Thursday, June 27, 2013

Quantity versus Quality – Revisited

We previously discussed the quantity versus quality issue and recognized the truism, “Quantity has a Quality all its own.”.  Recently, however, there has been a great deal of emphasis by various commentators across the Internet on the need to maintain the qualitative edge over our enemies even if it means accepting insanely large expenditures.  For example, the F-35 is cited as necessary to maintain our technological edge despite the break-the-bank cost levels associated with it.  It’s claimed that the LCS with its futuristic, unmanned, networked, remotely operated vehicles is the only way we can wage war in the littorals with even a hope of success.  We absolutely must have a highly advanced aircraft carrier with EMALS catapults, advanced arresting gear, dual band radar, and many other technological wonders.  There is no way we can maintain the naval leg of our nuclear triad without a new design SSBN that is bigger than the Ohio class (even though it has several fewer missiles!).  And so on …

The problem with all of those arguments is that the result is fewer and fewer platforms.  The Navy has stated that carrier squadrons, already numerically smaller than in the days of the Tomcat and Phantom, will be further reduced by 2-3 aircraft.  The LCS is replacing all the Perrys, all the mine countermeasure ships, and all the patrol craft with only 50 ships and it’s highly unlikely that all 50 will be built.  The Ford class costs have already resulted in a lengthening of the carrier acquisition cycle and the downward trend in carrier numbers from 15 to the current 10 will likely continue to around 6-8.  The 18 original Ohios are being replaced by only 12 new SSBNs.

Internet commentators seem to have a fascination, bordering on obsession, with technology for its own sake.  The question that needs to be asked is not whether the next gee-whiz weapon system will be a technological improvement but, rather, will it help us win wars.  Huh?!?  What an odd question.  Of course more advanced technology will win wars over inferior technology.

Hmm …  I wonder …

Consider the B-2 bomber.  It’s a technological wonder but is so expensive that we only have around 20.  In a war, assuming we’re even willing to risk them, they would quickly become unavailable due to combat attrition and simple mechanical breakdown.  Thus, the B-2 is a huge leap of technology that won’t help us win a war.  After a couple of weeks of combat we’ll be using B-52s, as we always do.  In hindsight, should we have built 20 B-2s or 100 new B-52s?

Is technological superiority even mandatory in a war?  Let’s look to history for the answer.  The inferior F4F Wildcat held its own or outperformed the Japanese Zero.  For that matter, even the P-40 more than held its own against the Zero.  Turning to land warfare, the technically inferior WWII Soviet tanks beat the German war machine with its amazing tanks.  Even the lowly Sherman carried the tide against German tanks.

How did these technologically inferior weapons achieve success?  Two reasons:  one, numbers and, two, training.

Sherman Tank - Quantity Over Quality

The Sherman was no match for individual German tanks but it was cheap enough and simple enough to be produced in large numbers – something the Germans couldn’t do because of the extreme complexity of their designs.  The Sherman won by virtue of numbers.  The same holds true for the Soviet tanks.

The F4F Wildcat outperformed the Zero due to superior training and tactics.  Similarly, the P-40, famously used by the Flying Tigers, used superior training and tactics to overcome the Zero.

In summation, at the start of WWII who had the most technologically advance platforms?  That would be Germany and Japan.  At the end of WWII who won?  That would be the Allies.  Why?  Because the US and Russia, in particular, were able to produce platforms in numbers sufficient to overcome the technological deficits that they faced.  In WWII, numbers beat technology. 

History repeatedly tells us that technological superiority is not an absolute requirement for victory.  History further tells us that weight of numbers is ultimately more telling than technology.  You can enjoy a 50:1 kill advantage over your opponent but if he has 51 platforms, you lose.

Am I arguing for intentional technological inferiority?  Of course not, so half of you can stop typing out your replies.  Am I suggesting that numbers and training can overcome any technology gap?  Of course not.  No quantity of Sopwith Camels will be sufficient to beat F-16s and no amount of training can overcome that technology gap. 

I’m suggesting that we have become so enamored with technology that we’ve forgotten that what we’re trying to accomplish is winning wars and that there is more than one way to do that.  We can win with technology that’s several generations more advanced than our enemies but that will ultimately break the bank (ask the Soviet Union how the pursuit of technology worked out) and result in armed forces that are numerically extremely small which has decided disadvantages during peacetime operations.  Alternatively, we can accept smaller technology gaps, or even technology deficits (gasp!!!), if it allows us to produce sufficient quantities of weapons and if we train to get the maximum performance out of those platforms.

In fact, this discussion suggests an alternative to our present obsession with ever newer and more complex construction at ever increasing costs.  Perhaps we ought to be devoting a significant (not all) portion of our construction budget to good, solid, capable designs and robust, realistic training.  Maybe 200 new A-10s flown by superbly trained pilots would be more useful than 20 F-35s?  Depending on final costs, we can buy 2-3 Super Hornets for the cost of a single F-35.  Which would you rather have?

It’s been so long since we fought a two-sided war, we’ve forgotten that attrition is a fact of combat and the only answer to attrition is numbers.  We’ve also gotten so used to being able to dictate the location and timing of battles that we’ve forgotten that in a two-sided war the enemy will get to pick his share of the battles and if we don’t have sufficient numbers of platforms we’ll be facing defeats due to inadequate presence across all the possible battle locations.

There’s a lesson to be learned, here.  The Navy is repeatedly trading dwindling numbers for marginal technology improvements.  That trend has got to stop.


  1. I would take the middle ground. Realistic improvements in quality which then leaves enough money to keep the quantity.

    The problem we have had for many years is the military wants weapons which jump a generation in technology and which “transforms” the battlefield. Instead of more realistic technological improvements based on previous successful designs. They based their decisions on being able to hit a technological homerun every time and even Babe Ruth could not do that. Success in the real world means being able to win with singles, doubles, walks and a few stolen bases, not grand slam homeruns.

    Going to the Sherman tank example, while it did have improvements during the war, it would have been a better tank with some realistic improvements. It was big enough to fit a 90mm gun which would make it equal in firepower to the best German tanks. Also with the addition of a simple gear box they could have lowered the drive shaft to the bottom of the tank and lowered the entire height of the tank by about a foot making it a smaller target. The Sherman would still have weaker armor then the best German tanks since there is no way that a 30 ton tank would equal the armor of a 60 ton tank but it be able to match them in firepower and be more maneuverable. Instead the army waited for the Pershing tank which arrived late and with only a few vehicles making it to the battlefield.

    What is really sad is that the US military with the collapse of the Soviet Union was unquestioned leader but instead of building on what they already had they cut existing equipment and decided to waste billions and years on pushing the technology in the hopes of that grand slam homerun.

    This is not to say that they can’t push technology, but they should also remember that experiments can be both successful and unsuccessful and you should not base your procurement budget on the hopes that the experiment will work. Wait until you get real data before making the decision to commit billions to a system instead of basing it on what looks good on a PowerPoint slide

  2. I'm not sure its quite that simple.
    The Zero started the war as the best aircraft, but years on, it was decidedly old, facing a new generation or aircraft.

    The allies had the best C4ISTAR at the start of the war and only expanded that lead throughout. A US carrier would usually pick up an incoming Japenese attack and loft every aircraft on board in its defence. A Japanese Carrier had no such luck.

    The Germans were consistently short of everything, but that wasnt only because their kit was hard to make, they (and Japan) were on the receiving end of strategic bombing, we werent, they were under blockade, we werent, and their leadership was far more bonkers than ours, wasting vast resources on ill conceived plans.
    I suppose to a point you are correct, I'm sure they designed a fighter engine that needed 15 hours servicing per flight hour, and a complete rebuild after ten hours.

    The B2 is worse, but there were only ever supposed to be 50 B2s anyway.

    The ability to train is VERY important, but large forces are just as hard to train as expensive forces. The USSR had 150,000 armoured vehicles in 1990. I find it hard to believe those crews got regular vehicle time.

    1. TrT, you might want to give some further thought to the historical precedent of WWII. Yes, the allies eventually introduced superior technology, at least in some cases, but by the time they did the outcome of the war was already decided and it was "just" a matter of going through the motions and mopping up (not to diminish how monumental that was!). Japan and Germany were beaten by the inferior technology of the Allies not by the later, sometimes, superior technology.

      Consider Germany, in particular. The Allies never, at any point in the war, produced better tanks (Tiger!), aircraft (Germany had a fully functional jet fighter!), arms (German side arms, MGs, etc. were outstanding), battleships, or submarines. Despite having superior technology throughout the war, Germany was beaten by inferior technology through sheer numbers. Yes, German production was hampered by bombing attacks later in the war but by then the outcome was already decided.

      Japan started the war with superior aircraft (Zero!), surface ships (fantastic optics, deadly effective Long Lance torpedos), and the most modern and powerful battleships and, yet, had effectively lost the war by Midway or earlier, long before the US was able to introduce any superior technology. The carrier battles that I think you're referring to happened long after the outcome was decided. In short, Japan had every technological advantage but was overwhelmed by weight of numbers of inferior technology. It was the Wildcat, for instance, that beat Japan, not the Hellcat or beyond. The war had been decided by the time the Hellcat showed up.

      Even if the US had never produced a new, superior design of anything during WWII, Germany and Japan would still have lost simply due to numbers.

      My point about training, aside from the obvious that if you haven't got superior technology you really need to get the most out of what you have, is that the money saved from not producing insanely expensive, generationally advanced platforms that never work can be put towards realistic training. Currently, the Navy has cut training (and maintenance and personnel) to the bone, or beyond, in order to fund new construction. That's the wrong approach to war-winning.

    2. Excuse the brevity, but been at a BBQ and beered up :)

      I think it should go
      Training / Maintenance.

  3. WHat the technologists fail to do EVERYTIME is ask what makes a better attack airplane, tank, ship, etc. Pierre Sprey before specifying the A-10 requirements actually talked to the CAS pilots from Germany for WW II and Vietnam. He then analyzed what made an attack airplane survivable and effective. I was on the winning DD-21 (DDG-1000) bid team and asked what 10 things make a destroyer great? No answer to that question but lts of unproven technology was added (leading to cost growths that limited the ship class to 3).

    Lastly remember the proven priorities: people, ideas, hardware (tehcnology). Reverse the order and you get unaffordable militaries that do not win.

    1. Anon, your comment leaves me with a bunch of questions I'd love to hear the answers to!

      What did you mean about 10 questions for the DD-21 (DDG-1000) not being answered? Do you mean the design team asked the questions, got no answers, and went ahead anyway? Do you mean that you asked but that the design team didn't?

      I'd love to know what the design team considered the DDG-1000 to be. It's not really a destroyer, in terms of its intended functions, so a better destroyer wouldn't actually be appropriate. What did the team think the ship was and, therefore, what questions were asked and of whom?

      How closely did was seakeeping aspect of that hull form examined prior to design?

      I could go on all day. Any more information for us?

      Thanks for commenting!

    2. Sorry to disappoint you but no one on the design team was asking any questions like what I mentioned. That was me trying to inject some customer value into the bidding process.

      Another example of adding unnessary technology is the mine avoidance sonar on DDG 1000. During wargames in Phase 1 retired Navy Captains acting as role players, said I am not going to take this (then) $1B ship anywhere near a minefield when you give me a gun that can reach at least 60 NM. However, the experimental mine avoidance sonar was added, along with the cost.

      No one examined the tumblehome either. Stealth is what drove the hull design, even though it complicates the VLS cell placement and internal space arrangements. I find it fascinating that expereinced shipbuiilders and retired Admirals question the stability of that design and the PM merely responds with I have the latest data everything it fine. Why is there a special training module being developed for quartering seas for the DDG 1000.

    3. Anon, thanks for the comments. I take it you've seen the next post on the tumblehome hull form? The video specifically mentions quartering seas among other potential problems.

  4. I take issue with the Sherman tank example. when introduced in 1943, the Sherman was superior in all terms to the German PzKw III and IV. Even as the Tiger and Panther were introduced in mid-1943, they never accounted for more than 20% of German AFV production. The PzKw IV and Stug III were really the back bone of the Wermacht, but were inferior to the Sherman in all respects, except a modest advantage in fire power. The Panther, although termed a medium tank by the Germans, was by weight, cost, and manufacturing demands, a heavy tank. And the Panther could be killed by late war M4s.

    The issue about quantity versus quality is a great point.

    Your point about the A-10 versus F-35 is another good point. We have been fighting a counterinsurgency/LIC since 2001 and after 12-years of war, we still do not have a cheap, 2-seat (for a FAC/FO), attack/patrol aircraft.

    Capt Hughes made the point in a recent paper that it is better to have a constant production of a good base hull, that gets steady improvements every 10-12 hulls, rather than to try for a revolution in each iterative design. Dr. Friedman made a great point that since the USN "general board" process has gone away, the LCS is the first USN ship subjected to the Pentagon procurement process, where endless committees of nameless (and unaccountable) bureaucrats.

    1. Anon, you're making my point for me. The Germans started the war with technically superior tanks and when the Sherman was introduced the Germans maintained that superiority with the Tiger and Panther. That they couldn't produce those tanks in sufficient numbers to matter is exactly my point. The most technologically advanced weapon system in the world is useless if it can't be produced in numbers that will win the war.

      I'm confused about your General Board comment. The Board was disbanded in 1951. The LCS is not the first ship to have been procured since then. There have been plenty of ship acquisitions since then. I'm missing something. What did you mean?

    2. ComNavOps,

      To be fair, the Germans started the war with tanks that were either equal to or inferior than other nations in 1939-40. French tanks were better armored and sometimes better armed. Some British tanks were impossible to be destroyed by early war Panzers and had to be knocked out by artillery or FlaK 36's.

      German tanks had better ergonomics and crew layout in many cases, as well as upgradeability, which made the Panzer IV a vehicle equal to the Sherman. Was it produced in less numbers? Yes. I will not deny that numbers, training, and some good guess work gave the Allies well deserved and needed victories.

      The Panther was a far more common vehicle than people realize--almost 6,000 of them were built, compared to the backbone Panzer IV, which had 8,800 to 9,870 depending on the source. StuG’s and Ferdinand’s had the best kill to loss ratio of ANY AFV ever. The Tiger II, while derided as a waste of effort, was actually a well-designed and performed as well if not better than other nation’s designs. Of course, they were not produced in great numbers, but they were very difficult to destroy and more than able to destroy anything anyone used, including the IS-2.

      Ah, I might be rambling, though. Long day!

      To prove the point of this post, tactics and training, as well as a strategic goal, lead to the crushing defeat of the French and British in France in the early part of the war, just like how it allowed the Allies to say in the fight and eventually win it.

      We should have equipment that can be lively and able to provide effective combat abilities over a long time, being upgradeable as much as possible to prolong its life as long as possible. This gives us better time to design the next vehicle without wasting time over redesigns and mistakes.

      There's plenty examples of it in history. M4 Sherman's, Panzer IV's, T-34-85's, the StuG, the IS series of tanks, etc, etc. They all fit the bill of durable, reliable equipment that could be more easily produced and STILL remain effective in combat.

      We need to learn from history better.

    3. Anon, I'm not an expert on French and British pre-war tank designs by any means so I'll gladly accept your comments. What were the British designs, in particular, that were superior, initially? I'd like to do some self-education and a nudge in the right direction would be appreciated!

      Interestingly, though, if the French and British had superior tanks and yet were totally defeated, that still supports the numbers over technology premise. Of course, there were many other factors at work, as you point out.

      The overall point remains that the pursuit of technology is often a non-productive route as far as winning wars is concerned. History teaches that numbers and training are far more important than technology. Of course, I'm all for technology as long as the pursuit of it doesn't cripple the acquisition of other needed equipment. The JSF, for instance, is killing military budgets while promising limited advances in technology. The replacement SSBN is going to suck up enormous budget shares. The Ford class is devastating the Navy shipbuilding budget while offering modest improvements. And so on ...

    4. I am sticking by my assertion: the Panther and Tiger were in fact very rare tanks on the battlefield, in fact of the 41,151 or so AFVs the Germans build during WWII, the most common AFV 25% of production were stug III assault guns.

      AFV Number Percentage
      PzKpfw III 5733 13.9%
      Stug III/IV 10548 25.6%
      PzKpfw IV 8544 20.8%
      PzKpfw V Panther 5976 14.5%
      PzKpfw VI Tiger 1355 3.3%
      Tiger II 489 1.2%

      If you start looking at actual AFV availability rates, the Panther and Tiger had much lower fielded strength do to mechanical unreliability, particularly the final drive gear boxes on the Panther. This exacerbated the lack of recovery vehicles and the difficulty in repairing running gear due to the interlocking road wheels (look to Thomas L. Jentz's numerous excellent books).

      In contrast, the T34 and M4 Sherman tanks in addition to being suitable for volume production, had excellent reliability. The T34 had a superior fuel efficient diesel.

      On key point about quantity, is the allies had enough tanks ships and aircraft and could afford to spar production for specialist vehicles. The wehrmacht never produced an effective combat engineering vehicle and commanders typically tried to force minefields with tanks. The Tiger, being a break through tank, suffered badly at Kursk, were many were put out of action by mines. The British, Russians, and American had plenty of mine roller tanks, flail tanks, and other engineer vehicles that substantially aided combat operations, and preserved the force.

      A look at USN warships during WWII shows, numerous successful variations built on base hulls, to produce radar pickets, PT tenders, mine sweeps, and many,many useful specialized ships.

      When you are limited severely in production/economy, you also lose the ability to specialize at key tasks.



    5. GAB, what is it you're sticking by? Is someone disputing that the German's best designs unable to be fielded in sufficient numbers? I'm certainly not!! It proves the point of the post that superior numbers win out over superior technology far too often and that the Navy is heading down the wrong path of superior technology.

      The Sherman and T34 were simple, reliable, and easily produced. That's the point of the post!

    6. "Anon, you're making my point for me. The Germans started the war with technically superior tanks and when the Sherman was introduced the Germans maintained that superiority with the Tiger and Panther."

      ComNavOps I am a fan of quantity, but I am not following you, the M4 Sherman was superior to the main line PzKw IV that was common in 1943. The British ran the Africa Corps most of the way out by the introduction of large numbers of M3, M4 and M5 tanks which were equal or superior to what the German's fielded.

      The Panther and Tiger were part of the quest for combat supremacy, that ended badly for the Germans.


  5. Interesting the discussion has only touched on training - to train 100 b52 crews and mechanics, you need 100 b52 crews and mechanic - all with their costs of salary, boarding, pensions, family accommodations, etc., etc.

    Looking at the US military, while the expensive platforms are getting all the attention, in 2010 only $220B of a $684B budget was procurement and new stuff, everything else was maintenance and support of kit and 'maintenance and support' of personnel and their families.

    Maybe 60 B52s vs 20 B2s is more realistic, but lifetime costs usually outweigh any up front purchase cost.

    1. Anon, you make a good observation. Many more lower tech platforms, as I suggest, do indeed mean more personnel and operating costs. Some of the money saved from not developing light years advanced platforms would have to go to operating costs and not just straight into purchases. Perhaps we need to focus much more on automation? Perhaps we need to make maintainability as much a priority as combat capability? Perhaps, and this is a big one in line with my main point about technical complexity, we need to purposely design simpler systems that sacrifice a bit of performance for a large gain in reliability and maintainability (somewhat along the old Soviet model)?

      Consider the analogy of a bicycle. Shoud we buy a 24 gear, paper thin super alloy lightweight frame, dual auto-adjust hand brakes, on-board generator for lights, etc. or should we buy a basic, rugged, one-speed bike that you just push back on the pedal to stop? The fancy bike gains you a bit of performance, as long as you provide enough maintenance to keep it working, while the basic bike can be ridden forever with no maintenance.

      Interestingly, at the moment, the military is purchase limited rather than operations limited. In fact, the Navy is continually raiding the operations budget to help fund new construction. The Navy's constant complaints about O&M costs are just because they want to shift as much as possible to new construction rather than because the O&M budget is too small or wouldn't be approved by Congress.

      The only thing more expensive than winning a war is losing a war.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.