America avoided one catastrophe this summer when Congress raised the debt ceiling and averted the first default in U.S. history. But another calamity is waiting in the wings. The failure of the budget "supercommittee" puts in motion a trillion dollars in defense cuts, mindless across-the-board reductions that Secretary Leon Panetta says would "devastate" our national defense.
Reining in the budget while preserving our battlefield supremacy won't be an easy circle to square. But it's something America has done before. After Vietnam, Washington was similarly looking to cut spending during a weak economy. But even while cutting spending overall, Pentagon planners carefully preserved the research and innovation funding that has been the foundation of our national security strength for decades.
That's why, even as the budget shrank, we remained a step ahead of our enemies. It was during these years, for example, that stealth technology was invented. And when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the F-117A was ready to slip past enemy radar and devastate Saddam Hussein's military within weeks. In subsequent campaigns, the even greater power of Northrop's B-2 Spirit further extended the air power gap between America and its enemies.
The pattern was repeated after the Cold War, when research into unmanned drones continued, despite the 1990s military "procurement holiday." Because of that sustained effort, the Predator was ready after 9/11. A decade later, our unmanned systems have redefined modern combat and enabled us to take on enemies wherever they operate, as terrorist leaders from Pakistan to the Horn of Africa have learned.
But the terms of the debt-ceiling agreement will make it difficult to repeat this wise approach. The law requires immediate deep cuts, while the savings from things like winding down combat deployments and rooting out waste (like the $60 billion wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan alone) will take time to realize. That means research and investment funding are front and center on the chopping block — even though these are the cuts we can least afford. Panetta says about half the total cuts will fall on these investments.
Research and investment funding is already low — just a quarter of defense spending, which itself is only 16% of the budget, well below the post-Vietnam average of 21%. We've just seen the benefit of having the world's most advanced military when U.S. air power led the campaign that drove Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya without a single U.S. casualty (and at a cost of just $1 billion, about a thousandth of the cost of conventional ground wars like Afghanistan or Iraq).
Other countries understand the value of aggressive research and innovation. China graduates 10 times the engineers America does and, due to restrictive U.S. immigration policies, is keeping more of this talent at home. Applications to U.S. engineering schools from China have plummeted almost 50% in recent years. With this background, it's no surprise that China just rolled out 25 new drone systems, launched the core of its "Heavenly Palace" space station, and plans to sail its first home-built aircraft carrier by 2015.
In the last two years, more than half of all U.S. patents have been awarded to foreign firms. This spring, U.S. bidders lost to Europe in a competition to supply new fighter jets to India. That means jobs and manufacturing work exported to Europe and a weakening of what is left of our industrial base, which will only accelerate the brain-drain problem as design work follows manufacturing overseas. Exports add billions to our national bottom line each year (more than $50 billion net gain to our trade balance in 2010), but we cannot win foreign sales if we don't have the best products and the most advanced technology.
Everyone understands the fragile state of our aerospace and defense economy. We are losing too many experienced engineers as the Apollo generation retires, and our schools aren't producing enough qualified engineers to replenish the ranks. Attracting talented young people to science and research careers grows more difficult as marquee programs like the Space Shuttle are mothballed and inspiring new ventures like the Webb Telescope face constant threat of cancellation. While America recently aspired to reach Mars, budget politics have clouded the picture considerably.
Cuts to research investment that erode our long-term military strength and put hundreds of thousands of skilled Americans out of work simply don't add up. Congress needs to find a better way.
DWIGHT C. STREIGHT is the director of the UCLA Engineering Institute for Technology Advancement and a distinguished professor at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.