Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

The Long Journey of U-534

Of all the hundreds of U-boats that were built, very few survive. One is the U-534, sunken only to be raised, displayed, abandoned again, and finally being repurposed as a sliced-and-diced tourist attraction on the Mersey River in the northwest of England.

This approximately 20 minute promotional video tells U-534’s story, from its last mission, to its last desperate fight with two Liberator bombers, to its recovery from the bottom of the sea, it’s abandonment to the elements, and finally, to its survival in Liverpool. The boat sank into a fissure deep in the Kattegat, yet all but two of the crew lived — the five or six of them who didn’t get out in time still managed to escape, like a handful of the survivors of the American sub Wahoo, from a torpedo-room escape trunk. A young radio operator was among the escapees, but did not exhale to equalize pressure as he rose, and died horribly as a result.

The attacking Liberators didn’t fare as well — one did sink the U-boat with depth charges, but not until after the gunners on U-534 had shot the other bomber down with the loss of its entire crew.

There is a great deal of information about this ill-fated submarine on the net. For instance, this page is the first of several that show some of the materials recovered from the boat, including documents that were readily restored to legibility. Here’s a report of what it was like to visit the boat during its near-abandonment on a quay in nearby Birkenhead. U-595’s armament was interesting, with lots of rapid-firing AA guns and three new homing torpedoes.

U-595 is one of only four U-Boats to survive. The others include sister Type VIIC/40 U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Technology, which was captured during the war; near-sister Type VIIC/41 U-995, taken by Norway postwar and later acquired by German veterans as a memorial, on the water’s edge at Laboe; and the advanced Type XXI U-2540, which was raised a dozen years post-war (it had been scuttled) and served the Bundesmarine as Wilhelm Bauer.  U-2540 has been restored to WWII condition as a museum ship, and is the only U-Boat still afloat.

There is one mystery remaining: why did U-534 fight? Despite the survival of most of the crew, this remains unclear. You see, the fight took place after Admiral Dönitz had surrendered to the Allies, and instructed all boats at see to fly white flags of surrender and to give themselves over to Allied forces. The captain committed suicide shortly after the end of the war. The most probable reason is prosaic: the boat hadn’t received Dönitz’s message.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: NavWeaps.com

As a clever reader might deduce from the name NavWeaps.com, the site provides information on Naval Weapons, mostly from the classical 20th Century age of battleship warfare, but with an objective to cover the period from 1880-present.

Extensive technical information resides here: not only on naval guns from AA popguns to ship-shredding 18-inchers, but also on torpedoes, mines, depth charges, rockets and hybrid weapons.

While a lot of sites discuss the main armament of American, British and Japanese capital ships, few go deep into the secondary and tertiary armament of these vessels, and fewer still review the armaments of smaller combatant vessels, or any vessel of secondary seafaring nations, such as Russia, Italy or Austria-Hungary. This site doesn’t get every single gun on every single vessel… yet. But it does seem like that’s their ambition.

Looking at the rise and fall of great guns through history, it’s interesting to see how gun caliber, range, throw weight, and power rose from the dawn of the Dreadnought Era to peak in the great battleships of World War II … and has declined ever since. US Navy ships now have nothing greater than 155mm (approx. 6″) on the Zumwalt class, and 5″ guns on most cruisers and destroyers. (And the ammunition for the 155 is not being procured; the Navy instead wants to convert the Zumwalts to fire the ground forces’ 155mm guided Excalibur rounds, but their first cut at the costs for doing that is $250 million for the engineering, before buying the first bullet — and, of course, before the Pentagon’s usual cost overruns.

The “big gun” on the all-but-defenseless LCS class is a 57mm (~2.3″), also selected for Coast Guard cutters. So if the Navy that Ray Mabus built gets in a war with the Coast Guard, they’ll be at technological parity, at least.

But that was a long and bitter digression, and this post is really about NavWeaps.com. Along with the already-mentioned weapons information, there are some excellent historical articles on some aspect of naval warfare: for example, this one on German radar development.

Military Pilot Retention Too Low

Not enough pilots are staying in the flying services past their initial certificates of indenture terms of obligated service. A phalanx of generals and admirals, led by the USAF’s Vice Chief of Staff Steve Wilson (right), made the terrestrial trek from the Pentagon to Congress to tell them that.

Gen. Steven Wilson, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, told congressional leaders, “We can recruit pilots without a problem. The problem is retaining them. For the last five years, retention of pilots has declined. We need to keep 65% of pilots past the 10-year point,” when pilots’ post-training contracts expire. Gen. Wilson continued, “Today, we’re doing less than half of that.”

OK, so about 70% of pilots are ejecting as soon as they can, instead of the 35% expected historically and in Air Force (etc) budgets. And budget was one issue: Wilson and the other generals think that they can, essentially, bribe these pilots into staying. They can even make the case that paying pilots more saves a fortune, compared to the cost of training a replacement:

Wilson reports that the Air Force and Navy train a combined 2,000 new pilots per year at an ultimate cost of $10 million for a seasoned fighter pilot. Retaining 400 more fighter pilots for an additional five-year commitment, by Gen. Wilson’s estimates, would save the Air Force approximately $2 billion.

But money is not why the pilots are leaving. Why are they leaving? Frankly, it sounds like a leadership problem: too little flying, which has been declining, versus too much deployment away from home to do all that not-flying, which hasn’t let up at all.

Service leaders described the push of too little flying, together with long deployments, and the pull of comparatively lucrative airline pay that is drawing pilots out of the armed forces. Gen. Wilson says flying is why people join the Air Force and “today’s fighter pilots are flying 140 to 150 hours a year—that’s significantly down from before.”

Hey, we can remember when we considered it a confidence builder that near-peer adversaries provided their pilots with 2-8 hours training a month, while our guys got 20-25. Looks like flight hours have been halved, even when a pilot spends most of a year away from home in a deployment year, and a third of a year away from home anyway on a year that doesn’t contain a deployment to some global sphincter.

On the other hand, the tanker guys tell us that they have all the hours that they can handle, precision flying to support all those deployments, and often from deployed bases that aren’t on any tourist’s itinerary.

Pilots averaged 260 days away from home per year during deployment and 110 days away from home on temporary duty when not deployed overseas.

One of the problems with all the “sickeners” piled on pilot life in lieu of flying is that, while the Air Force (Navy, etc.) recruits young single pilots, at that ten-year point it has to retain families. You’ve made the pilot’s life miserable as a trade-off for a declining quantity and quality of flight time, and you’ve made his or her family’s life miserable, and they get nothing out of the flight time directly. So after that ten-year point you have pilots leaving, and freshly-divorced pilots remaining.

Wilson says that when pilots reach the 11-year mark, families ask whether it makes sense to “keep doing this when the airlines are hiring, paying a lot of money, and providing better stability.” Service leaders estimate the major airlines are hiring 4,000 pilots each year to meet the combined needs of industry growth and pilot retirements.

via Military Leaders Testify On Pilot Shortage – AVweb flash Article.

So that brings us to General Wilson’s argument for more money: maybe we can apply enough money to dull the attractiveness of the airline route, kind of Novocain for all the pain we’re making these pilots and their families suffer.

There’s a problem with that, and that’s this: anyone who’s considered an airline job for more than five minutes has discovered that airline hiring is highly cyclical, and the vast majority of airline personnel are ruled by one or another 20th Century, adversarial union, that mandates all personnel actions happen in strict seniority list order. In a hiring year, your speed of getting into the queue can make a difference of 100 or 200 seniority numbers — which can make a difference between employed or unemployed, next recession. Game-theorize this, and the guy (or gal) who goes airline early wins every time: the chance to go airline in 2023 is not worth the same as the chance in 2017, it’s worth hundreds (or thousands in really big and merged lines) of seniority numbers less.

One safety valve that the services have long had is the flying reserves, where in theory a pilot could keep flying Eagles or Warthogs while pursuing his or her airline career. (This is a win-win for both, as the airline and service flying cultures both benefit by cross-pollination). But that has lost a lot of its appeal as repeated long deployments in a period of endless war has made it almost as unpleasant as full-time service, from the family point of view.

We suggest that there has been another reason for the decline in pilot retention, and that is those ongoing wars, and, especially, the perception, true or not, that in those wars a combat pilot risks his neck for unclear American goals, and especially that the people who send him into harm’s way don’t care enough to pull him out if he gets in a jam. His squadronmates will circle over him; any ground forces in the area will try to come for him; the theater Special Operations Command has a plan, although often only token resources, to come and rescue him. But nobody in Washington, whether wearing suits or I-was-in-high-places medals, will do anything but give a self-promoting speech about him.

If the war we were engaged in was World War II, there would be no question of retention (even absent Roosevelt’s order freezing enlistments). In places like Libya or Syria, our pilots risk their lives to bomb one group of black-flag throat cutters on the behalf of another band of black-flaggers. And the leadership treats giving them half the training hours that were thought necessary when those leaders were junior officers as if it were doing its crews a big favor.

Roundup from The Aviationist: Yemen Raid, F-35 Program

Long ago, David Cenciotti’s The Aviationist was a Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week. David covers aviation, especially military aviation, thoroughly, working good sources and decades-long relationships to produce really insightful news. We have three of his stories to commend to you.

First, let’s have a look at the Yemen raid from the point of view of a guy well wired-in to the aviation side.

What has emerged so far about the deadly U.S. Special Operations on Al Qaeda in Yemen

He also has a knack for applying just the right photo, as in that picture of a V-22 in full Kopp-Etchells Effect. (If you haven’t seen and heard V-22s flying yet, they’re not like anything else).

Here’s a small taste of this article which should tell you why you should be reading his site:

Official statements reflect that the primary objective of the raid was to seize physical intelligence assets such as electronic media, computer hard drives and documents that will provide a detailed insight into terrorist planning for future Al Qaeda operations. In an official release to the Reuters News Agency the U.S. Defense Department told reporters the raid provided, “Information that will likely provide insight into the planning of future terror plots.”

According to reporting by Mohammed El Sherif in Cairo for Reuters, “The local al Qaeda unit [in Yemen] organized the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris in 2015 and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners.”

The raid resulted in a “one hour firefight” according to local reports on the ground. While reports of casualties have varied most media outlets suggest between 17-30 indigenous personnel, some reported to be Al Qaeda members, were killed on the ground during the raid.

The weekend raid by U.S special operations forces was planned “well in advance” based on intelligence gathered during previous months. Timing for the raid was specific as one source inside the U.S. military speaking on conditions of anonymity reported, “There were operational reasons why it happened when it did.” A contributing factor may have been the moon phase. The raid happened during a new moon, a period when lunar illumination at the target area is at its lowest providing maximum darkness.

The next two are part of an F-35 charm offensive that is now underway by press release and leak, as the services fight for an airframe to which they are committed.

First, the F-35 is performing well at Red Flag, even though the jet is not yet fully operations capable.

F-35’s kill ratio with Aggressors stands at 15:1 during Red Flag 17-1 (most probably thanks to the supporting F-22…)

A little snippet…

“The first day we were here, we flew defensive counter-air and we didn’t lose a single friendly aircraft,” Lt. Col George Watkins, an F-35 pilot and 34th Fighter Squadron commander, said in a release. “That’s unheard of,” he added.

With the F-35A, pilots can gather and fuse data from a multitude of sources and use the jet’s advanced sensors to precisely pinpoint a threat. Then they can take it out with one 2,000 pounds bomb. It would be impossible for a fourth-generation aircraft to survive such a mission, according to Lt. Col. Dave DeAngelis, F-35 pilot and commander of the 419 Operations Group, Detachment 1.

Dave thinks that the F-22s having the F-35s backstopped is a significant boost to their potential (which makes sense). While the F-35 has a superior data fusion capability, it and the F-22 can also network together, giving the entire operation or strike something unheard of in all history — a clear, shared operational picture. Generals and techies have been talking about this for years, but it looks like it’s going to happen. And it’s going to suck for the guys in 3rd and even 4th generation jets, facing a strike like this.

Second, a post a few days older, by Tom Demerly, rounds up the state of the three main F-35 variant programs: the land-based USAF (and Allied) F-35A, the Marine (and British) VSTOL F-35B, and the Navy/Marine F-35C carrier variant. Each of these is in a different place in its life cycle, with the A and B models fairly well along (the Marines probably the most ready, despite having the most complex jet) and the C experiencing some catapult issues. These are teething problems that will surely be worked out in due course; the jet’s biggest problems are budgetary, not technical.

U.S. F-35 Update: F-35A to Red Flag, Navy F-35Cs Experience Problems, Marine F-35B Leads

While we call out these F-35 stories as part of a military charm offensive of leaks and bounds, bear in mind that political decisions have left the services with few alternatives. Procurement of the air-to-air supreme F-22 was canceled and the line dismantled; the 1970s-vintage legacy planes are on their way out of production. (A Cencotti post on the last of the F-15s, built for Saudi Arabia, gives some hints as to the potential and limits of these half-century-old airframe designs).

In any event, The Aviationist is a great place to look for news on things that fly and fight (he even has some news on a new Sukhoi variant… we leave finding it as an exercise for the reader).

Espionage, Reverse Engineering, and Soviet Long Range Aviation

This is a documentary on how a Soviet design team, led by a man who’d been a political prisoner during the Great Purges, conducted the single greatest feat of reverse engineering in engineering history: the knock-off of the B-29A bomber as the Tupolev Tu-4. The creation of this aircraft instantly made Soviet Long-Range Aviation (their equivalent of the USAF Strategic Air Command) a credible force worldwide. Got an hour and a half today?

Like most other European powers, the Soviets had experimented with long-range, four-engined bombers before and during the war, but depended instead on large fleets of twin-engined, medium-range medium and light bombers. Only the USA and Great Britain actually developed credible long-range bomber fleets.

But the B-29 was qualitatively different from first-generation fourmotors like the Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24, or the Avro Lancaster or Handley-Page Halifax. It used next-generation technologies throughout, including engines of greater complexity and power, much higher-technology defensive armament with remote-control, low-drag turrets, and a pressurized, shirtsleeve environment for the crew. Some parts were so sophisticated that new manufacturing processes were invented to suit. The entire airplane was a Hail Mary effort by the world-leading American aviation industry; at that, in came very close to failing. (The parallel effort that produced the Consolidated B-32 Dominator did fail).

The Soviet effort included espionage by the NKVD (later KGB) and GRU as well as direct reengineering of “captured” B-29s. How could the Soviets capture B-29s when the USA and USSR were allies, not enemies, in World War II? Ah, that was in the West. From the Soviet point of view, the war with Japan was Britain’s and America’s problem, and the USSR maintained neutrality. Thus, combatant aircraft of either nation that landed on Soviet territory, and their crews, were subject to being interned. As the 20th Air Force stepped up raids on Japan from bases first in China and later in the Marianas Islands, an occasional B-29 made an emergency landing in Soviet territory. The crews usually made their way back to the United States (minus anyone the KGB interpreted as a Soviet citizen, who vanished into the Gulag forever). The planes never did. What were the Russians doing with them? When the Tu-4 appeared in 1947, we had the answer.

The primary effort to copy the B-29, ordered by Stalin himself, was the re-engineering effort, but espionage was also involved, especially where novel industrial processes were involved. Fortunately for the Soviets, they had a comprehensive network of agents in place and potential recruits.

There’s a reason that Americans in the fifties and sixties were asked if they were, or had been, members of the Communist Party. The Party throughout its existence owed its loyalty to the USSR; while many misguided idealistic Americans cycled through its ranks, anyone who came and stayed was, not to put to fine a point on it, an agent of a foreign power already. (Additionally, the Soviet intelligence services recruited from within the Party. They would usually direct an espionage recruit to break with the Party for cover purposes, something our counterintelligence was slow to grasp and exploit). And nobody in 1942-45 cared if some guy was a Communist or liked the USSR — hell, everybody liked the USSR, they were bearing the brunt of the fight against Hitler. This network of willing ideological agents fanned out across the engineering firms, manufacturers, even steel and aluminum smelters and foundries, stealing not just the detail design of the B-29’s systems and components, but the industrial processes that made them possible.

The Russians also manipulated Lend-Lease to get some B-29 components. Lend-Lease reported to Harry Hopkins, a lifelong friend of President Roosevelt who was a committed Soviet agent. The US would not give the Soviets B-29s or their engines… so Hopkins arranged for them to get examples of an unarmed seaplane that had the same engine. Soon enough, factories in Russia turned out perfect, even improved, copies of the engines. This happened on a smaller scale with items like analog gun control computers, turbosuperchargers and pressure recovery turbines, electrical servos and lightweight hydraulics.

The classified Norden bombsight had already been acquired by agents in the design and production; vaccum tube production technology was stolen and improved Soviet production. Many of the American spies doing this didn’t think of themselves as traitors: why, they were just helping our best ally, “Uncle Joe!” Wartime propaganda, often produced by writers and artists who were Party members or fellow travelers, made it easy to rationalize as a patriotic duty, and one problem Soviet agent handlers had, in those pre-Cold War years of alliance, was convincing their American agents to clam up about their efforts to help the USSR. Even during the war, that kind of boasting caused the roll-up of agent networks, although with less fanfare than such events would have produced pre-1942 or post-1945.

The first flight of the Tu-4 was carried out by a test crew led by long-time test pilot Mark Lazarevich Gallai, who would also test the early jet MiG-9. Gallai’s memoir, Through Invisible Barriers, is available in several languages but not, as far as we know, English.

Having stolen the B-29, the Soviets found out that it still had a lot of teething problems, including a tendency to engine fires that made flying it one of Gallai’s most memorable experiences. They had plenty of engineers on the job, though, and tended to solve these problems by independent engineering, more than by redirecting the espionage apparatus to nick the American solutions.

The USA followed the B-29 with two amazing bombers that owed much to the concepts and processes of the B-29, but little to the actual aircraft: the Consolidated B-36 Peacemaker, and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. The USSR, lacking the easy access of wartime, didn’t try to steal these in toto. Instead, the Soviets built directly upon their Tu-4 in the design of next generations of bomberr. Some trace Tu-4 DNA still exists in the Tu-95 NATO codename Bear, a 1950s design that still serves Russia today. But Soviet engineering, bootstrapped by the crash Tu-4 project, (and perhaps, especially in turboprop propulsion, some war-trophy engineering from Germany), would continue to serve Soviet needs. The USSR was never as far behind in aviation again as it had been at the outset of the Tu-4 program; indeed, after that remarkable catch-up it was often ahead (as it sometimes had been in the 1930s, before the purges).

And when native engineering fell short? Well, the spies were always willing to accept a tasking. But they never again stole a whole airplane design, and all the industrial processes to produce it.

Before Fighter Planes had MGs, One Had Two Lee-Enfields

The most impractical armament that ever took to the air probably launched with the now-forgotten plane that was the British Royal Flying Corps’s first real scout, the S.E. 2 of the fall of 1914.

All these images show the SE2 after its rebuild. The tight cowl and streamlining helped it go fast.

By 27 October, it had joined No. 3 Squadron in France as a fast scout. Initially, its only armament was a service revolver carried by the pilot. However, when it began escort duties, it was armed with two Lee-Enfield service rifles, their shoulder stocks cut off, fixed to the fuselage sides and aimed outwards at an angle to fire clear of the propeller. Firing such weapons (which were bolt action with a conventional trigger) with gloved hands in an icy slipstream must have proved very difficult and aiming could only have been a matter of luck, so it is of little surprise that no combat victories were achieved.

Only one S.E. 2 was made, but several designers at the state-owned Royal Aircraft Establishment worked to make a fast, armed scout, including Mervyn Gorman, Geoffrey de Havilland, and Henry Folland. The proposal was called the B.S. 1 (for “Bleriot Scout”; the Royal Aircraft Establishment/Factory initially labeled designs with tractor propulsion “Bleriot” after the Channel-crossing tractor designs of Louis Blériot, and its pusher-propelled aircraft “Farman” after the designs of Henry Farman. This is the source of the F.E. and B.E. terminology applied to many early British designs). By the time it was built, the one-off plane was re-coded S.E. 2.

After de Havilland survived a crash with serious injuries, it was rebuilt into the configuration shown in these pictures.

High tech, 1914. In some ways the SE2 was a couple of years ahead of its time.

While nowadays a couple of splayed Lee-Enfields seems like an irrational aircraft armament design, remember, someone had to be first, and until the Fokker Eindecker III appeared in the skies of France in 1915, nobody had really solved the problem of firing a machine gun through a propeller arc. Indeed, prior to World War I there was some debate as to whether it even made sense to arm aircraft:

The aeroplane was only adopted by the military a few years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, principally for reconnaissance. At the time, aerial fighting was an unknown quantity, although it was clearly being considered as Flight magazine explained in its 14 February 1914 edition:

There are two schools of thought regarding fighting in the air. The one holds that if an aeroplane is to fight, it must carry a passenger, gun and ammunition. It will be so large and heavy that it will be slow, also it will lack any means of intercommunication necessary for combined action and it will be unable to come within range of a fast scout. The latter will come, get its information, and go, unmolested. It would appear that, for a time at all events, the fast scout will have the advantage. It depends largely on the number of fighting machines available. The other view is that fighting in the air must occur if results are to be obtained. Given that one side has sufficient fighting machines, it should be impossible for an unarmed scout to approach the point where it desires to glean information.

The RFC appears to have embraced both views and added to its growing fleet of general purpose aeroplanes a number of fast scouting machines. It was therefore hoped that these aircraft could evade enemy scouts as well as gather information vital to British operations. Also, it was anticipated that the armed aeroplanes would be able to protect unarmed machines as they went about their business.

The S.E. 2 was built for speed, and they actually downgraded its powerplant from 100 to 80 horsepower at one point, because of concerns it was too “hot” for ordinary pilots. The front-line life of the plane was rather short.

Only known photograph of the SE2 at the front. Unfortunately, we know of no picture showing the bizarre armament.

In March 1915, it was considered to be unfit for further active service and was returned to the Aircraft Park, and from there was sent back to England. Although as the first true scout, there was some talk of it being considered for preservation, but this did not happen and it was struck off RFC charge, its eventual fate being unrecorded.

And such was the ignominious end of the ur-father of all of the RFCs and RAF’s legendary fighter planes, the first “armed scout” to bear a British roundel in combat.

Notes

  1. Hare, p. 2-4
  2. Hare p. 6-7.

Source

Hare, Paul R. Britain’s Forgotten Fighters of the First World War. Oxford, England: Fonthill Media, 2014.

The Navy Shoots Little Bitty Guns

Here are some pictures of our web-footed friends in the US Navy popping off with small arms. The good thing about being out at sea on a ship is that there’s a lot less complexity in clearing your range fan, than there is in a terrestrial post that’s been experiencing suburban encroachment.

The USS Zumwalt, with its minimalistic crew and troubled rocket-assisted main gun, can fall back on its 147 officers’ and sailors’ skills with the M9 service pistol, giving the ship the approximate firepower of a weekend in Chicago. Here’s Zumwalt sailors getting some instruction on 5 November 16 inside the futuristic destroyer’s hangar deck.

Chief Petty Officer James Hegedusich, Jr. instructs Sailors during small arms familiarization training in the helicopter hangar of USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000). (U.S. Navy photo 161105-N-HV059-003 by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sonja Wickard).

And this looks like the same gang, blazing away in the Atlantic, but it was actually a week or two later.

Sailors assigned to USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) participate in a small arms qualification test held on the ship’s flight deck. (U.S. Navy photo 161113-N-HV059-003 by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sonja Wickard)

Some of them show good technique, some need more work. But all of them are getting some instruction and coaching. We don’t remember the last time a (non-frog) sailor fired a pistol, but these crew members are preparing for the next time.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Rodney Otwell, shoots a M-9 at a paper target during a small arms gunshoot held on the flight deck of USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000). (U.S. Navy photo161023-N-HV059-108 by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sonja Wickard).

And now they’re scoring the targets.  And, of course, collecting brass.

Brass on a flat range can be messy. Brass on a pitching, heaving, windswept and spray-soaked helicopter flight deck? You don’t want to think about it.

It’s been a while since sailors stuck a brace of pistols in their belts and stood by to repel boarders, but it’s reassuring to know they’re ready.

It isn’t just Zumwalt sailors who test their skills with the M9. The same evolution took place on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Nimitz-class carrier (CVN-71). Of course, on Roosevelt’s broader flight deck, they can have a lot more firing positions. But at every one, one sailor, PO or officer tests his or her mettle with the M9 and the paper target.

Cryptologic Technician (Technical) Seaman Apprentice Christian I. Sandoval fires an M9 service pistol during a small arms gun shoot aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). (U.S. Navy photo 170116-N-AD499-105 by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Victoria Galbraith).

If a secret squirrel aboard a bird farm ever needs to discharge, in the general direction of national enemies, 15 rounds of 9mm made by the lowest bidder, something has gone seriously wrong with the admirals’ war planning. But given the history of admirals and war planning, perhaps it’s a good idea for Seaman Apprentice Sandoval and his shipmates to make ready!

The Navy doesn’t stop at firing M9s on a nice sunny day, either. Here’s M4 night practice, sans optics or goggles, with TR’s XO behind the gun:

PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 13, 2017) Capt. Frederic Goldhammer, executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) fires the M4 assault rifle during a smalls arms night time gun shoot aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). (U.S. Navy photo 170113-N-TV230-912 by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Bill M. Sanders).

(The XO will really never fire this weapon in combat, but having him attend the shoot shows the instructors and students that the command takes it seriously. Hope he shoots well, because they will be talking about his marksmanship, especially if it’s notably good or bad).

Perhaps it’s just coincidental that Navy photographers are posting these kinds of images lately. But it does seem as if the Navy is taking small arms training more seriously than heretofore.

Operation Starvation: Mining in WWII, Again

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed aerial mining in war, and mentioned the Germans sinking a Russian warship in 1917 and a paper by John Chilstrom, Mines Away!, that examined mining in WWII. British and German aircraft laid copious minefields (as did ships), but the real action was in Japanese waters.

Here’s a Navy training film on the practice of aerial mine warfare in WWII, thanks to Zeno’s Warbirds (approx 17 minutes):

Now Ex Brad TC at “Bring the Heat” has taken the Chilstrom paper and riffed on it in a new direction.

One other mission the B-29s undertook is virtually forgotten today, but had an impact far out of proportion to the effort expended.

That mission was Operation Starvation, the offensive aerial mining campaign against the Japanese home waters.

A simple glance at a map shows that as an island chain, Japan is critically dependent on sea traffic to move supplies, people, and commodities. Further, virtually all of Japan’s strategic industries were almost wholly dependent on commodities that had to be imported from either the islands of the South West Pacific or from the Asian mainland. From almost the first day of the war, the US Navy had instituted an effort to deny the Japanese the use of these sea lane, primarily through its submarine force.

At the urging of ADM King, GEN Hap Arnold agreed to devote a small percentage of 20th Air Force missions to aerial mining.

Beginning on March 27, 1945, B-29s of the 313th Bombardment Wing would eventually fly 1,529 sorties in 46 missions, and lay 12,135 mines. That accounted for just under 6% of 20th AF sorties. In return, postwar survey would reveal that the mines accounted for an astonishing 670 vessels sunk or damaged, with a tonnage of 1.25 million tons. Considering the Japanese merchant fleet was estimated to have only about 2 million tons available when the campaign began, this was a stunning return on investment.

We remember we promised you a writeup on a unique German mining/dambusting effort deep inside Russia, and we’ve been continuing to work on it. This image from the US Air Force Museum is the Mk25 mine. The Mk 25 and Mk 26 were the most significant weapons in the mining of Japanese harbors, channels, and sea lanes. Together with submarine warfare they crippled the shipping-dependent island empire.

There also was some very interesting use/non-use discussions in the Korean and VN wars, and in the Korean war, the damndest job of dambusting you ever heard of. Things we’re writing for the future.

Why They Call it Reaper: MQ-1 Brings the FOOM!

Please enjoy the following video, courtesy of the US Central Command. In which a splodydope-piloted VBIED gets returned to kit form at approximately 58,000 feet per second. You will need a heart of stone not to chortle with glee.

The vehicle in question is a ISIL specialty, an armored-up truck or military vehicle converted to a command-detonated VBIED, with the crew and (usually) the commander who commits the vehicle having a FOOM switch. (The commander, observing, keys the switch if his boys get cold feet. The coward may die a thousand times in Shakespeare, but in ISIL he only gets one shot, no pun intended).

The vehicle is hardened against small arms fire by improvised armor made from steel plate. If you look closely, you can see that the armor on the ISIL vehicle in the video is slanted to increase thickness and deflect more projectiles, in the style of German WWII armored cars and halftracks. The guys who drive these things are suicidal idiots, but the guys who build and dispatch them are not.

File photo of a more lightly armored one from a few years back in Iraq:

Comparing that to the VBIED in the video you can see how much the technology has evolved in the last few years — not that it can prevent a HEAT round like the Hellfire missile from finding the truck’s explosive filling and producing a mighty secondary.

The crew is usually a single splodydope but sometimes the count-the-body-parts method reveals a crew of two or more, presumably as another measure to prevent abandonment of mission by the kamikaze volunteer.

But there’s no reason to let them bring the FOOM to their desired location. With the good guys retaining command of the air, these truck bomber wannabes are perfect for droning.

It’s a win-win all round, a rare commonality of objectives in the Middle East: they want to die for their moon god Baal, aka Allah, and we just want them to die.

An Unwanted First for the Destroyer Okhotnik

Three Okhotnik-class Ships at Anchor, early 1900s.

The ship was patrolling an anchorage in the Baltic Sea on 26 September, 1917. The Germans had been softening up the Russian forces in the area for what both sides expected would be an offensive against the Russian-occupied seacoast. German naval air forces, which had air superiority, conducted aerial bombing from airplanes and Zeppelines. They destroyed the magazine of one shore battery with a lucky hit, a fire, and secondary detonations. German land-based naval aviation attacked Russian ships with torpedoes, and scattered mines. The torpedoes had mechanical problems; the mines, too, had yet to score.

Rendering of Okhotnik. As the photos show, the bow rake of this model is incorrect.

As luck would have it, the ill-fated Okhotnik and her ill-fated skipper, Lieutenant Second Rank V.A. Fok, went down in history as their ship went down in the Baltic, first naval vessel sunk by an air-deployed mine. And Fok went down with his ship, a testament to the collapsed discipline of the revolutionary Russian armed forces (this was the Provisional Government period).

As the Russian torpedoboat destroyer Okhotnik carried out picket duty in the manoeuvre basin near buoy number 4 on 26 September, she struck a German mine. This mine had been laid by a German aircraft and Okhotnik carried the dubious distinction of being the first warship sunk by an aerial mine. Neither the commander nor officers wished to abandon ship. Harald Graf described the situation as follows:

Soon all the boats were overflowing with sailors and nobody thought to offer the officers a place. They considered it improper to ask for a place and remained aboard the torpedoboat, silently observing the leaving of the boats. The torpedoboat sank, and soon water flooded over the deck on which the officers stood….

With Okhotnik two more officers were lost, the commander Senior Leitenant V A Fok, and Leitenant V K Panferov.1

We’re still looking for information on German air-delivered mines of WWI. But this US patent was granted in 1917.

This first effective use of aerial mines was far from the last; air-laid mines would sink hundreds of ships in the Second World War. But given the Baltic’s situation as a forgotten theater of World War One, this far-ranging and effective German air-sea campaign is practically unknown today. In a master’s thesis for the Air University in 1992, USAF Major John Chilstrom, an FB-111 and B-52 strategic bomber commander, did a deep dive into aerial mining history, but while he credited the Germans for kicking the technology off, he missed his target by one war:

In World War II, the Luftwaffe was first to lay mines from the air and first to field many of the weapon’s innovations.2

The first recorded aerial minelaylng in combat occurred on November 20. 1939, when nine Heinkel 59 floatplanes flew to the Thames Estuary. Although five turned back due to navigation difficulties, four aircraft laid seven mines that night and thirty-four more in the following two days.

However, two of the mines dropped on the third attempt fell in shallow water, enabling the British to recover examples of Germanyís “secret” weapon–the magnetic mine. “Britain had captured her biggest prize since the war began.” 3

While that could be read as giving the Germans credit only for being first in World War II,  nowhere else in the manuscript does he credit WWI with aerial mines. This is not to discredit Chilstrom’s work overall; it’s an engaging history of a little-studied aspect of World War II, and has direct applications to the future.

Notes

  1. Staff, p. ? (using an electronic copy lacking page numbers).
  2. Chilstrom, p. v.
  3. Chilstrom, p. 7.

Sources

Chilstrom, John S. (Major, USAF). Mines Away! The Significance of US Army Air Forces Minelaying in World War II. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University, 1992. Retrieved from: https://permanent.access.gpo.gov/websites/dodandmilitaryejournals/www.maxwell.af.mil/au/aul/aupress/SAAS_Theses/SAASS_Out/Chilstrom/chilstrom.pdf

Staff, Gary. Battle for the Baltic Islands: Triumph of the German Navy.  Barneley, S. Yorks: Pen and Sword Maritime, 2008.