The drumbeat from the top echelons of the Pentagon has been clear: Put technologies in the hands of soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors that can help them win today’s wars.
Shorten acquisition cycles. Stop monkeying around hoping for 100 percent solutions, when a 70 percent solution will do.
But will the immediate demands of current conflicts come at the sacrifice of the future? Basic research — from which almost all new technologies sprout — may be getting the short shrift, experts have said.
The United States has long been the envy of the world when it comes to developing game-changing technologies. From the Internet, to GPS and some of the specialized materials found in cell phones, the Defense Department often has been the driver behind some of the ubiquitous tools the world now depends on.
That may not be the case in the future, warned the Jasons, an independent Pentagon science advisory group comprising some of the defense realm’s top thinkers.
“We believe that important aspects of the DoD basic research programs are ‘broken’ to an extent that neither throwing more money at these problems nor simple changes in procedures and definitions will fix them,” said a previously classified May 2009 report, “S&T for National Security,” which was obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, and posted on the FAS website.
The Jasons detect in the four services a “drift away from long-term imperatives to short-term needs,” the report stated.
Steady science and technology budgets belie deeper problems, the group said. “The recent increases in S&T funding are encouraging, but the structural and work force problems are so systematic and deep that increased funding will not solve the problems,” the report stated.
What’s at risk?
Basic research driven by operational needs will produce only incremental advances of existing weapon systems, the report states. Revolutionary, game-changing technologies may end up in the hands of adversaries who are more committed to basic research.
There’s no clearer example of how basic research translates into a successful weapon system than GPS, the report noted. A Defense Department research program that examined fundamental atomic physics lasted for decades, and resulted in continual improvements to atom-based optical clocks. These precise timing devices made the Global Positioning System possible, which today aids in everything from navigation to precision-guided munitions, and has crossed over into the commercial market.
“These advances enabled a system having revolutionary impact on military capabilities, civilian life and basic sciences,” the report said.
While the money budgeted for the service’s laboratories has remained steady, the “drift” includes many programs classified as basic research — or 6.1 programs in budgetary lingo — but upon closer examination, are actually shorter-term applied 6.2 research projects, the report said.
It’s not wise for the services to depend on other organizations to invest in basic research, and then apply the outsiders’ findings to new technologies, the report said. The Defense Department has many unique needs that may never have commercial applications such as hypersonics, underwater acoustics, radiation-hardened electronics for space and remote sensing systems.
James Canton, CEO and chairman of the Institute for Global Futures, and a consultant to Defense Department and intelligence agencies, said the swing away from basic research is something he worries about “every day and every night.”
“There are things we should be looking at and putting more funds into in terms of pure R&D that are speculative and potentially game changers,” he said.
He identified five key fields where the Defense Department should be investing its basic research dollars: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, neuroscience and quantum mechanics.
There is a woeful lack of funding for the latter two, he said. Neuroscience studies how the mind works at the neuron level. Canton foresees a day when a basic understanding of how neurons can be manipulated is married to nonlethal weapons. A laser beam directed at adversaries could force them to stop fighting, or it could make them believe there was a noxious odor in an area, and keep civilians out of a warzone.
“We’ll look back in 25 years and say, ‘Remember the time we used to use weapons called bullets. That was very barbaric,’” Canton said.
Quantum mechanics is the study of time and space.
“It is the ultimate science and technology that will shape the 21st and 22nd centuries,” he said, and a “toolkit where we will unlock many fundamental relationships between energy and matter,” he added.
There are rules about how the universe works that are not well understood. The basic research, which could take several decades, could lead to breakthroughs in energy, propulsion systems, encryption and communications.
For example, imagine the military no longer having to worry about longstanding bandwidth issues. Understanding of quantum mechanics could make traditional communication systems and their reliance on a finite supply of radio spectrum disappear, he said.
“We need a 20-year investment in technology that will bring us the next generation of both neuroscience and quantum mechanics,” Canton said.
First, the Jasons report said, the office of the director of defense research and engineering needs to increase its oversight of the services’ laboratories and radically change how they do business.
The labs have atrophied to the point where most personnel are project managers who monitor and fund research carried out by other federally funded labs, industry and academia. The laboratories are having a difficult time bringing in young, talented scientists to conduct basic research. And those who stick around resemble administrators more than researchers.
“These people seldom do research themselves and job satisfaction suffers,” the report said.
The constant pressure to convince acquisition program managers to use new technology “cuts the flow of ideas and demotivates the S&T work force,” the report said.
The report’s authors recommended stable research funding and an end to the pressures that shape basic research around the “War of the Month.”
The labs should continue to carry out 6.2 applied research and above, but they need to cultivate a corps devoted to basic research.
Alan R. Shaffer, principal deputy director of the DDR&E office, in a statement that accompanied the release of the report, said many of the conclusions and recommendations were useful and are being studied or implemented.
National Defense Magazine in its annual R&D issue takes a look at the state of research in the defense sector.