10 July 2020

Trends In Military Technology And Warfare

Slug Throwers v. Missiles


The smallest bullet in common military use is the 5.56mm round (a hair less than 0.22 caliber). A thrown slug is still called a bullet up to 12.7mm (0.50 caliber).

Grenades and Cannons Rounds

A slug thrower round that is more than 12.7mm is called a grenade or a "cannon" round up to abt 50mm (2 inch) rounds swith 20mm, 30mm and 40mm bring the most common cannon or grenade rounds). There are handheld grenade launchers operated by infantry with only a small number of rounds, but also cannons with a fixed mount or on a military ground vehicle, helicopter, fixed wing aircraft (e.g. the A-10 ground attack aircraft), or a military or paramilitary ship. Fixed mount cannons can often fire cannon rounds at rates comparable to or greater than automatic weapons firing bullets, with the most extreme version being the Phalanx close in weapons system (CIWS) which is used as an active defensive weapon primarily against incoming missiles, large incoming naval gun and artillery shell rounds, drones, and small water craft.


Slug thrower rounds above 2" are commonly "shells". Historically, they have ranged from 60mm mortar rounds (used as a secondary weapon on the Israeli Merkava tank as a secondary weapon) and the 75mm (3") shells used in smaller naval guns to 406mm (16") shells used for large naval guns on battleships and up to 24" in the heaviest mortar rounds used in World War II or later. Generally, slug throwers that fire shells are reloaded after each firing, sometimes in an automated process but rarely, if ever, on a rapid-fire basis. They are used in mortars, howitzers, naval guns, tanks, and anti-aircraft guns.

These days the largest slug thrower rounds in common use by NATO forces are no more than 155mm (6"). The 155mm shells is used in heavy artillery Howitzers and as heavy mortar rounds, the 127mm (5") shell is used in the naval guns of U.S. destroyers, a 120mm round is used in U.S. main battle tanks, 105mm rounds (a bit over 4") were used historically in lighter tanks and armored personnel carrier heavy guns and for lighter artillery. The 3" shell has been used in some U.S. naval guns. The largest slug thrower round still in common use is the Russian army's 240mm (9.45") heavy mortar in its 2S4 Tyulpan (Tulip) self-propelled heavy mortar round, but other mortar rounds generally don't exceed 120mm.

Shell Throwers Are Obsolete

All slug throwers with rounds larger than a grenade or cannon round (i.e. more than about 2" or 50mm) are basically obsolete, even though some remain in military service.

Except for tanks and smaller naval guns, shells are used primarily for "indirect fire" at reasonable long distances. But guided missile and smart bomb technologies (including "smart artillery rounds that are basically just guided missiles or smart bombs delivered via a howitzer or naval gun) are much more accurate at long ranges than "dumb" artillery rounds, even though they are more expensive. The greater cost is made up for by very nearly one shot, one kill rates with guided weapons which are far superior to unguided artillery and bombs, which not only reduces the number of rounds needed, but reduces collateral damage. Missile launchers can also be scaled to be much lighter than a slug thrower delivering ordinance with equivalent offensive effect.

Accuracy at long ranges is less of a concern for direct fire weapons in tanks and anti-artillery weapons.

But relatively small (as missiles go) ant-tank missiles such as TOW missiles (used by Bradley armored fighting vehicles and infantry) and Hellfire missiles (used by helicopters and drones) are as or more effective than large tank shells are destroying or disabling even heavily armored main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and lightly fortified fixed shelters, and weigh much less than a 105mm or 120mm tank gun and the rounds that it must carry. Smart bombs and missiles are likewise effective at destroying heavier fixed targets that it would take many tank rounds to seriously harm.

In anti-aircraft applications, missiles are more accurate against often fast-moving targets except at very close ranges with automated fire control systems (such as those found in the Phalanx CIWS) and allow for fire at longer ranges. Anti-aircraft weapon effective against helicopters and fixed wing aircraft (such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles) can be small enough to be utilized by infantry, although infantry carried anti-aircraft missiles have less range than mount delivery system anti-aircraft missiles. Also, in terms of offensive punch, rounds larger than 40mm are generally unnecessary for anti-aircraft fire, because the realities of flight prevent aircraft from being heavily armored.

Bullets and grenade and cannon grounds, in contrast, are still viable because missiles are not yet optimal in either price or effectiveness at short ranges in direct fire, where their greater accuracy is less of a factor, and against lighter targets with their lesser potency is less of a factor.

Armor v. Active Defenses And Other Alternatives

Heavy Passive Armor Is Obsolete

Armor and fortifications have been used since ancient times in a never-ending contest of offense v. defense. In the last half century or so, armor has been losing this race in most (but not all) contexts.

Passive armor such a metal plating and Kevlar bullet proof vests remains viable as a defense against bullets, shrapnel, and even grenades and cannon rounds to some extent.

But some kind of armor-piercing bullet (often 12.7mm), anti-armor shells, or missiles of a manageable size (sufficient to be launched from a ground based mobile missile launcher, from a missile battery of a warship or missile boat or submarine, or from a fighter aircraft) can generally penetrate almost any armor light enough to be used on an aircraft, ship, or ground vehicle while still allowing it to move at acceptable speeds.

Even a crude IED (i.e. an improvised remotely or automatically triggered ground mine) is powerful enough disable a heavy tank or mine resistant armored vehicle, and utterly destroy the vehicle seriously wounding or killing everyone on board, with any less well armored ground vehicle.

It is also possible to attack heavy armored tanks in vulnerable spots with less heavy infantry weapons if one can get in close enough, so heavily armored tanks need lighter and more vulnerable escorts. And, heavily armored tanks are so large than the terrain such as narrow mountain roads or narrow urban streets can become impassible to them or can be made impossible to them quite easily despite their ability to navigate extreme terrain with tracks. Ambush attacks can often be arranged that minimize the benefits of heavy passive armor.

It is possible to have an even more heavily fortified fixed bunker with armor protection greater than the heaviest armor possible on a tank, battleship, deep water submarine, or ad hoc field base. But once a bunker's location is identified it is possible to use a long range, heavy missile launched from sea or land, or a "bunker busting" bomb dropped by a bomber on a target that can't dodge away to destroy it.

Alternatives To Heavy Passive Armor

As a result, armor heavier than that necessary to keep small arms fire and shrapnel at bay is increasingly disfavored in lieu of stealth, mobility, dispersed formations, engaging the enemy at a distance beyond the accurate range of their weapons, and active defenses.

Stealth is to prevent ordinance from being directed at you because the enemy doesn't know where you are. This includes not just vehicles with low radar or sonar signals, but also deep water submarines that are harder to locate, traditional camouflage and false flag operations, covert suicide bombing missions, hidden remotely or automatically detonated bombs and mines, hiding aircraft in clouds or behind hills, mountains and trees, and so on.

A notable subset of stealth is in air to air combat. For the most part, air to air combat is now a one shot, one kill situation where the first to shoot kills the adversary who will often not even known that a fight is underway until after the first shot has been fired. Historically this was done by hiding in clouds, although increasingly anti-radar stealth is a factor. This makes "Top Gun" style dog fighting maneuverability and speed a secondary consideration, and excellent targeting devices and long-range missile capabilities the primary consideration.

Mobility limits the usefulness of enemy intelligence on your targeting location because it changes rapidly. This is particularly important when the adversary has active defenses that rapidly locate the source of an attack and target return fire at it.

Dispersed formations prevent any one killing blow from destroying a larger share of your forces so that the balance of your forces can attack an enemy ill equipped to handle a large number of forces at once, it also makes targeting more difficult since unless all targets are hit there may be return fire.

The benefit of engaging the enemy at a distance beyond the accurate range of their weapons is obvious and has been since archery, catapults, and thrown spears were in common use in ancient times. Historically this was often countered with passive armor and shields that could repeal arrows and the like, but now offense has overtaken passive armor, so long range engagement is a more fruitful approach.

Active Defenses

Active defenses are deployed to shoot mines, incoming shells, missiles, bombs, drones, and massed light forces such as small watercraft, before they hit a target for which the active defenses are providing point defense.

One kind of active defense is "reactive armor" that explodes outward from the protected surface at or shortly before ordinance hits an armored target actively pushing incoming ordinance backward and prematurely detonating it before it can apply its full effect to the protected surface's passive armor.

One kind of active defense uses cannons to hit incoming threats with big bullets, exemplified with the Phalanx CIWS.

One kind of active defense uses missiles to hit incoming threats, exemplified with the Patriot missile defense system.

One kind of active defense uses lasers to ignite explosives and fuel in incoming threats so they explode before they reach their targets.

One kind of active defense tries to interfere with the guidance systems of income threats with electronic radio wave jamming, electromagnetic pulses, flares, chafe launchers, and/or laser pointer type devices.

A close relative of these ordinance intercepting active defense systems are systems that analyze sound waves from incoming small arms fire to identify the location of the source of the incoming fire and to promptly return fire at the person or drone firing at you eliminating the threat of future incoming ordinance. Many air to air, surface to air, and air to ground missiles similarly use heat or radar signals to home in on aircraft or anti-aircraft batteries and eliminate them.

Wheels v. Tracks

Ground vehicles usually use either wheels or tracks.

Hovercraft and "ground effect vehicles" also exist and have seen limited military applications, and in snowy environments vehicles that use skis are also known. Neither are widely used for a variety of reasons that it may be worth reconsidering at some point.

Generally speaking, the modern trend has been to shift from tracks to wheels in military ground vehicles.

A number of factors have driven this trend.

* Wheels are faster and as mobility has become more of a concern given the declining efficacy of passive armor, mobility has become more important.

* Wheeled vehicles are vastly more fuel efficient than tracked vehicles, and that influences both the range of the vehicle between refueling and the amount of vulnerable fuel resupply logistics that are necessary. It also makes them ill-suited to routine patrol duty involving lots of driving around when it is unlikely to be necessary to engage off-road.

* Tracked vehicles tend to be heavier than comparable wheeled vehicles which impairs the ability to deliver them to the field by cargo aircraft, and limits the bridges strong enough to use them, making it harder to get them to the fight. Because heavy tracked vehicles are much less fuel efficient and also tend to damage civilian roads, often they are shipped to the theater by rail or ship, which are slower, and in the case of rail or even being driven only over high capacity bridges limits the flexibility that tracks freeing them of the need to be on roads brings.

* Lots of off-road conditions are a barrier to both tracked and wheeled vehicles that take considerable time to clear for either. A stand of trees, buildings in a city with narrow streets, narrow mountain roads, sufficiently large boulders, sufficiently thick walls, a variety of anti-vehicle and anti-tank barricades, deep water barriers such as rivers, lakes and canals, and bridges that aren't strong enough to hold the weight of large military vehicles can thwart both wheeled and tracked vehicles.

* Tracked vehicles can be superior on mud and loose sand and snow, but the capacity of wheeled vehicles to handle these kinds of terrains has improved. the off-road capabilities of wheeled vehicles has improved due to better tires and off road conscious designs (such as the Humvee).

* In practice, the reality of military operations as actually conducted in modern wars is that the vast majority of ground vehicle travel is either by road, or in off-road terrains that wheeled vehicles can handle. This is, in part, because wars are fundamental fights between groups of people and people tend to live and operate in places that they can get to with most of the way via wheeled vehicles.

Manned v. Assisted v. Remotely Operated v. Autonomous Systems

Increasingly, military systems are operated with machine assistance, remotely, or autonomously, rather than directly manned without machine assistance.

Even when systems are still manned, electronic targeting systems for everything from fighter- based missiles to artillery batteries to tanks to sniper rifles are becoming the norm. Functions like ammunition loading or material moving are also increasingly machine assisted. There are also safety overrides in many systems.

Almost every weapons system that isn't personally carried, e.g. all weapons mounted on vehicles or buildings, can and generally should be, at a minimum, remotely operated. For example, machine guns mounted on Humvees are now largely remotely operated, keeping the operator out of harm's way.

Many drones are remotely operated rather than truly being autonomous. Some drones are significantly autonomous, and some weapons systems that require almost instantaneous responses especially in active defenses are autonomous.

The implications of this for future conflicts of this factor are quite complex, while the other factors have relatively straightforward implications.

Fair Fights v. Asymmetric Engagements

There are two components to this concept.

Asymmetric Warfare

One is what is known as asymmetric warfare which is now predominant. 

This basically means that most wars are fought guerilla/insurgency style by one side. Usually, one side quickly obtains air superiority and using that control can also dispatch the opponent's heavy military equipment such as warships, tanks, heavy mobile artillery, armored personnel carriers, and fixed military bases with missiles and smart bombs. This means that quite early on, one side will have a full range of conventional heavy military armaments and the other will be limited to light infantry forces as most, in cases where the side reduced to light forces ever had heavier forces in the first place. There are very few countries which are "near peers" to the U.S. military and its allies, or to other major military powers, and as long as they don't get into wars with each other (which mutual assured destruction logic due to nuclear armaments for many world powers and the considerations of massive losses economic and military, even in a non-nuclear conflict, strongly discourage).

Asymmetric Weapons Systems In Battles

The other is at the operational level. Fighting an opponent with a comparable weapons system is rarely optimal.

If any adversary has a surface warship, you are probably best advised to counter that with aircraft, long range missiles, submarines, sea mines, swarms of small missile boats, SEAL type bombing raids, or biological warfare, rather than with another surface warship of the same class.

If an adversary has tanks or heavily armored vehicles, you may be best advised to counter them with artillery missiles, aircraft, land mines and light anti-tank missile forces. Tanks and other heavily armored vehicles, instead, are best used against forces with weapons lighter than tanks who have small arms and lightly armored vehicles, but not heavily armored vehicles or anti-tank weapons at their disposal.

Typically, you will defend against enemy airpower with light surface to air missiles if you don't have air superiority and more advanced air to air fighter capabilities than your opponent. It may be futile to even try to invest in the capabilities needed to have top rate air to air fighter capabilities that could deny an enemy air superiority for an extended time period. You would also want to focus on attacking air capabilities at adversary air bases, which are easier to attack fixed ground targets, if you can, rather than when your adversary's air to air fighters are in the air.

Likewise, if you have air superiority, you would want to invest primarily in air to ground warplane capability, rather than in air to air combat capability which is only useful at most in the brief time period in which you are acquiring air superiority.


Due to limitations of time, I am not working through the implications of these trends at a larger level, but these are some of the biggest trends that should be considered in thinking about the next stage of warfare driven by modern technology.

We are fighting the last war and procuring weapon systems on an expensive autopilot that provides limited value for money. Conventional wisdom in the military largely reflects this reality.

Deeper thought at the big picture level about the implications of these trends could give us a more effective military force at a smaller cost, and would help us focus better on the kind of threats and engagements it makes sense to prepare our military to fight. Failure to do so could lead to a sudden massive failure of our military because somebody else did this thinking and we didn't.

1 comment:

Guy said...

Hum "Likewise, if you have air superiority, you would want to invest primarily in air to ground warplane capability, rather than in air to air combat capability which is only useful at most in the brief time period in which you are acquiring air superiority."

Air Superiority is so sweet that it's worth any investment.