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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Weapons procurement, Death Stars, and telekinetic strangulation as a primary motivational approach

by John MacBeath Watkins



I believe I'm not bad at suspension of disbelief; after all, I didn't walk out on Cowboys and Aliens, and you pretty much had to switch off major parts of your brain to accomplish that. I mean, the hero got his weapon when an alien casually set a weapon down next to him, and none of the other aliens have cool weapons? They spend the bulk of the show trying to get close enough to gouge the cowboys with their fingernails, lacking any better weapons, for Pete's sake.

But now, here comes an Air Force procurement officer facing me with the hard reality that what seemed implausible in the first Star Wars movie was quite familiar to him.

From the wise mind of Lt. Col. Dan Ward, USAF, to you, this nugget: "...even the florid imagination of George Lucas could not envision a project like the Death Star coming in on time, on budget."

Now, I tolerated the plot line, but the notion that a program the size of the Death Star having a flaw like a vent that acts as a sort of destruct button for the entire project if a novice pilot can lob a single round into it didn't strike me as particularly plausible. Mr. Ward, having seen military procurement close up, begs to differ:

"From a design perspective, a system as enormously complex as a Death Star is more than any program manager or senior architect can handle, no matter how high their midi-chlorian count is. There is bound to be an overlooked exhaust vent or two that leads directly to the reactor core. That is just the sort of vulnerability an asymmetric opponent can exploit. In my professional engineering judgment, a flaw of this type was inevitable."

And although Ward does not bring up a certain former vice president, he does note from having read fan websites:
"More than one writer inexplicably complimented Vader’s leadership style, conveniently overlooking his use of telekinetic strangulation as a primary motivational approach."
 The lesson he draws is that R2-D2 is the hero of the saga:

"Yes, there are plenty of flaws in the Star Wars films—I’m looking at you, Jar Jar Binks—but casting R2-D2 as the hero isn’t one of them. Just as the Death Stars’ vulnerability and inadequacy are perfectly realistic, the superior operational performance of a simple droid corresponds to real-life experience. Time and again, war-winning weapons tend to be simple, inexpensive and small."

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