January 16, 2012

The show goes on: Science and Technology at the top of the US defence strategy priorities

The new US Department of Defence (DOD) strategic guidance (“Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense”) has been widely interpreted as a formal beginning of the US strategic “retrenchment”. Exhausted by two wars and financial crisis, strained by national debt and stretched by its global commitments, America takes another look at its strategic ambitions and means to fulfil them. The result – downsizing, shifting of attention to Asia-Pacific, moving away from “two simultaneous major wars” posture — does not come as a great surprise or shock. These things have been in the making for quite some time.

The new US Department of Defence (DOD) strategic guidance (“Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense”) has been widely interpreted as a formal beginning of the US strategic “retrenchment”. Exhausted by two wars and financial crisis, strained by national debt and stretched by its global commitments, America takes another look at its strategic ambitions and means to fulfil them. The result – downsizing, shifting of attention to Asia-Pacific, moving away from “two simultaneous major wars” posture — does not come as a great surprise or shock. These things have been in the making for quite some time.

What escaped the attention of most commentators is that DOD’s funding for science and technology (S&T) will remain a priority: “in adjusting our strategy and attendant force size, the Department will make every effort to maintain an adequate industrial base and our investment in science and technology.” Technological superiority has long been the preferred US path towards strategic, operational and tactical preponderance over its opponents. In the new environment, where technology is empowering hostile non-state actors as well as facilitating anti-access strategies of states opposing the US, America’s defence strategy remains faithfully attached to this major source of national power, for better or worse. It is also a wise solution when balancing the priorities: it is always easier and faster to recruit and train new people or purchase new equipment when circumstances require than to reconstitute degraded scientific knowledge, technological competence and industrial base. The overall DOD research and development (R&D) is expected to decline by a few percentage points, but it will remain above 75bn USD – a massive amount by comparison with other countries and a significant proportion of a 600bn-plus defence budget.

In the past, science and technology made a vital contribution to the US global “power projection” capability for whatever purposes this capability was used – to deter, contain or compel the adversaries. After 9/11, the emphasis of S&T investments naturally shifted towards beefing up counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency warfare capabilities as well as WMD counter-proliferation. Now, the emphasis on enabling the US forces to operate in the global commons — sea, space, cyber space — access to which will be heavily contested by various rising powers will again necessitate some adjustments in the defence research and technology (R&T) “portfolio” structure. Indeed, part of the US effort has already been going in that direction for a long time (e.g. missile defence, cyber security, unmanned combat systems, stealth technologies). Yet, much more will have to be invested to ensure resilience and effectiveness of the US military systems, networks and platforms against ant-access/area denial approach of the opponents. Over the years, some quite nasty capabilities — China’s anti-satellite missiles, Russia’s anti-ship missiles “Sizzler” spring to mind — emerged, and countering them will certainly require new knowledge and novel technological solutions.

Deploying the national S&T and defence industrial base towards the adjusted US strategic ambitions will not be without its challenges. One stems from global economic and technological inter-dependencies as well as lack of strategic foresight: in a short-term, China’s near-monopoly on global “rare earths” supply vital to state-of-the-art defence technology – something the Chinese determined to achieve decades ago – is a massive vulnerability to a strategy so heavily shaped by technological solutions. (With time, market forces will solve this problem as new “rare earths” mines outside China are being developed, and S&T is also working on solutions in such sectors as electronics to reduce or even eliminate the need for “rare earths” altogether). The US will also have to cope with the much stepped up espionage effort (including complex cyber espionage operations), that the opponents of the US will be pursuing to gain invaluable insights into the US research and technology programmes, both civilian and military.

The US national S&T base may also come to suffer talent shortages as tough post-9/11 visa and immigration policies as well as overall financial difficulties start biting (there are already signs that the US scholars are often moving to China, where funding and “workforce” are abundant, while foreign scholars are encountering significant difficulties to enter the US). The US preponderance as a scientific superpower and as a powerhouse of innovation thus should not be taken for granted when China is moving fast from relying on copying and reverse engineering to becoming a scientific and technological force in its own right (its share of global research and development expenditure has tripled since 1990, from about 3% to more than 9%, while the US share declined from 38% to under 35%; see E. Arond & M. Bell, “Trends in the Global Distribution of R&D since the 1970s: Data, Their Interpretation and Limitations”, 2010). Even such formidable mechanisms of harnessing civilian S&T capability for the needs of defence as the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will be of little use if the overall national S&T performance and output start declining. The US government has acknowledged this danger and seems determined to prevent it (National Security Strategy 2010: “Our focus on education and science can ensure that the breakthroughs of tomorrow take place in the United States”). But it will take decades to determine who came out as “top dog” in the race to acquire scientific and technological edge.

Last, but not least, there is a small matter of the European allies stubbornly staying well behind the US in terms of military capability. Europe is chronically underspending on defence by most measures, and this also includes spending on defence research and technology. Very few nations spend 2% or more of their defence budget on R&T, which is a level agreed between all members of both NATO and the EU (Estonia, alas and despite of it being so exemplary a member in many other regards, fails abysmally on this account). The proportion of that spent in a collaborative fashion is not making the executives of the European Defence Agency (EDA) – a pan-European hub of collaboration in R&T — happy either: many national programmes duplicate each other or lack “critical mass” to achieve anything of great substance, while the practice of “pooling” their investments is still rather thin. Thus, compared to the US, European allies are spending way too little on S&T for defence and, on top of that, do not get a “big bang for a buck”. Given the unwillingness of the Americans to share or collaborate on most sensitive knowledge and technology even with their close allies (unless the “smart defence” paradigm completely transforms their thinking), Europeans are unlikely to draw much benefit from the US sustaining their defence investments into S&T. The capability gap will thus continue poisoning the trans-atlantic relations in the age of “Pacific” America.

True, many of us have often been and remain critical of the US defence as being too techno-centric, preferring expensive and complex technological solutions over smart strategy. So it should come as a measure of re-assurance that the DOD guidance calls for more innovation with the concepts of operations – something that the US military has become quite good at during the decade of hard learning in Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Technology is as smart as people and organisations deploying it. Without willingness of the armed forces to constantly learn, experiment with novel concepts and doctrines, take risks (and accept the inevitability of failures) and keep up the quality of education and training, investments into new defence technology is only a way to redistribute taxpayer dollars from “dumb customer” to some intelligent suppliers. One should hope that the US defence leadership, while reducing their personnel numbers by many thousands and betting on science and technology, will properly appreciate that.

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