Apologists for the bloated military budget of the US will often raise the point about how military spending supports technological development. Aside from depending on a religious understanding of technological progress as inherently “good”, this argument is flawed given the fact that military spending has sometimes deformed scientific and engineering R&D into more inefficient and ineffective directions.
Take numerical control (N/C) machine tool automation systems developed in the 1950s and deployed throughout the 1960s and 1970s. N/C development was chosen by the military and their partners in select universities and corporations, and thus ended up crowding out alternative technology pathways. According to David Noble’s Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (1986) N/C systems were 1) far more expensive and complicated than the competing technology of record-playback (R/P), which was easy to program and use, and 2) expensive compared with the benchmark system because of how the unique needs of the military industries crowded out cheaper, general-purpose N/C systems. As a result, domestic production of N/C systems lagged for the civilian market (which dominated the metal work industry), and allowed for the domination of foreign machine tool firms.
Fujitsu Fanuc, a leading Japanese machine tool builder, in 1973 alone produced more N/C machines designed for the commercial market than all US machine tool firms combined. Likewise, in West Germany, machine tool builders concentrated upon the commercial market. According to Paul Stockmann of Pittler–a central figure in German N/C development–German manufacturers were locked out of US military contracts and the APT Program and found, besides, that “no one was interested here in a highly sophisticated program which required access to a big computer.” Instead, manufacturers focused upon less expensive and less demanding programming methods, and designed their cheaper machines accordingly. Not surprisingly, with domestic machine tool builders tied up with military and aerospace industry orders and specifications, foreign manufacturers were able to gain a significant foothold in the US commercial market. Between 1960 and 1975, US imports of machine tools increased 300 percent. By 1978, the US had become a net importer of machine tools; Japanese machines accounted for one-third of these imports and West German machines accounted for one-fifth (222).
Here’s something else to ponder: how much did the dominance of Japanese and West German firms in the machine tool industry affect the decline of American manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent collapse of industrial communities across the Midwest? Perhaps not much, given that factories should have still had access to the higher production rates of foreign machines, but this still demonstrates how the dominance of military interests in a critical field of technology in fact stifled the development of better, general-purpose systems.