U.S. Defense Labs Brace for a Blast

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, June 03, 2003 at 10:41AM :

Dream headline would be: U.S. Cuts Back on Defense Labs to Put More Money into Education & Environment.
May 30, 2003
Volume 300: 1361-1362.

U.S. Defense Labs Brace for a Blast From Their Bosses
David Malakoff

Pentagon planners aim to close up to 25% of military facilities over the next 3 years. They are taking an especially hard look at the sprawling network of defense R&D labs
On their recent dash to Baghdad, U.S. military forces were aided by some of the Pentagon's most advanced gear, including powerful explosives and sophisticated sensors developed by scientists and engineers at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. U.S. Navy researchers in California and Virginia also played a role, as did U.S. Army engineers in several states. To defense research advocates, that scientific overlap helps ensure victory on the battlefield. But some Pentagon officials see it as overkill--duplication that the Department of Defense's (DOD's) $11 billion science and technology enterprise can no longer afford.

Over the next 3 years, Pentagon leaders plan to shed up to one-quarter of U.S. military bases and R&D facilities and consolidate some of their activities. The goal will be to free up billions of dollars for other uses, from new weapons to higher pay. Four previous post-Cold War downsizings have already axed nearly 400 facilities, including about 60 research, engineering, and test centers and 30,000 technical workers. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld predicts that this round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) could be as big as all the prior rounds combined. And a recently leaked memo suggests that the Pentagon could dramatically reshape its more than 80 research-related facilities, which this year will spend more than $5 billion on basic and applied research into everything from new artillery shells to better bioterror defenses. "The defense labs weren't seriously touched in the previous rounds, so you've got to believe that there are going to be some substantial changes this time," says Paul Hirsch, a BRAC specialist and president of Madison Government Affairs, a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.

Other Pentagon watchers, however, aren't convinced that Rumsfeld will get his way. Many members of Congress are fighting the new BRAC round to protect their districts from potentially huge economic losses. Host communities have already begun to hire pricey consultants to advise them on ways to "BRAC proof" their facilities. And they have history on their side. Turf battles, disagreements over how to evaluate and compare facilities, and the reluctance of top science talent to move to new surroundings have stalled previous consolidation initiatives.

In New Mexico, a coalition of state and local officials is already working to protect Kirtland, which barely survived the last BRAC process in 1995. The lumbering World War II bombers it was built to serve 60 years ago are long gone, but Kirtland has metamorphosed into a mecca for high-tech weapons and homeland security R&D. It boasts Air Force directorates working on advanced optics and futuristic directed energy weapons, such as airborne lasers, as well as a Pentagon-wide program to improve computer simulations of everything from missile tests to electronic warfare. The Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratory also opened behind Kirtland's gates in 1949, and a slew of high-tech firms have sprouted nearby. State officials estimate that the base funnels about $2 billion annually into the local economy, creating 20,000 jobs.


In the spotlight. The Pentagon will be closely examining its R&D centers, such as this advanced optics facility in New Mexico.


To keep Kirtland open, however, backers must convince the Pentagon that the base's several thousand R&D-related employees do work that can't be done elsewhere. The Navy and Army, for instance, run some similar applied science programs, and academia and industry have traditionally argued that they could take on much of the work now done by government employees. But supporters hope the Pentagon will develop special criteria for evaluating its R&D operations that create a level playing field for Kirtland and other research-heavy bases. "You can't weigh the value of an [applied] technical center the way you would a strategic air wing or a basic research laboratory," says Michael Hogan, president of MassDevelopment, Massachusetts's economic development authority. He is active in efforts to protect Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, another Air Force facility with technical know-how.

The lack of suitable yardsticks helped doom previous consolidation efforts. During the 1995 BRAC, for instance, Pentagon leaders concluded that there was about 35% "excess capacity" in defense labs after examining workloads and trends in total work hours at various labs. But that "methodology was flawed ... it unrealistically treated scientists and engineers as interchangeable, conveyable, replicable items--such as hospital beds and hangar space," concluded Don DeYoung, a research fellow at the Pentagon's National Defense University, in a recent paper.* The experience, DeYoung says, suggests that "the only viable metric for evaluating a laboratory is its track record" of results.

Kirtland advocates believe that they have delivered the goods, citing work through the years on synthetic aperture radar and devices for detecting and disarming explosives. "Kirtland has created a lot of technology for both military and [civilian] uses," says Charles Thomas, a Sandia manager and leader of the Kirtland Partnership, a pro-base advocacy group.

Kirtland and Hanscom also see themselves as potential beneficiaries of Rumsfeld's insistence that the three services unify similar R&D efforts. Hogan, for instance, suggests that Hanscom could easily accommodate similar research and technology purchasing programs from other services. "We've got the red carpet out," he says.

A trump card for Kirtland and Hanscom may be their skilled workforces and links to surrounding labs. "If they decided tomorrow to move Hanscom to Ohio, most of the physicists and scientists working at [Massachusetts Institute of Technology and nearby companies] probably wouldn't go," says Hogan. And any move could compound current Pentagon difficulties in recruiting new technical talent. "It's easier to move a [fighter jet] wing than R&D," agrees Hirsch.

It's not clear how such arguments will play with Pentagon brass and the independent commission that will make final closure recommendations in 2005. But a memo leaked last October has already stirred up some defense R&D advocates. In it, DOD Deputy Undersecretary Michael Wynne concluded that the major defense "labs are out of favor and ... their overall utility is in question." To solve the problem, he recommended appointing an internal commission that would identify "those laboratories that are imperative for defense to retain," close or privatize the rest, and then combine "the remnants" into a DOD-wide research facility--a long-controversial concept. The memo has helped "spark discussion" and "renewed attention to the labs," Wynne reported wryly at a Senate hearing last month.

The episode suggests that the Pentagon's political leaders are aiming to "manage the BRAC process with an iron hand" and not allow the turf-conscious services to shelter favorite facilities, says Steve Karalekas, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant working on the Hanscom campaign. "There isn't going to be anywhere [for the labs] to hide."

That prospect doesn't bother Kirtland advocates, who are inviting BRAC planners to take a close, hard look. They hope to emerge stronger from a process that may prune sister facilities that fail to show that Uncle Sam needs them, too.

* "The Silence of the Labs," Defense Horizons, National Defense University, January 2003 (www.ndu.edu/inss/DefHor/DH21/DH21.pdf).

-- Sadie
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