Pentagon chief vows to protect funding for weapons in cyber and electronic warfare
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter addresses the audience at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, on Aug. 28, 2015. Photo by Robert Galbraith for Reuters.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday vowed to invest aggressively in innovative research programs and protect funding for new space, cyber and electronic warfare weapons, despite what he called a "terribly disgraceful era of budget turmoil."

Carter told a conference sponsored by DARPA, the Pentagon's research arm, that the investments were necessary given rapid technology developments by China and Russia that have started to eroded the U.S. military's competitive edge.

Top U.S. military officials began sounding urgent alarms last year about weapons advances by potential enemies, and boosted funding in areas such as space and cyber in the fiscal 2016 budget. Further increases are likely in next year's budget plan after a series of strategic reviews now being finalized.

Carter said the Pentagon was also looking at other ways to incentivize innovation, including providing rapid seed money for new projects and increasing the speed with which programs are rolled out.

"Time is of the essence, and we can’t move at Washington speed or bureaucracy speed when the innovators and the companies who are doing the innovations are moving much faster," he told reporters at the conference. "Carefully and slowly don't have to be the same thing."

Carter, who has visited Silicon Valley twice since taking office in February, said the U.S. Defense Department was reaching out to more commercial high-tech companies, universities and traditional defense companies to kick-start work in areas such as robotics, data science, biotechnology, and hypersonic engines that could fly at five times the speed of sound.

"We in the Pentagon need to think outside our five-sided box," Carter told 1,200 scientists, engineers and researchers at the conference hosted in St. Louis by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said the agency had worked hard to attract new communities and researchers to the conference to benefit from their ideas, and over half the participants had never worked with the agency before.

Carter underscored the importance of such events in sparking new collaborative projects, and said he was lifting a budget-driven ban that has restricted funding for such conferences in recent years.

Carter also visited the St. Louis headquarters of Boeing Co's defense division and its Phantom Works research arm, where he toured the company's "Virtual Warfare Center," saw demonstrations of new advanced manufacturing techniques, and got ideas on managing the U.S. military's high-tech workforce.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)