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V-2

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Brad has a good post on the Freeman Dyson review of Michael Neufeld’s new biography of Werner Von Braun. Essentially, Dyson makes the argument that the V-2 was a poor allocation of scarce defense resources:

As the summer ended and our armies drove the Germans out of France, the buzz bombs stopped coming. They were replaced by a much less disturbing instrument of murder, the V-2 rockets launched from more distant sites in western Holland. The V-2 was not nerve-wracking like the buzz bomb. When a V-2 came down, we heard the explosion first and the supersonic scream of the descending rocket afterward. As soon as we heard the explosion, we knew that it had missed us. The buzz bombs and the V-2 rockets killed a few thousand people in London, but they hardly disrupted our civilian activities and had no effect at all on the war that was then raging in France and in Poland. The rockets had even less effect than the buzz bombs.

Brad uses this as a jumping off point for a discussion of inter-service rivalry and the US defense budget.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, and inter-service competition is only one (important) part of the issue. There’s no question that military organizations compete against each other for turf and resources, and I think it’s right to interpret the V-2 in the light of Wehrmacht-Luftwaffe competition. This kind of competition can reflect poorly in any number of ways, from producing bad procurement decisions to limiting cooperation in actual warfighting. In WWII, for example, conflict between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine prevented necessary cooperation on attacks against shipping. On the other hand, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were bitter rivals during the interwar period, but cooperated very well during the ASW campaign. Back in the 1960s McNamara tried to get the services to compete against one another for procurement in the hopes that the flaws of weapon systems he didn’t like would be highlighted. It didn’t really work out, though; the services knew they were being played and toned it down, and the result (each service gets a stable slice of the pie) is what we’re still coping with today. As Yglesias noted, Fred Kaplan has a good discussion of some of the competition surrounding ballistic missile defense in his new book, Daydream Believers. I suspect that it might be possible to create some kind of scheme by which forcing the services to compete with one another improved procurement; the services could conceivably become each other’s best critics. However, I’m not sure that the logic follows for questions such as doctrine or general organizational effectiveness, where turf battles can be very destructive. Military organizations do not, after all, exist in an environment of perfect competition, and as such competition doesn’t necessarily make them more efficient.

However, it’s worth mentioning (as Dyson notes) that the SS took over the V-2 from the Wehrmacht, so it’s clearly not just a inter-service rivalry question. Civilians somewhere convinced themselves that it would be a good idea to pour money into this particular program at the expense of fighter aircraft and other goodies. There are a couple of reasons why this might have seemed sensible at the time. The first is that some innovations aren’t so useful in and of themselves, but can be quite useful as stepping stones to other innovations. One example on the German side in WWII would be the submarine campaign. After the middle of 1943, the U-boat campaign turned very badly against the Kriegsmarine, with the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, and USN exacting a devastating toll on the Germans. Germany continued to devote considerable resources to the campaign, even though it wasn’t paying off at the time. This devotion resulted in the development of the snorkel (allowing German subs to spend more time underwater), and eventually in the development of the Type XXI submarine, which could have devastated Allied supply lines if the war had continued a year or two longer. It’s possible (the article doesn’t really say) that the V-2 was considered such a halfway step, and that the Germans envisioned a longer ranged missile that could hit the US and targets deep within the Soviet Union as the true war-winning weapon.

If this is true, the Germans were almost certainly mistaken. The amount of ordnance that could be delivered even by a successor to the V-2 is certainly less than was delivered onto Germany by strategic bombers, and the strategic bombing campaign neither broke German morale nor crushed German industry (although it did some damage to the latter, and might have done more had better metrics been employed). A few, or a few dozen, or even a few hundred missiles hitting US industrial centers would not have substantially slowed the US war machine; same with the Soviet Union. For complicated reasons associated with the German collapse in 1918 and the Bolshevik Revolution, military planners in the 1920s and 1930s assumed that societies were much more fragile than they actually were, and thus that bombing might end wars in short order. Didn’t work out. Things haven’t changed that much, as not a few modern military planners seem to assume that a smattering JDAMs and cruise missiles will serve to bring recalcitrant rogue regimes to their knees. Especially since the Germans were already suffering under devastating Allied bombardment yet not surrendering, it hardly seems possible that they could have believed that the V-2 or its potential successors could win the war in an economical fashion.

However, the strategic bombing angle presents at least one other logical reason for pursuing the V-2; the Germans may not have believed that the V-2 itself could win the war, but might have concluded that the Allies would be forced to respond in some fashion and that the cost of that response would exceed the cost of the V-2. Probably the single greatest contribution that the strategic bombing campaign made to the end of the war was to drag German fighter aircraft out of tactical roles on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The presence of V-1 and V-2 launch sites changed Allied behavior on the Western Front, and it’s possible that the use of even more powerful delivery vehicles could have forced the Allies to engage in a costly effort to prevent the attacks. This is a pretty thin reed to stake an enormously expensive program on, but it’s not an impossibility.

And this, I suppose, is why I should read the book about Von Braun, because I don’t really know the details of any of this process, and it’s pretty interesting from a theoretical point of view.

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