The missing information on equipment

You can usually read about physical properties or equipment, about its intended mode of operation, about what it can do / 'achieve'.

What you don't get so easily is the rather complex information about the difference between theory (PR claims of program managers and corporations) and practice.

Let's look at the Vulcan CIWS weapon system, for example. In theory, it's meant to put an almost impenetrable wall of projectiles in front of missiles that attempt to hit a CIWS-equipped ship.
IIRC, ships with such a system were attacked three times by a missile:

(1) Once another ship's missile intercepted the threat in time. The Vulcan Phalanx CIWS preferred to shoot at some chaff launched to deceive the missile on this incident.
(2) Another time, Vulcan did nothing.
(3) Yet another time, Vulcan did nothing (was shut off, probably because of false alarm problems).
On its kill list is one "victory", though; Vulcan Phalanx CIWS DID shoot down an aircraft once - a friendly one.

Practice versus reality.
The difference is more remarkable than the spec sheet.

Another example; vehicle off-road mobility.
The global favourite method of testing military vehicle off-road mobility appears to be to drive it on a standardised obstacle course and then to test a handful of such vehicles in less standardised exercises.
This produces data sheets about maximum angles et cetera and videos about how the vehicle moves through snow and mud. It does not produce insights about the practical off-road mobility (at least not directly).
A vehicle that negotiates a ditch 99 out of 100 times easily and runs into troubles only once - is that a good off-road vehicle? Sounds like it, right?
I disagree (and I think I did so before on the blog, just don't remember where). A battalion battle group may have about 100 vehicles. What do you believe the battalion commander will do if there's a one per cent chance times 100 events that a vehicle will get stuck in a single ditch? Will he drive cross-terrain six ditches in two kilometres?
Hardly; he'd expect to leave behind up to ten vehicles with some bad luck. Each of them would be at grave risk, in some situations stuck vehicles would even need to be destroyed in order to avoid capture. Unacceptable.

In the end, lots of vehicles that negotiate obstacles well in training and during tests end up being too off-road-immobile in practice.

Another example (and I definitively blogged about this once; no - twice!) are anti-radar missiles (ARMs). In theory, these missiles guide themselves onto hostile radars and blast them to pieces (or at least do so with the antenna).

In practice, this usually only works against incompetent hostiles. Competent hostiles are merely forced to adapt in order to let the missile miss, and the expensive expenditure of ARMs only buys a very temporary, very small advantage - if any.

- - - - -

This difference between theory (advertisement) and reality needs to be considered whenever one attempts to get a grasp on some equipment's utility. A lot of poor strategy, poor tactics and budget waste can be traced to poor ideas about the practical utility of equipment versus their theoretical utility.

The supposed increase in anti-tank helicopter effectiveness is another shameful example. The first ones were supposedly the equivalent of an entire company of tanks, later marks were vastly improved, a new model was even better, its upgrade was yet another huge improvement - by now a single attack helicopter should be able to wipe out a tank battalion if their advertised utility (gain) was correct!
Attack helicopters are very expensive now - you need to understand their practical utility in order to make a sensible resource allocation between them and tanks, for example.

- - - - -

Finally another example, this one about radio communication, courtesy Stan:

We ran around in the heart of darkness with a SATCOM. Something similar to a large suitcase that weighed in at a brisk 35 keys

So, picture this: You're in relatively hostile territory and you stop in the middle of nowhere and start setting up the SATCOM. You've got this senseless looking antenna that you start aiming into the blue yonder based on compass readings. About 15 minutes has gone by and you finally get a decent signal and connect your "secure telephone" and attempt connection. Once connected you plug in this plastic cryptographic key and the whole enchilada goes dead.
The equipment in question was AN/URC-101, TSEC/KY-57 and this antenna. You wouldn't get the idea that satellite comm can be so difficult if you only read the military journals' articles about it and got briefed by program managers - not at all.

- - - - -

The gap between theory and practice appears to be the bigger the more technologically complicated the item is. A spoon rarely fails to live up to its promises (I love the super-practical Bundeswehr cutlery!).
This is one of the things that saves conservatives (the people who are not inclined to take risks with something new) from being totally useless in military organisations.

The understanding of the difference between theory and practice in regard to equipment should be made available to political decision-makers, force planners, military thinkers, non-veteran troops - everyone who needs to have an idea about the actual utility of hardware (the politicians need to allocate the funds; a very important task).



  1. Good post Sven, the problem though is finding the operational space, time and money to test these new systems.

    I agree though, we just don't spend enough time on proving concepts and equipment before huge production contracts are placed.

    Did you see the two posts I did on ladders and the Springer vehicle as classic examples of things that although relatively simple, seem to get through the acceptance testing unscathed and then go on to be costly failures

  2. Hey - I spent 2.5 years in the US Army's Test & Experimentation Command asking these same questions of a lot of equipment. We had trouble testing MILES upgrades, had inconclusive data about new gas masks, and couldn't ever really decide if the new sandbag-filling devices were any better than 2-guys-and-a-shovel. The stories we could tell...