Refighting World War II

In keeping with his commitment to do exactly what Tony Abbott would have done, but with more style, Malcolm Turnbull has just announced that we are to spend a trillion dollars on fighter plans and submarines. Apparently, there are lots of problems with the hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Australia has on order. Rather than look at the details, it’s worth asking we are, yet again, arming ourselves to refight World War II.

World War II was fought on land, sea and air. Submarines and fighter planes played a crucial role. But since 1945, things have changed. The 70 years since 1945 have been marked by near-continuous land warfare in various parts of the world [1]. On the other hand, there has been essentially no naval warfare, in the sense of battles between ships or carrier based aircraft, with the exception of the absurd and unnecessary Falklands conflict. Air combat between fighter planes lasted a bit longer after 1945, playing a big role in the Korean War, but has been pretty much non-existent since the 1980s. All warplanes, these days, are effectively bombers, usually hitting targets that have previously been rendered defenceless by missile attack. Yet the problems of the F-35 stem, in large measure, from its capacity to engage in hypothetical dogfights.

Fighter planes and their pilots still attract most of the attention, and nearly all the glory, in air warfare. But the real work is increasingly done by drone operators, commuting from the suburbs to undertake their task of destruction in air conditioned offices: since they see exactly what they have done, the job is apparently much more stressful than that of a fighter pilot. So far, only the US is using military drones on a large scale, but it’s obvious that this is the way of future wars. The specific problems of the F-35 are irrelevant in this context: it will in any case be obsolete by the time it’s delivered.

As for submarines, Wikipedia gives a list of submarine actions since 1945. There have been six of them, three involving the sinking of surface ships, and three involving the firing of cruise missiles, something that can be done from craft as small as corvettes.

Submarines have been much more notable for sinking themselves. Wikipedia lists four US submarines sunk at sea since 1945, two with all hands. The Russians have done far worse, losing 18 subs, most notably the Kursk, lost with all hands in 2000.

Submarines aren’t obsolete in all their possible uses. If the world ends in a nuclear holocaust, the final missiles will probably be fired from nuclear-armed submarines. But the revival of old-style submarine warfare, using our subs to sink (say) Chinese naval vessels seems remote: the increasing power and range land based anti-ship missiles will soon make naval power obsolete. Even more remote (thankfully) is the use of submarines to attack merchant ships without warning, as was done in both World Wars.

Of course, no one can be certain that seemingly obsolete modes of warfare won’t be revived: For example, there was a cavalry charge during the Afghan war. But spending a trillion dollars on weapons systems that haven’t been used anywhere in the world for decades does not seem like a sensible use of public money.

Having posted this, I’m fully prepared to get a hammering from military buffs who will point out that I have got this or that detail of air and naval warfare wrong. But the idea that detailed knowledge of tech specs or the minor points of military history constitutes expertise is, in this context, quite wrong. In the absence of any significant air or naval warfare within living memory, supposed expertise is about as useful as Scott Morrison’s knowledge of unicorns. The only important thing to know is that, like nearly all military expenditure and nearly all wars, these proposed purchases haven’t been subject to a cost-benefit test and would fail it if they were.

fn1. There’s a case that land warfare has become less frequent, or at least less bloody over time. But it’s hard to tell.

64 thoughts on “Refighting World War II

  1. “So far, only the US is using military drones on a large scale, but it’s obvious that this is the way of future wars.”

    Not necessarily, the US is using drones against targets in Third World countries, they wouldn’t last five minutes against the Chinese or Russian defence forces. I’m sure somewhere the world’s militaries are developing, or have already developed, hunter-killer drones. To be effective against technologically advanced enemies drones would probably need to be autonomous and that’s a really scary scenario.

  2. Is it possible that this is a smart move by Turnbull? Shorten has an almost pathological habit of agreeing with anything the government says on “national security”. By agreeing, he makes the ALP seem more like the Libs, and hence less of an alternative.

    Would it be “crazy brave” of Shorten to come out with a vastly lower expenditure on defence so as to continue to highlight the difference between the parties? Hell, he could even say that they’d spend the difference on education.

  3. On a slightly adjacent topic, I (have insomnia, thus) saw the docu-drama “37 days to war” on SBS , late Saturday night. Three episodes back-to-back, brought to life the Sarajevo assassination that in its own serpentine way led to World War I. There are some decent actors/actresses in the mix, too.

  4. Donald Oats :
    I think 9/11, and more importantly the aftermath, taught us some lessons that went largely unheeded. If a different person had been president (of the USA), a very different response could have been the result. Perhaps there would have been a bigger force in Afghanistan, and no destruction of Iraq. Perhaps ISIS would have only been a fringe player at best.
    Or, the president could have been Donald Trump. Imagine that, and what the aftermath could have been.

    Was it all the president though? Yep, he is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and has the ultimate say, but he appeared to rely a lot on the advice of the hard-right string pullers like Cheney when it came to big strategic calls.

  5. I think that you’re probably right, particularly re. the fighters. But if I was to try to make a counterargument, it would include these two premises:

    1. Since WWII warfare has mostly been very asymmetrical – one great power against guerrilla forces (who are usually armed by another power). The sorts of conflicts that people are speculating may occur in East Asia in the medium-term are more of a return to conventional warfare between great powers – less Cold War, more WWII.

    2. Figures on the number of uses (e.g. of submarines since WWII) do not provide a good account of their significance in shaping conflict. The extreme example is nuclear weaponry, which has not been fully used in conflict since WWII (thankfully!!) but certainly has an enormous effect on what hawkish governments are prepared to do.

  6. @Val
    I’m interested in details, and I’m not going to stop being interested in details just because you tell me not to worry about them and try to howl me down.

  7. @BilB

    Grea’ document’ry! πŸ˜‰

    “Here’s person gooin’ ta wurk on bike. Here’s person gooin’ ta wurk on motorbike. Here’s person gooin’ ta wurk in car. Aye! Here’s person gooin’ thru turnstile. Here’s ‘nother person gooin’ thru turnstile. Aye! Here’s person takin’ pies oota ooven. Here’s nother purson takin’ pies oota ooven. Ooops sooory, tha’ wa’ same person takin’ pies oota ooven.

    These persons live in a town. This town has loots af related persons livin in town. Tha’ aw’ work ut fact’ry maakin’ submarine. Haint wa learnin’ looots bout maakin’ sub-marines. We prafer makin’ billion pound submarine to makin’ say flud mitigation warks. We prefer ta let our towns flud. Bu’ wa hav’ luvly submarine. Maybe we can goo hame on sub-marine.

    We aa’ live in a yellow submarine… wall ooctually uts blaack.. buut you get th’ picture. Aye!”

  8. Yes, indeed Ikonoclast, such is the calibre of documentaries today. Learning from such depends on whether you can add together the technical image snippets. No-one is rushing out to divulge their submarine construction secrets. If you feel let down then maybe this will appease you

    …stop at the halfway point as the second half is about the fanfare of launching the ship. Even the Yanks know how to string out a doco. What am I saying, they invented the technique.

  9. Sorry for my poor English, this is not my native language.

    Subs almost never were used to sink enemy combat ships but merchant shipping : North Atlantic 1939/45, Med 1940/43, Pacific 1941/45. In case of conflict, Chinese tankers would most likely become theirs primary targets.

  10. @Metryll
    Surely that logic is obsolete – many/most US subs can launch Tomahawks which means they can hit anything within range of the missile.

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