China Bans Windows 8 for Government Use

In an interesting move, the Chinese government has decided to purge their offices of Windows in a “notice on the use of energy-saving products.” It also said that ban was to “ensure computer security.” Notwithstanding the opaqueness of these statements, this could have a significant impact on the future of computing.

Ubuntu Kylin . . . about to takeover the market?

According to Wikipedia, China has about 10 million people working in its government, compared to about 2.6 million in the US federal government (I believe that both of these numbers exclude military).  Not only that, the Chinese national government is far more entrenched in the day-to-day operations of the country.  Consequently, this means that Windows is losing an enormous potential market share.

Ouch for Microsoft.

On the other hand, it likely means that Ubuntu Kylin is probably going to drastically grow in adoption and be financially backed by China, which will hopefully provide support for all those freeloaders who use Ubuntu for free.  Like me.

ROTC and the Higher Education Bubble

A number of pundits have been talking over the last two years about the bubble in higher education and predicting that the bubble will soon burst (if it hasn’t already) and cause some major changes in the education system as a whole. The gist of the reasoning is:

  • A combination of federal student aid and social norm that college is required for the middle class has driven up the cost of college four times faster than the rate of inflation.
  • The glut of college graduates resulting from these forces has made high-paying jobs more difficult to get because of the intense competition, meaning that the return on investment of a college education is declining (of course, this is more pronounced for liberal arts students than for STEM students). Exacerbating this is the decline in actual learning going on, where students today are spending about 50% less time studying than they were 20 years ago.
  • The prospect of going into debt for school, then, is becoming far less enticing for people, causing them to choose other options than college. Enrollment in many places is declining, and schools are increasingly struggling to cover their costs.
  • Particularly motivated individuals are pursuing low-cost equivalents and alternatives to college, allowing them to avoid debt and enter the workforce earlier. These include distance-learning degrees, independent certification programs, and entrepreneurship.

After hearing this line of reasoning several times, I began to wonder what the potential impacts upon officer commissioning this change presents. These changes will mainly have a direct effect on ROTC programs, but still impact OCS and the service academies indirectly. Specifically:

  • Assuming that the commissioning programs remain identical to their present form (which essentially have not changed in 40+ years), declining enrollment in colleges now means that the population from which to recruit potential officers has also shrunk. That smaller population means that the average cadet will also be of lesser quality.
  • To make matters worse, the students who are going a different route to get on with their lives and avoid debt, I would argue, represent individuals who are more motivated and no-nonsense than the rest. These are exactly the types we want to convince to join the military. The students that are left will tend to be the types that see college as a four- (or five-)year party.
  • For ROTC, this also means that the cost of full scholarships is going to go up. The return on investment is going to decline. It used to be that ROTC was a cheap way to get good officer candidates both for active and reserve forces.
  • OCS will be less directly affected, but once again–if the general quality of a college graduate is decreasing, then then quality of available officer candidates will decrease as well.
  • I’m less inclined to know what effect this will have on service academies. Since their cost to the student is zero, they will tend to become more attractive and thus have the ability to be much more selective. On the other hand, the fiscal reality is that a service academy education will probably remain much more costly ($400K+, last I heard) than ROTC–and Congress will probably be keen to shift money to the cheaper alternative, given that a service academy graduate is not guaranteed to be a better officer than an ROTC graduate. [Full disclosure: I graduated from West Point and also taught ROTC cadets. It’s a topic for another day, but they both have something valuable to add to the military as well as a lot of untapped potential.]
They’re college graduates. But how do we know if they’re any good? And if they are, how many more of them are on the way?

Officers have been required to have college degrees at least as far back as WWII, so I’m skeptical that DoD will be agile enough to make necessary and appropriate changes to officer accessions, or what those changes might actually be. I will take a few shots in the dark, though:

  • The services need to do some real soul searching and identify precisely what an officer needs to be (and maybe what an officer does not need to be). Undoubtedly, this will depend upon the individual service and specialty. But it must answer the question: What value do we think a college degree really gives to an officer?
  • Next, it must answer: Are all colleges actually providing that value? If not, are we willing to say which bachelor’s degrees qualify for service and which ones don’t? Do we have an independent way to certify that a candidate has “the stuff”?
  • Since candidates with strong potential may steer clear of college and pursue alternative routes, how can we reach them and recruit them? Will we be comfortable accessing them without actually having a degree?
  • Perhaps future officer accessions will throw away the degree requirement, and replace it with a battery of tests which evaluate reasoning ability and written communications skills, then require all officers to pass through a souped up OCS akin to The Basic School, the Marine Corps’ gateway to officership.
  • Perhaps this also means that the military has horizontal accessions.  By that I mean people who have proved themselves in the business world to have the skills and character we need in the military being allowed to enter the service as an officer above the grade of O-1.
  • A read a book about ten years ago where a whole host of thinkers keyed in on some outside-the-box thinking with regards to the Army profession, some of which addressed alternatives to officer accession. Might be worth looking at again . . .

This is just the off-the-cuff thoughts of a former officer, so there is undoubtedly a lot more to this.  I pray that DoD starts thinking about this in the very near future . . .

Northrup-Grumman, Yamaha R-Bat

Northrop-Grumman recently announced the production of the ‘R-Bat’, an autonomous helicopter based upon the Yamaha R-Max.  It appears that, like our lab’s R-Max, Yamaha is providing just the airframe; Northrup Grumman will be installing their avionics (though, from the pictures, it looks like they’ve created a much more compact installation).

Photo: Northrop Grumman

I have two thoughts on this news.

  • I’m really excited to see the RMax being taken up by one of the big boys because it’s been more of a niche product thus far.  With Northrup Grumman selling this thing, we might see them in the air much more commonly, and with good justification as this is a really good aircraft.
  • The press release doesn’t come right out and say it, but it sounds like this aircraft will be used for military purposes.  Seems well-timed given the Japanese government’s recent decision to allow weapons export.

Why a new Marine One?

Sikorsky was awarded a $1.24 billion contract to replace the current fleet of presidential helicopters (“Marine One”) with six S-92 helicopters, plus two simulators.  This news has been published in many places in the last week, but it bears some explanation beyond what most coverage says.

S-92 as Marine One (concept art) (Photo: Sikorsky Aircraft)

You can visit Wikipedia (Marine One, SH-3 Sea King, S-92) to get all of the gory details, but this decision can be boiled down to a few important things:

  • The current Marine One aircraft, the VH-3D, is based upon a helicopter which first saw service in the Navy in 1959, and started being used as presidential helicopter in 1961.  Though the Marine One fleet are probably the most well-maintained helicopters in world, these airframes are getting old, particularly considering that we keep wanting to jam more high tech stuff in there to protect the president and his ability to command and control the military on the fly.  Another fact that bears mentioning: the US Navy retired this aircraft from all their other fleets in 2006–meaning that parts could be getting more expensive and harder to get.
  • The S-92 on the other hand, has been flying in operations for only about 10 years. Since that time, it has had an excellent safety record. The airframe has been used in many different roles, but civil and military versions already exist and will be adapted for presidential use.  Additionally, it shares parts commonality with the S-70, an aircraft in use with US Army as the UH-60 Blackhawk and the Navy as the SH-60 Seahawk.
  • From a specification perspective, the two appear about the same–about the same size, similar useful loads.  The S-92 is a little bit faster than the SH-3.  However, the important differences are very likely in smaller engineering details that don’t show up in the specs.  Numerous technological advances that are likely integrated into the S-92 airframe include more efficient powerplants, a more efficient and quiet rotor, a triple-redundant fly-by-wire flight control system, and crash protection.  These advancements add up to an aircraft that will be more efficient, more robust to failure, and safer in flight.
  • The final upside is the price tag; $1.24 billion is a lot, but far less than the $13 billion wasted over the last 10 years on the VHXX program, which was supposed to replace Marine One but was cancelled after it turned out each aircraft would cost more than Air Force One.
VH-3 as Marine One

So, congratulations Sikorsky! I’m sure POTUS will be in great hands.