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What's Wrong With the US Defense R&D Budget? 225

Harperdog writes "Here's an in-depth analysis of what constitutes defense R&D spending and how some of those projects are classified. From the article: 'But much of what transpires in the name of military research and development is not research in the sense that it produces scientific and technical knowledge widely applicable inside and outside the Defense Department. A large part of defense R&D activity revolves around building very expensive gadgets that are often based on unsound technology and frequently fail to perform as required.'"
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What's Wrong With the US Defense R&D Budget?

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  • R&D (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pushing-robot ( 1037830 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @08:04PM (#38533254)

    A large part of all R&D activity revolves around building very expensive gadgets that are often based on unsound technology and frequently fail to perform as required.


  • by EmagGeek ( 574360 ) <(gterich) (at) (aol.com)> on Thursday December 29, 2011 @08:08PM (#38533292) Journal

    Which is why we buy these expensive, unsound, unnecessary gadgets... it's congress idiots bringing money home to local defense contractors.

    The DoD budget should be written by DoD administrative staff based on actual, military need, not by a bunch of congressional staffers trying to appease big donors.

  • by Nadaka ( 224565 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @08:16PM (#38533418)

    This is something I have long argued for. Congress gets to determine most of what the DoD gets to spend money on without regard to what the DoD needs to have to perform its mission. And this artificially inflates the minimum required defense budget.

  • That is research (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Baloroth ( 2370816 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @08:20PM (#38533484)

    'But much of what transpires in the name of military research and development is not research in the sense that it produces scientific and technical knowledge widely applicable inside and outside the Defense Department. A large part of defense R&D activity revolves around building very expensive gadgets that are often based on unsound technology and frequently fail to perform as required.'

    I thought that was the definition of practical research?

    Copyright © 2011 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

    Oh no, it isn't research in the pure scientific sense. It's the damned military: they don't do research in the sense you want. In the practical field, a failure is a success, of a sort. You now know what doesn't work. I mention this because TFA specifically brings it up. The military did a missile test that failed, and called it a success because it was the first of it's kind, and now they know what went wrong and how to fix it. TFA criticizes them for it. Maybe the program is a waste: faulty arguments like that do little to convince me of it.

    There is a crapload of waste in the defense department, but this doesn't exactly seem the most sound way of attacking it. And as producing little of value: well, I'm not exactly in a position to judge, but things like the Keyhole program, GPS advancements, UAVs, even the F-22 (as bloated as it was) seem like they are pretty valuable. And that is all we know about: the stealth helicopters that were supposedly used in assassinating Osama seem like, well, like a massive advantage.

    I'm also aware that Mr. Subrata Ghoshroy is far more well informed than I am. This just seems like a really lousy argument.

  • Re:R&D (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ravenshrike ( 808508 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @08:27PM (#38533556)

    Exactly, the man's an idiot, especially this gem "The United States' high-technology, high-price, and high-maintenance weaponry is of relatively little value in such conflicts." What he fails to understand is that it is our high tech overwhelming advantage that forces them to use methods such as IEDs, since we ream their asses in any conventional confrontation.

  • by ockers ( 7928 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @08:39PM (#38533696) Homepage

    "...very expensive gadgets that are often based on unsound technology and frequently fail to perform as required..." Somehow this reminds me of the new TSA budget too.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 29, 2011 @08:44PM (#38533762)

    "I mention this because TFA specifically brings it up. The military did a missile test that failed, and called it a success because it was the first of it's kind, and now they know what went wrong and how to fix it."

    No, the article doesn't say that at all. The article says: "When the $100 million test of a ground-based missile defense system failed PDF in 1997, the contractors called it a "success" because there were no benchmarks." You're making things up, which means I probably shouldn't have bothered to read the rest of your post, but I did anyway.

    The issue is that the government spends too much money doing "research" that isn't actually research. The military is treating piss-poor engineering projects as "research" when they are, in fact, projects. It's the equivalent of Boeing spending an enormous amount of money on a new plane and calling it "research" rather then "building a new plane". There is a difference because building something new based on already proven principles is not research, even if it is an improvement over a previous device.

    The entire article says that there is not enough money spent on actual research and too much spent on things disguised as research.

  • by arisvega ( 1414195 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @08:45PM (#38533766)

    If you are going to link to an article as a means of making a point, it's often best to read the article.

    I think that statistically, this doesn't happen much here.

  • Re:R&D (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SETIGuy ( 33768 ) * on Thursday December 29, 2011 @08:57PM (#38533886) Homepage

    Does free software count as a very expensive gadget? I know many form of R&D that use existing gadgets based on sound technology. Just because it's never been done before doesn't mean you need a $50M laser to do it.

    A because of the lack of oversight in the DOD, questionable research gets done. But I'm not going to say that's entirely a bad thing. NSF and NASA are open to Congressional questioning about every dollar. Some Congressman is going to use important research to win political points if there's anything unusual about it. (The most famous recent case being "Effects of Major Oil Spills on the Multibillion Dollar Gulf Shrimp Industry", which is known to imbeciles as "Shrimp on a Treadmill") If someone at the Naval Research Lab or the Army Research Lab is doing the exact same thing, you'll never hear about it. The downside it there are ventures that don't have a chance in hell of working or finding anything new that get funded.

    But as a researcher, if I were trying to launch a climate research instrument, for example, I'd probably be looking for opportunities on military spacecraft rather than NASA spacecraft. If a 4-star General goes to the Hill and tells Congress we need to be prepared for the strategic implications of global warming, they listen intently. If the NASA administrator says the same thing, they'll tell him we can't possibly know anything about the climate, and then cancel the project to make sure.

  • by bigsexyjoe ( 581721 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @09:10PM (#38534016)
    I think one of Obama's best ideas was to have DoD do research on solar energy. Like many of his talking points, it was not implemented.

    What does solar energy have to do with defense? Well, nothing. But you know what? We have a giant defense infrastructure and do you really think we can take it apart easily? No, we should just re-purpose it.

    The US economy is based on Military Keynesianism. (Which is an economic policy based on the acknowledgement that the New Deal works, but Americans hate all that mushy helping people bullshit. The drawback of implementing Keynesianism through military spending is that it generally does not produce anything of value, so it is a policy based on the broken window fallacy. ) If they take apart military spending overnight, the whole world's economy will collapse, so they just need to shift it.
  • No kidding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @09:11PM (#38534032)

    The thing to attack in terms of defense spending is wasteful spending, or just over all spending levels. There are plenty of times when the military buys or develops things it doesn't need, or gets ripped off by contractors. Also you can make a very valid argument that we simply have more military than we need, that we should downsize it and spend less.

    However that the R&D gadgets often fail? Well duh. The military is willing to do real, long term, R&D which often means a ton of failures before you have success. It can be very lengthy, expensive, have lots of false starts, and so. That is life when you are doing long term research.

    However for all that, we get things that are often useful, and not just to the military. GPS and the Internet would be the two greatest recent examples. GPS in particular because it was the kind of thing no private enterprise would try. Massively expensive and hard to do, and yet now it is the navigation system used the world 'round, everything else is a fallback for if GPS fails. It is so important that Europe has recognized the need for one outside of US control and for all that the technical and monetary challenges have been enough they STILL haven't gotten theirs working. Yet the military did it, and back when nobody had done it before.

    I don't mind failures in any R&D. They happen. All I mind is waste. If the military tries to develop something it needs, like say a better rifle, and fails, I'm ok with that. I'm ok with them continuing to try until they get it right. Where I get annoyed is if the military spends money on something they don't need, or more often if contractors rip them off on the things they get.

  • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @09:12PM (#38534044)
    In other words someone just discovered that R&D is not merely basic scientific research but also engineering.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 29, 2011 @09:15PM (#38534060)

    Riiiight ..

    Because there could NEVER be corrupt generals involved in procurement / budgeting - only legislators.

    Everyone in the army is on the up & up. 100%.

    good one!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 29, 2011 @09:50PM (#38534358)

    Alternative energy such as solar power has a lot to do with defense. Nearly everything runs on oil and if something happened in the middle east and we lost our main oil supply it would only be a matter of time before our economy collapsed when gas prices go through the roof. This is why we are spending so much to keep peace in the middle east now, imagine if we took that money and put it towards R&D on other alternative sources of fuel and came up with something that worked just as well as oil. We wouldn't give a f*ck what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan or South America and would save all the money from all these wars.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 29, 2011 @10:25PM (#38534652)

    I've been part of the military-industrial complex for the past ten years. The real waste is not in risky projects that sometimes fail. We need more of that, especially as today's wars wind down and we reset the force to handle a full spectrum of threats and missions, from terrorism to a major conflict with a "near peer" competitor like China or Russia.

    The real waste is in the mind-numbing, innovation-stifling bureaucracy. For every person (usually a contractor, despite the bad press) trying to actually *do* something, there are 10 people (government and contractor) worrying about budgets, funding, politics, endless layers of architecture and governance, ineffective security protocols, and, most of all, territorial "rice bowls." Almost every time I've tried to actually *do* something, I would promptly run into someone who claimed that it was their responsibility:

    "OK, great! The war fighters I'm supporting need a thing that does exactly that. What do you have?"

    "I have this PowerPoint presentation that shows my charter, my org chart, my budget, my made-up timeline, and some hand-waving architectural diagrams that don't even meet the [overwrought] DODAF standards never mind speak to the actual need."

    "What about the actual [widget]?"

    "It should be done in 2017."

    At this point, an actual military officer (not a civilian bureaucrat), usually with boots-on-the-ground combat experience, points out that the present wars will be over in 2017. He already knows that I could build a 70% solution in a few weeks if people would just get out of the way. We depart, shaking our heads in disgust.

    But woe be unto us if we try to solve our own problem or find someone else to help us. The bureaucrat, marking time until his retirement in 2016, safely before his project craters in 2017, will raise holy hell: "Hey, it's my job to not do that!"

    The lack of technical guidance and leadership is also appalling. Some new initiatives are improving this, but too often there are no concrete guidelines at a hands-on technical level to even follow. The technical leadership role is in the hands of career bureaucrats who know their way around the org chart, but haven't a clue about the tech. Compare this to an environment like Google App Engine or the various Web 2.0/Web services ecosystems around Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and the like where your options are clear, there is tangible guidance on what you can and cannot do, and can often go from zero to an end-to-end proof-of-concept in a few days, if not hours.

    I've tried to help, but I can't stomach it anymore and am executing a "strategic re-deployment" to the Internet/mobile consumer and professional market, where innovation and agility is welcomed, nigh demanded, instead of smothered.

  • Biggest problem (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Fuzzums ( 250400 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @11:33PM (#38535112) Homepage

    The biggest problem is it's used to destroy stuff, not to build things up, heal or cure.
    I don't mean this to troll or flame. It goes for any "defence" budget.
    It's money I'd rather see spent on healthcare, education, science.
    Hell. Even handing out food to those who really need it is a better use of that money.

  • by demachina ( 71715 ) on Friday December 30, 2011 @02:04AM (#38535908)

    The Air Force in partnership with Lockjeed has been on a parabolic trajectory of extravagent spending, waste and abuse. The F-15 was a little extravagant, the F-22 was really extravagent especially on per unit cost and the F-35 is insane primarily because some idiot decided to make every service use basically the same air frame for everything so the price tag would be at least $1 trillion though they are already starting to talk about slashing the numbers produced. If everyone is using one airplane what happens when it gets grounded like the F-22 has been reacently because of its oxygen problems.

    Someone realized you don't actually need EVERY plane in your inventory to be an expensive 5th generation stealth model especially when most of the time they are bombing mud huts in Afghanistan.

    The Israeli's are making contingency plans to buy used American F-15's because they are losing confidence in the F-35 being delivered in a reasonable time, in a functioning state and at a price anyone can afford. The F-15 is still good enough for air to air for just about everything short of an all out war between the U.S., China and or Russia which is fairly improbable in the nuclear age. The Navy is starting to look at a new version of the F-18 for the same reason.

How many NASA managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? "That's a known problem... don't worry about it."