Monthly Archives: February 2016

OpenTafl v0.1.9b: the end of the line for 0.1.x

OpenTafl v0.1.9b has been released! This release adds support for a game clock. The AI is able to plan its time usage in accordance with the amount of time it has left. Additionally, settings are now saved from run to run.

This marks the last major release in the OpenTafl v0.1 series. The next major release will be 0.2.0b, including engine mode and related features, work on which will start at the end of March or the beginning of April. Looking ahead to the tournament, I may switch around the tasks in v0.3 and v0.4 from the roadmap I put up a few posts ago—network play lets me set up each AI in its own Amazon EC2 instance and have them play that way, which simplifies the rules by letting AIs think on their opponent’s turn, and removes the need for me to figure out how to limit an arbitrary process’s resource use (although it does add some complexity in building a tournament framework).

Now that it’s feature-complete, v0.1.9b will remain the stable version until v0.2.x is ready to go. What this means for repository structure is that I’ll create a new v0.2.x branch, and that’ll be the head of the tree for dev purposes. Any bugs discovered in v0.1.9b will get patched on master and pushed into 0.2.x, if it makes sense to do so. When 0.2.x is done, it’ll get merged into master, and I’ll start a new 0.3.x branch, and so on until perhaps, someday, a 1.0.

Rebranding: the Soapbox

Parvusimperator and I already call this place the Soapbox more than the Fish Bowl in internal correspondence, and given that he’s the main content creator here nowadays, a Fishbreath-centric name ceased to be appropriate some time ago.

Welcome, then, to the newly-rechristened-but-you-already-called-it-that-anyway Soapbox.

Resurrected Weapons: GPU-5/A Gunpod and the GAU-13/A

The US Air Force has hated the A-10 with a burning fiery passion, and has been doing their best to kill it since they got it. I guess they think of it like that ugly sweater you get at Christmas from your crazy relative that your parents make you not throw in the trash. This is because it takes pilots and money away from glorious aerial combat and nuclear weapons delivery and puts them to work moving mud for the ground pounders. One of their schemes from the late 80s to oust the Warthog centered around making an F-16 variant that could handle hardcore ground attack actions.

On paper, this seems easy. The F-16 can carry anything the Warthog can. The F-16 can sling Mavericks just as well as the A-10 can. And it would get precision guided bomb integration first. And it can carry regular iron bombs too. Perfect, right? Well, not quite. The A-10 has a massive gun, the aptly named GAU-8/A Avenger. This beast of a gatling gun is chambered for the 30x173mm round, and is absolutely massive. The A-10 was built around this beast, and it’s an accurate, powerful tank killer. It also has a terrifying buzz saw sound. This gun is sweet.

So, the USAF decided to try to put that gun on the F-16, since the F-16 had only a regular 20mm Vulcan cannon. The answer was the GPU-5/A gunpod. To work in a pod, they decided to scale back the Avenger a bit into the GAU-13/A. The GAU-13/A has four barrels instead of seven on the Avenger, and has the rate of fire reduced to about half that of the Avenger (2,400 rounds per minute instead of 4,200 rounds per minute). From a technical standpoint, the GAU-13/A is driven pneumatically using bleed air, instead of being driven by the A-10’s hydraulic system.

The pod held 353 rounds of ammunition, which isn’t a lot at 2,400 rounds per minute. But fully loaded it only weighs 862 kg, and it can be mounted on any NATO-standard large bomb rack. It was tested on the F-16, F-15, F-4, A-7, and even the small F-5.

What could be better? Well, they got tested during the first Gulf War, and all the illusions were shattered. The GPU-5/A pods were mounted on F-16s, but the accuracy was appalling. While a bomb mount can easily handle the weight, it was never designed to deal with the stresses of firing a massive gun like the GAU-13/A. Additionally, the integration with the F-16’s targeting systems was poor. It was used for all of a day and then removed and replaced with more effective stores. The A-10 can deliver accurate bursts from the Avenger; the F-16 just wasn’t able to match it. You’d need specialized pylons at least, which takes away some of the attraction of the GPU-5/A pod.

This is to be expected. These days, we’ve grown accustomed to multirole types and forgotten some things about dedicated designs. The F-16 was never designed to be a CAS plane, and it has a bunch of issues that are way more important than whether or not it carries a giant gun. The F-16 is fast, and burns fuel quickly. It can’t hang around low and slow for hours like the A-10 can. Slow is good for the A-10 because it helps the pilot spot targets visually. Fast is good for the F-16 because it needs to be able to catch MiGs. The F-16 can be tasked with short order CAS missions, but it can’t hang around without refueling. And that’s ok, it’s just silly to try to make it do something that it can’t. The Air Force scrapped the project shortly afterward.

For once I agree with them. Interestingly, if the US Air Force wanted to be rid of the A-10, they should just let the US Army operate fixed wing aircraft. Or even make a specific exemption for the A-10; the Army would love them. Were A-10s available in the procurement games, we would be all over them. As things are, we’ll make do with attack helicopters, like the US Army.

Verdict: Funding Request Denied by the Borgundy Air Ordnance Procurement Board

Armata Response 1: Myrmidon MBT

Usually, the Russians tend to make things that are rugged, ugly, and simple. See, the AK-47, the Mosin-Nagant, and the T-34. They work. But they are hardly innovative. Every so often though, they surprise everyone and come up with something new. In the 60s, it was the T-64, which introduced a production tank with composite armor and an autoloader. Last year, they did it again with the T-14 Armata, the first production1 tank where the crew are all in the hull and the turret is unmanned.

Why would they do this? Well, we’ve got some fancy electrics now, and if we physically isolate the crew from the ammo, then we maximize safety and survivability in the event of a catastrophic penetration of the ammo compartment. It also means that we can minimize the protected volume for the turret, so we can reduce overall tank weight. Much as I hate to admit it, tank experts in West Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union all agreed that this was the way forward, even if it meant sacrificing visibility from the top of the turret with the Mark I Eyeball. Guess it’s time to suck it up and embrace the future.

So, the Russians have unveiled their fancy new Armata armored vehicle family, and it seems to be a pretty good one. We could upgrade existing hardware to match, or discuss the use of attack helicopters as tank destroyers. But the Tank Destroyer Doctine was a failure in World War II, and Fishbreath would never let me hear the end of writing up attack helicopters so darn much. Plus, it’s much more fun to write up a symmetrical counter, a new MBT of our own: the Myrmidon.

The Russians are trying to make the Armata a family of heavy combat vehicles. However, I don’t think this is a good idea. While commonality of spares is great, commonality of chassis is irrelevant and useless from a maintenance cost perspective (which is by far the bigger cost over the lifetime). Plus, it’s a false economy, since the HIFV and probably the SPH will be front-engined, but the T-14 MBT is rear engined, so that’s going to drive up design costs and force compromises. And Heavy IFVs are expensive–too expensive to buy in the desired quantity. The GCV was cancelled for cost reasons. The US Army also looked into the heavy IFV/heavy APC concept when they were designing the Bradley, but felt it was too costly. And the basically-unarmed Namer is almost as expensive as the Merkava IV. Further, giant vehicle families encourage gold plating, which leads to cost overruns, which leads to a budget kill of the project. So we’re just going to make a new tank. We’ll have other designs for IFVs and SPHs and the like forthcoming as separate designs.

In terms of engine, we’re going to put it at the back like normal people, but otherwise we’re going to be a little different. This is a bit of a throwback in that we’re going to build the ultimate combat tank, not some excessively tall MRAP thing for COIN. Which means we need the best possible engine performance. We oughtn’t neglect the mobility part of the firepower/protection/mobility triad. So we’re going to take a gas turbine engine design, because nothing beats the acceleration of a turbine. Nothing. Specifically, we’re going with the Honeywell LV100-5, originally intended for the cancelled XM2001 Crusader program, and an M1 Abrams re-engine project. This little engine weighs just 1,043 kg, develops 1,500 horsepower, is 25% more fuel efficient than the Abrams’ AGT-1500 at speed, and is 50% more fuel efficient than the AGT-1500 at idle. It also has 43% fewer parts than the AGT-1500, which already has many fewer parts than a comparable diesel engine. It also requires much less cooling volume than a diesel. With the newer high-temperature ceramic turbine blades and the full authority digital engine controls, we can get the gas turbine down to diesel-ish fuel consumption levels. At least for older diesels, or diesels that care about performance. We still get unholy amounts of torque, easy cold starts, and the ability to run on just about any flammable liquid that you can run through the injectors. We could probably get an even smaller engine, but I try to keep these designs at least a bit grounded so that Fishbreath doesn’t complain too much.

I guess we’re moving from back to front on this design walkaround. We next come to the turret section, right in the middle. The turret is completely unmanned, but still has plenty of modular armor. We can’t get away from that, since we’re not stupid. An unarmored gun is vulnerable to mission kills from machine gun fire and shell splinters, plus just about anything heavier. It does no good to put the crew in perfect protection if the tank can’t do its job. So, we still have turret armor, we just have a lot less armored volume to worry about. We have the main gun, the coax gun and its ammo supply, the autoloader assembly, which is mostly behind and below the main gun, a bunch of data cables for targeting systems, and the electric motors needed to move everything. That’s it. So we can make our turret pretty freaking small. Most of its mass will be composite armor modules. The main gun is a 120 mm L/55 smoothbore, that wonderful Nato standard. A few changes from what you might see on your bog standard Leopard 2A6 though. First, there’s no bore evacuator, because the autoloader doesn’t care about fumes, and Cylon-OSHA isn’t a thing we have to deal with in Borgundy. Second, the chamber and recoil system are designed with future, higher-pressure rounds in mind, just in case upgrades to ammunition are needed. Third, we’ve got the necessary data interfaces built in to let us use smart rounds like the Israeli LAHAT gun-launched ATGM or the KSTAM top-attack round from South Korea. It has the usual muzzle reference sensor, muzzle cant sensor, crosswind sensor, and muzzle velocity sensor. It’s stabilized in two axes, with an active damping system to reduce barrel vibrations.

The autoloader is worth discussing here, since it’s a good part of how we’re keeping armored volume down. Rounds are stored in a vertical carousel, point-down. The carousel has a capacity of 60 rounds. The autoloader can load at a rate of about twelve rounds per minute, it can extract unfired shells, and it can eject duds (or spent case bases) out a rear hatch in the turret. This is also used for reloading the carousel. There’s no other access to the carousel without removing the turret. It’s a pain, but there’s nothing to be done about it. The autoloader scans a barcode on each round as it’s loaded in the carousel, so that the stores management system can keep track of how many rounds of each type are loaded and where they are in the carousel. Each round is stored in its own canister to minimize the chance of a catastrophic explosion. Finally, the carousel is designed to safely vent such an explosion away from the crew compartment.

The coaxial machine gun is the usual FN GPMG in 7.62×51 mm, with 4,500 ready rounds and a heavy barrel, since it’s not easily accessible without pulling armor modules. The magazine for the coax gun is accessible through a roof hatch for reloading.

Now, we come to the crew compartment. Here, we have the driver, tank commander and gunner, sitting at their stations. The driver is seated on the vehicle’s left, the gunner is seated in the middle, and the commander is seated on the vehicle’s right. All crewmen have their own hatch to allow for a rapid exit. Hatches are very thick, and are power-opening. The gunner has a single vision block for emergency uses; he does not have the option to operate turned out. The driver and commander have five vision blocks with associated thermal viewing units, and may perform their duties when turned out. The driver has a separate hull mounted thermal viewing unit, capable of 1x and 4x magnification for searching or resolving obstacles. He also has thermal-capable cameras to provide view to the sides and rear. He can cycle through these views on his internal monitors.

The commander can also view through the driver’s thermal cameras on his monitors. In addition, he controls an independent thermal sight mounted atop the turret. This sight is capable of 3x, 6x, 13x, 25x or 50x magnification, and is a third generation3 imaging system. The commander’s independent sight has an Nd:YAG laser rangefinder. The commander can match gun bearing to his sight bearing automatically with the push of a button, and he can fire the main gun (or the coax gun for that matter) himself if he wishes. The commander’s sight is, of course, fully stabilized. Slaved to the sight is a biaxially-stabilized remote weapons station, mounting a 12.7mm M2A1 HMG with 400 ready rounds.

The gunner’s sight is a copy of the commander’s; he has the same 3x/6x/13x/25x/50x magnification options, the same Nd:YAG laser rangefinder, and the same third generation thermal imager. His fire control computer is capable of automatically tracking targets. The gunner’s sight is biaxially stabilized like the main gun. The gunner’s computer can select round types and display remaining quantities of available ammunition by type. The gunner’s sight also integrates the laser guidance system for gun-launched ATGMs with semi-active laser homing guidance like the LAHAT. There’s a second, backup, sight mounted just below the main gun with fixed, 8x magnification and a stadiametric rangefinding reticle, and the gunner can also pull this view into his displays.

Hull armor is necessarily sturdy. Around the crew compartment and ammo stowage area, the sponsons contain only armor, and the thick glacis is sloped 82 degrees4 to maximize effective thickness. This is also the minimum angle for long rod penetrators to have a reasonably significant chance of ricochet, which further enhances survivability. The crew compartment has a thick bulkhead aft to divide it off from the ammo compartment. It also has a thick spall liner to minimize damage in the event of a penetration. NBC protection, plus heating and air conditioning, are provided.

In terms of electrics, the fire control system can do automatic target tracking, and can pull in information from encrypted line-of-sight, frequency-hopping, tactical radios as well as satellite tracking data if available. Information includes the vehicle’s position, positions of other friendly vehicles, information on known or suspected enemy positions, and information on terrain and obstacles. Information from ground surveillance aircraft5 can also be pulled into the network. For more traditional means of data gathering, there’s an external telephone provided on the hull to allow nearby infantry to talk directly to the crew.

Looking to the flanks, we come to the suspension. There are seven roadwheels per side. The suspension is a controllable hydropneumatic system, so the Myrmidon can lean and adjust ride height. Ground clearance is adjustable from 14 cm to 74 cm. I would love an actively damped suspension like the early-90s Williams F1 cars used to have, but the heaviest things those have been put on is a CV90, which, as we’ll soon see, is quite a bit lighter than the Myrmidon. We do have a dynamic track tension system though to keep the optimal tension on the tracks without requiring manual adjustment. The flanks are protected with heavy side skirts that contain composite armor. These can be supplemented with reactive armor cassettes, especially useful for operations in built-up areas.

Let’s talk active protection. Alas, it will drive the cost up, but all the cool kids have one on their tanks, so we should too. Plus, it saves us the trouble of trying to protect the sides and top of the tank from something like a Hellfire missile. The first part is seeing the missile coming, and the easiest way to do that is with small radars. Naturally, we locate these around the turret to provide an all-around view, like the systems on the Merkava Mark IV or the K2. This data will also be available for the crew so they can counterattack. If a launch is detected, the crew has the option to swing the turret towards the launch, presenting the thickest armor and simplifying return fire. The crew can also trigger smoke grenade dischargers to throw up a smoke screen that contains thermal obscurants. We will also integrate the Israeli Trophy hard-kill system. Trophy has successfully intercepted a number of high-end Russian anti-tank weapons, including the Kornet, the RPG-29, and the Konkurs. Field tested is excellent. We’ll be keenly interested in Rafael’s follow-on system.

Now let’s get down to the figures for dimensions and a cost guesstimate. The hull is 8.7 meters long, and is 3.657 meters wide with the skirts detached. We’re constrained in width by the need to fit on road and rail transporters. Fuel is stored in the aft section of the sponsons, on either side of the engine compartment, below the engine in an “inverted saddle” arrangement, and around the ammunition carousel. The fuel tanks are built with a heavy internal baffle structure to increase their protective value. 1,500 L of fuel are carried internally. A pair of 200 L fuel drums can be carried, one on either side of the turret, in quick-release brackets. Obviously, these shouldn’t be mounted in areas where heavy combat is expected. We reckon the Myrmidon would tip the scales at about 57 tonnes.

Let’s talk cost. How bad will this tank be? Well, we’ve kept it simple above. Hull construction is of welded steel; unlike on my Thunderbolt design workup, the Myrmidon uses no special techniques to reduce weight. Armor does have wonderful things like super-hard steel and depleted uranium, which is going to up the cost a bit. We’ve got plenty of nice electrics, but nothing that hasn’t been done before. Even the autoloader was done before in the late 80s as part of the M1 TTB project, and the LV100-5 engine was worked up for the Crusader artillery project. Uralvagonzavod claims that the Armata will come in at about $4 million, but we’ll see how that works out for them. Russia also claims they’ll order 2,300 T-14s. Again, color me skeptical. To be frank, I don’t believe a figure of $4 million dollars for the T-14, and some analysts reckon a rather higher figure, something more like $8 million. So, we can’t use a direct comparison. The K2 Black Panther is pretty similar to the Myrmidon in terms of complexity and electronics fit. The configuration is somewhat different in that the K2 is traditionally configured. On the other hand, the South Koreans aren’t ordering a lot, and we plan6 a big, Russian-sized order to equip our armored divisions. The K2 comes in at a bit over $9 million per unit. We reckon we can come in under $8 million.

1.) Well, production-ish. Like many other projects in Putin’s Russia, there’s a lot of question as to how many of these are actually going to get made. They’re not making many PAK FAs for example, and they may or may not make many T-14s. That said, the one in the Great Patriotic War Victory Parade was a pretty complete pre-production or low-rate initial production model, which is a lot farther than anyone else has gone with this.
2.) More precisely, tactical “idle”, which is actually 60% of max RPM, because throttle response on a gas turbine is terrible. The torques are outrageous though, again because turbine.
3.) i.e. it’s a dual band (MWIR and LWIR) imaging unit.
4.) From the vertical. Duh. Measuring armor angle from the vertical makes more intuitive sense to me, since a measure of 0 degrees–completely vertical–conveniently equates to a line of sight thickness multiplier of 0.
5.) e.g. JSTARS
6.) If the Russians can do it, so can we. We’re totally ordering something like 2,300 Myrmidons.

On tafl: timing

In a previous tafl post, I remarked on the lack of pre-defined notations and mathematical resources for tafl games. In this one, I will remark on a more fundamental deficit: namely, this is the first article I can find on the Internet which will attempt to define a standard for timed tafl games.

Surprising? Well, yes and no. Competitive tafl games are rarely played in person. The only live tournament (in the modern era, anyway) put on to date was run by the Fetlar Hnefatafl Panel, and as tournaments go, it was a fairly casual affair—the games were untimed, with a gentleman’s agreement not to take an undue amount of time per move. The other major tafl tournaments are run at Aage Nielsen’s site, and are correspondence play: timed, but not in the sense we’re looking for here.

The Fetlar panel suggests using a regular chess clock, but that seems unappealing to me. Broadly speaking, tafl games are defined by two stages: an opening, where the two sides jockey for position and control in the corners, and an endgame, where the king has left his throne and is pushing to one corner. The length of the opening doesn’t vary much for a particular board size, and generally speaking, features thoughtful, cautious play. Once the king leaves the throne to start the endgame, the flavor of play changes dramatically. The king’s side must make bold, sweeping moves, and the besieging side must split its attention between putting out fires and shoring up its leaky positions. What was a game of edging around the opponent and building one’s own structure becomes a head-on conflict.

The similarity to battle is striking, and suggests a method of timing that mirrors the structure of the game. Go players among the readership will be familiar with the concept of byo-yomi, a kind of overtime comprising a number of periods of a given length. If you don’t use all of one of your byo-yomi periods, you get it back in full. If you do use it, you move onto your next one. I suggest a tafl timing scheme using a small amount of main time, and a relatively generous overtime allocation. My thinking is this: the main time ought to be used for the opening, and once the endgame begins, the players should be nearly out and into overtime. I don’t have good information on how tafl games play out yet, but as a rough starting point, I would suggest a main time of about ten minutes, and three to five overtime periods of one minute each. More generally, I propose this mutation from a single main-time chess clock: for a given chess clock length in minutes (say, 60), divide by six to get the tafl main time (10, in this case). Divide that by ten to get the length of the overtime periods. Depending on the desired difficulty and clock sensitivity, set the number of overtimes to somewhere between two and six.

Not only does this mirror the calm-to-intense structure of tafl games, it also serves a practical purpose. Although tafl games and chess appear to have similar distributions of game lengths1, I get the feeling that the most competitive chess games are clustered around the average more than the most competitive tafl games2 are. An adaptive time control like byo-yomi frees endgames from the tyranny of the clock. Some games will end up playing out more quickly, and won’t feel clock pressure at all; I don’t feel that this is an indictment of the scheme. Some games will end up playing out at around the average length, where the clock is set perfectly: players will feel some time pressure, but have sufficient main time to lay their plans for the endgame. Some games, finally, will end up running longer. With an ordinary chess clock, a longer game would end with increasingly desperate time pressure. With byo-yomi time, the clock remains a driving force, but doesn’t get much worse with time.

Although I do propose this system for general use, I plan on different time controls for the AI-vs-AI tournament: no main time, and three ten-second overtime periods. Quick-play tournaments are known to be as effective as long-play tournaments in sorting AIs by relative skill level, and a large number of five-minute games is a much easier task for yours truly than a large number of thirty-minute games.

In final news, you can find v0.1.7.1b here, which fixes a few bugs in 0.1.7 and adds threefold repetition rules.

  1. The standard deviation for game length in number of moves for chess comes in at about 25, based on correspondence games listed here, some eyeballing of graphs, and some math based on histogram values, and 11×11 tafl games come in at 23, taken in aggregate, from Aage Nielsen’s tafl tournament history. Neither of these figures are set in stone, for reasons I’ll go into when I write up my findings.
  2. Aage Nielsen’s tournament history, above, has a large number of games between top players in the vicinity of 40 moves, and a nearly equal number at 70 to 90 moves.

OpenTafl v0.1.7b and a roadmap for the future

This evening, I plan to release OpenTafl v0.1.7b after testing on a Windows computer. The big feature is a new UI, which should be more readable and more usable, and which opens the door to several major features: a game clock (I plan to write about timing tafl games in a later post), external AI engines and network play (thanks to a rewrite of the way commands are passed from the AI and the UI to the game engine), and, further in the future, a more easily discoverable UI, where the player can use the arrow keys to navigate the board and move pieces.

Speaking of which, here’s the roadmap. Estimated release dates after v0.2.x are not to be trusted.

v0.1.7b+ – Now to April, as I have the time
The rest 0.1.x series of releases will be concerned with wrapping up a few missing rules: the game clock and draws by threefold repetition, including (for the latter) warnings about making a move that would create threefold repetition, and status messages for both.

Once the remaining features for version 0.1.7b are released, I plan to officially announce the OpenTafl Tafl Open, and provide a space for discussion and updates among AI authors. (We already have a kinda-sorta forum, over at http://conclave.manywords.press.)

v0.2.x – By the end of April
The 0.2.x series of releases will be concerned with implementing engine support. The end-of-April deadline leaves about seven months for AI authors to build in OpenTafl engine support for the OpenTafl Tafl Open, which should be sufficient for some fairly interesting designs.

v0.3.x – Summertime sometime
The 0.3.x series of releases will be concerned with allowing more player-to-player interaction, improving the single-player experience, and implementing extra game-analysis features. Planned features for the 0.3.x series include saving and loading games by means of OpenTafl Notation game records, AI improvements, correspondence play, and a simple in-game history viewer and out-of-game replay viewer.

v0.4.x – Fall/winter
The 0.4.x series of releases will be concerned with support for real-time network play. OpenTafl will be able to run in server mode, or connect to a multiplayer server in client mode.

Other features I may try to fit in include the ability to hypothesize moves and sequences as part of the history viewer and replay viewer, although this may prove to be more difficult than I expect.

Anyway, that’s what you can expect in the next year. In the nearer future, v0.1.7b should be available no later than tomorrow morning, but most likely tonight.

Fish Bowl Decision 2016: the GOP primary so far

With primary season finally kicking off in earnest, I thought I should give my thoughts on the state of the race for the GOP.

The Contenders

  • Trump: The ongoing surprise at his sticking power misses a few facts. Trump’s appeal comes from the center and the disillusioned voter, not a broad part of the conservative base. (See Cruz for a note on that.) The center and the disillusioned are generally the poorly informed, which jives with the sort of person who might support Trump—the sort which doesn’t realize that Trump holds different positions almost daily, or positions that would never actually work. Unfortunately, since most people are poorly informed, Trump’s strategy has been working so far. Fortunately, he gets enough news coverage that even the worst-informed of primary voters is starting to understand that Trump is style, not substance. May win South Carolina, but expect it to be closer than the polls show.
  • Cruz: If I were handicapping, I’d give Cruz about 40%. His ground game is superb, the best of any GOP candidate, which he parlayed into an upset win in Iowa, and a solid third place in New Hampshire, considering he spent about zero dollars. Questions about his values seem misplaced to me: stories about his Iowa operation remark on how he let his volunteers go off-script when canvassing, which fits the conservative ideal of bottom-up organization. Concerns about his likability are overblown. Not every candidate has to be an inspirational orator. Has an outside chance to win South Carolina: most polls show him well behind, but several leaked polls from candidate campaigns in the last few weeks have put him much closer than major polls would indicate.

The Possible Surprises

  • Rubio: The establishment’s golden child is underperforming expectations; his Marco Robot impression in the New Hampshire debate didn’t help anything. Light on substance in the same way that Trump is, without the populist shiny to draw in the jackdaw voters. Has the benefit of money and Washington backing, which will keep him in the race, and maybe even in a few top-3 finishes. The most Obama-like of the Republican candidates in terms of oratory. He’ll eventually peter out, and his supporters will lean Cruz: neither Trump nor Cruz is inspirational in the same way, but Cruz lines up a little better with the thoughtful conservative values Rubio purports to represent.

The Death Watch

  • Jeb!: Why anyone thought another Bush running would work is beyond me. (And I say that as someone who thinks history will be significantly kinder to W than the media of his time were.) He seems a little confused by the lack of support, but name recognition is not the same thing as preference. Jeb!’s deep pockets, and the deep pockets of his supporters, will keep him around long past his use-by date, but he probably won’t climb above 15% in any primary. The SEC primaries, with their proportional delegate awards with a minimum threshold, will probably knock him out of contention altogether.
  • Carson: It grieves me that we see this side of him. One of the first biographies I ever read was a short, middle-school-level take on him. I still think he has an amazing story of faith, a self-reliance informed by that faith, and a climb from obscurity to preeminence in his field. I don’t think he has ‘president’ in him.
  • Kasich: No matter how much a certain set of centrist Republican voters want this to happen, it isn’t happening. He’s burned too many bridges with the base, and seems to be running a general election campaign in the primary. Maddeningly, his record is solidly conservative, and I suspect he wouldn’t be all that bad a choice, but he seems set on running as the Democrat’s preferred Republican primary candidate. Unfortunately for him, most Republican primary voters are Republican, and not buying it.

Issue Kit Thoughts

Pondering my AR builds, both extant and forthcoming, as well as modern combat trends has given me some ideas on how one ought to kit out an infantry force. A couple of them aren’t very revolutionary, and one is pretty different. We’ll start with the least controversial, and go on towards things that will require a bit more arguing.

Premise 1: Issue body armor all around.
This one’s a pretty easy sell. Frontline troops have been widely issued body armor since (at least) the Vietnam war. That body armor was a flak jacket, which is designed to provide protection from fragmentation weapons. Body armor saves lives, and that protects the investment in soldier training, plus looks better to the civilians at home. The trick with body armor is to balance weight and protection, which will be the focus of another article. It’s important to not forget to include load bearing equipment in the body armor system. The vest should be designed to distribute the weight of the armor already, and PALS webbing (or similar) saves having to deal with yet another wearable. This is not only awkward, but it makes it harder for medics to get to an injured soldier to provide care.

Premise 2: Every longarm should have an optic
Once again, this one’s pretty simple. Optics are way better than iron sights. The trick has always been getting them rugged enough and cheap enough to issue generally, and we’ve been nailing that since the 90s (maybe earlier). With modular picatinny rail mounts, we needn’t specify which optic to the weapon designer. There are a lot of options here, and we’ll have a future article devoted to the choice. In brief though, there’s the red dot optic, the low-magnification, fixed-power scope, and the low magnification, variable-power scope. Magnification gives the ability to identify targets at range if they’re hiding (maybe insurgents in a crowd, or maybe soldiers in the brush), but the dot is simpler and faster to use. A well designed low power variable scope gives the best of both worlds, but the variable power adds weight and complexity, and they’re not as rugged.

Premise 3: Pistols suck. Therefore, issue carbines
This one’s pretty easy to argue. Happily, it also hurts the feelings of idiots. But a carbine is a much more lethal weapon than a pistol. It shoots a more powerful round, holds more ammo, and is easier to shoot well. Carbines rock. Issuing carbines generally to officers has the fringe benefit of making them stand out less in a sniper’s scope. Pistols are historically a badge of authority. Or, a ‘Shoot Me’ indicator, depending on which side of the scope you are. So there’s a benefit there. The issue, of course, is that carbines are bigger and heavier than pistols. In a highly mechanized force though, this isn’t a huge problem since one’s base vehicle can carry that carbine backup weapon. Even light infantry type forces can go this route: the US Marines issue M4s to just about everybody. Even officers as high as Lieutenant Colonel get M4s. We should follow suit. About the only role I can think of that can’t is fighter pilots. Maybe if I break the weapon down I can get it into a survival kit.

Premise 4: Every carbine, rifle, and man-portable machine gun should have a suppressor
Okay, here’s the one that’s a little out there, mostly because I no longer have a real world force to lean on. SOCOM does this, but they’re all special forces guys. So why would we do it generally? Like optics in the 90s, we’ve got suppressors that are mature enough to minimize the disadvantages. Modern suppressors are reasonably lightweight and quite durable. The Surefire SOCOM RC2 (5.56) suppressors, for example, weigh just over a pound and the Surefire SOCOM-556MG suppressors weigh just under a pound and a half. Great! But, as well-educated firearms enthusiasts, we know that suppressors don’t actually silence firearms like you see in lame action movies. That’s fine. We actually get many benefits from the suppressor anyway, even if it can’t turn a bunch of grunts into ninjas.

The first and most obvious benefit is that a suppressed gun is easier on one’s hearing. This is most noticeable indoors, and is why so many special forces and SWAT guys run suppressors. The suppressor might be thought of as taking the edge off of a gunshot, and this is great if you train a lot indoors, or find yourself indoors. It takes the edge off outside too, which is helpful when you and your buddies are engaging some enemy scumbags. Suppressors also eliminate flash. This brings two more advantages: first, this helps mask a soldier’s position. There’s no big obvious flash to pinpoint his position. Second, in a low-light setting where a soldier might be using night vision equipment, a suppressor prevents flash from washing out the light amplification systems in the goggles. Finally, that ‘taking the edge off’ of the report of weapons also helps obscure the soldier and make his position less obvious in a quick engagement or ambush. It’s not about completely eliminating sound, it’s just about managing it and making it harder to track.

There we go. Four ways to maximize the effectiveness of soldiers. And one of them is even pretty aggressive and forward-looking.

Borgundy Army Organization: Tank Platoon

The tank platoon is the basic unit of armored organization. How you structure it will shape tactics and has a direct bearing on costs. One might think that tank tactics are an extension of infantry tactics. And that a tank platoon should have subelements that the platoon leader can use to perform fire and maneuver organically, i.e. without attached elements, just like an infantry platoon does. To facilitate this, the traditional tank platoon consists of five tanks: two maneuver elements of two tanks and one tank for the leader. This formation works. It was the standard formation for both the US Army and the Wehrmacht Heer in World War 2. If it’s good enough for Heinz Guderian and George Patton, it’s good enough for me.

Only kidding. That would make for a very short post. Almost invariably, the girly-men in accounting start objecting as tanks get pricey, and cut the leader-tank, reducing the platoon to four. It happened to the German heavy tank platoons near the end of the Second World War, which only had four tigers instead of five. When the US Army moved from the old M60 to the big, expensive M1, it too lost the leader-tank. And for once the bean counters appear to be right. There doesn’t appear to be much lost effectiveness in the four tank platoon. Certainly it wasn’t an impediment for the tiger platoons, and the US Army doesn’t appear to complain overmuch. Fine. So, four tanks per platoon. The platoon is cheaper that way. Don’t tell the bean counters that I agree with them though. They’ll just demand more cuts.

The clever reader will no doubt note that I haven’t mentioned the Russians yet. They have a three-tank platoon, and have used it since the Great Patriotic War. Three is a natural alternative to four, and was easier for novice Russian tankers to command, especially as they lacked radios. Of course, our tanks have radios. In the air, the finger four formation has proven superior to the three-plane vic formation. But the Russians haven’t complained, despite spending an awful lot of time fighting the Germans with the four- and five-tank platoon. The Russians do use a finger-four type formation in the air presently. Of course, tanks are not fighter planes, and we should beware too many comparisons without adequate backing.

Interestingly, the army with the most post-World War II tank combat experience, the Israeli Defense Force, has moved from the old Western standard five-tank platoon to the Russian standard three-tank platoon, and are quite happy with the change. The Americans, British, and Germans have all studied the three-tank platoon, and the British and Germans have both taken steps toward adopting it. Generals Balck and von Mellenthin, formerly of the Wehrmacht and with extensive experience on the Eastern front, were also big fans of the three-tank platoon for being easier to command. They have written somewhat extensively on the subject, and have used it to good effect in NATO war games. This is a trend, and the trend is your friend, as several of my old professors used to say.

One might ask “Why?” More is usually better, not worse. Why should tank platoons follow the example of taxes and not money? Fascinatingly, the US Army may have the answer, even though they presently stick with the four-tank platoon. In simulated combat studies in both the late seventies and early 2000s, the three tank platoon is as good as or better than the four or five tank platoon in any reasonable metric you care to name, and these benefits seem to derive from the fact that it is easier to maneuver and direct the fire of a three-tank platoon. It’s about as survivable and is generally able to more effectively kill enemy armor. The exception comes in urban areas, when the effectiveness is not statistically different. As a bonus, it appeases the bean counters. And it is easier for a young lieutenant to command, even if that lieutenant has modern radios.

Thus there shall be three tanks in a platoon, and the number of tanks in a tank platoon shall be three. Four is right out.

The Crossbox Podcast: Episode 4

In our extremely belated Christmas edition, we visit John’s favorite decade: the 80s. Join us as we clean up the mean streets of New Orleans, work out just how bad American anti-ship missiles are, and insult a very wealthy man for fifteen minutes.


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