Different Strokes for Different Folks: the influence of technological dynamics in armed forces’ acquisition – an interview with Edison Renato Silva and Domício Proença Júnior

The political and often administrative subordination of a country’s armed services to a single ministerial portfolio tends to understate their very different technological states of the art. As a result it may misperceive the meaning and potential of each service’s technological dynamics. This has broad impact in terms of the way each armed service (the organization) is charged with the fulfillment of functional and strategic responsibilities for fighting in the air, at sea or on land (the fighting force). The different ways of dealing with the state of the art of technology for combatant purposes by each armed service offer contrasting views of problem formulation and solution seeking for tactical (use of force) and logistical (force creation, maintenance, disposition, displacement) purposes. This has consequences in what concerns the choices and, above all, the way each service identifies, conceives and acquires the material and immaterial components that make up the fighting force in dealing with the availability of differing technological states of the art.

The technological dynamic of the state of the art of air fleets, understood as the whole of sensors, actuators, supports and enablers intended to fight in the air, leaves very little room for anything but constant efforts towards homogenization at a given technological state of the art (not necessarily the most advanced). This is the result of air fleets being dependent on the systemic integration of components in order to effect results. In what concerns acquisition, this means that “buying a new component” is never quite buying just this one component, but rather buying either for an existing system with which it is compatible, or accepting the burden of (re)engineering the whole system so that it will be compatible with it. To do otherwise risks either as many air fleets as there are technological states of the art or not having an air fleet at all, but only a disjoined collection of components.

The technological dynamic of the state of the art of sea fleets, understood as the whole of sensors, actuators, supports and enablers intended to fight at sea, may admit a substantial measure of echeloning of capabilities. This means that one might conceivably acquire a brand new component, or ship, that is built according to an older or less capable state of the art, so long as some of the missions envisioned in the functional and strategic portfolio do not call for more. This is the result of sea fleets being able to effect results by applying sufficient capability on a case-by-case basis, discharging punctual assignments within the broader parameters of the task of a “task force”. In what concerns acquisition, this means that it might be sufficient, and more economical, to retain or upgrade existing components rather than replace them by top of the line alternatives. The critical issue is the support structure that any one technological state of the art requires. If it already exists, a component’s incorporation in the sea fleet may be taken as a given and adjudicated on capabilities alone. If not, then the cost of setting such a structure for the new technological state of the art the component under consideration requires may well be the most important factor in the acquisition decision making process.

The technological dynamic of the state of the art of ground troops, understood as the whole of sensors, actuators, supports and enablers intended to fight on the ground, is by far the most distinctive. Ground troops depend on the potential of mutual induction and facilitation among different troop capabilities, so that specialists enable non-specialists to benefit from their expertise as if they were experts themselves. This puts a potentially decisive premium on aspects that are extremely difficult to measure: competent commitment by commanders and troopers. In what concerns acquisition, there are two extremes and any number of compromises between them. The demand for expert capability demands priority for scope: which expertise(s) and their corresponding material requirements. This would seem to argue strongly in favor of deciding acquisition against the benchmark of the most advanced state of the art. The need for ensuring amenability to expert inductiveness demands priority for scale to allow for the cyclic nature of readiness, the sustainment of operations over time, and the requirements of mobilization. This would seem to argue strongly in favor of acquisition of the largest number of undifferentiated but versatile units. These extremes correspond, in broad terms, to the historical quandary between “specialist” (one job, and one job only, the US Army solution in World War II) and “full spectrum” (to use the contemporary US Army term) ground troop profiles. The compromises come about because the dynamics of the technological state of the art for ground troops depend on the willing and skillful articulation of able soldiers under effective leaders and commanders against concrete tactical and logistical realities. This technological appreciation suggests that personnel qualification is, potentially, the preponderant consideration in the appreciation of ground troops’ acquisition decisions.

The more the functional and strategic portfolio of the concrete forces of a given country assigns responsibilities for fighting in different combatant environments, the more each armed service will have to find an accommodation of the differing technological dynamics of multiple states of the art. It might be advisable for those involved or concerned to begin by acknowledging that these differences in dynamics exist in the first place, rather than presuming that a given preponderant organizational outlook or a hierarchically derived policy objective offers the only way forward.

The paper now published in Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional  (RBPI Vol. 57 – July/Dec – 2014) is entitled “Different Strokes for Different Folks: the influence of technological dynamics in armed forces’ acquisition” and examines the state of art of military technological dynamics of  sea, air and land forces. Edison Renato Silva & Domício Proença Júnior gave an interview about their research to Priscilla de Almeida Nogueira da Gama, member of the Editorial Team of RBPI

Por Priscilla de Almeida Nogueira da Gama

1) Why is it important to analyse the military technological dynamics of sea, air and land forces separately? 

Because they are very different from one another, and to expect them to develop technology to serve military purposes as well as civilian ones may not be terribly realistic, and lead to fruitless expenses and eventual disappointment. Each of these forces frames the problems it faces on its own terms, even when the problems are apparently similar – how to use aircraft, for example. Despite the fact that they all have to use aircraft, each does so in a very different way. Each frames the problem with very different expectations, conceives solutions to meet very different requisites, and implements solutions through different applications.

So in what concerns aircraft, air-fleets frame problems, conceive and implement solutions with the expectation of having permanent bases which are part of a systemic logistical chain for integrated, systemic, continuous operations; sea-fleets, in turn, do so with the expectation of having logistics constrained to substantial but not easily re-supplied at-hand stocks to carry a succession of punctual, specific operations; troops merge the logistical needs of aircraft to the framework of moving ready-depots to “spots” by convoying materials along flexible lines of supply, taking aircraft operations as part of combined arms with other components.

The technological potentials are the same and the fundamentals of engineering are common to all these endeavors – but the details are not: the perspectives, methodologies, frameworks, expectations and implementations correspond to specific restraints and constraints, leading to very particular outcomes and solutions. And all that gets in the way of broad, insufficiently informed policy goals of having the fighting forces as producers of general-use technological solutions and applications – furthermore, civilian uses have their own, particular and peculiar characteristics.

2) You said in the text that the dynamics of air, sea and land forces have a wide variety of situations in which they are relevant. Now, about all those situations listed, which one is the most important in your opinion, and why?

Having to deploy, enable, employ, support and command troops in order to compel others to act as one wishes is the most important situation. All else is justified so as to ensure that troops may do what they alone can do, or by the threat that they may do so. This is in the nature of the use of force as a political instrument: it is the ability to compel in itself, to coerce obedience by potential or actual use of force. To use a common infantry image, to prod the opponent’s head of government into signing the peace treaty – with a bayonet, if need be.

3) In your article, you present the problem to deal with the state of art of technology for combatant purposes. You said that contrasting views could explain this situation. Could you talk a little more about the problem of state of art in air and sea fleets and troops technologies?

That would require a somewhat extended preface to introduce a given moment of the state of the art, then to describe the process of its evolution for combatant purposes. Let’s simplify that with something very sensitive, which blurs things a bit but may do to offer an image.

Now, in air to air combat, speed is life. If you are faster than your opponent, if you can move or maneuver, climb or dive or turn faster than the opponent, all the advantages tend to be in your favor. Around World War I, that meant canvas biplanes with straight square wings and adapted automobile engines carrying machine guns to kill the pilot – that was the sota; but aeronautical engines and shaped wing metal monoplanes and multiple machine guns and cannon to kill the plane could perform much better than canvas biplanes and that was the sota of the end of World War II; then jet engines became preponderant, and since about 1950 we have had many variants of what you can do with jet engines in fletched wing planes armed with high-precision cannon and a variety of missiles, each arrangement of which might do as a given sota.

This is just the illustration from the most sensitive: the contrast of appearances, the canvas biplane, the metal monoplane, the arrow-like jet. The practicability of these alternatives and their maturity for combatant purposes (as opposed to laboratory, experimental, or marketing ones) depended on much more than just wing shape, weapons and engines. It required a lot of hardware, software and humanware of a given design implemented in a broader, articulated design – implemented for systemic effect. Awareness of what is this “much more” as it develops, the ability to gauge what this technological potential or promise may produce in terms of fighting advantage in a given context is what “the problem of the state of the art” is all about. Keeping track of it is one of the principal justifications and occupations of the armed services.

4) You said in your article that”buying a new component is never quite buying just this one component”.  Could you explain this a little more?

In air-fleets, each component is part of a system, and it must be able to interact with all other components in certain ways so that it adds to the working of the system; conversely, the system can only operate if all components do what is expected of them. Let’s take something simple: a GPS locator system, like the one you can buy for a car. But for an air-fleet, you cannot just buy that GPS locator pure and simple, even if it is a good one – you press the button, it works well, for example. This one component must be able to operate without interfering with other components in a plane or installation in any number of ways. It must use frequencies and software, for example, that enable access to the exclusive security and military functionality of GPS in the same way all other components of the system access them; it must be as resilient to acceleration, humidity, heat, shock, smoke, to the many chemicals for cleaning and other purposes that are common in air-fleets as any other component; it must be able to be operated in the work station or cockpit in harmony with other controls and displays; it must both receive and transmit relevant information from and to other components in the various formats and protocols the system acknowledges and that all other components can share, recognize and use so that the GPS position “this one component” generates serves the system. So when you buy this “one component” you are not really buying just “a GPS”, but a particular “certifiably integrated GPS” that can work seamlessly with everything else, and thus you are always buying “all the everything else this component requires to integrate the system”.

Read the article: SILVA, Édison Renato; PROENCA JUNIOR, Domício. An outline of military technological dynamics as restraints for acquisition, international cooperation and domestic technological development. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 57, n. 2, Dec.  2014 .   Available from <http://www.scielo.br/article_plus.php?pid=S0034-73292014000200099&tlng=en&lng=en>. access on  21  Feb.  2015.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201400306.


Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Graduate Studies and Research in Engineering (Coppe), Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil (edison@ufrj.br)

Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Graduate Studies and Research in Engineering (Coppe), Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil (domicio.proenca.jr@gmail.com)

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