As important as weapons are for waging war, they are simply enablers, and they put limits on what people can do. As a result, people are most important, strategy and tactics come second, and hardware is third. This is not to say that weapons are unimportant; as tools of war, they are crucial – without tools there is no craft, and war is but one of various crafts people engage in. Weapons that don’t work can bring down even best people and ideas.
In short, procuring the best weapon possible is important. But there are several definitions of weapon’s capability. Majority of modern militaries and all defense industry officials define capability in technological terms. But this way is useless when fighting a war; instead, quality has to be defined tactically, in terms of what works and does not work on a battlefield, and strategically, in terms of force presence and vulnerability when outside of combat. Even if weapons are tested, it is in heavily prescripted and biased way.
In tactical terms, there are several important characteristics:
- Weapons should be hard to detect across entire spectrum in order to gain surprise. This requires small weapons with completely passive sensors (only active sensor would be optionally-used laser rangefined).
- Weapons should be agile, both in terms of mobility and ability to adapt within their designed role. As much as it might seem counterintuitive, this precludes multirole aircraft as they trade adaptability within one role for adaptability over multiple roles.
- Weapons should achieve their effects quickly. This requires fire-and-forget weapons of both guided and unguided variety. Unguided weapons, such as guns, cannons and recoilless rifles achieve effect far quicker than guided weapons; even within guided weapons, weapons which use passive-only sensors achieve effects far more quickly (and reliably) than active weapons.
Strategically, these qualities are added:
- Weapons should be reliable and easy to maintain. This allows for all-important training time and lowers expenses of training, thus improving force readiness.
- Weapons should be expendable. This is not in terms of battlefield expendability (such as UAVs) but technological expendability – many modern weapons are too expensive to get rid of and thus are kept even when they have become irrelevant and heavily outmatched by newer counterparts. These weapons also become progressively harder to maintain as they age, and thus soak up more and more funds.
- Weapons should be affordable in adequate numbers. Going into fight against competent opponent when heavily outnumbered is certain to result in heavy losses and very likely to result in a failure. This does not mean sacrificing individual quality however, as will be explained later.
- Weapons should be mobile over long distances. This means ability to use enemy’s supplies, especially fuel, good fuel efficiency and excellent reliability.
Does more cost really equal more capability in these areas? Not really. To see that, two pairs of aircraft will be compared later on: 126 million USD F-15C vs 30 million USD F-16A, and 273 million USD F-22A vs 94,5 million USD Rafale C. But first onto other weapons.
In World War II, cheap T-34 proved far superior to more expensive and finely manufactured early model Panzer III and IV tanks due to its long-barrelled cannon, sloped armor and wide tracks. USAAF used P-47, P-51 and P-38. 125.000 USD twin-engined P-38 proved useless in combat against German fighters due to its large size, bad roll performance and heavy weight, and was withdrawn from Europe; 90.000 USD P-47 performed far better but ended up used as a CAS fighter due to range shortfall and inferior air combat performance when compared to P-51; and 51.000 USD P-51 proved by far the best US fighter of the war,
In Vietnam, Army hierarchy preferred the heavy, complex and precisely manufactured M14 over lighter, cheaper AR-15. M-14 proved useless in combat against Viet Cong using fully automatic AK-47, but AR-15, used by some Special Forces units, achieved very favorable results. 75 USD AR-15 proved far more accurate, reliable and lethal than 295 USD M-14.
Both F-22 and F-15 are built around the radar-guided beyond visual range missiles. On the other hand, Rafale’s BVR missile is MICA which comes in either IR or radar guided variant, while F-16A is purely visual-range dogfighter.
As discussed in other articles, most important characteristics of air superiority fighter are a) achieving surprise bounce, b) avoiding being surprised, c) outmaneuvering the enemy in the air, d) outlasting the enemy while outmaneuvering him and e) achieving reliable kills. Strategically, it has to be capable of outnumbering enemy in the air.
F-16 is smaller than the F-15 and smokes less, which means that it has better capability to surprise the opponent and is less likely to get surprised itself. If either fighter uses radar, they automatically discard ability to surprise the enemy; as neither has optical sensors, their BVR capability is effectively nil. In maneuvering performance, F-16A has wing loading of 338 kg/m2 and thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,15 at combat weight, compared to 278 kg/m2 and 1,15 for F-15C; however, F-16As superior aerodynamics, large amount of body lift in particular, offset wing loading difference to a significant degree; more importantly, F-16 has far better transient (roll and pitch) performance, resulting in maneuvering performance overall superior to the F-15C. F-16 also accelerates noticeably faster. Fuel fraction is 0,29 for F-15C and 0,31 for F-16A, which along with F-16s better lift-ot-drag ratio means that F-16 will always outlast the F-15C in combat. Both F-15 and F-16 use same weapons, but F-15 also has radar-guided missile. Force presence is calculated by number of aircraft for 1 billion USD * sorties/day/ aircraft. For F-15C, it is 7*1=7, while for F-16A it is 33*1,2=40, or 6:1 advantage for the F-16A. As a result, F-16 is superior to F-15 in all areas except achieving reliable kills, in which area both aircraft are equal.
Rafale has mostly same advantages over the F-22 that F-16 has over the F-15. It is smaller, leading to lower visual and IR signature. It also has extensive suite of passive sensors, including IRST and IR missile warners, eliminating need for radar usage in air to air combat. Aerodynamically it is superior to the F-22, leading to lower drag and higher lift coefficient; when combined with lower wing loading (276 vs 314 kg/m2) and better transient performances, it gives Rafale far better maneuvering performance than F-22s. While both fighters have g limit of 9 g, Rafale’s structural load factor is 1,85, allowing it to pull 11 g without reducing airframe life. Fuel fraction is 0,29 for F-22 and 0,33 for Rafale C; when combined with lower drag it allows Rafale a far better endurance in combat. Rafale’s primary weapon is MICA missile which comes in both IR and EM variants, allowing Rafale a completely passive BVR capability, something that F-22 lacks. Force presence for F-22 is 3*0,5=1,5 sorties per day for 1 billion USD, while for Rafale C it is 10*2=20 sorties per day for 1 billion USD, or 13:1 advantage for the Rafale. As can be seen, Rafale is superior to the F-22 in all areas.
In Close Air Support, F-35 has far wider turn radius and higher minimum speed than the A-10, as well as worse loiter time and inferior survivability. While A-10 can be flown from dirt strips, F-35 requires concrete runway. F-35 also has lower number of attack passes.
AH-64 is twice as expensive as A-10, yet it lacks A-10s lethality, survivability and loiter time. In the First Gulf War, A-10 suffered 4 losses in 12.400 combat sorties, of which 3 were actual shootdowns and 1 was writeoff due to damage. 132 A-10s fired 5.000 Maverick missiles, dropped 40.000 bombs and made thousands of gun strafingf passes, firing over 1.000.000 rounds of ammunition. 274 AH-64s were used sparingly for first 39 days of the war due to their vulnerability to just about everything; in total, they launched 2.764 Hellfire missiles. In the Second Gulf War, between 2003 and 2007, A-10s suffered a single loss while 32 AH-64s and AH-1s were lost. As for stealth aircraft, their utility in both wars was limited to surgical strikes, and two Iraqi fighters almost intercepted an F-117 early in the war. F-117s kill rate was also less than 15-25% per strike.
Furthermore, since field army defenses place a heavy emphasis on visual acquisition in anti-air defense, aircraft has to be able to use terrain masking; this also helps mask aircraft’s infrared, acoustic and radar signatures. In this area, A-10 is far superior to all other aircraft in Western service with possible exception of attack helicopters, in good part due to latter having two crewmembers, thus allowing pilot to focus on piloting.
A-10 also offers faster response than either fast jets or helicopters since it can loiter near the battle area for prolonged periods of time.
In Vietnam, best CAS fighters were neither high-speed jet fighters nor helicopters, but rather low-speed turboprop aircraft. For destroying harder targets, recoilless rifles proved to be far better choice than unguided rockets, and more cost-effective than guided missiles.
In surveillance roles, cheap, manned turboprop aircraft are still superior to satellites and UAVs in terms of collecting usable information. While satellites may be able to gather large quantity of data and cover very large areas, this is irrelevant since data collected is of low quality and questionable usefulness (more specifically, satellites have no capability to separate decoys from valid targets). At best, they can be used to roughly outline points of interest to be examined by manned flights (in either visual or photographic reconnaissance roles).
As a class, multirole aircraft are both more expensive and less effective than single-role aircraft, with cost of aircraft being 3 times of that on most expensive of types it replaces.
Challenger II MBT is somewhat cheaper than M1 Abrams. While it is heavier, it also has rifled cannon which allows for greater precision though at some cost to penetration. More importantly, its engine gives it far lower IR signature than gas turbine of M1 Abrams; while it is noisier, this is not as relevant since sound does not propagate very far. Challenger II is also faster and more agile over the rough terrain due to superior suspension. Ground pressure is also lower in Challenger II (0,9 vs 1,08 kg/cm2) thus giving it superior mobility over the soft terrain. Thanks to using diesel engine as opposed to gas turbine, Challenger II has superior acceleration despite lower power-to-weight ratio, allowing it to “sprint” from cover to cover; this capability is actually far more important than top speed. Diesel engine is also more reliable than turbine engine, resulting in less maintenance downtime, and uses less fuel thus necessitating less frequent refuelling, reducing any army’s Achilles heel = its logistical system. Challenger 2 has turret rotation speed of 9 seconds for 360 degrees compared to 8 seconds for M1 Abrams.
Leopard II is another European tank. It has ground pressure of 0,83 kg/cm2, providing better cross-country mobility than either M1 or Challenger 2. While its smoothbore cannon is somewhat less accurate than Challenger II’s, it does offer superior firepower and effective range to M1 Abrams due to being an L55 cannon (effective range is 4.000 m compared to M1A2s 3.000 m). Its multi-fuel diesel engine makes it superior to M1 in terms of acceleration and fuel efficiency. M1A2SEP is superior in terms of armor protection, but still inferior in most other characteristics.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, IEDs have been a continuous problem. Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization was formed, with five contractors for each DoD member. It spent between 17 and 20 billion USD by 2011 to find an effective counter to IEDs, without result. 40 million USD were spent on radio jammer which was to jam signals by which IEDs were detonated – a fool’s errand, since most IEDs are not activated remotely, but rather on contact. A device designed to detonate IEDs also exists, and costs 140 million USD per device. It is called Joint IED neutralizer, and so far it has been a miserable failure, but has been kept alive by Congressional earmarks. All high-tech devices have failed, in fact, with insurgents finding ways to defeat them faster than new devices could be developed. Only one device has proven to work over 80% of the time; namely, dog. 250 dogs and their handlers cost 8,7 million USD to train. While insurgents did try varius ways to defeat dog’s nose (such as rotting food), all these attempts have failed just as miserably as US high-tech devices did against insurgets.
Similarly, AIP submarine is only fraction of cost of a nuclear submarine. Typical AIP submarine costs 300-400 million USD, compared to 1,7-2 billion USD cost of typical nuclear submarine. It is also smaller, more maneuverable and far quieter, as well as almost impossible to detect in coastal waters; on the other side, large nuclear submarines are comparably easy to detect (especially by aircraft) but are far faster over the long distances. In this case, neither weapon has decisive quality advantage, but rather advantage depends on operating environment and requirements.
When evaluating weapons with regards to losses, measure should be neither number of losses, losses per number of units, or losses per number of combat uses (combat sorties for aircraft); while last one is a good indicator of survivability, it is not an indicator of weapon’s usefulness. Rather, losses should be compared in terms of effect on the enemy. In this area expensive weapons tend to underperform compared to cheaper ones.