The incredible shrinking budget for U.S. military technology research

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) budget for research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) is on a trajectory for a third straight year of decline, with a fiscal 2013 request for $69.65 billion-down nearly 14 percent from recent-year peak spending of $80.92 billion in 2010.

Over the past seven budget cycles, DOD research saw steady increases from 2007 to 2010, but then nosed over in a sharp decline. DOD research spending fell to $76.13 billion in 2011, to $72.84 billion this year, and would drop further to a seven- year low of $69.65 billion in fiscal 2013, which begins next Oct. 1.

The Pentagon's RDT&E budget is the nation's well spring of military technology development. It is the source of funding for enabling technologies that are key to a wide variety of new and emerging military applications, ranging from advanced avionics, network-centric warfare, unmanned vehicles, ballistic missile defense, to laser weapons, locating improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and strategic computing.

Cutting the military RDT&E budget, as the Pentagon has been doing, will force technology developers to make some hard decisions, because not all the research and development initiatives begun over the past several years can remain high priorities.

At best, a continued downward trend in U.S. military research spending will provide incentive for defense officials to sharpen their pencils, cut the dead wood, and redefine their highest military technology priorities for the years to come, based on promoting the most promising emerging technologies and either abandoning or cutting back on projects with low potential.

At worst, however, an ongoing decline in military research spending threatens vital technology development initiatives at a moment in time when the U.S. military is in transition from a Post-World War II Cold-War footing to a very uncertain future involving threats from radical Islamic regimes in the Middle East, to economically dominant China that is flexing its military muscle around the world, to a resurgent Russia eager to reassert its military prowess.

Without a very shrewd husbanding of dwindling military RDT&E resources over the next several years, the entire U.S. military establishment risks a long-term decline.

Some experts had believed that the Pentagon's research budget might see a resurgence in 2013, as the financial demands of long-term military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan eased as those conflicts begin winding up. For a decade, the Pentagon had to bear the expense of maintaining troops in the field deployed in active military operations. Troops had to be fed, clothed, and equipped, vehicles and aircraft had to be maintained and fueled, and communications had to be installed overseas to keep touch with those on the front lines.

At the same time, military vehicles and equipment wore out, and demand rose for new technologies to meet quickly changing threats like IEDs. For those 10 years, caring for deployed troops TODAY was the priority, and military needs of tomorrow took a back seat.

Now that troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are starting to come home, 2013 seemed like the best opportunity in a long time to replenish research and development accounts, but it was not to be.

The U.S. Army is one of the few bright spots in the 2013 DOD research budget. The Army's research budget would grow by 2.2 percent in 2013 to $8.95 billion from 2012 levels of $8.76 billion, dominated by research and development in manned ground vehicles. After the Army, however, all the other military services and defense agencies collectively will see declines in their research and development budgets.

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October 2014
Volume 25, Issue 10
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