The One Thing He Wants to Cut

Obama guts Defense R&D while pumping money into civilian labs

AP Images
April 17, 2012

Domestic agencies such as the departments of Health and Human Services and Energy would receive a larger share of research and development funding than the Department of Defense under President Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget, according to a Washington Free Beacon analysis.

The military would receive just under $70 billion for its research activities, down from $75 billion in 2010 and less than half of the $141 billion Obama has budgeted for R&D across all government agencies.

The budget, the administration said, is "maintaining the president’s commitment to double the budgets of three key basic research agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) labs."

Obama’s budget would increase funding for the three labs by more than $550 million, a 4.4 percent bump. He has directed the agencies to spend their $13.1 billion research budgets to advance green energy, infrastructure, and cyber security.

The proposed shift is a major step back for national security, defense sources say.

"We have been pushing back our modernization efforts for a decade trying to win wars, not investing in advanced technologies that will deter future attacks—like what we did with the Reagan era military," said a top congressional defense expert.

For example, President Reagan’s push for missile defense technology, Cold War historians say, contributed to the Soviet Union’s demise.

"We’ve enjoyed a definitive technological edge since the Reagan years and we’re surviving on the leftovers of the Reagan military—the advanced airplanes and ships of the 1980s," the congressional source said. "But our threats have changed: We have to have advanced cyber security and instead we’re atrophying our competitive edge."

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized the danger of falling behind technologically in October of last year.

"Military capabilities proliferate more quickly and are no longer the monopoly of nation states. … This requires us to prevail in the competitive learning environment—we must learn faster, understand more deeply, and adapt more quickly than our adversaries," he told the House Armed Services Committee. "Our systems and processes must be far more effective, efficient, and agile if we are to keep pace in this environment."

Obama said the shift from defense to domestic research priorities targets "resources to those areas most likely to directly contribute to the creation of transformational technologies that can create the businesses and jobs of the future."

Military research, however, has been essential to economic growth and business innovation, said Peter Nowak, author of Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Shaped Technology as We Know It.

"The effects that the military have had on the economy, healthcare, and education are immeasurable; no one else has been responsible for as much (innovation)," he said. "When you cut back on the military or NASA, you’re not just cutting back on tanks and missiles, you’re cutting back on invaluable commercial progress."

Inspired by an infamous heiress’ creative use of night vision technology—a military invention—Nowak spent several years recording the impact of military research on the economy. The military, he writes in the book, invented everything from vitamins to health inspection technology to super-soaker squirt guns.

Reagan’s missile defense program also set the stage for GPS and laser technology—products that have become major economic forces in the 21st century.

President Obama referenced several of the military’s most consequential inventions during a speech on the role of government on April 10.

"The Internet, GPS, those things were created by us together, not by ourselves," he told a throng of supporters at Florida Atlantic University.

Nowak’s research follows a long line of scholars who have looked into scientific advancement in the defense community.

Retired Smithsonian curator and scientific historian Paul Forman said the military shifted the focus of scientific research from the abstract to applied use, a renewed focus that made military funding instrumental to technological and commercial progress.

Forman found that the American military's R&D efforts led to "historic quantitative growth" in the field of physics by enlisting scientists to pursue "security through ever more advanced military technologies."

The federal government was responsible for more than 30 percent of the $400 billion spent on research and development in 2009, including grants it issued to contractors, universities, and other organizations.

Setbacks in research and development began during the Bush administration when funding for long-term projects was shifted to finance the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reallocation of resources accelerated under President Obama and former Defense Sec. Robert Gates, a Bush holdover.

"We started focusing our money on buying things like body armor, stuff to help us win the wars," the defense source said. "When Obama took office and made cuts, we thought we were shifting R&D funds to buying that kind of stuff. Instead, [then-Office of Management and Budget head] Jacob Lew said ‘this is ours now’ and took it away from defense."

Ambitious weapons projects such as the F-22 Raptor and scientific projects such as research for the ESMART GPS project were shelved or delayed as the administration looked to finance an ambitious domestic agenda based upon clean energy and pumping money into education.

"Generally speaking, military and NASA funding have always done well under Republicans, then Democrats come in and there are cuts," Nowak said. "When you have any government budget, there are competing priorities."

The military is readying for even more cuts under the sequestration mandated by the Budget Control Act of August 2011, which would impose additional $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade. That could deal a further blow to research and development, slashing the budget by $8.4 billion, according to a top military source.

"They’re getting hit hard and they’re going to get hit even harder," he said. "Those are blind cuts, 12 percent out of everything, including R&D—it would be catastrophic."

Lew, who became Obama’s chief of staff in early 2012, echoed these sentiments during the debt ceiling debate last summer.

"There could be significant impacts on our military capabilities and on our ability to execute the current national security strategy," he said in a letter to House Armed Services Chairman Howard (Buck) McKeon (R., Calif.). "Reductions of this magnitude, imposed in this manner, could pose a significant risk to national security."

While sequestration is set to take place at the end of 2012, Obama’s proposed budget cuts are not inevitable. After the president’s budget failed to pass a budget in 2011, Congress passed a series of resolutions to continue funding government spending, including military R&D, at 2010 levels.

The president has not signed a budget in three years.