The Utility of Different Weapons

The utility of different weapons, for any given confrontation, depends upon what they were designed for and their impact on wider security.

Types of military equipment vary in their effectiveness, the uses to which they can be put, and the likelihood that they will be used:

●  Ground-based weapons such as artillery, mortars, rifles and hand-guns are readily available. Commanders know that people on both sides of the conflict will be killed, but they expect losses to be tolerable even if the dispute escalates.

●  Countries incur fewer casualties when making air-strikes against targets on the ground, as described earlier ( A BBC article, Syria war: Weapons key players have at their disposal, describes the piloted aircraft, drones and missiles used there by America, Britain, France, Russia and the Syrian military.  Air-strikes are ineffective, though, unless there are military targets whose location is precisely known.

●  Navies are constrained by geography to projecting power in maritime contexts. The above article mentioned aircraft carriers, to support the air-strikes, but no other ships.

●  Nuclear weapons have rarely been used but they have effectively deterred aggression by other States which have them.  Deterrence in other circumstances is changing in nature, as described later (7.4.2).

●  The utility of different weapons of mass-destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons, is limited by security considerations. They are forbidden by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, and they are universally condemned.  Political leaders who use them lose legitimacy and they incur the risk of intervention by other countries with UN agreement – as in the case of the UN resolution 687 to remove chemical weapons from Iraq.

●  Defence shields are not weapons, and therefore cannot be used aggressively, but they undermine the effectiveness of other countries’ deterrents.  They might be seen as indicating a state of preparation for war.  The BBC article, Missile shield ‘threatens Russia’, described how Russia was concerned about American plans to install a defence shield in Eastern Europe, for example.

These capabilities were mostly designed to combat another country’s armed forces and destroy military targets.  As described in the following sub-sections, these capabilities are of limited utility against guerrilla tactics (, for conflicts in civilian areas ( and when trying to occupy another country (



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/7411a.htm.