Converting military research and development to civilian purposes

Military research and development (R&D) has been a central element of the arms race. Yet, the restructuring of public and private military R&D sectors and their possible conversion to civilian purposes is not an easy endeavour and the scope for action may be limited. The myth that military R&D intrinsically contains large spin-offs of considerable economic utility only holds true for a limited number of technologies, known as dual-use technologies in areas such as computer sciences, avionics, semi-conductor devices and electronics. According to UNIDIR, in some areas the opposite interaction has taken place, [ie] civilian technologies have had military "spin-ons", rather than military R&D benefiting civilian production in the long-run. The Office of Technology Assessment of the USA Congress has found that "increasingly, leading edge technology is developed in the civilian sector and then finds its way into defence applications".
In view of the above coxtext, a diversified conversion strategy is required relying on identifying specific technologies, developing clear targets and setting priorities. A study prepared for the United Nations University (UNU) came to the conclusion that there are basically four options for military R&D facilities, each with different consequences: (a) continued funding with the aim of gradually diversifying into non-military R&D (the concern, however, would be that these facilities could again revert to military work); (b) giving military R&D facilities entirely civilian tasks (complete conversion); (c) disbanding the facilities irrespective of the employment and other economic effects involved; and, (d) mothballing facilities and maintaining skeleton staffs that continue to have as their primary mission the development of new weapons.

The establishment of an effective strategy in response to the above choices involves several stages. As a first step, levels of public and private R&D expenditures on military as compared to civil use could be documented and the benefits analysed. As a further step, diffusion of knowledge from military to civilian entities in R&D as well as production could be encouraged through appropriate incentive schemes and legislation. In this context, operational programmes dealing with a changing role for R&D institutions need to be developed in accordance with the overall restructuring of military hardware usage, military facilities, personnel training, etc, as well as action related to environmental recovery.

A number of initiatives for R&D conversion which have been taken in various countries illustrates the range of opportunities. The government of the USA, together with the "Big Three" automobile giants, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, announced in October 1993 a co mm on research project to develop a "vehicle for tomorrow". The project aims in particular at reducing the fuel consumption of automobiles to one-third of today's consumption over the next ten years. The USA government intends to involve mainly scientists and research laboratories formerly occupied by military and defence-related research activities. The project should determine how new advanced materials, originally developed for military applications, could be used in car manufacturing. It should focus on the use of new electrical engines which were developed under the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) in cars and should give emphasis to three main areas: first, new production technologies to expedite the development of automatic systems; second, the improved efficiency of automobiles in terms of lower environmental pollution, and, third, the development of new prototypes that consume only 30% of current fuel use. The cost of the project will be shared between the USA government and the automobile industry. While the government will not grant direct financial means for the project, it will provide research capacities of governmental laboratories that would otherwise close because of a reduction in the defence budget. The project was compared with the "Man to the Moon" programme under the Kennedy Administration, because it is expected to identify and produce spin-off technologies for other sectors.

Likewise, in the USA, a political initiative was proposed by the former governor of the state of New York, Mario Cuomo, to connect the state capital, Albany, with New York City by a magnetic-levitation high speed train system. This proposal was made in November 1993 with the specific purpose of involving the New York defence industry in the project. Mag-lev-trains are perceived as an environmentally safe and future-oriented means of transport that allows especially highly sophisticated defence industries to open up a new civilian global market.

A Russian space technology company, "Sojuz", has developed a technology which made it possible to produce diamonds from explosives used in shells and ammunition. The technology became the basis for a joint venture with a German company and became particularly important for the decommissioning and denaturalization of military ammunition such as shells. Up to then, explosive substances had to be incinerated, causing severe environmental problems at very high costs. With the newly produced diamonds, it was possible to find a profitable way to recycle harmful chemical substances.

The above examples give evidence of the diverse opportunities for restructuring military R&D into economically and environmentally useful production. Over the past decade, there have been many more experiences, particularly in the Russian Federation and in the People's Republic of China. According to the Russian experience, enterprises oriented to production in fields of medium-level technology were often able to find new customers on domestic markets, while high-tech R&D facilities which had never been incorporated into the overall structure of industry encountered substantial difficulties.

Since conversion is an integral part of overall industrial restructuring of economies, as referred to above, the incentive schemes that have been established to enhance the diffusion of science and technology more generally, could also be used as a framework for the conversion of military R&D and technology into civilian applications. These are described in detail in other documents made available to the commission.

Such schemes have to pay attention to intellectual property rights which not only have important functions in the protection of technologies emanating from the military R&D activities, but also in licensing specific military technology for civilian use. The experience available to date has shown that intellectual property rights could be an important factor in the process of conversion. This role would need to be further examined in terms of different categories such as patents, utility models and copyrights.

At the international level, a number of options are available to redirect or transfer military R&D to civilian purposes. For example, technologies developed for decommissioning and demobilization of military hardware and ammunition could be made widely accessible at concessionary terms to interested countries through an international technology transfer mechanism whose feasibility needs to be explored. Furthermore, the data obtained by global monitoring satellites currently used exclusively for military purposes could be utilized for civilian R&D, especially for sharing global data among countries for resource development.

Initiatives for conversion of R&D resources are not limited to governments. The role of universities and scientific research centres is important in this context. Thus, bearing such responsibility in mind, the senate of the University of Dortmund (Germany) adopted the commitment "to conduct exclusively research activities that serve only civilian purposes and, furthermore, to ensure that in the future no R&D projects will be conducted which should serve discernibly military purposes". This self-commitment holds true as well for research projects carried out on a contract-basis. Similar initiatives were taken by universities in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s.

Manufacturing processes
Type Classification:
G: Very Specific strategies