Not long ago, discussions about the future of defense technology were dominated by a conviction that innovations in science would continue to deliver uncontested military superiority for the U.S. military.
That boundless optimism has been tempered dramatically during the past three years by the realization that a mighty high-tech force--which was designed to ensure the United States would suffer minimal casualties in war--could be challenged by ragtag insurgents and suicide bombers.
These enemies--categorized as "irregular" or "asymmetric"--not only have forced military commanders to rethink their strategies and tactics, but they also have set off a transformation in how defense researchers and scientists think about developing new technology.
To defeat these irregular enemies, there is no time for traditional research and development. The militias fighting U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan make bombs with old artillery rounds and store-bought electronics. They hide amidst the civilian population, and they coordinate attacks via cell phones.
At military laboratories today, speed is the name of the game. Defense researchers have adopted a new lexicon, dominated by terms such as "rapid response" and "urgent demands."
"We want to get the technology out of the laboratories and into the hands of soldiers in the shortest time," says Maj. Gen. Roger A. Nadeau, head of the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.
"We put more focus on war fighting needs," says Rear Adm. William E. Landay, director of the Office of Naval Research.
The Air Force Research Laboratory is sending scientists out to combat zones to get a first-hand look at the technology needs in the field, says the commander of the lab, Maj. Gen. Ted Bowlds.
But while the emphasis today is on putting out fires, much new technology currently is in the works that aims at reshaping the future of the military.
And the outlook is, in many ways, quite bright. Breakthroughs in unmanned aviation, for example, could lead to a force with fewer pilots. Hypersonic weapons research taking place at the Air Force laboratories could revolutionize aviation and space travel. The Air Force also is pioneering the use of synthetic fuels in military aircraft. Advanced sensors and software increasingly are giving troops on the ground access to unprecedented amounts of information. The Navy is pursuing new technologies to detect quiet diesel submarines and is designing an "electromagnetic" gun that could strike targets ashore from 200 miles away.
But no technology forecast is complete without predictions about dollars and cents. How much will the high-tech military cost? More importantly, can the nation afford it?
Analysts now project that military R&D is in for tough times. The thinking is that the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--which so far have exceeded $400 billion--will continue to drain funds from procurement, science and technology, among other things.
Kei Koizumi, director of R&D budget and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the Pentagon plans to curtail spending on applied research. …