Defense research has bore many fruits. From the internet to digital photography, American society has been crafted by the ever present need to destroy other countries. However, in an era when conventional warfare seems increasingly remote, are such investments still worthwhile?
A Laser By Any Other Name
Two clear means of project valuation arise from military research. First and most obvious, does the invention/program significantly contribute to our national defense? Second, does the research significantly contribute to our national well-being for non-defense purposes? For the purposes of this article, a ‘significant’ contribution must yield benefits whose value outweigh the costs (both monetary and opportunity) associated with their development.
Blunders, Successes, and More Blunders
2014 and 2015 were great years for defense contractors. Defense spending outweighed all other forms of contracting by a long shot. The top 10 recipients of federal dollars, all defense contractors, received a combined $117.7 billion in 2014. Familiar names top the list; Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamic to name a few. Altogether, defense contractors were allocated a whopping 8% of the total U.S. budget. Did this massive amount of capital result in game changing inventions? Hardly.
The F-35, despite being in development in 1996, made headlines when the first squadron was declared combat ready in July of this year. The total program cost of $1.3 trillion has made it the most expensive military project in history. Undoubtedly, the F-35 is the most technologically complex weapons system ever designed. As the weapon is cutting edge, none of the project’s innovations have been adopted for non-military use. Yet from a military measure alone, the tech is at best adherent to the status quo and at worst already outdated. The fighter, meant to serve every role from air superiority to ground attack, essentially does everything worse than the specialized aircraft its meant to replace. To add insult to injury, the Chinese have begun production of an F-35 clone at a fraction of the price.
The USS Zumwalt, the first of the new Zumwalt-class destroyers, took to the sea for the first time in December. The program, thus far costing $22.5 billion, has yielded a sci-fi looking stealth destroyer. The ship was designed to be heavily automated as to decrease the amount of crew members needed (and thus lower cost). Whilst the program is a step in the right direction towards a ‘significant contribution’, its lasting benefits remain to be seen. Furthermore, despite cost saving measures, the project is still significantly over budget.
The U.S. military has begun testing lasers that can destroy vehicles (or people). The military already deploys lasers for destroying incoming missiles. This new weapon is both silent and invisible, yielding clear benefits over conventional munitions. Fortunately, the applications of high powered lasers continues to expand for non-military purposes. Better yet, the program costed a mere $21 million to design, chump change compared to the other projects listed.
2015 also saw the hilariously deplorable test results from the Remote Minehunting System (RMS) submersible drone designed by Lockheed Martin. Part of the larger Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) project (itself a massive blunder), the drones failed to find mines at least two dozen times and were rendered inoperable seven times due to system malfunctions. All this after 14 years of development and $864 million invested.
The Cost of Safety
One might easily justify the costs of these programs by looking at today’s military threats. China and Russia continue to clamor for territory. Civil war has left Syria and neighboring states in disarray. Sure, some of these programs are fruitless, but it is better to spend the money now than regret not spending later. Or is it?
As previously stated, other nations (most notably China) have built formidable armies around equipment directly purchased or at least inspired by foreign invention. So, are inventions meaningful if they are adopted by other nations within years? If a 2 to 5 year gap is all that separates us from our rivals, do we realistically expect to exploit that advantage (i.e., declare World War III)? These questions yield no concrete answers yet demand consideration in an era when military spending is greater than Cold War levels.
Ultimately, until these projects yield declassified technological advancements or see actual combat use, an assessment of the value is hard to come by. However, a step back exposes a larger criticism of defense research; does innovation equate to quality? After all, when turbo prop planes can outperform advanced jets at a sliver of the cost and 64 year-old bombers hold their own due to their simple design, one must wonder at what point (if ever) technology becomes more of a hindrance on the battlefield than a benefit. That advanced weapons systems demand constant revision, logistical support, and increasingly high investment is no coincidence. For their manufacturers, they’re cash cows.
Now if we could just mount a laser onto the cows…
Featured image source: Extremetech.com