The BBC's 1964 Masterpiece "The Great War"

Of all the events of the Twentieth Century, it is the First World War that has had the most dramatic and longest-lasting impact on the psyche of Western civilization, more so than all the events that followed.   For anyone with an abiding interest in that war, the 1964 BBC documentary The Great War is an invaluable reference to understanding.  Narrated by Sir Michael Redgrave, the 26-part documentary is a superbly-crafted work.  The tenor of the broadcasts reflects the erosion of the naïve hopes of the warring parties in 1914 into the grim fatalism that the years of slaughter evoked, and the upheaval that would ultimately topple the crowned heads of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia.  BBC producers make excellent use of voice to read the actual words of the key participants such as Edward Grey, Bethmann-Hollweg, Conrad von Hotzendorf, Joffre, Haig, Falkenhayn, and others.  The series features remarkable and little-seen motion footage of the world of 1914-18, including the civilians, the politicians, the armies, and the great battles of that war.   The battle footage heavily emphasizes the two great killers of that war (in inverse order), the machine gun, and modern breech-loading recoil-dampened artillery.

Of note also are the poignant, and sometimes extremely moving, interviews with the participants of events of the great tragedy.  Some had been in the thick of the fighting, others young subalterns or staff officers at the sleeve of the decision-makers.   Most remarkably, the BBC managed to produce a documentary about momentous events that changed the world and yet also managed to allow the viewer insight into the inestimable human tragedy that these events summoned.   At the time of the release of The Great War, those events were closer in time to the audience than the beginning of the Vietnam War is to our contemporary world.   The twenty-six episodes are around forty minutes each.  Worth every second of the time spent.

Oh, and as the credits roll at the end of each episode, one can spot the name of a very young (19 years old) contributor named Max Hastings.

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.

Liberty Ships

One of Roamy’s very first posts here concerned the WWII emergency shipbuilding program known as Liberty Ships.

As it happens, I recently acquired a book on Liberty Ships.

The haste with which they were built, and the relatively new technology of welded hulls, lead to some issues with brittle metal, and hull failures, especially in cold water.

The massive Liberty Ship program was designed to quickly build as many general purpose (break bulk) cargo ships as possible. The Liberty Ships were simple, but not crude.

The primary bottlenecks in shipbuilding were these:

First, the program could not be allowed to compete with existing merchant and warship building. To avoid this, entirely new yards and slipways were built (at government expense). In fact, many of the companies that operated these yards had no history of shipbuilding at all. Indeed, these neophyte firms often brought innovations to shipbuilding that left older firms aghast, but were eventually adopted by traditional firms, and are still in use today.

Second, the real bottleneck in production was propulsion. By 1940, the triple expansion steam engine was widely considered obsolete in American merchant marine service. But most production intense part of a steam turbine plant is the reduction gearing. There was a very real limit to how much gear cutting capacity America had or could be expected to achieve, and virtually all that was allocated to warship production. And since geared turbines were out, the old triple expansion steam engine was pressed into service for the Liberties. That actually meant that a school for teaching how to maintain the older technology had to be opened. The relative simplicity of the TESE meant that foundries that normally had no maritime connection could also be used to build engines.  The boilers were also relatively simple (though not crude) and could similarly be build without competing for the limited capacity of traditional boilermakers for warships.


Now, you know that massive losses to merchant shipping to U-Boats in the Atlantic spurred the Liberty Ship program.

What surprised me was the relatively small numbers of Liberty Ships that were lost to U-Boat attacks.  I suspect it is because the worst losses of the Battle of the Atlantic took place before the Liberty Ship program really started placing large numbers of ships into service. That is, most were replacements for losses already incurred. There were appalling numbers of losses, but most were from mechanical casualties, and very often after 20 years of service.


One thing I found rather spartan about the ships was that the navigation suite consisted primarily of a magnetic compass. Combined with a sextant and charts, that was about it. The lack of a gyrocompass was surprising. Virtually none of the Liberty Ships was fitted with radar of any sort during the war.

CSAR/X is CRH is… probably dead. Or only mostly dead.

The Old AF Sarge’s Friday Flyby post this week features the Jolly Green Giants- Air Force helos dedicated to retrieving downed aircrews behind enemy lines.* This Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) has long been seen as critically important- if you’re shot down and alone behind enemy lines, the service will keep the faith with you, and do everything in its power to bring you home.

And the proud history of the Jollies lives on today, in the form of the HH-60G PaveHawk and its crews.

The problem is, the PaveHawk has been around for 30 years of hard use, and they’re falling apart. Indeed, of an initial purchase of 112, only 99 remain, and they’re effectively at or beyond the planned 7,000 hour service life, and many are suffering from cracks and other fatigue problems.  Further, while the PaveHawk was state of the art when purchased (compared to say, a UH-1 Huey), it has a relatively short range, and limited payload and cabin space.

This isn’t a problem that has cropped up overnight. The Air Force about a decade ago decided to start shopping around for a replacement for the PaveHawk, just as some very capable helicopters started to enter production in both the American civilian and European military markets. Examples of these capable new aircraft included the Sikorsky S-92, the Augusta/Westland EH101, improved versions of the CH-47 Chinook, and as an outside chance, the Eurocopter EC725.

And so the Air Force went about holding a competition to replace it’s old PaveHawks with a newer, more capable helicopter. The details of that competition are far, far too involved to delve into in a simple post. In the end, Boeing’s offer of a modified version of its MH-47G Special Operations helicopter for the Army, itself a modified version of the CH-47F just entering production then, won the competition. The HH-47H was a great choice. It was a large, powerful, long-ranged aircraft with plenty of room, and capacity for growth. It’s basic design was already in production, and most of the special equipment would also be shared with the Army’s MH-47G fleet, driving down unit costs. The volume of spare parts in service would also be leveraged to drive down lifetime operating costs. Most importantly, it was the most capable platform for the mission.

Immediately, the losing bidders protested the decision to the GAO.  Years passed, and eventually, the GAO said the process was indeed flawed. Note, the GAO didn’t say the HH-47H wasn’t capable, or that the competitors entries were better. Merely that the bidding process was flawed. All this before sheet metal had been cut on a single bird. And at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the government, all while the PaveHawk fleet was getting older and older.

Eventually, the Air Force was forced to simply cancel the contract to Boeing.

The aging of the PaveHawk fleet has gotten so bad the Air Force has been forced to buy the occasional UH-60M off the Army’s production line, and refit it with special equipment from an older PaveHawk simply to keep the minimum fleet available.

At any event, the Air Force announced the CSAR/X program was dead. And then immediately announced a wholly new program, the Combat Rescue Helicopter or CRH. Not surprisingly, the basic needs for the program looked an awful lot like the CSAR/X program. Something bigger, newer and longer ranged than the HH-60G.

Because of the way the solicitation was written, and various market factors, the CRH program has forced most of the “usual suspects” to either drop out, or not even bother bidding in the first place. In effect, the program is a sole source contract for the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter.

The only problem is, in the age of the sequester, the Air Force is struggling mightily to find money. It’s something of a given that almost anything will be sacrificed upon the altar of the F-35 program. Second only to that is the KC-46 replacement tanker program. As it stands, the Air Force has basically told Sikorsky “fine, you win…” but as of now, there simply is no money to buy any aircraft.

The entire fiasco is an indictment of our flawed procurement process. It surely seems to me that back in the days of duplication and fraud, waste and abuse, the services certainly seemed to be able to buy more systems with less development times, and at less risk than today.

*Note, this mission is separate and distinct from the Air Force Special Operations for inserting and retrieving special operations forces. Different environments, different missions, different doctrine, and different training. To some extent, there is some crossover, but there has always been good reason to keep them distinct.

Ballistic Missile Defense in Europe

The US policy of extending Ballistic Missile Defense capabilities to our European allies originally envisioned building installations in Poland based on our own GMD program as installed in Alaska. Political factors, far more than technical or tactical ones, caused that plan to be scrapped.  US Aegis BMD capable Aegis cruisers and destroyers will be forward deployed to Europe to provide BDM. Significant questions of cost and capability also lead to a decision to forego using the GMD program and instead to install a land based version of the US Navy’s Aegis system in Romania and Poland.

The U.S. and NATO have begun construction on the first deployed Aegis Ashore installation in Deveselu, Romania as part of a wider ballistic missile defense (BMD) strategy on Monday, according to several press reports.

“The facility here in Deveselu will be a crucial component in building up NATO’s overall ballistic missile defense system,” NATO deputy secretary-general Alexander Vershbow said.”By the end of 2015 this base will be operational and integrated into the overall NATO system.”


Aegis BMD had a bit of stunning publicity back in 2008 when the USS Lake Erie used her Aegis system to knock down a dying satellite.

Aegis, named for the shield of Athena and Zeus, is an integrated shipboard air defense system in service from the early 1980s.  The term Aegis more properly refers to the computers and software that make up the combat system, but is colloquially used to refer to the entire hardware suite of combat system, radar, launcher, and associated equipment.

The radar itself, the SPY-1, is a passively scanned phased array. The launcher, the Mk41 Vertical Launch system, can be loaded with any of a number of types of missiles. Aboard ship, it carries several versions of the SM-2 and SM-3 Standard Missile family to intercept aircraft and missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles, the Vertical Launch ASROC anti-submarine rocket, and increasingly, the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile short-range air defense missile. I think we can safely presume the shore based installation will only carry Standard Missile family members.

The SPY-1 radar was developed with open ocean air defense as its priority, and has struggled with tracking targets over land. But because ballistic missile trajectories are so far above the horizon, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Aegis Ashore is a great example of leveraging existing technologies for a low risk, low costs solution to a problem. With over thirty years of use, the basic components are well tested. The systems are already in production for shipboard use, and adapting them to shore use is a far easier task than adapting a shore based system for shipboard use.

Indeed, before the Navy even fielded its first operational Aegis system, it build a shore based system for testing and integration.

Shore basing the Aegis system is also quite a bit cheaper than providing the same capability via a forward deployed ship. Lower operating and manning costs, and simplified logistics drive down costs.

Aegis and the SM missile family have a good track record of success in testing against short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles. Full capability against ICBMs has yet to be demonstrated, but as capability grows, updating the ashore installations will be relatively simple.

Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross awarded for actions in Benghazi

My primary frustration with the administration with regards to the September 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi is the lies, obfuscation, and dissembling.  Many will point out various warning signs before the attack and Hilary Clinton’s failure to address them. That’s a sin, of course, but she is hardly unique in that error of judgment. No, the immediate response of her and Obama was to tout a patently absurd tale of an obscure  YouTube video inciting riots, as well as willfully conflating events in Cairo with those in Benghazi.

The enemy gets a vote. Had the administration been willing to offer a plausible explanation, I’d have been willing to believe it. Would anyone be surprised to learn the CIA and various special operations forces were involved in post-civil war Libya, doing whatever it was they were doing? I suspect they were trying to funnel arms to various Syrian rebel factions, but a cover story about rounding up MANPADS missiles or some such would have done nicely.

But no, the admin lied, and badly at that. Worse, they’ve been doubling down time and again, thereby dragging out the scandal.

We still have no idea what really happened on the ground there that terrible night. But we do know it was a fantastically fierce fight. Via the Washington Times Rowan Scarborough:

In a unique battlefield commendation, a Marine Corps member of Delta Force has been awarded the nation’s second highest military honor for coming to the defense of Americans last year at a CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.

Delta Force, a counterterrorism unit in the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), has been thought of as a strictly Army outfit. But it does take on qualified “operators,” as they are called, from other services.

The Washington Times has reported that two Delta Force members were among a seven-person rescue team sent from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli to Benghazi on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. Their mission: rescue diplomats, security personnel and CIA employees pinned down by terrorists about a mile from the U.S. diplomatic mission where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and aide Sean Smith were killed by al Qaeda-directed militants.

The Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross are second only to the Medal of Honor.  One indication of just how fierce the fight must have been is the rapidity with which the awards were made. In a time when some awards languish for years, these two were made in less than a year.  Reading between the lines, one might suspect JSOC is sending a message that they aren’t pleased with the administration.

The part about a Marine being in Delta is interesting, but not really surprising. Delta is pretty open about its recruiting. Every promotable Specialist/Corporal in the Army is invited to a briefing (usually held annually). Delta makes very clear that they are looking for people outside the traditional combat arms. Their thinking is that if you can manage to pass the screening, they can teach you everything you need to know about fighting. What they want is to leverage other skillsets people outside the Army’s infantry community can bring. Delta spends a lot of its time doing stuff that needs more than just shoot/move/communicate small unit skills. And given the small size of the Infantry relative to the size of the Army, why limit themselves in the potential pool of applicants? So it’s not terribly surprising they’re willing to look outside the Army itself for qualified bodies. We’re just curious who else they might have been willing to take on. We recall that the Navy SEALs invited a handful of Coast Guardsmen to take a shot at BUD/S.

At any event, hail to the unknown heroes who have been recognized by for their gallantry and valor. Perhaps some day, their tale can be told.

H/T to This Ain’t Hell who notes:

Even though we’ll never hear about the award from the real folks who earned them, I’m sure we’ll hear from the fifty or so phonies who will claim the awards in the next few years.

The Battle of Ia Drang

Today is the anniversary of the start of the Battle of Ia Drang, the first major engagement of US forces in Vietnam against the North Vietnamese Army. The 1st Cavalry Division, still learning how to employ an airmobile division, found itself locked in battle with two regiments of the NVA, themselves just learning how best to fight the Americans.

Vietnam tends to be thought of as a guerrilla war, but make no mistake, this was a conventional force-on-force engagement. Both sides were well equipped and armed, trained, and had some previous battle experience. And both sides learned lessons that would influence they way they fought each other for the next five years.

The battle has been memorialized for those of us of a younger generation both by LTG Hal Moore’s book, We Were Soldier’s Once, And Young, and the film adaptation We Were Soldiers.

LZ X-Ray, 14 NOV 65, before the engagement

In the early ‘90s, LTG Moore gave a talk to all the NCOs of the 4th Infantry Division about the battle (not often you have three star generals, even retired, giving NCO Professional Development).

I could address the technical and tactical lessons learned here, but for me, the lessons that always stood out were that young American soldiers, when faced with a daunting situation, backed by quality training, will display fortitude, resilience, ferocity, tenacity, selflessness, intrepidity, and valor. It is the leadership’s challenge to ensure those displays are exercised in a worthy effort.