, as a whole. Many of the contributions of Defense Department engineers and professionals in related science, technology and mathematics areas, are well known to Americans — though they might not know they came from the military, Possehl said.
"GPS and the internet — these are things that we rely on every day that came out of the Department of Defense," Possehl said. "Your microwave oven was a spinoff from radar projects that we had going on. Duct tape, the [autoinjector] aerosol bug spray — all of these things came from Department of Defense projects. People might not know that the DOD was the home of those things that we use every day. So, while you might think that all we do is weapon systems programs, there's a lot of stuff, including medical technology, that comes out of the Department of Defense."
The foundations for the internet were laid in Defense Department labs more than 50 years ago. But the department has new projects today that are equally important to its future.
Right now, said Ragsdale, the problem-solving skills of DOD engineers are focused heavily on 11 areas where solutions will provide the most benefit to the warfighter. Those areas include artificial intelligence; biotechnology; autonomy; cyber; directed energy; fully networked command, control and communications; microelectronics; quantum science; hypersonics; space; and 5G.
Those areas are so critical, Ragsdale said, the department has assigned directors to oversee the advancement of each — all subject matter experts and well-respected thought leaders in their respective technology areas.
"They each bring a great sense of urgency to all of their undertakings and they fully appreciate the critical need to leverage and integrate emerging technology to facilitate the development of new concepts and advanced capabilities," he said. "Equally important, they have established mutually beneficial relationships with a wide array of stakeholders, from across the department. Our principal directors are actively engaging with warfighters -- with the joint staff, with the combatant commands, with the services, as well as with members of the DOD science, technology, engineering and acquisition workforces.
The department already has a lot of engineers in the workforce, Possehl said — she estimates the department employs some 100,000 of them, in fact, possibly making it the largest employer of engineers in the world. Still, with 11 areas of focus that are so important to the nation's defense — and with other projects underway as well, the department isn't exactly turning down those who have engineering credentials and a desire to serve the nation.
"The Department of Defense always has a need for quality engineers," she said, adding that others with credentials in science, technology and mathematics are needed as well. "I will say that we continually do assessments of particular skill sets we might need ... it's not just about engineers. We need those kinds of technical skill sets within the Department of Defense, across the board."
For young Americans considering engineering or already studying to be an engineer, she said, the Defense Department has several programs to make national defense more attractive. One example of that, she said, is the DOD's SMART Scholarship program, which she said provides scholarships and intern opportunities as well as a job with the DOD upon graduation.
Possehl was herself enticed by the Defense Department at an early age.
"When I was 16, I came and did an internship in the Department of Defense, and I was hooked," she said. "This is where I wanted to spend my career."
During this year's Engineer Week, Ragsdale said he wants engineers both in the department and outside of it to consider this year's theme, "Imagining Tomorrow."
"We challenge those in the science, technology and engineering communities across the department, and in other public and private sector settings, to imagine tomorrow by conceiving, designing, building, testing and rapidly deploying capabilities that will serve as a strong deterrent to future adversaries, causing [them] to see the futility of crossing the threshold of armed conflict," he said.
Engineers should also look at themselves and consider what they contribute to the nation's defense, and to society at large, Possehl said.
"Engineers Week is about encouraging young people to pursue careers in engineering and other STEM areas," she said. "But I'd also like to take the opportunity for folks who are already engineers, who are already working in STEM fields, to take a moment and just reflect on how great you are. We tend to be kind of a quiet and unassuming bunch of folks, and we don't stop and sort of pat ourselves on the back that often. If you're already an engineer ... take Engineers Week as an opportunity to say 'yay us!'"