Having to extend the lifespan of older planes consumes money that could be used to acquire new aircraft

Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

Years of delays, cost overruns, and technical glitches with the F-35 have put the Pentagon in a dilemma:

If F-35s aren’t fit to fly in sufficient numbers, then older aircraft such as the F-16 must be kept in service to fill the gap. In turn, having to extend the lifespan of older planes consumes money that could be used to acquire new aircraft and results in aging warplanes that may not be capable of fulfilling their missions on the current battlefield.

[…]

The aircraft has been plagued by a seemingly endless series of bugs, including problems with its stealth coating, sustained supersonic flight, helmet-mounted display, excessive vibration from its cannon, and even vulnerability to being hit by lightning.

The military and Lockheed Martin have resolved some of those problems, but the cumulative effect of the delays is that the Air Force has had to shelve plans for the F-35 to replace the F-16, which now will keep flying until the 2040s.

[…]

The remarkable longevity of some aircraft — such as the 71-year-old B-52 bomber or the 41-year-old A-10 — tends to obscure the difficulty of keeping old warplanes flying. Production lines are usually shut down, and the original manufacturers of components and spare parts have long ceased production. In some cases, they are no longer in business.

An FGC-9 with a craft-produced, ECM-rifled barrel exhibited impressive accuracy

Thursday, January 19th, 2023

The FGC-9 stands out from previous 3D-printed firearms designs, in part because it was specifically designed to circumvent European gun regulations:

Thus, unlike its predecessors, the FGC-9 does not require the use of any commercially produced firearm parts. Instead, it can be produced using only unregulated commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components. For example, instead of an industrially produced firearms barrel, the FGC-9 uses a piece of a pre-hardened 16 mm O.D. hydraulic tubing. The construction files for the FGC-9 also include instructions on how to rifle the hydraulic tubing using electrochemical machining (ECM). The FGC-9 uses a hammer-fired blowback self-loading action, firing from the closed-bolt position. The gun uses a commercially available AR-15 trigger group. In the United States, these components are unregulated. In the European Union and other countries—such as Australia—the FGC-9 can also be built with a slightly modified trigger group used by ‘airsoft’ toys of the same general design. This design choice provides a robust alternative to a regulated component, but also means that the FGC-9 design only offers semi-automatic fire, unless modified. The FGC-9 Mk II files also include a printable AR-15 fire-control group, which may be what was used in this case, as airsoft and ‘gel blaster’ toys are also regulated in Western Australia.

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In tests performed by ARES, an FGC-9 with a craft-produced, ECM-rifled barrel exhibited impressive accuracy: the firearm shot groups of 60 mm at 23 meters, with no signs of tumbling or unstable flight. Further, in forensic tests with FCG-9 models seized in Europe, the guns generally exhibited good durability. One example, described as not being particularly well built, was able to fire more than 2,000 rounds without a catastrophic failure—albeit with deteriorating accuracy. The cost of producing an FGC-9 can be very low, and even with a rifled barrel and the purchase of commercial components, the total price for all parts, materials, and tools to produce such a firearm is typically less than $1,000 USD. As more firearms are made, the cost per firearm decreases significantly. In a 2021 case in Finland, investigators uncovered a production facility geared up to produce multiple FGC-9 carbines. In this case, the criminal group operating the facility had purchased numerous Creality Ender 3 printers—each sold online for around $200. In recent months, complete FGC-9 firearms have been offered for sale for between approximately 1,500 and 3,500 USD (equivalent), mostly via Telegram groups.

The group was elitist, but it was also meritocratic

Tuesday, January 10th, 2023

Sputnik’s success created an overwhelming sense of fear that permeated all levels of U.S. society, including the scientific establishment:

As John Wheeler, a theoretical physicist who popularized the term “black hole” would later tell an interviewer: “It is hard to reconstruct now the sense of doom when we were on the ground and Sputnik was up in the sky.”

Back on the ground, the event spurred a mobilization of American scientists unseen since the war. Six weeks after the launch of Sputnik, President Dwight Eisenhower revived the President’s Scientific Advisory Council (PSAC). It was a group of 16 scientists who reported directly to him, granting them an unprecedented amount of influence and power. Twelve weeks after Sputnik, the Department of Defense launched the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), which was later responsible for the development of the internet. Fifteen months after Sputnik, the Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering (ODDRE) was launched to oversee all defense research. A 36-year-old physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, Herb York, was named head of the Office of the ODDRE. There, he reported directly to the president and was given total authority over all defense research spending.

It was the beginning of a war for technological supremacy. Everyone involved understood that in the nuclear age, the stakes were existential.

It was not the first time the U.S. government had mobilized the country’s leading scientists. World War II had come to be known as “the physicists’ war.” It was physicists who developed proximity bombs and the radar systems that rendered previously invisible enemy ships and planes visible, enabling them to be targeted and destroyed, and it was physicists who developed the atomic bombs that ended the war. The prestige conferred by their success during the war positioned physicists at the top of the scientific hierarchy. With the members of the Manhattan Project now aging, getting the smartest young physicists to work on military problems was of intense interest to York and the ODDRE.

Physicists saw the post-Sputnik era as an opportunity to do well for themselves. Many academic physicists more than doubled their salaries working on consulting projects for the DOD during the summer. A source of frustration to the physicists was that these consulting projects were awarded through defense contractors, who were making twice as much as the physicists themselves. A few physicists based at the University of California Berkeley decided to cut out the middleman and form a company they named Theoretical Physics Incorporated.

Word of the nascent company spread quickly. The U.S.’s elite physics community consisted of a small group of people who all went to the same small number of graduate programs and were faculty members at the same small number of universities. These ties were tightened during the war, when many of those physicists worked closely together on the Manhattan Project and at MIT’s Rad Lab.

Charles Townes, a Columbia University physics professor who would later win a Nobel Prize for his role in inventing the laser, was working for the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) at the time and reached out to York when he learned of the proposed company. York knew many of the physicists personally and immediately approved $250,000 of funding for the group. Townes met with the founders of the company in Los Alamos, where they were working on nuclear-rocket research. Appealing to their patriotism, he convinced them to make their project a department of IDA.

A short while later the group met in Washington D.C., where they fleshed out their new organization. They came up with a list of the top people they would like to work with and invited them to Washington for a presentation. Around 80 percent of the people invited joined the group; they were all friends of the founders, and they were all high-level physicists. Seven of the first members, or roughly one-third of its initial membership, would go on to win the Nobel Prize. Other members, such as Freeman Dyson, who published foundational work on quantum field theory, were some of the most renowned physicists to never receive the Nobel.

The newly formed group was dubbed “Project Sunrise” by ARPA, but the group’s members disliked the name. The wife of one of the founders proposed the name JASON, after the Greek mythological hero who led the Argonauts on a quest for the golden fleece. The name stuck and JASON was founded in December 1959, with its members being dubbed “Jasons.”

The key to the JASON program was that it formalized a unique social fabric that already existed among elite U.S. physicists. The group was elitist, but it was also meritocratic. As a small, tight-knit community, many of the scientists who became involved in JASON had worked together before. It was a peer network that maintained strict standards for performance. With permission to select their own members, the Jasons were able to draw from those who they knew were able to meet the expectations of the group.

This expectation superseded existing credentials; Freeman Dyson never earned a PhD, but he possessed an exceptionally creative mind. Dyson became known for his involvement with Project Orion, which aimed to develop a starship design that would be powered through a series of atomic bombs, as well as his Dyson Sphere concept, a hypothetical megastructure that completely envelops a star and captures its energy.

Another Jason was Nick Christofilos, an engineer who developed particle accelerator concepts in his spare time when he wasn’t working at an elevator maintenance business in Greece. Christofilos wrote to physicists in the U.S. about his ideas, but was initially ignored. But he was later offered a job at an American research laboratory when physicists found that some of the ideas in his letters pre-dated recent advances in particle accelerator design. Dyson’s and Christofilios’s lack of formal qualifications would preclude an academic research career today, but the scientific community at the time was far more open-minded.

JASON was founded near the peak of what became known as the military-industrial complex. When President Eisenhower coined this term during his farewell address in 1961, military spending accounted for nine percent of the U.S. economy and 52 percent of the federal budget; 44 percent of the defense budget was being spent on weapons systems.

But the post-Sputnik era entailed a golden age for scientific funding as well. Federal money going into basic research tripled from 1960 to 1968, and research spending more than doubled overall. Meanwhile, the number of doctorates awarded in physics doubled. Again, meritocratic elitism dominated: over half of the funding went to 21 universities, and these universities awarded half of the doctorates.

With a seemingly unlimited budget, the U.S. military leadership had started getting some wild ideas. One general insisted a moon base would be required to gain the ultimate high ground. Project Iceworm proposed to build a network of mobile nuclear missile launchers under the Greenland ice sheet. The U.S. Air Force sought a nuclear-powered supersonic bomber under Project WS-125 that could take off from U.S. soil and drop hydrogen bombs anywhere in the world. There were many similar ideas and each military branch produced analyses showing that not only were the proposed weapons technically feasible, but they were also essential to winning a war against the Soviet Union.

Prior to joining the Jasons, some of its scientists had made radical political statements that could make them vulnerable to having their analysis discredited. Fortunately, JASON’s patrons were willing to take a risk and overlook political offenses in order to ensure that the right people were included in the group. Foreseeing the potential political trap, Townes proposed a group of senior scientific advisers, about 75 percent of whom were well-known conservative hawks. Among this group was Edward Teller, known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb.” This senior layer could act as a political shield of sorts in case opponents attempted to politically tarnish JASON members.

Every spring, the Jasons would meet in Washington D.C. to receive classified briefings about the most important problems facing the U.S. military, then decide for themselves what they wanted to study. JASON’s mandate was to prevent “technological surprise,” but no one at the Pentagon presumed to tell them how to do it.

In July, the group would reconvene for a six-week “study session,” initially alternating yearly between the east and west coasts. Members later recalled these as idyllic times for the Jasons, with the group becoming like an extended family. The Jasons rented homes near each other. Wives became friends, children grew up like cousins, and the community put on backyard plays at an annual Fourth of July party. But however idyllic their off hours, the physicists’ workday revolved around contemplating the end of the world. Questions concerning fighting and winning a nuclear war were paramount. The ideas the Jasons were studying approached the level of what had previously been science fiction.

Some of the first JASON studies focused on ARPA’s Defender missile defense program. Their analysis furthered ideas involving the detection of incoming nuclear attacks through the infrared signature of missiles, applied newly-discovered astronomical techniques to distinguish between nuclear-armed missiles and decoys, and worked on the concept of shooting what were essentially directed lightning bolts through the atmosphere to destroy incoming nuclear missiles.

The lightning bolt idea, known today as directed energy weapons, came from Christofilos, who was described by an ARPA historian as mesmerizing JASON physicists with the “kind of ideas that nobody else had.” Some of his other projects included a fusion machine called Astron, a high-altitude nuclear explosion test codenamed Operation Argus that was dubbed the “greatest scientific experiment ever conducted,” and explorations of a potential U.S. “space fleet.”

The Jasons’ analysis on the effects of nuclear explosions in the upper atmosphere, water, and underground, as well as methods of detecting these explosions, was credited with being critical to the U.S. government’s decision to sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. Because of their analysis, the U.S. government felt confident it could verify treaty compliance; the treaty resulted in a large decline in the concentration of radioactive particles in the atmosphere.

The success of JASON over its first five years increased its influence within the U.S. military and spurred attempts by U.S. allies to copy the program. Britain tried for years to create a version of JASON, even enlisting the help of JASON’s leadership. But the effort failed: British physicists simply did not seem to desire involvement. Earlier attempts by British leaders like Winston Churchill to create a British MIT had run into the same problems.

The difference was not ability, but culture. American physicists did not have a disdain for the applied sciences, unlike their European peers. They were comfortable working as advisors on military projects and were employed by institutions that were dependent on DOD funding. Over 20 percent of Caltech’s budget in 1964 came from the DOD, and it was only the 15th largest recipient of funding; MIT was first and received twelve times as much money. The U.S. military and scientific elite were enmeshed in a way that had no parallel in the rest of the world then or now.

As it turned and ran the ice axe fell out of his head

Friday, January 6th, 2023

Clint Adams was mountain goat hunting on Alaska’s Baranof Island in October with his friend, Matt Ericksen, his girlfriend, Melody Orozco, and their guide, when he heard the guide yell three words that nobody ever wants to hear in bear country:

“Oh, fuck. Run!”

By the time Adams realized what was happening, his guide was already running past him and reaching for the .375 H&H bolt-action rifle that was slung over his shoulder. Adams’ own rifle was strapped to his pack, and the only weapon at hand was the ice axe he’d been using to claw his way up the mountain. When the big boar chased after the guide and passed within arm’s reach of Adams, he took the ice axe and swung with both hands, burying the pointy end in the bear’s skull just behind its ear.

[…]

Adams then watched as the bear tackled the guide from behind, and the two rolled down to a flat spot below. The guide was on his back trying to shoulder the rifle as the eight- to nine-foot boar reared back on its hind legs. That’s when Adams saw that the axe was still lodged in the bear’s head.

Adams is 6’6” and weighs 285 pounds.

The impaled bear then reared up over the guide, who shouldered his rifle and fired a shot straight up into the air. Adams says he distinctly remembers seeing the muzzle blast ruffle the bear’s fur. The shot spooked the bear just enough for it to step back and hesitate. At this point, Ericksen drew the .357 revolver strapped to his chest and fired three shots at the bear through the brush.

The boar charged the guide again, and the guide leveled his rifle and shot a second time. Ericksen fired two more rounds from his pistol. Adams says they still don’t know if any of those shots even hit the bear, but they all kept screaming and eventually the bear ran off. They never saw the bear again, and although the guide reported the incident, Adams has no idea if the bear died or not. He did, however, get his ice axe back.

“After that second shot [from the guide], the bear looped down and got level with me about 30 yards away,” Adams says. “We’re making a ton of noise at that point, and it bluff charged once or twice. It took two steps forward, two steps back, and as it turned and ran the ice axe fell out of his head.”

[…]

Adams also says the whole experience opened his eyes to how gunshots help stop a charging bear. He says that because they were in dense brush in tight quarters, bear spray would have been useless, and he thinks that the muzzle blast from the guide’s rifle might have deterred the bear even more than the bullet.

“This might sound silly, but after going through that and seeing how the bear responded, I honestly would feel the most safe from a charging bear with a foghorn in my hand,” Adams says. “When I saw that .375 go off, it was not only the sound, but more so it was the air that hit the bear in the face. It was just amazing how that bear reacted when it got hit with the muzzle blast.”

He adds that, in his opinion, if you’re going to carry a pistol in bear country—which, of course, you should—your best would be to carry a 10mm Glock with a 19-round magazine and “make as many bangs as you can.”

Posturing is an important part of fighting. With that in mind, a compensated pistol might be especially effective.

Speaking of Glocks and bears:

Sam Kezar reckons he’d be either dead or disfigured if he hadn’t spent all summer fast-drawing his Glock. He bases that conclusion on a sobering calculus of time and distance—the two seconds required for a Wyoming grizzly bear to cover 20 yards—and the fact that Kezar somehow managed to get off seven shots from his 10mm in that span of time as he was staring terror in the face. As the bear was closing fast, and he was backpedaling into the unknown.

Boucicaut’s Workout du Jour

Friday, December 23rd, 2022

Jean le Maingre, called Boucicaut, (1366-1421) was a French knight known for his rigorous physical training:

And now he began to test himself by jumping onto a courser in full armor. At other times he would run or hike for a long way on foot, to train himself not to get out of breath and to endure long efforts. At other times he would strike with an axe or hammer for a long time to be able to hold out well in armor, and so his arms and hands would endure striking for a long time, and train himself to nimbly lift his arms. By these means he trained himself so well that at that time you couldn’t find another gentleman in equal physical condition. He would do a somersault armed in all his armor except his bascinet, and dance armed in a mail shirt…

When he was at his lodgings he would never ceased to test himself with the other squires at throwing the lance or other tests of war.

I was reminded of this when Ben Espen recently shared this video, demonstrating that plate armor was not especially cumbersome:

Security kept the crowd at least 200 feet from the front of the aircraft

Wednesday, December 14th, 2022

Security was tight when the US Air Force unveiled its new B-21 Raider stealth bomber on December 2, after what happened when the B-2 stealth bomber was revealed:

On November 22, 1988, as armed guards patrolled the tarmac and a Huey helicopter circled overhead, the world got a chance to see the B-2 Spirit — the predecessor of the B-21 in look and function — at the same Palmdale facility.

As with the B-21, spectators were kept at a distance, and only the front of the B-2 could be seen. That was frustrating for those who wanted to see the rear of the B-2, especially the distinctive trailing edges and engine exhausts of the tailless flying-wing bomber, which would give clues to the aircraft’s capabilities and its stealthiness.

[…]

The [Aviation Week] team considered several ideas, including flying a hot-air balloon over the B-2, which was dropped for safety reasons. Eventually they noticed that FAA’s notice to airmen — an alert known as a NOTAM — didn’t restrict flights in the area that were above 1,000 feet.

Aviation Week editor Michael Dornheim and photographer Bill Hartenstein flew a rented Cessna 172 to Palmdale Airport the weekend before the B-2 was unveiled.

“Dornheim performed several circuits and touch-and-gos to allay any potential suspicions from air traffic control, while Hartenstein tried out various telephoto lenses to guarantee he would have the best images of the day,” Aviation Week senior editor Guy Norris wrote this month.

When the big day came, security kept the crowd at least 200 feet from the front of the aircraft, while the low-flying Huey helicopter kept a watchful eye for intruders. But the Cessna circled overhead, unnoticed, as Hartenstein took photo after photo.

When the plane landed, Dornheim and Hartenstein “were just giddy,” Scott said. “They hadn’t got hollered at in any way by ATC [air traffic control] and I told them I hadn’t noticed anyone even looking up!”

The team then raced to meet Thanksgiving week deadlines. Hartenstein’s film was dispatched on an overnight FedEx flight to New York and emerged in the pages of Aviation Week as a beautiful, full-color photo of the B-2 — its trailing edges and exhausts fully visible.

Distance is the primary challenge the US military faces in East Asia

Tuesday, December 13th, 2022

The US is rapidly compensating for the short range of its fighter aircraft, Austin Vernon explains:

China’s response [to the US] is to invest in weapons that keep American planes and ships from getting close to the Chinese mainland. Their strategy is known as anti-access area denial (A2AD). The technological change driving this strategy is cheaper sensors that enable missiles to hit planes and ships hundreds of miles away. Munition effectiveness and logistics intensity dramatically improve. The strategy has an asymmetric advantage since missiles are cheaper than platforms like aircraft carriers.

[…]

Distance is the primary challenge the US military faces in East Asia. The military designed our weapons and supply lines for Europe, where distances are tiny and basing options are numerous. The root cause of the current distress is that carrier strike groups are vulnerable to mass missile attacks and must operate further away from the battle space, causing fighters to lose effectiveness. The two most critical impacted missions are destroying enemy warships and contesting airspace. China can’t invade most of our allies without ships, and ceding the air makes it difficult to kill their ships.

America needs weapons to cover for the deficiency of existing platforms. Opportunities include longer-range missiles, adapting platforms that can operate without carriers, and thwarting missile attacks.

[…]

Long-range stealth bombers are essential for projecting power in East Asia since basing options might be limited, and stealth will be critical to maintaining survivability without persistent fighter cover. The Air Force has gone to great lengths to keep its newest stealth bomber, the B-21, on time and budget. The Air Force Rapid Capability Office manages the program instead of using the traditional procurement process. The project has kept requirements constant, and the design has advanced technology but nothing bleeding edge. For example, the B-21 uses the same engine as the F-35 to save development time and reduce costs. Northrop Grumman also designed the plane to minimize maintenance and sustainment costs. Typically the Air Force and Congress are cutting plane orders due to budget overruns at this point in the process. They are looking at increasing planned B-21 numbers instead. The public rollout happened in December 2022.

It is hard to overstate how important having hundreds of these bombers will be to US power projection in East Asia because they make any Chinese target vulnerable to attack even if carrier aircraft are ineffective.

[…]

Unpowered munitions like gravity bombs and artillery shells are taking a back seat to missiles and rockets as range becomes critical for platform survival. But classical cruise missiles are too expensive for everyday usage. The US and other nations are striving for cheap missiles.

The Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMRLS) rocket that fires from HIMARS and the M270 is a perfect example of the shift. It can hit critical targets far behind enemy lines that are too dangerous for aircraft or too far for tube artillery. Each round costs ~$100,000 – a bargain compared to most cruise missiles that cost millions. The warhead (90 kg) and range (80 km) are smaller than cruise missiles, but the rocket can destroy an ammo depot, troop concentrations, or a headquarters.

Suicide drones or “loitering munitions” are another variation of cheap missiles. The Iranian Shahed-136 costs $20,000-$50,000 and has a 1000+ km range. It sacrifices speed (120 km/h), payload (40 kg), and survivability to achieve cost and range goals. Other drones, like the American Switchblade, serve as squad weapons that improve on mortars.

The Air Force “Gray Wolf” program’s goal was a $100,000 subsonic cruise missile with a 400 km range and a 230 kg warhead. It successfully tested a low-cost engine, and other programs absorbed the follow-on phases. The engine is the Kratos TDI-J85 which can meet the program goals while costing less than $40,000. Kratos already has multiple customers using it for drones and missiles.

Notably, Boeing wants to use the TDI-J85 engine to power its 230 kg JDAM bomb, giving it a 370 km to 750 km range (depending on configuration). The US could lob more QUICKSINK-equipped JDAM cruise missiles in an engagement than the Chinese Navy has vertical launch tubes — all for less than the cost of a frigate. The munition would be 1/10 the price of a Harpoon Block II anti-ship missile with double the range.

[…]

A quirk of the US military is that the Army is responsible for most ground-based missile defense, even on Air Force bases, leading to incentive mismatches. The Navy, which faces an existential threat in anti-ship missiles, has had an automated battle management system in AEGIS for forty years. The Army is trying to field a similar protocol with its Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) to manage air defense radars and weapons.

[…]

It isn’t hard to shoot down low-end suicide drones, but it can be expensive. Saudi Arabia regularly shoots down Iranian Shaheds with million-dollar air defense missiles. Classic anti-aircraft guns with modern fire control have proven effective in Ukraine, and bullets are much cheaper than drones. Vehicles like the German Gephard are great when defending a wide area because the drones are so slow that vehicles can redeploy to shoot them down.

In East Asia, the US will be defending relatively small positions. One or two Centurion Counter Rocket Artillery Rocket (C-RAM) Gatling guns could probably defend Andersen Air Force Base on Guam.

[…]

Ballistic missiles are a top threat to carriers and US bases in the region. Base hardening, more ammo for existing anti-ballistic missile systems, denying the Chinese intel on ship and aircraft positions, and gaining early warning of Chinese strikes are critical to defending against these weapons.

Bases in Okinawa would be under constant threat from cruise missiles, but only China’s priciest ballistic missiles can reach Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base. Airfields are notoriously hard to take offline. Munitions designed to crater runways only keep a base offline for a few hours. The US has made recent improvements at Andersen AFB, like armoring fuel lines, adding a hardened maintenance hanger, and making fuel bladders available to replace damaged storage tanks.

The worst-case scenario is a surprise attack that kills personnel and destroys aircraft on the ground. The Air Force plans to use smaller dispersal bases to keep the Chinese guessing where the planes are. Investments in better dispersal options and more base hardening (like aircraft shelters for bases on Okinawa) would be beneficial. It would be a win if the Chinese waste their limited amounts of $10-$20 million ballistic missiles to crater a few runways.

The Chinese will find it harder to target Navy ships since they move. Even the fanciest missile is useless if you can’t find the carriers. If a conflict does escalate to space, China will quickly lose its ability to spot the US fleet with satellites. The Navy would expend incredible effort to splash any drones or submarines trying to break into the Pacific to find strike groups. Our carriers could have more freedom of movement than assumed.

The US has invested heavily in ballistic missile defense over the last few decades. There is typically a battery of THAAD missile interceptors deployed in Guam. And the Navy can fire SM-3 and SM-6 missiles at incoming threats. The record for these systems in testing and limited combat use is exemplary, with 90%+ success rates. They are also cheaper than the high-end Chinese missiles they counter. The only issue is that there might not be enough missiles in the theater to counter saturation attacks. Manufacturing more missiles and keeping an adequate number of AEGIS-guided missile ships in East Asia is critical. A credible active defense would force the Chinese to shoot their most valuable missiles in wasteful barrages that drain their missile inventory.

[…]

The AIM-260 air-to-air missile is a fast-track program nearing completion. It nearly doubles the range of the mainstay AIM-120 and is ~20% faster. That allows it to exceed the performance of the Chinese J-15 air-to-air missiles and gives our fighters extra legs. Low-rate production could already be underway.

Having more missiles in the air to handle Chinese mass attacks is also critical. An idea floated by the Pentagon and analysts is to equip bombers with long-range air-to-air missiles, allowing them to act like a missile magazine to support frontline fighters.

The AGM-88 HARM missile is the primary weapon for US aircraft to counter surface-to-air missile batteries. It homes in on their radar signals and forces the enemy to turn off their radar and move or eat a missile. A new extended-range version is faster and can go up to 300 km, allowing US fighters and bombers to counter longer-range surface-to-air missiles.

[…]

Cargo planes loaded with thousands of missiles or QUICKSINK JDAMs free up bombers to hit challenging targets like command and control bunkers or hardened bases and let tankers focus on getting the maximum amount of fighters into the battle to clear the skies.

[…]

Drones can absorb some fighter roles and make them more productive. But the current crop of inexpensive drones that highlight conflicts in Ukraine or Armenia are poorly suited for the Indo-Pacific theater. Most US bases are thousands of kilometers from Taiwan, eliminating smaller drones and quadcopters. Slow drones like TB-2 or Predator are not survivable in contested airspace. Drones must be expendable or much more capable to add value to US power projection.

One example is the RQ-180. The Air Force has never acknowledged its existence, but the rumors and evidence are strong that it exists. It replaces the Global Hawk in the high altitude, theater-wide surveillance mission. The Global Hawk has close to zero survivability and can’t function against near-peer threats. The RQ-180 is a flying wing like the B-2 and is stealthy, allowing it to operate in contested airspace. It likely costs hundreds of millions per copy, but small drones can’t replace it.

The Scan Eagle and its successor, the RQ-21 Blackjack, are current “attritable” surveillance drones. They are capable aircraft with high-end sensors, the ability to laser designate targets, and 16 hours of loiter time. The Navy and Marines have hundreds but want to replace them. Newer drones in this class have vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability, allowing them to ditch expensive launching/landing systems. Software flies the drones and soldiers only input waypoints. The competition is fierce, with AeroEnvironment’s Jump 20 and Shield AI’s V-Bat as examples. These drones are more capable than the RQ-21 at a fraction of the acquisition and operating cost, costing less than $1 million per unit even at low rate production. A limitation is they can’t stray more than ~150 km from the base station. Some obvious solutions are to use StarLink, drone relays, or autonomous software that can broadcast findings over the tactical data net. Much of the cost is in sensors, less expensive ones would make the drones more expendable. Production could ramp up fast because scrappy companies are the prime contractors.

[…]

Tankers and aerial refueling are the backbones of the US Air Force’s power projection, especially in East Asia. They are nearly as critical for the Navy. Tanker vulnerability is one reason why 24/7 combat air patrols over Taiwan from bases or carriers further than Guam are challenging. Fueling the patrols would stretch the tanker force thin while exposing them to Chinese attack. The Chinese Air Force could “lose the battle, but win the war” by bull rushing the few fighters on station, running them out of missiles, then splashing the string of valuable tankers leading back to US bases.

Castle design assumes the enemy will reach the walls

Thursday, December 1st, 2022

The battlements along the top of a castle wall were designed to allow a small number of defenders to exchange fire effectively with a large number of attackers, and in so doing to keep those attackers from being able to “set up shop” beneath the walls:

The goal is to prevent the enemy operating safely at the wall’s base, not to prohibit approaches to the wall. These defenses simply aren’t designed to support that much fire, which makes sense: castle garrisons were generally quite small, often dozens or a few hundred men. While Hollywood loves sieges where all of the walls of the castle are lined with soldiers multiple ranks deep, more often the problem for the defender was having enough soldiers just to watch the whole perimeter around the clock (recall the above example at Antioch: Bohemond only needs one traitor to access Antioch because one of its defensive towers was regularly defended by only one guy at night). It is actually not hard to see that merely by looking at the battlements: notice in the images here so far often how spaced out the merlons of the crenellation are. The idea here isn’t maximizing fire for a given length of wall but protecting a relatively small number of combatants on the wall. As we’ll see, that is a significant design choice: castle design assumes the enemy will reach the walls and aims to prevent escalade once they are there; later in this series we’ll see defenses designed to prohibit effective approach itself.

The totokia was intended to peck holes in skulls

Thursday, November 24th, 2022

The Tusken Raiders in the original Star Wars wield a peculiar weapon that Luke calls a gaffi stick. It turns out that the gaderffii is based on the Fijian totokia:

According to Fiji material culture scholar Fergus Clunie who describes it as a beaked battle hammer (in Fijian Weapons and Warfare, 1977: p. 55), “…the totokia was intended to ‘peck’ holes in skulls.” The weight of the head of the club was concentrated in the point of the beak of the weapon or kedi-toki (toki to peck; i toki: a bird’s beak). The totokia “…delivered a deadly blow in an abrupt but vicious stab, not requiring the wide swinging arc demanded by the others.” (Yalo i Viti. A Fiji Museum Catalogue, 1986: p. 185) It was a club that could be used in open warfare or to finish-off or execute warriors on the battlefield.

Totakia and Gaffi Stick

It can hear tracked vehicles and feel them coming

Thursday, October 20th, 2022

The US Army is developing a smart anti-tank mine that detects the sounds of enemy vehicles and then destroys them with an armor-piercing slug — from above:

“It can ‘hear’ tracked vehicles and feel them coming,” an Army researcher said in a press release. “When it does, it uses a mechanism that starts tracking the vehicle. When the threat-tracked vehicle is a certain distance away, the XM204 will shoot a submunition into the air to fire the warhead down at the target within its zone of authority.”

A Textron executive told Jane’s that each XM204 weighs about 80 pounds. The acoustic sensor detects oncoming vehicles and a Doppler radar pinpoints a vehicle’s exact location.

It turns out there wasn’t a next Palantir or SpaceX

Friday, October 7th, 2022

Anduril is a rare, paradoxical creation, Mario Gabriele argues: a defense contractor that moves like a startup, a software business disguised as a seller of hardware, and a weapons manufacturer, in pursuit of peace:

Anduril is a company that few in Silicon Valley thought needed to exist. Because of the foresight of Trae Stephens and Palmer Luckey, America and its allies have a software-first defense provider capable of impacting current conflicts.

[…]

Before joining Palantir in 2008, Stephens had spent time at the offices of Ohio congressman Rob Portman and the Afghan embassy in Washington D.C. His public sector work seemed to skew towards the technical, with Stephens “building enterprise solutions to Arabic/Persian name matching” for the Intelligence community. Stephens used and bolstered this experience as part of his six-year stint at Palantir.

While venture capital rarely draws from defense backgrounds, there is an exception: Founders Fund. Established by Peter Thiel, Ken Howery, and Luke Nosek in 2005, Founders Fund holds a unique position at the nexus of Silicon Valley and Washington D.C, thanks to Thiel’s co-founding of Palantir and particular geopolitical worldview. The firm was early to back SpaceX (one of the few recent startups to secure meaningful governmental contracts), while Ken Howery went on to serve as ambassador to Sweden during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Stephens was a neat fit at Founders Fund, as was his mission to find the next great defense business. SpaceX and Palantir had made significant impacts, but they were the rarest of exceptions. By and large, venture-backed startups had failed to disrupt the established patterns of the public sector in general and military in particular. Stephens was hopeful a new generation of entrepreneurs would change that.

Despite his best efforts, Stephens came up empty-handed. “I didn’t find anything,” he said. With the benefit of hindsight, the investor noted there wasn’t a business he had overlooked: “There was nothing to miss. It turns out there wasn’t a next Palantir or SpaceX.”

Though Stephens didn’t find a ready-made defense startup during this period, he did meet a founder who would play a starring role in Anduril’s creation: Palmer Luckey.

A year before Stephens started his venture career, Luckey set out to raise a Series A for his virtual-reality startup, Oculus. He found a willing partner in Founders Fund, who became the company’s “first institutional investor,” per Stephens.

It took little time for that faith to pay off. By March the following year, Facebook announced it had acquired Oculus for approximately $2 billion in a mix of cash and stock. Barely twenty years old, Luckey was suddenly a wealthy man.

Around the time of that acquisition, Stephens and Luckey got to know one another, discovering themselves to be somewhat kindred spirits. “He was super interested in national security,” Stephens said of Luckey. That fascination pre-dated Luckey’s creation of Oculus. Indeed, while working at Bravemind, an organization that uses VR to treat veterans with PTSD, Luckey first created a prototype of his revolutionary headset.

For the next three years, Stephens and Luckey stayed in touch. By 2017, much had changed for them both. In March of that year, Facebook fired Luckey, a decision he claimed was politically motivated, catalyzed by a $10,000 donation he had made to pro-Trump “shitposting” organization, Nimble America.

Meanwhile, Stephens had reached an impasse in his search for a modern defense prime contractor (a “prime”). It was increasingly clear that if he wanted such an organization to emerge, he would have to build it himself. He made his pitch to Luckey, explaining the status quo as he saw it. In particular, Stephens saw two major shifts to which America’s military had failed to adapt:

  1. The shift to software. Defense technology had traditionally been hardware first. Stephens was confident that future wars would be defined by software that worked in concert with intelligent devices and machinery.
  2. The brain-drain. In previous eras, the military could reliably attract the best technical talent. Historic minds like John von Neumann lent their abilities to branches of the armed forces. That is no longer the case. Today, many of the best technologists work at companies like Google and Meta. “We’re not in a position where our best and brightest are working on national security,” Stephens said.

Luckey was impressed with Stephens’ diagnosis and proposed cure. “He was super excited about it,” the investor recalled. The two began work on the company that would come to be called “Anduril.” As with many Thiel-affiliated entities (see: Palantir, Valar, Mithril), the business took its moniker from Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s books, “Andúril” is the name of a mythical sword which means “Flame of the West” in elven tongue.

[…]

On June 6, 2017, Anduril’s founders officially set to work on its first product: a sentry tower that leverages artificial intelligence to monitor border crossings. “It was totally Palmer’s idea,” Stephens said, noting that Luckey had sketched prototypes before Anduril had gotten off the ground. It can take years for a defense contractor to ship a new product; Anduril had its sentry tower in the field within six months.

[…]

Despite the unpopularity of its work, Anduril kept shipping. It followed the sentry tower with sensors, drones, and autonomous submarines. Though these products represented hardware innovations, the heartbeat of Anduril’s work was its orchestrating software system, Lattice.

[…]

The software system acts as a command hub, pulling in information from sensors, drones, and other field assets. Using artificial intelligence and computer vision, Lattice constructs a live, detailed view of a battlefield, accessible via computer, tablet, or VR headset. Critically, Lattice is built such that it can sync with assets made by other companies. It is an open system that seeks to play nicely with third parties.

In addition to intuitively presenting important information, Lattice streamlines decision-making. It does so by offering potential next moves. For example, if a field sensor identifies an enemy drone, it will show up on Lattice along with a prompt to intercept it. In the push of a button, an operative can decide to send an asset to meet and disable it.

That date marks one of the most creative periods of conceptual design for any fighter aircraft

Wednesday, October 5th, 2022

When the F-22 design team struggled to meet its weight and unit-cost goals, it decided to step back and open up the design to more fundamental changes:

“After a bloody debate, we agreed to trash the current design and start over,” says Mullin. “Over that weekend, we brought in a new director of design engineering, Dick Cantrell, flew in people, and started a ninety-day fire drill. Work started on Monday 13 July. That date marks one of the most creative periods of conceptual design for any fighter aircraft. We looked at different inlets, different wings, and different tail combinations. One configuration had two big butterfly tails and looked somewhat like the F-117, though people did not know that since the F-117 was still highly classified. The configuration search was wide open, but the biggest single change that resulted from it was to go with diamond-shaped wings.”

The concentrated configuration search began with a slew of possible designs. The search complicates the numbering scheme considerably, as diamond wings, twin tails (two tails instead of four), various inlet shapes, and various forebody shapes were all considered and reconsidered simultaneously in the summer of 1987.

[…]

“The fundamental reason for going to a diamond wing was that it provided the lightest configuration and gave us the best structural efficiency and all the control power we needed for maneuvering,” Mullin explains. “The biggest consideration was its light weight. Weight drove the decision.”

“A diamond wing has more square feet of surface area, but is more structurally efficient,” adds Renshaw. “The longer root chord provides a more distributed load path through the fuselage. Multiple bulkheads carry the bending loads. The design provides more opportunity to space the bulkheads around the internal equipment. It also provides more fuel volume.”

“The structural engineers wanted a diamond wing because it provides a larger root chord, which carries bending moments better,” Hardy notes. “The aerodynamicists wanted a trapezoidal wing because it provides more aspect ratio, which is good for aerodynamics. Dick Heppe, the president of Lockheed California Company, made the final decision, and he was right. The aerodynamics were not all that different, but the structure and weights were significantly better. So we went to a diamond shape. The big root chord, though, moved the tails back. Eventually we even had to notch the wing for the front of the tails. If the tails moved farther back, they would fall off the airplane.”

Once the wings were set with Configuration 614, subsequent configurations dealt with the tail arrangement. “We spent a lot of wind tunnel time looking at the tails,” recalls Lou Bangert, the chief engineer for engine integration from Lockheed. “From late 1987 to early 1988, we were engaged in what we called ‘the great tail chase.’ We knew we would have four tails, but where they would go was a big deal. A small change in location often made a huge difference. We had to look at performance effects, stealth effects, stability and control, and drag at the same time. The tail arrangement and aft end design were important design considerations for all of these effects.”

Wind tunnel results showed an ultra-sensitive relationship between the placement of the vertical tails and the design of the forward fuselage. The interactions could not be predicted accurately by analysis or by computational fluid dynamics. The airflow over the forebody at certain angles of attack affects the control power exerted by the twin rudders on the vertical tails. Getting the airflow right was critical.

The cant and sweep angles of the vertical tails could not be altered too much because such changes increased radar signature. In finding a suitable arrangement, the control system designers were constrained by the radar signature requirements to moving the tail locations laterally or longitudinally and to shrinking or enlarging them while holding the shape essentially constant. By the end of the dem/val phase, the team had accumulated around 20,000 hours in the wind tunnel. A lot of this time was devoted to tail placement studies.

Everything wants to be at the center of gravity

Monday, October 3rd, 2022

The basic challenge of designing the F-22 was to pack stealth, supercruise, highly integrated avionics, and agility into an airplane with an operating range that bettered the F-15, the aircraft it was to replace:

“One problem we typically face when trying to stuff everything inside an airplane is that everything wants to be at the center of gravity,” Hardy explains. “The weapons want to be at the center of gravity so that when they drop, the airplane doesn’t change its stability modes. The main landing gear wants to be right behind the center of gravity so the airplane doesn’t fall on its tail and so it can rotate fairly easily for takeoffs. The fuel volume wants to be at the center of gravity, so the center of gravity doesn’t shift as the fuel tanks empty. Having the center of gravity move as fuel burns reduces stability and control. We also had to hide the engine face for stealth reasons. So, these huge ducts had to run right through the middle of real estate that we wanted to use for everything else. The design complexities result in specialized groups of engineers arguing for space in the airplane. That was the basic situation from 1986 through 1988.”

Corbett regarded total command of the sea with skepticism

Sunday, October 2nd, 2022

Ukraine’s success in contesting the skies turns the West’s airpower paradigm on its head, because it offers an alternative vision for pursuing airspace denial over air superiority:

In rethinking America’s approach to airpower, pundits should look to Mahan’s contemporary, the British naval theorist Sir Julian Corbett. Corbett regarded total command of the sea with skepticism, arguing the “most common situation in naval warfare is that neither side has the command.” He favored a relative, rather than an absolute, interpretation of command of the sea, calling for a “working command,” delimited in time or space — “sea control” in today’s parlance. Similarly, Douhet’s absolute rule of the skies may be desirable, but air forces may get by with more limited control of the airspace, or temporary and localized air superiority.

For Corbett, the corollary of sea control is sea denial. If a navy is not strong enough to gain command of the sea, he argued, it could still attempt to limit or deny the other side ability to make use of the sea. He referred to this concept as “disputing command,” and offered two main methods: a “fleet in being” and “minor counterattacks.” He envisioned an active defense, in which a smaller navy could avoid battle but still remain threatening as a “fleet in being” by staying active and mobile. “The idea,” he explained,” was “to dispute control by harassing operations, to exercise control at any place or at any [opportune] moment … and to prevent the enemy from exercising control in spite of his superiority by continually occupying his attention.” Additionally, an inferior navy could conduct minor counterattacks, or hit-and-run strikes, to try to take undefended ships out of action.

Corbett’s strategy of denial in the naval realm is pertinent to the air domain as well. Ukraine has used mobility and dispersion to maintain its air defenses as a “force in being.” Operating a mix of Cold-War era, Soviet-made mobile surface-to-air missile systems Ukrainian defenders on the ground have kept Russian aircraft at bay and under threat. To do so they have used the long range S-300 family, medium range SA-11s, and short range SA-8 Gecko systems. Exploiting dispersion and mobility, as Corbett advised, Ukrainian air defenders have used “shoot and scoot” tactics, firing their missiles and quickly moving away from the launch site. “The Ukrainians continue to be very nimble in how they use both short and long-range air defense,” a senior Pentagon official concluded. “And they have proven very effective at moving those assets around to help protect them.”

Mounted on tracked vehicles, Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile systems are fleeting targets. Given the danger of flying over Ukraine, Russia relies largely on standoff sensors to find radar targets, lengthening the time required to engage Ukraine’s mobile systems. After firing, the defender can turn off the radar, pack up and drive away to hide in the ground clutter — forests, buildings, etc. During the Gulf War in 1991, the U.S.-led coalition hunted Iraq’s truck-mounted Scud missiles, but even with the advantage of air superiority, it still failed to achieve a single confirmed kill. In the skies over Ukraine, Russian aircraft are not only the hunter but also the hunted, further complicating the task of finding and destroying them.

As a result, there is a deadly “cat-and-mouse” game between Russian aircraft and Ukrainian air defenses. The Oryx open-source intelligence site reports that, since the start of the war, 96 Russian aircraft have been destroyed, including at least nine Sukhoi Su-34 and one Su-35 — equivalents to the American F-15. Ukraine started the war with a total of 250 S-300 launchers, but 11 weeks later, the Russians have only managed to knock out 24 of them, at least so far as Oryx has confirmed with photos and videos. Given how Ukrainian officials carefully manage information about their losses, caution is needed in drawing conclusions from our limited information about them. Still these figures suggest that the Russians are only able to attrite a small portion of the threat, and, compared to radar and battery command vehicles, the less important part at that. The best evidence may be Russian behavior itself. As a senior Pentagon official argued, “And one of the reasons we know … [Ukraine’s air defenses are] working is because we continue to see the Russians wary of venturing into Ukrainian air space at all and if they do, they don’t stay long … And I think … that speaks volumes …”

Thirty-one percent of the gun owners said they had used a firearm to defend themselves or their property

Tuesday, September 20th, 2022

The largest and most comprehensive survey of American gun owners ever conducted, based on a representative sample of about 54,000 adults, 16,708 of whom were gun owners, suggests that Americans use firearms in self-defense about 1.7 million times a year:

The overall adult gun ownership rate estimated by the survey, 32 percent, is consistent with recent research by Gallup and the Pew Research Center. So is the finding that the rate varies across racial and ethnic groups: It was about 25 percent among African Americans, 28 percent among Hispanics, 19 percent among Asians, and 34 percent among whites. Men accounted for about 58 percent of gun owners.

Because of the unusually large sample, the survey was able to produce state-specific estimates that are apt to be more reliable than previous estimates. Gun ownership rates ranged from about 16 percent in Massachusetts and Hawaii to more than 50 percent in Idaho and West Virginia.

The survey results indicate that Americans own some 415 million firearms, including 171 million handguns, 146 million rifles, and 98 million shotguns. About 30 percent of respondents reported that they had ever owned AR-15s or similar rifles, which are classified as “assault weapons” under several state laws and a proposed federal ban. Such legislation also commonly imposes a limit on magazine capacity, typically 10 rounds. Nearly half of the respondents (48 percent) said they had ever owned magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.

Those results underline the practical challenges that legislators face when they try to eliminate “assault weapons” or “large capacity” magazines. The survey suggests that up to 44 million AR-15-style rifles and up to 542 million magazines with capacities exceeding 10 rounds are already in circulation.

Those are upper-bound estimates, since people who reported that they ever owned such rifles or magazines may have subsequently sold them. But even allowing for some double counting, these numbers suggest how unrealistic it is to suppose that bans will have a significant impact on criminal use of the targeted products. At the same time, widespread ownership of those products by law-abiding Americans makes the bans vulnerable to constitutional challenges.

Two-thirds of the respondents who reported owning AR-15-style rifles said they used them for recreational target shooting, while half mentioned hunting and a third mentioned competitive shooting. Sixty-two percent said they used such rifles for home defense, and 35 percent cited defense outside the home. Yet politicians who want to ban these rifles insist they are good for nothing but mass murder.

[…]

Thirty-one percent of the gun owners said they had used a firearm to defend themselves or their property, often on multiple occasions. As in previous research, the vast majority of such incidents (82 percent) did not involve firing a gun, let alone injuring or killing an attacker. In more than four-fifths of the cases, respondents reported that brandishing or mentioning a firearm was enough to eliminate the threat.

That reality helps explain the wide divergence in estimates of defensive gun uses.

[…]

About half of the defensive gun uses identified by the survey involved more than one assailant. Four-fifths occurred inside the gun owner’s home or on his property, while 9 percent happened in a public place and 3 percent happened at work. The most commonly used firearms were handguns (66 percent), followed by shotguns (21 percent) and rifles (13 percent).