Down Payment on a Technology Revolution

With an administration committed to dramatically trans- forming the U.S. military-and two recent conflicts that showcased the vast potential of American military technology-the armed forces finally seem poised to take flight on the wings of a long-anticipated technological revolution.

Core elements of that revolution, in fact, were on display during the recent Iraqi Freedom campaign: unmanned aerial vehicles; stealth bombers; all-weather bombs and missiles guided by the Global Positioning System; air- and space-borne reconnaissance and surveillance sensors; and computer- and satellite-aided information systems to provide nearly instantaneous command-and-control, communications and intelligence capabilities.

As a down payment on the next phase of that technological revolution, the Bush administration's fiscal 2004 Defense budget request includes $61.8 billion for research and development, a $4.3 billion increase from fiscal 2003.That's the highest level of military R&D spending in U.S. history, and a 42 percent increase over the fiscal 2001 level, even when adjusted for inflation. The administration's R&D spending request is a full 20 percent higher than R&D spending in fiscal 1987, the peak of the Reagan-era defense buildup.

The Pentagon's R&D budget is broken down into six categories, from basic research and early concept development to system demonstrations. Programs in the earliest three phases are contained in the science and technology budget, which many transformation advocates consider the seed-corn account for truly revolutionary advances in military capability. It was in this early phase of research, for instance, that such advances as stealth technology and the Internet were first conceptualized.

Under the administration's new plan, science and technology funding would increase by a modest $1.3 billion, or 10 percent, between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2004. By comparison, R&D funding for the Missile Defense Agency would increase by $3.5 billion, or 76 percent, in that period, reflecting the administration's high priority on fielding a national missile defense program.

By far the largest increase in the R&D budget is for system development and demonstration, the last and most costly phase of R&D before a system enters production. The administration's plan calls for funding in this area to increase by roughly $7.5 billion between 2001 and 2004, or 81 percent. That reflects the administration's decision to continue with a number of programs that are in late-stage development or initial production, including the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-22 fighter, the Comanche helicopter and the Navy's DD(X) destroyer. The JSF alone will cause funding associated with fighter modernization programs to rise by $3.6 billion between 2001 and 2004.

Transformation advocates fear that this wave of next-generation systems-which also include the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft and the Army's Interim Armored Vehicle-will overwhelm the R&D budget.

"Perhaps the greatest problem with the administration's decision to move ahead with so many costly traditional programs today is that it might make it impossible to increase funding for more transformational kinds of systems several years down the road, when their potential is better proven," concluded the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent think tank, in an analysis of the 2004 Defense budget request.

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