Infrared Systems for Tactical Aviation: An Evolution in Military Affairs?

Understanding how the chaotic evolutionary development of infrared (IR) systems for tactical aviation compares to the more traditional development of radar systems could result in flexible development systems that more easily adapt to uncertain security conditions.

The concept of using natural evolution to understand how modern organizations adapt to a chaotic, rapidly changing world situation is popular in the business world. This research examines whether the chaotic evolutionary development model is pertinent to the U.S. military’s ability to adapt to prevailing national security conditions in the twenty-first century. In particular, it examines the evolutionary development of infrared (IR) systems for tactical aviation to understand how the natural evolution model can be applied to the development of military systems, and how that compares with the more traditional development of radar systems.

Evolutionary development is based on using continuous experimentation and adaptation in changing circumstances to reward success, while allowing, but eventually eliminating, failure. Since this approach is agile, flexible, quick reacting, and thrives on change, it contrasts with strategic planning in which systems are developed in a planned and orderly fashion to meet future requirements. A planned system is rigid, slow to react, and resists or ignores change, which contrasts with how the military traditionally develops weapon systems.

One word that distinguishes between evolutionary and planned development is “chaos.” Chaos, like risk, is unavoidable, and hence should be managed rather than avoided. Indeed, a certain degree of chaos is desirable because it generates the necessary set of adaptations and ideas that can eventually be “selected” for evolutionary improvement. The Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest” can be applied to ideas, systems, and organizations that seek to maintain a competitive advantage.

A simple example that illustrates this line of thinking is IBM’s failure to anticipate the switch from mainframe computers and remote terminals to smaller, standalone, personal computers, which often is cited as an example of poor strategic planning. In terms of an evolutionary paradigm, the argument is that it was so impossible for IBM to logically deduce such a radical development that no strategic plan could have succeeded. Instead of focusing on poor planning, an important conclusion for IBM is to develop an organization that is sufficiently chaotic to develop all relevant fields, while adapting quickly when the “fittest” systems survive. Since chaos is not usually associated with IBM’s culture in the 1980’s, its failure is not surprising from an evolutionary standpoint. If we substitute the Department of Defense (DoD) for IBM and the fall of the Berlin Wall for the computer revolution, a similar story emerges for national security. The argument is that the radical shift to an information-based society might provide a better guide for military modernization.

The two critical terms here are “chaotic” and “evolutionary.” Chaotic does not imply total unpredictability or “a state of utter confusion,” but should be thought of in terms of the science of chaos theory in which order and stability can be derived from inherently unpredictable states. It is useful, therefore, to think of chaotic as “unplanned” or “other than planned.” At the same time, evolutionary development does not necessarily imply a “process of gradual and relatively peaceful advance,” but is the adaptation of systems to a changing environment by an unbiased selection process that rewards success. It can lead to radical, as well as gradual, shifts in a system.

To understand the potential of chaotic evolutionary development, consider the historical example of military systems whose development exhibited chaotic evolutionary traits, specifically the development of infrared systems for tactical aviation. First, the development of IR systems proceeded in a relatively unplanned manner and exhibited many chaotic and evolutionary aspects. Second, IR systems are relevant to current U.S. Air Force (USAF) operations. Third, IR systems can be examined in terms of combat, which is the ultimate test of military systems. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the evolutionary development of IR systems can be compared with the more traditional development of radar systems, which also exploit the electromagnetic spectrum for many of the same military tasks.

This work was done by George B. Hept, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF, for the Air War College. For more information, download the Technical Support Package below. AFIT-0003


This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Infrared Systems for Tactical Aviation: An Evolution in Military Affairs?

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