"Nanotechnology is one of the highest priority science and technology programs in the Defense Department," said Clifford Lau, the senior science adviser in the Pentagon's office of basic research. Lau, who also serves as president of the nanotechnology council at the engineering group IEEE, said research is being coordinated across the military branches, and plans are in place to transition the technology from basic research to deployment.
Lau said the Pentagon spent $315 million in fiscal 2004 on all nanotechnology research. The president's budget request for fiscal 2005 calls for $276 million for nanotechnology, but Lau said congressional appropriators likely will boost that number higher than the fiscal 2004 level.
Pentagon interest in nanotechnology dates to the 1980s, Lau said. Today, Defense-funded basic research programs include 16 multimillion-dollar annual grants to university researchers as part of the defense university-research initiatives in nanotechnology and some 25 grants under the multidisciplinary university-research initiative.
In addition, service branches recently have opened sophisticated facilities for nanotech research, including the Army Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies and the Naval Research Laboratory's nanotech institute, a windowless, controlled environment capable of the most advanced research.
Lau also touted nanotech applications already in use by the military services. The Navy, for instance, uses nanotech coatings on submarines to eliminate barnacle buildup and protect bearings against corrosion on surface ships. And the Air Force is using lightweight, radar-resistant nano-composite materials in the airframes of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Advanced development also is underway to use nanotechnology to improve the detection of and defense against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, he said, and stronger, lighter nano-composites will be inserted in advanced body armor.
In addition, the Pentagon is funding nearly $100 million in nanotech research for information technology. It is intended for advanced sensors, computer processors and communication devices.
"Nanotechnology is a 'force multiplier,' " Lau said. "It will make us faster and stronger on the battlefield."