The U.S. obsession with software engineering and virtual reality has distracted investment and career energies way from the essential, old-fashioned, "hard" engineering and technological disciplines that are still essential to get anything made, working and keep working.
New York Times reporter Philip Taubman, in his important Nov. 11 article on the reasons for the collapse of the Future Imagery Architecture, concluded that "the collapse of the project at a cost of at least $4 billion was all but inevitable -- the result of a troubled partnership between a government seeking to maintain the supremacy of its intelligence technology, but on a constrained budget, and a contractor all too willing to make promises it could ultimately not keep.
Taubman went on to pointedly note, "The Future Imagery project is one of several satellite programs to break down in recent years, leaving the United States with outdated imaging technology."
From the 1940s through the 1980s, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, it seemed that there was no wonder American scientists, researchers and engineers could not accomplish, whether it was inventing the atomic and hydrogen bombs, creating a space program, nuclear-powered submarines that could stay underwater for months or years at a time, putting men on the moon, or even eliminating the ancient scourges of smallpox and polio.
But in recent decades the number of Americans studying science and engineering and then going on to work in the fields has plummeted. There are now less than one-seventh the number of scientists and engineers working in the entire U.S. aerospace industry than there were during the Apollo program to put men on the moon in the 1960s. The number of Americans working in the U.S. space industry is only about one-third of those working on comparable programs in China.
Even within the U.S. science and technology sector, an enormous, disproportionate amount of investment and expertise concentrates on prestigious high-tech electronics, software and communications fields. This continues to produce very valuable yields in new research and applications, especially in the defense sector. But it further dramatically produces the amount of experience and expertise available actually to design, engineer and critique designs for the heavy military equipment that is still essential from warships to main battle tanks and aircraft.
All of this has led to what Taubman called a "Panglossian" inexperience or naivete among both policymakers and senior managers in larger U.S. defense contractors. Imbued with the sunny, positive, Reagan-era "can-do" optimism that they can perform miracles as their predecessors did before them, they never bother to look back and see how those miracles were actually performed.
But it takes a lot more than a positive attitude to design a new spy satellite, littoral combat airship or aircraft. Among other things, it takes an engineering tradition.
Throughout the 20th century, and indeed, through the era of technology, the principles of evolution and specialization have been essential to produce cost-effective, highly reliable weapons and to steadily improve old ones. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses that remain the main manned bombers of the U.S. Air Force have now been operational for more than half a century, but they have steadily been upgraded during that entire period of time.
The same principle applies to the equally venerable Lockheed Martin C-130J military transport aircraft.
Two of the secrets of success of these aircraft were that they were both highly specialized planes designed to be the very best thing at what they did. They were not required to be fighters or dive bombers as well. Yet increasingly, U.S. aircraft -- following a trend started by the arch-technology worshiper and incompetent himself, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during the 1960s -- are supposed to do everything at the same time.
This is the impossible burden of performance and expectation that has been imposed on the Lockheed Martin F-35. America's main European allies in NATO eager to follow the prevailing American fashion have signed on for this too. But as Loren B. Thompson, chief executive officer of the Lexington Institute in Virginia, has written in a column for UPI, the F-35, or Joint Strike Aircraft, runs the increasing risk that, like McNamara's beloved but catastrophic F-111 swing wing bomber before it, has been touted as a master of all trades but may well prove to be master of none.
(Next: Respecting the old timers)