Monthly Archives: May 2016

Parvusimperator reviews the T-14 Armata MBT

By popular demand, I am reviewing Russia’s latest Tank Of Doom, the T-14 Armata. While I usually wargame with the Russians as the opposition, as per Cold War tradition, we have more in common than you might think. We both love realpolitik, nuclear weapons, and tanks. Lots of love for tanks. We both adore tanks, expect and demand that they be the heavy hitters in combat, and scoff at the idiots who think their time is through. So let us look at the latest design from a fellow tank lover.

In many ways, the T-14 Armata is a recognition that something has to give. The Russians saw in the first Gulf War what happens when their T-72s got overmatched and had their armor penetrated: the reserve ammo cooked off, immolating the crew and sending the turret flying into the air like a jack-in-the-box. No problem, they said. This was a mere “monkey model”1 T-72. They had big, scary T-72BU,2 with the high-end Kontakt 5 ERA, that was effective at reducing the penetrating ability of APFSDS rounds and could also stop HEAT rounds without a dramatic increase in weight. Keeping the tanks relatively light was very important to the Russians, because the bridge infrastructure in Russia and the former Soviet Union was not very good, and just can’t take the weight of a fully kitted out Leopard 2A7. Plus it’s a lot easier to move bridging equipment when it has less weight to support.

But then came Chechnya, where veterans knew to shoot multiple rockets at the ERA modules, since they don’t do multihit capability. And then the West developed rounds that could get through Kontakt 5 without issue. Better modules and more base armor was needed. The cycle was to begin again, but those bridges weren’t going to get stronger on their own. Faced with strict weight requirements, the Russians decided to take the crew out of the turret. Putting them all in the hull meant less frontal armored area, which meant less armor weight. This was something confronting Western designers too–designs for the next tank made in the late 80s in the US and West Germany had a similar layout. But the Russians hit the wall first. Plus, the Russians have always been willing to try new things in their tanks.

In many ways the Armata is a profoundly Western-style tank, though it still is very light at under 50 tonnes. It has a properly strong front hull armor of what appears to be composites and steel, and it’s rated for protection right up there with its Western rivals. It is, however, not considerably better than them as far as frontal armor estimates go. There’s an all new 125mm gun, the long-barrel 2A82-1M, which has a 32 round autoloader, an all-new APFSDS round with a longer penetrator, and an all-new gun launched ATGM round. There’s a 1,500 hp diesel, though it’s in a goofy and questionable X-configuration. And there’s modern looking thermal sights for the commander and the gunner. Of the seven sets road wheels, the first two pairs and the last pair have adjustable suspension. And, straight from the factory, it has a missile approach warning radar, and hard and soft kill active protection systems3. The sides of the hull appear to have ERA skirts, though they might just be composite modules. The roof is well armored, but I’m uncertain if this contains ERA or not.

That said, the tank is brand new, so many questions remain. How good are the Russian thermal viewers: are they second-generation or third-generation? How good is the fire control computer? Can it do automatic target tracking? IFF? Can the radar be used for finding ground targets? How reliable is the new engine/transmission4 setup? How much armor is on the turret? The outer shell is clearly not tough, but there must be armor behind it or else it would be super easy to achieve a mission-kill. But you don’t need much of an armor profile internally to protect the gun, so maybe the outer shell is just for the radar and APS. And how well will the unmanned turret design work in war (or at least in exercises)? They’re gambling heavily that technology can overcome the loss of situational awareness, though to be fair, so are the Germans with the Puma IFV. Of course, there are some classified things I’d love to know too, like just how good is the main gun compared to a Rheinmetall 120mm L55, and just how good is that armor.

There is one other thing that bothers me presently, and that is how many will the Russians actually buy? They have an awful lot of new weapons programs, and while labor costs are certainly cheaper in Russia, this is a lot of new technology. It won’t be substantially cheaper than a Western tank program of similar vintage with good management, e.g. K2 Black Panther.5

But let’s get to business, and the three million ruble6 question. Would we buy one? On the one hand, politics and NATO might intervene. On the other hand, Russia will sell to anyone, and deferring to politics would be the ultimate cop out. So, let’s set that aside. Would we buy?!

In terms of raw capability, it is similar to Leopard 2A7. A worthy competitor, but not massively better than either, at least on paper and without knowing classified information all around. In terms of cost, it is similar to Leopard 2A7, high but manageable. But ammo is stored entirely separate from the crew, so it is more survivable than either. And hard kill APS are built right in. Electrics should be good, and if not, there’s a long history of adding French and/or Israeli electronics to Russian stuff. The only question might be production, but maybe we could make like India and become a partner in production with a big order to see that it actually gets done.

So would we buy one? Сделка?!

Oh yeah. We’d be all over it.

Uralvagonzavod? Сделка.

1.) i.e. a watered-down export version. The crap you sell to dodgy “friends” like Saddam Hussein, not the good stuff you keep for yourself.
2.) Better known as the T-90.
3.) So, automatically triggered visual/infrared screening smoke to hide the tank, and some kind of mini grenade to destroy missiles.
4.) It’s a twelve-speed transmission, which seems needlessly complicated to me. Also, the previous Russian diesels are all descended from the same V-12 engine family.
5.) While a simple currency conversion of the quoted price doesn’t bear this out, the ruble has lost a lot of value against the dollar recently. If we convert to an intermediate, fixed value commodity in both places (e.g. gold or big macs) as an intermediate step, we get a price that is near as makes no difference to that of the K2 Black Panther.
6.) The top prize on Сделка?!, the Russian Deal or No Deal game show.

OpenTafl v0.3.x: The Networkening Begins

The time has finally come. OpenTafl v0.3.x is officially under way. You can find the ongoing changes to the source code at the Mercurial repository. I’m going to spend this post talking a little bit about the structure and organization of the OpenTafl server.

First: I decided that a thicker server was the way to go. Peer-to-peer networking is almost always more trouble than it’s worth for things like this, and OpenTafl shouldn’t be all that resource-hungry. So, the OpenTafl server will maintain the authoritative version of each game, and the authoritative version of that game’s clock. OpenTafl uses TCP instead of UDP; OpenTafl doesn’t run a lot of network traffic or need particularly low latency, and the guarantees provided by TCP are super-handy.

Second: I wanted a server which could easily be scaled up and down. Rather than work with Java’s default threading model for networking, which uses a reader thread per client to both read and do the work, I decided to write a priority task queue. Everything the OpenTafl server does, from parsing incoming communication from clients to updating the game clocks to distributing chat messages, is encapsulated in an individual task object. The task objects are pushed to one of three queues, corresponding to high, standard, or low priority. Higher-priority tasks are executed preferentially, unless there’s a large backlog of lower-priority tasks. This lets the number of worker threads be subject to user configuration. Finally, to distribute load, the OpenTafl server spreads out repeated tasks over a number of buckets in the period of repetition: clients get an updated game list every 30 seconds, by default, but only one in thirty clients gets the game list per second.

Third: Clients are expected to do some heavy lifting. The client gets a server clock update every five seconds, and has to maintain its own clock for display purposes in between. Although the server runs the authoritative version of the game, each client also keeps a full copy of the game. This lightens the burden on the server, which does a lot, and pushes it to the clients, who don’t do much, relatively speaking.

Those are the big features. I’ve run some successful tests over the past day or two, successfully playing out games over the network. I have more features to do before I can make an initial public release, but I expect to have one for you in the next few weeks.

Oracle v. Google: Apocalyptic Subhead

Bringing you only the finest in topical writing, it’s your Soapbox contributors.

So, Oracle v. Google. First, some backstory. In 2009, Sun Microsystems, the creator of Java, was acquired by Oracle, Inc., Larry Ellison’s database outfit. At around the same time, Android was in the middle of taking off. (The HTC Dream/T-Mobile G1 was released in October, 2008.)

Android, of course, is the most widely-used mobile operating system in the world, and something your humble author works with on a daily basis. Developed by Google, Android has two parts: a low-level operating system, powered by Linux, and a framework running on top of it, written in Java. … but not exactly. Google re-implemented some of Java’s APIs, for reasons of developer familiarity. I’ll pause for a moment here and give you some metaphors for APIs, in case you aren’t also a developer.

At its most basic, an API (which stands for application programming interface) is a list of capabilities a certain piece of code exposes to the world. First consider a racing rowboat, with a team of oarsmen and a coxswain in the back. The rowers have a simple API: there is one function (sometimes called a method or a procedure) called ‘stroke’. The coxswain doesn’t necessarily need to know how the oarsmen row, but he does need to know that, when he says ‘stroke’, the oarsmen will all row at once.

Next, consider a car. It presents a slightly more complicated API: ‘go faster’, ‘go slower’, and ‘turn’. In modern cars, the API is implemented by the gas pedal, the brake pedal, and the steering wheel. In the early days of motoring, this wasn’t necessarily so: the Model T, for instance, used a very different control scheme. The important point is that both the Model T and a Tesla Model S implement the same API, no matter how different they may be in the details.

Finally, consider a dictionary. Say you invent a language and create a dictionary for it. Your dictionary is protected by copyright, but your language is not. US copyright law says that you can copyright expression, but not information or data. Your language is information, but the definitions in your dictionary are expressive, creative content. So, although your dictionary is copyrighted, someone can come along and rewrite all your definitions. By doing so, they have created a new work, and you have zero rights to it: they’re using the freely-usable data (the words which compose your language) that you have collated, and making new content where copyright would otherwise be an issue (the definitions).

So, what does an API entry look like in Java?

public String toString()

There are three parts here. ‘Public’ means that anyone who includes this piece of code in their own piece of code can ‘see’, and therefore use, the function. ‘String’ means that the function returns a value of type String. (A String is a piece of text.) toString() is the method name. (There is a fourth part; the parentheses enclose the arguments, the information which someone who wants to call the function must send to the function. In this case, there are no arguments.)

An API is something like a mixture of all of those metaphors1. It’s a way to lay out the functionality of a piece of software, and functional works are generally not subject to copyright. On the other hand, an API is also a description of the functionality of a piece of software, and descriptions (like dictionary definitions) can be copyrighted.

That brings us back to the matter at hand, re-implementations of Java. Two other projects with that aim predated Android: GNU Classpath and Apache Harmony. You’ll note that neither calls itself Java: Oracle, by way of Sun, owns the trademark for the term ‘Java’. Now, Java’s APIs are organized in groups called packages, which have names, for instance, like java.lang (core functionality in the Java language). Crucially, Sun never thought it could copyright those names. It could copyright the implementations: for instance, there’s a method called Math.max(number, number), which returns the larger of two numbers, belonging to the java.lang package. Its full address is java.lang.Math.max. Despite the occurrence of ‘java’ in the package name, Sun never asserted ownership over the structure of the API: it was broadly accepted in the software industry that API definitions were functional, not expressive, and therefore not subject to copyright.

In 2012, though, Oracle looked at Google and thought to itself, “Hmm. I want a piece of that sweet, sweet Android pie. How can I get my hands on that?” The answer? Assert copyright over the Java API. Oracle sued Google in the US District Court for the Northern District of California. The jury ruled that there was infringement, but hung on Google’s fair use defense. Rendering the jury’s verdict moot, Judge William Alsup4 additionally ruled that APIs aren’t copyrightable at all, under a certain clause in the Copyright Act5 which states that procedures, processes, systems, and methods of operation, among other things, are not subject to copyright. Oracle appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which overturned Alsup’s ruling that APIs are not copyrightable, and remanded the case back to Alsup’s court to hear arguments over fair use, which is where we are today.

Before I go on, I want to remind readers that, from a practical standpoint, I’m on Google’s side. I don’t think that APIs ought to be copyrightable, for reasons I’ll get into later. That said, having read Judge Alsup’s decision in the original case, and the CAFC’s decision overruling that decision, I think that the CAFC probably ruled correctly, exclusively as a matter of law, in Oracle’s favor. Oracle argued—convincingly—that, although a method like toString(), the example above, may not be copyrightable in itself, the arrangement of methods into classes and those classes into packages constitutes a taxonomy, which an earlier case found to be subject to copyright. In the same way that writing, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” would not infringe on Charles Dickens’ copyright, but inserting the whole text of A Tale of Two Cities into this post would, copying a single method from an API is different than copying an entire API.

Unfortunately for the world of software, Oracle’s argument—that the organization of the API is expressive, and therefore subject to copyright—seems correct to me. There are infinite ways to organize an API, and deciding on one of those is an expressive process which takes creativity. Certainly, there are well-structured APIs and poorly-structured APIs, and there are no hard and fast, mechanical rules for how to design the former as opposed to the latter. An API is not like a general-purpose English dictionary, where there is only one reasonable arrangement for the words and definitions, the alphabetic and that arrangement is therefore purely functional. It’s more like a Chinese dictionary, where there is no purely alphabetical arrangement for the words. To arrange words in a Chinese dictionary, the dictionary author has to design a taxonomy or an arrangement, and that, again, is a creative process6.

Up until now, I’ve spoken of the law as it stands. How the law stands is, in this case, different from how the law ought to be. Although the organization of an API is taxonomic, and therefore subject to copyright, APIs need a special exemption. I’ll provide a few examples of products which, under the case law established by the CAFC, would be infringing.

First, and most ironic, we have… Oracle’s flagship database product. Almost every database in wide use today uses a programming language called SQL to manage and query the database. Oracle DB is no exception. Oracle did not, however, invent SQL: that honor falls to IBM, which created the language in the early 1970s. Oracle re-implemented it, evidently without obtaining a license, in the late 1970s, and SQL was not released as an ISO standard until 1986. Since Oracle was founded, and went through its initial growth, by infringing IBM’s copyright on the SQL API, IBM has plausible grounds to literally sue Oracle out of existence7.

Second, we have Linux, as well as all the GNU utilities. In the 1980s, Unix was an AT&T product, and antitrust judgements had forced AT&T to license Unix freely. When AT&T spun off Bell Labs, those judgements no longer applied, and Bell Labs began to sell Unix as a commercial product. The GNU project, and eventually Linus Torvalds, wrote clean-room implementations of the Unix kernel, which became Linux, which now powers the larger part of the Internet. Nokia, the owner of Bell Labs, can now hold the whole Internet hostage. (Fortunately, I doubt they will. Nokia tends to be pretty chill.)

Third, and most compelling, we have literally every non-Apple computer in existence today8. In the 1980s, IBM released the IBM Personal Computer, from which we get ‘PC’. Almost immediately after that, dozens of competitors released IBM PC-Compatible computers, which re-implemented the low-level API by which programs written for the IBM PC interacted with the operating system and the computer hardware. The presence of a de-facto standard allowed competitors to enter the marketplace, and as the PC market grew, Microsoft released MS-DOS and Intel figured out its own expansion card standard. When IBM tried to go proprietary, the consumer PC market—now almost entirely independent from IBM—moved to the Windows/Intel standard that has persisted to this day. Without IBM’s initial innovation, and the freedom of other manufacturers to re-implement IBM’s standard, we wouldn’t have the vibrant personal computer market we have today.

So, the law is wrong. We can’t fix that in this case. What can we do? Google is trying to claim a fair use defense, and may yet prevail, but I don’t want to speculate on the odds. Provided that APIs are copyrightable (and, right now, as a matter of law, they are), Google’s use was probably not protected by fair use. My read of the trial suggests that, in general, Google argued well and Oracle argued poorly. With any luck, the jury will agree.

What if they don’t? The result is bad for the software industry, but not as apocalyptic as some might claim. There is no copyright concern as far as using an API goes: that isn’t the issue at hand here. The issue is reimplementation, which is a driver of innovation and market expansion. We will likely see fewer products which are designed to take the place of other products, because such projects are now risky on copyright grounds, and depend on the good will (or free licensing) of the copyright holder.

We’ll also probably see a return to ‘not invented here’ as an objection to using open products—unless they were designed from the ground up to be different from other, existing products covered by copyright, the risk, for corporate entities, is too great.

Finally, it’s also bad for Java. Closing a platform tends to kill it; see the IBM example above. Even if that doesn’t happen, Oracle’s behavior here will undoubtedly have a chilling effect. Although I just said that this suit doesn’t have a major impact on day-to-day usage of Java, what it does do is demonstrate that Oracle is willing to push the boundaries of IP law in pursuit of a quick buck. If that’s the way they want to behave, they’ll have to deal with the consequences: people are going to run away from Java.

Fortunately, Google appears to have won, according to the news today. More on what that might mean after I read enough to synthesize an opinion.

1. My wife, who holds a seminary degree, often talks about heresies2 as regard the Trinity, and how most common metaphors for the Trinity end up espousing one of those heresies. My usual response is, “Yes, but there’s no such thing as a perfect metaphor; a perfect metaphor is just the thing you’re trying to describe.”
2. In the technical sense; that is, beliefs incompatible with lower-case orthodox Christian doctrine.
3. (There is no third footnote. I forgot to update the numbering when I removed it, and can’t be bothered to change it now.)
4. His middle name is ‘Haskell’, which the programmers and computer scientists in the audience will find amusing.
5. See here for more; you’re looking at section b.
6. To my knowledge, which is very limited, because I am not a lawyer, this has never been tested in a US court, but my feeling is that the arrangement of a Chinese dictionary would also be copyrightable. See this article and point 5 in this blog post for more on Chinese dictionaries.
7. Your author would watch that case.
8. I don’t know if Apple computers count here, so I’ll leave them out.

On the Merkava Mark IV

I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Namer. But let’s look at the other famous piece of Israeli heavy armor, the Merkava. Once again, Israeli experiences, especially in the wars of 1967 and 1973 featured heavily in designing a tank for their needs.

Despite being some of the staunchest devotees of Orthodox Maneuver Warfare, the Israelis have historically favored British tanks, which emphasize protection first, firepower second, and mobility third. The Israelis collaborated with the British on the design of the Chieftain, but after the Six Day War, the British refused to sell them to the Israelis, since the Israelis had struck first.1 The Israelis were incensed, and set about developing their own tank, the latest version of which is the Merkava Mark IV.

The Merkava has many unique features, most obviously a front-mounted engine. I’m not entirely sold on this idea, but the Israelis didn’t have access to composite armor technology when they first developed the Merkava, so they put the engine forward to maximize protection. The engine will stop a HEAT round, at the expense of dying. But a mobility-killed tank is a lot easier to replace than a tank crew, and the front mounted engine allows for a rear hatch, plus space at the back that can be used for plenty of ammo or the emergency transport of troops. A rear hatch makes it easy for the crew to safely escape a knocked-out tank, or to resupply the tank with ammo. Perfect for a defensive struggle with hordes of Syrian tanks as they surge across the Golan heights. This has stuck around, and the Merkava IV has a 1,500 hp engine up front, and a door at the back. I like the ammo capacity, but I think I’d prefer a more traditional layout and to load up with composite armor at the front.

The 1,500 horsepower engine is the MTU 883, probably the best diesel tank engine in the world today. It’s powerful, reliable, cheap, and relatively fuel efficient. And the Mark IV needs every one of those horsepowers. Wikipedia says the Mark IV weighs 65 tonnes, which is heavy. Heavier than an M1A2, heavier than a Leopard 2E, heavier than a standard Challenger 2, all of which come in around 63 tonnes. And yet, I call bullshit. The IDF is very secretive, even about the weight of their tanks. You could get fewer lies about weight if you asked Hillary Clinton how much she weighs. I have a much better source from an expert on the Merkava, who served in the IDF armored units, and he lists the weight of a Mark IV at “more than 70,000 kg”. That’s a good bit heavier. That’s heavier than the Leopard 2A7 with all the supplemental armor kits.

I might suggest the tank is heavier still. Photos of the turret with some of the armor modules removed shows that they’re mostly solid armor. I don’t know the competition, but that indicates a lot of weight, especially considering how big the Merkava is. And the 1,200 horsepower engine of the Merkava Mark III wasn’t enough. If that weighed about 63-65 tonnes, we could go from 78 to 81 tonnes without too much trouble as far as power/weight is concerned. That’s beastly. Remember, the British have been perfectly happy to add 12 tonnes of armor to the Challenger 2, and that only has a 1,200 horsepower engine. The Israelis have always thought like the British as far as tank design goes.

But enough rampant speculation. It is a big, heavy, very well-armored tank, that much is clear. I really like the turret design; the armor is very thick, even on traditionally less protected areas. There’s plenty of side armor, and more roof armor than on the turret of any other tank. And that’s in addition to a very thick looking turret face. Excellent! Hull armor is reasonably good too, with armored sponsons and plenty of armor on the hull front. The latest versions of the Mark IV even add a Trophy active protection system. More hull front armor might be nice, but the engine is there. The turret is a good shape. Protection of the hull sides, especially where the ammo is stored, leave something to be desired, since a hit in this area can cook off the stowed ammo.

I don’t have a ton of information on armor composition. Not that I’d believe it, given how much I question even the weight figures. Early marks used lots of spaced steel armor, trading weight for cost and protection. More recent marks probably use some kind of composite, something that works well in a highly sloped arrangement. It’s also used in multiple layers with air gaps in between in the turret. But given the published cost numbers, it’s probably not anything particularly exotic. It’s also not explosive reactive armor, despite extensive Israeli work on that. The Israelis are probably still trading thickness and weight for cheapish protection. However, I’m a little concerned about the armor design. Usually, composite modules are contained between inner and outer steel plates, to contain the modules. The Merkava doesn’t have the outer containing plates, so weapon hits tend to cause significant structural damage to the area around the impact point. Structural compromise beyond the area hit directly by the shaped charge jet indicates a limited ability to withstand multiple hits in the same armor module. Other designs are much better at not coming apart in the area around an impact.

I should take a moment to point out that most of the armor on the Mark IV is modular, and is easy to remove and replace for repair or upgrade, as long as a convenient crane is handy.

On to the firepower. The Merkava Mark IV has a 120mm gun, designed for high pressure rounds with an improved recoil system and stronger chamber over the 120mm gun on the Mark III. There’s also a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun, provision to mount an external coaxial 12.7mm machine gun, and another 7.62mm machine gun on the roof for the commander. There’s no machine gun for the loader though. Instead, his duties include loading a breach-loading 60mm mortar. This mortar comes from the lessons of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and was also retrofitted to the other, foreign-built tanks in the Israeli inventory. It was used to launch starshells in the days before night vision. It’s also useful for engaging anti-tank teams in defilade, since it’s an indirect fire weapon. I really like this feature. I’m not sure about the external 12.7mm extra coax. I’d probably prefer a 12.7mm machine gun for the commander, though the Germans also seem to favor a GPMG for the roof.

Now, let’s talk survivability and ammo stowage, since those two go together. The Merkava’s large size is a big help to reducing how many crew are going to get injured in the event the armor is penetrated. About 8,000 rounds of machine gun ammo is carried, plus 40 rounds for the 60mm mortar. But that’s less of a big deal. Let’s look at main gun ammo. That’s what you’re here for. The Mark IV carries ten ready rounds in the bustle, in a pair of automatic five-round drums. The loader can select ammo type, and the drums will rotate and push it out a small hatch so he can grab it. Blow-out panels are provided over the ammo, of course. The smaller hatch makes the crew that much safer from ammo cook-off, and the automated system for selecting rounds is pretty sweet. But, 10 ready rounds is not a lot, the Leopard 2 has 15 and the Abrams has 17. I’d prefer it if there was more ready ammo.

The Mark IV carries 38 other rounds, six in the floor under the turret basket, and 32 in individual containers, 16 per side in the rear of the tank. These rounds can be removed to create space to evacuate tank crews or move infantry around, but aside from the protective containers, there’s not a lot of internal separation for these rounds. I’m not the biggest fan of this arrangement. It does predate heavily armored APCs like the Namer, and I’d prefer more isolation of ammo from crew, even at the expense of being stuck with the arrangements. Hull blow-out panels would be great here, or at least some isolation so you could get a halon extinguisher in each reserve magazine. On the other hand, the Israeli arrangement does make reloading easier, and tanks being shot at from behind are never going to fare well.

In terms of electronics, the Mark IV is right up there with the best of the West, with thermal sights and laser rangefinders for the commander and gunner, a battle management computer system, and a modern fire control computer complete with automatic target tracking. The Israelis also are the only Western country to produce the LAHAT, a gun-launched ATGM with semi-active laser homing guidance, providing extended range for the main gun. Currently, they’re fitting Trophy active protection systems to the Mark IV, because it’s not yet hard enough to kill.

So, when all is said and done, would we buy, if they were available? Would we prefer them to our chosen Leopard 2E?


The Leopard 2E is better suited for conventional warfare, with massive frontal protection2 and the best production tank gun in the world. The Leopard 2E’s 120mm L55 gun is rated for more pressure than even the enhanced, Israeli-made 120mm L44 on the Mark IV. The Leopard 2E’s armor is properly encapsulated, so it won’t come apart around a hit area. It’s not difficult to add active protection
to the Leopard 2E, or the Abrams, or any other new tank. And the Leopard 2E even comes with improved roof armor and supplemental armor kits for the turret sides, hull skirts, and underbelly. So it can become almost as good at urban warfare. It’s just a better tank all-around, not being excessively optimized for incursions into Beirut.

1.) Apparently, striking first isn’t cool anymore, even if your enemy is preparing to strike you. Lame.
2.) As it should be.

The CAS Conundrum

Assume a peer opponent, like the Soviet Union in its glory days.

Wait, no. That’s hard to think of. And not necessary.

Assume a relatively peer-ish opponent. Or even semi-peer. The diet coke of peer will do in a pinch. Maybe it’s a revanchist Russia, maybe China, or maybe just someone with their head screwed on right, like Serbia in the late 90s. Someone who has built a nice IADS. Invested in air defense. Trained on it. Got them in your head? Good. Now you’re at war…

We, of course, want to provide air support. And air support can take the form of interdiction or CAS, close air support. Right up at the line of contact. There’s plenty of good historical examples of how to do this right. And it’ll bring decisive firepower to assist. It’s worked in basically every war since the Second World War. If you can bring airplanes to help, you’ve got yourself a big win. And right at the front lines is where it matters the most. But the enemy is going to try to stop you, and therein lies the problem. Let’s consider those defenses.

As far back as the 60s, big medium and long ranged SAM systems were trouble. Remember Gary Powers? Okay, there’s that peer competitor again. But plenty of F-105s and even mighty B-52s were shot down by SA-2s over Vietnam. There. That’s not very peer. The SAM threat was bad. One counter was to build up a big strike package with SAM-suppression aircraft and jamming support. That’s perfect for the interdiction mission, the deep strike. But what about the CAS mission? Are we doomed?

No, we fly low! Perfect. And this is the approach of choice for the Panavia Tornado and the A-10 and the Su-25. If we’re doing close air support, and it’s the 60s or 70s, we only have to worry about anti-aircraft guns. And not like the big 12.8cm guns that defended Berlin in ’44, but small, mobile units. 23mm autocannons are the standard size for Russian units. So the A-10 was built to take shots from those 23mm guns, and it was built around a massive 30mm autocannon that outranged the Soviet 23mm guns. It could win a ‘high noon’ duel with the defending 23mm batteries, and then tear tanks apart with more 30mm gunfire plus bombs.

Perfect. Except that nobody likes to be looking at a losing score up on the board. The Soviets love their tanks, and they weren’t about to sit around while they got torn up from the air. They had enough of that back when they were facing Ju-87Gs back in the Great Patriotic War. They doubled down on missiles, specifically short range missiles. And here was the hard counter they were looking for. Short range systems, plus the famed MANPADS like Strela-3, Igla, and Stinger.

In 1991, lots of aircraft came at the Iraqi air defense system at low level. Again, we had the Tornado and the A-10 as big users of the attack profile. Both were not only doctrinally constrained to low-level attacks, but also had weapons systems that required the aircraft to fly low to be effective. And both aircraft took some significant losses, which forced changes in attack profiles. Back up to medium altitude, where they were relatively safe because the Iraqis weren’t very good at protecting their bigger (and longer ranged) SAM systems from coalition air defense suppression assets.

The Soviets experienced basically the same thing in Afghanistan, once the Mujahedin got Stingers. This forced their aircraft up to medium altitude, where they were safe from the missiles.

And now it gets worse. First, we’re not really doing close air support anymore. We’re dropping from altitude, and can’t actually see the guys on the ground. So we’re dependent on communicated coordinates. Don’t screw that up, or else the bomb might hit you.1 Second, at medium altitude, that big awesome gun on the A-10 is just a lot of weight and drag.

But, no problem, right? We can just use a bomb truck with plenty of gas, like the A-6E. That even has a lot of built-in targeting systems to squeeze maximum precision out of dumb bombs. The even bigger F-111 is another good choice. Or it would be except for those surface to air missiles. We saw in 1999 that an army with old, reasonably mobile SAMs like the SA-6 could make life hell for an attacker by using clever tactics, decoys, and good emissions discipline. And they didn’t even have the widely-exported S-300 family, which are much more formidable.

At medium altitude, there’s no cover, and a bomb truck like an A-6 or an A-10 isn’t going to be able to shake SAMs very well. There is another way to beat the big SAMs though: stealth.

As Muhammad Ali would say, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see. A little route planning, and boom. They won’t be able to touch you. Stealth is cool, but it demands internal carriage of weapons and not being predictable. Both of which make CAS extremely difficult.

But CAS is not doomed. And I’m not about to give the skeptics victory. The Small Diameter Bomb is a good start, since lots of those can fit in a stealthy 5th generation fighter. Remember, the formidable Stuka generally didn’t use giant bombs, and we have way more precision than Rudel could have dreamed of. Plus, we could always loiter on standby near, but not over, the battlefield. And we don’t have any good examples of a stealthy midsize bomb truck. We have big fighters like the Raptor, but only small bombers. A stealthy plane with some bomb capacity would be perfect here. Something F-22 sized or a bit bigger that can haul a decent bombload internally.

1.) By ‘might’, I mean ‘will,’ thanks to that asshole Murphy.

The Crossbox Podcast: Episode 7

This month on the Crossbox Podcast, in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only one Warhammer 40K game we’re talking about. In other news, Jay recommends two things with the initials ‘KSG’, and John savages a childhood hero.

Further reading
How to win, FREMMs, and influence people
Lightning Squalls: John likes the F-35A
I promised a King Sejong the Great article, but I must be misremembering. Sorry.


We Sail Off To War E-Book Releases June 11th

War has broken out in the Confederacy of Allied Worlds, and it falls to the brave men and women of the Naval Arm to defend their country against the Exile fleet. Over the gas giant Argo, they are losing. With few resources and little time to spare, they must find—and bring to battle—an Exile armored cruiser which has terrorized the spacelanes for too long.

We Sail Off To War, a military science fiction novella by your second-most-prolific Soapbox contributor (me!) is available for preorder now, and will be released on June 11th. Visit Many Words Main for more information.

Attack Helicopters for the Modern Army

Yes, I’m finally getting around to replying to some of Fishbreath’s stuff. You’re probably wondering what attack helicopter we in Borgundy like. The Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian, with the Longbow fire control radar setup. Duh. Best in-class. Next question.

Why do we like the AH-64E? Mostly on account of being the baddest tank killing thing with rotary wings, and that’s due to the phenomenal Hellfire missiles. It’s got the fancy millimeter-wave fire control setup so that it just has to poke the radar over a hill, or have a fellow helicopter do so, and it can literally rain hellfire on its enemies. Way cool.

This is hardly fair though. The AH-64E has gotten a lot of development money, and the alternatives have stagnated. And the single-seat Ka-50 is basically stillborn.1 The Ka-52, which hasn’t done well at exports, is a two-seater. Well, life and procurement games are hardly fair. But this is shaping up to be a dreadfully short piece, and simply adding tactics will make it boring, so let’s make it interesting (and also add tactics).

What helicopter would we choose if it was 1990? The Ka-50 has just entered production, and the Soviet union hasn’t collapsed yet. We’d still go with the Apache (then, it was the AH-64A, and it was made by McDonnell Douglas, who hadn’t been bought buy Boeing yet). A good chunk of that is political; we’re firmly in the West’s camp. But that’s the cop-out reason. Straight up, the AH-64A/Hellfire combo is still best at what we want it to do: kill tanks. Being semi-active laser homing, the Hellfire can be fired somewhat indirectly, as long as there’s some laser emitter to illuminate the target, the helicopter needn’t be exposed. Hellfire missiles can also be salvoed faster, since the laser only needs to be on target for guidance, not at launch. A ground launch option is available. Oh, and the tandem-HEAT warhead on the Hellfire is really big. So it’s probably going to kill what it hits.

Now we get to the tactics. What are attack helicopters for? Well, we see them as a much more successful manifestation of the ‘tank destroyer’ concept. Helicopters can move much faster than ground vehicles, so they’re perfect for rapidly moving to provide support or counterattack a breakthrough. I don’t have a cute metaphor for this, other than maybe to call them ‘plumbers’.2 They’re to kill tanks first, other vehicles second. So, the powerful, accurate Hellfire missile that can be fired rapidly is just what we need.

I should probably take a moment to point out that deep strikes with attack helicopters are a bad idea. They don’t fare well when lots of things can shoot them, as evidenced by losing one to a flak trap in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They’re not very good at dealing with SAMs, so they need to use terrain to avoid them. Since they fly low, they’re also vulnerable to AAA fire. Again, it’s about speed and using cover and concealment effectively. They’re not well suited to forcing the SAM to dodge, since they’re not very fast.

That aside, we’ve mostly been talking about missiles, not about helicopters themselves. Let’s look more at the Apache and the two-man layout. A two-man crew is perhaps the most intuitive solution. There are two things that need doing: weapons employment and flying the helicopter. Since flying the helicopter is *hard*, and semi-active laser homing weapons like the Hellfire still require quite a bit of operator input for target discrimination and selection, we might naturally choose to have a crew of two, like the engineers at Hughes/McDonnell Douglas did. Or those at Bell, or those at EuroCopter, or those at Mil.

I generally like a crew of two in combat aircraft. In the fighter realm, the statistics show that for comparable types, the two-seat fighters tend to do better, since they have two pairs of eyes available. This is even more helpful for the attack helicopter, since spotting ground targets is notoriously difficult. Also, two sets of eyes to spot return fire is very helpful, since it’s easy for the gunner to get ‘tunnel vision’ when prosecuting targets. The pilot can maintain overwatch for tracers or missile launches, or keep the helicopter moving. These tactics of attack on the move have been heavily used by Soviet pilots in Afghanistan after Stinger missiles were introduced to the conflict, by American pilots in Vietnam, and more recently by Russian pilots in the Syrian intervention. Movement is good. Movement is life.

Hovering is not a good idea from a long-term survivability perspective. In addition to dedicated anti-aircraft assets, most modern IFVs and some modern MBTs have targeting systems capable of nailing attack helicopters if they hover for a while. Fishbreath and I can also testify that even an old-school T-55 can bag you if you sit pretty and hover for a while. If you’re gonna hover, you have to pop up from some kind of cover, engage, and drop back down (and relocate). Again, that second crewmember allows for a rapid transition to movement to avoid incoming fire, and he can keep his eyes up while the gunner is engaging targets. Or just be looking around and planning where to pop up from next. He can route plan while the gunner hunts targets.

One nifty feature of the Apache in particular is that the pilot has his own independent thermal viewer to let him see at night or in foul weather. The pilot’s thermal camera is slaved to his helmet. Night fighting and operations in harsh weather conditions are also better with the split workload, and the Apache has the vision tech to facilitate this. The Ka-50N might have rectified this a bit, but that was just a prototype, and we don’t know how well it would have done at night.

So there you have it. While you could operate an attack helicopter with a single man crew and appropriate automation, they’re better with a two-man crew. More combat effective. None of this precludes operating attack helicopters in groups; more helicopters are better. And yes, you’ll pay a bit more for the American-made Apache, and you’ll pay more for two crew. But you get more. This is the helicopter that armies want. This is the helicopter foreign designers wish they made. This is the most effective attack helicopter available. The choice is clear.

Geronimo would approve.

1.) Don’t worry, Fishbreath. I’ll be sure to say something pithy at its funeral. And then drink a bunch of good vodka and gloat.
2.) Because they stop leaks, get it? A trifle Nixonian though.

Luchtburg Responds: an IFV for the rest of us

Parvusimperator is fond of a certain sort of infantry fighting vehicle: it should be big, heavy, share parts commonality with his tank, and transport a whole platoon of infantry. It may come as a surprise to you that this is not the only sort of IFV1.

The Hoplon, parvusimperator’s design, fits certain scenarios very well: your Golan Heights, your Fallujah, perhaps your Fulda Gap. Those sorts of scenarios are important, but in exchange for its superb performance there, the Hoplon gives up some other capabilities that other IFVs offer, and other IFVs can be nearly as good as the Hoplon in the Hoplon’s preferred field of play.

I’ve always been a BMP-3 fanboy, so we’ll talk about the Hoplon and Namer relative to the BMP-3. We’ll kick things off with the biggest difference…

Otherwise known as the dreaded M word. The BMP-3 is the obvious winner here. Its advantages stem from its weight: fully kitted out, it tips the scales at less than 20 tonnes.

This means that it need not bother with complicated, failure-prone fording mechanisms. It can simply swim its way across a river. That’s right: it’s fully amphibious, which is an important quality for an infantry-carrying vehicle. Mechanizing infantry usually improves their speed of tactical movement while reducing their ability to cross or occupy rough terrain. An amphibious IFV actually adds some terrain-crossing ability: infantry can’t really cross or occupy a river on their own. More generally, a lighter IFV leads to enhanced tactical mobility overall: lower ground pressure means lighter vehicles can move across a wider variety of terrain, in which another vehicle might bog down2.

Enough about tactical mobility, though. There’s another kind of mobility where the heavy IFV concept falls down: the capital-M sort, Strategic Mobility. How many Namers or Hoplons can you fit into your C-130? Zero. How many BMP-3s? One! How many Namers or Hoplons can you fit into your C-5? One! How many BMP-3s can you fit into your comparable An-124? … six.

Now, airlift is not the be-all, end-all of strategic mobility, but, being the hardest part, it’s a good place to start. Certainly, airlift is the way you want to move your stuff when it absolutely, positively has to be there tomorrow. Being able to fit your IFVs into your smaller air transports, freeing up your big transports to move tanks, is a significant win for putting a mechanized force somewhere fast. You can get by with rail and road transport if you’re a purely continental power, but I would suggest that the world is too complicated a place for anyone to call themselves a truly, exclusively continental power.

A lighter vehicle is also somewhat easier to transport by rail: it doesn’t call for specialized rolling stock, whereas your standard flatbed rail car would be hard-pressed to stand up to a Namer-sized vehicle. Road transit is also easier, because of reduced road wear, and again, a lesser need for overspecialized vehicles.

Ship-based transport is a wash, but you can put just about anything on a boat. Hoplon or Namer don’t get any points for being easily transportable that way.

We should start by talking about what an IFV needs to do. Infantry are versatile, able to do almost anything on the battlefield; their vehicles ought to be too. This is why most IFVs have an autocannon armament. The autocannon can engage fellow light vehicles, enemy infantry, aircraft, and to some degree, dug-in positions. You’ll note, however, that tanks are not on the list. Although infantry armed with proper missiles represent a serious threat to tanks, IFVs, generally, do not: they don’t hide as well as infantry, and unlike infantry, they can’t spread out for protection against deadly point fire. IFVs equipped to defeat tanks are therefore so equipped for purely defensive purposes: anti-tank missilery is not a headline capability on an IFV. Ideally, your IFV won’t be in evidence when the tanks come a-knocking; that’s why you have infantry antitank teams.

On to the BMP-3, then. It does indeed have an autocannon: the 30×165 2A72, a variant of the 2A42 you might know from past Ka-50 posts. The 30×165 cartridge, while a little lighter than the NATO-standard 30×173, is nevertheless quite punchy, by IFV standards; the BMP-3 carries 500 rounds split between high-explosive and armor-piercing types. Little needs to be said about the autocannon. It’s an autocannon. Every ex-Soviet state and Russian arms buyer in the world uses this one. It works as advertised.

Next, though, the BMP-3 goes a little bit off-script. Mounted coaxially with the autocannon is a 100mm rifled medium-velocity gun. “But why?” you ask. “That’s way too small to shoot at a tank, and the autocannon is good enough, right?” Not altogether! You may recall the infantry tank from the Second World War: a bad idea, but one based on a germ of truth. Infantry don’t have a good way to deal with a really stout dug-in position. Launchers can help, but tend to be short-ranged and inaccurate. Mortars are nice, but they’re an area weapon. What the infantryman really needs is a good-sized, say, 100mm HE-chucker, able to keep up with him as far as terrain crossing, and able to bear rapidly on any intractable enemy defensive position. So, stick one on the IFV. The BMP-3’s 100mm gun is an infantry support gun, which is important tactically, but also logistically: it doesn’t have much in the way of anti-tank use, so what ammunition it carries is all for, y’know, supporting the infantry.

Which isn’t to say it has zero anti-armor use. It carries eight gun-launched missiles; although they won’t do much against a modern tank, they provide an extra-long-range punch against lighter enemy vehicles.

Three 7.62mm machine guns—one coaxial in the turret, and two bow guns, each with 2000 rounds of ammunition—round out the weapons fit.

What it comes down to is that the BMP’s armament is hyper-focused on its role as an infantry fighting vehicle. It doesn’t faff about with anti-tank weapons it should never have reason to use, if deployed correctly. It simply gets on with the business of employing every piece of hardware it possesses to defeat the sorts of enemies the infantry it carries is most likely to be facing.

We come now to a category where the BMP falls down a little compared to its HIFV competition, but really, of course it does. They’re literally tanks, with the tanky bits taken out and seats put in. It isn’t like I was somehow going to miss this one. I just don’t care, and here’s why you shouldn’t, either: doctrine. I gave three scenarios where the Hoplon-Namer school of IFV design excels: the Golan Heights, the Fulda Gap, and Fallujah. Let’s look at each one.

The Golan Heights, as parvusimperator mentioned, is probably one of the most featureless regions on the planet which is nevertheless worth fighting over. It’s flat, and there’s nowhere to hide. If the enemy can see you, the enemy can peg you with a missile. Now, if you’re advancing in proper combined-arms fashion, with your tanks and IFVs working in concert, what happens? They shoot at your IFV and it shrugs off the hit, or they shoot at your IFV and it dies, but either way, they aren’t shooting your tanks. The tanks are your true breakthrough weapon: IFVs are just there to deliver your infantry to hold the ground you’ve just captured with your tanks, and to provide some extra punch when they get there. Losing a few doesn’t matter; tanks are the bigger, juicier target, and a combined-arms advance against an ATGM-equipped position should rightly see most of the missiles headed for the tanks anyway.

The Fulda Gap presents different challenges. You (presuming you’re a Western power) are on defense. You’ll be facing tanks and IFVs pouring through the West German forests, but you have the edge: you get to dig in, which nullifies a lot of the survivability edge. Missiles mounted on the IFV are less of an advantage in this scenario, because your men can simply dismount and use their own ATGMs.

In Fallujah, the Hoplon’s edge is slightly more pronounced: it can eat an RPG shot from the front, and that helps when you’re turning a corner or going down a long street. That said, you’ve taken your armored fighting vehicle into an urban area. That is not a low-risk proposition. You’ll want a TUSK-style kit however heavy your IFV is: if Big Army and the United States Marines found that the Abrams needed specific upgrade kit to be safe and effective in cities, your IFV is going to need the same3. The single most important upgrade out of your TUSK kit is slat armor, which is lightweight compared to real armor, and will do a number on that most common urban threat, the RPG.

Beyond that, an autocannon and coaxial machine gun alone are insufficient armament for city fighting. Much better to have a 100mm HE-thrower, so you can bring down the front of a building in response to an RPG shot, and some independent machine guns, so you can hose down multiple targets at once.

We come to the BMP’s weakest point: its ergonomics. Tank-based IFVs and APCs have cavernous internal spaces and proper rear exits. For some reason, the BMP-3 puts the engine where that rear exit ought to go, robbing the troops inside of both convenience and survivability4. Getting out of a BMP involves at least a little bit of climbing.

In this picture, you can see the troop compartment: once you go over the engine (the raised section beneath the opened top doors), you drop into the troop compartment, which is behind the turret. (The turret’s fighting positions are enclosed by the two white pillars.) Three seats are placed with their backs to the engine compartment, and two are placed on either side of the turret base. Two more jumpseats can be folded down between the three seats in front of the engine, but five is a good capacity estimate for troops carrying any real amount of gear.

To get in or out, you have to do one of two things: open the top doors and jump up onto the engine, or leave the top doors closed, and crawl out the back. Neither one is as fast as a traditional rear door, and the safest way—crawling—is much slower. If you’re willing to further handicap your exit speed, you can probably stash some gear on one of the crawlways, which might be handy if you’re carrying an ATGM team, say.

Really, though, the BMP’s design follows its ergonomics. It’s almost purely an infantry support vehicle, which can incidentally carry five infantrymen. I don’t know what the prevailing Russian doctrine is, but the BMP is not a good battle taxi. Its job, as far as carrying infantry goes, is to get them close to the battlefield, not reliably serve to move them around thereupon. Once the infantry has disembarked, preferably somewhere out of direct enemy fire, they can advance with the BMP in support. It can serve in the battle taxi role—it’s quick, has decent terrain-crossing ability, and can fit an admittedly small number of infantry—but that is not its natural home.

Luchtbourgish Advantages
The BMP requires some doctrinal modifications relative to your HIFV or HAPC: namely, in situations where it is likely to encounter tanks, it must be used in close concert with tanks, and in combat generally, the infantry should be disembarked earlier and fight their way to their stopping point, with the BMP providing fire support. Urban survivability requires specific urban survivability upgrades5.

These modifications may not be for you. I don’t think they’re for parvusimperator or Borgundy. Survivability in a limited area of operations is too important for his purposes. Luchtburg, however, is a different story.

The mobility of lighter IFVs, and the BMP particularly, meets a Luchtbourgish need. The country is mountainous, swampy, and filled with rivers. An IFV which can swim has a huge mobility edge over one which doesn’t: it can easily penetrate the Luchtbourgish interior where a heavier vehicle or a tank might get bogged down.

The armament fit is perfect, too: busting up a cartel camp in the jungle is tricky with infantry or lighter vehicles, because the drug lords have moderately heavy weapons; an IFV which can take hits from machine guns and grenades while dealing out heavy punishment in return is ideal for Luchtburg’s aggressive enforcement of anti-cartel laws.

Finally, air mobility is of critical importance. Luchtburg is an expeditionary power with global interests. The BMP-3 is easy to ship rapidly, which lets Luchtbourgish forces enter the fight faster, which helps protect Luchtbourgish interests worldwide.

  1. You’ll recall that parvusimperator also recently wrote on the Namer, Israel’s ‘IFV’, but that’s more properly a heavy APC, its own class. It’s designed to transport infantry in safety exclusively, not to provide added firepower on the battlefield.
  2. Heavy APCs and heavy IFVs (Namer and Hoplon) have tank-like ground pressures of 12-15 psi, ordinarily. Standard IFVs (the range from the BMP-3 up to, say, the unupgraded Puma) tend to be in the 6-8 psi range, which is approximately the range of a standing human.
  3. Unless you’ve bought Namer, but Namer is basically frontal-strength armor all around.
  4. Don’t get me wrong, putting the engine in front of the troops is bad for the engine if you take a hit, but it’s better to lose an IFV alone than it is to lose an IFV and everyone inside it.
  5. Surprisingly, I don’t think the Russians have any. I can only find one or two pictures of real BMPs equipped with slat armor. (ERA and active anti-missile systems are obviously out for a vehicle intended to operate closely with infantry.) The rest are kitbashes. Parvusimperator says the Russians were mostly concerned with plunging fire from tall Chechnyan buildings and mines, so they didn’t bother. Frontal and side-on shots are still plenty likely in lots of the world, though, so I stand by this recommendation. Or just slap ERA on and establish a minimum safe distance, though even the Russians aren’t quite that cynical. (The Americans have done this on Bradleys with good results in Iraq. -Ed.)