On the chopping block for Pentagon reductions are major defense systems and the size of our armed forces. But overlooked in the debate over whether and how much to cut in defense is the potentially devastating effect that President Obama’s defense reductions will have on military research and development. Historically, military R&D has not only been vital to maintaining a distinct advantage on the battlefield; it has also played a vital role in basic research that ultimately benefits the overall American economy.
It’s not that the military’s R&D budget is that big to begin with. As Norman Augustine, the former chairman of Lockheed points out, “The research budget, particularly in defense, is so small, you could triple it and you wouldn’t even have to replot the defense budget.”
But the approach of the Obama administration to Pentagon spending seems to be to slash lots of things, without minding what might be most important to keep in intact. I know that when it comes to budget cuts in any government department, it’s easy to find people who will say that any particular area is “vital” and shouldn’t be cut. But the benefits of military-related R&D spending are undeniable: everything from the internet to advances in aviation have been launched by early research investments by the military. Defense R&D has literally created new industries. In contrast to the grants and loans that have been tossed around on various “green energy” projects, military R&D contracts are much more in the realm of basic research and build the engineering and math foundation of the American economy.
So why is it on the chopping block? Essentially because unlike big weapons systems, which have a constituency in the form of large defense contractors and their army of lobbyists, you don’t see a lot of lobbyists out there for scientists and engineers. As one congressional staffer recently told National Defense magazine, “Their constituency is harder to identify.” Their constituency, of course, is the American republic. But the republic, of course, doesn’t hire lobbyists.