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Defense Focus: High-tech limits -- Part 2

A Messerschmidt 262.
by Martin Sieff
Washington, April 16, 2008
What matters most with weapons systems is not how fast and how high, or even how heavily armed the aircraft flies, the tank rumbles or the warship sails, or even how powerful their guns and missiles are, but whether the systems will actually work reliably and how much punishment they can take.

The vulnerabilities of weapons systems from tanks to combat fighters and automatic rifles are often minor but devastating engineering or manufacturing glitches that don't show up on their printed specifications.

Nazi Germany built more than 1,200 Messerschmidt 262s, the most technologically advanced combat fighter of World War II. It could fly 100 mph or more -- faster than the best U.S. piston-engine fighters it was up against -- and had an excellent armament of 30mm cannon. But the Me-262 also had a rather obvious vulnerability that didn't show up on its abstract specifications -- it blew up all the time. A single 20mm cannon hit from one of those far slower, older and far less sexy Allied piston-engine fighters turned it -- and its pilot -- into a blazing fireball.

The Soviet T-55 Main Battle Tank, that famous mainstay of the Red Army and its Warsaw Pact allies during much of the Cold War, had a similar problem. It looked magnificent and is widely used in a surprising number of developing countries to impress and deter the people from mounting large or active popular demonstrations against their governments.

In that role, the T-55 is still excellent, but in combat against any passable U.S., British or German tank, many of them wouldn't have lasted a minute. Its engine and fuel tank had a nasty tendency to burst into flames after a single hit.

The famous Sherman tank, the mainstay of both the U.S. and British armies in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, had precisely the same problem, which was why German Panzer commanders were able to destroy so many of them during the Battle of Normandy in 1944. British tankers therefore called their own early model Shermans "Ronsons" after popular cigarette lighters of the day, because they caught fire so easily.

The U.S. Army's M-16 automatic rifle was another weapon whose specifications looked wonderful on paper and that seemed to perform superbly in safely sanitized field tests, but with an embarrassing and obvious weakness when it came to combat: In the jungles of South Vietnam, the M-16 kept jamming, often in the middle of firefights. That was why so many U.S. combat troops ditched theirs and used Soviet-manufactured Kalashnikov AK-47s captured from the Viet Cong instead. The tough, robust old AK-47 never jammed -- never.

Modern surface warships of the U.S. and British navies designed and built over the past 30 years share a common weakness -- like so many big, impressive heavyweight boxers throughout history, they can be big, fast, powerful and handsome -- but they can't take a punch.

This was brought home to the British when first the cruiser Sheffield and then other British warships were sunk after suffering only one or two hits from Argentina's French-built Exocet low-flying cruise missiles during the 1982 Falklands war. As respected U.S. defense analyst David Crane pointed out in Defense Review a couple of years ago, U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers today do not carry a fraction of the armor protection that a World War II battleship did.

However, sometimes embarrassing or potentially fatal vulnerabilities in weapons systems can be fixed -- by high-tech or other, more unconventional, means.

Next: Turning turkeys into eagles

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Lockheed Martin Proposes An Integrated Approach To JLTV Survivability
Owego NY (SPX) Apr 15, 2008
Lockheed Martin submitted its proposal for the Technology Development phase of the competition to build the next-generation Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. The proposal, delivered to the services' joint JLTV program office on April 11, offers an integrated approach to military vehicle survivability that combines vehicle design with systems intelligence.

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