The sweet spot is accurate but cheap weapons

Monday, June 5th, 2023

Both the US and China have a relatively short-term view of hostilities, Austin Vernon suggests, opting for complicated weapons and platforms that take years to build:

Several useful strategies emerge when fighting an existential war.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


  1. Jim says:

    A great man once said that quantity has a quality all its own.

  2. Longarch says:

    “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 USA was a predominantly White, predominantly Christian socio-cultural powerhouse, even after the military dictator Lincoln reinterpreted its Constitution. The USA was also an industrial powerhouse waiting for the perfect opportunity — World War II was that opportunity. The tremendous human capital of a white Christian society, equipped with 20th century tools, was amazing to behold.

    But the socio-cultural power — which was flawed even before Lincoln, and even more flawed after Lincoln — declined sharply after World War II. The leaders of the USA sought to maximize private advantages at the cost of public society and culture. And between the pseudo-aristocratic degeneration of OSS into CIA and the corrupting influence of Operation Paperclip recruits, the USA after World War II went into socio-cultural decline. The nice, reliable white Christian Dwight Eisenhower paved the way for the not-so-nice, not-so-Christian LBJ. And after LBJ, the rest was history.

    If the USA and China go to war, the industrial production crisis will be just one of the many relevant crises.

  3. vxxc says:

    Total war will be nuclear.

  4. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    USG has no materiel supply not just because the grifters are all in on boutique show pieces with one-time production runs of a handful or so to give the impression of having a military without the reality – they have no supply of even ‘dumb’ materiel like shells for tube artillery either.

    Russia has plenty of fancy weapon systems too – every month is a new month where the mockingbirds say ‘Russia is going to run out of cruise missiles next month’. It is not just that USG can’t make fancy weapon systems, it can’t make anything at all.

  5. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Boys loves toys and I love toys and the details of toys are obviously important.

    But in many ways on a strategic level it is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If the animating spirit of a social organism is not in coherence with God’s Divine Law then there is no design of toy that will work in the situation because nothing will work in the situation. And when you have people who are operating in better coherence with Divine Law then they are the kinds of people who will tend to make reasonable design decisions in sundry details downstream too.

  6. bob sykes says:

    A war between major powers would be a war of attrition, because the major weapons like aircraft and destroyers cannot be replaced. It takes ten years to build an air craft carrier. Wars end before that.

    It is not usually appreciated that attrition applies to highly trained troops, too. The excellent, professional British Expeditionary Force was killed off by 1916, and replaced by half-trained conscripts. That would happen to modern armies, too. Ukraine is the best current example. They are on their third army, the second conscript army.

    If wars last long enough, the warring states end up with militias armed with bolt-action rifles and shovels.

  7. Phileas Frogg says:

    @bob sykes

    In other words, “We get to find out who has, ‘that dog,’ in them.”

    The Vietnamese and Taliban proved this against the US (slightly different circumstances, but same genre). As long as you withstand the initial storm of violence from the more advanced enemy, you CAN eventually drag them down into the mud with you and drown him. But it takes time.

    Between two advanced powers, it would happen MUCH sooner. Viet Cong and Taliban couldn’t really destroy our advanced weapons, they just had to rely on pure endurance and guerilla fighting. Imagine if they could have gone blow for blow against our more advanced platforms, even for only a week or two, while maintaining that doggedness. We would have left Afghanistan in 20 months instead of 20 years.

  8. Freddo says:

    To paraphrase the classic: cheap, reliable and effective – choose any two. However, it seems that drones are a force multiplier that meets all three conditions.

  9. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Remote sensing and loitering munitions are having a great effect in the conflict in later days, but only for one side. Russian electronic attack forces have almost completely eliminated the use of aerial drones by the NATO Occupied Government. The numbers are frankly staggering even for those who expected electronic warfare to naturally be influential on an electrified battlefield. Over 10,000 platforms destroyed a month heretofore, over 90% destroyed.

    Much like its air defense capabilities, the US army’s e-war capabilities are basically non-existent, so USG has nothing to offer to its vassals in this area, while Russia’s are the best in the world today.

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