In This Issue
Science Technology & Military Experimentation
June 1, 2001 Volume 31 Issue 2

Renewal of the Military-Service Laboratories

Friday, June 1, 2001

Author: Walter E. Morrow, Jr.

Changes in personnel policies will be key to ensuring the high quality of military-service laboratories in the future.

As the new Bush administration formulates its national security policies, it would do well to review the state of the military-service laboratories, which have declined to the point that their ability to provide future military technologies to U.S. forces is no longer assured. During World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, military-service laboratories made important contributions to advances in military technology, including the initial development of radar, night-vision systems, carrier aviation, and computer-based flight control systems. A few military-service laboratories achieved worldwide recognition and even produced several Nobel Prize winners. However, in recent years, the capabilities of these laboratories have been severely diminished.

Some people mistakenly assume that tremendous technology advances in the civil sector can more than make up for the decreasing capabilities of military-service laboratories. However, a number of critical military technologies are not being addressed by developments in civil-sector technology. In addition, most civil-sector technological developments have a relatively short-term focus on evolutionary improvements and do not address potential quantum jumps in technology that could be vital to the country’s future national security. Strengthening the military-service laboratory system is vital to the national security of the United States. In the discussion that follows, the problems besetting the current system are discussed, and suggestions for overcoming them are offered.

The military-service laboratory system, which is derived from organizations and facilities that were set up over the past century, now numbers approximately 100 separate facilities spread geographically over the entire country. Guidance on the overall operation and focus of this large laboratory system is provided by the Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), which is part of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The laboratories are administrated, however, by separate military services with three different management systems. In recent years, the services have tended to unify their physically separate laboratories under single names, such as the Army Research Laboratory or the Air Force Research Laboratory. For the most part, however, they continue to operate in their original locations and with their original technical focus. The exception is the Navy, which has maintained the Naval Research Laboratory as a separate entity but has incorporated the rest of its research organizations into its acquisition centers, which are responsible for procuring systems.

The overall population of the military-service laboratories reached a peak of about 23,000 during the 1980s Cold War buildup. Since then, as a result of cutbacks in personnel, the number has dropped to about 14,400, a decline of about 35 percent (DSBTF, 2000c). In the process, support personnel were reduced in greater numbers than the professional staff.

The civil service personnel system has greatly compounded the problem. Because of civil service seniority regulations, the forced reductions in personnel have been focused mostly on younger staff. At the same time, an uncompetitive civil service salary structure has made it next to impossible to hire recent graduates with advanced degrees in important new technologies. The result has been a steady increase in the average age of the professional staff. As older staff members retire, the laboratories are likely to face significant difficulties in filling their positions. In addition, civil service system regulations make it extremely difficult to remove unproductive professional staff.

While these laboratories have shrunk in size, funding has decreased dramatically (although some funds have been restored in the last few years). Only a modest fraction of this funding supports research and technology development inside the military-service laboratories. The larger portion supports research carried out by industry and university laboratories. The supervision of a great deal of this extramural research and development is the responsibility of the military-service laboratory staff. Thus, the managerial burden on the staff has increased at the same time that its numbers have decreased.

The combination of staff reductions, civil service personnel system regulations, and increased contracting responsibilities has had a serious adverse impact. Although the laboratories continue to produce important new military technologies, recent output, as measured by the development of breakthrough capabilities for U.S. military forces, the publication of technical papers, recognition by professional societies, and appointments to the National Academy of Engineering, has been significantly reduced compared to the output of industry and university research organizations (DSBTF, 1998, 2000c). The concern now is to restore the capabilities of the military-service laboratory system.

The success of any laboratory system requires a clear focus on meeting the goals of the organization. In that sense, military-service laboratories are no different from industry laboratories. Military-service laboratories are, of course, primarily focused on meeting the needs of today’s, and especially tomorrow’s, military forces. Because of the large size (roughly three times the size of the largest industrial organizations) and complicated structure of the U.S. military, the developers and users of military technologies are widely separated, which makes it difficult for the users to communicate their needs to the research and development organizations. By contrast, in most successful private-sector companies, marketing, research, product development, testing, and production organizations are closely involved, both physically and organizationally. This close physical proximity encourages feedback on development and production problems to research professionals and facilitates the transfer of research findings into new products and systems.

In both industry and military-service technology development, activities can be divided into two classes: (1) applied research (evolutionary improvements to current capabilities); and (2) basic research (revolutionary technologies with longer time horizons). Because of tight budgets, most military and industry research today is focused on short-term, evolutionary programs. Commercial organizations can obtain nearly continuous feedback on the value of improvements in terms of market share and profits. But success for U.S. military research can only be measured by the outcome of military conflicts.

To remedy this difficult situation, it has been suggested that approximately one-third of military science and technology programs be focused on the development and field testing of revolutionary military technologies; the remainder would be focused on improvements to current equipment and force concepts. The military services should also take maximum advantage of civilian research, which is funded at much higher levels than military research. However, in some areas, such as intelligent systems, robotics, and advanced propulsion systems, the military should be a major research investor, civilian research notwithstanding. To test the effectiveness of futuristic military technologies and operational concepts, the military should make maximum use of realistic computer simulations coupled with experimental field engagements between specialized combat forces equipped with advanced capabilities and realistic opposing forces.

Conceiving, promoting, and managing research on revolutionary military technologies requires unusually strong leaders. Historically, such individuals have been military officers with strong technological backgrounds as well as operational combat experience. However, recent reductions in military forces have naturally emphasized the retention of officers with combat experience, which has resulted in a substantial decline in the numbers of innovative, technologically trained officers. In the future, more technically qualified officers should be identified and retained.

Funding for military-service laboratories is principally derived from the defense science and technology budget. In the early 1990s, such funding reached a peak of nearly $10 billion in today’s dollars. Funding proposed in budget submittals had decreased to about $7.4 billion by 1998. A study by the Defense Science Board found that the DOD science and technology budget as a percentage of total DOD funding was much lower than the percentage for typical high-technology industries (DSBTF, 2000c). For this reason, and because of concerns about the future military capabilities of U.S. military forces, Congress has increased the science and technology appropriation levels by more than a billion dollars in the last few years.

Only a modest fraction, perhaps 20 percent, of this funding, however, is used to support the military-service laboratories. The rest flows to industry and university laboratories, as well as to laboratories of other government departments (DSBTF, 2000c). Of the 20 percent, only a portion goes to fund research actually carried out by the military-service laboratories. The rest supports research in other laboratories, principally industry laboratories. Projects outsourced to industries and universities are managed by military-service laboratory staff. Therefore, even though current funding should be more than adequate to support the current, downsized military-service laboratory system, only a fraction of the funding is used for this purpose. Serious concerns have arisen about whether the laboratories still have the skilled technical management, high-quality professional staff, sufficient technical support personnel, and adequate technical facilities to carry out their own research. These issues are central to the productivity of the military-service laboratories.

DDR&E provides broad guidance on the level and focus of the science and technology program. In the last few decades, management has increasingly devolved from the services to OSD. Approximately one-half of the total science and technology program is under the control of OSD. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) administers about half of the OSD-controlled portion.

In the past decade, it has been suggested that the management of the entire defense science and technology program be put under the control of OSD, as it is in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. After careful consideration, the current arrangement has been retained because it allows the individual services to focus on evolutionary improvements in current systems and allows the OSD-managed portion of the program to be focused on exploring potential revolutionary military technologies that could dramatically change the capabilities of future U.S. military forces. However, the current management system has several problems.

First, recruiting and retaining capable research and development managers for directing both the OSD portion of the program and the military-service programs is extremely difficult under the civil service personnel system. DARPA has overcome this problem to a considerable extent by using private-sector professional staff.

Second, the current management system reinforces the separation between combat forces (the users of new technologies) and the laboratories (the developers of new technologies). Because of the size and physical location of combat forces, communication with the military-service laboratories is often difficult. In addition, procedures are often lacking to bring together innovative combat officers and innovative scientists and engineers to explore new military capabilities.

Third, funding for transitioning newly demonstrated military technology to an acquisition program is often lacking, sometimes because total acquisition funding is inadequate and sometimes because funds have been shifted to incremental improvements in current military systems. As a result, the transition of a new technology from demonstration to acquisition is often delayed for long periods of time.

Some solutions for overcoming these problems include: using management personnel provided by the private sector; forming military concept-generation teams of personnel with recent combat experience and innovative scientists and engineers; forming project organizations separate from the established acquisition organizations to implement promising new military capabilities. These organizations would include personnel with both operational and technical backgrounds.

During World War II and the early Cold War periods, the urgency of the national security situation attracted many talented professionals to military research. Since the end of the Cold War, however, there have been fewer incentives for scientific and engineering staff to join the military-service laboratories. In addition, the number of openings for new staff has been drastically reduced. Adding to the problem, because of seniority rules of the civil service personnel system, the major reductions have been in younger staff, and the average age of military-service laboratory staffs has steadily increased.

The adverse impact of the civil service personnel system goes much further than simply its seniority rules. Over the past several decades, studies by several dozen committees (e.g., DSBTF, 1998, 2000a,b,c,d) on the effectiveness of military-service laboratories have virtually all concluded that the civil service personnel system has seriously impeded the recruitment and retention of capable professional staff. The problems are summarized below.

First, the salaries offered under the civil service personnel system are significantly lower than salaries in the private sector. For recent graduates, offers by the government are $10,000 to $20,000 per year lower. For experienced professionals, the difference is much greater—as much as $200,000 per year for directors of large laboratories. Obviously, very few of the best and brightest scientists and engineers are willing to consider taking positions at military-service laboratories.

Second, delays between interviews and offers of a position in a military-service laboratory can extend to months while extensive bureaucratic competitive processes are being completed. Very few prospective employees are willing to wait that long, especially if they receive offers of higher salaries from the private sector in the interim.

Third, promotional opportunities, and the higher salaries that go with them, are extremely limited because of fixed ceilings on the number of higher level grades and positions. As a result, younger staff educated in the most recent technologies are strongly motivated to leave for private-sector employment after a few years.

To address these serious problems in the civil service personnel system, Congress has authorized experiments in personnel policy over the past two decades. These experiments have generally taken the form of broader bands for salary levels, salary increases related to realistic performance appraisals, and rapid offers made at the laboratory level. These changes have been helpful at the margin, but they have never been universally applied, and in the end, they have done little to solve the basic problem. Meaningful reform of the civil service personnel system would require the adoption of salary levels, staff appraisal and promotion processes, and dismissal processes for unproductive staff comparable to those used by industry and university laboratories. In light of past experience, meaningful change in the civil service personnel system seems an unlikely prospect.

Other government departments have addressed this problem by operating laboratories as government-owned contractor-operated (GOCO) facilities. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy laboratories and production facilities are being run by industry and universities with considerable success. Conversion of the military-service laboratories to GOCO operation has been repeatedly recommended to the military services but has been rejected because of the employment security and pension concerns of government employees (e.g., DSBSS, 1987). Considering past rejections, this approach is not likely to be accepted, although a GOCO solution is clearly attractive.

Under the circumstances, the only practical way for the military-service laboratories to recruit and retain a competitive professional staff is to draw on personnel provided by the private sector and to use personnel practices of the private sector, thus avoiding the problems of the civil service personnel system. As government employees retire, the proportion of personnel provided by the private sector could be increased.

Private-sector staff could even be rotated over time back to their parent organizations to ensure that a continual flow of new talent with fresh ideas and skills would be available. The leadership of the military-service laboratories could remain with government employees who could exercise necessary government functions. In time, the leadership might also be drawn from private-sector organizations.

For each technical professional in large industrial and university-associated research laboratories, one or two support personnel are typically provided, either in the form of direct support personnel (e.g., technicians or programmers) or indirect support personnel (e.g., librarians, purchasers, security guards, etc.). At military-service laboratories the situation is very different. Because of recent forced reductions in personnel, these laboratories have focused on retaining professional staff, which has resulted in higher proportional cuts in support staff. The lack of adequate support personnel inevitably undermines the productivity of the professional staff and discourages capable professionals from accepting positions.

Many military-service laboratories are housed in older buildings, some of which date back to World War II or earlier. In addition, in many but not all cases, the technical facilities and equipment are not state of the art. This not only discourages capable professionals from accepting positions but also adversely affects the productivity of the resident professional staff.

To sum up, advances in U.S. military technology are essential if the United States is to remain a guarantor of world security. The U.S. military-service laboratory system will require major changes to restore its former capabilities as a primary source of new military technology.

DSBSS (Defense Science Board Summer Study). 1987. Report of the Defense Science Board Summer Study on Technology Base Management. December. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology.

DSBTF (Defense Science Board Task Force). 1998. Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Defense Science and Technology Base for the 21st Century. June. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology.

DSBTF. 2000a. The Defense Science Board Task Force on Human Resources Strategy. February. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology.

DSBTF. 2000b. The Defense Science Board 1999 Summer Study Task Force on 21st Century Defense Technology Strategies. Vol. 2, Supporting Reports. March. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology.

DSBTF. 2000c. Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on the Technology Capabilities of Non-DOD Providers. June. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology.

DSBTF. 2000d. Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Efficient Utilization of Defense Laboratories. October. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology.

This review was prepared under the Department of the Air Force contract F19628-00-C-0002. Opinions, interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the U.S. Air Force.

About the Author:Walter E. Morrow, Jr., NAE, is director emeritus of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.