I recently realized that some science fiction readers and also those curious about the machines of war sometimes have a skewed notion about how military systems should be compared. I find this by reading people’s thoughts about books/movies I know and also reading through the questions about planes and ships in Quora. People ask things like: Is the Defiant ‘better’ than a Klingon Bird of Prey? Or: Was the Spitfire a ‘better’ fighter than P-51 Mustang. If you know much about the topic, then these are strange queries. They beg the question, “Better at what?” It would be like if someone asked you, “What’s ‘better,’ a kitchen oven or a barbecue grill?” This would incite the reply, “Well, I hope you aren’t lighting fires in your kitchen oven.”
With the machines of war, “better” is always a relative term, and the machines, while seeming to be similar, are often built for varying purposes. We cannot compare them with a simple answer of, “This one is better.” We seem to have a culture that demands things in the most simple black and white terms. People skip the details and go straight for the bottom line. Unfortunately, highly technical machines and warfare in general are far more complex than just the bottom line. Skip the details, and you’re begging to be confused by a result you never expected. It all makes me wonder how we got to this point.
A Culture of Over Simplification (or I Blame Star Wars)
Enter Star Wars. The bad guys wear black, and have all the advantages. Their fighters are better, their ships are bigger, and their forces more numerous. The good guys must win through sheer grit and determination. It’s a literary construct owed to the notion that the good guy is only as good as the bad guy, so you must make the bad guy really powerful. It’s quite simple to understand, but therein lies the problem. Realistic combat is never as simple as that. Usually, one side has advantages that the other doesn’t, and vice versa. Realistic warfare is a complex tapestry of strengths and weaknesses and the face of it can shift wildly in a moment’s notice. When penning a combat scene with any plausibility to speak of, it’s important to realize that one side that is better in one aspect doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory. Battle is never as simple as a single quality.
Is Better Really Better?
History shows this repeatedly. In the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans were far better trained and were better motivated. In two ways the Spartans were better, but even that wasn’t enough. Being heavily outnumbered and many other reasons, they lost that battle. Having numerical superiority, the Persians should have won easily, but they didn’t. They struggled against a talented enemy who defied their understanding of armed conflict. Both had advantages, but these qualities weren’t enough to produce an expected result. Another example: after completing a perfect 16-0 regular season the New England Patriots football team entered the Super Bowl. In just about every measure, they were a better team than their opponent, the New York Giants. The Pats should have won easily, yet they still lost after a series of improbable plays. Better wasn’t quite enough for a guarantee of victory because in conflict, better is a relative term. As Al Pacino said in the movie Any Given Sunday, “You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don’t quite catch it.”
What Does Better Mean?
During WW2, the American P-40 served in the Pacific against the much-vaunted Japanese A6M Zero. The P-40 performed poorly against the Zero and this has led to a great many people believing the P-40 was a terrible airplane. In fact, it was quite good and served in nearly every theater of WW2. Jump to the present and (some) flight simulators model the P-40 as a flying brick, barely able to turn at all. This is a case of people having too crude an understanding of what better means. In truth, the P-40 was quite maneuverable, a very good fighter. But when compared to the nimblest fighter of the entire war, the A6M, it fell short. That doesn’t mean the P-40 wasn’t maneuverable at all, just not as maneuverable as the A6M (honestly, nothing else could dogfight as well as the A6M). An accurate comparison shows the difference in maneuverability was actually quite small. In technological warfare, better doesn’t necessarily mean orders of magnitude better. It usually means a fractional difference, a tiny one, where the difference between life and death is measured in milliseconds. The comparison between victor and defeated is often a razor’s edge.
It’s Man or Woman, Not The Machine
When people see a great photo, they often say to the photographer, “You must have a great camera.” This is insulting to a photographer. There’s much, much more to taking a picture than just having a great camera. The F-4 Phantom fighter and the Mig-21 fighter met on the battlefield many times in the 70s and 80s. Which was better? I would say the F-4, but does that mean F-4 pilots had it easy because their foe wasn’t orders of magnitude better? Did they enter battle with no risk at all? Absolutely not! The Mig-21 was still a great airplane. If a Phantom pilot is half a second too slow, the Mig could easily shoot it down. The F-4’s advantages were not so great that they couldn’t be overcome by a talented pilot. Anyone entering battle is still brave and heroic even if they have an advantage. In all things, it’s the man or woman that make the greatest difference, not machine. The differences in equipment help us understand outcomes, but it’s always the human being that is the decisive factor. In stories of combat we don’t need gigantic differences between spaceships or mecha to make a battle interesting. Star Wars was easy to understand, but it also wasn’t believable. A literary technique, used to simplify understanding of the scenario, took the real drama away. Realistically described combat, with lives on the line and a razor’s edge between better and best, and all the complexities of warfare, is thrilling and plausible all at once.