So, readers of this blog recently have probably noticed that I have been drawing attention to a particular kind of argument that seems to surface far too often in debates over new weapons technologies.  It is an argument related to design and determinism.  The basic assumptions of this kind of argument are twofold:

  1. A technological artifact can do only that which it was originally designed to do; and
  2. If the initial conditions for which the artifact was designed are altered, it is no longer useful and should be replaced.

This is a basic argument–what I might end up calling the "doctrine of original design"–that was and still is used by individuals involved in the Military Reform Movement which had its heyday in the early to mid 1980s.  The following quotes from David Axe at DefenseTech.org, a site often critical of Rumsfeld’s transformation efforts, as well as new weapons systems generally, illustrates the "doctrine of original design" in action.  Note that Axe quotes Pierre Sprey at the end.  Sprey was an important figure in the Military Reform Movement.  Axe writes,

U.S. Army aviators in Iraq and Afghanistan have begun removing the Longbow radars from their AH-64D Apache helicopters. Which is funny, since the radar is pretty much the point of the $10-billion Longbow upgrade.

The radar weighs 1,500 pounds and makes the Apache sluggish in hot and high-altitude environments — really the only places the Army fights anymore. Aviators are cool with flying without their radars since the things were designed for taking out Soviet tanks.  {Axe, "Old is Better," 2006}

So, the implication here is that the Longbow radars are no longer necessary or useful because they were originally design and intended to deal with Soviet tanks.  Since insurgents are not using Soviet tanks, then the radar is not needed or useful.  Now, this may in fact be true.  The radar may not be entirely useful in Iraq.  But that condition is not a necessary result of it having been designed originally for other purposes.  There are plenty of examples of technologies designed for one purpose being used for something entirely different and unforeseeable by its designers.  Axe continues,

Earlier, the Marine Corps aviators of All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332, deployed to Al Asad in western Iraq, had told me their old $40-million F/A-18D Hornets equipped with sensor pods are better-suited to counter-insurgency combat than $130-million F-22A Raptors, which don’t even have hardpoints for pods.

So, the new-fangled, expensive F-22s don’t even have hardpoints for sensors?  Well, no, they don’t.  Why?  Because all of their weapons are stored internally as a way to make the plane stealthy.  So, does this mean that the F-22 does not have sensors?  Absolutely not.  It has as many, if not more, sensors than any aircraft in the U.S. inventory.  The assumption in the quote above is that if there are no hardpoints, there can be no sensors.  But, what if there were another way, other than hardpoints, say having the sensors built into the body of the aircraft, to have sensors?  That’s exactly what the F-22 does.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Axe is correct: Technologies can only do what they were designed to do, and the Longbow and the Raptor are examples of blatantly poor design.  Why would designers make such horrible designs?  The answer:

The major impetus for the constant development of new and more high-tech weapons was the arms race with the Soviet Union and the need to counter massed tank armies with much smaller forces. Those things no longer apply, and now critics across the services are calling for a different way of doing things — namely, sticking with weapons that work, even if they’re old.

But old stuff doesn’t keep the defense industry flush with cash. And Pierre Sprey, one of the designers of the F-16 Fighting Falcon and an F-22 critic, told me that’s the point of most new weapons. More on that later.  {Axe, "Old is Better," 2006}

Let’s take the first paragraph.  We used to develop new weapons systems because of the Soviet threat.  But now, "those things no longer apply," so we can and should change the way we do business, namely by "sticking with" older weapons–i.e. not developing new ones.  This assumes that the Soviet threat was somehow more amenable to being dealt with through technological means (nevermind the fact that reformers made exactly these same arguments when the Soviets were still around) than the threat from terrorists, rogue states, or other threats unforeseen and unimagined.

So why?  Why would we continue to develop new, expensive, poorly designed weapons when we don’t need to?  The "defense industry" conspiracy of course!  Those evil "contractors" that we have been taught to hate lately, they are the ones selling us inferior and unnecessary weapons, all to make a profit.

What is even more disturbing that the poor logic used in this string of arguments is that

  1. Many on Capitol Hill and within the larger defense policy community continue to make and take these kinds of arguments seriously and
  2. That these same arguments just keep appearing year after year, with each new weapons system.

It is time for us all to think better about the conditions of possibility inherent within technological artifacts, technological innovation and change, and the relationships between technology, strategy, doctrine, and design.  We need to operationalize the history, sociology, and philosophy of technology in a way that can help us to get away from this ever-present "doctrine of original design," to a more sophisticated understanding of technology.

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