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Special Report #21 on National Security and Defense

February 29, 2008

Competitive Technologies for National Security: Review and Recommendations

By , and

Introduction

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 robotics.

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 overseas.
  • 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 energy.
  • 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 technology.

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 lives.

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 technologies?
  • 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 sector?

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 Foundation

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