February 29, 2008 | Special Report on National Security and Defense
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:
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:
These are timeless questions, but the 21st century they will require new answers-answers that will help to keep America safe, free, and prosperous.
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