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 August 2006 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)Defense Must Sustain Investment in Basic Research

August 2006

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

One of the mainstay sources of strength of the U.S. military is its ability to continually generate new technologies, both for current and future battlefields.

Key to this technological edge is the steady investment the Defense Department has made during the past decades in research and development. Few could deny that the combination of defense, industry and research and development resources have made this nation the leader in military technology, much of which has been spun into civilian areas that have benefited our entire society.

R&D spending at the Defense Department and other government agencies remains relatively healthy for the near future. But long-term projections show some troubling signs that the government’s financial commitment to science and technology may plateau and possibly contract.

A most telling picture emerges from the latest R&D forecast by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The author, Kei Koizumi, notes that after several years of growth, defense R&D will level off and decline in the years ahead. Pentagon projections show total Defense Department R&D falling from $72.5 billion this year down to $71.2 billion in 2011 — a slight cut even before inflation, but an 11.6 percent fall after expected inflation, Koizumi says. R&D budgets at the Department of Homeland Security would also fall after spectacular recent gains, losing ground by 4.6 percent in real terms by 2011.

In the fiscal year 2007 budget, Defense Department R&D will continue to reach new highs with a $1.6 billion or 2.2 percent increase to $74.1 billion. The problem here is that the entire increase, and more, would go to weapons development programs, while science and basic research are expected to shrink.

The Pentagon would slash science and technology investments by 18.6 percent or $2.6 billion, down to $11.2 billion. S&T includes basic research, applied research, medical research and technology development.

Spending on weapons development programs, meanwhile, would jump by $4.2 billion, to $62.9 billion. These programs — which belong in the 6.4 and higher R&D categories — include engineering, development and testing of weapons systems. AAAS cites the joint strike fighter as the largest single development project in the Defense Department, which received $4 billion in 2007.

The Defense Department’s support of basic and applied research would fall in fiscal year 2007, predicts Koizumi. Basic research (6.1) would fall 3.3 percent to $1.4 billion. Applied research (6.2) would drop by 13.4 percent to $4.5 billion.

As noted by Jules Duga, a senior research analyst at Battelle, R&D increasingly is viewed more as a luxury than an investment.

This is not a good trend. While the protracted and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — estimated to cost $2 billion per week — remain the top priorities, it would not be wise to undercut investments in critical technologies that our forces will need 10 or 20 years from now.

Fortunately, Congress has been quite supportive of S&T funding. Every time the Pentagon has proposed sharp cuts, Congress has added billions of dollars in the appropriations process. Last year, the Pentagon requested a 22 percent cut in S&T, but Congress ended up appropriating a slight increase, primarily but not entirely through the addition of earmarks, says Koizumi.

It is important to understand that S&T funding is essential for building a strong knowledge and technology base for the future. As Koizumi notes, during the past decade, there has been growing support inside and outside the Pentagon for setting 3 percent of the defense budget as a goal for the proper level of S&T investment.

But the Pentagon has never fully endorsed this goal. Budget requests have never met the 3 percent figure. It has been up to Congress to boost S&T funding so that the last five budgets have met that goal after taking out war spending, according to AAAS. In 2006, for example, S&T is 3.3 percent of the non-emergency Defense Department budget, but the 2007 request would bring that ratio down to 2.55 percent.

Defense S&T, to be sure, has increased in recent years after hitting post-Cold War lows in the late 1990s. While this is good news in many ways, it also raises questions about changes in the composition of the S&T portfolio. The AAAS analysis shows that support of basic research has increased relatively little. While 6.2 funding has expanded a little more, recent growth in S&T has come predominantly from 6.3 funding of advanced technology development rather than from research.

The R&D focus on immediate solutions is natural, given the global war on terrorism and the pressures to field technologies rapidly. But if basic research continues to lag, the results could be counterproductive. For one, the Defense Department research community would be less likely to discover new ideas and concepts that can make a difference both in future military operations and civilian life.

As most of you already know, the investments in defense science during the past five decades spawned a wealth of technology that changed the world: the global positioning system, Internet, lasers, and many other marvels.

If spending does, indeed, shrink, the nation’s researchers could, regretfully, miss an opportunity to discover “The Next Big Thing.”

Please email your comments to lfarrell@ndia.org.

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