Saturday, 28 December 2013

Tell it to the Marines

Whilst exquisite technology has been protected...manpower has been seen more as an overhead

Lord Vader, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Forces General Sir Nicholas Houghton, (Officer of the Order of the British Empire, Commander of the Order of the British Empire , Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, yada, yada) on the state of Britain's armed forces.

You wouldn’t put it past him to use the word “exquisite”...

Terry Pratchett, describing the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork

Two thoughts on the word 'exquisite' in this context:
1. Fire your speechwriter, unless you really want to come across as a camp Hollywood villain (or if you wrote it yourself, I believe the proper form is for a chap to brace himself with stiff G and T before putting his trusty service revolver to his temple and doing the decent thing).

2. Have a think about the end products (eventually) delivered by the mind-bogglingly expensive defence procurement process and ask yourself whether 'exquisite' (in the sense of 'extraordinarily fine or admirable; consummate' or 'of rare excellence of production or execution') is really the best word you could have come up with.
Thought 2. was prompted by the troubled F-35, the aircraft around which Britain's mighty force of two multi-billion pound floating job creation programmes aircraft carriers (or possibly one part-time aircraft carrier, HMS Austerity Queen Elizabeth) has been designed.

David Axe at War is Boring gives a convincing account of how the Royal Navy (and most other Western air arms) ended up in a queue to buy a terrible combat aircraft that 'can't climb, can't turn, can't run'. It's a perfect storm of inter-service rivalry leading to an unworkable specification, aided and abetted by the monopoly power of a defence aerospace industry that's gone through generations of mergers, driven by the spiralling cost of producing new warplanes. Axe traces the whole sorry story back to the Pacific beachheads of World War Two and the US Marines' need for more air cover than the Navy were then providing, getting from then to where we are now via a winding trail of path dependency, littered with unintended consequences.

Looking on the bright side, the F-35 does provide a few decent jobs for people with the right skill set (like my wife's brother-in-law, who really enjoys his current job, working on the F-35's landing gear at the project's Dutch subcontractor Fokker Landing Gear). But, on the whole, I buy Axe's negative assessment and take away two broad conclusions:
  1. There are worrying times ahead for people troubled by the idea of flying killer robots - whether the F-35 programme struggles on to produce many hundreds of inadequate aircraft soon, or is cancelled, leaving any new potential replacement decades of development away in the future, the military are probably going to plug the capability gap with smaller, cheaper drones (perhaps launched by cheaper platforms than aircraft carriers).
  2. We wouldn't see crazy decisions resulting from inter-service turf wars if countries adopted the sensible idea of one unified defence force, rather than bickering rival service fiefdoms.