Thursday, January 15, 2009

DOD Needs More Operation Question Marks

I am back!

January 2009 marks 80th anniversary of a major stepping stone in aerial refueling.

On January 1, 1929, a tri-engined Fokker C-2 aircraft (see also wikipedia) climbed into the southern California sky. This aircraft, dubbed the "Question Mark," was not history's first air refueling mission, but it played a crucial role in the beginning of air refueling efforts. The flight lasted from Jan. 1-7, 1929; a total of 150 hours and 40 minutes. The crew flew a 110-mile racetrack from Santa Monica, Calif., to San Diego, Calif. During the flight, they made 43 contacts with the tanker aircraft…. the Question Mark received 5,700 gallons of fuel. (see Flight of the Question Mark).

Source of photo: USAF

In was not the first time that aerial refueling was ever tried. But it got most public attention. The need was foreseen and some people were giving hard thoughts on how to make it possible to have a flying gas station.

In his commentary (Tankers: From a Question Mark to today's fight) Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, Air Mobility Command commander says that “Today, the question isn't how critical is the tanker to our warfighters and our national security. We know the need for a tanker is critical; it's a capability our nation simply cannot do without.” But today KC-X, the new aerial tanker, has become a chicken-egg problem. There are several reasons for that but in my opinion the DoD is still not clear what kind of aerial refueling tanker it needs.

I really wonder whether any person involved in drafting the request for proposals had read the following sentences of Lieutenant Colonel Gregory C. Wilmoth in False-failed innovations, (Autumn/Winter 1999–2000, JFQ, pp. 51-57)

“To succeed technology must meet a need that involves choices and tradeoffs. Needs shape development. Provided needs are met, technology can be shaped in various ways, even irrational ones. As needs change over time, so do the characteristics of a given technology. Air refueling is a classic illustration of how variables play on technological progress. There was little practical use for refueling in flight during the 1920s or 1930s and the concept languished, though British aviation circles kept the basic notion of the technique alive. Thus when an urgent need arose in the Air Force during the 1940s the technology base was ready. Capabilities remained about the same during these decades, but it changed rapidly after 1948. Organizations and doctrine were created that turned the technology into an innovation. Air Force commands grouped tanker aircraft into tanker squadrons and wings within existing organizations. Doctrine evolved as what began as a range extender for bombers spread to tactical aircraft, transports, and helicopters.

technologies that are inappropriate in one age have been resurrected through adaptive methods and organizations to fill essential requirements at a later time

there must be a clear grasp of future requirements. Needs drive how technology is shaped and used. Only by analyzing requirements thoroughly and defining them objectively, unconstrained by narrow thinking about how traditionally military capabilities have been used, can a failed technology become a false-failed innovation. Look first to needs. Revising organization and doctrine must follow, then identifying available technology. Achieving innovations, false-failed or otherwise, frequently requires vision but always calls for hard thinking that transcends a didactic, linear conception of how technology becomes capability” such as inflight refueling that were discarded but reappeared when needs and circumstances changed.

Needs versus wishes. Necessities versus waste. Today, militaries around the world, especially the US, are in the opinion that more high technology gadgets will deliver the needs of the future. They are dead wrong. They are mixing innovation with technology. Bazooka, for example, is not a high technology weapon but was an excellent innovation.

In the next post I will explain more.


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