Defense Conversion Funds Go to Cutting-Edge Projects

MAGNAVOX and its partners will use their money to develop an earth-moving vehicle that navigates via signals from Pentagon satellites - a sort of precision-guided bulldozer.

The University of California at San Diego will use a $21 million grant to study whether high-tech composite materials, such as those common in fighter aircraft, can be used to rebuild rusting bridges.

TRW will study laser machining. Bath Iron Works, a Maine shipyard that's long relied on Navy contracts, will study the commercial boat-building business.

These projects, and 38 more recently announced by the Defense Department, are all at the cutting edge of defense conversion. They are part of a plan to shift some of the Pentagon's research effort into what's called ``dual use'' technologies - technologies that promise both civilian and military applications.

Some have charged that this dual-use effort, the Technology Reinvestment Project (TRP), is just welfare for hard-pressed defense contractors. But the Pentagon official who leads the program says it is an effective way to bolster economic competitiveness in the New World economy.

``The new administration wants to have the government stimulate commercial technology,'' Gary Denman, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, said at a meeting with defense reporters last week. ``So they decided to leverage defense investments in technology.''

``There are many, many examples in the past where defense technologies were leveraged into commercial ones,'' Mr. Denman said. The computer industry, for instance, has benefited greatly from Defense Department work on chips and chip-manufacturing techniques.

The very name of Denman's agency is a symbol of where the Clinton team wants to go. During the 1980s, it was called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and pioneered such concepts as radar-avoiding stealth materials for aircraft - which, as Denman pointed out, are similar to materials now used in microwave ovens.

By striking the word ``defense,'' Defense Secretary Les Aspin changed DARPA back to ARPA and indicated where he wanted the agency to increase its efforts. ``Clearly, ARPA's role has expanded,'' Denman said.

So has the TRP. More than 2,800 proposals from industry, academia, and other government agencies flooded in to ARPA to apply for fiscal 1993 dual-use funds.

At the end of last month, the Pentagon announced 41 awards, totaling $464 million in Defense Department funds. Participants must match grants with an equal amount of their own money.

More awards are expected in the next week. ``This is only about one-third of our 1993 money,'' says a Pentagon official knowledgeable about the project.

ONE of the complaints made about the TRP effort is that it has become something of a pork-barrel favorite among members of Congress. The 1994 defense budget now progressing on Capitol Hill contains a number of so-called earmarks, provisions inserted by individual legislators providing that TRP money should be spent on specific pet programs.

Many of the earmarks are contained in reports that accompany spending legislation and not the actual law itself. Thus, it is not clear whether ARPA must follow them or can award all TRP money on a competitive basis.

ARPA officials admit that the earmarks complicate their life. But of the 1993 programs announced so far, none appear an undeserving result of pork barreling.

``They picked the least debatable ones first,'' says Carol Lessure, an analyst at the private Defense Budget Project who follows the dual-use effort.

Technology development, of course, is a main TRP area. Other efforts, besides the guided bulldozer, include a Dragon Systems program to develop computer-speech recognition and a Clean Washington Center recycling technology program.

Manufacturing education and training is also a major part of TRP projects so far named.

Arizona State University, for instance, is receiving $2.7 million for something titled ``A Holistic Approach for Preparing Students to Learn and Lead in a New Manufacturing Paradigm.'' California State University will receive $1.1 million for environmental training of defense-industry engineers.

A final TRP category is geographic consortiums to help small firms in specific regions adapt their military technology for nondefense uses - and vice versa. The Massachusetts state government won $30 million for a Massachusetts Manufacturing Modernization Partnership, for instance.

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