:: May 2001 Newsletter ::
Onceuponatime, I spent a few years studying war in graduate school (see my upcoming memoirs, Volume VII: The Years Without Light). It was not a completely fruitless experience, and, now that you asked, I concentrated on the intriguing subject of Technology and Military Policy. This meant that I researched the relationship between technological development (weapons, mostly) and strategy. Did one drive the other? Did technology developments occur in a vacuum? Did I completely waste my time?
Well, I’m probably kidding myself, but I’d like to think that I didn’t. After all, several situations in the news could be interpreted using this way of thinking. Specifically, you can look at Boeing’s Sonic Cruiser and the current DoD weapons review as good places to consider the strategy/technology relationship.
First, Sonic Cruiser. Boeing’s proposal is a war winner, if it can be done. Boeing’s approach: of course it can be done. They’re saying some mad genius engineer stumbled upon an invention that makes it possible. Because of this technology development (said to be propulsion-system related) and other innovations, Boeing says it can build Sonic Cruiser, and airlines can do exciting new things with their route networks.
Yet is this really the case? Everyone has a lot of doubt about Boeing’s stated goals for the Sonic Cruiser, and there is no shortage of reasons to doubt its feasibility. But consider this. The debate about airline strategy, route concentration/hubs and spokes versus route fragmentation/direct flights is a huge divider between the two manufacturers. Airbus believes strongly in concentration and has reacted to this future in a very conventional and passive way. It is developing the largest jetliner so far, the A380, to allow airlines to accommodate route growth. Boeing, by contrast, says, “Some of you airlines don’t believe in fragmentation. Fine. But what if a new development made fragmentation much more appealing? Then what?” Sonic Cruiser, real or not, can be used to support the Boeing argument for thinner, fragmented routes in an almost reducto ad absurdum
This is also true for Boeing’s rather confusing portfolio of alternatives to Sonic Cruiser. The company is also looking at improved conventional shaped jetliners, and a supersonic Mach 1.2 model. (If there really were a technological breakthrough, why wouldn’t they capitalize on it immediately with a Sonic Cruiser?)
Boeing, in short, is saying the future can be what technology makes it. Technology drives strategy. Even if Sonic Cruiser remains a paper plane, it gets airlines to think about the virtues of direct flights.
Second, weapons. DoD’s stated goal is the exact opposite of Boeing’s stated situation. Such august and venerable public servants as SecDef Rumsfeld and noted old guy Andy Marshall are ostensibly spending months cloistered in the deepest Pentagon vaults, drinking beer, playing Risk, examining strategic requirements as well as which weapons should be funded or cancelled. In short, they claim to be using strategy to drive technology.
But, of course, this is nonsense. In times of budget growth, even modest growth, nothing gets killed. Now, the DoD budget isn’t really growing by much; the Bush budget looks a lot like Clinton’s. But the fiscal screws aren’t clamping down, and there is enough cash to preserve everything that’s currently alive. F-22? F/A-18E/F? JSF? All in the pipeline. We can’t build them simultaneously, so the tacair procurement train wreck still looms ahead, but who cares? Why make tough decisions now, when money is there to keep everything alive? And even total no-brainer decisions, like a Crusader artillery system cancellation, are effectively prevented by politics—the Bush family does quite a bit of work for the Crusader’s corporate master.
So everything will survive, for now. The downside, of course, is that nothing new will happen. If there is a strategy-based case for pursuing new technologies and directions, that will never see the light of day, at least until the current new programs get built. More B-2s, or an improved B-3? Get real. A new generation of hypersonic, inter-continental precision-guided weapons? Not likely. In short, political realities won’t let strategy produce anything new, unless we magically grow the defense budget by a very large margin.
The only example of strategy driving technology development, as far as the current review is concerned, could be National Missile Defense. Yet I’ll wager my revoked aircraft forecasting license that NMD will fail to produce any deployable hardware by 2010, and that the whole thing will be an expensive political fashion statement. Any takers?
So, looking at the Sonic Cruiser and the current DoD review process, it’s clear that sometimes new technology developments drive new strategies, and sometimes strategic needs drive technology development. But y’know, most of the time, it’s just about spin.
This supplement has our eleventh annual Business Jet overview. Following on to last month’s letter, it explores the relationship between speed, jetliners, and hapless business travelers. We’ve also updated the A300/310, the A320 narrowbody family, C-130, Hawk, P-3, MD Explorer, UH-60, SH-60, plus lots more. Next month, you’ll find updates of the 747, 757, Gulfstream Series, Astra/Galaxy, AMX, LCA, Tornado, and others. As always, call with requests. And I hope to see one and all at Paris.
Hasta La Vista,
© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.