This post reviews some big picture trends and insights the have become clear in recent years that impact military doctrine and procurement.
Because it was getting long, some key topics are still omitted, most prominently a more than tangential examination of the growing centrality of drones of myriad kinds to modern military tactics and procurement, and trends in small arms or individual soldier level recruiting, retention, equipment and tactics.
A lot of poor procurement and strategic decisions are rooted in the notion of a "fair fight". Warships are designed to fight warships. Tanks are designed to fight tanks. Fighter aircraft are designed to fight other fighters. But this approach is rarely wise.
Aircraft usually make better sense to fight warships and tanks than other warships. Tanks are better suited to fighting infantry than other tanks. Dogfights make up a negligible component of what fighter aircraft actually do, but have a disproportionate impact on the capabilities that they are designed to have which impacts their cost immensely. Infantry charges by soldiers carrying bolt action rifles and horseback cavalry came to an end when heavy machine guns in protected emplacements became capable to defeating them even when the machine gunners were vastly outnumbered. Fighting a military weapon with another military weapon of the same kind may sometimes be required out of necessity but it is almost never the most desirable "Plan A".
But, while it is generally best to develop a military doctrine rooted in asymmetry that uses vastly superior weapons that are different in kind to defeat opponents, this doesn't mean that proportionality is irrelevant.
A billion dollar destroyer can reliably destroy a $100,000 armed pirate speedboat with a $100,000 missile. But while the pirates lose every battle in that scenario, by forcing the high end military force to spend so much to overcome such an lightly funded opponent, the pirates may win the war of attrition in the long run by forcing their high end military opponent to spend so much to defeat them.
Likewise, using a $1 million missile delivered by a $200 million state of the art military aircraft, to kill a small group of insurgents equipped with $10,000 pickup trucks, $1,000 heavy machine guns, and $300 assault rifles, presents the same problem in the long run. The insurgents will lose, but they have forced a high end military force to pay a disproportionate and potentially financially ruinous price to do so that may cause the country with the high end military force to abandon the fight because it isn't worth it.
So, while the high end military force that the U.S. military will always be on the side of for the foreseeable future, needs to develop doctrines in which it is using superior capabilities to defeat inferiorly armed opponents, if it is to be effective, it can't abandon all sense of proportionality. Instead, it must not only devise superior means of consistently defeating its low end opponents, it must also devise ways to defeat its low end opponents in a relatively cost effective manner that is tailored to be sufficient to consistently defeat the low end opponent at the lowest cost at which this goal can be achieved.
The U.S., generally speaking, overspends on maximal high end means of responding to worst case scenario threats, which admittedly deserve significant resources, while relying to heavily on these disproportionately expensive tools to deal with low end threats without regard to the war of attrition vulnerabilities that this outlook creates.
This matters a great deal in which the lion's share of modern military conflicts are asymmetric.
Clarity of mission matters
The U.S. military is very prone to creating tools and then looking for problems that they can solve in a general sense, without evaluating with any real rigor, what missions are and are not sensible to undertake.
For example, the U.S. might very well decide to assist in defending Taiwan or South Korea or Japan against a Chinese invasion, or in assisting South Korea against a North Korean attack. It might even try to assist Macau or Hong Kong in regaining autonomy from China. And, it might seek to use military force to maintain open shipping in China's vicinity.
But it is madness to think that the U.S. would ever consider trying to occupy any part of mainland China where the locals were not welcoming them in, as they might in Hong Kong or Macau, but surely would not in Beijing.
Realistic evaluations about what missions the U.S. military would and would not take on are one way to prevent excessive defense spending.
Another fact that becomes clear with a mission by mission analysis is that a handful of very specific scenarios like anti-submarine warfare near the coasts of North Korea, China and Iran, or the vague possibility of a large scale non-permissive amphibious assault, drive a grossly disproportionate share of U.S. military expenditures, which could be reduced by either engaging in diplomacy to limit certain conventional weapons like submarines that drive large U.S. military expenditures, or by committing to military doctrines that make expensive scenarios unnecessary because less expensive alternatives have been devised.
Clarity of mission can also be used to discourage purchased of a single type of maximally capable weapon system, like the F-35, a supersonic stealth fighter, some versions of which have vertical landing or carrier takeoff and landing capabilities, at immense cost, to carry out missions like dropping bombs in places where air superiority has been established, dealing with errant commercial and general aviation aircraft in U.S. airspace (to prevent 9-11 type incidents), and providing close air support to ground troops, where its high expense driving capabilities are unnecessary or even counterproductive.
The U.S. has the largest military budget, by far, on the planet. It doesn't need to use one size fits all solutions when there are two or more different missions that call for very different capabilities in a military system. The U.S. military can afford to have one set of military systems that is optimized for jungle conditions, and another optimized for desert conditions, and a third optimized for mountain conditions, if the capabilities needed in those respective plausible military missions are different, rather than trying to build one super-expensive system that can deal with every possibility in a sufficient but mediocre manner.
Tank killing attack helicopters like the AH-64 Apache may make perfect sense for the U.S. Army, but may not make sense in the Army National Guard, which primarily responds to natural disasters and domestic riots, and secondarily serves in low intensity roles when deployed abroad, such as in military policing and nation building roles.
Similarly, clarity of mission can be used to discourage the well ingrained procurement habit of the U.S. military to simply replace old weapons systems like jet fighters or surface combatant ships or tanks or artillery batteries with new replacement weapons systems, on a one to one basis, without reflecting on whether changing technologies and the changing nature of the kinds of conflicts the military is likely to be deployed in have changed the proportionate mix of weapons systems that makes sense to have in our military.
When it takes one sortie on average, instead of ten, for an aircraft to hit and destroy a target with a bomb, maybe we don't need as many aircraft that can do that as we needed before precision guided munitions were widely available.
When patrol aircraft are as good or better at destroying an opponent's warship or submarine as a naval ship that is much more vulnerable to enemy attack and puts far more U.S. military personnel in harm's way, maybe we should consider buying fewer destroyers and more patrol aircraft.
When missiles are clearly better at non-line of sight strikes than howitzer shells, maybe we should consider removing howitzer's from the Army's force mix.
Essentially, the U.S. military should be running a lot of very specific, very realistic war games and determining what kind of procurement resources it needs from start to finish, from deployment, to logistics, to engaging an opponent, to demobilizing, in each of those scenarios, rather than trying to think in general terms, or trying to entertain unrealistic maximalist scenarios.
Lack of clarity of mission does far more to lead to unnecessarily large amounts of defense spending than all of the fraud, waste and abuse in the procurement system combined.
Military vehicles that are too large have downsides
The M1 Abrams main battle tank weighs 70 tons. It has been largely retired. Why?
It is too heavy to transport in reasonable numbers by air. For example, a C-17 military transport aircraft can carry only one per trip.
It is too heavy to use many road bridges and rail bridges. Its weight also risks damage to less robust roads and rail lines.
It is too wide to use in urban warfare in the narrow street common in Europe and much of the rest of the world outside North America. It is also too wide to use in narrow mountain passes.
Practically speaking 35 tons is roughly the limit of what works as a military vehicle (two can be transported in a C-17 and they can usually clear conventional bridges and operate in tighter spaces) and there are many benefits to having vehicles and systems of 19 tons or less than can be transported with a C-130 transport aircraft or a CH-53 helicopter.
The U.S. military has taken some positive steps in this regard. The Marines have discontinued the use of heavy tanks and the Army has greatly curtailed the number of them in its force. But it is continuing to work on developing a next generation slug throwing, heavily armored tank.
Its resources would be better spent developing a moderately armored mobile missile tank that could be deployed on a C-130 (along the lines of a wheeled M2 Bradley without carried infantry), and a moderately armed vehicle also not intended as a personnel carrier that could be deployed on a C-130 intended for U.S. primarily against infantry, unarmored vehicles and lightly armored vehicles while providing force protection against small arms fire and shrapnel as well as IEDs.
Deployment time matters
The need for military action can arise anywhere in the world and quickly. Prompt response times matter. The status quo established in the first few days or weeks of a conflict can decisively impact the outcome and establish the course of the entire military conflict. If not stopped immediately, territory seized with a modern military force can be a fait accompli that is difficult or impossible to reverse, as was the case in the seizure of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine by Russia and Russian backed insurgents. Allies or allied military units could easily be slaughtered in the face of overwhelming onslaughts of opposition forces without much warning, without reinforcements after the handful of hours or days that they might be able to hold out despite being outgunned.
Aircraft, particularly supported by aerial refueling resources, can deploy military resources to gain air superiority, to bomb opponent targets, and to deliver group troops with relatively light armaments and vehicles very quickly.
To deploy heavier military vehicles and armaments means one of several options.
One is shipping them by sea, at speeds of about twenty-five miles per hour, or almost double that for distances up to about 1000 miles when one of eleven high speed transports in service with cargo capacities much greater than an airplane but smaller than a full size conventional cargo or amphibious warfare vehicles are available. Eventually airships may provide another medium sized cargo, medium speed deployment option.
Another is to deploy heavy forces by road and rail at speeds of about fifty miles per hour on average, allowing for time to refuel. Very heavy equipment, however, can damage roads and may not be supported by the available bridges and may not be able to fit in smaller tunnels. Also, deployment by road and rail can create predictable choke points for an opponent to interrupt, or along which ambushes can be prepared at any point. And, in arctic and subarctic areas, in sandy deserts, in mountainous areas, in swamps and jungles, and in island chains, large swaths of territory may be roadless or have road networks are are only marginally adequate for the deployment of masses of heavy military vehicles. And, deployment in this manner is only possible if safe passage to the area of the conflict can be secured across all countries not involved in the conflict that are en route to the place to which one wants to deploy. For example, one can't simply deploy European based troops by land across the Levant to North Africa and beyond, or across Central Asia and West Asia.
A third option is to forward deploy heavy military resources to military bases and caches of resources in foreign countries with their permission, or on ships close to anticipated areas of conflict before hot fighting breaks out. Even a modest number of foreign military bases can make it possible to deploy forces by numerous C-130 intra-theater transport aircraft, transport helicopters and by road, when otherwise, slow ships, C-5 transport aircraft that require purpose built airports to land in, and C-17 transport aircraft which aren't as numerous would be necessary to deploy forces to the actual site of the conflict.
Multiple approaches are necessary and are used. Allied forces can be reinforced with our support, as we have done in Taiwan and Israel, so that they can hold their own against invading forces for a while before support arrives. U.S. troops can be forward deployed, as they are in Guam, South Korea, Japan, the U.K.., Germany, Spain, Italy, Iraq, Turkey, Diego Garcia, and the United Arab Emirates, to reduce the distances that must be spanned to respond to conflicts in the region. Naval resources can be forward deployed as they frequently are in the Eastern Pacific, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Persian Gulf, and as they are less frequently in the Caribbean, off the coast of South America, and off the coast of Africa, to provide aircraft, missiles and Marines in the event that a conflict heats up. And, the U.S. can invest in more fast and medium speed transport capabilities, and more potent forces that can be deployed by air such as long range bombers and aerial refueling tankers that can extend the range of shorter range aircraft.
Other kinds of preparation for potential conflicts must begin long in advance. U.S. diplomats and intelligence agencies can develop information and contacts that could be critical if U.S. forces need to deploy somewhere, and U.S. foreign affairs and military agencies can develop resources of people who speak languages that are used in places where the U.S. might need to deploy forces, which can take years but can prove critical to deployed forces. Computer systems that allow for real time translation are also beginning to emerge as an imperfect alternative to trained interpreters.
The effectiveness of the U.S. military in any given conflict is substantially limited by its capacity to get the forces that it has to the site of a conflict rapidly.
The Air Force can deploy very quickly, and can deposit fairly lightly equipped airborne and paratrooper units very quickly as well. But, airlifting additional forces proceeds at a snails pace because transport planes carry fairly small payloads, for example, delivering only one M1 Abrams tank or two M2 Bradley fighting vehicles or Marine Amphibious Combat Vehicles, or three to four Stryker Armored Personnel Carriers per round trip in a C-17, the largest U.S. military airlift plane that can land on primitive airstrips.
Typically, only about a third of the ships in the Navy are actually deployed in places where conflicts are expected to arise at any one time, with the rest in transit or facing overhauls and training and leave for their crews in port, and shifting naval ships from one theater of conflict to another can take weeks or months. Most naval transport ships and amphibious warfare ships are at least somewhat slower than its front line carriers, destroyers and frigates.
The share of U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps forces based in the U.S., rather than in forward foreign bases, is near an all time post-World War II high, while the total number of ground troops in the U.S. military is not much above the post-World War II low, and like the Navy, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps are designed to deploy only a fraction of its forces in active conflicts at any one time. While there are about 660,000 active duty soldiers in the Army and Marine Corps combined, and more that can be activated from the Army and Marine Corps Reserves and from the Army National Guard, as a practical matter, the U.S. military would be hard pressed to deploy more than about 200,000 ground troops in addition to those currently based abroad, to any active foreign conflict or war at one time, only about one seventh of the total size of the active duty military force. Furthermore, a third to a half of those 200,000 ground troops would be "fobbits" whose work is largely confined to the interior of a forward operating base, rather than being deployed in the field "at the tip of the spear" so to speak. The active duty military personnel in the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, are likewise not readily converted into being front line ground troops. Furthermore, in a conflict that pushed the deployment of U.S. ground troops to close to its peak capacity, many of the junior enlisted soldiers and junior officers would have no actual combat experience, and would as a result be less effective than seasoned combat veterans.
The Marine Corps size has been comparative stable in the post-Vietnam War era, although it is on the low end of that range. But the Army's size is quite small, reflecting a long tradition in which the Army's ranks have surged with wartime volunteers and draftees in major wars, and then contracted in times of peace or when only minor conflicts and small wars, like the current U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, have been in progress. But the wisdom of that policy in the modern military is questionable.
Marine Corps doctrine is shaped heavily by the contingency of the mass amphibious assault in a contested entry to territory held by an opponent. But this tactic that was prominent in World War II is largely obsolete and for that reason has not been used anywhere in the world as an important element of a military action since the Korean War. Airlift and other considerations have largely sidelined the salience of this approach which has been very costly for the U.S. military to retain the capacity to execute.
The U.S. does have the infrastructure for a future military draft, called the Selective Service System, in place. But as warfare has become increasingly reliant on advanced technological systems that require skilled operators, the usefulness of raw draftees has diminished compared to prior eras in which a draft was in place, and between the inevitable delay between the start of a conflict and the activation of a military draft, and the minimum time necessary to get draftees enlisted, run through basic training, and receiving any additional training necessary for military occupational specialties that were needed in such a large scale war, it would take six months to a year after the conflict began before any meaningful number of draftees could substantially expand the number of available ground troops, which is too slow to be useful in a fast developing modern military conflict.
The number of ground troops that can be deployed at any one time is a critical number for U.S. military readiness, as is the extent to which the ground troops that we have are seasoned combat veterans, because only ground troops can take and control territory, which is generally a critical objective of a military deployment. The Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard all add critical capabilities to U.S. forces, but they can't truly take or control territory, and neither can U.S. ground troops that aren't in the theater of the conflict.
Some of the limitations on the capacity of the U.S. to deploy ground forces could be addressed only by rebalancing the active duty force.
But other limitations could be addressed by improving the rapid deployment capabilities of the U.S. military by increasing its airlift capacity, by buying an intra-theater transport that can carry 35 ton Marine and Army vehicles, by designing heavier systems that come in packages of 19 tons or less that can be deployed by C-130 or heavy lift helicopters, by developing airship and fast sea based transport capacities, and by being more thoughtful in how heavy military equipment is advance deployed in foreign bases and/or at sea.
Tracks are overrated
Six or eight wheel tracked vehicles can have the same maneuverability in off road conditions as an M1 Abrams tank (so can four wheeled vehicles, like a Humvee).
Tracked vehicles are much less fuel efficient than wheeled vehicles.
Tracked vehicles are slower than wheeled vehicles.
While there are military uses for an ability to traverse extreme off road conditions, in actual practice, military vehicles are predominantly used on roads, or if off road, on terrain that a civilian Jeep or SUV could handle. The trade offs necessary to secure extreme off road capabilities are rarely worth the costs in an increased supply chain burden and reduces speed that accompanied them.
The declining assessment of the value of tracked vehicles has reduced the importance of tanks and other tracked vehicles for a reason separate and apart from the immense size of heavy tanks.
This isn't to say that there is no room for military tracked vehicles capable of traversing extreme off road conditions. But they should be considered a niche, low volume demand item for a specialty force, rather than a core capability for routine use in large number of systems. Also, in many applications where extreme off road conditions are presented, smaller sized vehicles are preferable to something immense in size like an M1 Abrams tank, because these conditions often present narrow spaces and favor something that isn't too prone to sinking too deep in snow, mud, or water.
Newly purchased military tracked vehicles should number in the dozens or low hundreds, not in the thousands, if they are purchased at all, and should only be purchased when there is great clarity about the missions that truly require them.
Mines are an underrated threat
Land mines, often in the form of improved explosive devices (IEDs), are a common and effective means of resisting ground forces, especially heavier armored vehicles, and convoys carrying personnel and supplies, that even opponents with very limited resources can deploy. Sometimes they are used in conjunction with ambushes by opponent infantry forces.
IEDs and ambush tactics that have often accompanied their use, have led to a fundamental redesign and reassessment of military ground vehicles and tactics. This is the primary reason that the Humvee was largely replaced in the Army, has greatly shifted how supply convoys are handled, has prompted the military to control vehicle mounted weapons from inside armored vehicles remotely rather than perched behind heavy guns outside them, has influenced the design of the new Marine armored personnel carrier, and has diminished the desirability of the M1 Abrams tank which has vulnerabilities being disabled by IEDs and to having low visibility points of vulnerability that can be exploited by opposition infantry, to identify just a few examples, after many ground vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed or disabled by IEDs and ambushes, and many exterior gunners for vehicle mounted weapons were killed in action.
Mine resistant, ambush protected (MRAP) designs have become the norm, and this threat has particularly dented the desirability of tracked vehicles which are hard to design in a mine resistant way. Extreme off road capabilities favor a low center of gravity and fairly flat bottom, while mine resistance favors a higher center of gravity with a V-shaped hull design to deflect blast forces from below away from the people and cargo that the vehicle carries. IEDs have also caused specialized mine clearing armored vehicles to become a standard part of the ground vehicle complement of larger ground force military units. And, while good progress has been made in upgrading patrol vehicles and armored personnel carriers to an MRAP standard, slower progress has been made in upgrading transport trucks to this standard even though IEDs and ambush tactics in modern, often urban, warfare means that no place in a theater of conflict is really away from the "front lines" of battle, except the interior of forward operating bases. MRAP considerations, in addition to reducing the capacity of ground vehicle designs to be suited to extreme off road conditions also add weight, which tends to reduce vehicle speeds and to reduce vehicle fuel efficiency and in the process increasing the logistics burden of the force.
Sea mines are expensive and time consuming to remove, can deny an opponent access to waters in an area for a substantial period of time, and require specialized and scarce military ships to destroy. If ignored, they are frequently potent enough to sink or critically disable even high end warships and submarines. Very few potential opponents of the U.S. have significant sea mine capabilities, but these are no particularly advanced weapons, they can be made significantly more challenging to address with minimal and primitive drone movement capabilities, and are a capability that any modestly advanced opponent country could develop and deploy quickly if they found it desirable to do so.
U.S. minesweeping capabilities are currently woefully scarce, as existing mine sweeping ships were sold or retired without being replaced.
Of course, neither land mines nor sea mines are useful for projecting force and as offensive weapons. They can deny access to some small area of the land or of the sea, without warning, but that is pretty much all that they can do.
Armored vehicles are vulnerable
The Iraq War revealed that it was easy to destroy heavy armored vehicles such as the medium to heavy, not state of the art but still modern tanks in its arsenal. They were dispatched by the hundreds with AH-64 attack helicopters using Hellfire missiles, with A-10 fighters, with M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles using TOW missiles, and with M1-Abrams tanks using large, longer range direct fire tank shells. Predator drones and other kinds of attack helicopters and Cessna general aviation planes and Humvees can all be fitted with the same Hellfire missiles. Unmounted infantry with TOW missiles can take them out. Fighter and bomber aircraft with "smart bombs" and missiles can take them out.
IEDs can seriously damage them, disabling them in many cases even without destroying them irreparably.
This doesn't mean that armor is useless. Armor can be effective against small arms fire and shrapnel that can be common even when an attack misses on the battlefield. But it is not effective against all but the smallest of missiles or bombs, and typically has some vulnerable spots. The bottom line is that while armed vehicles can be effective in asymmetric battles against infantry with small arms, it is not effective in symmetric battles against military grade weapons systems designed as more than anti-personnel weapons.
Surface ships are vulnerable
Likewise, a single missile or torpedo small enough to be carried by a patrol aircraft like the P-8, a bomber aircraft, a jet fighter, a small diesel-electric submarine, a frigate, a medium sized missile boat, or a ground based long range heavy missile battery, is sufficient to destroy the heaviest warship, even an aircraft carrier or destroyer or battleship.
Active defenses, i.e. bullets or missiles or lasers that shoot down incoming missiles, and engaging an opponent before it fires its weapon upon you, are the only viable defenses against these weapons.
The U.S. should significantly reduce its fleet of surface combatants. It does not need more destroyers.
Submarine are potent threats
Modern and effective anti-submarine warfare options exist. But destroying or disabling even one of an opponent's submarines is much more challenging than destroying or disabling many of an opponent's surface combatants, which have nowhere to hide. And, until a submarine's exact location is identified it can be very effective at destroying or disabling both civilian and military surface ships, at deploying sea mines that deny surface ships access until scarce and specialized mine sweeping resources are deployed, and launching powerful missiles at short ranges that are hard to stop even with active countermeasures at ground targets.
The main problem of anti-submarine warfare is determining the precise location of the targeted opposition submarines. Once you find a submarine it isn't all that fast or maneuverable (although still more so than most ships which are confined to the two dimensional surface of the sea rather than the three dimensional space in which a submarine operates), and it is a fairly large target. The fastest submarine ever built, the Soviet K-222 had a top speed of 51 miles per hour. A speed of 23 miles per hour traveling nearly silently, or 40 miles per hour at the expense of stealth, would be more common. Torpedos, which are basically underwater missiles and are the primary weapon deployed against submarines (in addition to water mines and "depth charges" which are basically underwater dumb bombs) can go faster, maneuver better, and pack enough punch to destroy or at least disable a submarine that it hits. But you need to have a ship, submarine, aircraft or drone that is designed to deploy a torpedo to do that, and determining the location of a submarine operating at any significant depth is a highly challenging enterprise.
Fortunately, few countries have military submarines at all, and most countries that have any military submarines are reliable U.S. allies or have very few of them. Also, many of the military submarines in the service of countries that are not reliable U.S. allies are older Soviet or Chinese models that are inferior technologically, often have short "coastal" ranges, and can only be deployed at relatively shallow depths, which makes anti-submarine warfare against them easier and limits the extent to which they can be used against blue sea shipping or in remote foreign wars. There are only a small number of blue sea, long range, advanced military submarines in the world, and only a few countries that are not reliable U.S. allies, primarily Russia and China, have them at all.
Guided weapons predominate
In modern wars, only about 1% as much ordinance has been dropped as bombs. Air based bombing with smart bombs is at least ten times as accurate as "dumb bombs" reducing the number of sorties needed tenfold. The accuracy comes close to 1 bomb, 1 target destroyed for fixed targets and slow moving vehicles. Perhaps it is 90%+ accuracy, it is certainly far, far better than 50% or 67% or 75% accuracy.
Greater accuracy also allows forces using bombs and missiles to use smaller warheads that produce less collateral damage, because there is less of a need to use larger warheads to turn a near miss into a hit.
This means than it takes about 90% fewer aircraft to deliver the same amount of bombing damages as a pre-guided weapons force.
This means that guided missiles and artillery rounds are almost always superior to unguided artillery shells and naval gun shells for non-line of sight fires. The Navy should stop designing and stop building new ships with conventional naval guns and the Army should stop buying howitzers and tanks with large slug thowing main guns, although new long range ground based missile batteries to engaged surface ships and provide long range fire support in ground battles makes sense.
Unguided shells for artillery, naval guns and tanks are much cheaper per round than guided munitions, but have more expensive and heavier delivery systems (although the price differential is falling). This could be an edge for them, despite their inaccuracy, if it was common place in warfare to need to fire many hundreds and thousands of rounds per weapon system life. But experience has shown that the number of shots fired in anger per weapons system life is much smaller than the threshold where shells make sense.
In essentially every application calling for rounds larger than about 40mm cannon or grenade rounds, guided missiles, guided artillery rounds, and smart bombs are superior than conventional unguided shells.
Likewise, the maximum range at which unguided weapons can be competitive with guided ones is on the order of one to two miles (perhaps 3 kilometers), even though it is possible to have unguided weapons with a much greater range.
This is gradually being reflected in procurement choices. For example, the U.S. Navy's new Constellation-class frigate and both of the classes of the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ships, lack the full sized naval guns found on previous U.S. Navy frigates, cruisers and destroyers.
Even conventional, direct fire, slug thrower weapons like sniper rifles, machine guns, and grenade launching cannons, are increasingly being enhanced with systems that enhance a user's aiming accuracy, and can allow ordinance to explode at set distances before hitting a solid target, allowing tactics like exploding a grenade above opponents hiding behind a protective fortification. Smart bullets can also be designed to explode after a certain range to prevent them from causing collateral damage if they miss or go through the intended target at a closer range.
Active defenses are becoming viable
President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense program was a well intentioned, but technologically impracticable program when he proposed it in the 1980s. Technically, this is very difficult stuff, basically trying to take down bullets with bullets.
But, several decades later, active defense systems that intercept missiles and large artillery gun and naval shells in flight have become viable. The Patriot Missile program, the Israeli Iron Shield program, the U.S. Navy's Phalanx Close In Weapon System, other interceptor missiles, jamming technologies to disrupt guided weapons, dazzler systems to disrupt optical guidance systems, flared to disrupt infrared guidance systems, lasers to take down incoming ordinance and drones, reactive armor, and automated direct fire weapons that automatically return sniper fire, all integrated with advanced sensor networks, have all attained operational capabilities.
None of these technologies are perfect and for the most part, we can fairly say that we have only a first or second generation of these systems in place. But as advance sensors, artificial intelligence systems, improved guidance systems, and energy dense power generation and storage systems to make possible powerful lasers develop, this category of military systems is growing in importance. And, these active defenses also further tilt the balance against "dumb" artillery and tank and naval gun shells and "dumb" bombs and missiles, and in favor of precision guided weapons that can be designed to evade or reduce the effectiveness of more simple minded active defenses.
Also, systems initially developed to defend against income missiles and shells are also proving to be useful against the emerging threats of remote controlled and autonomous drones and manned and unmanned small armed surface boats, with drones and small surface boats sometime deployed in "swarms" that challenge the capacity of active defenses to take out all of the potently threatening income targets.
The shorter the time between the detection of incoming ordinance and the time it will hit its target if not intercepted, the harder it is for active defenses to be effective. For this reason, there has been renewed attention to hypersonic missiles, traveling several times the speed of sound, primarily for use against large warships which may have active defense systems, to reduce the amount of time that active defense systems have to react and to increase the odds that the hypersonic missiles will be able to hit and destroy their targets. In principle, of course, nothing limits the use of hypersonic missiles to surface combatants. They could be used against land targets with active defenses, or fast moving aircraft, as well.
Air superiority matters and dogfights are largely a thing of the past
The standard operating procedure for the U.S. military in a major conflict is to begin with a brief, concerted campaign, often with allies, to secure air superiority, with good reason.
If you have exclusive access to air power and a modern air force, you have basically made it impossible for your opponent to openly deploy surface combatant ships that lack anti-aircraft resources, tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, convoys of trucks transporting troops or supplies, or even large concentrated formations of dismounted infantry.
You have also essentially eliminated the capacity of your opponents to openly maintain military bases or fixed communications infrastructure, and have made it possible to disrupt your opponent's network of roads, rail lines, bridges, pipelines, fuel depots, and ammunition stockpiles at will.
You can rapidly deploy reinforcements and close air support for ground forces to hot spots. You can evacuate injured or outnumbered group troops. And, you can maintain high quality reconnaissance of the area of operations, while greatly limiting the access that your opponent has to the same kind of information.
There are basically five things you need to do to secure air superiority. First, you want to destroy as many of your opponent's aircraft on the ground as you can. Second, you want to either take control of your opponent's air bases so that you can use them for your own forces, or destroy your opponent's air bases so that your opponent can continue to operate their aircraft. Third, you want to destroy any fixed anti-aircraft batteries and supporting radar or other sensor emplacements. Fourth, you want to defeat any of your opponent's aircraft which are aloft. Fifth, you want to destroy any mobile anti-aircraft resources that your opponent may possess.
The first three can be accomplished with suitable intelligence resources, cruise missiles, drones, stealth aircraft delivering smart bombs, and surprise attacks with more conventional air and ground force resources. With good intelligence from a variety of sources and substantial bomber, drone and cruise missile resources, this can be accomplished in a matter of days or a couple of weeks.
The fourth calls for air to air combat. But the days of the extended dogfight are largely over. The lion's share of air to air combat incidents are one shot, one kill events. The loser either doesn't see the winner and doesn't know that an air to air combat engagement is underway until there is an air to air missile locked onto the loser and en route to destroying the loser's aircraft, or the loser is aware that the winner's aircraft has engaged the loser but has shorter range weapons than the winner does. There is a place of high speed maneuvers to get into position to strike or to evade incoming missiles, but only in a very small percentage of engagements. A quite inferior and slow aircraft with good avionics, and advanced air to air missiles, can be very effective, even if it is not supersonic or highly maneuverable. Also, this phase will often be brief, lasting a day or two at most.
Mobile anti-aircraft resources are the most challenging to defeat. But there are a range of them which present different levels of threats. Less capable mobile anti-aircraft resources are ineffective against high altitude aircraft, even though they may present a threat to low flying helicopters, drones and close air support aircraft. More capable mobile anti-aircraft resources tend to involve large military vehicles are a threat to more types of air activity, but are also harder to hide, especially once they are used against aircraft opposing them. Anti-aircraft resources must also have limited ground force resources devoted to them, cutting into those capacity of those forces to engage in combat on the ground. This stage can be much more prolonged than the other four, but the risk that using these resources singles them out as targets helps to mitigate the threat that mobile anti-air resources pose even when they aren't eliminated when the other steps have been taken.
The Air Force should recognize, however, that this phase of any conflict is fairly brief and that even if the United States is simultaneously fighting two major regional wars, that it does not need to have the capacity to secure air superiority in both theaters by itself without allied support (or even Navy support) in both regions at the same time, as it does today when establishing its force requirements to determine how many new warplanes it needs to buy. Unlike naval forces or heavy ground troops, Air Force planes used to secure air superiority in a major regional war can be relocated from one theater to another in a matter of days, and once air superiority is attained, the number of aircraft it needs in the theater is much smaller and the type of aircraft it needs are different and can be much less expensive with lower end capabilities.
As I will address in a future post, the Air Force and Naval Air strategists, also need to recognize that unmanned drones are excellent and indeed often superior replacements for the bulk of manned fighter aircraft in bombing missions and in air to air combat. It may be appropriate and necessary to a human pilot in the cockpit for close air support missions and responses to errant civilian aircraft in domestic airspace. But neither of those manned missions require, for example, supersonic speed or stealth, which are two of the biggest drivers of fighter airplane cost.
Weapons of mass destruction are not a coherent category and have limited military utility
Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) usually refers to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. But the concerns related to each of these is very different, and all of them are seriously limited in their military usefulness.
Nuclear weapons come in two types: strategic nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons (most or all of which are no longer in active U.S. military service).
Strategic nuclear weapons consist of nuclear missiles deployable with long range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles from submarines or warships, and air to ground missiles deployed by larger fighter aircraft or bombers. These are immensely powerful weapons with explosive capacities sufficient to destroy entire cities or metropolitan areas with a single missile. These are indeed, weapons of mass destruction.
The primary purpose of these existing arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons is to support a mutual assured destruction strategy to utterly destroy the civilization of any country that tries to use them against someone else.
The main problem with strategic nuclear weapons, however, is that, essentially all legitimate military operations seek to guide the behavior of and control the leaders and people of other countries, not to slaughter their civilian populations, en masse. Strategic nuclear weapons, if ever used, would cause immense collateral damages to innocent civilians, would leave little or nothing to control or even use, and would pose a dire risk of causing a post-apocalyptic breakdown of all or much of planet Earth's entire ecosystem, killing not just the target, brining the entire human species and many other forms of life on the planet to the brink of complete extinction.
Tactical nuclear weapons, in contrast, are at the high end of the capacity of conventional high explosive bombs or somewhat beyond them, but are about 200 times smaller. They have never been used in anger, but they were part of the U.S. and Russian military arsenals in the 1960s and could be reinvented with modern technology without much difficulty. They could be used to make it possible to destroy large warships or very hardened bunkers with quite small weapons that could be deployed in ways that are harder to block with active defense that the quite large conventional weapons that do the same thing.
Biological weapons have the potential to have a devastating effect, as the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic disabled a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Pacific illustrated. The kind of countermeasures needed for biological weapons are completely different from almost all other kinds of attacks.
But biological weapons have so far received little or no use in modern warfare despite great advances in biological science, largely because controlling an outbreak of an infectious agent so that it harms one's opponents without harming the nation utilizing it in the first place is so difficult.
One might imagine a biological agent being used in asymmetric warfare against the U.S., its allies, or other high end military forces by a country or insurgent force or terrorist organization with very weak conventional warfare capabilities and enough desperation to ignore the immense collateral damage that such a weapon could cause, but so far, this possibility is speculative, and even then, it is hard to think of such an agent as really being conceived of as a military weapon. It has not been used much for reasons similar to those of nuclear weapons. The main purpose of the military is to control how others act, and biological weapons are a scorched earth tactic that are ill suited to achieving that end without blowing back and harming the nation or group that used it almost as badly. It too is legitimately a weapon of mass destruction, although very different considerations apply to it, in terms of controlling their proliferation. And using deployment of them as a deterrent.
Chemical weapons can be horrific, can be terror inducing, and require special countermeasures to defend against, but they don't inflict casualties at a scale significantly different from more conventional weapons, as has been revealed by their use, for example, in the Syrian Civil War by the Syrian government, and in the Iran-Iraq War. These are not appropriately classified as "weapons of mass destruction" even though they are a special class of weapons that the mindset associated with nuclear and biological weapon defenses can be useful to consider, because all three kinds of WMDs, while not always weapons of mass destruction, are weapons on contamination, unlike more conventional weapons (apart from depleted uranium and toxic weapons not intended to be chemical weapons like lead ammunition and Agent Orange).