Tuesday, 20 November 2012


 It seems as if every new weapons system brings with it the promise of perfection. Iron Dome, the Israeli missile defence system, is claimed to have a better then eighty percent success ratio. Given multiple systems and multiple launches various mathematical models can convince one that the interception of incoming rockets is a near certainty.

Weapons systems are typically over sold. Manufactures will always try to cast their products in the best possible light. The military will try to convince the holders of the public purse that a new system will provide complete security. It is never true. No new technology is perfect. No new weapons system is invincible.

In fact new weapons systems, especially new systems unused in combat, are never going to be as reliable as older systems that are well understood and better supported. It is said that British nuclear powered submarines used torpedoes whose design dated from WWII rather then more modern types to sink an Argentine cruiser during the Falklands conflict. They did this because they new the older torpedo would work; they could not be so sure of newer models under combat conditions.

Even the best weapons in the world, especially if improperly used and supported, can be defeated. It is reported that Eurofighter Typhoons have defeated F-22 Raptors in some aspects of air-to-air combat. This should not come as a surprise. Sopwith Camels could defeat F-22’s in air-to-air combat if the Camels used the right tactics and the F-22’s used the wrong tactics.

An over reliance on high technology can be at least as dangerous as falling behind in the race for the best, newest, technology. For example, most western military fighters, of whatever kind, rely on just one kind of missile for long range aerial warfare. The AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) has recently been found to be unreliable under certain circumstances. There have been no deliveries of the missile for several years as no fix for the problem has been discovered. This means that any fighter, no matter how technically advanced, which relies on AMRAAM for beyond visual range intercepts is compromised. 

The military and the political occupy different worlds. In a democracy the political world wants to be able to promise simple, effective, solutions to the voters. The military may understand that nothing in their world is simple or even completely effective. Conveying this attitude to politicians may be problematical at best.  The politicians want to be able to tell the tax paying voters that their money is being spent on something that is guaranteed. The military view is that a weapons system must be good enough to ensure that the mission can be completed. The politicians want zero casualties; the military will settle for casualties low enough that the next mission can be completed.

At some point, because of over complexity or human error, or because nothing is perfect, all weapons systems will fail. Nothing is guaranteed. The failure will seem that much more, and the damage may be greater, if any one in government, the military, or the public has been under the delusion that whatever shiny new toy they have acquired could not fail.

One can only hope that the current hostilities in and around Gaza (again it’s telling that even trying to describe the area of conflict can be difficult) will end soon without a system failure leading to tragedy and even greater political turmoil. But be assured that if the fighting should go on long enough, it will happen.