Dangers of complex weapons

Increasingly complex aircraft are rendering air forces across the globe increasingly impotent; same problem also haunts armies and navies.

Complex weapons are both more expensive and more prone to the cost growth than simpler weapons, as demonstrated by F-22, F-35, DDG-1000, LCS, FCS, VH-71 etc. This is a problem, since it was growing US superiority in numbers that crushed Japanese and German air forces in the World War II, and significantly more numerous Soviet troops tied up and destroyed three quarters of German ground forces. Small numbers of superior Me-262s were overwhelmed by large numbers of prop fighters.

F-35 costs around 200 million USD. F-16C costs 70 million USD, and A-10 costs 16 million USD. So instead of 1 F-35, 2 F-16Cs and 3 A-10s can be procured. And while single F-35 can fly 1 sortie every 3 days, two F-16Cs can fly 7 sorties in the same time, and 3 A-10s can fly 27 sorties. This is far from new problem for USAF, as new aircraft always tended to be more expensive than older ones – exceptions being A-10 and the F-16. F-22 is no better than F-35 – while being capable of flying 1 sortie every two days, it is even more expensive at 273 million USD, allowing 3 F-16Cs and 4 A-10s to be procured, giving 7 F-16 and 24 A-10 sorties in two days, compared to 1 F-22 sortie. For comparision of F-22 and F-35 with other Western fighters, see here.

One very important capability that is typically ignored today is ability to fly from grass, sand and dirt runways. While concrete runways put limits on how quickly large number of fighters can take off, and also means that flights and squadrons have to form up in the air, ability to use grass/dirt runways would allow large number of aircraft to take off nearly simultaneously and form up far more quickly. Concrete runways can also be easily closed off by cruise missile attacks, and take long time to repair; rendering aircraft that require them to operate useless even if they do avoid destruction. Even if runways themselves are not destroyed, easily discovered air bases (even underground ones) are vulnerable to be subjected to intruder patrols, with enemy fighters sneaking up below radar coverage and shooting down fighters when taking off or landing. Similarly, fighter aircraft – especially point-defense interceptors – have to be able to reach desired altitude as quickly as possible. This in turn requires low wing loading, low drag and high thrust-to-weight ratio, resulting in austere design with only absolutely necessary electronics. Norway bought F-35s and closed all but one air base to pay for them.

US Navy is having similar problems, with number of combatants – both surface and underwater ones – consistently dropping. Most complex and expensive of these – namely, nuclear carriers and nuclear submarines – are very vulnerable to simpler and cheaper diesel-electric submarines. New Ford class carriers are twice as expensive as Nimitz class carriers, but carry same number of aircraft – and sortie generation capability of carrier outfitted with F-35s is only one quarter of carrier outfitted with equal number of F-18s.

For ground attack, many Western air forces lack “low-end” systems. While those low-end systems are really low-end cost wise, they do not actually offer less capability than “high end” systems – rather, capabilities that they offer are of a different sort. While light turboprop attack aircraft might not be as heavily armed or armored as the A-10 is, or as survivable in a heavily-contested airspace, it offers far superior loiter performance, can take off from shorter air strips and is easier to maintain. As such, it is superior choice for counter-insurgent (COIN) warfare. Even in a nation-state war, majority of country’s airspace is unprotected by SAMs majority of the time, especially at very low altitude where ground attack aircraft operate (no fire-control radar has ability to observe beyond the horizon; for radar at 30 meter high mast, horizon is 21 kilometers away – SquareRoot(height above surface / 6.752) = distance to horizon, with height above surface being in cm and distance to horizon in km. Further, this assumes that radar is at shore, so there are no obstructions; typically, low-flying aircraft can use terrain features to hide from the ground radar and confuse airborne radar). If fast jet is out of ammunition, it must return to base; a turboprop or dedicated CAS aircraft can stick around and act as a forward air controller for as long as fuel allows.

Worst penalty of complexity is lower avaliability and higher operating costs. Since human factor is dominant in performance of any weapon, theoretically high-performance weapon can well have worse performance than cheaper, but simpler, sturdier, easier to maintain and operate, weapon. In World War II it was lack of pilots that eliminated Luftwaffe as a fighting force. More recently, USAF instructor pilots flying F-5s have regularly outperformed their students who were flying “more capable” F-4s, F-15s and F-16s. Similarly, US National Guard pilots have always performed better than USAF pilots in exercises, regardless of wether they were flying F-4s, F-5s or F-16s against USAF F-15s and F-16s, while Navy instructor pilots used F-4s to beat students flying F-14s and F-18s. F-22s dominance in exercises is based on heavily scripted (unrealistic) scenarios, made worse by much too high probability of kill assigned to BVR missiles. Israeli Air Force crushed Arabs in all wars it has fought, simply because it had far superior pilots; and after Israeli Air Force crushed Arabs in 1973 with 70-1 exchange ratio, General Mordecai Hod stated that result would have been the same had Israelis and Arabs exchanged weapons; General Schwarzkopf echoed that sentiment after the First Gulf War, as did unnamed British pilot after the Falklands war. In Operation Opera, Israeli Air Force sent 6 F-15s and 8 F-16s to strike Iranian nuclear reactor, located deep within Iraq. Attack succeeded, with no casualties on Israeli side.

At very minimum, 30 sorties per month are required to allow pilots to have adequate skill. This means achieving 1 sortie per day. Not a single stealth fighter in service achieves that, with F-22 achieving 1 sortie every 2 days and F-35 one sortie every 3 days. In fact, US pilots today fly less than their Chinese, Indian or some European counterparts.

Aircraft is not out of danger when on ground, as frequent attacks on air bases in nearly every war fought since advent of air power can attest (even insurgents in Afghanistan have proven capable of destroying Coalition aircraft on the ground). More complex aircraft is, it spends more time on the ground, all other things being equal. Since complex multirole fighters need very visible air strips for takeoff and landing, they can be easily put out of action just by bombing the air bases – even if aircraft do survive, they are stuck on the ground if runway is destroyed – and concrete runways are very hard to repair. Even if aircraft are not destroyed, jet fighters – especially heavy twin-engined fighters – will be hard to keep supplied with fuel. A 5000 gallon fuel truck can barely top off a single F-15E with 2 external fuel tanks, giving two flight hours, but can easily top off 27 Super Tucanos, giving a total of 80 flight hours. Gun ammo and unguided rockets are cheap and widely avaliable, and can easily be loaded in the field; guided munitions are far more expensive, and some types cannot be easily loaded in the field.

Same goes for ships. Any ship is at its most vulnerable when it is in the base, as demonstrated by Pearl Harbor attacks. It is likely not going to have full crew complement on board and thus not be able to operate at full efficiency; it also cannot maneuver to avoid enemy fire.

In World War II, German Tiger and Panther tanks were the best tanks in existence; Tiger was the first Main Battle Tank in existence. But they were complex, hard to maintain, could not cross many bridges, and small number of tanks avaliable meant that they soon started to break down from wear of combat – at some points, more tanks were undergoing maintenance than were avaliable for combat.

But high complexity is profitable for firms which underreport weapons costs at the onset; this leads to cost overruns, which lead to less weapons being acquired – but only well after the funding for procurement of a certain weapon has been boosted way beyond originally envisioned levels. Under Boeing’s supervision, Future Combat System has experienced intentional increase in weight, meaning that Lockheed Martin built C-130 cannot carry it, and that Air Force may have to acquire additional Boeing-built C-17s. Further, R&D is the most profitable part of weapon development – and more complex weapon is, more R&D is required, especially since complex weapons regularly require further R&D to fix problems that have been found during production. Worse, FCS itself is useless and even counterproductive – if it doesn’t work, it will only mean more money down the drain; if it does work, it will centralize decision-making, rendering Army incapable of adapting to rapid changes occuring on the battlefield.

Complex weapons proponents will counter this by stating that more complex weapons are also far more capable, thus negating disadvantages brought about by complexity. This is also far from true.

F-35 is promoted as a stealthy multirole fighter. In reality, it is easily detected by just about everything except X band radar (and even X band radar can detect it easily once it maneuvers) and is capable of carrying out only one mission – deep strike. This is a repeat of another overcomplex failure – the F-111. Also originally a multimission aircraft, it ended up being only capable of carrying out deep strike. Idea of long-range radar-based combat is flawed too: unless aircraft is equipped with optical sensors, reliable beyond visual range (BVR) identification friend-or-foe (IFF) is impossible, and if it does have optical sensors capable of that, then there is no need for radar. Worse, radar signal of emitting aircraft can be used to identify it at ranges far exceeding normal identification range with optical sensors. In visual range, it has no rearward visibility, and even if lag problems with helmet mounted display are solved, resolution of video cameras used is inherently worse than that of the human eye. As a CAS fighter, it cannot carry enough ammo, it is not survivable enough to gun strafe the targets when required (for example, if targets are too close to friendly troops for PGMs to be used), and cannot loiter for prolonged periods of time.

F-22, similar to the F-35, is a hugely complex “stealth” aircraft that is actually quite visible to competent opponents. Stealth requirements make it hard to maintain, allowing it to fly only 15 hours per month – and even that only if it didn’t get grounded due to various problems. Its dominance in exercises is result of set-up rules of engagement as opposed to F-22s inherent qualities.

In World War II, P-38 was far less effective fighter than single-engined P-47 and P-51, due to very bad transient performance and large size. If either of engines was hit, P-38 was lost due to either fire or being downed by German fighters. And despite progress in airborne radars, there has been no significant night combat since World War II; meanwhile, many fighters used for night combat in World War II had no radar, relying on ground vectors, flares and natural nighttime illumination. In Pacific theatre, Japanese Zero, a far simpler aircraft, was superior to early-war US fighters; it was able to fight Hellcat and Corsair on even terms, but was eventually rendered useless by the lack of skilled pilots. In Korean war, F-86 achieved Pk of 0,34 when the lead computing gunsight wasn’t used and 0,3 when it was, but a quarter of pilots had average Pk of 0,49. MiG-15s achieved 0,025 kills per pass, primarly due to the low skill of most Communist pilots. In Vietnam, only 2 kills were at BVR and majority of kills were achieved with IR missiles; in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, IAF pasted Arab air forces while only achieving one or no kills with radar-guided missiles, with two thirds of kills being achieved with guns. In 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, subsonic F-86 achieved large exchange ratio advantage against supersonic MiG-21s and Sn-7s, and subsonic Hunters; only Indian aircraft to match it was far smaller, subsonic-only Folland Gnat. Reasons for the F-86 success were several: while its top speed was lower than subsonic fighters, all fighters mentioned cruised subsonically; but non-smoking F-86 with its good cockpit visibility was both far harder to surprise and far better at surprising the opponent than its adversaries (other than Gnat). F-86 also only used guns and IR missiles. Most importantly, Pakistani pilots were on average far better trained than Indian pilots.

Large and complex fighters required to carry large and complex radar can be easily countered by smaller fighters carrying radar detection equipment. Reason is simple: radar range varies as a fourth root of power, where RWR range varies as square root of power as signal tarvels only one way. Thus even if entire signal is transmitted back towards the source, radar will detect enemy fighter at only 1/3rd of distance that RWR will detect radar’s emissions. But majority of signal does not get deflected back towards the source; while family car has RCS of 100 m2, Saab Gripen has nose-on RCS of 0,5 m2; side-on RCS is far larger, possibly few dozen times. As such, even allowing for smaller aperture size of RWR compared to the radar, RWR still gets several dozen times stronger signal than radar itself, as returning signal must be stronger than background noise. Radar is also easier to jam than passive sensors, and proper spacing between fighters in a formation can completely defeat radar’s track-while-scan mode. As radar destroys surprise, it will be mostly kept shut down; but this places large twin-engined radar fighters at disadvantage against smaller, simpler fighters due to their larger visual and IR signature. Even without that problem, BVR missiles are very inaccurate and unreliable. First BVR fighters were expected to use nuclear-tipped BVR missiles for destroying large swarms of bomers, leading to problems when conventional-warhead BVR missiles started being developed.

During Cold War, there were eight conflicts with use of air-to-air missiles, of which four saw use of radar-guided BVR missiles. In these four, 144 kills were made with guns, 308 with IR missiles and 73 with radar-guided missiles. Only 4 kills were actually made at beyond visual range, requiring 61 shots for probability of kill of 6,6%; in total, 73 kills made with radar-guided missiles required 632 shots, for a Pk of 11,6%. Most important shortfalls of radar guided missiles were that the element of surprise was lost (against competent opponent anyway) and that large complexity of radar guidance system and procedures coupled with lack of maneuverability found in long-range missiles led to enemy fighters easily evading BVR missiles once they were aware of being attacked. In the Desert Storm, there were 5 BVR kills, and radar missiles achieved 24 kills, compared to 10 for IR missiles and 2 for guns. One of BVR kills required five shots, while all 24 BVR missile kills required 88 shots.

It is thought that improvement in the Desert Storm was due to improvement in radar missile performance, but closer look reveals this conclusion to be wrong. Out of four wars in which BVR missiles were used, only one (Vietnam War) was fought against a competent opponent; remainer were fought against Arabs. In the 1965-1968 Operation Rolling Thunder, radar guided missiles achieved overall Pk of 8,1% (26 kills out of 321 shots) and BVR Pk of 0% (0/33); in 1971-1973 Operation Linebacker, total Pk was 10,9% (30/276) and BVR Pk 7,1% (2/28). Despite these variations, last AIM-7 model (AIM-7E2) achieved total Pk of 8%, same as first model (AIM-7D), while AIM-7E achieved Pk of 10%. In the 1973 Yom Kippur war, radar guided missiles achieved overall Pk of 41,7% (5/12) and BVR Pk of either 0% or 25% (0-1/4). In the 1982 Bekaa Valley war, overall Pk was 52,2% (12/23) and BVR Pk was 20% (1/5), while in the 1991 Gulf War, overall Pk was 27,3% (24/88). As it can be seen, there is strong variance in missile Pk, which is not sensitive to year in which combat happened, but is very sensitive to the opponent being fought: while Yom Kippur War is far closer to the Vietnam war than the Gulf war, performance of radar-guided missiles in it is closer to the First Gulf war. On the other hand, both Yom Kippur and Gulf wars had modern, well-trained Western air forces going against undertrained Arab air forces. Missile reliability has not improved since Vietnam; whereas in Vietnam, 46% of attempts missed due to technical problems with missiles, virtually all misses in wars mentioned since Vietnam war were due to technical problems with missiles, as targets rarely attempted to evade the missile and typically did not have ECM.

BVR missiles are far more expensive than visual-range missiles, but indirect costs of radar-guided missiles are far greater than direct costs. Fitting aircraft with large radar results in it being larger and more complex – thus increasing both cost per kg and overall cost. These aircraft in turn require very complex maintenance facilities and can only be effectively based in dedicated air bases, making them vulnerable to being rendered useless simply by enemy bombing said bases’ air strips. Effective usage of radar-guided missiles at beyond visual range has so far required assistance of AWACS, NCTR, as well as incompetent enemy. On rare occasions when Iraqi pilots did try to evade BVR missile shots, they were successful – such as two MiG-25s evading 3 AIM-7s, 1 AIM-120 and 2 AIM-54 shots (engagement happened at beyond visual range, post-Desert Storm). It should also be noted that single-role fighters (F-15) have performed far better than multi-role fighters (F-16, F-18) in air-to-air combat; this is logical, since “multirole” in USAF parlance means “mostly bombing”, and General Horner has threatened that the first F-16 pilot to unload bombs to attack Iraqi aircraft will be sent home.

As for ground attack, both stealthy F-117s and “legacy” fighters achieved surprise in most attacks, but F-117 never operated under daytime conditions (all A-10 losses happened during daytime), and other expensive ground attack aircraft (F-111, F-15E) were also used mostly during the night. It also flew only 0,7 sorties / day / aircraft, compared to 1,2 for the F-16 and over 1,4 for the A-10, and unlike A-10 it was incapable of attacking mobile targets. Single role aircraft, with exception of the B-52, performed far better in terms of targets destroyed per amount of ammunition expended.

It should also be noted that while average unguided bomb cost 649 USD, laser guided bomb cost 30.421 USD on average, while cost of Maverick missile was 102.187 USD. Standoff capability provided by some guided munitions did not negate defenses not right above the target, and there was no relationship between use of guided munitions and targets that were successfully destroyed (“one bomb, one target” is, in other words, a lie – for example, each destroyed bridge required on average either 11 laser guided bombs or 85 unguided bombs). Number of PGMs per destroyed target varied between 0,8 and 51,9; for unguided munitions, it varied between 4,4 and 306,9. While unguided bombs did have lower accuracy, cost per destroyed target was higher for guided munitions. While unguided munitions need to be dropped from lower altitude, guided munitons require aircraft to fly in a predictable path for comparably long time; both mean increased vulnerability to defenses during attack run. Guided munitions were also more vulnerable to adverse weather conditions.

In Vietnam, AR-15 proved superior to far more complex M-14 due to its burst fire ability, greater reliability and low recoil. It spawned the M-16, fully automatic, but more complex, heavier and less reliable assault rifle. While M-14 was far more lethal per shot, it was less useful than AR-15, or the M-16 after it was fixed (having been intentionally sabotaged by the Army bureocracy).

Tank’s main purpose is to bring machine guns on bear against enemy’s unprotected rear, by using speed and surprise. Secondary effect is psychological effect that tanks have on the infantry; despite that, tanks alone stand no chance against competent and adequately equipped infantry. This requires (in order) operational mobility, machine gun effectiveness, firefight mobility, cannon effectiveness (rate of kill against multiple targets). Operational mobility requires good average road speed, ability to operate without fuel resupply from logistical components (that is, ability to use various types of fuel), ability to wade rivers and cross bridges with low carrying capacity as well as good reliability.

In terms of firefight mobility, M1 has comparably slow acceleration due to its gas turbine engine. Challenger II should have better acceleration than M1, but inferior to the Leopard II and Leclerc due to its low power to weight ratio; Leclerc likely has the best acceleration as it has both advanced suspension of Challenger II and high power to weight ratio of Leopard II.

In operational mobility, Leclerc is lightest and has highest road speed. All tanks mentioned have multi-fuel capability, but Leopard II and Challenger II are the most fuel-efficient, while Abrams is the least fuel efficient. Leopard II has better fording depth without preparation than Challenger II does (1,2 vs 1,07 m) while fording depth with preparation is 4 meters for both (compared to 2 (!?) meters for M1A2). Abrams is uncommonly difficult to maintain due to its gas turbine engine. Abrams also has the highest ground pressure – over 1 kg/m2, whereas Leopard 2A6 has ground pressure of 0,86 kg/m2 and both Leclerc and Challenger II have ground pressure of between 0,9 and 1 kg/m2.

Cannons are 120 mm smoothbore for all tanks except Challenger II, which uses rifled cannon. Last version of Leopard 2 has longest, 55 caliber, cannon which results in best armor penetration capabilities. Though Challenger IIs cannon is the most accurate, this is not as important in normal European theatre where combat is likely to happen at less than 1.000 meters, so Leopard 2 can be said to have the best cannon (both Leclerc and Abrams use 120 mm smoothbore like Leopard 2, but their cannons are shorter). Leclerc uses autoloader, which adds mechanical complexity and limits maximum rate of fire, though rate of kill is usually limited by the time it takes for smoke to clear.

Turret rotation speed is 40 degrees per second for all tanks mentioned.

In invisibility, all tanks compared are very large with massive turret profile. Abrams is comparably quiet, but has huge IR signature due to usage of gas turbine; turbine exhaust is actually so hot that it can ignite trees and poses hazard to accompanying infantry. As a result, Abrams can be detected by primitive IR sensors at over five times the visual detection range.

In the end, Leopard II is overall the best Western tank while Abrams is the worst, despite Abrams being more expensive (8,86 vs 6,63 million in FY2014 USD). As far as Eastern tanks go, T-72 family of tanks tends to have good mobility (tactical and operational), but low cannon effectiveness thanks to use of auto-loader. Most models (with exception of prototype M-95 Degman and maybe some newer Russian models) do not have a separate ammunition compartment with blowout panels, resulting in the entire tank being lost if ammunition storage is hit, and turret rotation speed is slow. They do have small silhouette, especially turret side, when compared to Western tanks. Degman is expected to cost 2,6 million USD, giving 2,5 tanks for each Leopard 2; this, plus greater operational mobility, might make it a better option than any of the tanks compared here from strategic point of view.

Going back to World War II, T-34 was a far better tank than German Panzer III and IV, with its wide tracks allowing it impressive mobility, and sloppy tolerances allowing it to perform in harshest of conditions, when German tanks froze in place. Its fuel was also easier to manufacture and less flammable.

Western militaries are however intent on ignoring this, especially US military. USAF is far from the only service that “massages” the tests and exercises to make complex weapons seem better: in the (internal, at least) US Navy exercises, aircraft carriers are not allowed to be sunk.

For more info, read following:





136 thoughts on “Dangers of complex weapons

  1. It’s interesting that even the US Navy seems to be aware of the dangers.

    See here:

    Looking back:

    The decision to incorporate the Super Hornet and decommission the F-14 is mainly due to high amount of maintenance required to keep the Tomcats operational. On average, an F-14 requires nearly 50 maintenance hours for every flight hour, while the Super Hornet requires five to 10 maintenance hours for every flight hour.

    The F-20 did pretty well apparently:

    Just 5.6 man hours per flight hour, plus 5.5 from general support.

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