Pentagon seeks tech-savvy workers

Creating a larger pool of science- and engineering-savvy workers to choose from and developing nanotechnologies are the Defense Department's top science and technology priorities, a panel of senior department officials told a Senate subcommittee on Monday.

"Nanotechnology is going to revolutionize everything we do" in the military, Gen. Lester Lyles, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, told the Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee.

The other witnesses were: Vice Adm. Joseph Dyer, commander of Naval Air Systems Command; Gen. Paul Kern, commander of Army Materiel Command; and Michael Wynne, principal deputy Defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. At a House hearing on Thursday, other Defense officials gave testimony similar to that of all of the officials.

In Monday's Senate hearing, officials said the United States is in danger of losing its edge in military technology if it does not change course. Countries such as China and India have an abundant supply of talent and are making technology a priority, Kern said.

"We'll be challenged to keep up with them academically and from a security standpoint if we fall behind," said Kern, who said nanotechnology offers "bright potential," as does quantum theory.

Lyles ranked the training and education of American citizens as the top priority, followed by the continued development of cutting-edge technologies, including nanotechnology and biotechnology. "We shouldn't let that melt away," he said, adding that the different services are harmonizing their nanotech projects.

Dyer said the military still is able to attract top young talent but must focus on finding ways to keep them into their "peak performance" years by offering "exciting work to do." He called the workforce issue a "must-solve challenge."

"Simple demographics show that over the next 10 years, we will lose most of our current workforce," Dyer said.

Wynne added, "The decline in scientists and engineers becomes more acute when considering the production by academia of scientists and engineers who are American citizens."

The officials did not deny a projection raised by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., that science and technology would comprise 2.4 percent of the total military budget by fiscal 2009, down from a proposed 2.7 percent in fiscal 2004. That projection runs contrary to a stated departmental goal of a science and technology budget of 3 percent of the total military budget.

Wynne said that costs are hard to project but indicated that other urgent priorities, such as health benefits, get in the way of science and tech investments. He also stressed the need for the military to have flexibility in how it spends money.

Lyles said the most significant change in the $2.2 billion Air Force budget for science and technology work in fiscal 2004 is $350 million in projects from the office of the secretary of Defense. That would include a high-performance computer modernization program, he said.

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