Weapons of Prestige: Tactical Folly or Strategic Value?
Steven S. Speece, Keith B. Klemm, Salomon Alvarez, and Scott A. Andresen
The Prestige Weapon Legacy
Military history is replete with examples of curious artifacts characterized as prestige weapons. Often these were mega-projects of their day. Prestige weapons transcended the original purpose of their development to become symbols of power and policy. However, their presence on the battlefield rarely affected the outcomes of tactical engagements. The prevailing opinion among military historians is that these prestige weapons were wastes of scarce resources with no practical military value. Likewise, modern military strategists do not judge the legacy of prestige weapons favorably, primarily on the basis that they are often recalled as anachronisms to be preyed upon by emerging technologies and tactical innovation. It is possible that within the strategic context of why these weapons were developed and then retained some are undeserving of their negative reputation. It is the purpose of this paper to create a working definition of the prestige weapon, to evaluate whether historic examples conform to these parameters, and then to analyze each example in their strategic context.
Characteristics of the Prestige Weapon
- Relatively Expensive
- Limited Tactical Value or Obsolescent
- Symbolize Military Power or Signal Strategy
Anatomy of a Prestige Weapon
What exactly is a prestige weapon and why do they reoccur throughout military history? What are their strategic effects? Very little academic research on the subject exists. We propose the following definition in order to facilitate further study:
1. Prestige weapons are relatively expensive in terms of invested resources; they either exist without peer or were fielded to overmatch a similar capability of a potential threat. A prestige weapon to a smaller state may not carry the same significance to states with larger defense budgets.
2. Prestige weapons are of limited tactical value; they were either developed with the intent to avoid direct combat or gradually became obsolete over time. Prestige weapons are the common byproducts of escalating arms races and offset strategies.
3. Prestige weapons are either deliberately developed to symbolize national power or policy, or came to do so over time. They signal important strategic information to potential adversaries in order to achieve deterrent effects or to provoke rivals to close a perceived capability gap.
Implications of the Research
Once the nature of the historical prestige weapon phenomenon is better understood, we can draw inferences about why they exist, their effects on strategic calculus, and reach conclusions on whether they are deserving of the contempt of military historians or can be redeemed by their strategic effects. It is the opinion of the authors that there exist today many modern weapons systems facing tactical obsolescence which might someday fit our definition or perhaps already fit within this framework. It is not the purpose of this paper to speculate about which those might be. However, we invite further research into the subject.
Towering Walls and Massive Guns
Throughout military history, many cases exist which exemplify the prestige weapon phenomenon. Often they are the products of arms races among rivals. In the middle ages the Byzantine capital of Constantinople was frequently besieged by Ottoman forces. The walls fortifying the city were incrementally expanded and built up over the years to 12 meters high at some points, likely requiring a massive investment in resources to maintain.[i] The walls were essential means of the Byzantine defensive strategy despite surging Ottoman numbers and the development of gunpowder and siege cannons by the 15th century.
The solid bronze 16.8 ton Great Turkish Bombard also known as the Dardanelles Gun was fielded in 1464 as an elaborate version of those bombards used to breach the massive walls of Constantinople in 1453.[ii] While slow to load and cumbersome to move, the Dardanelles Gun was retained in an active coastal defense battery for over 300 years as a symbol of Ottoman power and the legacy of the siege. Amazingly the Great Turkish Bombard saw action against a Royal Navy squadron in 1807 during the Dardanelles operation of the Anglo-Turkish War. The weapon successfully fired its massive 65 cm shot and damaged a British warship.[iii] This successful tactical deployment of such an ancient prestige weapon is certainly a unique case and useful to challenge our definition.
The Great Turkish Bombard indeed fits within our prestige weapon framework. The weapon was relatively expensive to field and maintain. While the modern day scrap value of such an amount of bronze has declined to below $17,000, producing such an artifact in the Middle Ages without means of mass producing foundries would have incurred extremely high costs of labor and even higher opportunity costs for those alternate uses of the metals.[iv] The weapon may be remembered for its amazing tactical success in 1807, however it sat idle for hundreds of years without an engagement to its name. Investing scarce resources into such a weapon that sits idle for 300 years is arguably an incredibly inefficient way to achieve tactical effect. The weapon did successfully serve as a symbol of Ottoman power and appeared to signal potential rivals the importance of controlling the Dardanelles straits to Ottoman military strategy. Whatever deterrent effect that signal achieved was diminished enough by the 19th century for the Royal Navy to challenge previously-held assumptions about Ottoman strategic military priorities.
During the age of sail, large and elaborate warships were often conceived as practical combatants but ultimately served in the capacity of flagships as their impressive dimensions and propaganda effect transcended their actual combat power. Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus directed the construction of his desired flagship the Vasa with such impractical specifications that the top-heavy vessel sank on its maiden voyage in 1628.[v] British King Charles I committed so much money to the construction of HMS Sovereign of the Seas in 1637 that the financial stress on the Exchequer and resultant taxes contributed to the political causes of the English Civil War.[vi] Echoes of this trend continue into the post-Dreadnought battleship era, though not always with such disastrous result.
The Imperial Japanese Navy battleships Yamato and its sister ship Musashi were the largest warships ever put to sea at the time of their commissioning. They were designed to overmatch surface combatants while remaining within the constraints of the Washington Naval Treaty. However, by the time Yamato entered service in 1941 the developments in naval aviation made the prospects for battleships decisively engaged with each other much less likely. Shinano, the planned third ship of the Yamato class was converted to an aircraft carrier. Yet the outmoded Yamato was retained as flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy Combined Fleet before both meeting their destruction by US Navy carrier-based aircraft.[vii] Large battleships held comparable significance to other fleets during the war. It was aboard the US Navy Iowa class battleship USS Missouri that the Japanese surrender terms were signed in 1945. These vessels, which were slightly smaller but rivaled the Yamato class in capability, remained in service with the US Navy as late as 1992.[viii]
These battleships of the mid-20th century fit within the prestige weapon framework well. At over $100 million per vessel, the Iowa class of battleships consumed resources that incurred heavy opportunity costs, though it is difficult to conclude how a recapitalization of those investments into other means like aircraft carriers might have changed the strategic outcome of the war. The fact that the Imperial Japanese Navy converted the third Yamato class to an aircraft carrier suggests the limited tactical utility of the vessel was recognized by contemporary Japanese Naval planners. That the USS Missouri was preferred by MacArthur to other significant locations in Tokyo as the venue for the ceremonial signing of surrender terms makes it evident that the vessel had unique symbolic value in addition to a degree of practicality. Other venue options were available as the occupation of Japan was already in effect. The Iowa class battleship signaled to the world in 1945 as it did later on in service that the US military is committed to pursue its national security interests by way of the maritime domain.
SR-71 and the Nature of Aerospace Prestige Weapons
From the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear weapon in 1949 to the opening moves of the space race in 1957, the USSR rapidly expanded its nuclear capabilities to rival the US stockpile in the early Cold War. In order to prevent strategic surprise, the newly established US Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency began developing means to monitor the nuclear arms race and avoid unnecessary escalation. After Soviet Premier Khrushchev rejected President Eisenhower’s proposed Open Skies Treaty in 1955, it became clear that the US would need a range of capabilities to monitor Soviet nuclear development either without violating Soviet airspace or by maintaining plausible deniability of action.[ix] The TALENT program successfully provided this reconnaissance capability with the U-2 operating at extremely high altitudes of over 70,000 feet. Soviet surface-to-air missile technology eventually advanced enough to deny safe haven at that altitude; U-2s were shot down over the USSR in 1960 and Cuba in 1962.[x] [xi] The OXCART program advanced concepts behind the TALENT program instead of relying upon altitude, provided a platform that could evade air defenses at unprecedented speeds of over Mach 3 and with low radar observability.
The OXCART program A-11 and its successor the SR-71 Blackbird neutralized the Soviet missile deterrent, providing US policymakers with critical intelligence information over previously denied airspace. Products derived from SR-71 missions shaped US policy notably with regard to Egypt during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and Libya following the Berlin Discotheque Bombing in 1986.[xii] [xiii] However, by this time SR-71 overflights were no longer necessary to monitor Soviet nuclear developments as advances in satellite reconnaissance and alternate means delivered the information to analysts without incurring geopolitical risks or endangering the lives of aircrews. Of the 32 SR-71 airframes produced 12 were lost to accidents.[xiv] Although hazardous to operate and no longer immune to Soviet air defense threats, SR-71 was retained in service until 1990 frequently appearing at international air shows and setting several speed records.
The late Cold War service record of SR-71 suggests it possessed much in common with the prestige weapon archetype. At a reported per hour flying cost of $85,000, sustaining the operation of a single SR-71 consumed a higher share of budget than 35 U-2 aircraft for an equivalent time period.[xv] The Soviets took the challenge presented by SR-71 seriously and by 1986 developed a high-speed intercept capability with the MiG-31 which remains in service with the Russian Air Force. The high speed capabilities of the SR-71 were no longer practical for strategic reconnaissance by 1990 due to these advances in threat capability and alternate collection means becoming available, but as with other prestige weapons, the case for retaining the aircraft was made based on alternate uses. The aircraft became a platform for research and demonstration and continued signaling to the world the US commitment to investing in innovative aerospace technology for national security purposes.
The Maginot Line Revisited
The Maginot Line was built from 1930 to 1937 as a partially-subterranean defensive fortification system which spanned from Longwy, on the edge of the Ardennes forest and frontier with Luxembourg, south to the Swiss frontier near Basel.[xvi] It was deployed as the premier symbol of French resolve to oppose a resurgent Germany in the aftermath of the First World War. As a fortification system with immense fires capability, the Maginot Line had the operational purpose of deterring or defeating a direct ground assault along the Franco-German border, while providing time for French military forces to regroup, reserve forces and allies to be mobilized, and to initiate a counter-offensive. The Maginot plan relied upon defense coordination and cooperation with friendly neighbors for flank security which became its notorious undoing in 1940 when German mechanized forces rapidly seized objectives in northern France by way of then-neutral Belgium.
The failure of the French military contingency plans to anticipate advances in maneuver warfare and prevent the rapid defeat of France is key evidence to the conclusions of most historians that an infrastructure valued in the billions of present day dollars, can be classified as nothing short of a failure. Additionally, its manifestation was foreseen in February 1936, when the Belgium government abrogated the military agreement with France and declared neutrality in the effort to prevent being exposed as the flank to French strategy.[xvii] Contrarily, the historian Michaël Seramour writes, “the most modern fortification system of its day actually fulfilled its mission. It obliged the German Wehrmacht to attack through the Belgian plains again, as in 1914, and immobilized part of its forces.” [xviii] In 1936, Hitler ordered the construction of an opposing fortification of comparable scale later known as the Siegfried Line or West Wall. The Siegfried Line signaled to France that a temporary defensive advantage would not enable a belligerent party to escalate conflict with impunity. To this end, each defensive line secured and stabilized the Franco-German border during the inter-war years while leading both countries to strategize the bulk of potential future campaigns at the flanks of and in the airspace over the two massive fortification systems.
That the Maginot Line failed to serve its intended purpose of deterring and defeating an attack on France is not in question. What we should examine is whether the Maginot Line fits within the prestige weapon framework and whether it deserves such a maligned reputation given its deleterious effects on German strategy. The massive expense of the Maginot Line and its maladapted capability to defend against combined arms maneuver warfare are well-established and also central to its modern legacy. It is not clear, however, whether any alternate investment of those resources would have delivered a greater defensive return. One can speculate that more intelligence assets, anti-tank systems, and air defenses might have made a difference, but without sufficient doctrine, tactics, and context in the political environment, the point might be moot. The Maginot Line for better or worse successfully signaled how France prioritized allocation of its defense resources and became symbolic of how the First World War continued to shape French views of defense policy well into the mid-20th century.
Although the modern legacy of prestige weapons is characterized by wastefulness or even hubris, these weapons on several accounts successfully shaped strategic ends in their times by signaling important information to potential threats. Some of these historical artifacts successfully deterred conflicts or de-escalated ongoing wars by externalizing credible commitment to outlast opponents in siege warfare or other costly wars of attrition. Other historical prestige weapons deliberately provoked escalating arms races among rivals which occasionally resulted in strategic advantages for the provocateur as potential threats invested resources in competitive projects maladapted to the changing operating environment. Whether purposefully developed or retained into obsolescence, the prestige weapon phenomenon will likely remain a feature of the international security environment in the immediate future. An improved understanding of this category of weapons provides policy makers with a framework to recognize prestige weapons when encountered and even opens the prospect of leveraging such systems to better strategic effect.
This article was a submission to the Faculty of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School in partial satisfaction of the requirements for Joint Professional Military Education Phase II. The contents of this article reflect the writing team’s original views and are not necessarily endorsed by the Joint Forces Staff College or the Department of Defense.
[ii] “Turkish Bombard” Royal Armories.org, last modified unknown, https://www.royalarmouries.org/visit-us/fort-nelson/galleries/single-object/196
[iii] “Ottoman Super Cannon: The bombard that built an empire.”, History Answers.Co. UK, http://www.historyanswers.co.uk/medieval-renaissance/ottoman-super-cannon-the-bombard-that-built-an-empire/
[iv] Daniela Pylypczak-Wasylyszyn “Copper Price History: A 2,000-Year Overview.” Commodity HQ.Com, Last modified Jun 24, 2015, http://commodityhq.com/education/a-brief-2000-year-history-of-copper-prices/
[ix] Rostow, W. W. Open Skies: Eisenhower's Proposal of July 21, 1955. Austin, TX: Univrsity of Texas Press, 1982.
[x] U.S. Department of State. "U-2 Overflights and the Capture of Francis Gary Powers, 1960." State.gov. 2016. Accessed February 15, 2016,
[xi] National Photographic Interpretation Center, and Guided Missile and Astronautics Intelligence Committee, “Joint Evaluation of Soviet Missile Threat in Cuba.”, Report. U.S. Government, 1962.
[xii] "Creating the Blackbird." Lockheed Martin.com, Last Modified Jan, 1, 2016, http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/100years/stories/blackbird.html.
[xiii] Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, "Lockheed SR-71Blackbird." AirAndSpace.si.edu. Last modified Jan 1, 2016, http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19920072000.
[xiv] Spencer Tucker, “Almanac of American Military History”, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.
[xv] Eliot Marshall, "The Blackbird's Wake." Air and Space, October/November 1990, 35
[xvi] Julian Jackson, “The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940”, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Page 26.
[xvii] Mark Jacobsen, Robert Levine, William Schwabe, “Contingency Plans for War in Western Europe 1920-1940” Report, Rand Strategy Assessment Center, 190: Rand, 1985. Pg 68. www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA159833
[xviii] Michaël Seramour, "Histoire de la ligne Maginot de 1945 à nos jours", Edited by Service historique de la Défense. Revue historique des armées (Revues.org), no. 247 (2007).