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PERSPECTIVE ON TECHNOLOGY : Helping U.S. Industry Is a No-No : The military has a stake in keeping American industries vibrant, but the White House doesn't see it. A bright career fell victim to the blindness.

April 30, 1990|HARVEY SIMON | Harvey Simon is a National Security Analyst with the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

Until he was fired from his Pentagon post last week, Craig Fields was giving a tour de force performance on a public policy high-wire.

As head of the influential Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, Fields aggressively aided American high-tech industries despite taking his paycheck from an Administration opposed to any government action intended to make companies more competitive.

Fields' most dramatic foray into industrial policy--one that started red lights flashing in the White House and the Pentagon--was his agency's bold investment in high-definition television.

HDTV is the next generation in information and entertainment technology, a combination of high-powered computing with digital-quality video that will begin replacing current television sets sometime in mid-decade.

The emerging HDTV industry has been touted as a new industrial revolution, the last, best hope for reviving U.S. high-technology electronics manufacturing and the key to the health of the semiconductor industry. But American firms are losing the HDTV race to their Japanese rivals and have looked to Washington for help.

The Defense Department is not in the entertainment business--at least not intentionally, as one DARPA official is fond of saying. But the department does have a major stake in keeping the American electronics industry on its feet. By the end of the decade, it has been estimated, half of the total cost of new Army weapons will be for electronics.

The military also has lots of specific uses in mind for the major components that will go into HDTVs. Their flat-panel screens, for instance, would be great information displays in everything from F-16 cockpits to M-1 tanks.

But Fields also intended his agency's investments to spawn the production of commercial television equipment. What's good for the couch potato is good for defense. Only high-volume civilian production will make the products affordable enough for widespread military use.

At first, the Bush Administration went along with DARPA's rationale. Republican Administrations, after all, usually have a soft spot for just about any policy deemed important to preserving national security. "I'm not going to second-guess what DARPA does with their money," a White House official said just last fall.

Fields, 43 years old and widely respected for his quick-minded intelligence, was performing an incredible balancing act, somehow maneuvering the leeway to invest in HDTV research afforded no other department.

When Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher had tried to aid HDTV research, he reportedly got a trip to the White House woodshed for his trouble. Chief of Staff John Sununu is said to have instructed Mosbacher that Commerce support for HDTV was the kind of industrial policy Michael Dukakis had campaigned for.

It wasn't long before Fields also felt the heat. His tightrope act was becoming shaky.

Late last year, soon after DARPA began its planned three-year, $30-million HDTV investment, Deputy Defense Secretary Donald Atwood reportedly told Fields to freeze his agency's contracts. The Administration was not just going after DARPA's HDTV research, it was attempting to gut virtually all the Defense Department's technology development programs.

Fields was a high-value target for an Administration about to extend its no-industrial-policy policy government-wide.

What finally led to Fields' ouster was unremarkable, in at least one regard. Fields, a computer scientist by training, decided DARPA would invest in a silicon-substitute material known as gallium arsenide, something the agency had been doing since the 1970s.

Electronic components made with gallium arsenide are more resistant to radiation than chips made from silicon and can operate at faster speeds, making them critical for high-performance weapons. Yet most of the gallium arsenide that the military uses comes from foreign sources, primarily Japan.

What surprised Administration officials was Fields' decision to have DARPA directly invest in a company that makes the material, rather than merely issue a research grant. In return for its $4-million investment in Gazelle Microcircuits Inc., of Santa Clara, Calif., DARPA hoped to keep the company from having to sell its technology to the Japanese.

When it was announced that Fields was being dismissed--technically, he was assigned elsewhere; for all practical purposes, he was fired--it became apparent the Administration had reached a consensus: even the interests of national security would not justify government investment in private industry.

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