View 746 Wednesday, October 17, 2012
The Strategy of Technology
A123 Systems filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is the company that has received $250 million or more in Federal grants; it was hoped that it would become the beginning focal point for an electric car industry in America, and was part of the administration’s support of Green Energy and the quest for the currently rare high paying Green Energy jobs mentioned in many of the President’s speeches.
This follows the collapse of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra LLC, which couldn’t compete with Chinese made solar panels. While A123 will sell most of its assets and may continue to operate.
The intentions of the Administration were good: although the high paying permanent Green Energy jobs haven’t materialized, the search for sustainable energy technology is no bad thing; and development of high efficiency batteries for electric cars can be important.
The government should not be investing in companies. It should not be picking winners and losers. We do, however, as a people have a high interest in developing key technologies..
As Possony, Kane, and I showed in The Strategy of Technology, technologies can be created on demand through proper strategies. That is vital to military capabilities.
"A gigantic technological race is in progress between interception and penetration and each time capacity for interception makes progress it is answered by a new advance in capacity for penetration. Thus a new form of strategy is developing in peacetime, a strategy of which the phrase ‘arms race’ used prior to the old great conflicts is hardly more than a faint reflection.
There are no battles in this strategy; each side is merely trying to outdo in performance the equipment of the other. It has been termed ‘logistic strategy’. Its tactics are industrial, technical, and financial. It is a form of indirect attrition; instead of destroying enemy resources, its object is to make them obsolete, thereby forcing on him an enormous expenditure….
A silent and apparently peaceful war is therefore in progress, but it could well be a war which of itself could be decisive."
–General d’Armee Andre Beaufre
This can be true in the development of critical national capabilities as well.
One such capability is access to space. Yes, the aeronautical business was developed by private enterprise – but much of its technology was done in partnership between industry and government. The same can be true for space. I wrote most of this in “How to Get to Space” http://www.jerrypournelle.com/reports/jerryp/gettospace.html. Sometimes government action is needed. The problem is that government isn’t very good at picking and choosing winners: funding companies is not a good way to build an industry.
Fortunately there are ways of developing technology without betting on winners and losers. This is all describe in my Getting to Space presentation. We used X Projects to develop the aerospace industry, and we can do that for Green Energy and other national resources. The best developers of new technology are not always the best at commercial exploitation – as was proved in the growth of the aviation industry. It is true in many other cases.
Government can develop technologies without investing in companies.
I have explained X Projects many times. The basic idea is simple: the government puts out a contract for competitive bids. The contract will be to build, with the best technology available as of now (or in the very near future) working models of something that illustrates the best we have in the technology we are developing. One example was flying higher and faster. No one expected the X projects to come up with prototypes of commercial – or even military – aircraft. Instead you build the best thing you can and learn from it. An example was the Douglas X-3 Stiletto. It was the first airplane to take off from a runway and go faster than sound. That’s what it did – and while the Stiletto wasn’t a useful prototype of anything, we learned from it, and from that came the F-104 which dominated military airspace for more than a decade. What the X Project did was develop technologies. After that the aerospace industry could develop actual fighters.
The same principle can apply in other areas of technology. About twenty years ago Dr. Rolfe Sinclair of the National Science Foundation and I co-chaired a panel at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the applicability of the X Project concept to development of non-military technologies. It’s hardly a new idea; but it would work.
If much of the TARP money had been given out as funding for high technology X Projects, not in subsidies to technology companies, we would have learned a lot from that; and the “stimulus” effect would have been pretty well the same. The money would have been spent.
More on this another time; but I do invite you to think of technology demonstration/development projects that would make sense for public funding in your areas of expertise. Note that an X Project is not a prototype for a commercial project: it’s a step in technology development, and the company that does the X-project is not necessarily the winner of any production contracts.
For the kinds of money we already spend on “stimulus” projects we could have taken giant steps in a number of vital technologies. It’s still not too late.
The consensus appears to be that the debate was a tie, as we observed last night. The more important question is which candidate helped his election prospects most? Opinion is divided on that, but given the strategies of the two parties, I’d say that Gov. Romney clearly came out ahead. The President can’t run on his record, and has to paint a picture of Romney as less able than he is; and he didn’t do that. President Obama did show that he can be more dynamic than he was at the first debate, but we always knew that. What he didn’t show was that he can be the heroic savior who was elected President in 2008. He didn’t even come close to that.
Mr. Romney has to show that he is capable of being President and can be trusted with the office. He has done that. The President then says that Romney hasn’t presented a believable plan and can’t prove he can bring the country out of its slump; he hasn’t done that, and it’s self-evident that President Obama hasn’t any way out. A President who cannot ask “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” has a problem impossible to solve, and can only hope that the people will reject his opponent as incompetent or dishonest or just plain unlikable.
The Romney strategy is to continue to demonstrate that he is competent, likable, and honest; claims which so far as I can see have the great merit of being true. And he continues to demonstrate that.
Farewell to George McGovern.
© 2012, jerrypournelle. All rights reserved.