Government, Industry Research Must Be Synergistic, Not Just Complementary

July 2000
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

The information age that is defining our entry into a new millennium is being driven by the rapid development of technology, and that development in turn is being driven by research. Both government and industry are reaping the benefits of this windfall in electronics. However, both must not forget the importance of continuing to pursue scientific advances that will fuel and sustain this technology boom. And, both sectors must also coordinate their efforts to ensure that government needs are met through purposeful research.

Historically, commercial research funding has largely outstripped that of the government, including the military. The ratio has differed depending on national priorities. For example, federal spending on high-technology research increased in the wake of Sputnik’s launch in 1957, during the Apollo moon landing program of the mid-to-late 1960s, and during the Reagan Administration defense buildup of the 1980s, which included the Strategic Defense Initiative.

These research efforts focused on perceived needs that government officials believed carried a degree of urgency or could not be attained in the commercial sector. This targeted research had its spinoff benefits as many basic breakthroughs transitioned to the commercial marketplace. In a similar fashion, military-developed systems such as the Internet and the global positioning system assumed unforeseen leadership roles in the information revolution.

Many of the commercial devices and systems that are taken for granted today evolved from directed research sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department. Currently, however, most innovations are emerging from the private sector. Applied breakthroughs are occurring there at a faster pace than can be maintained in the defense sector. The military wisely is tapping the commercial technology base to ensure that it is equipped with the latest and most capable systems.

However, not all military needs can be met by acquiring or adapting commercial off-the-shelf goods. Some requirements demand performance and survivability beyond the capabilities of commercial hardware. Users of combat network radios, for example, require robust signals and resistance to countermeasures not commonly available in even ruggedized commercial radios.

This is especially true in specific disciplines. For example, the intelligence community, despite gaining access to higher-resolution commercial imagery products, still depends on technologies developed in military-specific research. Measurement and signature analysis is increasing in importance concurrent with that of situational awareness and the acquisition of advanced electronics by potential adversaries. Maintaining superiority in signals and electronics intelligence is similarly challenging. Other requirements in the highly classified, or black, world also depend on specialized technologies that only can be developed with government guidance.

Nonetheless, many of these specialized requirements could be met faster if greater synergy existed between government and private sector researchers. Cooperative research between government and industry is neither new nor a lost art. However, both sectors now must work more closely in their research and development efforts to fully realize their potential in this dynamic technology era.

The immediate beneficiary of this approach would be the government. Defense planners would be able to adapt commercial advances for military systems while still in the laboratory. Similarly, discoveries unearthed in the course of commercial research may speed up the development of seemingly unrelated military technologies.

Over the long term, the commercial sector would reap substantial benefits from its cooperative efforts with government. Once again, breakthrough technologies would be sped into the marketplace. Hitherto, unknown applications could emerge to change the way of life for billions of people around the globe. The pace of technological advance, rather than abating, could accelerate.

Several programs have been shaping commercial research and development to meet government needs. For example, the military has made no secret of the fact that it will rely on commercial satellite telephony for a significant portion of its theater communications. Several companies currently are planning next-generation low-earth-orbit global telephony systems. Defense experts in some cases are working with company officials to influence the design of these systems so that they can meet military requirements.

This type of activity does not involve pressuring private industry to make extensive changes to ensure that the Defense Department will be a customer. Rather, it takes the form of cooperative development that incorporates minor alterations in design or capability to produce a future system that is better suited to meet government needs. These changes would not hinder the system’s competitiveness in the global marketplace but instead would actually improve its market penetration and sales volume by adding to its customer base.

However, this brings to light another potential drawback in overrelying on a specific commercial technology. If that technology does not ideally suit defense requirements, then the military runs the risk of becoming dependent on a partial solution that itself is subject to the whims of the commercial marketplace. The result could be a system that is made obsolete by another development or even fails to achieve market success and ceases production. The computing and telecommunications industries are rife with examples of good—and not so good—ideas that failed, leaving their users without necessary support for long-term use or system improvement.

This can be avoided through greater coordination between government and industry researchers. A commitment early in the research and development process could generate a geometric increase in productivity along the entire flow of technology from the laboratory to the field. The result could be this two-way street fast becoming its own information technology superhighway.