Harnessing Technology for the Future

kpeters@govexec.com

There's nothing like an enemy to clarify a nation's military research and development goals. During the Cold War, U.S. military planners had to look no further than the Soviet Union to establish clear benchmarks for attaining technological superiority over a formidable enemy.

Today, with the Cold War won and the Soviet Union a memory, U.S. planners face a more nebulous task. While the military stands poised to fight and win two major theater wars nearly simultaneously, it also anticipates conducting more small-scale contingency operations in the future, such as recent operations in Bosnia, Haiti and Africa.

The former threat of force-on-force conflict has been superseded by the possibility of, and vulnerability to, attack from terrorists wielding chemical, biological or nuclear weapons against U.S. troops, civilian population centers or information systems. These unconventional threats-"asymmetrical threats" in Pentagon-speak-are incredibly difficult to anticipate and pose new challenges for scientists and engineers charged with developing improved protection capabilities.

With a significantly reduced budget and force, the military is increasingly dependent on high-tech information and weapons systems. And while great militaries have for centuries turned to technologies to advance their capabilities, the U.S. military today is turning to commercial researchers and developers.

Under the Clinton administration's 1998 Defense budget request, the Defense Department would spend $35.9 billion for research and development next year, continuing the downward trend in funding over recent years, according to an analysis by Steven Kosiak at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a non-profit Defense watchdog. Research and development funding has been protected more than any other major budget area since Defense spending began declining in 1985, but nonetheless, has been cut 17 percent since then, Kosiak found.

The verdict is still out on the future impact of funding cuts in military research and development on military preparedness.

"It is possible that due to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (e.g., chemical and biological weapons, ballistic missiles and, especially, nuclear weapons) and high-tech conventional weapons, 10 or 15 years from now the United States will face far more potent adversaries in the developing world than it does today. Similarly, a great new power rival could emerge. The best protection against either of these eventualities might be a robust military R&D effort," Kosiak reported.

"On the other hand, the level of R&D funding proposed by the administration may be sufficiently robust to provide this kind of hedge. The fiscal 1998 request is still slightly above the average level of funding provided for defense R&D during the last part of the Cold War (fiscal 1974 through fiscal 1990), when it averaged $34 billion (in fiscal 1998 dollars)" Kosiak reported.

Pentagon: Hedging Bets

While it remains unclear what threats the military will face in the future, Pentagon planners can probably be certain of one thing: Their modernization budgets, including funding for research and development, are not likely to balloon anytime soon.

Short of a budget windfall, the military will continue to invest in current and proposed modernization programs, as well as technologies that offer a potentially high payoff in the future. Perhaps most notably, the Pentagon will continue to fund research and development for three tactical fighter programs the department is currently pursuing: the tri-service Joint Strike Fighter being built for the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force; the Navy's F/A-18E/F fighter program, an upgraded version of the F/A-18 C/D Hornet; and the Air Force's F-22 tactical aircraft program, intended to replace the service's fleet of F-15 fighters.

Given the end of the Cold War, the shrinking Defense budget and the fact that the United States faces no near-term threat to its air superiority, the Pentagon has come under attack for continuing the three fighter programs. Nonetheless, the Defense Department reaffirmed its commitment to the three programs, albeit on a smaller scale, in its Quadrennial Defense Review released in May. The programs still may face opposition, however.

Andrew Krepinevich, CSBA's executive director and a member of the National Defense Panel, which will issue an outside assessment of the QDR in December, has been an outspoken critic of the Pentagon's fighter programs. He has questioned the necessity as well as the affordability of the programs, which are estimated to total more than $300 billion and promise to dominate modernization budgets well into the next century. Whether or not the three programs will continue on track is yet to be seen. While Congress appears reluctant to cut programs that keep constituents employed and campaign contributions coming, members will continue to be faced with hard choices during future budget negotiations.

Fighters aren't the only conventional weapons the Pentagon is continuing to develop. The New Attack Submarine and the next-generation aircraft carrier, the CVX, are also under development. Like the fighters, those programs are expensive and increasingly questionable as the United States faces no current threat on the high seas.

Leveraging Technology

In an attempt to maximize its investment in new technologies and basic research, this year the Defense Department initiated a science and technology initiative under the Dual Use Applications Program. Under the science and technology initiative, the military services invest in commercial research and development programs that have a potentially high payoff in military applications.

At the same time, scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are seeking to develop technologies that maximize the effectiveness of the military's aging weapons systems, yet go beyond what is available on the open market, said Lee Buchanan, deputy director of DARPA, in testimony before the House Committee on National Security in February.

"The increasing worldwide arms market enables purchase of weaponry comparable to U.S. systems, and with which our own military capabilities may be readily countered," Buchanan said.

That phenomenon, coupled with the rapid rate at which new technologies are advancing, is causing the Pentagon to seek ways to speed up the process by which it fields new weapons systems. Toward that end, DoD will continue to use advanced concept technology demonstrations (ACTDs) to field new equipment better and faster. Under the ACTD program, military planners identify emerging technologies that could significantly improve military capability, develop prototypes that incorporate the new technology, and let the war fighters test and evaluate the prototypes.

"The fundamental question posed to the war fighter during the ACTD is 'Does this capability respond adequately to the need?' Where the answer is 'yes,' we can field that capability years earlier than would otherwise be possible," says Paul Kaminski, who until May was undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and technology.

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