Weapons: July 31, 2005


While the United States has developed many new weapons, and  scored some impressive combat victories, of late, it is worth noting that there have been a few areas where the American military has either lagged, or fallen behind, other countries. To date, most of these have not created significant problems, however, they still need to be kept in mind. Historically, the United States has often found itself lagging in weapons quality . In World War II, the United States found itself facing superior technology in the Pacific Theater, most notably, the Type 93 Long Lance torpedo (which outperformed the Mk 15 surface torpedo in both range and lethality) and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero (a highly maneuverable long-range fighter). It was the same in the European Theater, where the M4 Sherman found itself outclassed by the German Tiger and King Tiger tanks.

One of the most notable areas where the United States has arguably fallen behind today is in non-nuclear-powered submarines. The last of the American diesel-electric submarines, the USS Blueback, was retired in 1990. These subs had been the last diesel-electric submarines built, in 1959. Since then, Russia, Germany, and France (among other countries) have developed and deployed several classes of diesel-electric submarines, and have moved on to air-independent propulsion. These submarines are arguably a threat in coastal waters. This shortfall has made filling a diesel-electric submarine order by Taiwan very difficult, as most of the European countries have bowed to diplomatic pressure from China to not license the technology to the United States for that purpose.

Another area where the United States lagged was in the development of helmet-mounted sights for infra-red guided missiles. The Israelis and Russians were far ahead of the United States. The AA-11/R-73 Archer, which was deployed on the MiG-29 Fulcrum, the MiG-23MLD Flogger K, MiG-31 Foxhound, and Su-27 Flanker, was deployed in 1984. The Israeli Python 4 was deployed around the same time and it was placed on Israeli F-16s. The AIM-9X Sidewinder and its helmet-mounted sight were not deployed until 2002.

The United States has also fallen way behind other countries in terms of gathering human intelligence (HUMINT) over in the past decade. Much of this was due to overblown scandals in the 1970s and 80s. involving human intelligence sources who were not exactly angels that led to timidity on the part of the CIA. The adverse media coverage from a press that did not seem to grasp the concept that sometimes to stop one group of bad guys, you might need to deal with other somewhat shady characters did not help, either. As a result, the CIA has chosen to rely on satellites, which do not cause such scandals or lead to lawsuits from Amnesty International.

This has haunted the United States in the war on terror (and the larger struggle against violent extremists). The HUMINT shortfall was a contributing factor to the inability to prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001. The case of the Iraqi WMD is one human sources could have given us a perspective satellites could not have (telling us what Saddam was being told, or what Saddam was telling others). The capability is being rebuilt, but it is a slow process. In 2004, then-CIA Director George Tenet said that despite seven years of work, the rebuilding would not be finished for another five years.

These areas where the United States has fallen behind will need to be addressed, but the major lesson is that even the strongest countries can be vulnerable in some areas. To a large extent, the United States has been able to overcome these deficiencies due to its advantages elsewhere (most notably in the quality of its personnel). However, some deficiencies particularly in human intelligence could leave the country vulnerable to attack. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)


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