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Weapons: Are Expensive Weapons Worth It?
   Next Article → SUBMARINES: Terrorizing The Targets
February 16, 2009: Although many weapons look similar to what was used 50 years ago, dramatic changes have taken place since World War II. Modern aircraft fly over three times faster, over 50 percent higher and carry over three times more munitions. Range and reliability have increased and the most common air to air weapon is now the missile. For all this, air combat has changed little. Because of physical restrictions, combat usually takes place at speeds only about 50 percent greater than World War II. Until smart bombs showed up, bombing still took place at slow speeds, primarily because the pilot can't see much if they go any faster. Munitions, particularly bombs, have become over a hundred times more effective their World War II predecessors. But there has been one dramatic change. Aircraft cost a lot more, even taking inflation into account.

The smaller size of current armed forces mainly reflects the larger amount of technology, and knowledge, now used in warfare. Consider, for example, the differences between a World War II bomber, and a modern one. The principal World War II bomber was the B-17, which weighed 29 tons, had a crew of ten, and could carry three tons of bombs to targets 1,500 kilometers away. In current dollars, each B-17 cost about $2.5 million. But that was because over 12,000 of them were built. If bought in much smaller quantities, as is typical in peacetime, each B-17 would cost over $15 million. Now compare that to a modern bomber of comparable size (or at least weight), the F-15E. With a max weight of 36 tons, an F-15E can carry up to seven tons of bombs three or four times as far as the B-17, and has a crew of only two. But this $90 million dollar aircraft is much more than six times as lethal as the B-17. That's because of smart bombs. A B-17 carried a dozen 500 pound bombs, but it took over 300 of these unguided bombs to guarantee a hit on a target below. The smart bombs of the F-15E guarantee a hit with two bombs (actually, it's 1.something, because there are occasional system failures with smart bombs). The smart bombs also glide 40 kilometers or more, allowing the F-15E to avoid most anti-aircraft fire.

Thus the big difference between these two aircraft is knowledge, as manifested in more, and better, technology. This has been a trend that has been ongoing for over a century, and continues. More technology requires fewer people in arms way, to achieve the same results, or results that were impossible in the past. Casualties are also lower. The air force is not the only component of the armed services that is undergoing these simultaneous personnel shrinkages, and increased capabilities.

A new U.S. destroyer design, the DDG-1000, displaces 14,000 tons, is 600 feet long and 79 feet wide. A crew of 150 sailors will operate a variety of weapons, including two 155mm guns, two 40mm automatic cannon for close in defense, 80 Vertical Launch Tubes (containing either anti-ship, cruise or anti-aircraft missiles), six torpedo tubes, a helicopter and three helicopter UAVs. The DDG-1000 was to cost $2 billion each, but it has been cut back to just three ships, which drives the cost up to $6 billion each.

A century ago, a Mississippi class battleship displaced 14,400 tons, was 382 feet long and 77 feet wide. Adjusted for inflation, it cost $150 million. A crew of 800 operated a variety of weapons, including four 12 inch, eight 8 inch, eight 7 inch twelve 3 inch, twelve 47mm and four 37mm guns, plus four 7.62mm machine-guns. There were also four torpedo tubes. The Mississippi had a top speed of 31 kilometers an hour, versus 54 for DDG-1000. But the Mississippi had one thing DDG-1000 lacked, armor. Along the side there was a belt of 9 inch armor, and the main turrets had 12 inch thick armor. The Mississippi had radio, but the DDG-1000 has radio, GPS, sonar, radar and electronic warfare equipment.

Each of the three DDG-1000's being built cost 40 times more than the two Mississippi class battleships. Is the DDG-1000 40 times as effective? The DDG-1000 would make quick work of the Mississippi, spotting the slower battleship by radar or helicopter, and dispatching her with a few missiles. The Mississippi's 12 inch guns had a maximum range of 18 kilometers, versus 130 kilometers for the Harpoon anti-ship missile. There has always been some debate if modern anti-ship missiles could really take down a battleship, what with all that armor and plenty of sailors for damage control work. The  USS Mississippi ended its career in the Greek navy, and was sunk by German aircraft in 1941. Many  battleships have been sunk, usually by bombs and torpedoes delivered by aircraft.

The DDG-1000 is still "pre" whatever the next dominant type of warship will be. But it's ironic that a hundred years later, the descendent of the 14,000 ton Mississippi is a 14,000 ton surface ship that has more firepower, a longer reach and the ability to see targets hundreds of kilometers away, and is called a destroyer. And what kind of destroyers escorted the Mississippi? They were ships of under a thousand tons displacement, with crews of about a hundred sailors. Armed with a few 3 inch guns and some torpedoes, no one at the time expected them to evolve into a 14,000 ton warship.

The pattern of modern weapons costing so much more than their World War II analogues is pretty consistent. A World War II M-4 tank cost $360,000 (adjusted for inflation.) An M-1 tank costs twelve times as much. Arguably, the M-1 is more than twelve times as effective.

A World War II Essex class carrier cost $540 million (adjusted for inflation.) A Nimitz class carrier, which is four times larger (by internal volume), costs $6 billion. Is the Nimitz eleven times as effective as the Essex? A World War II U.S. diesel-electric submarine cost $36 million (adjusted for inflation.) A modern diesel electric costs ten times as much. Nuclear attack subs cost $2 billion.

Consider the progress of this cost inflation (all prices given in inflation adjusted dollars) with regard to fighter aircraft. The World War II era U.S. P-51 fighter cost $600,000. Eight years later, during the Korean war, the F-86E jet cost $1.8 million. The jump from propellers to jets caused a big jump in costs. Twelve years later, the F-4E jet cost $16.4 million. In the early 1990s, the F-16A cost $23.3 million. In two years, the F-35 will enter service, costing about $85 million each.

The more modern aircraft are safer to fly, more effective in combat and a lot more expensive. The engines used to be the most expensive part of a fighter, now it's the electronics. Same with all modern weapons. The electronics embody lots of knowledge, and cost.

Not only are modern weapons way more expensive, but they cost a smaller fraction of national income to produce. That's one big reason why these much more expensive weapons got built. The money is available. Are they worth it? Well, since World War II, the U.S. Air Force has ruled the skies, the U.S. Navy has ruled the seas and no one has been able to defeat the U.S. Army. But it's all a big "what if"", and we'll never really know for sure what cheaper stuff would have cost in terms of military defeats and more dead Americans. But in warfare, the troops putting themselves in harm's way, believe that "too much ain't enough" when it comes to their weapons and equipment.

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geekynerd    Not sure about the math   2/16/2009 2:08:16 PM
Sure, it sounds good that ff weapon system X is 20 times more effective than it's predicessor but only costs 10 times as much that sounds good.
 
Here's the kicker though, will system X be 20 times more effective at taking out an opponent whose equipment is also 20 times better (or even 15 times better) than what it was in WWII?  It's all well can good to say you can hit a ship 140 miles away but if he can also hit you from the same distance then all you've maintained is rough parity at a vastly higher per-unit cost and vastly slower per unit replacement rate for the stuff that gets totalled.
 
As far as technologically inferior opponents go, big deal, it's always really, really easy to beat up the guy with lots more, but obsolete, equipment - all other things being equal.  So, yeah, one squadron of F-15's could replace every single allied aircraft in WWII but unless you've got a handy time-warp to go back and change history with I'm not entirely sure I agree with your point.
 
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bobbymike    You are missing the point   2/16/2009 2:31:29 PM
The article is strictly a comparison about weapons cost and their effectiveness over time, nothing more. Over my entire adult lifetime there has always been a debate about the spiraling cost of new weapons systems. Some articles even make the same WWII comparisons.
 
The author of this post is simply adding to the debate by bringing up issues that should be considered in addition to just the oft repeated "why does it cost so much?"
 
The points you make are valid but are outside the purview of the article.  The gist of the article is that we are getting an appropriate bang for the buck all things considered.
 
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FJV    Not exactly   2/16/2009 2:40:51 PM
In my opinion it depends on the law of diminishing returns. Just a quick calculation based on a few well known rule of thumbs.
 
Suppose you build the absolute best fighter plane without any regard for costs.
 
The Pareto (80/20) rule states I can theoretically build a plane that is 80% as good for 20% of the cost. I can also spend an additional 20% to get 80% of the remaining 20% quality.
 
So for 40% of the cost of the absolutely best imaginable fighter plane I can theoretically build a plane that is:
80%+0.8*20%=96%  as good. (Close enough to negate the quality over quantity effect in my opinion)

For the same amount of money I can buy 2.5 times the amount of 96% perfect planes when compared to a 100% perfect plane.Which means 2.4 times the amount of planes when corrected for the 96% efficiency (0.96*2.5=2.4)
 
When taking Lancaster's square law into consideration:
(2.42-1.02)0.5= 2.18
This means that I have 2.18 planes left after all the absolutely best imaginable fighter plane are defeated
 
So in my opinion it really depends whether a weapon system is improved beyond where the law of diminishing returns really doesn't make the small improvement worth the cost.
 
Now I wonder whether the F22 is the 96% efficient fighter for 40% of the cost of the absolutely best imaginable fighter  or whether the designers have unwittingly pushed beyond this and made a close to 100% of the absolutely best imaginable fighter.
 
People who fancy themselves as very intelligent might wanna consider what that 96% would look like. I myself would think a something similar to the YF23 would make a good candidate.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Rick9719    Modern Fighters   2/16/2009 3:01:43 PM
An F-22's attack pattern is significantly different from a P-51.  The modern fighter will dogfight only as a backup.  Ideally they will be guided in by AWACs radar and fire beyond visual range missiles at the targets without being spotted.  Of course Mustangs didn't want to be spotted either but there is definitly another layer that's been added to air combat since the invention of radar homing missiles. 
 
 
 
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geekynerd    Not sure about the math   2/16/2009 3:17:43 PM
Sure, it sounds good that ff weapon system X is 20 times more effective than it's predicessor but only costs 10 times as much that sounds good.
 
Here's the kicker though, will system X be 20 times more effective at taking out an opponent whose equipment is also 20 times better (or even 15 times better) than what it was in WWII?  It's all well can good to say you can hit a ship 140 miles away but if he can also hit you from the same distance then all you've maintained is rough parity at a vastly higher per-unit cost and vastly slower per unit replacement rate for the stuff that gets totalled.
 
As far as technologically inferior opponents go, big deal, it's always really, really easy to beat up the guy with lots more, but obsolete, equipment - all other things being equal.  So, yeah, one squadron of F-15's could replace every single allied aircraft in WWII but unless you've got a handy time-warp to go back and change history with I'm not entirely sure I agree with your point.
 
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elp    Price Check   2/16/2009 3:44:01 PM
"In two years, the F-35 will enter service, costing about $85 million each."


Price check in isle 3 on the canned corn. Look at the price of F-35s in the DOD budgets. Marine F-35B STOVLs to be fielded in 2012 will never be anywhere near $85 mil a whack this early in the program. As it is the most expensive variant of the jet, it may never see that price. 
 
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bobbymike    One problem   2/16/2009 3:51:08 PM
FJV - While I have read the 80/20 rule on other sites the problem becomes using it. The whole premise of the rule is that the F-22, M1A2, Bradley, CVN, etc are the 100% weapon and not the compromise 96% in your article.
 
Mayber the 100% airplane is a hypersonic global bomber/strike fighter with anti-air capability at a cost of $4 billion each, who knows
 
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bobbymike    One more thing   2/16/2009 3:52:35 PM
I like the YF-23 it would be a great 2018 bomber!
 
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FJV    One problem   2/16/2009 4:03:36 PM
Basically that's what I've tried to say here:
Now I wonder whether the F22 is the 96% efficient fighter for 40% of the cost of the absolutely best imaginable fighter  or whether the designers have unwittingly pushed beyond this and made a close to 100% of the absolutely best imaginable fighter.
 
Either you believe the F22 is the 96% option and are happy with it or believe the design of the F22 is pushed past the 96% and see possibilities for a design to counter the F22.
 
The huge sacrifices the air force makes to afford the F22 raises my suspicions in this respect. 

 
 
 
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SAE       2/16/2009 4:23:49 PM
I do not believe cost even adjusted for inflation is the correct way of comparison because it does not take in to accord economic advancement. A better measure would to compare the percentage of GNP a weapon costs. Jlb did this in the comments blog for the article "The $6 Billion Destroyer Fades Away" and pointed out that "ton for ton, a Zumwalt costs the same proportion of industrial capacity as an Iowa did back in 1943." A good point. Warships at least are not more expensive today than they were in the past.
I believe that the biggest factor in the cost of weapons today is economies of scale. Becasue we produce so few weapons today they cost so much more. The warship comparison illustrates this. Note only 4 Missouri class battleships were built and now only 3 Zumwalts are being built, thus the same cost per ton. I bet if we produced a 100 Zumwalts instead the cost per ton on a percentage of GNP basis would be closer to the cost of the WW-II Fletcher class destroyer. While jlb points out that fighters now cost so much more. He did not factor in the fact that over 15,000 Mustangs were produced and only 183 F-22s are being produced now. I bet if you compared the cost per ton on a percentage of GNP basis of the F-22 with a plane where only 183 were built like the Gloster Grebe or Gloster Gauntlet of the Interwar years the costs would similar.
 
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