Monthly Archives: April 2016

This Old Flanker

Hi, I’m Bob Villa, and welcome to This Old Fighter. Today, we’ll be looking at a classic late cold war fighter that always impresses on the airshow circuit: the Sukhoi Su-27. NATO reporting name: Flanker.

The Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker is a very interesting fighter. It’s somewhat analogous to an F-15, but since the Soviet Air Force wasn’t big on midair refueling, they designed it to be very large so it could carry enormous quantities of fuel internally. It’s got some phenomenal aerobatic capabilities, but suffers from a general lack of payload for its size and some less than stellar reliability numbers. That said, it’s also cheap, and Russia is an infinitely more loyal and useful friend than America these days. Supposing one were to buy some Zhuravliki1, what would we get in them?

Let’s talk engines first. We’re looking for power in an afterburning turbofan. Best in production is the 142 kN AL-31F1S from Saturn Lyulka. Stretching things a little, the AL-31FM2, currently in testing, can put out 145 kN of thrust with afterburner. We’ll also want 3-D thrust vectoring here, with nozzles that can move in both pitch and yaw directions. Thrust vectoring requires some extra training however, as it can cause the aircraft to bleed energy too quickly. Still, it’s a nice extra edge pioneered on some Flanker models in the 90s.

Now, sensors. The Flanker doesn’t have AESA available just yet, we’re stuck with PESA. But, Rafale also has PESA, and Eurofighter still uses mechanically-scanned arrays. However, the Flanker has a really big nose radome for a large, powerful array. The best radar available is the N0035E Irbis-E, which is mechanically steerable to increase the maximum deflection angle of the beam. It’s got a 20 kW peak power, 5 kW average power, can track 30 targets at ranges of up to 400 km, and can engage 8 simultaneously. Way cool. Even the original Su-27s came with IRST and helmet mounted sights, so no special add-ons are needed here. One of the more interesting features of some late model Flanker prototypes, which we’ll put to use, is the N012 radar in the tail boom between the engines. This has a range of about 60 km for fighter sized targets, and is primarily designed to help warn of approaching rear threats. It’s also used to cue the defensive systems. There’s an improved version available, the Pharaon, which gets about 15 km more range for the “fighter size test target”. We’ll call for the Pharaon aft.

In terms of hardpoints, more is better. More specifically, we’ll go for the extra underwing hardpoints introduced in the 90s. The Russians wanted to facilitate the use of wingtip jamming pods like the Knirti SAP-518. But, those lose the wingtip rails, so Sukhoi added an extra pair of underwing hardpoints to take the short-range AAMs that would normally go on the wingtips. So, our Flankers will have a total of fourteen hardpoints: two wingtip, four under each wing, and four under the fuselage. Two of the underwing hardpoints will be plumbed to permit the installation of drop tanks, for an extra 4,000 L of fuel. We’ll get a pair of SAP-518s with each Flanker courtesy of Rosoboronexport. Why the Knirti pods? Well, since they’re also Russian, we can probably get a deal on the whole package. Plus, they’re some pretty powerful jamming pods, capable of jamming in the 5-18 GHz range. They’re modern, digital radio frequency memory jammers, so they’re better at emulating complex waveforms. Plus, with two pods widely spaced out (wingspan is 14.698 m), we can use crosseye jamming techniques to spoof incoming active-radar guided missiles. While we’re talking self-protection here, we’ll want to include a missile approach warning system (integrated with that snazzy Pharaon), the usual chaff and flare dispensers, and a Kedr2 towed decoy.

Now, let’s talk about aircraft structure. Our Flankers will have canards, to maximize agility. Also, because canards are cool. Some Flankers have opted against canards to reduce weight and radar signature. Our response is that it’s a Flanker. It has an elephantine radar signature and the addition of more control surfaces isn’t going to change that much. We will replace old soviet era hydraulic controls with shiny new quadruplex digital fly-by-wire controls. Since we have a digital flight control system, we can delete the dorsal airbrake to save a little weight, and get the same airbrake effect with differential deflection of the rudders.3 We’ll also reinforce the frame and the landing gear to deal with the increased weight. Our landing gear will be the dual nosewheel type, instead of the single nosewheel of the base model Su-27. Internally, we’re going to use all that space for 11,500 kg of internal fuel. And, of course, we’re going to opt for the midair refueling boom. How could we not?

In the cockpit, we’ll go with the center-stick version of the HOTAS control set. We will also use the conventional throttles; I’m not a big fan of pressure-based controls. The tactile feedback of actually being able to move the controls is nice. Avionicswise, we’re going non-Russian. More specifically, Franco-Israeli. The HUD comes from Israel: the Elbit Su 967, with it’s holographic displays. We’ll use a pair of Thales 12″x9″ (WxH) LCDs to display flight information. We’re not opting for touchscreens here. We prefer the traditional array of buttons around each displays. We don’t think touchscreens are robust enough yet, and prefer the tactile feedback and muscle memory that we can get with physical buttons. The Russian Zvezda zero-zero ejection seats are fine, and we won’t bother to replace them.

That’s it. One awesome Flanker. Since we also have an ego that’s almost as big as Russia, and we like to confuse defense analysts, rather than name this something sensible like Su-35MKB, we’ll insist that it be called Su-374. We might even recycle the old ad copy and call it the Su-37 Terminator.

1.) “Baby Cranes”. Because flankers are cute and adorable and above all small.
2.) Roughly analogous to an ALE-50.
3.) The Super Hornet uses a similar method.
4.) There’s already a Su-37, but that designation was applied to a pair of experimental demonstrator aircraft around the early 2000s. They did not go into production. This one will.

Kat’s new furniture: when a stock is not stock

Last time, I said I would open this post with my precise optics choice. Here’s why I tried to put it off: my optic is an Aim Sports 4×32 ACOGalike. (ACOGalike is not the brand name; that’s just my description.) A quick note on Chinese-built optics: if it doesn’t have Primary Arms on it, you can’t trust it. If you roll a 12 or greater on a d20, it’s probably worth using; if you roll a 20 and 12 or greater on a second roll, then you might have a hidden gem. I hit about an 18 on mine: it doesn’t show the same issues as some other Chinese optics in my possession, but it’s inferior to parvusimperator’s proper ACOG in terms of optical clarity and low-light performance. So it goes. I can buy ten cheapo Chinese optics for the price of his one ACOG; at least one of mine is going to be usable.

Anyway, same optical characteristics as a Real ACOG, which means limited eye relief. Originally, Kat had a polymer stock in the same vein as the stock AK stock, except lengthened a bit for parvusimperator’s monkey arms1. You can see the issue if you look at a picture of an AK stock: it slopes somewhat downward, and my cheek weld, for a relatively high-mounted scope with short eye, ends up being a beard weld, since you find yourself in front of the actual comb. This is not ideal.

The solution? A stock with a higher comb. There are varied and sundry options here. After looking at several options, I chose the Magpul Zhukov-S. “A Magpul?” you ask. “Fishbreath, aren’t you a massive cheapskate?” Yes, yes I am, but at the same time, I recognize quality when I see it. Let’s count the ways the Zhukov-S is a good choice.

Number one: the comb is straight back from the receiver. This fixes my chin weld issue: the comb is high enough that I can properly place my cheek against it, while being low enough that it doesn’t interfere with over-the-ear hearing protection.

Number two: it’s a side-folder. This is not of critical importance, but there’s something about folding stocks on AKs that just feels right.

Number three: the build quality is superb. The folding mechanism feels durable and has positive locking in the folded position; in the extended position, there is zero rattle. It may as well be a fixed stock.

Number four: the attachment mechanism. Magpul has solved probably the largest open problem in AK customization. This one requires some further explanation.

An AK stock is secured to the receiver by two screws: one through the tang poking out the back of the receiver, and one through an internal tang in the receiver a little bit further forward. These are not for precision alignment: they’re there for retention only. The stocks are precision-fit2 to wedge into the receiver, which prevents them from wiggling. This requires a good bit of force, and a good bit of fitting on initial installation.

Magpul decided this was a terrible idea. They came up with two innovations to make the whole process almost painless. The first is their so-called ‘wedge block’. Looking at the stock from the side, the forward bit which slides into the receiver is cut diagonally, longer at the top and shorter at the bottom. The wedge block is cut the opposite way; putting the wedge block against the forward bit of the stock makes a square. A bolt holds them together, and when you tighten the bolt, the wedge block slides downward. This pushes the stock upward, and eventually, the wedge block and the stock have wedged themselves against the receiver, securing themselves against it without having to be made the same size as the receiver.

The second innovation is a keyed nut: oval-shaped instead of circular, it fits into a cut beneath the tang screw hole in the stock. Magpul provides a machine screw to fit the nut, so when you tighten the machine screw, it ends up centered over the nut, which is positioned at a defined point in the stock, yielding correct side-to-side orientation. So, unlike most AK stocks, the Zhukov-S goes on painlessly. All you have to do is tighten a few screws to hold things in place; no mallet required, and the end result is just as solid.

Is it perfect? No, not quite. I’d love some storage, especially since my optic’s illumination is powered by watch batteries, not radioactivity or natural light, and as far as I can tell, my options are limited to duct taping things to the outside of the stock. Nor does it have the classic looks I usually go for: it’s a tacticool accessory through and through. Although it has sling swivel points, it doesn’t come with any of the push-button sling swivels they accept, and for the money, I feel like a swivel would have been a nice extra. Finally, it is a little bit on the expensive side; at about $100, it’s the most I’ve ever spent on a firearms accessory which is not an optic.

Don’t let those critiques take away from the product, though: it’s certainly worth the money.

1. This isn’t entirely fair. The stock is NATO length. I just don’t like ’em that long.
2. In AK Land, this means they’re cut a little large, and you bang ’em into place.

OpenTafl v0.2.4.7b, and a finalized engine protocol

The biggest news first: the OpenTafl Engine Protocol is officially version 1.0. Future changes to the protocol will be backward-compatible, and will contain some way of alerting OpenTafl that you support a version greater than 1.0, but that’s not in the near term. The OpenTafl Notation Spec has changed in a few minor rules-string-related areas, particularly king strength; make sure you update your engines based on that. The Notation Spec is also finalized: changes will be backward-compatible for the foreseeable future.

With engine mode all set up, I spent some time hammering out bugs in the OpenTafl AI, and its external engine client functionality. The 2.4.x series has been almost entirely bugfixes since my last tafl post, so I have very little news on the recent-developments front. As always, you can read about the little changes in the latest README file, available as part of the OpenTafl download.

As I said in the last post, I’m taking a break to work on my schedule generator for Out of the Park Baseball, which should take me a week or two of coding time; after that, I hope to get the Lanterna-based UI working in a raw terminal context, so that it doesn’t depend on a system with a GUI. (The default will probably remain Lanterna’s Swing-based terminal emulator, but having a headless version will make running the tournament easier.)

Once I’ve finished that, it’s on to networking! Though it’ll be a huge pain, I’m looking forward to wrapping up that feature.

Terminated Weapons: XM-25

The keen reader may accuse me of cheating here, since the XM-25 is still, well, experimental. To that reader I would say that the US Army has placed an order for a lot of the damned things, which is close enough for government work. And this stupid “wondergun” is in dire need of killing. Let’s talk a little bit about the history, and then see why I think it should get taken out with the trash.

The XM-25 is an outgrowth of the failed XM29 OICW. The OICW was an attempt to increase the lethality of the infantryman by combining a short-barreled1 5.56 carbine with a detachable box magazine fed 20mm airburst grenade launcher. Sort of a next-generation M4/M203 combo. Of course, there were many problems. The resulting weapon was bulky, expensive, and heavy. Loaded, it weighs 8.2 kg, or a trifle over 18 pounds, if you live in a country that’s put men on the moon. This is about as much as a BAR weighed, and is absolutely ridiculous for a non-support weapon. This is not a weapon that is going to allow you to assault alongside your M4-equipped squadmates. What’s even worse is that it didn’t work.

More specifically, 20mm airburst grenades weren’t meeting lethality requirements. Duh. They were tiny. There’s only so much explosive content you can pack in there. Not enough explosive, and the system was already stupidly overweight. In a burst of wisdom at the Pentagon, the XM29 program was cancelled. But the wisdom didn’t last and the two components were split into new weapons.

I’m going to take a brief moment to talk about the XM8, which still has its fanboys, despite looking like a fish. This was the 5.56 carbine portion of the XM29. But there were problems. Every other gunmaker cried foul at this becoming the new carbine of choice without a competition. And they were right, though they needn’t have worried. The XM8 was crap. Garbage. It was significantly heavier than the M4 that it was supposed to replace, fundamentally is no more lethal since it was still a 14.5″-barreled 5.56mm carbine, was compatible with exactly zero accessories currently in the US Army inventory because it somehow had no picatinny rails, and had a tendency to melt under sustained fire. Since it had no picatinny rails, it was wedded to a brand new optic that was supposed to be a magnified red dot with laser sight, which also had problems. The XM8 was also cancelled, much to the chagrin of HK fanbois and M4 haterz everywhere. Good riddance to a lousy gun.

The XM25 is the split off grenade launcher portion, now it’s own weapon. In an effort to increase lethality, the caliber was increased to 25mm. Spoiler alert: they still don’t have the sort of lethality they want. It’s got plenty of shock value, but that mostly comes from the fact that it’s a bang near your head. I am aware of exactly zero confirmed kills for the XM25 on deployment in Afghanistan. Ze-ro. None. Nada. Yeah, it’s a “game changer”.

But wait, it gets worse. The XM25 weighs 14 lbs. (6.4 kg), costs $35,000 a unit2, and fires rounds that cost $55 a piece. It still uses a detachable box magazine, but that magazine only holds five rounds. So a soldier’s individual load is tiny. Also, note that standard doctrine for IFVs with airburst autocannons is to fire a burst of three to five rounds to neutralize an enemy position. That’s basically a magload, and those rounds are bigger (and hold more HE, duh) than the rounds on the XM-25. We’ll never see great lethality out of this system, and it means taking a carbine (or two!) out of the squad.

We’re already back in the land of small professional armies rather than big conscript ones. Infantry are scarce, and taking the always-useful rifles out for a heavy system with a small combat load of carried rounds that is only sometimes useful is a bad idea. We need all the riflemen we can find. Even though our riflemen are much more effective man-for-man than their grandfathers in the Second World War thanks to optics, modern carbines, night vision equipment, and ceramic body armor, each man can only engage one point or area target at a time. We don’t need to cram more support weapons into an eight or nine man infantry squad, and we certainly shouldn’t issue such limited-persistence things as the XM-25 generally. It can’t replace the M4/M203 combo, since that still lets you bring a carbine to the close fight.

We also shouldn’t bother issuing them at higher levels (e.g. at the platoon level). At this level, we’re competing with proven weapon systems: mortars. In terms of support systems, a 60mm mortar is better in every possible way than the XM25. It’s significantly cheaper, can be broken into smaller loads and distributed so that light infantrymen can carry it and still have carbines for close-in fighting, and has larger, more effective rounds. It does require some training, but what weapon system doesn’t.3 Mortars work, and provide better range and true indirect-fire capability. What’s not to like?

On the other hand, that XM25 has also had consistent development problems, and it eats batteries. More logistics burden, hooray. It’s also seriously injured at least one tester in a nasty malfunction. This system is not ready for prime time. It needs to go. Somebody call the NKVD, see if we can get someone over here to give this thing a quick show-trial and a bullet in the back of the head.

So there you have it. Don’t bother with a new, expensive, heavy system that doesn’t work. Buy proven systems, like mortars, and save!

1.) About 9 inches long, which is pretty darn short.
2.) Supposedly this is after cost savings in production. Supposedly. It’s still too damn much.
3.) Yes, the XM25 also requires training. Duh.

The Crossbox Podcast: Episode 6 – Tax Day Edition

In this episode, we debut a new segment, talk about our summer shooting sports plans, kick in virtual doors and shout, “Police! Freeze, scumbags!”, and bore our listeners to death with a piece called ‘logistical topics of interest’.

Happy Tax Day! Remember, your government is sufficiently bloated that Tax Freedom Day isn’t for another week.


The Namer

I’m usually the conservative one when it comes to military technology. I like my two-seat attack helicopters, my F-16s, my tanks that have a four-man crew. But, as Fishbreath will point out, even I have my quirky favorites.

Enter the Namer.

I adore the Namer, and would seriously consider buying them en masse instead of any sort of IFV, which is decidedly unconventional thinking. Let’s review a bit of IFV history, and then how the Israelis came up with something entirely different.

The first IFV was the BMP-1. The Soviets expected the Modern Battlefield (TM) to be loaded with radiation from tactical nuclear weapons, with snazzy new chemical weapons like VX in addition to old favorites like Lewisite, and maybe even some biological threats for good measure. So they conceived of a vehicle that could hold a squad’s worth of men and transport them in NBC-protected style. The BMP-1 had a crew of three plus eight dismounts. The dismounts could fire out the sides through firing ports. Protection was relatively light, but was rated against heavy machine guns (i.e. .50 BMG) from the front. The BMP-1 was easily moved and amphibious. It’s armament was a 73mm gun-missile hybrid unit that was relatively short ranged, with a coaxial 7.62x54R machine gun. It was designed to provide the equivalent of the squad support weapons, a PKM and an RPG-7 in the turret.

Of course, when the Soviets bought lots of BMP-1s, NATO reckoned that Something Must Be Done, and here we get things like the Marder 1 IFV. The primary armament of this first generation of vehicles was a 20mm autocannon. This gave some amount of HE infantry support, but more importantly, it could penetrate the armor of the BMP-1. And it outranged the 73mm gun on the BMP-1. The Soviets countered with the BMP-2, which had a little more armor, fewer dismounts, and a 30mm cannon to give it the ability to punch through the armor on the heavily armored NATO IFVs.

Here we can note that we’ve moved away from the raison d’etre of the original BMP. We’ve actually gotten worse at supporting the infantry, because 20mm and 30mm autocannons hold a lot less HE than the 73mm rounds. 73mm rounds are capable of demolishing some field fortifications, but the autocannons are not. From a historical perspective, .30 and .50 caliber machine guns were considered perfectly adequate direct-fire infantry support weapons in World War II as far as antipersonnel work was considered, and a 75mm short barreled tank gun was an excellent round for attacking bunkers and fortifications. Even though the 20mm autocannon was well-developed (see the excellent 20mm Oerlikon), nobody ever moved to use this to support infantry. It doesn’t add much to the mission of supporting infantry mission, which we’ll revisit more later.

Of course, as the IFV continued to evolve, more changes happened. Amphibiousness and firing ports went away. More armor was wanted to protect against increasingly powerful enemy weapons, and firing ports get in the way of that. Plus, the firing ports weren’t all that useful. It was very difficult for soldiers to hit anything firing out of them in testing, so they were deleted in the Bradley and never put into the Warrior. Increasing autocannon sizes led to fewer troops per vehicle, with most now only capable of holding six or seven men. And that’s the listed, ‘on paper’ capacity. Once you factor in body armor and all the other stuff that makes up full battle rattle, IFVs often max out well below what their designers said they could hold.

That’s more or less where we are today. There’s an arms/armor race, complicated by the fact that you have to put a few troops somewhere in the vehicle, so we get very small ready loads of ammunition. The CV9035 has two feeds of thirty five rounds a piece. These are big 35x228mm rounds, but they’re still shot in bursts to maximize hit probability, so combat persistence is pretty lousy. Troops can’t fight from inside the IFV, and the IFVs aren’t amphibious.

Let’s look at the Israeli case instead. The Israelis have more recent experience in a proper, full-scale conventional war than NATO in 1973. So they have faced enemies who have modern, man-portable ATGMs. These are reasonably easy to use and relatively cheap. They weren’t a factor in the original BMP-1 calculus, but they were in October 1973 in the Yom Kippur War. ATGMs did not make tanks obsolete. The IDF tank corps racked up a large number of kills, and both the Israelis and Arabs used infantry screens to help cover their armor. After the war, the Israelis increased the armor on their tanks and bought more tanks. So clearly they were not seen as obsolete. What the Israelis did discover was that more lightly armored combat vehicles like their M-113 APCs were extremely vulnerable to ATGMs. So they proceeded to create a series of tank-conversion APCs that eventually culminated in the Namer, which although based on the Merkava, is actually a new design.

It will be helpful to take a brief interlude to look at the operating environment of the IDF, specifically the the Golan Heights, a plateau on the Israeli-Syrian border that was the site of fierce armored fighting. The Golan is rocky, barely developed, and lacks trees. Here, the sightlines are long and unobstructed. It is an ideal environment for the employment of ATGMs. Smoke, suppressive fires, and heavy armor are the order of the day; there is nowhere to hide and no cover to be found. If they can see you, they can hit you. To counter the threat, both the Israelis and the Syrians made heavy use of infantry screens and smoke. APCs were used to leapfrog infantry to cover armored advances.

The Namer is the heaviest APC in the world, weighing in at 60 metric tons. Or possibly more; I don’t entirely trust IDF-reported numbers to be completely accurate. It is loaded with armor, and even without active protection systems has been proven to be able to withstand the latest Russian ATGMs in the Lebanon campaigns. It has three crew and is rated for eight or nine dismounts, depending on seat configuration. Looking at the interior, for once I think a manufacturer is understating capacity. Or accounting for gear. By Soviet standards, the Namer could hold a motor rifle platoon.

The Namer is armed with a heavy machine gun (the Ma Deuce) and a GPMG, like an M-113. The Israelis never really thought that their APCs were underarmed. And they did encounter Syran BMP-1s on the Golan, so they saw the firepower of the BMP-1. But they never felt the need to increase the firepower of their APCs, either to kill BMPs or to lob HE rounds. The Israelis felt that their tanks were better at killing vehicles than an IFV like the BMP-1 could ever be, and APCs worked better at the primary job of actually carrying infantry. This worked just fine for them on the Golan.

And this brings up an interesting point. In a world where new IFVs are starting around 33 tonnes, and top out around 42 tonnes (the Puma), what sort of circumstances are we expecting that would mean that these IFVs are going out alone and have to confront vehicles of their weight class and below? Is there some vehicle MMA where things are broken out by weight? Because if IFVs encounter MBTs alone, they’re in trouble. Well, unless the tank crews are poorly trained idiots. And a non-amphibious vehicle in the 33-43 tonne weight class isn’t substantively easier to deploy than an MBT. You still need at least a C-17 for air deployment, and those are expensive and in short supply. So deploying an actual force is going to require rails or ships. It will be slow. And if you’re already going to suffer through a slow cargo ship deployment, might as well bring the tanks too.

We’ve already talked about the problems with autocannons. Increasing size for increasingly marginal ability to kill a small subset of threats. They still can’t kill an MBT from the front, they’re increasingly unlikely to kill an IFV from the front, and they’re overkill for everything lesser. Don’t think the Bradley is exempt because it has ATGMs. The TOW on the Bradley basically requires it to stop moving while it’s guiding, so the wire doesn’t get snapped accidentally. Which means that unless the tank crew is unaware or massively stupid,1 the tank is going to hit the Bradley if the Bradley takes the shot. At longer ranges, the TOW has a flight time of about thirty seconds, which isn’t short enough to score a mutual kill, even if we assume the TOW is good enough to penetrate the tank’s armor.

Let’s take a moment to think about infantry support. We need three things to support the infantry: direct fire with a suppression component,
indirect fire HE to hit dug-in enemies, and direct fire HE to smash fortifications. Of course, autocannons have a direct fire HE capability. It is, however, a very small HE capability. It is not sufficient to reliably punch holes in adobe-type structures, let alone the reinforced concrete ones that you would find in a modern city. The fundamentals of direct fire HE support haven’t changed much since World War 2, when the minimum acceptable caliber for supporting infantry with explosives was 75mm. Smaller guns, like 40 and 50mm were tried and found wanting. So what voodoo makes you think you can do more with the smaller 30mm?

Some of you might be thinking about those specialized rounds that claim to be able to penetrate wall and kill what’s on the other side. There are several issues with these. Assumptions about knowing the locations of hostiles, getting them to stay there, and the composition of the wall may not hold in actual combat zones. Wall construction techniques vary, and the high velocity of the autocannon rounds tend to make placing timed explosions difficult. These specialized rounds still can’t actually demolish things or create an improvised entry point.2 Plus, an autocannon is not like a howitzer or tank cannon that has a loader you can order to “Load Exotic Goofy Shit”. Autocannons have two belt feeds, and given the size of the belts and how cramped3 the turrets are, swapping belts is an enormous pain. And, as we’ll see, there are a few kinds of exotic rounds that you might want, plus regular HE-Frag and APFSDS-T. So what are you going to load? And what will you do when neither belt contains the right boutique round for the target in front of you? You’d call for support like a smart person. Or die.

If you, or that support you called for, had a big ol’ HE-thrower, you could blast the daylights out of that wall with no trouble at all. Once again, if we look at the Combined Arms Team, we might notice that once again there’s an obvious choice here. You guessed it, the MBT. Bigger HE is better HE, and it’s easy to throw a couple of speculative 120mm HE rounds into the ammo rack of an MBT without compromising its primary, vehicle-slaying mission.

Clearly, the IFV and the Namer lack proper indirect fire capability. No, 40mm underbarrel grenade launchers issued to the squad aren’t a solution. And no, airburst autocannon rounds aren’t a replacement either. For one, timing the airburst for effect over a known-range target is made really difficult by the high velocity of an autocannon round. Plus, we really aren’t starting with a lot of explosive in a 30 or 35mm round, and we need the frag pattern to work from a variety of angles, since it still needs to work with more traditional contact fuzing. Again, most armies in World War 2 found the 50 and 60mm mortars inadequate for high-angle support, and preferred systems with a caliber of at least 80mm. Again, airburst is expensive, unproven, and eats into the already tiny ammo load. For indirect support, stick to dedicated systems like mortar carriers. With the range on modern 81mm or 120mm mortars, there’s no reason for such systems to be at the front line anyway, and not having to have the magazine and troops share space is excellent. So don’t think about putting such a system into an IFV.

Let’s now examine the direct fire mission. For supporting infantry, an autocannon doesn’t get you a ton of things. Machine guns allow for larger ammo loadouts, and the small HE rounds of the autocannon don’t really kill people any deader. More ammo means more time suppressing. The belts are less awkward to handle, and provide a significantly lower secondary explosion hazard in the event the armor is penetrated. Plus, not having a massive turret and basket means there’s more room for infantry and their stuff. Going MG-only is a tradeoff of some shock effect for more combat persistence and vehicle survivability.

No big autocannon also means we can forgo the big turret and fancy optics and targeting systems. For modern tanks, this is a significant cost driver. And since IFVs increasingly have optics that are every bit as fancy as what’s on an MBT, and often fancier targeting systems, we’ve eliminated a large source of cost growth. Which is good. A standard problem for armies is what do do when you’ve got a seven to ten million dollar IFV platform, and can’t afford to put all your soldiers in them. So you buy some other APC for second line duties. And you write some horseshit whitepapers on ‘information warfare’ and the ‘way of the future,’ and you ‘prove’ your conclusions in a bunch of rigged exercises until you run into some dudes with RPG-7s that blow holes in your pretty theories and your cheap APCs, and there’s egg all over everyone’s face on CNN. Those insurgents probably just didn’t get the memo about rolling over and dying in the face of your ‘fourth generation warfare’. Did you use the new coversheet when you emailed it to them?

Infantry are the primary purpose of this vehicle. The infantry. The gun should be secondary at most, so it’s best if it’s not eating large amounts of internal volume. If you want an autocannon-carrier, build one. With the Namer, we’re trading vehicle capability for superior infantry carrying capability and effectiveness. It’s a trade I’m happy to make. And regardless of what a bunch of eggheads will tell you, there’s no substitute for armor when you want survivability. Ask the IDF how many computers it takes to stop a Kornet.

Overall, the Namer takes the crown for Most Survivable armored vehicle, with an obscene amount of armor, active protection systems, and basically nothing inside to cook off and cause secondary explosions in the case of a penetration. Which also makes it a winner in that fourth dimension of all things procurement: politics. A vote to buy the Namer is a vote to bring someone’s little boy home safe. Are you going to be able to look those mothers in the eye and tell them that their boys burned to death in some crappy thin-skinned vehicle? Do you want to testify at that hearing?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. SOLD.

1.) See the Battle of 73 Easting in 1991. An ideal case for the attackers, because the Iraqis couldn’t find their own ass with two hands and a map.
2.) Also known as a man-sized hole in the wall.
3.) Yes, Virginia, even western IFVs have cramped turrets. The monster CV90, which is roughly as big as a PzKpfW VI Tiger I tank, has a turret which has been described as “a tighter fit than a T-72.”

Procurement successes

I gripe a lot about the sorry state of American defense procurement, and sometimes about the even sorrier state of Western European defense procurement. But there have been successes. In thinking about a few of the recent ones, namely the Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, the M1 Abrams tank, and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, I noticed something: all had followed a gross failure.

First let’s define terms. The obvious: failure. A program is a failure when it is cancelled while the need remains. If an army decided it needed no more tanks and cancelled its latest tank design program, that would make sense. At least from a logical standpoint. It follows. If you don’t need a thing, you shouldn’t be buying a thing. But sometimes a program is such a massive overbudget clusterfuck of mismanagement, it gets cancelled even though the service still needs it. And that usually forces some ranking officers to be “forced into retirement” and a lot of soul searching. We’ll see that this is important later.

Next, let’s talk success. I’m going to be mean and set the bar high. A successful program delivers a quality product at a reasonable price. On time. On budget. But it must also be a product that compares well to its peers, regardless of how much gold-plated nonsense is baked into them. Each of our aforementioned projects fulfills both criteria. They are seen as good by both the bean-counters and the warriors. All designs are compromises, and these appear to have made the right ones. Why?

Almost certainly, because the need was great, and the service in question had already tried an “everything and the kitchen sink” gold plated design that failed. Each predecessor was super expensive. Two of the three were cancelled outright. The third just barely made it out of the gate before being terminated unceremoniously. Let’s look at these failed programs.

The Abrams was preceded by the MBT-70, a case study in multinational mismanagement. It was a joint German-American tank project, but the Germans and Americans couldn’t agree on anything. Rather than actually make hard decisions, the project team let each country do its own thing. Since work was duplicated and the project had to work with both, costs skyrocketed. The Germans wanted a 120mm smoothbore gun. The Americans wanted a 152mm short-barrel gun/missile system. So they compromised. Both were developed and integrated. The Americans wanted a gas turbine. The Germans wanted a diesel. So they compromised. American versions had a gas turbine; German versions had a diesel. The design teams couldn’t even agree on whether to use metric or SAE measurements on bolts and nuts. You guessed it, both were used. Plus, they wanted to integrate an autoloader, which had never been done in the West. They also wanted an active hydropneumatic suspension that could “lean” and “kneel”, another novelty. Costs spiraled out of control, and eventually, Congress and the Bundestag agreed on something: the MBT-70 had to go.

The Super Hornet had an ill-fated predecessor in the A-12 Avenger II. The Navy wanted to replace the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II attack aircraft with a cool new stealth attack aircraft. Stealth was cool. The USAF had the awesome F-117A and B-2A. Stealth meant you could go anywhere, and the pesky Soviet air defense systems could do nothing to stop you. But stealth was expensive. Very expensive. And the A-12 program was probably the worst-managed aircraft program in history. Composites were new, and screwups led to the plane coming in overweight, and the weight growth never stopped. The multifunction radar had development problems as well and started to rapidly consume the navy’s budget. Delays in the prototype design pushed back early flights, and added to the cost. Then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney cancelled the program in 1990.

Finally we come to the Seawolf class, the predecessor of the Virginias. At first, you might object. Seawolfs were commissioned! And yes, they were. But only three of them ever put to sea. THREE. They were supposed to replace the Los Angeles class attack submarines. But how can they do this when there are more than twenty times as many of the Los Angeles class boats? Yes, it failed. Get over it. Loaded with everything from a fancy new sonar with battle management system and newer hull construction techniques, and even new steels, it came in overbudget and at the wrong time. Even though they’re really great boats, there’s only so much you can do with three hulls instead of sixty two.

After failure, each service went back to the drawing board. They thought long and hard about compromising to get the price down. What did they really need now, what could they add later, and what could they do without. They relearned that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and a piece of hardware that you have is infinitely better than a cancelled project. It’s a pity this lesson is so very hard to remember. The results are excellent vehicles that have received a large number of upgrades.

OpenTafl v0.2.4… .2b: now with extra hotfixes

I’ve released another new OpenTafl version, this one with two major features:

First, tablut games. Two tablut variations are included. The one listed as ‘tablut’ is standard tablut, according to the rules given at Aage Nielsen’s site: armed king, strong at the center but weak elsewhere on the board. The one listed as ‘Foteviken tablut’ is, again, from Aage Nielsen’s site, and features something altogether new for OpenTafl, a feature I had planned for but had not yet used: attacker fortresses, used here for hostile attacker camps. In this version, the attackers may move around inside their starting areas, but may not re-enter them from the outside. Defenders may not enter the attacker fortresses. Additionally, the attacker fortresses are hostile to the king. In exchange, the king is always strong. This represents an interesting middle ground between corner escape rules and edge escape rules: the king’s side must still play for the corners of the board, but needs not play for the corners specifically.

Second, the implementation of the ‘rules’ command. In a game, you can type ‘rules’, and you’ll get a dialog window showing the rules of the game you’re currently playing, or the replay you’re currently viewing. Helpful if you lose track of them, or if you want clarification on a certain point of the rules for a replay.

In other news, I’ve made some small improvements to the UI, specifically the scrolling labels used for the help and rules windows, and for the in-game status display, and have compiled two more of Tim Millar’s excellent annotated games (from the World Tafl Federation) into OpenTafl replay files.

This is likely the end for 0.2.x; I hope to do some serious testing over the next week or two, as well as finalize the engine protocol. Look for a 0.2.x final in the next few weeks.

Glass for Kat: picking an AK optic

As is so often the case, choice of optic dictates other firearms setup questions, and, since Kat did not come with an optic, I had some choices to make right off the bat.

Choice one: skip optics altogether, shoot irons like real man, da? This is not a particularly compelling choice, although it is made very slightly more compelling by my colleague’s admittedly effective sight mods (painting the front sight white, and filing the rear notch a little bigger). In Standard Two-Gun Rules, I’m allowed one (1) rifle optic in the Practical Division in which I plan to compete, so I don’t want to handicap myself unnecessarily.

Choice two: bog-standard Americanski-style micro red dot on a railed gas tube. This is one of those indisputable choices: I can’t really fault someone for going this direction. You get a nice, easy-to-acquire sight low to the bore, you get cowitnessing for free, and you get all the benefits of red dots: good-enough precision for battle rifles, durability, and all that tasty, tasty red-dot ease of use. Nor will they break the bank.

That said, I don’t think it’s quite for me. A micro dot far forward on a rifle has a very, very small apparent size, and that makes rapid transitions and fast acquisition harder, robbing the red dot of its main advantage over a magnified optic. It’s also impossible to magnify: even if you could find a magnifier with a foot and a half of eye relief, you’d be hard-pressed to fit it on the rail, and even if you could fit it on the rail, you’d be wrecking the balance of a rifle which is already a little nose heavy.

Choice three: red dot or holo sight on one of those AK side-rail Picatinny mounts. This is the first one I seriously considered. For one, your top-of-the-line red dots and holo sights (your Aimpoint Micros and EOTechs) come to about $500 or $600, which is much cheaper than high-end glass1. The mounting position solves some of the issues I have with the forward red dot: it’s right there, next to your eye, so picking up the sight is easy. You lose cowitnessing, but I don’t care about that much anyway. Without having to worry about putting weight way up by your front hand, you can also go a little bigger on the sight, moving up to full-size red dots or holo sights, and on the larger side-rail mounts, you could even fit a magnifier. Perfect, right?

Well, not quite. A red dot and magnifier are two parts to fail, and neither is useful without the other2. Nor are you gaining anything in weight, really: you’re up at a pound or so with a 3x magnifier and micro dot, and that’s getting up toward the weight of our eventual winner.

Choice four: ACOG-style compact, low-eye-relief scope
This is the one I ended up going with. It isn’t an ACOG, but it fits the pattern: we’ll call it a nayCOG. First: limited eye relief doesn’t bother me. If it’s whacking you in the face, you’re doing it wrong3. Second: I like magnification, especially with a reticle smaller than the target I’m likely shooting at (which may or may not be the case with a magnified red dot). Magnification buys you better precision straight up, and also better target discrimination at range. Third: a nayCOG is only a few ounces heaver than alternative options at most4, and all of that weight is at the back of the rail, owing to the scope’s small size.

Why not a simple, variable-power 1-4x tactical scope, say? Because at 4x, the field of view for such a scope is a little more than half the field of view of a fixed-power 4x nayCOG. Field of view at range helps maintain situational awareness and eases target acquisition; at close range, a good field of view helps with rapid acquisition of a target and both-eyes-open aiming, though on both fronts it obviously loses to a proper reflex sight.

Finally, you may object that I just said difficult acquisition pushed me to drop the forward micro dot; that, though, is a fundamentally different sighting system. I don’t mind the extra work if it means I have access to magnification.

So, having decided all these things, I was at a gun show a few weeks ago, and came across what is turning out to be just about the perfect optic. Tune in next time to find out exactly what I bought, and how it’s turned out so far.

1. I was just talking to parvusimperator about his next rifle build, and he could end up spending four times as much for a high-end 1-6x variable-power scope.
2. This is not ordinarily an issue, if you’re buying things of moderate quality, but I am nothing if not a cheapskate!
3. Next time, you’ll see that this is an ironic tack for me to take here.
4. The one I got weighs 16 ounces with an integral mount. A 1-4x tactical scope is probably a little lighter, but a red dot, magnifier, and flip-aside magnifier mount are just as weighty.

Armata Response 2: Hoplon IFV

Okay, so we’ve got our new MBT to meet the T-14 Armata anytime, anywhere. What about the IFV? Well, last year’s Victory Day parade showcased both the T-15 Heavy IFV and the Kurganets regular IFV. Which leaves us with a lot of questions. I’ve already vetoed the family nonsense, and talked a little bit about heavy IFVs, but now is a good time to elaborate on that as we look to design our new IFV, the Hoplon.

We can see that regular IFVs have been steadily increasing in weight. BMP-1, BMP-2, and early models of Bradley were all at least sort of amphibious, and under 25 tonnes. Bradley has grown into the 33-35 tonne range, which is about where CV9035 is. And the big Puma gets all the way up to 42 tonnes once you kit it out. How heavy should our IFV be? In Syria and Lebanon, the Israelis discovered that if your enemy has modern ATGMs, like Hezbollah does, then you really need heavy armor on your vehicles for them to be survivable. Before fighting all of these ATGMs, the Israelis thought the relatively lightweight M113 was more than enough for infantry transport purposes. Afterwards, they sought tank-level protection and got it in a number of conversions of old tanks, finally culminating in the purpose-built Namer HAPC.

The Russians reached a similar conclusion after their experiences in Chechnya. BMPs are all under 20 tonnes, all amphibious, and all lightly protected. In Chechnya, they were found to be extremely vulnerable to the Soviet-era weapons used by the separatists. These separatists had often served in the Soviet Army, and they tended to target the known weaknesses in the BMPs: the sides and roof, inflicting heavy casualties. The Russians came to the same conclusion as the Israelis, and the T-15 Armata IFV is big, heavy, and well armored.

What about the experiences of the Bradley in the Iraq wars? Well, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Bradleys were seldom used in cities. The primary threat was IEDs, and even the M2A3 Bradley didn’t have much protection against IEDs. They were roughly equivalent to an up-armored humvee in terms of IED resistance. Instead, coalition forces in Iraq used MRAPs, which were much more protected against IEDs than either humvees or Bradleys. Also, the GCV, which was intended to replace the Bradley was very heavily protected. Interestingly, and possibly due to asinine rules of engagement, the absence of the 25mm cannon on the Bradley was not felt much on the streets of Iraq.

So, it will be a heavy vehicle. I can hear Fishbreath groaning already. The price, Parvusimperator! Yes yes, I’m aware. And I haven’t forgotten. And a massive vehicle is going to be more expensive. Now, we’ll talk about some ways to reduce costs as we discuss the configuration. Clearly, we’re going to put the engine and transmission up front, and a ramp at the back for ingress and egress. We’ll use the same LV100-5 engine and associated transmission system that we deployed on the Myrmidon. We’re trying to reduce logistical complexity here. The LV100-5 gas turbine is our standard heavy vehicle engine, and we don’t have to worry about stocking parts for another engine.

Let’s talk armament for a bit. This might also be a place to save, since MBT-grade fire control systems and optics are rather expensive. The gun armament is for supporting infantry. Fix that firmly in your mind, and say it with me. The gun armament on an IFV is for supporting infantry. This is important because of the armor race I mentioned earlier. IFVs are getting tougher. MBTs are already super tough. This demands a bigger and bigger gun. But the IFV must also carry troops. So we end up with a partial squad and not a lot of ammo. And for what? Is a 40mm gun all that much better than a 30mm gun? You still have to run from tanks. You may or may not be able to kill other armored vehicles. And then we’re getting into the classic question of quantity of rounds or quality of rounds.

Let us consider some more combat experience. Specifically, the First Persian Gulf war. Operation Desert Storm. This is quite possibly the best argument in favor of a heavy IFV armament, where the Bradleys racked up tremendous numbers of kills with their 25mm M242 cannons and TOW missiles. Bradleys killed more tanks than the Abramses. Of course, the Iraqi tanks and other armored vehicles were used incompetently. But we should be careful about drawing too strong a conclusion here. Recall that the Bradley cannot fire missiles on the move. It also cannot guide those missiles on the move for fear of fouling the wires. So the Bradley must remain stationary for the entire flight time of the missile, which can be up to twenty seconds at longer ranges. Against a reasonably competent tank crew, their only chance is if the tank fails to spot them or the launch. It’s also good to consider what the Bradley had that made it effective, namely a stabilized gun. The sights on the earlier Bradleys are not particularly advanced, but they were good enough, and a stabilized gun made shooting on the move doable. This was considered an overly expensive luxury by just about everyone else until they saw the results of Desert Storm.

Let’s also look at the Bradley use in Operation Iraqi Freedom. There, as I’ve mentioned before, the quantity of 25mm ammunition available proved invaluable in the engagements where it was permitted. 300 rounds of autocannon fire is quite a lot, and allows the Bradley to support troops for quite some time.

So, proven uses for the autocannon include supporting an infantry assault on fortifications and shooting up lightly armored vehicles.1 What we don’t want to do is to get caught up in an arms race with other medium armored vehicles, and certainly not the heavy armored vehicles. An excess of fancy electrics is a significant portion of what drove the Puma’s high cost. So to hell with that. We’re going to mount an autocannon in a relatively simple remote weapon station and call it a day. We’ll have night vision capability, some limited zoom, and stabilization. But we needn’t spend too much on this. It’s for supporting the infantry and striking targets of opportunity, and maybe taking potshots at attack helicopters. Elbit makes a nice autocannon turret that comes with all of the above, plus a Mk. 44 Bushmaster II 30mm chaingun and 200 rounds of ammunition.

Why 30mm? Wouldn’t 25mm be better? At least, better from a “more rounds” and “good enough” perspective? Perhaps. We can get about half again as many 25mm rounds as 30mm rounds in a given volume. On the face of it, probably. Depleted Uranium 25mm rounds are about as good at armor penetration as 30mm ones. But, the 25mm round isn’t getting any more development effort. Much as I hate it, the move is to bigger rounds with airburst capability, and 25mm is too small for this. Plus, there’s still some growth left in the 30mm round, seeing as it doesn’t have a depleted uranium APFSDS round yet. Both rounds are currently popular, but the 25mm guns are increasingly being replaced. A pity.

A few other notes on our turret. The Elbit remote turret comes with a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun mount, which is fine by us. It’s also capable of high-angle fire, which is perfect for those urban scenarios, or wandering helicopters. It isn’t well protected, and that’s okay too. This weapon system is not critical, and it keeps cost down. We’ll add a second, smaller remote weapon system that will double as the commander’s sight. Again, modest zoom, thermal camera, stabilization are all we need. This will add a second 7.62mm machine gun. More suppression and will give the commander every reason to keep his head down. Both machine guns are heavy-barreled FN MAGs.

The commander will have eight periscopes, with optional night-vision attachments, around his hatch for observation. We expect his primary observing to be either through his sight/RWS or the gunner’s sight/RWS, which he can also view on his monitor. Again, we’re trying to keep costs down, so these aren’t super fancy sights, but they should be good enough. We will have to put in some fancy electrics, specifically the fancy force tracking datalink systems mentioned in the Myrmidon write up2 and the radios to get data. Radios are also fitted to allow communication with other vehicles, aircraft, and nearby troops on the various frequencies that they might use. There’s a repeater display for the troops in the back to see the force tracking information as well so they don’t all have to huddle around the commander’s station.

The gunner has five vision blocks for auxiliary observation, again, with night-viewing options. The driver, who is on the left side of the hull, has five vision blocks, as well as a forward 1x/4x thermal camera, side cameras, and a rear camera. We’re using the same displays and cameras that we used on the Myrmidon, so we can get them in (greater) bulk, and so we only need to stock one set of spares.

The crew sit at the front of the main compartment, with the driver on the left, commander in the middle, and gunner on the right. The commander’s and gunner’s stations are further back from the driver to accommodate the engine compartment. Behind the crew is the space for dismounts. There are seats for nine dismounts, plus space for a stretcher case or a lot of kit. Remember, this is a roughly tank-sized chassis. Additional storage space is available behind the seats and under the floor panels. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have explosive stuff in the passenger compartment, but then we’d have to put it out where the armor is, and the armor would get in the way of accessing the stuff. Armor is heavy. So, the stuff has to be mostly inside. There is external provision for attaching packs and earthmoving tools (picks, mattocks, spades, etc) to the outside of the vehicle.

The crew compartment is provided with a spall liner all around. It’s also NBC protected (assuming hatches are closed), and has heating and air conditioning. Provision is made for an electric kettle for boiling water and assisting in cooking meals. There are also battery rechargers to keep electrical devices going.

We’ve already mentioned that the Hoplon is one heavy beast, having tank-grade armor. It also is fitted with the Trophy active protection system, and a number of hull-mounted smoke grenade dischargers. The commander has a hatch, as does the driver. Another, larger hatch is provided to allow roof egress if needed, or access to the primary remote weapons station for reloading. Normally, the crew and use a door-ramp at the back for entry and exit. The door-ramp, as well as all roof hatches, have power-assisted opening, due to the great weight of the roof armor.

The Hoplon’s suspension system is hydropneumatic, but not adjustable like that of the Myrmidon. This will keep costs down, but also maximize common spares/tools/training. There are seven road wheels per side, and tracks are protected with heavy composite skirts. Like on the Myrmidon, the skirts of the Hoplon can be detached to facilitate transport. This is as good a time as any to talk transportability. The Hoplon is big, and has similar mobility characteristics as the Myrmidon, as far as ground-pressure and bridging requirements go. While this makes them more difficult to deploy on some damn-fool peacekeeping exercise, it also means that some idiot general is less likely to commit his IFVs alone without tank support. That’s not how this is supposed to work, so the size of the Hoplon ends up being an advantage from a doctrinal perspective.

Now, let’s do a little bit of reckoning. The Hoplon is 7.97 meters long, 3.657 meters wide without the skirts, and about 2 meters tall (to the top of the hull, not counting the RWSes). It weighs about 60 tonnes. With a good large order, we reckon we’ll have a unit cost of about $4 million.

1.) Yes, I’m including BMP-1s in the “lightly armored” category .
2.) Heavily influenced by the US Army’s FBCB2 system