President's Commentary: The COVID Pandemic Reboots Research and Development

July 1, 2021
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

After 15 months of enduring a deadly pandemic, the world is beginning to take stock of the looming unknown future. The shape of things to come remains uncertain, but what is certain is that research and development will lead us into that future.

Two things the pandemic has brought home about research and development: first, the new normal will require changes in technology that will be born of research and development advances; and second, the future economy will be more technology-oriented than today’s, which will require a surge in research to develop new capabilities. These are broad umbrella outlooks, but achieving them will require more specific and nuanced efforts.

And these efforts must address military and industry in both cooperation and competition. In some ways, the United States is moving both forward and backward in support for research.

If the United States is going to be a leader in this post-pandemic global economy and national security posture, we must invest more money in research and development. China is gaining on us rapidly and may soon overtake us as it increases its research and development spending. That pace has slowed slightly, but now it is accelerating again. China’s research and development commitment has grown over the years, as the country is depending on it to make the Middle Kingdom the dominant world power.

And this spending is complemented by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) theft of Western intellectual property. A comprehensive espionage effort has fueled Chinese scientific coffers with everything from basic technologies to full-scale systems such as the J-31 stealth fighter. China also has forced Western companies investing in China to share access to advanced technology, which has fostered Chinese technology development at little or no cost to the CCP.

But China is not the only issue mandating increased research and development. The United States is only 10th in the world in research and development as a percentage of its economy. Both government and corporate spending in this area have declined, although the most recent budget put forward by the administration provides for a 9 percent increase. However, the Defense Department has seen cuts in basic research—11 percent—to go with a 16 percent cut in applied research. While commercial research and development will provide some key technologies, defense research will be necessary for unique capabilities.

The other part of the research and development future involves new capabilities unearthed by the pandemic. The very nature of the global economy will be changing for years to come as new methods of production and service are incorporated. The pandemic has launched a new thrust for innovation in both processes and capabilities.

These changes, in turn, will drive a need for further research and development. The network will become more important than ever as 5G begins to dominate and new types of online work emerge. Tools will improve as they develop and add resilience to the infrastructure. The breadth of collaboration and partnering has expanded as geography becomes less of a barrier. Supply chains will become less of an issue as networking brings manufacturing closer to customers—in some cases, right into their homes and offices via additive manufacturing.

With the network sitting at the heart of socio-economic activities, its security will become more vital than ever. Recent hack attacks on the Colonial Pipeline and JBS Foods are a harbinger of even greater threats as the network increases in importance. Cybersecurity must be improved and not just through appliqués. Simply put, the network we have now is not the network we need. We need to rethink how networks are designed, as we need a new network to underpin all these advances.

And the technologies that will change everything are erupting everywhere. A sample of the broad range of innovative technologies that could have revolutionary effects on the future economy and national security posture can be viewed in a single document. AFCEA’s Technology Committee has published its 2021 Technology Vectors Presentation that advances insight into the disruptive technologies that will define the future. This is a living document that focuses on eight different emerging technology areas and subsets that illustrate the links between various technology disciplines. These all represent key directions where technology research and development should be focused.

In engineering, mechanical failure often is described as a failure of imagination. People did not think of what could go wrong. In the onrushing future, failure will be a failure of imagination—the failure to perform the research and development that will open the door to a host of opportunities while meeting new challenges head-on. Research has been described as our seed corn; well, it’s time to plant those seeds—now.

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