Tag Archives: soviet

Has the sun set on the carrier task force?

There are basically two types of naval operations. Sea Control, or Power Projection.

Sea Control is just that, controlling the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs, or basically the shipping lanes) and denying the enemy the ability to interdict them. The prime example is the US and RN convoy operations in the North Atlantic fending off the U-Boat attempts to sever the logistical lifeline.

Power Projection is sailing your fleet to the enemy’s shores to impose your will upon him. Examples of this from World War II abound, with the Fast Carrier Task Forces appearing at will to pound Japanese installations throughout the Central Pacific, and eventually even the Home Islands. The Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor is another example of a fleet being used for power projection.

Not surprisingly, while some ship types serve admirably in both roles, the differences in missions has tended to produce very different types.  A fleet with a large number of small missile armed combatants would likely be considered a Sea Control fleet, attempting to deny an enemy the ability to close its shores.

And of course, the modern exemplar of the Power Projection fleet is the US Navy Carrier Strike Group centered upon a massive nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

While our Navy has, since 1940, always had a strong Sea Control element, it has mostly been constituted as a Power Projection force. After all, if you can project enough power to defeat your enemy in his home port, that also pretty much guarantees control of the sea lanes.

And so it comes to pass, that Thomas Ricks pens a piece for the Washington Post calling for the Navy to shed its carriers.  As usual, Ricks is FW, NiD.

Bryan McGrath, professional naval type (as opposed to Ricks, professional windbag) does an admirable job of rebutting Ricks claims of the carrier’s supposed vulnerabilities.

To be sure, there are arguments against McGrath’s piece. The carrier is certainly not invulnerable. James R. Foot over at The Diplomat makes this point.

Holmes piece notes that finding the carrier is the fulcrum upon which the issue is weighed. But he misses a key point in the chain from detection to kill. Yes, China and any number of other nations have radars that can detect a carrier at distances far beyond the strike range of a carrier.

That overlooks one thing. The waters in question are among some of the most heavily transited in the world.  It’s one thing to find a blip on a radar screen. But the kill chain is comprised of more steps than “detect” and “kill.” It is detect, localize, classify, attack, kill, and assess.  Ricks and Holmes argument ignores the classify step. While a carrier may well be an enormous radar target, it is hardly alone in this. Virtually every large cargo ship or tanker has a similarly large radar return

And it isn’t as though the US Navy doesn’t have ample experience in avoiding being found. Little known outside naval circles, NORPAC 82 managed to scare the crap out of the Soviet Union. Basically, the US Navy snuck two complete carrier battlegroups up into the Northern Pacific undetected, roamed around at will while the Soviets desperately searched for them, simulated strikes against the Soviet bases, and when the carriers finally deigned to be found, simulated shooting the heck out of the Soviet bombers sent to “sink” the carriers.

For every vulnerability that a modern carrier has, the alternatives suffer even more. Our options beside the Carrier Strike Group are essentially to abandon aviation in maritime areas (though how that is supposed to negate Chinese aviation, I don’t know) or shift to land based airpower. But land bases are even more vulnerable to counterattack than any carrier. After all, the Chinese already know where every available airfield is.

Carriers have tremendous mobility. They give a commander the ability to strike at a place and time of his choosing.

Much as the cavalry, the carrier can move fast, strike hard, and withdraw, to strike again elsewhere. Indeed, this mobility and ability to keep the enemy reacting to our actions is part and parcel with our agility, our ability to seize the initiative and hold it. It is a far more likely method of getting inside any enemy OODA loop than land based airpower.

So the sun has not set on the fast task force centered around the nuclear aircraft carrier. That’s not to say Naval Aviation hasn’t made poor choices, or that the Carrier Strike Group is invulnerable. The CSG can’t park off an enemy coast indefinitely to impose its will. But as part of a well conceived campaign, it gives the US far more ability to project power than any alternative that excludes the aircraft carrier.

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Filed under Around the web, China, Defense, navy, planes

What’s in a name?

Ugh. Hand me some aspirin, willya?

I’ve been doing some research on the Chinese OrBat, and it’s giving me a headache.

First, I don’t read or speak Chinese.

Second, I’m so set in my ways in understanding the basic nomenclature norms of Western and Soviet states that learning a new one is like teaching an old dog a new trick.

The Chinese have a nasty habit of restructuring their entire nomenclature system from time to time, and even worse, have lately adapted the execrable Western habit of allowing marketing names to actually become nomenclature. And a system sold for export will have an entirely different nomenclature for the export product, even if it is identical.

Actually, on the understanding of the Soviet nomenclature, that’s a bit of a misnomer. What I really understood was the NATO reporting names for most Soviet systems. While some stuff, like tanks (T-54/55, T-62, T-64, T-72, T-80) used the actual Soviet designation, a lot of stuff used a designation rather arbitrarily assigned by NATO. For instance, what I spent the first half of my life knowing as the SA-2 SAM Surface-to-Air Missile system, was really the S-75 Dvina. If I were to say Fresco, Farmer, Fishbed, Flogger, every fighter pilot in the West would know exactly that I meant the MiG-17, –19, –21, and –23. While the Soviets used those numbers, I have no idea what they actually nicknamed those jets.

Similarly, most groundpounders know what an AT-3 Sagger is, but might be a little fuzzy on just what the 9K11 Malyutka is.  I sometimes forget that the NATO reporting name isn’t really the name the Soviets gave things.

The standard NATO reporting name system (an outgrowth of the standard reporting names for Japanese planes in World War II) made understanding easy for peabrains like me.

There really isn’t a similar system for Chinese weapon systems. I’m starting to glean the basics of how the Chinese name things. And about the time I do, they’ll probably change their system again.



Bumblebee- The Shmel

Among the more ubiquitous Soviet small arms are Rocket Propelled Grenades. Virtually every conflict in the world has seen the RPG-7 used, often by both sides.

The great strength of the RPG-7 is its simplicity. It takes only a few minutes training to impart a basic competency.

But the problem is, against anything but armored vehicles, its shaped-charge HEAT warhead is really pretty ineffective. Stories of RPGs exploding perilously close to personnel and not injuring them are common. That’s because a HEAT warhead focuses virtually all its power into a very tiny jet in one direction. Avoid the jet, and your chances of injury are quite small.

If you want to punch a hole in something, a HEAT round is the way to go. But a huge number of targets on the battlefield call for something else. Caves, buildings, bunkers and such need a different approach. Ideally, you can fire a high explosive charge through the aperture, and the resulting explosion inside will kill any enemy, and ideally dismantle the target.

And so the Soviets developed the PRO or Flamethrower Projector Rocket. Known in service as the Shmel, the PRO was single shot, disposable rocket propelled grenade. It came in three variants- high explosive (PRO-A), incendiary (PRO-Z), and smoke for screening (PRO-D). Interestingly, all three were designated as flamethrower projectors.

The high explosive variant used a thermobaric warhead. Unlike conventional high explosives that contain all their fuel and oxidizer, thermobaric warheads use the surrounding air for at least a portion of their oxidizer. Whereas a conventional high explosive forms its blast wave from a single point and diminishes in strength from that point, the “burn” of a thermobaric warhead actually increases blast wave pressure as it expands, until all the fuel is consumed. This makes thermobaric warheads nearly ideal for enclosed spaces.

All this is an excuse to post some splodey-

A later development, the PRO-M, increased range and warhead, and is still in use with Russian forces.

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Filed under army, ARMY TRAINING

AGS-17 Automatic Grenade Launcher

First in a short series of posts on fairly obscure Soviet weapons.

You do recall that the Soviet Union and China had a series of division sized clashes along their shared border back in the 1960s, right?

Well, they did. And at the time, the preferred Chinese tactic was much as it had been during the Korean War- massed human wave attacks. That’s pretty tough if you’re part of the wave. But its also pretty tough to defend against.  The need to counter possible future attacks, along with reports from the Vietnamese about US automatic grenade launchers just entering service, prompted the Soviets to design their own.


It took a few years, and never saw action against Chinese forces, but by the early 1970s, the AGS-17 was in widespread use amongst Soviet forces. A fully automatic, blowback operated grenade launcher fired from a tripod, the launcher uses a 30mm x 29 casing, with high explosive fragmentation warhead. It’s fed by a non-disintegrating metallic link belt stored in a 29-round drum.

The launcher can be used in direct-fire mode against targets out to 800m for point targets, or area targets out to its maximum range of 1700m. Interestingly, it can also be used in high-angle fire, almost like an automatic mortar, to engage defilade targets.

The AGS-17 saw extensive use during Soviet operations in Afghanistan, where it proved quite useful firing against Mujahedeen positions, especially RPG and anti-tank teams.  Variants were developed for mounting on vehicles, helicopters, and aircraft.  It has also seen widespread use in Chechnya and other Russian operations.

A refined, lighter version, the AGS-30, has entered service and is slowly replacing the –17.


Filed under ARMY TRAINING, Around the web

Retro Apache Pr0n…

When I put up my post on the Apache development, I asked BillT from Castle Argghhh! to take a look and let me know if I’d made any colossal blunders. As I fired off the email, I knew in my bones he was going to come back with a word about the Apache’s daddy, the venerable AH-1 Cobra. How did I know this? Bill is a retired Army Aviator (in fact, I believe he’s a Master Aviator), with combat time in Vietnam and long experience in attack and scout aviation. My request was like asking the owner of a ’64 Mustang to give me his thoughts on the new Dodge Magnum. Sure, he’ll help, but you know he’s gonna want to talk a little Mustang.

Almost from the first helicopter, people had the bright idea to arm them. Everyone in the Army knows to seek the high ground, and how much higher can you get than in a helicopter? But the concept was easier than the implementation. Early helicopters had little power, and were only able to lift relatively small loads. Think back to the opening shots of M*A*S*H. Not a lot of room there for lifting heavy stuff. Early helicopters were powered by piston engines. You could use a bigger engine to get more power, but the weight of the engine increased faster than the improvement in power. It wasn’t until the invention of the gas turbine that lightweight, powerful helicopters became a reality.

A gas turbine is a jet engine that transfers its power to a drive shaft, instead of pushing air out the back. The first practical gas turbine powered helicopter was the UH-1B Iroquois, far better known as the Huey. Early in the Vietnam war, Huey’s began to be used to ferry troops to the battle, saving time that would otherwise be spent walking in the woods. Unfortunately, the VC learned that they could predict where the Huey’s would land, and soon began laying ambushes for them. The Huey’s were tough, capable birds, but they can only take so much damage. What was needed was an escort to keep the VC’s heads down while the Huey’s landed and offloaded their troops. The Army quickly developed an armed version of the Huey, equipping it with machine guns and 2.75” rockets, just the thing to discourage the VC from shooting at the transports.

While the new gunship escorts were a great improvement over nothing, they still weren’t perfect. The extra weight of the guns, rockets and ammunition actually left the escorts slower than the transports.

The Army and Bell Helicopter took the parts of the helicopter that they liked, such as the rotor, transmission and basic engine, and developed a specialized gunship. By using a more powerful version of the basic engine (and not many aviators will ever complain about having more power) and using the smallest possible body, they were able to introduce a chopper that was both faster than the transports and more heavily armed than previous gunships. The AH-1G would be the Army’s primary gunship in the Vietnam war. Over 1,000 were produced.

Armed with two 6-barreled 7.62mm Mini-guns and 2.75” rocket pods, the AH-1G Cobra had plenty of firepower to suppress the VC when transports were landing or taking off at an LZ. In addition, they were used to provide close support for troops on the ground. In fact, some units were used primarily for this and were designated Ariel Rocket Artillery Battalions. Many a grunt blessed the familiar “Whop-whop-whop” sound of a Cobra overhead.

After the Vietnam War, the Army turned its attention back to Western Europe. The Army was in bad shape and facing a truly massive Soviet army. With budgets tight, forces demoralized and equipment obsolete, how would the Army be able to defeat the Soviets and prevent them from conquering Western Europe. The Army had a large supply of Cobras on hand, but rockets and Mini-guns were next to useless against tanks and armored personnel carriers. The answer lay with the TOW missile. TOW stands for Tube Launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided missile. With a range of 3000 meters and a warhead capable of destroying any tank, the 70 pound missile gave the Cobra the firepower it needed to be useful on the battlefields of Europe. A new 20mm three barreled cannon was also added to deal with targets like trucks.

With this new, powerful anti-tank weapon, Army aviators began thinking beyond the front lines. By using the mobility of helicopters, they could search out and attack Soviet formations behind the front lines, before they were attacking our troops. In conjunction with the evolution of what would become AirLand Battle doctrine, the concept of “Deep Strike” came to be accepted. No longer would aviators be thought of as glorified truck drivers or simply flying artillery, but as Cavalry in the tradition of JEB Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest.


BillT was kind enough to give me his thoughts on the subject (see comments) and better yet, send pictures!


Filed under armor, ARMY TRAINING

Why are we here?

More than one US Army soldier in the Cold War looked at his map of Western Europe and wondered why the US Army, the anchor of the Nato Alliance, was stationed at one of the least likely invasion routes. The geography in the north of Germany is generally flat or low rolling hills, quite suitable to armored forces attacking from Poland and East Germany, where the bulk of the Soviet army was stationed.

In the south, the terrain was far more mountainous, with numerous chokepoints where attacking forces could be blocked, trapped, and destroyed. The primary Warsaw Pact Forces there were the Czech Army.

Given the importance of this terrain, why was the vast majority of the US Army in Europe stationed in the south, rather than in the north where the heaviest attack could be expected? The answer is a historical accident from 1940, and shows the tyranny of logistics over tactics.

In the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany was triumpant. They had conquered all of Western Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterrenian Sea. The only countries not under the Nazi thumb were a compliant Spain and tiny Portugal, both neutral countries, and that defiant lion, The United Kingdom. Following the fall of France in June 1940, the British Army was forced to retreat at Dunkirk and return to England. The British evacuation there will long live in the annals of history as a magnificent feat, but it was still a defeat.

The remains of the British Army were in bad shape. Most of their equipment had been abandoned in France. Just twenty miles away lay the victorious Wehrmacht. Already the German Army was laying plans for an autumn invasion of England. The British Army quickly moved to the southeast of England to defend against this planned invasion.

The Battle of Britain, where the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force fought a desparate struggle for command of the skies, took place over that summer and fall of 1940. The Germans knew that air superiortiy was needed for a successful invasion. They failed to achieve it. Still, the British were obliged to maintain a defense in southeast England lest the Germans try. While here, they began the process of re-equipping and rebuilding.

After the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, Churchill and Franklin (and more importantly, their military staffs) both agreed that eventually, there would have to be an invasion of France across the English Channel. The US began moving forces into England. Since the southeast of England was full of British troops, most US forces were based in the west.

When the time for the invasion came, the decision was made to land in Normandy. Here is where the tyranny of logistics raised its ugly head.  Looking at the map below, we see that the US forces, stationed in the west, would be forced to land on the western side of the Cotentin Peninsula. The size of the invasion fleet was just too large to swap positions while at sea. The British would land in the east and the US to the west. When they broke out of the beachhead and wheeled to head east, that would place the British to the north and the US to the south.

After the invasion of Normandy, further US and French forces would invade southern France near Marseille, reinforcing the US position in the south.

While military planners would have preferred the heavier, larger, and more mobile US forces to attack across the north of Europe, while the smaller, less mobile British Armies made a supporting attack in the south, the delay, cost and confusion of trying to switch their positions made this impossible. Moving the forces might have been just barely possible, but there was no way to even attempt to move their huge logistical tails. The die was cast and the stage was set in stone. The disposition of forces would remain all the way across Europe to the defeat of Nazi Germany in May of 1945.

With the defeat of the Nazis, the vast majority of the Allied armies were demobilized and went home. Because so much of the German society had collapsed, however, significant occupation forces had to remain. Germany was divided into zones of occupation, with zones for the Russians, British, Americans, and French. Mostly these zones were where the forces had halted at the end of the war.

When the Iron Curtain fell across Europe in 1947, the Western Allies began to reinforce their positions in Europe, eventually forming NATO in 1949 (the Warsaw Pact wasn’t formed until 1955). By this time, it was too late to shift major forces to better suit the terrain, again primarily because of logistics. There was a political factor here though. If the US had tried to reposition major forces outside the US zone, the Soviets would have been able to protest that we were not abiding by the terms of the agreement. In fact, they could have argued that they should be able to move outside their zone as well, perhaps into the British or US zones. We certainly didn’t want that. Even after West Germany regained its sovereignity in 1955, it was logistically impossible to switch the positions of the major forces.

It is a fair guess that more than one US general, looking at the defense of Western Europe during the Cold War, cursed the fates that places the Allies in the positions they held. In fact, a large part of the development of AirLand Battle Doctrine was about flipping this geographical disadvantage on its head, and finding a way to use manuever to hide behind the terrain of southern Germany and strike into the flank of any Soviet attack to the north.


Filed under armor, ARMY TRAINING, Politics