Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Peak technology and the F-35

Bit of a ramble here. 

Michael Byers and Stewart Webb nail a lesson in the F-35 (via Dawg). The latest is where we find F-35's stealthy skin apparently doesn't react too well when the plane hits design speed maximums. Something which is, I think, revealing of other things.

There's an assumption of linearity to social and technological advancement. Moore's "Law" describes the doubling of transistors on a given circuit board area every couple years, which allows computers to become more powerful in each successive generation. There's the assumption this pattern will extend forever. It's entirely possible we might hit a point of absolute circuit density or processing speed, or a where functionality problems emerge to the degree where it isn't viable to increase power. The technology then stalls in an ingenuity gap, as Homer-Dixon calls it.

The F-35 is emblematic of this. What they wanted was an airframe that would be all things to all people. Stealthy, supercruisey, carrier-capable, with internal munitions bays, 360 degree pilot vision, ultra-advanced radar, and transnational marketability. What they got was an illustration of the limits of technology. Take the stealth feature. It might be that there is an actual physical limit to how invisible to calibrated electro-magnetic radiation an object can be made yet still remain functional and cost-effective.

I should add remain functional and cost-effective within a reasonable timeline. The development timeline for the plane matters only in as much as it defines the sort of world the aircraft would be 'useful' in. This world is today, where the big peer competitor is China, and smaller countries that might piss off the great present-day block of Euro-North American military interventionists.

Right now, the great power-centres of the world are shifting, China is rising, places like Canada, the US, and Europe are in decline in social and economic terms. In North America, there are actual nutcases that have or are very close to taking power and the economies across the board are far from stable. Europe is entering what looks to be a long period of economic contraction. In the slightly longer term, climate change and the storms, floods, freezes, and droughts are going to cause further disruption. Oil is only getting more expensive.

Is that the sort of world in which an F-35 is useful? If as thinkers like Dimtri Orlov have pointed out, the US-centred West is headed for a situation not unlike the post-collapse USSR, the state-of-the-art military equipment becomes prohibitive to maintain and falls into disrepair. Aircraft are mothballed or grounded, fleets are docked to rust, and the sort of interventionism that seems to eventually lead everyone to Afghanistan stops occurring unless northern Mexico becomes the American Chechnya. The high technology subcontractors that provide maintenance and parts beyond what air forces can do go out of business.

However to even get to that conversation, one has to acknowledge the prospect of decline. Today's Western defence analysts and international policy makers aren't up to the task. Case in point, note the reference to finding technological solutions.

In short, industry will likely need to design military (and civilian) hardware solutions capable of operating under new (and harsher) environment conditions. This will require a tight coupling of the latest scientific advice into the capability planning process.

Does the ADF really think it will be deploying around Asia and maintaining conventional bases and equipment? While they acknowledge things like climate change, oil cost, and global power shifts, their assumptions assume the capacity and need to project force around the world and they keep looking for ways to enhance it, as if 'security' is to be found in over the horizon in largely poorer places viewed as insecure. The state of knowledge says that we'll be impacted by these events, yet there is big fat blind-spot in front of our policy-makers faces about how that makes things different for our lives and the way we inhabit the world.

The idea that domestic insecurity is a serious concern is alien like the notion that the i5 processor in my computer won't be the size of a ladybug in 5 years.

Never mind also the evidence which suggests that when things get tight, one of the first items to go is military cohesion and functionality. Ignore the evidence which presently sees a very low-tech forces clad mostly in sandals and running shoes armed with battered rifles and some high explosive know-how stall the world's most advanced array of armies in their tracks. Perhaps they know something about the limits of technology and how to fight in austerity that we don't.

How many troops would continue to serve if the government started announcing pay-cuts on top of operational and training curtailments? What good is an F-35 if Canada has a food crisis because of a sudden prairie drought, and the biggest items the military needs are trucks and tents for relief but must commandeer civilian vehicles because we blew our wad on what turn out to be glorified gate-guardians? If we envision a country and society which still a needs to put armed aircraft in the sky but suffers economic and environmental hobbles, what kind of plane does it need? If an economically hobbled USA fragments into the full dark-age religious feudalplex (or us given our present government!) in the middle of a climate crisis, what happens on our borders?

If trends continue, what are Canada's defence needs and what sort of force structure and disposition meets them?

The deeper question of course is, what does post-Western hegemony, post oil, climate change Canada look like?


Edstock said...

You might be right. But non-imperialist Aussies might find it prudent to be able to "project power" within a couple of thousand km of their turf. There are a lot of small weak little island countries to the north that might need help or rescue for all sorts of causes all the way to Rwanda-type genocides. There is also an increasingly demanding Chinese naval presence as under-sea oil deposits are claimed, and submarine fleets expand.
The point is, the Aussies have a lot to be concerned about, that they might have to deploy people to deal with.

As to the F-35, isn't it marvelous how people forget this happened before? Hubris.

Yup. The General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvaark".

Boris said...

Yes, the Aussies might want to project power, but a small state with a very small armed forces isn't really cut-out for strategic power projection, especially against a potential foe like China or more probably, Indonesia. It's why they've saddled-up with the US and let them put Marines in Darwin. I'd say Australia's best defence is its brutal geography. Add the capacity to wage a painful guerrilla war on an invader and you have a disincentive to attack the place.

Interesting you mention the F-111 as that aircraft did eventually find itself useful as a strike and EW platform especially with the Aussies!

Smartpatrol said...

I remember a few years ago a MaClean's article about how some of our troops had to apply to the United Way & food banks because they weren't getting paid enough to eat properly.

More $$$ spent on the men & women who're actually serving the country & less on the go-boom whizz-bang Shiny Things please.

Oh - & Cancervatives, quit dressing up in uniform & using people actually serving as background props for your ill-conceived photo-ops. Kthanxbyebyenow

Steve said...

The http://www.ausairpower.net/ site points out the F35 is a retro F105 lead sled. The only airplane ever decommissioned by the US air force for being useless. I have posted this a few times, but I have a mostly links blog about the new lead slead.

Steve said...

Australia is in a tough place. The only thing going for them is climate change is making the country increasingly inhospitable. Likely there only option is to establish a nuclear deterrent independent of the US. The F35 would be like a PeeWee playing in the NHL against the SU37 and future planes. Its range is useless to attack China or even prime targets in Indonesia. Tankers are target rich for any generation of fighter.

Steve said...

Its pretty clear the only military threat to Canada would come from the US. However this is very unlikely as they own the resources already, so nothing left to steal except water, and they can just put a straw in the great lakes. So Canada should get training from the Taliban on how to defeat and occupier, and that should be the major focus of our defense. Nation building missions should be struck from our doctrine. Libya type missions could have been done using a modified Dash 8, as pointed out in the economist, and maybe these are the planes we should be buying for patrol and combat.

Steve said...

What is hilarious is the British are building aircraft carrier that are incapable of launching aircraft, and when the carriers are ready they will be unaffordable to maintain, so they will be decommissioned. Thats why we bought the subs from them, out of mercy.