The Weapons That Win World Wars

2023 February 22 Twitter See all posts

Asymmetric advantages disappear when the gloves come off.

The Keys to Winning High Intensity Conflicts

In a previous post, I covered what the US military is doing to counter China. Both countries have a relatively short-term view of hostilities, opting for complicated weapons and platforms that take years to build. But what happens if a war breaks out and both sides want to keep fighting? The munitions, ships, and planes required might be very different.

Maximizing Destruction Per Dollar

Several useful strategies emerge when fighting an existential war.

  1. Cheap Precision

    In total war, boutique weapons won't be able to destroy enough enemies even if they are tactically successful. It is also challenging to produce and transport the mind-boggling mass inaccurate weapons require. The sweet spot is accurate but cheap weapons. These can be classic smart weapons like GPS-gravity bombs but also include an Abrams tank that can reliably kill adversaries 3000 meters away with unguided shells.

  2. Avoid Unreliable Systems

    An enemy can grind unreliable weapons into the ground by forcing a high tempo. The twenty US B-2 Bombers could deliver a one-time nuclear strike but could not eliminate thousands of Chinese ships, bases, and troop concentrations because of their low sortie rate and limited numbers.

  3. Manage Survivability vs. Expendability Carefully

    There are many tradeoffs when designing weapons. The math tends to push design choices towards cheap, less survivable systems or pricier, long-lasting ones. Survivability can come from the ability to take damage (like having armor) or from deception (stealth, electronic interference, speed).

    The cheap system could lack the capability to score any kill against superior weapons or end up still being too expensive. The expensive one could be more vulnerable or less effective than hoped. What capabilities a country has and its strategic position matter when choosing.

    A classic comparison is the US Sherman tank and the Soviet T-34 in World War II. The Soviets saw that tanks on the Eastern front rarely lasted 24 hours in battle and took planned obsolescence to the extreme to make the T-34 cheap. The US designed the Sherman for reliability and repairability. Engineers carefully designed engines and suspensions for durability. The number of Shermans in Europe kept increasing because mechanics would have "knocked out" tanks back in battle within days.

  4. Focus on Mass Production

    An adversary can make a powerful weapon irrelevant by sheer numbers if it is challenging to produce. Historical examples include the Tiger Tank, Me-262, and sophisticated cruise missiles.

    The need for easy-to-manufacture designs is even more critical for expendable munitions. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have top ten economies, yet they are drawing down global munition stocks. Each side must carefully manage consumption and substitute away from bespoke weapons like Javelin missiles for more available systems. Imagine the top two economies duking it out.

    The enemy can often fight harder than you think and regenerate more forces than you hope. The conflict can rapidly devolve into a lower-tech slugfest with alarming casualty counts if you can't produce enough capable weapons.

  5. Have Appropriate Designs Ready

    The US won World War II by increasing the output of weapons already in production or well into development. It took too long to bring new designs into mass production. And it was much easier to expand the output of systems already in production than ramp up programs coming out of development. The several-year penalty for new designs could cost millions of lives or the war.

The US Army's Cold War Winning Blueprint

The US Army renewed its focus on Europe and countering the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. The challenge was immense because Warsaw Pact forces would outnumber US front-line units 10:1. After some high-profile failures, a new series of programs with narrower scopes gave the US the edge over the Soviets. The overarching themes were crew survivability, repairability/reliability, and using computing advances to fire simple munitions accurately.

  1. M1 Abrams Tank:

    Improved optics and computing allowed the M1 to fire inexpensive shells accurately for thousands of meters. New armor technology dramatically increased protection, especially against anti-tank-guided missiles. And maintenance was as simple as swapping a broken module - crews could change the turbine engine in a few hours. These tanks were almost impossible to permanently disable because field mechanics could get them back in the fight. The result is a tank that keeps its highly-trained crew alive, has nine lives itself, and has enough firepower to shred smaller Soviet tanks. Each tank could conceivably kill hundreds of vehicles over its life.

  2. Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle:

    The Bradley carries infantry into battle and uses it's 25 mm chain gun and anti-tank missiles to support them. It has many of the same design principles as the Abrams around survivability, maintenance, and weapon accuracy but carries less armor.

  3. New Mobile Artillery:

    US artillery needed to be more mobile than traditional towed guns to avoid counter-battery fire from much more numerous Soviet artillery. The M109 self-propelled gun and the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (a bigger HIMARS) were the solutions. Both systems could rapidly respond to intel from artillery radars, scouts, and electronic intelligence to target Soviet artillery, troop concentrations, and command posts, then move to a new location. Again, reliability and repairability were at the forefront. US guns had less range than Soviet systems, but that didn't matter in conflicts like Desert Storm. US artillery disintegrated the opposing artillery with counter barrages before they could hit anything.

  4. Efficient Artillery Shells and Rockets:

    Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) disperse cluster bomblets capable of penetrating 3" of armor over a wide area, compensating for the inherent inaccuracy of unguided artillery. They are ~10x more effective than traditional unitary high explosives for a slight cost premium. The new self-propelled guns and rocket systems would almost exclusively shoot this ammo to level the playing field. The First Gulf War put its brutal efficiency on display. The Army kept 10 million+ shells and rockets in inventory, equal to hundreds of millions of shells you see Ukraine and Russia firing today. The US still keeps a significant portion of this stock as an insurance policy because non-cluster alternatives have been challenging to develop.

The emphasis on crew and system survivability paired with inexpensive, accurate munitions made perfect sense for the US with its technology leadership, volunteer army, and faraway industrial base. They all worked to lower the cost per enemy killed. Even if the Russians got to fight in their perfect scenario of an artillery slugfest, the US Army could still defeat the fully-mobilized Soviet Union. US artillery and armor could cut down any combination of human waves and simple tank attacks the Soviets could manage.

Implications for Future Wars

The Challenges of Long Range Munitions

Long-range munitions are all the rage, but have issues with targeting, countermeasures, and cost.

Finding Moving Targets

Most precision-guided munitions need extremely accurate targeting information to be effective. That accuracy is challenging to achieve on a contested battlefield.

Radar and other active sensors have drawbacks. When a radar beams out energy, an enemy can detect it before the signal has the strength to track the enemy. In combat, most planes and ships will not use radar until after contact to conceal their position. And active sensors require a lot of power, limiting the range on most platforms. An F-35's radar can only see ~150 km. Radars on large aircraft like an E-3 can't practically see more than 400 km, and they must keep a reasonable distance behind shooters for safety. A small <$1 million drone won't be able to see more than 20 km.

There are many ways to avoid detection. The curvature of the Earth means the radar on a ship's mast can't see a low-flying aircraft or another warship until they are <20 km away. Stealth, jamming, and decoys like chaff are classic counters. Drones and other aircraft using active sensors or communications will alert defenders, providing the opportunity to shoot them down or jam them. Assets like fixed over-the-horizon radars or satellites are rarely suited to provide real-time targeting. A military can only afford so many $200 million high-altitude stealth drones.

Mobile combatants will rely more on passive sensors like electronic emissions sniffers or visible light and infrared cameras. Known targets like airfields will find radar more useful. Fleets can run into each other when weather, night, electronic discipline, or equipment limitations degrade these capabilities. Many engagements will happen at <50 km, negating munitions with longer ranges.

East Asia is big. Sensors that can provide the targeting fidelity that long-range munitions require are expensive, rare, and vulnerable. The fog of war is difficult to avoid.

Diminishing Destruction Per Dollar

Adding range to weapons is often very expensive. There are tradeoffs between speed, range, size, cost, and payload. The Chinese YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missile with a 1000-pound warhead is 21' long and 2.5' in diameter. Its range and speed launched from low altitude are 250 km and Mach 3. The cost is in the millions. A 2000-pound JDAM gravity bomb with sensors to hit moving ships has a 30 km range (up to 80 km with a glide package) and costs around $75,000. Most NATO aircraft can carry 10' long, 1.5' diameter JDAMs, while only scarce Chinese bombers fire the YJ-12.

Countermeasures to Long Range Weapons

The cost of the YJ-12 seems reasonable if the counter is $1 million SM-2 or $4 million SM-6 anti-aircraft missiles fired from ships. But history suggests other options. In WWII, the US used the "Big Blue Blanket" strategy of combat air patrols to shoot down Japanese Kamikazes, German radio-guided anti-ship missiles, and the bombers carrying them. Fighters shot down most attackers before they reached the fleet, and neither the Kamikazes nor the guided anti-ship missiles sank any capital ships. Inexpensive, shorter-range air-to-air missiles fired from drones and fighters could form a modern blanket for cruise missile defense. Guns work, too! A few thousand dollars of bullets often destroy $50,000 drones or multi-million dollar missiles in the current Ukrainian war. A missile must be within gun range of the target to be effective, and even the best stealth wears off at close range. Expect to see an anti-aircraft gun comeback!

The enemy has a better chance to react as munition travel time increases. Hiding, rapid movement, or decoys/electronic interference are cheap countermeasures that historically have success rates around 80% against guided munition seekers, much better than hard kill counters like missiles. A long-range ballistic missile is useless against moving targets without midcourse updates from vulnerable sensor platforms radiating massive amounts of energy to reach space. A carrier will move 10-12 km during the flight and could be anywhere within a 300 square kilometer envelope upon missile reentry.

Increasing speed gives enemy defenses less time to react. But there are diminishing returns. Drag increases exponentially with velocity, causing size and cost to increase dramatically. And hypersonic vehicles (Mach 5+), like ballistic missiles, have a plasma around them that blocks sensors and communications, eliminating their ability to strike moving targets. Many assume the $10+ million Chinese DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile will slow down to Mach 2 to give it any chance of using its sensors to find ships. The missile becomes easier to shoot down with lower-tier defenses like short-range missiles and guns. And it has a tiny window to locate the targets before it crashes into the ocean, making it even more vulnerable to electronic warfare and decoys.

Battles between aircraft see similar issues where air-to-air missile effectiveness drops rapidly as distance increases. DARPA's "Long Shot" program aims to use an aircraft-launched disposable drone to fire missiles at closer range to enemy planes instead of ever longer-range missiles. Sometimes there is no substitute for getting close.

As the standoff range increases, the attacker's cost increases, but the defender's countermeasure cost remains the same.

Don't Waste Drones and Missiles!

There will be attrition, but when both sides consume large portions of GDP for military arms, the side that can reuse more will have an advantage.

Militaries will certainly put drones at risk, and some designs will be ultra-cheap and lacking features like range, night vision, or all-weather sensors to keep them cheap enough. But neither side will be able to sustain the attrition rates seen in the current Ukrainian conflict at an industrial scale, especially for all-weather surveillance drones with any semblance of range. There is value in hardened electronics, autonomy, and better optics (improving observation range) that force the opponent to expend more resources to defeat a drone. Simple gunfire, jamming, or frying are too easy since they cost virtually nothing.

Another strategy is moving complexity from munitions to reusable platforms. Computers and sensors that account for wind, temperature, and air pressure can make howitzers, mortars, and multiple-launch rocket systems much more accurate. A B-21 stealth bomber needs twenty sorties to break even in cost against GPS-guided cruise missiles. The breakeven moves to <10 missions when using munitions that can hit moving targets because munitions like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile need extra sensors and processing that would otherwise be on the reusable platform.

Platform Attrition

A caveat is that the platforms have to survive! Flying an aging, $60 million F-18 on a suicide mission into the teeth of enemy defenses wouldn't be a good value. But planes and ships will be more survivable than many assume because of the difficulty of scouting and targeting. Most enemy forces will be mobile and close to the line of control. Even F-18s will have utility when combined with proper tactics and support aircraft. Only select platforms like stealth bombers or submarines will conduct deep strikes.

Poor maintenance can kill more planes and ships than the enemy. Reliability will be paramount, especially for the US fighting as the away team. Countries with large economies and populations can regenerate unfathomable quantities of units in a total war scenario, requiring weapons and platforms that keep working to defeat the hordes.

Production realities will quickly win the day. Weapons that are reliable and easier to produce will become prevalent through attrition.

The Economics of Accurate Munitions

Killing millions of people, hundreds of thousands of vehicles, and thousands of ships uses a lot of ammo. That will require using mass-produced shells, artillery rockets, or bombs. They are the easiest to produce because of their simplicity. Accuracy and effectiveness can drop precipitously with distance (even for cluster munitions), limiting most unguided artillery and bombs to <40 km of range.

Guidance kits can improve artillery and bomb accuracy to <5 meters, reducing high explosive munition usage by ~10x. The kits typically increase the marginal cost by ~4x, making them a good value, especially for bombs dropped from aircraft. The marginal cost of cruise missiles is usually ~5x-20x more than guided rockets, bombs, and shells per pound of explosive delivered. The differential increases with distance and as warhead size decreases. Low-speed cruise missiles like the Iranian Shaheed give up speed and payload to gain range and improve cost. Their cost per pound of warhead delivered is ~1/2 that of conventional cruise missiles.

Longer-range artillery and bombs become practical with onboard guidance. It is easier to cost-effectively increase the range of rockets and bombs than artillery shells because longer-range guns require heavier barrels. As a result, we see glide bombs with 100+ km ranges and rockets going 150 km while howitzers are trying to reach 50 km. Large naval guns are an exception. The Navy planned a 16" guided shell with 180 km of range before retiring the Iowa-class battleships in the 1990s.

Seekers that can hit moving targets without laser designation are typically 10x more expensive than basic GPS. But flight times at <50 km ranges are often small enough to engage mobile targets with unguided munitions or GPS, especially if the shells carry cluster submunitions.

Classic artillery and bombs end up being the default because they have more than enough range for the modern battlefield and are some of the few mass producible weapons.

Countering Cheap Artillery

Many militaries invest in kinetic and non-kinetic counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) systems. Non-kinetic options include concealment, jamming, or decoys. Most kinetic options fire 20mm-40mm shells. These systems will likely deploy around high-value targets, changing the economics for munitions. It will take multiple rounds to overwhelm defenses, negating some advantages of precision guidance kits. Unguided or minimally-guided cluster munitions are the lowest-cost option for defended targets. The US Cold War designs have nothing to jam, release their submunitions at 750-1000 meter altitudes, and fly at Mach 1+, limiting the time defenses can engage. Inexpensive inertial navigation systems can improve their accuracy to <50 meters.

While C-RAM can be effective, the best defense is to shoot back with high volumes of accurate artillery!

Cluster munitions are the value kings for most targets due to their low cost, tolerance of imperfect targeting information, and immunity to jamming. Guided rockets, shells, and gravity bombs aren't far behind. Neither side will be able to win with suicide drones or cruise missiles because of growing target sets and inexpensive defenses. Unguided, high-explosive munitions aren't effective enough in most situations.

What Are Cruise Missiles and Ballistic Missiles Good For?

Some static targets far behind enemy lines, like airfields and factories, are valuable enough to send cruise missiles - even if most get intercepted. But as we've seen in Ukraine, the enemy can increase defenses while distributing vulnerable flight operations and fuel infrastructure to minimize cruise missile impact.

Conventional ballistic missiles have a similar target profile as cruise missiles but add range and speed. Before GPS, they were the inexpensive way to hit within 50 meters of targets behind enemy lines. They are still the munition of choice for land-based launchers seeking long-range fires.

The Entropy of War

At the beginning of a war, both sides will have stocks of long-range weapons, satellites, and other recon assets. Most of those will likely be gone within a few weeks. Many ships from both pre-war surface fleets will be damaged. Crash repairs will return these ships to action without fragile sensors and with more active and passive defenses. Air Force personnel will bulldoze off debris from airfields and operate in expeditionary mode as transports fly in every possible air defense asset. The fog of war will return. Cheap munitions like shells and rockets will set a minimum viable range, and the more a weapon exceeds that range, the less use it will get.

Challenges for US Service Branches

What should the US do to better prepare for total war?

Air Force

The Air Force's plan to counter China is the B-21 stealth bomber and the Next Generation Air Dominance program. These platforms have an extreme range to limit reliance on tankers, onboard sensors to compensate for the loss of vulnerable sensor platforms, simple maintenance, and absurd stealth to increase survivability.

While there will hopefully be hundreds of B-21s and NGAD fighters, the reserves matter, too. The Air Force must keep airfields near Guam and Okinawa in the fight to use its hundreds of F-22 stealth fighters and thousands of F-15s and F-16s.

RAND makes the case that the best option for protecting aircraft during a war is dispersal, selective hardening, and using cheaper shelters that provide some protection against shrapnel or cluster bomblets but not bombs. Leaving most aircraft shelters empty can obfuscate where the planes are, lowering the accuracy of precision-guided munitions. Increasing active defenses like interceptor missiles is critical, too. Many of these strategies are already underway. The combined effort makes launches of $20 million ballistic missiles look less appealing.

There are a few areas the Air Force needs to address:

  1. Reducing Sensor Vulnerability:

    The Chinese see the US Air Force's big, slow sensor platforms as a weak link. Many speculate that the purpose of the Chinese J-20 stealth is to sneak around combat air patrols and shoot long-range missiles at helpless radar planes and tankers. Putting smaller radars, cameras, electronic listening, and jammers on many drones would reduce sensor vulnerability. The Off-Board Sensing Station program is developing the capability to operate these drones beyond line-of-sight with limited satellite coverage, a critical requirement for the vast Pacific Ocean. The distributed drones will almost certainly cost more because it might take one hundred XQ-58-size drones that cost several million dollars to equal the coverage area of one E-3 or E-7. The Air Force could also use the B-21 airframe as a sensor/coordination platform.

  2. Anti-Missile Fighters:

    The Air Force needs inexpensive anti-missile combat air patrols over likely targets. Short-range, guided munitions like the $25,000 APKWS 70mm rocket can dispatch most threats. An F-16 fighter recently downed a cruise missile in a test using one, and the US already manufactures ~20,000 APKWS kits a year for air-to-ground purposes.

    Traditional fighters can fulfill this mission, but drones like the XQ-58 could cover more potential targets and better handle attacks from multiple directions. They can also maintain near-perpetual readiness waiting on the launch rails, allowing a surge of launches within seconds without the stress of keeping crews at high readiness.

  3. Supersonic Stealth Fighter:

    The F-22 being out of production is a liability because the F-35 is not nearly as optimized for air-to-air combat. Restarting production could be a low-risk option until the NGAD fighter enters service. The history of fighter aircraft suggests a massive edge for better capability, making the F-22 hard to replace with lesser aircraft. A historical example is the Hellcat having a 19:1 kill-to-loss ratio against the Japanese in WWII. The Chinese put so much effort into attacking airfields to avoid fighting the F-22 in the air.

    A relevant supersonic stealth drone will likely be about the size and cost of a traditional fighter with more technical risk and longer development timelines than restarting F-22 production. You can always put an AI pilot in an F-22.

    The template for a cheap, low-capability fighter drone already exists in the XQ-58. There is a risk that it would score zero kills against 5th-generation fighters and cheaper anti-drone missiles are on the horizon to negate swarm attacks. But, the XQ-58 is an available design that can scale rapidly if testing or experience proves it useful for battling enemy fighters. There may be other simplified drone types worth testing, like a stealthy dogfighting drone that only uses guns.

The Air Force has the right direction. They shouldn't cower from finding ways to use their forward bases. And they can work on sci-fi weapons like B-21 and Next Generation Air Dominance but should speed up buying the alternative sensor and missile defense platforms while procuring more F-22s.


There is a lot to debate about the Navy as it enters its "1970s Army" moment.

Disagreement Over a New Fleet

The Navy is reconsidering its force structure in light of China's aggressive naval expansion. The stated objective is to distribute capabilities across more ships. Specifically, the Navy wants to buy more frigates (if a 6000-ton displacement warship can be called a frigate), an autonomous submarine, and some smaller autonomous ships that carry sensors and missiles. Congress is on board with the frigates and subs but critical of the Navy's plans for autonomous boats.

The plan mostly continues the defensive status quo rather than focusing on penetrating the Chinese missile umbrella.

What Does a "Built-to-Win" Fleet Look Like?

First, carriers will still dominate the fleet! Without air cover, you lose. The aircraft will remain the same size because of payload and range constraints whether humans fly them or not, limiting the utility of smaller carrier designs. Carriers are not as vulnerable as assumed, either. In WWII, bombs and missiles sunk only one US fleet carrier. Today's carriers are 5x the size, yet modern anti-ship missiles and WWII munitions have similar explosive punch. The main questions are how fast repairs happen and how well the crew can put out fires. Escorts will provide warning, defense, and absorb hits.

The US Navy has limited ship-killing and land attack ability outside of aircraft and submarines. Nine F-18s, each carrying ten 1000-pound bombs, have more explosive power than a Burke-Class destroyer's vertical launch tubes, and the destroyer must return to port to reload!

The Navy could benefit from several improvements to support carriers and increase offensive ability:

  1. Ships That Can Brawl:

    The Navy needs ships that can take a punch and have the firepower to deal damage.

    Survivability needs to be a priority. Modern warships have mostly given up on armor, but there has been significant progress in armor technology in tanks that could offer a boost in survivability. Ships have more room and mass allowance than tanks, opening up more options. Battle damage considerations, especially around fire, are always critical. Sensors on current Navy ships often have more capability than necessary, are challenging to repair, and are extremely sensitive to damage. A fighter aircraft-size radar would be more than adequate on most ships, allowing for the storage of spare modules. All maintenance must be as easy as swapping modules, similar to the Army's tanks. Ships will get hit by missiles, and some will sink or burn, but that doesn't mean that one shot should take them out of the fight or that the crew must go down with the ship.

    Stealth is another key to survivability. Any reduction in radar, acoustic, thermal, electronic, or visual signature helps delay detection and makes the ship less enticing for precision-guided munitions. Tall vertical missile launch tubes and large radars are the worst offenders in increasing signatures.

    Engineering, economics, and practicality all point towards warships needing an incredible density of short-range air defenses composed of electronic warfare, decoys, smaller missiles, guided rockets, and guns. Most point defenses should have independent targeting systems for robustness. Reliability and quick reaction times matter more than interception range.

    Surface warfare capability must increase, especially in the 30-150 km range. Naval guns, rocket artillery, and rocket-launched torpedos are all options. Modified-for-sea-duty M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System launcher rails could provide sustained offensive firepower at 20,000 pounds per hour per launcher, could reload at sea, and use everything from 30 km range surplus rockets to the 500+ km range Precision Strike Missile. 8" guns could massively increase range and firepower compared to today's 5" guns. An experiment in the 1970s put an 8" gun on a small destroyer, proving the concept. And there is a faction that wants to reactivate and modernize the Iowa-class ships, bringing 16" guns back into the inventory.

    These ships are only valuable if they are manufacturable. The easiest way to improve manufacturability is to remove excess features. The worst offenders are massive $300 million radars, helicopters, and vertical missile tubes. All of these systems are complex, fragile, and hideously expensive. Deleting these features or substituting simpler systems could reduce the size of a destroyer by 70%. More shipyards can build them, and the construction time and cost will decrease dramatically.

    A classical destroyer, a more narrowly-focused submarine, and an anti-air-focused cruiser would be examples of needs within this paradigm. The destroyer could serve as a carrier escort or operate in independent squadrons. The Navy could build a submarine without vertical launch tubes, special forces accommodations, and other extraneous features in numbers to disrupt enemy shipping and subs. The cruiser would provide additional short and medium-range anti-air capability, especially for handling sea-skimming missiles.

  2. Simple Support Craft:

    Several support capabilities have little peacetime utility but would have insatiable demand during a high-intensity conflict. Anti-submarine patrol boats, minesweepers, amphibious landing equipment, and escort carriers for submarine hunting helicopters and scout drones are the main culprits.

    These vessels don't fight the enemy fleet directly, allowing them to be simple, small, and possibly built on commercial hulls. The main requirements are to do one job well and to be built in huge numbers affordably. The Navy's attempt to consolidate many of these capabilities into the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has been a disaster after cost and complexity spiraled out of control.

    The Navy needs new models in production to support a small number of active duty ships for training, some in reserve, and unconventional shipyards certified to produce high volumes.

  3. Better Passive Sensors:

    Controlling electronic emissions will be a matter of survival for Navy Battle Groups, especially early in a conflict. Even using radar aircraft like the E-2 can betray the general area of a carrier group. There is a catch-22 with radar. It might provide more warning of missiles, but using the radar will make the group a missile magnet. Incredible amounts of short-range air defense are helpful because the engagement ranges could be very close.

    Passive sensors, like infrared cameras, to detect missiles and other combatants would make it easier to turn the radars off until a battle commences. Drones can provide over-the-horizon sensing that ship-based radar and optics can't, increasing warning time. Bad weather can degrade the infrared and visible light spectrums, but the enemy suffers, too. Their scouts and missiles will use radar that warns of their attack.

    Sea gliders, satellites, and over-the-horizon radar stations are other ways the Navy can gather intelligence, though many of these will also be early targets for the Chinese.

  4. Air Superiority Fighters:

    The Navy is in worse shape than the Air Force because they have no equivalent to the F-22. Incremental improvements to the F-35 are an option for improvement while waiting for the F/A-XX program to mature.

The Navy's Bottom Line

Like the Army in the 1970s, the Navy needs to be able to win and operate even if a conflict is favorable to China's doctrine of denying access with long-range missiles. It needs to conduct raids to destroy enemy ships, airfields, surface-to-air missile sites, and bases. Running away will only increase lives lost [1]. Improving survivability, manufacturability, and firepower is necessary to achieve these goals.

The budget shouldn't be a barrier. The Navy only has ~150,000 sea billets out of ~350,000 active duty sailors, ~280,000 civilian employees, and an unknown number of contractors, suggesting bloat. Less complicated ships and refocusing on ease of maintenance could tame the out-of-whack teeth-to-tail ratio. The Marines are less interested in large landings, so expensive ships like combined escort carriers/troop ships are wasteful. The Navy could cut excess features from the Ford-class or ditch the Zumwalt-class ships and Littoral Combat Ships. The politics of the peacetime Navy led to a loss of focus that will slowly return as China rises.


The Marines are all in on fighting around Taiwan or the South China Sea. They imagine small detachments of Marines moving between islands to collect intelligence and conduct strikes with guided rockets, missiles, and artillery.

While this is romantic, there are only so many islands. Their more likely mission is fortifying and defending important air bases while not being systematically destroyed by precision-guided munitions.

The Marines have the equipment for small, uncontested amphibious operations, but any sizable assault would require building an armada and gaining complete air and sea dominance before landings could commence.


Theoretically, the Army would play a limited role in a Pacific war outside of air defenses around US bases. Enduring Shield missile launchers are the centerpiece of their air defense modernization. The Army would be wise to figure out how to cheaply integrate guns into the control systems and make the comparatively inexpensive Enduring Shield missiles into low-altitude ballistic missile interceptors.

A country like North Korea might see a war as a good time to stir up trouble. The Army's 1980s doctrine is still relevant for countering the PRK. The Army has continually upgraded its vehicles and artillery. A specific example is Abrams Tanks getting Trophy kinetic defense systems to defend against top-attack anti-tank guided missiles.

Space Force

Every branch is working on reducing dependence on GPS, but contingencies to keep satellites up would be helpful. Space is also the best way to track ballistic missile launches and enemy ships. Satellite constellations offer new opportunities for continuous intelligence gathering.

SpaceX's Starship is one of the few technologies that can radically alter the current strategic calculus. It is a fully reusable platform designed for high sortie rates, minimal maintenance, and each vehicle can drop as much mass as a squadron of F-18s. And a Starship costs about the same as one F-18!

Industrial Policy, Merchant Marine, etc.

Ammunition will be the most voracious microchip user. There are only so many chip types in a JDAM or GMLRS rocket. The military should buy capacity options for the chips we know we will need instead of subsidizing the broad industry, which may or may not produce viable chips for military applications. That capacity can provide starvation rations while chip manufacturing capacity expands by several orders of magnitude.

Traditionally the military takes over commercial ships for transport in wartime, and we protect the shipbuilding industry to "maintain capacity." There are a few deficiencies in that plan:

  1. Commercial ships now dwarf military shipping. How helpful is a 25,000 TEU container ship or a Very Large Crude Carrier that can only use a few dozen ports globally? The military will need floating harbors to handle transfers from large ships to smaller sustainment vessels that deliver supplies to the Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Another issue is that most military cargo moves on pallets rather than inside containers. All services must speed up containerizing logistics and eliminate remaining break bulk and pallet shipping. The ability to move supplies and fuel from safe ports in the US without using fixed transshipment facilities would provide a survivable logistics chain.

  2. There is a shortage of US-flagged ships to take over because of the Jones Act and labor regulations. There are ~5x-10x more American-owned ships that fly the flag of other countries to avoid the rules. Make it easier for these ships to fly the US flag!

  3. Shipyard productivity is awful because of a lack of scale and competition. We'd be better off ending the Jones Act and buying more ships if we want more capacity. More manufacturable ships will increase dollars spent in shipyards by expending less on overhead or expensive systems vulnerable to combat damage. Also, few have grappled with the reality that all combatants have a minuscule fraction of the shipbuilding capacity ultimately required for total war. Even if China builds more ships today, the amount added by both sides will be similar since everyone is effectively starting from zero.

Nuclear Exchanges?

Presumably, neither side will go nuclear from the start. Nuclear weapons will complicate the end game, reducing the likelihood of unconditional surrender.

Toughening up for High Intensity Conflict

The world's militaries will keep trying to counter precision munitions. Non-kinetic strategies and short-range defenses are optimal when resource constraints rule. Increasing interception rates mean all nations have inadequate precision weapons stocks. Having easy-to-produce, reliable weapons with mature designs is a strategic advantage. Shortages of chips and other parts mean training, inventories, and doctrine must include the most accurate munitions that don't consume chips or use very few.

It is also important not to despair. China's GDP might be much less than claimed, implying that their underreported military spending is a larger share of economic output. We have powerful allies, and they don't. Creating highly focused weapons and tactics tolerant of ballistic missile strikes or cruise missile swarms won't require speculative technology like lasers and rail guns. The Chinese emulate many of our strategies and weapons - also our mistakes! Organizing a series of airfields to operate through sporadic missile attacks and preparing mobile transshipment points would probably ensure victory without any new weapons.

China can't build infinite 3000 km ballistic missiles or even limitless 1000 km cruise missiles. The free world must do enough to hold them off until China's slowing growth and population decline decreases their relevance. The West's ultimate weapon is the ability to foster long-term economic growth and technological advancement.

  1. Doctrine calls for infantry to dismount and run towards the enemy when an infantry fighting vehicle is attacked. Disrupting the attack as quickly as possible preserves the most lives. US Grant's memoirs provide a similar lesson - taking the fight to confederate troops ended the war faster. Meek generals still had significant losses and led to more battles being fought.

Key Sources

Navy Matters Blog - A grumpy, conservative commentary on the US Navy and Marines. Often too grumpy and too envious of the Chinese for my taste, but who else has bothered to write 1000 posts that ruthlessly focus on evaluating Navy readiness for a high intensity war?

Armored Cav by Tom Clancy (1994) - A look at the tactics, soldiers, and weapons that won the Cold War.