The potentially life-or-death competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for primacy in military technology is more complicated for both sides than it used to be.
In many ways, each superpower is as much in a race with itself as with the other, given the contemporary difficulties confronting both.
The USSR has caught up with or is closing on the US in many military technology arenas. But it remains well behind in computers, which are vital to all else, and must do better at bringing them along.
Moreover, the steam that the Soviets have built up on the military technology front in recent years may dissipate somewhat in the years ahead.
With an eye to foreign trade and domestic tranquility, the Kremlin seems intent on restructuring the Soviet economy to the greater gain of the commercial sector. This implies that the disproportionate resources customarily devoted to military technologies and machines will have to be distributed more evenly among nonmilitary laboratories and plants.
The US also has problems with allocating resources. If it doesn’t watch out, its military technology base and its new-technology systems programs may be strangled by the chokehold that the defense budget is now applying to the Pentagon.
This would compound a problem that the Pentagon has always had—that of incorporating advanced technologies in operational systems at affordable costs before too many years go by.
These perspectives and others on ramifications of the US-USSR military technology rivalry were provided by panelists who took part in an Aerospace Education Foundation Roundtable discussion last February.
Entitled “Technology Matchup,” the Roundtable was moderated by Gen. Robert T. Marsh, USAF (Ret.), former Commander of Air Force Systems Command. Panelists included G. Kent Bankus, a retired Air Force colonel who specializes in industrial and technological matters as a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Robert R. Everett, Chairman of the Defense Science Board; Dr. John R. Thomas, special assistant for Soviet Science and Technology with the Defense Technology Security Administration; and John J. Welch, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.
Relying on Technology
Setting the stage for the discussion, General Marsh noted that the US has always relied on its superior technology, particularly in conventional weapons, to offset the USSR’s numerical advantages in fielded weapons and forces.
“But even while the Soviets retain their numerical edge,” said General Marsh, “we now see a steady stream of technically very sophisticated Soviet systems that challenge our assumption of Western technological superiority.”
Among such systems, the moderator enumerated those for surveillance and intelligence, fighter aircraft, missiles, tanks, submarines, and command control and communications (C3).
Calling this “a cause for serious concern,” General Marsh said that the situation is exacerbated by recent arms-control developments that make conventional weapons all the more important. “The Soviet technical challenge could worsen an already tenuous balance in the European theater. Furthermore, very tight budget constraints will make the commitment of additional funds to our science and technology programs difficult at best.”
Mr. Everett expressed the consensus of the panel that the Soviets have indeed come a long way in military technology. “I think the technology gap has narrowed significantly, and in some cases it has disappeared,” he said. “We do have a large problem on our hands of maintaining a gap of some sort. But I think we still have a significant technological advantage in some critical areas.”
Mr. Everett also cautioned, however, that the US must pay close attention to “whether our technology is getting into the field and represents capability that our [forces] can use.”
Dr. Thomas said that “the answers are never simple” in assessing the differences between US and Soviet technologies. “They certainly have closed the gap in many areas,” he said, “but we have to recognize that they have also accumulated a lot of problems along the way.
“The reason they closed the gap in the military area was because they’ve had unbalanced economic development. They devoted tremendous resources to the military area at tremendous expense to the civilian economy—and it’s catching up with them.”
Mr. Bankus made a corollary point, questioning whether the US and the Soviet Union—and Europe and Japan as well—are approaching “some technological limit that we can’t go much beyond” because of the expenditures required to maintain the pace.
On this point, the panelists by and large agreed that greater selectivity in the pursuit of military technologies has become increasingly imperative.
Said Mr. Everett: “There are always technologies that are improving rapidly or changing rapidly, and part of the problem is to find out what those are and what they mean to us in military terms—and to pursue those and not pour our limited resources into trying to stay ahead in areas that we’ve essentially saturated.”
Secretary Welch noted that “there is an erosion” of the value of dollars spent on military science and technology because of increasing overhead costs. Moreover, the competition among and within the services for funding is ever fiercer.
“So the question becomes one of more effectively using our dollars,” Mr. Welch declared.
He characterized current funding for the Air Force technology base, which includes advanced development programs, as “running at about a billion and a half dollars per year.” He said he expects it to hold steady this year, adding: “I think there may be a little bit of sliding off of that in the first few years of the upcoming five-year budget, but I think we see a positive slope beyond that time.”
Mr. Welch said that the Air Force has accorded “priority recognition” to science and technology as being “the foundation for the Air Force’s future” and that “even though we remain financially limited, I believe we will slowly work our way up that curve in terms of real dollars spent” on science and technology.
He made it clear that he is not an unqualified optimist, however, in noting that, “at best, we are holding our own in many areas.”
From the Capitol Hill perspective, Mr. Bankus had some words of encouragement. “Support for the defense tech base is very good on the Hill,” he said, “especially in times of relatively flat overall defense budgets.
“And that’s because it’s the seed money for the future.”
In terms of inflation-discounted dollars, funding for the defense technology base has steadily declined over the past twenty-five years, Mr. Bankus said.
As he sees it, the Senate Armed Services Committee, for one, takes the view that “the tech base certainly didn’t participate in the defense buildup of the last eight years, so why should it now participate in the builddown that’s occurring
“The feeling is that it should be increased now—not decreased—because it’s what’s going to keep us going ten or fifteen years from now.”
Noting that such fine operational systems as the F-15 and F-16 fighters originated at a time of relatively high tech-base funding, Mr. Bankus said that unless such funding is amply provided now and in the future, “the young captains who will be the generals fifteen years from now will not have the technology” needed for systems “like the F-15s and F-16s” of the current era.
In the context of systems and their elements in the offing, Mr. Welch cited the Advanced Tactical Fighter, the National Aerospace Plane, very-high-speed integrated circuits (VHSICs), and manufacturing technology as embodying technologies deserving of Air Force tender loving care.
He also expressed the wish that the other services would not just talk about how important manufacturing technology is to their futures, but would ante up money for it, as the Air Force has done.
Computers Hold the Key
Computers hold the key to all such programs, to the US staying on top technologically, and to the ability of both superpowers to turn military technology into military products, the panelists agreed.
“Data-processing technology is not mature,” said Mr. Everett. “It is changing as rapidly today as it was twenty or thirty years ago, and in some ways it’s changing more rapidly. And that’s where the United States still has the lead and should continue to maintain it.
“I think our ability to build data-processing systems and signal-processing systems for intelligent weapons and standoff weapons and things of that sort is a very definite advantage that we have.
“It’s important to us to take proper care of that advantage and to recognize that it won’t last forever and that at some time in the future we will have to think of other things as well.”
According to Dr. Thomas, the Soviets acknowledge their relative backwardness in computer technology and themselves raise “the question of whether they will indeed be able to keep up with us.”
In this regard, he noted, the Soviet government is introducing special programs in schools and universities “in order to have the Soviet children and students get ready for this information revolution.
The Soviet kids today, unlike our kids, have no access—no hands-on opportunities. They’re practicing with cardboard keyboards instead of actual computers.
“Their problem is the perennial one—the production problem. They cannot produce the computers.”
Dr. Thomas said that Soviet computers represent the third generation of such machines, in contrast to those of the fourth and fifth generations in use by the US.
“I’m always amazed when we walk through. . . Soviet computing centers,” Dr. Thomas declared. “They look very primitive. To be sure, the [Soviet] military must have something better. But a balanced [Soviet] economy has got to produce better ones across the system, and I think Gorbachev recognizes that.”
Declaring that the Soviets “have bought, borrowed, begged, and stolen computer technology” from other nations, Dr. Thomas said that so long as they continue to resort to such secondary methods, “they’ll be somewhat behind” the US.
“The question is: Do they have their own inherent talent to start producing the technology on their own? They’ve had a lively battle in the recent past wherein some of the Soviet scientific leaders have berated the Soviet scientists for not being able to produce world-class [computer] technology.”
Picking up on this, Mr. Welch declared: “From what we see, it will be some period of time before they have an independent capability. But to turn it around a little bit from whether we have a problem vis-à-vis the Soviets catching up, I think the challenge—particularly in the computer world and in software—is ourselves right now.
“We can’t keep up with our own needs with our own software.”
Our Own Biggest Challenge
Software, said Mr. Welch, is “probably our highest-priority technology,” because its insufficiencies are “drawing out the introduction and implementation of our new systems. So we are kind of our own biggest challenge.”
If the US military and civil sectors meet the software challenge, said Mr. Welch, “I think we will open up a lead over the Soviets faster than—frankly—if we just worry about the Soviets, other than protecting our technology.”
The Roundtable participants agreed, however, that if the Soviets bear down on computer technologies and bring off the modernization that they seek, big trouble could be in store for the US.
Said Mr. Everett: “There is a great difference between the Soviet commercial sector and our commercial sector. Ours is flourishing, and worldwide competition is driving the basic art that we’re using. But that difference is not so great in the military sectors. We do have a centrally planned economy in the military sector, which carries somewhat the same burdens that the Russian system does.
“It does raise problems about how to spend money and how to do things, which I think are our fundamental difficulties. They’re not technology. We have technology running out of our ears. There are just all kinds.
“The problem is not only to apply it but to get it built and out into the field and used.”
Low-observables, or stealth, technologies and those of “brilliant” weapons came in for some Roundtable discussion of US-USSR technology matchups.
General Marsh noted that “any comparison of relative technological status must consider stealth” and that “much of this information is classified and rightfully so.”
Even so, he asked Mr. Welch whether the US has “a commanding lead” in stealth technologies and, if so, whether it will be “an enduring lead or, if you will, a passing, flash-in-the-pan type of lead.”
In a humorous vein, Mr. Welch replied that “the answer should be, ‘Yes and hush up.'”
He added, however, that the US lead “certainly is” a commanding one and that, “if we go about managing ourselves and our products, it can be an enduring one too.”
Mr. Bankus observed that “when we build a technology and eventually field it, the Russians tend to do the same thing about ten years behind. One would hope that, given the secrecy with which we’ve approached this, maybe that gap will have widened.
“But one has to assume that the Russians are very actively pursuing [stealth] with all the vigor that they possibly can, knowing how much we’re investing in it.” –
In this connection, he referred to the Pentagon having publicized its award of a $2 billion contract to Northrop for the stealthy B-2 bomber.
General Marsh cited a number of studies of defense technologies in recent years that “emphasized in one way or another the need for what I’ll call ‘brilliant’ weapons.” His question to the panel was: “How close are we to them, and is the technology here to support brilliant weapons at affordable costs?”
Well Within Reach
There was general agreement that such weapons are well within reach but that their costs will be high and must be weighed against the uses to which they will be put.
“I think that smart weapons—standoff weapons—are the wave of the future,” Mr. Everett declared. “We’re going to have to pursue them. But they tend to be expensive—a lot more expensive than iron bombs. And if they allow the [aircraft] platform to stand off where it belongs, where it’s less likely to get shot, that platform can use up a lot of those weapons in very short order.
“And if you don’t watch out, you’ll find that the standoff weapons cost more than the platforms.”
The Defense Science Board Chairman warned of difficult choices ahead for the Pentagon with regard to standoff weapons and aircraft.
“If the budget is fixed—and I think it is—then the cost of getting those weapons will have to come out of the platforms. And that’s going to be harder to do than developing the technology.”
Mr. Welch advocated “balance” in tackling the question of manned aircraft vs. standoff weapons. “I think that if you cannot have enough platforms so that they survive and are sustained during the course of the war to deliver these weapons, it doesn’t make much sense in having the weapons.
“I have little trouble with brilliant weapons and all. They might be representative of a technology that we can take in hand. The question is: Has the user really defined how he’s going to use them? Or are they just available out there and we have not yet found the best way to use them
“We should think that problem through, rather than just charging out and spending ourselves down a slippery slope.”
Judicious spending on prime technologies is the key to the US staying ahead of the USSR, the panelists agreed.
Concluding that “in a macro sense, we’ve seen our lead narrowing across most technologies,” General Marsh asked the panel: “Are we doomed to this trend? Or are there some things that can be done to regain or widen our lead once again?”
Said Mr. Everett: “There’s a lot of room to improve the efficiency with which we spend the technology dollars that are available to us. . . . I think the ways we do it now are not very good. The ways we’re organized, the way we think about it, the way we put out money—all of that could stand improvement.
“But I wouldn’t trade our set of problems for the Russians’ set of problems.”
Agreeing with that, Dr. Thomas declared that “the ability of the Soviets to spend their rubles efficiently” will have a lot to do with “whether they’re going to keep up with us or fall behind.”