Today, heavy weapons systems still are at the core of modern armed forces. Battle tanks, combat aircraft, warships and submarines belong to that group. One differentiates between heavy weapons, small arms and light weapons and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. All in all, heavy weapons is the umbrella term for all military equipment that falls under the following four categories:
- Armoured vehicles (armoured personnel carriers, light tanks, battle tanks),
- Artillery (multiple rocket launchers, self-propelled guns, pulled guns) with a calibre of more than 100mm:
- Combat aircraft (combat helicopters, fixed-wing fighter planes)
- Capital ships (submarines, naval surface vessels larger than a corvette.
In World War I and II as well as in numerous other wars of the past century, conventional major weapons played an important role. The battle tank, developed in World War I, for instance, considerably influenced the trench warfare at the Western Front in France; in World War II, it had already become a strategic weapon for all warring parties. Until today, battle tanks are part of modern warfare in many parts of the world.
Aircraft carriers were increasingly used in naval and air battles of World War II, such as the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 or the naval battle of Midway, 1942 in the Pacific Ocean. Their flexible deployment options supported the air force in gaining superiority in the air and in carrying out aerial attacks. Since the time of the Cold War, countries show they might and worldwide presence with these floating military platforms. Submarines serve a similar strategic purpose.
The importance of vessels of war and combat aircraft has also risen steadily in the last six decades. They are used in current wars and conflicts, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Horn of Africa.
Today, wars or armed conflicts have increasingly become asymmetric, which means that the parties involved pursue different strategies and have very different weapons at their disposals. Yet, even if in 'asymmetric warfare', drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) and other high-tech military equipment is used, modern armies still focus on the operationality of the individual parts of the armed forces (army, navy and air force) together with conventional weapons. Counter to times of the Cold War, today's armies rely on light, quickly movable troops rather than large armoured formations.
Even though the importance of battle tanks is decreasing in Western Europe and other Western countries, in other countries, such as in Latin America or Asia, they are still considered an important strategic weapon. A possible arms deal in 2011 with Saudi Arabia, with Germany planning to sell up to 270 Leopard 2 tanks, may serve as an example for this.
The currently most well-known battle tanks are the US-American M1-Abrams, the German Leopard 2, the British Challenger, the French Leclerc, the South Korean Models K1 and K2, the Russian T-90, the Israeli Merkava MK4, the Japanese tank type 90 and the Chinese tank type 99. The old Soviet / Russian models, such as T-54, T-55 and T-62, but especially the Russian T-72 are the most widespread models.
Combat aircraft and helicopters
These two heavy weapons systems have been deployed in air attacks in all wars of the recent past—be it in Kosovo, in Afghanistan or Iraq. The current contracts between Saudi Arabia and the United States on the purchase of 84 new F-15 combat aircraft and the envisaged purchase of India of 126 French Rafale multi-role combat aircraft show the increased interest in modern combat aircraft. The most common combat aircraft worldwide are the US-American F/A-18 and F-15/16 as well as the slightly older F-5 Freedom Fighter, the Russian MiG-21, MiG-29 and Su-27, the French Mirage, the Chinese fighter plane J-7 and the Tornado, a combat aircraft developed in cooperation by the countries of Germany, Great Britain and Italy.
Vessels of war and submarines
The importance of international waterways has increased markedly with the global trade network. At the same time, the increased activity of pirates at the Horn of Africa or in the Strait of Malacca as well as rampant smuggling of drugs and weapons have made the world's oceans more dangerous. More and more countries, therefore, invest in deep-sea vessels for their navies to also be able to defend their security beyond their coastal waters.
The United States possess the most warships, followed by Russia, China and India. Less than a dozen countries are in possession of aircraft carriers (such as the United States, France, India, China) while many more own frigates and destroyers. Submarines are still considered an important strategic weapon, even long after the Cold War. While only Russia, France and the United States possess nuclear-powered submarines, demand for conventional submarines from Russia and other Western European countries, such as Germany, France, Sweden and Spain is also growing on the international markets.
While armament processes in Asia, the Middle East and in Latin America are increasing in the course of which heavy weapons systems are being purchased, countries in other regions have already entered into agreements that limit the amount of conventional weapons, such as the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE-Treaty). The Treaty between NATO-countries and countries of the Warsaw Pact that they entered into in 1999, for instance, foresaw a ceiling of conventional major weapons in Europe (except vessels of war). In the first phase following entry into force of the Treaty, a good 51,000 weapons were destroyed in Europe. Since 13 December 2007, Russia has suspended its participation in the CFE Treaty of 1990 but has not withdrawn from it.
With the Dayton Accords of 21 November 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia have agreed on numerical limits for heavy weapons in the Balkans. Only a few years following entry into force of the Accords, the ceiling was reached and 6,580 weapons systems, about 46 per cent of total stockpiles, were destroyed.
Besides these regional agreements on limits of heavy weapons systems, the Geneva Convention and its three Additional Protocols representing the core of humanitarian international law provide for a general protection of civilians at times of armed conflict. As interstate agreements, today's conventions of 1949, their Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 are based on the First Geneva Convention of 1864 that then was only signed by 12 nations. Today, 194 countries have joined the Geneva Convention of 1949; 171 respectively 166 countries have joined the first two of the Additional Protocols of 1977; 59 countries have ratified the third Additional Protocol of 2005.
The Geneva Conventions also refer to the general use of conventional weapons in war. The methods of conducting a war and their means—i.e. weapons—must be adequate in relation to the aspired and actual military purpose. The use of weapons that cause undue suffering or superfluous injury is specifically prohibited. Weapons that do not differentiate between military and civilian objects are just as prohibited as weapons that cause extended, long-term and huge damages to the environment and thus deprive humans of their livelihoods.
The UN Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (CWC Convention), which was adopted in 1980 and entered into force in 1983, in its five Protocols contains regulations on the basic use of certain weapon types, such as landmines (Protocol KK) or incendiary weapons (Protocol III). There was no agreement on the originally intended Sixth Protocol on cluster bombs due to the irreconcilable positions of the different countries. Instead, 67 countries so far have ratified the agreement on cluster munitions that was negotiated as an alternative in 2010 (see info text on cluster munitions in this module).