Constraint and Devolution

19 August 2011

Friday


A news item today was interesting on several levels. Matt McGrath, Science reporter for the BBC, reported in US military develops ‘bigger bang’ explosive material that a successful test of High-Density Reactive Materials (HDRM) demonstrated that an inert casing could be replaced with this material to great effect. The HDRM is as strong as steel, but detonates when it strikes its target, unlike an inert steel casing that only serves to hold a high explosive charge.

Materials technology is among the most promising areas of weapons research, although it doesn’t get the attention of big and expensive weapons systems, especially that those are the products of big, sexy science, which are usually aimed at big, sexy targets — like the Chinese DF21-D anti-carrier missile. Better casings, better charges, and better gun barrels would all make an immediate difference in the efficacy of proven weapons systems.

Two quotes from the BBC article were of particular interest to me. Here is the first one:

“US Navy scientists say that projectiles made from the new compound are less likely to kill innocent bystanders.”

And:

“Because the new material reacts and explodes on impact, Dr Bedford believes it could cause fewer casualties among innocent bystanders.”

This is a perfect example of what I wrote about in Political Constraints on Weapons Systems. The US is not working on the most destructive weapons systems imaginable, and is not looking for overwhelming force. Rather, US research is aimed at perfecting weapons systems that are politically acceptable, and which can be used in the context of the constraints under which the US operates. This point, I think, is insufficiently appreciated, particularly in light of the heated rhetoric which is directed against the world’s only current superpower. If the US wanted to simply wipe a nation-state off the face of the earth, it could do so, and with impunity.

If the US wanted to get really good at the utter annihilation of adversaries, it could probably do this too. But we do not see weapons systems in development that would accomplish this. Even very large yield conventional weapons seem to interest the Russians more than the US (since it is the Russians who have developed the Father of All Bombs, not to mention the Tsar Bomba of the Cold War). Instead, the US develops and perfects precision munitions that can eliminate military targets with almost a preternatural ability to spare civilians (again, heated rhetoric to the contrary, as I am going by the historical record).

Here is the other quote that particularly got my attention:

“The researcher says the materials could ultimately be applied to grenades and bullets as well as larger weapons.”

Before new technologies reach the battlefield, and before any coherent doctrine emerges for the employment of new weapons technologies, it is always difficult to say whether these technologies alter the balance in favor of the offense or the defense. In terms of the development of High-Density Reactive Materials (HDRM), it certainly isn’t intuitively obvious to me that it favors the offense or the defense. However, it does seem to me that this technology further tips the balance in favor of irregular forces, whether these forces are engaged in offensive or defensive operations.

Every major military force in the world has large, heavy assets such as tanks and ships that would come in for greater and more concentrated damage from HDRM shells, while conventional shells are entirely adequate for the targeting of individual soldiers, so that no advantage is gained by targeting irregular forces with this new technology, while irregular forces in possession of this technology would gain a significant advantage by employing small, mobile weapons systems which pack a bigger punch against armored assets.

Thus HDRM shells for smaller, hand-held weapons systems (I imagine this would work particularly well for mortars and RPGs) fall into a category like that of the XM25, which I characterized as being the precisification of small arms fire. both give an advantage to small, mobile irregular forces. However, no “irregular” forces in the traditional understanding of that term would have access to such advanced weapons systems. It would only be in the case that a technologically advanced nation-state chose to arm militant proxies, or if such a nation-state sought to constitute its own quasi-irregular forces, that such weapons systems could realize their full potential.

Under either of these two aforementioned conditions, the Devolution of War can continue apace.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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