By Mead Treadwell, former Alaska Lt. Governor
I grew up in a house powered by America’s so-called “military industrial complex.” My late stepfather Walt Lane was chief of flight test at Sikorsky Helicopters. Around our kitchen table we heard regularly about the fervent competition to develop what is now the venerable, widely used S-61 Blackhawk. Sikorsky was then owned by giant United Technologies, which also made Pratt and Whitney jet engines, Otis Elevators, and Carrier air conditioners. Winning fly-off competitions was key to Walt’s job, as well as that of many other Sikorsky employees who pushed the boundaries of technology, to the ultimate benefit of America’s defense and commercial sectors.
Now United Technologies – which no longer owns Sikorsky– is merging with another technology firm, Raytheon. As I live in Alaska now, I have had the opportunity to see their work first-hand. The kill vehicle in the missile-defense silos up the road at Ft. Greeley was developed by Raytheon, among others. As an honorary commander, I got to visit the string of Air Force radar stations on Alaska’s coast built originally as the DEW line, where other Raytheon products are deployed: integrated electronics that protect the lives of our people, our fighter and bomber and AWACS crews, and civil aviators and passengers all at once (above, an image of a current model Raytheon unmanned drone).
Unsurprisingly, some have criticized the Raytheon-United Technologies merger. Those critics argue the merger may violate anti-trust laws and could take away the kind of healthy competition my stepfather used to sweat. Every defense merger renews fears of undue influence by the “military industrial complex” outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us against in his famous Farewell Address, 1961. Some just don’t like “bigness,” arguing large firms stifle innovation. Some have a vested financial interest in keeping their competition right where they are.
I have no economic interest either way. As an American interested in the defense of America, though, I think the critics are wrong. To maintain strength as a country, we need firms that are large and small. We need start-ups that can bring innovation to market, and large, global scale firms that can build the massive integrated systems our defense requires. We need innovation in American garages, and innovation in large-scale labs. The newly merged Raytheon will have seven R&D centers of excellence, and 60,000 engineers like my stepfather.
Another regular at my boyhood kitchen table was inventor Robert Fulton, a serial inventor whose “Skyhook” lifted spies off Soviet camps on Arctic ice floes and later was seen in James Bond, John Wayne and Batman movies. Walt and Robert were in some ways the yin and yang of our defense industrial establishment. One worked for a big company, another invented out of his home lab. Both created value to support the warfighter. In their footsteps, I’ve helped bring new technologies to market myself, as a start-up funder and entrepreneur and as a board member of larger, established companies. I still want the little guys to have opportunity and the big guys to be strong. In my experience, neither is immune to competition.
That’s what this merger is all about: building a stronger company to meet today’s global competitive pressures. For American leadership in aerospace and sensor technology, this new company puts us in a better position. Since United Technologies sold Sikorsky, a merger with Raytheon could hardly be called anti-competitive. Only 25% of United Technology’s business, mostly jet engines of the type Raytheon doesn’t build, goes to the Department of Defense. Defense budgets are high but are expected to fall – and this merger will bring about efficiencies and overhead reduction costs. Competition these days is not only limited to American companies: we need firms of the size to compete against global giants quartered elsewhere, as well as weapons-builders growing in Russia and China. The scale of the merged company will help support the kind of research and development of big integrated systems that can’t happen in places like Robert Fulton’s garage.
In January 1961, in the same speech where President Eisenhower warned us that we must balance our liberty and security by watching military contractors closely, Eisenhower said this: “Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.” No American should dismiss the need for strong deterrence, strong capability to respond, and the value of superiority on land, sea, air and space against any aggressor.
Russia and China have both announced plans to overwhelm our missile defenses (yes, those based here in Alaska, as well as Aegis cruisers at sea) with hypersonic missiles – missiles that fly 27 times the speed of sound, with a trajectory we can’t yet shoot down. New radar technologies continue to emerge. Quantum physics will open up new sensor, computing and communications systems. Aircraft in many forms, from big planes to small drones, are changing the battlefield. No nation has as much of an edge as we used to have.
America’s chase for superiority on so many fronts requires us to have a strong defense industry. Watch it we must, as Eisenhower said; help that innovator in his garage as much as that big industrial or university lab, but don’t tie down the flow of capital to keep us globally competitive.
Former Alaska Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell is a serial entrepreneur who has brought technologies to market in geospatial sensing, imaging and communications, serving US defense, intelligence, and homeland security needs. He is former chair of the Aerospace States Association, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and former Managing Director of the Institute of the North, which helped make the case for U.S. missile defense in Alaska. He is a member of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, and writes and speaks frequently on Arctic and other security issues.