The Five Most Overrated Weapons of War

Nuclear Weapons: "they appear to be nearly useless in all configurations."

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including America’s Troubled F-35: Five Ways to Replace It, Will the F-35 Dominate the Skies?, Five Best Bombers of All Time, Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time, and Five Revolutionary Soviet Weapons of War that Never Happened.

Overrated” is a challenging concept.  In sports, a player can be “great” and “overrated” at the same time.  Future Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, for example, is quite clearly a “great” player, well deserving of the first ballot invitation he will likely receive.  However, as virtually all statistically minded aficionados of the game have noted, he is highly overrated (especially on defense) by the baseball press. Similarly, no one doubts that Kobe Bryant is an outstanding basketball player.  However, many doubt that he is quite as good as his fans (or the NBA commentariat) seem to believe.

The five weapons of war listed below are “overrated” in the sense that they occupy a larger space in the defense-security conversation than they really deserve.  Some of them are fantastic, effective systems, while others are not. All of them take up more ink than they should, and (often) distract from more important issues of warfighting and defense contracting.

Nuclear Weapons:

Nuclear weapons have, in an important sense, dominated international diplomacy for the last six decades. What they haven’t dominated is warfare, where they appear to be nearly useless in all configurations.

The United States designed much of its doctrine and force structure around the potential for atomic warfare in the first half of the Cold War.  Carrier aircraft were developed to deliver nukes, and the system of fleet air defense changed dramatically over concerns about tactical nuclear attack.  The Air Force built itself around the idea of a strategic nuclear offensive, deep into the Soviet Union.  The Army expected to deliver (and absorb) huge numbers of tactical nukes in a NATO-Warsaw Pact fight.

But since World War II, the United States has eschewed the use of nuclear weapons, even against capable non-nuclear opponents.  Because of the deep political complexity associated with their employment, the weapons simply have too little battlefield and strategic impact for the US to seriously entertain their use.

We very occasionally make veiled threats of the combat use of nukes, we often use nukes as diplomatic chips, and we certainly enjoy the deterrent umbrella than the strategic nuclear forces provide.  But the weapons themselves haven’t helped us win a war since 1945, even then under arguable circumstances.

This tension between weapons of war and weapons of diplomacy will continue to have a big effect on Navy and Air Force procurement.  Both services are legitimately concerned about the amount of warfighting capability they will lose from updating their legacy nuclear systems (ICBMs and SSBNs), systems that will almost certainly never fire in anger.

The A-10 Warthog:

No aircraft could live up to the legend that the Warthog has become.

The story of the A-10 is relatively well known.  Seeking to head off the growth of Army aviation, the Air Force proposed a ground attack aircraft to replace the A-1 Skyraider. The Air Force has never been enamored of the ground support mission, but it supported the A-10 (along with the “defense reform” movement of the 1970s and 1980s), eventually bringing several hundred Warthogs into the fleet.

Originally, the Warthog was expected to kill Soviet tanks, blunting a Warsaw Pact offensive into Germany, presumably at extremely high cost to the Warthogs themselves. The Cold War ended, however, and the Warthog only performed this role in Kuwait, where it devastated Iraqi Army forces in 1991.

Today, the A-10 is a useful counter-insurgency aircraft, although probably less useful than a dedicated, purpose built light attack aircraft like the A-29 Super Tucano. And the Warthog undoubtedly has problems. In a force that still enjoys the C-130 and B-52, we should hesitate to accuse any aircraft of excessive age. Nevertheless, the A-10 is old. It was designed for a foe much different than those we’re fighting today and those we anticipate fighting in the future.

But after years of Air Force efforts to retire the aircraft (and Army resistance to those aircraft), it has acquired such symbolic resonance that almost no one evaluates it objectively.  To take a position on the A-10 is to take a position on the importance of close air support, and on sixty years of Army-Air Force relations.  This dissonance lends itself to hyperbole on the part of both supporters and opponents.

But this is the other problem; even if the A-10 isn’t the ideal platform for modern close air support, it’s better than most of the options the Air Force is currently suggesting. And many (including some in Congress) view saddling the USAF with the A-10 as a way of ensuring the Air Force’s continued commitment to the close air support mission.

National Missile Defense (NMD):