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FENNER: Defense innovation through openness

Public and private partnerships helping expose America’s enemies

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Nearly 55 years ago, the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, transforming the space race into an all-out sprint to excel in scientific and technological achievements. On the anniversary of that watershed, America still can learn a valuable lesson from its Sputnik experience by using its available resources wisely to revive the spirit of innovation and collaboration on national security research from that moment.

While in recent years the Defense Department has embarked on a new way to harness this spirit, reminiscent of the previous era, it is important to remember this history. In 1958, the Defense Department established the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which revolutionized the way defense research was conducted at the time. Known in later years as DARPA, the agency was designed to be independent from the military services and operate using a lean, nonbureaucratic structure, relying heavily on collaborative research programs within the private sphere and public universities. In other words, DARPA was and is what we now call a "force multiplier."

Such force multipliers have become increasingly important over the past 10 years as traditional threats have receded a bit and new vulnerabilities have emerged, as seen through the Sept. 11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and current events in the broader Middle East. Policymakers have acknowledged that the United States has been slow to understand this new security environment. They also acknowledge, however, that what is most needed now is a streamlined and innovative approach to understanding the human element of security - the languages, cultures and behavior of our adversaries and friends.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates recognized this deficiency in 2008 when he launched the Minerva Initiative, which continues under current Secretary Leon E. Panetta. This program is designed to improve our understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, economic and political forces that shape strategically important areas of the world. A component piece of this initiative was to establish the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) at the National Defense University. The CRRC makes primary records from al Qaeda and affiliated movements, as well as Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime, available to civilian researchers. As an example of what can be gained, the CRRC collaborated with Johns Hopkins University on a conference on al Qaeda and Associated Movements on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that included both international scholars and policymakers. It will partner with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars this month to examine the Iran-Iraq war from Baghdad's perspective. Unique documents and audio recordings have been and will be made public in conjunction with these events.

Like the DARPA collaborations that emerged in the 1960s, the CRRC serves as a public resource able to partner with a diverse group of universities and researchers, thus enabling them to contribute more fully to national security. By providing access to electronic copies of both the original records and their English translations, the CRRC enables scholars in the social sciences and humanities to discover previously unavailable insights into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and to better understand authoritarian regimes and terrorism from the adversaries' perspectives.

Gaining a deeper understanding of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East will help inform America's response to the Arab Spring, and although al Qaeda has been on the ropes in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, the threat from other terrorists and lone-wolf actors remains very real.

A number of prominent scholars already have used these captured records at the CRRC for cutting-edge research into authoritarian regimes, nonstate actors, deterrence practices and counterterrorism policy effectiveness, among other important areas of concern. These and other research collaborations are important to national security for a number of reasons.

They bring in a diverse set of perspectives and outside expertise that sharpens overall analysis. They free up Defense Department personnel, both uniformed military and civilian, to perform other mission-critical duties for which they are highly trained. Most important, they are an inexpensive way to achieve important results; the yearly operating budget for the center, most of which goes to translation of captured records, is about one-quarter the cost of a single predator drone. Given that a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the opponent might diminish the need to rely as much on weaponry and force, the center and other Minerva projects have the potential to save millions of dollars and many lives over the long term.

Post-Sputnik investments by the Defense Department funded the innovative public and private partnerships that helped America win not only the space race, but also the Cold War. Despite difficult economic and political environments today, the United States can make effective use of its resources by using efforts such as the Conflict Records Research Center to harness a spirit of collaboration and innovation on national security research in order to address the challenges and opportunities of security in the 21st century.

Lorry M. Fenner is the director of the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) at the National Defense University. She has served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee and the Scowcroft and 9/11 Commissions.

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