Weapons-Stealing Can Win Wars
One of the hazards of war is the likelihood that at some point, one country's most advanced weapon will inadvertently fall into the hands of its enemy, revealing all its secrets and enabling the adversary to build its own superior weapon, thereby tipping the battlefield advantage in the enemy's favor.
Throughout history, this has happened many times. Here are two notable examples from World War II:
The German Focke Wulf Fw-190
World War II began in Europe in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. In 1940, Germany defeated France, pushed the Allied armies off the Continent at Dunkirk, and then began an air assault against Britain that came to be known as the Battle of Britain.
Britain survived the German air attacks, fighting them to a costly stalemate, but as 1940 came to an end, Germany still held all of continental Europe, and Britain stood alone against Germany, bottled up on its home island.
As a way of fighting back before the Allies were actually strong enough to invade Europe in 1944, Britain conducted a campaign of night aerial bombing attacks and daytime "fighter sweeps" against German targets. The Brits would send their excellent Spitfire fighter planes over France and rouse the Germans into air battles in the hopes of inflicting losses on the Luftwaffe (German Air Force).
But in the summer of 1941, things went bad for the British. A new German fighter plane made its appearance: the Focke Wulf Fw 190. It was so stunningly superior to the Spitfire (which had generally been regarded as the world's best fighter plane up until then) that the British were aghast, shocked into thinking that this one new German plane could derail all their plans for winning the war. Noted aviation historian William Green called the Fw 190 "as close to perfect [at the time of its debut] as any warplane has ever been."
It went on like this for a full year. The British suffered huge Spitfire losses, with no answer to the Fw 190.
But on June 23, 1942, a Luftwaffe pilot became disoriented after combat and accidentally landed his Fw 190 on a British airfield, perfectly intact. The Brits, amazed at their good fortune, quickly analyzed the German fighter. They incorporated some of its technology into future versions of the Spitfire and devised new tactics for combating the plane based on their evaluation. This was a perfect example of a wartime stroke of good fortune that turned history around.
Here's another example of wartime weapon-stealing, completely different from the Fw 190 scenario, but no less astounding:
The American Boeing B-29 Superfortress
The B-29 Superfortress was by far the most technologically sophisticated four-engine strategic bomber of World War II. With such advanced features as a fully pressurized crew compartment, remote-controlled radar-guided defensive armament, and a top speed at least 50 mph faster than the American B-17 or British Lancaster bomber, the B-29 was in a class by itself. This was the plane that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. No other plane could complete that mission.
Prior to the atomic weapons, B-29s were carrying out long-range attacks on Japan using conventional bombs. For all of its modern design, the B-29 was a complicated aircraft, and it suffered from frequent engine and ancillary system breakdowns. On one such mission to Japan in late 1944, a flight of B-29s sustained debilitating mechanical issues, such that three planes had to land in eastern Russia because they couldn't make it back to their home base in China. A fourth crashed.
The Russians were enamored with the B-29. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wanted to have his own long-range strategic bomber, but the Soviet aviation industry wasn't capable of designing one. So Stalin ordered that the B-29s be impounded, using the Soviet's then-neutrality with Japan as a flimsy pretext for not returning the planes to American hands.
What happened next is truly astonishing. Russian aviation designers reverse-engineered the B-29, rivet for rivet, producing the Tupolev Tu-4 clone. It took three painstaking years, but they were successful. When the Tu-4 made its first appearance in 1947, American observers were in disbelief.
The Russians produced nearly 1,000 Tu-4s, and the plane served well into the 1950s. Luckily for America, the B-29 was superseded by a significantly improved version called the B-50 and other more advanced bombers like the Convair B-36, and the North American B-45 — our first jet bomber — entered service before 1950. The Boeing B-47, our first truly modern jet bomber, was in service by 1951, rendering the Tu-4's dramatic appearance in 1947 a less power-altering event than it might have been. Nonetheless, we were lucky that the Tu-4 didn't have as big an impact as originally feared.
For America today, the lessons of history should be crystal-clear. As the U.S. gets involved in more and more proxy wars, propping up erstwhile "allies" with our latest military technology and weaponry, the danger of our best and latest military hardware falling into enemy hands increases exponentially.
Whether those conflicts occur in the Middle East, Europe, or the Asia-Pacific theater, it's incumbent on U.S. leadership — if that leadership is truly forward-thinking and responsible — to weigh the supposed benefits of arming any given nation with state-of-the-art American technology against the incalculable damage to American national security that would result from the capture of our technology by the enemy. We have to ask ourselves if Country A's fight against Country B is truly worth giving away the secrets to our latest and best tanks, targeting systems, anti-aircraft missiles, and attack helicopters.
Distant borders can and do change all the time, but the national security of the United States must always be sacrosanct.
Image via Max Pixel.