Magazine article National Defense

Missle Defense Effort Gains from Commercial 'Spin-Offs'

Magazine article National Defense

Missle Defense Effort Gains from Commercial 'Spin-Offs'

Article excerpt

Some of the technologies seen in today's cars, commercial aircraft, hospital operating rooms and cellular phones originally were part of the U.S. missile defense program, started in 1984. To date, civilian technology derivatives from the ballistic missile defense effort have produced some 338 new commercial products and 57 new companies. More than 300 government-sponsored technologies have been patented, and at least 250 additional patents are pending.

Such fruitful commercialization of technologies not only means success for industry, but also for the Defense Department and the U.S. economy as a whole.

COMMENTARY

Since its inception in January 1984, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), now called the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), has invested in research projects ranging from advanced materials for missile interceptors to image processing systems for missile surveillance and tracking.

BMDO works with government agencies, academia and industry to find solutions to the complex problems of missile defense. But while government and university laboratories contribute technological breakthroughs, working with commercial firms creates opportunities for BMDO to save money and improve performance.

By integrating technology development programs with the commercial market, for example, BMDO has been able to benefit from private research and development (R&D) funding, improve system and component reliability, and reduce system acquisition costs. Commercialization also helps to create new jobs in manufacturing and distribution, spreads the fruits of defense technology and keeps government technology programs plugged into the private sector.

Technology Program

At BMDO, technology commercialization applies to several ballistic missile defense systems currently in development, including the Arrow, the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3), the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the Mid-course Space Experiment (MSX), the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) and the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS).

There are several reasons why it makes sense to support technology commercialization.

Commercialization, first and foremost, reduces the costs of missile defense systems.

BMDO invests in high-risk technologies, which often are expensive to develop and demonstrate. Only a small number of prototypes can be made-at a high unit cost. Until additional units are required for widespread use, the technology developers have little or no incentive to improve their manufacturing capabilities. The technology is available to BMDO at a premium cost.

Introducing BMDO-funded technologies into commercial markets offers the potential of better economies of scale-allowing BMDO to buy technologies at lower costs. While some commercialized technologies may need to be modified for insertion back into BMDO, others can be incorporated right off the shelf.

In 1986, for example, Amber Corporation (now Raytheon, in Goleta, Calif), developed sensitive indium antimonide (InSb) focal plane arrays (FPAs) to improve BMDO missile surveillance and tracking. During the early 1990s, the company produced and sold more than 1,000 InSb cameras for commercial and military use. Gradually, through better manufacturing techniques and technical advances, the FPAs unit cost was reduced from $1 million to $95,000. As a result of commercialization, BMDO was able to procure 65 InSb FPAs for the THAAD and Arrow programs at one-tenth the product cost than when first developed.

Outside Funding

Commercialization, additionally, brings outside funding into missile defense R&D programs.

In many cases, the same technologies being developed for BMDO missions can be turned into profitable commercial products. By combining their investments, both BMDO and private industry benefit.

In another example of this type of partnership, BMDO benefited from the corporate R&D funds of Honeywell Inc. …

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