For many years technology advancement and innovation have been at the heart of the great U.S. advantage that propelled us from an agrarian nation, focused primarily on farming in 1900, to the world’s only remaining superpower. Our military remains the singular dominant military in the world. But what will happen when we begin to fall behind in technology breakthroughs and innovation?

Investigating technology in a pure research sense in and of itself does not make a nation great; it takes the innovator to figure out how to turn that technology into something important. However, without technology advances the innovator has little to work with.

“From churning out over 100,000 combat aircraft during the Second World War … to constructing the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that continue to protect American soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan … our men and women in uniform have been able to count on American innovation, American industry,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a speech Sept. 3. “We’ve been able to count on them to make the tools we need to win in battle and return home safely.”

It is not just the military that has been propelled forward with the technology advances made possible through U.S. investments in military and civil capabilities. What a different world we would be in today without the technology and innovation advancements made by government investments. Just imagine:

  • Our society grappling with the problems of understanding a changing climate without weather and Earth observation satellites.
  • Coping with a complex and interdependent world without instantaneous worldwide communications.
  • Where we would be without the integrated circuits that are in everything from cellphones to computers.
  • What our world would be like without GPS navigation and timing.
  • A world without radar.
  • Surviving personal health care crises without advanced medical imaging or implantable medical devices.
  • Our world without the Internet.

And on and on.

Military research and technical innovations have allowed us to fight inevitable conflicts with much fewer lives lost, on both sides, and with a corresponding significant reduction in lost infrastructure as we can target only military targets thereby limiting collateral damage to civilian infrastructure and loss of noncombatants. Technology allows us to limit the exposure of our own troops to dangerous environments by understanding them before we march into them. Technology also allows better standoff weapons to limit risk and exposure, while amazing accuracy limits the number of sorties to accomplish mission requirements.

One of the great consequences of the shrinking of military budgets is the precipitous decline in pure research. Research-and-development (R&D) spending accounts bore the greatest percentage of sequestration cuts in 2013 since Department of Defense leaders felt compelled to keep the operations and maintenance bills funded. Increasingly we are being pushed to lower risk by utilizing more mature or assured technologies because the significant overruns that are possible when pushing technology advancement are simply no longer acceptable. Not surprisingly then, as funding agility and flexibility have waned, what disappears is the technology research necessary to advance the state of the art.

Technology advancement used to be part of programs of record as we had to achieve technology breakthroughs in order to be able to build the systems that propelled the nation to greatness. Unfortunately, with the reduction of budgets and the needs of the operational users we are beginning to look at building the next generation of systems with today’s state of the art vs. tomorrow’s state of the art. Clearly in a declining economy we have to make hard choices, and at the moment these choices are being made in favor of social programs over military programs. This is the norm in peacetime; however, given what we have to spend, the DoD needs to make the hard choices on building systems for the lowest cost and lowest risk possible, while simultaneously continuing to do the pure research necessary to keep the U.S. at the leading edge of military technology. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, said, “The budget battles of the past several years have sucked the oxygen out of the Pentagon’s innovation machine.” He also stated, “I’m particularly worried about sustaining technology superiority over time and what deep cuts to R&D are going to do to that.”

Hagel echoed Kendall’s comment, saying, “American dominance on the seas, in the skies, in space and in cyberspace no longer can be taken for granted. While the United States currently has a decisive military and technological edge over any potential adversary, our future superiority is not a given.”

There is always a mix of technology push and mission pull that has to be balanced when making investment decisions. It is understandable that in tight financial times this balance moves toward mission pull. That said, we should never ignore or eliminate the pure research that our nation has been built on. Kendall has said, “We have to stop the presumption that we’re superior and have a wide margin of superiority. That’s not true anymore. Technology superiority is not assured. You have to work at it. When research programs are delayed, the consequences could be significant. … Time cannot be recovered.”

With the current state of the aerospace industry, the number of employees and investment dollars has been sharply reduced as companies retrench to survive the hard times. The number of employees in the industry has declined on the order of 15 percent over the last five years. Space’s biggest military customer (Air Force Space Command/Space and Missile Systems Center) has had it budgets cut from over $10 billion a year to just under $6 billion a year, with more to come. The budget at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has declined from a high point of about $4 billion to around $2 billion. To remain a good deal for its shareholders in an era of reduced revenues, industry is looking at drastic overhead cuts to increase profit margins. So while there are calls for more industry investment, the effects of the spending downturn on industry will result in far less investment in basic research.

Unfortunately the end is far from over. The DoD got a two-year reprieve from sequestration, but that ends in 2016 and there does not appear to be any real momentum behind efforts to get clear of it. The services still do not have a clear path ahead and their budgets remain in flux, their missions unsure and their hands tied by the inability to shed unnecessary facilities and weapon systems.

This is a familiar byproduct of the inevitable down cycles of the DoD; however, this time it is getting deep enough to cause some major concerns. Not only have we cut our science and technology budget, we’ve also proportionally cut our scientist, engineer and program management workforce. AFRL lost about 40 percent of those officers eligible for force shaping. A reduction-in-force board is convening in October and I’m guessing we’ll lose another 40 percent of those eligible. In a time when our nation isn’t graduating enough folks with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, we should be holding onto our engineers and scientists, not separating them. The U.S. can’t maintain our technological edge, or even stay on par with the rest of the world, without adequate science and technology funding and a word-class workforce.

We must not reduce the money spent on technology advancement and innovation. Success in technology advancement and the resulting innovation are the best chance of being able to do more with less. We must still invest in the next-generation systems while we are building and flying out the current generation of systems.

This has always been part of the job of the system program offices, but as money has gotten tight and they have had to fix the problems of technology obsolescence, the money to invest in the next generation of systems has dried up.

The DoD has tried to come up with approaches to keep money available for this critical investment but that money is always under attack. As an example, Air Force Space Command has made investments in Overhead Persistent Infrared and communications programs that have resulted in significant changes in the way we can buy and build systems in the future. Space Command is pioneering the move toward disaggregated systems that enable better resilience and affordability. If we halt this investment, we are in an unsolvable conundrum. As the pressure increases to reduce acquisition and operations staff, we run the risk of moving back toward Total System Performance Responsibility, and we all know how that worked out. Of particular importance, fewer people in operations means fewer people who are able to come up with new and innovative ways to operate, a spiral that is hard to recover from.

On top of these challenges we are faced with a future of space becoming more contested, congested and competitive. To operate in this new environment and respond to new threats, we must innovate, as yesterday’s systems will face not only technology obsolescence but also survivability shortfalls as our adversaries become more sophisticated.

The reality is that DoD budgets are going to continue going down. The Pentagon will not likely be able to shed all of the infrastructure it deems not valuable, nor will it be able to get rid of all of the systems it believes are unnecessary. It is also unlikely that a stable top-line budget will be provided or the system will trust in the ability of the military leaders to do their jobs in the way they deem the most rational. While we had a small reprieve in 2014 and 2015, the 2016 sequestration reinstatement is fast approaching. This will cut budgets substantially, and with the mandate to continue operating, R&D budgets will again be cut, despite good intentions. It will also remain hard to avoid personnel cuts to go with these budget reductions.

Unfortunately the picture doesn’t look any better on the industry side. Industry has to maintain shareholder value so pure technology advancement will not likely come from that quarter either. Industry is stressed not just by the reduced budgets of the DoD to compete for, but by the cost reduction pressures that have slashed R&D and overhead personnel in an effort to respond to the DoD’s call for lower costs.

What is virtually certain is that the threats that adversaries pose will continue to increase in sophistication and capability and today’s systems (already unaffordable) will be virtually undefendable against these new threats.

If the United States wants to continue to be a strong leader of the “free world,” we must continue to have the DoD invest in potential game-changing technology advancement and in the systems that will allow us to respond to future threats in an affordable fashion. Somehow we must put a priority on R&D despite the pressures to cut. We must retain and motivate the young scientists and engineers we have, not let them go. This is the seed corn of our future.

Thomas D. Taverney is senior vice president at Leidos and a former vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. He submitted this article as an individual. 

Retired Maj. Gen. Thomas “Tav” Taverney is chairman of the Schriever Chapter of the Air and Space Force Association and was Air Force Space Command vice commander prior to his 2006 retirement after 38 years of service.