Nothing can do everything, or Commentary from a Gamer on the JSF

I’m currently sitting in my office, waiting for the washing machine to kick out so I can move laundry over to the dryer. As is the norm for me, I’ve been reading current event threads and stories to see what’s going on in the world.

Lo and behold, I ran across yet another article about the Joint Strike Fighter.

For those who don’t know, the JSF (also known as the F-35) is an ongoing money pit project to build an aircraft that can fulfill multiple roles. In essence, it’s designed for air superiority, light bombing, and close ground support roles.

It’s one of the most expensive projects in history, with some $200 billion already sunk into it (last I checked), and an estimated total cost of $1 trillion.

In the last year, reports keep surfacing of problems with the JSF project. Aside from the almost-expected delays and cost overruns, there have been reports of simulated dogfights with the JSF not able to keep up with last-generation fighters in a scrap. Detractors of the project point to the JSF as a failure that we should pull funding from (and usually add things like redirect the money to refurbishing or building new A-10s and F-22s); supporters tend to point out the limitations of the fighter v fighter tests or discuss the F-35s ability to fight beyond visual range (BVR) with standoff missiles.

What some of the naysayers seem to understand, and supporters don’t, is that a Swiss army knife approach to building an aircraft is a poor philosophy.

Why do I say that? Gaming experience.

Star Wars Galaxies was, depending on your perspective, one of the finest games or worst failures ever pushed out onto the market. And lost in the discussion of the various revamps the game went through is arguably the finest expansion ever released for an MMO: Jump to Lightspeed.

JtL, as I’ll abbreviate, allowed players to build and equip starfighters and engage in combat. The various ships were given stats based on their “canon” roles as fighter, bomber, or interceptor. Essentially, all ships were on a sliding scale with high speed and maneuverability worked opposite equipment hardpoints and total ship “mass”. In essence, the more firepower you could put on a ship, the slower and less maneuverable it was.

In fiction, the “balanced” fighters are usually the best, most noticeably with the X-wing, the supposed perfect blend of speed, maneuverability, and firepower. In stories that works out well, but players are competitive, and they tend to look for the advantage rather than the story. Competitive players in anything, be it a video game or a sport, will work to maximize their chances of winning, both offensively and defensively.

And gamers are competitive.

Early in JtL, as people were beginning to understand the system, players flocked to those “balanced” craft – not unlike a JSF, they could do everything a player needed. They could fight in a turn, carry plenty of firepower, were reasonably fast, etc.

As the metagame aged, players began moving away from the “balanced” craft in favor of the interceptors. Faster, smaller (and thus harder to hit), and lighter-armed, players found the additional speed and maneuverability were more important than the additional firepower of the “balanced” craft. They went from jack-of-all-trade ships to dedicated dogfighters, and the “balanced’ craft couldn’t keep up.

The metagame truly hit maturity when an enterprising group of players found a weakness in the high-speed, high-maneuverability dogfight and instead switched to slow but missile-heavy bombers. The interceptors initially had plenty of trouble trying to save themselves from multiple missile hits – hits the light interceptors generally couldn’t absorb.

Initial response to the metagame shift was to slip back into the “balanced” multirole craft. However, the slow missile-dedicated craft were still fast enough and plenty powerful enough to kill the multirole craft nearly as well as the interceptors. Players slid back away from multirole craft into either more missile-heavy craft, or back into interceptors with different approach tactics and loadouts to kill the missile-spammers.

“How in the world does this apply to the JSF program?” you’re asking.

It’s pretty simple: the best aircraft (or spacecraft, if you were playing Jump to Lightspeed) is one that maximizes its advantages and minimizes its disadvantages.

Interceptors maximized their speed and agility and minimized their fragileness through superior maneuvering and their firepower by loading that single offensive hardpoint with the biggest gun they could manage.

Missile craft maximized their straightline speed with high-performance engines and large boosters to minimize their maneuvering disadvantage, and loaded up the biggest missiles possible to maximize their firepower.

Those “balanced” craft? To stay in the game, they wound up doing much of the same, but were never as effective as either the interceptors or the missile craft. While they could actually keep up with many interceptors in straight-line flight with dedicated speed engines, they were massacred in the turn. Their heavy firepower took the form of lasers instead of missiles, which were harder to aim and hit, which meant the bombers could more reliably land blows. They fell into a middle ground where they weren’t the best at anything.

That’s the road we’re walking down with the JSF. By putting everything into a single platform, it can’t do everything well, because there are always trade-offs. By trying to do everything, it will be outperformed by platforms that are committed solely to their task.

Too long, didn’t read? “Specialization is a good thing.”

With that thought, the laundry is done.

Also, I’m working on another fiction-writing column that started with a short story I read about a B-wing squadron. Working title: “Keeping the small details consistent.”

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