Weapons: Are Expensive Weapons Worth It?


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.