After 9/11, as anyone in this industry will tell you, the government began throwing money at intelligence technology.
The failures to detect the al-Qaida terrorist attacks meant attention and dollars for any innovation that showed promise for “connecting the dots.” The wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan required imaginative solutions to new problems. Deaths and injuries from improvised explosive devices led to JIEDDO and other multibillion-dollar programs.
Extraordinary innovations have blossomed — in imagery analysis, cameras and sensors, compression and storage, drone technology, and communications — and these have changed the American way of war. In many ways, some aspects of U.S. military operations and intelligence as they are now practiced would have been inconceivable on Sept. 10, 2001. And these new technologies and processes will continue to affect the world for years to come.
But even those in the C4ISR business will often quietly nod and admit the spending was sometimes lavish, even indiscriminate. And they also ruefully note that the party is now over. The tide of money in ISR is receding a bit, carrying with it a vast debris of projects, contracts and, yes, jobs.
Still, it’s not as if the money will actually dry up. It’s just slowing down, as the pendulum shifts again toward equilibrium. So is it possible that in this industry, there is a benefit to this otherwise grim trend? Can innovation flourish while the government is reluctant to pay the bills?
It calls to mind the famous quotation: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; now we must think!” (Sometimes the line is attributed to Winston Churchill; sometimes to Britain’s turn-of-the-century Navy Secretary John Fisher; sometimes to New Zealand’s Sir Ernest Rutherford.) It is again time to think.
Some people see opportunity in spite of the constraints. Joshua Hartman, a former Defense Department intelligence official, says it is no accident that some of the most important innovations in recent history got their start in the lean years of the Carter administration — the Global Positioning System, for example, and stealth technology. All that technology was seeded in the late ’70s during the big drawdowns. So perhaps a tightening of budgets leads to a sharper focus.
“Cuts force people to scrutinize how they are spending their money and lead to efforts to speed up innovation,” Hartman said. “When there is lot of money, you tend to spend a little bit on everything, or you put it in the most elegant solution, which is rewarding from an engineering standpoint, but not for effectiveness.”
There is plenty of scholarship on innovation and what drives it. The results are often conflicting. One thing that’s certain: It’s not just money. The sharpest companies aren’t always the ones with the most capital. Likewise, the richest countries don’t inevitably produce the best inventions. No one looks to China these days, no matter how flush it may be, as a hub for creativity.
So the freeze in Pentagon spending may be a difficult one, and it will have an impact. For example, we won’t be seeing a lot of new unmanned ISR platforms at the Pentagon for a while. The existing fleet of Predators, Reapers, Ravens, ScanEagles, RQ-4s, RQ-170s, Fire Scouts and other remotely piloted aircraft will have to do.
But technology can flourish even in a world of tightwads. All this may just mean a new era of innovation is coming to intelligence, communications and cyber.
Aram Roston is editor of the C4ISR Journal. This editor’s note appeared in the March 2013 edition.