September 12, 2011

Droidlike technologies matter more than death stars

The droids I am looking forLt. Col. Dan Ward, USAF has written a very amusing and relevant essay, Donít Come to the Dark Side: Acquisition Lessons from a Galaxy Far, Far Away (pdf) in Defense AT&L, SeptemberĖOctober 2011. (via Wired's dangerroom)

His main point is that the Death Star program (and real world projects like it) are a pathology: too complex to be reliable, too expensive to build several, too big to be finished on time and hence requiring strong management - yet that kind of strong management is also the kind of management that tends to like having big empires, reinforcing the bad cycle.

But the most interesting point in my opinion is his praise for R2D2. He points out that the droid saves the day more often than anybody else.

A Death Star is an Empire weapon that aims to intimidate opponents into submission. Droids are Republic technology. They donít intimidate anyone. Instead, they earn their keep by being useful and practical. Droids are about finesse, while Death Stars are about brute force. And given the current world situation, finesse is clearly what we need.

A classic example of droid-like technology might of course be the AK47. Reliable, robust, does not aim to do anything beyond the basic function but people will still find new ways of using them anyway.

I would also argue that the droids (at lest the independent minded "hero" ones - the centrally controlled ones are death star systems again, with an even more obvious vulnerability) are far more powerful weapons than death stars. If we accept the prices mentioned in the Wired blog, you can buy about 10^21 droids for the price of a death star. Let's assume you just use 10^20 droids and spend the other 90% on landers, weapons and such equipment. Then you can invade a planet with 10 billion inhabitants at a force ratio of 1:10 billion. In principle the droids could just crowd the enemy to death. Or you could go for a 1:10 force ratio and invade a billion planets. Even if you lost many of these battles you would now have the resources of hundreds of millions of planets to throw at the remaining holdouts.

While Lanchester's laws are not perfect by any means, it is not unreasonable to think that vastly outnumbering your opponents is a very good strategy, even if each fighter is pretty weak. The lethality per dollar (or republic credit) is likely optimal for fairly cheap systems. The death star wiped out 1.97 billion Alderaani in a few seconds, giving it a theoretical lethality index of about 5,000,000. This is actually less than a nuclear weapon! Given that in the Star Wars universe it is also possible to disperse troops enormously (which is of course not done in the films, which obey cinema tactics) it is fairly easily foiled by a widely dispersed enemy.

(When I tried to estimate the best TLI per dollar for real world weapons, it looked like it was somewhere between the AK47 and the uzi, by the way. There might be another optimum for tanks.)

If we try to extract a kind of real world moral from this, I think the conclusion is that technologies that are cheap, robust, disperse and can show network effects always will tend to win over the solitary supertechnologies. There might be things you need a death star to do and droids cannot do it for you, but those will tend to be few and specialized. The things droids can do that death stars cannot, on the other hand, are manifold. That is why droid-like technologies will change the world.

Posted by Anders3 at September 12, 2011 10:06 PM