Defense Tech: or why Apple can’t build a jet fighter
The future of military technology is the kind of high-tech engineering in which American companies already are the established leaders. So why not let the Air Force ask Apple to design an iFighter? Or let the Navy ask Google to design the software architecture to power its ships and submarines? That company’s skunk-works innovation team, Google X, has now developed a car that drives itself on the streets of San Francisco. Why not tap that expertise for the Pentagon’s future unmanned systems?
— “What If Apple Designed an iFighter?”:Arthur Herman, The Wall Street Journal.
The old saying “GI proof” used to mean making something so tough that a soldier fresh from bootcamp couldn’t break it even if he tried. Something of a joke in the draft-era military because anyone could be assigned to repair and maintain anything (from airplanes to rifles). Of course building things for the military meant making them rough, rugged and designed for their roles. After the war, the allies forged several agreements called STANAGs. Between that and MIL-SPEC the military forged a standard. Things are built for battle and can be shared among allies. If need be, an American Patriot missile unit can work with an allied Patriot unit and vice versa. Many commercial products you use at home are hardened for the battlefield. Other widgets are purpose built.
However the expense of designing things for the military led to Commercially available Off-The-Shelf or COTS. Take it away wikipeida:
In the United States, Commercially available Off-The-Shelf (COTS) is a Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) term defining a nondevelopmental item (NDI) of supply that is both commercial and sold in substantial quantities in the commercial marketplace, and that can be procured or utilized under government contract in the same precise form as available to the general public. For example, technology related items, such as computer software, hardware systems or free software with commercial support, and construction materials qualify, but bulk cargo, such as agricultural or petroleum products, do not.
“How inferior was the Sherman? Consider these statistics from the Third Armored Division, which fought its way from the hedgerows of France to the heart of the Third Reich. In eleven months of heavy fighting, the unit lost over 700 Shermans destroyed and many more that were damaged, but repaired and returned to service. The units cumulative tank loss rate from D-Day to VE Day was roughly 700 percent. Only the ready availability of replacement tanks and crews(and the ability of maintenance personnel to repair damaged Shermans) kept the division in the fight.”
He’s referring to the M-4 Sherman. Many American tankers died, even as better tanks were held up by Army politics. There was the P-75 Eagle. It was a Frankenplane developed by General Motors. It never delivered on its promised performance. Thankfully an aircraft designer developed the P-51 Mustang.
DoD Buzz posits that a dedicated defense industry can design weapons for war. Why dedicated? Because defense contractors know what it’s like to get shot at. It’s not just hiring veterans, it’s building a system from the ground up that’s designed to fight AND taking data from the field (many times collected by service members themselves).
Many companies made dumb mistakes. Virtual Boy, Edsel, New Coke, the Apple Newton. None of those mistakes had a body count. Many companies got out of the defense business because the Cold War ended. Intel no longer makes microchips for the Pentagon (so much for the idea that war is good for the big corporations). From cables and connectors that break when used to tools that rust up when used in the rain, COTS may have low upfront costs but over the long term the DoD just buys more.
The military gets a lot of ribbing for the up-front costs of gear. But aside from tools, clothing and food, most equipment has to be designed, modified or bought in small quantities. Roll-on/Roll-off (RoRo) ships are a good example. There are many shipping companies and ship builders out there. Some even have car-carriers and ferries. But the military must buy the ships it needs, most commercial ships are not designed to carry 70+ ton tanks.
Most civilian companies don’t enter into the military market because of the boom and bust cycles inherit in defense. The end of the Cold War has led to massive shrinkage in the defense sector. Grumman built the planes that won WWII in the pacific, but today they are the IT arm of Northrup-Grumman. War is not for fun and profit.
Open source software has been a godsend to the DoD. Most computers (wither they are ‘ruggedized” or just the same kind you can get at Best Buy) have encryption software installed. Many have special software for communicating with units in the field. If the DoD had to pay for the operating systems and other software, less money would be available for mission critical software. LINUX, UNIX and now the Android OS are being welcomed by the military (after added security of course). Once again the military must modify and write the programs it needs. At least open source is cheaper.
WWII was the last big war where entire countries were mobilized to fight. After the war, the US kept a larger standing military. After Sputnik, the Pentagon and industry forged a partnership to keep the US ahead. Decades latter,after Vietnam, Afghanistan etc, the Cold War ended. Desert Storm showed off the high tech military. But declining budgets not only forced the military to do more with less so did rising personnel costs were a large factor as well.
Today’s military is an all volunteer force supported by a few big contractors. There are problems: field grade commanders who let power point slides do their thinking, civilian leaders who set unrealistic expectations and let the military take the fall, a defense industry that oversells its systems. But they are learning. Technology marched on. Propellers gave way to jets. Missiles took over from cannons and the lower enlisted are more important than ever.
Can companies with no military experience design weapons and IT systems? Maybe. Maybe we should let the subject matter experts do their job. Google and Apple can provide the framework, but defense companies and those in uniform need to do the hard work.