Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 12:19 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 12:19 | SYDNEY

I am guided by the beauty of our weapons


Sam Roggeveen


10 March 2009 10:14

The Australian International Airshow starts today in Avalon, and doubtless the American B-1B Lancer will be the star of the flight display. As a confirmed sceptic about recent uses of US military force and an advocate for lower defence spending, it does feel a little strange to be so entranced by military technology. But putting aside the fact that this is a strategic bomber capable of causing massive destruction, I defy anyone to tell me that it is not a gorgeous piece of machinery.

Good looks might actually be a deliberate ploy by arms manufacturers. In 2002 James Fallows wrote a piece for The Atlantic about the competition to design a new fighter jet for the US and its allies, a lucrative contest in which the Boeing design was less than pleasing to the eye. Boeing lost:

To get enough air into the engine, and for reasons relating to the stealthy design, the Boeing plane had an intake at the front that looked like an oversized, gaping mouth. In the mid-1990s the plane was called a flying frog or a pelican. By the late 1990s it was known inside the Pentagon as "Monica." When Boeing produced promotional videos of the plane, for an advertising blitz before the ultimate downselect, it hired digital artists who had worked on Titanic to substitute another plane's outline for Monica's. The switch was defensible, because Boeing had been clear about its intention to alter parts of the design—though not the mouth, which was still visible in the video—if it won.

No one with a prominent and official role in the JSF program will say that a factor as frivolous as looks made the slightest difference in the outcome. Darleen Druyun, a powerful civilian official at the Pentagon, ridicules the idea that "emotion" would color a multi-billion-dollar decision. "I've had a number of officers come down and say, 'Druyun, have you looked at the airplane?'" she told me, referring to a previous case in which she favored an "ugly" model. "I said, 'Yes, I've looked at it, and I've flown in it, and I want to tell you something. Looks can be deceiving.'" Mike Hough, a boisterous Marine Corps general who was directing the JSF program when the final decision was made, sputtered when I asked if Boeing's plane was too ugly to win. "Looks made the difference? Not even goddamn close! I want to tell you about the old bottom feeder"—a catfish image for the Boeing plane. "It performed flawlessly. It was incredible, the performance of that airplane. It was an amazing machine, and it still is." (The other, though, was even better.)

People without official roles in the process are not so sure. Manfred Von Nordheim, a dashing German who directs the U.S. office of the European aerospace consortium that builds the Airbus, the Eurofighter, and other products, says: "To me it was obvious. If you looked at the two planes, that one was not going to fly. It was like the Edsel. You wonder, didn't someone say, Wait a minute! This doesn't look right?" Helpful as my contacts at Boeing were, no one was eager to claim credit for the design of the plane.

Photo by Flickr user matneym, used under a Creative Commons license.