Stand Down

What do the looming cuts to the defense budget mean for Massachusetts?

By Patrick Doyle | Boston Magazine |

defense budget cuts massachusetts 2013 military mit raytheonIllustration by David Arky

Three dozen graying men and women in suits gathered in Natick Town Hall one day in the middle of November to celebrate some exciting news: The town had just been awarded $2.5 million in state grants for improvements at the U.S. Army base in town, the Natick Soldier Systems Center.

As local politicians stood in an arc behind a podium, a Natick selectman introduced Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, who’s likely to run for governor when Deval Patrick’s term expires in 2014. Murray made the politically wise decision last February to chair the newly created Military Asset & Security Strategy Task Force, a group set up to make sure that federal dollars—lots of them—keep flowing to military bases in Massachusetts. The Department of Defense hands out an enormous amount of money each year to academic institutions and defense contractors, and Massachusetts, which has plenty of both, is one of the chief beneficiaries. A study by the UMass Donahue Institute put the economic impact of our military bases at $14.2 billion in 2011, including 31,900 jobs, while a separate study found that the defense-contracting industry accounts for $13.9 billion in funding and more than 130,000 jobs.

As Murray, a Democrat, began his speech, the celebratory mood from President Obama’s recent reelection was still hanging in the air. But Murray made a point to explain that, at least in one area, his views line up with those of Mitt Romney’s running mate. “I agree with Paul Ryan that the level of government that governs best is closest to the people,” Murray told the audience. “And that’s about all we agree on.” What he was getting at was that military spending in this country is almost certainly going to be reduced. And while most everybody seems to agree that defense expenditures need to be trimmed, nobody, least of all Tim Murray and the state he hopes to someday govern, wants to deal with the effects of losing that funding.

Actually, the defense cuts are already taking place. The 2011 Budget Control Act mandated a $487 billion reduction in projected military spending over the next 10 years, starting this year. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last January that most of those budget cuts would come from retiring aging aircraft and ships; increasing the share of healthcare benefits that some retired personnel pay; and reducing the number of active members of the Army and Marines by about 100,000. Adding to the pressure—at least as of press time—was the so-called fiscal cliff and its threatened across-the-board 10 percent, or $500 billion, cut in defense spending. Never mind that cliff, though: A number of think tanks, including the Center for a New American Security, Third Way, and the Commonwealth Institute, are advocating for defense cuts of $150 billion to $550 billion.

Murray and a lot of other people believe that with all the budget slashing ahead, the stakes for Massachusetts are high. Which got me wondering: What is the military doing in Massachusetts? Aside from Fleet Week or a visit to Hanscom Air Force Base, you’re as likely to see a Revolutionary War reenactor around here as an actual uniformed member of the military. So just how dependent is our state on military spending?


Think defense cuts, and the first thing that comes to mind is closing military bases and reducing the size of the Army. In the years ahead, we are likely to see fewer people in active military duty, but the future of bases is less clear. Congress threw a collective temper tantrum last January, when Panetta proposed a commission to examine the possible closure and consolidation of military bases this year. By August, Panetta had canceled those plans.

Another base-closing commission is likely to proceed, however, perhaps in 2015, a development that served at least partially as the inspiration for Massachusetts to create that group Murray is now running, and also for the state grant given to the military base in Natick—a reminder to the Department of Defense that this base matters to us. “Will that save a base?” asks Christopher Anderson, the president of the Defense Technology Initiative lobbying group. “No. Will that enhance our ability to strengthen the mission? It certainly does.”

Massachusetts, and New England, can be forgiven if they’re a little sensitive, having endured previous rounds of base closures that resulted in the shutdown of South Weymouth Naval Air Station and Loring Air Force Base in Maine. Today, in fact, fewer than 15,000 people are working on the six military bases in Massachusetts, most of them civilians, reservists, or National Guard members. The Census Bureau shows that fewer than 3,300 active-duty military personnel live in the state. That’s a pretty minimal presence compared, for example, with the more than 45,000 active-duty soldiers at Fort Hood, in Texas.

These days, the military presence in Massachusetts is focused on training, reserve and National Guard duties, and research and development. We have Barnes Air National Guard Base, in Westfield (home to the Air National Guard 104th Fighter Wing); Fort Devens, near Fitchburg (mostly a training facility); the Massachusetts Military Reservation, on Cape Cod (a training site, for the most part, but also the base for the Air National Guard 102nd Intelligence Wing); and the Westover Air Reserve Base, in Chicopee/Ludlow (a reserve facility). The largest base is Hanscom Air Force Base, which is home to an electronics research site, a military-personnel support system, and the new Massachusetts National Guard Joint Force Head-quarters. These days, though, Hanscom Field serves as a public airport rather than an active military airfield.

Then there’s the Soldier Systems Center, which is sometimes called the Natick Labs, and is one of the most unusual military facilities in the country. Recently I took a tour.

Opened in 1953, the center is charged with caring for both the inside and outside of a soldier. That means developing new types of food, body armor, uniforms, and backpacks. Past successes include the MRE (a dehydrated “meal, ready-to-eat”), the bulletproof vest, and, if the legend is true, the drink Tang.

Today, more than 1,600 people, mostly civilians with advanced degrees, work at the Natick base, which spends $1.6 billion of federal money on research and development. The facility includes 459,000 square feet of labs, among them a climate chamber, an altitude chamber, and a thermal test facility, where researchers gauge the flame-resistant properties of soldier uniforms by firing eight flamethrowers at dummies. Then there’s the charmingly named Load Carriage Prototype Lab, in which Army backpacks are designed and tested. The goal of that lab—which is filled with 60 years’ worth of backpacks, utility belts, pouches, snaps, buttons, clips, and reams of various fabrics—is to solve what turns out to be a tremendously difficult problem: What’s the most efficient way for soldiers to carry and access the gear they need for various missions?

Also located on the base are labs responsible for soldier performance and physiology. Recent innovations include a mathematical model that calculates survival times for individuals partly or fully submerged in water; special boots for soldiers serving in hot climates; and a heated shirt that keeps soldiers warm during parachute jumps. Given the diversity of physiological research, officials here spend a lot of time working with local universities, including Harvard, Brown, and MIT.


The truth is that while Massachusetts continues to attract all sorts of military spending, most of it doesn’t have much to do with the training and housing of soldiers anymore. These days, it’s our brainpower, rather than our brawn, that the military is interested in tapping. It works like this: The Department of Defense identifies a problem it needs fixed and starts looking around for solutions, often to tech-focused academic centers like MIT, or to research companies like Raytheon. These organizations win contracts to tackle the problem, and get to work. The military funds the research, which, in the case of an academic institution, often leads to the formation of private tech and defense companies that supply the solutions to the military’s problem. Remove the federal dollars, though, and the whole ecosystem collapses.

Little wonder, then, that in November—as concerns about the fiscal cliff heightened—the heads of 16 Massachusetts research institutions, including Harvard, Boston University, and Massachusetts General Hospital, sent a letter to our Congressional delegation warning of the disastrous effects cuts related to the fiscal cliff would have on both defense and nondefense research: “These across-the-board cuts will drastically reduce the federal research funding that we depend on to deliver innovations essential to economic growth.”

No university is more worried about future cuts than MIT, which has been deeply involved in defense research for more than 70 years. It all started during World War II, when researchers at the university’s Radiation Lab, working with the military, were responsible for the development of radar. The partnership between the military and MIT has only strengthened over the years. In 2011 the Institute received $952 million in contracts from the departments of Defense and Homeland Security—making it the fourth-largest recipient of such contracts in the state, trailing only Raytheon, General Dynamics, and General Electric.

MIT limits its military research to defensive uses, meaning no guns or missiles. I wasn’t able to visit the university’s Lexington-based Lincoln Laboratory—a federally funded research and development center that works on missile-defense technology, satellites, and cyber security—but I did spend some time at the school’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN). Established in 2002, ISN’s goal is to develop nanotechnologies that make soldiers lighter, safer, and more efficient. ISN is confined to two floors of a building in Kendall Square—a warren of offices and crowded laboratories—but its reach extends throughout campus. Some 50 faculty members, 100 graduate students, and 50 postdocs spread across 13 different departments work on ISN projects. MIT professor John Joannopoulos, who’s the director of ISN and a theoretical physicist, told me that the lab considers itself the Army’s academic interface, constantly watching what research is coming out of the university. “Because we are in the midst of MIT,” Joannopoulos says, “we can see [research] and say, ‘I wonder how that would be useful for the DoD or the Army?’”

What does this look like in practice? In the years leading up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—during which improvised explosive devices (IEDs) would become a deadly problem for American soldiers—Timothy Swager, an MIT chemistry professor, was experimenting with creating new semiconducting organic polymers. Using a military grant, he developed a polymer capable of detecting vapors from explosive materials. Swager and MIT licensed the technology to Nomadics, a defense-contracting company, which turned it into a handheld device that’s capable of detecting IEDs. It’s been used in Iraq since 2004, and these days is also being used in Afghanistan. Now the Transportation Security Administration is interested in adapting the technology for use in airports.

Some of the ISN’s other advances have included experimenting with a new system that could make vaccines far more effective, and helping to develop a fiber-optic laser surgery system that has been used to treat more than 60,000 patients to date. In 2003 it was licensed to a company called OmniGuide.

Joannopoulos says academics are drawn to working with the military because the goal is to develop not incremental advances but game-changers. “People are going to come after me for saying this,” Joannopoulos says, but the Department of Defense “is by far the most flexible and risk-taking when it comes to resources. They’re willing to take a risk and try something—something that might not work out, but is more revolutionary than evolutionary.”


Like I said, though: Take the federal dollars out of all this military research and development, and the whole thing falls apart. Nobody is more aware of this than the state’s defense contractors. In November, the Globe ran a story, titled “Defense industry closely watching Elizabeth Warren,” that contained some warnings from contractors for the just-elected senator. Christopher Anderson, of the Defense Technology Initiative, was quoted as saying that the “defense technology community in particular is not quite sure of whether she is going to be supportive at the end of the day. She has an obligation to major sectors of the Massachusetts economy that are inextricably linked to the federal government.” The message was clear: Defense firms may have given 30 times more in campaign donations to Warren’s opponent, former Senator Scott Brown, than they did to her, but Warren was going to have to line up behind them anyway, lest she damage the Massachusetts economy.

The next day, Anderson released a study showing that in 2011, Massachusetts defense firms received $13.9 billion in contracts from the departments of Defense and Homeland Security—an 83 percent increase since 2003. When I spoke to Anderson, he told me that the “current state is that you have a tremendous amount of uncertainty as a result of un-resolved deficit strategies down in Washington.” He was talking about the fiscal cliff, and he said the state had a lot to lose if the standoff wasn’t resolved soon, or if the deal that resolved it wound up resulting in significant cuts to military spending. “It will affect Raytheon,” he said, “but it also affects all the sub-contractors that Raytheon brings in to do work.”

Raytheon, of course, is the $25 billion gorilla of the Massachusetts defense industry. Based in Waltham, the corporation is the fifth-largest military contractor in America and the ninth-largest employer in the state. It was founded in 1922 by three scientists, one of whom, Vannevar Bush, would go on to oversee the Manhattan Project and become dean of the MIT School of Engineering. Today, Raytheon is best known for the development of the Patriot missile, but it’s involved in all kinds of other research, including air traffic control and satellites.

The Raytheon subsidiary BBN Technologies, which is based in Cambridge, is an example of just how interwoven contractors are with both academic institutions and the government. The company helped develop ARPANET—the progenitor of the Internet—in the 1960s and 1970s to aid communication between university- and military-research labs. “What BBN has done is have a lot of close relationships with academia. And there are some things that academia doesn’t want to do,” Zachary Dutton, the lead scientist of Quantum Information Processing at BBN, told me. “Our interest is: Can you take the discovery and find an application for it?”

The applications I saw during a tour of the company included the Boomerang, which uses directional microphones and a computer to determine the location of a sniper. The technology, which was based in part on the work done in the 1970s to figure out the location of President Kennedy’s assassin, was introduced in Iraq in 2004. TransTalk, meanwhile, is an Android smartphone app the company developed to translate Arabic and Pashto into English, and vice versa, and which has since been expanded to include an English-Spanish version. The possibilities for the app seem endless.

Elsewhere at BBN, researchers are working on advancing the new field of quantum computing, which uses powerful quantum bits (“qubits”) instead of traditional binary digits (“bits”) to perform advanced calculations. Dutton said that quantum computers are today where regular computers were in the 1950s. He’s confident, though, that in time quantum computers “will vastly outpace the speed of classical computers. They’ll be orders of magnitude larger.”

BBN executives acknowledged some concern about proposed cuts in defense spending, but they seemed hopeful that Congress would work things out. And anyway—and despite what Anderson may believe—a 2011 Credit Suisse report found that Raytheon, because of its diversified product line and international sales, is actually the major U.S. defense contractor that’s least vulnerable to spending cuts.


It’s true that, as I heard many times, Massachusetts has a lot to lose when it comes to any cuts in military spending. Then again, we’re probably better off than most states. While the country’s standing army is likely to decline in size, most of the pain in that regard will be felt by bases like Fort Hood, in Texas. Warfare is becoming far more technical and advanced, giving Massachusetts, with our renowned academic institutions and our powerhouse technology industry, a decided advantage.

Anderson predicts that the federal government will be spending a lot more money on cyber security. “Assuming the investment in research and development and technology remains a federal priority,” he says, “that will be something that—if we do our job in Massachusetts—we can benefit from.”

And as warfare continues to evolve, the companies and universities of Massachusetts will evolve right along with it. “Our business,” BBN’s Dutton says, “is to closely follow what the government wants and is interested in.”

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