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Defense research and development (R&D) spending has long been a cornerstone of American security, bringing important advances to military hardware such as the jet engine, real-time communications, and precision munitions. Yet advanced technologies do much more than simply support America’s men and women in uniform. In fact, throughout the 20th century, many military innovations ended up playing key and sometimes revolutionary roles throughout the broader civilian economy.
Despite the benefits of military research spending, there tend to be powerful short-term incentives to reduce defense R&D investment. After all, cuts to R&D provide immediate returns for a favorable balance sheet, and the negative effects of underinvestment are not felt until years later. As Washington enters a period of deficit reduction, the defense budget will likely face further cuts on top of the close to $900 billion already being implemented or proposed.
Including the pending FY 2013 budget, the defense Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) account has declined by 17 percent in real terms since the start of the Obama administration and will decline by another 12 percent, or $8 billion, in real terms from 2013 to 2017. This largely follows a sustained trend of the modernization accounts bearing the largest burden of cuts. From 2010 through 2013, procurement experienced a real decline of over 24 percent and will further drop by over 5 percent through 2017. In comparison, military personnel was cut by 6 percent from 2010 through 2013 and will fall another 9 percent through 2017. For operations and maintenance, these figures are 12 percent and 23 percent, respectively. The reality is that defense R&D will continue to face a large share of the burden as legislators struggle to preserve procurement, personnel, and operations accounts in their districts.
Political pressure is mounting from lawmakers who believe that government money could be better spent elsewhere and that defense R&D “crowds out” private-sector R&D efforts. Such opposition to defense research, however, ignores the larger picture: that military research and development, as a foundation of national security, is a constitutionally mandated public good as broadly articulated in the Preamble. It ensures a technologically dominant military that underpins global economic stability, and as a positive byproduct provides the resources for commercial technology. Although it may appear inefficient, such innovation would not be possible without government involvement. Other nations understand this, such as China, whose R&D spending is predicted to surpass the United States’s by 2023.
There are many options available to further structure defense research and development spending to maximize security and economic benefits, including longer-term funding stability, reform of human capital recruitment, and the multiple potential methods of facilitating research and technology transfer from the DoD to the private sector. Reform, along with a budgetary commitment to continued R&D, will ensure the innovation that has made America great, and safe, will continue to enjoy robust support into the future.