In defence of defence

(Image: Stockfesh)

22 July 2014

Billy MacInnesThere is an interesting story on TechCentral this week about Boston Dynamics and what appears to be a conscious decision by its new parent, Google, to reduce its involvement with military projects.

While Google has not publicly stated that it has scaled back Boston Dynamics’ work for the military, an analysis of federal procurement records for unclassified projects shows the company has accepted vastly less government money since it was acquired by Google in December last year. In 2013, Boston Dynamics received over $31 million (€23 million) in grants for military projects. So far, in 2014, the figure is $1.1 million (€815,550).

With its mantra of “Don’t be evil”, it is perhaps understandable that Google is scaling back Boston Dynamics’ engagement with the US military. After all, who knows what any military projects it works on will be used for. But the other reason, and one that is often overlooked, is that while military grants can be very useful, the fact is that a lot of military projects are wasteful, inefficient and prone to failure, as this article from Forbes headlined “How To Waste $100 billion: Weapons That Didn’t Work Out” demonstrates.

Of course, that might not be money wasted for companies involved in those failed projects because they get paid regardless. But military projects also have a habit of getting bogged down or stalled and that can be damaging to businesses and their product development because they can end up taking a lot longer to produce something than if they had done it without military funding.

In addition, military development works to a different criteria than commercial or consumer product development. As a result, there is a real danger the development of a technology can be pushed off its natural course and end up being forced down a cul-de-sac.

It is not always bad, however. There are examples of military developments being modified and adapted for commercial and consumer purposes and it is probably fair to say that in many of those cases it was the funding available for military projects that enabled the work to be done in the first place. On the other hand, it could also be argued that if spending priorities were changed and the funding channelled into military projects was ploughed into sponsoring commercial development instead, a lot of that work could be done more quickly, efficiently and effectively.

In Ireland’s case, it does not really matter that much as spending on the military is not very high and the country’s policy of neutrality means that the focus of the defence forces is not so much on protecting its territory as in helping to keep the peace in other nations. As a consequence, any investment that is made in technology here is not diverted or distracted military priorities.

Years ago, I wrote an article making a similar point about Japan. After its defeat in the Second World War, Japan was effectively banned from having any military presence at all. This did not stop the country from developing a strong commercial and consumer technology industry in the post-war period. In fact, it definitely helped.

Ireland is a much smaller country, of course, so it’s far less able to become a global technology powerhouse in its own right but it is still able to steer a clearer path for itself because it is free from the lure of the defence dollar.

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