Military Science

There’s an old joke about how military intelligence is an oxymoron.

Unfortunately, it appears that Military Science is as well.

The products of science are, of course, still in high demand.  Consider the modern arsenal of fusion bombs, GPS guided missiles, autonomous weapons, fission powered submarines, and research into lasers, bioweapons, and railguns.  Never has the aphorism ‘knowledge is power’ been more literally true.

All of which makes the current practices of the U.S. military even more depressing, because science is more than a way to obtain better weapons, it is a method, and one that the U.S. military doesn’t seem to care about in the least.

Consider two stories that have come to my attention in the last year or so, one from the Air Force, one from the Navy.  Together, they illustrate how far the methods of military governance are from the scientific method.

In the Air Force, two Rand Corporation analysts ran a now much-debated simulation of a war with China over Taiwan.  Such a major amphibious undertaking necessarily began with a fight for air dominance, and the model considered the historically expensive (and equally historically troubled) F-35 airplane as a part of the U.S. defense of the strait.  Though the study was not about the F-35 in particular, the study concluded that the F-35’s questionable aerodynamic performance put it at a distinct disadvantage when fighting the far cheaper Chinese airplanes.  Yes, the F-35 is stealthy, but after the first few seconds that ceases to be a major advantage, and the Chinese have enough airplanes to afford losses in the opening salvos.

The study was attacked, loudly.  The two researchers behind the report soon left Rand.  Meanwhile, projected costs for the F-35 continue to rise (passing, according to some estimates, $250-300 million a piece), and though the program continues to barrel on for now, it leaves behind a disturbing wreckage.


  • GAO accuses Lockheed/USAF of dishonestly fudging statistics to make competing planes (particularly the A-10) look worse.
  • In parallel to cheating at statistics, an Air Force General declared that speaking up for the A-10 airplane (and, by implication, against the F-35) was equivalent to treason.
  • Program requirements downgraded when it became clear product could not meet expectations.
  • Continual design complaints and maintenance issues, causing the airplane to be disliked by pilots, often grounded, often artificially restricted in performance, and even forbidden to fly anywhere near thunderstorms (bonus points for the Telegraph’s snarky headline, there).

So that’s today’s Air Force.  Meanwhile, over at the Navy, the blog War is Boring has a very long, very detailed, and very depressing report on the super-carrier obsession.  If the USAF budget is being consumed by the F-35, the Navy’s is sunk into building new carriers.  In both cases, rising costs of ever fancier, ever more flexible and multipurpose equipment is pulling money out of much more rational programs that often seem more practical despite (or because of?) being less flashy.

(As previously noted in this blog, the result of this expenditure is that the United States has as many carriers as the rest of the world put together.)

Most relevant to this article are the stories about how the Navy keeps squashing or falsifying war game results.

The article notes that in a recent exercise, a single French submarine ‘sank’ a U.S. carrier and most of its escort.  The original report at the Aviationist reports that the submarine was the Saphir, a nuclear powered attack submarine, and confirms that the understandably boastful report was quickly deleted from Ministry of Defense’s website.

The War is Boring article lists a number of similar cases of exercises in which ‘enemy’ forces with motivated commanders succeeded in dismantling multi-billion dollar carriers and the their multi-billion dollar escort fleet, and further suggests the Navy attempts to disappear such reports as standard operating procedure.*

An even more blatant attempt to paper over strategic failures was the Millennium Challenge exercise of 2002 (mentioned briefly in the War is Boring article, detailed here at Wikipedia).  Lt. General van Riper, a retired Marine officer, was put in charge of a low-tech opposing force (widely believed to be modeled on Iran).  He proceeded to make his force’s communication even lower-tech than conditions stated – motorcycle messengers and light signals – to avoid US signals intelligence, and used swarms of both cheap ballistic missiles and small boats as his main offensive force.  He sank two carriers, and quite a large segment of the rest of the fleet.  Instead of getting a medal for winning an asymmetric war in the first day, the exercise was restarted and this time van Riper was given a very stupid script to follow.

Note that this year, Iran published a video of their forces swarming a mock carrier with small missiles and rocket-armed boats (oddly familiar, no?).  While their test did not involve an escort fleet, the Millennium Challenge results hint that this was less symbolic than the Pentagon’s statements suggested.

Now, back to the scientific method, which declares that progress and improvement are the result of honest reporting, good methodology, and accurate statistics.  What two of the three main branches of the U.S. military have demonstrated so far, is instead a tendency to hide adverse results and evidence, predetermined and scripted experiments, and misleading statistics.  In short, we may have a science fiction arsenal, but the military remains decidedly unscientific in using those weapons.

* On a further tactical note, the War is Boring article also points out that China could buy over a thousand supersonic anti-ship missiles for the cost of a single carrier, and the missiles would significantly out-range the airplanes that make up a carrier’s armament.  Given the prominence of carriers in US naval strategy and the (relative) low cost of missiles, it’s easily worth China’s trouble to waste a hundred missiles trying to sink the centerpiece of US naval power.  Since anti-missile systems have historically had questionable records, I would not bet on needing a hundred missiles to achieve the goal.


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