War consists of solving problems that prevent accoplishment of the goal; this is also present in weapons design. This design involves compromises and weapon that is intended to be equally good at everything always turns out to be equally useless at everything. But this presents a question of what areas to focus upon and which solution to use for the specific problem. Solution can be obvious (symmetric), like countering enemy weapon by negating it with identical weapon, or countering need for greater range by increasing fuel load of an aircraft. It can also be assymetrical, by exploiting weaknesses in enemy approach, such as negating advantage offered by his weapon by preventing conditions required for its use from forming, or improving range of aircraft by reducing drag. Third possibility is semi-symmetrical, such as using identical weapon as enemy’s while reducing enemy weapon’s performance, or improving range of aircraft by using tanker, thus increasing its effective fuel capacity.
Problem: enemy has larger number of tanks superior in straight combat
Symmetric counter: design a tank that will be better armored and armed than opponent’s
Semi-symmetric counter: use tank destroyers
Assymetric counter: use infantry and CAS aircraft
Examination: While it would be obvious to use tanks against tanks, opponent’s superior numbers and per-tank quality mean that it is not a smart idea. Designing a “superior” tank would increase cost and reduce number of tanks avaliable even more. Thus, tanks are best left to hunt soft targets, such as fuel trucks and supply dumps. Tank destroyers, basically a huge anti-tank gun at tank chassis, are a relatively cheap and very effective counter to enemy tanks. Drawback is that they are less effective than tanks for supporting infantry, but if tank destroyers are tasked with destroying enemy tanks, actual tanks are left free to do exactly that. Infantry itself has proven to be extremely dangerous to tanks in urban or hilly areas (only areas where tanks are relatively safe from infantry are steppes and deserts) but on its own it lacks maneuver capabilities of tracked vehicles; APCs are almost as large targets as tanks while being at heavy disadvantage against them. CAS aircraft such as Stuka and P-47 in WW2 or modern-day A-10 have historically proven extremely valuable in destroying enemy armored vehicles, but unlike ground vehicles they can’t be constantly present on the battlefield regardless of weather. Thus, combination of semi-symmetric and assymetric counter is optimal approach, whereas symmetric counter is relatively costly and ineffective. Even if opponent’s quality and quantity of tanks can be matched, it may not be a smart idea as it might lead to ignoring tanks’ true purpose: destruction of enemy support elements behind combat lines.
Problem: enemy has aircraft with long-range radar
Symmetric counter: use aircraft with longer-ranged radar
Semi-symmetric counter: use stealth aircraft
Assymetric counter: use RWR to target enemy aircraft
Examination: again, symmetric counter is an obvious solution. Assuming that two aircraft have comparable RCS, one with larger radar will be able to detect another first. Stealth aircraft, instead of increasing one’s own radar range, focus on decreasing opponent’s radar range by decreasing one’s own RCS. Both approaches lead to large, expensive aircraft with compromised performance. They also ignore the fact that user of radar is in same position as a person using flashlight in the dark: its user might find the enemy, but enemy will see emissions from his radar/flashlight far sooner than enemy himself is noticed, and even if detection device is not directed in a way that allows user of device to detect the enemy even from relatively close range. Radar warners are relatively cheap, and work by detecting enemy radar emissions – effectively forcing everyone to shut down their radars or at least use them very sparingly, thus eliminating radar’s theoretical detection advantage – and rendering heavy radar-based fighters impotent. In this view, both symmetric and semi-symmetric counters are bad, but semi-symmetric counter is worse due to larger costs involved.
Problem: enemy is using VLO fighters
Symmetric counter: use VLO fighters
Semi-symmetric counter: use aircraft with long-ranged radar
Assymetric counter: use IRST and RWR
Examination: symmetric counter is again the most obvious one: if enemy has stealth aircraft, best way would obviously be to counter them with stealth aircraft of one’s own. Most obvious and easiest way it is, but it is far from being the best one. Stealth fighters are hugely expensive to both procure and maintain, reducing force presence as well as pilots’ skill. Second counter is to use aircraft with longer-ranged radar. This is even worse in some ways, as strong radar signal allows one to be detected very early on, and potentially attacked without seeing the enemy. Plus side is that it allows some amount of numerical superiority over the enemy. Third counter means remaining completely passive. If enemy uses radar, he will be detected first and may be in danger of being attacked completely passively. If enemy stops using radar (an only logical action), he automatically removes any advantage gained by using stealth aircraft. Thus assymetric counter allows for countering very expensive enemy capability comparably cheaply and effectively, whereas other two counters are far inferior to it from both tactical and strategic viewpoints.
Problem: range of aircraft being designed has to be increased
Symmetric counter: increase internal fuel capacity
Semi-symmetric counter: allow for more drop tanks or conformal tanks
Assymetric counter: reduce drag and increase fuel fraction by reducing aircraft’s empty weight
Examination: Symmetric counter to problem of range, to increase internal fuel capacity, means that aircraft has to get larger and heavier. This in turn increases drag and forces stronger engines, which increases fuel consumption, starting a circle of weight and size increase – which in turn increases cost and decreases combat performance. Semi-symmetric counter allows aircraft to have comparably low fuel fraction by relying on sources of fuel other than its internal fuel tanks. Drop tanks can be discarded when needed, but they also increase drag and reduce maximum speed – consequence being that 25% increase in fuel capacity only translates into 10-15% increase in range. Another problem is that they take up external hardpoints, reducing aircraft’s ability to carry weapons; they also have to be discarded if a fighter aircraft using them gets into combat (Eurofighter Typhoon’s centerline tank might be an exception). Assymetric counter results in a more efficient aircraft, reducing fuel consumption and making aircraft lighter. This allows relatively small fighter to have very good range, and reduces both cost of aircraft and cost of fuel required to carry out a mission. As a result, assymetric counter is by far best one, though semi-symmetric one can be used as a patch when even more range is required by an already finished design. Assymetric counter also has additional benefit of improving aircraft’s dogfight performance.
Problem: fighter aircraft has to have a good turn rate
Symmetric counter: increase wing area
Semi-symmetric counter: use high-lift devices and wing-body blending to increase lift
Assymetric counter: eliminate excess equipment to reduce weight
Examination: Symmetric counter is obviously worst; increase in wing area leads to increase in drag and increase in weight due to larger wing, stronger structure and stronger engine required to counter increased drag and stresses; this in turns requires even larger wing, resulting in growth spiral with lift and thrust chasing weight and drag. Semi-symmetric counter has no such problems, and provides for increase in lift-to-weight ratio without almost any adverse effects; however, it does not adress issue of inertia and thrust-to-weight ratio stays the same. Reducing weight allows for both increased lift-to-weight ratio, thrust-to-weight ratio as well as decreased inertia. Assymetric counter also eliminates both excess weight and excess equipment, reducing cost and improving reliability. But since weight reduction is limited by other requirements such as structural strength, range and provisions for pilot and weapons, combination of semi-symmetric and assymetric counter is the best idea in this case.
Problem: enemy has aircraft carriers
Symmetric counter: produce aircraft carriers
Semi-symmetric counter: use VTOL aircraft to turn any ship into impromptu aircraft carrier
Assymetric counter: procure more submarines and/or anti-ship cruise missiles
Examination: Symmetric counter in this case has both advantages and drawbacks, as do other two. Aircraft carriers can be useful transport ships and symbols of power (gunboat diplomacy). They also allow air support when establishing and maintaining beachheads, without requirement for a friendly nation being nearby. However, they are very expensive and visible; this, as well as their diplomatic clout, quickly turns them into magnets for varios types of high explosives. Semi-symmetric counter allows for ship-based air support without aircraft carriers; however, VTOL fighters are inherently incapable of outmaneuvering competently flown CTOL and STOL air superiority fighters and are thus at disadvantage even without accounting for huge production and maintenance costs. AIP submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles are excellent way to counter enemy aircraft carrier but also lack carrier’s versatility, particularly for diplomatic role. Because of this, procuring low-cost conventional aircraft carriers as well as submarines and cruise missiles is the best option.
Problem: enemy is using AIP submarines
Symmetric counter: use AIP submarines of your own
Semi-symmetric counter: use nuclear submarines
Assymetric counter: use aircraft
Examination: as AIP submarines are very quiet and tend to stick around in littoral waters, where there is lot of noise interference, they are very hard to notice. Also, their small size means that they can maneuver in littoral waters comparably well. This means that using nuclear submarines to counter them is right out of window, as nuclear submarine’s size will get it murdered against smaller and stealthier AIP submarine. Using AIP submarines is a comparably good solution, but one has to be prepared to lose few of them. Aircraft, on the other hand, are mostly invulnerable to submarines, and can be equipped with magnetic anomaly detector which is likely quite capable of detecting any submarine, even AIP ones (though it will still be more effective against nuclear submarines; and while there are ways to reduce submarine’s magnetic signature, these are bound to be more effective when used on AIP submarines). Thus combination of symmetric and assymetric counters is the best option.
It can be seen that assymetric counters are very effective and cheap, but require understanding of nature of warfare, and are thus more difficult to properly implement. They are sometimes inferior in roles other than direct combat with whatever they were intended to counter, however, which means that in some cases more expensive weapons and approaches still have a role on the battlefield (for example, aircraft carriers). While assymetric and semi-symmetric counters can easily complement themselves to achieve low-cost dominance over the enemy, symmetric counters are in most cases inferior to and more expensive than such combination. This is consistent with the fact that winning a war is done by leveraging one’s strength against opponent’s weakness.