Monthly Archives: February 2017

The USMC Moves to Issue the M27 to All Riflemen


This would be step one of the process to getting a whole bunch of them. One for every rifleman in the Corps.

Now, there are more steps that have to be done (an RFP), but this is step one of a procurement move.

And it’s pretty big. I know lots of folks who’ve been wanting to go this way, and HK originally called the 416 the “HK M4” until they ran afoul of trademark rules.

We’ll see if any snags come up. But this is an interesting move with the Corps.

Glad to see we agree again.

Resurrected Weapons: Douglas F6D Missileer

We looked at the long-range, high performance Eagle missile on Tuesday. Now, let’s look at the plane to carry it.

As ever, the US Navy was concerned about saturation attacks on its carrier battle groups. To counter the new threat of bombers armed with large, long-range antiship missiles, the Navy had two projects under development in the late fifties. One was the Typhon long range SAM, with a projected range of 200 nautical miles. The other was the Eagle/Missileer project.

Missileer was, unusually for the jet age, a subsonic fighter. Given that it had to stay on station more than 200 nautical miles away from the fleet, and that more loiter time was significantly better, the decision was made to keep the design subsonic. Long loiter also conveniently sidestepped delays in interception from launching alert fighters, since the fighters could be orbiting and ready. Subsonic design made mounting a large, advanced radar and large, advanced missiles easy. We’ve already talked about the massive, 1,284 pound Eagle missiles. The Missileer was designed to carry six of them. It was also designed around the large APQ-81 radar.

APQ-81 was an early pulse doppler radar. In an era when a fighter radar with a 24 inch diameter dish was considered large, APQ-81 had a dish 60 inches across. It could detect a standard radar target1 at 120 nautical miles, and track sixteen of them simultaneously at 80 nautical miles. It had a track-while-scan mode. It was designed with innovative anti-jam features from the beginning, including a narrow, 3° beam with a 24 kHz bandwidth, both chosen to avoid most available jamming systems.

Unsurprisingly given that it had to carry such a large load, the F6D was fat and ugly. It was 53 feet long and had a wingspan of 70 feet. It was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney TF-30s, engines that would go on to power the F-111 and the F-14A.

Like the AAM-N-10, he Missileer was cancelled by McNamarra to free up budget space for other things. The aircraft itself would be easy to develop but the radar and systems integration (and the AAM-N-10) would be risky and expensive. Plus, they’re overspecialized for a single mission. The F6D had to be bought in conjunction with another, more conventional fighter, since it could not provide strike escort capability or establish air superiority. It was a project that was somewhat ahead of its time, like Typhon. The US Navy would later get a much more reasonable set of systems with similar capabilities in the 1980s with Aegis and Tomcat/Phoenix.

Verdict: Funding request denied by the Borgundy Aircraft Procurement Board

  1. In the late 1950s, the standard radar target was assumed to have a radar cross section of 5 square meters. This corresponds to the radar cross section of a B-47 bomber. 

Resurrected Weapons: AAM-N-10 Eagle

Let’s continue our look at some vintage projects. The AAM-N-10 Eagle was a US Navy air to air missile program optimized for enemy bomber interception in the fleet air defense role from the last years of the Eisenhower administration.

The problem, evident even by the late 1950s, was that Soviet bombers could mount antiship missiles. So the bombers had to be engaged at long range, because intercepting large numbers of small, high-speed missiles is very difficult. To do so, and to get the fleet defense fighters outside the range of new surface to air missiles under development, the Navy proposed a subsonic, long endurance “fighter” and a high performance missile. This missile was the Eagle.1

The Eagle was developed by Bendix, in conjunction with Westinghouse’s big new APQ-81 radar and the Douglas F6D Missileer fighter. It was a two-stage missile, with a booster stage and a sustainer stage that would fire after a glide period. Both stages were solid-fuel rockets. The booster gave a speed of mach 3.5, and the sustainer could get the missile to peak at mach 4.5. Midcourse guidance updates were to be provided by the APQ-81, and terminal guidance would be an active radar seeker with a home-on-jam mode, much like a modern AMRAAM. AAM-N-10 flew a lofted trajectory, and had a 160 nautical mile (300 km) range.

That’s pretty impressive, but to get that performance in 1959, you needed a big, expensive missile. AAM-N-10 was 16 feet long ready to launch. The booster was 16 inches in diameter, and the second stage was 14 inches in diameter. The booster’s wings folded, and the second stage had a finspan of 34 inches. Weight was 1,284 pounds, with a 110 pound warhead.

The AAM-N-10 and the F6D were cancelled by Robert McNamarra in 1960, to free up money for other urgent programs2 and to establish the authority of him and the new Defense Department over the various services.

So what do I think of all of this?

Well, it’s hard for my opinion to not be colored by my opinion of Robert S. McNamarra, and I hate Robert McNamarra. His decision making process is suspect. And his “commonality” fetish got abused into some mind bogglingly dumb ideas.3 But he did get some good programs to completion/procurement, like the Polaris SLBMs and the M-16 (my favorite rifle). And here, I’m inclined to agree with McNamarra again. The Eagle was very specialized, and very expensive. It was useable from only one platform (Missileer), and for only one mission (engaging non-maneuvering bomber targets at extreme range). Missileer could not do any other mission either. Conceivably the AAM-N-10 could have been launched from the A-6 Intruder, but that would have required a different radar, or depending on an E-2 for all guidance updates. However, the core concept was a good one and we’ll see this become much more refined and sensible in the AIM-54 Phoenix.

Verdict: Funding request denied by the Borgundy Air Ordnance Procurement Board

  1. AAM-N-10 is the old designation system for air to air missiles developed by the Navy. 
  2. viz. the Polaris SLBM program and rebuilding the tiny and useless US Army 
  3. cf. the F-111B. 

F-35 First Red Flag Performance

The F-35A is at its first Red Flag! And we’ve gotten some reports of how it’s doing.

First, a little review. Red Flag is the most advanced aerial combat exercise in the world. In a given year, there are several Red Flags, operated out of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. There, the US Air Force and US Navy squadrons join with squadrons from other NATO and Non-NATO allies to engage in a series of realistic training exercises. They have the full suite of AWACS support, and air combat is staged against the Aggressors, instructor pilots who fly F-15s and F-16s and are trained in a wide variety of foreign flight tactics.

The Aggressor pilots are the best dogfight pilots in the world. That is literally all that they do. Their job is to be the nastiest guys in the sky, to catch pilots making mistakes in training where there’s a nice debrief so they can learn from their errors. Beats the Hanoi Hilton.

And the F-35 is, of course, the next fighter of the US Air Force, the US Navy, the US Marine Corps, the Royal Navy, the Israeli Defense Forces, South Korea, Australia, and a whole lot of others. It’s a huge, complicated, advanced program. And it’s had its share of problems as well as its share of detractors. And it was my pick for Borgundy’s Fighter in the Procurement Games. Despite the problems, I stand by that decision.

So with all that in mind, let’s see how it did. Keep in mind, this is only one Red Flag exercise. Small sample sizes can lead to problems. But it’s the data we have, and given the questions, it’s worth commenting on now.

As befits USAF doctrine, the F-35 has been primarily tasked with strike and SEAD missions. The USAF has F-22s for air combat. And the F-35 has done great. They didn’t lose any fighters on day one of the exercise when they engaged enemy air defenses, which is not something that usually happens. The Aggressor Team had to revise their exercises to be more complex and difficult in order to make life more difficult for the ‘Blue’ team (the good guys with the stealthy fighters). These tests are only interesting when they are hard.

But let’s talk about dogfighting. Nobody else has Raptors, so the rest of the world will need the Lightning II to be ready to mix it up, and the F-35 got some dogfights in. We do not know any of the specifics of the engagement–range, circumstances, rules of engagement, simulated loadouts, etc. But we do have a final score. 15-1 in favor of the Lightning. Questions abound, of course. What were the rules of engagement? What were the circumstances? Were these all WVR? BVR? We do know that the Aggressor pilots have had a lot of experience dogfighting (and mostly losing) to the F-22, so they may have been a little more ready for the F-35 than one might otherwise expect.

Pilot impressions of the Lightning II continue to be positive. The situational awareness is better than anything else in the sky, and unsurprisingly, pilots love being able to see and know more. No complaints about the aircraft have emerged. Also, it’s done great on the flightline. No F-35s have missed a sortie for maintenance problems, and the planes report a 92% mission readiness rate. Most legacy aircraft have a 70-85% mission readiness rate.

So despite the problems, many of which do not affect the -A variant, we can see that the Lightning is doing well in unscripted exercises. It’s a very good sign for the program.

And no, we do not expect the program to be cancelled as part of President Trump’s review.

Sunday Puzzle: Air-to-Air Refueling Edition

Need something to wash the taste of Patriots victory out of your mouth? Try the Sunday puzzle.

Much ink has been spilled about the limited range of modern American carrier fighters. It’s one of parvusimperator’s biggest bugaboos. Sometimes though, it’s difficult to get a good sense for the penalties imposed by limited range. Let’s formulate it as a riddle.

You, Colonel Reader, command a fighter wing in Friendly Mideastistan. You have orders to strike a target in Enemy Mideastistan. Your target is six hours away from your airbase. Your fighters only fly for three hours on one tank of fuel.

Some additional parameters: your fighters fly at a constant speed without respect to payload or altitude, and their fuel consumption is also constant. You have exactly one airfield to work with, placed six hours from the target. Planes may not take off from or land anywhere else, nor may a plane run out of fuel in midair. (It looks bad.) Planes may refuel each other; there is no limit on how much fuel a plane may transfer. Takeoffs, landings, and refueling are assumed to be instantaneous.

Question 1: for each plane which drops a payload on the target, how many planes are required for refueling?

Question 2: describe the pattern of refueling which is required to get one plane to the target.

Answers and analysis:


I first saw this as a question about circumnavigating the globe, so I’m going to talk about 180 and 360 minutes instead of 6 hours.

Two refueling planes are required per strike plane. All three take off at T+0. When they reach T+45, all three have 135 minutes of endurance remaining. The first refueling plane fully refuels the other two, at the cost of 90 minutes of endurance. It has 45 minutes of endurance remaining, and returns home. The other two have 180 minutes of endurance left.

At T+90, the first refueling plane has landed. In the air, the two remaining planes each have 135 minutes of endurance remaining. The second refueling plane fully refuels the strike plane. The refueling plane is left with 90 minutes of endurance, and the strike plane now has a full 180. The refueling plane turns for home.

At T+180, the strike plane drops its payload on the target, with 90 minutes of endurance remaining. The second refueling plane has landed. The first refueling plane, now refueled, takes off.

At T+270, the strike plane and the first refueling plane meet. The strike plane is running on fumes, with 0 minutes of endurance left, and the refueling plane has 90 minutes. It transfers half its fuel to the strike plane, leaving both with 45 minutes of endurance. The second refueling plane takes off.

At T+315, the strike plane and the first refueling plane meet the second refueling plane. The first two are running on fumes. The latter has 135 minutes of endurance remaining. It transfers 45 minutes of fuel to each of the first two planes, leaving all three with 45 minutes of endurance: just enough to get back to home plate.

And this, of course, is the best-case scenario. Our model is simplistic in the extreme; it doesn’t account for the time taken to refuel, the time taken to find the tanker, the difference between fuel consumption based on payload, the ordinary requirement that strikes be flown at a speed and altitude different from those used for best cruise performance, and a myriad of other factors.

Let us consider a real-world example which closely matches our riddle in its setup: the Black Buck raids, flown by the RAF during the Falklands War. The distance between the closest British airfield, Wideawake on Ascension Island, and Port Stanley Airport, in the Falkland Islands, is 6,300 kilometers. Different sources list the Vulcan’s cruising range at between 4,100 and 7,000 kilometers. Even if you choose the worst possible figure, the Vulcan’s endurance is nearly two-thirds the required range, much better than the half in our riddle. Of course, I haven’t been able to find actual range figures; this column does not merit that much investigation.

What it does merit, however, is the answer to our riddle for the real-world case. For each Vulcan strike (they were flown as single-aircraft raids), eleven tankers were required, refueling each other, then refueling the Vulcan six times on the outbound leg and once on the return trip.

Refueling is hard. Not only is it difficult mechanically, not only does it require specialized aircraft (or limited refueling performance, for buddy stores), it also gets you into a vicious cycle in the same vein as rocket design. When you have to carry your fuel, you need more fuel to carry your fuel to where it’s needed, and so on and so forth. The United States has an enormous advantage in that it already operates refueling assets worldwide; much of its fuel is already where it needs to be. This may not always be the case, hence our advocacy for aircraft designs with legs built in.

I hope you enjoyed the inaugural Sunday puzzle. There may be others.

HK 433 First Look

HK has released a new rifle!

Okay, it’s for armies. More specifically, it’s for the Bundeswehr. It seems a lot like a G36 version 2.0. Let’s take a look.

hk 433

It’s a 5.56 rifle, with an adjustable folding stock. The stock looks an awful lot like what was on the canceled XM-8. Or the SCAR. It’s got a charging handle mounted forward like on a G3. There’s a negative mounting system, which is HKlok1. Mag release is available in a G36 type paddle or the AR-15 type button. Bolt release is at the front of the trigger guard, again like the XM-8.

Larry Vickers has a source saying this rifle was designed for the Bundeswehr because the HK 416 was too expensive.2 Or something.3 And, I guess it’ll be cheaper to make than a 416. But let’s break it down.

Does this change our choice to go with the HK 416 in the Borgundy Procurement Games? Nein. To be honest, other than being the cheap version of the 416, the 433 does not impress me. The HK 416 is HK’s take on the AR-15 platform. It’s got some ambidextrous controls, a heavier barrel, nicer handguard, and that short-stroke gas piston system, but it’s still mostly AR-15. And I’m really not seeing improvements anywhere over the basic AR-15 design, unless you start with exotic ammo or require a bullpup layout.

A charging handle out front is going to get in the way of lights and lasers that you might mount. Which are increasingly popular for night operations. Frankly, there’s no good place for the charging handle. The AR’s might not be ideal to get to easily, but it’s out of your way the rest of the time, and the rifle is designed to minimize the number of times you have to run the AR-15 charging handle in the absence of a malfunction. And when you do, you won’t smash your knuckles on an optic or have to fish around your laser/IR illuminator unit.

The choice of HKlok is increasingly suspect. First, I’d still support picatinny rails, for most military applications, because there are so many picatinny-compatible accessories in the inventory. And if you were going to go with a newer, lighter ‘negative mounting’ method, the right answer is Mlok. Because it’s gotten more industry support faster, and it’s also available as an option on a number of Colt Canada’s latest rifle offerings. Plus, it’s also used on the HK CSASS handguard that won the latest US Army semiautomatic sniper rifle competition. Unless they want to lock themselves out of a ton of future aftermarket offerings, HKlok doesn’t make sense to me.

The other thing that’s bothered me is that this looks an awful lot like HK’s take on the FN SCAR design. Which is fine, I guess, except that the HK 416 keeps beating the FN SCAR in procurement competitions. So why bother trying to compete again with a loser? You’re winning with the 416. Don’t split the baby. Don’t split the production capacity. Stick with the 416 everyone likes.

I guess it’s an upgrade on the G36. But I still don’t see why it’s worth the bother. I suppose being a freaking special snowflake and wanting a Different Gun Because It’s Different transcends national borders.

  1. It’s like Keymod, but backwards. 
  2. No really. Too expensive. Nevermind that the French bought it. Seriously, the Bundeswehr is just sad and pathetic these days. 
  3. Maybe it looked too American? Maybe they couldn’t stand using the same rifle as the French? Even if it’s made in Germany and actually good. 

TTPs: Safety/Decocker Use

At my high-level gun school classes, we spent some time with drills that used each other’s pistols. This was a fun “battlefield pickup”1 exercise, and I learned a lot from it.

In general, most shooters had brought Glocks or other striker-fired pistols. But there was one SIG P226 (Legion) SAO with a thumb safety, and one FN FNX-45 that had a frame mounted safety/decocker (up for safe, middle for fire, press down to decock, it will rebound up). This let me get some time with these designs, and more importantly, get some type-specific instruction. And those are the topic for today’s TTP2 post.

The question that we’re going to answer is: When should I engage the manual safety or use the decocker? This is a pretty natural question to ask if your pistol has one, and you’re training for things more serious than standing on a firing line blasting away.

My instructors teach: Whenever you come off of your target, engage the safety or decocker.

This isn’t universal, and that’s okay. But I’m gonna go with it, because my instructors made a damn fine argument:

Recall that the decocker + DA pull or the manual safety exist on your pistol to provide an additional layer of safety between you and a nice, light, short, single-action pull. Protection against “trigger checking” in times of stress. Protection from errors in handling while you move. And so on. So, if it’s not on when you’re doing something other than shooting or getting your sights on target to prepare to shoot, what’s the point? Seriously, what’s the point of having a bunch of extra safety systems and then not doing your level best to engage them to keep you safe?

If you’re not using the extra safety systems, you’re quite a bit less safe than someone with a Glock (or similar) who is just keeping his finger off the trigger. He’s got a pull that’s longer, heavier, and generally worse than just about every single-action trigger pull I’ve found, double action pistol or not.

One other note: The FNX’s thumb safety/decocker is kind of hard to use both ways. There are similar units on USPs (HK split the safety and decocker apart in the P30), and it does allow for you to carry with the safety on and the hammer locked back. For the purposes of class, since we had another SAO gun for manual safety exercises), and since the guy who brought the FNX wanted to get time with that heavy double action trigger, we only used the decocker in class (i.e. come off target, decock, do not put on safe).

  1. Read: Excuse to play with everyone’s guns. 
  2. Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures. Hopefully the start of a new series. 

Resurrected Weapons: A-6E Intruder

If my father’s generation wanted precision strike from the sea, they’d call up the ugly but effective Grumman A-6E Intruder. Looking like a drumstick with wings, the Intruder had a two-man crew, a radar-navigation system for night/all-weather guidance, and a FLIR system in a small turret under the nose for target identification. It was subsonic, had an approximately 600 nautical mile (a bit over 1,100 km) striking radius, and it could carry up to 18,000 lbs of bombs.

The long strike radius was a direct consequence of optimizations and the choice of subsonic speed. Grumman opted for subsonic speed, because even the big F-4 Phantom was subsonic when heavily laden with bombs. Accepting a lack of supersonic speed meant that more fuel efficient engines could be used, providing a long strike radius.

In the Intruder’s day, there were no smart weapons. The delivery vehicle was responsible for all of the precision (or lack thereof). This alternative is a lot easier, since the plane is a lot bigger and easier to fit sensors and targeting computers into. As a brief aside, this sort of precision-on-aircraft delivery of dumb munitions is still used by Russia, and was the delivery method of choice for the airstrikes in Syria.

The Intruder proved very effective in Vietnam, where it was the Navy’s most accurate bomber. It was also the primary Navy delivery platform for dropping laser guided bombs in Desert Storm, since the -E models had a laser designator in their FLIR turret.

Despite the Intruder fleet getting new wings in the early 90s and having a solid combat record, the Intruders were taken out of service in 1996. There really wasn’t a perfect replacement. It was supposed to be replaced by the A-12 Intruder II, a poster child for bad project management. This project was cancelled1 without anything new being proposed in its stead. In the late 90s, the Intruder’s role was supposed to be filled by F-14 Tomcats with LANTIRN pods, which could not match the payload capacity of the Intruder. In 2005, the Tomcats were also removed from naval service, and their roles were taken over by F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. These could not match the range of the Tomcat or Intruder (both of which have a strike radius of about 600 nautical miles).

I really don’t like the loss of strike radius in the newer platforms. Super Hornets are nice otherwise, but they could really use longer legs. Yes, I know tankers have worked in recent conflicts, but the Navy shouldn’t rely on them. Or else what’s the point of naval aviation? If you can make tankers work, you can probably make land-based strike work. The whole point of naval strike is to be deployable quickly, and to come from additional vectors. In Vietnam, carriers at Yankee Station brought strikes from the east, in addition to the USAF strikes from the west out of bases in Thailand. If they required tankers, that makes life a lot more difficult for the planners, since tankers are fat and vulnerable.

The Intruder was cancelled to reduce the number of airframe types in the fleet. Understandable, but likely premature. The limited wars of the 2000s and 2010s would have been a good match for the capabilities of the Intruder. The A-6E isn’t very survivable in a high-threat environment, but Al Qaeda doesn’t have any serious SAMs. Long range would also make for long loiter time, and adapting a plane for JDAMs isn’t exactly hard.

On the one hand, restarting A-6 production would be silly. On the other, they were taken out of service way too early, and there’s no real replacement out there.

  1. The A-12 is a program that even I think deserved to get cancelled. 

SIG P320 X-Five SHOT Preview

Covering one of the things I didn’t get to talk about while SHOT show was running. Let’s look at SIG’s new P320 X-Five. They’re really on a roll lately, aren’t they?

The P320 X-Five is SIG’s attempt at making a competition ready firearm out of the box. Sort of like what Kimber did for 1911s in the early nineties, they put a lot of much-desired modifications into the gun at the factory, saving you hassle and money. At least if they got it right. Let’s see what they did.

The X-Five has a new frame, with a different grip. I like this grip better, at least judging by looks. Granted, I haven’t held one. But it looks like it has good texture and the kind of shape you can really bear down on. The frame is also weighted, to get the balance right and improve recoil management. Recoil is absorbed by weight, which is why lots of competitors like frame weights. This one comes with some right out of the box.

Moving up the gun, the trigger has been worked over at the factory to be better, and it’s got a flat-face trigger shoe. Sounds good. Apparently it’s really nice, though I’ll have to judge that for myself.

The slide has been lightened with the usual coffin cuts. Fun. Plus, a bull barrel has been fitted. So there’s weight to try to absorb recoil force, but the light slide should return to battery quickly. Provided one has a good grip.

Sights are from Dawson Precision, so they should actually be good. You can remove the rear sight, which is attached to a cover plate, and mount a Romeo 1 mini red dot instead if you prefer.

With the P320 X-Five are four 21-round factory extended magazines, right in the box. That’s good.

Here, we see SIG trying to release a package to be out of the box ready for competition. I like to see this sort of thing, and it looks like they’ve done a good job. Of course, a lot of this stuff is hugely personal, so we’ll see what people think of a bunch of decisions made for them.