Department of Defense research is inefficient, yet may harbor future energy innovations

I read Rolf Westgard’s letter to the Minnesota Daily, “New Dept. of Defense energy plant features a big price tag” with great interest. Although I share Westgard’s concern about fiscal responsibility, I think it ironic to harp on the Department of Defense for wasting money on alternative fuels when the DOD is known for wasteful spending through cost overruns, lost inventory and shoddy bookkeeping. Many military analysts say that $1 trillion can be cut from the military budget over the next ten years without compromising military might.

There are numerous examples of the DOD’s inefficiency. Cost overruns plague the DOD; in the past two years alone, the cost of the DOD weapons portfolio has raised $135 billion beyond initial estimates. The increase in cost of the Joint Strike Fighter alone is $34 billion, enough to almost pay for the entire Pell college financial aid system. When orders for the F-22 Raptor were reduced by 70 percent, the cost to produce a single plane nearly tripled from $139 million to $412 million.

The DOD has inefficiently paid for its equipment because of shoddy record keeping. An estimated $31 to $60 billion was lost due to waste and fraud related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. An estimated $720 million in late fees were incurred for failure to return shipping containers when their leases were up. I am not a huge fan of the military. I think that war and preparation for war do not solve the problems they set out to solve and are a huge waste of money that would be better spent on human needs, such as health, education, housing and environmental protection.

But I must give the military credit for one thing: technological innovation.

The Internet, it is said, had a thirty-year incubation period in the military before it was released to the civilian population. Now look at how the Internet has transformed the world. It wasn’t that the military has a unique capacity for technological innovation; it is just that for thirty years the military provided the Internet a place to grow and develop without being subjected to the do-or-die world of market capitalism. That’s what research and development calls for: room for failure so that the best ideas can come to the top.

It is the same way for development of alternative energy. The biofuel programs that Rolf Westgard thinks are too expensive are in their infancy now, and not all of them will prove viable. But given time, some of them may contribute to breaking our addiction to fossil fuels, which does more to drive conflict in our world than just about anything else. Some high-level military leaders know this — that competition for fossil fuels drives global instability — and that is why they are so interested in developing alternatives.

If the military wants to develop alternative energy, let them do it. They would do more good for this hot polluted world that way than they do with guns.