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Commentary: We must invest in engineering, defense

November 26, 2011|By Dwight C. Streit

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.

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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.

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