Agency Budgets: CHAPTER 11

Department of Defense


  • R&D activities at the Department of Defense would rebound after several years of decline. The proposed increases in DOD R&D are mostly confined to the later-stage development activities.
  • After several years of steady growth, funding for basic research would fall by over 8 percent, while funding for DOD Science and Technology (S&T) remains relatively unchanged.


The Department of Defense is the largest federal sponsor of research and development (R&D), with the majority of R&D funded through the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) accounts. Most of the “R” in RDT&E is classified as DOD Science and Technology (S&T), which is divided into three categories, or budget activities: “6.1,” or basic research; “6.2,” or applied research; and “6.3,” advanced technology development. The remainder of RDT&E, and the vast majority of the budget, is dedicated weapon and vehicle technology development, classified as “6.4” to “6.7” (see Table 3 at bottom). In addition to budget activities, the DOD R&D budget is further organized by armed services or agencies:  Army, Navy, Air Force, and Defense-wide.

Roughly one-fifth of the DOD R&D budget is dedicated to intramural research, with the rest going to extramural performers. Business and industry receive the vast share of the extramural funding, but colleges and universities are key performers of the S&T activities, particularly in basic research. In terms of support for academic R&D, DOD is the third largest federal sponsor behind the Department of Health & Human Services (primarily through the National Institutes of Health) and the National Science Foundation, is the largest funder of engineering research at universities, and a top funder of several other disciplines including computer science and life sciences.


The FY 2016 budget request includes $71.9 billion for R&D activities at the DOD, a roughly 9 percent increase over FY 2015. Of this amount, roughly $70 billion is dedicated to RDT&E. This increase would reverse the downward trend for DOD R&D since FY 2010, due in part to constricting budgets and major reductions to weapons development. 

Science and Technology

The FY 2016 budget request recommends $12.3 billion for S&T, a 0.1 percent increase over the FY 2015 estimate. This amount comprises 2.3 percent of the total base budget for DOD and 17.5 percent of total RDT&E budget. Among other items, the budget request states this funding would continue S&T support of the rebalance to the Asia Pacific region and implementation of the Defense Innovation Initiative, which seeks to identify investments in new areas of innovation to carry the military through the 21st Century.

S&T is the incubator for next-generation defense technologies and capabilities, and serves three primary goals: mitigate new and emerging threat capabilities, affordably enable or extend capabilities in existing systems, and develop technology surprise. Past successes include ubiquitous technologies like jet engines, GPS, night vision, and speech recognition. Current priorities include:  autonomy, data-to-decisions, human systems, hypersonics, and quantum sciences.

Basic Research (6.1). Shortly after submitting the FY 2009 budget request, then-Secretary Robert Gates announced his intention to increase funding for basic research by roughly $1 billion over the next five years. The FY 2009 request for basic research was $1.7 billion, and funding reached $2.1 billion in FY 2013.

The FY 2016 budget request proposes $2.1 billion for basic research, an 8.3 percent decrease from the FY 2015 enacted and $28 million below the FY 2013 budget request. These reductions would be distributed among all of the services, with the Air Force receiving the biggest cut at 11.9 percent. Army basic research would be cut by 7.6 percent; Navy, by 9.7 percent; and Defense-wide agency basic research, by 4 percent.    

Applied Research (6.2) and Advanced Technology Development (6.3). Applied research and advanced technology development would receive modest increases of1.4 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively, under the proposed FY 2016 budget.  For applied research, the Army budget would take a dramatic reduction of 10.4 percent, while Navy would receive a proposed 0.6 percent reduction. Those cuts would boost budgets at the Air Force (by 10.6 percent) and Defense-wide agencies (by 3.3 percent). 

The Army advanced technology development budget would also see cuts under the FY 2016 budget, a nearly 20 percent reduction from FY 2015 enacted. The remaining services would see budget increases:  Navy (4.4 percent), Air Force (7.3 percent), Defense-wide (9.6 percent). 

The Army S&T budget, in particular, would be challenged under the FY 2016 request as it seeks to balance force structure, readiness, and modernization. The request and subsequent statements by Army S&T leadership indicate a focus more towards maturing technologies and targeted investments in priorities areas.

Defense Health Program. The Defense Health Program falls outside of RDT&E, but has become another source of biomedical funding. Historically, this program has been rather popular in Congress, with appropriators boosting funding well above the Pentagon budget requests. However, it has come under scrutiny in recent years, with some in Congress questioning whether or not it is duplicative of biomedical research funding through the National Institutes of Health. The FY 2016 budget request would cut the Defense Health Program by 43.4 percent from the FY 2015 enacted level, signaling a possible continuation of the past trend of the Pentagon proposing reduced funds, leaving it to appropriators fill the gap.


A higher priority on national security, among other items, and substantial increases in the DOD R&D budget were one of the results of the events of September 11, 2001. However, since FY 2010, constricting budgets have reversed that trend. The FY 2016 budget proposes a robust increase for overall R&D, but most of that is directed to later-stage development activities, with early-stage S&T remaining relatively flat or, in the case of basic research, reduced. The proposed DOD budget also deviates from the caps put in place by the 2013 Budget Control Act, which sets the stage for contentious budget and appropriations cycle in Congress.  

The DOD is shifting focus to a leaner, more agile force, one that will depend more heavily on innovation and technical capabilities to maintain its competitive edge on adversaries. However, the cost savings expected with force reduction will take several years to materialize, leaving other areas of the budget vulnerable to budget pressures. The Defense Innovation Initiative will provide a mechanism for future increases for R&D, as has happened during previous “offset strategies. “ However, for the moment, it remains unclear if that will result in corollary increases for S&T.

The AAAS Board of Directors, in accordance with Association policy, has approved the publication of this work as a contribution to the understanding of an important area. Any interpretations and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent views of the Board or the Council of the Association.