A look back at general 20th century weapons development failures

Developers of military forces have many choices to make, amongst them the trade-off between specialization and versatility advantages (the more specialized product typically being better at its speciality, but otherwise inferior).

Development well done - organization, doctrine, war stocks, machines and weapons - usually delivers more for the same expenses than usual, so it's of substantial national interest at the very least in great powers.

The specialization vs. versatility issue could be approached by a look at modern-times warfare (20th and 21st centuries). So let's have that.

Some major army weapon system patterns which were introduced since about 1900, but not first developed and introduced during world wars:

Quick fire field howitzers
Actual employment in WWI was similar, but still noticeably different to pre-war doctrine (almost exclusively indirect fire, shields proved unimportant till the rise of tanks, tanks required greater traverse than available with box tail without platform, use with much greater than anticipated ammunition quantities, use of gas shells, primarily use against field fortifications).
Actual employment during WW2 differed as well; greater wartime preference for tractor vehicles over horses, greater wartime need for anti-tank capability than expected, greater interest in upper angle group (45°-70° elevation) than pre-war doctrine, no gas shells used, much more wartime emphasis on quick responses against moving targets. 
Demands on field howitzer ranges grew during both world wars, and most improvements during WWI were achieved with better shell shapes around 1916. Also, wartime use showed the extreme costs of metal cases for propellants, and Germany missed the industrial base and know-how in self-obturating breeches (which Britain had).
WW2 experiences showed the great utility (reliable fire support in face of much counter-battery fire) of self-propelled guns.

Quick fire field cannons
First QF gun, soon surpassed
by QF howitzers (c) PHGCOM
Actual employment in WWI was a major disappointment because shrapnel shells proved to be inferior in practice to high explosive shells and direct fire positions were too vulnerable for general employment. Too heavy for offensive direct fire support (mountain guns and cut-down cannons were used as infantry guns instead), but inferior to howitzers against dug-in targets. Primarily useful for suppressive fires, fires on exposed targets and light obstacles (barbed wire). Proved to be valuable in defensive direct fire against tanks, but few designs meant for indirect fire were fully adequate against fast-moving armoured vehicles (sights, traverse, silhouette height).
Some armies were still widely equipped with oldish light field cannons (France, Poland, also Soviet Union) instead of more effective howitzers, and save for the Soviet Union hardly any nation produced light field cannons with a fine dual capability (+ anti-tank).

Heavy machine guns*
The weapons generally proved to be successful, including early additional value against aircraft. The carriages on the other hand earned mixed reviews; early ones were too large (artillery-like) while later ones were heavy, expensive and mostly unsatisfactory for mobile actions (hence the light machineguns).

The Madsen - first LMG  (c) Manxruler
Light machine guns**
Generally proved to be successful, albeit even large magazine capacities were surpassed by disintegrating belt feeds since the 1930s - which didn't keep some bureaucracies from falling back to "automatic rifle" light machineguns even in the 21st century.

Anti-tank guns
Developed during the Inter-War years and largely patterned after the late 20's Rheinmetall 3.7 cm design, the anti-tank guns proved to be largely unsatisfactory. The scarcity of tungsten and the late mastering of shaped charges for the purpose left only a gun growth to at least 1,200 kg weight and 7.5 cm as options, and this was tactically unwieldy. Self-propelled and man-portable means of anti-tank defence proved to be more successful at the jobs of killing tanks and keeping them away (respectively). Self-propelled anti-tank-capable guns were actually devised and in service prior to both world wars, but mostly with a different focus (anti-air) and not really integrated into anti-tank concepts.

Anti-tank guided missiles
Initially developed during late WW2, still mostly impractical during the 50's and finally practical during the 1960's. They had their successes, but tank forces quickly adapted and diminished the AT utility of ATGMs greatly. ATGMs were mostly used as high explosive offensive fire support munitions against infantry or soft vehicles, with much less missiles fired at tanks.

Armoured cars with direct fire weapons
Very successful during mobile warfare in well-developed Western Europe, but useless during trench warfare and of much-diminished utility on the less dense and unpaved road networks of Eastern Europe (Poland, Soviet Union).

Tracked armoured vehicles of the Inter-War breeds
Infantry-support tanks with turrets were mostly disappointing because of inadequate armament (no good gun with high explosive shells). Infantry support tanks with casemate stub guns were highly successful, but soon pressed into self-propelled anti-tank weapons systems with higher performance cannons. "Cavalry" type tanks (German Mark III and IV, British "cruiser" tanks, Soviet T-34) were successful if properly balanced (mobility / firepower against soft and hard targets / protection against shells). The need for shell-proofing and hardened armour plate penetration was greatly underestimated during the 1930's. Guns in the 3.7-4.7 cm range were replaced by guns in the 7.5-12.2 cm range during WW2, depth of front armour plates grew from about 15-60 mm to 50-200 mm (medium and heavy tanks only).

Light anti-air guns
Pre-WW2 anti-air weapons had 12.7 mm to 40 mm calibre and this didn't really change (50mm, 55mm and 6 pdr gun production was negligible), even though it became obvious that 30 mm was the calibre to use for the lightest mounts (often controlled with the torso instead of with hand wheels) because of its combination of acceptable range and satisfactory explosive content. 40 mm is still used as anti-air calibre, but opinion in WW2 gravitated towards medium calibres 50-57 mm in order to close the gap of effectiveness at about 3-4.5 km altitude.
5 cm Flak 41; one of the early attempts to reach
higher than 37-40 mm guns with full auto fire
Explosive content of HE shells calibres 20-40 mm was greatly increased during WW2. Complicated sights with tiny clockwork-like computers proved to be utterly wasteful; simple ring rear sights coupled with observed tracer fire was more practical.
The anti-tank capability of light anti-air weapons diminished quickly as its calibres became unable to penetrate common armour plates.

Heavy anti-air guns
The few pre-WWI examples were as far as I know usually on self-propelled carriage or on warships and without exception aimed at tethered balloons (land) and dirigibles (land and ships). Army wartime use emphasised mostly stationary guns, albeit many guns were still mounted on two-axle carriages (the typical 75 and 88 mm calibres allowed firing from such trailers). Some 75 mm field cannons were used on more or less improvised increased elevation mounts.
Wartime use was mostly aimed at fixed wing aircraft, and very much unsatisfactory. The fire control problem (shrapnel or high explosive shells with mechanical time fuzes) was entirely unsolved.
Much was done about this during the Inter-War Years, but WW2 again revealed a great inadequacy of heavy anti-air guns. Fire control was inadequate below about 4.5 km altitude (angular movement of targets and change of distance too quick) and above 7-9 km (due to external ballistics, but no problem for armies).
New fuzes (combined point detonation super quick and time fuze, radio proximity fuze) greatly increased lethality, but any gun size growth beyond the classic Inter-War Years 8.8 and 9 cm guns was futile for land and air forces (navies made use of bigger guns for anti-ship fires). These calibres proved to be valuable in anti-tank roles on very open terrain (especially Eastern plains, North African desert) thanks to their power and all-round traverse - but only if the guns were suitable for quick redeployment.
Heavy anti-air guns were often employed as field artillery at the fronts, with counter-battery suppressing fires being a sensible mission. 

Surface-to-air missiles
Originally devised during late WW2, largely inadequate during the 50's and finally practical during the 60's (very analogue to ATGMs). They proved to finally deliver the range and much later also the portability required for battlefield air defences, but most guidance methods also proved to be susceptible to countermeasures (radar, infrared) if not outright dangerous (radar). Only short-range laser beam rider (very) short range missiles appear to be reliable nowadays (if weather isn't too bad), and they're also the ones with the greatest versatility (the guidance method is also suitable for ground combat).

It appears to me that peace-time weapon developments often had at least one of six major defects:
(1) Slow growth spiral in peacetime, followed by a very quick one during wartime. Many pre-war guns were rendered obsolete quickly. Inadequate and given-up sizes were even revived sometimes.
(2) Specialisation and conception for one or few purposes, but inadequately prepared or cost-inefficient for other important purposes.
(3) Utter failure to prepare for wartime needs prior to war: No infantry AT weapons, no light machineguns in squads, no self-propelled AT systems, no infantry guns or mortars prior to WWI (despite mainstream regimental gun forerunners from the 16th to the 19th century).
(4) Impractical designs; too flimsy or too demanding on stressed crews (ordnance weights, durability, AAA fire control).
(5) Inadequate sophistication of ammunition (poor external ballistics of field artillery shells, low explosive content of anti-air shells, primitive armour piercing shells AP -> APC -> APCBC -> APCR -> APDS, heavy AAA fuzes).
(6) Excessive dependence on raw materials with inadequate wartime supply (copper in driving bands and cases, tungsten for AP projectiles faster than 950 m/s).

The Cold War was like a World War on slow motion. Years of peacetime training and some small wars yielded similar feedback did as weeks or months of campaigning during a World War.
It is both interesting and disappointing to see the very same mistakes made during the Cold War as made during the Inter-War years.***


*: Excluding the 12.7-15 mm calibre groups.
**: The first light machinegun was the Madsen, and this was very much pre-WWI. The concept didn't take off until about 1915, though.
***: Examples:
Western tank guns lagged behind Soviet tank protection (with some armies insisting on the old 105 mm gun at a time when even the brand-new 120 mm smoothbore was struggling).
Flimsy and impractical systems were introduced.
Much of the field artillery became very specialised (howitzers and some SPGs with poor traverse, for example). Growth in artillery range was slow (12.8 cm field cannon of 1945: about 25 km, standard 155 mm field howitzer by 1989: About 25 km with unassisted shell, about 30 km with rocket assisted shell).
Light anti-air guns were too small-calibre (20-30 mm, often as a result of perceived fiscal pressure; the ZSU-23-4 would have been a ZSU-37-2 from the start save for the costs issue!).
Most anti-tank guided missiles were extremely specialised for main battle tank frontal armour penetration until the Russians developed their love for thermobaric warheads. Or look at how long it took to introduce overflight top attack ATGMs; the relevant idea was already developed during WW2!
Infantry gun or assault gun fire support with HE was missing among many infantry formations ever since recoilless guns fell mostly out of favour; only man-portable anti-tank weapons were available for this niche till the 90's.

1 comment:

  1. From my own experience of developing machinery, the most important things about developing tools:

    1) Communication between end user, designer and producer is difficult, even when people are speaking the same language and are psychologically close to each other.

    2) "Usability". Very few people are able to do a theoretical analysis of how much a tool is worth in a concrete practical setting.

    You need to have people testing different tools, at least in field exercises. (Sometimes realistic games are enough)