03 October 2005

Rethinking Tanks and Fighter Jets

Two military technology developments of note:

1. Ammunition makers for tanks are starting to come to terms with the idea that killing other tanks is no longer the only, and often not even the primary purpose of a tank. New rounds are designed to kill dispersed groups of enemy infantry and blow up buildings. The have replaced traditional rounds in the anti-insurgency actions in Iraq and Israel.

2. A British study claims that the F-22 is the best air to air combat plane in the world and will be capable of destroying thirty times as many advanced enemy fighters each as an F-16, and more than ten times as many as an F-15. Real life, of course, is always more complex, and there are institutional incentives for all parties to make new weapons systems look better than they are, and to make old weapons systems look worse. In particular, the study did not compare the cost of upgrading existing fighters with new equipment (sensors and missiles are the key components), to buying new high technology aircraft from scratch.

The new role of tanks on the battlefield, and the allegedly radically different effectiveness of new fighter jets both call for a major rethinking about what weapons we need in the U.S. military arsenal and how many of them we need. The information on the F-22, for example, lends support to the notion that a small "silver bullet" force of these expensive advanced aircraft may make sense. The changes in how tanks are used and the threat profile faced by the United States calls for a ground up re-evaluation of our nation's need for heavy tanks, and will likely conclude that we need fewer of them and that we need to employ them in configurations very different from those used by the current military, as they move to an infantry support role rather than an anti-armor role.

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