Attacked by 30 to 40 Taliban, four Navy SEALs needed air support, but Afghan mountains blocked radio transmissions. Their leader, Lt. Michael Murphy, fought to an open area and radioed in support before dying of wounds. Other units had similar radio problems. In response, Defense Department laboratory engineers have modified Iridium phones that transmit over mountains via satellites, tested them alongside war fighters in Afghanistan and helped field more than 5,000 systems.
Over the past decade, Defense labs rapidly and repeatedly met such unexpected war-fighting needs. As defense cuts loom, these labs should be protected and improved.
Following 9/11, U.S. forces were in Afghanistan and Iraq facing new challenges. As war fighters needed urgent help, Defense labs responded. In weeks, a Navy lab developed the Dragon Eye unmanned aerial vehicle, used by infantry in Iraq. In five months, an Army lab fielded precision airdrop systems, resupplying units in Afghanistan. In 18 months, an Air Force lab delivered a collateral damage-limiting Focused Lethality Munition for Afghanistan and Iraq.
Often overlooked in our daily lives are technologies originating from the Defense labs: GPS navigation and mapping, explosive detectors in airports and actuators in car air bags. The National Football League wants its players to wear helmet sensors developed by a Defense lab to help diagnose brain-injuring impacts to war fighters.
The importance of Defense labs was ignored in the 1990s, and they were cut significantly — some by more than 40 percent in personnel — but they shouldn’t be cut again. While Defense labs met post-9/11 war-fighting needs, they need renewal. Much lab infrastructure is more than 50 years old, with too many lab workers near retirement.
State-of-the-art capabilities at the Defense labs are key to dealing with uncertainty in rapidly developing fields, including bioscience and medicine. Lab research and development advances warning and response, such as for pandemics and climate change. One Defense lab has developed microarrays for epidemic outbreak surveillance and new tools for monitoring the melting Arctic ice pack.
Effective Defense labs are also vital to meeting uncertainties that arise from global competition. While U.S. research and development growth averaged 5 percent between 1999 and 2009, its share of global R&D declined from 38 percent to 31 percent, according to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2012.
Other nations will pursue emerging science and technology to make breakthroughs with unpredictable implications. For example, the Internet revolution has brought wondrous new capabilities — and new security threats, such as cyberwarfare. Today’s military systems rely on embedded computers, and new military capabilities can be created with new software “apps” as quickly as kids’ computer games.
“It is essential that the DoD in-house [science and technology] workforce have expertise in these emerging areas,” wrote a former Naval Research Laboratory director, Timothy Coffee, and National Defense University’s Steven Ramberg.
DoD also must be cognizant of global S&T developments, because, as Coffee and Ramberg state, “by 2050, countries other than the U.S. will produce most scientific knowledge.” Consequently, they recommend, “the DoD in-house S&T workforce be doubled over the next 30 years.”
Philip Coyle is former associate director for national security and international affairs in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is a senior science fellow with the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation.