Murphy's Law: False Promises

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December 14, 2019: Russia recently revealed that it had obtained the wreckage of two American RGM-109E Block IV Surface Ship Vertical Launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles. Russian news reports included Russian technical experts explaining how obtaining the wreckage of these two missiles would provide Russia with enormous quantities of valuable information on how the Tomahawk works. This would enable Russian air defense and EW (Electronic Warfare) systems to more easily be modified to detect and destroy or disable incoming Tomahawks. All this made for great media theater, which is what the Russians wanted. What Russia did not discuss was the fact that obtaining wreckage like this from combat zones is nothing new and the impact of obtaining enemy missiles, aircraft and electronic systems are something weapons designers, and users, expect.

Russia has been obtaining such high-tech items in wartime since World War II. While the U.S. and Russia were allies during World War II we did not share with them a lot of high-tech weapons. So Russia obtained those choice items by other means. This included a B-29 bomber, which the Americans deliberately refused to provide Russia as part of the Lend-Lease program that gave Russia huge quantities of weapons, including some with tech items Russia could not duplicate, or at least not in large quantities. The Russians wanted the B-29 because it was a bomber that could reach the United States from bases on the Russian Pacific coast. It was still a secret, to most Americans, that Russia had stolen the details of how the United States built the atomic bomb. Having B-29s and nukes made Russia a very real threat to the United States during the early years of the Cold War, which began a few years after World War II ended.

Russia obtained five B-29s somewhat legally before World War II ended in August 1945. That was because, while Russia and America were allies against the Germans, Russia protected its eastern flank by deliberately signing a treaty with Japan pledging not to go to war with Japan as long as Japan also kept the peace on the Russian eastern frontier. This allowed Russian ships to travel to the United States, take on military supplies, including oil, and transport it to Russia Pacific coast ports. This annoyed the Germans a great deal but the Germans were forced to be understanding about it. Same situation when B-29s began bombing Japan from Chinese bases in mid-1944. There were not a lot of these bombing missions because of the difficulty getting supplies to those parts China not occupied by Japan. Actually, Japan never conquered all of China during the war but did occupy all of the Chinese coastline. All B-29 supplies, including fuel,  had to be trucked in over a single road from Burma, plus air freight over the high mountains separating China from India. B-29 crews were told that if they ran into mechanical or fuel problems while over Japan or Japanese occupied China, there were several Russian airbases where they could land safely and, according to international law, be comfortably interned for the rest of the war. Their aircraft would be held by the Russians. This was the same arrangement used by Allied pilots in Europe, where neutral Switzerland or Sweden offered the same arrangements.

The Russians were glad to accommodate the four B-29s that did divert to Russian airbases, A fifth B-29 crashed in Russia. Only one of those B-29s were returned to the United States after the war ended. Russia also had a secret (from the Japanese) arrangement with their Western Allies that 90 days after Germany surrendered Russia would declare war on Japan and invade Japanese occupied China. The Japanese noted that once the Germans surrendered, the number of Russian troops and weapons in the Russian Far East increased enormously.

Russia declared war and attacked Japanese forces in China on August 8th, 1945. A week later Japan surrendered, mainly because of the Allied naval blockade of Japan and the recent use of two atomic bombs delivered by B-29s from island bases in the Pacific. This was the American war plan, to capture islands close enough to Japan to replace the Chinese bases used by B-29s. Those Chinese bases ceased operations in early 1945 and there was no more need for B-29s to use Russian airbases for emergencies.

Meanwhile, Russia had three intact B-29s and the wreckage of a fourth. One of these was literally taken apart, studied and efforts began to build a Russian copy. Another B-29 was used for test flights so Russian pilots could understand how the aircraft operated. The third B-29 stayed on the ground as a “reference model.” The B-29 was a complex piece of technology and developing it cost the Americans more than the atomic bomb project.

The Russians put their B-29, as the Tu-4 into service in 1949 and built 847 of them before production was halted in 1952. The same year the Tu-4 was revealed, Russia detonated its first atomic bomb. All this alarmed the United States, which promptly created an air defense system to protect North America from Russian bombers carrying nukes. The Tu-4 could reach as far as Chicago but by the time it was introduced it was already obsolete by American standards. The U.S. already had the B-36 and B-47 in service, while the B-52 was three years from its first flight and six from entering service. The Tu-4 was used by the Russians until the early 1960s but China continued using some of them until 1988. The B-52 was continually updated and is still in service. In the end, the Russians lost their arms race with the United States and collapsed in 1991 because of corruption, mismanagement and a population that was fed up with the mess.

Russia continued to obtain American weapons from foreign battlefields. First in Korea, then Vietnam and from Arab nations that fought and lost wars with Israel. Russia did end up with some American aircraft used by the Israelis that crashed in Arab territory. Another source of American military tech was Iran, which was on good terms with Russia from the 1980s onward. That was after the previous Iranian government had bought lots of the most modern U.S. weapons.

Eventually details of what the Russians did with all the tech secrets enemy weapons provided were obtained. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 there were a few years where many top-secret Soviet era activities were revealed in some detail. This included what Russia obtained from stolen, or recovered from the battlefield Western military tech. That sort of put everything into perspective because the Russians did not get much aside from increased paranoia about what American wonder-weapons they did not know about.

What it comes down to is that you don’t design and use high-tech weapons without realizing the enemy is going to recover some of them during combat operations. The U.S. obtained some high-tech Russian aircraft simply by offering asylum and large cash rewards for pilots who would risk escaping with their aircraft. Cruise missiles are basically 1970s tech with the most advanced tech being in their guidance systems. Even these do not contain any breakthrough tech.

However, capturing a stealth aircraft, like the F-35, F-22 or B-2 would be a major prize. But not for long. As the Russians discovered with their Tu-4, which the Americans knew about by 1947, it was a B-29 copy that was obsolete when it entered service. Electronic weapons are much the same. The Allies and the Germans played a rather fast-paced game of upgrading their EW and navigation systems during World War II because of the bombing campaigns both sides carried out. Even then, in the early 1940s, military electronics quickly became obsolete as something better was developed, often in months. Things move faster in wartime but the patterns are similar to what happens in peacetime.

The Russians were probably impressed with the Tomahawk wreckage obtained in Syria. Earlier Tomahawk models also failed and crashed during the 1990-91 air war over Iraq. Now the Russians could see how much the tech had improved since those early model cruise missiles. Each of the current Tomahawks weighs 1.2 ton, is six meters (18 feet) long, a range of 1,600 kilometers at speeds of 600-900 kilometers an hour flying at an altitude of 17-32 meters (50-100 feet), and propelled by a jet engine generating only 600 pounds of thrust. Accuracy is on a par with JDAM (10 meters/ 31 feet). The Block IV Tomahawk can be reprogrammed in flight to hit another target and carries a vidcam to allow a missile to check on prospective targets. There’s also the new JMEW (Joint Multi-Effects Warhead System) warhead for the Tomahawk. This is a 450 kg (1,000 pound) warhead designed mainly for penetrating underground bunkers, but it will also provide excellent blast effect for less robust targets. Exact penetration was not revealed. JMEW uses laser terminal guidance, enabling it to hit within a few meters (ten feet) of its aiming point. JMEW can also hit moving targets. Sounds impressive, but it will be obsolete in a few years.

Most major American and British (and several allied navies') warships are armed with Tomahawks. Many nuclear subs also have them. Four American Ohio class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) were converted to cruise missile submarines (SSGN). One fired its missiles in combat for the first time against Libyan targets in 2011. Each of these Ohio class boats carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles along with space for 66 commandos (usually SEALs) and their equipment.

In Syria Russia has used its most modern weapons and used the war there as an opportunity to test them in actual combat. It also allowed Western nations to observe, and even capture a few examples. Nothing impressive. Except in EW gear the Russian missiles, warplanes and smart bombs were all older tech compared to Western gear. That’s something the Russians do not hold press conferences about.

 


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