Military R&D funding may be at risk in future years

By John Nolan,

Staff Writer

3:26 PM Saturday, December 31, 2011

DAYTON — Defense spending cuts that Washington is evaluating will put at risk the allocations for science and technology research and development that are key for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and defense contractors that support it, observers said.

“When money gets tight, the future is always going to suffer,” said Loren Thompson, a defense industry analyst with the Lexington Institute. The $662 billion defense spending bill Congress approved in mid-December for the current fiscal year keeps science and technology funding essentially flat from the prior year, with a slight decline when adjusted for inflation, said Michael Gessel, a Washington-based vice president for the Dayton Defense Coalition.

The new defense authorization actually includes increases for advanced-materials research that is doled out primarily through Wright-Patterson, Gessel said.

Science and technology funding goes through the Air Force Research Laboratory, headquartered at Wright-Patterson, although some of that money is spent elsewhere. The base, with its 27,000 employees and a $5 billion annual economic impact, is an essential jobs engine for the Dayton region.

Among the regional defense contractors that have benefited from Air Force research and development funding is Defense Research Associates Inc. The Beavercreek company developed the “bat hook,” a device that U.S. troops could toss onto power lines in enemy territory to draw electricity for recharging portable batteries that power American military radios and other equipment.

Funding for science and technology, and especially for procurement of new weapons, could see cuts in future years as Washington makes tough choices to slice hundreds of billions in defense spending, industry watchers said.

Research and development spending is virtually guaranteed to see some reductions, after RD spending had gone up in recent years, said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with Teal Group Corp.

“There are going to be shifting priorities,” Gessel said. “It is future years where there is the greatest worry.”

The coalition, whose focus is supporting Wright-Patterson and its missions, will be reminding Congress and others in Washington of the key missions housed at the base, Gessel said.

Those include the Air Force Research Laboratory; Aeronautical Systems Center, which manages an array of weapons and aircraft programs; Air Force Institute of technology, provider of post-graduate training to Air Force and other Defense Department entities; and National Air and Space Intelligence Center, which reports to senior military and U.S. government officials on aerospace attack capabilities of adversary nations.

Jeff Hoagland, president and chief executive officer of the Dayton Development Coalition, is encouraging community leaders to join with the coalition in promoting Wright-Patterson and its role in the nation’s defense structure.

The Obama administration has already directed the Pentagon to cut about $500 billion from projected spending during the next decade. The failure of a bipartisan congressional committee in November to agree on additional reductions of federal spending has triggered a requirement for far steeper cuts in defense spending, unless Congress reverses that law.

That would prompt cuts of nearly $100 billion a year to the defense budget, starting in 2013, Thompson said.

In that scenario, the RD budget could see reductions of nearly 20 percent in a year, despite Pentagon efforts to protect development of future warfighting technologies, he said.

The president has the option, if the steeper cuts to defense do take place, to exempt military pay and benefits. If that exemption is granted, weapons programs and research could bear a bigger share of spending reductions, Thompson said.

In an effort ordered by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Defense Department has been enlarging its work force for acquisition offices in an attempt to increase government control over its procurement costs. But Congress has directed a reassessment of that work force expansion in light of the coming spending cuts. Any significant changes in policy would likely affect the Aeronautical Systems Center.

Deborah Gross, an advocate for the Dayton region’s defense contracting companies, worries about what that would mean for U.S. security, as well as upcoming generations that the United States is trying to motivate for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

“I think it’s a huge concern, with the threats in the world today, to make sure that we stay out in front of those threats,” said Gross, executive director of DaytonDefense and owner of DGross Consulting, a Beavercreek business development adviser to defense contractors. “It’s critically important that we keep the focus on research, moving forward.”

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