FALLS CHURCH, Va. U.S. military planners, faced with mounting casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan along with a decline in federal R&D spending, are pressing contractors to shift their focus from gee-whiz technologies to "relevant" ones that can save lives and improve capabilities today.
As procurement and military health and retirement costs soar, pressure is building to reduce the Pentagon's science-and-technology budget. Thus, Defense Department planners are asking technology companies "to become more relevant to the war fighters," said David Janos, business development manager at Northrop Grumman's Electron- ic Systems unit (Baltimore).
Janos headed an industry forecast panel on DOD science-and-technology spending sponsored by the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association (GEIA). The results of the GEIA forecast were released here last week.
Increasingly, experts said, Pentagon technologists are moving away from high-risk, high-payoff research to instead identify technologies needed to counter immediate threats. A prime example is sensor systems to detect and destroy improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and, increasingly, in Afghanistan.
On the day the GEIA forecast was delivered, the Pentagon announced that the previous day, Oct. 17, was one of the bloodiest for U.S. forces during the Iraq war. Ten soldiers were killed, most around Baghdad, and at least six by car bombs. Experts said insurgents in Iraq have become much more sophisticated in bomb making, including the use of deadly shaped charges, fusing and wireless detonation.
Budget forecasters said the DOD is spending upwards of $200 million this year on IED detection and training. As a result, electronics, sensors and networks are becoming the guts and sinew of a future American military.
Industry forecasters said the Pentagon will continue to spend large portions of the military budget ($435.6 billion in fiscal 2007, plus supplemental appropriations for the Iraq war totaling $130 billion this year) on developing missile defenses and an emerging U.S. "space force." But the search is also on for "transformational technologies"--many to be purchased off the shelfthat are needed to link commanders with troops on patrol in the streets of Baghdad and Kabul.
"We are seeing a shift toward near-term needs and capabilities," said Cecil Black, a former Army officer who now works in the Washington office of Boeing Co. Black, who oversaw GEIA's DOD spending forecast, said military R&D spending hit a historic high in fiscal 2006, but that technology spending has peaked and future declines are likely.