military has a fascination with technology – always
has, always will – even to the detriment of maintenance, training, tactics,
etc. The problem with this fascination
is that it completely violates the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle
which rules the battlefield. The
combination of Murphy (Murphy’s Law) and KISS, roaming the battlefield, ensure
that overly complex technology will fail or, at best, struggle to provide even
halfway useful performance. US
Let’s consider some examples throughout history.
The sword was a lethal advance in close quarters combat over the club but when it first appeared it suffered from very poor performance. Swords would break at the worst possible moment (are there good moments in battle?) and wielders struggled to keep a useful edge on the blades. Many users were killed when their swords failed in battle. This was because, initially, the metallurgy was insufficiently advanced to make the sword a practical battlefield weapon. Eventually, of course, the technology of the sword advanced to the point where it became a viable weapon.
Steam engines offered a huge advance in naval propulsion. However, the first steam engines were inefficient (to put it mildly), rarely worked, and were extremely difficult to repair and maintain. The operators of the time, the sailors, simply didn’t have the technological understanding of the basic concept to allow them to maintain the engines and extract the potential performance from the engines. Many ships were stranded, powerless, when their engines broke down. Eventually, of course, the technology caught up to the point where we could produce fairly reliable engines. Just as importantly, the education level of the operators also caught up. Sailors came to understand the basic engineering concepts and were capable of repairing and maintaining the engines.
Radar revolutionized warfare, offering the ability to see things beyond the visual range. The initial introduction of radar in WWII did not proceed smoothly, however. The equipment was unreliable and the operators had no understanding of the fundamental principles and were unable to interpret the radar returns even when it worked. The naval battles of
Guadalcanal demonstrated the pitfalls of introducing technology
that was too advanced. Ship Captains
didn’t trust the devices and either ignored the information or failed to
properly utilize the capability. As a
result, many ships and sailors died when they needn’t have. Eventually, of course, the technology
improved and, more importantly, the operators came to understand the basic
engineering principles and learned to correctly interpret and utilize the
Just because we have the technology doesn’t mean we should instantly put it on the battlefield. Sure, crowds of manufacturer’s technicians, all with advanced doctorates in specialized fields, can make a given technology function in carefully scripted tests but what happens when that technology gets installed in the fleet and has to be maintained by 20 year old kids who don’t have the education to understand the basic principles?
An illustrative example is Aegis. Aegis was introduced to the fleet with the support of hundreds of tech reps sailing on every Aegis ship. The system was carefully and lovingly maintained by the best technical support that manufacturing had to offer. Over time, however, the manufacturer’s reps returned home and the maintenance of Aegis fell to the average sailor, trained through a Navy tech school. Well, there’s a world of difference between a Navy tech school education and the manufacturer’s Ph.D engineers who built the system. The predictable happened. Aegis system performance degraded across the fleet. Aegis performance got so bad that the Navy had to implement one of their infamous Admiral-chaired committees to address the problem.
The really interesting part of the Aegis story is that the degradation was not even noticed at first. Proceedings had an interesting article some years ago by an Aegis Captain who thought he had one of the best Aegis systems/ships in the fleet, only to find out that his system was markedly degraded when reviewed by the manufacturer’s team of true experts. Neither the Captain nor his Aegis techs had any idea the system was significantly degraded. Aegis was too complex for the operators to even know that it wasn’t working well.
Sidenote: The Aegis improvement program was classified and I don’t know the status of the system, fleetwide, today. I suspect that with the effects of minimal manning and manpower cutbacks it isn’t good.
Let me be clear, technology is not a bad thing. What’s bad is forcing immature technology into service before the reliability and maintainability have caught up with the bleeding edge technology. When war comes, we need technology that works and is robust enough to function under the dirty, maintenance deprived conditions of a battlefield. Aegis is nice but if it breaks down 30 days into combat due to lack of sophisticated maintenance, wouldn’t we be better off with old fashioned rotating radars? If the F-35 that, in peacetime, barely managed to function with the aid of Ph.D technicians working in sterile conditions resembling a hospital operating room can’t be maintained in a dirty carrier hangar and covered in salt water (have you seen some of the pictures of carrier aircraft? – they get awfully dirty!) then what’s the point of having it?
Here’s an example of a technology introduction that worked – the aircraft piston engine. When revolutionary WWI aircraft took to the skies, the engines worked well. Other aspects of aircraft design and construction did not but the engines did. Why? Because, by the time the aircraft was introduced, the engine itself was commonplace and mechanics understood the technology.
Technology can advance and succeed only when maintainability and reliability go hand in hand with it. Just because we have a given technological capability doesn’t mean we should instantly use it. In the long run it’s better to operate it as a prototype and gain valuable experience before introducing it into production.
For example, this philosophy would have paid off in spades in the entire LCS module program. Had we built just one prototype LCS and its modules, we would have realized that the technologies were too immature to introduce into production and we would have saved billions of dollars.
Remember the old Enterprise/Long Beach radar systems? They were revolutionary but no one knew how to maintain and operate them and so they failed and had to be replaced. If we had operated the system as a prototype, we would have saved a great deal of money and had alternate, functional radar systems installed on those ships.
The Navy is currently violating this philosophy repeatedly despite numerous failures. The DOT&E annual reports are full of examples of the Navy pushing to waive testing to get brand new, immature technology into production rather than fully develop it and then introduce it as reasonably mature capability.
Consider the recent example of the LCS propulsion system. The complexity of the dual engines and combining gears are clearly beyond the operating and maintenance capabilities of the crews (crews the Navy claims are the oldest, most experienced, and best trained in the Navy). The propulsion system should have been part of a prototype LCS until the technology matured enough to be operated and maintained by the average sailor. Instead, the immature technology was pushed into production and every LCS that has put to sea for any length of time has suffered catastrophic propulsion failures; some of the ships have suffered multiple failures!
We need to return to the concept of prototypes. We need to build them and operate them. Prototypes allow us to learn from our mistakes and grow and mature the technology without jeopardizing our battlefield success. Hand in hand with that is the opportunity to learn about the maintenance and operating procedures of new technology before it enters production. The Navy’s rush to push the latest technology into production is unwise, costly in the long run, and dangerous in that it leaves us with production ships and aircraft that have failed and unmaintainable technology installed. That F-35 that the Marines declared ready for combat, isn’t really – in fact, it’s not even close.
The Navy needs to relax, be patient, and let technology mature and allow maintenance to catch up. The way to do this is prototypes.
Just because we have the capability doesn’t mean we should try to use it. If the average sailor can’t operate and maintain it, it shouldn’t be in the fleet.