This post was originally published on The Washington Informer

By Sam P.K. Collins

As tensions intensify between the U.S. and China, the federal government has enlisted Howard University’s (HU) help in the development of new-age defense technology that’s known as “tactical autonomy.”

Through tactical autonomy, the Department of Defense (DOD) can use automated technology to conduct short-term missions in the land, sky and air. This evolving tool promises to not only fulfill the nation’s long-term national security goals, but prevent U.S. troops from entering dangerous terrain. 

The university recently inked a $90 million contract with both the DOD and U.S. Air Force to become a university-affiliated research center, or UARC. As a UARC, Howard will lead nine other historically Black colleges and universities in the research and development of tactical autonomy. 

Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, the university’s president, said this arrangement will place the local HBCU among the nation’s top research institutions. 

“This is one of the things that represents a shining moment for Howard,” Frederick said. “We anticipate this center can move us closer to our goals. This is the largest research contract signed by an HBCU in the history of HBCUs.”

On Monday, Jan. 23, Frederick joined Secretary of Defense Lloyd James Austin III and Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall in making this announcement. Hours before appearing at Howard’s Founders Library, the trio signed a document solidifying the deal. They later presented a plaque marking the occasion to an audience of faculty, ROTC cadets, airmen and other military personnel. 

Howard University is the only HBCU among 15 universities that the Pentagon has designated as a UARC. The DOD and U.S Air Force will provide funding for basic, applied and tech-based research. The university will also lead a research consortium that includes Bowie State University, Delaware State University, Florida Memorial University, Tuskegee University and Jackson State University. 

Austin, the nation’s first Black secretary of defense, marked this occasion by recognizing the medical and technological advancements made by HBCU graduates over the past couple of centuries. With HU’s status as a UARC, he noted that U.S. troops will also benefit in the here and now. 

HBCU graduates are the talent our country needs. HU’s new research center will protect our most precious asset: our men and women in uniform. Scientific advancements don’t happen in a vacuum. Each advancement opens up to more.

Lloyd James Austin III, Secretary of Defense

“As we work to build enduring advantages for our [troops], we must build more bridges to the U.S.’ outstanding STEM community,” Austin said. 

The barrier-breaking secretary of defense also emphasized the importance of drawing from the skills and strengths of African American students, who will turn to professionals.

“HBCU graduates are the talent our country needs. HU’s new research center will protect our most precious asset: our men and women in uniform. Scientific advancements don’t happen in a vacuum. Each advancement opens up to more,” he said.

An April 2022 report compiled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine revealed that HBCUs and other institutions that enrolled a significant number of non-white students didn’t see a substantial increase in federal research dollars — even though Congress and the DOD expressed a desire since 2010 to make that change.

The DOD-sponsored study implored the need for long-term, strategic expansion of HBCU investments. The study said that such investments would help HBCUs reach R2 and R1 status, which are given to institutions with the highest levels of research activity. 

No HBCUs currently have R1 status. Frederick said he wanted to break that glass ceiling; the DOD-U.S. Air Force contract puts Howard one step closer to doing so. 

Last spring, Frederick announced the revitalization of Howard University Hospital, which will eventually be located in the middle of a complex hosting the College of Nursing and Applied Health Sciences. As part of what’s known as the Central Campus Master Plan, three multidisciplinary academic buildings will also receive upgrades.

On the other side of the world, China continues its weapon testing regimen. 

In 2021, Chinese media documented the testing of a hypersonic glide vehicle near Taiwan and Russia. Military officials, fearful of an eventual long-range missile attack, said these hypersonic missiles have been known to travel around the world within a matter of minutes. 

That’s why Kendall lauded Howard’s inclusion among the UARCs in the development of tactical autonomy. In his remarks, he said it was imperative that America’s best and brightest do their part to protect U.S. interests at home and abroad amid what he described as Chinese and Russian aggression. 

“The U.S. will be an ethical leader in the development of tactical autonomy,” Kendall said. “We deter wars and protect human rights. We must deter aggression in solidarity with those beyond our borders who support democracy. Deterrence will always be our goal. We must keep pace with the tools of aggression.”

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