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Now Is Not the Time to Eat Our Seed Corn

June 2009
By Kent R. Schneider

In the wake of the global economic downturn that began late last year, responsible governments and businesses established budget priorities to make sharp spending cuts. These efforts extended across a large spectrum of budgetary activities, and they were—and still are—necessary.

However, one area that always is susceptible to the budget ax is research and development, and the existing environment offers no protection for it. Plans drawn up before the change in U.S. presidential administrations called for substantial defense research spending cuts over the next four years, and current budgetary projections do not vary greatly from that direction. Substantive cuts in defense research pose a significant threat to future military success. In fact, these types of cuts might be as effective at neutralizing defense superiority as any enemy action.

In any endeavor that involves technology, research and development is the seed corn that feeds future innovation. That is all the more relevant with virtually all devices today dependent on advanced electronics and information system technologies. These developments do not just happen as a matter of course or kismet; they must be planned and cultivated.

For the defense sector, that research is essential for a military’s future viability. Decisions made many years ago led to the Free World’s unassailable military today. Many of those decisions spawned vital research that opened the door to our precise, network-centric force.

But now, defense research and development is shrinking as a percentage of the budget. Defense planners rightly are focusing on areas that need immediate funding, such as personnel and operation and maintenance. Seven years of warfighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their toll on materiel, and equipment that normally would have many more years of service is wearing out more quickly than anticipated. However, without government-funded defense research, the long-term replacements for that materiel might not be as effective as desired down the line—and the cost might be greater in other ways.

So how does a high-technology military reap the benefits of innovation? Because many defense systems increasingly are using commercial information technology, an easy answer would be to rely on private-sector research and development. But that does not necessarily suit defense needs. The most advanced commercial information technology hardware and software companies spend large amounts on research and development, but that aims at success in the commercial marketplace—not on the military battlefield. The military market represents only a minuscule portion of these companies’ annual revenue, and they cannot be expected to spend substantive amounts of their own independent research and development funding on that niche market.

Nor can traditional defense contractors be viewed as a replacement for government research funding. As large as these companies may be, their independent research and development spending is a small fraction of that found in their commercial marketplace counterparts. In many cases, that defense-related research focuses on technologies to fill the gap between defense research and their own systems being developed for the military. They cannot commit scarce budgetary resources to major blue-sky research programs that might never receive government approval for development.

The only way the defense sector can benefit from research and development is through government funding. Even if modern militaries rely on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software, they will need defense-specific technologies to serve as gap fillers between the commercial gear and battlefield requirements.

And that applies only to areas in which commercial technologies can play a role. Many military requirements have no equivalent in the commercial sector. No commercial product has armed and armored a tank, built a supersonic jet aircraft or carried nuclear-tipped missiles silently beneath the ocean surface for thousands of miles.

Even the vaunted information technology realm, which has drawn considerably from the private sector, requires defense research to be able to serve on the battlefield. Many new warfighter needs are crying out for innovations in electronics, particularly for sensors and advanced signal processing. Even putting aside ruggedization requirements, the battlespace always will have its own demands that must be met by directed research.

In the past, we often would play catch-up when we found ourselves lacking a necessary defense technology. Sometimes, playing catch-up worked. But in today’s highly energized information technology environment, “better late than never” does not apply. Late is never. If we do not have the technology that we need when we need it, we have no time to begin the research necessary to develop that technology.

No one ever should take the march of defense technology for granted. Only through continued applied research and development can we be assured of the future that we want—and need.