The most recent U.S. Central Command Air Forces airpower summary provides another nail in the coffin of the "doctrine of original design", the idea that technologies can only do those things originally intended for them by their designers, and nothing more.  The report states,

In Afghanistan Aug. 7, an Air Force B-1 Lancer provided close-air support for coalition troops taking small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire from Taliban extremists near Oruzgan. The B-1 expended Guided Bomb Unit-31s on cave entrances and the extremists’ positions, ending the engagement.

A B-1 also provided close-air support to coalition troops in contact with enemy forces near Musah Qal’eh.

Of course, the B-1 was never originally designed to carry out this kind of mission.  It was meant to be a fast, stealthy, strategic bomber, to drop nuclear weapons on Soviet cities.  If the "doctrine of original design" were correct, this should not have been possible; the B-1 would have lost all utility the minute the Soviet Union ceased to exist.  But it didn’t.  I don’t remember the exact statistics, but I remember seeing that the B-1 flew a tremendous number of sorties in Iraq.  As this report indicates, it has also gotten a workout in Afghanistan.

Again, part of the reason for all of this is the fact that technological artifacts often exhibit the characteristic of "interpretive flexibility"–i.e. there is flexibility in the the way the artifact can be "interpreted" or used.  This is often true of even the most seemingly rigid technologies, like the B-1 or the B-52, and often surprisingly so.  That is, the most disruptive and/or useful capabilities in an artifact often fall into the category of the "unknown unknowns"; they could not have been foreseen in advance.  The best we can do is to stay open to their emergence.

Another reason is that modern weapons have been designed as "systems".  They do not act individually, but in networks which connect them to other weapons, people, and doctrines.  Each of these actors cannot be disconnected from the others, neither in war, nor in our study of it.  Thus, the B-1 by itself is not nearly as important as the B-1 as part of a larger network.  One new actor in that network is the "smart" bomb, in this case a GPS-guided bomb.  Thus, in this case, it was the addition of a new actor to the network that provided the condition of possibility for the meaning and use of the B-1 to be reinterpreted.  It was a factor outside the B-1 itself, and outside the vision of its original designers, the introduction of a relatively cheap guidance system that can be strapped to a "dumb" bomb, that has dramatically shifted the use of the B-1, as well as the B-52 and other aircraft originally designed for very different missions.

So, we might identify three lessons from this, three things to keep in mind when we analyze the development and use of technologies:

  1. Technological artifacts have an element of "interpretive flexibility" which allows them to exceed our expectations;
  2. Technological artifacts exist within networks which consist of other artifacts, as well as people and practices (in this case doctrines); and changes in other parts of the network can cause the meaning and use of an artifact to be reinterpreted; and
  3. Seemingly small changes within the network can have large, often unintended, consequences.

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