Drones in theory (Part 2: Aerial drones)

This part will look at aerial military drones (and not include anything that's tethered).

The employment of aerial drones appears to follow two motives

(1) to eliminate the risk to the crew
(2) to push boundaries

The risk elimination is a relatively simple motive, and most evident in suicide drones and target drones. It's easily visible why these are enticing jobs for drones. Both were actually done by manned aviation as well, though: The famous kamikaze pilots flew suicide missions and at the very least one WW2 aircraft was armour-plated to withstand aerial gunnery training while being the target of frangible bullets (RP-63G "Pinball").

To push the boundaries of manned aviation with unmanned aviation takes several different shapes, which can be summarized as addressing the problem of maintaining a pilot's function in the aircraft.

(2a) Extreme duration
The Rutan Voyager stayed in the air with a crew for nine days on a record flight, but much less is practical in military aviation. Purposes which don't justify the employment of a strategic bomber-like aircraft will typically face a crew endurance measured in a few hours, and the associated abuse of drugs impairs decision-making.
You can pull off some missions with a slow-moving aircraft which stays in the air for a day or two, but a drone is very much favourable over a manned aircraft in this role.
The theoretical benefit of such drones is that they (seem to) make long duration flight more practical and thus make new, previously not really considered, military aviation missions feasible. This tends to be all about sensor-centric aerial surveillance and radio relay functions in practice.
(2b) Extreme altitudes
It is possible to fly very high with manned aviation - but the required pressurized cabin, the backup pressurized suit and generally the weight associated with a live crew are very troublesome, as lift is difficult to generate in thin air.
Again, unmanned aerial drones can push the boundary by offering a means to control the aircraft and its payload that's much less elaborate than required for a crew. 
The theoretical benefit of such drones is that they (seem to) make extremely high altitude flight more practical and thus make new, previously not really considered, military aviation missions feasible. This tends to be all about sensor-centric aerial surveillance and radio relay functions in practice, too.

(2c) Extremely small size
There's obviously a minimum size for manned aircraft, especially if you want to employ a payload other than the pilot. Unmanned aviation can be much, much smaller - down to insect size and then there's still a camera on-board.
Small size is a huge quality in itself. It potentially allows cheap production, and thus quantity production. Imagine an army air force of 100 million bee-like drones, each equipped with enough sensory abilities, artificial intelligence and poison to identify and kill a hostile soldier. Conventional warfare would turn into a battle of tiny flying and crawling robots - or become even less 'practical' than thermonuclear war. Experience suggests that war becoming 'impractical' doesn't mean it's not going to happen, of course.
Great numbers and low prices also frustrate many known air defences; you cannot hope to defeat 5,000 € drones with 50,000 € missiles, for example. Even a 5,000 € burst from an autocannon is a questionable expense. The superior affordability of offence may defeat (oversaturate) the defence even if the defence had a 100% success rate.

Small size (and thus small weight) also allows for more intrusion into urban landscapes; drones could enter buildings through openings and inspect their interior. Small wingspan could allow aerial drones to fly under the foliage cover of woodland, instead of above; woodland could be inspected and thus be controlled much better and much quicker than ever before. This would still not help much against enemies who went underground, of course.

Small size allows for greater availability. Backpack-sized drones have been in use for years, and they provide a valuable look behind the next hill, settlement or patch of woodland. Their use is restricted by weather, red tape, effective radio range and other influences, but hopes are still high for this kind of flying eye on platoon and soon infantry or scout squad level.

Small size is appropriate for small payloads. There was a proposal for a flying sniper rifle, for example. The idea was that a RC plane would more easily be able to find, ID and engage targets with a sniper rifle (or other firearm) than a ground-based man. This and other ideas (such as simply fly a RC drone into a suspicious cloud with a chemical agent detector onboard) require only a small payload, and the minimum effort for manned aviation would be much greater than the effort required by RC planes for such a payload.

To save the mass of a pilot and his equipment (oxygen supply, seat, interfaces) may increase the payload by almost the same mass. This may yield a more cost- and logistics-efficient aircraft, which may lead to lower costs (in theory) or higher quantity.

Small size yields survivability. A bird-like drone may emulate actual birds well-enough to penetrate defences. Insect-sized drones would be too small even for a shotgun-based defence. Troops would basically need to use a mosquito net-based defence, albeit this could be defeated as well.

The theoretical benefits of pushing the boundary of aircraft down with unmanned concepts are thus greater availability, superiority through better affordability, greater survivability and greater intrusiveness. A particular design may or may not combine multiple or even all of these advantages.

- - - - -
So some boundaries can be pushed and risks for air crews can be avoided. What does this really mean?

The affordability of small drones allows a return to (artificially) huge military forces. A substitution of labour by capital, except that this time it wouldn't be a substitution for many Western countries, as they lost manpower strength long ago an could now merely return to the approaches built on the assumption that millions of individuals were available for a campaign. Sometime in the future, the battalion that cordons and searches patches of woodland could actually be a truckload of bat-like drones.
The ability to keep flying for very long or to fly at extremely high altitudes - or both - approaches the capabilities known from satellites. Some small powers could emulate a national satellite support with such drones if their opponent cannot counter this. This may modernize the repertoire of a small power at war a lot, and especially so if said small power isn't backed by a great power and its satellites.

The availability of (organic!) air support down to platoon and at times down to squad level adds sophistication and combined arms abilities to units and small units (not only combat troops, but also electronic warfare, NBC and engineers, for example). An infantry or scout platoon my have more sophisticated air support and observed indirect fire support in the future than most divisions had in major wars of the 20th century. This may either introduce staff-like planning and behaviour into units and small units and ruin their command and control this way or it may introduce simplified tools and techniques to enable units and small units to make good use of drones without becoming too occupied with them. The latter scenario may even yield positive feedback to higher HQs and their handling of a sophisticated range of assets.

Small, very survivable drones which solve the energy resupply issue (solar energy, harvesting of bio fuels, or simply sitting on power lines or something hot can replenish the power reserve of a drone) could in theory reach, persist in and be effective far away from the main friendly forces; deep in hostile territory. Think about a drone equivalent of a bird or bat that flies and eats its way from your capital to theirs, and then proceeds to crawl into a transformer station, causing a blackout. Or it ignites a main kerosene tank of the hostile capital's international airport. It could also simply serve as a mobile non-permanent satellite navigation jammer.
The pushing of boundaries towards smaller size may provoke a second pushing of boundaries; the extension of mission duration and effectiveness by autonomous replenishment of onboard energy reserves.
It's fascinating how the big-ticket big drone programs such as Global Hawk succeeded in attracting so much more attention and funds than the micro air vehicles and MAV energy resupply projects in face of such prospects. Or maybe the issue is that too few people think about the theory and prospects, preferring the superficialities instead? Another explanation is that money drives publishing and generates attention, and Global Hawk et al are big ticket items, while Raven et al aren't.



Drones in theory (Part 1: Introduction)

Very much attention is being paid to drones, and it appears as if some technological sexiness and a feeling of novelty are the main drivers - not necessarily a theoretical anticipation of their usefulness.

Nagayama's RC tank, article from 1930
The feeling of novelty is deceiving, for sure:
The German navy used unmanned remote-controlled boats for decades as minebreakers (triggering naval mines), minehunters all over the world have used remote-controlled submersible drones to identify and to blow up naval mines, and the first unmanned powered boat was built and tested by Siemens around 1870.
The first robot tank was built at the latest in 1930, and envisaged decades earlier by futurists. Both the remote control by radio and the tank itself were technically feasible prior to the First World War.
Unmanned aircraft are nothing particularly new either. Target and reconnaissance drones were common by the 70's. An early photographic reconnaissance drone flew in 1939. The first target drones (modified biplanes, developed in 1931) embarrassed the Royal Navy in an exercise by stubbornly resisting its anti-air firepower for an hour during the 1930's (link). The first attempt to build an aerial target drone was from 1916, but it failed because they didn't get the launch right.

As 292 photo reconnaissance drones, first RC flight 1939
Guided munitions are similarly old; remote-controlled torpedo gliders were already tested in 1917; precision guided munitions were in principle available before bombers had a useful-enough payload.

Drones are no real novelties, for sure. The methods of their control haven't evolved very much either. We still don't entrust unmanned cars to stay on the road on a battlefield (still under development), much less to negotiate off-road terrain or make tactical decisions. Satellite communications remote control is but a very elaborate for of radio remote control. A 'modern' Reaper drone isn't really much more advanced in concept than the combination of WW2's As 292 drone (ability to return) and WW2's Aphrodite drone (RC guidance with operator using video from inside the cockpit).* The components were refined and a satellite serves as relay. Early attempts to drop munitions from drones date back to WW2 as well and guided munitions were employed from drones in 1970's tests.
Technological sexiness and a false sense of novelty are poor reasons to spend much on drones, so let's look if there are some actual reasons to do so. I was disappointed that this in my opinion really obvious thought has no reflections on most if not all published works on drones. It's pointless to strive for a comprehensive literature review, but what I looked into over the last years was plenty, and what I found was rarely** more than a small, specialised assumption about drones. The potential of drones appears to be the most vague in regard to naval drones with some drone marketing efforts being outright comical to those who knows the history of naval drones.
The opposite is the fandom for the X-47B bomber drone: Its fans associate it with reliable penetration of defended airspace and precision strikes on targets far, far away from the base (carrier). These assumptions are in stark contrast to previous "stealth" aircraft experiences, which emphasize that even stealth aircraft benefit greatly from if not require support for high survivability. The existence of relatively long wavelength radars and the generally observable tendency of very specialised tools to disappoint in wartime cast some doubts on these expectations as well.

I will discuss the very diverse topic of military drones in later parts
("Part 2: Aerial drones" tomorrow).


* (edited in in March):  Also see this. I knew I forgot something.
**: Farley tries to mate drones and military theory.


Affordable FMS; an opportunity for U.S. foreign and fiscal policy

The United States appear to trend its land power down to a size that's still sufficient to bash some small powers occasionally, but clearly not even remotely sized to take on a great power on its own (never really was).
Officially, this is the consequence of budgeting, but it's as much a consequence of inefficiency  caused by a general unwillingness to tackle inefficiency at the Pentagon for decades. Their accounting is a joke, for example - and Congress adds 'pork' to the budget which benefits individual congressional districts or senators' states much more than the nations' military power.
Ambition is also a cost driver; they could in theory drop the entire strategic airlift if they were fine with the speed of much more cost-efficient sea lift coupled with civilian charter aircraft.
The cost equivalent of a large container ship
The United States are facing China as the only great power rival and this means they're making it official: The United States is an aerospace-naval super power* with enough land power to kick ass in banana republics or Arab countries.

This shift is a little bit troublesome, though.
Most countries lack the industrial versatility to produce enough for their military hardware needs. The United States had begun to be a huge arms exporter in 1940, helping the Allies in WW2 while it stayed neutral itself. This went on post-WW2 when the wartime surplus hardware was exported to rearming or poor countries. In the mid-50's, rearming Germany received or purchased plenty rather Korean War-era hardware (much was already obsolete) and later on NATO standardisation led to adoption of standards used by U.S. forces, giving U.S. army industries an initial edge. Foreign military sales programs meant to harden countries against the supposed domino effect of the red scare added to this. Finally, both Arabs and Israelites received plenty hardware in foreign military sales or aid - a relatively new foreign policy tool.

A U.S.Army of small size, officially oriented at small wars (= officially not meant to fight great powers or 'peer forces'), supplied by a cost-inefficient, gold-plating arms industry will yield plenty expensive products for minimization of casualties, but it's unlikely to yield much of good use for conventional warfare by countries with really small budgets.

N-LOS missile; many of their projects are even too gold-plated for themselves.

It's nevertheless still U.S. foreign policy to maintain many helpers / friendly countries all over the world, seated in the U.S.-friendly/Western bloc rather than in a rivalling one. Aerospace and naval power isn't going to help them much, especially if the conflict (say, border conflict), doesn't interest a U.S. TV audience.
Meanwhile, Europeans tend to go the gold-plating route as well, albeit with a little less inefficiency (except in the UK).

Where are those small powers in need of conventional warfare equipment going to get theirs from? 
Keep in mind the choice of a countries' arms shopping mall was used as an indicator for its bloc alignment during the Cold War, so it's an interesting question. Egypt wasn't considered in bed with the reds when it bought Western equipment, but it was when it bought Soviet equipment and now it's still considered to be in bed with the U.S. as it still gets American equipment. Equipment is rarely equipment-only, after all; trainers and advisers come along with high tech or mere crew-served equipment usually. You cut your spare parts and ammunition supply off if you go against the interests of the supplier bloc.

The United States' military equipment procurement system is so FUBAR that ALL its regulations should be canned, its organizations be disbanded and about 80% of its personnel banned from ever working for government procurement or military contractors again (leaving only engineers, secretaries and others not tainted by (mis)management left for re-hiring).
One way to set up a new agency that would also provide a great foundation for a possible future grand army expansion would be to set up an agency tasked to motivate the development of military goods for friendly and allied nations.

This agency would not accept any input from the gold-plating experts of the active U.S. military, much less anyone who made it to flag rank in it. Almost nobody from the established DoD procurement system or the rms industry would be employed by it.
It would tour the friendly military forces, observe their exercises, investigate threat systems and landscapes and generally try to determine what these countries need for defence. Finally, it would start some development projects** to meet these needs.

The result could mimic the F-5 "Freedom Fighter", a simple, affordable fighter-bomber which already successfully pushed back against the gold-plating trend once. Similarly, the M72 LAW  proved to be a bestseller for its simplicity (even though the French SARPAC was likely better).

The United States could maintain relations built on providing security without large land force on call, by doing what was likely more relevant for generations already; supply affordable military hardware to make up for the insufficient development and production capacities in many small powers.
The "affordable" angle could be further strengthened by giving such friendly foreign military sales tax credits: About a third to half of the money spent on buying American hardware turns into additional government revenues. Other countries even reach 40-60%. This is a major driver behind all those seemingly inefficient domestic arms production programs. Some countries use offset deals, in which one country buys in another and gets the promise of a reciprocal purchases in return. This way it's almost as if both bought domestically. The United States doesn't do this, and it couldn't simply because it exports much more military hardware than it imports (same with Germany and Russia). A friendly foreign military sales program which is revenue-neutral for the U.S.government could make its wares much, much more affordable and competitive.

The United States are heading towards being a rather modest conventional land warfare power, and plenty pundits are bound to claim that this isn't enough to maintain its relations (they'll likely choose to talk of "obligations"). 
There are other, much less straining ways to contribute to these relations, though. It is not only wasteful, but in the long term extremely troublesome to spend a large share of the economic output on government consumption such as the military. A single per cent of GDP annually more for public infrastructure and education instead of the military could yield enormous benefits, and such a shift of government resources allocation is long overdue.


*: "superpower" is fine in these areas, but I prefer to call them only "great power" in other areas.
**: Without any technological "leaps forward", but maybe with some "leaps backwards".

edit: About the army size cutting thing from the intro; an entertaining video.


A blast from the past, mimicked by the present (I): Cobra AFV

The public discussions about future armoured vehicles tend to assume that many if not most of the near-future designs will be equipped with a diesel-electric drive. Band tracks as high ride comfort, low noise alternative to steel tracks enjoy favourable opinions en masse as well, at least for vehicles well below 30 tons.

What would you think if I claim that one such vehicle was trialled at the facilities of the US Army's Tank Automotive Command in Detroit, Michigan. (...) the test drivers (...) evaluated the Cobra for both performance and manoeuvrability and found this to be equal or superior to other recently fielded vehicles."?
All this in a concept which "provides advantages in size, weight and configuration flexibility".

These quotes are indeed about the ACEC SDT Cobra, a family of vehicles based on an armoured personnel carrier with diesel-electric drive and steel-reinforced rubber band tracks and a full squad of 10 dismounts in the rear. It was amphibious without prior preparations (10 km/h in water), 75 km/h fast, max. road range 600 km, 12.7 and 7.62 mm machineguns in unmanned turret ("remote-controlled weapon station", RWS). Its weight was half of what we consider normal APC weight nowadays, about third of a GTK boxer (remember the air deployability fashion).
Granted, there wasn't much battery capacity installed.

ACEC Cobra, 1985
The catch: Said evaluations happened in 1987, and the vehicle was developed from 1977 after earlier feasibility studies. In Belgium.

It was astonishingly light, had a confusing 7.62 mm bow machinegun in at least one of its prototypes and the battery capacity was not meant to drive the engine. other than this, it's basically what many people expect of future light tracked armoured vehicles, similar to the Swedish Hagglunds SEP project in its tracked version.

There was also a light tank version with 90 mm low pressure gun:
(click to enlarge)

And it was an utter commercial failure.
No production took place.

- - - - -

I consider it a warning if a hyped technology or hyped set of technologies has failed in the past already. It's even more of a warning if this happened repeatedly, or if the seemingly novel technologies are in fact quite ancient.
Talking of ancient; I present you continuous rubber bandtracks:
Kégresse track, installed in 1911
 And a hybrid drive:
Lohner-Porsche racing car, 1900

Diesel-electric drives including much battery capacity? The sole in-service propulsion of submarines for half a century, and still a big deal another half century later.

First tank experiment with a hybrid drive: In the thing that's responsible for why people say "tank". Another failure a generation later.
Hybrid vehicles are still sexy in military applications and generally in all-wheel drive applications (AWD is very elegant with in-wheel electric motors). Technical history justifies reservations about this fashion, though*.

*: There are more issues with the technology, but this text is all about the technical history and precedent.


Infantry firearms calibres - a long history

(This post was motivated by a somewhat heated exchange with someone who insisted to see a trend.)

Why did we end up with a calibre of 5.56 mm (and others with 5.45 or 5.82 mm)? The understanding of modern infantry firearms calibres requires in part an understanding of their history.

The typical European 18th century service long firearm was a musket. The calibres were astonishingly large, and the typical bullet was actually a spherical ball. Cartridges were introduced, typically paper with ball and blackpowder, and de-mixing of the blackpowder over time was an issue.
The famous British Brown Bess may serve as a representative of this era:
It was a smoothbore muzzleloader. The barrel bore was .75" (19 mm) and the typical ball fired was .69" (17.5 mm). The difference between bore and ball (windage) differed between countries, less made loading slower, but the shot dispersion was made smaller. The tolerances in producing these guns were such that substantial differences even in calibre were common (and were tolerable at the time). The heavy ball (about 550 grains / 35.5 g) was fired with a low muzzle velocity of about 1,000 fps (305 m/s); subsonic.

Brown Bess / Short Land Pattern Musket, 18th century (c) Antique Military Rifles
The invention of the Minié ball made the conversion from smoothbore musket to a much more accurate rifle possible without the slow reloading of earlier rifles: The bullet (cartridge) of the Minié ball was subcalibre during loading and thus easily loaded as was a subcalibre ball cartridge, but the gas pressure widened the soft lead bullet and pressed it into the grooves. This enabled spin stabilization of the bullet for a small dispersion and real sights and aiming at individual enemies became purposeful for line infantry. It makes little sense to spin stabilize a ball, though; the typical bullets for rifles are longer than the calibre. The Minié ball actually required this for its function.
The weight of such a bullet became almost prohibitive with the established calibres. It wasn't necessary to maintain the established calibres anyway, for the greater length of the bullet added to its penetration capability. The invention of pressed blackpowder grains made blackpowder more consistent and more potent and helped the rifles further.
The consequence was a reduction of the calibre.

A representative for the typical Minié ball rifle shall be the Springfield Model 1861:
Springfield Model 1861 rifle-musket
It was a rifled muzzleloader. The barrel bore was .58" (15 mm) and such was the bullet calibre after leaving the muzzle. The muzzle velocity of the approx. 510 grain (33 g) bullet was apparently about 960 fps (290 m/s) - both a bit less than the Brown Bess'.

The Springfield Model 1861 rifle-musket was already obsolete before its predecessor was introduced, of course. The Prussian Dreyse needle gun (in service 1848) had finally -after centuries of experimentation - delivered the first truly successful breechloading service rifle. Its only advance was its (initially) higher rate of fire, other specs weren't very different from the rifle-musket competition.

The superior French Chassepot rifle (in service 1867) shall instead represent the late age of blackpowder breechloading rifle:

Chassepot rifle, (c) PHGCOM
The calibre was already no more musket-like, but down to 11 mm. The bullet was down to 386 grains (25 g), but its muzzle velocity was up to about 1,350 fps (about 410 m/s) - supersonic. The bullet wasn't weaker than the others mentioned, but it was lighter. This was a purposeful adaption to the new quick fire capability. In theory (if the rifle works flawlessly), a riflemen could have consumed the previously normal maximum 60 rounds within four minutes of quick fire. The only sensible way to supply the rifleman with the ammunition to exploit the quick fire of his rifle was to use a lighter bullet. This saved both weight and money.
The long-ish shape was determined by the nature of the rifle, so a smaller calibre was the way to go. A lower density material would have been no good choice, as the very dense soft lead was very good for the grip in the grooves (internal ballistics), external ballistics (high sectional density) and for terminal ballistics (flattens in soft targets).

Then came the 1880's and quite scientific chemistry. The first practical 'smokeless' (actually less smoke) powders (actually grains) were introduced (more here). One of their consequences was that quick and automatic rapid fire became more practical because the smoke didn't impede aiming any more. Another was that higher muzzle velocities became achievable.

The former meant that repeating rifles became more important as service rifles in place of single loading rifles: Built-in magazines loaded with a clip became common for decades to come. This meant even higher practical rates of fire and the weight issue became even more pressing. What's more important was the gain in external ballistic performance; the muzzle velocities were approximately doubled.
The German (Mauser) Gewehr 98 may serve as a representative for this era:

Gewehr 98
It was the culmination of a series of troubled designs. Experiments with 5 mm (1892) and 6 mm bullets (1998 at the latest) were unsatisfactory, and bullets were not yet really understood from an engineering point of view. The 8x57 mm "Patrone 88" cartridge with its 14.7 g bullet yielded a muzzle velocity of 640 m/s. This bullet was disappointing. The high muzzle velocity and conventional bullet shape led to compression effects which damaged the barrel and caused too much wear of the grooves.
Research led to the adoption of a Spitzgeschoß* (spitzer bullet) of 9.8 g for a muzzle velocity of 895 m/s. The reduction in weight was intentional, but also a consequence of the new shape. The shape solved the internal ballistic issues and also offered much superior external ballistics. The new bullet design also led to a very different behaviour after impact (terminal ballistics).
This spitzer bullet revolution of the 1900's (developed about 1898, introduced in armies during the 1900's)  followed the initial 'smokeless powder' revolution of the 1890's which in turn followed the conversion to breechloading in most European armies during the 1860's and 1870's. It sure was an era of unprecedented 'progress'.
So again, a drop in bullet weight was accompanied by a jump in muzzle velocity, and this was again due to the technological progress in bullet design, again with minimal alterations to the weapon itself.

It is interesting to see that smaller calibres (8 mm was considered 'small calibre' by 1900) were already tested, but found wanting. Their higher muzzle velocities (of 1890's 5 and 6 mm bullets) were too troublesome until spitzer bullets were developed. Some 6.5 mm calibres such as 6.5x55 mm were used by small powers and Japan, though.

Several rifle calibres of about 1900 were successful and became well-established, not the least because of the huge stocks produced during the First World War: 7,92x57 mm, .303, 7.62x54mmR, .30-06.

These cartridges proved to be too powerful for a practical self-loading rifle at acceptable weight until a solution was found with the Garand rifle. Many prototypes blew up. A semi-automatic (self-loading) rifle didn't seem to be the solution of choice after the experiences with trench fighting and machinegun fire during the first World War anyway; a combination of a rifle with the full automatic short range firepower of the newly invented submachineguns was desired. This was of course even more troublesome than a self-loading rifle.
The way to go was to use an intermediate cartridge, and a solution was found during the 1930's within the usual calibre range (7.75 or 7.92 mm), but with a much shorter, lighter bullet and accordingly less propellant in a shorter case (a Swedish 7 mm light machinegun cartridge didn't succeed). A loss in long range firepower was considered acceptable given the experiences of the First World War. This time, the need to reduce the power of the cartridge drove the specs.

The German Sturmgewehr 44 family of machine carbines  / 'assault rifles' shall serve as a representative, albeit the more notorious AK-47/AKM fit in the same era:

Sturmgewehr 44
It kept the calibre of 7.92 mm calibre to facilitate quantity production with available tools and machines. The bullet weighed 8.1 g and left the muzzle at 685 m/s (late wartime cartridge specs). This was considerably less than the contemporary "sS" 'heavy' spitzer bullet in calibre 7,92x57 mm, which had replaced the original spitzer bullets for in the mid-30's and weighed 12.8 g.**

Last but not least; how did we end up in the 5.45 to 5.82 mm range?

As mentioned, the first assault rifle generation still used the established barrel bores; 7.92 or 7.62 mm, with muzzle velocities around 700 m/s; well below what can be had without excessive groove wear (= a bit more than 900 m/s). There was clearly some potential for improvement for the probability of hit against moving targets (deflection shooting) and against low silhouette targets at unknown distances (flat trajectory desirable).

Another issue was how all-automatic weapon infantry used the bullets; it chewed through truckloads of them. Suppressive fire had become feasible and was found to be tactically very, very useful and also rather relieving for the stressed infantryman. 99.99something per cent of the bullets do not hit anybody, but they frighten many. 
This practice places a greater emphasis on the ability to carry many cartridges into battle, and rather less on the what a hit actually does.

The result was that the developers went back to the 5...6 mm range of bullets, which had been discarded in the prototype stage two generations earlier. The very small bullets weigh very little:

5.45x39 mm (Warsaw Pact): typical bullet about 3.5 g
5.56x45 mm (NATO): typical bullet about 4.1 g
5.82x42 mm (China): typical bullet about 4.2 g

The original introduction of the original 5.56x45 mm M16s as service rifles was probably by chance, but the subsequent adoption of this small calibre range for assault rifles and light machineguns all over the world was not. The move from the original full calibre assault rifle generation to this small calibre generation was driven by the need to carry more bullets into battle at an acceptable weight and bulk. This in turn was driven by the gain in rapid firepower that came from the acceptance of less effective range.

Ironically, the readiness to accept the latter compromise was worn out over time and much of this generation of soldiers wants more range again, asking for a different compromise (or an unobtanium bullet design).

- - - - -

I initially made clear that I'm opposed to the view that the reduction of service rifle calibres is some very, very old trend. I consider it rather as a series of technological (and ultimately also tactical) steps forward which by chance happened to all go into the same direction; smaller bullets.

It's a poor idea to consider this as a trend, though. A belief in a trend may create an impression that this trend may go on, and that may be misleading. It's better to drop the simplistic concept of a trend here and go right after what really mattered; the technological steps and observations of their tactical consequences.

An example why this difference may matter: The next observation that matters may easily be that  we finally look at modern battlefield gunfighting from the perspective known to so many ragtag militias and low budget mercenaries: We may find the performance of our bullets in face of hard body armour as too unreliable, at least without rather exotic subcalibre bullet designs. The consequence could be a short-term ammunition solution (more subcalibre high penetration cartridges; "SLAP") followed by a return to a bigger calibre with bigger bullets which have an easier time penetrating hard body armour. Maybe we even end up with two calibres carried; one for suppression and one for penetration.
A belief in an ancient trend isn't going to help us understand or even anticipate developments, for sure. The current calibre range had already been fiddled with 120 years ago anyway.


*: The French introduced a different kind of spitzer bullet slightly earlier, but it wasn't the kind that became the dominant design: It was a bronze alloy bullet.
**: This bullet design improved the external ballistics (relevant only at long range), but primarily it lessened muzzle flash, muzzle bang and recoil issues of the original S-Patrone. There was also a late-WW2 7.92x57 mm duplex cartridge which had two bullets from the 7.92x33 mm calibre, potentially doubling the rate of fire of the already notoriously high-rpm MG42.

For German readers: Einige Infos entnommen aus "Die deutschen Militärgewehre  und Maschinenpistolen 1871-1945", H.D.Görz, 1994. Auch nützlich: "Waffen der Kabinettskriege", "Waffen der Revolutionskriege" und "Waffen der Einigungskriege" von Georg Ortenburg, 1986-1990

[Fun] MSM news

I don't think what I wrote yesterday is ripe for prime time, so instead you may enjoy this:

As so often, German media isn't quite as extreme as this parody (would be horrible otherwise), but it's also showing plenty signs that "news" are more entertainment than news. Some channels seem to treat their news segments as mere fig leafs to meet some minimum obligation, preferring to de facto advertise for later shows or products over actual journalism.

(video replaced by link because it autostarted)

The dissatisfaction with mainstream media "news" presentation that led to this kind of parody appears to be on the rise (not for the first time). Jon Stewart skewers the MSM news quite often and Krugman et al complained recently about how the media reports about politics instead of policy (about the show, not the substance*) and how those who overrate  politics may become too ignorant about the substance, and especially about what researchers have long since learned about the issues at hand.

In case you wonder; yes, I think a purposeful, functional press (Fourth Estate) is important to freedom.


*: Or worse, reporting about the reporting about the politics.Or the reporting about the reporting about the politics.


Qiao Liang, Wang Xiangsui and officer-writers in general

About 15 years ago two Chinese colonels authored a book which in its translated form was called "Unrestricted Warfare" and created a huge echo with its theories and assumptions about how to face a superpower in a conflict with dissimilar, unusual means.

So 15 years later; what happened to them?

Qiao Liang made it merely to Major General (I think that's only one rank higher) and Wang Xiangsui is a retired colonel and professor. The Chinese military did apparently not push these thinkers' career, even though they were no doubt better thinkers than many of the present generals in the PRC.*

This reminds me of how many retired colonels have become prolific writers/thinkers in the U.S. (Hackworth, Vandergriff, Boyd, MacGregor and as navy equivalent, Hughes).

Compare this to the German military authors from the Interwar Years; Rommel, von Leeb, Guderian and others had relatively fast-track careers during the 30's even before they had the opportunity to prove their senior officer skills in wartime**.

The only notable author among German post-WW2 generation officers quipped that despite criticism his writing did at least not keep him from being promoted to LtGen (and he wrote very disparagingly about the army structure and was far right wing even during a the left wing government of the 70's).


*: The book isn't necessarily a revelation, but when it comes to judging the authors, they ought to be compared with their domestic peers. Suffice to say, the best period for Chinese military art literature ended more than 2,000 years ago after a couple classics were produced. Some works of the mentioned American authors baffled me with their mediocrity and lack of original thought as well. Their skill was more often in tailoring stuff for the U.S. audience that was already known if not normal elsewhere at the time.
**: They also benefited from a quick army expansion, though.


How NATO changed the perception of what an alliance is and does

...to people who neglect the study of history.

NATO - by far the most powerful military alliance ever - changed the perception of the concept of a military alliance radically, and in several ways:

(1) Collective defence
Alliances used to be not strictly defensive; alliance member "A" could declare war on rival "B", B's ally "C" would declare war on A and A's ally "D" would declare war on "C". 
NATO was understood to be no such alliance. It was considered to be a collective defence institution, a defensive alliance. That is, till the Yugoslavian Civil Wars.

(2) Alliance organization
Nowadays an alliance doesn't have the feel of an alliance any more if it has no administrative headquarters or no military multinational command headquarters with bunker.
These things are actually novelties introduced by NATO because it inherited the wartime HQ structures of the Western Allied powers. Earlier alliances usually even lacked a common flag or symbol.

NATO AWACS aircraft, (c) jwh
(3) What it means to fight an enemy
It used to be like this; a member of the alliance is attacked, the alliance members wage war, peace is being concluded with the aggressor government and only in rare cases the temporarily hostile country would be occupied for a while (till reparations were paid, for example).
Nowadays a member may be attacked, the alliance goes to war with the dudes who gave hospitality to the aggressor's inciter, they destroy this regime, chase regime members out of the country and then wage a crazy 12+ year long war to keep them from ever coming back to power because ... uhmm, nobody figured that out yet. It sure didn't use to be the normal modus operandi of alliances.

(4) What the treaty text means
Treaty texts were central to historical alliances.
Not so with NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty is basically a "and if one gets attacked, the others do about it what they deem necessary" kind of text. The obligations stemming from the text are a joke, and thus the perfect opposite of how seriously (imagined) alliance obligations are being taken.

(5) Goodwill
Basically nobody would have uttered something as "they were our valuable allies for decades, so we need to be thankful to them" prior to the post-Cold War NATO. It was widely understood that alliances (usually between monarchs or princes) were based on mutual benefits, not charity or about accumulating some kind of political credit. A country which didn't need the alliance any more would leave it, period. In fact, powers often left an alliance and joined a rival alliance. Italy even pulled this off during both world wars!

(6) Duration
This brings us to the next novelty; few if any alliances of NATO's size were ever considered to be eternal. There were long-lasting alliances, for sure - but usually between an empire and some peripheral small power which served as buffer to barbarians. NATO lasts for generations already, it outlived its original raison d'être and just doesn't seem to have any kind of "exit strategy" for itself. It became a bureaucracy, after all - with survival instinct.

(7) Expedition pool
No alliances (not counting internal relations of the British empire as alliances) served primarily as a pool for expeditions, interventions and small wars prior to post-Cold War NATO. Nor did any previous alliance operate its own air force (I know, the AWACS aircraft fly under the flag of Luxembourg, but everyone knows they're basically NATO aircraft). NATO has become a club which provides support functions and ready-to-go staffs for missions which are utterly unrelated to the alliance treaty (see #4).

(8) Plans to mutilate itself
Never before NATO and the Warsaw Pact did an alliance plan to kill the people of one or several of its members en masse, or even maintained such plans for decades. Both these alliances/pacts had indeed plans about killing millions of their own people with thermonuclear bombs in the event of war just because. 
An Oder bridge happens to be at a East German city? That city didn't survive the next wargame. Or the wargame after that. Maybe no theatre-level wargame ever.
No previous alliance was this insane or perverted.

One might be enticed to attribute something outstanding and positive to NATO; peace for decades. This is not a novelty, though: Germany was not involved in a European war (and in only a half dozen expeditionary ones) from 1872-1913, for example.

The study of history makes the extraordinary nature of NATO very visible, but the modern perception of what an alliance is like is clearly focused on NATO reality, not on any precedents.
The Lisbon Treaty's section on collective defence is a serious alliance by pre-NATO standards, while NATO was never really an alliance by pre-NATO standards (too wobbly wording of its treaty).


edit 2019: I should have added (9) Permanent stationing of troops in allied countries during peacetime. That was unheard-of in alliances (as opposed to kind of vasall treaties).

Truly affordable fighters / The F-5 (video)

I looked at truly affordable (a.k.a. "lightweight") fighters and fighter-bombers from the Focker E-VIII to the Saab Gripen recently, but didn't come up with a definitive conclusion worthy of a blog text. The historical success stories are anecdote with no visible rules of thumb for their success.
Instead, I grew a suspicion that maybe the growing importance of electronic warfare has badly reduced the potential for actually outstandingly affordable combat aircraft.

So instead of a real blog post with long text and musings, I offer a consolation prize; a nice documentary about one successful example of a lightweight fighter-bomber; the F-5 (which might have prevented the Gripen's success if its F404-prowered F-20 version had entered production!).



Corvettes and air defence

The "corvette week" CIMSEC's "Next War" blog is a thing of the past, but the small surface combatant discussions are still among naval enthusiast's and professionals' favourite topics. OPVs and corvettes have this sexiness of small size and are untainted by the ludicrous costs of the capital ships (American DDGs, CVs of all kinds, SSNs).
Think Defence (UK) and Information Dissemination (US) are the blogging hot spots for the public online part of these discussions.

The [corvette] flotillas operate in the littoral while the carrier and destroyers operate further back. They provide support such as AEW, helicopters, and long range missiles to prevent bombers and other aircraft from picking off the flotilla ships at their leisure.

This seems to address what was pointed out during CIMSEC's corvette week regarding the LGB threat.
A destroyers' (DDG) surface-to-air missile (SAM) defence might be a rather short leash, though. A flight of "bombers" with a couple of glide bombs with relatively cheap guidance packages could lob these glide bombs from low altitude and from beyond the corvette's own SAM envelope. A low altitude approach would defeat the semi-active radar guidance of SM-2 missiles at a much, much shorter distance than their notional range. This may be less than 10 nm*: A rather short leash.
The new and still extremely rare SM-6 missiles, the more numerous Aster missiles  (active seeker requiring no radar illumination, just some target data) or small surface combatants with an organic radar illumination capability (typically coupled with ESSM, a rather ASW frigate-level SAM) would change the scenario a lot, but few SM-6 can be carried in addition to all the other purposeful missiles in a DDG's VLS.
SAMs and AAMs (both SM-6 and Aster have AAM-derived seekers) have track records of often disappointing hit percentages. They cannot always be used to good effect near the limits of their envelope when you need them because baiting tactics provoke their wasteful expenditure and the control centres accordingly need to be cautious with the expenditure of very expensive and scarce missiles.

The capital ships' security against the missile threat is debatable; their ability to project this security far to the benefit of small surface combatants is even more debatable.**

The fixation on anti-ship cruise missiles (sea skimmers and more Soviet-style supersonic missiles***) is probably ill-advised anyway. It was the a big thing after the Exocet missiles' successes in the Falklands War and plenty more or less expensive countermeasures were developed and deployed to counter them. Ever since the Millennium Challenge 2002 exercise (in which imaginary Iraqi speedboats overwhelmed and sank a fleet) speedboats are the big countermeasure provocateurs. This semi-ludicrous 'threat' is about to give way to guided ballistic missiles as favourite countermeasure provocateurs and thus military-industrial-complex money guarantors. Maybe hypervelocity (air-breathing) missiles will be the big money printing presses to Western navies and their contractors in the 2020's. There are plenty above-surface threats.

Naval discussions appear to still use the Exocet-like threat missile as a kind of default and favourite threat. Submarine fans and operators disagree and the history of anti-ship munitions development post-1945 indicates that Exocet-like threat missiles are but one threat of many, and apparently the one which provoked the most thorough countermeasures so far. We (or they) should pay more attention to the other threats.
A defence against munitions alone instead of against platforms is going to fail if said munitions are cheap and defence is still difficult (and thus still not cheap).


*: The lobbing of a glide bomb at Mach 0.7 from very low altitude allows for ten or more nautical miles glide range (the kinetic energy is about the equivalent of 9,000 ft if I didn't mess up the calculation). This would be enough to stay far outside a typical corvette's air defence reach. Even ESSM-equipped ASW frigates may be at risk when challenged by such a tactic.
The radar horizon for radar illumination is about 17 nm against very low level targets. 17 nm - 5 nm = 12 nm, subtract the glide range from this or at least the corvette's effective air defence range of usually no more than 4 nm. The result is less than 10 nm.
**: And the USN may have horribly failed in its very belated introduction of active radar-guided SAMs. This was likely a consequence of the initially admirable performance of the AEGIS/SM-2 combo and similar to how the French army stuck for too long with its initially revolutionary, but soon surpassed 75 mm field cannons.
***: Not attracting the most attention, but very interesting conceptually: 3M-54 Klub


Trucks, soft soil and ice


Criticism of wheeled military vehicles' soft soil mobility has been in high gear since the ominous Stryker development more than a decade ago. Let's remember that "it depends". Soft soil is no insurmountable problem if there's hard soil beneath and your vehicle can reach that deep down due to high-enough ground pressure, high ground clearance (and has enough power and hard soil grip to overcome the resistance of the soft soil).

The video about Arctic trucking should be interesting to those who expect 'hot' conflicts over Arctic resources. I'm not Canadian, Danish or Norwegian, so I think that's basically a non-issue. Let's see if the NBC self-decontamination sprinklers (countermeasure wash down system) on our warships can make good use of antifreeze to prevent incapacitating icing and that should be satisfactory for the "Arctic warfare" scenario for the time being.

Countermeasure wash down system in action

related: 2013-10 East European military technology