Flat Tops and Short Decks

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Izumo’s commissioning on August 6, 2013

Japan unveiled its biggest warship since World War II on Tuesday, a $1.2 billion helicopter carrier aimed at defending territorial claims.

The move drew criticism from regional rival China, which accused its neighbor of “constant” military expansion.

The ceremony to showcase the 248-meter (810-feet) vessel came as Shinzo Abe’s conservative government, which took office last December, considers ditching the nation’s pacifist constitution and beefing up the military.

Japan plans to use the helicopter carrier, named Izumo and expected to go into service in 2015, to defend territorial claims following maritime skirmishes with China, which has demonstrated its own military ambitions in recent years.

This is via Nick Prime, who points out the theoretical possibility of fielding the F-35 on these. (Here’s another story).

Which, honestly, is what I thought was basically the only thing keeping the B variant alive. It’s not just the USMC that needs a VTOL-capable aircraft (or in the case of the JSF, “aircraft”), but a lot of our allies and partners in the region who have been investing in flattops like these (see: HMAS Canberra, ROKS Dokdo, etc.) with the possibility of flying such planes off of them. Even the Europeans are getting in on it – the French have a pretty good platform in the Mistral class, hence the brouhaha over the Russian acquisition of four of them.

And in that case, there had better be an aircraft that can use the short-decks. I mean, helicopters are great and all, but if we’re going to at least play bluewater navy and accept that power projection via the aircraft carrier is still a) relevant, and b) desirable, then doing it on the cheap is probably the best compromise. At this point you might as well assume that you’re going to lose them, so why not go for the more basic version? The Marines probably aren’t thrilled about a CAS aircraft that’s only 80% better than its predecessor (though certainly more than 80% more costly), but the key is that it’s not just for them. Our friends are getting in the game, and that’s not a bad thing.

Anyways, it is nice to see the JMSDF get a new flagship (that’s how they determine them, right? The biggest?). And one whose name has an interesting history, too.

 

UPDATE: Kyle Mizokami, as usual, has written excellent words on the Izumo. Short version: Japan’s going to have to go big or go home.

Born in the USA

An F-117 flying over Nellis AFB, Nevada, 2002.

This story, if indeed true, is rather frightening:

On March 27, during the height of NATO’s air war on Serbia, a very smart and very lucky Serbian air-defense commander…managed to shoot down an attacking U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter-bomber…

The destroyed F-117’s left wing, canopy and ejection seat — plus Zelko’s helmet — wound up in a Belgrade aviation museum, but most of the rest of the 15-ton jet was gathered up by farmers living around the crash site…

Bach in March 1999, the F-117’s wreckage was possibly still cooling when foreign agents sprang into action. “At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, then the top Croatian officer, told the Associated Press.

“The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese,” added Zoran Kusovac, a military consultant based in Rome.

David Axe suggests that there is a good portion of F-117 DNA in the recently unveiled Chinese J-20. As he points out, it would also go a long way towards explaining the relatively sudden retirement of the barely 30-year-old F-117 in 2008.

But it does raise the question of future incidents. Out of 168 F-22s, already three have crashed (albeit all within United States territory). What happens when we lose one elsewhere? What if it’s in a combat zone? It sounds like the most helpful piece to the Chinese was learning the composition of the F-117′s skin coating and other advanced composite materials. And those are hard to self-destruct.

The pilot of the F-117, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, was rescued remarkably quickly, but little interest was shown in recovering the wreckage. If the J-20′s lineage can in fact be traced to the F-117, that’s a mistake unlikely to ever be made again.

Escape from Heathrowistan

I’ve been back in America for several days now (and thank God, made it home in time for Christmas), but it became quite an ordeal getting out of the United Kingdom.

Quite possibly the only snowplow at Heathrow Airport attempts to accomplish the herculean task of clearing several inches of snow.

The four-inch snowpocalypse at Heathrow Airport led to an air travel catastrophe, with more than half a million passengers unable to get where they needed to be. I was lucky enough to have hotels and such at my disposal, unlike the thousands forced to sleep on the floor of various terminals at the airport. But let me break it down:

It snowed four inches on Saturday, December 18. This prompted the full closure of both Heathrow and Gatwick airports. By Sunday, Gatwick had reopened at more than 50% of capacity – but Heathrow remained closed. My flight, initially scheduled for Sunday, was thus canceled. Rather than spend hours on long-distance hold with the airline, I opted to book a new one-way flight for Tuesday, connecting in Dublin and leaving from Gatwick, which was operating more smoothly.

By Tuesday, Gatwick was almost 100% operational, but Heathrow was still operating at about a third of capacity, and its second runway remained closed. I then spent eight hours at Gatwick waiting for my constantly delayed flight, which was finally canceled because it had been snowing in Dublin for five hours.

At that point, I thought I was screwed. From what I could tell and from what a travel agent told me, the next available flights were not going to be until today – Boxing Day. Thus I would miss Christmas, stranded in a foreign land. But miraculously, ten minutes later the travel agent called back to report a block of seats on Air Canada flights had opened up. We quickly managed to a book a flight connecting in Ottawa for Wednesday, and despite snow-induced delays on the ground in Ottawa and later in the air above Boston, I made it home for Christmas. We landed in snow, because flakes don’t necessitate entire airport closures. Continue reading

Death from Above

At a recent conference in Beit Hatotchan on urban warfare, Major General Sami Turgeman of the Israeli 36th Armored Division announced findings from Operation Cast Lead in 2008.-9 One of them struck me as rather surprising, considering other counterinsurgency/military operations – that “the Air Force is more accurate in urban warfare.”

Now granted, that is in comparison with Israeli armor, but nevertheless it rings a bit hollow. Even with air strikes in at historical highs in October, it was deemed necessary to deploy tanks to southwest Afghanistan. Tankers were naturally thrilled, and one wrote of the new firepower available to bring to bear:

Currently, most American military vehicles are equipped with remote optics systems,  which are useful for urban fire fights at short ranges but do not offer the depth necessary to fight effectively in southwestern Afghanistan. However, tanks offer optics systems that dwarf the traditional capabilities of an infantry carrier…and, oh yeah, these days each tank can acquire targets clearly in excess of four times as far.

So perhaps it’s not a zero-sum case of tanks or planes, but rather using both in areas of relative superiority. Still, returning to the IAF, Gen. Turgeman “explained that the solution for urban warfare is stronger cooperation between air and ground forces.”

There are an unbelievable number of problems facing aviation as used in urban warfare, be it counterinsurgency or conventional operations. Israel has begun to slightly shift the focus of even their conventional ops to a more population-centric (read: media-friendly) approach, but more air power is absolutely not the way to go about it. Even discriminate aerial bombing and air strikes pose a great risk of collateral damage, and most definitely does not look good on camera.

This is, of course, what I wrote my dissertation about, albeit in the case of Aden (I’ve been holding off on reprinting the whole article here while I try to get it published). But here’s a relevant passage:

While the RAF enjoyed great success up-country in the Aden Protectorate, both independent and in support of ground operations by both the FRA and the British Army, that success was useless when compared with the insurgency’s shift to urban centers, and when the political situation of Aden is taken into account. Both in terms of the use of airpower and the overall relevance of it, politics are hugely important. The potential fallout from misapplied air strikes and civilian casualties was and remains immense, as Britain learned to its detriment. Furthermore, even if airpower is used responsibly and with minimal collateral damage – such as during the Harib raid – interpretation is everything, and when Yemen claimed 25 civilian casualties resulting from the raid, Britain could neither prove nor disprove the figure, despite the near-certainty of its untruth. Obviously, the use of airpower both before and during the insurgency had to rely on precise targeting and weapons systems to avoid further alienating the local population and inflaming world opinion, but regardless of the truth, it was all too often that Britain found its reputation in tatters due to an air attack of any kind.

So while the Israeli Air Force may indeed have improved its relative accuracy, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Air power, however skillfully employed, does not win hearts and minds.

OODAs of Noodles

Ah, Boyd. Master of all things. As a good friend once explained the cult of Boyd as “it’s like the Americans wanted to scream, ‘WE HAVE A MILITARY GENIUS, SEE!’ while losing in Vietnam.” But still, the underlying theory is sound, and this chart does a good job of breaking down all four letters.

I’m a little embarrassed to say I hadn’t seen it before (the original website dates it back to 2006). It really is an excellent overview of the OODA Loop, including all the cultural and individual particulars that inform a decision. Also, note the sheer number of ways to ‘observe. The chart can be expanded or condensed for as long as you need, be it split-second decision or drawn-out debate process. And if nothing else, you have a crucial tool to get all inside your enemy’s head.

There is a real risk, though, of reading too much into OODA. More guidelines than rules. And so forth.

Via zenpundit.

Lesser Nobility of the Seas

Depressing developments out of Britain (new motto: “Good, not Great”), where David Cameron has announced the extent of massive budget cuts.  They’re not only targeted at the much-reviled ‘quangos’ and other sundry domestic spending, but significantly cut down on the size of the Royal Navy.

And I do mean significant. HMS Ark Royal is to be scrapped immediately, and while the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will still be built, one will be commissioned pre-mothballed, while neither will be fully operational until 2036 (a rather expensive “jobs program“). One of the two helicopter carriers will be decommissioned. A total of 5,000 personnel cut. And the surface fleet reduced to 19 ships. As many have pointed out, that’s smaller than the task force sent to retake the Falkland Islands.

Obviously, this represents a real threat to British power projection capabilities. But it’s worth asking to what extent they’re still needed. The Guardian, true to form, heralds the cuts as rendering Britain incapable of launching “military operations like Iraq.” Which may be well and good; after all, today’s generals prepare to fight yesterday’s wars, and hopefully there won’t be any more Iraqs or Afghanistans in the near future.

All the same, is this a force capable of defending Britain? Again, the question is what Britain needs defending from. It can’t be the French, with whom the Royal Navy has entered into a sort of timeshare arrangement for the use of aircraft carriers (though hopefully their deployments go better than that of Charles de Gaulle). If anything is to be secure for Britain, though, it must be the sealanes. Britain is an island, and as Patrick Porter reminds us, “for heavy importing island states like Britain, strategy puts food on the table.”

Either way, it’s a huge blow to British prestige both around the world and within NATO. The worst part is that this may be a sign of things to come. As David Betz at Kings of War says:

The thing to grasp is that this is not Year Zero for the UK military, it’s worse than that. It’s more like Year -5 or -10 because that’s what it’s going to take to move all the accumulated bad decisions, and even worse non-decisions, through the system. It will be years before we get to zero and can start to work on building the armed forces we want and need.

Practical considerations aside – and they’re hugely important to consider – it’s almost akin to the death of the battleship, that great “monarch of the sea.” Once the British cuts are complete, the United States will be the only navy in the world operating more than one carrier. Last time the U.S. had to bail out her Anglophone cousin, the Royal Navy had been placed in a similar situation.

By 1939, Britain could not afford the navy that was necessary to ensure security across the globe. While the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty appeared to favor the United States and the United Kingdom, the scattered nature of the British Empire left it without overwhelming strength in any given theater, despite the superiority in absolute tonnage. In the early days of World War II – at least to protect Far East territories and India – the Royal Navy had to rely on the strength of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the South African coastal forces, and the British-controlled Royal Indian Navy.

We all know what happened next: Singapore and Malaya fell, the Japanese preponderance of carrier-based aviation left the entire Eastern Fleet sorely outgunned, and at the Battle of the Java Sea, the entire Allied fleet was wiped out in the largest naval battle since Jutland in 1916. Britain was stretched too thinly.

Obviously, the empire is no more and concerns closer to home are keeping the Ministry of Defence busy, but even so – there is a floor to the minimum amount of required naval force, even for a tiny island like Great Britain. With these cuts, I fear that the UK may have just crashed through it.

Africa Takes Flight

Nigerian Mubarak Muhammad Abdullahi's homemade working helicopter.

In a delightful example of the DIY ethos, and bearing more than a slight resemblance to the John Robb school (not to mention Cory Doctorow), amateur engineers in Kenya, Somaliland, and Nigeria are cobbling together their own aircraft out of spare parts and discarded hulks.

And that includes both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The above helicopter was crafted from “scrap aluminum and parts of a Honda Civic, a Toyota, and a Boeing 747.” And it actually flies, too – at an altitude of 7 feet.

Via io9.

TSA Carry-on Rules or: Why I Should Probably Repack Before Leaving Tomorrow

A partial list of items banned from carry-on luggage by the Transportation Security Administration, as of June 2010:

  • Ice picks
  • Vehicle airbags
  • Gel shoe inserts
  • Meat cleavers
  • Sabers
  • Swords
  • Cricket bats
  • Spear guns
  • Cattle prods
  • Billy clubs
  • Nunchakus
  • Throwing stars
  • Blasting caps
  • Dynamite
  • Hand grenades

And “snow globes… even with documentation.”

Via Futility Closet.

Dissert’ Menu

The British begin their withdrawal from Aden, 1967.

So in case anyone wasn’t aware, I’ve been working on my master’s dissertation – for which I finally have a pretty solid topic. The work right now is all archival research, which I have no problem with, but finding sources specific to my area is proving a little bit of a challenge.

That area is the Aden Emergency of 1963-67, in which the British fought a counterinsurgency in the Aden colony and the East and West Protectorate ‘up country’. Specifically, though, I want to focus on the RAF and the use of airpower in COIN strategy.

Starbuck at Wings Over Iraq has been doing some great work on counterinsurgency airpower, and I definitely recommend checking that out and contributing if you can. Many thanks to Shlok Vaidya for pointing me in that direction. In the meantime, my research is mostly being conducted in Liddell Hart Library at King’s College London, but I’ll also be dropping by the RAF archives and others. Any help would be appreciated.

I’ll also from time to time be posting little gems I manage to unearth, so stay tuned for those.