Goodbye 'Gee Whiz?'

During the Cold War, the U.S. military developed weapons and strategies to counter its Soviet adversaries, in a process known as "threat-based" planning. But, once America became the sole superpower, its armed forces slowly stopped making gear and plans to beat its enemies; there didn't seem to be any enemies strong enough to plan for. Instead, Pentagon chiefs began to let their imaginations roam free -- and look at what the American military of the future could do, rather than what it needed to do in order to win. "Capabilities-based" planning overtook the "threat-based" model. Defense officials cooked up wonder weapons, like the DD(X) destroyer, the F-22 stealth fighter, and the Future Combat Systems suite of ground vehicles -- even though the adversaries for these remained, at best, unclear.madsci.JPGBut with America mired in a pair of increasingly nasty guerrilla wars, some in the military and research establishment are looking to return to the "threat-based" approach. And that means coming up with gear ASAP that can make a difference in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Contractors" are beginning to "shift their focus from gee-whiz technologies to 'relevant' ones that can save lives and improve capabilities today," EE Times says.

Those requirements include four basic capabilities: "force protection" technologies needed, for example, to counter IEDs; command and control; "battle space awareness," or the ability to spot threats early and quickly counter them; and the all-encompassing concept of network-centric warfare, in which sensors can pick up and parse threat data, fuse it into useful information and deliver it via ground and space networks to commanders in the field...[T]he Air Force is spending heavily on technologies like data links, data fusion and secure communications, Janos said... Meanwhile, the Navy is investing in power electronics and sensor technologies. A key research priority for the Army as it seeks to improve force protection is developing robots with greater autonomy. Janos said unmanned ground vehicles that require several operators won't cut it in a ground force that is already stretched to its limit.
All true. But still, from what I've seen, the changes in attitude are still only at the margins. Often, the military-funded researchers -- and their managers -- that I meet seem only dimly aware that there are wars going on at all. They might pay some lip service to fighting the counterterror fight. But the money, and the research projects, seem only tangentially connected to that struggle.Take this story from National Defense magazine. "Far from being disconnected from the practical concerns of deployed forces, Navy scientists are making it their business to be attuned to the demands of sailors and Marines," it insists. But what that turns out to mean is that most of the 30% of the "future naval capabilities" research budget is actually producing... well, future naval capabilities, instead of science experiments. If that's an improvement, so be it. But isn't that setting the bar a little low?Don't get me wrong. Everyone here at Defense Tech HQ loves big ideas and shoot-for-the-moon science. But when the country is losing two wars at once, it's time to get our priorities straight.(Big ups: RC)
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