Quotulatiousness

April 10, 2014

Chiles, peppers, and world trade before globalization

Filed under: Americas, Economics, History, India — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:53

ESR linked to an interesting discussion of the spread of chile peppers and other exotic spices from the Roman empire onwards:

Can you imagine a world without salsa? Or Tabasco sauce, harissa, sriracha, paprika or chili powder?

I asked myself that question after I found a 700-year-old recipe for one of my favorite foods, merguez — North Africa’s beloved lamb sausage that is positively crimson with chiles. The medieval version was softly seasoned with such warm spices as black pepper, coriander and cinnamon instead of the brash heat of capsicum chile peppers — the signature flavor of the dish today.

The cuisines of China, Indonesia, India, Bhutan, Korea, Hungary and much of Africa and the Middle East would be radically different from what they are today if chiles hadn’t returned across the ocean with Columbus. Barely 50 years after the discovery of the New World, chiles were warming much of the Old World. How did they spread so far, so fast? The answers may surprise you — they did me!

I learned that Mamluk and Ottoman Muslims were nearly as responsible for the discovery of New World peppers as Columbus — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The global pepper saga begins in the first millennium bce with the combustible career of another pepper — black pepper (Piper nigrum) and its cousins, Indian long pepper and Javanese cubeb. Although Piper nigrum was first grown on the Malabar Coast in India, the taste for it enflamed the ancient world: No matter what the cost — and it was very high — people were mad for pepper. The Romans, for example, first tasted it in Egypt, and the demand for it drove them to sail to India to buy it. In the first century, Pliny complained about the cost: “There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces.”

In one sense, the whole global system of trade — the sea and land routes throughout the known world that spread culture and cuisine through commerce — was engaged with the appetite for pepper, in its growth, distribution and consumption.

Dried chiles shipped well worldwide. From top-left: New World Capsicum annuum varieties include guajillo, ancho and New Mexico; a smaller Capsicum frutescens variety called “birdseye” chiles spread wild in Africa after birds spread their seeds from early gardens, and they are now common also in Southeast Asia; “Indian” chiles are among the most common varieties in India, which today grows and exports more chiles than any other nation. Bottom-left: Three popular capsicum peppers that took root in the Middle East—Maraş, Urfa and Aleppo, shown below in their flaked form—are used in dishes throughout the region. Bottom-right: Fresh serrano, poblano and ripe jalapeño peppers.

Dried chiles shipped well worldwide. From top-left: New World Capsicum annuum varieties include guajillo, ancho and New Mexico; a smaller Capsicum frutescens variety called “birdseye” chiles spread wild in Africa after birds spread their seeds from early gardens, and they are now common also in Southeast Asia; “Indian” chiles are among the most common varieties in India, which today grows and exports more chiles than any other nation. Bottom-left: Three popular capsicum peppers that took root in the Middle East — Maraş, Urfa and Aleppo, shown below in their flaked form — are used in dishes throughout the region. Bottom-right: Fresh serrano, poblano and ripe jalapeño peppers.

ESR said in his brief G+ posting:

More about the early and very rapid spread of capsicum peppers in the Old World than I’ve ever seen in one place before.

I also didn’t know they were such a nutritional boon. It appears one reason they became so entrenched is they’re a good source of Vitamin C in peasant cuisines centered around a starch like rice. My thought is that moderns may tend to miss this point because we have so much better access to citrus fruits and other very high-quality C sources.

The bit about paprika having been introduced to Hungary by the Ottomans was also particularly interesting to me. This was less than 30 years after they had reached the Old World.

March 8, 2014

RCN’s Joint Support Ships behind schedule and over budget

Filed under: Cancon, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:07

Terry Milewski reports on the state of Canada’s shipbuilding program for the Royal Canadian Navy, and it’s not pretty:

An internal government memo obtained by CBC News shows that all four parts of the government’s huge shipbuilding program are either over budget, behind schedule, or both.

Written Oct. 7 last year by the deputy minister of national defence, Richard Fadden, the memo shows that three of those four programs also face “major challenges” of a technical nature, as well as difficulties lining up skilled manpower to get the ships built at all.

The memo, released to the CBC following an Access to Information request, leaves little doubt that Canada’s crippled supply ship, HMCS Protecteur, won’t be replaced before the year 2020.

The spectacle of the 46-year-old Protecteur, Canada’s only supply ship in the Pacific, being towed into Honolulu after an engine-room fire has thrown the lack of a replacement into sharp focus. Although there’s a plan to build two new supply ships, there’s no sign the work will even begin until late 2016. That means a new one won’t enter service until the end of the decade.

JSS and AOPS building status March 2014

A chart summarizing the state of the shipbuilding effort uses green and yellow squares to indicate where those problems are — the green meaning, on track, and yellow meaning, trouble — and there’s a lot of yellow.

For the Joint Support Ships — that’s the pair of supply ships — the chart shows trouble with both the schedule and the price. The memo explains that this means the program is up to 20 per cent behind schedule and up to 10 per cent over budget.

As I’ve said many times before, the Canadian government is managing to get the least possible bang for the buck on shipbuilding because they view the shipbuilding program as a regional economic development scheme (and a way of funneling money to marginal constituencies) rather than as an essential part of keeping the RCN properly equipped. It’s pretty obvious in this case:

Take the supply ships. “Yellow” suggests they’re over budget, but doesn’t indicate what the budget should be. But comparisons with Canada’s allies could raise eyebrows even further.

Britain, for example, opted to build its four new naval supply ships much more cheaply, at the Daewoo shipyard in South Korea. The contract is for roughly $1.1 billion Cdn. That’s for all four. By contrast, Canada plans to build just two ships, in Vancouver, for $1.3 billion each. So Canada’s ships will be roughly five times more costly than the British ones.

But there’s a twist. Canada’s supply ships will also carry less fuel and other supplies, because they’ll be smaller — about 20,000 tonnes. The U.K. ships are nearly twice as big — 37,000 tonnes. Canadians will lay out a lot more cash for a lot less ship.

February 16, 2014

Winter ice approaching modern record on the Great Lakes

Filed under: Cancon, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:43

In USA Today, Eric Lawrence talks about the ongoing cold weather’s impact on the Great Lakes:

“In the last one to two weeks, we’ve seen rapid accumulations on Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan,” said Jeff Andresen, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s geography department who also is the state climatologist.

The ice cover on the lakes increased from 79.7% to 88.4% just in the past week, putting the region close to the record of almost 95% set in February 1979, according to data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

The extensive ice cover has had some interesting and positive effects, like shutting off lake-effect snow, making it sunnier in portions of states near the lakes and limiting evaporation, which could help boost lake levels.

And the ice cover could help delay the spring warm-up — good news for farmers as it helps keep certain crops, like fruit trees, dormant longer and less susceptible to freezing early in the growing season — Andresen said.

Conversely, it’s bad news for the shipping industry, whose vessels can’t go anywhere when the ports are frozen solid.

The winter of 2013-14 also is shaping up to be one of the five coldest, at least in Michigan’s recorded history, Andresen said, although it’s still early to say for certain.

“We haven’t seen many winters like this that are cold from beginning to end,” he said, noting that this is the fourth consecutive month that is colder than normal. “It has been an extraordinary winter, and the ice cover is a manifestation of that unusually cold winter.”

He cautioned that temperatures forecast in the 40s next week could hurt the chances to break an ice-cover record.

January 24, 2014

A Danish solution to the high cost of modern warships

Filed under: Europe, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:47

Developments like this should be of great interest to the Royal Canadian Navy:

… constrained budgets in America and Europe are prompting leading nations to reconsider future needs and explore whether new ships should be tailored for what they do every day, rather than what they might have to do once over decades.

The solution: extreme flexibility at an affordable price for construction and operation.

Here the Danes have emerged as a clear leader by developing two classes of highly innovative ships designed to operate as how they will be used: carrying out coalition operations while equipped to swing from high-end to low-end missions.

The three Iver Huitfeldt frigates and two Absalon flexible support ships share a common, large, highly efficient hull to yield long-range, efficient but highly flexible ships that come equipped with considerable capabilities — from large cargo and troop volumes and ample helo decks for sea strike and anti-submarine warfare — in a package that’s cheap to buy and operate. The ships come with built-in guns, launch tubes for self-defense and strike weapons, and hull-mounted sonar gear, and they can accept mission modules in hours to expand or tailor capabilities. The three Huitfeldts cost less than $1 billion.

The ships also are coveted during coalition operations for their 9,000-mile range at 15 knots, excellent sea-keeping qualities and command-and-control gear, plus spacious accommodations for command staffs. That’s why the Esbern Snare, the second of two Absalon support ships, is commanding the international flotilla in the Eastern Mediterranean that will destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.

Wikipedia has this image of the HDMS Iver Huitfeldt:

HDMS Iver Huitfeldt during a port visit in Århus, 20 January 2012

HDMS Iver Huitfeldt during a port visit in Århus, 20 January 2012

The class is built on the experience gained from the Absalon-class support ships, and by reusing the basic hull design of the Absalon class the Royal Danish Navy have been able to construct the Iver Huitfeldt class considerably cheaper than comparable ships. The frigates are compatible with the Danish Navy’s StanFlex modular mission payload system used in the Absalons, and are designed with slots for six modules. Each of the four Stanflex positions on the missile deck is able to accommodate either the Mark 141 8-cell Harpoon launcher module, or the 12-cell Mark 56 ESSM VLS.

While the Absalon-class ships are primarily designed for command and support roles, with a large ro-ro deck, the three new Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates will be equipped for an air defence role with Standard Missiles, and the potential to use Tomahawk cruise missiles, a first for the Danish Navy.

For contrast here is the HDMS Esbern Snare, the second ship in the Absalom class:

Danish Navy Combat Support Ship HDMS Esbern Snare in the port of Gdynia, prior to exercise US BALTOPS 2010.

Danish Navy Combat Support Ship HDMS Esbern Snare in the port of Gdynia, prior to exercise US BALTOPS 2010.

That’s not to say that these particular ships would be a good fit for the RCN, but that the approach does seem to be viable (sharing common hull configurations and swappable mission modules). However, the efficiencies that could be achieved by following this practice would almost certainly be swamped by the political considerations to spread the money out over as many federal ridings as possible…

H/T to The Armourer for the link.

January 7, 2014

Fortunate wind shift helps free trapped Antarctic vessels

Filed under: China, Environment — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:19

AntarcticaBBC News updates us on the situation:

The Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese icebreaker Xue Long have broken free from Antarctic ice where they had been stranded for several days.

The Russian ship’s captain said a crack had appeared in the ice after a change in wind direction.

The Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck on 25 December. It has a Russian crew of 22.

On Thursday, the Xue Long‘s helicopter ferried 52 passengers from the stranded Russian ship to an Australian vessel.

The Xue Long then became stuck itself on Friday.

[...]

A US Coastguard icebreaker, Polar Star, is heading towards the two ships, responding to an earlier request for help. It left Sydney, Australia, on Sunday and will take a week to get there.

The Akademik Shokalskiy got trapped by thick floes of ice driven by strong winds about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart in Tasmania. It was being used by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 2013 to follow the route explorer Douglas Mawson travelled a century ago.

January 6, 2014

US icebreaker dispatched to assist Chinese icebreaker in Antarctic

Filed under: China, Environment, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:02

AntarcticaThe Australian is reporting that the US Coast Guard’s Polar Star is enroute to assist the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long and the chartered Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy:

The US Coast Guard’s Polar Star accepted a request from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) to help the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been marooned since Christmas Eve.

It will also aid the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which was involved in a dramatic helicopter rescue of the Shokalskiy’s 52 passengers last Thursday before also becoming beset by ice.

AMSA confirmed the Polar Star, which was on its way from Seattle for an Antarctic mission, had diverted course and was on its way to help.

It will take about seven days for the icebreaker, with a crew of 140 people, to reach Commonwealth Bay after collecting supplies from Sydney today.

The AMSA spokeswoman said the Polar Star had greater capabilities than the Russian and Chinese vessels.

“It can break ice over six metres thick, while those vessels can break one-metre ice,” she told AAP on Sunday.

“The idea is to break them out, but they will make a decision once they arrive on scene on the best way to do this.” AMSA will be in regular contact with the US Coast Guard and the captain of the Polar Star during its journey to Antarctica.

Twenty-two crew remain on board the Shokalskiy, which sparked a rescue mission after a blizzard pushed sea ice around the ship and froze it in place on December 24.

A U.S. Coast Guard HH-52A Seaguard helicopter landing on the icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10).

A U.S. Coast Guard HH-52A Seaguard helicopter landing on the icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10).

January 4, 2014

Antarctic climate researchers still not home-free

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:59

AntarcticaRemember the story about the Australian climate researchers trapped in the Antarctic ice? The good news from a few days back — that all the passengers of the MS Akademik Shokalskiy (including researchers, tourists, and journalists, but not the crew) had been successfully transferred to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis is now overshadowed because the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long which also responded to the SOS call is now itself also trapped in the ice:

The saga just keeps going. The Chinese Icebreaker is now also stuck, and has asked for help so the Aurora Australis with 52 extra passengers rescued from the Russian Charter boat have to stay nearby to help. Twenty two Russian sailors are still trapped on board the Russian boat — the Akademik Sholaskiy. Plus other scientists in Antarctica still don’t have their equipment. Costs for everyone involved are continuing to rise.

In The Australian, Graham Lloyd‘s paywalled article begins with this:

TAXPAYERS will foot a $400,000 bill for the rescue of a group of climate scientists, tourists and journalists from a stranded Russian research vessel — an operation that has blown the contingency budget of Australia’s Antarctic program and disrupted its scientific work. The Antarctic Division in Hobart said it was revising plans and considering airlifting urgently needed scientific equipment that could not be unloaded from Aurora Australis before the ship was diverted from the Casey base to rescue the novice ice explorers just before Christmas.

The Sydney Morning Herald posted this short video earlier in the week, before the Aurora Australis had gotten close enough to take on the passengers from the Akademik Sholaskiy:

Update: The head of French antarctic research is unhappy with the tourists’ disruption to actual science work:

The head of France’s polar science institute voiced fury on Friday at the misadventures of a Russian ship trapped in Antarctic ice, deriding what he called a tourists’ trip that had diverted resources from real science.

In an interview with AFP, Yves Frenot, director of the French Polar Institute, said he had no issue at all with rescuing those aboard the stricken vessel.

But, he said, the trip itself was a “pseudo-scientific expedition” that, because it had run into difficulties, had drained resources from the French, Chinese and Australian scientific missions in Antarctica. “There’s no reason to place Antarctica off-limits and to keep it just for scientists, but this tourism has to be monitored and regulated so that operators can be sure of getting help if need be,” he said.

January 1, 2014

The hazards facing the Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:25

AntarcticaThe Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) has run into far harsher sea and ice conditions than they’d banked on, and it raises questions about the scientific validity of the expedition:

The purpose of the AAE expedition was to take a science team of 36 women and men south to discover just how much change has taken place at Mawson Station over 100 years. The expedition was also intended to replicate the original AAE led by explorer Sir Douglas Mawson a century ago, in 1913. The new expedition was to be led by Prof. Chris Turney, a publicity-hungry professor of climate change at Australia’s University of New South Wales.

Antarctic-AAE

Also the expedition was designed to generate lots of publicity. Along the scientists and ship’s crew were 4 journalists from leading media outlets who would feed news regularly, and later report extensively on the results and findings. All this in turn would bring loads of attention to a region that is said to be threatened by global warming. The AAE’s donation website even states that the expedition’s purpose is to collect data and that the findings are “to reach the public and policy makers as soon as possible“.

But expeditions of this type are expensive and funding is not always easy to come by. Costs can run in the millions as special equipment is needed to handle the extremely harsh conditions of the South Pole. Downplaying the conditions to justify cost-cutting by using lower grade equipment rapidly jeopardizes safety.

Inadequate, bargain-price research vessel

The first error expedition leaders made was under-estimating the prevailing sea ice conditions at Mawson Station, their destination. The scientists seemed to be convinced that Antarctica was a warmer place today than it had been 100 years earlier, and thus perhaps they could expect less sea ice there. This in turn would allow them to charter a lighter, cheaper vessel.

This seems to be the case judging by their choice of seafaring vessel. They chartered a Russian vessel MS Akademik Shokalskiy, an ice-strengthened ship built in Finland in 1982. According to Wikipedia the ship has two passenger decks, with dining rooms, a bar, a library, and a sauna, and accommodates 54 passengers and a crew of up to 30. Though it is ice-reinforced, it is not an ice-breaker. This is a rather surprising selection for an expedition to Antarctica, especially in view that the AAE website itself expected to travel through areas that even icebreakers at times are unable to penetrate, as we are now vividly witnessing. Perhaps the price for chartering the Russian vessel was too good to pass up.

Luring naïve tourists as a source of cash

What made the expedition even more dubious is that Turney and his team brought on paying tourists in what appears to have been an attempt to help defray the expedition’s costs and to be a source of cheap labor. According to the AAE website, the expedition was costed at US$1.5 million, which included the charter of the Akademik Shokalskiy to access the remote locations. “The site berths on board are available for purchase.” Prices start at $8000!

The expedition brought with it 4 journalists, 26 paying tourists.

Update, 2 January: An editorial in The Australian after news came out that all of the 52 passengers had been rescued from the ice-bound Akademik Shokalskiy:

YOU have to feel a touch of sympathy for the global warming scientists, journalists and other hangers-on aboard the Russian ship stuck in impenetrable ice in Antarctica, the mission they so confidently embarked on to establish solid evidence of melting ice caps resulting from climate change embarrassingly abandoned because the ice is, in fact, so impossibly thick.

[...]

Professor Turney’s expedition was supposed to repeat scientific investigations made by Douglas Mawson a century ago and to compare then and now. Not unreasonably, it has been pointed out Mawson’s ship was never icebound. Sea ice has been steadily increasing, despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s gloomy forecasts. Had the expedition found the slightest evidence to confirm its expectation of melting ice caps and thin ice, a major new scare about the plight of the planet would have followed. As they are transferred to sanctuary aboard the icebreaker Aurora Australis, Professor Turney and his fellow evacuees must accept the embarrassing failure of their mission shows how uncertain the science of climate change really is. They cannot reasonably do otherwise.

The 22 crew members will stay on board the vessel until it can be released from the ice (or until another rescue effort needs to be mounted).

December 2, 2013

Sea level changes during recorded history

Filed under: Environment, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:50

Some interesting points in this guest post by Robert W. Endlich:

Sea level changes over relatively recent geologic and human history demonstrate that alarmist claims do not withstand scrutiny. Sea levels rose significantly after the last ice age, fell during the Little Ice Age, and have been rising again since the LIA ended around 1850. In fact, Roman Empire and Medieval port cities are now miles from the Mediterranean, because sea levels actually fell during the Little Ice Age.

[...]

Those rising oceans created new ports for Greek and Roman naval and trade vessels. But today many of those structures and ruins are inland, out in the open, making them popular tourist destinations. How did that happen? The Little Ice Age once again turned substantial ocean water into ice, lowering sea levels, and leaving former ports stranded. Not enough ice has melted since 1850 to make them harbors again.

The ancient city of Ephesus was an important port city and commercial hub from the Bronze Age to the Minoan Warm period, and continuing through the Roman Empire. An historic map shows its location right on the sea. But today, in modern-day Turkey, Ephesus is 5 km from the Mediterranean. Some historians erroneously claim “river silting” caused the change, but the real “culprit” was sea level change.

Ruins of the old Roman port Ostia Antica, are extremely well preserved – with intact frescoes, maps and plans. Maps from the time show the port located at the mouth of the Tiber River, where it emptied into the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Battle of Ostia in 849, depicted in a painting attributed to Raphael, shows sea level high enough for warships to assemble at the mouth of the Tiber. However, today this modern-day tourist destination is two miles up-river from the mouth of the Tiber. Sea level was significantly higher in the Roman Warm Period than today.

An important turning point in British history occurred in 1066, when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. Less well-known is that, when William landed, he occupied an old Roman fort now known as Pevensey Castle, which at the time was located on a small island in a harbor on England’s south coast. A draw bridge connected it to the mainland. Pevensey is infamous because unfortunate prisoners were thrown into this “Sea Gate,” so that their bodies would be washed away by the tide. Pevensey Castle is now a mile from the coast – further proof of a much higher sea level fewer than 1000 years ago.

November 28, 2013

Poking holes in the proposed Scottish defence plans

Filed under: Britain, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:07

Sir Humphrey says he’s neutral on the political issue of Scottish separatism, but he has a few professional criticisms of the fleet plan contained within the white paper:

At a most basic level, the paper appears to fall foul of what can be described as the ‘fantasy fleet’ syndrome so often found on the internet. In other words, people have taken an order of battle, hived of a reasonable sounding level of equipment and assumed that this would make a good defence force. That’s a great theory, but in reality its likely to be far more complicated than this.

For starters, the British Armed Forces are the product of hundreds of years of evolution, procurement and support. They operate a closely integrated set of equipment, underpinned by a well developed training network, and supported by a very complex set of support contracts to ensure availability. Due to the numbers and amounts of equipment in service, costs can be calculated using economies of scale, and planned workflow, in a way that smaller sized support cannot.

A nascent SDF would find itself operating a truly eclectic collection of units which are not necessarily the most appropriate for its situation. For instance, the proposal that the Navy takes on two Type 23 frigates seems a little odd. The Type 23 is one of the worlds most advanced anti-submarine warfare escorts, and designed to be a submarine killer par excellence. To use it to best effect requires a well trained crew, who have a range of extremely specialised skills. Assuming that no one is forced at independence to join the SDF, the challenge will be recruiting and retaining a core of niche skills to actually employ the vessel in her intended manner. This includes the engineers, weapon systems maintainers, the warfare department and those with the skills and experience at all ranks and rates to use the vessel in its intended manner.

[...]

Similarly, the issue of maintenance will be a complex one. There are no T23s based in Scotland, which means that a great deal of money will be spent creating a permanent support facility for the class in Scotland. In these circumstances the SDF will need to negotiate and establish support contracts, similar to the ones used by the RN, and pay to put in place the complex web of support arrangements in order to keep the vessels available for service. In a small procurement and support budget, it is hard to see where the money will come from for this sort of activity.

The sheer running costs of the vessels will also be a challenge — on average it costs about £20 million per year (source THEY WORK FOR YOU) to keep a Type 23 at sea, and about £3 million for MCMVs and patrol craft. To keep the Scottish Navy afloat, you are looking at an annual running cost of around £60 million — before you consider salary costs of the crew and the shore support infrastructure to go with it. On a relatively small budget of £2.5 billion, it is easy to see how much of a cost it would be just to keep the ships at sea, let alone deploy them.

In a sense, the white paper’s defence plan does appear to have been drawn up with an eye toward “order of battle” and “table of equipment” that would create — on paper, anyway — a scaled-down version of the RN, RAF, and British army. That isn’t the sensible approach for an independent Scotland’s defence needs. The first thing they should have done is analyze what practical tasks their defence forces would be required to undertake, then consider the most cost-effective way to build and equip an organization to accomplish those tasks.

When I was a child, I was obsessed with toy soldiers. I had hundreds and hundreds of them from various eras from Roman versus Celt down to 8th Army versus Afrika Korps. When setting up my “battles”, it was always the soldiers with the cool kit who got to be the heroes: stirring combat poses and cooler weapons were my selection criteria. When I moved on to building models, the same characteristics dictated the particular models I built: more heavily armed ships, bigger tanks, more weapon-studded aircraft. The authors of this portion of the white paper appear to have had similar childhoods … and they’re still influenced by the same selection criteria. What sense does it make for Scotland’s defence forces to operate Type 23 frigates and Typhoon aircraft? They’re cool kit, but do they accomplish the primary protective duties for Scotland cost-effectively? Almost certainly not.

Scotland has a large coastline and significant offshore assets to protect, but it isn’t likely to need the hugely expensive (and admittedly very capable) kit that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force need to accomplish their wider tasks. Scotland’s navy is much more likely to end up resembling a strong coastguard than a battle fleet, and their air force will probably not be equipped with top-of-the-line fighter aircraft (especially not F-35 or Typhoon fighters) as they would eat a hugely disproportional share of the defence budget for capabilities the Scots don’t actually need.

I strongly suspect the best course of action for Scotland (in the event of a successful independence vote) would be to negotiate a short-to-medium term deal with the rest of the UK to provide military units to Scotland as an interim solution while a sensible Scottish organization was built-up to take on those roles. It might sting the pride of nationalists to admit that they can’t afford to take on the full trappings of an independent state immediately, but it would be far more practical (and far less expensive) than carving off “their share” of the UK’s existing military.

October 31, 2013

Canada’s shipbuilding strategy – the worst of both worlds

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:15

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) both are badly in need of new ships. The federal government has been aware of this for quite some time and has made plenty of announcements about addressing those needs … but the actual steps taken do not give me hope that the needs will be met economically or in a timely fashion. Canada no longer has a domestic ship-building industry with experience in producing military vessels, and it does not make economic sense to re-create it for the relatively small number of ships the RCN and the CCG actually need.

Politically, it can be a good election ploy to pour lots of government money into new shipyards which will employ hundreds of skilled and unskilled workers. The newly employed will be spending their salaries in Halifax, Vancouver, and Quebec and the visible signs of construction (both of the facilities themselves and of the hulls of the ships) will be a steady reminder to voters that the feds are investing in their cities. From the political viewpoint, it makes lots of sense to design and build the ships in Canada.

Economically, the situation is quite different. None of the remaining shipbuilding firms have the trained staff for either designing or assembling modern military ships. They’ll need to expand their yards and hire new skilled workers to take on the contracts. The civilian economy probably does not have all the necessary trained would-be employees ready to hire, so many would need to be brought in from other countries while training courses eventually turn out enough Canadians able to take those jobs. This will all increase the cost of the shipbuilding program, and delay the already belated eventual delivery of the ships. J.L. Granatstein explains:

The government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy aims to provide Arctic patrol ships, supply vessels and eventually replacements for the RCN’s fine frigates, as well as a large icebreaker and 10 smaller ships for the Coast Guard. The cost, including the frigate replacement, is estimated at $80 billion, and the process involves re-establishing the nation’s shipyards in Vancouver and Halifax, in effect re-creating a defunct industry. Up to 15,000 jobs are to be created.

But this is Canada, so pork and high costs are inevitable. National Defence and Public Works are deeply involved, politicians’ hands are all over the plans, and costs are sky-high. Consider the two Joint Support Ships to be built in Vancouver for $3 billion. They will likely be fine ships when they hit the water, years late. Britain’s Royal Navy, however, is buying four roughly similar ships from South Korean builders for $750 million — for all four. Should the RCN ships cost eight times those of the British? The Dutch navy is buying ships built in Romania; the Danes use ships built in Poland. Why? Because the cost is far less, the quality is good, and the work of installing the armaments and communications systems can be done in home waters, creating good jobs.

Take another case, the 10 small vessels to be built on the west coast for the Coast Guard for $3.3 billion. In 2007, the Danes bought similar, larger ships for $50 million each, ships with an icebreaking capacity the CCG ships will not have. Even with six years of inflation factored in, the CCG ships will cost at least three to five times as much.

But, the government will say, the jobs being created on the coasts are good ones, paying well for the skilled workers who are being trained to fill them. It is true, but will the Canadian public support the RCN and the Coast Guard when it realizes the massive costs involved to create each job? Moreover, no government can bind its successors to follow any policy. Jean Chrétien killed the maritime helicopter project when he came to power two decades ago, and the RCN still has no new ones. A future government might well say that the deficit is too high and the ship projects cannot proceed. After all, governments have killed the shipbuilding industry in this country before — after the two world wars and after the RCN frigate program ended in the 1990s. There are no guarantees in politics, and neither the Liberals nor the NDP seem high on defence spending for anything other than peacekeeping.

However, any time the political equations and the economic equations point in very different directions, you can almost always count on the politicians to go for the most expensive/most politically advantageous answer.

October 29, 2013

Even selling the USS Forrestal for $1 was a win for the US Navy

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:21

Several people have commented about the headlines proclaiming that the very first supercarrier had been sold for a princely sum of $1, but Strategy Page explains why even that token dollar was better than all the other options:

The U.S. Navy recently sold a decommissioned (in 1993) aircraft carrier (USS Forrestal) for scrap. The ship yard that will take the Forrestal apart (All Star Metals of Texas) paid the navy one cent ($.01) for the ship. That’s because this was the best deal the navy could get. That’s because it will cost many millions to take the ship apart in a legal fashion (being careful to avoid releasing any real or imagined harmful substances into the environment). The other alternative was to sink the Forrestal at sea. But this requires partial disassembly (to remove anything that could or might pollute the ocean), that would be even more expensive.

[...]

Since the 1990s, sending warships to the scrap yard has not been considered a viable alternative. It’s all about pollution, bad press, and cost. That was because of the experience with the largest warship to be scrapped to date, the 45,000 ton carrier USS Coral Sea. This ship took until 2000 (seven years) to be broken up. Thus, the new ecologically correct process was not only expensive but it took a long time. Then the navy discovered that the cost of scrapping a nuclear powered carrier like the USS Enterprise would be close to a billion dollars. This was largely the result of a lot more environmental and safety regulations. With so many navy ships (especially nuclear subs) being broken up in the 1990s, and all these new regulations arriving, the cost of disposing of these ships skyrocketed. This was especially true with carriers.

So for over a decade the navy just tied up retired ships and waited for some better solution to appear. That never happened. In fact, the situation has gotten worse. The navy only has one ship scrapping facility (Brownsville, Texas), so only one carrier at a time can be dismantled. Using official estimates of the time required to dismantle each of the biggest ships, it’ll take seven decades to get rid of the surviving conventionally powered carriers. Note also that the conventional carrier in the absolute worst shape, the USS John F Kennedy, is the one being officially retained in category B reserve (but only until Congress forgets all about her, of course). Name recognition really does count.

It gets worse. With the really vast number of single hull tankers being scrapped and large numbers of old, smaller-capacity container ships laid up and likely to be offered for scrap fairly soon, the market for difficult-to-scrap naval ships is going to shrivel and the price for scrap steel will drop. Efforts to get the navy to include the costs of disposal in the budget for lifetime costs has never caught on and now it’s obvious why not. The real nightmare begins with the first nuclear powered carrier (the 93,000 ton USS Enterprise), which began the decommissioning process in late 2012 (with the lengthy removal of all classified or reusable equipment). The cost of dismantling this ship (and disposing of radioactive components) may be close to $2 billion.

October 27, 2013

“Dangerous Ground” in the South China Sea

Filed under: China, Military, Pacific — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:26

John Donovan linked to this interesting New York Times Magazine feature about the Spratly Islands and the geopolitical standoff between China and pretty much all of the other nations bordering the South China Sea:

Spratly Islands - Sierra Madre aground on Ayungin

Ayungin Shoal lies 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. There’s little to commend the spot, apart from its plentiful fish and safe harbor — except that Ayungin sits at the southwestern edge of an area called Reed Bank, which is rumored to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. And also that it is home to a World War II-era ship called the Sierra Madre, which the Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation. Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world.

[...]

To understand how Ayungin (known to the Western world as Second Thomas Shoal) could become contested ground is to confront, in miniature, both the rise of China and the potential future of U.S. foreign policy. It is also to enter into a morass of competing historical, territorial and even moral claims in an area where defining what is true or fair may be no easier than it has proved to be in the Middle East.

The Spratly Islands sprawl over roughly 160,000 square miles in the waters of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China — all of whom claim part of the islands.

Spratly Islands shipping lanes

October 23, 2013

The most dangerous shipwreck in the Thames Estuary

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:45

Uploaded on 16 Aug 2010

A documentary about the SS Richard Montgomery. The remains of this second world war Liberty ship lie semi-submerged in the Thames estuary. There are currently over 1500 tons of explosives left on board. This documentary looks into the danger the wreck still presents.

I’m mildly amused that they frequently mis-name the vessel as the “USS” Richard Montgomery (she was never a commissioned ship of the US Navy, so it should be just “SS” not “USS”). If you watch to the end of the documentary, they’ve included a “blooper reel” of voice-overs for the last minute or so…

October 17, 2013

Who were the Vikings, Episode one

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:23

Neil Oliver heads for Scandinavia to reveal the truth behind the legend of the Vikings. In the first programme, Neil begins by discovering the mysterious world of the Vikings’ prehistoric ancestors. The remains of weapon-filled war boats, long-haired Bronze Age farmers, and a Swedish site of a royal palace and gruesome pagan ritual conjure up an ancient past from which the Viking Age was to suddenly erupt.

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