In a pattern that seems to repeat itself with the procurement of every new piece of military technology, the GAO has advised against more spending on F-22 fighter jets:

In an unreleased report dated Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office called the Air Force’s procurement plans for the Raptor “unexecutable,” and questioned whether the next-generation fighter is necessary in a changing military environment increasingly focused on combating terrorists, insurgents and other unpredictable enemies.

Yet again, we have spent years and billions of dollars on research and development, only to get to the point of production and hear calls for cancellation or drastically reduced orders.  Yet again, the calls for cancellations or reductions are based on two well-used arguments.

First, we have the cost argument.  We are told in this case, as in so many others, that the cost of production per unit is too high, therefore justifying the proposal for reductions.  Yet, once we decide to buy fewer units, the cost of production per unit rises, as does the price tag.  This fact is then used to either justify further reductions or outright cancellation.  There are several problems with this line of argumentation.  The first is the most obvious: Reductions justified by high unit costs of production actually end up causing the problem they are trying to solve.  The second is less obvious but equally important: Just focusing on the cost of production ignores all the money, years, and effort that has been spent in research and development.  It ignores the costs that will be incurred in efforts to keep older aircraft in service longer because the new aircraft will not be purchased in enough numbers to do the job.  None of this is meant to justify cost over-runs, price gauging by contractors, corruption, inefficiency, or the like.  However, one or more bad decisions should not be used as a justification for making yet another.  Regardless of whether the F-22 program has had problems, the fact remains that we still need a replacement for the F-15 and that we have already invested decades and billions into the F-22’s development.  Scrapping the project and starting over at this point would be irresponsible.  We have come too far at this point, spent too much money.  We must live with our decisions and make the best of the situation.

Second, we have the argument relating threats to design.  In this case, we are told that the F-22 is no longer warranted because we are “in a changing military environment increasingly focused on combating terrorists, insurgents and other unpredictable enemies.”  The underlying assumption here–which is made more explicit by others elsewhere–is that because the F-22 was originally envisioned as an air superiority fighter, meant to fight the Soviets, it is incapable of fighting terrorists, insurgents, etc.  The more fundamental assumption still is one regarding technology more generally, and that is that technologies can do only what they were designed and intended to do.

That is a ridiculous argument that is not supported by the history of technology, nor by recent events in the War on Terrorism.  The F-16 was originally designed as an air-to-air fighter as well, but try telling Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that it is therefore incapable of fighting insurgents or terrorists.  Two laser-guided bombs from F-16s spelled the end for Zarqawi.  By this same logic, B-52s should have been incapable of providing support to our special operations forces on the ground in Afghanistan, but they did.  After all, the B-52 was originally designed to drop nuclear weapons on Soviet cities.  Does that mean that we should have done away with them in 1991, that they are no longer capable of being useful?  Of course not.

The reason is that technologies exhibit a characteristic known as “interpretative flexibility”–i.e. they can do more than that for which they were designed.  Their uses can change over time, and often in unexpected, or even completely unforseeable ways.  Even the most seemingly rigid of technologies can exhibit suprising flexibility.  What is unique about many new technologies of the “Information Age” is that often flexibility is “designed” in from the beginning.  The F-22 is an example.  So, the best that we can hope for if we are concerned with a technology’s capabilities to meet unpredictable threats is to remain open to that technology’s possibilities and try to give it the room it (and we) need for those possibilities to emerge, not to design overly rigid technologies, and not to see otherwise flexible technologies as rigid and then toss them aside as a consequence.

It is disturbing to see these same arguments used over and over again, in the name of fiscal responsibility, national security, and better technology, when all they do is lead to exactly the opposite in each case.  In the name of supposed fiscal responsibility we end up spending billions on weapons that we do not buy in sufficient quantities, if at all.  In the name of national security we argue more over money and numbers than over ideas, doctrines, values, priorities, or strategies.  In the name of better technology we end up with out-dated equipment because we refuse to buy the replacements we spend so much time and effort developing.

What is even more disturbing is that the same faulty arguments seem to work every time.  The argument about cost focuses too narrowly on price per unit, ignoring sunk costs, opportunity costs, and anything that is not quantifiable.  The argument about threats and design is based on assumptions about the nature of technology which are patently false.

What is needed, first an foremost, is a system of technology procurement in which technologies are linked to national priorities, strategies, and doctrines first, and money second.  This does not mean that the sky is the limit when it comes to the cost of new systems.  But it does mean that where national security is concerned, there is more involved than just money.  It also does not mean that priorities, strategies, doctrine, etc. will only influence technology and not vice versa.  Linking the two together means staying open to the possibilities that technology may exert on our priorities, strategies, and doctrines.

All this requires a second change, however, one that is more difficult to bring about.  A change is necessary in understanding regarding technology among those in the defense community most broadly conceived.  Naive determinist views of technology which see technological artifacts as only the result of their designers’ intentions, over which we have no control, should be rejected.  Similarly, naive constructivist views which paint a picture of a technological utopia in which we can create anything we want, where we are in total control, should also be rejected.  As usual, the truth lies somewhere in middle, is more complex, and requires more effort to get at than either of these positions is willing to exert.