Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

One Giant Step towards Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament

This three-reentry-vehicle warhead was once standard on Minuteman III missiles. As part of a policy of unilateral disarmament, the MIRVs have been taken out of service.

This three-reentry-vehicle warhead was once standard on Minuteman III missiles. Each warhead could be aimed at a different target. As part of a policy of unilateral disarmament, the MIRVs have been taken out of service.

The United States has met a second strategic goal of the Soviet Union Russian Empire Federation. After giving them the unilateral cancellation of European missile defense, the United States has now unilaterally de-MIRVed its ground-based missiles. This serves no United States security purpose, but does please entities with one kind of relationship to the United States: enemies, foreign and domestic.

MIRVs are Multiple Independently Targetable (re-entry) Vehicles, multiple warheads on a single missile. They complicate a potential adversary’s defensive strategy and decrease his confidence in being able to execute a first strike without retaliation.

Eliminating the MIRVs is a political, not military, decision that makes the missiles less of a threat to any opponent or potential enemy (especially a sophisticated enemy), and is destabilizing, encouraging rogue states to attempt a first strike. But politically, this sets up for the third strategic goal, complete elimination of the now-obsolete single-warhead missiles. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, an anti-nuclear*, left-wing group, crows:

The United States this week finished altering its ground-based, long-range nuclear missiles to each carry just one warhead, the Great Falls Tribune reports.

Crews carried out the final modification of an intercontinental ballistic missile at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, the newspaper reported on Wednesday. The service implemented the alterations under a nuclear-arms pact with Russia.

The New START strategic arms-control treaty called for the change to the nation’s Minuteman 3 ICBMs, which were previously able to carry three “Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles.” The United States maintains roughly 450 of the missiles, deployed at the Montana facility and at bases in North Dakota and Wyoming.

“This was the last Minuteman 3 in the Air Force to be ‘deMIRVed,’ and this is a major milestone in meeting the force structure numbers to comply with the New START requirements,” Steve Ray, a member of Air Force Global Strike Command’s missile maintenance division, said in a released comment.

“This is historic because we’ve had MIRVs in the field for more than 40 years, since 1970 when the first Minuteman 3 came on alert,” Ray said.

In its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration said “deMIRVing” the weapons would “enhance the stability of the nuclear balance by reducing the incentives for either side to strike first.”

via U.S. Eliminates Multi-Warheads on All Ground-Based Nuclear Missiles | Global Security Newswire | NTI.

MIRVs do remain in service on submarine launched ballistic missiles, for the time being. But there are fewer missiles, and fewer subs, than there were five years ago, and there will be fewer still by the time a new president and national security team is sworn in.

Even if the incumbents don’t decide the SLBM MIRVs too must go, to please international counterparties and their domestic collaborationists and fifth columnists.

There may yet be political fallout from the executive decision to unilaterally disarm ground-based MIRVs. In 2012, Secretary of State Kerry promised at least one Senator that no further unilateral cuts would be made, but most Senators have been there long enough to have served with Kerry and already have no illusions about what his promise is worth.

*NTI is “anti-nuclear” as far as American nuclear weapons and nuclear allies. Not anti-war, just on the other side.

Impossible Helicopter Stuff

Obviously, it’s not impossible, because the guy did it… in that helicopter, a British Army Westland Lynx with a hingeless main rotor and monobloc rotorhead. In a Huey, it would be suicide. This Army training film explains why:

(It’s pretty dry if you’re not a helicopter pilot). Mast bumping is a serious threat to any teetering rotor rotorcraft, from a Bensen Gyrocopter through all the two-bladed Hiller and Bell helicopters. It’s less of a problem with a Sikorsky-type fully-articulated rotor (which was actually copied from Pitcairn, causing Sikorsky to lose a patent suit) or a rigid rotor.

Both the Lynx and the teetering Huey rotor are sometimes described as “semirigid,” but they’re very different animals. In the Huey, the blades are attached to one another and one central teetering hinge attaches them to the mast. When one flaps up, the other must flap down. In the Lynx, each of four composite BERP (British Experimental Rotor Program, the funny swept planform of the Lynx rotor) blades are attached to the rotor head by titanium root plates and a flexible arm.


Each blade flaps independently to deal with gust loads and the transition in forward flight of angle of attack and lead/lag from the advancing side to the retreating side of the rotor disc. Instead of hinges, the innate flexibility of the hub deals with asymmetric flight loads. The description is complicated, but the rotorhead itself is simple. It is an ingenious design and it gives the Lynx more aerobatic capability and greater speed than most other helicopters, while insulating the copter from mast bumping and other hazards that lurk in low-G flight.

“How do I become a Navy SEAL?”

tridentNot sure why we get that question. When we do, we try to hand the questioner off to someone who can answer it — like a real-deal SEAL. Because we’re Army guys, and while we have some occasional contact with our triphibious brethren of the sign of the trident, we’re not qualified to tell you how to join them. They are, by definition: after all, every single one of them pulled it off.

Lately, the SEALs have been buzzing about a book that dispenses useful advice for SEAL “wannabes” — the kind who get their wannabe on by going to the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school, BUD/S (a rite of passage current SEALs are glad to have new young men attempt) rather than by just pinning a trident on an unworthy chest (something that has historically produced an epic beating, and removal of the unearned badge into SEAL safekeeping. Don’t even ask what happens to the cretins who have themselves tattooed with an unearned Budweiser).

That’s one of the cultural differences. Pretend to be SF, and we will taunt and mock you, and make you a laughingstock in a wide range of languages and cultures, and bring any of your plans which hinged on your pseudo-accomplishments down into ruination. Pretend to be a SEAL, and the frogmen are liable express their dissatisfaction with your course of action directly and robustly. It’s the frog way.

Anyway, the secret to success in SEAL training is not a lot different from that in Ranger RASP, SF Assessment & Selection, and other special operations forces’ selection processes: don’t quit. Or as Churchill might have put it, “If you’re going through Hell Week, keep on going.” But that simple advice is admittedly quite general in nature, and today’s candidates are seeking more-specific advice. And also, everybody knows that don’t quit is the answer, and also knows that it’s terribly hard to actually do. All the guys who dropped out, rang the bell and quit, knew don’t quit was what they needed to do, but somehow… they quit.

A SEAL officer thought that he would address both the desire for detail he sees in candidates, and the loss of human potential he sees over and over when young men who might have been SEALs drop out, often because they fell into behavioral ruts or traps.

If author DH Xavier has a single message, it’s that the young men who pass BUD/S are not supermen — that the average guy can, indeed, be a SEAL. If he mentally prepares himself for an arduous selection process that only seems physical, but is essentially mental, psychological, maybe neurological.

The book is, rather amusingly, called Breaking BUD/S. We bought a Kindle copy even though we’re not exactly in the demographic any more, and even though the Kindle edition is overpriced for an e-book.

Pentagon Blowing Billions on One Helicopter — and 20 Spares

When the President steps out of his helicopter on the South Lawn, he’s stepping out of a Nixon- or even LBJ-era helicopter that the Pentagon worries about every day. They would sincerely like to replace it, but, well, they’re the Pentagon, and they can’t buy anything without the whole procurement program turning to feces.

The logical answer, the V-22, isn’t that logical when you realize that only 100-odd have been built so far and some 30 have been written off, including this one that crashed (killing two crewmen) in Morocco on Exercise African Lion in the fall of 2012:

V-22 Down African Lion 2012 Morocco

It’s fine for Marines and our SOF guys, but President ain’t ridin’ that. And that means any President; one doesn’t reach that position by a willingness to risk life and limb any more.

The Pentangle’s last attempt, almost 10 years ago, blew over three billion dollars on European helicopters with a veneer of American badge engineering (and many layers of robustly-paid American middlemen). And they so micromanaged the VH-71 copters that the ones that they’d had built couldn’t even be fobbed off on an ally as airworthy helicopters: Canada took them, but only to part them out. (Bringing the project to airworthy-copter completion would have required handing over another $10 billion to Lockheed Martin… and hoping LockMart had no further cost overruns. What odds?). It did make a pretty artist’s rendering:

VH-71 artists impression

Canadian Forces, by the way, bought the same basic helicopter directly from its manufacturer, cutting out the great greedy gullet of Lockheed and saving billions. (Not that they don’t have fiscal problems with cost overruns by US defense manufacturers, too: they are staggered by the cost of 8 lighter helicopters from Bell, $200 million — Canadian loonies, close enough to par with $USD for our purposes).

The Washington Post sees the whole thing shaping up a second time.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, replacing the helicopters — which fly under the call sign “Marine One” when the president is aboard — became a priority for the Pentagon. In 2005, a team led by Lockheed Martin won the contract, beating out Sikorsky, which built the helicopters currently used in the Marine One program.

But soon it became a case “study in how not to build a helicopter, analysts say. The design became so overloaded with new requirements — to be able to hover longer and at high altitudes, travel great distances without refueling, and defend against missile attacks — it essentially became an impossible task.

“Too many people had a seat at the table,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Fairfax-based Teal Group. “Everyone was chiming in for good measure. . . . Basically they were building something to survive a nuclear war. Literally.”

In 2009, the Pentagon killed the program and eventually sold the helicopters that were in production to Canada for spare parts.

Since then, the Navy has dramatically scaled back the ambitions for the aircraft, officials said, and will use existing, proven technologies instead of trying to build new ones specifically for the helicopter.

via Navy to award contract for Marine One helicopter despite previous failure – The Washington Post.

The Post quotes professional getting-quoted guy Aboulafia, and also someone from the Project On Government Oversight, a group that reflexively opposes all defense procurements because of its “let the Air Force hold a bake sale” and “better Red than dead!” values. But they have a point: this project is not going to be contained in its original budget projection, and its original projections are, frankly, insane.

The new proposal is based on the Sikorsky S-92, but it’s radically different from the production -92 (why?) and it’s being managed by that great steward of the public fisc, Lockheed Martin. (Wait! Didn’t they just… well, yeah).

The first helicopters will cost $3.2 billion, over $1 billion each, and the Pentagon imagines that by “mass producing” 21 helicopters, the unit cost will drop. Some of those 21 are probably “sacrificial tail numbers” that are intended to be cast aside in future phony budget-cutting, but there’s no need for such a big fleet of VIP aircraft: one aircraft is needed for a decoy, two more for operational and maintenance floats, and one or two for training of air and ground crews, since the Pentagon insists on buying a custom, bespoke helicopter for this purpose alone (previous Presidential helicopters have been ordinary military models with upgraded interiors and communications). And some of them are probably intended to push the VIP helicopter perk further down the ranks of the Washington political class.

burning-wasting-moneyThe Post tried to pin down Captain Dean Peters, USN, the guy leading this squanderathon, on what the whole project would cost. Peters was shifty and evasive and they got nothing out of him, which implies that Peters is either trying to hide the staggering project cost, or, more likely, has no earthly idea where the escalating price will finally stop. Neither possibility reassures.

And he’s the guy supposedly managing the project. If a PM can’t price his project, he’s at the point of epic fail already. No business would tolerate this, but DOD works no other way.

Peters was probably perfectly competent as a boat driver or air wing officer, and it’s probably not his personal fault that his project is failing. It’s deeply rooted in the DOD’s byzantine and corrupt acquisition culture, which has every incentive to gold-plate every contract, because neither the DOD acquirer, in this case the Navy, nor the manufacturer, in this case a consortium of Sikorsky and the previous project mismanager, Lockheed Martin, bear any cost risk in the program. It’s all laid off on the taxpayers.

After he’s bungled this project to failure, or completion at a shadow of the foreseen capability and a vast overshadow of the foreseen cost, Peters will step into a rich sinecure at one of the DOD prime contractors, if takes the usual procurement officer “retirement” route. Indeed, it will almost cerntainly be one he’s just been signing padded checks to. (Where’s Glenn Reynolds’s Revolving-Door Surtax (original proposal here) when you need it?)

There is no rational reason for a helicopter to cost a billion dollars. Indeed, there’s no rational reason for, and many strong arguments against, a Presidential helicopter that is its own custom, bespoke airframe not used on other military missions. What’s wrong with our current rotorcraft in the VIP role? Here’s what Peters’s office would tell you:

  • H-60: too small. President has to duck under the rotors, which is unseemly. And besides, it’s an Army, not Marine helicopter.
  • H-47: too big, and besides, it’s an Army, not Marine helicopter.
  • H-53: too big, even though the Navy and Marines fly lots of them. Plus, it’s not new.
  • H-65: too small, and only flown by the Coast Guard.
  • V-22: too small, and too dangerous for a President.

Most likely outcome of this Goldilocks helicopter quest: about the same as the VH-71 fiasco. We buy a handful of these specialty helicopters, for a unit cost higher than Air Force 1, which is where Peters’s project presently points. And the DOD struggles for a few years to maintain them with no spares commonality with any DOD helicopter fleet, before giving up. But a lot of DOD contractors will cash in, and that is, ultimately, what the hokey-pokey of DOD procurement is all about.

Hat tip, Ralph Benko at Forbes via Glenn Reynolds.

USMC Door Gun, Afghanistan

Marine Aircraft Group- Afghanistan helps retrograde last of personnel, equipment from Sangin ValleyThis is a great photo by a Marine photographer, taken this month in the sky above our forgotten expeditionary force in Afghanistan. Official caption below; we want to say a few words about the helicopter, and the gun.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matthew Ghibaudi performs a weapons check from inside a UH-1Y Huey helicopter before providing aerial assault support for ground convoys in Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 3, 2014. Ghibaudi, a crew chief, is assigned to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Frances Johnson

We came to this via BLACKFIVE.

The Aircraft: UH-1Y ‘Venom’

The Marines are the only service still flying the 1950s-vintage H-1 Huey and 1960s-vintage H-46. But their Hueys have been rebuilt, zero-timed in fact; the airframes born as UH-1Ns were a twin engines (the Sea Services always wanted this for over-water reliability) version, unlike the Army’s old single-turboshaft H-1s (the Army equivalent being the UH-1D/H). Supposedly, 100 or so of the Y models are rebuilt Ns but the Marines have found it more economical to buy all-new airframes than to pay for Bell to disassemble, evaluate, repair and restore clapped-out N airframes, so a lot of these are all-new birds.

The UH-1Y and its sister, the AH-1Z, also have a fully articulating all-composite four-blade rotor system in place of the much simpler two-blade teetering rotor of the H-1, which inherited its rotor system, conceptually at least, from the 1940s-vintage Bell 47. The new rotor eliminates some of the low-G limitations and safety issues (look up “mast bumping”) of the original Huey rotor system. The old bird was safe within its flight envelope, mind; the new one just has a larger envelope.

In the ones based on old airframes, the airframe is gone through, of course, to ensure that it is safe for many more strenuous combat hours, and the powerplant is something a Vietnam Huey driver can only envy.

The Gun: M3M/GAU-21/A

The gun is also an update of an old classic — the John Browning .50 machine gun. The “old” door gun was the M60D, and rather than go to the M240 the Marines stepped up and used the latest version of the WWII- and Korean-vintage ANM3 aerial gun. Gun guys in all services have long known that the parts of M2 and M3 Brownings, and aerial and ground Brownings, have a high interchangeability, making almost all imaginable crossbreeds, variations, and Frankenguns real possibilities — at least, once you get into the war zone and away from the ordnance and supply clerks.

The M3  was an improvement over the Browning M2 (blasphemy!) for aerial and counter-air use. The M3 made a number of changes to allow operation at much higher rates of fire than the M2 in its aerial or ground versions; these changes included a lighter bolt and recoiling parts, much larger and oil-less buffer, relocation of the depressors from the backplate to the sideplates, and an improved, and more positive, feed mechanism that grabs the round front and rear, and can accept belts or chutes. The nominal rate of fire for the WWII ANM3 was 1200 r/min — really rocking for a closed-bolt-firing machine gun. It was available in a flexible model and (more commonly) in a fixed model, where it armed aircraft like the P/F-51 Mustang, the P/F-80 Shooting Star, and the F-86 Sabrejet.

Sole-sourced from FNH USA, the M3M, or GAU-21/A as the Navy terms it, adds a sophisticated soft-mount for the gun and numerous improvements. It replaced an M2-derived gun, the XM218 or GAU-16/A, which had evolved towards the M3 and had a mount of its own. There are many small improvements in the gun, but the big one is that it fires from an open bolt, eliminating cooking off as a potential hazard. The barrel life is claimed to be 10,000 rounds. The  M3M soft-mount also recovers the fired brass, eliminating any risk of foreign object damage, and can be fitted with night vision equipment. The spade grips are attached not to the unsprung gun, but to the buffered mount, making the gun easier to control. The improvements of the M3M seem subtle over the XM218, but they add up to a far more effective weapons system. There is also a fixed version (the M3P) for use in gun pods; these pods are commonly mounted on, among other things, SOF H-60s.

The Rocket Pod: LAU-68

The UH-1Y in the photo also is armed with LAU-68 rocket pods. Each pod carries 7 70mm FFAR (Folding Fin Aerial Rocket) unguided rockets. This rocket, originally known in Imperial units as the 2.75″ Mighty Mouse, has an interesting history of its own, as it originally was intended as an air-to-air weapon for 1950s jet interceptors (F-86D, F-89, F-94, homely and forgotten things, generally) hunting large formations of large Soviet bombers. But it long outlived the Tu-4 threat. Sine then, several generations of 70mm rocket and pod have been used by the US and its allies. A very wide range of rockets are available for helicopter and fast-mover use, and guided rockets are in the final stages of RDT&E. The LAU-68 allows ripple or single fire, but probably will need to be updated or replaced to support guided rockets, if they’re ever actually fielded. And for those occasions where you need to talk to a crowd, and fear that seven rockets may not get your message across, there’s the LAU-61, with 19 of the little beggars to show how much you care.

The Silent Service (TV, 1957-58)

The things you find on YouTube. This is an episode of a forgotten series called The Silent Service which ran for 78 episodes in the late 1950s, we daresay before most of our readers were born. This black-and-white TV show dramatized true events of the United States’s then-diesel-electric submarines and their submariners, principally during war patrols in World War II. American submarines did more than anything, possibly including the nuclear bombing, to bring the Japanese Empire to its knees.

The show was created by California National Productions, which made other TV shows about the military — stirring stuff especially for adventure-oriented boys. Periscope Film (heh), the company that now owns the rights to these classic TV shows, has put several episodes on line.

Each episode starts with Rear Admiral Thomas M. Dykers (Retired), telling you what you’re about to see. Dykens sits at an admiral-worthy desk with a map of the Pacific behind him, setting the stage, as he describes in a Boston Brahmin accent what adventure you’re about to join under the waves. “Tonight, we bring you another thrilling episode of Silent Service stories, of warfare under the sea… as authentic as we can make it.” Dykers promises, as nearly to beaming-with-pride as he can manage without degrading his station in life. He goes on to narrate each story, which combines well-acted reenactments (or dramatizations if you will), with archival combat-film footage.

Here’s Episode 8310, The SS Tinosa Story starring Murray Hamilton, William Phipps, Brett Halsey and Britt Lomond. Periscope says, “The plot unfolds with the USS Tinosa trying to penetrate the sea of Japan using “Hell’s Bells” type sonar to cross the guarding mine fields.”

(Periscope adds: In WWII, Tinosa completed twelve war patrols in the Pacific and was credited with sinking 16 enemy ships, totaling 64,655 tons.).

The Silent Service endured very high casualties, by US standards, although nothing like the near-eradication their German counterparts suffered. In World War II, a sub usually came home to port safely or was lost with no hands, and for its own side, no trace until the world’s navies were able to compare and share data after the war. There was seldom a middle ground.

Here’s Episode 8297, Tirante Plays a Hunch, from June, 1957. The events depicted here earned rookie CO Lt. Cmdr. George L. Street the Medal of Honor, and the ship and her crew the Presidential Unit Citation. The officers of Tirante were a patrician bunch — the XO was Edward L. “Ned” Beach (played by Russell Johnson, a World War II bomber pilot who is best known for the role of the Professor on Gilligan’s Island), and the gunnery officer Endicott “Chuck” Peabody. Whether patriotism or noblesse oblige drove them to volunteer and volunteer again, they served the Navy and the country with true courage and vision in the war.

The skipper says, when Peabody suggests a harebrained scheme, “Most of this crew thought they were being trained as, er, submariners. Not pirates!” Meanwhile, Ned Beach has another harebrained plan, that would require the boat to steam long on the surface, close into the enemy shores and without enough water to dive in. But Peabody’s and Beach’s plans make sense enough that Street gives them his blessing, and we’re off on the adventure with the boat and its crew.

This episode was written by Beirne Lay, Jr. who was a wartime (and prewar) Air Corps/Air Forces officer, and who co-wrote the novel 12 O’Clock High,  and became the solo screenwriter for its equally classic movie and TV adaptations, and for the Jimmy Stewart classic Strategic Air Command.

There are a number of other episodes of Silent Service posted online by Periscope, and some others by third parties, and they’re all time capsules of an era when Hollywood was proud to cooperate with the US military and tell its stories.

Can we get a DVD set? Not officially, it turns out, but a Navy vet has put the episodes online on his website,, and he will sell a DVD for anyone that doesn’t want to take the loooong time to download the episodes in .mp4 format. On a submariners’ Facebook page, several boat vets cite the movie as an inspiration of their own undersea careers.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week – Torpedo of Rijeka

Robert Whitehead was a pacifist and teetotaler, who invented a weapon that's in its second century of use and development.

Robert Whitehead was a pacifist and teetotaler, who invented the naval torpedo and sold it all around the world: a weapon now well into its second century of use and development.

Here at Weaponsman, we’ve discussed naval torpedoes before. We’ve done it in the light of early American torpedoes that have been recovered from the bottom of the sea, or otherwise rediscovered, and displayed in museums or otherwise studied. But the very first torpedo, at least the first successful one, came from the forgotten Navy of the Habsburg Empire, by way of an English inventor and entrepreneur.

Fortunately, there is a place where this early history is not only not forgotten, but preserved and memorialized, and it is present on the web at Torpedo of Rijeka, our Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week this week. It’s a website founded by enthusiasts of the first naval torpedo, and the first naval torpedo factory — in their Adriatic hometown.

When Farragut said, “Damn the torpedoes,” in the Civil War, the “torpedoes” that he referred to were what we think of today as naval mines. They were tethered to the bottom or shore, and meant to inhibit naval traffic. While mine warfare is still a very important part of naval offense and defense today, the word torpedo has come to mean an underwater projectile or missile,  self-propelled with propellers or jets, and aimed at a particular target. Torpedoes can be fired along a pre-determined course or guided in some way. This guidance today can be on-board or remote, in the latter case usually wire-guided much like an antitank missile.

The inventor of the torpedo as we know it was Robert Whitehead, a Lancashire engineer who had long worked on the Continent. He was working in Trieste, then an Austro-Hungarian seaport, when he was essentially head-hunted by another firm, and moved down the coast to Fonderia Metalli de Fiume, in a port city which has had many names and flown many flags over the centuries since Roman historians noted that a tribe of rude Celts lived on the hills and a “more civilized” tribe of mariners lived in the seaport. The Romans called it Tarsatica.  By 1856, when Whitehead and his family arrived, the city was known as Fiume in Italian (which many of the inhabitants spoke, regardless of their loyalty to the Dual Monarchy), Fiume in Hungarian (technically, it was part of the Hungary half of the Empire), Sankt Veit am Pflaum in German (the lingua franca of central Europe in those days) and Rijeka to the local Croats, who had to learn one of the other languages — or better yet, all of them — to advance in society and commerce. As an empire, Austria-Hungary was a very different concept from the nations of today; one’s ethnicity was not implicated in his political allegiance to the extent it is in the post-Fourteen Points world.

Fiume was also the location of the Austro-Hungarian Naval Academy, which like any major power’s academy not only trained future naval officers but sponsored research. This included pioneering research in photography, communications, physics, and, more to our point, remote-controlled weapons. Whitehead’s company, now yclept Stabilimento Tecnico Fiumano (Technical Establishment of Fiume), at first made high-tech machinery of the era, such as steam engines for naval ships. They were tied in tightly to the Naval Academy and the local academic community; for example, technicians at what would become the Whitehead torpedo plant provided the first experimental proof of Mach’s concept of the influence of the speed of sound on aerodynamics.

A different kind of "Coast Guard," this primitive weapon inspired the naval torpedo we know today.

A different kind of “Coast Guard,” this primitive weapon inspired the naval torpedo we know today.

By happy coincidence an officer (Commander — Fregattenkapitän — Giovanni Luppis) was struggling with a remote-controlled surface boat IED he’d invented, which he called the Coast Guard. His surface torpedo — for that is what it was — had a spring-and-clockwork mechanism and steering bridles for control from the shore, and a contact fuze for detonating if someone was lucky enough to guide it onto an enemy ship. Here was a problematic gadget, but the germ of a very good idea, and Whitehead and a talented team including his son John and his right-hand man, Anibale Plöch. Unlike many Victorian Age inventors, Whitehead seldom sought patents, preferring to maintain his technical advantages as trade secrets.

And technical advantages he had.

Whitehead's (and the world's) first torpedo, 1866.

Whitehead’s (and the world’s) first torpedo, 1866.


To make his torpedo work, Whitehead and his team had to solve several problems: propulsion, stability&control, and effect. The last of these was the easiest: a cylindrical bronze torpedo could carry sufficient explosive to sink any modern dreadnought, and, moreover, deliver it below the water line where the ship was most vulnerable. The Empire was well-stocked with talented artillerists and engineers, and neither fuzes nor explosives required research, simply development. That part was basic engineering, not science.

The true developments were propulsive and control based. Whitehead used steam for the first torpedo, and then changed to a compressed-air-powered piston engine, for more power and quicker preparation to fire. The compressed-air engines were made in a variety of designs and layouts.

Of course, the engine is only half of a naval powerplant — the other half is the propeller.  These three recovered torpedo tails tell the story of improved propellers (they also show the growing awareness of fluid dynamics. The first torpedo was sharply spiked fore and aft — by the end of the 19th century, a blunter shape with a round nose was proven to generate less hydrodynamic drag).

1868 torpedo shows pointed end and single-screw with a duct ring.

1868 torpedo shows pointed end and single-screw with a duct ring.

1884 torpedo is a little thicker and has introduced dual counterrotating props to neutralize torque.

1884 torpedo is a little thicker and has introduced dual counterrotating props to neutralize torque. The ring was found to inhibit propeller efficiency.

1898 torpedo has a more organic shape and well-uptimized counterrotating screws.

1898 torpedo has a more organic shape and well-optimized counterrotating screws.

Devices pioneered here for control were a mechanical depth control and a variety of steering gyroscopes. John Whitehead tried to develop a torpedo gyroscope but his model was a dead end. Instead, they purchased a design from former Whitehead engineer Lodovico Obry. Much of this history is recounted on the Torpedo of Rijeka website.

The Obry gyroscope

The Obry gyroscope

In the years leading up to the Great War, Whitehead’s company, Torpedofabrik Whitehead AG, was controlled by a British syndicate of the arms and engineering giants Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth, who’d acquired it on his death in 1905 and continued torpedo development.

After the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire at war’s end, the factory was acquired by an influential Italian family, and its name was changed to an Italian one, but cutting-edge torpedo development for all nations resumed. The testing station on the docks had a new level built with a catapult to simulate aerial torpedo launches.

The torpedo launch test station offered a ship-launch level, and air-launch level with catapult, and an observation level.

The torpedo launch test station offered a ship-launch level, and air-launch level with catapult, and an observation level.

The plant resumed torpedo production again after being bombed by the Allies in World War II, but ceased that production in the 1960s. The physical plant and its distinctive torpedo test tower (alas, not the original from 1866 but the upgrade from the 20th Century) still exist. The enthusiasts of the Torpedo of Rijeka website hope to establish a permanent museum to their city’s most enduring export. Rijeka today is a sun-blessed city on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, and a reasonable European vacation destination.

Whitehead had a most remarkable life. His daughter Alice married the skipper of the Austrian boat that tested and validated his prototype torpedoes; his granddaughter Agnes inherited his vast fortune, and she in turn married an Austro-Hungarian minor nobleman and naval officer that she met at a sub commissioning. The officer would later command that sub and another on his way to becoming the Empire’s top-scoring submarine ace, in which career he naturally used Whitehead torpedoes to sink English and Italian vessels (including an Italian submarine, Nereida, in possibly the first sub-on-sub torpedo battle in history).

You might have heard of the guy, who later emigrated to the United States with their kids after Agnes passed away. His name was Georg, Baron von Trapp.

Ave Atque Vale, A-10 Warthog (Video Rich)

Let us set up this video. It’s a one minute clip from an IMAX film, Fighter Pilot, and the whole movie actually tells more of the story of the F-15s than the A-10s they’re escorting, but the clip focuses on one A-10 gun run. This is a trip to the range for live fire, and the sequence of events is this:

  1. You see F-15s (these might be Strike Eagles) breaking left and right (a two-ship each way).
  2. A two-ship element of A-10s fires flares, fires a GAU-8 burst, and breaks left.
  3. Either another element, or the same one shown again? Both A-10 elements are shown first from behind and overhead, then from beside, obviously filmed from another aircraft.
  4. Then you see the ground point of view. You see F-15s approaching on the deck, and a tank (an old M60A1 deployed as a range target) on the left. If you look closely (and have the video  on full screen) you can see the Warthogs below and behind the fighters.
  5. Some A-10 pilots clearly have more luck, or skill, than others. You can wound personnel in the open with 30mm near-misses, but nothing but hits will kill a tank. You’ll see plenty of hits, though, and the target’s-eye view was worth the risk of an unattended (obviously) camera.

You can dismiss the dopey explanations that come on screen; the poster added them because, well, most YouTube commenters are living proof that half of humanity is below average.

You can’t have just one gun run, although that’s the most beautifully photographed one you’re going to get. Courtesy of the Air Force, here’s two more videos of A-10s in range fire action just last year at the Nevada Test and Training Range.

In the second video, the camera’s further from the action (as you can tell by the elapsed time between the gunsmoke at the Warthog’s nose and the sound of hog-snort). Note that most of the rounds in both videos are near-misses, but there are some spectacular hits. The targets here are old 8″ M107 SP Howitzers.

This airplane is to be scrapped — not because they have anything to replace it, they’re replacing it with empty hangars and unemployed pilots and mechanics. They’re scrapping it because the money is needed for corporate welfare for big contributors, and handouts for the idle.

But we’re not cynical.

To return to the technical stuff that brings us together, can you watch that and not wonder how in hell they reload and maintain that thing? After all, they built the entire plane around it (The A-10 and its unsuccessful A-9 competitor were the first planes built around a gun since the P-39 of the late 1930s, which was built around the M1 37mm cannon made by, of all firms, Oldsmobile).

Unlike World War II, where armorers came out on trucks and handed cans of belted .50 ammo over to bomber gunners or loaded them in the wings or nose of fighters, the GAU-8’s 30mm rounds take some machinery to load up. (Actually, the gun can be loaded by hand, but it’s an ordeal to do it). Normally, the rounds are contained in plastic cylindrical loaders, which the loading machine shucks them out of like husking corn, before stuffing them in the A-10. (In real combat, other ordies would be hanging bombs and/or missiles on the plane’s hard points, but in training they usually separate training for bombing and gunnery).

And if you haven’t had enough, here’s more behind the scenes A-10 reloading (about ten minutes of loading and interviews with ordnance airmen):

And finally, here’s a couple of GAU-8 ground test fires, probably at General Electric’s facilities in Vermont.


Sure, we could talk about the specs of the GAU-8, like its incredible muzzle velocity, uncanny reliability, or four-figure rate of fire, but you know, you can look all that stuff up. We thought we’d just start your day off right with a few videos of eager young aviators delivering the tank-busting Power of Holy Smite from on high, and eager young ground-crew airmen stuffing that power back in the magazine so the whole thing can be done again.

These may be the last months of the service life of these incredible airplanes, and the guns they’re built around. They’re soon to go the way of the Republic Aircraft Thunderbolt (which they’re actually named after, in an official name that’s scarcely used), Republic Thunderchief, and a hundred other combat types. This will be the last plane that carries the lineage of Alexander P. DeSeversky, a White Russian who became an American aviation pioneer, and Sherman Fairchild, who started building airplanes to support an aerial photography business. (Yes, the same Fairchild company that later invested in Armalite in AR-10 prototype days).

Saburo Sakai’s Wounds, and Lew Jones

Painting: August 7, 1942, Sakai attacks VB-6.

Painting: August 7, 1942, Saburo Sakai attacks VB-6.

Recently we had some discussion in the comments, after we posted words to the effect of, “would you want to face Saburo Sakai with these?” and an illustration of a pair of ANM2 .30 Browning machine guns. Several commenters noted that somebody did, in an SBD Dauntless rather than the SB2C Helldiver whose tail-gun installation was shown.

In fact, on August 7, 1942, then-PO1 Sakai and another A6M2 Zero pilot swept in behind a formation of eight Grumman Wildcats. It was only on closing in that they discovered that they were hitting, not fighters with forward-firing armaments only, but the Douglas Dauntlesses of Bombing Squadron Six from USS Enterprise. At 300 yards (well within the range of the SBD’s twin .30 guns) Sakai realized his mistake. To turn now was to expose a larger aspect of his aircraft to American gunfire — the best bad option available to him was to brazen it out, and he selected a Dauntless and let rip, sailing into the formation guns-first. He approached from below his enemies’ tails, limiting their ability to return fire without maneuvering.

Contemporary view of an SBD formation from a gunner's cockpit.

Contemporary view of an SBD formation from a gunner’s cockpit.

(Let us digress for a moment to explain why Sakai, one of Japan’s greatest aces, was only a First Class Petty Officer at this time. Most Japanese pilots, like at least some of the pilots of many other nations, were enlisted men and NCOs or Petty Officers; unlike say, the British, where a sergeant-pilot often progressed to a commission, the Japanese strictly limited such pilots’ access to officer rank. Furthermore, the Japanese aeronautical culture celebrated teamwork and shunned the exaltation of “aces” or any kind of individual heroes).

Sakai’s wingman vanished and he alone bore the wrath of sixteen Brownings at a range that shrank to 100 feet. The gunner he was firing at was Harold Lewellyn “Lew” Jones, in Lieutenant Carl H. Horenburger’s Dauntless. Jones recounts the attack:

As the Zero coming directly in from astern was about 500 feet away, he started shooting, Some of our gunners answered with their twin .30 caliber machine guns. Some gunners, including myself, could not bring our guns to bear on him without damaging our tails, but as the Zero turned to the right and pulled up to miss us, every gunner was shooting at him…he could have been only 100 feet away!

His cockpit exploded, the canopy tore, and something flew out. I could see his face clearly, his body and head forced back against the headrest of the cockpit. The plane went almost vertically upwards and then fell smoking. That was the last I saw of him.

That was the last he saw of him, for now. Jones’s pilot Horenburger and Sakai both had similar aeronautical problems at this point: getting back “home,” respectively the Enterprise and the airfield in New Guinea the Allies knew as Rabaul East and the Japanese as Lakunai.

Horenburger ultimately trapped on Enterprise with a badly riddled airplane; medics ran up to the gunner’s compartment with a stretcher, expecting to remove the corpse of Jones. But despite the fresh ventilation of the SBD’s airframe, Jones was fine: a well-positioned armor plate  saved his skin.

Sakai (in scarf and flying gear) walking to debriefing despite head wounds.

Sakai (in scarf and flying gear) walking to debriefing despite head wounds. August 7, 1942.

Sakai, on the other hand, was not quite so lucky. The Zero had no protective armor. Wounded in the head, he was half-blind and partially paralyzed, and still over four hours’ cruise from New Guinea. Despite the wounds, blood loss, and pain, he brought his A6M2 home where ground personnel counted 232 (!) bullet holes. He deferred medical treatment and stalked to the debriefing hut, where he did his duty to his unit and fellow airmen before surrendering himself to the dispensary.

Both Sakai and Jones continued to fly, Sakai to the war’s end, and Jones for years afterward. Sakai became an exponent of peace and goodwill, and his daughter attended school in the USA and married an American. But the old warrior still would step up to defend the honor of his fellow naval men. Jones, two other VB-6 survivors, and Sakai met in California in 1982, 40 years after their aerial battle. The incomparable historian of the Pacific Air War, Henry Sakaida, arrenged the meeting.

Sakai's helmet with bloodstains and .30 caliber holes, Nimitz Museum.

Sakai’s helmet and goggles with bloodstains, dents, and .30 caliber holes, Nimitz Museum.

Lew Jones passed away in 2009 at age 88, after a long and eventful life. His enemy turned friend, Saburo Sakai, the highest-scoring surviving ace of the Pacific war, predeceased him in 2000 at age 84. On Sakai’s death, his bloody helmet and shattered goggles from the August 7, 1942 fight, which had been given to Lew Jones, were presented to the Nimitz Museum, where they are on display with other Sakai artifacts.

This report depends extensively on Sakaida’s writing at, especially his recounting of the August 7 fight. We also recommend any and all of Sakaida’s books absolutely without reservation.  Here’s another appreciation of the great Sakai, with scans from one of Sakaida’s books, including photos of the 1982 reunion mentioned above!

Guns of Sun n Fun

Sun n Fun is an airshow in Florida every spring; it’s the second biggest airshow in the US (the king of them all is Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin at the end of July and beginning of August). So your humble host befinds himself there on business, but can’t stop looking at the guns.

For instance, there’s this .50 gun, badly corroded, that was excavated from a buried wreck of a wartime B-17. It appears to have been a waist gun. (These pictures do embiggen, but on this one the original’s kind of fuzzy. Up close, the gun is severely corroded and pitted).


Then, there’s this fixed gun, barely visible in the wing root of a Douglas AD-5 Skyraider (after 1962 known as the A-1E), a plane that was designed for World War II, delivered too late, and went on to be a workhorse of the Korean and Vietnam wars. The gun is the M2 20mm cannon, a rather unreliable copy of the Hispano-Suiza Hs.404 that was the standard US 20mm in the 2nd World War.



(Note: those lounging dudes are not foreshortened. The Skyraider is really that big).

The gun in this wing root is, like most guns on warbirds, permanently demilled to ATF standards. It’s also missing some pieces, like the feed tray cover. It was really a pretty dreadful 20mm, especially compared to its German opposite numbers but even to the British and French versions of the Hispano-Suiza, but it was the only one we had. (Most WWII fighters made do with the less powerful but vastly more reliable Browning .50s).

Here’s the less-remembered Browning, the aerial .30, in a twin flexible mount (resembling an improved Scarff ring) on the world’s only flying Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The Helldiver had many problems, one of which was inadequate defensive armament (would you want to face Saburo Sakai from behind these guns?). But the plane it replaced, the Douglas SBD Dauntless, usually had one .30-cal defensive gun.

(This picture is not loading for reasons known only to the Gods of WordPress. We’ll fix it later).

Here’s another angle. Ammunition was normally a mixed belt of API and API Tracer.


The rear cockpit of the Helldiver contains this amusing placard:


Yeah. In the middle of the war, some bureaucrat in the forerunner of the FAA wanted a placard sniffing that the plane did not meet certification standards, just in case someone might try to set up an airline off the deck of a carrier Somewhere In The South Pacific. That’s truly worth a Lord Love a Duck™.