Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

Name a Navy that’s less than 1/3 of its 1990 Size

If you said the US Navy, you’re right.

But if you said the Russian Navy, you’re also right.

The Soviet Navy, 1990.

The Soviet Navy, 1990.

Their Navy, too, went from Admiral Gorshkov’s 600-plus ships and blue-water operations in the waning days of the VMF SSSR to sub-200 vessels of the VMF oftoday.

The Russian Navy, 2015.

The Russian Navy, 2015.

The entire, massive chart, from former Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week Contemporary Issues & Geography, is posted after the jump.

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A Messerschmitt on the Market

Not many pilots these days get to write “Messerschmitt” in their logbooks. And here’s one that’s affordable, but… the “but” in this case being that the machine hasn’t flown in quite a while, which means it’s a pretty sure bet that getting the beast airworthy will take an application of large quantities of cubic money.

Me108 02

The airplane isn’t the famous Me 109, but its slower-flying, four-seat, corporate sibling the Me 108. The Me 108 was used by Lufthansa as a short-hail mail plane, and by the Luftwaffe as a liaison and VIP transport bird. Fighter squadrons often had one as a runabout. After the war, they soldiered on in civilian hands or in other European air forces for a while, until lack of engine spares made them obsolete. A few stood in for their fighter brethren in WWII movies.

Me 108 shows off it's 109-like profile.

Me 108 shows off it’s 109-like profile and similar flaps. On many WWII aircraft, split flaps were used instead of this kind of full trailing edge flap. The tradeoff was that splits were less effective, but require less trim when applied, reducing pilot workload (an especially big deal in big aircraft).

The 108 could pull that off because it had a very similar profile and the exact same planform as the 109. It also shared quite a few Me 109 design concepts: it was similarly made, its fuselage constructed of segments; it had similar control surfaces, including effective flaps and Handley-Page automatic slats for high-angle-of-attack handling; and, its landing gear geometry is different only in that the 109 had to swing a really big prop, so its main gear legs were longer; the 108 gets by with a smaller airscrew.

Handley-Page slats (at leading edge of wing) extend at low speeds (really, at high angles of attack) and retract when the speed increases and alpha is lowered. They help with low speed handling, and control in the trans-stall environment.

Handley-Page slats (at leading edge of wing) extend at low speeds (really, at high angles of attack) and retract when the speed increases and alpha is lowered. They help with low speed handling, and control in the trans-stall environment.

But wait — this isn’t really a Messerschmitt. It’s a Nord.

What’s a Nord? Well, in the 1930s France was heir to one of the world’s oldest and most innovative aviation industries, and then they began Central Planning. During the war somebody else did their Central Planning for them (a lot of them didn’t seem to mind much) and their production lines made stuff the occupying Germans could use, like Me 108s.

After the war, only one firm escaped nationalization: France’s collaborator-rich ruling class didn’t want to go toe-to-toe with Holocaust survivor Marcel Dasssault. All of France’s storied aviation interests were piled haphazardly into two firms, cleverly named by the bureaucrats South Aviation (Sud) and North Aviation (Nord). At first, postwar, the lines continued to do the work they had done under German occupation, including, in Nord’s case, building Me108s.


The Argus inverted V-8 engine of the Me 108, a little 210-hp jewel, was no longer available after the fall of the Third Reich, so a French inverted inline engine (from Renault) and propeller (from Ratier) were adapted instead. The resultant was the Nord 1002, all Me 108 from the firewall back, and pretty similar forward, except to an expert.

And that’s what we’ve got here. It is very, very rare (single digits survive of the Nord and the 108) midcentury plane that doesn’t look ridiculous painted with German World War II camouflage; a plane that will get you to show center in most airshows; and something that’s actually affordable to buy. (Maintenance, we’re not too sure; it was museum exhibit for years, so it’s going to need one hell of an annual condition inspection before going back into the sky). For example, we happen to know who can overhaul a Merlin V-12 in the USA, and we think we know who can do the Renault engine, but the Ratier electric prop? No idea where you would take that. Also, the FAA may now take a dim view of the 1970s-approved instrument-labeling method, Dymo Labelmaker.

An expensive paint job can be avoided by going for Lufthansa’s slick silver-and-black paint job. You may be diffident about applying the red tail band with the centered black swastika on a white circle, though. (Especially in Europe, where there is a tendency to sling the swastika-prone into Justizvollzugsanstalt Landsberg, from which they have always regretted releasing another swastika guy).

It is registered (N108PK) and Pacific Fighter Sales has it in inventory, asking $85,000 (many more photos at the link). Pacific can also connect you to premium-quality (and, alas, premium-priced) restoration and paint shops. They know who can inspect that Ratier.

Imperial German Sabotage Operations in America, 1914-17

Devastation after the Black Tom fire and explosions, 1916.

Devastation after the Black Tom fire and explosions, 1916.

Before the United States joined the Great War overtly, it was tacitly on the Allied side, supplying vast quantities of arms, ammunition, material, supplies, even horses to pull French and British artillery. All this was sold to British and French purchasing commissions, and loaded into ships of whatever nationality and delivered; under convoy, after the emergence of the U-Boat as a serious threat. The Germans were welcome to buy, if they could, but in the face of British naval superiority (and, perhaps, US cooperation with British intelligence), they couldn’t practically take delivery of materiel. (They did develop two cargo-carrying merchant submarines for this run, but that’s another story).


Merchant Sub Deutschland, one of two used as blockade runners in WWI (the other was called Bremen). These were not warships but unarmed merchant subs.

The US war production capability, then, functioned as an extension of France and Britain’s war industries, and that made it a fair target for the German Empire. The Wilhelmine General Staff was an astute bunch, and they would make no overt act to bring the US into the war. Instead, they resolved to use clandestine means, including a series of sabotage operations.

The most successful of these may have been the destruction of the ordnance loading piers and depot on Black Tom Island in July 1916.

All was dark and quiet on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor, not far from the Statue of Liberty, when small fires began to burn on the night of July 30, 1916. Some guards on the island sent for the Jersey City Fire Department, but others fled as quickly as they could, and for good reason: Black Tom was a major munitions depot, with several large “powder piers.” That night, Johnson Barge No. 17 was packed with 50 tons of TNT, and 69 railroad freight cars were storing more than a thousand tons of ammunition, all awaiting shipment to Britain and France. Despite America’s claim of neutrality in World War I, it was no secret that the United States was selling massive quantities of munitions to the British.

via Sabotage in New York Harbor | History | Smithsonian.

The actual cause of the Black Tom fires seems to have been incendiary devices initiated by a new invention — the “time pencil,” a chemical time fuse developed explicitly for incendiary sabotage. New York’s harbors were, at the time, alive with mischief: along with saboteurs organized and controlled by the chief Imperial Navy intelligence officer in the Americas, Franz D. J. von Rintelen, who was under what then passed for deep cover as a Swiss businessman and ran his networks with what a modern professional would take to be terrifying informality. Indeed, just when he was musing over the need for something like a time pencil, it walked in his door, as he’d later recount in his memoirs.

Kapitän zur See Franz von Rintelen

Kapitän zur See Franz von Rintelen

While I was still wondering how to get hold of the detonators, and in fact how to further my plans at all, I happened to find the right man. I had by now established contact with all sorts of “shady” characters, some of whom had secret schemes, and one day I was visited by the German chemist, Dr. Scheele. I received him in my newly furnished office, in the first room of which sat Max Weiser dictating to the stenographer the most fearsome business letters. He was inviting all the firms of New York to send us offers of wheat, peas, shoe-polish, glassware, rice, and similar goods. We posted piles of letters, so that our firm might present the appearance of a flourishing concern.

Through this room came Dr. Scheele. He began by presenting a strong letter of recommendation from our Military Attaché Captain Papen, and continued by saying that I was a man with varied interests, and that he was a chemist, with a new invention which he would like to offer me. I saw that he was rather hesitant, so I moved my chair nearer and told him that he had come to the right place and had only to reveal to me the purpose of his invention; if it were any good, he could be sure that I would acquire it; for the rest, I was the most discreet man in New York, and he could trust me. He plucked up courage, took a piece of lead out of his pocket, which was as big as a cigar, laid it on my desk and began to explain.

This piece of lead was hollow inside. Into the middle of the tube a circular disc of copper had been pressed and soldered, dividing it into two chambers. One of these chambers was filled with picric acid, the other with sulphuric acid or some other inflammable liquid. A strong plug made of wax with a simple lead cap made both ends airtight. The copper disc could be as thick or as thin as we pleased. If it were thick, the two acids on either side took a long time to eat their way through. If it were thin, the mingling of the two acids would occur within a few days. By regulating the thickness of the disc it was possible to determine the time when the acids should come together. This formed a safe and efficient time-fuse. When the two acids mingled at the appointed time, a silent but intense flame, from twenty to thirty centimetres long, shot out from both ends of the tube, and while it was still burning the lead casing melted away without a trace: spurlos!

I looked at Dr. Scheele. I had hit upon a plan in which this “cigar” should play the chief part, and I asked the chemist to demonstrate his invention by an experiment. We went out into a little wood near the town. He chose a very thin copper disc, put it in the tube and laid the apparatus on the ground. We stood near by. If the detonator worked, I could put my scheme into operation. I knew what use could be made of this “diabolical” invention; and all that was necessary was that it should function. Heaven knows it did! The stream of flame which suddenly shot out of the confounded “cigar” nearly blinded me, it was so strong; and the lead melted into an almost invisible fragment.

When I looked round I saw Dr. Scheele leaning against a tree. He was gazing with bemused eyes at the tiny piece of lead, all that was left of his fiery magic.

“That was pretty good, wasn’t it?”

“I’ll say it was!”

We soon came to terms. He was first given a round cheque in return for allowing me to use the “cigar” in any way I wished. I asked him to return on the following day, and in the meantime I secured a few assistants— captains of German ships with whom I had already become good friends, and Irishmen whose “approval” I had won. The Irishmen had no idea who I was, nor did they ask me. It was sufficient for them that I was not very friendly towards England. I collected these men together, and took them to my office. I was sure that I could trust them, and they did not disappoint me.

The “cigars,” as the German operatives called them, were compact enough that one kept an unactivated one in the toe of a boot in his closet, as a souvenir.

The Black Tom arson was only one of many mischiefs brought about by von Rintelen’s networks.  He had a bomb production line set up on an interned German merchant ship; he suborned various Americans, but mostly used ethnic Germans and England-hostile Irishmen for the actual work.

His network of Germans, German-Americans and Irishmen struck so many ships that Lloyds of London underwriters raised insurance rates to record levels, as if U-Boats weren’t bad enough. In a few short months in 1915, the ships Rio Lagos, Rochambeau, Euterpe, andTyningham suffered serious fires at sea, Tyningham two of them, and the ship Ancona suffered an explosion. Further affected ships included the Craigside and Arabic, where the incendiaries were found in July, and  Assuncion de LarrinagaRotterdam and Santa Anna, which were set afire, and Williston, which was bombed.

Grainy picture of Robert Fay's bomb-making materials. From Tunney.

Grainy picture of Robert Fay’s bomb-making materials. From Tunney.

At this remove of time, it’s not possible to tell which bombs were the work of von Rintelen, which were the work of German Army officer Robert Fay in another network, and which might have been the work of third, undiscovered networks, or self-directed sympathizers. (Fay, for his part, said he got the idea for sabotaging when he was being shelled by Allied guns firing American shells in the front lines, but never got as far as planting a bomb. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment for insurance fraud — on the theory that he was conspiring to defraud the Lloyd’s underwriters by firing ships. That was the most serious charge which fit at the time). Fay’s own bombs were sophisticated; one was a very small device meant to be attached to a ship’s rudder post, and ruinous to her rudder and propeller; a variation seemed to amplify that with some 40 kg of explosive, meant to tear the stern wide open and send the vessel to the bottom.

Model or Mock-up of the small Fay bomb use in evidence at his trial. Tunney.

Model or Mock-up of the small Fay bomb use in evidence at his trial. Left: overview. Right: close-up. Tunney.

More bombs were on the Inchmoor and the Bankdale, but the one on the Kirkoswald had too thick a copper disc at its center, and still hadn’t gone off when the ship was unloaded in France. (The discovered bomb and infiltration of the German network by German-speaking detectives posing as a pseudo group of other German saboteurs were key to the investigation that leaves us with a picture of these activities today). The ringleaders of the ship-arson ring claimed also to have placed multiple time pencils aboard the SS Lusitania, but they were robbed of that success by the action of a U-Boat. All in all, at least 22 merchant ships were bombed by the ring.

A side effect of his effective sabotage attacks was an increase in police activity, which had a profound psychological-operations-multiplier effect; all those anti-sabotage posters of World War II had a source in people’s living memory of von Rintelen’s attacks.

Along with von Rintelen, a key figure was Erich von Steinmetz, a career officer who used various covers including “Erich Steinburg” and who passed through wartime immigration, at a time when men from German-speaking nations were under heightened scrutiny, by crossdressing. Maybe his double life wasn’t just espionage? Today, that alone would make him a celebrity.

Other successful operations included planting false documents in the press (in one case, suggesting that the Lusitania had a cargo of arms) and sabotage of a Du Pont plant by German-American operatives.

Less success came to an attempt to buy the Army’s surplus Krag-Jorgensen rifles through a cover firm (although what Rintelen wanted them for is uncertain, perhaps to arm Irish rebels), and a half-baked plan to silence two anti-German newspapers, the New York World and the Providence (RI) Journal. The Journal in particular inflamed the German spies by having a good pipeline to various investigations and publishing documents that those investigations had obtained, undermining the German propaganda campaign. Least success of all came to a plan to infect the Europe-bound war horses with glanders; the agent assigned the task, after being captured, told police he threw the ampule of poison away rather than spreading the pathogen to every third horse awaiting transport, as he had been told to do.

On the United States declaration of war, the remaining German saboteurs conducted a rapid exfiltration by what seem to have been pre-arranged E&E corridors to Mexico and Cuba. Thereafter any sabotage would have been by self-starting lone wolves.

Long before that, exposed by infiltrating ethnic-German detectives, von Rintelen fled to England under cover, intending to trial thence to the Continent and Germany. He was intercepted by the British on Friday, 13 August 1915. His Swiss cover failed and he was interrogated, and interned as an enemy alien. On 13 July 1917 — also a Friday, clearly not his lucky day — he was extradited to stand trial and serve a short prison term in the USA. After the war he found himself in financial straits in Germany, and was invited to England by senior leaders of wartime British intelligence, who remembered him as an enemy, but a gentleman regardless. He lived out a quiet retirement in England — and volunteered his services to Britain in the Second World War. It would be interesting to explore the National Archives (UK) for his records.

Dr Scheele, the clever chemist of the bomb factory, likewise fled one step ahead of the police, first to Florida, then Cuba. He was extradited to New York, where was sentenced to a few months (!) in prison, and thereafter interned as an enemy alien. He was deported postwar. (“I am sorry that our laws were not at that time drastic enough to punish the men as they deserved,” an irritated Captain Thomas Tunney of the New York Bomb Squad would write).

After the outbreak of war, a saboteur was liable to be hanged after an abbreviated summary court martial.

Spy school 101: what you’re doing may be lauded by your country, but it’s going to break a lot of the laws of the country you’re in. The payoff is when, afterward, your country lauds you; but von Rintelen had the poor fortune to serve a country and a system, the German Empire, which was erased in defeat. He was honored, paradoxically, only by his enemies.

Some Notes on Sources:

We note in general that period books tend to be written better and more solid in their facts than present-day journalism, which relooks Black Tom and the du Pont sabotage every year or two. For example, James B. Kelley, writing in Knight, Peter (Ed.) Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia (pp. 281-282, visible at: argues based on recent journalistic books that the whole thing is nothing but a conspiracy theory. If so, it is one the German principals confessed to and went to prison for, and the recent books that Kelley cites (unlike Landau, 1937) are almost as lightweight as his own “scholarship.”

An example of an entertainingly written book of suspect accuracy is introduced by NPR with an author interview and an excerpt is provided at the same site. It’s fun to read, but how does does Blum, a journalist, know long-dead participants’s thoughts and emotions? He doesn’t. He’s making it up. As journalists habitually do.

The Smithsonian and Studies in Intelligence pieces are solid, though.

Jones, John P., as told to Hollister, Paul M., The German Secret Service in America. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1918. Retrieved from:  This book is the one that approaches most nearly wartime propaganda.

Landau, Henry. The Enemy Within: The Inside Story of German Sabotage in America. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1937. Retrieved from:   This book contains a particularly valuable timeline of events on pp. 305-310.

Tunney, Inspector Thomas J., as told to Hollister, Paul M.,  Throttled: The Detection of the German and Anarchist Bomb Plotters. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1919. Retrieved from:  This book includes earlier operations against Black Hand anarchists as well as interesting details of the police investigation and infiltration of the German sabotage networks.


Von Rintelen, Kapt. z.S. Franz. Dark Invader. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1933. Retrieved from: The master sabotage ringleader in his own words.

Warner, Michael.  The Kaiser Sows Destruction: Protecting the Homeland the First Time Around. Studies in Intelligence, Volume 46 No. 1. Langley, VA: Central Intelligence Agency, 2002. Retrieved from:

Uncredited. Former German Spy Reveals Myths of the Trade. The Guardian, Manchester, England, 14 January 1939 (republished 14 January 2013). Retrieved from:

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.