Knights to Battleships – Ardent Support For The Unreliable

Why do people support programs that are not reliable?

LastTechAge has been reviewing anti ballistic missile defense systems.  After decades, many do not yet work as claimed but have almost violent support.  Why?  This looks like a common response especially for massive weapons systems.  Many of the arguments are the blend of three points

Over-arching Patriotism –  Support this or spit on your country.
Intellectually Frozen Attitudes – I know what’s right,  don’t tell me nothin’.
The Potemkin Gambit – I’ll weave a thin blanket to make us safe.

Over-Arching Patriotism

I think we all feel a basic unconscious feeling that bigger, more massive weapons mean safer owner(s) and more secure.  We can all be trapped by this  loop …

    • I am a Patriot and want to protect my neighbors/country/King/Liege-Lord
    • Here is a nasty threat, I truly want to disable it
    • Everybody says this  big thing will work, it sounds good and I really hope it works
    • My support for this big thing shows my patriotic fervor.   So I am good

But is a wish for something sufficient reason to fund it?

The obvious issue is that no country/kingdom has infinite resources.  Support for a massive dream-program drains support from other programs that actually might perform better.  Critics of the dream can often be branded unpatriotic, sometimes traitors.


Fig 1:    Shining Knight

Shining Knights and Castles.  Knights were people who clambered about inside  iron shells, the medieval equivalent of a war tank.

They were based in walled castle fortifications, rode on heavily armored horses and waged wars for their Liege Lord.  In Europe, this was the normal  way of war up to the mid 1600s.

Summaries:   Knights  Castles  Warfare.

Shining armor became ineffective after high power muskets appeared

1346: French knights in the Battle of Crecy were  positioned badly and lost to longbows; armor weighed about 15 kg (35 lb).  1415: Armor had grown noticiably heavier, but French noble knights in the  Battle of Agincourt lost again against longbow enemy.  By 1600: armor had grown to 40, even 50 kg (90 to 110 lb), knights suffered issues with overheating, oxygen reduction and limited vision; even this armor was penetrated by crossbow and longbow shafts (especially close range). Lightly armored men-at-arms had mobility disadvantages against unarmored combatants.  Mid-1600s: blackpowder weapons, in limited use at Crecy, had developed into high velocity flintlock muskets that easily penetrated steel shells, ending whatever the protection armor still offered.

Castles ceased to be safe refuges with the development of explosive shells.

Siege equipment improved during the same 300 years and castles had evolved into massive expensive structures that could destroyed, but only by financially draining sieges.  After explosive shells were developed, cannon bombardment could readily collapse walled fortifications.

 Ultimately, it became the generals and their staff who wore the armor, but for safety as they viewed battles out of easy musket shot range. Although the knights and castles of old (pre 1500s) were ineffective, iron coated men were riding into battle even at the beginning of WW-I. Between the WW-I and WW-II, arguments over horse brigades vs. armored vehicle brigades were common.

In the day of  guns with high kinetic kill capability, why did devastatingly expensive armor and castles continue for so many hundreds of years?  Overarching patriotism is one of the entangled reasons.  Suppose, in 1550, you argued against wider, taller walls for the King’s castle and city and for reduction of body armor for knights and men-at-arms.  This would have been treason – you clearly wanted the enemy’s might to crush your own King!


Fig 2 :   Maginot Line

France and its Maginot Line. The ML, built just prior to WW-II, was a French line of thousands of heavily fortified, tunnel-connected bunkers along the German boarder.

1937:  It was powerful and modern, seemingly perfect for another go at WW-I, no one effectively argued against it.  But it diverted badly-needed money from other parts of the French military.

The Nazis  laughed and showed fixed defenses were a waste of resources.  They went around  it.

Battleships. During the 19th Century, war ships became motor driven and armored. From the end of the 19th through the early 20th Centuries, the largest were called battleships.  They were consigned to the trash heap of military history just after WW-I when Billy Mitchel demonstrated that a flimsy biplane could sink them.

Mitchel  delivered the same lesson that knights and castle keepers learned in the mid 1600s.  Shortly thereafter, his life became difficult with the top Navy staff.


Fig 3:    USS Missouri, 1980s

The USS Missouri, Fig 3, was completed in 1944, more than twenty years later.  It participated in coastal bombardment after the sky was cleared of Japanese attack aircraft because battleships can never be deployed in zones with active enemy planes.  Its deck served well as a place to sign the capitulation document.

I cringe in memory of the 1980s when  President Reagan sent the Battleship Missouri to  Lebanon to lob “volkswagon sized shells” at the Arabs.  Such heroic posturing, such waste.  It took a single successful attack (on a U.S. Marine base for goodness sake) to rout the American knights.

 Battleships make good displays at Naval museums.

U.S. examples of modern massive weapons.  After the devastation of a war proves something is ineffective, criticism is  acceptable, and not always accepted immediately.


Fig 4:    XB-70 in 1966

XB-70:   Were they patriots, those who in 1971 shut down the XB-70 bomber?

The XB-70 (Fig 4) was a beautiful, ½ billion US$, supersonic craft that flew fast (Mach 3), high (77,000 ft, 23 km) and generated a huge radar signature.

No, hard core bomber advocates in the Air Force were convinced that opponents to the XB-70 were traitors who wanted to disable America.

B-1B, An American Maginot Line?   Ten years after the XB-70, Pres. Reagan became a hero when he authorized the B-1 supersonic bomber, operational in 1986, Fig 5.

B-1B Lancer

Fig 5:    B-1B Lancer

It costs 400 M$ (2013 US$), close to the price of the XB-70. Its supersonic Show-The-Flag ceiling is 77,000 ft (23 km); on bombing runs, it  must be subsonic and near the ground.

This means it is no better than the B-52 when actually engaging the enemy and doing what it what is meant to do.   Except it carries fewer bombs and is a whole lot more expensive.

It has been “operational” for decades, but cannot be safely used against a technically competent enemy – not Russia, not China, not even Iraq.  Since 1986, it has been used in none of our wars.  The ancient B-52 war-dragons still fly our bombs.

High radar signature, supersonic, super·expensive bombers will become ever less survivable as the years pass, but there is a strong power group in the Air Force certain that bombers are our key to strength,  busily designing our American Maginot Line, the Next Generation Bomber.

It’s patriotic to support massive weapons.  These stories are only a few examples of horrible waste of a country’s resources that huge defensive installations represent.   Supporters see failures as not having enough.

Make really thick castle walls even thicker, massive knightly armor much more massive.  Provide more of both. Line up more brave soldiers for the charge, launch thousands battleships, not just two or three.  The mighty Maginot Line failed because is was not big enough, or deep enough, or maybe the weapon emplacements were inadequate.  Your heart is for your country when you do what has been done, but more so.

Support these and your patriotism was praised, you got public approval, top leaders  gave you promotions.  If you questioned the utility of such things (or good sense, as Billy Mitchel said), uh…  were you actually working for the enemy?  Your career was at an end. Billy Mitchel enjoyed being General Mitchel  only after his death.

Intellectually Frozen Attitudes


Fig 6:    Vickers crew 1916 Sommes

Prior to the 1800s, soldiers marched in chivalrous massed ranks, firing forwards, followed by mounted horse-soldiers. These massive battle fronts actually had became obsolete with the advent of cannons.

All justification for massed charges vanished when the Gatling gun was first deployed (U.S. Civil War).

The horrendous bloodshed of  WW-I was the result of masses of soldiers charging the enemy machine guns, under artillery barrage. Fig 6  shows a WW-1  WMD (weapon of massed-attack destruction).  Those attacks were the result of a general staff who just did not get it.

The French King executed his own crossbow men for cowardice after they lost the Battle of Crecy (see last section).  These men had marched to exhaustion in a heavy rainfall, prohibited from covering their weapons, then forced to attack with weakened (wet) bowstrings.   The King just knew that immediate  assault won battles. The armsmen were shredded by their enemy then murdered by their Liege Lord.

Warfare history is filled with such leaders.

B-1B_2_ txt

Fig 7:   B-1B

B-1B Again (Fig 7):  This post is linked to  ABM: UTD-Today  and ABM: UTD-Safeguard about anti-ballistic missiles.  Most of the systems are effective.  There can be no doubt that we could clear the air of any and all bomber threats with today’s PAC-2 or SM-3 defenses.

When the B-1 was approved, we had the high flying Nike Hercules. Brought on-line in the late 1950s, the last operational NH unit is currently being decommissioned by Italy.

These would have been effective against the B-1 as would the Nike-Zeus which was flying in the 1960s.  If nothing else, a  non-nuclear SPRINT would have worked.

The B-1 build was due to the fixed mindset of the Air Force general staff.

Next Generation Bomber (NGB) During the Bush years, we funded designs for the “2018 Bomber.”  Since 2009, there has been a re-assessment and the 2018 Bomber became called the NGB.


Fig 8:   B-2 stealth visible in infra red (imaged by Typhoon fighter,  presented  to Norway)

Why are vital budget funds being shunted into a new bomber effort at all?  Perhaps the idea is to be super stealthy.  Star Trek had cloaking devices, Harry Potter had his invisibility blanket.  Why not  use one for our bombers?

The super stealthy, 2 billion dollar B-2 is visible (Fig 8) with current  IRST (InfraRed  Search and Target) systems.   This image of the bottom  side of the craft is from a sales presentation by EADS, a European weapons vendor.

If you expect to be attacked  by stealthy bombers, why not put IRST in ultra high balloons and look downward? A bomber must generate a lot of heat to fly, if it is shielded from re-radiating through bottom and sides, it must be really hot from above. There are almost certainly other ways of finding stealthed craft, too.

The current administration is saying that designs of an NGB are OK to pursue  but be certain that it is survivable during missions and is affordable.  You never want to lose your bomber capability from weapons that costs 1/100 what the airplane costs.

The B-2 costs $2.2 billion each and is not justified by ROI.  If it is visible in IR, effective missiles cost is less than 1/10 of 1% of a B-2.  We are ending purchases at 75 craft, even though it is a very patriotic item with high romance appeal (in the old meaning: dreamy adventure).  It does not pencil out as a useful weapon.

Funding another bomber is like funding another battleship.

Frozen thinking. This is one of the tangled threads that maintain support for demonstrably inadequate weapons.  Once people become true believers at an early age, it may be impossible to convince them they are wrong.  Late 19th Century  generals routinely sent massed troops against machine gun emplacements. The generals with such impacted concepts were not replaced until after the devastation of WW-I.

It took WW-II to stop battleship builds. The USS Missouri was commissioned in 1944, more than 20 years after General Mitchel showed mighty battleships were obsolete using mosquito-like bi-planes .  The high naval command was populated with battleship drivers with romantic visions of ruling the high seas with ultra power.

If you just know battleships work best during full-out war, nothing will dissuade you.

The Air Force command is populated with ex-pilots with romantic dreams of guiding invincible aircraft to victory, and bombers were  vital.

These men are having a hard time supporting aircraft without a cockpit.

If a billion dollar object can be defeated by something 100 times cheaper, it is wasted money, not a battle line weapon.   Lack of useful weapons would destroy the people who ignore such tiny returns on investment.

Bombers and battleships – there are many honorable but frozen-minded managers who wield power and influence.  As my father used to say, only time and high class funerals can cure a frozen attitude

Potemkins-Story_txt The Potemkin Gambit

This third reason to advocate useless massive programs is separate from the  tangle of the previous two.

by Pere Borrell del Caso 1874. Source Wikimedia Commons

Fig 9: by Pere Borrell del Caso 1874

A Potemkin Village now refers to any staged deception.  There are many examples.

Art:  Trompe L’oeil is a technique that make flat images seem real.  It hangs in galleries, it makes great street art. Fig 9 is an example of gallery art. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This art form that is a  subset of a Potemkin-Village, in that trompe l’oeil deception usually  requires a special direction of gaze.


Fig 10A:    Tiger on the Walkway


Fig 10B:    pit in sidewalk

There are more reasons to use the Potemkin gambit than as an art form.

Investments.  Ponzi schemes are the easiest ways to separate customers from their money.   These probably started when human commerce began, but  Mr. Ponzi was a big scammer in the late 1920’s.

J-David_txtPonzi gambits are a subset of a trompe l’oeil  because to buy in, you had to be a big-picture type,  looking only at the externals, not delving into operations.

I first became personally aware of a ponzi in 1984 when San Diego uncovered its  J. David Corp scandal starring Jerry Dominelli and Nancy Hoover.

 J. David donated to Culture and advertised only on classical music stations. You were honored when you were allowed in.

Recent Potemkin gambits include Enron (trompe l’oeil) and Madoff (ponzi).   But financial institutions continue to bubble out stuff that stains the community and make corporate financial advice seem to stink.


Fig 11:    Bush – open trade is good

Politics.  Pres George W Bush used a kind of trompe l’oeil a number of times.

For example, on 2003 Jan 21, he gave a speech in favor of tax cuts for the rich and for outsourcing jobs. He choose a St. Louis warehouse and it looked just great.

Fig 11, he spoke on the working floor and had boxes and boxes as his back-drop, all with Made In USA written large.

Clear Message: outsourcing helps American industry!

Bush Boxes were Made In China

Fig 12:    Bush Boxes were Made In China

This was a Potemkin Gambit,  subset trompe l’oeil.  Fig 12.  It works if you draw the camera back just so far but no farther. With the camera pulled back the backdrop was shown as a painted canvas.

This was a fake environment, meant to sooth by deception.  From a distance, you also see blue panels propped up by shipping boxes.

Those boxes had white tape strips covered by brown.   A reporter peeled back the tapes to show that all boxes had “Made In China” on the side.


Fig 13:   Balloon tank for Operation Bodyguard – Fortitude    Source: Wikimedia Commons

Military.  Nations continuously play tricks on each other in attempts to convince the enemy of Plan A while preparing for Plan B.  WW-II is a rich source of Potemkin gambit lore.

Operation Bodyguard/Fortitude:  This WW-II diversion supported the Normandy invasion.  One trick, Fig 13, used fake encampments with rubber balloon tanks, trucks, etc.  Since the British had turned all operational Nazi spies, they fully controlled information flow.

The only factual information available to Nazi command was from high flying aircraft which the British pretended to attack.  Far below were the (fake) regiments under inept camouflage that led Nazi High Command to believe it was a threat against Norway and the French Pas de Calais.

 It drew and held German troops to the wrong place while the actual invasion was happening.


Fig 14:   Russian R7, 1957

Space Activity   As with military activity, it is easy to go over the edge with distrust with space claims.

When the Soviets launched sputnik, the American far right claimed it was all a Big Red Lie  (BRL).


Fig 15:  Apollo-11 landing,  Site

ICBMs, Yuri Gargarin,  even the open American Apollo lunar landings were all said to have been done on soundstages,  all had to be fakes, Potemkin gambits.

BRL was popular at the time and arguers against were accused of being unpatriotic and were strongly attacked.

But: the Soviets really did have ICBMs, Sputniks did orbit, and Americans truly walked on the moon.   Today, some still hold to certain of those ancient BRL claims;  little can change a frozen attitude.

Potemkin Justifications   Were the BRL-er attitudes silly, way back then?  The 1957 Soviet ICBM claim when the US had none could have been bogus – no paranoia in questioning the claim.  But radio, radar (or just looking) showed Sputniks I– III;  and they needed ICBM-quality launchers for that.  After 1960, it was time to abandon BRL propaganda.

WW-II shows that military advantages exist for Potemkin gambit for attributes that do not exist.  Suppose, today, that China announced it  has orbited a military fortress with a perfect Star-Trekean cloaking shield.   China would be able to intimidate most of the nations of the world just be showing orbital pictures (better than Google Earth) of secret installations.

Faced with such possibly-Potemkin threats, how should we  proceed to the best evaluate it? The task must be to analyse with an open mind, and check the ROI.


False justifications thread through all life experiences. We show examples, but leave out others such as economics because of space constraints. Excessive patriotism and frozen mindset are always blend together;  we separated the two to make them visible.  When Potemkin illusion is added to the mix, everything is easier to take in;  the final result is nearly always quite hot, puffy, and best when swallowed whole.

It took over 500 years for our war paradigm of
… knights with armor, castles with heavy walls with moats, swords, bows, pikes

to shift to
… rapid fire weapons, high velocity projectiles, high energy-density explosives, missiles to attack and defend seacraft and aircraft.

The original weapons were proven obsolete fairly quickly, but those years, decades or centuries required for the change were the result of entanglement  in our three traps.

click for list of our other ABM posts

Such change in warfare never stops, it is still happening.  The next post in the series will compare our anti ballistic missile system with our romantic motivations.



Fig 16: Potemkin’s influence in 2020

Update — 2020 June 25   UPDATE
This complements the Potemkin Gambit of Fig 12 (Bush bragging about economy surrounded by crates each with made In China label taped out).

More current for today’s analysis is the screenshot I picked up from Quora.


Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2013 August 12
Listed under  Technology   …   Technology > Aerospace
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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