Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

Broke Navy Seeks Foreign Ships for Marines

first_navy_jackHandicapped by a shortage of “gators” or amphibious ships, the Navy is considering taking shipless Marine infantry and Ospreys, and hiring allied ships to carry them. Where the ships could come from is an open question, as it’s unlikely any reliable ally has enough idle gators to close what the Navy identifies as an 8-ship gap for projecting power in the North Africa region alone. Handling maritime crises in two regions of the world simultaneously would be hopeless with the current force structure, but we’d have to try.

The problem is tied up with numbers and budgets. Today’s much smaller Navy has similar responsibilities to its Cold War era self, which had twice as many warships. Moreover, many of the ships the Navy is buying now are so-called Littoral Combat Ships, which depend on stealth for survival, as they have nearly nonexistent offensive and defensive armament. These ships are useless in any kind of power projection that goes beyond simply showing the flag; they have the combat power of Yangtze River gunboats.

The Navy is weighing whether to have Marines hitch a ride on foreign warships, citing a shortage of U.S. vessels due to recent budget cuts — raising bipartisan security concerns about the leverage this could give other countries.

A key concern is whether a warship host nation could deny Marines permission to come ashore.

“Ceding our amphibious ships to other countries — it’s almost silly and I can’t believe it is even an option for the Navy,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served as a Marine in Iraq. “Now we are going to have to ask other countries, much less financially stable countries than America, to loan us their ships so that we can base our Marines on their ships. It’s almost embarrassing.”

Along with Hunter, Fox also got disbelieving quotes from former Senator (D-VA) and SecNav Jim Webb, suggesting the apoplexy of this latest bleat of surrender from a Navy slowly disestablishing itself may be bipartisan.  You ought to Read The Whole Thing™.

Who knows, spending some time in foreign hulls getting irritated by the sailors of their navies might cause the Marines to reevaluate their famous disdain for the sailors of ours. 

Friendly Fire Pearl Harbor

An F4F Wildcat doesn’t really look like an A6M2 Zeke. The first has a “fastback” turtledeck behind the cockpit, mid-wing and high tail, squared-off tips of wing and tail, and a barrel fuselage; the second, a “bubble” canopy artfully constructed of flat plexiglass, a low-mounted wing and tail, gracefully rounded surface tips, and a tapered fuselage.

That is, unless you’re an antiaircraft gunner. And there, the troubles of VF-6 from USS Enterprise began, on the evening of 7 Dec 41.

While the Navy had suffered the most casualties of any service that day, and the smoke still rose from the instant gravesite of nearly 2,000 souls that was USS Arizona, Naval Aviation had made it through the day without losing a single  fighter pilot. (A lot of planes had been destroyed where they sat; the pilots, like most of their Army Air Corps opposite numbers, hadn’t gotten into the air to oppose the raid. But the pilots lived).

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

That luck was about to change, even as the Japanese raiders, hundreds of miles away, steamed for home at high speed. A flight of six from Fighting Six on Enterprise, which was returning to Hawaiian waters from a sortie to Wake Island, had flown off and were expected at Ford Island Naval Air Station. Ray Panko of the Pacific Air Museum at Ford Island writes:

With LT(jg) Francis F. “Fritz” Hebel in the lead, the flight approached a blacked-out Oahu, the only light coming from fires of the morning attack. Wingman ENS Herbert H. Menges flew alongside Hebel. Following were ENS Gayle L. Hermann and ENS David R. Flynn and a final pair consisting of ENS James G. Daniels III and LT(jg) Eric Allen, Jr.

On Ford Island, Enterprise CAG LCDR Howard L. “Brigham” Young had flown in on an SBD scout bomber earlier in the day, into the middle of the attack. He was able to land on Ford Island’s runway and sprint to the control tower. There, he tried to contact Enterprise, but the tower’s weak radio signal could not reach the carrier. Young climbed back into his SBD’s back seat to use the aircraft’s radio, communicating with Enterprise to apprise Admiral Halsey of the situation. That evening, Enterprise notified Ford Island six aircraft from VF-6 would be landing. Young and other personnel sent out the word to hold fire, and then Young waited in the control tower for the Wildcats.

Around 2100 hours, the flight finally arrived. They had flown nearly to the east end of Oahu’s southern shore before determining where they were. They turned around and approached Ford Island from the south, passing over Hickam Field. Hebel radioed that they would make a circuit around the island, landing from the north. Young in the control tower told them to come straight in, but Hebel either could not hear Young or decided to ignore him. Hebel repeated he was making a pass, and Young, once again, tried to get him to fly straight in.

Lieutenant Commander Young, having been on the ground through much of the raid and all of the aftermath so far, must have been totally in tune with the jumpy, angry spirit of the defenders.

As the flight passed by Ford Island, a few scattered shots were fired and then the floodgates opened. Although the word had gone out that the Wildcats were coming, every gun on the island seemed to open up. The museum’s own Dick Girocco, who was in Hangar 56, said the “sky was lit up like daytime” and the sound was deafening.

This is reminiscent of the fate of the paratroop transports that passed over the invasion fleet at Sicily, except that the transports were even easier to hit than a formation of fighters. These and other friendly fire incidents are why all Allied aircraft were painted with gaudy stripes for D-Day — and why the troop carriers flew around the Cotentin Peninsula and inland, in order to drop their paratroops without ever overflying the Normandy invasion fleet. The lesson was taken on board by Allied planners, but only after it had been written in blood.

Everyone in the flight realized they were in trouble. Flight leader Hebel was able to break away from the carnage and make for Wheeler Field, but when he arrived, he was greeted with another barrage. His aircraft crashed; Hebel died of head injuries the next morning.

Hebel’s wingman Menges crashed into the Palms Hotel near the Pearl City Tavern. No one in the hotel was injured, but Menges died instantly in the crash. He became the first Navy fighter pilot to die in the war.

Hermann was hit 18 times as he tried to escape. His flight came to an abrupt end when a 5-inch naval shell hit his engine. The shell failed to explode, but it knocked the engine out of the plane. The Wildcat fluttered down tail-first to crash on the Ford Island golf course….

Flying next to Hermann was Flynn, who was able to break away from Ford Island’s crossfire. He headed toward Barbers Point, but had to bail out, landing in a cane field. Army security personnel tried to shoot him, imagining he was a Japanese paratrooper. Flynn’s cursing convinced them otherwise.

Allen was hit immediately. He bailed out, but was hit by a .50-caliber shell on the way down, his parachute only partially opened. Allen swam through oily water to minesweeper Vireo (AM-52), but died of severe wounds the next day.

The last pilot, Ensign James G. Daniels III, survived by turning off his lights, diving to the deck, and essentially sneaking up on Ford Island. To hear about his narrow escape and subsequent career in the Navy, do go Read The Whole Thing™.

Hermann, by a miracle, survived despite being trapped in his falling-leaf Wildcat all the way to the ground. Even though only one pilot (Menges) was killed outright, five of the six were shot down, and Hermann, Flynn and Daniels were the only members of the six-man flight to be alive 24 hours later.

After surviving all that, Hermann was killed in a flying accident a few days later.

Daniels went on to an extremely distinguished career and reached high command in the Navy.

Bye-Bye, Big Gun (USS Miami, SSN 755)

They called the boat Big Gun because it always seemed to be the one on station when a President wanted some enemy’s palace forecourt festooned with cruise missiles (usually, then, to distract from his domestic problems). Built at the crest of the Reagan rearmament that broke the financial back of the Evil Empire, USS Miami sailed into oblivion, heroically, in one of Tom Clancy’s novels1, but its actual end was without heroism, drama, or elegy. Crippled by an arson fire, its rebuilding too expensive for a Defense Department intent on unilateral disarmament, the hulk that had been Miami was towed off a few days ago by Navy tugs, to be cut up for scrap.


The Portsmouth Herald:


… The Navy said farewell to the Miami during a ceremony in March 2014.

Shipyard workers have been busy in the months since then, draining hydraulic fluids and oil and removing spare parts and furnishings, Eddy said. Electrical systems were de-energized, and the submarine’s main battery was removed. Temporary ventilation, lighting, power and compressed air services were installed.

The plan for the nuclear fuel was to ship it to a federal repository in Idaho, officials said.

It’s a process that the Navy has conducted on more than 350 nuclear-powered vessels. Navy ships Apache and Navajo will assist in the process of towing the sub to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state for dismantling.

SSN-755 was the third and, to date, last ship to bear the name, USS Miami. Her predecessors were wartime, hostilities-only vessels: a Civil War river gunboat with side-mounted paddle wheels, and a World War II light cruiser. A Los Angeles-class (aka 688 class), Flight III (aka 688i or “improved 688”) boat, Miami’s designers built her for speed more than stealth or depth, and she was one of the fastest subs in the West at her commissioning (some Soviet subs had a speed edge at the time).

The boat’s motto was: No Free Rides… Everyone Rows.

While in port in Portsmouth Navy Yard in 2012 for a mid-life overhaul, Miami was mortally damaged by an incident illustrative of a Navy in decline, under pressure from fundamentally unserious leaders. A mentally ill and narcissistic painter, employed on the sensitive base because a government job is an entitlement and no one may take “disability” into account, didn’t feel like working, and wanted to go home early.

So he started a fire.

By the time firefighters from the base and the nearby cities of Kittery, Maine and Portsmouth, New Hampshire had knocked the fire down, seven of them were injured, a couple of them seriously; and a round half a billion dollars’ worth of damage had been done to the ship, with compartments burned out from control room to forward torpedo room (no arms were aboard), and hull plates annealed by high temperatures. And the more they looked at the damage, the higher the price tag rose. The Herald, again:

The May 2012 fire, which occurred while the submarine was undergoing an overhaul at the shipyard, turned into an inferno that took more than 100 firefighters half a day to douse. Seven firefighters were hurt.

A former shipyard worker pleaded guilty to setting the fire and is serving a 17-year prison sentence. Prosecutors said the worker suffered from anxiety and set the fire because he wanted to leave work early.

The Navy originally intended to return the Los Angeles-class attack submarine to the fleet after extensive repairs. But it decided to scrap the submarine when estimated repair costs grew to upward of $700 million.

To a Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, who is happily supervising a Navy passing through the 200-ship level on its way down (with many of the “warships” to be all-but-unarmed Littoral Combat Vessels), it didn’t seem like a good idea to spend a third of the cost of a new Virginia-class boat on restoring a 25-year-old sub. In mid-2013, the Navy officially announced that Miami would be put down.

Last week the gutted hulk of Miami started her last voyage — on the surface, dragged by tugs. Everything plausibly recyclable from inside the boat has been removed, and in the end, even her plates will be recycled. Even her name may be recycled, as half the fourth and all fifth flight of Virginias have yet to be named, although given the current SecNav’s propensity for naming ships for politicians and popular culture figures, USS Miami will probably be beaten out by USS Monica Lewinsky. 

After some years, nothing will remain but some lines in an old Tom Clancy book, and the memories of her aging officers and men. “Old Admirals, who feel the wind… and never put to sea.”


  1. As well as being sacrificed in Hunt for Red October (if our memory is right, it might have been Red Storm Rising), SSN-755 USS Miami was also one of the two subs toured in Clancy’s non-fiction Submarine. (The other was HMS Triumph). The non-fiction book was primarily researched and written by John D. Gresham, although it’s credited only to Clancy.

“That’s All, Brother”: D-Day Legend to Fly Again

After the war, C-47s weren’t celebrated, historical artifacts. They were DC-3s, the world’s workhouse air transport: as legendary as a tractor, as fabled as a boxcar. (Tens of thousands of the plans were built and used by every major combatant in the war — Russia built a licensed version as the Lisunov Li-2, Germany used captured ones, and the Japanese, too, built them under a prewar license). They flew air cargo and passengers until post-9/11 crew door regulations made them uneconomical to update. And pilots often wondered what tales a particular old Douglas could tell, had it the human gifts of memory and speech.

What moments were lived right here in this cockpit?

What moments were lived right here in this cockpit?

What moments were lived right here in this cockpit!

The “Customer’s Serial Number” proved the plane’s identity.


But the humans who do have those gifts tracked down the lead D-Day C-47 shortly before it was to be extensively modified by Basler Turbo Conversions of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Informed of the plane’s history, Basler happily cut a deal with the Commemorative Air Force, an organization that promotes the flying displays of World War II aircraft. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has the story:

Late on the night of June 5, 1944, a Douglas C-47 Skytrain commanded by Lt. Col. John M. Donalson launched with 15 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division on board. They were the very tip of the Allied invasion spear, leading a formation of hundreds of aircraft carrying thousands of troops. Just after midnight on June 6, That’s All, Brother navigated through intense German fire and low clouds to drop the first Allied troops to land in Normandy, France, on D-Day, commencing Operation Overlord.


Seven decades later, Staff Sgt. Matt Scales of the Alabama Air National Guard was researching Donalson’s story when he discovered the aircraft—serial number 42-92847—was in a boneyard, slated to be cut up and converted into a modern turboprop. Basler Turbo Conversions LLC of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, alerted to the historic significance of the aircraft, put the brakes on that conversion, and ultimately struck a deal with the Commemorative Air Force, which plans to purchase and restore That’s All, Brother to airworthy condition, in detail just as it was on the day it led the Allied invasion.


Basler is full of great people, from late founder Warren Basler on down. So to see them sacrifice like this — and it’s definitely a sacrifice to give up a complete and near-airworthy airframe as a conversion host — comes as no surprise.

“This is a modern miracle,” CAF President and CEO Stephan C. Brown said of the discovery, in a news release. “The aircraft was within weeks of being torn apart.”

The C-47 chosen to lead the invasion was named by Donalson as a message to Adolf Hitler, though its D-Day paint scheme would be covered by subsequent owners—16 of them in all. It is presently painted as a Vietnam-era gunship, though it never flew such a mission. The CAF plans to meticulously restore the invasion stripes and other features in place when Donalson and his crew led the largest airborne assault in history. That’s All, Brother would return to Normandy on June 6 with a glider in tow, and also participated in Operation Market Garden, the relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and the crossing of the Rhine River.

You do want to Read The Whole Thing™. Here are a few more photos of the plane now.

Thats All Brother overhead


It’s in a flaky (literally, not figuratively) Vietnam AC-47 Spooky paint scheme.


The planes that actually became AC-47 gunships were mostly low-time, little-used airframes that went straight from factory into storage.


Not WALL-E’s cousin. Nope: Throttles, mixtures, prop controls jonesing for a human hand.


Control surfaces stored inside the cargo- and skydive- configured fuselage.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes the CAF to get Brother up and running again. But they’re not going to do it alone. They want help! And so, there’s an excellent Kickstarter running with more information and videos, including a period three-plus minute video of That’s All… Brother being loaded and taxiing out with its load of paratroopers. So far, only one (Chaplain Raymond S. Hall) has been identified.


We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that this was a tip from commenter Gray Mann.

Also, here’s another CAF publication with more (.pdf) of That’s All… Brother’s combat history.

The Plane Crashed. And Then the Troubles Began.

As any mishap investigator can tell you, a major accident, like a plane crash, is the exclamation point at the end of a long sentence whose verb(s) is or are one or more errors. Usually the errors are by pilots, but in the pre-delivery test flight crash of an Airbus A400M Atlas in Seville last month has exposed an error chain in the company. The pilots, among four crewmen who perished in the wreckage (two others survived), were blameless.

File photo of A400M from Wikipedia.

File photo of A400M from Wikipedia. You can see where those props idling might be a drag problem.

Airbus Defense is years behind with the A400 Atlas, their first product; the head of the company was fired some time ago and replaced by the former head of flight test, who was given the order to get the planes in the air and delivered. It is a complex and ambitious plane, which is intended to fit into the sweet spot between the capabilities of the ubiquitous C-130 Hercules, a design that’s now 60 years from its first flight, and the C-17, which is priced out of most of the European market.

Airbus A400M Compared to the two US competitors. Wall Street Journal graphic.

Airbus A400M Compared to the two US competitors. Wall Street Journal graphic.

As it stands, the delivery has been so dragged out, and the cost of the machine has soared so high, that launch customers Germany and Spain are not going to have the force structure left to operate their intended A400M fleets.

Who pledged to buy A400Ms. ?? graphic.

Who pledged to buy A400Ms. ?? graphic.

The course of the error is troubling. At some time, someone decided that software tests could be skipped. Instead of being dry-run in a simulator, which would have taken time with the delivery-ready planes for the Turkish contract idled, they took a new build of engine managament software and installed it directly on the airplane. We guess they were going to certify it based on the test flight — if it hadn’t brought destruction to the plane and crew. In Flight Global’s words:

Airbus Defence & Space on 2 June communicated the findings of the Spanish defence ministry’s CITAAM organisation to operators of the A400M. This followed the completion of preliminary analysis of the aircraft’s digital flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

“CITAAM confirmed that engines 1, 2 and 3 experienced power frozen after lift-off and did not respond to the crew’s attempts to control the power setting in the normal way, whilst engine 4 responded to throttle demands,” Airbus says.

With the three affected engines still operating at take-off settings, the Airbus test pilots aboard aircraft MSN23 opted to move their power levers to the “flight idle” position to reduce power. “The power reduced, but then remained at flight idle for the reminder of the flight, despite attempts by the crew to regain power,” the company says.

This is a pretty horrifying thing to imagine. At the normal climbout point where T/O power is reduced to climb power, for three of the plane’s four engines, nothing happened. The pilots were not in control of the plane. Their next step was logical — try bringing the engines to flight idle. This was successful — but a one-way move. With three of its engines swinging the planes’ huge scimitar propellers, the strong jet couldn’t hold altitude — a meeting with Mother Earth was inevitable, and when the power wouldn’t come back up, the pilots’ options for where, when and how were extremely limited.

Even then, the test pilots thought they had a chance. They spotted an open field but according to witnesses, they flew into, presumably unseen, power lines trying to put the plane on the ground.

Pilots of the A400 have a single power lever for their powerplants. Like all modern planes, but unlike legacy planes like the Transall and pre-J-model C-139s they don’t have the backup of a flight engineer, either.

This is significant in part because of Airbus’s design philosophy, which is that the pilots should not be able to override the computer. (Boeing takes the opposite approach, and the flight crew can generally override computers in Boeing aircraft). The data behind the Airbus computer-primacy are the decades and decades of accidents caused by human error. By giving more of the configuration-management and control decisions up to the machines, this rich source of human error is excluded. Defense News:

“Several protocols were ignored,” [the Madrid website El Confidencial] said citing unnamed aeronautical sector sources.

The computer system that controls the plane’s engines, the Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC), “should have been tested before, in a simulator, to check if everything worked,” it added.

The sources claimed the protocols were skipped because Airbus was in a hurry to make up for delays in the development and delivery of the A400M military cargo and troop transport plane which is assembled in Seville.

The A400M plane that crashed in a field and burst into flames just north of Seville’s airport on May 9 was undergoing a test flight, before it was due to be delivered to Turkey in July.

Two of the six people on board the plane, a mechanic and an engineer, survived the crash and were sent to hospital in critical condition.

A senior Airbus executive said Thursday that analysis of the flight recorders of the A400M indicated there were no structural faults but assembly quality problems.

The units which control the engines of the plane were poorly installed during final assembly, which could have led to the engines malfunctioning, Airbus group’s chief of strategy Marwan Lahoud told the German daily Handelsblatt.

But Airbus aircraft haven’t established a superior record. Instead, they’ve had different kinds of accidents, with several spectacular mishaps resulting from the automation’s interaction, especially with ill-trained crews on some Asian airlines. 

Most of the nations who have the previous examples of the A400M Atlas have grounded their fleets pending the outcome of this investigation.

The Seville plant is the same one that produced numerous small CASA 212 military transports, made a series of midrange passenger and cargo planes under the CASA and Airbus names, and now completes all of Airbus Industrie’s military aircraft. The A400M is still an airplane that many militaries desire (Sweden is considering them to replace its C-130 fleet of old 1960s-vintage H models). Working with a clean sheet of paper, Airbus engineers packed the cargo hauler full of innovations. For example, it’s designed to handle its own cargo inasmuch as possible, requiring minimal ground equipment:

Airbus A400M autonomous


But no innovation alone can save a company. (Actually, nothing much can happen to Airbus, which is a project of European governments, except that its reputation can take hits). In fact, innovation can delay time to market. It is a truism in aviation that certification (official approval) for any aircraft takes longer and costs more than all but the wealthiest and most cynical investors expect. But the wreckage in Seville is an illustration of the price of cut corners.

Burnt-out cockpit of the A400M. Image: Bomberos del Ayuntamiento de Sevilla.

Burnt-out cockpit of the A400M. Image: Bomberos del Ayuntamiento de Sevilla.

Crash site from overhead. Spanish firefighters official.

Crash site from overhead. Spanish firefighters official.

Can You Screw Up the Navy By Promoting a Great Admiral?

AOV-sub sceneJohn Lehman, Reagan-era SecNav of 600-ship-Navy fame, answers the question in the title in the affirmative. The great admiral in question is Adm. John Richardson, who just began a term as the Navy’s nuclear czar. The President has interrupted that 8-year term by naming him Chief of Naval Operations. It’s the top job, but his old job is as, if not more, important.

Stability and independence in that position has produced, in Lehman’s opinion, an effective nuclear program with an outstanding safety record (64 years, 300-something ships, zero nuclear accidents). Ask other nuc operators how easy that is.

This is more important than ever, in the hundred-something-ship Obama navy that struggles to maintain ships and project American power.

Unfunded overruns in other Pentagon programs total more than $400 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. But the Navy’s nuclear submarine programs have been consistently on budget and on time. They have been protected from the 970,000 Pentagon bureaucrats whose paralyzing bloat has made a hash of most Army, Navy and Air Force weapon programs. The reason for Navy nuclear success is because there has always been one strong experienced person in charge and accountable, standing like a stone wall against the bureaucratic onslaught.

But by far the most important benefit from this unique arrangement is the fact that there hasn’t been a single nuclear accident in the seven decades that the U.S. Navy has operated hundreds of nuclear submarines, carriers and surface combatants.

via Obama Torpedoes the Nuclear Navy – WSJ.

Lehman continues:

[I]f the job is seen as a steppingstone, a fraying of the zero-defects culture may begin and the possibility of a nuclear accident within the U.S. Navy may increase. The consequences of a nuclear incident would be devastating and would threaten the Navy’s ability to continue to operate its current reactor designs.

…The Navy has 10 other superbly talented four-star admirals and many more vice-admirals of similar experience to choose from.

Of course, Lehman is assuming that the President, Congress, and that near one million Pentagon  payroll patriots want the navy to succeed.

If you can’t open Lehman’s article at this link because of the paywall, you can find it with this Google search.

Very Rare SEAL Taxi Offered on eBay

Before we get to the shell of a historic mini-sub that made a brief appearance on eBay last week, we should take a look at the history — always noting that We Are Not Frogs and, just as importantly, We Were Not There, so all this is subject to revision by those who do have inside information — if they ever feel like talking, which they haven’t, much, to date. (Contrary to popular opinion, not every SEAL gets a book agent’s contact info engraved on the back of his shiny new Trident. Most of them clam up as well as their fellow quiet professionals in other branches).

It all started when World War II ended, and the contracting Royal Navy shared its underwater technology with its American cousins. While the US had developed excellent combat swimmer units in the Navy’s UDTs, and early SCUBA gear of several kinds in the highly compartmented OSS Maritime Unit program, the UK had a capability the US couldn’t touch: machines that could deliver a swimmer, and more to the point, a very large high-explosive charge, over considerable distances — underwater. So the US accepted the gift of “chariots” (the British improvement on the Italian Siluro a Lento Corsa [SLC]“low speed torpedo” and Siluro San Bartolomeo), and of a quantity of “X-Craft,” miniature submarines. The chariots proved to be highly limited, and not very popular; but the frogmen loved the X-Craft.

Italian Siluro a Lente Corsa. The Chariot was a reverse-engineered and Anglicized version.

Italian Siluro a Lente Corsa. The Chariot was a reverse-engineered and Anglicized version.

Until Big Haze Gray officiated at a turf battle between what was then the UDT community and what was, and still is, the  Submarine Service. The Sub Service was massive, full of admirals, had been critical to WWII victory and had a vision of an all-nuclear fleet that would put the Navy back in the strategic-warfare game. Those sub admirals also had a profound jealousy of anything else that dipped under the waves, in what they considered King Neptune’s — and their own — personal territory. The UDT community was tiny and could maybe latch on to one Captain. An agreement was hammered out — that is to say, dictated to the nascent special warfare community — that limited the UDT (and their offshoot, the SEALs) forevermore to wet subs like the Chariot. The Navy promised to support the frogmen, but the submarine service would take charge of that.

One look at the Not-Invented-Here X-Craft, and the Submarine Service sent them to scrap. They also took over a minisub the frogmen had been developing — and scrapped it, too. The choices were: wait for the Submarine Service to support you with a dry sub, which was never going to happen, or develop your own free-flooding wet sub.

So UDTs spent significant time in the 1950s trying to develop a better wet sub. (Indeed, the SEALs are still trying to develop a better wet sub). This remains a major unforced limitation on SEAL capabilities — the problem is, any wet sub can either [1] operate in the tropics or [2] deliver hypothermic SEALcicles in the temperate zones, arctic or in areas of cold currents. Meanwhile, the subs built for general sub service have gotten ever bigger and more coastal-shy over the decades, meaning the frogs are looking at a longer ride in the wet sub at best, or leaving missions on the table for lack of clandestine infiltration capability.

The early Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDVs) were… well, we can charitably chalk them up as learning tools. Orr Kelly wrote in his SEAL/UDT history, Brave MenDark Waters:

Then, in the mid 50s, came the Mark 2, built by Aerojet General according to a design from General Electric. From the outside, the Mark 2 looked like a little airplane, with the two-man crew sitting side-by-side. Inside, it would very much like a 1956 Ford pick up. [Naval Coastal Systems Center ocean-engineering head WT “Tom”] Odum says the designers reasoned that the crew members would find the little craft extremely claustrophobic but that they would be more comfortable in familiar surroundings, so they modeled it after the interior of a popular truck.

Aerojet SEAL SDV Mk2 period photo

The Mark 2 was the Navy’s first effort at a sophisticated swimmer delivery vehicle. It was powered by silver zinc batteries, used a gyroscopic compass, and was equipped both with a hovering system and with thrusters that permitted it to maneuver left, right, up, and down.

Unfortunately, it was, as Odum says, “a hydrodynamic nightmare – it just didn’t have any stability.” The little craft never got beyond the experimental stage. It was so unstable that it could not even be towed through the water until it had been pulled up onto a large sheet of plywood.

At that point, Kelly drops the SDV program and picks it up in a paragraph or three with the Vietnam-era experimental Mark 6. Assuming the original dry sub that was sub-napped and sent to bureaucratic Davy Jones’s Locker by the Submarine Service was the Mark 1, the Marks 3, 4, and 5 were probably intermediate submersibles. This period photo shows numerous early SDVs including the Mark 2… some of the other experiments here may have been some of those little known intermediate numbers. The SDV Mark 2 is third from the left. The small pod on the far right may be a Mark 1 Swimmer Propulsion Unit, another experimental device that was not fielded in quantity. The three machines between the Mark 2 and the possible Mark 1 SPU may all three be a single kind of machine with different transparencies fitted.

Early SDVs

It is unknown how many SDV Mark 2s were manufactured — given its poor performance under test, there may have been only one. But, almost miraculously, one of these early efforts survived. It showed up on sale on eBay with the following blurb:

interesting 2 man wet submarine by defense contractor AeroJet General for Navy Seal use. It has been salvage non operating with missing parts. for years and it probably more of a collector or decorator item needing at least refurbishment or cosmetics. It is about 20 feet long and is pretty heavy Local pickup in central Indiana. sold in “as is where is” condition. Questions call xxx-yyy-zzzz. The black and white photos are from a rare book about seals.

Unmistakably the same craft.

Unmistakably the same craft.

One gets the impression that no naval architect or hydrodynamicist was let within many miles of this design effort. The sources of the instability seem obvious. It looks like the interesting interior fitments are gone, and it looks like there may have been some kind of thrusters on fins or dive planes forward of the doors.

SDV Mk2 03It’s pickup heritage doesn’t seem too occult in these pictures. How it got to Indiana is an interesting question — the SDV program remains today very sensitive, very close hold, and the Navy has not been above doing research in the desert, hundreds of miles from the sea. Maybe it passed through NAVSEA Crane?

SDV Mk2The seller has since withdrawn this old UDT bus from the eBay sale — perhaps a museum has expressed interest.

SDV Mk2 02


If some Dr Evil has visions of deploying the SDV Mark 2 in the sea again, all we can say is, good luck with that. The US Navy never got this thing going, and they have more money than God. You can’t spend your way around faulty design.

Of course, as this guy in Indiana shows, you can display it on your lawn.



Full Circle: The Telegraph Spitfire

In Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the desperate hours of 1940, the local paper began collecting money from loyal Ulstermen to buy the Royal Air Force a plane. And another… and another. In the end, the Belfast Telegraph and its readers’ Belfast Telegraph Spitfire Fund would finance no fewer than 17 Supermarine Spitfires for the RAF.

Of those war machines, only one served at home, in Northern Ireland, with 502 Auxiliary Squadron1. Like the other 16, it’s gone now…

The clock is being turned back at Long Kesh today as a full-scale replica Spitfire bearing the name Down (after Co Down) is unveiled in a poignant ceremony by the Ulster Aviation Society.

down belfast telegraph spitfire

The model will also carry the letter code TM-F and serial number P7823 on its side but, more significantly, the slogan Belfast Telegraph Spitfire Fund will be there, too. And thereby hangs a tale dating back to wartime 1941 at RAF Ballyhalbert in Co Down where the real Spitfires carrying those markings served until January 1942 with No 504 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force.

That plane was indeed called Down and was one of 17 Spitfires built for the RAF by donations from the people of Northern Ireland under the auspices of this newspaper.

The Telegraph tells the story with understandable pride; there’s a lot more information there if you’re inclined to  Read The Whole Thing™.

The Spitfire is a non-flying replica. Convincing-looking, it’s now on display in the Ulster Aviation Society hangar/museum.  The original P7823 crashed in 1942 with fatal consequences for its pilot.

Down spitfire dedication

The Ulster Aviation Society has an interesting website, with a page about this and other Spitfires in Northern Ireland (including US Spitfires, and Royal Navy Seafires), and a separate Facebook page with photos from the rededication this week of the Spitfire in its new, NI-related markings.

Why a replica? The demand for Spitfires exceeds the supply. Over 20,000 of them were built from the prewar to early post-war years, but according to Wikipedia2 only 54 survive in airworthy condition worldwide and another 68 on static display, plus 100-odd undergoing or awaiting restoration or stored as parts or wreckage. Of those 200-odd surviving airframes, about 1% of production, only 4 are confirmed Battle of Britain vets — most are later marks.


  1. The NI Spitfire unit, according to the Ulster Aviation Society, was 504 Squadron, Aux AF (the party-tine Auxiliary Air Force was not “Royal” until after the war). 502 Squadron was called the “Ulster” squadron, but had bombing types like the Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley, and a Coastal Command mission.
  2. Usual Wikipedia disclaimers apply… don’t spend money or take risks based on what’s written there.

Jets (and Vehicles) with Frickin’ Lasers on They Heads

Doctor Evil’s technological dreams, not to mention Auric Goldfinger’s and Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s, are inching closer to reality. That’s the only possible conclusion an avid movie-goer will draw from a fascinating Bill Sweetman article in Aviation Week. 

Today, on an armored vehicle as an air defense weapon that doesn't need to "lead" a target; tomorrow, an aerial precision-strike capability? (Bill Sweetman AWST photo).

Today, on an armored vehicle as an air defense weapon with a functional MV of infinity, so it doesn’t need to “lead” a target; tomorrow, an aerial precision-strike capability? (Bill Sweetman AWST photo).

In fact, Sweetman deploys a bunch of pungent prose that sounds like something out of The Strategy Page, but with the essential difference that Sweetman knows what he’s talking about and has been wired into defense RDT&E since the second coming of laser weaponry (and the first serious, non-Bond-villain one) in the 1980s. Sweetman starts with a dismissive swipe at US and USSR laser weapons programs of the 1980s (“The only thing of consequence that any of them destroyed was confidence in laser weapons”), and then leaps into “that was then, this is now”-ville.

New HEL [High-Energy Laser] weapons are smaller than the 1980s monsters, with a goal of 100-150 kw, and powered by electricity rather than rocket-like chemical systems. Modest power permits more precise optics and—in some cases—the use of commercial off-the-shelf fiber-laser sources, improving beam quality (that is, focus) and reducing cost.

Star Wars lasers were intended to hit things that missiles could not touch. The new generation exploits different characteristics: a magazine as deep and easily replenished as the fuel tank, and a low cost per shot (about $1, says Rheinmetall). The idea is to deal with targets that missiles cannot engage affordably.

A mini-UAV is a threat because it can target ground forces for artillery. It is cheaper than any surface-to-air missile, but a laser can blind it, destroy its payload or shoot it down. Rocket and mortar defense is another application. Rafael’s Iron Beam laser is a logical follow-on to Iron Dome, which is practical and affordable only because it ignores rockets that will fall on open ground; that will no longer work when weapons are guided.

Hmmm. Thinking about the implications of what Sweetman is saying here, there are several paths around Iron Dome which the Palestinian terrorists may choose to adopt: they could try overwhelming it with quality, overwhelming it with accuracy (by guidance, as he suggests, or simply by increased ballistic accuracy and precision of aim), or overwhelming it with speed by using gun artillery instead of relatively-slow rockets.

Wile-E-Coyote-Genius-Business-CardNo doubt the cagey Israelis (has any nation’s paranoia ever been more justified?) have already thought this through and have counter-countermeasures in development (one of which certainly is a laser system). The Palestinians, in their ongoing attempts to outsmart the smarter Israelis, are the Wile E. Coyote of weapons development.

Anyway, let’s return to Sweetman’s rundown of current and very-near-future directed energy weaponry.

Close behind the systems already shown by Rheinmetall, Rafael and MBDA—certainly not a technological leap away—is the new Gen 3 HEL being developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to fit on an Avenger unmanned air vehicle (AW&ST Feb. 16-March 1, p. 30). If what we hear is correct, it combines an output as high as 300 kw with high beam quality; it can fire 10 times between 3-min. recharges; and a version might fit in the 3,400-lb. pod that Boeing designed for the Advanced Super Hornet (see photo). A bomber or a special-operations C-130 could carry it easily.

This is a tipping point, because what you can do with 300 kw also depends on what you are trying to protect. If the goal is to knock down a supersonic antiship cruise missile (ASCM), there are two problems: water in the atmosphere (which attenuates laser energy) and the fact that a damaged ASCM can still hit the target. But if the target is an evasively maneuvering aircraft, it will often be in clear, dry air; and it is enough to destroy the missile’s seeker, put a hole in the radome, even at well-sub-kilometer range or weaken the motor tube to cause a miss, even at well-sub-kilometer range.

This is one where you’ll find it rewarding, we think, to open the mind and  Read The Whole Thing™. Sweetman is no more infallible than any of us, but he is a more informed aerospace analyst than almost any of us, and bears close watching.

When Reverse Engineering goes to War, it’s “Technical Intelligence.”

Aviation Week is celebrating its 100th Anniversary over the next couple of years, and reprinting or blogging classic articles from prior years, and even from its various predecessor publications. This week they hit upon one that examines, and in part, reverse engineers, an ingenious weapons system we have mentioned before: the Japanese Type Zero Carrier Fighter.


Aviation expert Bill Sweetman sets the stage with a long and informative blog post, and then the 1945 article is broken into four .pdf files. Sweetman:

Newsprint rationing clearly wasn’t a big issue in the U.S. in May 1945, when our predecessor title Aviation published an ultra-detailed four-part dissection of Japan’s “workhorse fighter”, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, with detail that would put some homebuilt-airplane plans to shame. Neither was cultural sensitivity, as the cover wording shows.

The model examined here was the square-wingtipped, non-folding A6M2 Model 32 “Hap,” which had some tradeoffs designed to allow a more powerful engine. (It didn’t create enough speed to justify its extra weight, which shouldn’t surprise any aero engineers out there — aerodynamics are a much weightier influence on speed than horsepower).


The Zero was a design study in the combat multiplier of lightness in design, and is today a jewel worth studying and emulating by anyone who designs things and might like to make them lighter.

[T]he Navy’s requirement for speed and maneuverability comparable to emerging European designs… seemed impossible given the modest power of the biggest available engine.

What emerged was a highly refined design. Weight control was rigorous: Horikoshi wrote that “it was our policy to control anything heavier than 1/100,000th of the aircraft’s final weight”

Sweetman also notes one Zero advantage that we have mentioned before, the equivalent of 7075 Alloy, but he suggests that this wasn’t an oversight:

Aviation‘s story — quite possibly at the behest of the military — misses one key to the Zero’s success: its construction made use of high-zinc-content 7075 aluminum alloy, which had been secretly developed by Sumitomo and was significantly lighter than the 24S alloys used in the U.S. Better metals were not used worldwide until after the war.

Built-up rudder hinge bracket, where US engineers would have used a machined forging.

Built-up rudder hinge bracket, where US engineers would have used a machined forging.

US aircraft still use 2400 series alloys (as they’re numbered now, but they’re the same stuff) in skins and sheet structures, and 6061 in most things requiring plate, billet or cast parts. 7075 is used primarily in forgings. The clever Mitsubishi team under Jiro Horikoshi designed around the need for many forgings, substituting instead riveted assemblies of sheet aluminum alloy.

(Bill would probably be pleased, as he compares the sketches in the article favorably to homebuilt aircraft plans, to know that the rudder hinges and hinge brackets of our RV are built up from sheet and plate, much like some of the Zero’s brackets. So would Horikoshi, who passed away in the 1960s).

The full title and cutline of the original article is:

Design Analysis of the Zeke 32 Hamp: Presenting the 12th of our series, a profusely illustrated part-by-part examination of the Zero’s successor, showing how Jap engineers achieved unusually light structural weight without sacrificing strength.

All parts, .pdf

  1. Design Analysis of the Zeke 32, Part 1.pdf
  2. Design Analysis of the Zeke 32, Part 2.pdf
  3. Design Analysis of the Zeke 32, Part 3.pdf
  4. Design Analysis of the Zeke 32, Part 4.pdf

In addition to those four .pdfs, Sweetman’s post is definitely one where you’ll want to Read The Whole Thing™.

The scan has some issues, mostly at the edges and keeping the many figures straight and unwrinked, but it’s a great boon to everyone who studies How To Build Stuff.

And it’s a good look at a wartime case of digging into the enemy’s engineering.