Weapons: August 10, 1999

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The F-22 Raptor flew its 100th mission in mid-May. --Stephen V Cole

The US Air Force has developed a hand-held "radar camera" which can detect flaws in the special coating of stealth aircraft. --Stephen V Cole

THE DEFENSE SCIENCE BOARD has issued a new report urging the Pentagon to pursue several new technologies to enhance future warfighting efforts. Among the desired wonder-weapons are:

  • a two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile with a high-precision GPS-guided conventional warhead.
  • stealthy submarine-delivered canisters that could (on command) fire various weapons at shore targets in support of Marine landing units.
  • a constellation of orbital lasers to destroy missile in their boost phases.
  • a family of small precision 250-pound bombs, allowing aircraft to carry from four to nine times as many weapons as they do now.
  • a constellation of orbital platforms armed with long heavy-metal rods that could be dropped on targets at Mach-10 (an idea once proposed by Jerry Pournelle).
  • families of light armored vehicles that are easier to deploy but still survivable.
  • naval mines able to track targets from long range and cooperate with other mines in killing them.
  • a conventional version of the Trident-C4 missile that could be carried by subs and surface ships to attack targets on land, particularly enemy anti-ship missile bases.

    --Stephen V Cole

France test-fired an M45 nuclear-capable missile from the submerged submarine Temeraire during May. The missile flew its entire 6,000 nautical mile course before dropping a dummy warhead in the Atlantic. Two such subs (the other is Triomphant) are in service; the third will join the fleet in 2004 and the fourth in 2008. Also during May, France test-fired the engine of the M51 missile, which will replace the M45 in 2008, extending the range to 10,000km. --Stephen V Cole

Austria ordered 112 Ulan armored infantry fighting vehicles in May. These are the Austrian version of the ASCOD project; the Spanish version is known as Pizarro. Ulan carries a 30mm Mauser Mk-2 cannon, a crew of three, and eight dismounted infantry. --Stephen V Cole

August 10; South Korea, which is building 120 F-16s under license, has decided to extend its contract and build 20 more of the US-designed fighter. --Stephen V Cole

India is conducting three months of hot-weather tests on three Russian T90

tanks. --Stephen V Cole

The Russians have developed the 2S25 airborne/amphibious anti-tank gun, basically a low-recoil 125mm tank cannon mounted in a turret on a lengthened BMD-3 airborne assault vehicle. Unable to afford it for their own Army, the Russians are desperately seeking export customers to keep the program alive. The driver sits at the front; the commander (right) and gunner (left) ride in the turret. The 2A75 cannon is a low-recoil version of the 2A46 found in the T-72/80/90 and fires the same two-piece ammunition fed by an autoloader carousel on the turret floor. The gun has a fume extractor and thermal sleeve but no muzzle brake; rate of fire is 7 rounds per minute. The commander has an independent sight (with the laser designator for the 4,000m Kornet missile); the gunner has the laser-rangefinder built into his sight. The commander's sight is stabilized in elevation and traverse; the gunner's sight is stabilized in elevation only. The 2S25 is fully amphibious up to Sea State 3 and can fire the gun while afloat over a 70 frontal arc. --Stephen V Cole

India's PRITHVI missile is 7.5m tall (8.5m with some larger warhead), has a circumference of 3m, and weighs 3.5 tons (4.1 tons with larger warheads). With the "standard" 250kg warhead, it can reach 250km; the maximum 1000kg warhead would restrict the missile to about 80km. There are four warheads reported to be in the inventory: high-explosive/fragmentation, anti-personnel/vehicle submunitions, incendiary submunitions, and a runway cratering munition. New Fuel-Air Explosive and earth-penetrating warheads are nearly ready for deployment. Nuclear warheads are thought to be available, but India's technology base may be imposing problems here, since larger warheads would restrict the range. Theoretically, a nuclear warhead could be built at under 100kg, yielding a range of 400km, but it is doubtful India can product a miniaturized weapon at this time. --Stephen V Cole

Weapons of the 20th century

The weapons in use at the end of the 20th century cover a huge range of capabilities. On one extreme we have guided missiles that can hit their targets in any weather. But only a few nations have these (United States , Britain, France, Russia, for the most part.) On the other extreme there are over a hundred million military rifles and automatic weapons in circulation. Beyond that there are even more ancient, and still lethal, weapons like farm implements, clubs, rocks and fire. Most of the half million people slaughtered in Rawanda during the 1994 genocide were killed with machetes, blunt instruments and fire. Millions of older weapons remain in use because they are available, the end of the Cold War put millions of cheap, communist nation weapons into circulation. Some of these were stolen from government arsenals, but often the new governments were happy to sell millions of AK-47s, hand grenades, machine-guns and larger weapons for whatever they could get. Western nations also put surplus weapons on the market, but not to the extent, and at such low prices, as the former communist countries. But another reason for the popularity of all these low tech weapons is because these tools of war are known to work.

This is not always the case with more recent stuff.

Weapons are often conceived, designed, manufactured and used in a triumph of hope over experience. This was less true in the past, when weapon designs persisted for hundreds of years. When weapons were around for centuries, their capabilities became well known. Changes were minor, and generally made small improvements in performance. All this has changed in the 20th century. Weapons rarely work as intended the first time they are used. History is full of examples. The first machineguns overlooked the fact that the barrel would soon overheat from use. More changes, but not fast enough for the troops using them first. The first bayonets were attached to the musket by plugging them into the barrel. Fine in theory, but troops would forget to take them out before firing their weapons. The results were disastrous and the design was soon changed.

The use of bayonets revealed a more subtle form of misperception. For all their fearsome reputation, few casualties are caused by bayonets. When longer range rifles were introduced in the 1850s, bayonets were used even less. Yet bayonets are issued and troops trained in there use to this day. Slowly, leaders learned that bayonets were less a weapon than a morale building device and battlefield tool. For most of this century the bayonet was actually a hazard to its users. In hand to hand fighting, troops tend to use their rifles as a club. With a bayonet attached and swung like a club, the bayonet has a tendency to cut the user. This is what the troops reported, at least the survivors.

Often the misperceptions are expensive. The modern battleship, heavily armored, with many large guns and a price tag to match, were built in large quantities early in the century. Some 170 were built between 1906 and 1945 at a cost of 200 billion current dollars. The B-2 stealth bomber was not the first billion dollar weapon. Battleships were supposed to be the primary naval weapon, yet most never saw action against another battleship. These ships were rarely exposed to combat, they were literally too expensive to lose. Although 55 were sunk, only five were by other battleships. Some 17 percent of the losses were accidents, usually by an explosion while in port. Aircraft got 44 percent. Submarines, torpedo boat and other ships got 10 percent. Torpedoes accounted for 38 percent, generally delivered by an aircraft. Originally designed to secure control of the oceans, they spent most of their time fearfully hiding out in port. Cheaper weapons; aircraft, submarines and mines, made the high seas too dangerous for the big ships. During World War II the aircraft carrier decisively demonstrated the ineffectiveness of battleships as the premier warship. Before this lesson was learned a record was set for how much was spent on a weapon for so little return in battlefield effectiveness.

After World War II we encountered the problem of rapid obsolescence. Technology advanced so quickly that weapons became obsolete much more quickly than in the past. Entire classes of weapons were developed, built and retired without ever seeing combat. This created a ruinously expensive competition that no one could afford to drop out of during the cold war arms race. While the expense of all this strains budget, the uncertain effectiveness of these weapons confronts commanders with unprecedented problems. Not knowing with any certainty how their new weapons, or those of their opponents, will perform, battlefield leaders have a more difficult time planning for combat. The nature of the uncertainty is complicated by the extent and nature of countermeasures used. This is a problem that will only get worse. The more flexible soldiers will prevail, but only after a lot of headaches and frustration. Testing weapons successfully has become the most important battleground for armed forces. War is a sometime event, peacetime conditions are more the norm. The urgency of effective testing is slowly becoming accepted. America has taken the lead in this area, mandating greater use of simulators and testing of weapons against facsimiles of anticipated opponents systems. Taking testing to its logical solution and using large quantities of weapons during tests is still horrendously expensive. The lessons of sweating more in peacetime so as to bleed less on the battlefield is a lesson not yet fully accepted.

World War II versus Today

When we think of future wars, large future wars, we still think of World War II. World War II was the last war really, really big war, rather than something involving chasing guerillas or some ramshackle spat between third rate powers. World War II was also the last war involving large scale air, land and naval forces. However, World War II is less and less likely as a benchmark for future conflict because of the increasing accumulation of changes that have occurred since that last large scale war. Although massive wars in the third world still appear remarkably like World War II battles, the major powers have not unleashed their heavily refurbished arsenals on each other during that period. With this in mind, we can still compare today's armed forces to the last "Big War."

Infantry Weapons- These have changed little since World War II, except for a lot more automatic weapons being used. Nearly every infantryman now has an automatic weapon, a policy the Germans were implementing at the end of World War II. Since most troops have been equipped with automatic weapons, they have become more likely to use their weapons. This has created problems with uncontrolled use of weapons and, at times, ammunition supply problems. Mortars, grenades and machineguns are basically the same, with many incremental improvements. The only radically new items have been electronic. These are primarily sensors, especially radars and night scopes, plus navigation and communications gear. The new sensors are not widely used and are used primarily in prepared defenses. The new communications equipment is also not widely used. But for US and other Western armies that do have GPS and jam resistant radios, the average infantryman on patrol or otherwise on his own, has seen electronics become a major factor in making battlefield life easier.

Anti-tank weaponry has seen a major jump in performance, and has moved away from being an infantry weapon. The World War II rocket launchers are still with us, although improved in performance. Tanks technology has not stood still, and this gave rise to the anti-tank guided missile. Some of these weapons were not portable at all, but required a vehicle to carry them. Those that were portable were only marginally so. Meanwhile, tanks became better protected. Not just thicker armor, but better armor, like composite ("Chobham") and add-on armor (spaced or reactive). More important for the infantry are the changes in tank tactics. To make themselves less vulnerable to nuclear weapons and other wide area munitions, tanks now operate spread out, with distances up to 100 meters separating them. Moreover, tanks have learned that they must operate in close cooperation with infantry. In other words, the situations where infantry face tanks alone would be the exception. Moreover, the portable anti-tank weapons the infantry possess are, like their World War II counterparts, best used against the sides or rear of tanks. The rear shot in particular gives the infantry a good chance of evening the odds. Because tank crews can see little from inside their vehicles, a rear shot is not impossibly difficult to arrange in a confused situation. In line with the changes in anti-tank warfare, there has also been a wholesale mechanization of infantry since World War II. While the troops spend most of their time outside their armored vehicles, their APC's and IFV's are always handy, along with the heavier weapons they carry. These vehicles often have small turrets with automatic cannon. In effect, these vehicles often function like light tanks. Indeed, many are heavier than most tanks used in the early days of World War II. Experience so far has shown that the infantry is still most effective when outside their armored vehicles. The modern battlefield is crowded with a lot more armored vehicles. The only place you find infantry operating alone is in terrain unsuitable for armored vehicles.

Tanks- During World War II there were frequent instances where one side had a tank model possessing frontal armor that was invulnerable to the other sides's anti-tank weapons, at least for a while. This can still happen, as was the case in the 1991 Gulf War. The invulnerability of US tanks in the Gulf was largely a result of the Iraqis using home made tank shells against the latest US armor design. Moreover, the fighting in the desert made it more difficult for the defending Iraqi tanks to get shots at the thinner side or rear armor of US tanks. Generally, however, the little ditty, "What you can see you hit and what you hit you kill," succinctly sums up the situation in tank warfare. At least for tanks and their large guns. The unarmored antitank weapons used by the infantry are the first to fall short when a new defensive measure is introduced for tanks. Aside from being more vulnerable, tanks have more company. Far more tanks are available today than during World War II, in addition to an even larger number of lighter armored vehicles. In some respects this is helpful. All these additional armored vehicles "draw fire," as armored vehicles always have. Thus individual armored vehicles don't stand out as much today as they did during World War II. Alas, all those heavy, tracked vehicles tear up the battlefield to such an extent that everyone has a hard time getting around. Since World War II tanks have become twice as heavy and not quite twice as fast, agile or reliable. Modern tanks contain far more electronics and have smaller crews. The latest generation of tanks have shown uncommon ability to flit around the battlefield. American combat training devices, the ones that use lasers to score hits, have provided realistic training that, in turn, has revealed that these new tanks can operate remarkably more efficiently in combat. These same vehicles have mature and well tested fire control devices that are far more effective than anything available in the past. These new training devices combined with the new tanks produced amazing results on the battlefield during the 1991 Gulf War.

Artillery- More artillery is self-propelled. The average caliber is now closer to 155mm than 105mm. Improved transportation allows greater tonnages of munitions to be fired, and fired farther. The munitions themselves have become two, three or more times as effective thanks to ICM (Improved Conventional Munitions). Because of the cost of the modern stuff, many armies still have essentially World War II era guns firing World War II style munitions. Such nations are at a great disadvantage against modern artillery, particularly because of the more efficient artillery spotting radars and computer controlled fire. The rich guys have some very deadly stuff. The Iraqis discovered this in 1991.

The Air Force-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. Bombing still takes place at slow speeds, primarily because the pilot can't see much if they go any faster. Electronic bombing and air combat aids have helped, but have not proven a perfect solution to the complications of air warfare. Despite the repeated promises that electronics will make it all better, pragmatic pilots retain their cannon and skills at close in fighting. Munitions, particularly bombs, have become up to five times as effective their World War II predecessors. It also takes far fewer people to do the work. A World War II four engine bomber, the B-17, weighed 25 tons and carried 7 tons of bombs and a crew of 11. A 25 ton F-15E fighter carries over 11 tons of bombs and a crew of two. The replacement for the B-17, the thirty five year old B-52 can carry over 25 tons of bombs. Far fewer aircraft are available today, and they take five times longer to build (at wartime rates). The F-15, for example, takes 18 months to build in peacetime. In wartime, that might be brought down to three months, but no one has tried it, so no one really knows.

The Navy- In World War I navies put most of their money into battleships, although submarines did most of the fighting. During World War II, aircraft carriers got most of the attention, although it was submarines that shut down the Japanese economy and came close to doing the same to Britain's. If a major war started tomorrow, aircraft carriers would still be the most prominent symbol of naval power, along with their numerous escorts. But today the biggest threat is from nuclear powered submarines. However, submarines have serious problems. For one thing, they don't communicate too well when submerged. And most of the time they are under water. Although subs are equipped with missiles that can attack land and naval targets at long ranges, they carry less munitions than surface ships. Basically, a nuclear submarine functions best as a lone operator, stalking prey in it's own killing zone. A nuclear sub has a difficult time telling if the ship it is going after is enemy or friendly. You don't direct the operations of submarines, you unleash them to sweep an area clear of any ships or subs. Think of a nuclear submarine as a mobile naval mine with a well trained and intelligent crew. All of this is even more troublesome because nuclear subs have no wartime experience. A British nuclear subs sinking of an Argentinean cruiser in 1982 is all the combat experience these boats have. Under wartime conditions, changes will be made in the face of the unexpected. This is as it has always been, and nuclear submariners and sailors in general, feel a bit uneasy over it. The other dramatic change in navies since World War II has been the enormous growth of electronics in every area of naval operations. The computer operators and technicians are the naval warriors of today. Seamanship has been playing a declining role in naval operations for over a century. This trend continues. Electronics can tell ships how to avoid nasty weather, but still does not provide a cure for seasickness when the ocean reminds sailors who's backyard they are playing in.

Amphibious Operations- It's comforting to see that some things don't change. Aside from improved amphibious shipping and landing craft, the only new development has been helicopters. The marines also have whatever new weapons and equipment their land based brethren have. Amphibious operations are faster and, because of the threat of nuclear and chemical weapons, plan on being smaller than those during World War II.

Air Defense- Current air defense, composition is an odd mixture of the familiar World War II and a form of science fiction known as SAM (Surface to Air Missiles). The World War II cannon type of air defense is still used, in some cases with original World War II weapons. More often, the small caliber (under 75mm) cannon is controlled by radar and computerized fire control systems. Manual override keeps these systems honest, and minimally effective. It still requires several tons of cannon shell for each aircraft brought down. SAM's have great potential. At least one in 50 will hit it's target. Radar screens blink, obscure jargon is muttered, at times sounding like prayers, and, far from the darkened rooms, missiles climb skyward by remote control. So far, the electronic warfare countermeasures and pilot agility have held the upper hand. This is small comfort to pilots, who must entrust their lives to a lot of black boxes. Aircraft are hit by SAM's. And the SAMs are getting better. Most of SAMs bad reputation comes from the well publicized failures of Soviet systems in Vietnam and the Middle East. Less well known is how much more effective Western systems have been. The trend is to let pilotless aircraft penetrate areas well covered by SAMs and cannon. Let the machines kill each other off. This may be a portent of the future.

 


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