Superiority

Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story in 1953, titled Superiority. This is a wonderful read, and quite short.
The US Air Force just lost a tenth of its hyper-sophisticated F-22 fleet in a hurricane.

“This becomes sort of a self-defeating cycle where we have $400 million aircraft that can’t fly precisely because they are $400 million aircraft,” said Dan Grazier, a defense fellow at Project on Government Oversight. “If we were buying simpler aircraft then it would be a whole lot easier for the base commander to get these aircraft up and in working order, at least more of them.” — Washington Times

Short Story – Superiority – by Arthur C. Clarke

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30 thoughts on “Superiority”

  1. In 1984, Norman Augustine published Augustine’s Laws, a wry but often wise collection of lessons learned in his many years of business and government experience.  Law 16 was:

    In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.

    This is an observation similar to Moore’s Law for integrated circuits, that the unit cost of combat aircraft grows exponentially with time while the defence budget increases linearly (at best).  It is inevitable, then, that the two curves will eventually cross.  Augustine’s forecast has been remarkably prescient so far.  The F-22 is the circle just below and to the left of the one for the F-35.  The complete data table is given in this page.

    Augustine's Law: US Combat Aircraft Unit Price

    Image by Wikipedia user Autopilot licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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  2. Professor Norden, asked to comment on the calamity, said, “A hurricane, in Florida—who could have foreseen that?”

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  3. I have read that the calamity was not so bad as feared, thankfully.

    I have always wondered why the entire airforce needs bleeding-edge, top of the line air domination planes.  Those are important and decisive, but they are massive overkill for a lot of missions.

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  4. John Walker:
    In 1984, Norman Augustine published Augustine’s Laws, a wry but often wise collections of lessons learned in his many years of business and government experience.

    Digression : I guess almost no one knew about this Norman Augustine (well, *I* did not), but about wise lessons learned in business, Sir, here’s a French classic you *might* not know of yet, and you *might* appreciate, should you find it some day : Auguste Detoeuf (1883-1947), author of *Propos de O.L. Barenton, confiseur* , a 1937 book still in print today — which says a lot, though each successive publisher *never* took the time to fix the printing errors. After Ecole polytechnique, Detoeuf ran Alsthom — and one can imagine he would have been sad at m‘s selling the enterprise to foreign interests (while denying it in spite of written proofs, but that’s another story).

    https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auguste_Det%C5%93uf

    You’ll find a few remarks by Detoeuf quoted here :

    http://guerrecivileetyaourtallege3.hautetfort.com/archive/2017/10/16/le-jeu-des-deux-images-290-5989877.html

    Two among many, many others :

    “De quelque façon et par quelque moyen qu’on décompose une collectivité en groupes (choix, ancienneté, examens, concours, tirage au sort), dans les divers groupes, la proportion des imbéciles est la même.”, i.e., approximately : “Whatever the method used to split a collectivity into seperate groups (by appointment, by length of service, by exams, by competition or by drawing of lots), the proportion of morons remains the same in each group”.

    “J’ai souvent vu des techniciens avoir des avis contraires, je n’en ai jamais vu avoir tort.”, i.e., approximately : “I’ve often seen technicians having opposite views, I’ve never seen any of them being wrong”.

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  5. There is reason to be skeptical of very expensive weapons systems. On the other hand, the improvements have been valuable. No one would suggest going to war with P-51s, no matter that you could afford to buy a ton of them. Not only would the kill ratio for F-35s versus P-51s be very large, the P-51s would never be able to penetrate modern air defense. If it were such a great idea to use obsolete-technology aircraft, less developed countries would be doing it and cleaning the clock of more advanced air forces. Yet we don’t ever see that.

    The graph of costs posted above is misleading because it does not account for inflation. The $50k unit cost of a P-51 was in 1945 dollars, while the unit cost of an F-35 is in current dollars. It would be more useful to normalize the costs to GDP or to the defense budget at the time of production. Admittedly, the unit costs are still growing at a dramatic rate.

    I first encountered this argument in an article in the Atlantic* by James Fallows in the late 1970s. Fallows, a Jimmy Carter operative, argued that the US would be better off buying many cheaper fighters (I forget which ones) over fewer expensive ones. Fallows could not have known about the development of stealth, first embodied in the F-117. It’s hard to imagine that aircraft with high radar and IR cross sections could possibly be competitive against modern air defense. Not for nothing that the Chicoms are building their stealth capability like there’s no tomorrow.

    It’s ironic the Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed, would promulgate Law 16, given that Lockheed’s Skunkworks was responsible for many of the advances graphed above. A quick review of Augustine’s fifty two laws reveals them to be mostly tongue-in-cheek, like #39: “Never promise to complete any project within six months of the end of the year, in either direction.” So maybe one shouldn’t take any of them too seriously.

    *Yes, I used to subscribe to the Atlantic, back when it was mostly a literary magazine: short stories, poetry, book reviews. Articles such as the one by Fallows were the exception back then, though a harbinger of things to come. The Atlantic has become a news and gossip magazine consisting almost entirely of leftist agitprop: a cross between The Nation and People.  In the current print issue, there’s one short poem and zero other literary works.

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  6. I had read Clarke’s *Superiority* in French, dozens of years ago. Thanks for letting me read it in English now. It reminded me of this one about weapon race, I guess all of you know already know of — but just in case, here it is again :

     

    Having obtained an audience of the King an Ingenious Patriot pulled a paper from his pocket, saying:

    “May it please your Majesty, I have here a formula for constructing armour-plating which no gun can pierce. If these plates are adopted in the Royal Navy our warships will be invulnerable, and therefore invincible. Here, also, are reports of your Majesty’s Ministers, attesting the value of the invention. I will part with my right in it for a million tumtums.”

    After examining the papers, the King put them away and promised him an order on the Lord High Treasurer of the Extortion Department for a million tumtums.

    “And here,” said the Ingenious Patriot, pulling another paper from another pocket, “are the working plans of a gun that I have invented, which will pierce that armour. Your Majesty’s Royal Brother, the Emperor of Bang, is anxious to purchase it, but loyalty to your Majesty’s throne and person constrains me to offer it first to your Majesty. The price is one million tumtums.”

    Having received the promise of another check, he thrust his hand into still another pocket, remarking:

    “The price of the irresistible gun would have been much greater, your Majesty, but for the fact that its missiles can be so effectively averted by my peculiar method of treating the armour plates with a new -”

    The King signed to the Great Head Factotum to approach.

    “Search this man,” he said, “and report how many pockets he has.”

    “Forty-three, Sire,” said the Great Head Factotum, completing the scrutiny.

    “May it please your Majesty,” cried the Ingenious Patriot, in terror, “one of them contains tobacco.”

    “Hold him up by the ankles and shake him,” said the King; “then give him a check for forty-two million tumtums and put him to death. Let a decree issue declaring ingenuity a capital offence.”

    *The Ingenious Patriot* by Ambrose Bierce (who else ?). 😉

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  7. drlorentz:
    No one would suggest going to war with P-51s, no matter that you could afford to buy a ton of them. Not only would the kill ratio for F-35s versus P-51s be very large, the P-51s would never be able to penetrate modern air defense. If it were such a great idea to use obsolete-technology aircraft, less developed countries would be doing it and cleaning the clock of more advanced air forces. Yet we don’t ever see that.

    Still, you have to wonder where the trade-off is between quantity and quality.  As Stalin never said (but should have), “Quantity has a quality all its own”.

    Let’s put some numbers on this.  The U.S., pre-hurricane, fielded 187 F-22s (assuming all were operational, which is definitely not the way to bet).  As of 2011, the programme cost for this fleet was US$ 66.7 billion.

    The F-16, the archetypal light fighter, has a total of 1,245 in service with U.S. forces.   With a typical unit cost of around US$ 16 million, this fleet cost around US$ 20 billion.

    Now, the question is, in a massed attack, is it plausible that each F-22 would be able to take out 6.7 F-16s?  Maybe, but many’s the slip….

    Now, replace the F-16s with Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), able to pull 16 g in turns and costing a fraction of the cost of F-16s.

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  8. Blumroch:
    “May it please your Majesty,” cried the Ingenious Patriot, in terror, “one of them contains tobacco.”

    The lesson somebody in Safetyland would take away from this is that the Ingenious Patriot was executed for possessing the Weed Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken.

    Tobacco products in the movies

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  9. John Walker:

    Blumroch:
    “May it please your Majesty,” cried the Ingenious Patriot, in terror, “one of them contains tobacco.”

    The lesson somebody in Safetyland would take away from this is that the Ingenious Patriot was executed for possessing the Weed Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken.

    Tobacco products in the movies

    I thought of it too, Sir, but I suspected even mentionning it in today’s U.S. of A. could be qualified as an offense against Social Justice, and thus I kept my mouth shut (moreover, no free speech protection in France). 😉 With buying books such as Zemmour’s ones, remaining silent is the only resistance left to us in France under m‘s “démocrature” (a tyranny of the incompetent and of the parasites, all sanctified by rigged elections with huge abstention and hardly 1 person out of 5 being *really* in favor of the ruler and his caste). 😉 Smokers are sometimes assaulted even when outside, in Paris !

    Digression : Stalin’s quote is often attributed to Lenin, too. But in both cases, no reliable source.

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  10. The correct solution was achieved in several realms of defense with the High-Low m,ix.  In the Air Force, it was F-15s and F-16s.  In the Navy it was Destroyers and Frigates (not to mention nuclear Cruisers and conventional).

    Nowadays the low tech options is presented mostly in sales terms, either as a bogeyman alternative to the Right Answer, or as a fallback.  BUFM in sales tactics is “Bracket Up for Money”, wherein you take the likely buyer-desired product, put it in the bottom rung, add the seller-desired product as the middle, and put some pie in the sky, all-singing, all-dancing nonsense product at the top — to show how reasonable the seller-desired product is.

    The top two tiers have converged in defense contracting, and the bottom tiers that make more sense and which multiply the availability of the really nice stuff — cannot be had.  Frigates, for example.  An airplane for the Navy, for example.  The USAF has won the budget superiority war, and is now just mopping us up.

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  11. “Here’s a destroyer that shoots down missiles from fricking SPACE to protect land targets, as long as it stays in one spot.”

    “Great — Shouldn’t this be a barge?”  When do I get a ship I can use to hunt things — you know — closer to the water?”

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  12. Blumroch:

    John Walker:
    In 1984, Norman Augustine published Augustine’s Laws, a wry but often wise collections of lessons learned in his many years of business and government experience.

    Digression : I guess almost no one knew about this Norman Augustine (well, *I* did not), but about wise lessons learned in business, Sir, here’s a French classic you *might* not know of yet, and you *might* appreciate, should you find it some day : Auguste Detoeuf (1883-1947), author of *Propos de O.L. Barenton, confiseur* , a 1937 book still in print today — which says a lot, though each successive publisher *never* took the time to fix the printing errors. After Ecole polytechnique, Detoeuf ran Alsthom — and one can imagine he would have been sad at m‘s selling the enterprise to foreign interests (while denying it in spite of written proofs, but that’s another story).

    https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auguste_Det%C5%93uf

    You’ll find a few remarks by Detoeuf quoted here :

    http://guerrecivileetyaourtallege3.hautetfort.com/archive/2017/10/16/le-jeu-des-deux-images-290-5989877.html

    Two among many, many others :

    “De quelque façon et par quelque moyen qu’on décompose une collectivité en groupes (choix, ancienneté, examens, concours, tirage au sort), dans les divers groupes, la proportion des imbéciles est la même.”, i.e., approximately : “Whatever the method used to split a collectivity into seperate groups (by appointment, by length of service, by exams, by competition or by drawing of lots), the proportion of morons remains the same in each group”.

    “J’ai souvent vu des techniciens avoir des avis contraires, je n’en ai jamais vu avoir tort.”, i.e., approximately : “I’ve often seen technicians having opposite views, I’ve never seen any of them being wrong”.

    If I am not mistaken, this comment is written entirely in C.

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  13. Haakon Dahl:
    “Whatever the method used to split a collectivity into seperate groups (by appointment, by length of service, by exams, by competition or by drawing of lots), the proportion of morons remains the same in each group”.

    This is magnificent.  Perhaps you are also a fan of C. Northcote Parkinson?

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  14. John Walker:
    Still, you have to wonder where the trade-off is between quantity and quality.

    I take your point; it’s not clear where the crossover point is. If it were more cost effective to use older and cheaper technology, I’d expect a country that did not have the most advanced technology to exploit this fact and become the dominant world power. It’d be would be worth a try. China comes to mind; they certainly can afford to spend plenty on arms. Even smaller countries could succeed this way in their regions.

    John Walker:
    The F-16, the archetypal light fighter, has a total of 1,245 in service with U.S. forces. With a typical unit cost of around US$ 16 million, this fleet cost around US$ 20 billion.

    Those are 1998 dollars according to these guys. US GDP has roughly doubled since 1998 in nominal dollars. It’s also not fair to compare the unit cost of F-16 to the total program cost for F-22. The flyaway cost of the F-22 is $150M (2009 $). If you get in a shooting war, you’ll be building more F-22s so unit cost is what counts.

    John Walker:
    Now, the question is, in a massed attack, is it plausible that each F-22 would be able to take out 6.7 F-16s? Maybe, but many’s the slip….

    I wondered the same. Does the F-22 carry enough missiles to take out 7 other aircraft? On the other hand, you’ll need 7 times as many trained pilots and ground support to run all those F-16s. There are costs and logistical issues with having a lot of airplanes.

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  15. drlorentz:
    On the other hand, you’ll need 7 times as many trained pilots and ground support to run all those F-16s. There are costs and logistical issues with having a lot of airplanes.

    In a modern war, you will replace exactly zero aircraft before the war is over.  Your support crews and ground equipment will transfer smoothly to the next unit selected for combat.  The governing factor for how many you can use in the war is how many you can start with.

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  16. Naturally, the F-35 is supposed to stun them all to death with its Superiority.  No combat needed, like the USAF’s doctrine of “cold bombers in Kansas” equals A-10s over the target in Afghanistan.

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  17. John Walker:

    drlorentz:
    No one would suggest going to war with P-51s, no matter that you could afford to buy a ton of them. Not only would the kill ratio for F-35s versus P-51s be very large, the P-51s would never be able to penetrate modern air defense. If it were such a great idea to use obsolete-technology aircraft, less developed countries would be doing it and cleaning the clock of more advanced air forces. Yet we don’t ever see that.

    Still, you have to wonder where the trade-off is between quantity and quality.  As Stalin never said (but should have), “Quantity has a quality all its own”.

    Let’s put some numbers on this.  The U.S., pre-hurricane, fielded 187 F-22s (assuming all were operational, which is definitely not the way to bet).  As of 2011, the programme cost for this fleet was US$ 66.7 billion.

    The F-16, the archetypal light fighter, has a total of 1,245 in service with U.S. forces.   With a typical unit cost of around US$ 16 million, this fleet cost around US$ 20 billion.

    Now, the question is, in a massed attack, is it plausible that each F-22 would be able to take out 6.7 F-16s?  Maybe, but many’s the slip….

    Now, replace the F-16s with Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), able to pull 16 g in turns and costing a fraction of the cost of F-16s.

    You can’t remote pilot a dogfighter, and a fully independent UCAV is asking for trouble.

    The F-22 is so stealthy that you might not even be able to take one out with a swarm of F-16s.  Further, the US public is not going to tolerate a military strategy based on acceptable losses, with good reason.  Fighter pilots are not easy to train and replace.

    My vision of future air forces are two-plane flights accompanied by swarms of UCAVs.  The fighters act as AWACS and designate targets for the UCAVs, and hit the more challenging foes.  This eliminates concerns over independent UCAVs and gives the superfighter more staying time.  Even a simple “missile truck” UCAV would be useful to let fighters engage more targets.

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  18. Haakon Dahl:

    If I am not mistaken, this comment is written entirely in C.

    Haven’t done anything in C for aeons (unless PHP crappy language is accepted as a substitute). 😉 Not Wirth writing about, though. 😉

    No, in fact, the whole comment was just part in good French (Detoeuf’s quotes) and part in bad English (my own text, down do paragraphs, sentences and possibly words — at least their order, if not their spelling). 😉 The important point is still that Detoeuf’s lessons are worth the read, though they are probably available in French only.

    May I quote, *without* any offense intented and *with* all required smileys, just because it suddenly came to my mind : “You are not expected to understand this” ? 😉 By “this”, here, I don’t mean Unix kernel code, but just text written in poor English by an alien who should definitely stick to his own dead language, i.e. classical French — text which may look like C… from the Obfuscated C Code Contest ? 😉

    Now, it’s too bad Alcander de Brahm’s “point d’ironie” (“irony punctuation”) was not widely adopted when it was introduced, well before any smiley and the like (though a global directive JOKING ON/OFF would have been easier). 😉

    P.S. : Just in case, in order to avoid any flame :

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lions%27_Commentary_on_UNIX_6th_Edition,_with_Source_Code

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony_punctuation

    According to great French (well, Belgian in fact) grammar expert Grevisse, the “irony punctuation” was not adopted because it denied all credit to the reader by supposing him unable to understand wit. 😉

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  19. Haakon Dahl:

    Haakon Dahl:
    “Whatever the method used to split a collectivity into seperate groups (by appointment, by length of service, by exams, by competition or by drawing of lots), the proportion of morons remains the same in each group”.

    This is magnificent.  Perhaps you are also a fan of C. Northcote Parkinson?

    Detoeuf was slightly in advance, it seems. 😉 Yep, Parkinson, Peter and Gall are three names I do appreciate — as Gall is the less well known of these three saints, I have to specify his Evangil : *Systemantics* (2nd ed.) which became *The Systems Bible* (3rd ed.).

    P.S. edit/fix : Though Detoeuf’s remark seems true to me, I would make an exception for the “by appointment” method, for its results depend upon the person in charge of selection. An alpha has no problem selecting other alphas ; a beta will at best select a few betas and many gammas — as not to be in competition with people smarter, or less stupid, than he is. If the unlucky beta selects an alpha, he will correct this error very quickly.

    We have a great example of this in France with “m The Minuscule”‘s government, whose *all* successive ministers require latter letters of the Greek alphabet from epsilon to even smaller quantities used by particle physics. 😉

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  20. Blumroch:

    Haakon Dahl:

    If I am not mistaken, this comment is written entirely in C.

    Haven’t done anything in C for aeons (unless PHP crappy language is accepted as a substitute). 😉 Not Wirth writing about, though. 😉

    No, in fact, the whole comment was just part in good French (Detoeuf’s quotes) and part in bad English (my own text, down do paragraphs, sentences and possibly words — at least their order, if not their spelling). 😉 The important point is still that Detoeuf’s lessons are worth the read, though they are probably available in French only.

    May I quote, *without* any offense intented and *with* all required smileys, just because it suddenly came to my mind : “You are not expected to understand this” ? 😉 By “this”, here, I don’t mean Unix kernel code, but just text written in poor English by an alien who should definitely stick to his own dead language, i.e. classical French — text which may look like C… from the Obfuscated C Code Contest ? 😉

    Now, it’s too bad Alcander de Brahm’s “point d’ironie” (“irony punctuation”) was not widely adopted when it was introduced, well before any smiley and the like (though a global directive JOKING ON/OFF would have been easier). 😉

    P.S. : Just in case, in order to avoid any flame :

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lions%27_Commentary_on_UNIX_6th_Edition,_with_Source_Code

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony_punctuation

    According to great French (well, Belgian in fact) grammar expert Grevisse, the “irony punctuation” was not adopted because it denied all credit to the reader by supposing him unable to understand wit. 😉

    That was Haakon’s way of teasing. He takes it for granted that people get his humor. 🙂

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  21. 10 Cents:

    That was Haakon’s way of teasing. He takes it for granted that people get his humor. 🙂

    I *did* understand, though this *may* not be clear in my answer in spite of the profusion of smileys and of the references to a few topics for programmers ! 😉

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  22. If you need a joke explained — ask Dime.

    If you do not need a joke explained — Never fear!  Dime will explain it.

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