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Reinvigorating Research and Development

Facing a shortage of R&D investment and scientific talent, America is falling behind other nations in technology development.

The United States emerged from World War II as a global leader in technology, replacing defeated Germany and being challenged by the Soviet Union. That competition, coming on the heels of war-driven advances, spurred vast investments in research and development by government, industry, and academia, taking the world into decades of the fastest and most sweeping changes in history.

By the end of the 1960s, the United States began to pull away from the USSR. According to senior leaders of the Soviet military at the time, the technologies displayed by the American forces in Iraq during Operation Desert Stormcombined with the space shuttle, evolving stealth aircraft, and not only the overwhelming size but the technical capabilities of the U.S. armed services – were key to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

“The panel is very concerned with the long-term viability of the workforce in replenishing critical technical personnel while maintaining the highest quality scientists and engineers. Also, there is concern that the mid- and long-term planning, research and development are less optimized for leveraging global technology options – as well as a lack of organizational directives for harnessing the entire NRDE [Navy Research and Development Establishment] in collaborative ways to carry out these tasks.”

As one observer commented when asked about the state of the art in naval warfare, “There’s the U.S. Navy, then there’s everybody else.” The post-9/11 war in Iraq and Afghanistan soon demonstrated that the same could be said for the Army, Air Force, and Marines. Many of those wartime advances, as has always been the case, also were reflected in civilian life.

FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL) competition 2012

Seven Harford County, Md., students showcased their talents as aspiring scientists and engineers, winning a FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL) competition at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., Jan. 26, 2012. The Electrobots team, sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Team APG, and the Churchville Lions Club, took top honors at the FLL First State Championship Tournament at the University of Delaware. Electrobots members Aaron Boin, Sam Boin, George Houzouris, Tyler Kash, Nicholas Kendall, Dawson Reed, and Tommy Sukiennik competed against 125 teams from northeastern Maryland, Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania, and southern New Jersey. RDECOM photo

However, much of today’s high-tech products are based on components produced outside of the United States, most notably in China, Japan, and South Korea, while India has come to dominate the production of commercial software. China also is now the third nation to launch its own manned spacecraft and, with the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet without a replacement, joins Russia as the only nations currently capable of doing so.

The consensus of technology leaders in the military and industry is that too little has been or is being done to address a problem that became central to the 2010 Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) report on the “Status and Future of the Naval R&D Establishment.”

“U.S. dominance in S&T [science and technology] – including its application to modern warfare – is quickly dissipating, as other countries grow their own technology workforce. Never has there been a time when our naval forces have relied as much on technology which will be developed offshore,” the panel of retired Navy and Coast Guard admirals, Marine Corps generals, and leading scientists and engineers from industry and academia reported.

“The panel is very concerned with the long-term viability of the workforce in replenishing critical technical personnel while maintaining the highest quality scientists and engineers. Also, there is concern that the mid- and long-term planning, research and development are less optimized for leveraging global technology options – as well as a lack of organizational directives for harnessing the entire NRDE [Navy Research and Development Establishment] in collaborative ways to carry out these tasks.”

An independent civilian scientific advisory group to the Secretary of the Navy (SecNav), Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Chief of Naval Research, NRAC reports through the Assistant Secretary to the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition (ASN-RD&A).

In its 2010 and subsequent studies and reports, NRAC has viewed the status and future of the U.S. technology base from a consistent perspective:

  • U.S. military supremacy has been tightly linked to U.S. technological dominance;
  • dominance has been enabled, in part, by the relative vigor and size of the U.S. economy;
  • the U.S. economy now represents a decreasing portion of the global economy; and
  • U.S. S&T is a decreasing proportion of global S&T.

While NRAC’s focus is on how that progression will shape the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, it applies equally to all the uniformed services, government agencies at all levels, commercial as well as military manufacturers, schools from elementary through graduate, America’s role as a military and economic superpower, and the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

“The rapid pace of technological change in today’s world outpaces how we currently deliver capabilities; we must realize that our current processes won’t serve us well going forward, particularly the excessive, inefficient developmental and operational test regimes to which we subject ourselves,” Adm. Gary Roughead, U.S. Navy (Ret.), then CNO, said in January 2011. “We must rethink how we get ‘speed to fleet.’”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...