Tough Choices: NRC Committee Receives Briefing on Defense S&T Spending

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Publication date: 
3 February 2000


Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Science and Technology) Delores Etter used "broken," "devastating," and "dead" in her briefing last week to a National Research Council committee to describe the impacts of past and future cuts to defense science and technology. Etter was speaking to the NRC Committee on Review of the DOD Air and Space Systems Science & Technology Program.

This was the second meeting of this committee, which was mandated by the defense authorization act of 1999. In response to congressional concerns that 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3 spending was being cut too deeply, Congress required the establishment of an independent committee to recommend the appropriate level of defense S&T.

Of particular concern to many on Capitol Hill is the decline in the amount spent by the Air Force on S&T (6.1, 6.2, and 6.3). The Air Force's allocation for S&T is 1.4% of its FY 2000 budget, as compared to 1.9% for the Army and 1.7% for the Navy. The Air Force has been historically the most technology-driven of the three services.

Etter briefed the committee for about one hour. She highlighted basic research and the development and implementation of a DOD master plan for propulsion as two of her office's highest priorities. Etter expressed great concern about the level of investment in propulsion S&T, saying the "programs are broken unless we do something about them." These programs, which she used the word "dead" in describing, did not see funding reductions occur "overnight" she said. Etter added that it will be "devastating" if the current trends continue. DOD is seeking to reverse this situation with a requested increase of $55 million for FY 2001. Etter cautioned committee members that an increase of this magnitude is likely to draw attention, and could be rejected.

In response to a question, Etter could not fully explain why Air Force R&D program funding is so low. She suggested that in final budget meetings, "when really tough decisions are made," critical determinations are made by senior officials who do not have extensive experience with S&T issues. She repeatedly stressed the importance of stability in funding, saying that a program could not just be turned back on with money. Too often, she said, Air Force R&D is used as a "bill payer" for other programs.

The NRC committee also heard from a representative of the Air Force's Space Platforms Defense Technology Area Plan Panel. One of the first exhibits featured a statement by Defense Secretary William Cohen in a 1997 letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS): "We cannot afford to mortgage our future by making the S&T program a bill payer for near-term requirements. Technological superiority has been and continues to be one of the foundations of our national military strategy." Echoing Etter's comments, another exhibit noted that "Instability in DoD space S&T funding is playing havoc with programs and morale." Budget instability has made it difficult to retain qualified people in government labs, the presenter explained.

Both speakers cited the funding recommendations contained in the1998 report by the Defense Science Board Task Force on Defense S&T Base. While the task force could not formulate an objective approach to determine the right level of funding, it found that defense S&T spending did not compare favorably to that of high technology corporations in the private sector.

The S&T funding problem is a component of a larger funding problem confronting the Department of Defense, as illustrated by an article in today's Washington Post. In an article, "For U.S. Aviators, Readiness Woes are a 2-Front Struggle," budget-driven parts shortages encountered by the Air Force and the Coast Guard are described. Last year the General Accounting Office issued a report stating that in two years Air Force personnel spent 178,000 hours cannibalizing parts from B1-bombers, F-16s, and C-5 transports for installation in other planes to get them back into the air.

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