Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Bensahel (II): Her critique falls short on the technological future of the military

I really like Nora Bensahel’s critique of the U.S. military’s inadequate thinking about the future. But the one part I found myself disagreeing with strongly was her plan for "Ensuring U.S. Technological Superiority," which seemed to me overly pessimistic about our technological future and also misdirected. It struck me as rooted in the industrial approach ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I really like Nora Bensahel's critique of the U.S. military's inadequate thinking about the future. But the one part I found myself disagreeing with strongly was her plan for "Ensuring U.S. Technological Superiority," which seemed to me overly pessimistic about our technological future and also misdirected. It struck me as rooted in the industrial approach used in the Cold War, which was an anomaly in American defense history.

"Maintaining technological superiority over potential adversaries has been a cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy since the end of World War II," she states. Yes, it is true that in the two decades after that war, the U.S. government devoted enormous amounts of money to developing long-range bombers and missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, satellites, and computers, as well as the hydrogen bomb. The spending had huge effects on the civilian economy, leading to the long-range Boeing 707 jet airliner and virtually creating the computer industry.

We are not going to see that kind of spending again, as a percentage of GDP. So I don't think her prescription of "maintaining U.S. technological superiority [through] substantial investments in research and development" points in the right direction: Rather, I think we can better maintain technological superiority by tracking civilian innovation in computers and UAVs and then selectively applying those changes to defense uses.

I really like Nora Bensahel’s critique of the U.S. military’s inadequate thinking about the future. But the one part I found myself disagreeing with strongly was her plan for "Ensuring U.S. Technological Superiority," which seemed to me overly pessimistic about our technological future and also misdirected. It struck me as rooted in the industrial approach used in the Cold War, which was an anomaly in American defense history.

"Maintaining technological superiority over potential adversaries has been a cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy since the end of World War II," she states. Yes, it is true that in the two decades after that war, the U.S. government devoted enormous amounts of money to developing long-range bombers and missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, satellites, and computers, as well as the hydrogen bomb. The spending had huge effects on the civilian economy, leading to the long-range Boeing 707 jet airliner and virtually creating the computer industry.

We are not going to see that kind of spending again, as a percentage of GDP. So I don’t think her prescription of "maintaining U.S. technological superiority [through] substantial investments in research and development" points in the right direction: Rather, I think we can better maintain technological superiority by tracking civilian innovation in computers and UAVs and then selectively applying those changes to defense uses.

In other words, it is time to revive the concept of "defense conversion" but reverse it. The old sense of was the central theme of Bill Clinton’s defense policy when he campaigned in 1992. By that he meant stop making radars and start making microwaves, and other civilian goods. I think it is time to think about defense conversion again, but with the opposite meaning — that is, finding military uses for civilian products. Face it: Within a few years, Amazon and Google are going to know much more about the operation of huge fleets of drones that the Air Force or Navy will. They will run circles around command and control arrangements the military develops. So the military would do well to focus on how to apply that knowledge to combat situations, and also to make drones stealthier and faster than civilians generally will want. If there is a role for the old-line defense industry, it will be to "mil spec" civilian gear.

That said, Dr. Bensahel as usual has produced a fine paper. The parts I agreed with articulated the issues better than I could, and the part I disagreed with made me think. What more can one ask?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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