In This Issue
Engineering Achievements
September 1, 2000 Volume 30 Issue 3/4

Science, Technology, and Military Experimentation, Editorial

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Anita K. Jones

Maintaining a military advantage based on superior technology has been and will continue to be a keystone of U.S. military strategy. For that reason, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) funds a science and technology (S&T) program. For decades, entirely new military capabilities have arisen from discoveries of new knowledge and new technology. Stealth aircraft, satellite imaging, unpiloted air vehicles, and night vision were all revolutionary-initially in terms of new scientific knowledge and technology and later in terms of the military tactics and strategies devised to exploit them. Sustained investment in S&T is driven by, and is justified by, results.

From the point of view of the military, a technology is of value only if a useful military capability can be built from it. Therefore, experimentation is a critical part of the development of a new technology. Experiments test candidate technologies alone and as components in new systems. Experiments facilitate the transition of a device from operation in the laboratory to operation as a component or system in the field. But most important, experiments challenge the military to find new ways of using technologies, in effect to create new military capabilities. Experimentation is quite different from the engineering testing that DOD already performs very well.

Experimentation has proven to be difficult, however, for several reasons. First, militarily realistic experimentation is expensive because it involves building multiple copies of risky new devices that embody unproven technologies. Second, proper experimentation is time consuming because it requires that devices be used over a period of time and with different tactics or procedures to determine how they work best. Therefore, experimentation requires a substantial budget. Current S&T budgets fund some experimentation but not enough, and funds for experimentation, especially high-risk experimentation, are hard to find elsewhere in the services' budgets. Appropriate people are even more difficult to find. Creating innovative new concepts for "fighting a system" requires thoughtful military personnel who are willing to invest substantial time in an activity that may or may not be successful. In the current climate, this is not considered helpful to a military career.

Third, because we fight jointly, experiments should be conducted jointly, and current "joint budgets" for experimentation are miniscule. DOD budgets are allocated predominantly to one military department or another. In addition, DOD acquisition processes, which are designed to freeze all attributes of the system being developed as early as possible, cannot accommodate the kind of experimentation I've described. In fact, they actually preclude early experimentation. In addition, the services fear they may lose congressional budget support if experiments fail.

One challenge to the new administration will be to establish adequate budgets and the will to support meaningful experimentation. Experimentation should become "mainstream," part of routine service/DOD processes. The Army's program called Digitization of the Battlefield is an admirable step in the right direction, but joint experimentation must be well funded and encouraged.

Two of the papers in this issue focus on new military capabilities that will be enabled by technology: a ballistic missile defense system and alternatives to antipersonnel landmines that would avoid killing or maiming noncombatants. Neither would rely on a single technology. Both would combine environmental sensing and sophisticated identification and tracking algorithms to determine precisely when and where military action should be taken. Both would also require new weapons.

Both military capabilities would require the integration of multiple technologies to create complex systems. They illustrate the kind of situation in which military experimentation, ideally joint experimentation, should be conducted. Experimentation would involve the construction of early versions of system components without locking in requirements that would freeze component attributes for the future. Thoughtful, innovative military personnel would define and perform a series of experiments to evaluate the military value of candidate systems using alternative tactics and procedures. In the process, the technical and human-use attributes of the new components would most likely be altered. In addition, new doctrine would be crisply and clearly defined much earlier than it is now. I would also expect that joint experimentation would reveal incompatibilities among the systems fielded by different services much earlier and that they could be made interoperable at a more reasonable cost. In short, the benefits of routine, robust, joint experimentation would far exceed its cost.

About the Author:Anita K. Jones is the Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. She was director of Defense Research and Engineering, U.S. Department of Defense, from 1993 to 1997.