(CNN) Generals Wesley Clark vs. Mark Hertling; Are Weapon Stockpiles Sufficient?

(CNN) Generals Wesley Clark vs. Mark Hertling.

I share sympathies of both. If you’re not in the room, it is impossible to know whether appearances are the result of intelligent strategy. It is impossible for those in the room to be certain that intelligent strategy is correct  strategy. In the fog of war, nothing is known with certainty in the time frame in which it is relevant.

I had a nagging sense that I was helping the Kremlin project fear when I wrote Ukraine, is a Holocaust in the Offing? and (CNN) ‘I’m smiling’: Ret. Lt. Gen. Hertling reacts to Putin news; Putin takes Command. Since the Kremlin reads this blog, I don’t intend to elucidate possible strategies.

Clark expresses concern that contracts have not been let for Eastern bloc 152mm shells. The tooling may no longer be usable. Manufacture of ammunition leaves little room for error. A misformed shell can blow up a barrel. Here we recast this concern for precision weapons.

This conflict is an approximation of a match-up not seen before:

  • Red, massive, backwards, low-tech army structured for high-intensity warfare, accepting huge casualties as valid cost of conflict.
  • Blue,  superbly trained, high tech, large but averse to casualties, structured for limited conflict.

Blue self-examination has disclosed vulnerabilities in high intensity conflict that remain valid in the light of the surprisingly primitive incompetence of Russian forces. This concerns the long lead times, and complex supply chains, of precision weapons, and their Red counter, expendable human life.

U.S. stockpiles of dumb munitions are huge, feasible because they can be stored for decades in uncontrolled climates, with minimal degradation.  Gravity bombs, combined with separately engineered and maintained bolt-on guidance units, are a “sweet spot” of precision munitions. In contrast, the precision weapons supplied to Ukraine are unitary designs, with a common limitation.  The practical size of a stockpile is limited,  by initial acquisition costs, and ongoing costs that are roughly proportional to numbers:

  • Limited shelf life from deterioration of electronics, sensors, actuators, propellants, and lubricants.
  • High costs of periodic maintenance required to mitigate the above.
  • Sudden obsolescence due to vulnerability exploit, e.g.., the vulnerability of the AIM-120 to jamming.

The notion of a weapon that dies on the shelf came into focus with nuclear devices, which are made of mutually incompatible materials that gradually destroy the integrity of the device. A substantial part of  defense expenditure over decades has been to maintain nuclear devices,  small in numbers compared to conventional munitions stockpiles.   All precision weapons have analogous modes of decay, with significant cost for stockpile numbers appropriate to high intensity conflict.

The Ukraine war is a fraction of the planners’ vision of  high intensity conflict.  With no endpoint in sight, it is nevertheless instructive on the subject of stockpile depletion.  Wesley Clark is concerned with possibly sluggish speed of arms transfers. This may in the future become a lack of availability of arms to transfer. This implies an immediate need for more hot production lines.

For high intensity conflict, hot production lines create supply chain dilemmas that cannot be resolved when domestic security cannot be assumed. Huge stockpiles are primary, deterred by perishability. Can this be mitigated?

This problem has degrees of freedom that become accessible if we slightly relax the usual criteria of optimal design, such as:

  • minimum weight, size
  • maximum yield, range
  • implied unitary structure

With some slack, we can design for maintainability. A stockpile then consists of a small proportion of ready-to-use devices, with the bulk in optimized storage:

  • Modular construction instead of unitary.
  • Bulk of stockpile stored in disassembled state.
  • Modules stored separately in conditions optimal for each: temperature, (inert) atmosphere…as required to exceed shelf life of the assembled weapon.
  • Reduced time for disassembly and reassembly  of ready stockpile.
  • Rapid assembly of modules as required to replenish ready stockpile.
  • Modular design may defeat some forms of obsolescence.

This applies to a hypothetical high intensity conflict. The unmet near term need is the response to possible Russian mobilization, best served by hot production lines, and additional contracts for long lead-time parts, such as sensors.