Asia Defense | Security

Bloat and Warfare

Canada’s new frigates are the size of cruisers, and indicative of a wider trend toward ever-more complicated and expensive weapons.

Jacob Parakilas
Bloat and Warfare

HMCS Sackville, a corvette from WW II.

Credit: Flickr/Dennis Jarvis

Canada is replacing the core of its navy. A new class of 15 frigates, based on the British Type 26 design, are in the pipeline and expected to begin operations at the beginning of the next decade. What is notable about these ships is their size: at 9,400 tons, they are twice the size of the Halifax-class ships they will replace and 10 times that of the Royal Canadian Navy’s WWII-era frigates.

The process by which weapons systems become bigger, heavier, and costlier seems only to travel in one direction: military capabilities tend to either be retired without direct replacement or replaced with fewer, larger systems rather than more numerous, simpler ones.

Nor is this dynamic limited to one domain. Modern tanks and infantry fighting vehicles are so heavy they strain the carrying capacity of cargo aircraft and even roads and bridges. The advent of jet propulsion ballooned combat aircraft sizes, and decades later, modern warplanes show no signs of shrinking. Infantry weapons might be the exception to the rule, thanks to advances in plastics and high-strength metals, but the total load carried by an individual soldier is substantially heavier now than before.

There are, of course, some sound reasons for this endlessly ratcheting growth. Modern ships and aircraft have capabilities far exceeding their predecessors in terms of speed, range, weapons carriage, and electronic sophistication. Ground vehicles and infantry both are laden with armor because it increases survivability, meaning that soldiers can survive attacks that would have been fatal to their equivalents in decades past.

There are less tactical reasons for size creep as well. Pushing the boundaries of existing definitions is a time-tested way of pushing more ambitious programs through domestic opposition; the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18E Super Hornet, for example, used the basic shape and designation of the earlier F/A-18 Hornet but was in numerous respects an all-new aircraft, which helped it to sail through approval even as the military budget shrank during the 1990s. Similarly, the massive modern frigate (not solely a Canadian phenomenon) tends to be equipped for full-spectrum warfare, but reclassifying them to reflect their actual capabilities might be seen as escalatory — and without adding any punch to that implied threat.

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But adding capability and weight also increases costs, and more expensive assets are by necessity rarer ones. The United States built more than 14,000 P-51 Mustangs,15,000 P-47 Thunderbolts, 10,000 P-38 Lightnings, and tens of thousands of other types during World War II; it capped its purchase of the modern equivalent, the F-22 Raptor, at 187. Obviously a Raptor can do things that are beyond the capability of any number of piston-engined fighters, but limited numbers also incur vulnerabilities. A smaller force is hugely more imperiled by accidents, maintenance schedules, or combat attrition (especially in unconventional attacks).

One possible solution is to invest in more general-purpose platforms that can be repurposed for specific mission by adding specialized equipment modules. But this is not a universal solution: the essential characteristics of an airframe designed for radar evasion and high-performance flight are different from those of an airframe designed for ruggedness and ability to operate in austere environments — which is why the 1970s-era A-10 Warthog is still flying alongside the F-35 that was supposed to supplant it. Even in naval architecture, which provides more flexibility than aeronautics, experiments in modularity have not proven simpler, cheaper, or more effective than building specialist hulls.

There are some elements of modularity that have promise. The idea of mounting guided missiles on cargo aircraft, ships, and even trucks — or hiding them in cargo containers — suggests that militaries are slowly trying to shift their eggs out of a dwindling and increasingly expensive set of baskets. But those efforts represent a subtle shift, not a fundamental change: The funds appropriated for those efforts are a fraction of those being plunged into giant flagship systems.

To some degree that reflects the fact that most weapons, most of the time, are not being used in active combat operations. They reflect a set of political preferences: support for domestic industries and the maintenance of the foundations of a wartime industrial base, for instance, or desire for the ability to physically demonstrate national will and power. And the strategy of military procurement, like political science, is often limited by the extremely small number of case studies available. There simply aren’t all that many contemporary cases of militaries using swarms of cheap, expendable units to try and overwhelm high-end combatants. Presumably if the concept was completely hollow, Iran would not be continuing to invest in armed speedboats, China would not be continuing to build fast-attack missile boats, and the U.S. and its allies would not be investing in both evolutionary and unproven systems designed to combat such assailants.

But we do not know, and we may never find out. The next major inter-state war may prove that high-end capabilities can only be effectively challenged by their direct equivalents. Or it may end quickly because one or both sides are not willing to place those overwhelmingly valuable and nearly irreplaceable assets at risk.