I've realised while formulating this that the question is in fact two fold but both sides of the question come from a single fact any given that any sociopolitical entity has finite resources with which to pursue research.

So when it comes to weapons R&D does it make more sense to focus on stand-off weapons that allow you to settle your differences with the neighbours from maximum range thus preventing any damage to your home soil or to spread a wider net and accept that you're going to get hurt if the shooting starts in the name of being able to deal with a successful invasion more easily?

Secondly do you expend resources primarily on improvements to existing technology or to pursue the next big thing?

While I expect opinion to play a role in any reasonably good answer to this question I'm really looking for historically arguments and examples to make a case for a given combination of research focus.

  • $\begingroup$ So it's basically a trade-off between WMD and conventional weapons? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    May 8 '18 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander More of a trade off between really good sniper rifles and not so good snipers rifles but also having submachine guns with an acknowledgement that the lack of long range capability is going to mean more damage. A really good sniper rifle keeps the fight over there away from sensitive sites but if the fight gets to close quarters you're going to want something that's usable in tight spaces. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    May 8 '18 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ Would you clarify what tech level you're referring to? There's a huge difference between ICBMs vs trebuchets. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    May 8 '18 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Green I really hadn't thought about it in those terms, at all, like I said I want some hard examples of where people have gone right or wrong in pursuit of the balance as a map to where they might go in the future. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    May 8 '18 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ Ash, you appear to want to discuss what is euphemistically called "defense policy" in very general terms. That's not world building. I doubt such a discussion would be on topic anywhere on SE, which is a straight Q&A site. $\endgroup$
    – StephenG
    May 8 '18 at 21:37

The answer to this is "it depends." It depends on your goals, capabilities, etc. Sun Tzu would say it depends on the terrain, the weather, the leaders, the discipline, and the way.

However, if you look through history, there is a relatively steady trend towards longer range weapons. We really haven't improved hand-to-hand combat weapons all that much since the stone age, but our ranged weapons have improved over the last few hundred years from bows and arrows towards modern firearms. The modern firearm hasn't improved all that much in the last few decades, but we now have weapons which literally reach around the globe.

I also see this as being entwined with our tendency to stay put. The more you want to stay put, the more you need to be able to reach out from that location.

The typical answer is that this is a balancing act. Your question about existing technology vs. the next big thing is a perfect example. If you seek the next big thing, and it takes too long to develop, you end up with a weak time where someone can attack you with better existing technologies. If you invest purely in existing technologies, your neighbor eventually develops the next big thing, and now you're in trouble. The ultimate example of this would be the development of the atomic bomb. The US military did not pour everything into atomic bomb R&D. It was one part of a balance, but it happened to be the next big thing and came in time to influence WWII.

All real military R&D efforts have to strike a balance. This balance often not only depends on internal factors but external ones as well. If you see that your neighbor is investing in thousands of rifles, this is probably a poor time to go about trying to invent the first aircraft.


Short range or long range

Both. Exact ratios between stand-off and short-range weapons will depend on your overall defensive posture. Defense expenditures will be very different for Poland vs Canada (Poland who gets rolled all the time vs Canada which is exceptionally difficult to invade.) If your tech-level is restricted to throwing things a few hundred yards, that's a huge difference than projecting power at 1000 miles.

Anything that lets you hit your enemy before they can hit you is a good thing. Having the power to survive and effectively retaliate when they can hit you is a good thing too. Defense in depth is standard practice in every kind of security scenario. Depending on a single technology/barrier to keep you safe will end poorly for you.

Refine the old or find the new.

Both. Taking huge jumps in tech is very risky. Far better to refine what you have since you know that works. Things that work are low risk. Things that might work are high risk. Make lots of smaller bets on "The Next Big Thing" because you may stumble on new tech that completely changes the game, eg. firearms, airplanes, jet engines, missiles, semi-conductors, etc. Most bets will fail but that's okay since they were cheap. Further, all these smaller bets may take 30 to 40 years to be really useful. Relying on them to solve some critical problem is exceptionally dangerous. It's impossible to know beforehand what will work and what won't.


Since WW1, the United States has invested considerable sums in being able to project power to remote locations quickly. This capability has expanded sufficient to be able to hit most any target on the planet with meter accuracy in less than 24 hours. (In active war zones, the time to weapon delivery may be only a minute or two, depending...). Essentially no investment has been made into home defense such as coastal fortifications since WW2 for the simple reason that the US is situated between two large bodies of water.

Conversely, many modern European nations have only a limited ability to deploy outside their region. The deployment ratios in the first Iraq war are dominated by the US.

Difficulties in Assessment

Part of what makes this assessment so difficult is that no one broadcasts their research failures, only their successes. This considerably biases the sample to things that work. This makes it easy to think that things usually work when in reality, most experiments fail and everything is just hard.

We don't hear about all the failed trebuchets that self-destructed on first firing. Nor, do we hear about the failed British tank designs in WW1 that didn't make it to the battlefield. We only read about the evolution of successful designs that were good enough to see combat.


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