Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Defense Laboratories and Military Capability: Headed for a BRACdown?

Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Defense Laboratories and Military Capability: Headed for a BRACdown?

Article excerpt


For 150 years, military laboratories have made vital contributions to national defense. In recent years, they have been significantly reduced in number by several rounds of base realignment and closure (BRAC). Even so, they remain the primary source of internal technical competence within the Department of Defense (DOD). Their capability in that role will depend on how DOD answers two questions. Is there excess laboratory capacity--too many laboratories relative to forecasts of future force structure? What is their military value--their likely contribution to the future operational needs of warfighters.

As required by law, DOD has publicly announced the criteria it will use in making BRAC 2005 decisions. None directly acknowledge the military value of research and development (R&D). Consequently, excess capacity and military value judgments about the labs will depend on metrics now being formulated and the subjective weights they are assigned in computations. This calculus will place greater weight on options that allow DOD to combine separate but similar functions, such as R&D, on single bases. This emphasis on jointness could lead to such recommendations as a single defense research laboratory or to approaches that would parse the current technical work of the labs into a number of bins and then assign responsibility for each to a single service. Experience suggests that reliance on overly-simplified "closure-by-arithmetic" decisions could lead to serious mistakes in deciding which laboratories to close and which to keep. America's ability to wage high-tech warfare depends on avoiding such mistakes.

An Illustrious History

There is a great deal in the news today about the impending round of base closures by the Department of Defense (DOD). Most of the coverage focuses on large military bases and major industrial facilities, such as shipyards and aircraft repair depots, and the economic impact of their closure on local and state economies. Lost in the debate is any meaningful discussion of what may become of military labs and test centers. These are the places that help develop and field weapons and other systems needed to ensure the continued superiority of our military forces. These labs and centers have a long and distinguished record of achievement. For example, their pioneering work in radar gave us that invaluable tool in time for widespread use in World War II. More recently, they invented and helped develop the Global Positioning System that enables the precision bombing so heavily relied on in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even today, their contributions are helping us win the global war on terrorism.

The utility of science and technology as a multiplier of military force was popularized by Thomas Edison as early as 1917, and demonstrated time and again during the Second World War, when academic and industrial laboratories across the country joined with those operated by the military to support what became the first truly technological conflict. The success of this partnership led to increasing reliance on federally-funded research and development (R&D) in the post-War period, and the strategy of technologically-based deterrence continued to gain importance as the Soviet Union exploded its first fission device (1949) and hydrogen bomb (1953) and launched SPUTNIK (1957). Indeed, maintaining a technological edge over the Soviet Union became a Cold War imperative for the United States.

Historically, the Navy was the first service to understand the importance of science and technology in the conduct of war, a point made in a recent article by Jim Colvard, a prominent former Navy lab director. (1) More importantly, Colvard points out that the Navy was the first Service to recognize "... that the nature of scientists and 'big science' requires institutional environments to foster creativity and support formulation of ideas and discovery." Accordingly, early on it began to create these environments by establishing a community of engineering centers, test stations, proving grounds, weapons labs, and similar facilities. …

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