Military technology: losing our ‘edge’?

A recent report claims the West is losing its military advantage over other nations and regions because of the proliferation of high-technology weapons to ‘niche’ players.  At the launch of ‘The Military Balance 2016‘, the latest edition of its annual report, John Chipman, Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, pointed out that unmanned systems, missiles and ‘smart’ bombs were no longer the preserve of the larger powers, but were being encountered even in smaller third-world arsenals.  Chinese CH-4 UAV’s, similar to the US Predator, were now operational in Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan;  accurate, long-range cruise missiles such as those recently used by Russia against Syrian rebels are available on the international arms market;  and advanced missiles and ‘smart’ bombs were entering service in many countries.

I spoke of a related issue in my article ‘Weekend Wings #41‘, where I said about South Africa’s arms industry:

The Cheetah and Carver programs, and all the projects related to them, were remarkable achievements by a country that until the 1970’s was relatively unsophisticated, technologically speaking. They bear stark witness to an unintended consequence of international sanctions; in striving to circumvent them, the target country may develop far more advanced technologies, and far greater capabilities, than it had before. This was certainly the case with South Africa. Indeed, the expertise that its arms industry gained during the sanctions era, and continued to develop since then, is now helping other nations, including China and Pakistan, to develop and field sophisticated weapons of their own. Both countries are arms suppliers to nations such as Iran, which in turn has ties to Syria, North Korea, etc. We really, really don’t want countries such as the latter three to have access to such technology. It would be bitterly ironic if the armed forces of the USA and NATO countries one day found themselves confronting weapons and systems that were developed as a direct result of their sanctions and embargoes against South Africa.

If I may use South Africa as an example of just how easy it is for technology to proliferate first to, and then from, other countries, I’d like to offer a few examples.  In my younger days, I was involved in the early stages of the development of some of these weapons.

  1. As discussed in Weekend Wings #41, South Africa reverse-engineered an early model of the US Sidewinder air-to-air missile during the 1960’s, and used the knowledge thus obtained as the starting point for successive models of its V3 Kukri missile during the 1970’s and 1980’s, each more capable than its predecessor.  Its latest development is the so-called ‘A-Darter‘, a fifth-generation infrared-guided air-to-air missile that’s claimed to be equal to or better than the latest-generation Sidewinder, the AIM-9X.  It’s currently in joint production with Brazil, and will enter service this year.  It’s on offer without restriction to other nations – even those barred from obtaining equivalent US or European air-to-air weapons.  (As discussed in Weekend Wings #41, South African missile technology might also have helped China develop some of its more advanced air-to-air weapons.)
  2. South Africa fielded the ZT-3 Ingwe (Leopard) laser-guided beam-riding anti-tank missile in the late 1980’s.  It was based on Israel’s MAPATS missile, which was itself based on the US TOW missile, upgraded to use laser rather than wire guidance.  The Ingwe has since been sold to other countries (for example, in Weekend Wings #41 you’ll find a photograph of eight Ingwe missiles carried by an Algerian Mi-17 helicopter), and continuously upgraded.  Its latest iteration incorporates an improved multi-mode warhead, with a thermobaric warhead also under consideration.  Its design also contributed to the considerably more advanced Mokopa air-to-ground missile, an equivalent to the US Hellfire weapon.
  3. The US JDAM kit is attached to Mark 80-series aerial ‘dumb’ bombs to convert them into ‘smart’ bombs.  The USA was selective in who it allowed to buy JDAM’s, but the concept has been copied by several countries.  Israel produced its ‘Spice‘ kits, including most recently the Spice 250, which appears similar to the US Small Diameter Bomb, and has sold them to many countries.  South Africa developed its own equivalent in the form of the Umbani smart bomb kit.  Arab nations, of course, can’t buy the Israeli weapon, and some of them could not obtain US JDAM kits due to political considerations.  Therefore, a company in Abu Dhabi has formed a partnership with South Africa’s Denel to manufacture the Umbani in the former country, under the name of Al Tariq.  They’ll be available to any nation (Arab or otherwise) that can afford them, irrespective of US political or military concerns.  The partnership might lead to the manufacture of other precision weapons and guided missiles in due course.

So, from my own experience, I can attest that technology – military or otherwise – is like Pandora’s box.  Once it’s out there, for good or ill, it will be analyzed, studied, copied and imitated.  Using modern computer technology, such analysis and imitation is considerably easier than it was in the past.  The copies and imitations will be sold to anyone with the money to buy them.

To create even more difficulty, modern high-technology weapons might be hard to identify as such – and if you don’t know they’re there, or where they are, how can you counteract or destroy them?  For example, Russian 3M54 Klub cruise missiles can be disguised in standard shipping containers.  They can be trucked anywhere under the pretense of being commercial cargoes, and fired without warning at any targets within range (which might be hundreds or even thousands of miles, depending on the version of the missile involved).  Here’s a sales video from the Russian manufacturer showing how it would work.

If the USA finds itself in a war with a third world nation today, the odds of our forces facing ‘smart’ weapons that can inflict significant damage and casualties on them are considerably greater than they were even a few years ago.  That’s not an encouraging prospect.



  1. Hiding weaponry in commercial systems like that instantly brings my thinking back to the days of old with pilots roaming the countryside of Europe in a Mustang or Thunderbolt looking to strafe anything that moved… although modern shoulder fired AA weaponry kind of makes that even more dangerous to the pilots now than it was then…
    I sure hope I don't see a world war in my lifetime, but it sure seems like TPTB are setting the stage for just that on almost every facet you can look at.

  2. The US has had a supreme luxury in every war it has fought since 1865.

    The battlefield with minor exceptions has been the opponents home.

    Willy and Joe, sunk in a crap filled foxhole, low on ammo, food, and sleep, still never had to worry about their families back home.

  3. I've been worried since 9/11 that someone will put a scud or several cruise missiles into a shipping container and launch it from a ship a hundred miles or so off the coast. I guess I wasn't paranoid.

    If every shipping container is a threat there would be no way to destroy them all. There are millions of them and people all over the world use them as houses, stables, garages and storage units.


  4. The 'missile-in-a-container' idea has been around for a while. This was the concept behind PeaceKeeper Rail Garrison and (earlier this decade) Titan's Affordable Weapon System (AWS). The USN ended up not being interested in AWS. Though, to my thinking, AWS would be perfect for use by allied forces that don't have the technical capability to field/maintain their own.

  5. And combine this with wmd.

    A scud missile by itself does not do much.

    For done thing scary, read the weapon by Michael Williamson.

    Or if al Qaeda gets a nuke or two into the us. caliphate by Tim Kratman (free on has one possible us reaction.

    Plus what happens when assasination by uav's is no longer done by just the us. The us has a legal process that few other countries will even think of duplicating.

    And uav's filled with explosives is another threat that will happen soon, the ultimate suicide bomber.

    Another anon

  6. Yes, precision weapons in the hands of potential enemies can cause problems – see, for example, how Israel was affected by anti-ship and anti-tank missiles in Lebanon a few years ago.
    However, note that their use is technically demanding; just having the hardware doesn't mean it can be put to good use.
    In the US it is not widely appreciated the gulf between our educational system and that of many other countries; for example, China may have passed us in number of college graduates, but their quality is pitifully low. The high tech weapons they boast about in media are only bought in small numbers due to the limited number of people who can operate and maintain these weapons.
    Another factor limiting their use is the price – remember that the budget of the US military is about equal to the combination of every other military budget globally; few militaries can afford the expanse of a substantial number of these weapons.
    At the time of the Falklands war, the Argentines had just 7 Exocet missiles. While each one could do serious damage, they didn't have enough to stop their enemy. In Syria today, while the Russians show off their precision weapons, most of the ordnance they are using is NOT precision – due to expense and the limited ability of their aircraft and crews to handle it.

    Is high tech weaponry in enemy hands a concern? Yes, is it a huge concern? No!

  7. The first question to be answered do they have the resolve to use the weapon knowing what the response will be?

    The second question is have we demonstrated that we will respond in such away to make using the weapon against us unacceptable?

    IMHO, the first answer is probably yes. The answer to the second question is no.

    Johnathan H: If you read any of the scientific journals, the majority of R&D articles in the sciences is done by Chicoms researchers. They also are the editors of many of the journals.


  8. Considering that the newest US weapons were designed 20 years ago, yeah, I'd say we have lost any edge we had. And it's not going to be getting any better any time soon.

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