Military aviation history: The final air campaign that mattered in Europe

I spent much of the 90's as an aviation buff, soaking up ridiculous amounts of information about aviation (most of all historical military aviation). The internet finally offered me a horizon way past the few books on offer in local bookstores and libraries around 1997, but sometime around 2000 there still seemed little info of interest left to be learned in the field. Diminishing returns.

I still have this in the background and one topic is nagging me a bit; the dominance of attention on late-war hardware. The last campaign that really mattered was the air superiority campaign over Central Europe, which started for real with the introduction of P-51B as long-range escort fighters (first mission over Germany 11 December 1943, substantial involvement began in January 1944) and ended with the near-total destruction of the (aviation) fuel supply in the summer of 1944. The relentless bombing of oil industry and storage sites beginning in May largely devalued further production of German combat aircraft, tanks and motor vehicles in general. By September 1944 the German pilot training program had crashed and its output was reduced to low quality cannon fodder. New fighter pilots had much-reduced flying hours before they joined operational units, leaving much of the type familiarisation and tactical training to those supposedly operational units. Furthermore, all pilots had to become fighter pilots, whereas pre-1944 the less skilled pilots would get to fly transport or bomber aircraft.

We have thus very little reason to pay attention to what aircraft types and versions appeared  in service only by summer of '44 or later. The last militarily really relevant (NOT decisive) German hardware was the hardware of the winter 1943/44, at most spring 1944.

So, what was available as best German fighters at the time?

The Fw 190A-7 fighter with four good 20 mm guns (two of them synchronised electrically, which reduced rate of fire by about 10%) and two 13 mm guns (also synchronised electrically). Its engine was famously poor at high altitudes because of a single stage supercharger with a full pressure altitude* of less than 6,000 m (the U.S.A.A.F.'s 8th Air Force B-17 and B-24 bombers usually flew at about 7,600 m). It was outmatched by the two stage supercharger P-51B fighter (which also enjoyed superior aerodynamics) not only because of the supercharger issue, but also because the Fw 190A-7's BMW 801D-2 engine was essentially unchanged since 1942.** The Fw 190A-7 was generally marginally improved over the Fw 190A-4 version of July 1942 (biggest improvement was probably the thickening of armour to withstand .50BMG).

The Fw 190 offered great all-round view, great roll rate, very robust undercarriage, great firepower and great resistance to battle damage (air-cooled engine without vulnerable liquid cooling system except for the lubricating oil).

The Bf 109G-6 was the best available Bf 109 fighter version by New Year 1944. The G-6 version had been in production since February 1943 already and wasn't much better than the G-2 version of early 1942. The G-6 featured a single 20 mm or 30 mm gun (the latter had a slow muzzle velocity, but single hits often killed a fighter and 3...4 hits often killed a 4-engine bomber) and two 13 mm guns (synchronised electrically.
An "AS" designation was applied to the few and late G-6 with a DB 605AS engine (with DB 603's supercharger) likely beginning before February 1944, and there as also the /U2 modification with GM-1 injection (nitrous oxide, as substitute for the missing oxygen supply from the supercharger above approx. 5,800 m altitude). Only about 325 G-6AS and 324 G-6/U2 were produced in factories altogether (compared to almost 8,000 basic G-6).

The Bf 109 had no especially advantageous characteristics except that its power/weight ratio was fine (and it was a fairly small target), resulting in a high climb rate. It was plagued by an unsatisfactory undercarriage, which resulted in many accidents.
The basic Bf 109G-6 and G-6AS or G-6/U2 were rather unsuitable for the destruction of four-engine bombers, and probably even so with the 30 mm gun. Their firepower was quite poor; a problem that had plagued the Bf 109 since the F series in 1941.

Two additional underwing-mounted 20 mm or 30 mm guns could be installed, but this increased the weight, reduced the roll rate, reduced the climb rate and reduced the top speed. The E series' installation of older model 20 mm guns in slightly bulged wings was not reintroduced. There was a choice between a clean but still not really competitive fighter and a by comparison clumsy and in contact with hostile fighters even less competitive 'bomber destroyer'.

The obvious option would have been to go for a fighter group equipped with Bf 109G-6ASM (ASM = AS with MW-50 injection) as escorting force and a Fw 190A-7 fighter group as bomber destroyers by spring 1944, and something similar (more extreme) was attempted with the Sturmgruppen approach, to completely insufficient effect as the heavily armed (and armoured) bomber destroyers were not properly secured against the escort fighters.

Both Fw 190A-7 and Bf 109G-6 represented mid-1942 to mid-1943 technology and this didn't suffice even though the same could be said about the P-51B (the P-51's basic fuselage design was approx. two and six years younger than the German designs and this showed in the aerodynamics of the wing profile and the cooler design).

All the fancy technical advances made in summer 1944 to winter 1944/45 didn't matter any more. You wouldn't quite get that impression with the usual literature on the period and campaign, for there's an inappropriate level of attention on the irrelevant German aircraft variants and types that became available for service in relevant quantities only after the spring of 1944. There are 'too late, too few' remarks, but the authors don't resist paying excessive attention to fancy very late war designs while largely neglecting the types introduced in 1942/1943 relative to their actual importance.

A one-year lapse in competitiveness of in-service fighter designs rooted in raw material shortages (which caused a failure of turbocharger development programs) and a way too belated counter to the Rolls-Royce Merlin 61's two-stage supercharger revealed in the summer of 1942 doomed the Luftwaffe to not only fight in a severe quantitative inferiority, but also in a severe qualitative inferiority situation during its last air campaign that mattered.

The Luftwaffe's fighter designs were usually very competitive and at times clearly superior before and after, but not so during the half year when the 8th AF finally employed some good ideas for offensive strategic air warfare in combination.

Moreover, one could ask whether we should trust our modern fighter arsenals with their about 40 year design lifecycles.


*: I translated "Volldruckhöhe" literally, as "full pressure altitude". I don't know the correct translation, though "critical altitude" and "full throttle altitude" popped up as a candidates. The "Volldruckhöhe" is the altitude at which giving full throttle usually makes sense for the last time during a climb, but that depends on engine control mechanisms. Aircraft usually reached their top speed a little above their full pressure altitude.
**: The usual statement (in literature) that the Jumo 213A of the Fw 190D series was superior to the BMW 801 at high altitudes does not square with its actual performance curves at all. 
Fw 190A (BMW 801) reached top speed slightly higher than 650 kph at about 6,400 m, with externel air intake it's a bit faster at about 6,900 m. A Fw 190D reached top speed about 670 kph at about 6,600 m. The Jumo 213A installation allowed for a little extra performance in general (especially with MW-50 added and in use by very late 1944), but it was no high altitude engine.

The Jumo 213A's full pressure altitude was 5,900 m, almost indistinguishable from the basic versions of the competing German engines. The Jumo 213A was no real high altitude engine. The DB 605 engine versions with DB 603's supercharger (such as DB 605AS) were the closest thing to high altitude piston engine available for German fighters. The only real alternative were DB 605 with GM-1 (nitrous oxide) injections systems (AFAIK BMW 801 with GM-1 were not used in fighters).
Some data:

Bf 109G-5AS and Bf 109G-5 speeds at different altitudes (equivalents to G-6AS and G-6, equipped with pressurised cabin and thus a little heavier) 

Fw 190A-6 speeds at different altitudes (very similar to A-7, graph also shows speeds achieved with an alternative external air intake)

P-51 speeds at different altitudes (in antiquated dimensions)

DB605AS performance at different altitudes
DB 605AM performance at different altitudes (This powerplant appeared in 1944 with MW-50.)

MW-50 did almost nothing for high-altitude performance (it made sense up to full pressure altitude only - there was but a few per cent power gain from the cooling effect above it), so we can compare contemporary DB 605AM and AS versions' high altitude performance: The DB 605AM's full pressure altitude was 5,800 m and the AS version had a full pressure altitude of 7,800 m. Performance steeply dropped above full pressure altitude. AM delivered 1080 hp at 5,500 m while AS with bigger charger still delivered 1050 hp at 7,800 m altitude.)

BMW 801D-2 performance at different altitudes with improved C-3 fuel and increased pressures (not relevant in first half 1944, used in Fw 190A-8); this shows the sharp drop in power above the full pressure altitude of the ordinary 5,800 m. The full pressure altitude wasn't changed by the summer '44 modifications to the engine.


Hat tip to http://www.wwiiaircraftperformance.org/ and kurfurst.org - having such easily accessible free resources is delightful compared to the many unsupported statements made most of the aviation literature!



Personnel reform

There are traditionally three categories of active military personnel in (almost?) all armed services; enlisted personnel, non-commissioned officers and officers.*

The officers have their roots in the noble class that traditionally led troops into war from pre-historic times** to 19th century, continued in a watered-down way till about WW2.

The enlisted personnel has its roots in levied, poorly-equipped and poorly trained soldiers. 
The NCOs in between have their roots in professional men-at-arms training and overseeing levied troops, but in some modern armed forces the junior NCOs are merely a bunch of chosen, higher quality enlisted personnel who get entrusted with additional tasks and responsibilities.

The current division of personnel into enlisted, NCOs and officers is clearly a product of path dependency. This begs the questions: Is it appropriate, is it optimal?

The current recruiting has difficulties presenting enlisted service as attractive (especially in regard to personnel retention), as the enlisted personnel exists in an organisation where there are very many superiors way beyond the actual needs of a functioning hierarchy (chain of command) and enlisted personnel is officially bottom of the barrel.

There may be promise in a more fluid rank system, and both the civilian sector and the integration of civilians in many processes of the army (such as with mechanics) shows that this is feasible. Some glass ceilings exist that separate the least-educated workers of a large corporation from the top management, but no such three defined groups, and some manager from a faraway location doesn't have the authority to order a worker to do something only because he's within an enclosed corporate area.

A clean sheet of paper design for a new personnel system could address the many lessons learned and scientific findings that do not square with the traditional hierarchical system.

It would give us an option to introduce downwards mobility that appears unthinkable in the traditional system. We could have promotions on a trial basis and/or temporary promotions, so we can test whether an individual is not just promising, but actually capable of a different task. This would help get around the Peter Principle.

We could also offer room for self-organisation and groups revealing natural leader talents. Natural leaders become visible if you don't force a leader onto a group by artificial authority.

We might find ways to make improvisations official that have existed for generations; things such as competence before rank. This improvisation was (is) practiced among pilots and between trainers and students, for example.

We could also make full use of authority by qualification, such as already practiced with trainer certifications. Those are so far awkward deviations from the standard system.

I suppose the best way to test a different personnel system would be to have some small and not terribly important armed service test it in the alliance. Slovenia's military, for example.


*: Officers have quite sweeping authority of command over NCOs and enlisted personnel beyond the chain of command (exact regulations are detailed and vary between countries), and NCOs have such sweeping beyond-chain-of-command authority over enlisted personnel.
**: This is poorly documented in many areas and eras, and nobility may have been acquired by gaining respect of fellow men in some areas and eras.


The starting point for military theory


Let's go to the absolute starting point for thinking about deterrence & defence.

There are foreign violence threats to our well-being and we cannot provide sufficient security for ourselves individually. We could presumably become assassins to punish hostiles for their aggressions, but that simply doesn't work on a grand scale and it doesn't help us individually.
To deter an aggression or to defend against an aggression requires a collective effort.

Deterrence and defence has been one of the tasks of government for hundreds of years in most countries that old. We should know the answer to the question "Why?" at this point.

We do things together that are best done together, not individually. We then call this 'doing together' government. The government is not some exogenous evil, incapable of solving problems (as American-style moderate anarchists like to assert), government is us doing things together.

Let this sink in; government is us doing things together.

Most of the things that best be done together are about repeating or continuous needs, so we establish rules, plans, organisations.

"Government" itself is an illusion in service of the community - whenever it has actual effects that's actually us doing things together.

We had intended privileged beneficiaries of our collective action before we had democracy. The state of our art at organising collective action led us to assign some monarch as this intended privileged beneficiary. The leader was a kind of agent for the people, but being in power enabled such leaders to suppose that their own well-being was the sole purpose of the collective action. Good riddance we got rid of that notion.

Nowadays government is us doing things together that are best done together, and all this is meant to be to our collective benefit. There are still unintended privileged beneficiaries and governments still do net harmful or simply wasteful things, of course. It's a work in progress.

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I wrote "our collective benefit". This is a really difficult expression. Philosophy and science cannot provide accurate guidance about the utility of things. What's the utility of a night watch employee in a public museum to you? How highly does a guy next street value public radio? Are a hundred units of your currency as important to you as to some super-rich guy and some homeless person? We don't know each other's preferences at least until they were voiced.

It's impossible to accurately calculate the benefits of collective (public) action, even in hindsight. Yet there are ways to determine relative cost efficiency and ways to identify outright waste. There are also ways to identify obvious suspects for wasteful action.*
A prime suspect for wasteful collective action are avoidable wars. It is very difficult to discern utility from wars, and unsuccessful wars usually provide only marginal (if any) benefits, while incurring huge costs.

I mentioned before that utility of collective action is difficult to grasp with accuracy. Wars' benefits are especially difficult to at least estimate because they're no more about plundering or conquering. We don't conquer arable land, plunder, capture ships or take punitive payments from defeated enemies. Modern categories of 'benefits' from military action are rather about reputation (prestige), influence, military experience, marketing for arms, relationships and (very rarely) access to economic resources (which still need to be paid for in trade after the war).**

It's much easier to point out the benefits of defensive war: In the most extreme case, this saves our lives. In nearly as extreme cases, this saves our property and freedom. Deterrence saves even more than does defence, and can be supposed to cost less. Successful deterrence is superior to successful defence.

This is a bit less clear-cut in alliance defence. It's difficult to tell how the Portuguese would directly benefit from NATO defending the Baltic countries in a hot conflict, for example. A case could be made that maintaining an alliance with short term net losses may save enough military expenses in the long term to be a sensible decision.***

Again; government is us doing things together that better be done together to our own benefit.
Military policy (deterrence & defence) should be done by us in a fashion that we expect to benefit us the most.

There's still the issue about unknown utility (benefits), but economists have reasoned there's a kind of solution to this. Nobody really knows the preferences of other people, but said preferences influence our individual decision-making.
Economists thus know a practical way around the problem of hidden preferences; let everyone judge issues individually, and then let them voice their individual decisions. This simplifies things a lot and is the least inaccurate way of pursuing interests known to mankind. In other words; go vote or participate in a market. The latter works fine if the problem is about allocating your own resources.

The ultimate legitimation for us shouldering the downsides of collective action (such as taxes) is that we as a community agreed in democratic process to do it. We as a community voiced our preferences through voting. An improvement of the accuracy of the democratic process should thus tend to cause an improvement of military policy.****

(One could say that technocrats know best how to achieve an objective, but all their specialist knowledge means little if they don't know the correct objective, and they don't know the community's preferences directly, either.)

Such improvements may take different shapes. We could have more specific votes (such as direct election of minister of defence, direct election of a defence committee, or a vote on whether to buy those expensive combat aircraft or not as the Swiss have them). We could be informed more and better. We could discuss more and better. We could begin to pay attention at all (probably not a common issue among readers of this blog, but in the general public). We could better shield our representatives from manipulations by special interests and ideologues.

All those "how to" military theory facets that military theorists wrote about for 2,250+ years started past these starting points.***** They're like prescriptions for medicinal drugs without knowing the patient's interests. It's awfully expensive to blindly prescribe a one-for-all-illnesses cure package.


*: Examples: special interests influence, path dependencies, supervisors of bureaucracies who agree with bureaucratic self-interest, sunk costs influencing decisions, some natural experiments (comparisons).
**: Except for Russians and maybe Chinese. The Russian Federation actually went to war to annex land, which was an outlier in the post-1973 world. It's very questionable whether this was a net economic benefit to the status quo ante citizens, though.
***: Many confused people appear to believe that being in an alliance is a reason to spend more on military power. To join an alliance reduces the pool of potential hostile powers and increases the pool of potential (very likely) allies. This REDUCES the need for military spending (or makes deterrence & defence feasible at all). The idea that being in an alliance requires higher military spending than was spent before as a country without allies is irrational, propaganda and a perversion of the purpose of a modern alliance.
****: Which fortunately happens to justify the articles that I wrote on this subject on "Defence and Freedom" years ago. 
*****: In case you thought I need a justification for recycling that cat GIF. ;-)

In case you erroneously read a justification for any 'my country first' ideology in here: There's also a community of nations, and to behave as a super-egoistical participant in such a community for long will lead to severe tit-for-tat treatment penalties. Almost everyone will be worse off afterwards, and especially so the super-egoist nation.


Link drop January 2019

2018 was really fine for me personally, but rather mediocre nationally and internationally. No big problems were solved or reduced by much. Let's hope 2019 will be better!

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Amazing natural camo

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Of course, the usual reply by the right wing is that the others do it as well, which is (a) largely incorrect and (b) no excuse anyway.

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(about Costa Rica)

I wonder how they want to achieve 11 kts with such a relatively small sail area.
some more similar projects mentioned in a forum

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A very nice summary on the issue whether the Spitfire could have been turned into a long-range escort fighter. The short answer is yes, though the Mustang with its lower drag (better cooler design, better wing profile, no rearview mirror and fully retractable undercarriage that Spitfire V and IX didn't have) was capable of even greater range. Even slightly modified Spitfire IX should have been useful for escort missions to the Ruhr area, though.

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This is a photo I found in the intertubes.

CKEM missile, a favourite concept of mine. It's mostly high energy density solid rocket fuel, some stabilising fins, some minute charges that push the nose in different directions for steering, a 'long rod' penetrator similar to the ones used in APFSDS (though rather smooth surface and no fins) and somewhere in there is a tiny computer.
CKEM is so interesting because its kinetic energy penetration principle is similar to what tank guns' APFSDS uses, and thus dissimilar to the shaped charge warheads normally used by portable or light vehicle-mounted munitions. A countermeasure against shaped charges would likely fail against this one. This redundancy makes it harder to devalue a nation's anti-tank munitions arsenal.
Moreover, it requires no fuse that could be defeated. It can be operated in a fully predicted point of impact mode. This means any defeat of sensors after the launch could become irrelevant. It can receive midcourse updates apparently, but those are not really necessary unless you aim at really long distances.

Now the downsides
  • it's fairly specialised in defeating heavy and medium armour
  • it's still pretty heavy ("less than 45.4 kg")
  • it's a rocket that accelerates after launch, so it doesn't have full penetration capability on the first few hundred metres (effective minimum range frontal against MBT maybe 600 m?)
I suppose we should mount CKEM armoured recce vehicles and possibly (for ripple fire capability in ambush) on tanks as well. Tanks could then use smaller, less troublesome main guns if not even much more rapidly firing and much higher elevating main guns.
Meanwhile, infantry and non-combat forces would keep using portable shaped charge-based anti-tank munitions ranging from a lightweight 50 mm predicted line of sight single shot bazooka to ERYX-like munitions (huge calibre, I did not fully appraise that for a long time) and portable platoon-level infantry guns (M4 Carl Gustaf). 'Rear' area troops may make do with cheap(er) Panzerfaust 3-ish munitions.

Why do I write this? You won't find much redundancy and thus not much robustness in the actually used inventories. Javelin and similar missiles may even be defeated by denying them a lock-on in the first place using multispectral smoke. Backup AT munitions such as M136 are simply no satisfactory anti-MBT munitions. The German EuroSpike (MELLS) / Panzerfaust-3T duo (afaik with remnants of Milan missiles somewhere in use) is no better.

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[Blog] I finally removed the Statcounter thing, for the December stats made no sense whatsoever. Again.

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AK Vorrat wieder in Aktion.