Saturday, July 14, 2007

We live in an age of technological dinosaurs — tech projects that never could justify their cost in money or mental effort but have become embedded in our culture and will endure just because killing them off would have a drastic effect on the economy.

Consider the American space program. After the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States made a heroic effort to put men on the moon. This required assembling a magnificent organization of engineers, scientists, support people, suppliers and so on. They were sharp, dedicated and successful. Soon people were on the moon.

Now what? You can’t just fire that many talented and specialized engineers. It would just be a rotten thing to do. They’ve got wives and children and mortgages. An expert in optimizing thrust from the Saturn V can’t go to General Electric to design toasters. Besides, GE already has engineers.

So you keep them going at what they do well. You build a space ship, in this case the shuttle. Maybe the country needs it, or sort of needs it, or at least can use it. In any event it’s inevitable because too many subcontractors and sub-subcontractors in too many towns depend on the business.

A lot of such self-sustaining projects exist in government, chiefly in the defense sector. The Air Force now is working on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Apparently a fine aircraft, it has cost billions and taken many years to develop. Upgrades will cost billions more. Yet the JSF has little application to the kinds of wars America actually fights or is likely to fight. It is an economic flywheel.

Over and over America sets in motion big projects that are technological wonders but have little real purpose. For example, the International Space Station, the B-1, the B-2, the F-22, the F-35, the Airborne Laser. These we fund, while the Army scratches around desperately to find money for things it needs in Iraq.

Note that just now U.S. companies import a large number of tech workers from such places as India. Usually this is said to be because foreigners work for less, but I’ve had a couple of venture-capital guys tell me that their companies can’t find enough available American talent.

A fact of developing advanced weapons is that you don’t just design the thing; you have to invent the technology. This, not incompetent engineers, stretches out the time needed. (Congressional micromanagement makes things worse.) When Ford designs a new truck, it is improving somewhat on something it already knows how to do. When the defense industry designs a new bomber, it doesn’t know how yet. Figuring it out takes time, brains and money.

This ties up the brains and money for many years. I sometimes wonder whether the country ought to be spending so much of both on tech dinosaurs that have little to do with defending the United States.

The argument is often made that military research spins off a lot of technology to the commercial sector. This is less true than it once was. For example, military electronics often involve such things as jam-resistant frequency-hopping radars, stealthy aircraft and advanced sonar. Military and civilian technology have diverged to a large extent.

When large numbers of smart people only know how to design advanced weapons, they will always find another one to design. The military may not need the weapon, but the engineers will need to build it. They are not con men: Invariably they believe in what they are doing, and try to do it well. Here is the explanation for the evolution of tech dinosaurs.

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