In the coming months, the USS Gerald Ford will embark on its first traditional deployment after completing its maiden voyage in Fall 2022. The $13-billion dollar warship is the most expensive and advanced sea vessel ever built and, like the F-35, the M1A1 Abrams, and eventually the B-21 in a list of U.S. weapons systems, it’s an example of an apex in modern warfare and technology.
Yet, nations that employ high-end weapons as a substitute for the principles of war do not fare well; from Normandy to the Falklands, apex systems are frequently rendered irrelevant when not employed as a component of mass, firepower, and maneuver. With this in mind, the Department of Defense should look to history to understand how exquisite systems can fail in war and commit to a strategy that ensures our apex weapons are sufficiently supported, prepared, and tied in with cheap and plentiful systems.
The lessons of the German Tiger tank are a great place to start. The Tiger was purpose developed for tank combat, wielding heavy armor and a powerful main gun, it was considered the pinnacle of tank technology in 1944. The Sherman tank, on the other hand, was developed quickly, possessed a smaller caliber main gun, lighter armor, and a less powerful engine. In every way, the Tiger outclassed the Sherman and should have provided distinct tactical advantage.
However, the Tigers were finicky and difficult to maintain. In order to bring their superior abilities to bear, Tigers were mechanically complex, practically hand built with a per-unit cost well beyond Shermans. Germany was only able to produce approximately 1,350 during the entire war. In contrast, the Sherman was relatively simple to maintain in the field and cheaper to make; America produced approximately 49,000 of them. Yet, studies of tank combat in France following the invasion of Normandy found that a Tiger was only worth between 1.45 to 5 Shermans (depending on the mix of variants). Whatever advantages the Tiger had, they were overcome by the mass, maneuverability, and firepower the Sherman offered when combined with allied supporting arms. The infantry surrounding it, the fuel supply sustaining it, and the air support covering it allowed the cheaper Sherman to help win the war.
A more recent case study is available in the 1980s when the Argentinian military purchased two of the best air-to-air platforms available at the time, the Mirage IIIE and the Israeli Dagger (a version of the Mirage V). When the country went to war with Great Britain in 1982, the slower, less maneuverable British Harrier, outnumbered and outgunned, succeeded in shooting down 7 Mirages and dozens of lesser Argentinian jets. Only four harriers were shot down during the Falkland Islands War, all of them from ground fire. In seeking the high-end fighter jet, the Argentinians had failed to adequately train their pilots in aerial combat or procure the systems needed to support air combat at sea. Neither version of the Argentinian Mirage was equipped for aerial refueling, forcing pilots to take direct routes to targets and preventing them from using their top-end speed. As a result, Argentina had a well-equipped yet ineffective fighting force for the war they started. Their air force of 122 aircraft was defeated by a force of 20 Harriers on two aircraft carriers.
In both instances, a nation misunderstood how their weapons tied into broader principles of warfare or, even worse, attempted to navigate around principles with technology. The Germans attempted to maximize firepower through a single complex tank instead of seeing its relationships to mass and maneuver on the battlefield. The Argentinians sought maneuverability in their high-end fighter jets but lacked the logistical support to fully realize the capability. In preparing for the next war, the U.S. must resist the urge to see any singular weapons system as the key to victory. There is value in a robust inventory of cheap, plentiful systems that can be massed quickly, anywhere on a battlefield, to deliver devastating firepower.
America now spends hundreds of billions of dollars on the world’s best-designed and most capable systems. Our adversaries, aware of their shortcomings, are investing in the cheap and plentiful. In At What Cost a Carrier, Jerry Hendrix calls attention to this problem highlighting that the Chinese can purchase 1,277 DF-212D anti-ship missiles for the cost of one Gerald Ford Carrier before a human or plane is placed on board. Similarly, for the cost of training one F-35 pilot, without an aircraft, the U.S. can buy 2.75 Predators at $4 million each, 27 Tomahawks at $407,000 each, or nearly one-hundred AGM-114 Hellfire missiles at $117,000 apiece. To be clear, none of those replace an F-35 with a well-trained pilot. They could, however, assist in protecting it and supporting it on the battlefield.
The Ford Class carrier and the F-35 are critical to U.S. primacy as the world’s lone superpower, and their value or numbers should not be reduced. Instead, the U.S. needs to recognize that neither platform provides true qualitative advantage alone. These few, exquisite weapons should be considered in the context of the principles of warfare they support. Surrounding them with systems that are expendable and replaceable in a hybrid model would better achieve mass and superior firepower anywhere on the battlefield.
History shows that a high-end weapon system, alone on the battlefield, can be outmatched and overtaken by lesser systems. French knights learned this painful lesson at Agincourt in 1415, the Germans in 1944, and the Argentinians in 1982. The American military is hopefully studying these conflicts, as our adversaries likely are. A successful military will adhere to the principles of warfare and demand the defense industry (and Congress) offer enough support to ensure our apex systems are not alone on the battlefield of tomorrow facing an adversary with cheap, plentiful capabilities.