Rivals, Allies Trying to Harness U.S. Innovation.

Author:Johnson, John C.

Have you ever considered why U.S. armed forces have enjoyed a technological battlefield advantage for so many years? Perhaps it's just good fortune, or maybe divine favoritism, or possibly an insatiable curiosity coded into our DNA.

In reality, the advantage results from various entities--academic institutes, government agencies, industry and the user community--unknowingly and yet intentionally working together to realize the nation's drive toward innovation.

In the United States, we are blessed with numerous technical universities, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgia Institute of Technology on the East Coast to Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology in the West, with many other exceptional schools in between. These universities form the foundation of our tiered technology development process.

Government laboratories and agencies bridge the academic-to-defense gap, constituting a second step in the development process. Government-funded research encourages cooperation between scholarly institutes and research centers. Some of the more intriguing and thought-provoking research activities are in the defense arena, where young minds are drawn to tackle the art of the possible: stealth technology, silent propulsion systems, hypersonic weapons and so forth.

With a solid understanding of the physical sciences and the art of the possible, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other governmental agencies shoulder the costs of further exploring promising technology. DARPA, though not a production facility, brings defense technology to fruition by sponsoring requests for proposals to demonstrate the feasibility of certain enabling technology; DARPA was the genesis of the internet, GPS and stealth technology.

If the armed services recognize the potential benefit of a particular technology--it fulfills operational requirements--DARPA initiates a move from research to services for possible integration into next-generation systems and battlefield architecture.

When this happens, industry seizes on the promising research and further matures the technology. Industry differs from the other two tiers--academic institutes and government laboratories--in this innovation process in that it must provide investors acceptable returns on their investments. Companies must efficiently select initiatives to which they will apply their limited research-and-development dollars; therefore, industry relies on...

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