Defense Industry at the Heart of Innovation


The defense industry is often lauded as the originator of innovations that increase the capabilities and lethality of the modern warfighter. Technological superiority on the battlefield gives our U.S. servicemen and women the necessary advantage to take on and win against any foe. These technologies, however, are often not considered outside of the defense ecosystem. Civilians go unaware of these advances and the defense industry’s reputation is not commonly tied to innovation. Members of the defense industrial base and those that advocate its importance must make a more directed effort at changing the industry’s perception and more clearly communicate its role in developing and deploying new technologies.

At a time of increasing global competition and rising tensions, the need for a robust defense industrial base is clear. To maintain robustness, industry must seek new ways to build trust and stature among non-defense-oriented Americans.  Innovation helps demonstrate the importance of the defense industry to the public. Today, the defense industry is the anchor of multiple regional technology hubs, remaining second to none as a source of innovation.  Although Silicon Valley is viewed as the epicenter of private, consumer-focused U.S. innovation, its roots in developing military technology are often forgotten

Today’s defense innovation often occurs in a classified environment that prevents industry from publicly touting new developments. The secret nature of these innovations prevent most people from realizing the civilian uses of these technologies. There are numerous examples, however, of how technologies initially developed by the defense industry for military purposes have made their way into the everyday life of Americans.

Satellites originally developed for military tracking and communications are now at the center of the network that supports the ability for cell phones to make calls and provide directions. Financial transactions owe their security to defense industry developed processes. Computers, advanced manufacturing materials, and the internet all rest on Cold War era innovations. Modern life relies on innovations that were initially developed with a military application in mind and took billions of dollars in research and development over decades to reach the point we are at today. Silicon Valley’s schedule of app updates or the next iteration of iPhone gloss over the foundation built by the defense industry.

While consumers frequently look to Silicon Valley for clever apps and news ways to connect online, the American defense industrial base is pushing innovation forward in areas like high-end manufacturing, material science, and systems engineering. The ongoing development of hypersonic technology is evidence of the defense industrial base driving innovation to meet technological demands. The ability to deploy a projectile at five times the speed of sound through the atmosphere requires cutting-edge heat-resistant materials, new propulsion technologies and complex simulations of hypersonic shockwaves. Developments that will make these new hypersonic systems possible have untold applications across a range of other non-defense related industries.

The defense industrial base is also investing in basic science research to extend the frontier of future defense capabilities.  Defense companies large and small are responsible for new advances in the use of gallium nitride for advanced radars, which will likely replace silicon chips used in modern smartphones and data centers. Cold fusion tech being developed to reshape the nuclear triad may one day provide cheap, clean, and safe energy to replace fossil fuels. Defense contractors are spending millions to make these technologies a reality despite the absence of immediate direct commercial applications.  

Innovation by the defense industry is essential to maintaining our security and technological superiority. Without the research and development effort and dollars from defense firms, the U.S. will fall behind on the battlefield. There is no handbook for innovation and future successes will rely on the foundation of knowhow and experience built on decades of persistent focus by the defense industry. More consciously branding defense firms as technology-focused businesses will go a long way in building the broad spread support necessary to continue to remain at the forefront of military and commercial innovation.

Topics: Defense Innovation, Industrial Base

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