News | July 1, 2004

Defense Laboratories and Military Capability: Headed for a BRACdown?

By Michael L. Marshall Defense Horizons 44


Defense Laboratories and Military CapabilityOverview

For 150 years, military laboratories have made vital contributions to national defense.  In recent years, they have been significantly reduced in number by several rounds of base realignment and closure (BRAC). Even so, they remain the primary source of internal technical competence within the Department of Defense (DOD). Their capability in that role will depend on how DOD answers two questions. Is there excess laboratory capacity - too many laboratories relative to forecasts of future force structure? What is their military value - their likely contribution to the future operational needs of warfighters.

As required by law, DOD has publicly announced the criteria it will use in making BRAC 2005 decisions. None directly acknowledge the military value of research and development (R&D). Consequently, excess capacity and military value judgments about the labs will depend on metrics now being formulated and the subjective weights they are assigned in computations. This calculus will place greater weight on options that allow DOD to combine separate by similar functions, such as R&D, on single bases. This emphasis on jointness could lead to such recommendations as a single defense research laboratory or to approaches that would parse the current technical work of the labs into a number of bins and then assign responsibility for each to a single service. Experience suggests that reliance on overly simplified "closure-by-arithmetic" decisions could lead to serious mistakes in deciding which laboratories to close and which to keep. America's ability to wage high-tech warfare depends on avoiding such mistakes.