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After Recent Boom War-Makers Face Slump

In 1914, a cavalry troop maintaining formation could charge at roughly 30 feet per second. The muzzle velocity of a Hotchkiss machine gun, developed the same year, was 2,375 feet per second, nearly 100 times as fast. From a range of 300 yards, a horse could move only inches in the time it took the bullet to reach it. That and the machine gun’s rate of fire, 450-600 rounds per minute, ushered in a period in which the defense in war held the overwhelming advantage over the offense.

Had the European nations fully grasped this disparity they might have avoided WWI like the plague it became. So far the worst disaster in western history, this first world conflict destroyed most of a generation of European young men and launched an inexorable slide to WWII, Soviet Communism, Nazism and the Holocaust.

The emergence of the tank, mobile artillery, the light field-mortar, effective air-forces, and the aircraft carrier restored a rough balance and perhaps a modest advantage to the offense.

Then Hiroshima so augmented that offensive edge that offense became defense.  That halted war between the major powers for 80 years.

The central fact of military strategy today—to which U.S. politicians seem oblivious—is that the balance has shifted again decisively to favor the defense. In the next few years, war between major powers will become as futile as it was in 1914, but far more destructive.

Once free of the atmosphere, a ballistic missile moves at approximately 15,000 miles per hour. In its terminal phase, the atmosphere reduces the missile’s speed to about 2,000 mph. Today, the dreaded hypersonic missile can travel, in the atmosphere, at about 1 mile per second, or 3,600 mph. That could double in the next few years, except that it never will. Hypersonic missile programs will be abandoned because the hypersonic missile is already obsolete, thanks to the emergence of directed energy weapons, which are just becoming a reality.

Directed energy weapons propagate at roughly the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. That’s 186,000 times as fast as the fastest atmospheric missile and 44,286 times as fast as an ICBM in space. Those speeds make a race between a horse and a bullet look competitive. From a hundred miles away, any missile is effectively stationary for the time it takes an energy weapon to shoot it down.

When Ronald Reagan first announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, laser weapons were science fiction, held back by at least three factors: power, rate of fire and target acquisition.

In 1980, an anti-ballistic-missile laser weapon would have had to fire from space because the most powerful lasers available could not traverse the atmosphere with sufficient power or accuracy to destroy a missile in flight. In space, the energy to power these inefficient lasers would have been hard to come by. A laser of sufficient power could be fired at most once before needing to recharge.

Even with sufficient power, targeting would be a nightmare. The aim of a laser weapon must be accurate within the radius of a missile—a matter of feet—over hundreds or thousands of miles. Even today this requires some mechanical action: the laser must be pointed correctly, still the most daunting task for these weapons.

Today, all these problems have been solved. Targeting remains the biggest challenge but has been mitigated by two factors. The first is rate of fire, which is exactly how the machine gunner solved the problem of hitting a horse on the first try. Laser weapons can now fire so many times a second that they can miss multiple times, read the error precisely via high-powered computation, re-aim and refire almost before the missile has moved. Power takes care of the rest. Because we can now shoot deadly beams though the atmosphere, firing range is measured not in thousands of miles but hundreds or even tens of miles.

Satellites have made the aircraft carrier obsolete by making it impossible to hide. Energy weapons have done the same to the airplane itself. The F-15 Flight Eagle, practically speaking the world’s fastest combat aircraft (the Russian Mig 31 is faster but has limited roles) can reach 1,650 mph. A single laser weapon mounted on a tower a couple hundred feet high could destroy every F15 in the U.S. arsenal in the time it took the planes to cross from the horizon to the tower.

The U.S. Navy is apparently integrating laser weapons into its Aegis anti-missile system in a desperate attempt to save its carriers, using the very weapon that will render impotent the aircraft they carry.

Yes, it is always possible to argue countermeasures and exceptions. With the aid of artillery fire to keep the machine gunner’s head down WWI infantry sometimes made it across no-man’s land. As our friend Captain Bruce Gudmunsson USMC (Retired) explains in his masterful “Stormtroop Tactics,” the Germans in WWI eventually developed open-order tactics and weapons (hand grenades, light mortars, flame throwers) that achieved some success against entrenched enemies. Any reigning paradigm can be subverted by exceptional efforts. But exceptional or exceptionally costly efforts do not make viable strategies.

The U.S. military is overwhelmingly designed for offensive action: “force projection” as the hawks like to call it. The aircraft carrier is the Queen of force projection.

Force projection has worked deceptively well against countries that pose about as much threat to the U.S. military as African tribesmen charging British machine guns in the 19th century. Circa the day after tomorrow, any force projected at less than the speed of light will be no force at all. Our leaders, especially the Republicans who have never met a war they did not love, should keep that in mind.


Notable for Tech Investors

AI Already Boosting Microsoft’s Fortunes

The rapid take-up of MSFT’s cloud-based AI service was instrumental in its outstanding quarterly earnings report. For us that is one more piece of (expected) evidence that the semiconductor industry, which supplies the hardware for AI, is set for a decades-long boom. Buy the chips!

Despite the semiconductor slump, demand for TSMC’s elite chips outpaces supply

This somewhat dense piece includes a terrific graph showing two important phenomena:

  • how quickly a new elite chip becomes TSMC’s dominant revenue producer
  • legacy nodes such as 20, 28, and even 45nm, after falling off the lead, stabilize and even grow as revenue producers.

Also, TSMC reports that its latest chip process, the “N3”, has gone from zero in 2022 to an expected high-single-digit percentage of revenue in 2023.

In March, semiconductor sales up for the first time since May 2022

Didn’t we tell ya! The chip cycle is Mr. Market’s greatest gift ever to investors.

The chips always come back and usually faster than expected—though not all at once. Logic is beginning to look better, helped by high-priced advanced nodes (as the TSMC story above suggests). Memory still lags for now but…

Holy Micron! Gartner Group Exec says memory sales could be up 70% in 2024!

Gartner is the most respected—we think deservedly—analyst group in the tech world, and the experts there think memory chips will come roaring back. Hold your Micron!

And finally on the chip counter-offensive:

Life after silicon: Bosch plans to acquire U.S. chipmaker TSI Semiconductors to boost production of silicon carbide chips for: electrification of the economy

Now, if we could only make some electricity!

WANT TO MAKE MONEY IN TECH? Subscribe to the Gilder Technology Report, by George Gilder, who has been the tech investor’s most prescient guide for more than three decades.

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