Death Stars are overrated military investments – Columns – The Boston Globe

In the summer of 2011, my wife and I decided our kids were old enough to appreciate the Star Wars films. We blocked out a week of evenings and launched a viewing marathon through that galaxy far, far away. On the sixth night, after the climactic battle scene in “Return of the Jedi,” one of my daughters emphatically declared, “Daddy, they shouldn’t build those Death Stars any more. They keep getting blown up.”

I always suspected the Force was strong in that one.

Inspired by her insight — that it’s a bad idea to build large, expensive, complex weapon systems — I launched a brief course of research into what else a military technologist like myself could learn from this grandest of space operas. In addition to the observation that Death Stars “keep getting blown up,” which prevents them from being very effective, I also noticed they are inevitably over budget and behind schedule. Then I read an interview in which George Lucas himself anointed the humble astromech droid R2-D2 as “the hero of the whole thing.” The conclusion for how the military spends its money was clear: Death Stars bad, droids good.

This counterintuitive finding was not entirely unexpected. Since the early 2000s, I’d been developing and experimenting with an approach to innovation based on restraint — tight budgets, short schedules, small teams, and highly focused objectives. This was a relatively unusual approach for an Air Force officer to take, given my service’s longstanding preference for spending decades and billions developing enormous, multi-role systems. Indeed, these mega-projects are the most prestigious and the surest path to promotion in the military, which helps explain why we build so many of them.

via Death Stars are overrated military investments – Columns – The Boston Globe.

One of the more important ISR and Close Air Support tools in the last decade is also a very simple one, ROVER, which allows aircraft to stream video of their sensor pictures, such as from their targeting pods, down to the troops on the ground. That’s a classic example of a non-Death Star program that greatly increased capabilities at low cost, and in a very short time.

4 thoughts on “Death Stars are overrated military investments – Columns – The Boston Globe”

  1. The late Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman told a story of when the Manhattan Project team was breaking up after WW2. Everyone was encouraged to take out patents involving nuclear power. Feynman thought this was a silly idea and decided to patent the most ridiculous thing: nuclear powered aircraft. Years later he received a phone call asking his help on a military contract because he held that patent. He replied that nuclear powered aircraft were just absurd. Reactors of the required power levels are just too heavy. The answer: “You know that and I know that, But the Air Force doesn’t and they are throwing money at the idea.”

    1. I remember reading about the ‘flying reactor’ in Wings/Airpower magazine (one or the other of those sister publications). I also recall back in the 1950s a number of other magazines went bananas on the topic, featuring outrageous artist conceptions.

      One (in Mechanix Illustrated? Popular Mechanics?) had as one example a humongous delta wing bomber that carried its own squadron of escort fighters, noses nestled in pods on the trailing edge of the wings and fin. FICON with a vengeance! Also reminiscent of the Soviet experiments in the 1930s, with prop fighters attached above and below the wings. Not sure where the elevons and rudder went…

      Life magazine had a spread with several gorgeous full color illustrations jumping off its large format pages. One was truly memorable – a flying aircraft carrier with mile wide wings! I guess it would not need catapults or arrestor wires with that kind of wind over deck. 😉

      Even disregarding the weight penalty of a well shielded reactor, didn’t anyone ever hear of wing loading and the square-cube law?

  2. So, if you were going to have a flying nuclear reactor, your choices ( in U.S. aircraft) would be the B-36 or a pig (otherwise known as the C-5 ) for the airframe.

    Paul

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