In 1612 Miyamoto Musashi and Kojiro Sasaki fought a duel on the beach of Ganryu Island. Both were excellent swordsmen, well-matched. Kojiro was famous for his “swallow cut” style and his extra-length sword* “clothes hanger-pole” which gave him a bit of reach, which he had taken great advantage of in several duels.
Musashi realized that he needed to negate Kojiro’s range advantage, and, on the rowboat-ride out to the island, cut down a wooden oar into a bokken (“wooden sword”) that was a bit longer than Kojiro’s sword.** When he faced Kojiro, he ran straight in and crushed his skull from just outside of range.
At Tsushima Strait in February 1904 the Japanese Imperial Navy faced off against a comparable-sized Russian fleet. There were a lot
of imbalances going on at Tsushima Strait, but the one that told first and hardest was that the Japanese ships had an effective gunnery range of 8,000 meters while the Russian ships had an effective range of 6,000 meters. As the Russian fleet tried to get close enough to the Japanese fleet, the Japanese had plenty of time to manuever so as to “cross the T” on the approaching Russians and blast them while they closed the 2 kilometers distance.***
Understanding how to deploy ranged weapons so that you have an advantage is one of the most important strategic elements of warfare. I could have gone on with examples all day: Agincourt and Crecy, Sebastopol, 73 Easting, Spion Kop – if you can hit your opponent from a range that they can’t hit back from, you’ve got a free ticket to pound them at your leisure. If you can’t, then you’ve got a recipe for a meat-grinder: attritional warfare – both sides bleed and whoever makes the other side bleed the most, wins. Ranged warfare and maneuver warfare are inextricably entwined – if you maneuver inside your enemy’s range you are “a target” so your enemy’s range affects your ability to maneuver effectively. At Tsushima, the Russians could have maneuvered all day but the Japanese controlled the battlefield with their range; Admiral Rozhestvensky didn’t have the option of running because Togo could follow him and have him within his fleet’s fire envelope as long as he wanted to. Rozhestvensky’s only option was to charge in and give the Japanese the 2,000 meter turkey shoot (at which point, when the time came to try to run, it was too late)
The French at Agincourt had the same problem: you have to attack because otherwise the archers can advance until you’re in their range and engage you as long as they want. The alternative: you’re history.
Why is all of this relevant?
Changes in the effective engagement-range of weapons systems can result in profound changes in battlefield outcomes.
The US DoD is currently deploying a bunch of insanely expensive stuff that hasn’t got the hitting range of the weapons systems they are most likely to go up against in a major war. That may not matter (if US strategy is, basically, perfect) or it may result in shocking losses.
Historically, US weapons systems have had the advantage of range, with some glaring exceptions. For example, in WWII, the American Sherman tank couldn’t penetrate the armor of a Tiger at farther than 200m, whereas the Tiger could penetrate the Sherman’s armor at 600+meters. The result was an exchange ratio of about 7:1 – you could expect that if you had 8 Sherman tanks you would probably be able to kill 1 Tiger tank, but you’d generally wind up with 1 or 2 Sherman tanks left afterward. The Germans were shocked to discover that a T-34’s front armor was almost invulnerable, whereas the T-34’s gun could reliably penetrate a Tiger tank’s armor at 500 meters. And that, as they say, was that.
When you look at the DoD’s weapons system strategy, however, you may notice an outlier: the DoD is fond of expensive weapons systems that may be really really high tech but aren’t necessarily very good. Consider the successor for the M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzer. Its effective gun-range is 22km (30km with rocket assisted ammo) whereas the current Russian system‘s effective gun-range is 40-70km and the current Chinese is 80-100km. Consider the Gerald Ford Class – US’ new aircraft carrier. It’s fast – and stealthy. For an aircraft carrier. Bizzarely, the navy has managed to get it passed into law that there must be 11 aircraft carriers, always – a maneuver that makes budgetary sense, but with overpriced supercarriers absorbing most of the navy’s cash, you wind up with weird things like the Littoral Combat Ship (a light destroyer) being re-branded as a frigate in order to conceal the imbalance of the force in favor of a few expensive toys.
The defensive envelope of an aircraft carrier is a factor of the combat envelope of its air wing (this is bad news if your air wing is F-35s!), and the fire range of its close-in defense systems. The navy is continuing with its program of building aircraft carriers while the awareness among military strategists is that they are just big floating targets. There is a lot of self-deception going on in the navy, with the claim being that the US lacks a credible navy unless it has at least 11 supercarriers, so therefore we must assume it’s impossible that we’ll ever lose one. The premise is that they’re unsinkable, so you get weird scenarios like Millenium Challenge 2002 in which a massive JANFU**** simulated the loss of an aircraft carrier, a dozen other ships, and 20,000 personnel. The DoD’s response was to hit Ctrl-Z on the scenario and “refloat” the expensive toys so that the potemkin exercise continued according to its predetermined successful conclusion.
If you were listening, you would have heard a nearly silent gasp of horror when the Russians recently launched 26 cruise missiles from 4 ships in the Caspian sea to strike targets in Syria. The Russians packed a lot of messages into that event:
- The US DoD thought the Russian launch capacity was not that big. Oops. 26?!?! That’s enough to oversaturate close-in defenses, especially if ground-launched batteries can be brought into play.
- The launcher ships turned out to be light corvettes but they put out more missiles than a comparable suite of US Arleigh Burke class Aegis boats that would cost far more.
- The US DoD thought the effective range of the Russian missiles was about 600 kilometers, not 1,500 kilometers. “Oh dear.”
- The US DoD thought the Russian cruise missile’s accuracy was not good enough to hit a ship but instead it turned out to be pretty good.
- The US Command Authority (the President) discovered that the CIA had apparently been too busy doing regime changes here and there, to keep updating the strategic model about
Russian missile capabilities
Imagine how the French felt at Agincourt when they discovered that the range envelope of the English archers was bigger than they thought, the rate of fire was faster than they thought, and the archers were more accurate than they thought.
The message the Russian navy sent was: we have the range on you. One of the problems with being inside someone’s missile envelope is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a new stealthy supercarrier or an old supercarrier, you’re still lunchmeat waiting to be put on a bun. The newer generation of Russian cruise missiles is stealthy and Russia has been demonstrating them in Syria as well. The KH-101 has a range between 10,000 and 12,000km. That’s not a typo. So, there’s a huge strategic disconnect going on: the navy is building great big targets that cost a lot and take a long time to produce, while other countries are building things (also: things) specifically designed to be inexpensive yet extremely effective against those great big expensive targets. I imagine that the French knights at Agincourt felt pretty invulnerable in all that armor until the bodkins of harsh reality hit them.
Now is the time for the unavoidable discussion of the F-35. F-35’s combat range is: ~1,000 kilometers. The DoD’s strategy is that F-35 is going to suppress hostile missile batteries that overrange its bases, because of its magical stealth capability – which will not help at all if the ship it is on or the runway it hopes to take off from has just been inundated with cruise missiles. The F-35 isn’t fast enough or maneuverable enough to dogfight against the current state of the art Russian or Chinese fighters, it hasn’t got long enough legs to do deep strikes and its single-engine non-dissipated exhaust amounts to a massive infrared “kick me” sign, it doesn’t carry very much in the way of ordnance, and it’s got a pretty terrible on-station loiter time. Other than that it’s a hangar queen, expensive, and has an egregious 1 critical failure per 4hr flight time – worse than the F-22.
Remember, while it’s doing that “ground support” loitering, it’s going to be lighting up the landscape with that great big infrared target in its rear axis. Apparently nobody wants to talk about the fact that there are 5th generation MANPADs that target infrared, not to mention the venerable Stinger, which would end an F-35’s loitering history in seconds. The propagandists from Versailles on the Potomac insist it’ll be great – but signs point to no. Strategically, it’s a doorstop. Whoever strikes first will probably win – which is most likely going to mean that, in order to use its crappy gear, the US will become increasingly prone to aggressive offense. We still haven’t learned a thing from Pearl Harbor.
Here’s what’s going on: the DoD is touting the performance of the F-35, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Paladin, the supercarriers – as being hugely effective – against 1970s-era 3rd world nations’ gear. And, that much is true. When you read about something like the F-15’s amazing combat record (104 kills, no losses) you need to read between the lines to realize that it’s really devastating against Mig-23s and Mig-21s. When you read about the M1 Abrams and Bradleys slaughtering the Iraqi guards armored at 73 Easting, the surprise would be if the 1970s Russian surplus T-72s even had an idea what was killing them. The F-35 is going to probably do pretty well against insurgents in trenches shooting up at it with AK-47s. The supercarriers continue to do well, in an environment in which nobody dares shoot at them because if you sink one of the US’ floating Potemkin villages, you’re probably going to get attacked with the whole bucket of chum.
What’s weird about the situation is that the DoD is building gear that is oriented toward fighting a power like Russia or China, but which is inferior to the Russian/Chinese gear while it’s still on the drawing board. Meanwhile, the DoD’s tasking is to fight endless imperial wars against insurgents who, actually, are more susceptible (and equally helpless against) attack from 1970s gear like A-10 Warthogs. So they’re building gear that will categorically lose the big wars, while it is too flashy to help in the little wars. It’s so bad that the Air Force tried to proactively destroy A-10s in order to protect the F-35 program’s funding. Look forward to the air force talking itself out of a job and devolving into a small fleet of boondoggles and hangar queens that fly at air shows, and a large fleet of drones.
We continue to win wars because we have the most expensive military that money can buy, and because we’re picking on bush leaguers. When the strategic geniuses in Washington talk glibly about “pivoting” to China or something like that, they are mirroring the imperial hubris that brought us every other historical battle in which one side badly overestimated its capabilities against an enemy that had studied strategy and changed the way it plays the game.
- Alistair Home: “Hubris – the Tragedy of War in the 20th Century” This is a deeply depressing book if you have any empathy at all.
(* An Ōdachi – a two-handed sword primarily intended against cavalry, but occasionally in melee. Kojiro’s sword was supposedly about 90cm long. A typical katana of the period would have been about 60cm)
(** Supposedly, Musashi’s oar-sword was 110cm, giving him 20cm over Kojiro, who was used to having a 20-30cm advantage instead of a comparable disadvantage.)
(*** The Russians also had severely fouled hulls and couldn’t make good speed. So the Japanese not only had the range on them, they could keep it and pound the Russians from their choice of distance.)
(**** Joint Army-Navy FuckUp)