The First Rule of Modern Warfare: Never Bring a Knife to a Gunfight©

By Szafranski, Richard | Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The First Rule of Modern Warfare: Never Bring a Knife to a Gunfight©


Szafranski, Richard, Air & Space Power Journal


In the future, we will require deep-strike capabilities to penetrate and engage highvalue targets during the first minutes of hostilities anywhere in the battlespace.

-Gen T. Michael Moseley

There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.

-Thomas Schelling

IT COMES AS no surprise that the first rule of gunfighting is "Never bring a knife to a gunfight. Bring a gun. Preferably, bring at least two guns."1 That said, under what conditions might a manned fighter be a gun or a knife in fights of the future? The question addresses manned fighters in general, not any particular instantiation of a manned fighter, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the F/A-22 Raptor, China's J-IO, the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Gripen, the Mikoyan Article 1.42 (also known as the Mnogofunktsionalny Frontovoi Istrebitel [MFI, multifunctional frondine fighter]), or the Rafale-although we may use some of them as examples.

In the case of the manned fighters mentioned above, separate countries may be on the other side of the decision river already. Those nations, including the United States, have such confidence in their foreknowledge of the future that they are committing a fair (and increasing) chunk of national treasure-always subject to review-to the capabilities that one version or another of a future manned fighter promises to provide.2 Moreover, so confident are we in understanding the future environment that, absent limitless treasuries, we also must be forgoing investments in apparently lessvaluable military equipment for nonaviation elements of our joint forces in order to purchase a future manned fighter. The fact that air forces around the planet periodically need or want a new manned fighter is a familiar condition. But now let's move to unfamiliar conditions.

Four Simple Premises about the Future

The past is done. Finished. The future does not exist. It must be created microsecond by microsecond by every living being and thing in tlie universe.

-Edward Teller

This article seeks to enlarge our thinking by creating or defining a few future states wherein manned fighters may have less utility (or little or no utility). Such states would serve as a counterpoint to the futures envisioned or created by planners in the United States and Europe, wherein a manned fighter is an essential element of an armed force. Thus, the article paints pictures of potentially strange and unfamiliar futures, allowing readers to decide whether these states-or combinations of them-are improbable or not. If any do not seem improbable, however strange they may be, we must take them seriously in our planning. Not only must we envision an unfamiliar future (all futures are unfamiliar) but also we must test the value or utility of a manned fighter in those environments.

Envisioning these futures entails accepting four simple premises. The first holds that some things will change over time. I think Edward Teller is correct in asserting that there is really no such thing as "the future," which-unless or until we have better understanding or mastery of the time-space continuum-is a mental construct, an abstraction, or an invention. Thus, we may construct any future or as many futures as we like.

The second premise tells us that the future-this bundle of changes 10, 20, or 30 years hence-will not resemble the present in every regard. That is, given additional discoveries in chemistry, physics, biology, microelectronics, nanotechnology, and so forth, it is inconceivable that materials, structures, computing machines, robotics, propulsion, sensors, and the like would not experience an accelerating rate of change. Rather, we may reasonably and logically assume that human invention and inventiveness will not cease. …

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