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Further Downsizing the RDT&E Infrastructure

Recently, a study was released under the aegis of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology “A Plan to Streamline DoD’s Science and Technology, Engineering, and Test and Evaluation Infrastructure”) which proposed further cuts in the already beleaguered RDT&E (Re-search, Development, Test and Evaluation) infrastructure of the armed services; the Navy is slated for $73 million in personnel cost reductions, and another $278 million in management efficiencies through fiscal year 2005. The study is fundamentally flawed, consequently, the plans it embodies (for the Navy at least) are a prescription for disaster in conflicts in the next century. While it is useful to address the flaws of this study, it also is important to emphasize why a sustainable, organic Navy RDT&E enterprise is essential.

Importance of a Robust Naval RDT&E Infrastructure

The importance of a robust Navy ROT &E enterprise should be axiomatic, particularly to the submarine community. In naval warfare and in undersea warfare especially, technically advanced platforms, weapons, sensors, and data processing have proven important, or even decisive in many conflicts. The recent victories in Iraq and the Cold War, together with the defeat of Japan, were in large measure due to the technical superiority of our forces. Much of that technical superiority was developed in Navy facilities, and would not have been developed in the marketplace otherwise. Regarding submarine development, Vice Admiral J. Guy Reynolds, USN(Ret.) recently pointed out that a certain degree of capability can be purchased virtually off the shelf, but that if you wish to be dominant and prevail, you must develop submarine technology yourself. Moreover, if you wish to be dominant, you must invest for the long term, developing technologies from infancy to maturity. Radar is a good example. Radar was discovered at the Naval Research Lab in Washington in 1930 (as well as ocher places), where by the summer of 1940 it had been developed to the stage where it could be deployed (as the experimental XRF) on six ships (Norman Friedman, Naval Radar, Conway Maritime Press, 1981). Even though the advantages of radar in naval warfare were evident at the time (accurate ranging, detection at night, etc.) and an overt threat existed (Japan) such that radar development was declared a top priority, it still took a decade to develop radar to even a usable state. This effort was expanded enormously during the war and resulted in Allied dominance. Japanese efforts were significantly smaller than Germany’s, and with the coming of war were completely outclassed by Allied efforts. By starting early and investing heavily as war approached, we achieved a dominant position in a technology that was vital to our success. It is worth mentioning that warfare is like poker, in that if you have the second-best hand it is still costly to stay in the game, but you lose.

Flaws in the Study

An overarching error in the study is the rationale: that the Armed Forces have been reduced approximately 40 percent since the end of the Cold War, and therefore the RDT&E infrastructure should be reduced the same amount. [Emphasis added by Editor.] Why should the RDT&E effort be linearly related to the force level? Clearly, with the Revolution in Military Affairs doctrine the emphasis now is on small, lethal forces embodying advanced technology, especially information technology: essentially, the focus is on the quality of our forces and their technology, not quantity. Shouldn’t the research effort be proportional to quality rather than quantity? The report acknowledges this in citing a greater need for RDT&E facilities than ever before. The proportion of the budget devoted to RDT&E is about half what it was when Jimmy Carter was President, and only 40 percent of that during the Reagan Administration. This would argue that the proportion devoted to RDT&E should be growing, not shrinking. Nevertheless, the guidance from the USD(A&T) is to plan for a 25 percent cut, with no justification whatever for this figure.

A sizable proportion of our RDT&E infrastructure is devoted to test facilities. These facilities enable us to test new technologies as well as prototype and preproduction devices. Most readers of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW are familiar with the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) in the Bahamas, as well as gunnery ranges and missile ranges. These facilities are essential to the development of new systems, and often are unique. Moreover, they may be inconvenient or impossible to reestablish once closed, due to land use and other legal considerations.

An Example of a Specialized Test Facility

Suppose you wish to test a device, something like an expendable bathythermograph (XBT), which is deployed from a three inch signal ejector on a submarine. In particular, you (or the sponsoring activity) might wish to know how it performs in the real world, at sea, on a submarine. Before it can go to sea, the device and the procedure for testing it must be approved by the engineers at Naval Sea Systems Command. They are charged with assuring that the device and the test itself not endanger the submarine, its crew, or the stealth and warfighting capabilities of the ship, or interfere with other equipment. Some years ago, for a modest sum you could have tested your prototype in a specialized test tank at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, White Oak, Maryland. If you wanted, you could film the ejection of the device, and recover it easily for inspection to see if ejection damaged it. If you wanted to, you could test the device 50 times in a day to increase your confidence in its reliability. If it jammed in the tube or prevented the valve on the signal ejector from closing, the guy who ran the facility wouldn’t be too happy and might charge you a few bucks to drain the tank and fix the valve, but nobody would get hurt, the delay would be modest, and you would quickly identify the problem. Without that facility (or a similar one) you have to test it on a real submarine. The people at NA VSEA basically would have to take your word for it that the device wouldn’t endanger the submarine. With the drawdown in submarine numbers and increase in requirements, there may not be a submarine available for testing at this level for a long time, or at all. If it fails once you eject it, you have no way of finding out what went wrong, or recovering it. If it jams the valve, it puts the ship at risk and there will be many unhappy people wishing to speak with you when the ship returns to port. One of the reasons for test facilities is they enable the scientists to make many trials cheaply and with low risk. The tank costs half a million dollars to build and $SOK a year to operate; the submarines costs a lot more. Fundamentally, progress is quicker if you can make lots of mistakes fast. As these facilities close or become less accessible, the progress of development is slowed, and the ability to even conduct R&D becomes questionable.

Privatization of Navy RDT&E

A leitmotif of the report is that much ROT &E activity can be carried out by contractors, in contractor facilities, thereby saving money. It remains unclear how costs will be reduced if technically trained people are employed in a project and paid at (higher) industry levels and additionally enable the contractor to make a profit. It may be that the goal is to avoid maintaining those expensive, trained people on government payrolls, and instead use contractors who (presumably) can rapidly hire bodies, then lay them off when the contract is finished. In view of the intermittent use of specialized testing facilities, it seems unlikely that a for-profit enterprise would maintain a facility and the skilled people needed to run it once a project was completed. A facility like the test tank described above might be in use 20 days a year on the average. Would industry hire people to maintain and operate the facility with that modest degree of usage.

Suppose you want to implement a technology, like building Otto-fueled torpedoes. If you want to transfer (or maintain) technology, the preferred mode is a person. With some difficulty you can work from reports or patents to implement the technology, but in all cases it’s better to have a person expert already in building that kind of torpedo. For many technologies there are other applications, but for some the only customer is DoD. This concern is very familiar to the submarine community, as many technologies are nuclear-or submarine-specific, and consequently were threatened by proposed gaps in submarine construction. If you’ve laid off your skilled people because the contract is over, you may not be able to hire them back and must train new ones. This results in overtly higher costs, especially in production. One of the essential things development of a new technology provides is a nucleus of people who understand it, which is essential if you want to put it into production. If the technology is developed elsewhere, to implement it you have to create that nucleus of people from scratch, even if the learning curve is steep.

Recently, concern has grown abut the difficulty of attracting top-drawer scientific and engineering talent to defense R&D in the government (D. Mulholland, “U.S. Military Struggles to Attract Top Researchers,” Defense News, September 13, 1999). This concern has led to a Congressionally-mandated report due for release shortly. Among the reasons cited in the report and by other experts are the low pay of government service and the exciting and lucrative opportunities in the private sector. I would suggest that the shrinkage and instability of DoD RDT&E funding also encourages technical staff to leave the government. In the R&D communities the need for a continuity and a corporate memory are very acute, since good (and bad) ideas often recur and it is useful to know which ideas were rejected in the past, and why. Often a bad idea becomes a good idea when new technology makes it possible or expands its capabilities. An example is the cruise missile, obsolescent in the form of Hound Dog and Regulus in the ’60s, but now a premier weapon due to terrain contour mapping and GPS guidance. At some level, scientists and engineers are creative people who need to be free to focus on the problem at hand. If they are obliged to spend up to 50 percent of their time seeking funding to support programs instead of working the problem, this is a source of immense frustration. Indeed, the only thing keeping many scientists in the DoD is the uncertainty of funding of the research enterprise in all sectors-public, private, and academia. The other side of this coin is that stable funding and the opportunity to work on cutting edge projects might attract very good people for modest additional cost.


By cutting defense R&D now, we are running the enormous risk that somebody, somewhere will come up with a better mousetrap before we do. Sometimes, an evolutionary improvement changes the balance dramatically: how much better does an acoustic signal to noise ratio need to be to unmask our submarines? How fast and stealthy does a sea-skimming missile need to be before it can’t be stopped? One thing we do know is that the dominant military technologies of today (including atomic energy, rocket propulsion, radar, and digital computers) were pioneered on a small scale, in the laboratory, usually as an outgrowth of scientific inquiry into the laws of nature. Fortunately, there were farsighted military people present at the creations of these technologies who were able to support their development. In some cases, it was a close run thing. If we don’t create the new technologies first ourselves (or hear about them soon) we run the risk of nasty surprises, like ballistic missiles and jet aircraft, which the Germans brought to fruition before the Allies. As many have pointed out, if Hitler had managed the development of these and other technologies better, the war in Europe might have turned out rather differently.

Yet the savings created by cutting defense R&D are modest, by any measure. The proposed reductions in the plan would not even pay for a warship (and barely pay for a new C-17 transport plane, for that matter). The entirety of what the Navy pays for basic research (the origin of the breakthrough military technologies cited above) is less than half a billion dollars. The country is in the midst of unprecedented prosperity; can we really not afford this? Is it worth running the risk of having another nation militarily dominant over the United States? It cost hundreds of billions of dollars and many lives to defeat the Soviet Union, fortunately without a nuclear showdown. By spending a modest amount now, while we can readily afford it, we can maybe avoid that enormous expense of competing with a peer in the future. Put another way, running large risks to achieve small gains (or savings) is not the path of wisdom.

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