Cold War Inventions May Help Save the Earth

Even in the face of major changes wrought by the end of the Cold War, money for such work continues today. The laboratory's funding has remained fairly stable since 1990.

Gone almost overnight was the emphasis on strategic defense against missiles from Soviet submarines in the depths of the oceans, according to Robert Spindel, director of the Applied Physics Laboratory. The top priority now is the ability to deal with limited regional conflicts which may involve land/sea operations in coastal waters. The emphasis is on how systems operate in shallow water, not deep water.

There also was a recognition in the early '90s that not all the funds allocated for defense needed to be spent in the same way, says Spindel. Researchers across the nation hoped that some of those dollars and some military technology would go to civilian scientists.

One outcome was the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, championed by Vice President Al Gore, to use Department of Defense money for broad environmental research. Among other things, the program provided $35 million for a project involving the UW, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and other institutions to establish a global network of underwater transmitters and receivers to detect ocean warming. UW project leaders Spindel and Jim Mercer say that if the oceans are heating up in response to global climate change, the time it takes sound to travel between two points will get progressively shorter because sound travels faster through warmer water.

The scientists rely on many of the receivers originally used to track Soviet submarines. Other civilian scientists use formerly secret networks of receivers in the oceans to monitor such things as sea floor earthquakes and the migration routes of whales. Instead of listening to the enemy, scientists are using the networks to listen to the Earth.

Oceanographers, fishermen and geologists interested in locating minerals are among those taking advantage of maps created using masses of what used to be top-secret data about the ocean floors. Nuclear submarines have been put at the disposal of civilian scientists three times. The lab's Jamie Morison and Roger Colony were on the first, historic mission aboard the USS Pargo looking for signs of global warming by sampling and assessing the Arctic Ocean and ice pack.

Such broad uses of Department of Defense equipment and money, however, may have already run their course, Spindel warns. As its budget has shrunk, the military has stepped back from many initiatives. The U.S. Navy's budget, for instance, is half of what it was at the height of Ronald Reagan's administration. And, unlike some military research, it has proven impossible to wring any kind of peace-time use from existing bombs and weapons technology. There are some swords that will never be turned into plow shares.

Opportunities continue to change. Just last year, an Applied Physics Laboratory group led by Peter Kaczkowski conducted a pilot project that advances the use of pulses of electromagnetic energy to detect and describe metal objects in the ground.

Finding the best ways to discern shell fragments from unexploded ordnance such as bombs, mortars and mines is a key to cleaning up military installations that have been used for testing weapons and training troops, Kaczkowski says. The problem is formidable: Millions of acres have been contaminated with ordnance and explosive wastes, some which penetrated the ground as deep as 10 feet and some that are perfectly capable of exploding if mishandled.

The island of Kaho'olawe, the eighth largest of Hawaii's islands, is but one of 900-plus sites needing to be cleared. For 50 years the island was used for bombing, rocketry and gunnery practice. Almost every type of conventional ordnance, ranging from small arms ammunition to 16-inch naval gun shells to 2,000-pound bombs have been dropped or fired on Kaho'olawe. Most of these items detonated as intended, but not all. Now the federal government must clean up the 45-square-mile island in order to return it to civilian uses.

It was only after the federal government began earmarking numerous military installations for permanent closure that the military stepped up funding to find the best instruments to detect ordnance and explosive wastes, Kaczkowski says. "This was never a major concern during the Cold War," he says.

His work has a slightly different twist than projects where military technologies have duel civilian uses: In this case, Kaczkowski believes the military can wring additional information from technology used for years by civilians prospecting for mineral deposits.

What's particularly ironic, he says, is that the scientists who pioneered this technology 30 years ago were from -- where else? -- our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union. *

Sandra Hines writes about oceanography, fisheries, botany, and forestry for the UW Office of News and Information.

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