A Brief History
On September 21, 1964, the XB-70 Valkyrie made its maiden flight at Palmdale, California. The world’s first Mach 3 bomber, the Valkyrie was designed to outrace Soviet interceptors and drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union with impunity. As it turned out, this concept became obsolete before the Valkyrie could be produced, and therefore it was not produced, saving US taxpayers a ton of money. On previous September 7th’s we ran articles 10 Underperforming Weapons, 5 More Underperforming Weapons and Another 5 Underperforming Weapons. On May 15th we featured an article on 10 Weapons and Weapon Systems that Flopped. Since there is apparently no limit to how many weapons just do not make the grade, today we will regale you with tales of Yet Another 5 Underperforming Weapons.
1. North American XB-70 Valkyrie, USA, 1964.
Flying higher (70,000 feet) and faster (Mach 3+) than any fighter or interceptor in the world, this nuclear bomber was thought to be untouchable. Soviet radar was thought to have a hard time tracking such a blazing fast airplane, and in any case, at such high speed the XB-70 would be out of radar range before interceptors or missiles could target the bomber. Advances in Soviet ground to air missile technology made high level penetration of Soviet airspace problematic (high flying bombers would be shot down), so low level penetration was needed. The XB-70 did not possess any better low altitude performance than the extant B-52 bomber fleet, and therefore became an expensive exercise in unneeded technology. The XB-70 was never produced beyond 2 experimental prototypes.
2. Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II, USA, 2006.
Costing between $94 million and $122 million apiece, and an overall program cost of $1.5 TRILLION, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program is the most expensive weapon system in all of History. Only 231 of these stealthy supersonic fighter-bombers have been built so far, but a total of 3100 are planned. The US talked several allied countries into partnering with the program, although actual purchases by foreign governments remain somewhat up in the air (so to speak!). Designed in 3 different versions to satisfy the needs of the Air Force, the Navy (carrier capable) and the Marine Corps (vertical take-off and landing), while maintaining supersonic capability with excellent stealth characteristics and operation as an air superiority fighter as well as a fighter-bomber put incredible design strain on the plane. Problems have crept up non-stop during the development and production of the F-35, resulting in “fixes” that reduced performance and increased the price. Critics of the program call the plane, “$163 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.” Worse, it is feared the stealth technology built into the design of the F-35 may already be obsolete due to advances in Russian technology. Maintenance costs are enormously higher than those of the F-16 and F-15, and the noise produced on take-off and landing is several times louder than those legacy jets (a problem with civilians neighboring air bases). Weight gains due to structural “fixes” and structural weaknesses identified during testing have resulted in decreased performance over the promised capabilities.
3. Bismarck Class Battleships, Germany, 1941.
Adolf Hitler was determined to have a Navy that could match the British Royal Navy, and spent enormous amounts of money, materials and man-hours into building the Bismarck and Tirpitz battleships, heavily armed, heavily armored, and fast, but sorely lacking in the ability to perform their mission successfully. Expected to be commerce raiders without large fleets of escort and support ships, the main problem with these monsters was the inadequate anti-aircraft suite of weapons installed on the ships. Both ships were done in by airplanes, the Bismarck doomed by an aerial torpedo from an obsolete Fairey Swordfish bi-plane that jammed its rudder. Leaving it unable to maneuver so that a huge British fleet could catch up to her and pound her more than any ship has ever been pounded. The Tirpitz was chased off its first combat patrol by more British carrier borne torpedo planes (improved Albacore models), and went to anchor in a Norwegian fjord where she was bombed many times until finally sunk with gigantic “Tallboy” bombs in 1944. Tirpitz had come out of the fjord only to bombard Spitzbergen Island, and never sank the merchant ships she was designed to sink. Bismarck had sunk the HMS Hood in spectacular fashion, the only ship sunk by the Bismarck class battleships. The anti-aircraft armament of these battleships seems impressive at first, until compared to that of the US Iowa class battleships. The Bismarck’s had 16 X 4.1 inch guns, 16 X 37 mm cannons, and 12 X 20 mm cannons. The US Iowa class boasted a robust anti-aircraft suite of 20 X 5 inch guns, 20 X Quad 40 mm cannons (total of 80 X 40 mm AA cannons), 49 X 20 mm cannons, representing an incredible difference in anti-aircraft capability. If the Germans had put the material, money and time used to build the Bismarck class ships and built more U-boats instead, the war in the Atlantic may have been quite different.
4. M-103 Heavy Tank, USA, 1957.
Monkey see, Monkey do describes this tank project, wherein the United States felt the need to counter the Soviet heavy tanks of the Cold War (IS series and T-10) with their own version of a super-heavy tank with a BIG Gun. At the time of introduction in 1957, the American main battle tanks were equipped with 90 mm guns, but the M-103 got a bigger, longer, 120 mm gun that would destroy Soviet tanks at longer distances than the 90 mm weapon. With 300 early production tanks made by Chrysler in 1953-1954 found to be unsatisfactory, those tanks were never introduced into the Army and were placed into storage. Those tanks were rebuilt with 98 improvements, with 74 copies going to the US Army and 220 of the now designated M-103 tanks going to service with the US Marine Corps. Weighing in at 65 tons and equipped with a fire prone 810 horsepower gasoline engine, the M-103 was too heavy for many bridges, airplanes, and transportation devices. The gasoline engine was replaced by a diesel engine, less prone to burning, but only 750 horsepower. The range of the gasoline model was a paltry 80 miles, and top speed was only 21 mph. The diesel engine improved these numbers to 295 miles and 23 mph. Another drawback to the M-103 was its 2 piece ammunition, which required an extra loader, making the crew 5 instead of 4. The M-103 was never used in combat, and was retired in 1974.
5. Browning AN/M3 .50 Caliber Machine Gun, USA, 1950.
The aerial version of the venerable M-2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun (fondly called, “Ma Deuce”), this weapon served admirably during World War II, but by the time 1950 rolled around with the advent of jet versus jet combat over Korea, the .50 caliber machine gun proved totally inadequate to deal with Soviet MiG-15 jets. Yes, many of those Soviet jets were shot down, at a rate favorable to the North American F-86 Sabre that was equipped with 6 of the machine guns just like many of its World War II ancestors, but the score would have been much more favorable to the Americans if the F-80, F-84 and F-86 fighter planes had been equipped with 4 X 20 mm cannon instead of the .50 caliber machine guns. Pilots reported an unreasonable number of hits from .50 caliber ammo was needed to take down a MiG. (Note: The ground version of the M-2 has a cyclic rate of 450-600 rounds per minute, the World War II AN/M2 aerial version had a cyclic rate of 750-850 rpm, and the AN/M3 pushed out a more impressive 1200-1300 rpm.) This inclusion of the .50 caliber weapon in our early jet planes confuses me since aircraft designers found out in World War II that the 20 mm was superior, especially for shooting down bombers, and the B-36 bomber was designed with all 20 mm defensive guns (16 of them!). Even on US Navy ships, the .50 caliber machine guns were replaced by 20 mm cannons shortly after the beginning of the war. Pinning down exactly how many more aerial victories the US may have had with 20 mm guns instead of the .50’s or how many American lives could have been saved is near impossible, but it seems like using the AN/M3 was a decision made after a better solution was already known.
Question for students (and subscribers): What weapon duds would you include on the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Simons, Graham M. Valkyrie: The North American XB-70: The USA’s Ill-fated Supersonic Heavy Bomber. Pen and Sword Aviation, 2014.