Murphy's Law: Clash Of Cultures

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October 12, 2016: On September 14th there was an embarrassing demonstration of Chinese weapons performance off the coast of Indonesia. There the Indonesian Navy was conducting large scale naval exercises, some of them featuring a locally built Churit class missile boats firing a Chinese C-705 missile at a decommissioned navy ship. Each of the two C-705 missiles failed, for different reasons. The worst part of this was that the president of Indonesia and the head of the navy were watching from a nearby ship. The Indonesians see Chinese missiles as a much better deal that Western models, especially since Indonesia is not looking to start a war anytime soon. So why pay premium prices for a premium, battle proven Exocet.

The C-705 is a 325 kg (715 pounds) missile with a 120 kg (264 pound) warhead and a range of 140 kilometers. It is similar to the French Exocet missile, which costs more than twice as much (over a million dollars each but the manufacturer is known to be flexible on pricing). What makes the Western missiles more expensive is not just superior reliability but the insistence that the buyer also purchase training for sailors who will operate and maintain these missiles. As a result the Western missiles have a much better reliability.

Even countries that are likely to be at war often buy the cheaper Russian and Chinese weapons. For example India had bought Russian 3M54 ("Klub") anti-ship missiles for its ten Russian built Kilo class submarines. It took several years for Russia to get the Klub missiles working reliably enough for India, mainly because India insisted on testing each Kilo equipped to fire Klubs to actually fire one, successfully. OneIndian sub had test fired six Klubs in late 2007, and all failed. The Russians had no explanation for the failures. That Kilo involved had been in Russia for over two years, for $80 million worth of upgrades and repairs. India refused to pay, or take back the sub, until Russia fixed the problems with the missiles. This the Russians eventually did and there were several successful Klub launches to verify that.

The Klub missile is a key weapon for the Kilo. Weighing two tons, and fired from a 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tube, the 3M54 has a 200 kg (440 pound) warhead. The anti-ship version has a range of 300 kilometers, and speeds up to 3,000 kilometers an hour during its last minute or so of flight. There is also an air launched and ship launched version. A land attack version does away with the high speed final approach feature, and has a 400 kg (880 pound) warhead.

Both Russia and China have had to pay more attention to quality control and customer support because of incidents like this. That’s mainly because major export customers are demanding it. Cheap, less reliable weapons can still be sold in smaller quantities to less demanding customers. But to succeed in the weapons export market you need to keep the major customers happy. Not just because these customers account for most of the sales, but because when they complain about poor reliability and support it gets around much faster than during the Cold War, which ended a decade before the Internet began to revolutionize how news operates.

Russia and China stick with the cheap and less reliable designs because there is always demand for it. Russia feels vindicated by this design philosophy because they found it works during major wars. This was especially the case during World War II, where they found it did not pay to spend a lot on building armored vehicles that last because the average time they survive in combat was so short. But for other types of wars, reliability and durability pays off. They are finding this out in Syria and have noted the reliability and durability appeals to most potential buyers. The only exceptions are those nations that only expect to use new weapons on their own people or outlaws active in their neighborhood.

 


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