“I was asked my opinion about the F-35. It’s a waste of money. Far too expensive. Give me an F-15 E — less expensive, will do the job.”
General Chuck Yeager (ret) First Pilot to break the sound barrier.
“If you load a mudfoot down with a lot of gadgets that he has to watch, somebody a lot more simply equipped – say with a stone ax – will sneak up on him and bash his head in while he’s trying to read a vernier. ”
Robert A Heinlein
More expensive weapons are often seen as being automatically more capable. But that is not necessarily true, and here I will examine some examples of less costly weapons outperforming more expensive ones. Numerical comparision, while crucial in assessing the actual effect of weapon in war, will be ignored for purposes of the analysis.
Going very back in the time, simple sling could – in good hands – be a better weapon than bow, arrow, crossbow or even early firearms. Weapon itself was inexpensive and could be made by anyone. While early sling projectiles were not very good at penetration, later on biconical or ovid projectiles were made from clay or metal which greatly improved aerodynamic and penetration characteristics. Sling projectiles preserved more kinetic energy until impact than arrows did, but as this was spread over wider area, they were not as good at penetration. What they lacked at penetration they made up for with brute force: Vegetius has stated that while neither slings or arrows could penetrate Roman armor, slings caused potentially fatal injuries even through armor. Slings were more accurate than bows, and in hands of skilled slinger, had greater range: Larry Bray achieved range of 437 meters, but believed that he could have surpassed 600 m mark with better sling and projectiles; ancient slingers, who trained with sling for life, may have been able to achieve ranges up to 700 meters. In fact, sling remained more dangerous than firearms at least until latter received barrel rifling, and potentially well until 1900s. What ultimately did the sling in was greater homogenization of Europe after ancient times: with cultures mixing, skilled slingers disappeared, and bow, a far easier weapon to master, took over; process later repeated itself with crossbow and firearms.
In World War II, Germans used wooden mines to prevent them from being picked up by metal detectors – it worked so well that they ended up being banned by Geneva Conventions. Heavy flak batteries proved useless, but cheaper small-calibre AAA emplacements, when concealed near possible targets, proved devastating to enemy aircraft, especially if aircraft in question were not as well armored as P-47.
In Vietnam, US troops were at first equipped with complex and heavy 295 USD M-14 which Army brass preferred over the 75 USD AR-15. But in actual encounters against Viet Cong troops using fully-automatic AK-47, M-14 turned out to be almost useless and US troops suffered unfavorable exchange ratios. US special forces and some South Vietnamese infantry units used AR-15 and achieved very favorable exchange ratios against the same insurgents, with AR-15 proving to be lighter, more accurate, reliable and lethal in the battlefield conditions than M-14. In the end, General Westmoreland demanded that M-14 be replaced with AR-15, but US troops were issued “militarized” M-16 rifles – “militarized” meaning “heavier and less reliable”.
US Army also used helicopters to provide transport and CAS. While more expensive than equivalent turboprop CAS aircraft, they were very vulnerable and 500 helicopters were lost each year – despite the fact that US never operated more than 500 helicopters in Vietnam at any one time. In 1970 incursion into Cambodia, 107 helicopters were lost.
In 1991 Gulf War, Patriot had 0% success rate against Iraqi SCUD batteries, failling to shoot down a single missile. This contrasts heavily with performance of CIWS in the same mission. And going to tank ammunition, tungsten and DU kinetic penetrators are far simpler than HEAT rounds – and also more effective.
During Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 12,7 mm and 14,5 mm machine guns caused 70% of helicopter losses despite the fact that Taliban were equipped with machine guns. Soviet helicopter crews countered this as well as network of operators Taliban used for early warning around their strongholds by flying very low in Mi-24 helicopters. Low altitude keeps noise from spreading far, and helicopter is heard only moments before the attack.
While cannons and howitzers typically don’t use precision-guided munitions, they are still more precise than “smart bombs”: during shelling of Knin in 1991-1995 war in Croatia, in which between 200 and 300 projectiles were fired, there was only one civilian casualty and all objects that were hit were of military nature. Two projectiles fell on parking place near rebel Serb HQ, destroying all vehicles there.
Even within artillery, simpler weapons are better: towed cannons and howitzers are more reliable than self-propelled ones, and are easily transported by the air. Self-propelled artillery tends to be 3 or more times as expensive. Radar-directed anti-aircraft guns have always done poorly against maneuvering aircraft (though not against missiles). Old optically-aimed guns have on the other hand proven effective against low-flying aircraft even as late as 1991-1995 war in Croatia. Similarly, recoilless rifles are far cheaper than anti-tank missiles, and can be used for purposes latter are utterly useless for.
Going to tanks, in World War II T-34 proved superior to more expensive and technologically more advanced Panzer IV. Its wide tracks and large wheels provided it with good off-road mobility and rather crude manufacture resulted in a very reliable tank once supply situation improved. Sloping armor and less flammable diesel fuel made cannon of more expensive Panzer IV ineffective. While Germany tried to copy the idea with Panther, they failed to recognize importance of its simple construction, and consequently ended up with complex, unreliable tank whose only true advantage over T-34 was its cannon. Yet Germans, even in inferior tanks, frequently achieved good results against Russian tanks for simple reason: each German tank had a radio, allowing for better coordination, and German crews always remained far better trained. Tiger I frequently achieved same exchange ratio against technologically superior Josef Stalin tanks as it did against T-34/76. But most importantly, function of tanks as stated by Guderian and Patton was to maneuver through enemy lines and sever supply lines and command posts. This means good cross-country mobility and reliability so as to bring machine guns to bear on the opponent’s soft targets. In this role, cheaper Panzer I-IV and T-34 were a success, whereas more expensive and “capable” Panther and Tiger tanks were failure.
Comparing Abrams and Challenger II, Britain was required under the Lend-Lease agreement to transfer all military secrets and technologies to the US and for a period of fifty years after the cessation of hostilities; which means that Abrams uses Cobham I armor whereas Challenger II uses more advanced Cobham II (Dorchester); for this reason US had to insert very heavy (not to mention poisonous and radioactive) DU into armor to get equivalent protection. Armor was never penetrated, though one Challenger II was lost in 2003 when another Challenger II hit it through commander’s hatch – HESH round hit the hatch, sending fragments into tank and igniting ammunition. In 2007, IED penetrated Challenger IIs unarmored underside, injuring the driver. After that, underside was protected with Dorchester armor and incident never repeated. RPG-29 has proven able to penetrate Abrams’ side armor, something it can’t do to a Challenger II. Challenger II is more mobile than Abrams as it uses less fuel and can be refilled from truck stop, and has superior short dash acceleration. It also uses electric gun kit, which means that there is no hydraulic fluid to explode. Challenger IIs rifled gun allows it to shoot wide range of ammunition and makes it more precise, though it also reduces penetration capability and could be considered its only downside. Also, while Abrams uses gas turbine (basically a jet engine), Challenger II uses far cooler, more fuel-efficient and tactically superior diesel engine which allows infantry to use tank for cover when needed, without being roasted. Yet despite its clear superiority, Challenger II costs 6,7 million USD, compared to 8,6 million USD for Abrams.
Israeli Merkava Mk IV costs 4,2 million USD, less than Challenger II or Abrams, yet it is not obviously inferior to latter at least, and in some ways is superior to both. It has excellent armor protection, and engine is placed in front of hull, providing additional protection for the crew. Armor is modular, allowing for rapid repair while in combat. It can also shoot down attack helicopters with its main gun, using conventional anti-tank munitions. However, its armor protection against top-attack AT missiles such as Milan is inferior to that of Challenger II as evidenced by several Merkavas destroyed by them.
T-72, when competently crewed, is itself a dangerous weapon when compared to other tanks of its generation such as M60. While it was easily demolished by M1s and Challengers in Kuwait, these tanks were downrated export versions, manned with startling incompetence, and even original T-72 is far behind M1 and Challenger II. Tank is less than 2,5 meters high, though this results in problems with gun depression. While it does use very dangerous (for itself) and outdated active IR search system, fire control computer and laser rangefinder are effective and gun will automatically track the target once locked on. Low silhouette makes it easy to hide and more difficult to target. Visibility from driving compartment is also very good. It does have drawbacks: rate of fire when using autoloader is much slower than with Western manually-loaded guns, steering is jerky and tank is extremely smoky. Driver also has to be buttoned up to fight in the tank, unlike Western designs, negating theoretical visibility advantage. Greatest problem is that many rounds are stowed in carousel directly below turret – if hull is penetrated, tank blows up. However, it is still very capable tank when handled competently, and new tanks based around its design – such as M-95 Degman, which is based on M-91 Vihor which is based on M-84 which is based on T-72 – have eliminated many weaknesses of original design. It will also run on just about everything (including vodka) thus considerably easing logistical train – any military’s Achilles heel. (Only problem with using vodka is a possibility of crews drinking themselves into engine shutdown, as well as gunners having double vision. If it turns out that Iraqis were using booze to power their T-72s, it could partly explain their incompetence – such as failling to react to flanking maneuvers, retreat when heading into obvious trap etc.). T-72 and variants are also better in hilly terrain than Abrams or Challenger as latter two are simply too heavy.
Anti-tank TOW missile is problematic in several ways. First, ammo is expensive, which results in insufficient practice by TOW crews, which then translates into bad tactics. Second, it is very complex and thus unreliable. It is also easily stopped by mud walls.
Recoilless rifles are in many ways better than man-portable missiles. Ammo is cheap, which allows for constant practice (30 times as many rounds as TOW for equal cost, and ammo is dominant cost for both systems). It has wide range of ammunition avaliable, including flechette rounds that are effective against area targets, and is also effective against wide range of obstacles, from metal plates to reinforced concrete or mud walls. It is also very reliable, easy to maintain, and unlike TOW allows infantryman to fire while prone and does not require operator to expose himself for a long time. Good crew on recoilless rifle can fire two or more rounds before a single round from wire-guided missile launcher can reach the target, and laser-guided missiles are of limited usefulness in adverse weather conditions. It also proved to be a good anti-sniper weapon when used in urban environment in both Vietnam and Dominican Republic. M40 105 mm recoilless rifle using HEAT round can penetrate 400 mm of RHA, making it useful as an anti-tank weapon; its M40A1 variant can penetrate 450 mm of RHA. M40A2 106 mm recoilless rifle is effective to 1800 meters and, with Swedish 106 3A round, can penetrate over 700 mm of RHA even after penetrating ERA, giving it ability to easily penetrate side armor of M1 Abrams (540 mm vs HEAT for M1A2SEP variant).
4,9 million USD Stryker should be superior to 300.000 USD M113A3. But being a wheeled vehicle, it has decisively inferior cross-country mobility to both M113 and even M1 Abrams. It requires 3,5 tons of additional armor in order to be survivable, increasing its baseline weight to 22 tons; without additions, it is vulnerable to IEDs and RPGs, and even with addition it is still vulnerable to IEDs and tandem-warhead shoulder-fired AT missiles; even standard RPGs are only defeated by slat armor 50% of the time. Armor also makes Stryker less stable, especially over rough terrain. Tracked vehicles are inherently more mobile off the road and more compact, improving protection-for-weight and achieving lower silhouette – while wheeled Stryker gets stuck in mud, Vietnam-era M113 was capable of driving at speeds of over 20 kph over water-covered rice fields. Wheeled Stryker also cannot turn in place as tracked M113 can, and it is only faster on the road if M113 does not use band tracks (even that is not necessarily true as steel-tracked M113 achieved 75 mph in 1979, and in Vietnam speeds in excess of 50 mph on paved roads were the norm). In Gulf War I, more reliable and less fuel-hungry M113s were far faster strategically than M1 Abrams MBT or M2 Bradley IFV (in combat, M113 has to refuel on average once every 24 hours compared to 12 hours for Bradley and 4 hours for M1). Stryker’s tires get shredded on Afghanistan terrain; machine gun of a normal Stryker reacts too slowly and has too limited field of view to be useful if vehicle is ambushed. Its computers are prone to overheating in hot conditions and to freezing when moving at high speed in formation. It is also problematic for air transport due to its weight. M113 is also amphibious, unlike Stryker which lost its rudder and propellers when new tanks were fitted, and has far better situational awareness. It is also easy to maintain even by relatively uneducated mechanics. In Vietnam, it has proven survivable against RPGs, with Communists only achieving one hit for every eight to ten rounds fired, and one penetration for every seven hits. For each penetration, 0,8 casualties occured. With modern composite armor, this might improve even against RPG-29 and similar. Perhaps most importantly, tracks allow M113 to be very mobile off road, allowing it greater tactical mobility and improving both effectiveness and survivability as road-bound vehicles are predictable and easy to destroy at choke points.
While troops are complimentary of the Stryker, it has missed the actual conventional war, arriving to Iraq in late 2003, and troops that serve in Stryker have previously served in trucks and Humvees – it would be hilarous, and not in a good way, if an APC failed to provide better protection than lightly-armored HMMV. And despite the fact that Strykers were used primarly in quieter areas of Iraq, and consisted less than 2% of vehicles, troops in Strykers suffered 4% of all deaths; troops in M113 suffered less casualties in more risky areas and two years of service in Iraq than troops in far less numerous Stryker in first few months in relatively risk-free areas. In Vietnam, M113 was feared as much as Polish upgrade of Swedish Patria is today in Afghanistan – interestingly, Polish Patria modification (KTO Rosomak) is known by Taliban as “The Green Demon” and its presence often causes Taliban to cease any attacks; M113 was called “The Green Dragon” by North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. Patria does have shortcomings as it is less mobile than M113 and is, like Stryker, supectible to tire damage.
M113 is also faster and more mobile than M2 Bradley, even on roads. Off the roads, difference becomes even more pronounced as Bradley is three times as heavy and has much higher ground pressure. It is turretless which allows for better protection per unit of weight; further, M-113 can mount machine gun, grenade launcher or even recoilless rifle, latter of which can be used for bunker-busting and even destroying enemy armored vehicles if necessary, making M113 far more versatile and better infantry support weapon than M2. Unlike M1 Abrams and M2 Bradley, M113 can fire on upper floors of buildings from close range.
It should be noted that Israeli Defense Force, probably one of most competent militaries on planet, uses Namer – a tracked, turretless APC based on chassis of Merkava tank.
Greatest surface threat to US cruisers during World War II were Japanese destroyers, thanks to hugely destructive 610 mm torpedo – especially during early- to mid- -war night battles, when US cruisers and destroyers were easily detected due to their usage of artillery and, later, radar. Similarly, aircraft carriers – which while expensive cost less than battleships to produce, being essentially big boxes with aircraft on-board – have proven far more dangerous to battleships than other battleships.
While many would say that nuclear submarine is far more effective than diesel-electric submarine, that is not necessarily so. Modern diesel-electric submarines are far quieter than nuclear submarines, have long range and need to snorkel only very infrequently. They are also less detectable on IR sensors. In exercises, they are very effective against both nuclear submarines and surface vessels, in part because they are hard to find in littoral waters – and while exercises are scripted, diesel-electric / AIP submarines achieve greatest successes when deviating from exercise rules. Yet they are only 1/8 to 1/2 as expensive as nuclear submarines. LCS is similarly problematic, being incapable of doing things that far cheaper ships can do and vulnerable to very threats it is supposed to counter.
Modern weapons also tend to have faillings that older weapons don’t. In 1971 war between India and Pakistan, Pakistani destroyer was attacked by missiles while in harbor. As it had zero effective air defense, and could not get out to open sea to achieve freedom of maneuver in time, captain hid among (much larger) merchant vessels, using them as targets for missiles; once he ran out of merchant vessels, he did same thing with dockyard facilities – and Indians ran out of missiles before he ran out of facilities. Suffice to say, that trick would not have worked as well against simple 127 mm cannon.
Until late 1943, no more than 400 fighters avaliable for defense of German homeland inflicted 20% attrition rate on unescorted bombers. But in late 1943, advent of US long-range fighters – P-47 with operational radius of 600 miles, P-51 with operational radius of 800 miles and P-38 with operational radius of 900 miles – allowed for bombers to be escorted all the way to the target.
P-38 Lightning was, despite being most expensive at 125.000 USD, least successful and by spring of 1944 it was decided that it will be replaced by 51.000 USD P-51. While P-38 had excellent 360 mph cruise speed and 400 mph top speed, it was large and visible, inferior in maximum g and had poor roll rate as well as poor dive acceleration. Its two widely-separated engines proved to be a survivability handicap, as aircraft was likely to be lost if either one was hit due to enemy fighters downing a straggler. As a result, it was removed from Europe by spring of 1944 and moved to Pacific where it was more successful as it had 100 mph cruise advantage over Japanese fighters, unlike their German counterparts. P-51, in contrast, performed admirably; it was very maneuverable and had high cruising speed, making it difficult for enemy to ambush it. 83.000 USD P-47 was not as successful as P-51, but was still far more useful as an air superiority fighter than P-38, primarly due to excellent roll rate, and unlike P-38 and P-51 it performed well in CAS role due to its tough design, especially more survivable air-cooled engine. It is interesting to note that while P-38 and P-47 were USAF projects, P-51 was a private venture and was imposed by Roosevelt.
Heavy strategic bombers were five times as expensive as dive bombers, yet they were also far less useful. Bombing of enemy cities proved a useless strategy, failling to force enemy to surrender or even to reduce enemy’s war production. Production in attacked factory was reduced only for a short time after the raid, while attacks on submarine pens and rail system were completely ineffective. Flow of supplies by rail network was severely hampered – not by B-17s, but by P-47s destroying trains. Between 1942 and 1944, German production output almost doubled. Neither Allied, German or Japanese high-altitude bombers proved effective against tactical targets (ships, tanks) or non-area strategic targets (bridges, roads, specific facilities), in stark contrast to dive bomber performance – Stukas forced Great Britain to stop using Channel for ship-based communication lines and sank a Soviet battleship; in Pacific, dive bombers proved as being greatest threat to naval units. In contrast, literally hundreds of high-altitude bombers failed to sink either Allied ships during Japanese campaigns in Indonesia or German ships in Atlantic during British attacks on Scharnhorst, Gneiseau and Prinz Eugen. High-altitude bombers also failed to knock out submarine pens.
In Vietnam, AIM-7 had Pk of 0,08. IR missiles achieved Pk between 0,15 and 0,19, and gun Pk of 0,26. Rate of kill was even more different, with IR missiles claiming by fat most kills. Yet gun was cheapest option at no more than 500 USD per burst, with AIM-9D IR missile costing 14.000 USD and AIM-7D/E radar-guided missile 44.000 USD. As for bombing, typical cluster bombs have proven useless in attacking dug-in Vietnamese shelters; US simply replaced explosive submunitions with “yellow dogs”, lumps of steel designed to mimic the shape of British WWII earth penetrating bombs. Each yellow dog cost cents to make, and thousands could be deployed in a single go, and being able to penetrate several meters into earth made an excellent way of destroying Vietcong shelters. They could also be deployed by any aircraft imaginable, which C-130 transports used to great effect, faking mid-flight cargo ejection to lure Vietnamese insurgents in the open before spraying area with yellow dogs. USAF also used A-37 subsonic attack aircraft which during testing period flew over 4.000 sorties without a single combat loss. It was easy to maintain and fix, but USAF retired it due to being “too slow”.
In 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, 96 Pakistani F-86 Sabres (armed with 6 .50 calibre machine guns and Sidewinder IR missiles) achieved 6:1 exchange ratio against Indian MiG-21s, Sn-7s and Hunters. Only Indian fighter able to challenge F-86, killing several with no losses, was Folland Gnat. On the other hand, Pakistani F-104s fared very poorly against Indian MiG-21s.
Main problem with statement that more expensive aircraft are more capable is that it is only true if aircraft in questions have been designed only with weapons and performance requirements necessary in combat. But Western, especially US, fighters are regularly overdesigned and incorporating impressive technical capabilities of questionable tactical value. For example, air superiority fighters do not need to fly faster than Mach 2, yet F-15 has been designed with Mach 2,5 requirement, at tremendous cost in size, weight, complexity and thereforce manufacture and development costs. In fact, TFX has incurred 50% increase in weight once Mach 2,5 requirement has been adopted; only modifications done before that increase due to Boyd’s insistence saved it from being an F-105-like failure. F-111 was also required to fly at Mach 2 at altitude and over Mach 1 at deck, yet such capabilities proved useless. They did incur huge weight, complexity and cost penalties, such as variable-sweep wings and moveable intake ramps. Another problem, especially with US fighters, is basic design approach: they are insufficiently refined. If one wants more range, obvious solution is to increase fuel capacity; better lift-to-weight ratio is achieved by increasing wing area; better thrust-to-weight ratio is achieved by having more powerful engines. But this means that size, weight and cost spiral upwards, with lift and thrust chasing weight and drag and carrying along increases in cost, maintenance and vulnerability. Better approach is one of refinement: level-flight drag is reduced by having smaller frontal area and cleaner aerodynamics; drag while turning is achieved by reducing angle of attack for maximum lift; high fuel fraction is achieved by reducing weight of airframe. Examples of former approach are F-15, F-22 and Tornado; examples of latter approach are F-5, F-16, Gripen and Rafale. In fact, F-5E has fought “more advanced” and far more expensive F-14 and F-15 to a draw.
First I’ll compare air superiority aircraft. Even though this part analysis ignores its effects on effective presence of aircraft on battlefield, 30 to 45 one-hour sorties per month are a requirement for having well-trained pilots, which means high sortie rate and low maintenance downtime; and pilot’s competence decides how aircraft will perform. Thus first requirement is realiability. Most pilots were also shot down unaware; this means that 360* coverage with passive sensors (including missile warners as enemy equipped with IRST and IR missile can easily attack while remaining passive, even from BVR while active missile warners are equally problematic as active radar) and good cockpit visibility (particularly to the rear) are a requirement for modern fighter aircraft so as to avoid being surprised and surprise the enemy. In order to surprise the enemy at BVR (only way that BVR missiles can actually be effective), one also has to have both passive sensors and passive BVR missiles. Radar warners can also detect any radar – even LPI – when it locks on. Second requirement is thus advantage in situational awareness, including invisibility to passive sensors, best achieved by small size, low IR signature and low to no EM emissions.
Third requirement is to outmaneuver the enemy, which requires good turn rates, acceleration, deceleration and good climb rate, quick transition from one maneuver to another, as well as ability to outlast opponent. In actual many-on-many combat, there is no time to stay in turn for long; thus instantaneous turn and roll rates are important in dogfight for both getting into favorable missile launch position and preventing enemy from doing so, whereas sustained turn rate is only important when avoiding BVR missiles; but even there instanteneous turn rate and roll rate are more important. Minimum fuel fraction required for outlasting the opponent is 0,3.
Fourth requirement is to obtain reliable kills during (typically short) firing opportunity. This favors external missile carriage and revolver cannon, as well as simpler IR missiles over more complex radar-guided missiles. Further, it requires positive visual identification, which favors aircraft with long-range visual sensors, be it camera or imaging IRST. In dogfight, times required to kill the enemy after firing opportunity has presented itself that go beyond 3 to 5 seconds make pilot exponentially more vulnerable to an unseen opponent, and times beyond 7 to 9 seconds are impractically risky. For guns, this time is between 3 and 6 seconds, compared to 5-7 seconds for IR missile and 12-30 seconds for radar-guided missile. Susceptibility to countermeasures is also important; primary countermeasure to guns is to maneuver, though usage of radar for targeting means that jamming can be effective. Modern IR missiles use lasers for proximity fuze, making them resistant to jamming but not to evasive maneuvers.
Fifth requirement is for large number of on-board kills. Typical Pk (kills per trigger squeeze) is 0,3 for gun, 0,15 for IR WVR missile and 0,08 for BVR missile with all weapons being employed within visual range. MICA IR is a dual-use WVR/BVR missile so I’ll assume Pk of 0,12. Gun Pk actually varies between 0,4 for dual revolver cannons and 0,26 for single Gattling cannon; for single revolver cannon, it is likely to be around 0,3-0,35 depending on calibre and rate of fire. Typical length of burst is no greater than 1,5 seconds.
Sixth requirement is ability to sustain high cruise speed for at least 20 to 30 minutes. This is achieved by having high fuel fraction and low fuel consumption when at high subsonic or supersonic speeds (latter is achieved by having low drag and avoiding usage of afterburner). F-22 for example can “supercruise” for 100 nm, or 5 minutes, due to its brick-like shape even though it doesn’t use afterburner. It can use fuel tanks to extend persistence, but these make it even less stealthy than it is in IR spectrum, and destroy radar stealth.
Aircraft can be compared by using these requirements; one that scores high on most requirements can be considered most effective. Aircraft to be compared will thus be F-15C (126 million USD), F-16C (70 million USD), F-22 (262 million USD) and F-35A (200 million USD) for US; Gripen (33-44 million USD C, 60 million USD E), Rafale C (90 million USD) and Typhoon (138 million USD) for Europe, and Su-35 (45-65 million USD flyaway) for Russia. All costs are in FY 2013 USD. One must understand that this comparision is just an approximation; not all requirements are equally important, and their relative importance may also change depending on situation.
F-15 is a complex weapon and can only manage 1 sortie per day, which is a borderline acceptable. While it has good cockpit visibility, it lacks passive sensors – its only sensor useful for detecting enemy aircraft is radar, and missile warners are also based on emitting active radio signals. Its maneuvering performance is far from being competetive with modern fighter aircraft. External missile carriage allows for relatively quick shots with IR missiles but it is hampered by usage of low-calibre Gattling gun; 940 rounds carried result in 8,6 1-second bursts for a total Pk of 2,2; 6 BVR missiles result in Pk of 0,48 and 2 WVR missiles result in Pk of 0,3, for a total of 2,98 on-board kills. Low fuel fraction of 0,29 and usage of afterburner for supersonic speeds severely limits its endurance in both combat and out of it. Score is thus 0,5 for sortie rate, 0,5 for situational awareness, 0 for maneuvering performance, 0,5 for obtaining reliable kills, 1 for number of on-board kills, 0 for combat persistance and 0 for cruise performance, for total of 2,5 points or 36%.
F-16 has higher sortie rate than F-15 from same period. It has good cockpit visibility, but lacks passive sensors. Like F-15, it has good cockpit visibility but lacks passive sensors. It has good maneuvering performance, which however was reduced with later versions. External missile carriage allows for relatively quick shots with IR missiles but it is hampered by usage of low-calibre Gattling gun. 515 rounds carried result in 4,7 bursts for a total number of 1,2 kills; typical loadout of 4 BVR and 4 IR missiles results in 0,92 kills, for a total number of 2,12 on-board kills. It can only cruise subsonically, and has fuel fraction of 0,26. Score is thus 1 for sortie rate, 0,5 for situational awareness, 0,5 for maneuvering performance, 0,5 for obtaining reliable kills, 1 for number of on-board kills, 0 for combat persistance and 0 for cruise performance, for a total of 3,5 points or 50%.
F-22 has very low sortie rate, lacks rearward visibility and passive sensors. It has good turn and roll rates but usage of thrust vectoring means that it bleeds energy quickly, and results in high fuel consumption, a problem worsened by low fuel fraction of 0,28. Internal missile carriage and usage of Gattling gun covered by trap doors render it incapable of quick shots; typical loadout of 480 rounds results in 4,8 bursts for a total number of 1,2 kills, whereas 6 BVR and 2 WVR missiles add 0,78 kills, for a total number of 1,98 on-board kills. It can cruise at speeds of Mach 1,5 while carrying internal missiles, but low fuel fraction and high drag severely limt useful duration. Score is 0 for sortie rate, 0 for situational awareness, 0,5 for maneuvering performance, 0 for obtaining reliable kills, 0,5 for number of on-board kills, 0 for combat persistance and 0,5 for cruise performance, for a total of 1,5 points or 21%.
F-35 will have low sortie rate, and it lacks rearward visibility but has good passive sensors suite. It has bad turn performance, through roll performance is good, but it bleeds energy quickly due to drag and consumes fuel at high rate, a problem that very high fuel fraction of 0,38 can rectify only to an extent. Internal missile carriage and usage of Gattling gun covered by trap doors render it incapable of quick shots; typical loadout of 180 rounds results in 2,6 bursts for a total number of 0,7 kills, whereas 4 BVR missiles carried internally add 0,32 kills, for total number of 1,02 on-board kills. It can only cruise subsonically. Score is 0 for sortie rate, 0,5 for situational awareness, 0 for maneuvering performance, 0 for obtaining reliable kills, 0,5 for number of on-board kills, 0 for combat persistance and 0 for cruise performance, for a total of 1 point or 14%. Part of a problem with F-35 is that, contrary to bean-counters’ wishes, in real life one size does not fit all.
Gripen C is easy to maintain, resulting in high sortie rate (as one article correctly put it, “Gripen provides the ruggedness and low cost of Russian aircraft with the high quality and reliability of Western aircraft.”). It lacks both rearward visibility and good passive sensor suite. Turn and roll performances are good and it does not bleed energy quickly, but vertical maneuverability is restricted by low thrust-to-weight ratio. It does not consume fuel quickly but has low fuel fraction of 0,28. External missile carriage and usage of revolver cannon mean that it is capable of quick shots; typical loadout of 120 rounds results in 4,2 bursts for a total number of 1,26 kills, while typical loadout of 2 IR and 4 BVR missiles give 0,62 kills, for a total of 1,88 on-board kills. It can only cruise subsonically. Score is thus 1 for sortie rate, 0 for situational awareness, 0,5 for maneuvering performance, 1 for obtaining reliable kills, 0,5 for number of on-board kills, 0 for combat persistance and 0 for cruise performance, resulting in total of 3 points or 43%. For Gripen NG, which is planned to have IRST, higher thrust-to-weight ratio and fuel fraction, score would be 1 for sortie rate, 0,5 for situational awareness, 1 for maneuvering performance, 1 for obtaining reliable kills, 0,5 for number of on-board kills, 0,5 for combat persistance and 1 for cruise performance, for a total of 5,5 points or 79%.
Dassault Rafale is not as easy to maintain as Gripen but still easier than US fighters and can achieve high sortie rate. It has good rearward visibility and excellent passive sensors suite. It has excellent turn and roll performance, and low drag combined with high thrust-to-weight ratio allow it to maintain energy in both horizontal and vertical turns. It does not consume fuel quickly, and has adequate fuel fraction of 0,33. External missile carriage and usage of revolver cannon mean that it is capable of quick shots; typical loadout of 125 rounds results in 3 bursts for a total number of 1,05 kills, while typical loadout of 6 MICA IR missiles gives 0,72 kills, for a total of 1,77 on-board kills. It can supercruise at Mach 1,4 with 6 missiles or Mach 1,3 with 6 missiles and supersonic fuel tank. Score is thus 1 for sortie rate, 1 for situational awareness, 1 for maneuvering performance, 1 for obtaining reliable kills, 0,5 for number of on-board kills, 1 for combat persistence and 1 for cruise performance, for a total of 6,5 points or 93%.
Typhoon is yet less easy to maintain, but not by much and can still achieve high sortie rate. It has good rearward visibility and passive sensors suite. It has excellent turn performance, but suffers of high drag typical for delta wing unless paired with close-coupled canard, though high thrust-to-weight ratio allows it to counter it. This comes at cost of fuel consumption, but it does have adequate fuel fraction. It is however less responsive than close-coupled canard. External missile carriage and usage of revolver cannon mean that it is capable of quick shots; typical loadout of 150 rounds results in 5,35 bursts for a total number of 1,6 kills, while typical loadout of 4 BVR missiles and 2 IRIS-T gives 0,62 kills, for a total of 2,22 on-board kills. It can supercruise at Mach 1,5 with 6 missiles. Score is thus 1 for sortie rate, 1 for situational awareness, 0,5 for maneuvering performance, 1 for obtaining reliable kills, 1 for number of on-board kills, 1 for combat persistence and 1 for cruise performance, for a total of 6,5 points or 93%.
Su-35 is not very easy to maintain, though easier than any stealth design and is very rugged. It does not have good rearward visibility but has a good passive sensors suite. Performance is also good, but size and weight leave it unable to match smaller aircraft. It does have excellent IR missiles and adequate gun, with up to 14 missiles resulting in Pk of 1,26 – 2,1 and 150 rounds allowing for 6 1-second bursts, for a total Pk of 3,06 – 3,9 depending on mix of missiles. It has high fuel fraction of 0,38, but may not be able to supercruise. Score is thus 0,5 for sortie rate, 0,5 for situational awareness, 0,5 for maneuvering performance, 1 for obtaining reliable kills, 1 for number of on-board kills, 1 for combat persistence and 0,5 for cruise performance, for a total of 5 points or 71%.
As it can be seen, after certain point has been passed, more expensive weapons become less, not more, capable even in one-on-one comparision. This is a result of conflicting requirements present when designing fighters, which mean that major tradeoffs are required and that increasing number of combat-irrelevant performance requirements means that actual combat performance is compromised. Result is that Gripen C, often seen as “economy” aircraft for poorer countries, is superior in 2 requirements and equal in all remaining requirements to 5 times as expensive F-22.
Situation is no different in Close Air Support. While F-15E costs 30 million USD, compared to 15 million USD for A-10, it is utterly ineffective as a CAS aircraft. While A-10 can search at 225 mph with 500 meter turn radius, F-15 searches at 400 mph with 1.600-2.500 meter turn radius, far too fast and wide to detect concealed or small targets, differentiate cow dung from APCs or to provide quality CAS. A-10 can also carry more munitions and has lethal 30 mm cannon, compared to F-15 which can only carry 4 precision AtG ammunitions – whose delivery has to be pre-planned, delaying delivery for crucial minutes (25 minutes at minimum) or even hours (5 hours in one instance), and are useless against moving targets (either targets are long gone once munitions arrive or munitions miss) or dug-in static infantry (hours of bombardment with PGMs against Al Quaeda fighters in mountainous terrain usually has no effect at all – as in, not a single casualty incurred by Al Quaeda) and even tanks (in Kosovo, thousands of sorties resulted in 14 Yugoslav tanks destroyed). In fact, even F-16s were often forced to use cannon to provide (ineffective) CAS in Afghanistan, but both F-16 and F-15E are too fast to use cannon effectively, and their speed means that bombs bump into each other on release, and fins get bent, playing merry hell with accuracy even if guidance system does not malfunction, sending munition miles off the target – problems which are completely absent with GAU-8. Iraqi Republician Guard escaped when “precision” bombs dropped by high-altitude bombers failed to destroy bridges; at the same time, A-10s mauled any Iraqi ground unit they came across unless said unit was extremely well dug in. A-10 also has 5 times the loiter time and double sorties per day. While F-15 can be shot down by .22 cal machine gun, A-10 is invulnerable to anything up to and including 20 mm cannons. A-10 is also more survivable while on the ground, being able to fly from 1.200 meter long dirt strips, compared to 3.700 meter long concrete air strip required by F-15. As Frank Antenori has commented, F-15, F-16 and F-18 often need two or three bombing runs to get on target; A-10s almost always kill target in the first pass. 200 million USD F-35 is even worse than F-15E or AH-64 – it searches at 600 mph with far larger turn radius, has very bad loiter time and can fly far less often than F-15E; it is even more vulnerable than the F-15E due to its huge, hot, fuel-surrounded engine. Similarly, in many situations laser-guided concrete bomb is far superior to laser-guided HE bomb as it causes less collateral damage, is cheaper and safer to handle. Unlike A-10, neither F-15E or F-35 can fly under overcast on bad weather days for fear of getting shot down by AAA – and above it, they won’t be effective. Only problem with A-10 is that it does not have a back-seat observer to operate optics and identify targets before engaging, which sometimes leads to friendly fire incidents – but even as it is, it is superior to F-15, F-35 or an UAV. As for marking targets for CAS aircraft, marker baloons are far more versatile than laser designators and do not require operators to be dangerously exposed.
As for helicopters, Army AH-64 costs 32 million USD unit flyaway, it is nowhere as resillient as A-10, has shorter loiter time, less payload capacity, and is far less reliable. In First Gulf War, US sent 274 AH-64 attack helicopters and 132 A-10s. Helicopters launched 2.764 Hellfire missiles; A-10s launched 5.000 Maverick missiles and dropped 40.000 bombs. In Second Gulf War between 2003 and 2007, 32 AH-64 helicopters were lost, killing 214 people; during same timeframe, there were 18 fixed-wing aircraft losses, of which 2 CAS aircraft (1 A-10 and 1 AV-8), killing 18 people. Anything that attack helicopter can do can be done better by half-as-expensive CAS aircraft; and this also goes for other roles helicopters are performing, except for extraction of people from inaccessible terrains. AEW (airborne early warning) aircraft have longer range and loiter time than AEW helicopters.
During 1999 war in Kosovo, US F-16C suffered one loss in 4.500 sorties, whereas F-117 suffered 2 losses in 1.300 sorties. Both F-117s hit (one went down, other limped back to base never to fly again) were hit by the same Serbian air defence unit armed with 1960s vintage Pechora SA-3 surface-to-air missile. What did allow this SAM unit to achieve this success was its commander’s skill: he ordered radar to emit at unusually long wavelengths, allowing it to detect the F-117; all other radars emitted in X-band, which is exactly the wavelength that all US stealth aircraft are optimized against.
In air war, it is pilot who makes a difference: despite German rather one-sided superiority in quality and quantity of both pilots and aircraft, several Polish pilots fighting in 1939 campaign became aces in 225 mph open-cockpit biplanes, fighting against modern 375 mph Messerschmitt 109s. Over Dunkirk, German pilots were dominant over RAF despite Spitfire and Hurricane being closely matched with Bf-109. One reason was RAF rigid adherence to unwieldy three-ship “vic” formation; following that, RAF adopted German “fingers four” formation, a transition made easier by the fact that most older officers adhering to “vic” had perished over Dunkirk, and effectiveness improved.
By 1944, Luftwaffe was made ineffective – USAFs heavy, expensive bombers were useless in their primary mission (unlike cheaper dive bombers) but were good bait for Luftwaffe fighters; in September 1944, Luftwaffe was receiveing 3.000 new fighters per month but only 1.000 new pilots per month, and even those pilots were hugely undertrained.
Due to that, Luftwaffe introduced Me-262, first operational jet fighter. While first Me-262s delivered were bombers – and proved useless – 15-strong test unit equipped with air-to-air variant of Me-262 began operations by the end of July 1944. In August, it claimed 5 kills, mostly reconnaissance aircraft. Afterwards, it was transferred from original base deep in Bavaria to forward airfields in Western Germany; consequently, it claimed 19 kills (including 4 B-24) but suffered 6 Me-262s shot down and 7 lost in accidents. Even after more thorough training, it only flew 25 sorties per day. During March, US fighters started patrolling near known Me-262 bases to catch them on takeoff or landing, but due to Me-262s superior cruise speed they were at constant threat from bounces. Me-262 pilot quality kept declining however, and despite the fact that by March 1945 over 950 Me-262s have been delivered, and over 1.400 by end of April, lack of pilots meant that largest number of sorties ever flown against Allied bombers in a single day was 55. By the end of the war, Me-262 shot down no more than 150 Allied aircraft, suffering 100 losses in aerial combat with maybe 75 downed by fighters.
By March 1943, German night fighters had shot down 2.000 Allied aircraft – despite the fact that no German fighter had an onboard radar and thus relied on ground radar for guidance. In the late summer of 1943, these fighters started receiveing first operational radars, and 350 specialized night fighters were augmented by single-engined day fighters which searched for bombers through illumination by flares and by searching for burning bombers. By fall of 1943, broadcast control was established with result that night bombers started suffering losses that went beyond 6% per sortie, higher than US daytime bomber losses. Both Allies and Germans used pilots trained specifically for night combat, and “multipurpose” trained pilots proved incapable in both daytime and night combat.
Similarly, in Korean war only Russian and Chinese instructors in MiG-15 were able to match US F-86; remaining MiG-15s suffered 10 losses (shot down or rendered combat ineffective; due to MiG-15s robust and simple construction and F-86’s inadequate armament latter happened far more often than former) for each F-86 lost. While MiG-15 had better turn rate, F-86 was superior in dogfight since then-new hydraulic controls and far superior roll rate allowed far quicker transition from one maneuver to another; another important advantage was superior cockpit visibility, particularly from the rear. Interestingly, while F-86 achieved 0,34 kills per pass when lead computing gunsight wasn’t used, it achieved 0,30 kills per pass when it was used. Small F-86 formations also achieved more favorable kill:loss ratio more they were outnumbered, due to two reasons: while US pilots flew in pairs, and sometimes fours, Communist pilots often flew in larger formations which proved unwieldy; second, if everyone else in the air is the enemy, pilot doesn’t need to spend time to decide on whom he is allowed to shoot. This also resulted in another effect: when large quantities of aircraft were present in engagement from both sides, outnumbered force’s kill:loss rate was not improved by being outnumbered – it decreased – and in extremely large engagements larger force actually achieved favorable kill:loss ratio. Yet Russian-flown MiG-15s achieved close to 1:1 ratio against US F-86.
In Israeli-Arab wars, Israeli have inflicted same beating on Arab forces regardless of wether they had technological advantage (latter wars) or were level with (or even behind) Arabs (early wars), simply because they had and have far better organization and far more competent troops. In 1983 Israeli-Syrian war, many Syrian pilots ejected as soon as they got radar lock-on warning.
Weapons have normally never been a bottleneck in achieving kills; what was main problem was getting into a favorable firing position. Only exception were radar-guided missiles, where out-of-envelope launches were not usually cause of misses and most important factors were evasive maneuvering by the target and weapons’ own unreliability. In Vietnam, M-61 Gattling cannon achieved 0,26 Pk due to lower projectile velocity, low damage per round, less gunnery training and bad platform. In 1967 war, twin DEFA cannons on Mirage III achieved 0,4 kills per firing pass, though this may also have to do with rather lacking skill of Arab pilots (something that has worsened since then). IR missiles achieved Pk between 0,15 and 0,19, whereas radar-guided missiles achieved Pk between 0,08 and 0,1.
In US training war games, more experienced instructors were regularly beating students in F-14s, F-15s and F-16s while flying F-4 and F-5. They were also quick to adapt to YF-22, even despite unrealistic BVR missile Pk assumptions, before USAF handicapped them by changing exercise rules, removing any semplance of reality for propaganda purposes. Similarly, Air National Guard units have always outperformed USAF line units despite using old handed-down USAF equipment. But when ANG accepted Reformers’ arguments and requested VB-100 “Blitzfighter”, request was denied.
Nothing is different with other weapons. At start of Battle of Prokhorovka, Germans had 109 armored vehicles; of these, 40 were assault guns and remaining 69 were tanks. There were no Panthers present, only 4 Tigers, 42 Panzer IVs, 11 Panzer IIIs, 4 Panzer IIs and 2 Panzer Is plus 20 Marder III and 20 StuG III assault guns. Soviets had 366 tanks and 27 assault guns, of which 1 KV1, 18 Churchill, 207 T-34, 140 T-70, 11 Su-122 and 16 Su-76. Yet despite huge Soviet numerical advantage, and basically no difference in AFV quality (T-34 was inferior to Tiger, slightly superior to late Panzer IV models and hugely superior to Panzer I-III and early Panzer IV models), Germans permanently lost 7 AFVs with further 25 being sent for repairs. Soviets permanently lost at least 134 AFVs, with further 125 being sent for repairs. Two reasons for this pasting were better training of German crews and better coordination: all German tanks had radio. This simple, comparatively cheap and usually ignored piece of equipment has proven far more important than range and penetration capability of tank’s gun or thickness of its armor. Similarly, Germans conquered France in few weeks despite Allies having numerical and technological advantage – simply because of better organization (including radios) and less centralization.
In Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, USAF dominated over Iraqi Air Force – not because it had better aircraft and longer-ranged weapons, but because Iraqi pilots were incompetent, Iraqi aircraft lacked passive sensors (most importantly radar warners and missile warners) and Iraqi Air Force in general lacked any means to disrupt AWACS operation. There is no reason to believe that end result or even USAFs kill-loss rate would have been any different had US used F-5 instead of teen-series fighters.
In both Gulf Wars, Iraqi T-72s got pasted by US M1 Abrams. Yet Marc Sehring of the Patton Tank Museum stated that “If the crews were equally well-trained the T-72 would probably have been the winner.” Similarly, during fighting in Baghdad most common maneuver done by regular units of Iraqi Army and Republician Guard was to throw down weapons and surrender to the Coalition troops; irregular fighters – including, but not limited to, Saddam’s personal guard – provided most fierce, actually only, opposition during a three-day battle; but even they had no training, discipline or knowledge of tactics and coordination.
While vacuum tubes which Russians used in fighters such as MiG-25 were regarded as obsolete by the West, they are resistant to electromagnetic pulse – in the event of the nuclear war, MiG-25 would have been the only aircraft to fly on the planet.
Lack of relation between cost and usefulness is equally pronounced in the Navy. German submarines, while ineffective in preventing US resupply of Britain or US transport of troops and goods over the Atlantic, did create significant logistical constraints: Allied ships were forced to sail in convoys, which reduced their average speed by 33%; US also had to order significantly greater quantities of material than actually needed in order to replace material lost at sea. Submarines sank 2.828 merchant ships and 187 warships, including 6 aircraft carriers and 2 battleships, and up until July 1943 Allied merchant ship losses exceeded production. In fact, program to build escort and merchant ships to counter U-boat threat caused Allies to halve building rate for amphibious ships, thus making operation Roundup – planned 1943 invasion of France – impossible; lack of landing craft will continue to plague Allies for rest of the war. It was only victory in Battle for Atlantic in fall of 1943 which enabled invasion of France in 1944; still, Allies had to cancel amphibious assaults planned against Japanese forces in Burma which they promised to Chang Kai Shek earlier. Same lack of amphibious ships postponed invasion of Southern France – Operation Anvil – which was planned to happen before Overlord and thus draw mobile German reserve away from Normandy, but actually happened after the Overlord. Lack of shipping also meant that Allied forces in Italy could not be redeployed to strategically far more important, and far more suitable for offensive operations, France. Yet German submarine production never reached anywhere close to its full potential: development of no less than 30 new types during the war significantly slowed the production (a problem encountered with modern fighter aircraft, which are continually upgraded).
US submarines in the Pacific caused huge losses to Japanese shipping, halving imports of strategically important materials between 1941 and 1944. Between 1943 and 1944, oil imports fell by 80%. Japanese also spent 42 times more on anti-submarine warfare than US did on its submarine force, but despite that, it never achieved acceptable results due to Japanese slowness in adapting to new circumstances. US submarines sank 50% of all Japanese merchant ships sunk, a value which was 90% of Japanese ship production (1150,5 ships sunk by submarines, 1108,2 sunk by other sources, 1226 produced). US submarine design was also freezed in 1942, significantly increasing construction rate – within three years, number of man-hours needed to construct a submarine dropped from 2 million to below 650.000. This should also be a lesson for modern fighter aircraft production, yet it is not applied.
Another problem is that more complex (and thus costly) weapons are more problematic to maintain. Aside from negatively impacting user’s ability to use weapon, it has other drawbacks as well. Weapon that is being constantly maintained is not present on the battlefield, reducing effective size of the force. It is also very vulnerable, unless maintenance is carried out so far from combat zone that it is out of reach of enemy weapons – which necessitates transport of weapons being maintained and increases downtime. More complex weapons are also more dependant on vulnerable bases – any fighter aircraft that must use fixed air bases and cannot fly at least from road air base if not from tent and dirt-strip open field air base, is almost useless in a real war as enemy air bases are one of primary objectives for destruction, especially against enemy that is as reliant on air power as US are. Enemy can also – as Taliban did against Soviets – use portable shoulder-launched SAMs to engage aircraft at takeoff or landing, when they are too slow and sluggish to evade the missile. In this respect, Gripen is far superior to any other Western fighter aircraft.
I will again compare modern fighter aircraft, but by using strategic requirements: ability to fly from either road bases (0,5 pts) or dirt-strip air bases (1 pt); ability to be easily maintained by a small number of people (0 pts for no, 1 pt for yes); ability to generate large number of sorties per aircraft per day (up to and including 1 sortie per day – 0 pts, over 1 sortie per day – 0,5 pts, 2 or more – 1 pts); STOL capability (yes – 1 pt, no – 0 pts). Cost, while cruicial for comparision, will be ignored. I will again compare F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35 for US; Gripen C, Gripen E, Rafale and Typhoon for Europe and Su-35 for Russia.
F-15 can only fly from fixed, large air bases. It is not easy to maintain and can only generate one sortie per day per aircraft. It has no STOL capability. Thus it gets 0 for basing capability, 0 for maintenance, 0 for sortie generation, 0 for STOL capability, for a total of 0 or 0%.
F-16 can only fly from fixed, large air bases. It is not very easy to maintain and can generate 1,2 sorties per day per aircraft. It has no STOL capability. Thus it gets 0 for basing capability, 0,5 for maintenance, 0,5 for sortie generation, 0 for STOL capability, for a total of 1 or 25%.
F-22 can only fly from fixed, large air bases. It is not easy to maintain and can only generate one sortie per day per aircraft. It has STOL capability. Thus it gets 0 for basing capability, 0 for maintenance, 0 for sortie generation, 0,5 for STOL capability, for a total of 0,5 or 12,5%.
F-35 can only fly from fixed, large air bases. It is not easy to maintain and can only generate one sortie per day per aircraft. It has no STOL capability. Thus it gets 0 for basing capability, 0 for maintenance, 0 for sortie generation, 0 for STOL capability, for a total of 0 or 0%. This is true even for STOVL variant.
Saab Gripen C/E can fly from road base set up by using fully portable ground support units and be serviced by a crew of six which can refuel and rearm it in ten minutes. It has maintenance downtime of 10 hours per hour of flight, resulting in two sorties per day. It is also STOL capable. Thus it gets 0,5 for basing capability, 1 for maintenance, 1 for sortie generation, 1 for STOL capability, for a total of 3,5 or 87,5%.
Rafale can only fly from fixed, large air bases. It is comparatively easy to maintain and can generate two sorties per day per aircraft. It has STOL capability. Thus it gets 0 for basing capability, 0,5 for maintenance, 1 for sortie generation, 1 for STOL capability, for a total of 2,5 or 62,5%.
Typhoon can only fly from fixed, large air bases. It is comparatively easy to maintain and can generate two sorties per day per aircraft. It has STOL capability. Thus it gets 0 for basing capability, 0,5 for maintenance, 1 for sortie generation, 1 for STOL capability, for a total of 2,5 or 62,5%.
Su-35 can fly from any large, flat surface. It is not very easy to maintain but is very rugged, and can likely only generate one sortie per day per aircraft. It has no STOL capability unless equipped with TVC. Thus it gets 1 for basing capability, 0,5 for maintenance, 0,5 for sortie generation, 0 for STOL capability, for a total of 2 or 50%.
Thus cheapest aircraft – Gripen – is also strategically best choice, and strategic capability tends to go downward with increasing cost.
Light helicopters like Little Bird, OH-58D and Gazelle can be very cheap, and very deadly when used properly, especially if designed without tail rotor, reducing noise. While still vulnerable, most important aspects of helicopters are air mobility and ability to land where aircraft can’t. This requires small, light helicopters that are relatively easy to maintain (helcopter that doesn’t fly is no good). Helicopters also must be fieldable in larger numbers, in order to effectively lay down large volumes of fire – with unguided rockets, if needed; but CAS should not be primary use of helicopters as fixed-wing aircraft are far more survivable. They can also direct artillery fire. Another advantage over large, heavy (and almost as vulnerable) attack helicopters is ability to be transported in cargo planes. And as AWACS ignores anything slower than 70 mph to avoid automobile clutter, and ground-based radars have short range against low-flying aircraft, number of light helicopters can easily catch 250 million USD F-22s (or any aircraft that relies solely on concrete-strip air bases) on the ground.
Similarly, wooden turboprop aircraft like British WW2 Mosquito would be ideal for SEAD/DEAD missions: it would have very long loiter time, would be hard to detect by either radar or IR sensors, and would be no more vulnerable to AAA and SAMs than modern thin-skinned fighter jets, especially since maximum survivability altitude is below 50 and above 50.000 feet (50 feet: 15,25 meters). Alternatively, a wooden jet fighter (similar to Ho-229) is also a possibility, though it would be more expensive and more vulnerable to detection by IR sensors.
And while tanks are usually compared by their ability to shoot crap out of each other, main function of tank is to “bring machine guns on enemy’s soft underbelly” (paraphrase of General Patton’s statement), meaning supply lines, command centers and similar. For that, most important characteristics are reliability, range and off-road mobility. In these areas, smaller and lighter tanks are likely to be superior to larger ones – strategically, Leclerc or M-95 might be better choice than Challenger II or Abrams. M1 Abrams is easily the worst tank in the world on strategic plan: aside from being expensive, it is huge fuel hog, necessitating constant resupply by easily destroyed thin-skinned trucks and ships. In 1944. general Patton’s Third Army had 400.000 men and used 400.000 gallons of gasoline every day; in 2005. US military had 200.000 troops in Iraq which used 1.700.000 gallons of gasoline per day. These demands strained US logistics despite lack of credible enemy air threat. Fuel consumption per mile is 2 gallons on road and 7 gallons off road for M1 Abrams (9 gallons off road according to a retired USMC Lt.Col.), compared to 1 US gallon per mile on road for Leopard 2, 1,5 gallons on road and 2,6 US gallons off road for Challenger 2. Idle consumption is 16 gallons per hour for M1 Abrams according to tank commander interviewed by Periscope (official claim is 10 gallons per hour), compared to 5,2 gallons for Challenger 2. Better strategic mobility facilitates ability to achieve its primary function of cutting off supply lines, but heavier tanks may be required to achieve breakthrought to be exploited by lighter tanks. In this view, Challenger 2 and Degman would be an ideal combination (range without refuelling: 450 km Challenger 2, 700 km Degman; lighter tanks also likely have lower fuel consumption off road compared to on road one than heavier tanks. Leclerc is listed to have 500 km range, so I chose longer-ranged Degman for a lighter part of the mix, while Leopard 2, to my knowledge, is not as well protected as Challenger 2).
First Gulf War exposed shortcomings of turbine-powered M1 Abrams when compared to other tanks in this role: M1s were supposed to do a pincer movement to cut off retreat route for Saddam’s Republician Guard, but dust clogged up filters of M1s “high-tech” turbine engines, causing tanks to stop for maintenance every two hours. This allowed Republician Guard enough time to escape, and ensured that Saddam’s regime will endure until 2003. as Guard crushed revolt soon after the war. Similarly, M1 will be unable to operate behind enemy lines for any reasonable amount of the time.
Crunching the numbers
As shown, there are alternatives to many weapons that are both cheaper and more capable. But what would exactly be the advantage of buying such weapons in terms of numbers deployed and overall effectiveness? To this effect I will compare several forces, each made up of 10 billion USD worth of a particular aircraft, with end score being individual aircraft’s score multiplied by number of sorties per day. While this is far from perfect method, it does provide a sense of actual combat value.
Aircraft compared for US will be, as before, F-15C (126 million USD), F-16C (70 million USD), F-22 (262 million USD) and F-35A (200 million USD).
F-15C: 79 fighters, flying 79 sorties per day; 36 points per sortie; 2.844 points
F-16C: 142 fighters, flying 170 sorties per day; 50 points per sortie; 8.500 points
F-22A: 38 fighters, flying 19 sorties per day; 21 points per sortie; 399 points
F-35A: 50 fighters, flying 25 sorties per day; 14 points per sortie; 350 points
There are four fighter aircraft in Europe: Gripen (33-44 million USD C, 60 million USD E), Rafale (90 million USD) and Typhoon (138 million USD). Resultant forces for 10 billion USD are thus:
Typhoon: 72 fighters, flying 144 sorties per day; 93 points per sortie; 13.392 points
Rafale C: 111 fighters, flying 222 sorties per day; 93 points per sortie; 20.646 points
Gripen C: 227 fighters, flying 454 sorties per day; 43 points per sortie; 19.522 points
Gripen E: 166 fighters, flying 332 sorties per day; 79 points per sortie; 26.228 points
Su-35: 153 fighters, flying 153 sorties per day; 71 points per sortie; 10.863 points
As it can be seen, best US fighter is also the cheapest one. Among European fighters, however, two extremes fared more poorly than two middle fighters. However, what must be realized is that per-aircraft advantage on part of numerically inferior side must be a square of difference in numbers in order for it to break even. Thus, Gripen E which is outnumbered 1,37:1 by Gripen C needs 1:87:1 quality advantage to break even – value it achieves (in admittedly rough comparision) is 1,84:1, though it has some advantages over C version – such as an IRST – which are disproportinately effective. As such, Gripen E is as good choice as Gripen C.
It is not different with tanks, either. Challenger II costs 6,7 million USD, compared to 8,6 million USD for Abrams; but its combat avaliability is 90%, compared to 45% for Abrams. Thus for 1 billion USD, one can have 52 Abrams tanks facing the enemy, or 134 Challenger II tanks.
“No one is thinking if everyone is thinking alike.”
General George S. Patton Jr
More expensive weapons are not necessarily more capable than their less expensive counterparts either in direct comparision or in actual war. In fact, since one of most important characteristics of a weapon is its reliability and ease of maintenance, cheaper weapons tend to be more capable – weapons’ capability on platform level is completely disconnected from its actual usefulness in the war, but well-designed weapons can be cheap while still being more capable on both platform and battlefield level than more expensive alternatives.
But all of this is misrepresented in Western media, and objectivity put on fire, tossed out of window and nuked as journalists are fed by Pentagon press releases even if they don’t work in US – and if they do, in most cases they can’t afford to write anything portraying US equipment as anything less than exemplary. US military is not a military but a bureocracy, and European militaries are only somewhat better; both US and EU have tendency to waste money, though US are still a world leader in that field and China is one leading in a race to surpass US as most inefficient defense spender.
Challenger II vs SUV off-road mobility:
It shows importance of training (62-ton-tank managing to hide from car with excellent visibility, for example) but also advantages of tracks over the wheels. If you’re going to the Somme, take tracked vehicle and not Puff Daddy’s wheeled APC.