Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Quality vs Quantity

An old debate in military circles, one that's practically guaranteed to stir up opposing opinions.

Is it better to have a smaller number of high quality items such as advanced warships, or is it better to have a more numerous collection of less high tech types, relying on numbers and the quality of the crews to make the difference.

It's a debate that frankly never seems to end, nor is it ever likely to. The most recent favourite subject of this discussion tends to be the Lockheed Martin F-35, with opinions varying wildly about whether it is an expensive weight around the neck of the USAF and others, or whether it is the future of aerial warfare and the new benchmark for multi-role fighter design.

So which is better, quality or quantity?

I'm actually going to duck out of offering an answer because I don't think there is enough evidence to decisively say either way. One thing that does concern me though is the numerous comments I see about how tactics and training can supposedly solve all the ills of poor equipment. It rather smacks of the "make do and mend" attitude that seems to have been attached to the British armed forces for God knows how long. While making do and mending is fine and is indicative of a superb level of initiative and creativity among the forces, it is also indicative of a system that repeatedly fails to deliver the required equipment and spares.

There are lots of examples that get brought up from history to prove that man triumphs over machine, some of which I want to go through here. Generally my view is that while clever tactics and a healthy dose of courage can overcome most deficiencies in equipment, the fact that often extreme measures are required to offset technical disadvantages is not really a sound argument for cheerleading the purchase of inferior equipment.

A good example of this is the Brewster Buffalo.

The Buffalo was a fighter aircraft built in the United States by the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation that first flew in 1937. Almost as soon as it entered service however it was realised that it was inferior to the main types being built in the UK and Germany such as the Spitfire, Hurricane and Bf 109. Lacking armour, self-sealing fuel tanks and just two machine guns it was vulnerable to enemy fire and possessed little in the way of offensive punch. 

Adding armour, better protected tanks, more fuel to offset the poor range and two additional machine guns to remedy its lack of firepower served only to weigh the aircraft down, reducing its already sub-par top speed and degrading its sole useful feature which was its decent agility.

The results were not pretty. Aircraft originally destined for France and Belgium were diverted to Britain, where the aircraft was recognised as being unsuitable for modern air combat. Some were used as advanced trainers, while others were shipped to the Pacific theatre to defend against the Japanese, where they met additional Buffaloes in service with the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Despite some highly disputable claim counts (kill claims throughout the war - in all theatres and by all sides - would prove to be grossly over stated when checked later against proper records) the Buffalo proved a terrible disappointment. Against good quality Japanese pilots flying modern fighter aircraft like the "Zero" the Buffalo was no real match. It couldn't climb with its opponents, couldn't out run them in a straight line and couldn't turn with them in a dogfight. It's one advantage, mainly due to the additional weight, was the ability to dive and run. 

Suffice to say that it didn't take long for the Buffalo to be removed from front line service completely. Accept in Finland that is, where it lasted a bit longer.

The Finns desperately needed fighters and took whatever they could from the western nations, which included Brewster Buffaloes. And surprisingly enough they actually did quite well with them. Even if we take into account an allowance for over claiming of kills, the Finns still did a number on their Russian opponents using this otherwise much maligned aircraft.

There are a number of mitigating factors however. Firstly, a lot of the kills claimed were bombers, making up anywhere from 50% to as much as 75% of all the kill claims in the Buffalo. The second factor is that a lot of the Russian fighters they faced weren't much better than the Buffalo. Thirdly, the Russian tactics took "simplified" to a new level, and routinely involved them just setting up a Lufbery circle (all aircraft fly in a big circle, covering the tail of the plane in front), which the Finns then dived down onto to pick them off.

Getting back to run ins with Zeroes however, as this remains the subject of our next piece of kit; the Wildcat.

The Grumman F4F Wildcat, built predominantly as a carrier fighter for the US Navy and Royal Navy (known as the "Martlet" in British service), also first flew in 1937 and gradually began to take over at the sharp end from the Buffalo. 

The Wildcat has often been touted as the inferior of the Mitsubishi Zero and as such its success against the Japanese plane has long been used as a poster child for invention and training over technical means. But to me that's rather straining the definition of the term "inferior". 

Inferior in speed? Yes, by about 13 mph on the common types in service in 1941. Inferior in the turn? Yes, by a reasonable margin. But the Zero wasn't without its own problems. Probably the two most glaring issues were the lack of firepower and protection, two issues it shared with the Buffalo.

While the Zero did carry a pair of 20mm cannon, it lacked the ammunition capacity (60 rounds) for pilots to make much use of them except at anything but the very closest range, and even then trying to score a hit on a moving target with just 60 rounds to play with was no easy feat. Once that ammunition was spent it left the Zero pilot with just a pair of 7.7mm machine guns with which to try and chew through the Wildcats robust construction, self sealing fuel tanks, and cockpit armour.

The reverse situation was very different. The Zero lacked armour or self sealing tanks and was built in a significantly lest robust manner. When subjected to the battery of six 0.5 inch calibre machine guns in the Wildcat it didn't take long for the Zero to start feeling the effects. Usually by catching fire in very short order.

At this point is worth bringing in the subject of the "Thach Weave", a defensive technique designed by then USN Commander John "Jimmy" Thach. This technique was designed to counter some of the weaknesses of the Wildcat and focus on its strengths. It required two aircraft to fly parallel with one another, spaced some distance apart but within easy visual range. When one of the aircraft was attacked from behind it turned towards the wingman. The wingman would also turn inwards towards his colleague in a slightly tighter turn. 

The two aircraft would now criss cross back and forth across the sky, turning towards one another. As they passed the aircraft being tailed by the enemy would be out in front and his wingman would have an opportunity to shoot at the trailing enemy. It was practically impossible for a Japanese fighter to pursue one aircraft without being shot at repeatedly by the other. Thus it was only a matter of time before one aircraft was dealt a fatal blow and in this war of attrition the side with the best protection and the greatest firepower would win more often than it lost. That side was the side with the Wildcat.

Thus we now often see this example being used as a symbol of tactics over equipment as the sole cause of victory. But that really is only a half truth. It wasn't really the case that tactics were used to make inferior equipment work. Rather, tactics were used to minimise the relative friendly disadvantages compared to the enemy, while emphasising the strong advantages. Unlike with the Buffalo the Wildcat actually had something to offer in the fight against the Zero.

These are just two examples, but there are many more. The fortunes of the Sherman tank in Northern France against the Germans, especially the under gunned variety, is another sobering example of how poor equipment forced some quite extreme measures in order to keep casualties down and to try and stay competitive with the enemy.

Now this should not be taken as an argument against tactical innovation or bowing to the altar of technology over all other concerns. But what I hope it does do is remind us that technological inferiority often comes at a price, that price being much higher casualties and severe tactical constraints that inhibit the ability of the forces to perform to their best.

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