Boast of rail gun tech shows the risks of a command economy

Boast of rail gun tech shows the risks of a command economy

“Leaked photos show China is not only catching up with the US in ship-borne rail gun technology, but may surpass the US in the next five to 10 years. This is because the US needs more time to approve budgets while China’s political system allows it to put more funding into special projects.”

Song Zhongping, military commentator,

SCMP, February 7

In Yokohama harbour in Japan lies a museum passenger ship, the Hikawa, which was used to ferry Japanese dignitaries around the world on diplomatic missions before the Pacific war.

This was not its only purpose. The penny drops when you see the enormous underpowered clunker of an engine, antiquated even in the 1930s. It served, along with other ruses, to give the world the impression that Japanese marine technology was well behind the times and the Imperial Japanese Navy therefore no real threat. Then along came the war and both Britain and the United States were stunned by the speeds that Japanese warships could achieve with their very modern high-pressure turbines, by the deadliness of the Japanese oxygen-fuelled torpedo and by the performance of Japanese naval aircraft.

Fooled them, that was what the Hikawa did.

It seems China is taking the opposite tack. Rail guns are up there with electricity from fusion power plants as an alluring future technology but the distant future is where both have remained throughout the many decades since they were first conceived.

China’s military fires up world first in revolutionary rail gun technology

There does not appear to have been any real breakthrough behind this latest ballyhoo in the arsenals of the People’s Liberation Army. I imagine a glowing progress report was required in order to sustain the research expenditure and therefore one was issued. Thus here we have an achievement of publicity rather than weaponry. I prefer the less deadly side of the military.

But I completely agree that a command economy is much better than a market economy at moving special projects rapidly to completion. There are no budget debates, no public consultations and no required licences or permits. The boss man says do this and everyone does as commanded. It is undoubtedly the best way to move mountains, exterminate sparrows, build backyard smelters and indulge in dreams of tokamak fusion reactors or ship-borne rail guns.

If, of course, any of these are really what we want to do. And it is in answering this question of whether they really are what we want to do that democracy, public hearings and market economies generally give us better results. Command economies are good at doing what has been decided. They are not quite so good at deciding what to do.

Mostly they get sidetracked into funding domestic development of past star technologies such as iron and steel, into loss-making prestige ventures such as national airlines and, distressingly often, as in this case, into military ventures. And when this misallocation of their resources starts to become apparent these ventures do not, as capitalist ones do, go bankrupt or change direction in dread of impending bankruptcy. They just keep going as they have before, counting on the state to guarantee their markets and funding for them.

The end is either a resounding financial crisis such as brought the Soviet Union down or, at best, the growing senescence of the command elements of the Japanese economy. But whether they end with a bang or with a whimper, command economies carry their doom with them. The biggest danger that I see in this boasting of how China can outdo the US in developing a rail gun is not just its tint of racism or the absurdity of a weapons race but the hubris that says that a small group of people in Beijing can really work out what is best for 1.4 billion compatriots with no input from them. I don’t see scorn of budget approval as a virtue.


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