War is not a question of mathematics
While mathematic considerations such as numbers, range, firepower and armor are important, they are not the decisive factor. War in itself tends to be confusing, and especially in maneuver warfare, side that acts faster and more appropriately is more likely to win. For this reason, personal factors such as training, personal initiative, communications and situational awareness outweight arithmetical factors such as weapons quality (as commonly understood in numerical terms) and quantity by a large degree.
Training is by far the most important factor since it allows troops to quickly adapt and outmaneuver the enemy. Again, amount of training does not tell much if we don’t know how it is done. Advantage in training can easily neutralize disadvantages in technical and personal areas such as situational awareness or deficient weapons.
Personal initiative is important for several reasons. More responsibility deflected on upper echelons of military results in increased stress and propensity for mistakes in officers tasked with making a decision – and any single mistake (or incompetence of any single officer) has potential to have greater consequences. Greater centralization also slows down decision-making process, increasing OODA loop and thus making military vulnerable to fast action by a decisive opponent. Longer decision chain is also more vulnerable to being broken and command lost. Slow and cumbersome decision making process can easily neutralize and make irrelevant numerical and/or technological advantage (as clearly shown by performance of Allied forces in 1940).
Communications enable coordination, and a well coordinated group – of aircraft, tanks etc. – has fighting power that is far greater than sum of its parts. Uncoordinated group can be broken apart and destroyed piece at a time. This means that presence and quality of communications equipment is a more important factor in effectiveness of military units than typical firepower/speed/protection trio that most people focus on (even I am guilty of that since said triade is easier to evaluate).
Situational awareness is a must, as one cannot fight without knowing where the enemy is. Having advantage in situational awareness allows one to more or less dictate terms of the fight. That being said, if training and personal initiative are insufficient, then even a perfect situational awareness is worthless.
Some M1 Abrams tanks were knocked out by T-72 and Lion of Babel tanks during the Desert Storm, but number was not large since Iraqis used T-72 and LB tanks exclusively as a static artillery. T-72s and Lion of Babels found themselves knocked out by Bradleys firing 25 mm guns at the rear armor. In fact, they could have well been taken out by Panzer IIIs with 5 cm cannon (armor is 60 mm thick on side and is 45 mm thick on the rear – side has some inclination but rear has none; Panzer III could penetrate between 53 and 130 mm of RHA at 100 meters), had any been present.
Between tanks of WWII, Panthers routinely prevailed against ISIIs, despite latter being capable of penetrating Panther’s frontal armor at significantly greater range than Panthers could penetrate their. Heinz Guderian considered late Panzer IV and Panther models (especially the former) as being significantly superior to Tiger variants.
In 1940, German military crushed French military and BEF in three weeks, despite being outnumbered in most significant categories. They won because of superior training, organization, morale and personal initiative.
And on the air power side of things, after 1973 80-1 victory by Israelis flying F-4s and Mirages, general Mordecai Hod has stated that the outcome would have been same had both sides switched weapons. That statement was echoed in 1991 by the General Shwartzkopf, who said that the outcome of the Gulf War would have been the same if the US and Iraqi armies had exchanged weapons.
[Importance of training is, ironically enough, one of reasons why many people believe that “better” (as in: more expensive) weapons can be decisive: in most cases, a side that has enough money to waste on expensive weapons is also one that can provide people using said weapons with better training. As a result, side with more expensive weapons also tended to often perform better. This is irrelevant if huge maintenance requirements of more complex weapons prevent sufficient training to take place, but until recently that was not so much of an issue.]
Cost does not equal capability
Related to the above, most important factors in weapons design are usability, reliability and supportability. Designers have to consider not only weapon’s technical characteristics but also (and more importantly) its impact on user.
Easy-to-use weapon will cut the training time required to achieve a certain level of proficiency. It will also make it far easier to use under stress of combat. Functional design will be more intuitive, and will also typically be simpler, more reliable and easier to maintain since it will have only things required for the job and nothing more.
Reliability is important because weapon that has broken down is useless regardless of its paper characteristics. More reliable weapon will also make user more confident and thus more agressive, and also increases force presence.
Supportability includes logistical considerations. Complex weapon will need more maintenance, greater amount of spare parts, more complex maintenance equipment and typically greater and more vulnerable logistical tail. When it comes to vehicles, larger vehicles require more fuel and are typically harder to maintain.
Another important characteristic is survivability. More survivable vehicles will suffer less losses. However, survivability has to be considered against effectiveness – perfectly survivable tank or aircraft that is also perfectly useless makes no sense. Also, both strategic and tactical survivability has to be considered, as well as survivability in various situations.
[To give a few examples: While stealth aircraft are very survivable against X-band radar SAMs and AAA as well as radar-guided AAMs, they are not any more (and are typically less) survivable against VHF radar cued IR SAMs, IR MANPADS, optically aimed AAA and IRST-guided IR AAMs than non-stealth aircraft are. Since IR and optical weapons are far greater danger to modern aircraft than radar-guided weapons, as well as being more common and cheaper, radar stealth does not offer a noteworthy improvement in survivability (as proven by the F-117 suffering a greater per-sortie loss rate than either F-16 or the A-10 over its service life). Stealth aircraft also require easily-neutralized large air bases to function. Because of these considerations, JAS-39, Rafale and Su-27 are both far better fighter aircraft than the F-22, F-35 or maybe PAK FA, despite being far cheaper – they are easier to operate and maintain, more reliable, more supportable and more survivable on the ground. Any theoretical or actual advantages of the stealth aircraft pale in comparision to their disadvantages.].
Since both large size and complexity are (as seen above) negative characteristics in war, and since increases in both lead to increased cost, most expensive weapons are never the best ones – either individually (one or one) or collectively (in context of combined effect of all weapons systems deployed against the enemy). However, some minimum characteristics are always required for a weapon, and thus while best weapons tend to be on the lower side of the cost scale, they are rarely or never the cheapest ones. This applies equally to individual weapons (tactical effectiveness) and to their effect on large scale (strategic effectiveness).
Technological advantage does not necessarily translate into combat advantage (even if system is more capable in terms of what it can do)
Even if more complex and expensive weapons are more capable (an assumption that, despite regularly being taken for granted, is often not correct), that does not automatically translate into an advantage in combat. Training and organization trump individual weapons’ effectiveness, and hard-to-use weapon may never be utilized to its full effect (ref. Su-27, MiG-29). While 9 mm or 11 mm rifle might have far greater ballistic range than 5,56 or 7,62 mm assault rifle, far greater recoil makes these calibres useless in burst or automatic fire mode; between assault rifles, a four-fold reduction in recoil makes 5,56 mm a better choice for general infantry usage. It is easier to train pilots to operate a simpler weapon – as shown in the AIMVAL/ACEVAL tests between F-5s and F-15s, pilots replaced in the F-5s were up to full proficiency in 2-3 weeks, while the F-15 pilots were still learning after 3 months, and low operating costs and easy maintenance mean that pilots can fly more often; since training is more important than technological factors, cheaper aircraft are typically a better choice. Even if that factor is ignored, purpose-built single-role weapons will typically be both cheaper and more effective at their designed mission than their “multirole” counterparts – F-35, no matter how many sensors it carries, cannot replace the rugged, simple A-10 in latter’s designed mission. Widely diverging requirements for multirole aircraft can also end up in them becoming effectively single-role (F-111 which became a bomber, F-35 which is a stealth strike aircraft). A-10s are the only CAS-capable aircraft in the NATO inventory, and are supremely effective: in one case, a 30-man US-Afghan team (4 US Spec Ops soldiers and 36 Afghan National Army troops) prevailed against an 800-strong Taliban force with help of two A-10s; no other US aircraft could achieve that (earlier, a single B-1 tried to help, completely unsuccessfully). A-10s 30 mm cannon was proven to be the only weapon usable in such circumstances, and during later 2003 Iraqi War, A-10 was the only US aircraft that regularly performed gun strafing passes.
Combat effectiveness must be derived from combat evidence. Bolt-action sniper rifles might, based on statistics alone, be considered far more effective than assault rifles as they can kill a person with single shot at 500-2.000 meters, while assault rifles have an effective range of 200-500 meters. But real infantry combat typically occurs at less than 100 meters, and never involves single shots or single shooters.
In aerial combat, radar-guided BVR missiles have aerodynamic ranges of between 100 and 400 kilometers at high altitude. They are rendered useless, however, by the fact that even modern IRST can only identify targets at up to 40 kilometers. NCTR has lower ID range than the IRST, and visual identification is only possible at 400-800 meters. Further, if target turns away, effective range drops to 1/4 of stated range, and to 1/5 at the low altitude, and it is further halved if target is maneuvering (so BVR missile range against a retreating target equipped with MAWS is 2,5-10 km at low and 12,5-50 km at high altitude). This by itself means that theoretical advantage of heavy and expensive “stealth” aircraft is nonexistent in practice, since IRST detection range is between 50 and 150 km.
Weapons’ importance is unrelated to their cost
Most important weapons for winning the wars are assault rifles, even though they don’t attract anywhere as much attention as multi-million or multi-billion USD tanks, aircraft and ships. This has shown itself in World War I, where US troops utilized semi-automatic M1 Garand to gain advantage over the German infantry predominantly equipped with bolt-action Kar98 (neither the semi-automatic Gew43 or the MP44 assault rifle were produced in sufficient numbers), despite latter having large numbers of probably world’s best machine guns in form of the MG34 and MG42.
Early during Vietnam war, Viet Cong and NVA infantry equipped with AK-47 had a significant exchange ratio advantage over the M14-equipped US infantry despite huge US advantages in radios, vehicles, artillery and air power. As a result, General Westmoreland demanded that the far more effective, and far cheaper, AR-15 (then used to great effect by US Special Operations units) replaces the M14. US Army bureocracy objected, and turned the AR-15 into the heavier, more complex and less effective M16 – which they then proceeded to deliberately furnish with powder that made it jam in combat, and also made sure that no cleaning kits were issued along with the rifles.
250 USD walkie-talkies are far more important for success of infantry operations – especially in modern urban enviroments – than 15 billion USD JTRS do-it-all-do-it-nothing command and control radio network. Technological development in that area also creates a tendency towards greater centralization in a decision-making process. This automatically, and no matter how “capable” system is, reduces combat effectiveness of military in question. Similarly, being capable of collecting huge amounts of data through satellite surveillance, SIGINT, reconnaissance aircraft etc. is useless if that data cannot be processed and sent to end users in short enough time. Small hand-launched 35.000 USD recon UAVs are far more important in war than the 130 million USD Global Hawk, despite latter receiving a far greater share of media attention.
During World Wars I and II, cheap submarines produced by Germany have rendered expensive battleships and fleet carriers of the Royal Navy useless. They were countered by just as cheap escort destroyers and comparably cheap escort carriers. In World War I, 28 submarines was enough to deny control of the sea to the Royal Navy’s 47 battleships, 195 cruisers and 200 destroyers. In the Gulf War, obsession with 3 billion USD carriers and 1 billion USD destroyers caused lack of sufficient numbers of 175 million USD minesweepers – which then prevented General Shwartzkopf from launching a planned amphibious assault.
200 million USD F-35, 270 million USD F-22 and 2 billion USD B-2 are all supremely useless in kinds of wars that US currently fight – but due to USAF bureocratic infatuation with high-cost systems, there simply aren’t enough 20 million USD A-10s to go around.
Test results are useless for judging weapon’s capability
As much as testers try, they can never simulate real conditions on the battlefield, and their impact on both weapon itself and the user. Wartime maintenance is also far harder than peacetime one, and will affect reliability of both aircraft and missiles. Further, today’s Western militaries are more concerned with keeping the money flowing than with how effective their weapons are – as shown in tests between the F-22 and F-15 which falsely assumed radar-guided BVR missile Pk of 0,65, and the Anatolian Flag exercises which assumed radar-guided BVR missile Pk of 0,9; all of it despite the fact that such Pk values were never achieved in the war (Pk achieved was 0,34 in the Desert Storm and 0,46 in Balkans, against nonmaneuvering targets with no countermeasures, and typically from visual range).
Research and development tests are similarly useless – they are controlled by the development agency which has a vested interest in showing its weapons as being far more effective than they really are. AIM-7 R&D tests were done exclusively against non-maneuvering drones with artificially strenghtened radar returns, and achieved 80% to 90% kill rates. Operational tests were against standard drones (no RCS strenghtening) that also typically didn’t maneuver, and resulted in 50% to 60% kill rate. In combat, successive AIM-7 models never achieved more than 8 to 10% kill rate. Today’s tests are no better, and they’ve grown worse since Joint Chiefs of Staff have become more strongy involved. Even if they were, they would not be representative – while in tests, pilot may well take his sweet time to achieve a perfect firing position in regards to weapon’s employment envelope, and there will be few to no distractions or adverse conditions (air-to-air missiles are for example typically tested in desert under clear-sky conditions), in war weapons will often be used under less than ideal conditions with pilot being under considerable stress. During Gulf War, Patriot missile defense system proved nearly useless against Iraqi Scud rocket (a low-quality copy of World War II V2 rocket), destroying between 0 and 4 of the 158 incoming Scuds, despite 3 Patriots being (on average) fired against a single rocket (a Pk of between 0% and 0,84%; compare to 0,36% Pk of Serb SAMs against US aircraft during Kosovo war).
Knowing military history is the only way to understand war
Details change, essence stays the same. Same principles that have held true in times of Caesar, Diocletian, Belisarius, Basil II, Napoleon or Clausewitz still hold true today. Of course, application of these principles differs due to different socioeconomic circumstances and technology, but technology has never – despite numerous declarations to the contrary – managed to change basic principles of war. And as limited as it may be, impact of new technologies on conduct of war should be understood – which can only be done by comparing it to impact of corresponding older technologies (such as WWII era and later tanks combining movement speed and shock effect of cavalry with destructive effect of direct-fire artillery – a fact that Guderian was quick to recognize and exploit over the objections of entire OKH – Army High Command – and OKW – Wehrmacht High Command – who saw tanks just like everyone else did at the time: fire support for infantry, while continuing to see cavalry as the most important military branch, despite same proving nearly useless in World War II).
For this reason, military history has to be studied and understood. Timescale for study of it differs – if one is interested in aerial warfare then there is no need to go beyond World War II, or World War I at most; for ground and naval warfare, latest point to start study at would be Napoleonic Wars, with earliest point being Greco-Persian wars.
If one does not understand way infantry rifles have been used in World War II and later wars, he will be at loss to explain reduction in said rifles’ effective range at expense of increased rate of fire. But in reality, infantry combat typically occurs at ranges of less than 100 meters, and never involves single shooters. Most ammunition is spent not on killing enemy troops, but on supressing them to enable decisive maneuver, which requires ability to get off a large number of shots nearly instantly.
R&D test results or weapons technology sagas do not tell how weapons are used; only combat histories do that.
Wars are fought for money
Regardless of the casus belli, all wars in history started because someone was posed to profit from them. War on Terror helped US armaments industry avoid major spending cuts. Everyone involved in Crusades amassed enormous profits – except Crusaders themselves (exception to this were some nobles which carved out de-facto kingdoms in the Holy Land). Ottoman expansion was fuelled by the fact that the Empire was based around conquest economy – once it stopped expanding, it collapsed from within.
War cannot be truly won
Entering the war means a failure of policy. While sometimes unavoidable, it is never a good thing. Regardless of the outcome of the war, both sides will have experienced human, financial and moral losses and will be worse off than when they started it. Question is thus not which side wins in a war, but which one loses less.
While armaments industry always reaps huge profit from war, that by itself is damaging to its parent society, which becomes more vulnerable to manipulation by the military-industrial-entertainment complex (case in point: United States).