Soviet Union was often criticized for having less technologically
advanced weapons and systems than the . There were
various reasons for this including less skilled maintenance personnel, poorer
quality control in manufacturing, looser tolerances in design specifications,
and, perhaps, a conscious desire to make systems more rugged. In any event, the result was systems that
were less finicky and better able to tolerate the dirty conditions of
combat. It was said that the Soviet
aircraft engines didn’t care about foreign object (FOD) ingestion whereas US
carriers are constantly conducting FOD walkdowns looking for the tiniest piece
of debris that could destroy an entire engine in an instant. Similarly, the iconic AK-47 is said to be
impervious to mud, water, snow, or whatever whereas US rifles have,
historically, needed to be meticulously cleaned and cared for. US
As a general statement, complex systems are harder to construct, cost more to build, need more maintenance, require better trained personnel to maintain and operate, are more prone to breakdowns, are harder to repair, and less likely to be maintainable in combat. The other side of the coin is that they offer greater capabilities.
The trick in system design is to balance capability against maintainability. It does no good to have the most advanced system in the world if it can’t be kept running. Conversely, it does no good to have an utterly reliable system that is so lacking in capability that it adds nothing to combat capability.
has opted for the far, advanced end of the
technology spectrum with systems that are mind bogglingly complex and often
have poor reliability. The Navy’s Aegis
system is an example of this. It offers
stunning capability but suffers from fleet-wide degradation. The F-22 is exceedingly complex and has great
theoretical capabilities but the availabilities are around 60% and the goal is
only around 70% or so. Further, the
aircraft has oxygen supply/contamination problems that have proven unsolvable,
as yet. US
So much for a general discussion. Let’s look at a recent specific example. The LCS uses a very complex propulsion system that utilizes both gas turbines and diesel engines to power water jets. The selection and routing of the power source is regulated through a complex set of combining gears and accompanying lube oil system that has proven to be quite prone to breakdowns. The most recent casualty due to this highly complex system is the USS Fort Worth which destroyed its combining gear in an in-port accident while conducting maintenance. The ship is returning to the
for several months of repairs. US
Is the turbine/diesel combination system with a very complex combining gear worth the gain in cost/performance? The evidence thus far would suggest not.
If a system can’t operate reliably, can’t be easily maintained, and can’t be easily repaired then it’s not really a good choice for a combat system, is it?
Regardless of the rationale, the Soviets had the foundation of a better system that was based on simpler, more rugged designs that could stand up to the stress of combat.
Do you recall what happened to the USS Port Royal (Aegis cruiser) when it gently nosed aground? A WWII ship would have gently reversed engines and continued on its way, no worse for the wear.
Port Royal, in
contrast, suffered apparently permanent damage to the radar arrays and VLS
cells due misalignment from the gentle rocking of the ship while it was
grounded. Remember that the Navy tried
to early retire Port Royal despite it being the newest Aegis cruiser and one of
the ballistic missile defense-capable (BMD) ones. That tells you everything you need to know
about the severity of the damage the ship suffered. Imagine what will happen to an Aegis cruiser
that suffers an actual missile, bomb, mine, or torpedo hit and the ship is
whipsawed violently. An Aegis cruiser is
a one hit mission kill waiting to happen.
The lesson is simple. Complex
systems can’t be maintained or repaired and certainly not during combat. Would you rather have an old fashioned
rotating radar that is rugged and might be repairable during combat or an Aegis
system that is degraded going into combat, can’t tolerate any vibration, and
can’t be maintained aboard ship? Tough
We need to stop choosing the most complex, most delicate systems and start trying to balance capability and complexity. A system that is simpler than the LCS combining gear would prove far better in the long run. Who cares about a little fuel efficiency? In combat, we should care about reliability. A radar system that offers reasonable performance and rugged reliability would prove far better in the long run.
The first combat design goal should be ruggedness and ease of maintenance. Actual performance, oddly, is a secondary, though important, goal. We need to find the proper balance point and, right now, it’s not where we’re currently designing!