Published on 30 Nov 2015
William “Billy” Bishop was not only the top Canadian flying ace but also one of the most successful flying aces of World War 1. With 72 confirmed victories, he soon became the fear of the German Jagdstaffeln who actually put a bounty on his head and called him Hell’s Handmaiden. Surviving one of the bloodiest theatres of war, the sky above the Western Front, Billy Bishop’s skill made him a national hero.
December 1, 2015
November 26, 2015
Back in 2010, the British government published the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which I joked should properly have been called the “Slashing Damage to Strategic Resources” plan. Back then, the strategic picture was fairly undisturbed with no obvious rising threats, but the economy was still in bad shape. That meant that the RN, RAF, and the army had to cut, cut, cut (and cut some more). The next version of that document has just been published and this time it’s been joined to the National Security Strategy in a single document. Patrick Bury looks at how things have changed from SDSR 2010 to the new NSSSDSR 2015:
On Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled Britain’s new National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review in the House of Commons. It marked the first time the United Kingdom has undertaken a review of its strategy and security within the new five-year schedule. This edition is also notable in that it combines the National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which were previously two separate documents. True to its name, the NSS outlines the perceived threats to Britain and its vision for dealing with them, while the SDSR details how the armed forces are configured to execute this vision.
These developments point to a realization in the United Kingdom that it must be more flexible and responsive in terms of setting strategy and defense priorities. After introducing the NSS in 2010 in the wake of criticism that Britain “couldn’t do strategy,” the Conservative government clearly feels it now makes sense to present both policies in a single document. Similarly, the overarching tone of the document is one of internationality. Britain clearly believes it will be working with the United States and France especially closely in the future. But what is inside, and what does it mean?
The NSS related-chapters outline the usual myriad of threats commonly listed in the post-Cold War era. Based on the security services’ National Security Risk Assessment, these threats are then classed into tiers. Tier One risks are the highest priority based on high likelihood and/or high impact. Reflecting the impact of threats and hazards, and the development of risks since 2010, the latest assessment includes a greater number of Tier One risks than in 2012. These are listed in order as terrorism, cyber, international military conflict (rising since 2010), instability overseas (Tier Two in 2010), public health (a new addition), and natural disasters. Interestingly, the general erosion of international order and resulting chaos also makes a more significant appearance.
Here’s the quick overview of what is promised this time around:
One area that looks concerning is that the British government appears to be considering replicating the Canadian experiment with merging the military services into a “unified” structure:
Tying all these developments together, this SDSR is notable for its underlying shift towards viewing Britain’s smaller services as a single force, as unveiled in the new Joint Force 2025. Over the next decade, the core of the Joint Force will be based around an expeditionary force of around 50,000 (compared with around 30,000 planned in 2010’s Future Force 2020) and is set to include a new F-35 equipped aircraft carrier, “a land division with three brigades including a new Strike Force; an air group of combat, transport and surveillance aircraft,” and a special forces task group. Of course, the Whole Force concept underpins jointness, but one gets the sense that future SDSRs may well pave the way for the merging of all three services into one force in the name of flexibility and in the search for efficiencies. Another interesting nuance was the primacy of special forces in the document – above that of the Royal Navy which is the senior service – perhaps an indication of why the government is investing an extra £2 billion ($3 billion) in its equipment as well. The number of staff at GCHQ (the signal-intelligence agency), MI5 and MI6 (the domestic and foreign intelligence services) is to also increase by 1,900.
Despite this SDSR unveiling the first major investment, rather than reductions, in the United Kingdom’s security forces for about 25 years, there are a number of noticeable gaps. The first concerns its people. The army remains at its smallest size since the Napoleonic era; recruitment and retention is a problem across British defense; and it remains to be seen if the government’s Spending Review released tomorrow will better the terms and conditions of service. Without the right people in the right place, all the fancy kit in the world is not much use. The message is also clear that rapid-reaction forces are in fashion, and boots on the ground and long-term counter-insurgency operations are out, at least for now. The now bit is important: with a lot of these investments and the Joint Force structure not scheduled for delivery for ten years, there is plenty of scope to adjust or change course entirely between now and then. Which is exactly how the Brits do long-term strategy. Nevertheless, this SDSR is clearly intended to show that Britain wants to remain in the top tier of international powers over the coming decade.
November 11, 2015
A simple recognition of some of our family members who served in the First and Second World Wars:
The Great War
- Private William Penman, Scots Guards, died 1915 at Le Touret, age 25
(Elizabeth’s great uncle)
- Private David Buller, Highland Light Infantry, died 1915 at Loos, age 35
(Elizabeth’s great grandfather)
- Private Walter Porteous, Northumberland Fusiliers, died 1917 at Passchendaele, age 18
(my great uncle)
- Corporal John Mulholland, Royal Tank Corps, died 1918 at Harbonnieres, age 24
(Elizabeth’s great uncle)
The Second World War
- Flying Officer Richard Porteous, RAF, survived the defeat in Malaya and lived through the war
(my great uncle)
- Able Seaman John Penman, RN, served in the Defensively Equipped Merchant fleet on the Murmansk Run (and other convoy routes), lived through the war
- Private Archie Black (commissioned after the war and retired as a Major), Gordon Highlanders, captured at Singapore (aged 15) and survived a Japanese POW camp
- Elizabeth Buller, “Lumberjill” in the Women’s Land Army in Scotland through the war.
- Trooper Leslie Taplan Russon, 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, died at Tobruk, 19 December, 1942 (aged 23).
A recently discovered relative. Leslie was my father’s first cousin, once removed (and therefore my first cousin, twice removed).
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD Canadian Army Medical Corps (1872-1918)
August 30, 2015
Argentina is, once again, suffering the consequences of populist-but-incompetent governance, and the state of the armed forces clearly reflect the economic woes of the country. Last year, Rowan Allport contrasted the Argentinian military in the late 1970s leading up to the Falkland War with the hollow shell of today:
It is difficult to believe from the vantage point of 2014, but in 1978, Argentina came within hours of invading Chile. The scheme arose as a result of a conflict between the two countries regarding the ownership of the Picton, Nueva and Lennox islands, which are situated at the western entrance to the Beagle Channel – a waterway running between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The plan envisaged the seizure by the Argentine military of these and a number of other islands, to be followed shortly after by an invasion of mainland Chile, with the intent of capturing the capital Santiago and other key population centres. From this position, the Argentine leadership believed that it would be in an unassailable position to force Chile into a beggar’s peace regarding its territorial demands. Whilst the operation was ultimately aborted at the last minute, it was the then government’s belief that Buenos Ares had the ability to exercise hard power on a substantial scale – together the domestic economic crisis it was experiencing – that ultimately led it to once again travel down the path of aggression with the invasion of the British-governed Falkland Islands in 1982. Although Argentina did not expect the British to attempt to retake the territory and ultimately lost the conflict, its armed forces were – in addition to performing the initial amphibious assault which captured the islands – able to deploy a carrier group, surface action groups and submarines into the South Atlantic, and managed to inflict significant losses on the British using modern anti-ship weapons and a substantial fleet of jet aircraft.
Flashing forward over three decades, the Argentine Armed Forces find themselves in a calamitous state. The depleted Argentine Navy rarely puts to sea, is desperately short of spare parts, and much of the ordinance carried by its ships is past its expiration date. 2012 saw the training ship ARA Libertad seized in Ghana on the orders of a hedge fund seeking reparations from the Argentinian government [blogged here]. Shortly afterward, the corvette ARA Espora was stranded in South Africa for seventy-three days after the German company hired to repair a mechanical fault refused to carry out the work as a result of the Argentine government’s unpaid bills. Then, in a final indignity, 2013 saw the sinking of the decommissioned destroyer ARA Santísima Trinidad in port as a consequence of poor maintenance [blogged here]. The Argentine Air Force largely consists of a collection of obsolete aircraft mostly dating back to the 1970s, which are frequently grounded due to poor serviceability. The Argentine Army has deployed on operations without some of even the most basic equipment and rarely has the resources for training.
So how did this situation arise? As with most such calamities, the root causes are both financial and political. The story of Argentina’s economic fall from grace – both historical and contemporary – is well known. In 1914, Argentina was the tenth wealthiest country in the world, but a century later it has fallen to fifty-fourth place. The last three decades has seen the country careen from crisis to crisis. During the 1980s, Argentina was crippled by inflation and external debt. The free market reforms begun under President Carlos Menem allowed a short reprieve, but a succession of financial crises in Mexico, Brazil, Russia and South East Asia during the 1990s – combined with a failure to tackle numerous underlying domestic economic issues and corruption – sowed the seeds of further catastrophe. In 1998, Argentina’s economy fell into a depression, climaxing with the largest debt default in human history. Though a commodities boom and a currency devaluation allowed room for a brief recovery, the increasing use of interventionist economic policies by the government, along with the 2008 global financial crash and attempts by so-called ‘vulture funds’ to obtain payment for debts on which Argentina had previously defaulted led the country back into crisis, forcing another default in 2014.
So how bad is it now? Argentina is being forced to retire the last of their supersonic jet fighters because they can neither maintain nor replace them:
According to IHS Janes
“The Argentine Air Force is drastically cutting staff working hours and decommissioning its last fighter aircraft amid continuing budget issues.
A recently published daily agenda indicates that the service’s working hours have been significantly reduced, from 0800 to 1300; rationing of food, energy consumption, and office supplies has been directed headquarters staff and property residents; and only the minimum personnel required to staff headquarters, directorates, and commands are working.
These orders, issued on 11 August, take effect 18 August. A next step will cut Monday and Tuesday as working days. Moreover, air force officials said any aircraft taken out of service will not undergo maintenance for now.”
This leaves the Argentine military with just two types of jet aircraft A-4’s and IA-63’s and both are subsonic, decades old and barely serviceable. Argentina had looked into buying new Gripen’s from Sweden via Brazil but this was vetoed by the United Kingdom which makes a large number of internal components for the aircraft. They had also looked at JF-17’s from China, but the JF-17s proved too expensive to modify.
August 25, 2015
Okay, I poke a bit of fun … there are defenders of the F-35 who are funded by other stakeholders … I kid, I kid! Here’s a contrarian take by Think Defence justifying the UK’s F-35 commitment:
In the 7 years I have been dribbling my thoughts into Think Defence there are a few things on which I have been consistent; the ISO container is the greatest invention since the Bailey Bridge, commonality is not a dirty word, logistics are critically important, and, the F-35B is worth it.
Yet to be discovered tribes in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest could not have failed to notice the untrammelled hype that surrounds the F-35 in general, and the STOVL F-35B in particular. The amount of coverage is staggering, some of it informed, some of it not. Being developed under the un-staring eye of social media and a long line of people who seem to live for being critical has exposed every developmental misstep to ruthless criticism. Reports are often selectively quoted, conclusions drawn without context, over-simplification of complex subjects is rife and correlation confused with causation.
It is also an extremely polarising aircraft, read anything on-line and it seems you are either a Lockheed Martin shill or thick as mince critic who knows nothing.
I suspect, the reality is somewhere between, whilst the F-35 is not the cure for cancer, it is not cancer either.
Although I have written about the F-35B many times, including this 5 part series, this is the first for a while
Into this toxic environment I go, a look at the F-35B.
August 23, 2015
Published on 19 Aug 2013
Falklands Crisis was a 1982 war between Argentina and the United Kingdom. The conflict resulted from the long-standing dispute over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which lie in the South Atlantic, east of Argentina.
H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.
August 16, 2015
Ashley Pomeroy attended the Yeovilton Air Day event, one of the last flying events for the last of the Vulcans. She took along her camera to capture some rather interesting images:
Off to the Yeovilton Air Day, with an infrared camera and a bottle of pop. This year the Avro Vulcan retires for the third and final time. Like Lazarus, it was raised from the dead; and like Lazarus it is fated to die again, this time forever.
The Vulcan entered service in the 1950s. Its original mission was to incinerate Russians – tens of thousands of them – with our nuclear bombs. In practice this never came to pass, and the only people incinerated by Vulcans were Argentine ground crew, six of them, during the Falklands War of 1982. The Vulcan was retired from service almost immediately afterwards. It remained in flight as a display aircraft until 1993, at which point the expense of keeping a jet bomber in the air became too great.
What’s it like to see a Vulcan dancing in the sky? In an airshow context the experience is somewhat muted, because regulations prevent it from flying overhead. The pilot can only make long passes parallel with the crowd line plus some wingovers. The Vulcan’s low wing loading gave it superb high-altitude performance – I imagine that the likes of the F-86 or MiG-15 would have found it an incredibly hard gun target – but this doesn’t help at an airshow. Nonetheless, when the pilot gunned the engines it was like being punched in the chest, and I could feel a collective grin from the crowd, although I was too far from the car park to hear the car alarms going off.
August 8, 2015
SF author (and former US Army officer) Tom Kratman answers a few questions about drones, artificial intelligence, and the threat/promise of intelligent, self-directed weapon platforms in the near future:
Ordinarily, in this space, I try to give some answers. I’m going to try again, in an area in which I am, at least at a technological level, admittedly inexpert. Feel free to argue.
Question 1: Are unmanned aerial drones going to take over from manned combat aircraft?
I am assuming here that at some point in time the total situational awareness package of the drone operator will be sufficient for him to compete or even prevail against a manned aircraft in aerial combat. In other words, the drone operator is going to climb into a cockpit far below ground and the only way he’ll be able to tell he’s not in an aircraft is that he’ll feel no inertia beyond the bare minimum for a touch of realism, to improve his situational awareness, but with no chance of blacking out due to high G maneuvers..
Still, I think the answer to the question is “no,” at least as long as the drones remain under the control of an operator, usually far, far to the rear. Why not? Because to the extent the things are effective they will invite a proportional, or even more than proportional, response to defeat or at least mitigate their effectiveness. That’s just in the nature of war. This is exacerbated by there being at least three or four routes to attack the remote controlled drone. One is by attacking the operator or the base; if the drone is effective enough, it will justify the effort of making those attacks. Yes, he may be bunkered or hidden or both, but he has a signal and a signature, which can probably be found. To the extent the drone is similar in size and support needs to a manned aircraft, that runway and base will be obvious.
The second target of attack is the drone itself. Both of these targets, base/operator and aircraft, are replicated in the vulnerabilities of the manned aircraft, itself and its base. However, the remote controlled drone has an additional vulnerability: the linkage between itself and its operator. Yes, signals can be encrypted. But almost any signal, to include the encryption, can be captured, stored, delayed, amplified, and repeated, while there are practical limits on how frequently the codes can be changed. Almost anything can be jammed. To the extent the drone is dependent on one or another, or all, of the global positioning systems around the world, that signal, too, can be jammed or captured, stored, delayed, amplified and repeated. Moreover, EMP, electro-magnetic pulse, can be generated with devices well short of the nuclear. EMP may not bother people directly, but a purely electronic, remote controlled device will tend to be at least somewhat vulnerable, even if it’s been hardened,
Question 2: Will unmanned aircraft, flown by Artificial Intelligences, take over from manned combat aircraft?
The advantages of the unmanned combat aircraft, however, ranging from immunity to high G forces, to less airframe being required without the need for life support, or, alternatively, for a greater fuel or ordnance load, to expendability, because Unit 278-B356 is no one’s precious little darling, back home, to the same Unit’s invulnerability, so far as I can conceive, to torture-induced propaganda confessions, still argue for the eventual, at least partial, triumph of the self-directing, unmanned, aerial combat aircraft.
Even, so, I’m going to go out on a limb and go with my instincts and one reason. The reason is that I have never yet met an AI for a wargame I couldn’t beat the digital snot out of, while even fairly dumb human opponents can present problems. Coupled with that, my instincts tell me that that the better arrangement is going to be a mix of manned and unmanned, possibly with the manned retaining control of the unmanned until the last second before action.
This presupposes, of course, that we don’t come up with something – quite powerful lasers and/or renunciation of the ban on blinding lasers – to sweep all aircraft from the sky.
July 18, 2015
If so, you’ll want to read all of Shashank Joshi‘s recommendations (full disclosure … I haven’t actually read any of the linked sites myself):
Peter Mattis’ explanation of what one should read to be an expert on China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) made me wonder: What might a similar list look like for India-watchers? Western interest in India’s armed forces is considerably slighter, largely because India looms far smaller in U.S. strategic thinking and is viewed as a potential partner rather than probable military adversary. But there’s a large and growing volume of writing on Indian military affairs, almost all of it in English, with cutting-edge books or articles appearing every month. So where should one begin?
Each service has its own doctrine and/or strategy — most recently the army in 2004, the navy in 2009 (remarkably, it is not available online), and the air force in 2012 (the official link is — perhaps aptly — perpetually broken, but you can get it here) — but these are of limited use, not least because they’re not written in close coordination with other services or with a coherent national military strategy in mind. So most analyses depend on secondary texts, occasional statements by serving officers, and writing by retirees.
June 12, 2015
Published on 11 Jun 2015
Reginald Warneford is important to Britain’s war effort. Not just because he shot down a German zeppelin, but because he is made a hero in times when heroes are needed. He receives a Victoria Cross soon after his victory because the commanders know about the average life span of pilots in World War 1. Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarian army digs into the alpine rocks to fend of the Italian Attackers and Gallipoli continues to be a butchery without any progress.
June 7, 2015
Allied fighter-bombers continued to attack not only front-line positions, but also any supply trucks coming up behind with food, ammunition and fuel. The almost total absence of the Luftwaffe to contest the enemy’s air supremacy continued to provoke anger among German troops, although they often resorted to black humour. “If you can see silver aircraft, they are American,” went one joke. “If you can see khaki planes, they are British, and if you can’t see any planes, then they’re German.” The other version of this went, “If British planes appear, we duck. If American planes come over, everyone ducks. And if the Luftwaffe appears, nobody ducks.” American forces had a different problem. Their trigger-happy soldiers were always opening fire at aircraft despite orders not to because they were far more likely to be shooting at an Allied plane than an enemy one.
Anthony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, 2009.
May 21, 2015
At The Register, Lester Haines explains why the trust that operates XH558 is having to ground the aircraft permanently:
The Vulcan To The Sky Trust has announced “with considerable sadness” that this summer will be the public’s last chance to catch Avro Vulcan XH558 thundering through British skies, as the legendary V-bomber will be permanently grounded at the end of this flying season.
The trust explains that the axe will fall because “three expert companies on whom we depend – known as the ‘technical authorities’ – have together decided to cease their support at the end of this flying season”.
At the heart of their decision are two factors. First, although we are all confident that XH558 is currently as safe as any aircraft flying today, her structure and systems are already more than ten percent beyond the flying hours of any other Vulcan, so knowing where to look for any possible failure is becoming more difficult. These can be thought of as the ‘unknown unknown’ issues, which can be impossible to predict with any accuracy. Second, maintaining her superb safety record requires expertise that is increasingly difficult to find.
Keeping XH558 in the air has been an epic undertaking, and not without wing-and-a-prayer moments involving last-minute injections of cash.
May 12, 2015
Published on 11 May 2015
World War 1 saw several completely new technologies develop rapidly. The airplane itself was only a few years old but pioneering engineers soon saw its potential for military use. For recognisance and later as fighter or bomber, World War 1 had huge impact on aviation and warfare in general. This special episode gives you an idea about the obstacles that had to be overcome.
March 1, 2015
Scott Lincicome would like to point out to the contending Republicans hoping to become the GOP’s presidential candidate that defence spending is not immune to the massive overspending problem common to big government:
Over the next 20 months, a clown-car-full of Republican politicians will vie for their party’s presidential nomination. As the candidates crisscross the nation, each will undoubtedly call for smarter, leaner, and (hopefully) smaller government. However, there is one government program that, despite being a paragon of government incompetence and mind-bending fiscal incontinence, will most likely be ignored by these champions of budgetary temperance: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In so doing, these Republicans will abandon their principles and continue a long, bipartisan tradition of perpetuating the broader problems with U.S. defense spending that the troubled jet symbolizes.
During the Obama years, the Republican Party magically rediscovered its commitment — at least rhetorically — to limited government and fiscal sanity. Criticizing the graft, incompetence, and cost of boondoggles like the 2009 stimulus bill, green-energy subsidies, or Obamacare, GOP politicians not only highlighted these programs’ specific failings, but also often explained how such problems were the inevitable result of an unwieldy federal government that lacked discipline and accountability and was inherently susceptible to capture by well-funded interest groups like unions or insurance companies.
They railed against massive bureaucracies, like the Department of Energy, that paid off cronies with scant congressional oversight. And, in the case of well-publicized debacles like the botched, billion-dollar Healthcare.gov roll-out, many Republicans were quick to note that the root of the problem lay not in one glitchy website, but the entire federal procurement process, and even Big Government itself
One wonders, however, if these Republicans’ philosophical understanding of Big Government’s inherent weaknesses extends to national defense and, in particular, the F-35. According to the latest (2012) estimate from the Pentagon, the total cost to develop, buy and operate the F-35 will be $1.45 trillion — yes, trillion, with a “t” — over the next 50 years, up from a measly $1 trillion estimated in 2011. For those of you keeping score at home, this means that the F-35’s lifetime cost grew about $450 billion in one year. (Who says inflation is dead?)
That number — $1.45 trillion — might be difficult to grasp, especially in the context of U.S. defense spending, so let me try to put it in perspective: the entire Manhattan Project, which took around three years and led to the development of the atom bomb, cost a total of $26 billion (2015), most of which went to “building factories and producing the fissile materials, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons.” By contrast, the F-35 will cost $29 billion. Per year.
For the next 50 years.
February 16, 2015
Think Defence looks back at an anti-invasion project to deny airfields to German forces along the southeast coast of England after the Dunkirk evacuation and onset of the Battle of Britain:
A method was also sought to deny the runway to enemy gliders and transport aircraft and so the Canadian Pipe Mine was devised by the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company. 50-70mm steel pipes were inserted into the ground using hydraulic pipe pushing equipment and laid in a criss cross pattern about 6ft under the surface. They were subsequently filled with explosives, usually a blasting gelignite called ‘Polar Blasting Gelignite’ which was very powerful.
They were also called McNaughton Tubes after the GOC of 1 Canadian Division who according to his biographer got the idea for using hydraulic rams from bootleggers who used the method for creating an offsite distribution point for their whiskey!
Only 9 airfields were identified for mining initially but this rose to include other locations, by the end of 1942, after the threat of invasion had receded, 30 locations were mined, not all of them airfields. It is estimated that over 40,000ft of pipe mines were installed.
During the war some of the pipe mines were made safe and removed because of the deterioration of the explosive filler but most were left in situ. After the war Canadian engineers were tasked with removal but it seems from reading different sources that records were incomplete and some doubt exists whether the clearance activity was completed. Additional clearance efforts were made, one that resulted in the death of a Ukrainian worker at one of the locations.