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Posted by Jack Heslin on 21:15:42 07/21/22

What happened to protecting the military secrets associated with weapon systems?

We are watching a rush to pour the latest and greatest game changing weapon systems from NATO nations, mostly American, into the Ukraine / NATO Russia conflict. We have seen Russian high-tech weapons enter the conflict, such as the hypersonic missiles, and long-range American missile systems such as the M142 Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) as well as various NATO anti-ship missiles such as the American Harpoon. The plethora of anti-tank systems, artillery and various drones from NATO countries have dominated the news cycles as each new iteration is supposed to provide a significant capability to change the momentum on the battlefield to favor the Ukraine / NATO effort. There is a growing wariness in the public who no longer trust the excited claims by the talking heads of the relative efficacy of these new systems. Are there unintended consequences from providing these systems which may reach well beyond the current conflict?

History is full of examples where new military technologies have had a great impact on the conduct of war. At the beginning of WWII, the Japanese military had developed an air superiority weapon unmatched by any other nation at the time. The decision to strike the American fleet in the Pacific was partly based on the Japanese military s belief that their fighter the A6M better known as the Zero or Zeke would dominate in the Pacific battles and, in fact, the aircraft, in the hands of their well-trained pilots, did rule the air over the Pacific especially at the beginning of the war.

The Japanese naval leadership were adamant that none of the Zeros should fall into the hands of the Americans. They were afraid that if the technical secrets of the aircraft were known to the Americans it could change the balance of power in the Pacific. They were right. In June of 1942 during a Japanese attack on the Aleutian Islands, one of the Zeros made a forced landing which killed the pilot but did very little damage to the aircraft. The recovery of the aircraft by an American unit provided an opportunity to study the Zero in great detail. The fact that it had been recovered was kept a top secret during the war. American pilots were able to fly the Zero and learn its strengths and weaknesses which was greatly beneficial to the American fighter pilots. What would have been the result if the technical secrets of the Zero were never learned by the American military?

In South Vietnam, during the Easter Offensive in the Spring of 1972, the American military provided their latest anti-tank missile system, the TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) to help defend against the attacking North Vietnamese, Soviet supplied tanks. The system was mounted on helicopters and there were also jeep mounted systems from the 82nd Airborne Division which were brought into the city of Kontum. I was there. The TOWs were not given to the South Vietnamese military. Orders were very clear that the TOW systems were not to fall into the hands of the enemy. The jeep mounted systems were manned by American troops and there was a small US infantry unit detailed to protect them. The plan was that the systems were to be destroyed if it looked like they might be lost to the enemy. The systems were not fire and forget like the latest anti-tank systems of today but rather, the operator had to keep the sighting system fixed on the target so the computer-controlled system could guide the missile into the target. The commands to steer the missile were transmitted by thin wires that trailed out of the back of the missiles. At some point, they got the name of whispering death because of the noise made by the wires. This system was technically well ahead of the systems it replaced which required the operator to actually fly the missile into the target with a small controller. The North Vietnamese Army used a Soviet version of anti-tank missile that was like the older American version requiring the operator to fly the missile into the target. I do not believe the technology associated with the TOW was compromised during that period.

There is growing evidence that many of the advanced weapon systems provided to Ukraine forces are now in the hands of the Russians. Some have reported that even the latest versions of the M142 Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) may have been captured by the Russians or may have been sold to the Russians. Only time will tell if that is true. It is clear however, that any NATO weapon systems that are now in the hands of the Russians will be studied in detail and the technical knowledge they get may be shared with other nations. Many countries have highly specialized technical agencies to study the weaponry and technology of actual or potential enemies. Reverse engineering has often provided huge amounts of technical information. It is likely that a growing list of NATO advanced weapon systems will be studied by the Russians and could spell the difference between victory or defeat in a battlefield of the future. We would be well advised to revisit the lessons from the story of the Japanese Zero of WWII.

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