NEWPORT — Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was on familiar ground when he addressed more than 400 representatives of defense industry firms assembled Tuesday afternoon at the Marriott Hotel.
“As some of you may know, this is not my first time attending this conference,” Esper said during his speech. “Although, during my last visit, I sat in your seat. Having been on both sides of the podium, the strength of the American economy and the rapid innovation happening within the defense industry provide an advantage to our military that no nation can match if we can all work closely together.”
Esper, before he was named Secretary of the Army in 2017, was Raytheon’s vice president for government relations. The Senate confirmed him as Secretary of Defense at the end of July this year.
“I knew him when he worked for Raytheon, although I did not work with him directly,” said state Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, who is a chief engineer for Raytheon.
DiPalma stressed he was not at the conference as a Raytheon representative, but as co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Defense Economy Planning Commission.
Esper praised the contributions of this region’s technology industry to advances in defense preparedness.
“Today, this region is not only vital to our submarine production, but also hosts a diverse set of organizations that develop the technologies, capabilities, and concepts needed to fight and win at sea,” Esper told the crowd. “It’s no wonder former Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, once coined this region the ‘Silicon Valley of undersea warfare.’ “
The ongoing Defense Innovation Days conference at the Marriott includes representatives of the 130 members of the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance and the 250 members of the Undersea Technology Innovation Consortium, a national organization formed by SENEDIA.
“Technological advances such as artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum computing are changing the world, and will, I am convinced, eventually change the character of war,” Esper said. “Our challenge is to work together, with all of you, to harness those advances in ways that give us the decisive military edge.”
The leaders of the Entanglement Research Institute of Washington, D.C., announced last year they would like to build a quantum computing center on John H. Chafee Boulevard in Newport.
That project is still very much alive and he has been in contact with Jason Turner, chairman of the company, DiPalma said after Esper’s speech.
“Projects like that will keep us at the forefront of technological research,” the state senator said.
“The Defense Department has to be faster at adopting technological innovations developed by the private defense industry,” Esper said.
“Right now, I would argue, we are still too slow,” he stressed. “In fact, the former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richardson, called the speed at which we field technology to the fleet ‘a strategic Achilles Heel’.”
Congressman David Cicilline, D-R.I., said after the speech that Esper was still taking stock of overall policy in the Pentagon.
“There is an absence of a well-defined strategy to address the activities of nations like North Korea, Iran and Russia,” Cicilline said. “That’s being done by the president.”
Cicilline spoke to industry representatives as well as other members of the state’s Congressional delegation: U.S. senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., Gov. Gina Raimondo was holding private meetings with industry representatives during the conference on Tuesday.
Esper spoke generally about some of the challenges posed by hostile world powers.
“Like China, Russia is renewing its emphasis on the undersea domain as they modernize their submarine fleet and develop new ways to avoid underwater detection,” he said. “And, as we reorient our department to compete in both these arenas, we are also aware of an expanding realm of competition in the Arctic.”
“In the information space, an astonishing 99% of the world’s internet traffic travels through undersea cables,” Esper said. “The significance of the maritime domain cannot be overstated. In an era of expanding military competition on the seas, maritime dominance increasingly depends on our ability to secure and influence what’s happening under the water’s surface.”
He said institutions like the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport and Middletown and the many defense industry firms in this area will continue to play a key role in maintaining U.S. control of the seas.
“New England holds unique significance to America’s maritime identity,” Esper said near the conclusion of his speech.
“In many ways, our Navy began along your rocky coastlines — with fisherman, merchants, and traders who just wanted to earn their living from the sea in peace,” he said. “Today in 2019, New England remains crucial to America’s continued maritime dominance.”
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