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The Military and Innovation

By / 10.8.2010

This post is the second in a series about the Progressive Military

My buddy Jon Gensler is smart.  Way too smart.  Besides being a West Point grad and serving as an Army battle Captain in Iraq, he has also found the time to take on a joint M.A. from Harvard and MIT.  He’s like a mad scientist that instead of working on killer robot chickens, works on solutions to our energy problems.  I just like to hear him talk about projects that a generation ago would have been on Buck Rogers or Lost In Space.  He didn’t come from some science fiction convention though; he spent the summer at the DoE’s ARPA-E.  The good news is he’s not alone.

ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency- Energy, is the Department of Energy’s vehicle for focusing on spurring new, ‘outside-the-box’ energy ideas.  Among them are programs to develop long-life, low cost batteries for electric vehicles, to harness microorganisms to produce liquid fuels without petroleum or biomass, and ‘carbon capture’ technologies that will prevent carbon monoxide from coal plants entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

What makes ARPA-E different is that it is focused on taking large research risks that may have big payoffs while keeping an eye on real prospects of success.  ARPA-E just received its first $400 million budget as part of the Recovery Act in 2009.  It isn’t the only such agency and the model isn’t actually a new one.

ARPA-E is based on DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was created 52 years ago in response to the Russian launch of Sputnik.  What began as a space and nuclear technology research agency later turned to counterinsurgency technologies in Vietnam is now an organization dedicated to the research and development of innovations that give the U.S. military an edge on the battlefield today.  DARPA research led to guided missiles, stealth technology, and the unmanned aerial drones now in use worldwide.

DARPA and ARPA-E are praised as models that are ‘lean’ on bureaucracy and focus on high-risk, high-reward ideas within a relatively small budget.  What is also interesting about them is that they highlight the fact that the military and the government can drive innovation.  This pays dividends not only for our energy needs and national security, but for our economy as a whole, since the private sector tends to build on these innovations

Many claim to have invented the internet, but ARPAnet was the true beginning of today’s World Wide Web.  DARPA also invented GPS and speech translation technology, among others innovations the use of which have generated billions of dollars in profits for private firms in America and worldwide.  Imagine a day at the office without the internet or shipping and logistics without GPS. The ideas that ARPA-E is currently working on have as much potential to make just as large an impact.

Today many private firms are not willing to take research and development risks, especially in our current economic state.  While others cut, DARPA has continued to innovate no matter the political or economic climate using the same model since my father was born.  The breakthroughs expected at ARPA-E are coming at a time when many companies are drastically cutting their R&D budgets.  Through fat and lean years for America, the DARPA model has been a successful example of the military and the government driving innovation, and all on a ‘shoestring’ budget of less than $500 million annually.

‘Thinking outside the box’ has become a motto in American business.  No matter how much out-of-box thinking the private sector does, it is still limited by the ‘box’ of profit.  DARPA and ARPA-E are able to think outside of even this box. Their motto is more akin to the British Commandos: ‘Who Dares, Wins’.  It is important for the government to continue to fund such programs because it can do so independent of the economic climate. DARPA and ARPA-E show that government can spur innovation in a lean, streamlined, and cost-efficient manner, can think ‘outside the box’, and can spur economic growth in the private sector while giving our troops an edge in the fight.

Photo credit: US Army Africa