Flashy big-ticket weapons like tanks and fighter jets get all the press when the money to buy them gets cut, but neither would exist if it weren’t for years of researching what makes them such potent tools of warfare.
Government scientists want to preserve the surge of cash military laboratories have used to help troops fight the wars of the last decade in hopes that ongoing experimentation will help the military prepare for conflicts to come.
But the output of science and technology investment is difficult to quantify and therefore is a hard sell to bean counters, said Robie Samanta Roy, defense science and technology advisor to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Laboratory research results in everything from fundamental scientific knowledge to actual weapons.
“As a result of the wars, some of the labs were involved in building weapon systems that went directly into the war fighters’ hands in 90 days or 180 days,” he said. “When we had a lot of money, we could afford to [look farther down the road]. We could say this will lead to transistors or lasers.”
Fortunately, the Obama administration is supportive of science and technology investment, he said. There was great emphasis put on research into weapons, armor and bomb-detection technologies, among other endeavors, during the active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When troops encountered a new threat, there was an immediate need to find a way for them to detect and defeat it. The argument to fund research that might not bear fruit for years becomes more difficult without troops in harm’s way, Roy said. Basic research is the foundation on which applied sciences build new technologies. Where development of systems can deliver results relatively quickly, basic scientific research results in revolutionary breakthroughs that are few and far between. Both are at risk, Roy said.
“We have to be very wary of just trying to get something in the near term versus still making those longterm investments,” Roy said during a Dec. 19 breakfast meeting hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association in Washington, D.C. “Science and technology by nature, especially basic research, is something that is very long term in what you can see in return on investment.”
All of the advantages gained from a decade of research into materials science, human systems, robotic autonomy, simulation and other disciplines are threatened by budget cuts.
Roy has already seen the defense science and technology budget fall from 17 percent of discretionary spending to 12 percent in his four years on SASC. Defense Department-wide, science and technology funding now sits at $12 billion, he said.
Sequestration cut a little more than $1 billion from that amount. As a result of the recent budget deal, it will decline by $500 million for the next two years.
“This is just the defense budget,” Roy said. “There is a civil science and technology sector, there is a commercial sector. So what effect does this have on NASA, what effect will this have on the [National Institutes of Health], education, the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]?”
There remains a perennial debate over how big a slice of the base Defense Department budget should be given over to longterm technological development, he said. Right now it sits at about 2.3 percent of the total defense budget.
Al Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said the government science and engineering community has “gotten very lazy” over the past decade because of a glut of funding. Given that the faucet is about to flow much more slowly, engineers should focus on large, revolutionary technologies.
The military must continue funding science and engineering endeavors, even at the expense of procurement programs, Shaffer said. Continuous innovation and development of prototype capabilities is needed to mitigate emerging and existing threats, he said. Experimentation can also drive affordability in both current and future platforms, he added.
The Obama administration emphasized research-and-development spending in its defense strategic guidance released in January 2012, which states that leaders should “protect and prioritize key investments in technology and new capabilities.”
Shaffer said President Obama himself is a “big believer” in funding science and engineering efforts. Facing budget uncertainty, Shaffer has argued for preserving research funding over other line items.
“As the budget grows, early on R&D should not grow at the same rate as the budget,” Shaffer told a meeting of the Precision Strike Association. “But when it declines, [R&D] shouldn’t decline as much. The most important thing for R&D is stability because it’s a people-driven product. We don’t want to grow too fast, we don’t want to come down too fast.”
Traditionally, scientists and engineers have been tasked with creating technologies in anticipation of a specific threat or adversary assumed to be on the horizon. They and upper-level military strategists have historically miscalculated what those threats would be.
The role for Defense Department science and technology investment in a peacetime military should not be based on guesses of what the next conflict will be, Roy and Pentagon scientists have argued. Research should be proactive, by seeking an array of innovative breakthroughs that will enable the military to meet future adversaries as they crop up.
Threats pop up, and commercially available technologies evolve much more quickly than the government’s ability to respond, Roy said.
“It took 19 years from contracts to [initial operating capability] of the F-22, and in that time period, look how the world changed and look how technologies changed. If we are going to be agile and responsive, we cannot continue as we have been.”
Ideally, the Defense Department will find a happy medium between the rapid fielding efforts that have marked the last decade and the traditional drawn-out, Byzantine acquisition process, Roy said.
The private sector is also able to pay its employees more than the government, which has led to a demand for highly educated candidates for military lab positions, Roy said.
There are about 37,000 scientists and engineers working for Defense Department labs. But quantity does not guarantee quality, Roy warned.
“From a DoD perspective, we need to be able to recruit and retain the best and brightest, whether it’s in government, whether it’s in the industrial base,” he said. “There is competition between the commercial and defense worlds for students. We need a seamlessness to move between academia, government and industry to gather a variety of experiences.”