2013/01/06

"Small" is sexy, apparently. Or not.

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Over the years I've noticed a strange attraction of "small" platforms (not guns!) on many military-interested people.

"Small" warships (or even mere patrol vessels) are apparently sexy. I've seen a blog being totally fixated on the "small" fetish, and especially so on all things floating and "small". The criticism of modern Western navies and the USN in particular is very often focused on the size of the warships.

"Small" is apparently also sexy in combat aviation. So-called "counter insurgency" small combat aircraft (typically with turboprop engines and almost 100% useless in inter-state warfare) were and are very attractive to many people, and I suspect a strong contribution to this attractiveness stems from the sheer size, as the actual capabilities are rather modest.

"Small" tanks are a very recurring topic as well. There are very entrenched fans of "light" armoured vehicles such as the British CVR(T) series. Nevermind the CVR(T) scouts failed to be a success back in Gulf War '91 because the truly heavy Challenger 1 tanks had longer-ranging sensors.


This already points at one of the inherent problems of all "small" or "light" platforms; equipment.

Some popular targets for size criticisms: Ticonderoga class CGs and big carriers.

First things first. Ships.

Are more smaller ships really that much better? No doubt a smaller ship can occasionally be the superior alternative, but I doubt there's a good justification for the strength for the "smaller ship" attractiveness.

Two 5,000 ton ships moving at 10 kts for 100 nm burn all else equal more fuel than one 10,000 ton ship. The required installed power (edit: per ton for a given speed) grows hugely if you shrink the ship.

Two 5,000 ton ships will need two command centres, two full communications suites, two EW suites, two close defence suites, two guns, two times the regular amount of backup systems, two anchors, two sonar suites, two radar suites - even if they pack the same punch as one 10,000 ton ship.
Let's assume (unhistorically) that navies were willing to install the same quality equipment on the smaller ships as on the bigger one. Let's also assume both ship designs have the same range (which requires disproportionately more fuel bunkerage on the two smaller ships) - ceteris paribus the big ship would have much more ammunition and an overall much smaller crew.
There are not only economies of scale which make a big ship more efficient, but there's also important equipment which outright requires the carrying capacity of a big ship. Even the Arleigh Burke class is probably too small for the anti-ballistic missile radar antennas favoured by the U.S.Navy (I would simply install such a task force-level support radar on a rather freighter-like hull, but that's another story).
There may be many eggs in a basket with a big ship, but many inadequate small ships are hardly a better idea than few big gold-plated ones. Varying degrees of folly, but still ranked.

The offshore patrol vessel fan crowd has a particularly irritating idea for why there should be small, cheap, incapable warships: They wallow in the sunk costs fallacy.
Their argument goes like this: "Look, a 10,000 ton billion dollar ship patrolling against rag-tag pirates. What a waste! Send some small OPVs instead!"
Now ignoring for a while that counter-pirate patrols are stupid and require first and foremost a fine helicopter element (which almost all ships smaller than about 2,000 tons lack), where's the sunk costs fallacy here?
Simple: The big ship is (or would be) in the navy anyway. It's going to cruise anyway. No matter "patrol off Africa" or some exercise in the Mediterranean; the operating costs are almost entirely the same!
The huge, unnecessary, foolish expenditure is to purpose-built some additional offshore patrol vessels or corvettes for stupid patrols and stuff. Like K130s.
Sure, the big ships might be required somewhere else. Yet who says this isn't true if they are doing their regular training instead of some mission which a small ship could do as well? A warship might cruise the Caribbean when urgently needed in the Med or be in the Med when urgently needed off East Africa or cruise of East Africa when urgently needed in the Baltic Sea. In any case, when a "big" warship is truly urgently needed elsewhere, that would certainly be a more important mission than whatever a mere patrol vessel is capable of - so it can simply abandon the unimportant mission if needed.
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Next aviation; small was beautiful up to the 50's and 60's in combat aviation. The golden days of the agile Skyhawks and Gnats. The Gnat was so small even a tiny air-to-air missile such as the later AA-8 Aphid would have looked oversized under its wings. Sadly, ever since small combat aircraft have been decidedly disappointing save for armed jet trainers with their lowered expectations.
There's a reason for why these aircraft had their heyday in the 60's; avionics. Avionics became hugely expensive and now make up about half of the cost of a combat aircraft, with engines following as the next biggest chunk. 

What would be gained by using smaller airframes? First and foremost, you would need to carry less internal fuel. There would hardly be internal volume left for it, because those avionics black boxes are not exactly following some law of perpetual shrinkage. You might drop some avionics, of course. Nobody needs some popular 50's and 60's avionics such as dedicated doppler navigation radar or those devices for aiming in nuclear bomb tossing manoeuvres any more. Yet how about avionics still in use? Would you want to shed the radar? Radar warner? Missile warner? Radio datalink hardware? Maybe sub-components such as decoy launchers? What exactly would those small combat aircraft fans want to drop?

Such details are strangely absent on the "small is beautiful" fanboi propaganda.

[fun] One might question if smaller is really better... [/fun]
Third platform category so popular in Milporn; (mini) tanks.
Sure, there's a practical upper limit for tank size; weight grows much quicker than the track area, leading to excessive nominal ground pressure. This issue could be addressed with overlapping if not interleaving WW2-stle roadwheels, but instead there's a consensus that more than 70 metric tons of weight is definitively a good reason to be concerned. Others become concerned at about 60 metric tons.
Yet the small tank fanbois look rather at tracked armoured vehicles of less than 20 metric tons. They're typically turned off by wheeled vehicles of this weight category, of course. 
There's a problem, though: Such "light" AFVs are not built for a brawl. They're fine for transportation or scouting, but clearly not reassuring to crews who know very well about their own fallibility because they demonstrated it plenty times during exercises. Sooner or later, some small mistake or simply bad luck will ruin the day. Heavy tank crews aren't immortal either, but their bar for mistakes or bad luck is mounted much higher.


I'm not interested enough in this topic for a full debunking, so please take this as a kind of inspiration for being careful about buying into the "small is sexy" crowd's propaganda. An occasional "smaller would be better" opinion is rarely suspicious, but I advise caution and a lot of self-discipline (it takes a lot to guard against enticing fallacies) when you notice some author is flogging the same dead "small is beautiful" horse or any other pet topic over and over and over again.
Feel free to apply this caution here as well. Nobody's perfect.



S Ortmann

P.S.: Please no "big" versus "small" debate in the comments. Lots of other blogs welcome such discussions instead. In case you disagree with me, just focus on the part in italic font, please.

@TRT: Don't feel offended. This blog post was long overdue. It's a summary of a decade worth of observations on these things.
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7 comments:

  1. Not offended in the slightest, I actually agree :)

    I'm currently trying to expand upon "small ships, they're like carrier air for poor nations" :)

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  2. I disagree with you on combat aviation, Sven. The F-16 is perhaps the best example of a modern, small, lightweight fighter. An argument can be made for the Sea Harrier aswell, although whether this is valid, I don't know.

    There are, or at least were, a set of truths about fighters; bigger was better, because then one would fit lots of expensive, advanced (though often disappointingly unreliable and undecisive) avionics. This, however, meant big engines were needed, preferably two of them. This would also improve range, because the aircraft would be able to carry more fuel internally.

    This was challenged by Hillaker and the rest of the Fighter Mafia. They realized that measuring internal fuel in weight alone is pointless, since you also have two engines consuming fuel instead of one, and you have to push a bigger, heavier aircraft through the air. What really matters is the fuel fraction, that is the weight of the internal fuel, divided by the loaded weight of the aircraft. The fuel fraction of an aircraft (along with other parameters, obviously) says far more about the persistence/range of the aircraft than the weight of internal fuel alone.

    I won't go into the age old debate of BVR vs WVR, but if future air combat is mostly WVR, then smaller is better. This is prettymuch an uncontested fact now, and it was what the F-16 was originally designed for. Future air combat may well end up as the jousting match over great ranges with stealth vs non-stealth, as many "stealth-fans" maintain. However, over the past 20 years, all air engagements NATO have been involved with have been against opponents that were rather helpless to begin with, so against a peer opponent, chances are the overwhelming technological advantages will be nullified.

    You've mentioned ultra small drones in past posts. Is your opinion that these are worthless now? Are bigger pieces of equipment categorically better than smaller ones? Are there exceptions? What about camouflage?

    Happy new year, by the way!

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    Replies
    1. I didn't argue against the possibility that at times a smaller platform is the better one. I argued against the fixation of some people who seem to prefer "smaller" as a matter of principle and want everything "smaller" or "ligher" because, uhm, smaller!!!.

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    2. Yes, I see that now. Reading your post again, I see that I added some straw into my argument. I apologize for that.

      Speaking of size; there appears to be a trend towards smaller, yet more complex small arms in general use in the military. What do you think of this?

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    3. Except that the late-model F-16s are positively obese compared to early blocks, which themselves are much heavier than what the LWF Mafia envisioned.

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  3. The small arms themselves didn't change much, the big trend of the last decade was rather the standardised rails with accessories.

    I suppose bigger calibres and guns are right now not feasible because there's already too much overall weight.

    It'll be interesting to see what happens once Western troops face much opposition with 7.62NATO AP-proof breast plates. More use of HE and/or more exotic AP projectiles(APDS or more use of tungsten, for example) for 7.62NATO or Magnum cartridges such as .300 WinMag could be the reactions. Both would weigh more and require a sacrifice of other carried equipment.

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  4. Isnt much of the fixation on "small is beautiful" actually motivated not so much by "small because small" and instead by "small because cheap"-thinking in naval and aviation realms?

    In fact, the red line here seams "cheaper - which sometimes means smaller, but sometimes also larger". Note, that the K130 was not built to be a cheaper smaller OPV to relieve DDG/FFG from seemingly trivial duties. It was actually a bigger and - initially - in some regards more capable replacement for the FAC in regard to Baltic and North Sea operations. The larger size was at times also a significant selling point because of the reduction in actual numbers by about half (12 corvettes for 20some FAC), very similar to submarine modernisation (12, then 8 much larger boats for 24 old SSK).

    Another case in point are the quite large Danish Absalons, which have been discussed to death as a "better because cheaper" substitute for perceived high-end capabilities that, it is argued in that context, cost a lot of money without having a requirement in current affairs. The Dutch OPVs, larger than the frigates they essentially replace, are another example. Again, the theme is not "small", but "cheap".

    In aviation, the whole excitement about COIN led to all this talk about aircraft, which would (theoretically) cost a fraction of the money for fast jets in procurement, resulting in higher numbers of physical assets, though in reality much of the additional funding for manning, maintenance and training would likely turn this into a fallacy, since they would always remain additional, not substituting assets. Here the resulting platforms would indeed be smaller, but the guiding principle again revolves around expenditures, size being a mere side-effect. Same essentially goes for drones (which have been growing substantially in size from the get-go)

    In the end, I dont think, there is much momentum behind trying to outline a "smaller is better"-crowd in naval and aviation matters. There definitely is a "cheaper and lower-tech is better"-crowd in those circles.

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