Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Military intelligence: how martial sci-tech does science few favours

I recently read an article about the USA's latest aircraft carrier the USS Gerald R. Ford that contained two bewildering facts: that at a combined research and construction cost of around US$18 billion it is the most expensive warship ever built; and that although only the first of three ships to be built in the class - and with an intended lifespan of half a century - it may already be obsolete.

So if potential aggressor nations now have the anti-ship missile technology to sink the carrier, is it little more than an enormous waste of taxpayer funds? There are reports of war games and simulations over the past three decades which fundamentally undermine the Victorian notion of technological progress - that bigger, stronger, faster equals better. This is particularly apt if your opponent uses 'unfair' and/or 'underhand' tactics such as stealth systems and guerrilla strategies. Then why are these colossal projects still being funded?

The USS Gerald R. Ford is merely the (admittedly very large) tip of an enormous iceberg concerning military expenditure of recent decades. Just to drive the point home, here's a few other recent examples:
  1. The US Navy's aircraft carrier-version of the Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter is the F-35C, with some estimates suggesting each combat-ready aircraft costs up to $337 million.
  2. The US Air Force's F-22 Raptor programme was shut down after only 187 operational aircraft were built, as the price per airframe was even higher, around $350 million.
  3. The apotheosis of combat aircraft has to be the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Only 21 were ever built, at a whopping $737 million each, excluding the research and development costs, which may double or even triple this number.
  4. So as to not seem unfairly biased against the USA, other nations also have their share of military expenditure. For example, South Korea's K2 Black Panther is the most expensive main battle tank ever built, with per-unit costs of US$8.5 million each.
So who's to blame for all this? The USS Gerald R. Ford for example was approved during George W. Bush's administration but is only nearing completion eight years after he has left office. At least in democracies, politicians usually come and go in less than a decade whilst defence contractors last much longer. Could the armaments sector be duping administrations into giving them a lifeline? A large proportion of manufacturing has migrated to developing nations but due to the sensitive nature of the sector, advanced military technology is one of the few areas still concentrated within the developed West.

It's difficult to collate anything like exact figures, but the proportion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professionals worldwide who work on military projects is frequently given as 20% to 25%. Is it feasible that this high level of involvement in an area that is both secretive and horrendously expensive may be counter-productive to the public's attitude to science in general?

After all, no other sector has access to such enormous amounts of tax payer's funds without being responsible to some form of public scrutiny. Then again, since the early 1980s we have been sold a vision of military technology that is a mostly one-sided glorification of armaments and the requirements for ever-increasing expenditure in the name of freedom.

How many mainstream Hollywood movies since 1986's Top Gun - including plenty of sci-fi epics - can be seen as glossy advertisements for advanced weaponry? It may seem odd considering the conventional portrayal of movie scientists but homages to the military-industrial complex show little sign of abating. Praise be to the sophistication of the technology, whilst damning those who develop it as untrustworthy schemers outside of mainstream society. It's a curious phenomenon!

However, developing advanced technology for military purposes is hardly new. The ancient Greek Archimedes developed anti-ship devices whilst Leonardo da Vinci wrote effusive letters to prospective patrons about his land, sea and even aerial weapons, albeit some were of dubious practicality.

Today's society is supposedly more refined than those earlier times, yet whilst a concerted effort is being made to attract more women to STEM subjects, the macho nature of armaments presumably ensures the sector remains male-dominated. If proof would were needed of the interest in all things explosive, the global success of the TV show Mythbusters should be a good indicator. If an example of the crazy nature of unrestrained masculinity needs delineating, then how about atomic bomb pioneer Edward Teller's promotion of nuclear devices for civil engineering projects? For every J. Robert Oppenheimer there were far more Tellers.

It isn't just the sheer cost of contemporary military projects that can lead to the ire of taxpayers. There have been some almost farcical instances of under-performance, such as the degradation of the B-2's anti-radar coating by high levels of humidity (never mind rain). It's easy to blame the scientists and engineers in such circumstances; after all, the politicians and generals leave the cutting-edge technology to the experts! But talk about over-promise and under-deliver...

One area that presumably didn't exist before the Twentieth Century's development of weapons of mass destruction cannot be blamed on STEM professionals and that is the deliberate use of civilians as guinea pigs. From the US and British atomic bomb tests that affected local populations as well as military personal to the cloud-seeding experiments over heavily-populated areas that may have led to fatal downpours, it seems no-one is safe from their own armed forces.

Of course, a large proportion of the degradation of the image of scientists as authority figures may have occurred during the Cold War, when it became apparent that military technocrats of the period earned their reputation as 'architects of the apocalypse'. There's obviously a lot of complexity around this issue. Arguments range back and forth, on such topics as once the Apollo moon landings proved America's technological superiority to the Soviet Union, the project was rapidly wound up; or how did the more right-wing elements of society feel when that same know-how was stalemated by markedly inferior forces in Vietnam?

The space shuttle was another victim of military requirements, the orbiter's unprecedented size being needed for the then large spy satellites - and the intention to fly two of them from Vandenburg Air Force base for 'shadow' missions. In a sense, the military could be seen to have had their fingers in many leading but nominally civilian pies.

This isn't to say that there haven't been productive examples of military technology modified for civilian usage, from early manned spacecraft launched on adapted ICBMs to the ARPANET providing a foundation for the Internet.

Even so, it is easy to look at the immense worldwide expenditure on weapon development and wonder what could be achieved if even a few percent of that funding was redirected elsewhere. There's no doubt about it: the sheer quantity, sophistication and expensive of modern military hardware provides some legitimate public concerns as to the role of science and technology in the name of 'defence'. Especially if $18 billion worth of aircraft carrier is little more than a showy piece of machismo that belongs to the last half century, not the next.