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US defense buildup is rejigging the map in high-tech industries

By Barbara BradleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 1985


The Reagan administration's defense buildup -- and the inevitable slowdown in the late 1980s -- is reshaping the face of high technology. Supporters say that defense spending has created jobs during the computer slump and is pouring money into high-tech research that might not otherwise be done. Opponents charge it is diverting skilled people and scarce resources into military technology that won't easily be translated into civilian use. And both agree the buildup is altering the map of high technology, forcing companies to expand outside the major hubs when the computer slump ends, probably in early to mid-1986.

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While most economists interviewed don't see an impending cut in defense spending in absolute dollars, they do see smaller increases down the pike. These could come fairly soon -- if some form of the Gramm-Rudman bill passes Congress, or if this week's summit eventually produces a reduction of offensive weapons -- or when a new administration moves into the White House.

The scenario that many predict, especially if there is a thaw in United States-Soviet relations, is a shift of emphasis from strategic nuclear weapons to ``smart'' conventional weapons and a space-based defense (the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI). The prospect of such a shift has already been a boon for high-tech hubs that specialize in sophisticated computers, defense electronics, lasers, optics, and communications technology -- states like California, Texas, and Massachusetts.

This new direction and the mood in Congress to trim the deficit via defense spending will likely hurt low-tech suppliers of readiness materials, fuel, ammunition, and the like. But an emphasis on the sophisticated guidance systems and software involved in smart weapons and the sci-fi technology yet to be developed in SDI will provide billions of dollars for the big players. Between fiscal year 1984 and 1993, the government is expected to spend $70 billion on SDI research.

That's good news for the major defense contractors as some big-ticket items like the B-1 bomber and the MX missile wind down or face an uncertain future. According to the Council on Economic Priorities, which opposes SDI, companies that have to date received the most money from SDI are Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, LTV, Teledyne Brown, Rockwell International, TRW, and Hughes. SDI also brings in some smaller players, such as General Research Corporation, Sparta, and Science Applications, which were three of 10 companies to be awarded a systems architecture contract to help design the space-based defensive system.

Under the Reagan administration, the military has been footing an ever larger share of R&D spending. According to the National Science Foundation, R&D related to national defense will make up 73 percent of all government funding for research in fiscal 1986, up from 50 percent in 1980.

Supporters of defense spending say the technology developed for the military will be transferred to civilian use. Indeed, American aerospace and computer industries became world leaders largely because of the defense push in the 1950s and '60s.

But critics worry about the long-term effects of the defense buildup on US competitiveness in civilian markets. This concentration on military technology, the American Electronics Association says, has already given the edge in civilian technology to Japan.

The emphasis on military technology may become more pronounced down the road, says Alex Brown, president of High Technology Professionals for Peace. Because the job prospects are better in defense-related technology right now -- McDonnell Douglas hired 1,350 this year and hopes to recruit 1,450 next year, while computer companies like Wang have laid off employees -- students are focusing on defense-related engineering.