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HomeDEFENCECost effective, combat-proven vs. fancy, unreliable weapons

Cost effective, combat-proven vs. fancy, unreliable weapons

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Cost effective, combat-proven vs. fancy, unreliable weapons

Except for USA, Russia, UK, France, Germany, China, Israel and Sweden most other nations spend billions of dollars for importing weapons because they can’t make their own. For every category of weapons, numerous products are available in the world arms market. Question is how do these nations decide which weapon system to buy?

Ask any adolescent to buy a new electronic or even mechanical gadget and he or she will most likely make the selection based on the fancy features of the gadget as claimed by the manufacturer and its price tag. The costlier a gadget, the better it is believed to be. Intellectually bankrupt nations also behave like dumb adolescents, mesmerized by fancy features of weapon systems and their cost. In fact, higher expenditure on costly imports is sold to the gullible public as a sign of and commitment towards national security.

Pic: DefenceXP

Historically, it has been observed that forces that are keen to hide their tactical and strategic incompetence, insist fiercely on fancy weapon systems. Until such time that they are supplied with those weapons, they blame all their shortcomings and failures on not possessing the latest and the fanciest. Once they are supplied those weapons at huge cost to the taxpayer public, they come up with another wish-list and say that technology has progressed since then and now they need newer weapons or else they would not be able to protect the nation. And thus, the endless saga of purchase and more purchase continues, while the ignorant and ill-informed public continues to groan under the tax burden and bear it stoically in the name of national security.

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Specifications and Factory Tests Are No Guarantee of Actual Performance

Specifications, technological sophistication or manufacturer’s claims are no guarantee how a weapon would perform in actual combat. Everything looks good on paper and captivating on Power Point presentations. Simulated videos are spell-binding. The bubble, however, busts in actual use under field conditions.

Pic: US DoD

Testing by manufacturers is done under controlled and often scripted conditions. In real life combat, weapon systems are subjected to extremes of both use and abuse. Some of them pass; some fail.

A nation must not stick to out-dated weapon systems or allow a ‘technological generational gap’ to creep in vis-a-vis the weapon systems of the enemy. However, it must select only those weapons which have stood the test of real combat. User opinion is critical. For weapon systems, that translates into the record of its performance in various combats.

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The only real test of a weapon system is actual combat. In testing at the factory you can never exactly replicate the myriad, unexpected situations that would present themselves in actual combat. Real life presents such complex permutation and combinations of various factors, which cannot be created in a controlled test environment. There are so many parts, so many variables, anything can go wrong.

The Latest is Not Always the Best

In 2008, Gennady Nikonov in Russia invented a new assault rifle called AN-94 (Avtomat Nikonova), supposedly to replace the venerable AK-74 (designed in 1974), the compact version of the legend AK-47, both firing a smaller 5.45x39mm cartridge than 7.62x39mm of the AK-47. It was an extremely complex piece that used a radically new technology called ‘blowback shifted pulse’, which could give it a very high rate of fire of 1800 round per minute in two-round bursts, supposedly claimed to penetrate body armour.

It was, in the first place, six times costlier than the AK-74. It was 1.2 pounds heavier than the AK-74 and the ergonomics was poorer. The pistol grip was uncomfortable and the magazine was offset, inclined from the vertical to the right. Most strangely, the folding stock interfered with trigger operation when it was folded. The complexity of the rifle made it difficult to maintain. This monument of high technology sank without a trace.

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In USA, the Colt M4 Carbine was introduced as a lighter, shorter-range version of the venerable M16 rifle. It differs from the M16A2 rifle only in having a shorter barrel and a telescoped, 4-position butt stock. The fact is that length and weight are immaterial. As long as you have to hold the rifle with two hands, a few inches here and there do not make much difference. The US Army has spent $600 million to buy more than a half a million carbines with additional contract for 120,000 more.

Armies all over the world have an incorrigible habit of sweeping failures under the carpet. The Washington Times disclosed that the M4 repeatedly overheated and jammed during a bloody July 13, 2008 battle in Wanat, Afghanistan. A force of about 200 Taliban attacked a US post held by 48 men of the 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment and nearly overran it with the Americans losing nine killed and 27 wounded.

Fact is the problems were detected in 2001 itself by the USSOCOM (Special Operations Command) and the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal. Yet, for reasons common to other armies, they went ahead with the M4. Alarmed by that, the SOCOM developed its own gun, the Special Operations Forces Assault Rifle (SCAR), and handed it out to Army Rangers, Green Berets and Navy SEALs.

However, the very costly SCAR too was not problem-free. The manufacturer FN Herstal gave it reciprocating charging handle, thinking it will help cooling. It was a terrible idea as the handle snagged with absolutely everything in combat, making the gun terrible. FN had to correct it after numerous complaints.

Rocketry is Another Eye-Opener

Pic: Linked in

The Space Shuttle program had been going on smoothly since 1981. Everything seemed picture perfect. Yet, in 1986, in the 25th flight, the Challenger blew up just 73 seconds into its flight. The problem was traced to the unusually cold winter morning that day which had stiffened the rubber O-rings, reducing their ability to seal the joints. Hot gases from the solid booster leaked and ignited the external propellant tank. Corrective measures were taken.

Yet, 17 years later, in 2003, the 88th flight after the Challenger, the Columbia disintegrated during its re-entry. What had happened was that during launch, a piece of the insulating foam (imagine, something as simple as foam!) had broken off from the external tank and struck the thermal protection system tiles on the Shuttle’s left wing creating a 4 inch wide and 3 inch deep dent on its TPS (Thermal Protection System). Upon re-entry at 23 times the speed of sound, that small damage allowed hot air to enter and begin melting the aluminium structure. Under the stress of great speed, it grew quickly and in just 12 minutes, the Shuttle eventually disintegrated into pieces in air.

Eventually, after 135 flights and whopping $192 billion expenditure, the Shuttle program was quietly ended in 2011.

Pic: SpaceX 

Of late, you must be aware of the string of failures suffered by the SpaceX Starship rockets, the latest being in March 2024, in spite of the great talent and unimaginable amount of money spent on them by the richest man on earth. They are still analysing what went wrong because such things cannot be tested in a manufacturing facility or predicted. In other words, on a factory test-bed, you cannot know what could possibly go wrong in real life.

Test Weapons a Lot but still be Cautious in Claiming Success

Precisely for this reason, weapon systems like missiles are considered ‘operational’ only after a very large number of tests. You must be aware that after the Russians successfully deployed their hypersonic glide vehicle missiles Avangard and Kinzhal, and the Chinese made their DF-ZF, the Americans became pretty nervous about it. They have been trying desperately to make their own LRHW (Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon) for the US army and the HACM (Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile) for the air force based on a CHGB (Common Hypersonic Glide Body).

Pic: Russia’s Defense Ministry press service/TASS

In June 2019, Mike White, the Pentagon’s principal director for hypersonics research, development, test and evaluation, said the Defense Department planned to complete 40 hypersonic weapons tests by the end of 2023. So far, US military officials have publicly announced 14 test attempts on the operational prototypes since White’s prediction, with eight described as successes, one as a partial success and five as failures. Further, White told Aviation Week that there had been many more tests but for operational security reasons, they could not disclose the number of hypersonic flight tests and dates and purpose of each. That’s fine but confirms that success still eludes them by a long mile.  

Compare their realistic approach with the ridiculous exuberance of other nations where and the hyper-nationalistic media explodes in jubilation following a test flight. It is only the dumber media of a dumb nation that declares its missiles operational after the very first test firing itself.

Do Not Get Carried Away By Marketing Strategies of Manufacturers

Pic: Military.com 

Weapons systems on sale differ more in their marketing strategies than in their combat effectiveness. I will explain with an example. There is no qualitative improvement between an automatic rifle that weighs 4 kg and fires at a cyclic rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute and one that weighs 3.6 kg and fires at a cyclic rate of 700 rounds per minute—the human target in front of both will never know the difference. It does not really make any difference whether you are pouring out 30 rounds in 3 seconds (at the rate of 600 rounds per minute) or 2.6 seconds (at the rate of 700 rounds per minute); the human targets in front of you will not be able to tell the difference. You cannot say that the target can take evasive action if the rate of fire is 600 rounds per minute and cannot take such evasive action if the rate of fire is higher; human reflexes are, in any case, far slower. And for the duffers’ kind information, when you take into account the fact that anyone of the bullets could be fatal, the difference becomes even more insignificant.

When intellectually bankrupt nations want to purchase weapons, their biggest problem is defining in quantitative terms as to what exactly they want, that is, framing the specifications for floating global tenders. Now that demands brains and technical knowledge, both of which are in short supply. What happens is that smart vendors mesmerize them with Power Point presentations replete with photos or videos of impressive-looking white soldiers and some glib sales talk. A white soldier using a gizmo is the ultimate proof of its being most useful and thereafter they do not require any other information. In the end, they merely copy the specifications of the company that has impressed them.

Respect Combat Record to Get Maximum ‘Bang for the Buck’

Pic: Military.com 

The hype surrounding fancy weapons is nothing but unethical marketing by the companies. Those who are lured by it are guilty of an unscientific approach at best and downright stupidity at worst. The public sees military technology usually in its most sensationalized form; in big Hollywood movies, video games, or flashy commercials paid for by the defence industry itself. Through this unrealistic lens, one bullet guarantees one kill and one missile guarantees a thousand kills. However, in reality, that is just not true. Beware; the taxpayers’ hard-earned money might well be going down the drain.

The 2009 Fox History Channel scientific documentary ‘Deadliest Warrior’ made a knight, the flower of French chivalry, face a low-life pirate like Captain Jack Sparrow in a computer-simulated combat of as many as 1000 engagements to reduce the contribution of chance facto. Contrary to what laymen would expect, the pirate emerged the winner because his weapons, though not fancy, were combat-proven!

If a nation wants maximum ‘bang for the buck’, it must go for combat-proven weapons and not sales pitch. We will learn more about some of the great combat-proven weapon systems of the world in the next article.

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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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