Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

What to Make of Paris so far (not much), and of Status-6

Tomorrow's HeadlinesWe’re not going to bite at analyzing the Paris attack while it’s still not all wrapped up. Unlike the guys whose output is already set for tomorrow’s newsstand (image right), we are not under a deadline on this. We’ll just offer several points and move on to news from Russia.

  1. Initial media reports are almost always wrong. This has been ameliorated somewhat by the press’s discovery that they can pluck stuff off twitter, instead of from the twits on their staff. Some press don’t get that — NBC, for instance, had Bryant Gumbel all concerned about the fate of Al Gore’s Who Wants Me To Be A Bigger Billionaire telethon. (Gore fans, relax; ManBearPig lives).
  2. Initial body counts are almost always high. This attack seems rather poorly synchronized and disorganized compared to the record holder among these small arms attacks, the one in Bombay. Ergo, this attack is probably not going to break Bombay’s record body count (160).
  3. The attack is visibly and obviously another amish attack mohammedan sacrament. As a GEICO ad might say, if you’re an imam you incite murder, that’s what you do. That means tomorrow you can expect stern warnings about the coming backlash against peaceable Muslims. These backlashes are always descending, but they never seem to take tangible form — they’re vaporware. Kind of like peaceable Muslims.
  4. We’ve already seen the usual politicians unleash their Platitude Generators,  Crises For Use in, Mark VII, talking about “our shared values.” Know who doesn’t share those values? If you guessed the schmos with AKs and the splodydopes in guncotton waistcoats, give yourself a cookie.

And that’s all we’re going to say about it, right now.

Meanwhile, in Sochi, Russian Federation….

Because something really interesting happened in Russia this week. A “leak” showed a classified briefing slide about a previously unannounced underwater-launched weapon. The “leak” has been extensively promoted on government-controlled news site Russia Today (

Status-6 leak

That’s a leak? On a state-controlled broadcast?

The slide describes a stealthy, 1.6-meter diameter, long-ranged torpedo which carries a ~5-20 megaton nuclear and radiological warhead, designed to persistently irradiate entire regions of a coastal target nation. In fact, Status-6 has a claimed autonomous range of over 10,000 kilometers, which really puts it more into the class of an autonomous undersea vehicle — if it’s real.

According to the slide it can be carried by two new Russian sub types, which just saw themselves elevated on free world target lists. The warhead is supposedly capable of both nuclear destruction and of persistently irradiating an entire enemy coastline, suggesting a dirty bomb or cobalt bomb. The US and USSR agreed in principle during the initial 1970s talks for the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty not to deploy such doomsday weapons, but they never wrote that into the agreement, and the treaty has lapsed.

It turns out, Bill Gertz wrote this program up based on a Pentagon leak to him two months ago, noting that the DOD had code-named the Russian port-buster Kanyon.

Russia is building a drone submarine to deliver large-scale nuclear weapons against U.S. harbors and coastal cities, according to Pentagon officials.

The developmental unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV, when deployed, will be equipped with megaton-class warheads capable of blowing up key ports used by U.S. nuclear missile submarines, such as Kings Bay, Ga., and Puget Sound in Washington state.

The US has dismantled all of its multi-megaton warheads as part of the Obama Administration’s program of unilateral nuclear disarmament. It retains a small stockpile of 1.2 megaton B83 bombs, but those too are scheduled to be decommissioned.

In the Soviet era, a torpedo called T-15 could deliver a megaton warhead to a harbor. All such torpedoes are believed to have been decommissioned, but Status/Kanyon is a more capable, modern update of this old Soviet concept — if it is real. Gertz notes that, despite indicators of coastal mapping by Russian AGI vessels, deployment of a strike UUV is probably years away.

Using such a warhead against a civilian target is arguably a violation of international law, but that doesn’t seem to faze the Russian leadership. If the warhead even exists. If the torpedo or AUV really exists. Because a propaganda leak is equally effective if the “secret weapon” is real, or if it is notional.

Of course, if it was a leak, and this is something real, the guy responsible is probably going to be a test pilot on one of these torpedoes. Hals und beinbruch, Ivan.

Why the “Leak”?

This “leak” appears from here clearly as a brush-back pitch thrown at the United States and its allies. Yet it seems likely to be counterproductive, if that is really its intent. It would raise the stakes of antisubmarine warfare, a much neglected field in the shrinking US Navy, and inspire countermeasures that Russia really, really wouldn’t like.

But we’re probably looking at it the wrong way. That’s not leaked for our benefit. Its target audience is, in our estimation, inside Russia. The message is: we are strong, we are invincible, nobody had better mess with us. It is a bluff, yes, but he’s bluffing his own people, not the Americans.

For Some Good Information

In addition to Bill Gertz’s column mentioned above, read Jeffrey Lewis’s posts at Arms Control Wonk:

Don’t neglect the comments. He has some astute and technically proficient commenters.

He also wrote a column in Foreign Policy that transcended the usual soporific house style:

At the risk of understating things, this project is bat-shit crazy. It harkens back to the most absurd moments of the Cold War, when nuclear strategists followed the logic of deterrence over the cliff and into the abyss. For his part, Putin seems positively nostalgic.

What sort of sick bastards dream up this kind of weapon? Whether or not the Russians ever build it is almost beside the point. Simply announcing to the world that you find this to be a reasonable approach to deterrence should be enough to mark you out as a dangerous creep.

Of course, then Lewis makes his own bat-guano-crazy argument, that rather than develop a military response to this thing, or (giving him the benefit of the doubt), in parallel to the military response, we need to “think about making better use of international norms against nuclear weapons.” Yes, because Vladimir Vladimirovich is as impressed with “international norms” as his role model Josef Vissarionovich was with the Pope.

Attack on Kunduz: The MSF View

msf_logoWe’ve been waiting for more official information about the AC-130 attack on a Medecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, a French-based medical nonprofit) trauma center in Konduz, Afghanistan, but no information from the US military investigation (most probably at this point a 15-6 investigation) has been publicly released.

That’s probably not a good sign. It doesn’t prove anything but that the information has not been publicly released, but it suggests that it’s bad news, and someone is trying to please a superior by delaying the release of the bad news.

In any event, MSF, tired of waiting for information from the United States, released its own report on 5 November. To call it “scathing” doesn’t really do it justice. An excerpt:

Hospitals have protected status under the rules of war. And yet in the early hours of 3 October, the MSF hospital in Kunduz came under relentless and brutal aerial attack by US forces.


Patients burned in their beds, medical staff were decapitated and lost limbs, and others were shot by the circling AC- 130 gunship while fleeing the burning building. At least 30 MSF staff and patients were killed.

This excerpt is from the executive summary. The full report goes into some detail as to why some of the personnel are still carried is missing, and how it comes to be that some of the bodies remain unidentified.

This week, MSF concluded an initial review of the facts before, during and in the aftermath of the airstrikes. Although our internal review is an ongoing process, we have decided to share these initial outcomes with the public, to counter speculation and to be transparent. Details that could identify individuals have been removed. Explanatory footnotes have been added in places where an external reader may need additional clarification.

They also, and this is rather important for the battle for the public mindspace, got their licks in while the US military was still dithering.

This is the view from inside the hospital. What we lack is the view from outside the hospital – what happened within the military chains of command.

The facts compiled in this review confirm our initial observations: the MSF trauma centre was fully functioning as a hospital with 105 patients admitted and surgeries ongoing at the time of the US airstrikes; the MSF rules in the hospital were implemented and respected, including the ‘no weapons’ policy; MSF was in full control of the hospital before and at the time of the airstrikes; there were no armed combatants within the hospital compound and there was no fighting from or in the direct vicinity of the trauma centre before the airstrikes.

That’s pretty much the essence of it. The patients under treatment were a mix of putative civilians and Taliban fighters, with just single digits of Afghan security forces, but that is because the Afghan Nationals had withdrawn their people and evacuated them to a government hospital. The French and international staff did make an effort to treat all equally and did make an effort to disarm all patients and escorts (not always successfully, they admit, in the case of the Taliban, but they claim that armed combatants only dropped wounded and departed). They insist that no one was firing from the hospital or its grounds. (This is rather an important point of legal fact, because if a protected facility is used by combatant forces, its protection is forfeit).


Aerial photos show that the AC-130 fire was devastating. And accurate. But what they don’t show is where the system failed, if fail it did and the American gunship really did fire up a neutral hospital.

If the US has any justification for what the AC-130 aircrew did, now would be a pretty good time to reveal it.

FMI: MSF report.


Dahlgren and the Civil War

This is going to be a brief post, but that’s because we’re sending you to a long .pdf.

Dahlgren Model

Dahlgren Gun model by Kent Hobson. This one’s on a 360º traversing, recoiling carriage — cutting edge for 1865.

The Dahlgren guns were named for their inventor, in the naval tradition of the era a competent engineer as well as a serving naval officer. John A. Dahlgren was nearly killed by an exploding 32-pounder1 cannon.

I said, “Fire.” An unusual explosion took place instantly. The battery was filled with smoke, and a great crash of timber was heard. Behind me I heard the ground ploughed up, and of the things that fell, something grazed my heels, which afterwards proved to be a part of the breeching, a piece weighing two thousand pounds. Much stunned by the noise and the concussion, I turned to the battery. Amid the smoke, yet lifting slowly, the first object I saw was the body of the unfortunate gunner, stretched out on the deck and quite dead.

That moment of shock and chagrin in November 1849 was the impetus behind the Dahlgren gun, and Dahlgren is probably best remembered today as the name of the gun, rather than the man — even though we went on to fly a rear admiral’s flag and assault Charleston himself in the Civil War (the city held at that point).

Dahlgren concluded that the only real defense against a bursting gun was the thickness of the barrel. His genius was to lighten the gun only forward of the trunnions — the section of the barrel called the “chase” — and to have the change in sizes be turned to produce an aesthetic (and stress relieving) soda bottle shape. While a 15-inch Dahlgren would be a bit of a dog (for one thing, due to a Navy Department screw-up, the OD of the muzzle was wider than the width of the slots in the turrets of the monitors for which the guns were built. But the 9- and 11-inch Dahlgrens were vital naval and fortress weapons during the civil war — and beyond.

Dahlgren, who was held back by skeptical seniors early in his career, lived to be the skeptical senior holding back talented juniors.

The whole Dahlgren story and its context in the Civil War and beyond is recorded in a well-developed, -illustraed, and -documented couple dozen pages [.pdf] by historian Robert. J. Schneller, Jr., for the American Society of Arms Collectors. Read The Whole Thing™!


  1. A 32-pounder had a 6.4 inch bore and weighed three to four tons; the powder charge was something over five pounds of black powder.


Ave atque Vale: Flying Avro Vulcan

Even the name was over the hill: Avro, the company named for dawn-of-flight founder A.V. Roe, went the way of one firm after another: merged into a soulless, nationalized conglomerate in a series of Socialist-policy forced consolidations of the British aircraft industry. In the end, they wound up sending British aero engineering talent to Canada, and Canadian bungling (with the Canadian Avro company front and center) banked them off and down to the United States, where they were critical to the success of Apollo. The Avro Vulcan was the last of the line that began with spindly triplanes of bamboo and muslin and that rained terror and death from the night skies over Germany.

Last touchdown of the last Vulcan. Ave atque vale!

Last touchdown of the last Vulcan. Ave atque vale!

“If a single bomber gets through,” boasted Hermann Göring, today dismissed as a buffoon but a leading World War I ace, “you can call me Meier!” And a single bomber didn’t get through, but hundreds, and then a thousand — Handley-Pages and Vickers and, chief among them, Avros, every night the weather enabled flying, and some nights it really didn’t, and by day the Americans gave the repair crews and fire brigades no rest.

In the late 1940s, Britain was a nuclear power, and it had one of the world’s most powerful navies and a first-class air force. The British nuclear deterrent originally comprised a fleet of bombers, and for this purpose, three new airframes were designed, the “V-bombers,” the name redolent of V-E Day and referring to the plane’s names. Three airframes were chosen because the performance demands were so high that some of the engineering teams were taking great risks. One jet was a very conservative design (the Vickers Valiant), in case of failure of the two using radical wing planforms: the sickle-shaped “crescent wing” Handley Page Victor and the delta-winged Avro Vulcan. All three planes succeeded, but the performance of the Victor and Vulcan ensured a short life for the Valiant.

A Vulcan, as they initially flew. This is a different serial.

Vulcan VX770 was the prototype Vulcan Mk 1 and was nearly a textbook-true delta wing. It was destroyed in an airshow crash in 1958. Early Vulcans were painted gloss “anti-flash” white in anticipation of a nuclear bombing role.

The Vulcan would serve 30 years; unlike the Victor, it was adaptable to a low-level conventional bombing mission, thanks to the excessive strength of its thick wings (the Victors were converted to the tanker role and had nearly as long a career).

XH558 showing off its bomb bay and the later "kinked and drooped" wing of the B.2 variant.

XH558 showing off its bomb bay and the later “kinked and drooped” wing of the B.2 variant.

As a nuclear bomber, the Vulcan never saw combat, but in the twilight of its service two Vulcans conducted raids on the Port Stanley airfield that closed the field to modern jets. At the time, they were the longest bombing raids in world history. (they were refueled, in part, by Victors).

Then, the jets retired and the roar of their loud, inefficient turbojets was heard no more. Britain’s nuclear deterrent was under the sea, in submarines. (Land-based ballistic missile designs all went the way of most post-war British defense inventions: budgetary cancellation). Nap-of-the-earth raids could be delivered by Typhoons.

But you can’t keep a good jet down — as long as there are three critical resources: trained pilots to fly it, experienced mechanics to fix it, and parts, or producers willing to make them. And, buoyed by funds from the National Lottery and thousands of small donors, and organized by a special charitable trust established for the purpose, the Vulcan returned, first to taxi (a peculiarly British way of displaying vintage aircraft with reduced risk) and then, triumphantly, to the air. (Indeed, two other Vulcans conduct taxi runs in the summer, XL426 and XM655).

Alas, one of those critical resources is running out and Vulcan XH558 is shown, here, landing for the last time.

Organisers had kept details of the final flight secret until the last minute over fears that dangerously large crowds would throng the airport for one last chance to see the aircraft.
A final nationwide tour held earlier this month was nearly cancelled over police concerns an influx of thousands of enthusiasts turning up at once would effectively shut down the small airport.

Hundreds of thousands are believed to have glimpsed Vulcan XH558 as it spent two days doing flypasts around the country a fortnight ago.

Martin Withers, who led the 1982 Vulcan raids on the Falklands, was the pilot for the final flight.

As he prepared, he said: “Everyone asks me what is so special about this aircraft and why people love it. Really the people who fly it are the wrong people to ask. It’s such a combination of grace and beauty of just seeing this thing fly.”

“Just to see it fly along, it’s so graceful. And then that combines with the sense of power and manoeuvrability you’ve got with this aircraft and the vibrations it makes. It just seems to turn people on emotionally, they really love it.”

Former pilot Angus Laird added: “I think it’s very, very sad but we all come to a time when we stop flying. She’s an old lady now and she’s stopped at the height of her popularity, which I think is brilliant.”

via Video: Vulcan bomber touches down forever after final flight – Telegraph.

The resource that ran out wasn’t guys like Martin and Angus, who could have readily transmitted their skills and tribal knowledge to a new generation of pilots. (After all, the Shuttleworth Collection flies an Avro Triplane from circa 1909). The problem was the greying of the cadre of maintainers. These unsung “erks,” (aircraftsmen, the bottom rung of mechanic in the RAF), the “fitters” and “riggers” in British terms (powerplant and airframe mechanics respectively, in American), are the last repository of a vast corpus of tribal knowledge, call it Vulcana, perhaps, or Vulcanology. As each one passes away or becomes too infirm to work on this old dowager, vital links in the neural network of Vulcan lore and expertise disappear forever.

Nobody thought it was dangerous to fly XH558 now — well, no more dangerous than flying any other jet warplane approaching a human’s retirement age. But there was a consensus that flying her was going to get more hazardous soon. 

The roar isn’t still, though — not yet. Next year’s airshow season, she’ll be doing high-speed taxiing at her home base. And XL426 and XM655 will be taxiing again next year, too.

Pity no one thought of doing this with the B-47, B-58, or the FB-111.

Naval Aviation Command Board — Worse than we Thought

aircraft_carrier USS_Carl_Vinson_(CVN_70)It looks like the whiners have won, and perhaps lost in the winning; according to a couple of much-better-wired-than-us-rifle-operator Navy bloggers, the Navy has completely overthrown the way command selections are done. There will still be a board, but the board results will then be reshuffled, to the demand of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, by the officer convening the board, the Commander of Naval Air Forces (COMNAVAIRFOR), or the “Air Boss,” in Navy parlance. The blogs don’t name him, but he’s easily Googled as VADM Mike Shoemaker — a guy with a good reputation as a commander, at least, until he rose to a position where the choice was “please the politicians,” or, “take your integrity and retire.” So now he’s personally going to be the wind beneath the wings of the dung beetles of the political leaders.

That’s not what his email — which Skipper reproduces in full — says, but that’s what seems to be driving the results — that, and Mabus’s singleminded pursuit of diversity over competence. While the Air Boss says it starts with this board, there is evidence it began with the last board, and he’s quite open that the thumb-on-the-scales will be a part of all command selection boards going forward.

Here’s Ask the Skipper:

The Aviation Major Command Screen Board – When Poisonous Fruit Falls from a Virtuous Tree

and here’s Commander Salamander:

The Intentional Tainting of the Board Process

If you’re interested in this subject, read them both in toto, and the comments. Skipper has been deleting the name of one of the beneficiaries of this corruption — because corruption is what it is — when equally irate commenters post it.

Hey, lower-quality Naval commanders! And more suck-ups and sycophants! Mahon’s got nothing on Mabus in terms of legacy. Wait, big-l Legacy. Of course, it’s a bad Legacy, unless you believe the United States will never fight another naval action, the Navy is nought but a jobs program for political patronage, and the only human quality worth measuring is skin-tone “diversity.” But if you believe all those impossible things before breakfast — Ray Mabus, why are your reading our blog?

Not everybody thinks this is bad; one of the initial “I wanna be CAG someday” whiners, an E-2 Hawkeye backroom guy — and currently “speechwriter at the Pentagon” for persons unknown, a suck-up’s dream job — is all for giving corruption a chance over at the USNI Blog.

Finally… here’s what Ray Hath Wrought. In 1858, as we’ve seen here recently, we sent 19 ships to give what-for to tiny Paraguay, a force the Paraguayans had no option but to treat with. This week, we’re sending one ship on its lonesome to show the Chinese we are not impressed with their new territorial claims in the South China Sea. That one ship is being shadowed by a Chinese ship of broadly comparable capability. Think we’re going to get the treaty we got out of el Presidente López?

Fortunately, we didn’t send a Littoral Combat Ship, which could sail boldly (or at least vibrantlyinto harm’s way and disseminate the command master chief’s Power-Points about the latest diversity initiatives from Big Haze Gray — and that’s pretty much the alpha and omega of its offensive and defensive capability.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are building something that’s bigger than an LHA (Assault Landing Ship) and smaller than a current US Carrier — but about the displacement of the carriers we built before the Forrestal, and three times the displacement of the British carriers of the Falklands War thirty-three years ago.

Naval aviation is not something impossible to learn. Indeed, it’s seldom taken a nation more than twenty years to fully get the hang of it, and under wartime pressure it’s been pulled off in a couple of years (Royal Canadian Navy). But after a century, it seems like we’re losing the knack, from the top down.

Here’s hoping the Chinese don’t teach us.

New Frontiers in Navy Affirmative Action: Everybody for CAG!

waahmbulanceSome Naval Academy grads has a sad because they didn’t choose, or get chosen for, the path to CAG. (The old acronym for Commander of the Air Group, still used for a Carrier Air Wing commander). They want the path opened to them.

Call them the vehicle herein illustrated.

Today, the Aviation Major Command Screen Board (AMCSB) convenes in Millington, Tennessee. It is the annual gathering to determine the future of Naval Aviation’s most promising leaders, and plays a large role in setting the strategic direction of our enterprise.

As we alluded to in our August 2015 Proceedings article “On Becoming CAG,” the fates of aspiring leaders were determined years prior to this week. FITREPs, joint jobs, and other career assignments funnel COs into competitive tracks for leadership positions, including Carrier Air Wing Commander, or CAG.

However, as the current AMCSB convenes, one troubling trend remains: Naval Aviation has gone five years since a non-VFA CAG was selected.

VFA is the Navy acronym for Aviation Fighter Attack. Because the Navy no longer has any attack aircraft, its fighter squadrons are now all F/A squadrons; indeed, many of the specialist types that once graced American flight decks have been replaced by cheap pods, add-ons and gimcracks that can strap onto an F-18 and do a half-assed job of reconnaissance, inflight refueling and electronic warfare.

What’s left besides VFA are helicopters and EW aircraft.

After publishing “On Becoming CAG,” the authors received intense positive and negative feedback about our arguments. Notably, at the annual Tailhook Reunion in Reno, Nevada this year, PERS-43 addressed the debate in an open forum (you can watch it here).

He pointed out that CAGs are responsible for the mentorship of squadron COs, with the ultimate goal of cultivating leaders who are able to replace him or her as CAG.

Reflecting on the past five years, it appears as though CAGs have failed their non-VFA Commanding Officers in this essential mentoring. All else being equal, if zero COs from outside the VFA community have been selected, we arrive at one of two conclusions:
1) VAQ, VAW, HSM, and HSC squadron COs have been inadequate leaders compared to their VFA contemporaries. If this is true, it points to a huge, unspoken problem in these communities that Naval Aviation has not addressed.
2) VAQ, VAW, HSM, and HSC squadron COs are not viewed as equally qualified leaders by CAG when FITREP time comes. If this is true, it points to a problematic culture within our ranks that Naval Aviation has not addressed.

via USNI Blog » Blog Archive » “On Becoming CAG” Feedback, Part I.

Really, this is nothing but people who opted for or were assigned to secondary and support missions complaining they don’t get equal consideration for the combat lead job. It’s even clearer if you read their underlying article.

Hey, why stop there? Why do you have to be an aviator to be CAG? What about all the black shoes, it’s not faaaaaiiiiir to them either. For that matter, why does CAG need to be an officer? Think about all the great chiefs who will never get the chance to be CAG! They wuz robbed.

And really, why does the CAG need to come from the Navy? If someone who flew log helicopter flights between the usual Academy grad tours brownnosing as an aide or in the Pentagon or staff is CAG material, why not just open the competition to all talent in the country? There’s probably a lawyer or barista somewhere just waiting for a chance to shine! We could open it to everyone, the whole rainbow cistransabledGLBTQWERTY panoply.

You could make it a reality show. “The Next American Combat Leader!” Simon Cowell would be a great judge. “Oh, 1 wire. Ghastly.

Then again, why limit ourselves? The last five CAG selectees were all Americans. There are two hundred other countries out there, people. Why can’t CAG be from Burkina Faso or Suriname?

After all, it’s only fair.

When the US Attacked Paraguay

You totally knew about that, right?

In the 1840s and 50s, while the US Navy was struggling with steam, a variety of technical oddities were built, before Navy leaders figured out that screw propulsion was better than alternatives (some of which were common, like side-mounted paddle-wheels; and some of which were weird). As transitional vessels, these mid-19th-Century hybrids were still primarily sailing ships; they used the steam power to counter sail’s disadvantages and to supplement the ship’s speed; these funny looking neither-fish-nor-fowl contraptions made their best speed downwind with full sail and full steam. With sail, you could circumnavigate the globe; with steam alone, you had better know where your next coaling station was.

USS Water Witch after sidewheel conversion

USS Water Witch after sidewheel conversion

The USS Water Witch was initially one of these ships configured with weird propulsion, a set of ghastly, draggy horizontal wheels designed by a serving officer, one Lieutenant William W. Hunter,  who managed to sell this to the Army (Topographical Engineers), the Navy, and the Revenue Cutter service (future Coast Guard) on no fewer than ten vessels, all of which performed miserably. One of these was Water Witch, originally built to be a sort of aquatic Gunga Din bringing water down the Dismal Swamp Canal to troops in harbor. At that, she was a failure of a sort you didn’t think occurred until recently: the geniuses who built her designed her with a draft two feet plus deeper, and a length greater than the canal locks she was supposed to traverse. Then, the Hunter horizontal propulsive wheels could only drive her to 6.5 knots. A rebuild as the first American ship with twin screws added only a few knots.

The Water Witch goes to Paraguay — Briefly.

But after a second rebuild as a side-wheeler, and refocused on exploration voyages, the Water Witch served well. On a routine show-the-flag and survey-the-rivers mission on the South American Parana River on 1 Feb 1855, she was fired on by a Paraguayan fort. It may have been hot blood or mistaken identity, but the Paraguayans weren’t lacking in gunnery skills — they delivered substantial damage to the American ship and wounded several crewmen, one fatally. The decedent’s name doesn’t seem to have mattered much to those writing things down at the time but they mention that he was the helmsman.

The skipper of the Water Witch, Lt. Thomas Jefferson Page, demanded satisfaction from Paraguay. The Paraguayan government at the time, the nationalistic but astute Carlos Antonio López government, was not interested in parley, let alone reparations, and Page returned to the USA. It had taken him several years of the surveying journey to find himself under the Paraguayans’ guns, but he got back home in a matter of months. There he began to demand from the American public a response. Page’s story struck a chord with newspaper editors and the public, and a punitive expedition was assembled, under the command of Commodore William B. Shubrick with Page as his flag lieutenant.

Shubrick and the Punitive Expedition

William B. Shubrick (1790 - 1874), U.S. naval officer. Original print in possession of Library of Congress.

William B. Shubrick (1790 – 1874), U.S. naval officer. Original print in possession of Library of Congress.

Shubrick was a fascinating character, already almost seventy when the expedition sailed. He was from a Naval family, but a rare slave-plantation-born, Harvard-educated naval officer and a friend of the writer James Fenimore Cooper, author of frontier tales. (And, though they are all but forgotten today, Cooper wrote histories and biographies of the Navy and its officers). Shubrick had served long and with distinction in wars remembered (he fought with distinction in the War of 1812 and led the Pacific operations of the Mexican War) and wars forgotten (the Second Sumatran Expedition of 1832).

Shubrick’s flagship was the brand-new frigate USS Sabine, and its first sea cruise was to Paraguay — with 18 other US ships. Sabine bore a US diplomat, James Bowlin, whose mission was to extract three things from López:

  1. An apology;
  2. An indemnity for the family of the slain Water Witch crewman;
  3. A commercial treaty on favorable terms.

As it happened, Sabine, built for the open sea, drew too much water and stood out in the River Plate while the other 18 ships, selected for river-friendly drafts, sailed up the river to bring the message home to Asunción.  López, who had been unwilling to treat with Page (and his single, battered ship) was remarkably more diplomatic with Bowlin, who left with everything he came for, and not a shot fired.

From that day to this, the USA and Paraguay have always maintained diplomatic relations, and the last shots fired between them were those of the fort on the Parana, and the guns of the USS Water Witch, in February, 1855.


Almost every participant in this strange episode had further remarkable events ahead.

USS Water Witch returned to South American survey duty, and then was mothballed. Returned to duty, she served the Union well in the Civil War, until a daring Confederate raid by Lt. Thomas Pelot and his men boarded and captured her on the night of 3 Jun 1864. The Rebels apparently intended to use her in a special operation, but wound up burning her to prevent recapture by Sherman’s advancing army.

This picture shows Water Witch closer to her 1855 appearance with a white hull, but it's of poor quality.

This picture shows Water Witch closer to her 1855 appearance with a white hull, but it’s of lower quality. Does embiggen, though.

USS Sabine had a successful if uneventful career, and ended her days as a receiving ship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the 1870s.

Commodore Shubrick retired in Washington, DC, in 1861 at the age of 71. He lived another 13 years. Sadly, he seems to have left no memoirs. (His correspondence from the period of the Paraguayan Punitive Expedition survives in the National Archives, US Office of Naval Records, Records Group 45).

Shubrick William Branford signature

Thomas Jefferson Page resigned his US Navy Commission in 1861 to serve his state of Virginia, first as an artillery officer, and then from 1863 as a Confederate naval officer. He was on his way to the New World with a powerful new ironclad, CSS Stonewall, when the war ended. Refusing to surrender to the Union, he sailed to Havana and donated the ship to Spain; helped Argentina modernize her Navy, and retired to Italy for the remainder of his years. (His correspondence from the Water Witch incident is in the National Archives, in the Naval Observatory Records, Record Group 79).

Carlos Antonio López left Paraguay richer and stronger that he found it, largely through bluster leading to diplomacy, negotiation and a strategic backdown; the pattern shown here, he also replayed with Paraguay’s neighbors, especially Brazil. He also left Paraguay a considerably more damaging legacy: his son, Francisco Solano López, a man who would almost erase the nation in a quixotic war with all its neighbors at once, a war contracted to stroke López fils‘s ego and his self-image as the self-styled “Napoleon of South America”; a monster who had his mother, brothers and sisters murdered (along with most of the foreign diplomatic corps) as the paranoia that seems to attend a certain personality type overtook him. Half the population of Paraguay fell in the war, which saw even women drafted (95% of adult men perished); the native Guaraní indians were nearly exterminated; nearly half the nation’s territory was ceded to Brazil and Argentina; to this day, Paraguay has never recovered the relative prosperity it had under López pêre. 

Latins being Latins, the disastrous Francisco Solano López, who went down in a flurry of Brazilian swords screaming “I die with my country!” was posthumously elevated, beginning with propaganda during the Chaco War, to the nation’s greatest hero, and his diplomatic dad is deprecated.



Canney, Donald L. The Old Steam Navy: Volume 1: Frigates, Sloops and Gunboats, 1815-1885. Annapolis, 1990: US Naval Institute, pp. 25-40.

Hanratty, Dannin M. and Meditz, Sandra W. , eds. Paraguay: A Country Study. Washington: American University / Government Printing Office, 1988. Retrievable from:

Howard, Alexander. Cruise of the U. S. Frigate Sabine. Portsmouth, VA, 1861.: TH Godwin, pp. 9-22.

Williams, John Hoyt. The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic, 1800-1870. Austin, TX, 1979: University of Texas Press.

The Revolt of the Majors

USAF Major's LeavesIn the 1970s, the military was still led, at the top levels, by men that had led, and on any strategic level, failed, in Vietnam. New ideas and new ways of thinking boiled up from the young warriors who had been, as it were, mining at the coal face while the guys back in the Pentagon were adjusting their sets with a 10,000 mile screwdriver. Army academics like Gabriel and Savage took the officer corps to task in books; Army leaders like Ed “Shy” Meyer and Norman “Bear” Schwarzkopf, very different men with different leadership styles and, even, different views of what had gone wrong in Southeast Asia, were advancing into important leadership positions.

These men had counterparts in the US Air Force, too. The USAF had gone into Vietnam invincible and convinced of its superiority, only to have a bad experience and come out of the war and the cuts that followed as a smaller, less respected, and at the junior levels, much wiser service. The Vietnam combat veterans, the “iron majors,” reshaped the Air Force. They did it by changing the equipment, the tactics, the training, and most of all, the culture.

"So Long, Mom, I'm off to drop the bomb, so don't wait up for me." (Actually F-15Es RTB after busting ISIL trucks. USAF photo).

“So Long, Mom, I’m off to drop the bomb, so don’t wait up for me.” (Actually F-15Es RTB after busting ISIL trucks. USAF photo).

The Revolt of the Majors is that rarity, a fun, readable PhD dissertation. It would need some editing to be published as a book, but it’s a great cultural history of the USAF from the 1950s primacy of the Strategic Air Command;  through the dislocations of the Macnamara years; the disastrous performance in Vietnam (caused, in part, by an abandonment of air-to-air training by then-Tactical Air Command head General Walter Sweeney, on the grounds of, no training meant no training accidents); and through a cast of commanders that sound like a taxonomy of leadership toxicity; to post-Vietnam recovery to something like an even keel.

You think we’re kidding about toxic leaders?

General William Momyer…had acquired his nickname “Spike” because “he could pick a fight with anybody.” … “while in Saigon Momyer banned smoking in staff meetings and “expected clean uniforms and flower beds [around the headquarters]” (p.107).

rbic” is a charitable way to describe Dixon (p. 183).

One Air Force officer who later became a four-star general noted, “[Dixon] was famous for his indiscriminate hatred.” (p. 183).

One of Dixon’s favorite threats was. “If you screw this up I’m going to burn your house down, kill your wife and family, and rape your dog.” (p.272).

Creech knew one general whose aide kept ten spare sets of eyeglasses to replace the ones he broke throwing them across the room when he was displeased. (p.273).

Many of the junior officers felt the accident rate was high because of inferior training but USAFE’s focus was “‘fly safe,’ not train realistically, while Creech was there.” (p. 275).

Despite this, the Air Force managed to pull out of both its post-Vietnam funk and the loosely-related funk that resulted from the then-latest Soviet missiles nearly triumphing over American equipment and Israeli American-influenced tactics in the Yom Kippur War.

How they did this depended on both those toxic leaders — the nasty Dixon was instrumental — and the informal “iron major network.” The ideas percolated up in an institution which is, today, all but moribund: the officers’ club.

Management experts also realize that for effective innovation the innovators need “free space for conversation” where ideas can be “bounced off” a large number of people with no stigma. There must then be open lines of communication throughout the organization so the ideas can flow freely. However, such ìfree spaces for conversationî have to fit into the work patterns of the organization, and a fighter pilot in an operational unit had his workday filled with flying, as well as briefings and debriefings, which generally took longer than the flight itself. Line pilots also had a variety of what were euphemistically called ìadditional duties,î from running the snack bar to writing effectiveness reports. The workday left no time for discussing larger issues.

Unintentionally, the Air Force had a facility and customs that allowed young officers to communicate with each other and exchange ideas in an informal way. In the afternoons after flying ended many, if not most, of the aircrews adjourned to the bar at the Officers’ Club for low priced drinks and snacks at “Happy Hour.”Here they exchanged stories, compared experiences, and engaged in discussions about what was wrong with the Air Force and how to fix it. Many of the pilots had flown in Linebacker, so the Vietnam War was one of the main topics, as was the 1973 Middle East War and the possibility of a war in Europe. One of the characteristics of this “bar talk” was that rank had no place. Anyone could have an idea, and anyone could say, “That’s BS, and hereís why.”.Senior officers who wanted to push, as opposed to discuss, their ideas or the Air Force party line simply were not included in the conversations. The Officers’ Club at Nellis, as the home of the Fighter Weapons School, was a special hotbed of new ideas, since it had not only the instructors but also students who were considered the best fighter crews in the TAF. (pp. 189-190).

It’s quite a remarkable story, and probably needs Tom Wolfe to be told any better, but it’s at its core a story of how toxic leaders and insubordinate fighter pilots combined with informal and unofficial “industry peer networks” and “free spaces for conversation” to yield a transformative experience that has influenced all subsequent generations of the Air Force, and had some interservice impact as well.

We’re still reading it, but so far, the book is highly recommended. And it’s a freebie at this link. Don’t say we never gave you nothin’.


Michel, Marshall L. The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed after Vietnam. Unpublished PhD Dissertation. Auburn, AL: Auburn University, 2006. Retrieved from:

Zoom! Ride Along with a Cargo Bundle

Ever wonder what the flying career of a cargo bundle dropped from a C-130 is like?

We’re not sure what bundle system this is, because this stuff keeps being developed. It wasn’t the one we used most commonly, HSSLADS (High Speed Low Level Aerial Delivery System) but it has some similarities, including a ribbon extraction chute that pulls the bundle out, followed by a rapid descent to the ground.

ISTR HSSLADS had a single large chute. This system uses a pair, as the shadows show you. Watch the whole drop courtesy of the Ohio Air National Guard, then ride along with a pair of  GoPro sport cameras on the bundle.

The bundle seems to hit very hard, but that’s normal. Nothing fragile goes into this type of bundle, which is more about hitting the right place than hitting at a won’t-break-eggs velocity. A personnel static-line chute brings a jumper down at 18-22 feet per second, and this is considerably faster than that.

If you know your physics, you know that speed piles on the energy rapidly; so dissipating that energy is key to the survival of the stuff in the bundle. The downside of HSLLADS, which only USAF special operations aircraft could deliver, was the occasional streamers or nondeployed chutes, which would be found on the far side of the DZ in a wrecked tangle. Nothing explodes quite like a pallet of MREs delivered to a rocky mountainside at 250 knots. Anything else in that bundle — radios, a psyops loudspeaker system, demo, ammo — is going to be mangled and coated with MRE juices. It’s enough to make you call for the return of the dehydrated Meal, Long Range Patrol. But we digress.

The bundles are packed by professional parachute riggers. Their motto is the reassuring, “I will be sure. Always,” but they are quick to point out that’s when they’re dealing with personnel chutes (they pack all static-line chutes, such emergency chutes as they maintain, and MFF reserves; HALO/HAHO jumpers in our units packed their own mains). Bundle chutes dont get quite the same level of scrutiny, and ultimately, the bundle (like the jumper) leaps out supported by faith in the riggers and a swath of cloth and bunch of strings that were all made by the lowest bidder.

The amount of deceleration your bundle delivers on contact with the ground (riggers don’t like to say “impact”) is dependent on that velocity mentioned two grafs above, but also on the way that velocity is brought to zero. So the bundle is packed so that the hard hit you see that package take is moderated while being delivered to the contents. The bundle is designed to land in one orientation (top-up, naturally, bottom-down) and a variety of energy-absorbing materials are used to, essentially, stretch the impact ∆-V over a longer physical area and a longer temporal period.

This means that the Meal, Ready to Eat, Vegetarian that some patchouli-scented hippie in the Pentagon ordered to raise the consciousness of the knuckle-draggers in the pointy end can survive the drop to be discarded by the irritated trooper it was dropped on.

(Actually, at one point in Afghanistan, CJSOTF J4 was so overloaded with unwanted meals and bottled water that they made it mandatory to have X amount of your bundle being MREs and water, even if you were oversupplied with both yourself. So the riggers used boxes of MREs as further crumple zone in the bundles. Your tax dollars in action!)

Still in all, the bundle builders (usually a bunch of detailed Joes working under the supervision of an expert rigger), the riggers themselves, and the USAF trash haulers are an unsung but extremely vital component of power projection. When one of these bundles gets dropped for real, there are real guys on the ground straining with NVGs to see the infrared chemlight on the bundle, because they really need the stuff inside (which is usually exactly what they asked for, unless the J4 overhead thought the gear was too high-speed to share with mere teams, and kept it for themselves).

There are a number of variations on the bundle, including bundles that steer themselves to a preordained coordinate and bundles that can be dropped from the bomb shackles of combat aircraft, but the same principles apply: a couple hours after the bundle drop, it’s Beer O’Clock for the aircrew, and the SF ODA and their Gs are still hauling boxes up a hill somewhere.

(...and yes, we’re still 12+ hours behind posting schedule. Sorry ’bout that  -Ed).

The Rise and Fall of the Military Glider

The idea of delivering troops by parachute first took hold in World War I, although it wouldn’t be done at the time. But between the wars, something new arose as a possibility: glider delivery.

Airspeed Horsa gliders at Pegasus Bridge, 6 June 1944.

Airspeed Horsa gliders at Pegasus Bridge, 6 June 1944.

Gliders had several advantages, at that point in time. The machines themselves were cheap and fast to build, and thus expendable, like a rifleman’s parachute in wartime.  Unlike parachutes, which were prone to scattering, gliders had potential to deliver squad- and later section-sized units, intact and cohesive, into the enemy’s rear area: much less assembly required. It was believed that the pilots would need much less training than powered-plane pilots, and they could then join the fight as infantry1.

The Soviets Led the Way

As is common in weapons of war, several nations developed gliders at about the same time. But somebody had to be the absolute first, and that was the Soviets, who were also world leaders in paratroop innovation. Their first military gliders were developed in the Red Army under the brilliant and innovative Marshal Tukhachevsky, as part of a flowering of military experimentation in the USSR in the 1920s and 30s. The Soviet exercises caught the attention of the world’s militaries; the first officially-adopted military troop glider seems to have been a Russian model, the Grikhonov of 1932 (we have been unable to find an image of this aircraft).

A Gribovski G-11 glider (or replica?) maintained as a memorial to glider troops.

A Gribovski G-11 glider (or replica?) maintained as a memorial to glider troops.

Antonov AN-7 design owes a lot to prewar sailplanes.

Antonov AN-7 design owes a lot to prewar sailplanes.

But the 1930s ended badly for the USSR’s military innovators like Tukhachevsky and almost all senior officers of the Red Army, who were accused of various crimes and executed after brief and predetermined show trials.

In World War II, the Soviets built a small number of gliders of two types, the Antonov An-7 and the Gribovski G-11 (the numbers, unlike in powered Soviet aircraft, showed the plane’s capacity in armed troops).

They never did use them in a large assault, using them instead in special operations and for partisan resupply. As in other nations, glider pilots trained in typical sailplanes before flying the trucklike cargo gliders. The cargo-carrying and particularly loading capacity of these Soviet machines was badly compromised by their design; other major powers had gliders with cavernous loading doors, but the Soviet machines seemed to have small, personnel-sized hatches only.

German Gliders

German Para with FG42 in front of a DFS-230. Bundesarchiv photo.

German Para with FG42 in front of a DFS-230.  (it embiggens). Bundesarchiv photo.

The Soviets’ fellow totalitarians, the Nazis, also had a glider industry prewar, and that yielded their troop glider pilots. The glider troops came from paratroop volunteers.

The Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug was abbreviated, for reasons that seem self-evident, to DFS. The name meant German Institute for Sailing Flight and, during the Versailles Treaty years, when German production of powered aircraft, and then, powered military aircraft, was verboten, it was home to many of Germany’s most talented aeronautical engineers.

Tasked to make a military glider, DFS did what its Soviet opposite numbers had done and scaled up a tube-and-fabric sailplane design. Numbered in a series that went back to prewar research, the cargo glider had no name: it was the DFS 230. It had no cargo door, just a very small personnel door from which the troops must exit one at a time. It couldn’t carry heavy weapons — an MG-34 or a mortar, max.

Despite its limits, several special operations were executed with the DFS 230, including the seizure of Eben Emael in 1940s Low Countries campaign and the rescue of Mussolini from Gran Sasso in 1943. By using a drag chute, it could land in very small areas.

A restored DFS fuselage arrives to be displayed at Fort Eben Emael.

A restored DFS fuselage arrives to be displayed at Fort Eben Emael. German para-engineers landed on top of the fort; 78 men captured a fort manned by 1100 and removed an obstacle from the 1940 blitz.

Germany also developed large cargo gliders, one a pod-and-twin-boom arrangement from Gotha and one a gigantic vehicle carrier from Messerschmitt (Me321). Later, many of the gliders were refitted with captured French aero-engines to become somewhat under-engineered cargo planes, making up a German shortfall.

Japanese Gliders

The Japanese used gliders early in the war; Japanese airborne troops were a little-explored facet of their Asian blitzkrieg, and later, gliders were used both to supply cut-off islands and to land small commando forces on Allied-held airfields.

As was often the case, Japanese engineers were competitive even when Japanese industry struggled to keep pace. The late-war Kokusai Ku-7 glider (below) was as advanced as anything produced by the other powers.

Kokusai Ku-7_glider

Other Axis Gliders

Italy produced competitive gliders, but in very small numbers. Surviving photos show machines with clean, elegant lines, but there is scant information on them being used in World War II. And there is no information at all on gliders that may have been used by Romanian or Hungarian forces.

Western Allied Gliders

In the US and UK, special cargo and training gliders were developed. Unlike the Russian and German glider pilots, who tended to be trained in commercial sailplanes, he US quickly threw together engineless versions of light training and liaison aircraft, like the L-4 Piper Cub. Western cargo gliders had a big advantage over the Russian ones: cargo doors. For example, the tailcone and cockpit of the Airspeed Horsa both came off readily, allowing fairly heavy equipment like Jeeps, anti-tank guns, and small field pieces, to roll on and roll off. The Waco also had a hinged cockpit that swung up out of the way. Japanese and the larger German gliders were similarly equipped with opening ends, and these inspired postwar cargo planes of all nations.

Numerically, the most important glider was the WACO CG-4A. The glider could deliver a squad and its equipment, or a Jeep as seen above, or a 37mm or 57mm anti-tank gun and crew (British 2 pdr/6 pdr). The British Army, who assigned glider pilots to the Glider Pilot Regiment and expected them to fight as infantry once they landed, named their gliders with names from antiquity beginning with “H”; the WACO received the name of the Roman conqueror of southern Britain, Hadrian. It was built with scaled-up Piper Cub technology, or Fokker D-VII technology for that matter: a 4130 chromoly steel frame and glued plywood wing structure, both covered by doped cotton fabric. The cockpit had seats for side-by-side pilot and co-pilot, a luxury (or combat redundancy) most other nations’ gliders dispensed with, but was still pretty austere, and not too foreign to a Cub pilot, despite having wheels instead of sticks.

This WACO is in the Silent Wings Museum in the USA.

This detached WACO cockpit is in the Silent Wings Museum in the USA.

Allied gliders were made in part by aeronautical prime contractors, but wherever possible, by non-war-critical industries using industrial processes that did not impinge on war production. The Army Air Corps paid as little as a few thousand dollars, and as much as over $50,000, more than some powered aircraft, depending on the contractor. (The experienced airplane builders generally built more gliders for less money).

Not all the contractors got the hang of it right away. The following photo shows the Mayor of St. Louis and the head of the Robertson Aircraft Corporation and other luminaries about to take the first public flight of a Robertson-built glider in 1943. You can recognize the distinctive cockpit from the image above. A few minutes after this photo was taken, the glider crashed due to bad quality control — and the pilots and all these notables were killed. (The guy second from the right seems to have a bad feeling about this flight).

1943 glider crash

The glider troops — none of whom would have known about this accident, unless they came from St. Louis — had to have a very different kind of courage than paratroops, at least in US service. American glider riders were not volunteers, unlike paratroops, and they received no incentive pay, unlike paratroops, but no one could really argue that they were any less exposed to hazard — and they had even less control of the hazards than the jumpers did. Despite the grumbling, the glidermen saddled up for Sicily (where many of them were killed by trigger-happy Navy anti-aircraft gunners), Normandy (where planners routed the transports away from where the Navy was congregating), Market-Garden in Holland, and the operation that is still probably the largest airborne operation in history, the assault across the Rhine.

Airspeed_HorsaThe next most significant glider in the West was the Airspeed Horsa. A British-made plywood machine that was larger than the CG-4A, it could also carry heavy weapons and was involved in all the same airborne operations as the WACOs were.

It was generally shipped to its departure airfield in knocked-down condition, and then assembled there:


It also was the transport craft for two signal British special operations, one a failure and one a success: Operation FRESHMAN in Norway, and the Pegasus Bridge (as it is now called) seizure on the River Orne on the left flank of the D-Day landings. Of the FRESHMAN gliders, only one had survivors, and they were promptly murdered by the Germans pursuant to Hitler’s Commando Order.

Gliders traveled by aero-tow, usually behind transports or retired/obsolete bombers.

Gliders traveled by aero-tow, usually behind transports or retired/obsolete bombers.

Rather than teach glider pilots to do weight-and-balance calculations manually, special balances made of wood with items representing troops and cargo were issued by Allied air forces. The crews moved their mock-up “loads” around until the balance balanced, and if they did that, and loaded the glider the same way, the center of gravity would be in range.

Several special operations in the Far East, especially in the CBI, used gliders. They also used a glider recovery system that allowed transports to pick up gliders on the fly; this system was available in the European Theater but little used. The concept of US operations did not envision gliders being one-use aircraft, but that’s how it worked out in most cases.

The Twilight of the Gliders

The end of the gliders came about after the war. Airborne forces of all kinds are costly to train and equip, and only the world’s major powers kept them up at a high level, although there was a spurt of newly-decolonialized nations of the 50s and 60s establishing Airborne units, which they then neglected. Compared to gliders or helicopters, parachute troops were relatively cheap; they could jump from versatile cargo planes with many other uses.

The US kept qualifying troops on gliders — indeed, at one time in the late forties all airborne soldiers were expected to qualify as both parachutists and glidermen — until a training accident in 1947 was traced to fatigue failure of the wartime Waco airframe. Rather than face the bill for reinforcing the remaining gliders to make them safe again, the Army scrapped them.

The USAF briefly considered making a new glider, and went as far as ordering some prototypes of Michael Stroukoff’s designs for Chase Aircraft Company of Trenton, NJ, the XG-18A and the XG-20. Both had conventional cockpits in the nose, and opening tailgates in the rear for personnel or cargo. The XG-20 is shown here:


The Air Force decided to abandon the idea of gliders, and the Chase aircraft were modified into powered airplanes, the small XC-122 transport and the mid-sized C-123, which served until the 1980s in the USAF. Because Stroukoff designed the gliders without considering fuel tankage in the wings, the cargo planes carried their fuel in extended nacelles. (The only act of Medal of Honor heroism to be photographed in Vietnam was by a C-123 pilot who landed to recover an Air Force Combat Control crew who had been mistakenly landed on an overrun Special Forces camp at Kham Duc. Not many trash hauler pilots earn Medals of Honor, but that guy sure did).

Last of the Cargo Gliders: Yakovlev Yak-14. Conventional design, tricycle gear, opening nose and tail. Source: Air Enthusiast (May '72) via AviaDejaVu.Ru

Last of the Cargo Gliders: Yakovlev Yak-14, 1948. Conventional design, tricycle gear, opening nose and tail. Source: Air Enthusiast (May ’72) via AviaDejaVu.Ru

The glider was never a wonderful weapon — it was always a brilliant improvisation. Besides, helicopters were starting to show promise. Like a glider, a copter could land a group of men together. And like a glider, copters could carry significant weight of equipment.

The Soviets, who started first, are thought to have ended last, keeping some military gliders as late as 1960 to 1965. The last military glider in service, then, was likely the postwar Yak-14, shown here under tow by an Ilyushin Il-14 transport :

Yak-14 under tow by Il-14

Swan song: Yak-14 of the Czechoslovak People's Army 22nd Airborne Brigade, late 50s.

Swan song: Yak-14 of the Czechoslovak People’s Army 22nd Airborne Brigade, late 50s.

By the 1960s, the USSR had really mastered the aerial delivery of artillery and even light armored vehicles by parachute, and had a vast array of cargo aircraft, including an immense war reserve of Aeroflot planes whose crews were reserve officers and airplanes “reservists” themselves.

The Future of Gliders

It is not impossible that a glider will come back as a special operations delivery system, but one with a twist. Several firms and researchers have been examining the possibility of suborbital space insertion as a way to deliver SOF into denied areas at unprecedented speeds, with potentially global reach in 45 minutes to 2 hours of flight time. The problem is how to use such a fast glider against a sophisticated enemy — without him thinking you’re nuking him, and nuking you back preemptively?