NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 16, 2009

Technology created for military use has gone on to become widely used by civilians.  As gizmos become smaller and cheaper -- and they invariably do -- they are then able to percolate from the soldier on the battlefield to the man in the street.  But lately some kinds of technology have been moving in the other direction, says the Economist.

For example:

  • The United States Air Force has just placed an order for 2,200 Sony PlayStation 3 video-game consoles, which will be the building-blocks of a supercomputer.
  • Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are using Apple iPods and iPhones to run translation software and calculate bullet trajectories.
  • Xbox video-game controllers have been modified to control reconnaissance robots and drone aircraft.
  • Graphics chips that power PC video-cards are being used by defense firms to run simulations.

What has caused this shift? 

  • Global defense spending, at about $1.5 trillion a year, far exceeds sales of consumer-electronics, at around $700 billion a year; but only a small fraction of defense spending is devoted to developing electronics.
  • The consumer-electronics industry can therefore outspend the military in research and development, and spread out those costs over a far larger market.
  • Electronics firms also move much faster than the slow, multi-year grind of military procurement programs.
  • The emergence of open standards and open-source software makes it easier to repurpose off-the-shelf technologies or combine them in novel ways.

All this is to be applauded.  Where consumer technology can be used, it is much cheaper and quicker to do so, says the Economist:

  • The Air Force's new supercomputer will cost around one-tenth as much as a conventional supercomputer of equivalent power.
  • Using an iPod to run translation software in Iraq makes much more sense than designing and building a dedicated device.

Of course, there are limits to this off-the-shelf approach: it is no way to procure tanks, helicopters or missile systems.  But the selective use of existing technology allows military planners to focus their spending on the development of new technologies, rather than reinventing the wheel.  The consumer-electronics industry has been taking advantage of military innovations for years.  It seems only fitting that it should now return the favor, says the Economist.

Source: Report, "The military-consumer complex," The Economist, December 10, 2009.

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