December 12, 2010 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

U.S. Must Gird For War in Very Small Places

It was the 1950s, and the Air Force had a problem.

The brass were responsible for building a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But state-of-the-art electronics just didn't cut it. Even the most advanced circuits were too heavy, too big, and not nearly dependable enough.

The brass needed something that didn't exist, an integrated chip. So they did what they usually did in such circumstances: They turned to scientists to work out a solution.

The scientists delivered. In 1962, mass-produced silicon chips were loaded into Air Force computers and the new Minuteman missile.

Through most of the Cold War, the Pentagon pioneered technological innovations that gave the United States a huge advantage over its competitors. From nuclear weapons to computers, advanced electronics and stealth technology, government research and development dwarfed the private sector. In turn, military technologies were commercialized. Today's iPads and iPods are descendents of the chips created for the Minuteman.

But the modern world operates quite differently. Today, private-sector research expenditures far exceed those of government. And it's the private sector that pioneers most of the truly significant breakthroughs -- from biotechnology to cybercommunications.

Struggling to keep up, the military often just adopts "commercial off-the-shelf" technologies for military use. But sometimes even the modern marvels of commercial industry can't meet military needs.

In today's Army, for example, the same challenges -- power, weight and cost -- pop up over and over again regardless of the task. Soldiers want equipment that is almost weightless, can be powered by almost nothing, costs pennies, and works anywhere.

Overcoming these challenges would give our military the kind of edge it used to enjoy. And the way to do it is by exploiting nanotechnology. "Nano" refers to scale. It means building materials and systems that are really small -- on the molecular and atomic level. On a nanoscale, a nano-Earth would be the size of a marble.

Nanotechnology has almost infinite military applications from lightweight, superstrong materials to machines that can think.

The United States leads the world in nano-science, but that lead is nar?rowing fast. Our private sector can't plunge much further into nano-industries, given the current economic climate. But that could change rapidly, with a little help from Washington.

In high-tech manufacturing, the main cost issue is tech investment -- something quite sensitive to tax and regulatory policy. If federal policymakers lowered the cost of capital -- by reducing taxes on capital gains and dividends, as well as corporate income taxes -- it would stimulate capital investment in a variety of promising technologies. And few, if any, are more promising than nanotechnology.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon should rethink its nanotechnology investment strategy. Right now, it researches to develop things, such as nano-clays that strengthen lightweight armor. The problem, however, is that there is no manufacturing base to crank out new systems.

The Pentagon should pivot right now to help foster the development of nanotechnology manufacturing infrastructure. That way, the Defense Department can incorporate innovations into its equipment -- quickly and cheaply -- as soon as the innovations emerge.

The Pentagon has done this before. In the 1980s, the Defense Research Projects Agency helped set up Sematech, a consortium of U.S. semiconductor companies called to resolve common manufacturing challenges. The military should do the same for nanotechnology manufacturing.

Taking nanotechnology seriously could single-handedly change the future for the better. Washington can build a military with cutting-edge capabilities at affordable cost, while laying the groundwork for a U.S. nanotechnology industry.

It's an industry capable of revolutionizing and expanding the U.S. economy over the next generation just as fully as the wonders of the information-age revolution have changed our world over the past generation.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Examiner