Technology does not win wars or make nations safe. The search
for security is shaped by larger cultural, economic, and
political factors and strategic choices. On the other hand,
technology has always been the handmaiden of national security.
Nations always look for innovations that can offer them competitive
advantages over their adversaries. Innovation will always be a
national security "wild card." New technologies may unleash or
accelerate social and cultural changes that affect how nations
protect themselves on battlefields and behind the scenes.
Over the course of the 20th century, America's genius was its
capacity to ride above the wave of technological change. That may
not be the case in the future. American prowess is at risk.
Congress will have to play an active role in ensuring that the
United States does not lose its competitive edge.
In 2006, The Heritage Foundation organized a series of workshops
to examine emerging technologies that have significant implications
for national security. These technologies include nanotechnology,
biotechnology, advanced computing, directed energy, and
This report reflects the results of these workshops and
additional research by Heritage scholars exploring the current and
future uses of these innovations, as well as what policy,
guidelines, and programs Congress and the Administration should
undertake to ensure that the United States remains at the forefront
of cutting-edge technological development. Among the key
recommendations of this report are that Congress should:
- Establish a legislative framework that
encourages the development of emerging technologies; the
promotion of research, innovation, and investment; and the
protection of U.S. citizens. Congress should address litigation and
civil liberties protection and environmental and public health
standards. It should, for example, consider expanding the scope of
the SAFETY Act, which provides liability protection for the
development and deployment of homeland security and
counterterrorism equipment and services, to cover innovations that
support other national security missions. Congress should also
prompt the Administration to work with other countries to adopt
similar legislation that will facilitate deploying technologies
developed in the U.S. to support national security missions
- Implement visa issuance and management reforms
to ensure that the best and the brightest continue to study and
work within the competitive technology fields in the United States.
Congress should, for example, significantly expand the H1B visa
program, end the requirement for 100 percent interviews for visa
applications, and reform and expand the Visa Waiver Program.
- Ensure that federal agencies efficiently and
effectively fund research and development on the emerging
technologies with significant national security implications,
particularly those that are not being developed aggressively
by the private sector, including nanotechnology and directed
- Encourage more interdisciplinary approaches to
research that combine disparate scientific disciplines in both the
basic and applied sciences, some creating new methods of
investigation, such as "network" science, which combines studying
physical, biological, and social phenomena to understand how
complex networks operate.
The Past Is a Poor Prologue
Congress can ill afford to neglect science and technology
policy. It can no longer assume that the United States will
maintain a decisive technological edge over its global competitors.
The world has changed.
At the outset of the Cold War in 1947, America stood as the
undisputed world leader in science and technology. The nation's
scientists, bolstered by colleagues that had fled from war-torn
Europe, provided an unparalleled pool of knowledge with access to
vast government resources. As a result, the nation's leaders could
rely on the best and brightest for innovation and creativity to
maintain the United States' technological edge. At the same time,
government-sponsored research fueled by a decades-long
competition with the Soviet Union funded many of the premier
technological innovations of the age.
The 21st century is very different. The best and the brightest
are not located exclusively in the United States, and the United
States is not necessarily the preferred destination for foreign
scientists. Countries throughout Europe and Asia have recognized
the importance of cutting-edge technologies, both in terms of
economic growth and in terms of military capabilities, and have
devoted enormous resources to their development. Consequently, not
only is the United States seeing its scientific lead shrink, but it
is also experiencing difficulty in attracting and retaining the
talent necessary to produce next-generation technologies.
Another major change is that the federal government is no longer
the principal player in the research and development that
shapes the character of the modern era. Private-sector innovations
in biotechnology and information systems dwarf government research.
These emerging industries are creating products that
science-fiction writers never even imagined, with dual-use
capabilities that could potentially transform the fields of
homeland security and defense. In many cases, national security
innovation will come from adapting commercial off-the-shelf
Still another significant difference from Cold War competition
with the Soviet Union is that many of America's enemies today seek
to avoid America's technical prowess, fighting space-age weapons
with ancient tactics like kidnapping, guerilla warfare, and
suicide bombers. The technological advantages of the Cold War era
have proven ill-suited to these challenges.
Emerging technologies will have a dramatic impact on the future
of our security. In the short term, these technologies will
provide capabilities that include protection and possible immunity
against biological agents, better screening at airports and ports,
more efficient information-gathering and information-sharing
techniques, and better armor for our troops. In the long term, the
sky is the limit. These fields will be at the center of scientific
advances for years to come and perhaps will redefine not only our
national security capabilities, but also how we conduct our daily
Dialogue, Not Monologue
Competitive Technologies for National Security: Review and
Recommendations represents the beginning, not the end, of The
Heritage Foundation's research on the challenges of adapting
emerging capabilities for national security. Facing the future will
require finding the right answers to some tough questions:
- How will the United States attract the best and the brightest
to work and study here?
- How will the United States maintain access to the global
research and technological base?
- How will the United States share innovations and collaborate
with its friends and allies?
- How will the United States counter emerging national security
threats and prevent its enemies from exploiting new
- How will the United States educate, train, and retain a quality
workforce that can meet its national security needs?
- How will the U.S. government be able to identify and exploit
cutting-edge technologies that are being developed in the private
These are timeless questions, but the 21st century they will
require new answers-answers that will help to keep America safe,
free, and prosperous.
Download the entire report (PDF)
James Jay Carafano,
Ph.D. is the Assistant Director, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies, and Senior Research
Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security, Douglas and
Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage