It would be sensible to spend even a few billion dollars

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

The history of the B-36 is a “slightly atypical but not extreme” example of how difficult it is to prepare for an uncertain future, Techniques of Systems Analysis explains:

It was designed during World War II when people were thinking first of Germany and then of Japan as the enemy. It was designed to carry high explosives. It was designed when its chief enemy was thought to be the propeller-driven interceptor.

None of the analyses which went into it and determined how we should trade range, weight, altitude and speed considered the possibility that:

  • it might carry atomic bombs
  • the enemy might be Russia
  • it would have to fight its way through jet fighters and guided ground-to-air missiles
  • we would have overseas bases
  • refueling techniques would be available

Any one of these changes might have been sufficient either to eliminate its value completely or to increase it enormously. Somehow, it is up to the man who is designing such vehicles to produce equipment which will be able to fight effectively in almost unpredictable situations.

In addition to proper design, there is one very important thing which can be done to alleviate this particular problem — to defer decisions. One shouldn’t decide today whether he wants to have a long-range slow airplane or a short-range high speed one in 1965. He should carry both projects through the paper design stages. If he still doesn’t know in a couple of years which he needs, then he might carry both projects through the mock-up and possibly even the tooling stages. While the cost of doing this may be high, it is measured in millions and not in billions. It is therefore small compared to the total cost of the strategic air force.

One should always remember that the total investment in an organization like SAC runs between fifty and one hundred billion dollars. Therefore, in principle it would be sensible to spend even a few billion dollars to increase the effectiveness of this force by only 10%. Under these circumstances, one can clearly afford some very expensive development and preliminary tooling programs if they enable you to defer making crucial decisions until you can make them wisely.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    At least the B-70 was not produced in quantity.

  2. A shame, actually; the B-70 was one of the more unfortunate missed opportunities in acquisition during the Cold War. After its cancellation we spent more money to fill the requirements with several platforms that we didn’t get much use out of than if we’d just gone ahead and bought the production model. Also, its vulnerability to Soviet air defenses was massively overblown. Note that lower-performance SR-71s were still reliably penetrating PVO Strany’s defenses long after it would have entered service, despite frantic and dedicated attempts to intercept them.

    It’s amusing that we’re now working on the 2037 bomber, a high-altitude, high-mach penetration bomber that should properly have been the successor to the hundred-odd Valkyries we’d have in inventory now if only McNamara had thought things through a little more carefully. The operating experience and infrastructure would have saved us a boatload of cash.

  3. Kirk says:

    The B-36, and other “cutting-edge” big-ticket weapons are exceptions to my rule about “doctrine before design and procurement”. You can’t do doctrine or planning until the systems are built, because you don’t know what you’ll actually be able to do with them until you do.

    I think the era from about 1900 on to some point in the future will eventually seen as a period where a lot of the rules of how to go about doing things were periodically useless in various aspects of warfare. The technological flux in aviation, for example, was particularly strong in period from about 1935 to 1965, and then it settled down to be a hell of a lot more predictable–During the early days of that era, we just didn’t know what was possible vs. what was not, or how the new technology coming to fruition would work out, in the real world. Contrast that to the realm of small arms, where the ability to predict the capabilities and uses were much higher–And, we pretty much screwed that up, thinking that small arms were just like aviation, and trying to impose those rules on that arena. Otherwise, the whole SPIW fiasco wouldn’t have warped things the way it did.

    Finding your way through the maze of advancing technology ain’t at all easy.

  4. Kirk, I think you would like the book I suggested to Isegoria about the anti-U-boat campaign in the Bay of Biscay while back (link in the original comment). There are a few chapters at the end where the author expands on the results of the analysis and combines them with the lessons of his experience being a part of some failed vs. some successful defense acquisition programs. One of the points he explores is how chimerical the benefits of top-down, “requirements driven” procurement tends to be for systems for which there’s any substantial technological risk/uncertainty.

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