Fact check: Military hardware novelty

I refer sometimes to military history, and how old some seemingly modern technologies (or their roots) are in fact. That helps to vaccinate against the belief in wonder weapons.

Let's look back for almost 35 years.
Something that old can't be new - obviously.

Jane's Weapon Systems 1976, Seventh year of issue, edited by Ronald T Pretty.
A big, big reference book in the typical Jane's Information Group style. Similar books of other series (Weapon Systems was split up into several series in the 80's) cost almost a thousand dollars - for bi-annual books.

Let's begin with some military equipment mentioned in the 1976 book:

AIM-95 "Agile" Air-to-Air missile

"thrust-vector controlled", "with a greater seeker tracking angle than current weapons" - the hallmarks of modern Western short range air-to-air missiles since the West became aware that the Russian R-73 missile (used by Eastern German MiG-29) had these extremely valuable traits.
The program was canceled because it was parallel to another program - in hope to complete a joint program. This didn't happen, it took more than two decades till the USAF and USN finally had the AIM-9X with these two revolutionary technologies.
AIM-9X new? Yes. Its concept is old, very old, though.

Shorts Skyspy surveillance drone

Doesn't it look modern? Colorize the photo and you could use it in a modern 'wonder UAV' brochure.
Jane's even mentioned "faint radar echo", "very low noise levels", "weak IR signature" and "very small visual silhouette" - here we have it: It's a "stealth" drone!

"Composite picture of Ryan drones for target, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, Elint and Sigint, and other missions"

Drones were feasible since early 20th century, and in intense use since the early Cold War. Their breakthrough occurred in Israel, which has usually fair weather - and the later breakthrough to prominence came due to zero-loss-tolerance and ancient air defences faced after the 1991 war. Satellite communications and improved/miniaturized avionics are only the icing of the cake.
UAVs - old news. The picture shows Ryan drones of the 70's.

Ryan model 234 (BGM-34A/B) Ground Attack Drones

Predators using Hellfire missiles were sold to the public as revolutionary in the past few years. Well, pretty much the same stuff was feasible and done in the early 70's - and even published. Maverick, Shrike, HOBO, laser guided bombs - many munitions were tested, and with success.
Drones with guided missiles - new? Not really. It's just not a good enough idea to make a breakthrough until recently.

120mm rifled mortar MO-120-RT-61

This is one of the heaviest, more complex and most effective mortars of the Western world. A French product, recently bought by the USMC - decades after its appearance, and scoring well with its accuracy with spin-stabilized shells.
Other modern mortars still don't exceed the performance of this one, the development focuses on better munitions and mountings. The U.S. public relations people sold it as great new technology to the public, of course. They don't buy weapons whose core is 30+ years old, of course. ;-)

ZB 298 Short-range ground surveillance radar

Again, colorize this photo and you could use it in a brochure for a modern battlefield surveillance radar. It was a X-band pulsed doppler radar with 10 km range. It was able to tell the difference between moving vehicles, persons and trees. The first prototype was completed in 1966. Info output was acoustic instead of (as today) visual, though.

HWR-2 Radar Warning Receiver

OK, I mentioned battlefield radars - now the counterpart. Imagine one of those typical "soldier of the future" graphics, with a guy (or puppet) laden with lots of gadgets. Would you consider a radar warning receiver (RWR, standard component of military aircraft and ships) as to be out of place?
I wouldn't. But yet, the technology (originally used in the early 1940's) had reached feasibility (and service) in the infantry in the early 70's (at the latest). It's one of the less visible army tools, you won't learn as easily about it as about assault rifles, for example. These antennas (modern examples are not very different) are not sexy enough.

APS-94D Sideways Looking Radar

This was a sideways-looking airborne radar (SLAR), with both mapping (like modern synthetic aperture radar - SAR - modes) and ground-moving target indication (GMTI).
This has been a hot, state-of-the-art technology since the late 1980's when the French Orchidée and the U.S. American J-STARS system (which got more press than the French one, of course) pushed it more into public aviation awareness.

PAP-104 Mine Disposal Weapon

A re-usable remote-controlled underwater vehicle (drone), with TV camera and a bomb to drop nearby a previously detected mine. Such drones are still being used for mine-hunting, all you would need to do to use this photo in a modern brochure is again to colorize it. I've seen a German journal boasting about German top modern mine-hunting equipment like this a few months ago - but again, modern equipment is merely a refined version of 30+ years old hardware.

Ferranti Laser Target Marker and Ranger

Portable, quite compact, 10 km range, target designation and range-finding in one package - I wonder what they've done with this technology all the time if they were already at such a performance in the mid-70's, a few years after invention of laser guidance. They surely didn't improve it by much.

It's useful to look at military history - including military technology history.
Imagine the journalists would look at (or even remember) such old stuff, and check whether 'new' hardware is really all that new as advertised. The military-industrial-political complex might have a hard time convincing us to spend so much fortune for their wonder weapons!


2009-02-19 edit:
Check this out; a Popular Mechanics article of April 1960!
Video spy drones, expendable radio jammers, SLAR, battlefield surveillance radar...


  1. How about the "Horten Ho IX" or even the "Me 262" -designers aside, they still look modern even by today's standards (I would go in so far as saying that the Horten still looks futuristic).

    1. The Me 262 doesn't look modern. Nobody mounted engines that way since the 70's. Its swept wing was merely a correction of a centre of gravity problem, moving lift to the aft. Originally they wanted straight wings. Its cockpit has much more struts than modern all-round view cockpits.

      And just about everybody knows that flying wings are an old thing, and actually still uncommon, thus not really "modern".

  2. I used to fix the ZB298, it actually had both visual and audio outputs, the visual was red dashes related to the size and distance of the target and the audio was some tweak of a Doppler shift that gave you a distinctly different tone for different target types so you could distinguish between foot traffic, vehicles and tanks. It was 2-man-portable although heavy - I got one to refurbish in '83 that had sat for some months in the bottom of San Carlos Bay in the Falklands, I wouldn't be surprised if the users dumped it rather than carry it all the way to Stanley :-Q Interestingly as the topic is about how advanced things were (and some of the good stuff was French) I had a captured Argentinian equivalent to play with and get working, their drill book called it a RASIT but it was actually a bit of French called something like a a Rappierperre (the name is probably mis-spelt but its been 33yrs since I saw it) which was a really nice piece of kit, it had a persistent display that let you track a target's path, plus an IFF capability so you could differentiate between friend and foe!