Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Howard University in Washington, D.C. (Nicholas Priest/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — Howard University has been chosen as the first historically Black college or university to lead a Defense Department affiliated research center to pursue science and technologies to strengthen U.S. defenses, the Pentagon announced Monday.

The school will lead a consortium of other HBCUs in the effort, which will focus mainly on tactical autonomy, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. In the military, tactical autonomy refers to autonomous support systems that aid human actions and decision-making to achieve tactical goals.

“Howard has always made history,” Austin said during an event Monday on the Washington, D.C., campus. “Today, Howard stands up yet again.”

Founded in 1867, Howard will be home to the Pentagon’s 15th university-affiliated research center and will receive $60 million for research, faculty and students for five years, the department said. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the overall contract is worth $90 million.

University affiliated research centers are nonprofit research organizations that have a set of core competencies that perform studies tailored to the long-term needs of the Defense Department.

"Autonomous systems make our military faster, smarter and more combat-credible," Austin said. “They equip commanders with the best possible information to support life-and-death decisions. And I have no doubt that the advancements that will come out of Howard's new research center will do even more to protect our most precious asset — our men and women in uniform."

Kendall said the decision to choose Howard to lead the research center was an easy one.

"We need a team of decision-makers, researchers, scientists, engineers and leaders who are committed to security and liberty and are excited to work on some of the world's most important problems,” he said.

The consortium of HBCUs that Howard will lead in the research effort include Jackson State University and Tougaloo College in Mississippi; Tuskegee University in Alabama; Hampton University and Norfolk State University in Virginia; Bowie State University in Maryland; Delaware State University; and Florida Memorial University. Howard is one of the largest HBCUs in the United States.

Kendall emphasized the Howard-led research center will focus on supporting two main goals — growth and diversification in science, and the United States being an ethical leader in tactical autonomy.

Other strategic goals include developing capabilities for the Air Force to deliver “operationally relevant autonomy,” advancing the field of autonomy, improving Howard’s research classification and “seeding a unique science, research and development ecosystem.”

The Pentagon’s other 14 affiliated research centers are at Georgia Tech University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; University of Southern California; University of California-Santa Barbara; Johns Hopkins University; Penn State University; University of Hawaii; University of Texas-Austin; University of Washington; Utah State University; Stevens Institute of Technology; University of Maryland; University of Nebraska; and University of Alaska.

The Howard-led research center will be the first sponsored by the Air Force. Most of the others are sponsored by the Army and Navy.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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