Iron Dome, “Star Wars” and Me

I can’t remember where, but in one of the good number of articles that have appeared in the last few days extolling the success of Israel’s Iron Dome short-range missile interceptor system, I saw someone make a comment to the effect that, somewhere, Ronald Reagan was smiling.  I know the feeling.

I became aware of what would eventually become Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“SDI”) in the late 1970s from an article in Aviation Week and Space Technology (known by military tech geeks like me as “AvWeek” or, more cynically, “AvLeak“).  I was an undergraduate college student studying Chinese in a program that had been famous (or to some, infamous) as a conveyor belt feeding young recruits into the State Department and various intelligence agencies.  I was also the son of an aerospace engineer that had been raised reading my dad’s week-old copies of AvWeek throughout the 1960s — a kid who had followed the space program the way other kids followed professional football, and who knew the names and biographies of astronauts and cosmonauts the way other kids knew the backgrounds of their favorite quarterbacks and wide receivers.  And I was just as interested in military aerospace technology: By the time I was eight or nine years old, I could instantly recognize every military aircraft and missile on both sides of the Cold War.

So I was electrified by the article in AvWeek that described the basic outline of ballistic missile defense as it was being conceived in the late 1970s: swiftly developing sensor and computing technology (“command, control, communications and intelligence” or “3CI technology,” as it was known) was making it possible to begin to think about actual systems that could change the balance of terror that had been in place since the development of nuclear-tipped ICBMs in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The implications were enormous and obvious, even to me.  I knew that the technical challenges would be great and that it would take years to bring effective ballistic missile defense to the level of practical utility.  But the payoff seemed well worth the effort to me.

Not long after I read that article in AvWeek, a senior academic and “policy wonk” specializing in Soviet history and affairs spoke at a seminar at my school.  After the seminar, the participants made themselves available to the eager young students in attendance.  I approached this fellow and excitedly asked him whether he’d seen the article in Aviation Week and, if so, what he thought about it.  He hadn’t, so I told him about it — in hindsight, I’m sure I seemed like a feverish young idiot.  “A fantasy … science fiction,” he responded, when I had finished describing the idea of space-based interceptors that was the centerpiece of the ideas the article had contained.

Crestfallen and embarrassed, I withdrew.  Months passed, and any chance that I might have had a career in government straight out of school fell victim to the fact that I graduated when Jimmy Carter was president.  It’s a long story of interest only to me, but my trajectory toward government service was derailed when I encountered a defense and intelligence establishment under Carter that was not, shall I say, welcoming to my ideas and values.

But I didn’t forget the idea of ballistic missile defense. Reagan became president.  By then, the path of my life had moved on, and I watched the changes in defense policy as only an interested outside observer.  Once again, I was thrilled to the core when Reagan announced that his administration would pursue what he called SDI as a basic strategic policy.  Naturally, the more “realistic” mainstream media — who despised Reagan and characterized him as an idiot — lambasted the idea.  “Star Wars,” they called it.  Although there was a critique of SDI worth considering — that it was destabilizing and could actually increase the chance of nuclear war — the more common criticism one heard was that it wasn’t technologically feasible.  In between was an idea that, while SDI might work, it was uneconomical, since it would always cost more to intercept and destroy an incoming warhead than it would to build another attacking missile.  But Reagan and his administration ignored the critics and poured enormous resources into a project that, in hindsight, may turn out to have been as important as the Manhattan Project.

A few months after Reagan’s famous SDI speech, I was watching one of the Sunday afternoon talking-head shows and who should I see but the academic I’d buttonholed after the seminar some years before.  He had just returned to academia after having served for a couple of years in the Reagan administration.  And what was the subject of discussion?  Why, ballistic missile defense!  This fellow was being confronted by critics of the SDI program, who were liberally (pun intended) using the pejorative “Star Wars” term to label SDI as “fantasy” and “science fiction.”  Imagine my pleasure when the response came that, in fact, the basic concept was technically feasible and that it was worth pursuing.  I couldn’t help but think that the fellow I’d confronted some years before had had the chance to see the same technical studies Reagan had, and had concluded that the goal of intercepting ballistic missiles and their warheads — “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” as it was said — was not only achievable but that the result of that achievement would be a change in the military balance that would free us from the terrible prospect of nuclear Armageddon.

That was thirty years ago.  During that thirty years, the people who have been working on missile defense have made amazing progress.  The basic missile defense 3CI technology that has been painstakingly developed over the last three decades is what has made Iron Dome possible.  As more than a few people have pointed out since Hamas has started firing volleys of rockets from Gaza, Iron Dome’s success has actually made it possible for Israel to forego a ground invasion — at least for now.  Were it not for the successful interception of the vast majority of Hamas’ rockets, Israel would have had no choice but to send hundreds of tanks and tens of thousands of troops into the rat’s nest of Gaza to hunt out the rocket launching and storehouse sites on a retail level.  Some of the same 3CI technology that was pushed forward by SDI has also enabled the drones that attack Hamas’ launching sites to identify, target and destroy them within minutes or even seconds of each launch.

I’m reminded of a scene in the old BBC Masterpiece Theater series about Henry Tudor, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  I can’t find a citation, but I think it’s a dinner scene at the Boleyn house, when Henry is becoming infatuated with Anne.  The subject of conversation is the relatively new technology of infantry firearms and the impact it may have on the role of the traditional English bowman in warfare.  As I recall it, Henry holds forth in response that while guns have their place, nothing will ever supplant the longbowman as the foundation of England’s military power on land.

Whether that conversation ever really took place or not, soon thereafter, the firearm indeed replaced the longbow, and gunpowder artillery became the “King of Battle.”  That King, and it’s offspring, the ballistic missile (short, medium and long range), have reigned supreme for almost five centuries.  Now, even the doubters who sneered at Ronald Regan’s “Star Wars fantasy” can see that the long rule of the ballistic weapon may well be coming to an end.

Der Spiegel and the Standard Model

Here’s an essay entitled Betting With Trillions from Der Spiegel, that ever-reliable outlet for mainstream social-democrat, leftward viewpoints.  It’s well worth the time to read the whole thing, because you’ll get a very good taste of how thinking people on the left express themselves when they try to look at both sides of the question that the article puts as “Why are democratic countries so pathetic when it comes to managing their money sustainably?

The piece begins promisingly enough, starting the story with a history lesson that begins, as it should, with the unleashing of government power to create fake money:

Until 1971, gold was the benchmark of the US dollar, with one ounce of pure gold corresponding to $35, and the dollar was the fixed benchmark of all Western currencies. But when the United States began to need more and more dollars for the Vietnam War, and the global economy grew so quickly that using gold as a benchmark became a constraint, countries abandoned the system of fixed exchange rates. A new phase of the global economy began, and two processes were set in motion: the liberation of the financial markets from limited money supplies, which was mostly beneficial; and the liberation of countries from limited revenues, which was mostly detrimental. This money bubble continued to inflate for four decades, as central banks were able to create money out of thin air, banks were able to provide seemingly unlimited credit, and consumers and governments were able to go into debt without restraint.

This continued until the biggest credit bubble in history began to burst: first in the United States, because banks had bundled the mortgages of millions of Americans, whose only asset was a house bought on credit, into worthless securities; then around the globe, because banks had foisted these securities onto customers in many countries; and, finally, when these banks began to totter, debt-ridden countries turned private debt into public debt until they too began to totter, and could only borrow money from banks at even higher interest rates than before.

At the moment, the world has only one approach to getting out of this labyrinth of debt: incurring trillions of even more debt.

(Note that it is the US war in Vietnam that is identified as the sole spark for the prairie fire of debt, and not the Great Society’s spending spree.)

Before long, the piece ends where one would expect, with the largest part of the villainy of the relationship between democratic politics and debt placed squarely on markets and bankers:

And then, finally, we have a clear view of the three biggest problems in finance-driven, democratically constituted capitalism: First, how can a debt-ridden economy grow if a large part of demand in the past was based on debt, which is now to be reduced?

The second major problem of modern capitalism is this: How can the unleashed financial markets be reined in again, and how should the G-20 countries come up with joint rules for major banks, which are their financiers and creditors, and for markets, which punish and reward these countries through interest? How much freedom do financial markets need to serve the global economy as a lubricant, and what limits do they need so that banks, shadow banks and hedge funds do not become a threat to the system?

Third, how do governments mediate between the power of the two sovereigns, how do they reestablish the primacy of citizens over creditors, and how does democracy function in debt-ridden countries? How can politicians react without burdening countries with more debt, and how can they reduce that debt? In fact, how can they even govern anymore in this prison of debt? In the past, future revenues were mortgaged, in municipalities, states and the federal government. This now makes it difficult to structure the present and the future. Today only about 20 percent of the federal budget is truly politically available, as compared with 40 percent when Schmidt was still in office.

It is always only at first glance that the world is stuck in a debt crisis, a financial crisis and a euro crisis. In fact, it is in the midst of a massive transformation process, a deep-seated change to our critical and debt-ridden system, which is suited to making us poor and destroying our prosperity, social security and democracy, and in the midst of an upheaval taking place behind the backs of those in charge.

A great bet is underway, a poker game with stakes in the trillions, between those who are buying time with central bank money and believe that they can continue as before, and the others, who are afraid of the biggest credit bubble in history and are searching for ways out of capitalism based on borrowed money.

In other words (although the socialists at Der Spiegel wouldn’t put it this way): “How can politics re-establish its primacy over markets, when politicians are addicted to debt-financed vote-buying?”  The standard model of the economic (and therefore the moral and political) world on the left is aptly summarized in the final identification of evil that has brought us to the brink: “capitalism based on borrowed money.”  If it wasn’t so sad and dangerous, it would be hilarious: the author of this article sets out to be objective and balanced — identifying that the problem is inherent in the state financing its favors through debt and unleashing a tidal wave of cheap credit to which financial markets are inevitably drawn — but then finding all the fault in “capitalism based on borrowed money.”

Any sane person now knows that the governments of the West can never, ever repay the money they’ve borrowed on the terms upon which the debt was incurred.  As the article points out, there are only three ways out of the crisis:  (1) repay the debt honestly by radically decreasing spending and increasing government revenues, (2) openly default or, (3) default with a modicum of obscurity through inflation.  We all know the first two won’t happen.  The first option is politically impossible.  Voters won’t stand for it.  Even if they would, the fact is that the level of government debt is now so high that even the most austere of “austerities” and the most enhanced of “revenue enhancements” can’t solve the problem.  The second option is financially impossible (although the US Congress will continue to pretend that this isn’t so).  The days of the Philip II of Spain, when a great power was able to simply screw its creditors and then come back to do it again (and again and again, as Spain did), are long gone.  Which leaves the third possibility as the only option: Inflating currencies as a form of only slightly more stealthy default.  An inflationary default is the path of least resistance and the only one that buys more time, whether it solves the problem or not.

I know well-educated leftists who, when presented with the obvious truth laid out in the preceding paragraph, respond by saying that to limit the options to just these three things shows a lack of imagination, and a failure of faith in humanity.  I respond by pointing out that if I push you off of a tall building without a parachute, you will fall to your death: There is no failure of imagination or lack of faith in coming to that conclusion — just a willingness to recognize reality.  The conversation — which I have had many times — ends there: I am condemned as a fatalist because I refuse to believe that there must be a solution to the problem other than those that reality presents.  You can call it wishful thinking.  A very wise man called it the “fatal conceit.”

The Mother of All Morning Afters

So … it’s the Mother of All Morning Afters …  The reality that lies underneath it all remains: The societies of the developed world have become outrageously over-leveraged with debt because the democratic process has led after a couple of centuries of experimentation to the creation of entrenched interest-blocks that view an ever-expanding state as an ATM, a cornucopia-machine that those with the right PIN imagine to be inexhaustible.  With every passing day, there are fewer and fewer options for escape from the flat-spin death spiral.

In our society that has become increasingly dominated by the notion that feelings are self-validating, I’ve seen headlines leading up to the last couple of election cycles that point to articles that address how those whose side has lost in an election will suffer psychologically.  I haven’t bothered to read them.  Somehow, I still hold to the old notion that, by and large, I should suck it up and just deal with it when things don’t go my way.

So . . . for a little while I’ll throw myself into work and, in the left-over time, maybe withdraw into a little escapist reading.

If you’re looking for data, instead of thinking about how you feel this morning, check this out:


Could it be the Cool?

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the presidential election polls.  My gut tells me Romney could win big, but the polls (and their would-be oracle, Nate Silver) say otherwise: Close, at best.  Perhaps Alex Castellanos at CNN has identified one major factor that could account for this dissonance:

… to identify our next president, we have to understand how publicly embarrassing it is to be a Republican these days.

Hollywood, the music industry, the news media, the fashion industry, the intellectual elite and the news media all fawn over Obama. To identify yourself as a Republican Romney voter, however, is to admit that you are culturally backward. In effect, survey questioners are asking Obama voters if they self-identify as cool.  They are asking Romney voters if they would publicly admit to wearing socks with sandals.

Too often, Republicans dare not speak their name, because they know the cool kids won’t invite them to play.

This phenomenon, the reticent Republican factor, like the shy Tory factor found in British polls in the ’90s, could easily account for a 4% to 5% unexpected pro-Romney bump on Election Day.

Late polls in 1980 gave Ronald Reagan only a 2% to 3% lead over Jimmy Carter.  Reagan ended up winning by nearly 10%.  For the same reason, I would expect this campaign’s final public opinion polls and exit polls this Tuesday to underreport the Republican vote by a handful of points.

Forty-eight hours . . . could it be the cool?

DEEEEE-FENSE! « Exclusive: Dr. Strangelove’s Notebook Update


ImageHere’s an article about the US Air Force’s Long Range Strike (“LRS”) bomber program.  It’s a relatively good summary of what’s known about where the program currently stands — now projected to cost in the neighborhood of $60+ BILLION over the next ten years or so.  In short, the LRS is intended to be an aircraft that can fill the traditional role of strategic bomber in the age of rapidly advancing technologies designed to prohibit entry of such a plane into an enemy’s airspace (known by the typically Pentagon-ish acronym of “A2/AD”: anti-access/area denial).  In other words, the LRS is to be a super-stealth bomber that can justify the cost of its development by promising to be effective for decades into an increasingly dangerous future after its hoped-for introduction in the mid-2020s.

Call me deeply, deeply skeptical.  Yes, the LRS will (hopefully) have a more narrowly-defined mission than the all-things-to-all-people, Swiss Army Knife F-35 which has turned into the grossly over-budget and behind-schedule poster-plane for everything that’s wrong with the defense procurement and weapon development system that characterizes the seriously big-ticket items in the defense budget.  As I’ve pointed out here before, it’s very hard not to see these kinds of programs, which take decades to develop and implement in the field, as the modern equivalent of the battleship building programs of the first part of the 20th century: Hugely expensive commitments to technologies that can easily be superseded by advancements that come out of the scientific and engineering left field.  In the case of the battlewagons, it was the aircraft carrier.  In the space of one bright, sunny Sunday morning in December 1941, the dreadnought was proven obsolete, even to those who hadn’t been convinced TWENTY YEARS EARLIER by Billy Mitchell.

Could the same thing happen to the LRS?  I think only a fool would deny at least the possibility.  Just on the sensor and detection front, the idea seems sketchy at best that stealth technology that works in the first quarter of the 21st century will serve to obscure a large, relatively slow, deep-penetrating bomber in the middle of the 21st century, much less beyond. (Bear in mind the service life of modern military aircraft — the GRANDCHILDREN of the first generation of B-52 pilots are currently flying the BUFF.)  Beyond that, we have to ask ourselves whether the strategic bomber concept makes any sense at all in even the current era, much less into a mid-21st-century that will be characterized by super-smart, super-cheap distributed sensor networks and super-smart and increasingly cheap anti-aircraft missiles.

All of which makes me return to a concept (not new or unique to me) that has come to increasingly dominate my thinking about these things: The balance between offense and defense.  A good argument can be made that one of the most fundamental dynamics of military history is the shifting balance between defensive and offensive techniques and technologies.

Consider the classic examples of this notion.  The initial introduction of and early “perfection” of gunpowder weapons gave a sporadic advantage to the offense in early modern times.  This caused a major change in the design of fortifications that again shifted the balance back to defense.  The late 18th and early 19th century saw the perfection of infantry techniques and the organization of large, bureaucratic nation-states to support them that created a shift back to offensive advantage (e.g. Napoleon).  The US Civil War could be argued to be a conflict prolonged by the maturation of techniques and technologies of defense in response to the Napoleonic surge in the direction of the offensive.  The Great War became the Great Meat Grinder because of the perfection of those defensive technologies, enhanced hugely by the implementation of heavy, minimally-mobile machine guns.  Techniques and technologies born in the Great War (mobile armor, lighter machine guns and military aircraft) decisively shifted the balance to the offensive side by the time of World War II.  The nuclear stand-off at the foundation of the Cold War was the ultimate expression of a stalemate of balanced offensive power at the strategic level, matched for decades by almost no defensive elements at all.

The development of stealth technologies by the US in the 1970s and 1980s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union prolonged this period of offensive preeminence.  Although it isn’t expressed in this way (because most of those who express it lack the knowledge of military theory and history to think in these terms), much of the EMOTIONAL revulsion felt in the world in response to America’s military dominance of the post-Cold-War era is premised, I think, on an unconscious perception that that power is based on overwhelming OFFENSIVE power.

Unless the laws of physics ultimately favor one side or the other (and they might …), there is no reason to believe that America’s current military dominance is immune to the large scale dynamic of shifting balances between offensive and defensive techniques and technologies.  For a couple of hundred years at least, Roman generals commanded an integrated offensive “weapon system” that was utterly invincible in the Mediterranean Basin — the legion.  But when it operated outside of the core of its logistical support (in the deserts of the East against the Parthians, for instance), or when that logistical support crumbled (as it did in the later Empire), the preeminence of the Roman legion evaporated.  As the lights of the ancient world began to flicker and go out in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, one important factor marking the end of the era of the preeminence of the Roman legion was the introduction of heavy, armored cavalry, the cataphract, into Western warfare.  Unable to support strategically mobile legions as the late Republic and early Empire had been able to do, the classic legionary general faced a “game changer” in the armored horseman.  With that change came a whole new socio-economic matrix to support this new technology — the European feudal system.  (Note: I DO realize that last point is a simplification of a very complex process, but I think it is an important factor in the transformation of the Western world from one based on the open, urban Greco-Roman world to the closed, rural world of the mounted feudal knight.)

So consider the possibility that we might well be on the cusp of one of these shifts in the balance between offensive and defensive power.  Signs that this might be so include the increasingly capable technologies of ballistic missile defense, from the strategic to the tactical level (re the latter, viz. Iron Dome), and the rapid development of increasingly smart anti-aircraft technologies.  Programs like the LRS are without a doubt purely offensive weapons: Unless one were to envision them as platforms for weapons to be deployed against intruding aircraft (a poor use of such an elaborate system), the sole purpose of the LRS is to penetrate an adversary’s heavily-defended airspace.  Is the LRS just a high-tech equivalent of Napoleon’s infantry square, that will have to live on into the age of heavy machine guns?  If so, the American taxpayer might be better served by simply burning the billions of dollars the LRS will cost — at least we could use the heat as a power source . . .

The Flood

Bret Stephens has a very good piece in CommentaryThe Coming Global Disorder — that you should read.  It is an excellent example of a genre with increasing popularity: The “Doomsday Scenario.”  This essay has much to recommend it in being clear-eyed, and the way it minimizes hysterical rhetoric in favor of analysis based on indisputable facts.

But it also highlights something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, the essentially unknowable nature of the future, or at least the future we care about.  When something bad happens in someone’s life — the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, or even something as relatively trivial as an automobile accident — there’s a tendency for concerned onlookers to say something like, “Well, the sun will still rise tomorrow.”  To the person who is suffering at the center of the problem, a very reasonable response to this might well be, “So what?”  “Yes, the sun will rise tomorrow, but I’ll still have this Bad Thing to deal with.”  For that person in the eye of the storm, the only thing he or she wishes is that the clock could be turned back, that the river of time could flow back the way it had come. But the river of time only flows in one direction …  Looking back upriver, its course seems inevitable.  But was it?

That’s what I’ve been thinking about.  Stephens opens his essay with a small incident in 1911, when the Kaiser’s Germany, the European “Rising Power” of its day, engaged in an act of relatively minor “testing” of the established preeminence of British imperial power.  In hindsight, this was clear prologue to the Great War.  All of this last summer, I watched from Hong Kong and other parts of the Middle Kingdom the events Stephens then turns to — China’s pushing and shoving in the South China Sea and the other maritime areas to its east and northeast.  The level of jingoistic rhetoric in the Chinese press — even the more cosmopolitan press in Hong Kong — and the extent to which that rhetoric finds an enthusiastic and widespread reception among seemingly every segment of China’s people, simply cannot be appreciated from the way these matters are reported elsewhere.

Stephens points out (and it is a common theme of much contemporary writing about China), that the two legs of legitimacy upon which the current regime in Beijing rests are the rise in China’s prosperity in the last 30 years … and the regime’s identification with Chinese nationalism.  Again, for Westerners who aren’t immersed in China the way I am, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the importance of this second factor.  In the more than 35 years I’ve been studying and travelling and living in China, I have seen a steady rise in the nationalistic rhetoric with which the Beijing regime cloaks itself.  Everyone alive in China today has been steeped since birth in a narrative that it was the communist party that lifted China up from a century of cruel oppression and abject humiliation at the hands of outsiders; those outsiders being Japan and the West.  And the fact is that this is largely true, so far as it goes: Only the communists were organized and ruthless enough to do what had to be done to pick China up off the floor onto which it had fallen in response to onslaughts from more modern nations.  As the problems and contradictions inherent in the policies that lead to China’s amazing rise over the last 30 years become increasingly clear, the Party leans more and more on that strong and reliable leg of nationalism as foundation for its power.

Are this summer’s tensions in the seas of East Asia our era’s equivalent of the Kaiser’s pricking at the edges of the British Empire?

Stephens then looks at some specific scenarios that could light the powder keg that our world seems to have become:  China’s increasingly vigorous jostling of its neighbors over the little specks of rock in the seas around it; Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them; the Arab Spring’s descent into populist Islamism; a narrow Obama reelection in the United States leading to a second great wave of economic collapse and a perception abroad that America had sighed and thrown in the towel as the foundation of order in the world.

As a lifelong student of history, each of these scenarios seems very plausible.  But are they inevitable?  In every case, there are moments of decision that stand in the way of what may seem like “historical inevitability.”  But those who stand at the narrow places in the river with at least the possibility of changing its course know that their choices will have great costs, no matter what they do.  It will always be easier for these few to shrug their shoulders and surrender to the feeling that the rushing of the water has too much inertia, that the religious and tribal hatreds of the Middle East, the unpaid debts of history in the Far East, that the unpaid debts of unfunded entitlements in America are all too great for any one person to act to stem the flood.

Those who tend to see the course of history in terms of inevitability — and we should know by now who they are, and from where that idea comes — will never have the courage to shoulder the burden of decision against the flood.  Who will stand against it?

The Really Right Stuff

Last night SpaceX launched their second Dragon mission to the International Space Station.  This was the first fully operational supply flight after the wildly successful test flight in May of this year.  Not long after the Dragon spacecraft was placed into orbit on its way to the station, folks started noticing that Something Bad had happened on the ride uphill.

This video shows something serious happening to one of the Falcon 9′s engines. Engine 1 seems to have suffered a “rapid unscheduled dis-assembly” — i.e., it blew up. The other 8 engines burned longer than planned to put Dragon into orbit. The anomaly occurred at 1 minute and 20 seconds into the flight.

Tony Stark Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO and founder, issued a statement:

Falcon 9 detected an anomaly on one of the nine engines and shut it down. As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in realtime to reach the target orbit, which is why the burn times were a bit longer. Like Saturn V, which experienced engine loss on two flights, the Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine flameout and still complete its mission. I believe F9 is the only rocket flying today that, like a modern airliner, is capable of completing a flight successfully even after losing an engine. There was no effect on Dragon or the Space Station resupply mission.

I’ve already seen speculation that Musk isn’t using weasel words about shutting down the No. 1 engine on the Falcon rocket — the explosion may have happened as a result of a shutdown, not the other way around.  At any rate, while having an engine  blow to bits is a Bad Thing — a Really Bad Thing — what’s amazing is that this didn’t cause the whole thing to turn into a very expensive fireball.  That’s truly amazing and impressive.  Real rocket science.

Let’s face it — SpaceX is the Real Deal.  The doubters need to just STFU now.

The Stall Reflex and the Shrieking Monkeys

OK, I’m ready.  Ready to confess.  Or almost ready, anyway.

I’m almost ready to confess that I’m eaten up with doubt.  So what’s new about that?  Either you have doubts, or you’re stupid.  Or at least that’s what I’ve always tried to tell myself.

But then, there’s real life — in which you steel yourself against the craziness of the world with at least the FEELING of certainty.  For me, one of those FEELINGS of certainty has for years and years been this: Because individual liberty is a primary moral and therefore political value, the “way out” of our messes always lay in the direction of getting the state to disengage from economic and social activity.  The right first move was always to reach for that control — the one marked “STATE INTERFERENCE” — and turn it down.  If we just did that, whatever the problem was, it would get better, more options would open up and solutions would be found.

Now I’m not so sure.  No, I haven’t all of a sudden lost my nerve and become a statist.  The creeping doubt is about whether things have gotten to a point that taking that first step — decreasing state power and state interference in people’s lives — will necessarily result in opening up a pathway to solutions for our problems.

Consider what I call “the Stall Reflex” in flying.  Not long after a student pilot gains basic familiarity with the controls, there’s a strong tendency to want to try to solve every problem by pulling back on the stick.  We’ve got an instinct hard-wired deep in our brains that translates directly into the flyer’s truism that “altitude is life.”  It’s not hard to believe this goes back to our arboreal primate ancestors: If you’re up in a tree, when in doubt, “up” is good and “down” is bad.  Even more fundamental than that set of early primate instincts is a set of behavioral imperatives about Mister Gravity:  “DON’T FALL!” they tell us . . . all the time.  This basic programming hooks up with the learned skill that pulling back on the stick makes you go “up” and . . . the Stall Reflex is born.

Unlike birds, we monkey-men don’t have a set of pre-conscious instincts about the aerodynamic principles of flight.  It takes a while to really internalize the knowledge that you stay up in the sky only so long as you’ve got air flowing fast enough in the right direction over your wings.  Keep pulling back on that stick and, unless you’re in an F-15 on full afterburner, you’re going to run out of speed, the air will stop flowing over your wings and . . . Mister Gravity has his say.  Soon enough after that, Bad Things happen.  We now know that the Air France crash a few years ago in the South Atlantic was a classic example of monkey-men giving into the Stall Reflex.  Despite what the guys in the cockpit KNEW (or were SUPPOSED to know), they gave into the primitive instinct to try to solve their problem by just pulling back on the stick.  They kept doing that until Bad Things happened.

Sometimes, the best way to get out of a problem in the sky is to first push FORWARD on the stick — trade some altitude for airspeed first to get more lift . . . THEN pull back.  Of course, that only works if you’ve got enough altitude to begin with.  Altitude is life but sometimes . . . well . . . there’s just not enough altitude.

So we have the Federal Reserve doing the sophisticated thing: Pumping fake money into the economy through this “QE3” thing is like pushing forward on the stick to get some airspeed.  But what’s eating me and lots of other people is that it looks like the ground is pretty damned close right now.  Pushing forward on the stick when you can count the leaves on the trees FEELS pretty damned wrong.  There’s a whole pack of million-year-old monkeys screeching like banshees as the Smart People push that stick forward.

But I have to ask myself: What if there’s just not enough altitude no matter what anyone does?  I’m reminded of that great passage from Tom Wolf’s “The Right Stuff” about test pilots during the glory years of the 1950s, when the greatest flyers in the world were pushing the outside of the envelope as the first generation of supersonic jets were being developed:

Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be tumbling, going end over end in a fifteen-ton length of pipe, and he knew it, and he would be screaming into the microphone, but not for Mother or for God or the nameless spirit of Ahor, but for one last hopeless crumb of information about the loop: “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!” And then that truly spooky click on the machine. What do I do next?

Sometimes, there’s just not enough altitude . . .

Dr. Strangelove’s Notebook


During my short stay in the States, I’ve been catching up on the mil-tech news that takes the place of the sports page in my life.  Here are a couple of notes from this morning’s reading:

Romney proposes restart of F-22 production:

I was among those who were deeply skeptical of the decision to cap Raptor production at the 187 planes we bought, and follow the painfully slow and hyper-expensive development of the F-35 with dread that we’re buying a long-term turkey with the Lightning II that will fail at its mission to be all things to all people.  Significant moves were made to mothball the F-22 assembly line so that it MIGHT be restartable in a way that’s never been done before but, as the linked article points out, restarting the Raptor’s nest would be very expensive nonetheless.

*IF* the Raptor re-start were coupled with REALLY smart budget management and contractor discipline (ha!), it might well be a good move.  The basic airframe is absolutely superb, and an “F-22B” (which is what it really would be) just barely has the chance to do what the decision to end F-22 production foreclosed: Maintain global air dominance for 30 or 40 years.

Navy brass make the case for more Ford-class flat-tops:

There’s no question in my mind that the Ford ships would be a significant qualitative as well as a quantitative improvement on the Nimitz-class fleet we now have.  But that begs the question of whether the Big Carrier is truly survivable in the 21st century environment that is swiftly developing.

At a meaningful level, the question has to be asked whether we’re at an “inflection point” like the one that happened in the 1930s at which technology *SHOULD* force a fundamental re-think of naval strategy.  Just as the battlewagon gave way to the flat-top, it *MIGHT* be the case that the super-carrier should go the way of the dreadnought.

Which leads to the nausea-inducing contemplation of military inertia.  Just as the Royal Navy ended up being “over-battleshipped” and “under-carriered” in WWII because it reflected the decisions made during the peak of its imperial power decades before, we may well be facing a similar syndrome today.  The Royal Navy ended up being significantly obsolete in WWII on a technological level because later-starters — “rising powers” of the time (including the US) — benefited by building into a more modern paradigm of technology and strategy.  Looking at the Sino-American naval competition now beginning to gather steam, I worry we may be making the same error . . .