DOD science program fights to keep tech edge

DOD science program fights to keep tech edge

A one-time technological leader, organization battles to overcome deterioration in effort to maintain military advantage


The Defense Department's Science and Technology Program, once the leader of such technological discoveries as the advanced radar systems that gave the United States an edge in winning World War II, has struggled over the past two decades to stay on top of its game.

Delores Etter
Defense must keep using technology to improve its warfighting ability, Delores Etter says.
The science program was founded to ensure that the military would have superior technology, said Delores Etter, who recently departed the post of deputy director of Defense research and engineering and undersecretary for science and technology. But the program is facing increasingly difficult challenges to fulfilling that mission.

'Our adversaries have access to the same technologies that we have,' Etter said during testimony last month before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military R&D. 'DOD must adapt to new systems. Technological superiority is critical to national defense.'

Down and out

Over the years, the organization has faced decreased federal funding, a dwindling and aging work force, changing national security threats, cost overruns and a slow acquisition cycle time, said Edward C. Aldridge, DOD's recently appointed undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

All have led to a 'deterioration in credibility,' Aldridge said.

The program's work force is made up of 28,000 scientists and engineers'down 42 percent from 43,800 in 1990. And the average age of a laboratory scientist is 45, Aldridge said. More than half of the work force will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, he said.

'As threats have evolved worldwide, we are fighting fewer large-scale battles in open areas and more small-scale conflicts in cities,' Aldridge said. 'We are in need of developing new techniques that are suitable for the complexities of urban areas.'

Key Defense Science and Technology Programs

' Bio Systems

' Sensor Systems

' High-Performance Computing Modernization Program

' Weapon Systems

' Strategic Environmental R&D Systems

' Office of Technology Transition

' Defense Modeling and Simulation Office

' Open Systems Joint Task Force

' Software-Intensive Systems

Former Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger put it another way in a speech in February 1983 that Etter and Aldridge agreed still holds true today: 'We face the danger of losing our edge because we have not adequately replenished the reservoir of scientific concepts and knowledge to nourish future technologies during subsequent years of fiscal neglect of defense research and development.'

There are key areas that Aldridge said he would set as priorities this year. They include improving basic research; revitalizing the quality and morale of the work force; improving the health of the work force; and rolling out transition programs that move the latest technologies into warfighters' hands.

Etter, who left her post earlier this month to become a professor of electrical engineering at the Naval Academy, added that Defense has to strengthen its software technology base and increase recruiting and retention initiatives of high-quality technical personnel.

'The technical edge enjoyed by the armed forces of the United States has contributed greatly to our overwhelming military superiority,' Etter said. 'The quickening pace and global reach of ongoing technical revolutions has the potential of eroding this advantage if we do not continuously incorporate technical advances into our warfighting capability.'

Lending a hand

To support its mission, the science program works with several partners: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, universities, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, industry groups, service laboratories and international allies.

Etter cautioned that the service labs are in dire need of revamping.

Many are located in aging and badly equipped sites that are 'physically disconnected from service weapon development and procurement organizations,' Etter said.


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