Self-inflicted blindness: The austerity threat to innovation

Airman 1st Class Corey Hook, U.S. Air Force

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jacob Martin, an air traffic controller with the 28th Operations Support Squadron, views a radar scope at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Oct. 14, 2009. The base has switched to digital airport surveillance radar (DASR), a new terminal air traffic control radar system that replaces current analog systems with digital technology.

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  • A cut on the #military is a cut on American #innovation

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  • The #military pays the price for a problem caused largely by entitlements

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  • Cuts to next-gen programs limit the military and slow the advance of commercial applications that benefit the public

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In this age of ballooning U.S. debt, it’s hardly surprising that many Democrats and Republicans are pushing to reduce American military spending. But a closer examination of what’s at stake reveals just how troubling the embrace of defense austerity will prove to be—for our nation’s security, for the future of U.S. military innovation, and (of particular interest to this column) for American technological leadership.

Consider the White House proposal to eliminate tens of thousands of military personnel positions. Historian Fred Kagan has pointed out the danger of the planned reductions. “Those military personnel are a repository of knowledge about how to conduct complex, lethal operations across a wide area in distributed formations,” notes Kagan, who has spent considerable time with soldiers and commanders in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. “They are not merely the world’s leading experts on counterinsurgency but also the leading experts on exactly the kind of targeted operations [President] Obama’s strategy envisions.”

In one key respect, haste truly is waste. Experienced American military personnel are not just some budgetary liability. They possess enormous sums of valuable human capital, accumulated at great cost, that is jeopardized by injudicious cuts. “Over a decade of conflict, our troops have refined formations, doctrine, techniques and theory to the highest level ever,” Kagan notes. “Rapidly reducing the force will flush away much of that expertise before it can be institutionalized.”

Now, it is true that military spending increased in response to 9/11. So some might argue that after a decade of fighting, we’ve entered an acceptable period where the nation can cut back sharply.

But as defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen, a new colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute, observes, “the defense budget increases of the past decade have been hollow, lacking next-generation investments.” The focus, she says, has been on investing for a kind of “lower-end conflict.” This made some sense given the nature of the post-9/11 threat from radical Islamists. But in a world with a rapidly rising China, an unstable Russia, and troublemakers from Iran to North Korea, the United States has short-changed something important as a result. “Instead of staying on the cutting-edge of new defense technologies and innovation,” Eaglen says, “Washington has decided that 40-year old programs will instead suffice for today, since the budget continues to shrink.”

The threats to American national security outlined by Kagan and Eaglen that will result from proposed budget cuts should give all Americans pause; but I want to focus on another consequence of ill-considered budget austerity – the potential loss to American technological innovation.

"There’s no need to undermine successful public-private partnerships that protect the country and have beneficial economic and technological spillover effects." -- Nick Schulz

The American military has been one of the great catalysts for American innovation. A recent report from The Breakthrough Institute highlights the vital role played by public–private partnerships in driving American innovation, particularly collaboration between the military and the private sector.

“Interchangeable parts were developed at public armories, originally for rifles,” the report notes. “One hundred and fifty years later, microchips, computing, and the Internet were created to guide rockets and communicate during nuclear war; today those technologies power our laptops and smartphones.” The report details many others examples.

The military continues to push technological frontiers in cooperation with the private sector today. Consider the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) EnhancedView program. This is a next-generation satellite platform, the result of a joint public-private effort between the nation’s intelligence establishment and America’s commercial satellite image providers. But the program is threatened by defense cuts.

The commercial satellite industry provides critical geospatial information, imagery, and analysis to the Department of Defense and the national security community. They rely on the images and data to monitor hot spots around the globe.

It is likely you have benefitted from the collaboration between the military and the commercial satellite sector without even realizing it. Many of the dramatic, high-resolution, wide-scale satellite photos found today on Google or Bing are captured by DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, two American satellite imaging firms. Indeed, geospatial satellite imaging is starting to yield a surprisingly wide range of  beneficial spillover effects.

The ubiquity of broadband connections means large imaging files captured by geospatial satellites are easy to access by personal computers and mobile devices. So now when natural disasters strike — a tsunami strikes a Pacific coast, or an earthquake flattens a city — the emergency responders and the media can utilize up-to-the minute images to assess the scale and scope of the damage, target help to victims, and communicate news and information.

The private sector is increasingly finding new ways to make valuable use of geospatial imagery.  Energy firms use images to monitor installations in the Gulf of Mexico; insurance companies study satellite photos to assess natural disaster risks; human rights NGOs use images to monitor abuses by rogue regimes against their populations; global shipping companies use satellite imagery to plot and monitor traffic routes.

But the commercial satellite industry is still in its infancy, and a robust public-private partnership helps it to develop and advance. So cuts to next-generation programs not only limit the benefit for the military, they also threaten to slow the advance of commercial applications that benefit the public.

Kevin Pomfret, the executive director of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy, recently noted that “many others that now recognize the value of high-quality geospatial imagery, including businesses, non-government organizations (NGOs), academics, scientists and consumers, are likely to feel the greatest impact if the EnhancedView program is slashed.”

It’s important to note that the private sector invested heavily in the program to satisfy its obligation under the public-private partnership. Now the government is threatening to go back on its promise. If the government slashes its budget, it will send a bad signal to other private sector firms that might be asked to partner with the military—they could see such partnerships as too financially risky.

“The U.S. role as a leader in the international geospatial technology market,” Pomfret says, “would likely decline as companies would be less willing, or financially able, to take risk on future innovation.”

The first order of business of any elected official is to defend the country. Commercial satellite imagery helps do that, one reason a bi-partisan group of Congressmen, including Senate Select Committee on Intelligence members Mark Warner (D-Va.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta requesting full support for the program.

The nation’s debt crisis is largely an entitlement crisis, not a defense spending crisis. There’s no need to undermine successful public-private partnerships that protect the country and have beneficial economic and technological spillover effects to boot.

Nick Schulz is editor-in-chief of American.com and the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at AEI.

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