Sunday, April 03, 2005

Production for Use 

You have perhaps surmised from the barely-concealed relish with which we bring you admonitory items about the militarization of space, Active Denial Systems, Pulsed Energy Projectiles, and Mechanically-Augmented Neural Transmission/Interception Systems that we are closet techno-fetishists, and so it will come as no surprise to you that Nick Turse's new TomDispatch article "If You Build It, They Will Kill: U.S. Military Weaponry of the Near Future" is right up our kinky little alley. (Best not to speculate what else you'll find up there.) As is traditional at TomDispatch, the introduction (by host Tom Engelhardt) is just as entertaining and informative as the text itself:
The week's cautionary note: Donald Rumsfeld's urge to create the highest tech military in anyone's history may have a few bugs, according to the superb Tim Weiner in a front-page piece for the New York Times (An Army Program to Build a High-Tech Force Hits Costly Snags). The vast program, called Future Combat Systems and overseen by Boeing (which is being paid $21 billion for the honor), is supposed to be "a seamless web of 18 different sets of networked weapons and military robots," including tanks so stripped down in terms of armoring that they can be flown instantly onto the battlefield. The program, initially only meant to arm 15 brigades or about 3,000 soldiers is, Army officials told Weiner, "a technological challenge as complicated as putting an astronaut on the moon." And as Paul L. Francis, the acquisition and sourcing management director for the Government Accountability Office commented, it is "a network of 53 crucial technologies… and 52 are unproven."

Think our Star Wars missile-defense system that, endless billions of dollars later, in test after test against mock-enemy missiles turns out to be incapable of hitting the broad side of a barn. Already the crucial Joint Tactical Radio Systems, known as JTRS (or "jitters"), which is slated to link the robots and humans of Future Combat Systems into one battlefield Megatron-like beast, doesn't work and production on the first set of radios has been halted.

Speaking of "jitters," Congressional supporters of just about any Pentagon weapons system that comes down the pike, are getting edgy indeed when it comes to Future Combat Systems, which, at an estimated $145 billion or more, threatens to burst the congressional piggybank -- something of a Bush administration specialty in so many different areas. (Best line in the Weiner piece: "They said this month that they did not know if they could build a tank light enough to fly." I thought the line was, "… if pigs could fly," but I stand corrected) . . . .

Nick Turse reminds us below that, however bad the times may be for American tanks or troops, it's springtime for ever-conglomerating American munitions makers. For them, and not just for the makers of the most futuristic weaponry either, the future beckons like a soaring Pentagon budget, like a strobe light at the end of an ever-darkening tunnel. After all, as Guy Dinsmore of the Financial Times reported just the other day (
US draws up list of unstable countries):
"The US intelligence community is drawing up a secret watch-list of 25 countries where instability might precipitate US intervention, according to officials in charge of a new [State Department] office set up to co-ordinate planning for nation-building and conflict prevention… Conceived out of the acknowledged failure of postwar reconstruction efforts in Iraq, the new State Department office amounts to recognition by the Bush administration that it needs to get better at nation- building - a concept it once scorned as social work disguised as foreign policy."
And keep in mind that that's just what's happening in the once-scorned State Department on a budget of virtual pennies. Don't even think about the interventionary planning going on in a place where you can imagine producing weaponry systems based on 52 unproven technologies.
UPDATE (via our distinguished colleague Jerome Doolittle at Bad Attitudes): "Blue-sky" research is taking a hit under Bush as DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) shifts its focus away from university spending toward "more classified work and narrowly defined projects that promise a more immediate payoff":
Hundreds of research projects supported by the agency, known as Darpa, have paid off handsomely in recent decades, leading not only to new weapons, but to commercial technologies from the personal computer to the Internet. The agency has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to basic software research, too, including work that led to such recent advances as the Web search technologies that Google and others have introduced.

The shift away from basic research is alarming many leading computer scientists and electrical engineers, who warn that there will be long-term consequences for the nation's economy. They are accusing the Pentagon of reining in an agency that has played a crucial role in fostering America's lead in computer and communications technologies . . . .

University researchers, usually reluctant to speak out, have started quietly challenging the agency's new approach. They assert that Darpa has shifted a lot more work in recent years to military contractors, adopted a focus on short-term projects while cutting support for basic research, classified formerly open projects as secret and placed new restrictions on sharing information . . . .

University scientists assert that the changes go even further than what Darpa has disclosed. As financing has dipped, the remaining research grants come with yet more restrictions, they say, often tightly linked to specific "deliverables" that discourage exploration and serendipitous discoveries.

Many grants also limit the use of graduate students to those who hold American citizenship, a rule that hits hard in computer science, where many researchers are foreign.

"Virtually every aspect of information technology upon which we rely today bears the stamp of federally sponsored university research," said Ed Lazowska, a computer scientist at the University of Washington and co-chairman of the advisory panel. "The federal government is walking away from this role, killing the goose that laid the golden egg."

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