The Cult of the Imperfect

Chain Home

I watched Castles in the Sky over the weekend, the story of Robert Alexander Watson-Watt and the invention of radar staring Eddie Izzard.

A great story of British innovation and doggedness in the face of official obstruction and sneering class attitudes it made me go and read some more about this amazing gentleman from Brechin.

The Chain Home system operated at 25MHz, much lower than radars being developed by other nations. He justified this non optimal choice with the oft quoted ‘cult of the imperfect’

Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.

Without the third best, the Chain Home system would not have been operational and the Battle of Britain might have had a rather different outcome, not least the microwave might never have been realised!

I wonder if today, those that specify defence equipment should revisit this eminently sensible philosophy?

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74 Responses

  1. The other lesson is that it’s no good having superior technology unless you make it work as part of an integrated command structure. CH wasn’t the most advanced technology, but the overall system of command was miles ahead of anything anyone else had. The Germans had plenty of superior technology in a variety of fields, but they had an even bigger problem with the relationship between the boffins and the people in uniforms.

    Aren’t we seeing with the USN in particular at the moment a realisation that while having theoretically advanced warship design is very nice, unless you actually know how you’re going to use it, it’s pointless moving it off the drawing board?

  2. I’m bemused by this insistence on “multi-mission” that seems to infect our militaries in their quest for “new stuff.” Of course, I’m certain a good portion of this is driven my our elected moron class.

  3. Kent – quite agree. I keep a toolbox at home of many different types of tools, each ideal for specific tasks. Because that is the efficient way to get jobs done. It would have been cheaper in the short-term if instead of acquiring the right set of diverse tools, I had bought just a few multi-purpose tools (Swiss Army penknife, Leatherman, adjustable spanner) but subsequently each DIY task would have taken more effort to be done less well. You would have thought even the most impractical politico would be able to see that the analogy is accurate, and that buying a bunch of multi-function tools for the military does not work well.

  4. How many will comment in this thread that this is a sensible and common sense attitude and should be emulated – yet then go on with a straight face to another thread and bash T45 for not all having Harpoon or the T26 for not having this that or the other?

  5. Phil – not me… I like simple equipment; repairable in the field as far as is practicable; with understandable and predictable function/performance. Simplicity is a virtue.

  6. @Chris
    KISS is the word , Keep It Simple Stupid . Half my battles in meetings are trying to keep the original core requirement and stopping the Sales Engineer from trying to do add ons in progress meetings. A thorough pre-meeting on what topics he can and cannot raise and an hard stare when drifting off script keep projects on time and on budget. Tacking extra features adhoc to boost the overall sale value usually just ends up eating the profit margin as parts have to be made or ordered on a priority basis and much overtime spent to keep to the original deadline. We sell primarily to manufacturing where time is money and downtime waiting for critical equipment to be installed will not do.

  7. Engineer’s mantra:

    1) Make it work;
    2) Then make it work right;
    3) Then make it work fast.

  8. @Phil: T45 not really a good example, since fitting a suitable number of Mk41 silo’s and you can happily fire just about anything from the same hardware and T45 was designed from day 1 to accept Harpoon.

    Perhaps a better example might be FRES(SV), which appears so stuffed with recce hardware that you wonder how the crew ever get in :-)

    Might I suggest that the primary cause of overruns is the unfortunate tendency to attempt to push the state of the art, caused partly by the ignorance brewed by a lack of prototyping as well as generals/admirals/air marshalls trying to gold plate?

  9. Have to agree that a warship is a toolbox not a tool, In the same way that a brigade or squadron is a toolbox and yes I am one of those constantly shouting about the lack of harpoon. Each toolbox needs to be filled with the correct tools.

    I think the problem with warships is people think of a ship as a single vehicle akin to a tank or plane when it’s much more useful(and I’d argue correct), to think of each ship as a formation, like a brigade or squadron as I mentioned.

    The larger point however I have to agree with. Going back to WW2 for the example again on paper(top trumps style) the Tiger II/Panther II were by far the best tanks of the war, but in the field T34 and Sherman’s carried the day. Because they worked and were readily available, neither could match the Nazi tanks head on, but more often than not they never had to, because it was waiting for parts.

    Thinking about almost the entirety of WW2 follows a similar pattern. The Nazi’s held the technological advantage in almost every field. I can’t actually think of any arena(equipment wise) where we’d win the top trumps game against the Nazi’s, from smalls arms to battleships, but still we won the war.

    I can’t be the first person to link this, but it bears repeating ad infinitum;

  10. @Phil: T45 not really a good example, since fitting a suitable number of Mk41 silo’s and you can happily fire just about anything from the same hardware and T45 was designed from day 1 to accept Harpoon.

    No its a good example. Because its actually (we are informed) not third best at its primary role, it’s in fact THE best at its role. Yet some people would have preferred to have had an Arleigh Burke with PAAMs crossed with a Kirov and therefore had nothing.

  11. Aw Chuck! Spitfire?!? Has to be at least as good as Me109, and probably technically better (give or take use of carburation not fuel injection). But I might agree about battleships and tanks etc. Until 1945 that is, when the extremely fine Centurion left the production line – I guess the reason it stepped ahead of German armour is that Germany had been much on the back-foot for a year and probably was not engaged in logical orderly development of its armour; that and the interference of Corporal Hitler who only ever wanted to make things bigger! Bigger! BIGGER!!!

  12. It was a great plane of course, but it was expensive, scarce and suffered a number of problems that were glossed over for propaganda reasons; harder to shoot with, harder to repair etc. Whereas the glamour less and less advanced Hurricane scored more air victories and did more damage to Jerry overall.

    I’d argue the Hurricane is another great example of third best; Meteor > Spitfire > Hurricane. Especially in the context of the air war.

    Toward the end of the war when most of Germany was rubble we caught up and even overtook them certainly.

  13. The German Army on the launch of Operation Barberossa were accompanied by teams of engineers whose job it was to collect as near pristine examples of the Red Armies equipment , from rifles to howitzers to tanks and send them back home for examination to determine the level of Soviet military engineering . When the first example of a T34 arrived a few weeks later back in Germany the engineers were astounded by its size,armour and armament, everything really. Their advice to High Command was to copy it exactly and just hope they could build them faster than the Russians.They didn’t and they lost.

  14. @monkey
    The T-34 was actually poorly engineered. The only 2 good points were
    (1) the MBT approach of having a universal main gun (decent HE AND good AP in one gun)
    (2) the shellproofing against light AT guns

    Much else of it was rudimentary if not 1920’s technology (gearbox), non-functional (air filter), dysfunctional (2-man turret, TC hatch), unreliable (gearbox especially), absent (radio) or unaffordable for Germany (aluminium engine block).

    Besides; the real quality vs. quantity winner among WW2 tanks was the Panther; its production cost was only a fourth higher than the cost for a Pz IV (which was less mobile and vastly inferior in head-on combat against tanks or AT guns). It was the best tank design until the late T-44 or the T-54.

  15. Because the T34 does not have a turret cage some people class it as a tank destroyer.
    Lack of that cage made loading and aiming the gun on the move a nightmare the ammo was stored in wood boxes on the floor. T34-85 is still brilliant and it used a diesel engine so didn’t burst into flames at the whiff of enemy fire.

    German tanks were let down by the crap gearbox and flammable fuel system. Tigers were well known for setting the own fuel system of fire.

    Sherman we all know as tommy cookers.
    Lee/Grant not a true tank (tank destroyer?) stupid gun passion.

    British tanks got there eventually, shame Centurion and Comet were not ready in time. they were quite good. Last variants of the Churchill and the Cromwell got there just.

    It is all dependent at what dates you look at.

  16. The F4F/FM1/FM2 Wildcat was kept in production and front-line service for the duration of WW2. Why? Because it worked and filled a need.

    The F-4 Phantom II was designed as a missile-armed fleet defense fighter, yet it developed into a Swiss Army Knife of the air.

    Even the F-14 Tomcat, which was also designed as a fleet defense fighter, ended up providing great service as the “Bombcat.”

    Who would have imagined the B-25 which was designed as a medium level bomber developing into what was probably the preeminent low-level attack aircraft of all time until the purpose-built A-26 arrived late in the war?

  17. It also opens up a lot of might have beans and if there had been developed in a different way.

    Even the mighty Spitfire had compromises we could of had the Griffin engine version but they were not willing to take the risk till August 1943. They held if for over a year.
    There are lots of examples of this.

    With the tanks.
    The British had not put each stage of development in to production maybe British tanks would have developed faster. The cruiser tanks went through 10 or so stages before you reach the comet if we had only went through say 5 we might of got the Cromwell in the desert and we may have got the comet in late 44 instead of mid 45. We had a lot of silly dead ends like Tog and Excelsior.

  18. Chuck,
    A problem that seems prevalent is that many times when a military unit, weapon or vehicle is assessed, it is considered in isolation. For example the Spitfire and the Hurricane. If the Hurricane had been the only fighter aircraft available to the RAF, would it have scored so highly? In battle, the Spitfires would mix it up with the Me109s, allowing the Hurricanes to focus on the bombers, where it could utilise its better concentration of guns and its better stability as a gun platform to score against the bombers.
    Forcing the Hurricanes to fight the Me109s might have led to a different outcome.

  19. Wf,

    No such thing as recce hardware. The role needs the right sort of wetware.

    No complex box of tricks? Do it on foot, get closer. Got a complex box of tricks? Don’t trust it, it will have designed by a civilian engineer without a clue as to what is needed and will often confidently return “data” when “understanding” is what is needed.

  20. The P-51 started out with an Allison-engine. What would have happened if no one had said, “Do you think a Merlin would fit?”

    British tankers said, “The Sherman’s tank rounds (which were wonderful when they were new against PzMkIIIs and PzMkIVs) don’t work anymore!” The British Army modified the turret and put 17-pounder guns in them. The US Army put a higher velocity (than the 75mm) 76mm gun in their Shermans for the same reason. The Shermans’ 75/76mm guns weren’t good against fortified positions, so the US Army put 105mm howitzers in them.

    “What can we have right now?” is the battle-cry of the guys in the front lines. It even gets up to general officer level – “…General Spaatz, then commander of the 8th Air Force in the UK, said of the P-38F: ‘I’d rather have an airplane that goes like hell and has a few things wrong with it, than one that won’t go like hell and has a few things wrong with it.'”

  21. @RT: I’m well aware no box of tricks can deliver ground truth :-)

    The question is, did the MOD IPT?

  22. @Chuck

    Regarding Nazi superiority in terms of equipment that is always something that gets massively overplayed.

    The German’s had better tanks. They deployed a handful of jets late in the war. They deployed a handful of assault rifles late in the war. They had better machine guns. Probably a few other things as well.

    The Western Allies had better radar, better radios, better encypherment technology, better decryption technology and better medical support. They had better bombers, equal fighters early on and then better fighters for the last half of the war and better attack aircraft for the last half of the war. The allies had equally competent artillery that was far more effective because it was married to more effective communication technology and around in much bigger numbers.

    German warships were a joke across the board. Bismark may be the most overrated ship to ever sail the seas. She was disabled by a single torpedo because of a pretty amature hour design mistake on her back end. In her final fight she was rendered defenseless very quickly because of another. Their destroyers were a mess. Even their U-Boats, with the exception of the HP powered ones late in the war, were inferior to the main US and UK designs in almost all performance criteria.

    German resistance in the end was sustained basically by a few major factors. Their infantry was of a much greater quality than the Allies for the most part. They were equipped with very good machine guns and as the war progressed very good squad AT weapons that let them hold positions stubbornly. But the myth of Nazi super science needs to die. It just wasn’t the case. In fact one could argue pretty convicingly that they lost in almost all the most important areas.

    Also I didn’t yet mention the most important failure. The allies got the atomic bomb. The Germans failed and did not.

  23. Jeremy, there is also the issue of mobilization, the Germans mobilized basically everything they had while the Allies still had a significant population reserve not in the thick of the fighting.

  24. The irony of bringing up the Panthers realiability as an argument for 80% soltuions is that one of the main problems was the final drive system, which was downgraded from the originally planned epicyclic system to the “80% solution” double spur, which was supposed to make the tank easier and quicker to build. What it did was to make the Panther chronically unreliable. Yes, it might have been cheaper and easier to produce, but in the field it was effectively inflicting around 30% casualties on Panther units through breakdowns.

    An 80% solution is fine in theory, right up until the moment in combat when it’s not and proves to be grossly inadequate. The history of ww2 is one littered with examples of “80% solutions” that routinely got their crews killed due to mechanical failure or inadequate performance under fire. Just look up the number of accidents sufffered by the USAAF on its home soil as an example.

  25. @Chris B,

    That would be a great topic to expand on, WW2 providing enough examples of roughly the same vintage.

    I guess the more normal use of the 80/20 would be in handing down kit, when the sharpest end units get the newest toys. It is unafordable to re-equip a whole army in one go, so you get ever more frequently refurb1, 2… And often a dwindling down in the number of units as the older kit is”saved” for specialist uses, in which it may excel over the next vintage.

  26. Certainly an argument. Would agree from a system-wise point of view given the lack of proper AEW and Aircraft Control. Blue Fox and AIM-9L’s could be argued to be of “second best” for the era.

    The subsequent Blue Vixen and AIM-120C combination that followed in the 90’s and 00’s were highly effective payloads.

  27. This may have worked well with the example of Chain Home but what about guys sent to France with Matilda 1’s or FAA pilots expected to take on ME109’s in Gladiators and Sordfish.

    Don’t service personnel have the right to expect the best equipment available on which there life will depend. This smacks of excuses for not properly funding Defence and asking it to do more with less. If the company won’t properly fund Defence then we should reduce Defence’s footprint rather than sacrifice quality.

  28. @Martin: Have some sympathy with your comment, and the lack of AEW / point air defence show a balance is required. However (and not wanting to open Pandora’s box), you could argue that not having anything (or not enough) puts service personnel at even more risk.

  29. ChrisB – there needs to be clarity over the term “80% solution”. 80% capability is the accepted norm? Deliberately making things cheap might cut 20% off the cost but to a large degree has no direct correlation to capability – an example: Up to the 1980s most vehicle manufacturers designed cast components for their vehicles; not just big and important bits like engine blocks or gearbox casings but also small items like mountings and support brackets. To make the simple stuff cheaper the materials were easy-cast alloys of dubious mechanical properties, like Mazak. Volkswagen (and the Japanese manufacturers) on the other hand took the decision to make as much as possible from simple bent steel sheet/plate, punched out and press-formed. It was cheaper and more durable than the traditional casting option. In this case a reduction in cost increased reliability. Technically better solutions do not have to be higher cost.

    However I do accept many companies are ruled entirely by the accounts and will adopt the cheapest option irrespective of technical capability. Not a good strategy for retention of repeat customers.

    The normal descriptive term is “80% of the capability for 20% of the cost” – I doubt the cost ratio has ever been so great. But the current fad for equipping every military item with every widget it might ever possibly need under every possible scenario is a nonsense (in my opinion). I look at photos of the current infantry soldiers trying to run into the fight weighed down by so much stuff on webbing, in pockets, in backpacks, strapped to shoulders and to helmet that they resemble camouflaged Michelin men. Bibendum and Bibendumber? How much does all the “might be useful one day” stuff compromise the ability to fight? To run? To take cover? To squeeze through gaps? It certainly doesn’t reduce their profile. FRES-SV has already been highlighted as an item stuffed with equipment to suit every conceivable situation. And so its big. Very. If the 80% capability factor were to be applied to fielded equipment, such that the only additional stuff fitted or carried was that which would meet the needs of the current situation, maybe the military efficiency would be improved.

  30. Martin, Repulse – I’ve never said we (the engineers & designers) should fob MOD off with sub-standard or dubious utility equipment. There is a difference though in the perception of “Best” between those that set requirements and those that create solutions. ‘Best’ for the requirement writers is when the purchased equipment is festooned with extra functions and growth margins and secondary role functionality and techno-widgetry. More has to be better, right? Wrong. To the designer getting a focused and coherent requirement allows the equipment to be designed lithe and lean and highly effective in its primary role. Once that is achieved, then looking at what other roles may be possible is fully supportable.

    I would suggest had RJ Mitchell been trying to design Spitfire under current MOD procurement processes, the requirement would have had the aircraft capable of carrying 1000lb bombs, 8 paratroopers, gun turrets top and bottom, folding wings and radar, and a 6hr loiter time. As a fighter it would have been pretty useless, but see how much more multi-role it is! Much better! Not.

    Simplicity. Focus. Effectiveness. Military advantage. These all go together.

  31. @Chris: I think we are saying the same thing as long as by abiding to the 80:20 rule the “80” is actually delivered.

  32. I also think the innovative spirit of the UK armed forces is something to be cherished in my book. The fact is that in war you’ll always be wanting something that you cannot get on hand, so having that out-of-the-box thinking goes a long way.

    Think of the St Nazaire raid – the UK could have spent ages thinking of a super weapon to disable the dock, when an old destroyer is all that was needed.

    “80%” and innovative spirit is a winning combination.

  33. Yeah, Monkey, I know. I’m older than I act. I’ve been to Wright-Patterson AFB and have seen Colonel Fisher’s restored A-1E. “Spad” pilots said that everything happened at 145 knots. They took off loaded at 145 knots. They climbed at 145 knots. They cruised at 145 knots. They made their attack runs at 145 knots. They made their final approaches to landing at 145 knots.

  34. It CAS operations of this sort flying at less than 800′ and well within the range of small arms fire massed in their hundreds as well as HMG’s in large numbers over a small theatre of operations of just a mile or two across and sortie rates in the hundreds per day ( here at A Shau on the 10th March there were 210 CAS sorties alone ) that inspired the A-10 to be conceptualized ,flying low and slow amongst intense light to medium automatic ground fire. A testament to that was in GW1 from over 8500 combat sorties less than ten A-10’s were downed and only a handful of crew lost their lives.

  35. @ToC
    Indeed the damaged sustained in operations became so cumulative and extensive that as soon as possible ,based on combat need for CAS, the Air Force general in charge of them grounded the entire fleet. Fortunately the Iraqis rolled over pretty quickly before casualty figures could climb. I have no doubt that as long as their planes could takeoff the A-10 pilots would have flown missions untill their birds were flying scrap. The point is that despite intense damage they got their pilots home .

  36. Re 80%

    It is a trite observation that you get 80% ability for 20% of the effort or cost.

    I remain to be convinced it applies from tea trays to Typhoons. And from street cleaning to special ops.

    However like all truisms it has elements of err truth…

    The real issue driving that wanting the last 20% capability and sending that 80% to get it, is IMHO armed forces in general, and UK armed forces in particular habit of re inventing the wheel, and then asking for the moon on a stick.

    Technocrats in particular are often looking at “The next big step in technology” and trying to sell that as easily reachable if the govt will only spend a bit more cash. A crashing example of that is FRES in both its versions.

    The laws of physics are real and don’t change. The US govt in particular over the years across its services has at time demanded heavy tank protection and firepower on light tank chassis. Or multi function capability like the f35 for single function cost.

    Armed forces and politicians theses days are wedded to the ‘nothing is too good for our boys’ mentality.

    There are many examples of where that has created huge waste.

    FRES is the poster boy a billion quid pissed up the wall chasing technical rabbits down rabbit holes and then deciding what was wanted was a badger when it caught them. Constantly trying to be ready to deal with ‘next big thing’.

    T26 seems to be running into trouble because it is trying to be all things to all men and crucially to be the best at all it does. Something the yanks can’t do on 10,000 tons of Arligh Burke.


    It would seem from recent announcements that the USN is in effect saying its fighter for the next 10 or so years will be….. The F18…

    The F 35 c is it seems being downplayed. The B survives because it is the only stovl game in town. The A? Well as a successor to the F16. It seems to work. But the cost overruns the delays and the technical troubles come from pushing the technical envelopes, and trying to do 3 jobs not with one airframe, but by heavily modifying one frame into three quite different aircraft. Leaving aside the issues arround adopting stealth technology at the same time.

    In each case and many others had we gone instead for say in the case of FRES a ‘standard’ off the shelf peice of kit it would have been worse than the planned kit. But we could have had whatever it was by now at a lot less cost.

    If the US had decided ‘ Hey lets replace the best selling, most succesful, combat proven, modern single engined jet fighter’ with a new stealthy single engined f16 replacement (something like a stealthy grippen). It would be flying and in service by now.

    We pulled out of cooperative development of Fremm now it has been banded about we night buy it anyway (not a rumour I take seriously). But the fact it has appeared in in semiserious print says a lot about pointy boats and how similar they are under the skin.

    All of this bleeds into the World war 2 Thread.

    THE US crusers of ww2 were not the best ships of their clas but they were stamped out by the dozen to a standardised design. they were used to make light carriers. Far from perfect but they got the light carrier job done.

    The upgraded sherman was an ok tank at the end of the war. A war it won.

    The Spitfire was not that greater plane. All the test info of the time was that it was as good as the Me 109. Thats it, as good as, not some wonder weapon. What made it better was the ground control.

    What I would say is the German wonder weapons is the standard excuse of our relativly lousy performance in ww2. It does not hold water lets look t somethings where the allies were better. In some cases a lot better.


    Us and UK artillery was gun for gun better. It was better used by more skillfull crews and much beter directed.


    US trucks reliable tough and GENERALY much more capable

    Transport aircraft allied usually better.

    Fighters really very much even Stevens appart from jets. UK jets engines better but planes less advanced.

    UK had just about the best Torpedo in ww2.

    US submarines certainly best by end of the war.

    Above all the allies were better at developing and deploying usable weapons than Axis.

    And this does not include stuff like enigma, cavity mangnatron, proximity fuze etc.

    The list goes on and on.

    And that is without getting into the whole tank thing.

  37. My two-penneth prior to wishing those who serve our country a very Merry Christmas is that the 80:20 rule does in fact exist. Whether it is exactly 80% of the capability or exactly 20% of the cost is a matter for debate, but its close.

    The thing that I find slightly annoying is that we seem to expect things like F35 and T26 to work first time. We spend so little on proper R&D these days that all we see is the first stab at something new.

    The pinnacle of excellence will (should) only ever come from R&D and realistically be behind closed doors.
    The second in line should be sought as indicated in the opening paragraphs of this thread (better late than never – e.g. F35).
    The third in line is the 80:20 solution and should be procured in significant numbers to further dilute any risk.

    What this ultimately indicates is a hi-lo split, with the super-hi never really ever happening, only serving to maintain the brains of academia or industry. The pinnacle is only ever delivered as the 2nd best in a few years time when something new takes its place at the cutting edge.

    PS: Spitfire was essentially perfect, as was Concorde. They were both realisations of the pinnacle of capability delivered by a great nation. What is it we’ve done since? I can only think of ThrustSCC and a whole load of financial service disasters?

  38. On the 80:20 thingy perhaps an example is the Soviet military there tanks have often be very good but not the best , same for their planes and subs. Because they built cheap they could build quantity and in a peer to peer war could absorb big losses . If this numerical superiority could have been combined with a high grade command and control structure it would have been devastating and because of numbers could hold territory in force and not rely on the locals good will and not launch a guerrilla war in their rear which is what happens to us.

  39. @ Chris,

    I agree that not every cheap solution is inferior in quality, and that not every quality solution has to be expensive.

    But we do have to be careful about scrimping and saving on capabilities just to knock off a few quid here and there. The problem with a declining budget is that the number of platforms naturally goes down, as does manpower. We can’t really afford for example to have dedicated air superiority fighters and attack aircraft. Due to low numbers it’s vital we squeeze the maximum effect from each aircraft.

  40. ChrisB – the stated position is understandable, but unfortunate. It is the very reason that Politicos use to force budget cuts – “If you have an aircraft type that can do two previously separate roles, you only need half the number of aircraft and half the number of personnel, don’t you. I expect your plan on my desk tomorrow morning…” Its an evil downward spiral with a constant ratcheting down of budget in response to the forces changing their methods as a result of the last set of budget cuts and so on. All wrapped up in sick-making statements from Westminster that ‘the UK still punches above its weight’ and ‘any criticism of our defence plan is a direct slur on the professionalism of our armed forces’ etc etc.

    monkey – sadly I have to agree. Numerical advantage, allied to the resolve to take a large number of casualties without giving in, outweighs almost any technical ‘force multiplier’ (a phrase which has been at the root of several reductions in personnel count). Something as you state that the Red Army understood; also a key part in Montgomery’s success at El Alamein – he held the fight back until he had a considerable numerical advantage in armour over the Afrika Corps, so that he could continue applying pressure despite the inevitable losses. But let’s face it, the politicians (of all sides) would have gladly disbanded the military as soon as possible, had they been able to come up with a fiction they could sell to the voting public. Then all that defence spending could have been put to the much more important task of buying party votes at the next election. But as they had to keep the military their best use of it was to send it to popular wars, to raise the jingoistic vote. Good old politicians, they certainly know who they work for.

  41. The only time I have ever come across 80/20 being talked about is on paper work where it is widely acknowledged that it takes 80% as much time to nail that final 20% polish as you have already spent getting it 80% correct.
    In terms of what we buy and use it is far far more complex than that. lets face facts we are not even achieving the 80% solution of what human tech is capable of because we do not need to but to listen to some of the comments on here you would think it is really simple.
    Capability, numbers and budget are driven by requirements and the best solution to those requirements may be a single platform capable of 80% in 2 or more fields or it could be that the risk element in 1 field is so low it could be gapped and or covered by another platform.
    So in military reality lets keep 80/20 to where it belongs, paperwork and presentation and not try and pretend capability, requirements and budgets are as simple as TD likes to pretend in order to stimulate amusing arguments, wild theories and sweeping attacks on politicians.

  42. The thing about early UK radar was that it was part of an effective system. This was a major case study in Checkland & Holwell’s 1998 book ‘Information, Systems and Information Systems’.

    There’s other areas where better systems are superior to those with some very clever bits but overall indifferent – the field artillery arms of certain non-UK nations come to mind!

  43. @wf: I agree in general with your comment on prototyping and the need for R&D, though not everything needs to be considered a quantum leap in technology / science, like the Taranis. In peacetime (or the modern equivalent of peacetime) there is no need to get the game changer secret weapon, small steps in a batch like evolution (e.g. like the T22) is just fine.

  44. @APATs: I think you are missing the point, the gold plating is driven by the requirements and so called future-proofing. The recent USN LCS programme is a classic example of where a slight adjustment of the requirements could have saved a lot of money and had actually delivered more.

    A broader question on future-proofing: is it better to future proof or accept a shorter service life? Cannot be something easily answered, as it depends, but something that should be considered more.

    For example, if we set the lifespan of a warship to 19 years, and produced one a year in evolving batches, would we get a better solution by minimizing costs on “future” requirements, big step R&D, restablishing / keeping skills and major mid life upgrades?

  45. A key aspect of this thread is time.
    To achieve todays present military programmes such as Typhoon, T45, Astute, FRES, T26, Successor, F35 we are talking decades from conception to birth of the completed article. Basically we are on a human generational timescale to move from one stage to the next. Even when the design is mature it takes a year to build an aircraft from first cut to squadron acceptance or five years from keel laying to fleet acceptance in terms of a ship. In terms of any sustained conflict against an enemy that can actually inflict sustained losses on our key assets who has more to start with will be the victor. Gone are the days when first pencil to paper to flying prototype could be measured in days (100 in the case of the Mustang) . I personally would not want to be in a British merchantman in 10 years or so and we have a war against a submarine capable enemy , the convoy we would need to operate would need to be in the hundreds for it to be worth the single T26 that could be spared to defend it.

  46. monkey – there is a saying that work extends to fill the time available. You have to look at the small number of projects and the low volumes of equipment in each, and wonder why MOD and the contracted industry teams would want to press forward at full speed, if they knew there would be years of nothingness to follow. Shame that the military get stuff late… It was a well known publicity stunt but nevertheless an impressive feat when Vickers built a Wellington from shelves of bits to flying bomber within 24hrs. It was more impressive that for similar propaganda reasons a shipyard in the US built a Liberty Ship in 4 days, from keel being laid to launch. These things can happen fast when the need is sharp, but for the moment there is neither the perceived need, nor an adequate workload, to step up the urgency.

    In my opinion then, speed is not the issue. Numbers are. As you pointed out the number of platforms (in all environments) is less than would be necessary for a coherent robust defence force in time of immediate threat. Sadly the industrial capacity (despite la-la-land predictions from every government since 1946) has not grown strong by replacing defence & government work with commercial projects, it has withered at least in part as a result of government policy. Should push come to shove – not that any of us would want that – it is unlikely UK PLC could answer the mad panic demands of instant full-scale defence manufacture from the very same politicians that have sat complacent on the benches while the country’s defence capability was left to rot. No doubt there would be lots of demands of full public inquiries from the same politicians that let it all happen – that would be a help.

  47. @Repulse: agreed, prototyping is not always necessary. But one thing I’m sure we’d agree on is that if you want to have design authority on a class of equipment, you should *always* have that type of equipment in production. I’m not saying we need CVF’s rolled out of the Govan every 5 years, but if we’re not building them, we should be building other complex vessels like amphibs or destroyers. Ceasing production entirely like we did with SSN’s proved very expensive :-(

  48. I’ve heard and read more than once that the problem with British tank production and design in The Second World War was that inferior designs were deliberately churned out as a preference to investing in and waiting for better types.

    The mentality was ‘it’s better to have thousands of average tanks in service now than far fewer but superior ones in the future’.

    I guess it was a case of ‘make do with what you’ve got’. Unfortunately the British tactics (piecemeal attacks, brigades not supporting each other, a lack of armoured/infantry integration) didn’t exactly make up for the technical limitations.

    I can understand the thinking, it’s a shame that so many young British and Empire soldiers lost their life’s in the desert because of this though.

  49. @ Monkey

    your post is based on.

    1. UK engaged in a conflict alone requiring convoy resupply, so Article 5?
    2. An enemy with sufficient submarines.
    3. Us ignoring the threat in the buildup.

    In the real world.

  50. Yes indeed APATS we are protected under the blanket of our NATO Charter, an attack on one is an attack on all. The USN will bail us out again.

  51. The important thing to remember is that platforms do not win wars. Men and women do. Having the best gear does not automatically lead to success.

  52. @Challenger

    “I can understand the thinking, it’s a shame that so many young British and Empire soldiers lost their life’s in the desert because of this though.”

    A similar thought was expressed earlier about needing to equip everyone with the best a nation is capable of because they are laying their lives on the line. While I don’t disagree with the sentiment, wasting lives just due to incompetence in equipment is not worth while, but I think that one of the biggest gold plating problems comes from misplaced priorities in this area.

    What if skimping on those tanks allowed the UK to put extra fighters in the air during the Battle of Britain? What if it allowed them to deploy resources for extra escorts for the battle of the Atlantic? Or build the landing craft that enable D-Day?

    The priority is really to accomplish the security goals of a nation. The protections of individual users is a factor in this but it has recently, in my view, been given priority to a degree that is unreasonable and often detrimental to completing the core mission. I would argue that things like MRAP’s and what not are basically political military vehicles designed to keep casualties as low as possible and avoid political criticism. They have some military purpose but mostly they exist because casualties are politically difficult to deal with. In a real, major military conflict they are next to useless. In such a case you just load up the Humvee and accept losses to IED’s as part of the cost of doing business because you can buy a dozen of the basic vehicles for the same price that accomplish most of the same basic goals and can have them quickly.

    The big problem is no one has the political courage to state things like this. Crew protection is just one component of equation in IFV’s. Affordability is a major concern. Overall I am probably better off if I can afford twice as many IFV’s even if it means the protection is of a lesser quality. Or if I can get the same amount but use the rest of the money on more artillery or other things I need.

    This is in fact one of the things I like about LCS. The high speed thing is dumb but they also didn’t try to build it to the same survivability standards as a destroyer. Many people have screamed and tugged on their man bits over this. But I say it is exactly the right decision for the Navy and the nation. Because when you get down to it the real role of the LCS is simply to be there and be a presence. You are building them so you can send half a dozen to Singapore and half a dozen into the Gulf and half a dozen to the Philippines and force people who want to mess with those nations to shoot at United States warships in the process. One of the primary roles of the ship is to be expendable.

  53. @Jeremy M H
    The original concept for the high speed shallow draft Littoral Combat ship in large numbers and therefore it needed to be cheap (this was back in the 90’s even more so today) was called Streetfighter. The view was that any ship below an Arleigh Burke sized ship would be out for the count if hit with a modern Anti-ship missile ( ala HMS Sheffield) either a mission kill or outright sinking. The early proposal was a 1000t heavily armed vessel that would heavily protect the crew spaces for them to survive the impact and then they were to abandon the vessel asap. The idea was a small crew could fight the ship and be cost effective whilst abandoning the need for extra manning to act as fire control teams that make up much of a normal crews positions at action stations. In time of war their small size and low complexity would mean replacements could be built in the small inland shipyards in the Mississippi basin and the Great Lakes. As we know this concept did not take root and the new versions of the LCS from boats 33 onwards are to be re-engineered to make them more survivable.

  54. @ monkey

    “Yes indeed APATS we are protected under the blanket of our NATO Charter, an attack on one is an attack on all. The USN will bail us out again”

    Perhaps you could tell me where in your fantasy world this incredible opponent with all these submarines comes from and why we are running convoys? Well the USN would contribute but between the European NATO Allies we can field 80 plus escorts not to mention 10 plus SSNs and 25 plus SSKs without even using the European based USN 6th Fleet assets. Alliances are a fact of life, opponents able to take on European NATO Navies conventionally are a distant future or a current figment of imagination.

  55. @ Jeremy M H

    ‘The protections of individual users is a factor in this but it has recently, in my view, been given priority to a degree that is unreasonable and often detrimental to completing the core mission. I would argue that things like MRAP’s and what not are basically political military vehicles designed to keep casualties as low as possible and avoid political criticism. They have some military purpose but mostly they exist because casualties are politically difficult to deal with. In a real, major military conflict they are next to useless. In such a case you just load up the Humvee and accept losses to IED’s as part of the cost of doing business because you can buy a dozen of the basic vehicles for the same price that accomplish most of the same basic goals and can have them quickly.’

    I’d disagree with a lot of that, war and politics are intertwinned, you talk as they were strangers totally seperate from each other. Who’s to say if we had kept causalities down how much fewer political good will we’d have burnt through? We may well have stayed for longer or deployed differently.
    Perhaps they is some arguement (as above in this thread) in waiting for hi end kit, however in my opinion this is a bad example. MRAPs aren’t high end kit, they are cheap and easily available, that fact that we competely and utterly cocked up buying them doesn’t mean they were difficult to buy or build. As a further point to the cost they aren’t even expensive, look how much a single serviceman would get on a med discharge. I’ve seen the costs compared, scarey how much a single amptee costs the country through their lifetime. Equally to the first mastiffs I believe, and that’s just on a £ basis ignoring any other reasons to look after people.

    Not really having a pop at you, just something I saw at the time in theatre and feel was a total cock up.

  56. @Jeremey M H

    Don’t disagree with your comments.

    I just found it interesting that British tanks are always singled out as being inferior to German ones in a way that small arms, aircraft, artillery etc aren’t. These failings are often simply put down to a lack of technical understanding and ineptness when actually the churning out of large numbers of inadequate designs like the Crusader mks and Valentines well into the war was at least in part a conscious decision, a deliberate policy of choosing quantity over quality in terms of production and as you say in all likelihood allowing for greater technical advancements in other, more vital areas.

  57. I suggest that the problem was that British tanks were inferior to German anti-tank guns (including tks used defensively). This was a combined arms tactical problem not a tank quality one.

    Mobile tk vs tk engagements were rare and there were no gun stabilisation systems that enabled firing while moving, ie tks had to stop to fire. Whether German tank ergonomics were superior and enabled faster ‘stop, shoot, move’, I’ll leave to someone else, but I have encountered instances that lead me to conclude that ergonomics and human factors is not a German military engineering strength.

    Is useful to remember that the first Tigers encountered by UK were defeated by 6-pr anti-tank guns.

  58. @APATS
    ” Perhaps you could tell me where in your fantasy world this incredible opponent with all these submarines comes from and why we are running convoys? ”
    A couple of points to your response , China has 6 SSBN ( also armed with conventional torpedoes) , 10 SSN and over 50 SSK.
    And if we have no credible opponent then that is why SDSR 2015 will only have budget and manpower allocation for 6 T26 ASW as we have no need for anymore fitted with expensive anti-submarine kit and helicopters. It will still give work for a dozen years to the frigate factory at least untill they think of of a plan for what to do with it afterwards but that will be another governments/leader’s problem.

  59. @Monkey

    So a super power on the other side of the world has a large Navy! Their new SSNs have performance on a par with our old S boats. Of the 50 SSKs only 28 are modern.
    Why do people still harp on about ASW and non ASW T26?
    Your argument is circular, you bemoan the lack of escorts in face of some mythical threat and when I point out just how mythical it is you argue for cuts.
    The fact is that escorts numbers allow peace time operational commitments to be met with an ability to surge in case of a conflict.

  60. My argument was deliberately circular , as there is no credible submarine threat which cannot be contained by local forces on the other side of the world then we have no need for more than a handful of anti -submarine equipped escorts. Enough to protect the SSBN and CBG , any more by your own argument is a pointless expense as any build up be a credible opponent would give us time to increase the ASW force and in the meantime our Allies will provide support. Yes we have other commitments to sustain , anti- drugs/piracy etc but is it required for the ship to be fitted with expensive ASW kit and the crew to operate it for such duties?

  61. @Monkey

    There are some very credible submarine threats just not the sort to justify the hyperbole of 100 ship convoys with single escorts like your original post tried to make out.
    The number of escorts we have is sufficient for peace time tasking and providing escorts for a CBG/ARG at the current threat level.
    Your continued fascination with this “expensive” ASW kit is mystifying, we rarely use a T23 for anti drug Ops and anti.piracy is very much an E of Suez side mission.

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