Mark Collins – “Opinion: Timeless Insight Into Why Military Programs Go Wrong”

Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week and Space Technology suggests the Pentagon (and others) might learn from a master of science fiction with wartime technology experience:

The history of defense program failures was foretold in 1953 


The best 4,000 words you’ll ever read about 21st-century defense procurement were written more than 60 years ago by a former Royal Air Force radar boffin, Arthur C. Clarke [more here], who would go on to become a lauded science-fiction luminary.  

“Superiority” was published in Clarke’s 1953 story collection, Expedition to Earth [more here]...

In Clarke’s universe, it all goes horribly wrong, in ways that match historical experience with spooky exactitude. “A revolution in warfare may soon be upon us,” the scientist tells the general staff at his first meeting. The adversary has matched today’s technology; the research and development organization has not invested in radical new weapons. “It is fortunate for us that our opponents have been no wiser,” the scientist warns. “We cannot assume that this will always be so.”

I suspect that everyone in the defense industry today has heard similar words, whether about the “revolution in military affairs,” “transformation” or even “Third Offset.” Note, too, how the scientist uses the fact that the enemy is sticking with existing technology to support his case.

The first new weapon, the Sphere of Annihilation, “produced complete disintegration of matter over a radius of several hundred meters.” Its main drawback: It required a bigger torpedo that could only be carried on larger ships. The production of existing torpedoes had to stop, but this was worthwhile: “It seemed to us that all our existing weapons had become obsolete overnight,” the narrator says.

But by the time the new weapon is ready, the enemy (having not read the scientist’s memo) has been churning out old-technology (fourth-generation?) ships, has launched offensives while the defender’s ships are low on torpedoes and has an advantage in numbers that blunts the superweapon’s impact.

This is a good time to recall that the Pentagon’s effort to replace thousands of fighters, bombers, cruise missiles and helicopters with stealthy vehicles went into high gear 30 years ago and that the average age of the U.S. fighter force has never been greater [do read on for more bungles and boondoggles in Mr Clarke’s story]…

Is “Superiority” a parable? Clarke would have known very well how the U.S. 8th Air Force had arrived in Britain in 1942 and how its leaders planned to win the war with precision bombing, thanks to a specific, highly secret weapon-aiming system [see here]. It might be a coincidence that Clarke’s arrogant scientist is named Professor-General Norden, but I doubt it [lots more here on how the original US daylight bombing plan failed]. 

Related:

F-35, or “Do Joint Fighter Programs Save Money?”, Part 2

F-35 Chief: Think Very, Very Hard Before Making Another Joint Fighter 

Mr Clarke also wrote the book for “2001: A Space Odyssey“:

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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