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Think Again: Is Defense R&D Spending Effective?

SOURCE: AP/Kevin Wolf

The Pentagon is shown in Washington. We need to look carefully at Defense Department R&D for unnecessary weapons systems as we have done in the past regarding unnecessary military bases. If we are to get our deficits under control, then we no longer have the luxury of throwing countless billions of dollars at Pentagon R&D and hoping they land somewhere else.

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Subrata Ghoshroy, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made a number of valuable points in an article entitled “Restructuring Defense R&D,” published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in late December. The rest of us should consider his points as we ponder mainstream press coverage of the inevitable defense spending drawdown of the coming decade, particularly as it relates to federal government-funded research and development.

First, it’s important to keep in mind issues of scale. “In 2011,” Ghoshroy writes, “the United States spent $76 billion annually on defense research and development, an amount that exceeds the total defense outlays—not just for R&D, but for all defense purposes—of every other country in the world except China.” That top-line number includes basic R&D, which is by far the smallest component of the Defense Department’s R&D budget even though it is arguably the most important of the long haul, as well as the much larger applied and developmental R&D numbers. (Here is a handy breakdown of the federal R&D budget by Science Progress; the American Association for the Advancement of Science has a more detailed breakdown of Defense Department R&D spending here.)

Second, Ghoshroy argues that it’s far from clear to what degree this spending goes to protecting American soldiers, much less the nation at large. “Most of the U.S. casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been caused by improvised explosive devices, which require little in the way of technology beyond the mobile phones used to detonate them,” he writes. “The United States’ high-technology, high-price, and high-maintenance weaponry is of relatively little value in such conflicts.” Whenever the issue comes up for debate—as when spending levels turn out to be unsustainable, as they are today, or when a number of weapons systems turn out to be total turkeys, as so many are today—the discussion of cuts, Ghoshroy notes, “routinely results in push-back from the top universities and defense contractors, accompanied by a barrage of negative press coverage. No one, it seems, wants to be seen as opposing scientific research to bolster the ‘technological edge’ that gave America its military superiority over the Soviet Union and continues to provide enormous advantages.”

Like clockwork, during the first week of this year, The New York Times came through with a front-page story that worried about the economic and commercial effects of reduced defense spending. The story, “A Shrinking Military Budget May Take Neighbors With It,” written by Binyamin Appelbaum, was reprinted 2,500 times, according to my Google search.

Though more sophisticated than is often the case, Appelbaum’s story nevertheless reflects the mainstream press “take” we so frequently see on this subject. He worried in the opening paragraph that “the Pentagon’s unmatched record in developing technologies with broad public benefits —like the Internet, jet engines and satellite navigation—and then encouraging private companies to reap the rewards.” He then went on to note that “even some people who do not count themselves among its traditional allies warn that the potential impact on scientific innovation is being overlooked. Spending less on military research, they say, could reduce the economy’s long-term growth.”

And who would those people be? “If catalyzing innovation is going to be an important part of our economic strategy, then we better be careful how we handle the military budget,” said Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. But isn’t that exactly the kind of person Ghoshroy described as the type who always objects to the cutting of such spending? To be fair, Sarewitz was probably talking about basic research funded by the Defense Department, but Applebaum conflates all R&D spending into one lump category.

He turns next to economist Robert Pollin, who explains that “as a source of job creation, military spending is not particularly good. … you can argue for the benefits in geopolitical terms, but if we’re talking about jobs and the economy, it doesn’t make sense." Good point, but Appelbaum then adds that “the one exception may be Pentagon spending on research and development,” again failing break out the different kinds of R&D spending.

Going back to 1946, he notes that the U.S. Navy, “which started budgeting for research in 1946, counts 59 eventual Nobel laureates among the recipients of its financing, including Charles H. Townes, whose pioneering work in the development of lasers laid the groundwork for compact discs and laser eye surgery. The other armed forces claim similar numbers of laureates, albeit with considerable overlap.” Appelbaum also added stories about the funding of research with important commercial implications of what became the key regional innovation clusters along Route 128 in Massachusetts and in Silicon Valley in Northern California.

These are important points—ones driven home coincidentally when I had dinner Saturday evening with the former executive editor of one of America’s great newspapers. When this issue arose, the question he asked—referring to the role of Pentagon research in the transmission of digital information—was: “Can you put a price on the value of the Internet?” But again, these are the fruits of basic research, not the kind of boondoggle R&D spending the Pentagon engages in at the applied and developmental level.

Indeed, Ghoshroy also advised, “much of what transpires in the name of military research and development is not research in the sense that it produces scientific and technical knowledge widely applicable inside and outside the Defense Department. A large part of defense R&D activity revolves around building very expensive gadgets that are often based on unsound technology and frequently fail to perform as required.”

That’s also true. Witness pretty much every single nickel of the $150 billion or so spent so far on President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” pipe dream, which so far has failed to produce any of the myriad scientific breakthroughs necessary for the system to perform even remotely as has been continually promised.

Of course, there is a great deal of flat-out failure to be expected in research and development, especially in basic research, but some of these failures at the applied and development stages of R&D are protected by the Pentagon’s remarkable ability to call it “success.” Ghoshroy notes the example of when, in 1997, the $100 million test of a ground-based missile defense system failed, and its contractors termed it successful because no benchmarks had yet been established. Not much pushback ensued, Ghoshroy observed, because “congressional military committees have for years grossly abused the Defense R&D budget, using it to channel money to contractors in their districts via the earmarking process.”

These kinds of shenanigans are obviously not the responsibility of those engaged in Pentagon-funded basic research, but it’s exactly this kind of fiddling with the test results that corrupts the process of what gets funded and for how much. In fact, as lead op-ed in The Economist recently argued, while much of the technology that citizens and corporations today rely on was originally created for military use, civilian technological R&D in recent years has more often benefited the Pentagon rather than the other way around.

Today, for instance, The Economist reports, the U.S. Air Force is using Sony PlayStation 3 video game consoles for its newest supercomputer project. U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan take advantage of their “iPods and iPhones to run translation software and calculate bullet trajectories. Xbox video-game controllers have been modified to control reconnaissance robots and drone aircraft. Graphics chips that power PC video-cards are being used by defence firms to run simulations.”

The reason for this is the strength of capitalism. Electronics firms have to move faster than the Pentagon to meet consumer demand and to keep up with their competitors. With more than 1 billion mobile phones sold each year, these firms can afford the kind of targeted research that makes Pentagon R&D irrelevant to their need. What’s more, as The Economist also points out, “the emergence of open standards and open-source software makes it easier to repurpose off-the-shelf technologies or combine them in novel ways.”

In many respects, the relationship between military-funded R&D mirrors the relationship between defense spending and non-defense spending in the overall economy. As Applebaum’s report notes (because he believes defense R&D to be the exception to this rule), defense spending is deeply inefficient as an economic stimulus. He quotes the economist Robert “Pollin, who calculates that “$1 billion in spending on health care produced an economic benefit about 14 percent larger than spending on defense. The impact of spending on transportation, education and energy were even larger.”

This is consistent with another such study of federal spending since World War II by Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko of the University of California, Berkeley, who “found that the economic benefits from nonmilitary spending were at least 50 percent larger than those from defense spending during periods of normal growth.”

The overall picture one finds, as The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein blogged recently, “overspending on the military in the hopes that some of the money will run into R&D is a very inefficient way to support R&D,” as well as “an inefficient way to fund nonmilitary innovations,” even when one allows for the necessary inefficiency that is built into funding basic research in the first place. True, it’s “politically efficient,” Klein admits. “It would be better to fund R&D directly, but the only politically sustainable form of innovation funding is military spending. That is depressing, but it might be true.”

Well perhaps not the “only” way, but certainly the easiest way. The National Institutes of Health gets lots of money for basic research, as does the Department of Energy. Even so, Klein’s point is well taken. As it becomes clearer to all involved that the system in place for spending on Defense Department applied and developmental R&D is no longer sustainable, it may become possible to reconsider the R&D funds from the bottom up, just as was recently done with America’s overall U.S. defense strategy.

To do this however, more than a few scared cows must be slain. It is, for instance, awfully difficult to find a conservative politician who is not a rock-solid Keynesian when it comes to defense spending (and only when it comes to defense spending). Similarly, liberals need to look carefully at Defense Department R&D for unnecessary weapons systems as they have done in the past regarding unnecessary military bases. If we are to get our deficits under control, then we no longer have the luxury of throwing countless billions of dollars at Pentagon R&D and hoping they land somewhere else.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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