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Forbes.com

 

The PalmPilot-JDAM Complex

May 12, 2003

By Peter W. Huber

It is civilian demand for PCs, cell phones, high-tech cars and smart appliances that has madeprecision bombcomponents ascheap and disposable as bullets.

The U.S. armaments industry today looks more the way it did when Dwight Eisenhower entered West Point in 1911 than it did 50 years later, when, in a farewell speech, he famously warned Americans to beware the "military-industrial complex."

Until World War II, Eisenhower reflected, the U.S. had no real weapons industry--"American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well." By 1961, however, the U.S. had formed "a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions," overseen by a huge work force "directly engaged in the defense establishment." This development implicated "our toil, resources and livelihood." At stake was "the very structure of our society."

Both halves of Eisenhower's dark vision are now rapidly fading into history. It takes far fewer people to fight and direct wars today than it did even a decade ago. That's because the speed and power of the front-line soldier have been so greatly amplified by smart weapons and smart delivery systems, and be-cause accurate information now moves so easily up the chain of command. Our distant wars are now fought, once again, by the few, the band of brothers, while most of the rest of us lie abed, watching their progress on CNN.

The center of gravity of defense manufacturing has shifted decisively back into the civilian sector, as well. Large contractors still assemble the guidance system and explosive in a smart bomb, and the complex mix of steel and silicon that makes up a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. But the components that account for much of the cost and all of the astounding precision and agility of the new weapons--powerful chips, together with the countless layers of software that make them function--are manufactured by the same companies that build microprocessors for PCs and amplifiers for cell phones. It is the huge civilian demand for PCs, digital assistants, cell phones, high-tech cars and smart appliances that has made these components as cheap and disposable as bullets.

This isn't to say that the technology moves only in one direction. Integrated circuits emerged from aerospace programs in the 1960s; gallium arsenide semiconductor amplifiers that make possible the compact, cheap cell phone were pioneered by TRW for defense purposes a decade ago. The indium phosphide, gallium nitride and silicon carbide power chips that will land in consumer electronics a decade hence are being developed today in R&D programs funded by the military.

As a part-time partner in a small venture capital firm, I have visited dozens of innovative startups that have developed new semiconductors, lasers, sensors and power-control systems under Department of Defense auspices and are now ready to begin moving their products into civilian markets. These technologies invariably started out too difficult, esoteric and expensive to be of interest to anyone but the military. The military couldn't afford them, either, but for the fact that successful information and power technologies invariably make the transition into the civilian sector, where mass production leads down the cost curve. For volume production the military and its main contractors are now firmly committed to buying parts off the commercial shelf whenever they can. Smart weapons are mostly built from civilian components, suitably packaged and hardened for the battlefield.

Thus the military-industrial complex now consists of two relatively thin bookends to our enormous, civilian, high-tech economy. Military R&D programs push the leading-edge development of power semiconductors, software and sensors, a decade or so out ahead of Intel, Motorola or DaimlerChrysler, then encourage the migration of successful technologies out into the civilian sector as quickly as possible. Military contractors end up buying back the same technology at mass-production prices, embedding it in every vehicle, weapon and projectile on the battlefield.

"Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry," Eisenhower warned in 1961, "can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." That was perhaps true in 1961. Today, however, it is our liberty, our routine, peaceful purchases and pursuits that support the huge industrial base on which the arms manufacturers completely depend. Unconsciously, and without ever setting out to do so, our civilian sector gave our soldiers the tools they needed to bring this war to its mercifully quick conclusion.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/free_forbes/2003/0512/088.html

 

 
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