Why do some missions tend to spawn long-lived complex systems?
As I created the notional chart above for this presentation and this technical paper, I had in the back of my mind the way our nation’s ICBMs evolved from Atlas to Titan to Minuteman. At the same time, and as technology allowed, the mission moved from counter-value to counter-force. The fundamental mission, that of deterrence, never changed.
An evolving mission, with an accompanying evolving systems solution, will result in a final version that is a very nearly perfect fit for a mission. Development and production resources are then turned to other more urgent missions. The last solution lives as long as the mission stability and sustainment budgets allow.
(Notice that I do not address whether the mission pushes the system or the ability to create new system technologies push the mission. In the real world, system requirements are not so one-way as acquisition law would have you believe.)
The evolution of a weapon systems occurs as early models are fielded and fall short of the mission needs. This creates incentive to design and deploy more models. As the weapon systems live longer, we also find ways to self-modify to attempt to reach the mission needs. Areas in the chart above where the system is taller than the mission line represent margin beyond the need. For example, the fielded system might be more reliable and survivable than required by the mission. Of course, in the real world, mission needs and system modifications go well beyond this simplistic one-dimensional graph.
The evolution of a weapon system also occurs as the mission shifts with real world impacts. The B-52 gives us great examples of this.
See the Forbes article, “Iconic B-52 Bomber Epitomizes Air Power — And The Way Weapons Ought To Be Bought” (Loren Thompson, 5 Dec 17). This article has a nice summary of the mission changes the B-52 had to keep pace with. It also helps makes my point when it states: “…the chronic shortage of funding for new aircraft programs often inclined Air Force planners to favor upgrades of existing airframes.”
Here is a summary of the B-52’s evolution as discussed in the article:
- Began as a high-flying aircraft carrying nuclear gravity bombs over intercontinental distances
- Structural and nav mods to enable low-level flight below the radar horizon of enemy defenders
- When defenses improved, standoff weapons such as Hound Dog and SRAM.
- ECM and conventional gravity bombs for Viet Nam
- Desert Storm needed precision-guided munitions and the B-52 was modified again
Of course, such an extremely concise summary leaves out a lot of important detail worth studying. But also, in the end, the B-52, like the ICBM, had an unwavering fundamental mission, strategic bombing.