Political Constraints on Weapons Systems

15 November 2010


The Joint Strike Fighter F-35 is a weapons system of dazzling capability and complexity, but many of its systems are the result of budgetary and political constraints rather than being purely an attempt to build an air superiority fighter.

The evolution of weapons systems

Popular discussions of evolutionary biology often overlook the role of behavioral changes in evolution. It is easy to focus on structural changes to an organism in evolution, because we here have something concrete before us that can be compared with other concrete examples, but a behavioral change can mean the difference between survival and extinction, especially given rapidly changing circumstances. Sometimes we can see this in action even on timescales visible within a single human lifespan. In the Pacific Northwest, it seems to be the case the the salmon who delay their trip to the ocean for a year, gaining in size while they stay close close to where they spawned, are much more likely to survive the trip through the numerous dams on the Columbia River. I discussed this development in Salmon and Industrial Selection.

It is tempting to speculate that, at least in some cases, behavioral changes are the “thin edge of the wedge” of evolutionary change that eventually is incorporated into the very structure of the individual organism. If a given species has widely adopted a given behavioral change for its intrinsic survival value, then a mutation that occurs that facilitates the behavior (or even eliminates the need for the behavior by replacing the behavior with a structure) is much more likely to fall on fertile ground, as it were. That is to say, it is conceivable that a behavioral change could pave the way for a structural change.

We find many of these same considerations are true of the evolution of weapons systems, although we need to begin by making a distinction. Some time ago I distinguished between ideas that precede their practical implementation (and therefore call for a proof of concept) and ideas that are formulated only in order to express something that is already in existence. I made this distinction in Putting Ideas First. This distinction holds good for weapons systems, but we can got further and formulate a distinction more specific to weapons systems, and that is a distinction between weapons systems that are invented to meet a specific need, and weapons systems that are first invented without a specific mission, and only later do the optimal uses for this weapons system emerge from its use on the battlefield. It follows from this second consideration that the tactical doctrine for the use of a weapons system sometimes follows far behind the weapons system itself. Again, this is a formulation of the idea/implementation distinction (and order of priority) specific to weapons systems.

An obvious illustration of a weapons system that was fielded before an adequate tactical doctrine was available is that of mechanized armor. I recently discussed this in Generations and Gradients (as well as in other posts). Generally speaking, a significant number of the mechanized weapons systems introduced during the First World War had no effective offensive tactical doctrine available for their implementation, and so they were instinctively employed for the defense, which led to an enormous stalemate. Near the end of the First World War a number of distinctive engagements, as well as training exercises during the interwar period, directed a number of theorists to begin to converge upon a tactical doctrine adequate to the offensive employment of mechanized armor in combined arms operations. This led to the Second World War being much more about offense than defense.

The nature of the current state of our industrial, technological, and scientific infrastructure has led to the systematic development of weapons systems specifically tailored to certain battlefield roles. The systematic development of weapons systems has meant made-to-order weapons system explicitly intended for a particular role. This has significantly lessened the occurrence of a situation like the First World War, in which the new technologies of industrialized warfare were introduced onto the battlefield with little idea as to their optimal implementation. Weapons systems are mostly being used as intended. This suggests that a really innovative tactical doctrine that would exapt existing military infrastructure to unexpected uses would constitute a significant strategic shock, but this isn’t what I want to write about today, however interesting the possibility.

One of the most advanced weapons systems today is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (also called the Lightening II). While the capabilities of the F-35 are truly impressive, perhaps as interesting is the extent to which this fighter is the result of several compromises. According to several websites I consulted, the chief design goals of the F-35 were survivability, leathality, supportability, and affordability. These are further elaborated as follows:

Survivability: radio frequency/infrared signature reduction and on-board countermeasures to survive in the future battlefield — leveraging off F-22 air superiority mission support

Lethality: integration of on- and off-board sensors to enhance delivery of current and future precision weapons

Supportability: reduced logistics footprint and increased sortie generation rate to provide more combat power earlier in theater

Affordability: focus on reducing cost of developing, procuring and owning JSF to provide adequate force structure

from Global Security

In several posts I have discussed the “death spiral” that faces advanced weapons systems: the cost of advanced weapons systems has been increasing disproportionately, so that progressively fewer units of each weapons system are purchased. Thus affordability of the F-35 was one of the major concerns. If an air superiority fighter were to be designed today to be the best possible air superiority fighter, without compromise and without budgetary constraints, it would probably be significantly more impressive than the F-35, and it would probably be unaffordable. One cannot but wonder how many secret projects and calculations are in the works with precisely this in mind. Even if one didn’t build such a fighter, it would be worthwhile to design it and have the blueprints ready in case one needed to build it for some reason or another. This is another intriguing idea that we will not pursue today.

While the budget constraint is a severe constraint felt by all military procurement agencies today and probably throughout history, no less constraining is the “lethality” item mentioned above. To cite the lethality of a fighter implies that it has been designed to be as lethal as possible, but when we look carefully we can see that it has been designed for a particular kind of lethality, and that is precision lethality.

Recently I watched a news story that included a demonstration of the capability of the F-35 precision targeting system, called EOTS (Electro-Optical Targeting System), and it emphasized how a single window in a single building could be targeted. Thus has warfare “escalated” from mass targeting to assassination. Is this an improvement, either morally or technically? Certainly technically it represents a great advance, though other kinds of technical advances might have been pursued instead, in a different political environment.

Technology eventually embodies tactical doctrine

A weapons system is an embodied tactical doctrine. Just like organisms that evolve behaviors, and eventually find an evolutionary advantage in employing a fortuitous mutation that extends this behavior, so too tactical doctrines (battlefield behaviors) emerge, and technological innovations are pursued that will facilitate these tactical doctrines. We can see this evolutionary development very clearly with firearms. In the early use of firearms on the battlefield, drills were developed in order to provide as nearly-constant a rate of fire as would be possible. This tactical doctrine of a consistent high rate of fire was eventually embodied in the machine gun, which has been steadily improved and reduced in size since its earliest introduction. While there are still drills and exercises for the efficient and effective use of fire, we no longer have to drill troops to fall to one knee and reload while another rank of riflemen behind step forward to take their shots. This function, once a behavior, has now been concretely embodied in a weapons system.

The low rate of fire of early firearms forced the development of specialized tactics specific to these weapons. As firearm technology evolved, the tactics of smoothbore muskets became irrelevant.

The F-35 is no less an embodied tactical doctrine. If I knew more about air combat I have no doubt that I could point to a hundred ways that the F-35 embodies in technology functions that were once behaviors, i.e., tactics taught to fighter pilots. The one obvious example I cite is the extent to which the F-35 is built to be an instrument of precision warfare. And precision warfare has been thrust upon the advanced industrialized nation-states as a result of the political circumstances of our time.

The US, NATO, and allies that have joined its military expeditions have been held to historically unprecedented standards of conduct in war. Partly this is a development of communications technology and mass media communications, and partly this is the result of widespread resentment of US power — military, economic, political, cultural… you name it. There are cameras everywhere now, and no sooner has a military strike occurred, than someone in the area who happened to be filming has put a video of what happened on the internet, and it is picked up immediately by mass media outlets around the world. The mass media outlets then edit the available video down to what is most shocking, even if it is what is least representative, and this edited material is then repeatedly broadcast until there is no one in the world who has not seen it.

NATO nation-states disproportionately comprise the most advanced industrialized economies, and thus they possess a significant technological edge, but this technological edge is vitiated by the political conditions under which NATO wages war.

As a result of this process, even though civilian collateral damage is at historic lows, civilian casualties are perceived to be much higher than they are. This creates enormous political pressure to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage, and this political pressure results in the civilian control of the military (embodied in most constitutionally-chartered nation-states today) sending the message that civilian casualties must be avoided at all costs. Therefore we see the emergence of precision warfare, and precision warfare eventually becomes embodied in the technologies of precision warfare that ultimately automate attempts to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage that were once the judgment and the effort of the individual soldier.

Iran's Karrar UCAV bomber

The US, NATO, and its allies are not the only military powers in the world that are developing weapons systems under severe political constraints. In a couple of posts — An Iranian Coup and Flying Boat Swarms? — I have emphasized the military innovations of Iran. Iran operates under political constraints of a different nature, specifically, it develops weapons systems under the political constraints of economic and technological sanctions. Iran could change its political behaviors and, while it would not completely placate the western powers, it probably could go a long way in the direction of lifting some of the most onerous sanctions. The Persians, however, prefer to remain defiant and to accept the sanctions and work within them. The limitations imposed by the sanctions have forced the Persians to be creative, and they have responded with some very creative weapons systems, the Karrar UCAV bomber and the Bavar 2 stealth flying boat. These Persian weapons systems embody strategic independence.

Iran's Bavar 2 stealth flying boat

Limitations often force people to be creative, whether these limitations are the sort of political limitations that affect the western powers or the sort of political limitations that affect Iran, North Korea, or other distasteful regimes that prefer sanctions over international conformity. Shelby Foote, the Civil War historian, explicitly claimed (in the well-known Ken Burns documentary of the Civil War) that the limitations that Robert E. Lee faced forced him to be brilliant, and similar considerations could be used to illuminate the American Colonies’ victory over the British Empire’s far more formidable war machine.

The lesson here is to make the most of our limitations, and not to allow our material limitations to become conceptual limitations. Material limitations can be overcome through exaptation, but conceptual limitations box us in to a single solution and make us vulnerable to those who are capable, as the hackneyed phrase has it, of thinking outside the box.

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