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.