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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In several posts (Sinking a Carrier: Precisification of Concept among them) I have characterized the aircraft carrier (in its material and doctrinal context) as the preeminent instrument of force projection in the world today. Why is the aircraft carrier dominant in force projection today? Because it can carry almost a hundred fighter jets to any place in the world with a coastline, fly them, maintain them, maintain their pilots, and fulfill all the roles of combat support for these fighters. The power that an aircraft carrier is projecting is the air arm that it carries. This is important. An aircraft carrier is not important because it mounts enormous naval guns like the Dreadnought class battleships of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An aircraft carrier doesn’t mount any big guns at all. An aircraft carrier is a force to reckoned with because it brings aircraft to the theater of operations in an age in which command of the air is crucial to all combat operations.

Sitting ducks? “Flat tops” can be larger than the pier they tie up to, and therefore constitute a large and tempting target.

At one time, the big guns of a battleship were important weapons. Battleships could carry enormous guns that could fire on shore batteries and on positions several miles inland, not to mention firing on other capital ships. This was a formidable military capacity. The technologies that began to emerge from our first industrialized war, World War I, and which were systematically implemented during the inter-war period, decisively changed the maritime combat equation. Submarines with torpedoes, airplanes with torpedoes, and airplanes configured as dive bombers rendered the battleship as vulnerable as a medieval knight in armor was vulnerable to a peasant with a firearm. The vulnerability of capital ships was not taken for granted. The early advocates of air power not only had to engage in extended polemics in order to make their point, but Billy Mitchell organized a famous demonstration in 1921 in which aircraft carrying bombs were used to disable German and US battleships from the First World War. This demonstration helped to overcome institutionalized resistance to change, but resistance there was, and the institutions were slow to change.

Ex-German battleship Ostfriesland takes a gigantic blow from a 2,000 lb. aerial bomb burst far enough below the surface that fountains of water erupt high above both sides of the ship. Minutes later, the target ship sank by the stern. This was the finale of Billy Mitchell's anti-ship bombing demonstration in July 1921. (from Wikipedia)

Not only were battleships vulnerable to new weapons systems, as Mitchell demonstrated, but they were also entering a death spiral of increased size, cost, and complexity. Mitchell’s concerns were the same concerns we have today: that money invested in outdated weapons systems will take money from the new weapons systems that will be vital in future conflicts. Moreover, the older weapons systems, as they mature, tend to grow disproportionately large and expensive. The Bismarck and the Tirpitz, the Yamato and the Musashi, consumed enormous resources, were extremely expensive to build, and were crewed by thousands. They were also vulnerable to smaller, cheaper, less manpower-intensive counter-measures. The Tirpitz, fully outfitted, cost 181.6 million Rm (the Bismarck cost more) and had a crew complement of 2,608; a type VII C U-boat cost 4.8 million Rm and had a crew complement of 52. For the price of one Tirpitz, you can have many U-boats, and this is exactly what Karl Dönitz did when he took charge. Perhaps if he had had the opportunity to act earlier on cheaper counter-measures, the Battle of the Atlantic might have had a different outcome.

Dreadnought class battleships were not only formidable weapons systems in their time, but also potent symbols of national prestige.

It is not that the fundamental (and perennial) calculus of maritime strategy has changed, but that the means to the end of this perennial calculus has changed:

“Two decades after the passing of the Grand and High Seas fleets, the age-old principle of maritime strategy was unchanged. The control of the seas remained the final objective, for the purpose of providing and denying the free movement of trade and military needs. But the means of exercising this control was vested as well, and within its ever-increasing range and power, in the aircraft, from shore or carrier.”

Richard Hough, Dreadnought: A History of the Modern Battleship, 1965, p. 223

Whereas the very idea of an aircraft carrier once needed to be defended against vested interests who preferred to spend budgetary funds on battleships, now it is the turn of the carrier to be the large, complex, and expensive weapons system nearing the end of the its lifespan. And there is nothing new in the observation. I have written a couple of posts on this (Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept and The Political Context of Sinking a Carrier). When Mike Burleson was writing his New Wars blog he would publish a “Carrier Alternative Weekly” almost every week, examining alternatives to large and expensive carriers. Mike Burleson also wrote a lot of posts on the vulnerability of carriers to counter-measures. It is worthwhile to read through the archives of New Wars to review these.

The Nimitz class carrier is the backbone of the US carrier fleet.

Because there is nothing new in the idea of the terminal obsolescence of carriers, what I want to try to do today is to place this obsolescence in a larger context — historical context, technological context, intellectual context, tactical context, and strategic context. A few days ago in Technological Succession I argued for a distinction between perennial technologies and mature technologies. Because of the phenomenon of technological succession — a new technology taking over where an old technology leaves off — once a technology matures it invites rival technologies not yet matured to overtake its future incremental progress by the leapfrogging progress of a technology still capable of significant improvements.

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN78) is the future of the US carrier fleet, often called a supercarrier.

It would be over-simplifying matters to say that every technology has a limited lifespan, aircraft carriers included. This is painting with too broad a brush. Some technologies — perennial technologies — are limited by no lifespan and will always be present in response to perennial needs. Apart from perennial technologies, most technologies develop and succeed one another in a process that I call technological succession (by analogy with ecological succession).

Maritime technology generally speaking, and not tied to any particular maritime platform, is a perennial technology. There will always be ships. But the aircraft carrier is a particular instantiation of maritime technology, and the technology that it represents is a mature technology. As a mature technology, it is subject to technological succession when an alternative technology with advantages becomes available that serves the in same capacity as the established technology.

The aircraft carriers of today are not remarkably different from the aircraft carriers of the Second World War. Progress with this mature weapons system has been, and will continue to be, incremental, i.e., evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Thus an aircraft carrier is the paradigm case of a mature technology, not a perennial technology. What it does, it does very well, and incremental improvements can be expected to continue indefinitely, but as I argued in Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept the development of the aircraft carrier from the Second World War to today is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and this is the kind of change that is to be expected in the future: further evolutionary change, rather than revolutionary change, and at a slower rate of change because the technologies concerned have largely plateaued.

Innovations in SCRAM jet technology may provide reliable hypersonic flight in the not too distant future, and this will constitute a revolutionary advance that will outpace mature weapons systems that are advancing at an evolutionary pace, having already experienced their exponential growth and now leveled off to a plateau.

The mature technology of the aircraft carrier is in the process of being overtaken by newer technologies that will not be aircraft carriers, but will replace the role that is now filled by aircraft carriers. The weapons systems that will replace the role now filled by the aircraft carrier will be precision guided munitions, precision guided missiles, and both of the former launched from UCAVs and from supersonic and hypersonic manned aircraft from airbases, not from carriers. Improving hypersonic jet technology (such as SCRAM jets) will make is possible for a jet to be launched from an airbase on one side of the world, fly to the other side of the world within an hour’s time, hit targets, and return to base as quickly, for maintenance, fueling, and aircrew rest. The US defense establishment has already formulated this goal in what is called the Prompt Global Strike Initiative (PGS). I tried to give a sense of the possibilities of such a weapons system in A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat.

Many options are available for prompt global strike.

While PSG is not intended to replace carrier-based aviation, the long-term phenomenon of technological succession should be obvious. Once the technology is available, it will be cheaper and more effective to maintain aircraft at an airbase deep within secure territory as compared to doing so on an aircraft carrier. It will take many decades, and perhaps a war, to make the transition, but that the transition is coming should be obvious to all.

The role of a CVBG in power projection is inseparable from the air arm that it carries. When that air arm can be made available in-theater by other means, the justification for a CVBG disappears. There are some air assets that must be supplied and maintained close to the theater of operations, but these assets are not necessarily the air superiority fighters that are currently the focus of carrier aviation.

The fate of the aircraft carrier is inseparable from the fate of the air arm that it carries. If the equivalent of that air arm can be made available at any place or time that a carrier can make an equivalent force available, and it can be done cheaper or more effectively or efficiently, or at less risk to personnel and other assets, then that alternative will be pursued. Any peer competitor who fails to respond appropriately to this inevitable calculus will find themselves on the losing side of a battle of attrition.

However, the air arm carried by a contemporary CVBG is not the only air arm that needs to be made available in theater. The air arm of fixed wing aircraft with the capability of fifth generation fighters will, in the not distant future, be available from air bases within secure territory, but there is another transition that is coming, that is as inevitable as the obsolescence of carriers.

An Italian-made Agusta A129 Mangusta (Mongoose) helicopter gunship firing its chin mounted 20-mm M197 cannon.

Just as I have written that the aircraft carrier is the preeminent instrument of force projection in the world today, so the helicopter gunship is the preeminent weapons system of mobile fire in the world today. Helicopter technology was not available during the Second World War. During the Korean War and the Viet Nam War helicopters primarily played a support role in the insertion and removal of infantry. The development of the helicopter gunship is still quite recent, and it has mostly seen engagement in small wars like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or Russian operations in Chechnya. The helicopter gunship is capable of much more than this; there remains much untapped potential here.

A38 Eurocopter Tiger: the helicopter gunship is the preeminent form of mobile fire in the world today.

Mechanized armor is mobile, and far more mobile than infantry or cavalry, which were the only alternatives when mechanized armor was initially developed. Helicopter gunships are more mobile than mechanized armor. The logic of maneuver warfare that ultimately converged upon massed mechanized armor with close air support and infantry to exploit a breakthrough will, eventually, converge upon massed armored air assets — which means the helicopter gunship and fixed wing aircraft like the AC-130 gunship — with close ground support, and mechanized armor and infantry to exploit a breakthrough. The emphasis will shift from breakthrough on the ground to breakthrough in the air. (A tactical doctrine adequate to the helicopter gunship also suggests an interesting question: can a helicopter sink a carrier? If, as I have argued, flying boat swarms present a danger, certainly helicopter swarms also present a danger.)

AH-64 Apache attack helicopter: the helicopter gunship is the armored asset of the future.

Before this projected convergence is completed there will be a period of transition during which the armed forces that first employ this tactical doctrine for helicopter gunships — a tactical doctrine adequate to the potential of this technology of mobile fire — will have a disproportionate advantage in the battlespace, driving all before it in an aerial equivalent of Guderian’s Panzers or Liddell-Hart’s expanding torrent.

Russia's KA-52 attack helicopter: Western forces have no monopoly on innovative helicopter technology. The Russian KA-52 employs a contra-rotating co-axial rotor system.

The platform for the projection of this weapons system of mobile fire in theater will be the helicopter carrier. While fixed wing aircraft will be able to travel from secure air bases to the theater of operations within a timeframe appropriate to the exigencies of combat, helicopter gunships will not be able to do so. Therefore, as the age of the aircraft carrier draws to the close, the age of the helicopter carrier is only just dawning. And helicopter carriers can be much smaller and more mobile than a contemporary aircraft carrier, meaning that they are a more difficult target to hit, and therefore less vulnerable to cheap counter-measures.

HMS Ocean: the helicopter carrier will be the future platform for in-theater projection of massed armored air assets in the form of helicopter gunships.

Those armed forces that wish to dominate the battlespace of the mid- to late- twenty-first century should build helicopter carriers, and helicopter gunships to fill them, rather than building aircraft carriers.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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