July 02, 2002
Another Blast From The Past

Solly Ezekiel of Gedänkenpundit has a fascinating post on 'latent potential' and how competition can cause companies to become so specialized that they are unable to adapt to changes in the market. This reminded me of something I read some years back, specifically about the military, where flexibility is particularly important. As with my second post on Irish neutrality last week, an article in Commentary made a particularly strong impression.

Having now looked it up on the Commentary site, which has a Search function for all articles back to their founding in 1945, I see that it was published one month after the other one. The full reference is: Edward N. Luttwak, "Why we need more 'waste, fraud & mismanagement' in the Pentagon", Commentary 73.2 (February 1982) 17-30. I find from a Google search (leading to an entry in Transterrestrial Musings) that the article became a chapter of Luttwak's book The Pentagon and the Art of War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

The thrust of Luttwak's argument is clear from the title. Here are two examples that I recall as particularly cogent:

  1. If one shipyard (Norfolk?) can consistently build aircraft carriers for several hundred thousand dollars less than another (Philadelphia?), bean counters and business-experienced bureaucrats would send all the construction work to the first and let the second shut down for lack of business. Of course, if a war starts, or looks imminent, it is better to have two shipyards capable of turning out aircraft carriers than one, because production could be rapidly doubled and because sabotage or enemy action could easily shut down one or the other.
  2. Similarly, if the Army needs new helicopters, it is better to have three factories producing them with single shifts rather than one with triple shifts, even if the one can produce them much more cheaply. Again, the second option provides flexibility and redundancy in case of emergency, and those are worth the extra money.

I'm sure Ezekiel is right that even private non-defense industry needs to preserve as much latent potential as possible. But it is particularly important for the Military-Industrial Complex -- what I still hope to see restored to its old name, the Arsenal of Democracy.

Miscellaneous ruminations loosely attached to the above:

  1. That's two twenty-year-old Commentary articles in a week and a half. Was early 1982 a particularly good era for them? Was I so bored at my then-job that I read these articles more carefully than hundreds of others read since? Was I just young and impressionable then? (Not all that young.) Or have I learned so little since that there was no need to reuse the particular brain cells containing this information? I certainly don't remember much else from 1982.
  2. I'm really looking forward to getting all my books and old magazines out of storage in a month or two so I can look these things up without having to drive 18 miles to a college library that's not open much in the summer. Of course, first I have to find a job for the fall semester. But when I do, this site will reach a whole new level of pedantry! Consider that a promise or a threat, whichever seems more appropriate.
  3. Bloggers and legacy journalists often wonder whether their arguments ever change anyone's mind. This one changed mine. Not that I was anti-military: just anti-waste, fraud, and mismanagement.
Posted by Dr. Weevil at July 02, 2002 11:41 PM

I used to work in an engineering
lab that had numerous gov't contracts.
We knew that our work was merely
replicating DOD's internal research.
This led to a certain amount of
cynicism, because whatever we
"discovered" was guaranteed to
be already known.

But it's a good policy in research
as well as in production; and not
merely because it builds
reserve capacity.

Different labs and different
factories will apply different
methods to the same job, enabling
DOD to see which works best, or
to switch approaches if conditions

Posted by: ockham on July 5, 2002 11:25 AM