With some apologies to AC/DC, the latest Economist has an interesting story on increasingly cheaper and deadlier conventional weapons. Systems are coming online that can engage more targets at a lowered cost, ranging from rockets to more advanced unmanned systems:
early sign of this change came in March, with the deployment in Afghanistan of
the APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) made by BAE Systems and
Northrop Grumman. The APKWS II is a smart version of the old-fashioned 70mm
(2.75-inch) rocket, which has been used by America’s armed forces since 1948. It
is also cheap, as guided missiles go, costing $18,000 a shot. The APKWS II is loaded and fired in the same way (pictured above) as
its unguided predecessors, from the same 19-round pods, making its use
straightforward. The difference is that it can strike with an accuracy
of one metre because it has been fitted with a laser-seeking head which
follows a beam pointed at the target by the missile’s operators. This
controls a set of fins that can steer the missile to its destination. Standard practice with unguided 70mm missiles is to use as many as
two pods’ worth (ie, 38 rockets, at $1,000 a round) to blanket a target.
That means the APKWS II comes in at less than half the cost per kill.
It also means that many more targets can be attacked on a single
The story goes into similar standoff engagement systems, but doesn’t examine the flipside: the increasing diffusion of precision-strike capabilities able to target US forces and infrastructure. Thomas Mahnken and others chronicling the “maturing revolution in military affairs” have predicted that the biggest problems will lie in protecting fixed infrastructure. Bases, ports, logistics nodes, and other immobile and inflexible targets will be vulnerable. Indeed, greater US investment in long-range strike systems in the Pacific also likely portend a shift from deterrence by denial to deterrence by punishment.
Camp Bastion demonstrated the low-tech side of dangers to US bases overseas, which in the near term may be more likely than any standoff assault. Holding American bases at risk in the Persian Gulf, for example, may raise the cost of US action but also is likely to trigger a devastating military response. Iran’s preferred method of proxy warfare and state terrorism is considerably more below-the-radar and thus more politically difficult to counter.
There are also interesting political implications of cheap precision-strike weapons to consider. Paul Bracken predicted in 1999 that Asian armies were shifting away from land-based, infantry-heavy peasant armies to organizations that place higher prestige on long-range strike, ballistic missile units, and unconventional weapons. The political effects of these new long-range weapons varied, as Bracken predicted some states would use their weapons to increase their freedom of action in the international system. Others would use them to empower certain groups of national elites, like Iran’s Pasdaran. The rise of Hezbollah actually is a case in point of a sub-state actor generating political effects from its collection of indirect fire platforms. It exerts some measure of international influence it would not otherwise have from its ability to punish Israel’s strategic rear and can market itself as a defender of Lebanon’s national interest with its anti-tank standoff weapons. Hezbollah is unlikely to be the last sub-state actor to exploit access to indirect fire weapons in the same way.