There are those who believe that the days of the big fleet carrier are over. There are those who believe that they are “too easy to kill.” This is nonsense. Big aircraft carriers are quite hard to kill, like Mason Storm (Steven Seagal). Let’s talk about why.
Tom Brady is not the greatest quarterback of all time.
That got your attention, I suspect1. You can’t swing a cat without hitting someone making the claim that Mr. Brady of the Patriots is the greatest of all time, especially at times (like now) when he’s added to his collection of championship jewelry. It’s a popular view, shared by many a sportswriter, but I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny.
We won’t stoop so far as to bandy about the word ‘cheater’. My argument is rooted in statistics. What is Brady best at? As it turns out, none of the headline quarterback numbers. He’s fourth all-time in passing yards and completions, and third all-time in quarterback rating and touchdown passes. Drew Brees is better in all three categories2, and has consistently had a less effective supporting cast. Peyton Manning still has more yards and touchdowns than Brady, and took one season fewer to rack up the numbers. (Manning played 18 seasons. Brady is up to 19.) Aaron Rodgers leads all of them in career quarterback rating by a country mile, and frequently has no surrounding offense of any note. So, why does the sports world think Brady is the best?
Wins. That is, both regular-season wins and playoff wins, where his record is admittedly superb. He’s 237-70 in games he started for a .772 winning percentage, both of which are marks that may stand forever3. Only our own Ben Roethlisberger and Seattle’s Russell Wilson are even close, and by ‘close’ I don’t even mean within .100 (.670 and .668, respectively). In the playoffs, his record is just as good, 30-104, and all six of the Patriots Super Bowl wins.
It’s a pretty wild resume, that’s for sure, but we’ve established that Brady, statistically, is NFL royalty but not the undisputed king. Given that science indicates there is no such quality as clutch, we can’t give Brady the nod for that in our scientific study. To set him apart from the crowd, all we’re left with is his record.
The regular season is easy to explain: the Patriots are a big fish in a small pond. They are joined in the AFC East by three perennial dumpster fires, who they repeatedly thrash year after year en route to an easy playoff berth, coasting on an all-but-guaranteed four to six wins per season. The playoffs require a deeper look.
Or, perhaps, a thought experiment. Why is Drew Brees not making deep playoff runs or winning championships year after year? Remember, clutch isn’t a thing. Given that New England and New Orleans both have top-tier quarterbacks under center, what’s the difference?
Coaching. That, I think, is the real answer here. Without taking anything away from Brady, who is deservedly bound for the Hall of Fame, Bill Belichick is the reason why the Patriots are always contenders.
For one, there’s scheming5. If you follow sports, you’re no doubt familiar with two genres of article: first, those predicting that a game the Patriots are playing in will go in such-and-such a way; second, those following said game which express surprise that it went in an entirely different direction. That’s the true Patriots way: in must-win games, they always play a game which perfectly exploits their opponents’ weaknesses. Look at the Super Bowl: the high-flying (if you’ll permit me the cliche) Rams scored three points, and those only on a long field goal. By playing an unusual defense they have little history with, the Patriots made it hard to plan for their defensive strategy. By using a very north-south style of defensive line play, they took the teeth out of the Rams’ running game, and put so much pressure on Goff that he could never find a rhythm.
For another, there’s personnel. Brady has never had a huge supporting cast, but he’s almost always had at least two good receivers to throw to: usually, a deep threat and an underneath possession guy. This year, it was Edelman and Gronkowski. In 2007, it was Welker and Moss. Belichick has a preternatural talent for finding the right pieces to the puzzle, and they’re rarely big-name stars.
Finally, there’s motivation. Belichick keeps his teams hungry by convincing them nobody is giving them credit, or that everybody has lost faith in their ability to win. This is facially absurd, but it works. All it takes is one iffy loss for the nation’s sportswriters to plaster their front pages with stories about how the Patriots dynasty is over, Brady is decrepit, and Belichick’s devil’s bargain has finally run out. Wallpaper your locker room with those and give the right speech, and bam. A motivated, hungry team.
It’s worth saying that Brady would probably still be a top-tier quarterback talent without Belichick. I don’t think he would have as many rings as he does, though, and I do think that Belichick would be widely regarded as a successful coach even without a superstar quarterback.
I’ll put it to you in the form of a hypothetical. You can have one of these two scenarios: your team retains its head coach but gets Brady as its quarterback; your team retains its quarterback but gets Belichick as its head coach.
I think it’s an obvious choice.
- Unless you aren’t a football fan, but then why are you reading this article? ↩
- At least as of October 18, when the SB Nation article I’m cribbing from was written. I’m not invested enough in this argument to bother with very much research. ↩
- He’s .825 at home, which is absurd. ↩
- Playing in 40 playoff games itself is absurd. Roethlisberger is next on the list at a mere 21. ↩
- In the sense of game planning, not in the sense of nefarious moustache-twirling. ↩
The 2017 audience report was fun to put together, so you get a 2018 report, too. As an added bonus, it’s done on January 1st, as opposed to late February!
Total Visitors and Views
Google Analytics was running the full year this year, but to ensure the numbers are comparable, I’ll use the built-in WordPress stats again.
In 2017, we doubled traffic over 2016. We didn’t do quite as well in 2018 over 2018, but we weren’t that far off.
Once again, the Soapbox leads in visitors and views.
Our most popular posts all-time remain about the same, with the addition of two more Fishbreath entries: the DCS Harrier review, and my wireless hydrometer entry from the summer (which got some good Reddit play).
Battle Royale remains the most popular single post, but is down to a mere 1,477 views this year (from more than 6,000 in 2017). The home page and archives pages (tags and chronological) took the lead at 6,095 views.
Posted This Year
2018’s most popular posts are an interesting bunch.
- Fishbreath Flies: DCS AV-8B NA Harrier Review
A Fishbreath post tops the list! Surprising.
Gravity, Graviton, Pendulum: a wireless hydrometer for homebrewing
Thanks to Reddit for my success here.
USASOC’s URG-I for the M4
Parvusimperator will have to tell you what this one means.
The first traditional civilian gun article on the list.
Competition Meets Tactical: SOCOM and the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 1-6x
Parvusimperator’s optics reviews are always popular with the Google set.
The Crossbox Studio: multiple mic podcast recording for $60 per person
I’m making a much better showing on the list this time around. Maybe we should do some further podcasting in 2019.
On the Glock 19X
Another modern pistols article.
Sweden Chooses an MBT: Looking back at the ’94 contest
Defense and tanks in particular being one of our main topics, it’s no surprise that one of those articles took a spot in the top 10.
Handicapping the FFG(X) Contenders
We’re keeping an eye on the competition, and will perhaps write up how we did on our predictions when there’s a result.
Resurrected Weapons: XM806
Good old resurrected weapons.
Compared to last year, our traffic share from search dropped from 81% to 75%. Our direct traffic rose 3% to 15%, while our referral traffic rose 3% to 9%.
Google accounted for 70% of our sessions last year, while direct traffic was about 18.5%. Reddit comes in third at 3.3%. These changes indicate to me that we developed a stronger base of regular readers this year.
The most popular traffic source outside of search and social was rumaniamilitary.ro, for which we have a certain reader to thank.
The Soapbox’s readers in 2018 were 95% male, compared to 97% last year. I think it’s safe to say we’ve made great strides in inclusiveness and diversity this last year.
Most of our readers are still in the prime 25-44 demographic.
60% of our readers were Americans this year, followed by 5% Canadians and Brits, 2.5% Aussies, Frenchies and Germans, and 1% or less of the following countries: (the rest of the countries in the world). Romania is notably overrepresented relative to its population.
Views By Month
March, May, June, July, and December all saw north of 3,000 views. June came first, on the back of Reddit views of my homebrewing post. Eliminate tose, and it falls to third (approximately tied with May and July). December is second/first, and March is third/second.
We ended the year with a very good month, entirely (I suspect) on the strength of regular readers and newcomers alike having more spare time to crawl the archive.
In the last year, we (i.e., parvusimperator) wrote 124 posts containing 90,905 words, for an average of 733 per post. All of these numbers are down from our peak in 2015 to 2017, but I’m entirely happy with the schedule and output we’ve maintained this year.
On the other hand, we had 291 comments this year, an average of 1.7 per post. Granted that a lot of those were us (i.e., parvusimperator) answering questions or responding to comments, it’s still encouraging to see a little community forming.
Exercises for the Reader
And now a few questions for you, readers, which you can feel free to answer in the comments.
First: what do you think of the weekly Wednesday What We’re Reading feature? Useful news? Too many links? Too few? Too much editorializing? Too little? We started in August, if you can believe it, and I figure five months is a good length of time for a trial period.
Second: do you miss the podcast? If so, we might be persuaded to do a new run of episodes given some topic suggestions. At the same time, one of the values of we crotchety oldsters here at the Soapbox is that text is the best format for both presenting and consuming arguments and commentary, and we prefer to produce content in that form.
Third: how do you feel about the schedule? Right now, we have a Tuesday and Thursday post most weeks, plus a Wednesday What We’re Reading. Would turning the latter into the Saturday Morning Post be an improvement for you, or do you prefer the weekday diversion?
Finally: give yourself a big pat on the back. We appreciate your readership, your return visits, and your comments, and we look forward to bringing you more of the content you expect from us in 2019. Happy New Year from us here at the Soapbox!
The year is 1993. A small Central American state, wealthy by the sale of unregulated and questionably ethical banking services to nations the world around, finds the firehose of Soviet arms slowing to an occasional drip when the Russians remember they sell weaponry. At the same time, in a newly multi-polar world, with trade opportunities abounding and the demand for questionably ethical banking services skyrocketing, Luchtburg finds itself in ever higher demand. Its interests overseas grow day by day.
Its defense apparatus is poorly suited to overseas interests. Having bought primarily from the Soviets, Luchtburg has a bunch of short-ranged interceptor-type fighters and interdictor-style attack aircraft, little access to smart munitions, and a token navy based around export-model Kilos and various frigates with anti-ship missiles. Not a great force for projecting power around the world, it must be said. So what’s a newly-flush nation to do? Buy weapons from Uncle Sam, of course. Eager to flip a previously-Soviet-friendly nation to to the side of truth, justice, and the American way, the United States invites a delegation from the Luchtbourgish Ministry of Defense to talk about Luchtburg’s future role on the world stage.
The answer, of course, is aircraft carriers. The problem is, Luchtburg might be flush, but it isn’t flush enough to buy a Nimitz-class, and the Americans aren’t selling, either. What the Americans propose instead is this: buy a bunch of the brand-new Night Attack Harriers and two old, recently decommissioned LPHs: USS Iwo Jima and USS Okinawa. No Tarawas are on the table. They still have too much life in them. No Wasps either; they’re too new. The most the Americans will do is maybe build a ski jump onto the Iwo Jimas, and perhaps extend the flight deck a few feet either way.
Is it a good buy?
The Harriers are a no-brainer. They’re pretty much the most recent ground attack aircraft built, support tons of modern American smart weapons, and have no replacement in sight. The latter point is important, given that it means they’ll see future upgrades and maintenance over the years. Luchtburg doesn’t want to buy a dying system, and the Harrier is just hitting its stride.
In the future, the Americans may be open to selling us the AV-8B Harrier II+. The Plus model includes a radar scavenged from old US Navy Hornets, and can carry the new AMRAAM missile. Of course, we aren’t close enough to the Americans for that yet, but having a fighter with modern BVR missile capability would be a huge win for the Luchtbourgish Air Force, even if it doesn’t go supersonic.
Accident rates may be higher for the Harrier than for more conventional aircraft, but the Harrier II is still new, and the Americans are still making airframes and parts. We’ll buy a few extra, and keep a tab open with McDonnell Douglas.
The Iwo Jimas
Now for the Iwo Jima-class LPHs. This is a slightly harder question. At first glance, they look like your standard straight-deck not-quite-aircraft-carrier. Big open flight deck, deck edge elevators, hangar deck of reasonable size. The Harrier is small and the elevators and hangar are sized for biggish helicopters, so from that perspective, the Iwo Jimas are big enough.
They have some downsides, though. For one, they aren’t quite as fast as we might like, with a top speed of 21 knots. For another, they have a slight operational problem, owing to their single-shaft design. Rather than describe it, I’ll quote an evocative passage from Marines & Helicopters:
One characteristic was first noticed shortly after the Iwo Jima left the dock on 5 September 1961 for her initial tests at sea. […]
Obviously such an innovative design was going to have a number of small discrepancies on her first shakedown. The Iwo Jima did. One of the most serious was described in the initial reports as: “serious hull vibrations at high power.” […]
This characteristic vibration was never to be cured in any of the class. At about 15 knots the entire ship began to shake every time one of the blades of the screw took a bite of the water. At that speed it was slight throughout all the ship, but more pronounced in the stern and bow Marine berthing areas. As the speed increased, the vibration increased correspondingly in frequency and severity.
Embarked Marines learned to recognized it and within a short period actually could tell how fast the ship was going by the rattle of the decks. It was as if the builders had given each man aboard the vessel his own private speedometer. As the Iwo Jima and her sister ships reached 21 knots the pounding became more pronounced and was inescapable anywhere on board. To the builders this was “severe vibration at high power.” To all Marines who experienced it, it was “the twenty-one knot thump.”
Amusing, but less than ideal, and perhaps concerning for aviation operations where 20 knots of wind over the deck is already a bit less than might be desired.
Speaking of, just how well is the type actually suited to flying Harriers? Take a look at it from above, and it strongly resembles the later Tarawa type, with the exception of some more rounded deck edges. Take a measuring tape to it, though, and you’ll find that the flight deck is only 600 feet long, against 800 feet on the Tarawa. That’s not so great. How big a deal is it, exactly, though?
In a previous post, I found some reference material on Harrier takeoff rolls and worked through some examples. By the book, with a 20-knot headwind (nearely all the Iwo Jimas can muster), you can fly a 26,000-pound Harrier off of a 500-foot deck. (Figure we’ll leave a 100-foot margin to allow for easier spotting.) The Harrier II’s maximum takeoff weight is some 31,000 pounds. I suspect the book has some margin for error: in DCS, I can pretty readily get a 30,000-pound Harrier off the Tarawa with room to spare.
Still, though, the Iwo Jimas give up a lot of capacity. I think the right decision for Luchtburg is still ‘sure, throw them in’, especially given that, at this stage of their careers, they won’t cost that much more than a Harrier. Luchtburg’s shipyards can get up to speed on aircraft carrier-ish projects by building a ski jump and an aft deck extension to provide a bit more off-the-deck capability.
I was going to write a nice answer to Chris’ question about this new thing, but then I thought “Why not write an article instead?” So let’s do that.
The Ribbon Gun is the latest in a long line of “Space Age Future Rifles”. It has four 6mm barrels side-by-side in one big block, and it shoots ammunition stored in blocks that keep all the bullets in a neat little row. It’s supposed to have a theoretical cyclic rate of something like 250 rounds per second. Ignition is electronic, but it sill uses (supposedly) some sort of gunpowder to drive the projectiles.
So let’s get on to my opinion. As you may have guessed from the title, I’m not a fan. Here we have a rifle that supposedly capable of some sort of ludicrous cyclic rate of fire. There’s no word on how it’s going to eject those ammo “blocks” fast enough, or how a solider is going to carry enough ammo. The ammo magazine looks big, bulky and heavy. Which is perfect for soldiers who are already overburdened with electronics, body armor, and batteries. Let’s give them more ammo weight; that’s the ticket to success. Perhaps they just mean it as some sort of “hyperburst,” but that comes with its own problems.
Electronic ignition is nothing new. The advantages of such are frequently touted, but the success and popularity of designs featuring electric ignition is just not there. The VEC-91 was a market failure, and had its share of problems. It’s the gun of the future, and it always will be. Or so the joke goes. Electronic ignition should be simpler, but do we really need more batteries? They better at least be standard batteries. Does it lag?
And of course, any kind of rate of fire that’s quite fast will have the problem of waste heat. This design shows very little appreciation for how it will be cooled, though it is just a prototype. That’s always a problem with high rates of fire or so-called “hyperbursts”. One of the things seen in previous programs was trying to figure out just the right amount of dispersion in a hyperburst to get enough spread at expected combat ranges to make up for aiming errors. It’s a very difficult problem to solve, and no one quite has it figure out.
We’ve seen a number of high rate of fire weapons before. I have a book full of fantastic future rifles. They went no where. There are significant technical problems inherent in such a design, and the tradeoffs really aren’t worth the costs. Perhaps they can make a soldier “more accurate.” Or perhaps they’ll just enable him to miss faster. And nobody ever talks about keeping Pfc. Schmuckatelli supplied with enough ammo to sustain the rate of fire. Could every man in the Werhmacht Heer have carried an MG42? I think not. And no, it’s not the weight of the weapon that’s a problem; it’s the weight of the quantity of ammo.
I’d rather buy JDAMs. Maybe I’m missing out on another SPIW. Maybe I’m missing out on the next Lebel. If it proves to be good, it’s a lot easier to make the second of something. But that’s really not all that likely to be needed. Existing carbines are pretty good, when you look at them as a whole.
It occurred to me that there are plenty of folks who don’t understand how and why Magpul’s fantastic PMAGs became the standard magazine for AR-15 users both civilian and military. So let’s take a stroll down memory lane.
In terms of product, Magpul’s PMAGs1 hit a solid mix of reasonable price, reasonable quality, reasonable durability, and reasonable reliability of feeding (which is to say, function). They’re also pretty ubiquitous. Easy to find almost anywhere. While you can buy more durable magazines, they will cost you more. And mags that are cheaper by a large enough margin to care about don’t work as well.
Magpul wasn’t the first to come to market with a polymer magazine. Their first prototypes were made in 2006. They were among the first to come out with a polymer magazine that worked well, and they had built a customer base with some of their other quality products, like their magazine pulls (hence the company name).
Of course, the AR-15’s original magazines were made from thin aluminum. They were originally intended to be disposable after a single use, and this allowed the Armalite design team to make them very lightweight. However, the military did not go for that, and reissued magazines. Civilian shooters would also not treat aluminum magazines as disposable items either. However, the Armalite design team was not given a chance to redesign the magazines to make them more durable.
One of the things that will crop up with ‘USGI’ aluminum magazines is that the feed lips can deform, whether from being dropped or being smacked or whatever. And a property of metal is that when deformed with enough force, you’ll get “plastic deformation,” i.e. it will stay bent. If the feed lips get messed up, your mag isn’t going to work. These can be subtle problems. Your eye won’t know, but your rifle will. Like the princess and the pea.
Now, the military hates to throw things out, so mags that get bad from use and abuse (or stupid, stupid boots) are going to stick around. And civilians aren’t very likely to throw out bad mags either. They paid good money for those! That’s not to mention the affect of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which allowed the sale to non-law enforcement civilians of standard capacity magazines made before 1994. So those aluminum mags were going nowhere. And those old mags were now worth a premium, so whatever crappy mag that a guy could dig up could be resold at a significant profit. Even if the mag was beat to hell.
I still have a folder of data on my hard drive of proper feed lip dimensions and instructions for retuning feed lips to get them close to original spec so that they wouldn’t induce double feeds. Ugh. Bad memories.
After the sunset of the ban in 2004, the market exploded with manufacturers making standard capacity magazines. Of course, the nature of the aluminum USGI magazines meant that it was pretty hard for the layman to tell if the magazine was made by anyone who knew what they were doing. Substandard materials or construction methods could lead to more problems. Or more rapid onset of problems. Or not; you could just get lucky.
Enter Magpul’s PMAG. Magpul hit the market with a good design, good materials (finally–remember this wasn’t the first attempt at a polymer AR-15 magazine), and good quality control. If you bought a Magpul PMAG, it would work, unlike previous polymer magazine efforts. And you didn’t find PMAGs in a box with a bunch of other curbstomped mags at a gunshow. Even if you did, they looked distinctive. Plus, they were cheap enough to buy a lot of.
Once they got the polymer magazines working well, Magpul’s choice of material brought other benefits. Polymer doesn’t deform like aluminum does; ironically it doesn’t do “plastic deformation”. It’ll either spring back to its original shape (elastic deformation) or break. And when it breaks it’s obvious. Maybe there’s a chunk of feedlip missing. Maybe there’s a big crack down the back of the magazine. Maybe the weld split. And it’s probably going to vomit bullets all over the floor when you try to fill it.
There you have it. Why we love our PMAGs.
- All caps, because Magpul spells it that way. And when I say PMAG, I do mean “Magpul’s PMAG” not something else. Not the imitators. And I like Magpul a lot, so I’ll happily oblige them on their branding. ↩
Let’s tackle a persistent myth. The myth is that the US Army does not like autoloader systems for tanks. Proponents can point to the M60 having a human loader and the Abrams having a human loader, and then cite all of the nice things about having a fourth man in the tank when it comes time to post guards or do labor-intensive maintenance like fixing/swapping tracks, and ipso facto, the US Army loves human loaders. Clearly autoloaders are only for godless commie scum and cheese-eating surrender monkeys!
Of course, when we actually bother to look into the matter, those meddlesome facts get in the way of our carefully crafted myth. The US Army actually loves autoloaders. Let us examine the evidence.
Exhibit A is the MBT-70. This ill-fated project was a joint effort between the Americans and the Germans. It would end up being doomed by cost overruns and an inability to come to agreements on a number of key systems, including the gun and engine. However, one thing the Germans and Americans did agree on was that it should use an autoloader. Yes, that’s right, the wondertank of the 1970s embraced new ideas like an adjustable, hydropneumatic suspension and a fancy mechanical loader, just like the T-64. Since I like arguments supported by sources, and we’re busting myths here, one might consult a good source like Hunnicutt’s Abrams volume for details of the MBT-70’s design.
Exhibit B is the early design sketches of what would become the M1 Abrams. Again, we’re looking at Hunnicutt’s excellent work on the subject. The US Army originally wanted an autoloader for the Abrams, but then had it deleted to try to help sell Congress on the idea that the notional Abrams was economized and not a high-risk, gold-plated project like the MBT-70.
Exhibit C is the Abrams follow-on plans. Autoloaders galore. TTB had an autoloader. CATTB had an autoloader. The Abrams Block III proposals all had autoloaders. Want to upgun? That needs an autoloader. Want to isolate the ammo and the crew and reduce the turret profile? Gonna need an autoloader. Want to try to pretend you’re keeping the weight down as you add armor to deal with the relentless improvement of tank guns? Autoloader.
So there you have it. The US Army actually likes autoloaders.
The US army has finally decided to improve it’s mobile mortars. They have announced their goals to develop a turreted mortar system for their vehicles, with a completion target of 2021. Let’s break down what they’re looking at:
- Caliber: 120mm
- A manned or unmanned turret
- Autoloading system must accomplish loading rounds from ready rack into the breach.
- Ideally all ammunition handling would be automated
- Vehicle should be able to stop moving and fire within one minute of getting a fire mission
- Project will investigate being able to shoot on the move
- Maximum rate of fire (sustainable for one minute): 16 rounds/minute required, 24 rounds/minute ideal
- Sustained rate of fire: 6 rounds/minute required, 12 rounds/minute ideal
- System should have a direct-fire capability
- System should be compatible with all existing 120mm mortar ammunition
- Maximum range should be at least 5 miles
- Minimum range should be 220 yards (direct fire)
Patria’s NEMO system comes close to meeting the above requirements, but would need some work to meet the short-term maximum rate of fire requirements. AMOS should be able to do the rate of fire goals given its twin barrels. My one worry is that the perfect would be the enemy of the good enough. Big Army should just pick an off the shelf system (probably the reasonably priced NEMO) and start slapping them on Strykers and AMPVs and call it a day. Have a couple beers and some wings in Alexandria. Any such turreted system is going to be a significant improvement in survivability for the mortar crews, and should also provide improvements in effectiveness. Don’t overcomplicate this.
At IDEX-2015, Russia unveiled the AU-220M, a turret for a 57mm gun, designed for IFV mounting. Let’s take a look:
It’s unmanned, holds 200 rounds of 57mm, and has a coax 7.62mm gun with 2,000 rounds of ammunition. It’s been mounted on a couple BMP-3 prototypes, and demoed at some Russian trade shows.
I don’t like it and neither does Fishbreath. Congratulations, you’ve built an IFV-destroyer. It’s like an old tank destroyer, but the gun is too small to threaten a tank from the front. It can threaten an MBT from the side, but 30mm is generally enough to do that as well, especially since supplemental armor packages are focused on shaped-charge threats. The Russians are also usually very good about adding modern ATGMs to their IFVs.
On the BMP-3 in particular, this is both an annoying design challenge and a firepower lateral move. I’m not convinced that this is an appreciable firepower improvement over the 100mm low velocity gun and 30mm autocannon that’s already mounted. The 100mm gun can already fire missiles that will be problematic for IFVs but will have trouble killing tanks, and that’s a bigger HE option.
The AU-220M is also problematic from a vehicle engineering perspective. It has a large turret basket that eats internal volume, just like a manned turret. But it’s unmanned. You have to relocate the vehicle commander and gunner somewhere else in the crew compartment. As if it wasn’t cramped in there already.
So there you have it folks. We’re not a fan. And I haven’t seen it on any production vehicles either. I’m certainly not going to lose any sleep over it.
Editor’s note: Fishbreath and I aren’t fans of the LCS, but he asked me to defend it and I can hardly resist such a challenge…
The LCS is a curious sort of ship. There are two classes, the Freedom-class and the Independence-class, and I’m going to group them together for the purposes of this discussion. They are both very fast, lightly armed, and carry a helicopter. They have some swappable mission modules to enable them to carry things like Hellfire missiles. Their only air defense system is a launcher for the RIM-116; a close-in weapon.
One is immediately struck by what the LCS don’t have. They don’t have a fancy towed sonar array. They don’t have a fancy bow sonar array. They don’t have a bunch of lightweight torpedo tubes. They don’t have antiship missiles. They don’t have a “proper” SAM system like SM-2/3/6, Aster, or ESSM. One might think of them as stripped down Oliver Hazard Perry-class analogues, but this might be frustrating. The Perrys are the quintessential Cold-war era multirole frigate. One might also look at all of the other ships called frigates these days and despair about the LCSes. They are underarmed!
Or are they? Let us first ask what mission we might have for the LCSes. Mission ought to drive the ship design. The Perrys were designed as escorts. Second-rate escorts: intended to protect the anticipated convoys running supplies and war materiel from North America to Europe in the event of a Cold War gone hot. As such, they have an antiaircraft armament of one Mk. 13 single-arm launcher for the SM-1. They also have a towed sonar array and some lightweight torpedo launchers, plus hangar facilities for two helicopters. On paper they’re much more capable ships.
However, one of the things we note is that from 2004 to 2005, the US Navy removed the Mark 13 launchers from the Perrys that remained in service. Why? Well, clearly removing the system reduces ongoing support and maintenance costs. Plus, it’s not really all that useful. The SM-1 missile and Mark 92 fire control system is grossly inadequate against modern threats. The CIWS is going to be able to (probably) handle a single inbound antiship missile fine, and anything serious attack is going to get past SM-1 and CIWS.
The Falklands War showed all manner of problems with the Type 42 destroyers. These were built for air defense, but they suffered badly at the hands of the Argentine air force. The Argentine air force used Exocet antiship missiles and the sort of unsophisticated, low-level, unguided bombing attacks one might see in the Korean War. There were problems with target prioritization, being sure that no target was left unengaged by the multiple firing ships, and ships fouling each other’s radar fixes. The Perrys were even less optimized for anti-air warfare than the Type 42s.
Anyway, the LCS-as-frigate comparison seems to be assuming implicitly that we have to have nice, simple ship types: cruisers, destroyers, and frigates, and proper navies have all three. We have Ticonderoga-class cruisers, which are built on Spruance-class destroyer hulls and are smaller than Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Let’s unpack those a little more. There are currently 22 active Ticos, each with the Aegis combat system and 122 VLS tubes. There are 65 active Burkes with three under repair, four under construction, and five more on order. Each Burke has an Aegis combat system and 90 or 96 VLS missile tubes. Taking active hulls only, that’s a total of 87 Burkes and Ticos, which I’ll collectively (and imprecisely) refer to as “Aegis ships” for simplicity.
The Aegis ships are fantastic escorts, since they all have powerful radars, computer coordinating systems, communication networks to chat amongst themselves, and lots of missiles. Each VLS tube can hold one of the Standard family of SAMs or four ESSM SAMs. In terms of dealing with air or missile attack, they are the best ships available. They can protect themselves and something nearby. Like a carrier. We have 11 supercarriers, plus nine more straight-deck “Baby Carriers” of the USMC. So if they all were at sea at once, and all operating separately we’d have about four Aegis ships per flattop. That’s pretty good. The Royal Navy would like to be able to do that, and we’d have way more missile tubes per flattop than they would, even if they could manage four escorts per flattop.
Of course, the Mk. 41 VLS tubes on the Aegis ships can carry other missiles as well, including Tomahawk Cruise missiles and LRASMs, giving the ships a potent land attack or surface strike capability. It’s pretty easy for a task force commander to lob an awe-inspiring number of cruise missiles at some tin-plate dictator we hate while having enough SAMs to protect the fleet. For comparison, look at the positively lame ground attacks from the Russian navy deployed to Syria. They wish they had “Aegisski” ships with tons of VLS tubes to lob cruise missiles at their enemies.
In the Aegis ships, the USN has a large number of highly capable surface ships that are truly “Do-everything” ships. They can do any mission you please, and can be configured to do all of them reasonably well at once. No 4-5,000 ton frigate can do likewise. They tend to have 16-32 VLS tubes and a much less powerful radar. These ships tend to carry a mix of quadpacked ESSMs and standard missiles, or foreign equivalent systems. They can do some amount of air defense, but mostly just of themselves. It’s not clear what adding a bunch of ESSMs is going to do to the already formidable air defense umbrella in a US Navy carrier battle group.
Lets also stress that, while we could argue about the most cost-effective mix of ships, the 87 Aegis ships mentioned earlier are already purchased. We have them. They’re ours. Spending a bunch of money on redundant capabilities is silly, and that seems to be what most want to advocate for.
What the Aegis ships aren’t is cheap. They have high operating costs, and there’s plenty of flagwaving missions or antipiracy operations that could be done by a ship without all the fancy, expensive bells and whistles. Playing “Plane guard” and fishing pilots who had to eject from a botched carrier landing doesn’t require a fancy radar or lots of missiles. Hunting pirates off the horn of Africa doesn’t require any fancy systems either, just seakeeping. So the best compliment for a big fleet of highly-capable Aegis ships is a bunch of austere, cheap-to-operate corvettes with good seakeeping.
Good seakeeping is important, and is the major cost driver. Seakeeping is a function of structure, and I’m being imprecise and lumping in range as well. America, as you probably know, is separated from regions of trouble by large oceans, and anything sent to those troublesome regions has to first cross those pesky oceans. And yes, seakeeping eats up space that could be otherwise filled with weapons. If our ships could sail ten miles from our coast and find trouble, we could pack them to the gills with weapons and not care how stable they are. But that’s not the situation we find ourselves in. So no, we can’t just build a few Pegasus-class fast attack craft and call it a day.
So that is how we get to the LCS, more or less. It has a deck gun, a SeaRAM installation, and a helicopter hangar. It can accept a few other mission modules. It can handle a number of basic tasks, including to sail to not-so-hot regions flying an American flag. The one thing I don’t get is the overly high top speed of the ships. I wouldn’t have designed that in, since it drives costs up. Even so, they’re good ships for what they’re designed for: complimenting the rest of our highly-capable surface fleet.