Meet Professor Norden, Chief of the Research Staff

You may recall the incredible story by Arthur C. Clarke titled “Superiority” (available in the collection: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke). This short story, written in 1951, is such a great read because it captures some key, apparently enduring qualities of militaries that become seduced by their technological superiority. The result: Even though the story was written almost six decades ago Clarke gave us all a lens perfect for the viewing of technological arrogance. And he gave us warnings that apply across the full spectrum of technologies, not just UAVs.

From the book:

The situation was now both serious and infuriating. With stubborn conservatism and complete lack of imagination the enemy continued to advance with his old-fashioned and inefficient but now vastly more numerous ships.

More on the story:

  • The setting is a SciFi future, where battles occur in space.
  • In the story, A losing Admiral has a request of his captors. He hopes to clear up the record on a few things, and especially wants to be sure he is not forced to share a cell with the CTO-type person who got them into the mess he is in (Professor Norden, Chief of the Research Staff) .
  • Failures were not due to lack of bravery or the fault of operational decisions. Failure was due to the inferior science of the enemy. Clarke reveals how in a way that is laughable but also causes anyone with military service pause (I believe most veterans have seen situations that the story will remind them of).
  • This fantastic story was written in the past, about a future far from now, but echoes stories from throughout military history. Reportedly this particular story was based on Carke’s observations of Allied victory in Europe in WWII, but it could have also been written about the the situation we find ourselves in today. There really are warnings here for our military planners.

My hope in sharing this is to get you to read this short story and think about it in a context of today’s military. The lessons from this story are the same lessons which should be learned from Thucydides and Sun Tzu and countless others. These are the same lessons that should have been learned when the entire national security apparatus underestimated the enemy in Vietnam. The lessons are, unfortunately, learned again and again. Look for these lessons in every US military battle lost, and look for them in the movies and books that come out of the battles (one very clear example of our arrogance at work and its cost in lives is “Black Hawk Down“). The big lesson, learned again and again: If you start relying too heavily on your technology and allow arrogance to set in, you open yourself up to defeat by a technologically inferior force.

Some of the worst problems arise when leaders start to think their technology is so superior it can have no flaws. When you start assuming you are superior to a thinking, creative adversary it is time to question your assumptions (before it is too late).

And, another point that should not be a shock to anyone in uniform or out: The bad guys want to steal our secrets, and we should want to prevent them from doing so. It is hard to accomplish this goal, but one thing we should not be doing is making it easy for them to intercept our data in the clear.

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