Military, scientists must gird for war in a very small place

It was the ’50s, and the Air Force had a problem.

The brass was responsible for building a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles, but state-of-the-art electronics just didn’t cut it. Even the most advanced circuits were too heavy, too big and not nearly dependable enough.

The brass needed something that didn’t exist — an integrated chip. So they did what they usually did in such circumstances: They turned to scientists to work out a solution.

The scientists delivered. In 1962, mass-produced silicon chips were loaded into Air Force computers and the new Minuteman missile.

Through most of the Cold War, the Pentagon pioneered technological innovations that gave the United States a huge advantage over its competitors. Government research and development dwarfed the private sector. In turn, military technologies were commercialized. Today’s iPads and iPods are descendents of the chips created for the Minuteman.

But the modern world operates quite differently. Today, private-sector research expenditures far exceed those of government. And it’s the private sector that pioneers most of the truly significant breakthroughs — from biotechnology to cyber-communications.

Struggling to keep up, the military often just adopts commercial, off-the-shelf technologies for military use. But sometimes even the modern marvels of commercial industry can’t meet military needs.

In today’s Army, for example, the same challenges — power, weight and cost — pop up over and over again regardless of the task. Soldiers want equipment that is almost weightless, can be powered by almost nothing, costs pennies and works anywhere. Overcoming these challenges would give our military the kind of edge it used to enjoy.  And the way to do it is by exploiting nanotechnology.

“Nano” refers to scale. It means building materials and systems that are really small — on the molecular and atomic level. On a nanoscale, a nano-Earth would be the size of a marble. Nanotechnology has almost infinite military applications from lightweight, super-strong materials to machines that can think.

The United States leads the world in nanoscience, but that lead is narrowing fast. Our private sector can’t plunge much further into nano-industries, given the current economic climate. But that could change rapidly, with a little help from Washington.

In high-tech manufacturing, the main cost issue is tech investment — something quite sensitive to tax and regulatory policy. If federal policymakers lowered the cost of capital, by reducing taxes on capital gains and dividends, as well as corporate income taxes, it would stimulate capital investment in a variety of promising technologies. And few, if any, are more promising than nanotechnology.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon should rethink its nanotechnology investment strategy. It should pivot right now to help foster the development of nanotechnology-manufacturing infrastructure. That way, they can incorporate innovations into their equipment as soon as the innovations emerge. Taking nanotechnology seriously could single-handedly change the future for the better.

It’s an industry capable of revolutionizing and expanding our economy over the next generation just as fully as the wonders of the information-age revolution have changed our world over the last generation.

Examiner columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

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