Life Span of Weapons Systems

21 April 2013


The Redoutable at Trafalgar (1805) by Auguste Etienne Francois Mayer (1805-90)

The Redoutable at Trafalgar (1805) by Auguste Etienne Francois Mayer (1805-90)

How long does a weapons system last?

Recently I had a comment on my post The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier which started me thinking about the life span of weapons system. This is a surprisingly interesting way to think about weapons systems, which contextualizes them within the civilizations that design and build weapons systems.

I have approached this contextualization of weapons systems previously in several posts, as in The Nature of Viking Power Projection and The Byzantine Superweapon. A great many technological innovations and ideological assumptions are built into sophisticated weapons systems, and the most sophisticated among them require an entire civilization to design, build, and field them.

Contextualization can be take diachronically of synchroncially. If we contextualize a weapons system diachronically, we understand it in terms of its historical ancestors and successors, thinking in terms of the evolution of the weapons system in parallel to the socioeconomic system that makes it possible. If we contextualize a weapons system synchronically, we understand it in terms of the infrastructure and institutions (the technological and doctrinal context) that jointly make that weapons system possible, and make it what it is when brought to bear in armed conflict.

The life span of a weapons system is thus a diachronic historical inquiry, but it is only through a synchronic understanding that we see how the elements of a contemporary weapons system stands in relation not only to military function it is supposed to serve, but also in relation to the wider society and designs, builds, and operates the weapons system in question. As in all historical inquiry, the diachronic and synchronic perspectives are bound up in each other. Moreover, there is a parallel synchronic inquiry that would concern itself with the scope of application of a weapons system. This is a crucial and often-overlooked question, which we find we must asked ourselves when a political entity possesses a weapons system that it does not use when engaged in armed conflict. This is another sense of the “lifespan” of a weapons system.

To clarify our terminology we need to indulge in a little informal philosophical logic, since in this context the generality of our assertions will make an important difference. We have to be able to distinguish not only between weapons systems but also the fine gradations in the generations of weapons systems. The F-16 block 60 fighter aircraft operated by the UAE are a more advanced fighter aircraft than the F-16 block 50/52 operated by most USAF squadrons, but we would only distinguish them in a very fine-grained account of weapons systems.

The various “block” upgrades I will count as the “same” weapons systems, even when they have different capabilities, while I will count fourth generation fighter aircraft and fifth generation fighter aircraft as distinct weapons systems. Therefore the F-16 and the F-22 will count as different weapons systems. However, at a higher level of generality, the F-16 and the F-22, as both being supersonic fighter jets are, in a sense, the “same” weapons system. At an even higher level of generality, all fighter aircraft, from the Sopwith Camel to the F-22 are essentially the same weapons system: an aircraft mounting missile weapons to be employed in air-to-air or air-to-ground combat.

All of these distinctions are useful, and we have to keep them in mind so that we avoid comparing apples to oranges and therefore avoid vitiating our point. Furthermore, we need to distinction between what I will call perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems.

● perennial weapons systems are weapons systems based on perennial technologies. A knife is a perennial weapons system. There will always be knives, pistols, and rifles. These are now perennial weapons systems. Similarly, there will always be missile weapons of some type, but this is already a move to a higher level of generality, since “missile weapons of some type” include pistols and rifles (and knives, too, when thrown). It is at least arguable that a perennial weapon is not really a weapons system, since perennial weapons in their stark simplicity may be found in isolation from a doctrinal or technological context, but in this case I don’t think that this distinction matters all that much, so I will allow myself the leeway to call perennial weapons “perennial weapons systems.” (Also note that the generalization of a the idea of a weapons system is distinct from the idea of perennial weapons systems.)

● sempiternal weapons systems are weapons systems that in their complexity transcend the simplicity and directness of perennial weapons systems. There is no clear dividing line between perennial weapons systems and sempiternal weapons systems, but I introduce the term “sempiternal” to imply that they are clearly invented at some point in time and, once invented, they are here to stay. It would be difficult to say at what time knives were invented, so knives are clearly perennial weapons systems — it is possible that a knife was the first stone tool produced by human ancestors. I count general categories of weapons systems (the highest level of generality mentioned above, that conflates the Sopwith Camel and the F-22) as sempiternal weapons systems: ships purpose-built for warfare, fixed wing fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and so on. Once the idea of fighting from a flying platform was implemented, it is going to be with us as long as our civilization lasts. That makes such ideas and their implementations (which change radically over time) sempiternal.

● properties of weapons systems are distinct from general kinds of weapons systems, as in sempiternal weapons systems. Under a sufficiently general conception of a weapons system, Hittite chariot archers, Mongol horse archers, main battle tanks, aircraft carriers, and helicopter gunships all count as mobile fire weapons systems. Yet mobile fire is not itself a weapons system, but a property of some weapons system, a property that might be possessed to a greater or a lesser degree. An aircraft carrier is a mobile fire weapons system, but is much less mobile and much less maneuverable than a helicopter gunship. An arrow, a spear, and a knife when thrown are all examples of missile weapons; any of these missile weapons when employed from a mobile platform constitute mobile fire weapons systems, just as an Apache helicopter gunship constitutes a mobile fire weapons system, but all of these weapons systems are profoundly different each from the other.

Given these distinctions, it should be obvious that perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems have no life span: once they are introduced, they are with us forever. If some treaty establishes their abolition, we will still have the idea that such a thing is possible, and if it becomes seen as militarily necessary, they will be built regardless of treaties or abolition.

This is not true, however, at lower levels of generality than that contemplated by the bare idea of sempiternal weapons systems. There will always be missile weapons, but this is a highly general concept of a weapons system. In the same way that there will always be missile weapons, there will always be ships and submersibles, and there will always be aircraft. While there will always be fighter aircraft, particular generations of fighter aircraft become obsolete. No one would build a Sopwith Camel today for combat, although they might build one as a project of historical reconstruction (i.e., as an exercise in experimental archaeology).


What applies to generations of fighter aircraft also applies to generations of naval technologies. To take one example, no more ships of the line are built for contemporary navies (except to train cadets). In other words, the ship of the line, with multiple decks and multiple masts, optimized to fire the greatest number of cannon as broadsides against other ships of the line, is obsolete, were it was once the state of the art in naval architecture. The ship of the line had a definite life span, and that life span came to an end more than a century ago.

This post began as a response to my post on The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier, in which I speculated on the lifespan of fixed wing aircraft carriers and explicitly stated that no weapons systems will last forever; the aircraft carrier will eventually go the way of the ship of the line, but not until something better comes along. A comment was recently made that aircraft carriers may last another hundred years on the earth’s oceans, and I do not dispute this. Nevertheless, it is still a matter of time.

With the above distinctions in mind, I will revise this a bit, and assert instead that the aircraft carrier simpliciter is a sempiternal weapons system, and I acknowledged this implicitly in my earlier post when I stated that there will be helicopter carriers in the future, which are a kind of aircraft carrier, but once fixed wing hypersonic aircraft become a reality, and it is cheaper and more effective to base fighter aircraft deep within the home territory of a nation-state, given that hypersonic aircraft could show up anywhere in the world in less than an hour, then fixed wing aircraft carriers will become obsolete. But helicopters will continued to be needed on the battlefield, and they cannot be made hypersonic, so there will be a need for helicopter carriers beyond the time when fixed wing aircraft carriers have become obsolete. Also, since I have predicted that helicopter gunships have not yet been fully exploited on the battlefield, the future of helicopter carriers is bright; helicopters will be needed more than ever on the future battlefield.

The fixed wing aircraft carrier is not the only high technology weapons system the obsolescence of which can be projected. It could be argued that the life span of the land-based ICBM is essentially expired, given that precision weapons system and guidance systems have effectively rendered ICBM silos vulnerable. Even if no nation-state has chosen to build nuclear-tipped hypersonic precision-guided cruise missiles with the intent of neutralizing a ground-based ICBM threat, this is nevertheless clearly a weapons system that is within the capability of the advanced industrialized nation-states to build at the present time. (We have the idea of such a weapons system, and the idea cannot be banned or “unthought.”) Effective obsolescence, then, may be distinguished from obsolescence in fact.

On a level of greater generality — greater even than the generalization of all weapons systems — and therefore of even greater potential theoretical interest, it may be that in our own time that symmetrical conflict between peer or near-peer military powers has become obsolete. I don’t assert this with any dogmatic degree of confidence, and the coming century may yet see a peer-to-peer conflict in the Pacific if China is able to tool its industrial plant to the point of producing a rival carrier fleet to that of the US. Nevertheless, it is at least possible that peer-to-peer conflict has disappeared from the world, to be replaced by chronic, low-level insurgency and asymmetrical operations.

If we rigorously limited ourselves to a single level of generality (again, avoiding the comparison and apples and oranges) we could probably calculate for a given weapons system an average lifespan. If we could do this (i.e., if someone took the time to do this in a rigorous way) I will make a prediction about the lifespan of weapons systems:

Prediction: even as perennial weapons systems endure in their usefulness, the lifespan of large, technologically sophisticated weapons systems will gradually shrink in length unless industrial-technological civilization reaches a (near-)permanent plateau of development, spelling the end of the technological innovation that drives weapons systems development.

The ship of the line arguably endured for centuries as a viable weapons system. The ICBM seems to have lasted only about 50 years as a viable weapons system. Some high technology weapons system seem to be obsolete as soon as they are designed and being prepared for actual use. The most notorious examples of this would include the XM2001 Crusader self-propelled howitzer and the M247 Sergeant York self-propelled anti-aircraft gun.


The same forces that drive industrial-technological civilization forward — science creating technology engineered into industries creating new tools for science — also drive industrialized warfare forward, and as technology improves exponentially, weapons systems must also improve exponentially. This means shorter lifespans for the most advanced technological weapons systems, even as perennial weapons systems retain their efficacy in ongoing asymmetrical conflicts in which the full force of industrialized warfare cannot be brought to bear in any meaningful way.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “Life Span of Weapons Systems”

  1. T. Greer said

    I suppose it is possible for “the idea of a weapons system to be unthought” – is that not what we would call “forgetting?” Greek Fire is an example you’ve already discussed. Did the Barbarian kingdoms that overwhelmed Rome know what a ballista is? I imagine there might be more – and if they are truly “forgotten” we would only know about them through archeology.

    P.S. Do tactical formations count as a weapon system under your rubric, or are we restricting this to physical objects only?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Greer,

      In a definitive formulation of weapons systems (something I have not yet achieved) I would say that, yes, tactical formations count as weapons systems. What is distinction about a weapons systems is the integration of technology and doctrine in order to achieve a military objective. Thus a tactical formation that involves soldiers, their weapons, their disposition in the battlespace, and a doctrine for the employment of this formation in combat is pretty much the paradigm of a weapons system. The formation itself may be considered a variety of social technology.

      Can a weapons systems be forgotten? Yes, I suppose so. The implementation of Greek Fire was forgotten, but the idea weapons system remained, almost as a legend. However, I won’t dispute that some weapons systems are likely to be entirely forgotten, to be re-discovered, if at all, only through archaeology.

      I suppose I have expressed myself imperfectly. What I was thinking about when I wrote that weapons systems cannot be “unthought” was confined within a given technological paradigm, assuming a kind of historical continuity. Given our current technological capabilities, and given the continuity of our civilization, once someone has an idea for a weapons system, it isn’t going away.

      To be more concrete about this, I was thinking of instances of technologically advanced and wealthy nation-states like Japan and South Korea that could easily build nuclear weapons if they wanted to do so, but which have chosen to live under the American security umbrella. If, for some unforeseen reason, this security umbrella were to disappear, I don’t think that there is any question but that the Japanese and the South Koreans would build nuclear weapons.

      With the loss of so much military (and other) technology that accompanied the failure of Roman civilization in Western Europe, this is a transition between civilizations, and wasn’t the kind of scenario I had in mind. I think that the barbarian hordes that displaced the Romans probably preserved something of the memory of the ballista before it entirely disappeared. Some of the achievements of the Romans were remembered precisely because, to subsequent generations, they seemed like superhuman triumphs that later, degraded civilization (in their own eyes) could never hope to match. Many commentators have observed that medieval thought regarded marvels like the Flavian amphitheater as something like natural wonders — and, because not apparently the work of fellow human beings, OK to quarry to build one’s hovel in the ruins.

      Very Best Wishes,


  2. said

    Perhaps an example of a weapons system being ‘unthought’ at least in a localized context might be the suppression of firearms in Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate.

    • geopolicraticus said

      You’ve made an excellent point — the elimination of firearms in Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate clearly is a case of the extirpation of an entire weapons system that occurs within the context of a single civilization.

      We would do well consider the conditions under which this was possible. Japan, as an island, is likely to be more culturally insular than a political entity on the mainland. This cultural insularity also fosters ethnic homogeneity. In the context of an ethnically homogenous society, in which the elite members possess a Weberian monopoly on the legal use of force, and there are no revolutionary pressures to alter society, it seems that it is possible to “unthink” a weapons system.

      However, the conditions under which this “unthinking” ended are equally interesting: Japan’s engagement with the wider world. Had Japan been forced to fight a war with an adversary who had embraced firearms at a time when Japan had eliminated them, Japan would have either been defeated or it would have had to change its policy rapidly under wartime conditions.

      There is a parallel to this in early modern European history: warfare among the city-states of the Italian peninsula, isolated from ultramontane continental Europe by the Alps, became a highly professionalized and specialized undertaking of condottieri captains who eventually came to practice a method of war that spared the lives of their mercenary soldiers.

      The balance of power in the Italian peninsula between roughly equal political powers and roughly equal mercenary armies came to an abrupt end when Italy was invaded by the French army — the standing army of a unified nation-state (or, if you like, a proto-nation-state) with experience in large scale warfare in continental Europe. The genteel traditions of condottieri warfare in the Italian peninsula, almost as civilized as the art and architecture of Italy (and similar things could be said of Japan, in this connection), could not hold up under these changed conditions.

      Best wishes,


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