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Why so many of us were wrong about missile defense

๐ŸŒˆ Abstract

The article discusses the challenges of writing about military spending and the misconceptions around missile defense technology. It examines how experts' opinions can be amplified and become conventional wisdom, even when they are wrong, and how the true capabilities of military technologies are often kept behind closed doors. The article also explores how short-sightedness about security threats and political biases can influence the public discourse on defense spending.

๐Ÿ™‹ Q&A

[01] Why so many were wrong about missile defense

1. What were the main criticisms of missile defense technology made by experts like Matt Yglesias and Theodore Postol?

  • They believed that "hitting a bullet with a bullet" was an unworkably difficult technical challenge, and that ballistic missile defense systems would never be effective.
  • Postol argued that factors like infrared contamination and cloud cover made it very difficult to accurately track and intercept incoming missiles.
  • They claimed that existing systems like the Patriot missile had performed poorly and were unable to shoot down many incoming missiles.

2. How did the author's views on missile defense change over time?

  • The author, like many others, initially believed that missile defense was a "hopeless, failed cause" and that the technical challenges were insurmountable.
  • However, the author now recognizes that advances in detection technology, especially in software to process sensor data, have made it much more feasible to intercept incoming missiles by predicting their trajectories.
  • The author acknowledges being wrong about the capabilities of missile defense systems.

3. Why did the critics get the issue of missile defense wrong?

  • The critics, not being experts in the field, relied heavily on vocal and prominent critics like Theodore Postol, who had strong scientific arguments but failed to account for the rapid technological advances.
  • Many of the experts who understood the improvements in missile defense technology were likely constrained from openly discussing the true capabilities of these systems.
  • The information about the successes and capabilities of missile defense systems was kept behind closed doors, while the critics were able to loudly voice their skepticism.

[02] Lessons from the F-35 program

1. What were the common criticisms of the F-35 fighter jet program?

  • Many pundits and commentators, such as Pierre Sprey, claimed that the F-35 was an expensive boondoggle with dubious military value, and that the older A-10 "Warthog" was a better aircraft.
  • These criticisms were often amplified in the media, despite the fact that more expert aerospace analysts knew many of the criticisms were uninformed or false.

2. How did the reality of the F-35 program differ from the common perception?

  • Despite the initial performance issues and cost overruns, the F-35 is now apparently performing extremely well and in high demand from many countries.
  • The true capabilities of the F-35 were largely kept behind closed doors, while the vocal critics were able to shape the public narrative.
  • As with missile defense, the successes and strengths of the F-35 program were not widely known, allowing the critics' perspective to dominate.

3. What does the F-35 example illustrate about the challenges of writing about military technology?

  • It demonstrates how a small number of vocal critics with strong opinions can shape the public discourse, even when their views are not fully informed or accurate.
  • It shows how the true capabilities of advanced military technologies are often kept secret, making it difficult for non-experts to assess their value.
  • It highlights the importance of seeking out a variety of expert opinions, rather than relying on the loudest or most confident voices.

[03] Broader challenges in writing about defense spending

1. What are some of the other factors that make it challenging to write about defense spending?

  • Defense contractors, the Defense Department, and the military all have their own interests and perspectives to protect.
  • Both conservatives and progressives tend to play politics with defense spending issues.
  • Foreign adversaries like Russia and Iran have an interest in pushing narratives that portray U.S. military power as overblown or ineffective.
  • There is a generational bias among younger Americans who are skeptical of U.S. military interventionism due to their experiences with the Iraq War.

2. What does the author suggest as ways to improve the quality of writing about defense spending?

  • Talking to and listening to a variety of experts, not just the loudest or most confident voices.
  • Trying to understand the underlying technologies and the details of the defense procurement process, even if one cannot become a true expert.
  • Keeping the interests of the nation as a whole in mind, rather than being swayed by partisan political agendas.
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