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Combat proven weapon systems

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Combat proven weapon systems

While ruggedness and reliability are intrinsically important for weapon systems, there are two more hallmarks of greatness. One is, of course, combat performance, and the other is numbers produced. A weapon system is produced in large numbers only when it has proved itself. That relates to its cost-effectiveness also. However, if a weapon system has not taken part in any war/combat (or, as the Empire-era British used to say, has not fired in anger); there is no question of commenting on it. Some of such weapons are described below.

F-16 and F-15

According to the technology used, fighter planes are classified into several generations. For example, Fifth generation fighters like F-22, F-35, Su-57, and Chengdu J-20 have stealth technology, multispectral sensors, and are networked. Four-point-fifth generation aircrafts like F/A-18E/F, F-15SE, Su-30, Su-35, Typhoon, Gripen, and Rafale have radar-absorbent materials; thrust vectoring, and Active Electronically Scanned Array radar. Fourth generation aircrafts like MiG-29, Su-27, F/A-18, F-15, F-16, Mirage 2000, JF-17 Thunder Block 3, Chengdu J-10, Shenyang J-11, Shenyang J-16, and Xian JH-7 are fly-by-wire, have head-up displays and are Swing-role fighters, that is, they can accomplish both air-to-air and air-to-surface roles on the same mission and swing between these roles.

As such, it is not fair to compare them. However, since the air forces of the world have aircrafts of several generations in their repertoire, fights amongst generations are likely. Technologically, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be the world’s most advanced fighter; however, the still-serving, nearly 50 year old F-16, with its upgrades, is the greatest combat-proven fighter in the world.

In February 2020, in an exercise involving nearly 40 warplanes flying more than 100 missions over the Hill Air Force Base, Utah, the USAF pitted its latest F-35s against the old warhorse F-16s. In spite of the fact that dogfighting training missions start out scripted, with set passes and distances, and then the students are challenged to improvise against more experienced pilots in a very capable jet, the finding, as summarized by Maj. Jondavid Hertzel, was that the F-35 was sluggish as compared to the F-16. Its pilots primarily train to fight long-range air battles using beyond-visual-range missiles whereas, in the fog and friction of war and chaos, fighting within visual range will probably always happen.

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Combat statistics of various fighters amply proves the claim of the F-16 and F-15. The statistics have been divided into the following parameters: number of wars it has taken part; air-to-air kills; air-to-air losses; and losses to ground fire. Going by this yardstick, fighters that have yet to take part in wars, or could not make any kill in spite of having flown, are ruled out of consideration here. They include: F-22, Gripen, Typhoon, Rafale, Su-30, Su-33, Su-35, J-10, and MiG-31, etc.

FighterNo. of warsA-to-A killsA-to-A lossesLosses to ground fire
F-16 Fighting Falcon197615
F-15 Eagle1310000
F-14 Tomcat1213544
Mirage 20007101

The total number of F-16s produced since 1974 is whopping 4,604, second only to the venerable MiG-21 of which 11,496 were produced but, unfortunately, it was a Second generation fighter. The F-15 because of its much greater cost was produced in fewer numbers.

M109 155 mm Self-Propelled Howitzers  

The American infantry would have been chewed up in Vietnam had it not been for the napalm bombs and the machine guns from the air and the artillery which very quickly brought in the heavies to land right where they were needed. The M109 155mm Self-Propelled Howitzer, introduced in 1963, and working till date, has seen glorious action in as many as 16 wars, including Vietnam. What makes it great? A real-life incident would illustrate the point.  

Also Read: Deadliest machine guns in the world

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Artillery pieces use so much propellant that they heat up quickly. That is why you have the concepts of “Maximum Rate of Fire” and a “Maximum Sustained Rate of Fire”. At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, USA, they have preserved a M109 (bumper number C-22) that was used by then Lt. Col. Charles Kelvin Rogers, commanding 1st Bn, 5th Field Artillery in 1968 in Vietnam. To repel a heavy and prolonged Viet Cong attack on a support base, Col. Rogers fired the gun so relentlessly; the legend is that its heated barrel almost glowed in the night! Yet, the gun did not fail! While the howitzer stands proudly in its place of honour, Rogers received the highest gallantry award, Congressional Medal of Honor and retired a major general.

The 5 Inch/38 Calibre WWII Naval Gun

A similar action had taken place during the Second World War in the naval Battle of Samar (October 25, 1944), in which a strong Imperial Japanese Navy fleet comprising four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 11 destroyers attacked six American escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts. Amongst them was the tiny 2,100 ton destroyer USS Johnston. All it had was five 5 inch/38 calibre naval guns and two torpedo tubes. Yet, Commander Ernest Evans single-handedly and boldly engaged  warships far bigger and powerful than it, namely Kumano (13,440 tons), Kongo (36,600 tons), Yamato (64,000 tons), Haruna (36,600 tons), and Yahagi (6,547 tons).

The 5 inch guns of Johnston fired nearly 400 shells in a short time during the battle and damaged almost all the Japanese ships before succumbing to numerous hits from 14 inch shells. The 5 inch guns were so heated that the crew had to cool the barrels with fire hoses while breeches had to be cooled otherwise. Yet, they did not fail. Evans was posthumously awarded the highest gallantry award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Eyewitnesses have recorded that, in honour of the ship’s exceptional bravery, as the Japanese destroyer Yukikaze sailed close to the sinking Johnston, its captain; Lt. Cdr. Terauchi Masamichi stood up on the deck and saluted it.  

M4 Sherman Tank

Perhaps on a tank-to-tank basis the Sherman was inferior to the great Soviet T-34 and the German Panzers. German tanks developed after the Panzer IV, namely, Tiger, Panther, and Tiger II were excellent on paper in the sense they had better gun, armour, and speed. Yet, they were plagued by breakdowns in the rough of the battlefields. The Sherman, on the other hand, was reliable, easy to produce and service and spares were readily available; an important consideration in an era when they lost more tanks to mechanical failure than to any other cause, including enemy action.

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As many as 49,234 Shermans were produced that took part in 18 wars until 1988.

M1 Abrams

The Abrams is one example of advanced technology resulting in a combat proven tank. During Operation Desert Storm an Abrams tank that was stuck in the mud continued fighting despite taking three hits from the main guns of Iraqi T-72 tanks and promptly dispatched the offending T-72s. The tank defied American efforts to destroy it in place and after being recovered had the turret replaced, and was back with its unit in 24 hours! The damaged turret was sent back to the USA for analysis. Starting from the Gulf War in 1991, it has taken part in nine wars and nearly 10,500 tanks have been built.

The only other contemporary tank that can rival it is the German Leopard 2.

AK-47 – the living legend

To call the AK-47 a rifle would be a rather insulting understatement; it is a living legend. Vietnam War veteran David Hackworth in his 2002 book ‘Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of US Army 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, Vietnam’ narrates an incident. During some construction work at the Fire Support Base Danger, one bulldozer happened to dig out a Viet Cong soldier’s body along with his AK-47 rifle. In his own words, “I jumped down in the hole and yanked the AK out of the mud. Watch this, I said, I’ll show you how a real infantry weapon works. I pulled the bolt back and fired thirty rounds—the AK performed as though it had been cleaned that day rather than buried in a marsh for a year.”

The AK-47 is a simple, rugged and extremely reliable design employing stamped sheet metal that lent itself to inexpensive mass production by relatively unskilled labour. The functionality of the rifle was of paramount concern and it lays no claim to any great ergonomics or superb accuracy. More than 10 crore of the AKs have been produced since its invention.

One could be tempted to ask, what makes the AK so reliable? The most important secret lies in the generous clearances between moving and stationary parts, which allows the gun to operate even when its interior is severely fouled with sand or mud. The second reason is its bolt having been so designed that on the unlocking rotation it also makes a primary extraction movement to the fired case. This results in very positive and reliable extraction even with dirty chamber and cases.

The importance of clearances can be understood from an example. The German Luger P08 pistol was a beauty to behold, hold and fire. The Luger was an example of German precision engineering and made to extremely high standard. Ironically, the precision engineering was its undoing. The tolerances were so fine that the Luger just could not tolerate dirt or fouling and was thus not ideally suited as a combat weapon in the field.

Sharps Rifle

The all-American Sharps rifle made in 1848 and its 1874 Buffalo gun version, were so accurate rifles that the very word ‘sharpshooter’ owes its origin to it! Buffalo hunter Billy Dixon made a famous 1500 yard shot using this, which wounded an attacking Indian at the battle of Adobe Walls. The weapon became famous as ‘Old Reliable’ and the company itself began stamping the barrels with this popular nickname! It took part in 12 wars.

Lee Enfield .303 Rifle

They saw the British Empire through two World Wars and were used by almost all the countries of the British Commonwealth! The rifle has carved its place in history permanently by virtue of its extreme ruggedness, solid build, absolute reliability, beautiful ergonomics and excellent heft. Despite being a bolt action rifle, it was the fastest bolt-action rifle in its era. Firing 15 rounds a minute was common and trained soldiers could double the rate—it meant that the magazine of 10 rounds could be emptied in 20 seconds.

Next to the AK, it is the most manufactured rifle in history with some 1.7 crore produced since 1895; and it must be kept in mind that this figure was achieved in an era when rifles did not lend themselves to mass machine-manufacture like the AK.

PPSh-41 Sub-Machinegun

The PPSh-41 (Pistolet Pulomet Schpagina-41, Schpagin sub-machine gun) was actually the major infantry weapon of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Its 71-round drum magazine and an incredible 1,250 rounds per minute rate of fire coupled with an effective range of 200 yards made it a fearsome weapon. The Red Army was happy with the manufacture of this rugged weapon with low-cost, easily obtained components, primarily stamped sheet metal and wood. They made some six million of these and it took part in 23 wars.

Colt M1911 Pistol

The mere fact that this pistol remained the official sidearm of the US army for full 73 years (1911-1984) taking part in some 33 wars since then, and is still being produced, does not leave scope for any other testimonial. If you have to describe it in one word, it is ‘solid’. The pistol is incredibly robust, able to withstand a great amount of abuse and remains reliable, even after decades of service and tens of thousands of rounds fired from it. Nearly seven million of these were produced.

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 51 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


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