They Died of Progress
In last month’s installment of my ongoing Retrotopia narrative, one of the characters summed up her position in a bit of intellectual heresy that left the viewpoint character flummoxed. Her argument was that progress has become the enemy of prosperity. That’s something you can’t even suggest in today’s society; the response of the viewpoint character— “With all due respect, that’s crazy”—is mild compared to the sort of reactions I’ve routinely fielded whenever I’ve suggested that progress, like everything else in the real world, is subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Nonetheless, the unspeakable has become the inescapable in today’s world. It’s become a running joke on the internet that the word “upgrade” inevitably means poorer service, fewer benefits, and more annoyances for those who have to deal with the new and allegedly improved product. The same logic can be applied equally well across the entire landscape of modern technology. What’s new, innovative, revolutionary, game-changing, and so on through the usual litany of overheated adjectives, isn’t necessarily an improvement. It can be, and very often is, a disaster. Examples could be drawn from an astonishingly broad range of contemporary sources, but I have a particular set of examples in mind.
To make sense of those examples, it’s going to be necessary to talk about military affairs. As with most things in today’s America, the collective conversation of our time provides two and only two acceptable ways to discuss those, and neither of them have anything actually useful to say. The first of them, common among the current crop of American pseudoconservatives, consists of mindless cheerleading; the second, common among the current crop of pseudoliberals all over the industrial world, consists of moralizing platitudes. I don’t particularly want to address the moralizing platitudes just now, other than to say that yes, war is ghastly; no, it’s not going away; and it’s not particularly edifying to watch members of the privileged classes in the countries currently on top of the international order insist piously that war ought to be abandoned forever, just in time to keep their own nations from being displaced from positions they won and kept at gunpoint not that many decades ago.
The cheerleading is another matter, and requires a more detailed analysis. It’s common among the pseudoconservative right these days to insist that the United States is by definition the world’s most powerful nation, with so overwhelming a preponderance of military might that every other nation will inevitably have to bow to our will or get steamrollered. That sort of thinking backstops the mania for foreign intervention that guides neoconservatives such as Hillary Clinton on their merry way, overthrowing governments and destabilizing nations under the fond delusion that the blowback from these little adventures can never actually touch the United States.
In America these days, a great deal of this sort of cheerleading focuses on high-tech weapons systems—inevitably, since so much of contemporary American pop culture has become gizmocentric to the point of self-parody. Visit a website that deals with public affairs from a right-of-center viewpoint, and odds are you’ll find a flurry of articles praising the glories of this or that military technology with the sort of moist-palmed rapture that teenage boys used to direct to girlie-mag centerfolds. The identical attitude can be found in a dizzying array of venues these days, very much including Pentagon press releases and the bombastic speeches of politicians who are safely insulated from the realities of war.
There’s only one small difficulty here, which is that much of the hardware in question doesn’t work.
The poster child here is the F-35 Lightning II fighter. It so happens that I’ve faced a certain amount of recent embarrassment with regard to this plane, for a curious reason. Back in 2013 and 2014, when I was writing my novelTwilight’s Last Gleaming, I worked out what I thought was a reasonable estimate of the F-35’s performance in combat against Chinese J-20 and J-31 fighters. That estimate wasn’t exactly in accord with the dewy-eyed accounts just mentioned; the F-35—called the Lardbucket by Air Force pilots in my novel, due to its short range and sluggish performance in the air—came out decidedly second-best, suffering three losses for every two Chinese planes shot down.
As it turns out, though, my guess at the F-35’s performance was far too optimistic. The more data slips past the Scylla of Lockheed’s publicity flacks and the Charybdis of their equal and opposite numbers in the Air Force, the clearer it becomes that the Lardbucket is an utter dog of a plane, so grossly underpowered and so overloaded with poorly functioning gimmickry that nearly every other fighter in current service can outperform it with ease. For example, if the F-35’s stealth features are to work, the plane can only carry two air-to-air missiles and two bombs—a quarter the firepower of similar planes in other air forces.
Persistent reports, hotly denied by Lockheed and the Pentagon but still not yet disproved by the simple demonstration that would be necessary, claim that the vertical takeoff version of the plane has so little thrust that it can’t even get off the ground with a full fuel tank. Mind you, this embarrassing object is the most expensive military procurement program in history, scheduled to cost the Pentagon some $1.5 trillion by the time purchases are completed. Meanwhile, the Russians and Chinese are fielding fast, heavily armed, maneuverable long-range fighters for a fraction of the F-35’s hefty price tag, and those fighters are going into service while the F-35 lumbers through one production delay after another.
Some of my readers may be wondering if this is simply one bad apple out of an otherwise sound barrel. Not so. The Navy has an equal embarrassment on its hands right now, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), another high-tech, high-priced failure. The LCS costs $37 billion a pop, and has been marketed as the be-all and end-all of coastal warfare craft. If this sounds reminiscent of the praise lavished on the F-35, it should—and the results are comparable.
Like the F-35, the LCS is packed to the gunwales with high-tech gimmickry that doesn’t work as advertised, and it’s so finicky to run that after a minor maintenance error, one of the few LCSs in service has been laid up for five months at a dock in Singapore while technicians try to figure out whether there’s any way to repair it short of towing it back across the Pacific to the shipyard. Meanwhile, the Chinese are fielding a new fleet of fast, heavily armed littoral combat ships for a small fraction of the cost.
Two bad apples? Consider the SBX missile defense system, which was supposed to track incoming ICBMs and knock them out of the sky. It’s a $10 billion dollar flop; none of its array of high-tech gizmos—the flying lasers, the antimissile rockets, the gargantuan seaborne radar—does what it’s supposed to do. Consider the Air Force’s Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECCS), a computer system designed to handle logistics for overseas deployments, which ate a billion dollars and seven years before being cancelled as a complete failure. Consider, for that matter, the Army’s new pixellated camouflage uniform, $5 billion in the making, which had to be scrapped when it turned out that it sticks out like a sore thumb against every environment on Earth.
I could go on. These programs, and many others, were sold to politicians and public with lavish claims about their ability to perform every imaginable military mission. As it turned out, they were well designed to carry out devastating raids on the US Treasury, and that’s about it. The US military is certainly the most expensive military in the world, and it’s equipped with a gaudier assortment of high-tech trinkets than any other, but it’s not actually that well prepared to carry out its ostensible purpose—that is to say, warfare. The results can be seen with painful clarity in the last three-quarters of a century of US military history. Ask yourself this, dear reader: since the end of the Second World War, how many wars has the United States actually won?
There are two factors at work here, and both of them unfold from broader patterns in American society. The first is the descent of the United States into overt kleptocracy on a scale that makes Third World dictators drool with envy. In today’s America, a very large number of government and corporate officials alike overtly treat their positions as opportunities for plunder. Consider the stock-buyback programs that are standard among Fortune 500 corporations these days. The corporation spends its money buying shares of stock to inflate stock prices, boosting the net worth of corporate insiders, who get hige blocks of shares as part of their compensation packages. The expenditure of business funds for the personal benefit of influential insiders used to be prosecuted as embezzlement; now it’s business as usual—and don’t even get me started about the absurd salaries and bonuses currently shoveled into the laps of CEOs and other overpriced office fauna.
On the other side of the coin we have government officials who serve in various positions where they can benefit corporate interests, and then leave their jobs and are hired by the corporations they used to deal with as, ahem, consultants, pulling in very high salaries for very little apparent labor. Corruption? I see no reason to give it any more polite name, and it’s played a major role in providing the US armed forces with fighters that can’t fight, camouflage that doesn’t camouflage, and so on, through the long catalogue of military-procurement failures that have equipped America’s soldiers, sailors, and pilots with embarrassingly substandard gear.
Still, there’s something else going on here. All the most egregious examples of military-procurement failure in recent years have had something in common: they were supposed to be revolutionary new breakthroughs using exciting new technology, and so on drearily through the most overused rhetoric of our age. The cascading failures of the F-35 can be traced straight to that sort of thinking; its designers apparently believed with all their hearts that every innovation must be an improvement, and so came up with a plane that fails in the most innovative ways you care to imagine. The LCS, the SBX, the ECCS, the pixellated camo uniforms, all fell victim to the same trap—their designers were so busy making them revolutionary that they forgot to make them work.
Compare this with the very different approach of another major power—Russia—and it’s not hard to see the flaws in that dubious logic. The Russian approach to military technology has been evolutionary, not revolutionary. Where the US set out to create an antiballistic missile defense system from scratch, Russia took the incremental approach. They started with the S-300 air defense system, a sturdy piece of Soviet-era equipment designed to shoot down airplanes, cruise missiles, and the like, and built on that foundation in a cautious, step-by-step fashion.
The S-300 thus gave way in due time to the S-400, which had a variety of solidly tested incremental improvements, and then to the S-500, scheduled for deployment this year, which adds in the ability to target incoming ballistic missiles in near space. The Russian logic was as straightforward as it was irrefutable: if you want something to destroy lots of very fast objects at high altitude, start with something that can destroy a more modest number of slower objects at lower altitudes, and then tinker carefully from there. That approach works; ours doesn’t.
What makes the American obsession with revolutionary breakthroughs so dysfunctional isn’t just that it so often yields substandard results; it’s that it’s being paid for at the expense of essential military needs. Here’s an example. The US Marine Corps has, on paper, a substantial fleet of F/A-18 fighter-bombers—276 of them. In fact, though, less than a third of them can fly. The Marines are so short of spare parts that their mechanics are having to decide which planes to keep airworthy and which ones to strip for parts. The helicopters the Marines use to ferry forces from ship to shore are in the same condition, with 105 of 147 Super Stallion copters more or less permanently grounded. There are plenty of other examples; right now, between high-tech flops that don’t work and working technologies that have been starved of maintenance and spare parts, the US military is in appalling condition
The exception that proves the rule is the nuclear arm, which has been steadfastly ignoring high-end gimmickry for decades. It turns out, for example, that the launch systems for America’s nuclear-armed ICBMs still use8 inch floppy disks to store the launch codes. Those ICBMs, by the way, are Minuteman IIIs, which were introduced in 1970—the missile that was supposed to replace the Minuteman, the MX Peacekeeper, was deployed in the 1980s but turned out to be yet another of the Pentagon’s overpriced white elephants, and was quietly decommissioned between 2003 and 2005.
The other two legs of the so-called nuclear tripod are just as elderly. The Trident nuclear submarine is another 1980s technology, still chugging away sedately at its mission, while the airborne leg still relies on the geriatric B-52, a 1950s design with modest incremental improvements tacked on. There were two attempts to replace the B-52; the B-1, which turned out to be a lousy plane and mostly does ground attack duties these days, and the B-2 stealth bomber, which was so expensive that only 12 of them are in service, and is no longer invisible to state-of-the-art air defense systems. Since nuclear weapons are the one US military asset that must always be ready to function, no matter what, it’s telling that the Pentagon’s planners have quietly allowed old but sturdy technologies to remain in service there—though it’s anyone’s guess how well maintained those technologies are at this point.
That strategy probably won’t be viable in the long term. Military procurement fraud is as old as war, and overinvestment in the latest fashionable gimmick is tolerably common as far back as historical records reach. Every nation’s political and military establishment has to contend with both, and most manage to keep them within the bounds necessary to ensure national survival. Those nations that don’t restrict them in this manner normally go under, and this mode of failure is particularly common in the declining years of great powers.
Those of my readers who’ve read up on the last years of vanished empires—the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, Romanov Russia or Habsburg Spain, and so on down the list of history’s obituaries—know the results already: the imperial state reduced to a massive but fragile shell, invincible in appearance but shockingly vulnerable in reality, resting ever more unsteadily on a crumbling foundation of ineffective or broken weapons, decaying or abandoned facilities; a political leadership blithely unaware of the gap between its fantasies of invincibility and the reality of accelerating systemic failure; a high command too busy feathering its own nest and playing political games to notice the widening cracks; and a dwindling corps of servicepeople, overworked, underpaid, and demoralized, who nonetheless keep on struggling to prop up the whole brittle mess until the inevitable disaster sweeps their efforts aside once and for all.
All this is standard. What’s different in the present situation, though, is the all but universal conviction in American society, from top to bottom, that the lessons being taught so insistently by the F-35 and its fellow embarrassments cannot and must not be learned. Yet another round of innovative, revolutionary, breakthrough technologies is not going to solve America’s military problems, since those problems were caused or worsened by previous rounds of innovative, revolutionary, breakthrough technologies. Nonetheless, that’s the conventional wisdom in today’s United States, and in an embarrassingly large number of its allies—and history offers no encouragement at all to those who want to believe that this can end well.