A sea blockade can be implemented using satellite imaging and missiles

Monday, July 19th, 2021

ICEYE‘s network of synthetic aperture radar satellites promises information about every square meter on earth, updated every single hour, which leads Steve Hsu to mock aircraft carriers:

Duh… Let’s spend ~$10B each for new aircraft carriers that can be easily monitored from space and attacked using hypersonic missiles.

He has pointed out before that aircraft carriers will have to operate 1,000 miles offshore in a peer-to-peer conflict — because that’s the range of China’s PRC DF21 anti-ship ballistic missile — and that will require a new class of (perhaps unmanned) aircraft with greater range.

Chinese Missile Ranges

In this era a sea blockade can be implemented using satellite imaging and missiles or drones:

Japan imports ~60% of its food calories and essentially all of its oil. The situation is similar for S. Korea and Taiwan. It is important to note that blocking sea transport to Taiwan and Japan does not require PLAN blue water dominance. ASBM and cruise missiles which threaten aircraft carriers can also hold oil tankers and global shipping at risk from launch sites which are on or near the Asian mainland. Missile + drone + AI/ML technology completely alters the nature of sea blockade, but most strategic planners do not yet realize this.

They both fly low and move fast

Friday, July 9th, 2021

Sea-skimming anti-ship missiles — such as the Exocet of Falklands War fame — have worried navies since the 1970s:

What’s changed is the speed of anti-ship missiles. Older weapons such as the Soviet Styx and America’s Harpoon were subsonic, which meant they were slow enough to be jammed or shot down by shipboard anti-missile systems such as the U.S. Navy’s Phalanx multi-barreled cannon. Newer weapons, such as Russia’s P-270 Moskit and Kh-31, could achieve supersonic speeds of Mach 3 or 4 that taxed anti-missile defenses.

But a new generation of Russian and Chinese hypersonic anti-ship missiles — like Russia’s Zircon, with an estimated speed of Mach 6 to 9 – are a different matter. They both fly low and move fast.

[…]

“As opposed to ballistic missile trajectories where Navy guided missile destroyers and cruisers have on the order of several minutes to detect, track, lock onto, and then launch interceptors against a hypersonic reentry vehicle, low flying missiles provide as little as 10 seconds of flight time above the ship’s radar horizon before missile impact,” the Navy explains.

[…]

Drones are a prime candidate for hosting an airborne missile detection radar. “The most obvious candidate aircraft to host the radar system would be on high altitude long-endurance (HALE) and medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft,” according to the Navy.

But even with better radar detection, the physics of hypersonic weapons will still vex the defenders. The high speeds of hypersonic missiles flying through the atmosphere generate plasma clouds that absorb radar waves. “Even when a threat vector is identified so as to constrain the radar surveillance volume, the detection and tracking timeline for single or multiple inbound missiles whose radar return may be buried within a plasma envelope is extremely challenging,” the Navy notes.

The almost utter uselessness of the present kind of torpedo boat has been conclusively demonstrated in the recent war

Tuesday, June 29th, 2021

When I read Tesla: Man Out of Time years ago, back before Elon Musk’s electric car company made the mad scientist famous with a modern audience, I was struck by Tesla’s 1898 proposal to use radio-controlled torpedoes — referred to as submarine destroyers in this Sunday Journal piece — to sink enemy fleets:

“I am now prepared to announce through the Journal my invention of a submarine torpedo boat that I am confident will be the greatest weapon of the navy from this time on.

“The almost utter uselessness of the present kind of torpedo boat has been conclusively demonstrated in the recent war. Neither the courage and skill of the Americans nor the desperate extremities of the Spaniards were able to bring the torpedo boats into successful action. These frail craft, of which so much was expected, simply made an easy target for land batteries and rapid-fire guns of opposing war ships.

“The submarine boats, on the other hand, which have up to this time been built to carry torpedoes have proved death traps for men and were consequently ineffective. The submarine boat, or, more properly speaking, the submarine destroyer, which I have invented is as compact as the torpedo itself. In fact, it is simply an enlarged torpedo shell, thirty-six and a half feet long, loaded with other torpedoes to discharge. Like a torpedo, also, it has its own propelling device. But here the likeness stops. The ordinary torpedo, once launched, plunges head on blindly and no known power can turn it one way or another. It hits or misses, according to the trueness with which it is aimed at its launching.

“But my submarine boat, loaded with its torpedoes, can start out from a protected bay or be dropped over a ship’s side, make its devious way below the surface, through dangerous channels of mine beds, into protected harbors and attack a fleet at anchor, or go out to sea and circle about, watching for its prey, then dart upon it at a favorable moment, rush up to within a hundred feet if need be, discharge its deadly weapon and return to the hand that sent it. Yet through all these wonderful evolutions it will be under the absolute and instant control of a distant human hand on a far-off headland, or on a war ship whose hull is below the.horizon and invisible to the enemy.

“I am aware that this sounds almost incredible and I have refrained from making this invention public till I had worked out every practical detail of it. In my laboratory I now have such a model, and my plans and description at the Patent Office at Washington show the full specifications of it.

“As to the mechanism which is to be stored in this submarine shell: The first and most essential thing is a motor, with storage battery to drive the propeller. Then there are smaller motors and batteries to operate the steering gear, on the same principle that an ordinary vessel is now steered by steam or electricity. Besides these there are still other storage batteries and motors to feed electric signal lights. But in order that the weight of the machinery shall not be too great to destroy the buoyancy or make the boat go too deep in the water compressed air motors will also be used to perform certain functions, such as to fill and empty the water tanks which raise the boat to the surface or sink it to any required depth. Pneumatic air or motors will also fire the torpedoes and pump out the water that may leak in at any time.

“This submarine destroyer will be equipped with six 14-foot Whitehead torpedoes. These will be arranged vertically in two rows in the bow. As one torpedo falls into position and is discharged by pneumatic force, another torpedo, by the force of gravity, falls into the position of the first one, the others above being held up by automatic arms. They can be fired as rapidly as a self-cocking revolver is emptied or at intervals of minutes or hours. The discharge takes place through a single tube, projecting straight ahead in the bow. The small amount of water which leaks through each time is caught by drain pipes and a compressed air pump instantly expels it. As each torpedo is expelled a buoyancy regulator will open the sea cocks and let enough water in the ballast tanks to make the buoyancy uniform and keep the boat at the same distance beneath the surface.

“This submarine destroyer will carry a charge of torpedoes greater than that of the largest destroyers now in use. Those vessels of five hundred tons each which cost the Government $500,000, carry but three or four torpedoes, while this simple submarine destroyer, which can be built for $448,000 to $50,000 or less, will carry six torpedoes. It will have, also, the incalculable advantage of being absolutely invisible to an enemy, and have no human lives to risk or steam boilers to blow up and destroy itself.

“All that is necessary to make this submarine boat subject to perfect control at any distance is to properly wire it, just like a modern house is wired so that a button here rings a bell, a lever there turns on the lights, a hidden wire somewhere else sets off a burglar alarm and a thermal device give a fire alarm.

“The only difference in the case of the submarine boat is in the delicacy of the instruments employed. To the propelling device, the steering gear, the signal apparatus and the mechanism for firing the torpedoes are attached little instruments which are attuned to a certain electro-magnetic synchronism.

“Then there is a similar set of synchronistic instruments all connected to the little switchboard, and placed either on shore or on an ordinary war ship. By moving the lever on the switchboard I can give the proper impulse to the submarine boat to go ahead, to reverse, throw the helm to port or starboard, rise, sink, discharge her torpedoes or return.

“It might be thought that some great power would be necessary to be projected across miles of distance and operate on the far-off boat. The power is all stored in the submarine boat itself — in its storage batteries and compressed air. All that is needed to affect the synchronistic instruments is a set of high alternating currents, which can be produced by my oscillator attached to any ordinary dynamo situated on shore or on a war ship.

“How such an apparently complicated mechanism can be operated and controlled at a distance of miles is no mystery. It is as simple as the messenger call to be found in almost any office. This is a little metal box with a lever on the outside. By moving the crank to a certain point it gives vibrating sounds and springs back, into position, and its momentary buzzing calls a messenger. But move this same crank a third further around the dial and it buzzes still longer, and pretty soon a policeman appears, summoned by its mysterious call. Again, move the crank this time to the farthest limit of the circle and scarcely has its more prolonged hum of recoil sounded when the city fire apparatus dashes up to your place at its call.

“Now, my device for controlling the motion of a distant submarine boat is exactly similar. Only I need no connecting wires between my switchboard and the distant submarine boat, for I make use of the now well-known principle of wireless telegraphy. As I move this little lever to points which I have marked on a circular dial I cause a different number of vibrations each time. In this case two waves go forth at each half turn of the lever and affect different parts of the distant destroyer’s machinery.

“How such submarine destroyers should actually be used in war I leave for naval tacticians to determine. But it seems to me that they could best be operated by taking a number on board a large fast auxiliary cruiser like the St. Louis or St. Paul, launch them, several at a time, like life boats, and direct their movements from a switch board placed in the forward fighting top.

“In order that the director of the submarine destroyer may know its exact position at every movement, two masts, at bow and stern, will project up just above the water, too minute to be seen or hit by an enemy’s guns by day, and by night they will carry hooded lights.

“The lookout placed in the fighting top could detect a hostile ship off on the horizon while the auxiliary cruiser’s big hull is still invisible to the enemy. Starting these little destroyers out under direction of a man with a telescope, they could attack and destroy a whole armada — destroy it utterly — in an hour, and the enemy never have a sight of their antagonists or know what power destroyed them. A big auxiliary cruiser, used to carry these submarine destroyers, could also carry a cargo of torpedoes sufficient to conduct a long campaign and go half way around the world.

“She could carry the gun cotton and other explosives needed to load the torpedoes in safe magazines below the water line, and do away with much of the danger of transporting loaded torpedoes. When necessary for use the war heads could be loaded, fitted to the torpedoes, and the submarine destroyers fully equipped.

“A high, projecting headland overlooking a harbor and the sea would also be a good point on which to establish a station and have the destroyers laid up at docks below ready to start.

“That is the whole story of my latest invention. It is simple enough, you say. Of course it is, because I have worked all my life to make each one of the details so simple that it will work as easily as the electric ticker in a stock broker’s office.”

A second laser pulse generates a supersonic shockwave within the plasma

Monday, June 28th, 2021

I was listening to the audiobook version of Daniel Suarez’s Influx, when the high-tech antagonists used dynamic pulse detonation (DPD) to take out attacking missiles, so I read up on the idea:

A short but intense laser pulse creates a ball of plasma, and a second laser pulse generates a supersonic shockwave within the plasma to generate a bright flash and a loud bang.

The Plasma Acoustic Shield System will eventually combine a dynamic pulse detonation laser with a high power speaker for hailing or warning, and a dazzler light source. PASS has already been demonstrated by the system’s makers, Stellar Photonics.

“It uses a programmed pattern of rapid plasma events to create a sort of wall of bright lights and reports (bangs) over the coverage area,” says Keith Braun of the US Army’s Advanced Energy Armaments Systems Division at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, US, where the system is being tested.

Learning to quickly acquire a sight picture essentially trains you to point the gun at the target

Friday, June 25th, 2021

Are pistol sights actually useful for self-defense?

It didn’t take me any longer to use the sights than to point shoot, but the accuracy was much better. Most of the old point shooting techniques were developed back when iron sights on handguns were small and very difficult to see. With modern, high visibility iron sights, there’s really no reason I have to rely on point shooting at seven yards.

Handgun Sights from 1930s vs. Modern

The real paradox of the point shooting versus sighted fire debate is that learning to quickly acquire a sight picture essentially trains you to point the gun at the target. If you practice sighted fire the correct way, you will automatically get pretty good at point shooting at the kind of ranges where a lot of people claim you will not have time to see the sights.

If I was unable to see my sights for some reason, or my red dot and my backup irons have both somehow failed, I can just do what I’ve always done in practice and I’ll usually still get some pretty good hits. Practicing with sights doesn’t mean I suddenly forget how to shoot if I don’t see them. On the other hand, if you primarily practice point shooting, it does not make you better at sighted fire. If a situation calls for a higher level of precision, you will have limited your ability to get that precision on demand.

So there’s a place for point shooting. You might want to try it on occasion to see if you can do it. It’s what I would teach a novice if I thought they were realistically never going to practice again. But if pistol shooting is a skill you intend to improve, most of your time should probably be spent on sighted fire.

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey

Monday, June 7th, 2021

On the first day of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijani drone strikes focused heavily on Armenian short-range air-defense vehicles, and now, the Wall Street Journal reports, armed low-cost drones made by Turkey are reshaping geopolitics:

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey, the Bayraktar TB2.

Compared with the American MQ-9, the TB2 is lightly armed, with four laser-guided missiles. Its radio-controlled apparatus limits its basic range to around 200 miles, roughly a fifth of the ground the MQ-9 can cover.

Yet it is utilitarian, and reliable — qualities reminiscent of the Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle that changed warfare in the 20th century. A set of six Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the MQ-9.

The drone’s Turkish producer, Baykar, which started in 1984 making auto parts, boasts of more bang for the buck. Qatar and Ukraine are customers. Poland, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, said last month it would buy 24 TB2 drones. Several other NATO allies are interested, as well as countries in Africa and Asia, Turkish government and company officials said.

The TB2 drone gained international notice in the skies over Syria in early 2020.

[...]

Last spring, the TB2s helped turn the tide in the Libyan civil war for the Tripoli-based government, which is backed by the United Nations.

Turkey had sent arms in 2019 to stem an assault on the capital by militia leader Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Russia and others. In 2020, Turkey increased military support. Improved drone tactics honed in Syria provided the upper hand against Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems known as Pantsir, handing the Tripoli government aerial supremacy. By June, Mr. Haftar’s forces retreated from Tripoli.

I was amused to see “honed in” used correctly there.

Ukraine signed a deal in January 2019 to buy TB2 drones from Turkey, receiving at least six so far, and Kyiv is in talks for joint production. A Ukrainian company is manufacturing engines for the latest Baykar drone, a larger model with a heavier payload than the TB2.

The country hopes the drones will discourage a repeat of the Kremlin’s 2014 invasions.

The TB2 was born of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with available models from the U.S. and Israel and its desire for systems under its control to fight the PKK:

Baykar emerged as a leader among several Turkish drone producers after spotting a niche in the early 2000s, said Mr. Bayraktar, the company’s chief executive. His brother Selcuk Bayraktar, who took advanced studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came up with flight-control software and guidance systems while using off-the-shelf components.

During development, company officials set up a workshop at a military base to get a firsthand understanding, including from a colonel who took them to a patch of bloodied ground where, they said, Turkish soldiers were killed by the PKK.

In 2007, Turkey launched a national competition to supply mini drones, which yielded an order of 76 from Baykar. At the time, the U.S. wouldn’t sell armed drones to Turkey. Baykar developed the TB2 and gradually replaced foreign components with locally produced ones. In 2015, the company successfully test-fired a precision-guided munition.

How does Thibault cancel out Capoferro?

Wednesday, April 21st, 2021

The Princess Bride features some of the earliest — maybe onlyreferences to historical fencing masters in film:

Inigo: “You are using Bonetti’s defence against me, huh?”

MIB: “I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.”

Inigo: “Naturally, you must expect me to attack with Capoferro!”

MIB: “Naturally. But I find that Thibault cancels out Capoferro.”

Inigo: “Unless your enemy has studied his Agrippa!” [does great big somersault] “Which I have!”

Thus inspiring a legion of potential historical fencers to look up Bonetti, Capoferro, Thibault and Agrippa. Huzzah!

However, the actual choreography turns out on further study to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the fencing methods of the historical masters in question. This should come as no surprise, given that the goals of stage and screen combat are that no-one should die, and everyone should see what is happening: and the goals of real combat are to kill the enemy, which is best accomplished if no-one can see what’s going on. There are skills common to both, of course, such as control of measure and weapons handling, but the core intent could not be more different.

The Princess Bride was a book for 14 years before it was a film:

So, from the 1998 edition (pp 130-135) here are the actual references:

They touched swords, and the man in black immediately began the Agrippa defence, which Inigo felt was sound, considering the rocky terrain, for the Agrippa kept the feet stationary at first, and made the chances of slipping minimal. Naturally, he countered with Capo Ferro, which surprised the man in black, but he defended well, quickly shifting out of Agrippa and taking the attack himself, using the principles of Thibault.

Inigo had to smile. No one had taken the attack against him in so long, and it was thrilling! He let the man in black advance, let him build up courage, retreating gracefully between some trees, letting his Bonetti defence keep him safe from harm.

Quite different, I’m sure you’ll agree. But this was 40 years ago, long before the resurgence of historical swordsmanship in the 90s: where was Goldman getting his information? The next reference is also interesting:

“Inigo…was not entirely familiar with the style of the attack; it was mostly McBone, but there were snatches of Capo Ferro thrown in…”

I assume McBone is McBane (though why the change when the other masters are spelled normally: a little joke, perhaps?); has Goldman read Aylward’s The English Master of Arms?

That’s Guy Windsor, author of The Duellist’s Companion: A training manual for 17th century Italian rapier, who produced a short video on the topic:

It spelled the doom of Communist massed armies

Friday, April 2nd, 2021

In Nevada, at Frenchman’s Flat, a bright flash and ugly mushroom cloud signified a change in the tactical battlefield, T. R. Fehrenbach notes (in This Kind of War) — a change that had not come about at Hiroshima:

In its early years the atomic device had remained a strategic weapon, suitable for delivery against cities and industries, suitable to obliterate civilians, men, women, and children by the millions, but of no practical use on a limited battlefield — until it was fired from a field gun.

Until this time, 1953, the armies of the world, including that of the United States, had hardly taken the advent of fissionable material into account. The 280mm gun, an interim weapon that would remain in use only a few years, changed all that, forever. With an atomic cannon that could deliver tactical fires in the low-kiloton range, with great selectivity, ground warfare stood on the brink of its greatest change since the advent of firepower.

Nuclear_artillery_test_Grable_Event_-_Part_of_Operation_Upshot-Knothole

The atomic cannon could blow any existing fortification, even one twenty thousand yards in depth, out of existence neatly and selectively, along with the battalions that manned it. Any concentration of manpower, also, was its meat.

It spelled the doom of Communist massed armies, which opposed superior firepower with numbers, and which had in 1953 no tactical nuclear weapons of their own.

The 280mm gun was shipped to the Far East. Then, in great secrecy, atomic warheads — it could fire either nuclear or conventional rounds — followed, not to Korea, but to storage close by. And with even greater secrecy, word of this shipment was allowed to fall into Communist hands.

At the same time, into Communist hands wafted a pervasive rumor, one they could neither completely verify nor scotch: that the United States would not accept a stalemate beyond the end of summer.

A sword never jams

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

In Glory Road Robert Heinlein makes the case for his hero to carry a sword:

A properly balanced sword is the most versatile weapon for close quarters ever devised. Pistols and guns are all offense, no defense; close on him fast and a man with a gun can’t shoot, he has to stop you before you reach him. Close on a man carrying a blade and you’ll be spitted like a roast pigeon — unless you have a blade and can use it better than he can.

A sword never jams, never has to be reloaded, is always ready. Its worst shortcoming is that it takes great skill and patient, loving practice to gain that skill; it can’t be taught to raw recruits in weeks, nor even months.

Heinlein also reiterates S.L.A. Marshall’s famous point from Men Against Fire:

Do you know how many men in a platoon actually shoot in combat? Maybe six. More likely three. The rest freeze up.

Marshall infamously fabricated much of his research — but other sources do corroborate this.

A toy, suited only to make pretty scars for girls to admire

Saturday, February 6th, 2021

Our Slovenian guest recently suggested that I take a look at the traditional German sword-fighting art called Mensur, which reminded me that I’ve discussed Germany’s odd fencing fraternities before, but I didn’t mention where I’d first heard of their unusual style of fencing, in Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road, his not-quite-fantasy novel, where the protagonist, fresh from fighting in Southeast Asia, comes home with a scar across his nose — “little brown brother hadn’t sterilized his bolo” — and the surgeon says, “You’re going to get well, son. But you’ll be scarred like a Heidelberg student.” Our hero decides to try going to Heidelberg:

Hell, I would fight a couple of student duels and add real Heidelberg scars to back up the dandy I had. Fencing was a sport I really enjoyed (though the one that counted least toward “sweeping the gym”). Some people cannot stand knives, swords, bayonets, anything sharp; psychiatrists have a word for it: aichmophobia. Idiots who drive cars a hundred miles an hour on fifty-mile-an-hour roads will nevertheless panic at the sight of a bare blade.

[...]

I rather looked forward to trying a Heidelberg duel. They pad your body and arm and neck and put a steel guard on your eyes and nose and across your ears — this is not like encountering a pragmatic Marxist in the jungle. I once handled one of those swords they use in Heidelberg; it was a light, straight saber, sharp on the edge, sharp a few inches on the back — but a blunt point! A toy, suited only to make pretty scars for girls to admire.

That verbal description doesn’t quite paint the picture:

German Academic Fencer

The whole thing seems a bit contrived, but it has a certain logic to it:

A form of noble duel — mensur fencing — was widespread in Germany during the 16th century among young people, particularly in the student community. (The word originated from German Mensurfechten — fencing in confined space). Duelists wore protective eyepieces with metallic netting. The chest and neck were protected by a leather chest guard and a thick scarf. They wielded prototypes of the saber — “schlagers” with sharply pointed ends. Opponents faced each other and took turns at hits, aiming for the only unprotected body part — the opponent’s face. When fatigue set in or one of the opponents let down his guard, his opponent broke through his parries, leaving a cut on his face, which eventually scarred over. As we know, scars are said to give a man’s face character. As a result, both duelists left satisfied: the winner with a sense of triumph, and the loser with a sign of courage on his face.

[...]

During the first half of the 19th century and some of the 18th century, students believed the character of a person could easily be judged by watching him fight with sharp blades under strict regulations. Academic fencing was more and more seen as a kind of personality training by showing countenance and fairness even in dangerous situations. Student corporations demanded their members fight at least one duel with sharp blades during their university time. The problem was that some peaceful students had nobody to offend them. The solution was a kind of formal insult that did not actually infringe honour, but was just seen as a challenge for fencing. The standard wording wasdummer Junge (German for “young fool.”)

The Nazis suppressed the fencing clubs, which is mildly ironic, since dueling scars now evoke the image of an SS officer, like Otto Skorzeny:

Otto Skorzeny

Chinese began to infiltrate over the low hills, carrying pole and satchel charges

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020

The Chinese infiltrators had success, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), with some unorthodox tactics:

But after nightfall, flares soared high all around the southern rim of Chipyong-ni, and the brassy noise of bugles beat on the defender’s ears. Chinese began to infiltrate over the low hills, carrying pole and satchel charges. They poured into George Company, killing many men by dropping explosives in the foxholes.

This is where the drones came in

Monday, November 30th, 2020

Before the war, on a tactical level the Armenian army was superior to the Azeri army:

It had better officers, more motivated soldiers, and a more agile leadership. In all previous wars with Azerbaijan, this proved to be decisive. But Azerbaijan found a way to work around it. This is where the drones came in: they allowed the Azeris to reconnoitre first the Armenian position and then the placement of reserves. Armenian positions then could be extensively shelled with conventional artillery, weakening their defences. Drones then guided the onslaught towards the Armenian reserves, bringing in artillery, multiple-rocket systems with cluster munitions, their own missiles, or using Israeli-made LORA ballistic missiles to destroy bridges or roads linking the reserves with the front. Once the Armenian side was incapable of sending reserves into battle, the Azeri army could move in any number it wished to overwhelm the isolated Armenian positions. This procedure was repeated day after day, chipping one Armenian position away each day and resupplying artillery during the night.

This tactic also worked well in mountainous territory the Armenians thought would be easy to defend. In the mountains, there is only one road connecting the front to the rear, which made it even easier for drones to spot targets. When the battle over Shusha demonstrated that the Armenians would not stand a chance even in this territory, the Armenian army started to disintegrate and Yerevan had no choice than to agree a ceasefire on adverse terms.

Plot-fusion is essential to detecting small and low-observable targets such as advanced drones or stealth aircraft

Saturday, November 28th, 2020

One of the military lessons from Nagorno-Karabakh is that computers and networks matter:

Like in Syria and Libya, Russian air-defence systems proved to be ineffective against small and slow drones. This has inspired a debate in the West about whether Russian air-defence systems are generally overrated. But this verdict would be premature.

Armenia’s most ‘modern’ air-defence systems, the S-300PT and PS series and the 9K37M Buk-M1, were both developed in the 1980s. While the missiles are still potent, their sensors are designed to detect, identifiy and track fast-moving fighters, and their moving-target indicators disregard small, slow drones. Like many 1980s systems, a lot of computing is predetermined by hardware layout, and reprogramming requires an extensive refit of the entire system, which the Armenians had not done. These systems are also incapable of plot-fusion: accumulating and combining raw radar echoes from different radars into one aggregated situation report. Plot-fusion is essential to detecting small and low-observable targets such as advanced drones or stealth aircraft. None of the export versions of Russia’s air-defence systems that it has sold to Syria, Turkey, North Korea, and Iran are capable of plot-fusion. (In the latter two cases, these are disguised as ‘indigenous’ systems like the Raad or Bavar 373.) There is therefore a huge difference in performance between Russian air-defence systems protecting Russian bases in Armenia and Syria and those Russian air-defence systems exported to Armenia and Syria.

Azerbaijan’s drones roamed free because Armenia had no jammer able to interrupt the signals linking the drones to their guidance stations. Only in the last days of the war did Russia use the Krasukha electronic warfare system based at the Armenian city of Gyumri to interdict Azeri deep reconnaissance in Armenia proper. Still, the Azeris also used the Israeli Harop loitering munition, which was able to work under adverse conditions (although at reduced effectiveness) as it does not, unlike drones. require a guidance link. Hence among armies that are likely to prepare to fight wars in the future – not only the US, China, Russia but regional powers such as Turkey, Israel, and South Africa – this experience will certainly prompt further research into artificial intelligence and autonomous lethal weapons systems. Rather than banning this class of ammunition by a prohibitive arms control treaty, as envisioned by Europe, they will experiment with how to make use of the new technologies and best integrate autonomous lethal weapons systems into their combined-arms manoeuvre forces, thereby increasing their operational tempo and effectiveness.

The information war has been just as fierce as the actual war

Thursday, November 19th, 2020

The information war has been just as fierce as the actual war in Nagorno-Karabakh, with both sides posting daily combat footage to proclaim victories:

Disinformation and propaganda, spread through official and unofficial accounts, have made it difficult to objectively assess the course of combat thus far. Furthermore, the relative accessibility of combat footage — whether from drones, cellphones, or cameras — paints a stylized picture of the battlefield for any analyst. They are official propaganda, and it is worth noting that on the modern battlefield, some systems have cameras or live video feeds, while many do not, distorting perceptions on combat effectiveness. A social media feed composed largely of drone video footage could lead one to believe in the dominance of such systems, even in a conflict where many casualties are still inflicted by armor, artillery, and multiple launch rocket systems. This tactical footage has led to familiar debates on the utility of tanks, the prowess of drones on the battlefield, or the proliferation of sensors.

There is a thirst for drawing lessons from contemporary conflicts that feature modern weapon systems. However, the result is often generalizing from a few cases, and at times, learning things that are not true. What can be discerned from this war is hardly revelatory. Remotely operated systems offer the utility of tactical aviation, close air support, and precision guided weapons to small nations, and to even relatively poor countries, for a cheap price. They saturate the battlefield with disposable sensors, shooters, and sensor-shooter packages in the form of loitering munitions. Notably, they enable precision artillery and strike systems to engage fixed positions, as has been seen across modern conflicts from Ukraine to Syria. Furthermore, tanks are vulnerable to counters, as they always have been, but it is unclear what other vehicles offer a better combination of firepower, protection, and maneuverability on the battlefield.

The war illustrates that in an offensive, or counter-offensive, the only thing worse than being in a heavily armored vehicle is being outside of one. If anything, the tank appears to be the most survivable vehicle, given the small warheads on drone carried munitions. These munitions often disable or mission kill the vehicle, but the crew can still survive anything other than a direct hit. Much of the hand-wringing in Western circles that comes from watching these conflicts stems from the epiphany that there is no way to avoid casualties on the modern battlefield, especially among an expensive force, replete with boutique capabilities that cannot be lost in large quantities. Furthermore, the ratios of support to maneuver units are important. Compared to forces like the Russian military, Western ground units feature poor availability of air defense and electronic warfare, and the expectations that existing air defenses or tactical aviation may be easily adapted to counter unmanned systems are probably unfounded. Armenia’s performance illustrates this problem. Drones are relatively cheap, and this military technology is diffusing much faster than cost-effective air defense or electronic warfare suitable to countering them.

That said, Azerbaijan’s unmanned air force has been operating against an opponent with incredibly dated short-range air defenses which are neither suitable nor effectively employed to defend against drones. Armenia does not have layered air defense, effective electronic warfare, or a large amount of tactical aviation. It has situated its air defense systems in relatively exposed fixed positions, in a mountainous region where air defense is even more difficult by virtue of the terrain. In truth, both sides are demonstrating tactical deficiency in their offensive and defensive tactics. While attaining some kills using optical sights, Armenia’s modernized Soviet systems (essentially technology that dates back to the early 1970s) were never meant to engage combinations of small drones, loitering munitions, precision artillery, or unmanned combat aerial vehicle systems. More advanced air defense capabilities like Tor-M2s are few, and have been intentionally held in reserve, although Azerbaijan has been reticent to use its fixed wing or rotary aviation. Armenia’s older S-300PS systems appear to have had no role in the conflict, and some launchers may have been destroyed early on, having never even been deployed.

The lessons from this conflict are consistent with those of other wars in the latter 20th century: It is much better to have a smaller ground force that is well defended from the air, than a vast armored force that is completely exposed to sensors and airpower from above. Well prepared defenses, if insufficiently protected or camouflaged from the air — which is increasingly difficult — are naturally vulnerable. The diffusion of remotely operated systems will outpace that of air defenses or specialized counter-drone systems, rendering older generations of air defense largely obsolete. Drones and loitering munitions will be, for some time, cheaper to acquire than the requisite defenses. And one can distribute forces, but they should be concentrated for assaults. There is no way getting around canalizing terrain, at least not until the battlefield features hover tanks. That tanks are vulnerable to anti-tank weapons should come as no surprise, but other vehicles, which trade survivability for maneuverability, seem to fare no better against anti-tank guided missiles. Vulnerable or not, it is unclear what other vehicle can achieve the tank’s mission on the battlefield.

The football shape was not considered practical for further development

Monday, November 16th, 2020

It always seemed to me that a hand grenade should be the size and weight of a baseball, since most (American) soldiers have — or used to have — a lot of experience throwing baseballs, but I assumed the size and weight wouldn’t work. A baseball weighs 5 to 5.25 ounces (142 to 149 g). The classic pineapple grenade weighs 1 lb. 5 oz. (595 g). But they did try to make a baseball grenade in World War 2:

During World War II, the service, together with the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, had experimented with fragmentation grenades that were the exact same size and weight as regulation baseballs…. Those grenades, designated the T-13 and nicknamed the “Beano,” never entered service owing to their use of a dangerously sensitive impact fuze that killed two people and injured 44 others in the course of testing.

The other form factor that made sense to me was, of course, a football grenade, which, apparently, the Army considered for an anti-tank grenade, well after World War 2:

Test on the football shape indicated it also had a low tendency of nose-on impact. In addition, both the spring wire and soft aluminum placed on the nose to cause the “football” to rotate upon impact, so the nose would be perpendicular to the tank surface, did not work as envisioned. The “football” would bounce away before the nose rotated any significant amount. In addition, the “football” never attained a stable trajectory. This was apparently caused by the mass of the grenade type “football” being near the longitudinal axis while a real football has all its weight in the “skin.” The football shape was not considered practical for further development.

The modern M67 grenade has a “spheroidal” shape and weighs 14 oz (400 g).