Science Applications International Corp., San Diego, which is 100 percent employee-owned and known as a civilian outpost for ex-military, has never been an ordinary company.
SAIC's vice chairman, retired Adm. William Owens, formerly vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has taken that unusual reputation a step further. He advanced a plan this week to solve global problems - such as food shortages and terrorism - with the help of technology. You might say that Owens, through SAIC, is setting out to save the world.
The company has formed an internal group of 65 people to analyze a list of 11 of "the world's greatest problems." The committee will have outside input from representatives at the World Bank and elsewhere, but will be run and funded entirely by SAIC.
SAIC's expertise in national security, communications, systems integration and energy will be leveraged for the project. "We have a mandate to use technology to help mankind," Owens said in an interview with reporters.
The process of analyzing the list of problems will take at least a year or two. However, Owens said SAIC already has specific technology ideas. For example, one of the problems on the list is the absence of a middle class in Third World countries. "Democracies only survive when there is a middle class," Owens said.
Airships, he said, are the answer. Large airships, or blimps, can be built to deliver cargo anywhere in the world cheaply, Owens said. A solar generator could supply electrical power to communities in the Middle East, he said. Other technologies that exist today can convert seawater to drinking water or monitor the earth's topsoil from space.
Military experts and business executives seemed unnerved by the scope of the project. "To start at world hunger is a fairly high level," said Martin Libicki, senior fellow with the National Defense University in Washington. "This sounds Owens-esque. He's a big-think kind of guy," Libicki said.
"He's still thinking like he is the vice chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] .... He has not figured how to translate that into cash and dollars on the barrel," said one industry official. Owens retired from the U.S. Navy in February 1996 and joined SAIC in March.
During his last two years in the military, Owens used his influential perch at the Pentagon in a partly successful effort to forge greater cooperation among the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
The biggest criticism of Owens' sketch came in the form of a question: "Who is going to pay for this?" Clearly, SAIC, with $2.2 billion in annual revenues and 22,000 employees, is ready to put up some of its own money to help mature a market for world problem-solving. And the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other organizations would likely lend support. However, some countries simply may not want the outside help, and the work is expensive and dangerous. With wars, laws and traditions varying from place to place, technology may not be the silver bullet.
"SAIC tends to go after things as if they require a technological solution because they are good at technology," said Libicki. "It's the hammer they have."
Even if foreign governments decide to attack a problem, win funding from the IMF or the World Bank, and then accept a solution proposed by an American company, a deal may collapse, said the industry official. Local demands for bribes, plus unreliable government officials or a weak local currency may stymie any contract, he said.
"SAIC only does stuff where there is real money behind it ... not in places with squirrely money and governments that may not pay you for the work," said the industry official. For example, SAIC has already refused contracts from Asian governments because of demands for bribes, he said.
However, another goal of the project is to create an environment at SAIC where ideas are cultivated and shared. "It's an effort to get various people at SAIC to become more aware of what each other is doing," said Jim Blaker, a consultant for SAIC on this project, who had been a senior adviser to Owens in his Joint Chiefs role.
To work on these projects, SAIC will leverage its communications skills. The $1 billion Bell Communications Research Corp., better known as Bellcore, which SAIC in November agreed to purchase, gives the company global expertise in telephone services and equipment.
A failed acquisition of Aerospace Corp. shows that SAIC is interested in the space market. Owens voiced admiration for new communications endeavors such as the Globalstar and Iridium satellite constellations and digital wireless personal communications services.
Speaking about the satellite systems, he said, "We would like to find ways to get into these technologies."
As defense spending has slowed, SAIC has turned more toward commercial endeavors. SAIC's business is currently 80 percent government, of which 50 percent is defense, said Owens. The company will be 40 to 50 percent commercial by the end of the decade, he predicted.
Owens criticized the military's technological ability. "The military could well take some lessons from what is available in commercial information security," said Owens.
Even if Owens succeeds in some small ways, he will have made an impact. Libicki points out such a project creates a name-brand identity for SAIC, something it still lacks for such a large successful company. "Owens is looking for problems that SAIC can solve en masse," he said.
Staff Writer Neil Munro contributed to this report.