2015/08/11

Dinosaurs

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This was the last stand of heavy artillery on land - a most powerful yet also most obsolete heavy artillery. The superiority of rockets and aircraft as delivery platforms for warheads had become obvious, and heavy artillery had been obsolete and cost-ineffective by the 1930's already. Even long-range artillery such as 17 cm field cannons were obsolete during WW2 despite their niche (persistent long-range harassment fires).

We haven't seen much high-end peer-on-peer hot conflict for decades (fantastic!), so it's interesting to ask what dinosaurs are loitering in service these days, wasting taxpayer money as did heavy artillery in the 1930's.

I have a few candidates:

Amphibious warfare ships

Amphibious warfare used to be satisfactorily with improvised means forever, until War Plan Orange envisioned assaults on tiny islands with defended beaches and the USMC grasped the opportunity. The Second World War's Pacific campaign ingrained amphibious warfare as important in people's memories, but ever since it's been an afterthought. The landing at Inchon may be brought forward as a counterpoint, but then I ask "Which one?", for there was a precedent with improvised means in 1904, when Japanese forces landed there during the Russo-Japanese War already. They did not need any dedicated amphibious warfare ships.
The large amphibious forces have almost negligible utility in war and peace and may be obsolete not because of technology, but because of strategic circumstances. They may have been an exception to the rule misunderstood as a new rule only because of institutional self-interest and PR proficiency.

SSBN

Huge nuclear-powered submarines for the sole purpose of carrying rockets with thousands of kilometres range and nuclear warheads are incredibly cost-ineffective compared to specialized lorries, rail wagons and (quasi-)inland sea* submarines as platforms. China has no credible SSBN force, yet everybody considers its nuclear deterrent with only a few hundred warheads a scary-enough deterrent.

ASW frigates and destroyers

Multistatic very low frequency sonars can work just fine with a few expendable boats and a civilian ships with a few mission equipment containers for signals processing. The all-in-one package hunter-killer ASW ship is very expensive and probably (despite all the efforts) not survivable or effective enough to justify such an expensive approach to anti-submarine efforts.

Aircraft carriers

They are a prime and proven platform for bullying distant far-away developing countries, but aircraft carriers provide little actual utility despite huge budgets. Air defence for transoceanic convoys is probably the only niche for them once you factor in aerial refuelling and improvised airbases, drop any WW2 Pacific War fixation and drop the urge to bully small and tiny powers as well. Their prime in the Mediterranean Sea 1941-1942 rested heavily on the short range of most warplanes of the period, lack of aerial refuelling and on an (Allied) shortage of land bases until late 1942. Their role in the Pacific 1941-1945 was about the same plus the quite unique occurrence that otherwise meaningless tiny islands far from valuable land masses gained great strategic importance. Even the bullying was in most cases done with a combination of land-based and carrier-borne air power, proving that the land-based air power was in range as well and likely could have done the job on its own.
There's probably a good case for a few aircraft carriers of a cost-effective design, but likely none such for the actually existing aircraft carrier fleets with their expensive high-end escorts.

Fast Attack Craft

It's inconceivable to me why these still exist. They didn't make much sense since about 1943. They were not fully ineffective afterwards, but hardly cost-effective compared to alternatives.

Minesweeping/Minebreaking ships and boats

Unlike minehunting, minesweeping and minebreaking seek to destroy naval mines by triggering them when there's no vulnerable target without detecting them beforehand. This may still make sense for clearing canals and rivers, but the rise of naval mines with a 'smart' acoustic fuze (usually combined with a differing fuze type) allowed the opposing force to 'teach' the naval mine to detonate only when it detects the distinct sound of specific ships or ship types. The minesweeper or minebreaker would have a hard time guessing which ship to emulate, and built-in counters have been used to prevent naval mines from detonating on first positive contact ever since WW2. Minesweeping and Minebreaking could thus not be reliable means for clearing a port access except for a specific warship. Minehunting with imaging sonar and other sensors isn't perfect, but with today's navigational precision it likely stands a better chance when tasked to clear a thin lane for maritime traffic.

IR-guided  ManPADS
Introduced during the height of the Cold War and famous since the Afghanistan War, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles with infrared seeker have been a suspiciously tempting concept. The bazooka and Panzerfaust gave the infantry a proper defence against tanks, finally ManPADS gave them a proper defence against aircraft!
The combat performance was actually poor against combat aircraft, though. The greatest effect was to push aircraft to a higher attack altitude, which doesn't hurt their detection, identification and attack capabilities much any more. The Stinger's famed success over Afghanistan is partially hyped-up; it shot down very few Su-25s.
Modern infra-red countermeasures (technical and tactical) appear to be very effective, so the whole concept may have become a 99% dud. This does not apply to laser beamrider ManPADS.

Anti-tank guided missiles with shaped charge
Classic ATGMs are still very effective against other than high end tanks, but there are substitutes in such roles (recoilless guns may have a revival due to new propellants, for example). Their lethality against high end tanks has been questionable since the 1980's at the latest. Even the advanced ones with a true seeker (Javelin, Spike/EuroSpike) are of questionable value because they are even less cost-effective for most targets and their seeker too easily fooled by modern countermeasures (break of lock by multispectral smoke, for example).

Indirect fire mortars with dumb fin-stabilized ammunition

The susceptbility of mortar bombs to counter-mortar radars (detection of origin by extrapolation of an observed trajectory) puts a huge quesiton mark behind the organic indirect (mortar) firepower of battalions. It's no doubt effective under good circumstances, but a sophisticated opponent could likely suppress them. Course-correcting munitions which deceive about the origin and shoot&scoot-capable self-propelled mortars mitigate the problem (as does some electronic warfare against the counter-mortar radars), but this eliminates the classic strength of mortars; simplicity and low cost. A mortar-carrying truck could just as well carry a 105 mm howitzer, and course-correcting munitions could just as well be fired from a soft recoil howitzer.

Sniper rifles
Sniper rifles had a comeback since the 1990's in the West, initially for counter-sniping in Bosnia. There are two reasons why this object of fanboi attention may be obsolete.
The first reason is that the affordability of magnifying scopes on all assault rifles as well as machineguns gives regular riflemen almost designated marksman-like technical means to counter snipers themselves. The second reason is that most of the firepower of the sniper in a conventional war (not necessarily in a war of occupation) is embodied in his radio. A call for mortar fires or more is much more lethal than a single aimed shot of any sniper rifle. A third reason are the acoustic sniper detection tools that make snipers more vulnerable to counterfires, akin to counter-mortar radars and mortars.

S O

*: Great Lakes, Adriatic Sea, Irish Sea, Japanese Inland Sea
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