After days of ranting about the persistence of the doctrine of original design, it’s good to see that at least one person gets it: Technological artifacts have a degree of flexibility in them, even the most seemingly rigid.  Chapomatic, one of the MilBloggers I follow, has this to say regarding Boyd’s opposition to the acquisition of the F/A-18:

Boyd pushed hard for a fighter that was the best at air-to-air battle, and the F/A-18 was not what Boyd was advocating. This, to me, meets some informal rules I’ve considered about acquisition that may or may not be true but is my current best guess.

  1. A new weapon system tends not to be used the way it was intended to be used. Disruptive technologies are not used the way they were supposed to be when they were invented.
  2. “Good enough” for many missions seems to beat out “the bestest” at one mission for many weapons systems. This goes against business conventional wisdom for some things: the idea that great companies are “hedgehogs”, doing one thing well, is orthogonal to the idea of being good enough at many things. The previous thought, that what you do in war ain’t what you thought you’d be doing, reinforces that.
  3. Smart people with a lot of passion can be very wrong with acquisition. As another example, many people advocated and supported the Maginot Line; they were well respected at the time. We tend to forget that.
  4. With many exceptions, weapons systems start their product lives lighter, less capable, and less top heavy than at end of life. The first tank was tiny; the latest one is huge. Dreadnoughts started much smaller than they were at the end of their ‘product cycle’ (where some other tech makes it obsolete). The last ship of class will weigh more, have more stuff, and tend to be more top heavy; submarines tend to get less berthing space and have more laptops alarming at random in Control; and airplanes will tend to have more stuff on them. If you’re making a first-of-class, you might not consider that because you’ve got other problems to solve. {Chapomatic, F-18 Acquisition, 2006}

His analysis, based on the reading and research I have done thus far, seems to be correct.  Readers of this site will know that I definitely agree with point 1 above.  There really isn’t much to agree or disagree with there: Anyone with any historical understanding of technology knows that designer’s intent is not everything, that technologies can be flexible, excessive, even disruptive.

But rather than disciplining and punishing those disruptive technologies, Chapomatic seems to understand that it is those very qualities which can ultimately be most beneficial, especially in environments filled with rapid change and uncertainty, like war.  His description is a great piece of prose: "what you do in war ain’t what you thought you’d be doing."

Now, I had not made the connection to overspecialization in my reading of Boyd, but I think that he may definitely be onto something here.  Boyd definitely sought "the bestest" in the two examples that the reformers and their sympathizers like to cite: the F-16 and the A-10.  The F-16 was supposed to be the best air-to-air fighter; Boyd and his acolytes were upset that it turned into a multi-role fighter because other missions distracted and diminished its ability to perform its one true mission, the one it was designed and intended to do, air-to-air combat.  Likewise, the A-10 was not designed to be a "good enough" system, it was meant to do one job, close air support, better than any other system.

Finally, it is interesting to see the implicit comparison of Boyd and followers to those who advocated the Maginot Line.  In my recent reading of works by military reformers from the early 1980s, both James Fallows and Gary Hart accused the dominant DOD acquisition culture of their time as suffering from a Maginot Line mindset.  It is definitely interesting to see this turned back their way, and quite effectively.

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