Sunday, March 01, 2009

In praise of SMART boondoggles.

From Griper Blade, a blog I wish I'd known of earlier.

Griper Blade: Shooting Down Missile Defense: "Since Obama's election, Bush loyalists have been quietly freaking out that he may not really be willing to waste money hand over fist on missile defense anymore. The military has never been very excited about missile defense (Pentagon officials refer to civilian MD advocates as 'missile defense moonies'), so it's not like they see any worth to the systems. But those Bush loyalists sure do. And they've made repeated attempts to get you to panic at the thought of abandoning it."

A commenter wryly observes that, while utterly unlikely to succeed in shooting down missiles that are unlikely to materialize in any case, is as worthy as any other make-work program in these troubled times.

However, the end result is a great deal of very expensive and useless stuff, when for far less, we could achieve far more. I'm speaking, by the way, to people in the Canadian Parliament and defense establishment. I recall reading earlier today - and my apologies, I forget where, - that in terms of defense technology, and specifically in terms of the F22 program - that due to the usual practice of selling air-superiority technology to allies, the US (and a rather significant number of Canadian subcontractors) are, in essence, competing with themselves.

My initial thought as I closed the article was "what a stupid boondoggle."

And then, in reading this, something clicked. You see, what we need is to concentrate on intelligent boondoggles. Useful and plausible boondoggles intended to generate useful side-benefits. It's nice to have something useful at the end, but if enough useful byproducts come along the way, it may not actually matter in the end.

One absolute priority is to keep very skilled people doing fairly much what they are doing. We really do not wish to see highly skilled weapons systems designers becoming available on the open market.

From several perspectives an ultimately pointless employment that, while unlikely to produce a useful weapons system nonetheless requires all kinds of amazing and useful technical spin offs is worth a certain level of support. And, of course, it doesn't end up producing some simple, easily deployed and cheap pain in the ass - as Gerald Bull (cite above) was casually able to achieve once he was forced to - erm - set his sights lower.

So, while it might seem obvious to cancel boondoggle missile defense programs - please. Think of the Children. We truly do not want to see that staff and technology wander off into unpredictable and horrifyingly effective "practical applications" in the "real world."

More to the point, think of all that lovely technology and all those systems that have come astonishingly close to actually achieving something. Indeed, what if the effort were intentionally expanded to explore practical applications using technology already developed? What if it were adapted to several fairly important long-term priorities - clearing space junk and producing some sort of asteroid defense?

Indeed, what about using the technology to create an anti-junk defense for the international space station - which could then be refined to be applied to communications and resource satellites?

Remember that these are inherently useful goals and which will absolutely have all kinds of high-tech industry spin-offs.

This, by the way, is the primary value of Big Science efforts, like a manned Mars mission - it's not the goal so much as what needs to be figured out in order to send a man to Mars that is the the compelling argument for doing it.

Weapons programs work much the same way. One of the beautiful things about any weapons system is that it's a fairly straightforward application of technology, the R&D is covered by military budgets, and there is a simple, defined development path. That's why cutting edge applications are first seen in military use. I'm quite certain that the initial development costs for the wheel were written off by some military or another. And it was retired soldiers who spread it into the civilian world, because even a former grunt won't grunt any harder than he has to.

So what we should be thinking, as part of the entire military procurement and supply planning process, is what technologies we'd like to advance and what sorts of systems and applications we would like to familiarize soldiers with, both in terms of application and in terms of a trained first generation pool of persons directly familiar with the basic technology. It's difficult to plan for spinoff applications that arise due to the solution of problems in unexpected ways, but you will have a rough idea of the general nature of those unexpected goodies.

It's not difficult to think of several technologies that absolutely must be developed - and soon. Robust and reliable high-density batteries and fuel cells, coupled with flexible, rugged electrical generation systems that can suck energy out of whatever is available - from sunlight to sugarcane. If you think that's a silly thing, ask any field commander how much any operation depends on maintaining a fuel train. Reducing that train by even a few percentage points is an extraordinary valuable thing, and it becomes worth doing LONG before it makes economic sense in civilian hands.

But we will need them as civilian ready units. Climate change is going to increasingly impact our ability to reliably keep energy running through wires and it's going to change what gets moved from where - even if no other unforeseen emergencies occur. Developing such capabilities must be seen as an urgent, national security priority throughout the Northern Hemisphere. We are going to have to solve all kinds of logistical problems and, as a matter of practical reality, the place logistics is most universally emphasized is within the military and various Coast Guards.

And then we must look at the certainty of some degree of rise in ocean level. We absolutely must develop amphibious technologies, because many of us are going to be living in amphibious communities.

And then there's an issue that Ottawa does not seem to be taking as seriously as it deserves - the emergence of the Northwest Passage as a practical reality. Realistically, this is not something Canada can offload on other powers. Aside from issues of sovereignty, take a look at the map.

The majority of potential North American deep water ports with shortest great-circle paths from Asia are Canadian. That means the shortest path between the two single largest economic powers - the United States and Japan - is right though Ontario.

We are about to become vital to international trade, as opposed to being perepheral. And we must, absolutely, as a matter of the most elemental self-preservation, control that crossroads. It must be secure, and if we do not secure it, I assure you, someone else will.

Current projections suggest that the Arctic Ocean may well be navigable, year round, by 2013. This absolutely mandates some sort of concentration of presence there, if only for the obvious necessity for an Air/Sea Rescue capability.

We need to learn how to feed, house and support large populations up there in ways that don't add fuel to the Climate Change fire, because those populations will develop as a matter of necessity. The shortening of trade-routes is so economically compelling that Canada's only real choice here is how to accommodate it. And, seriously, we must start now.

These are things that cannot become economically viable until you figure out how to make them work well enough to figure out how they should work. This is one of the great unspoken values of military applications. And in the case of Canada, we have more high arctic terrain than anyone else. I rather think it a good idea to be prepared to provide peace, order and good government.

Otherwise, we could be doing it unprepared, half underwater, while freezing in the dark.

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