As procurement and military health and retirement costs soar, pressure is building to reduce the Pentagon's science and technology budget, as well as move the focus to real-world problems and away from basic research with little immediate payoff.

George Leopold, Contributor

October 20, 2006

4 Min Read

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — U.S. military planners, faced with mounting casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan along with a decline in federal R&D spending, are pressing contractors to shift their focus from gee-whiz technologies to "relevant" ones that can save lives and improve capabilities today.

As procurement and military health and retirement costs soar, pressure is building to reduce the Pentagon's science-and-technology budget. Thus, Defense Department planners are asking technology companies "to become more relevant to the war fighters," said David Janos, business development manager at Northrop Grumman's Electron- ic Systems unit (Baltimore).

Janos headed an industry forecast panel on DOD science-and-technology spending sponsored by the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association (GEIA). The results of the GEIA forecast were released here last week.

Increasingly, experts said, Pentagon technologists are moving away from high-risk, high-payoff research to instead identify technologies needed to counter immediate threats. A prime example is sensor systems to detect and destroy improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and, increasingly, in Afghanistan.

On the day the GEIA forecast was delivered, the Pentagon announced that the previous day, Oct. 17, was one of the bloodiest for U.S. forces during the Iraq war. Ten soldiers were killed, most around Baghdad, and at least six by car bombs. Experts said insurgents in Iraq have become much more sophisticated in bomb making, including the use of deadly shaped charges, fusing and wireless detonation.

Budget forecasters said the DOD is spending upwards of $200 million this year on IED detection and training. As a result, electronics, sensors and networks are becoming the guts and sinew of a future American military.

Industry forecasters said the Pentagon will continue to spend large portions of the military budget ($435.6 billion in fiscal 2007, plus supplemental appropriations for the Iraq war totaling $130 billion this year) on developing missile defenses and an emerging U.S. "space force." But the search is also on for "transformational technologies"--many to be purchased off the shelf—that are needed to link commanders with troops on patrol in the streets of Baghdad and Kabul.

"We are seeing a shift toward near-term needs and capabilities," said Cecil Black, a former Army officer who now works in the Washington office of Boeing Co. Black, who oversaw GEIA's DOD spending forecast, said military R&D spending hit a historic high in fiscal 2006, but that technology spending has peaked and future declines are likely.

R&D cuts are coming despite a global war on terror requiring that "U.S. ground forces must be everywhere doing everything," said David Potts, director of planning and analysis for No. 1 military contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. That means technology companies "must be able to respond more quickly to DOD requirements" that are driven by uncertainty, Potts added.

Those requirements include four basic capabilities: "force protection" technologies needed, for example, to counter IEDs; command and control; "battle space awareness," or the ability to spot threats early and quickly counter them; and the all-encompassing concept of network-centric warfare, in which sensors can pick up and parse threat data, fuse it into useful information and deliver it via ground and space networks to commanders in the field.

About $3 billion of this year's $13.3 billion Pentagon science-and-technology budget—which includes basic and applied research along with advanced-technology development—goes to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). Janos of Northrop Grumman said the DOD's "reorientation of capabilities" means that Darpa research will focus on "robust, secure, self-forming networks" and other net-centric capabilities with direct application on the battlefield.

The military services are also pouring more R&D dollars into the nuts and bolts of next-generation military networks. As part of its shift to space and cyberspace operations, the Air Force is spending heavily on technologies like data links, data fusion and secure communications, Janos said.

The Air Force's Electronic Systems Center announced last week it has signed a cooperative R&D agreement with Northrop Grumman to collaborate on net-centric technologies. The two-year research agreement will focus on joint net-centric operations and will culminate in a demonstration of multiplatform operations among the three military branches.

Meanwhile, the Navy is investing in power electronics and sensor technologies. A key research priority for the Army as it seeks to improve force protection is developing robots with greater autonomy. Janos said unmanned ground vehicles that require several operators won't cut it in a ground force that is already stretched to its limit.

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