The Cold War – Equipment Cost

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The Ohio class is a class of nuclear-powered submarines currently used by the United States Navy. The navy has 18 Ohio-class submarines: 14 ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and four that were later converted to guided missile submarines (SSGN).  The average cost of a Ohio is 2 billion with 50 million per year per sub in operating costs (1996 costs, 1996 dollars). So 50 years at 50 mil per year = 250 mil in operating costs, plus some upgrades (700mil each for an upgrade starting in 2002) and you’re still very short of 7 billion dollars.

All nations expended a substantial proportion of their defence budgets on equipment, and the Cold War was a ‘happy time’ for military men on both sides of the Iron Curtain, even though they constantly complained that they were short of money and starved of resources. The fact was that public funds had never been so generously lavished on military forces in peacetime, and many of the shortages were more apparent than real.

The naval, general and air staffs and the government procurement agencies alike faced many challenges, of which the most fundamental was that, in the worst case, the Third World War might have broken out very suddenly and then been both extremely violent and very short. This would have been quite unlike the First and Second World Wars, where there had been time to mobilize national industries, to develop new equipment, and to produce it all in sufficient quantities. But, whereas those wars had lasted four and six years respectively, the indications were that, in the worst case, the Third World War would have been over in a matter of months, perhaps even of weeks. Such a conflict would therefore have been fought with whatever was available at the time – a ‘come as you are’ war, as it was described at the time. In consequence, armed forces had to be constantly maintained at a state of high readiness, with their weapons, ammunition and equipment to hand – a process which proved difficult to sustain for forty years. A second problem was that the accelerating pace of science and technology, coupled with the lengthy development time for new equipment, meant that many weapons systems were obsolescent before they had even entered service.

Inside their respective pacts, the two superpowers enjoyed many advantages: their financial and industrial resources were huge in comparison to those of their allies, and their own forces were so large that they guaranteed a major domestic market for any equipment that was selected. They thus dominated their partners, and it proved a struggle for their European allies on either side of the Inner German Border to avoid being overwhelmed.

Even for the USA, however, military procurement was by no means smooth sailing. Enormous amounts of money were expended on systems which, for one reason or another, were cancelled before they reached service. One prime example was the effort devoted by the US air force to finding a successor to the Boeing B-52, to maintain its manned strategic bomber force. First there was the XB-70 Valkyrie hypersonic aircraft, which was followed by the B-1, the B-1A (which was virtually a new aircraft) and then the B-2. The sums expended on these aircraft for what was, in the end, very little return are almost incalculable. Further, quite what purpose such aircraft would have served in a nuclear war, apart from dropping H-bombs in gaps left by ICBMs and SLBMs, is not clear. The US army had some dramatic failures, too, such as the Sergeant York divisional air-defence system and the MBT-70 tank.

The US forces were certainly not alone in having problems. The Canadians, who had little enough money for defence, undertook three massive projects, which many contemporary observers warned were over-ambitious. The first was the all-Canadian Arrow fighter of the late 1950s, which reached the prototype stage before cancellation. The second, in the 1980s, was the submarine project which grew from three replacement diesel-electric submarines to twelve nuclear-propelled attack submarines; this reached an advanced stage, though short of orders being placed, before it was cancelled. The third, in the 1990s, was an order for over fifty Westland helicopters to replace ageing anti-submarine and general-purpose helicopters; this was summarily cancelled by a new government, and large compensation payments had to be made. These three projects incurred expenditure totalling hundreds of millions of dollars, but, in the end, there was not a single aircraft, submarine or helicopter to show for any of them.

The British suffered from two problems. The first was projects reaching an advanced stage and then being cancelled. This affected numerous aircraft, such as the Nimrod AWACS, the Vickers-Supermarine Swift fighter and the TSR-2 strike aircraft, while the navy suffered a similar fate with the CVA-01 aircraft carrier, as did the army with the SP70 self-propelled gun and the Blue Water battlefield missile. In addition, some of the projects that did reach service did so only after many years in development and the expenditure of great sums of money, when a viable foreign alternative was readily available at much lower cost.

This is not to deny that some excellent equipment was produced. In the USA, the Los Angeles-class SSNs and aircraft such as the B-52 bomber, F-86 Sabre, F-4 Phantom, F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon were world leaders in their day. Among British successes were the Canberra and Vulcan bombers, the Hunter fighter and the Harrier V/STOL aircraft, the Leander-class frigates and the Centurion tank. The Germans bought most of their aircraft from abroad, but on land their Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 tanks were outstandingly successful. The French produced some outstanding fighter aircraft in the Mirage series, which sold around the world.

Indeed, some European equipment was so good that it even found a market in the United States. The US air force, for example, purchased the British Canberra bomber, while the Marines ordered hundreds of Harrier V/STOL aircraft. In the 1980s the US army bought its most important communications system, RITA, from France, while its tank guns came first from the UK (105 mm) and subsequently from Germany (120 mm).

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