Attacked by 30 to 40 Taliban, four Navy SEALs needed air support, but Afghan mountains blocked radio transmissions. Their leader, Lt. Michael Murphy, who is a Medal of Honor recipient, fought to an open area and radioed in support before dying of wounds. Other units had similar radio problems. In response, defense 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. In doing so, they helped America overcome uncertainty. As defense cuts loom, these labs should be protected and improved. In future decades, they will be needed to meet even greater uncertainty.
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.
We must remember to appreciate the contributions of America’s defense labs. They translate war-fighting needs into technical solutions, often in partnership with universities and industry, but other times alone. Defense labs solely researched thermobaric munitions for attacking insurgents in caves and buildings. A defense lab manufactures light anti-tank warheads to support an urgent need.
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 airbags. Plus, 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, the labs need renewal. Much lab infrastructure is more than 50 years old with disproportionately too many lab workers near retirement. As the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review stated, “The DoD S&T [Defense Department science and technology] program is struggling to keep pace with the expanding challenges of the evolving security environment.”
Future security challenges mean unprecedented uncertainty, just as in the past. “It must be recognized that security-related forecasts are becoming more uncertain and that unexpected events are certain to occur with greater frequency,” the National Research Council stated in 2010.
State-of-the-art capabilities at the defense labs are key to deal with uncertainty in rapidly developing fields, including modern bioscience and medicine. Lab research and development (R&D) 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 as other nations use science and technology for greater wealth and power. While U.S. R&D 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.
Foreign R&D is producing new military threats, like maneuvering supersonic missiles. Referring to U.S. missile defenses, the then-chief of naval research, Rear Adm. Nevin Carr stated in 2011, “We’re fast approaching the limits of our ability to hit maneuvering pieces of metal in the sky with other maneuvering pieces of metal.”
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 S&T 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.” Defense lab staff members are the crucial connection between scientific knowledge and war-fighter capability.
“The obligation of government to support research on military problems is inescapable,” wrote Vannevar Bush in his 1945 “Science: The Endless Frontier.” For 75 years, America has depended on its defense labs to help solve national security problems, and to address uncertainty. In the future, this obligation, this need for world-class, dedicated scientists and engineers at our defense labs, isn’t going away. The defense labs are key to our future safety and security, and our ability as a nation to deal with uncertainty.
Philip Coyle, 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.