During the presidential campaign, the importance of advances in military technology made a surprisingly high-profile appearance, when President Obama made his now-famous quip that, yes, the United States has fewer ships than it did in 1916, but it also has "fewer horses and bayonets." Beneath the zinger was an important point: quality can matter more than quantity, capabilities can matter more than numbers. But the reason the United States has been able to go from horses and bayonets to, as Obama put it, "these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines" is that the Pentagon has long invested a percentage of its budget in basic science and technology. That legacy is now under threat amid budget cuts and the pressure to invest in programs that have immediate economic payoff -- an approach that could have dire consequences for military innovation. As he enters budget negotiations, here are five things President Obama needs to remember if he doesn't want to leave a legacy of bayonets.
1) Protect the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (and remember that DARPA is an agency, not a slogan). DARPA is the Pentagon's far-forward-looking research and development arm, currently involved in everything from flying cars to a secretive "Plan X" to help the Pentagon wage cyberwar. Unlike the military services, where research is often focused on specific requirements, DARPA's mandate is to look far out into the future, investing in science and technology that may not pay off for years. During the presidential campaign, the agency proved popular with both candidates: Mitt Romney's energy plan, called "Believe in America," even made direct reference to the agency, saying the DARPA model, which provides "long-term, non-political sources of funding for a wide variety of competing, early-stage technologies," should be applied to energy. Obama has also heaped praise on DARPA and its model of innovation. But talk is cheap, and DARPA's large discretionary budget makes it an attractive target for cuts. DARPA's continuing success relies on protecting its funding and independence. While the administration was praised for only modest reducing its 2013 budget request for DARPA -- to $2.8 billion -- that number is still substantially less than four years prior, when the request was $3.3 billion.
2) Set long-term research goals (and remember that long-term doesn't mean right now): The Pentagon's science and technology cadre thrive on ambitious goals, particularly those set by the president, whether in the space program or computing. But those goals must be long-term, and by their nature, they will not always have an immediate political payoff. Obama appeared last year at Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh, praising a DARPA project that seeks to crowd-source manufacturing of military vehicles, a clear hat tip to his message about job creation: "As futuristic and, let's face it, as cool as some of this stuff is, as much as we are planning for America's future, this partnership is about new, cutting-edge ideas to create new jobs, spark new breakthroughs, reinvigorate American manufacturing today. Right now." Of course, "right now" is precisely not what long-term research is usually about: the idea is that the country invest in basic research today in the hopes of reaping technological and economic payoffs that may be years away. The president should set clear goals in key military technology areas, such as cybersecurity, aviation, and space -- and stick to them.