Tag Archives: militariana

Generals Balck and von Mellenthin on TO&Es

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the US Army invited two of the best tank commanders of the Wehrmacht, General Hermann Balck and his Chief of Staff General Friedrich von Mellenthin, to come to the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for several seminars and war games. Balck and von Mellenthin had a great time playing with the huge amount of airpower available to them while playing as BLUFOR. In addition to comparing notes on wargame solutions, the US Army asked Balck and von Mellenthin a number of questions about organizing units. Here’s what they thought was best:

  • Company Strength: Not more than 70-80 men
  • (Rifle) battalion strength: about 300 men
  • Rifle battalion should be broken up into three rifle companies and a machine gun company
  • Panzer division should have three panzergrenadier regiments and one panzer regiment
  • Panzergrenadier regiment should have two battalions
  • 10 tanks per tank company
  • Tank platoons should consist of three tanks

These units are small. But both of the veteran generals felt that small units were easier to lead and more flexible. Plus, these two generals achieved their greatest successes against the Russians when commanding the 11th Panzer Division when the division was so understrength that it was roughly the size of a brigade, at least as far as number of tanks and combat troops was concerned.

That said, I think Balck and von Mellinthin have gone a bit too far in advocating for small, agile units. While they did an excellent job with small units late in the war, no nation has actually gone this far in cutting unit size. Or really, all that close. You end up needing numbers of men to hold terrain, or to fight in cities.

MRE Quirks

The American MRE is the standard ration for the US armed forces, and is also frequently deployed as aid to areas affected by natural disaster. The MRE came with some interesting innovations when it was introduced in 1981, and many of these have spread to other nations’ rations. Let’s take a look.

Calorie Accounting
The contents of one MRE, as you might have gathered from the name, are intended to be one meal. Or, one third of a soldier’s calorie and nutrient needs for one battle day. One entree, one side, one powdered off-brand Gatorade clone, etc. Most other nations’ rations are accounted for by day. So one package contains two or three entrees, three sides, maybe a snack. I have no idea where this difference came from. Maybe it’s a metric/imperial thing.

Retort Pouches
The classic ration uses cans to store the various components. This is pretty common among older rations, and is still popular today. Cans are pretty old school and easy to make. You can heat things up right in the can, and they can be used to make all kinds of improvised stuff. The MREs are different, using retort pouches to store food instead of cans. A retort pouch is a pouch made from layers of metal foil and various plastics. Food can still be heated up in them, either by immersing them in hot water or with the ration heater. They’re still sealed, just like cans. They weigh less than cans. They don’t make a clanking sound when a bunch bang around in a pack on a long march. Oh, and they require less energy to make. Although these are slowly spreading, especially among the Commonwealth nations, I don’t know why these aren’t more popular. Retort pouches rock.

Ration Heater
Everybody provides some means to heat the food in their rations. Usually, it’s a knockoff Esbit stove with some fuel tabs and matches. It’s fire. Fire is good. But fire leaves obvious traces. So the US military did what it usually does, and came up with a solution. The result is the flameless ration heater. No visible flame. No smoke. It’s a plastic pouch with some magnesium, iron, and salt in it. Add water, and it’ll get really hot. Hot enough to heat your rations. The spec says it’ll heat an 8 ounce ration entree item up by 100 °F in twelve minutes. They’re a really neat little piece of equipment, and lots of fun to play around with. They’re also super easy to use. I really like the flameless ration heater.

The Tabasco bottle
An offshoot of the program to improve MRE menus is including a small bottle of Tabasco sauce. The Army, after spending millions1, finally figured out that being able to control how spicy a dish was played a big factor in how much people enjoyed a dish. So they added a small bottle of Tabasco2 sauce to some, but not all, of the MRE menus. Progress. All that said, while I really like this idea, it would be better if it was in all of the menus.

  1. They could have grabbed a few chefs, or even a few diner cooks, interviewed them over a few beers and gotten the exact same information. But leave it to Big Army to do it the spendy way. 
  2. Actual, name brand Tabasco sauce! Unlike most things in an MRE, this is a brand you’ll recognize, not some knock-off. 

Mk 153 SMAW

In the early 1980s, the Marines were looking into light antitank weapons. They had the M72 LAW and the AT4, both of which were solid disposeable rocket launchers. However, they were limited to a single warhead type, and Vietnam had showed the utility of reusable systems, like the old recoilless rifles. So they went shopping. They settled on a variant of the B-300 rocket launcher, originally developed in Israel. A number of changes were made, resulting in the Mk. 153 SMAW.

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Sweden Chooses an MBT: Looking back at the ’94 contest

Yes, it’s been about 24 years since Sweden made its choice. And it’s no secret that they ended up going with a variant of the Leopard 2A5 with improved armor (or, more technically, an armor package that was proposed but the Germans didn’t opt for because of budget cuts). But I found a presentation on the trials, complete with previously-classified armor comparisons. The comparisons are twenty four years old, but they’re actual hard data, and I love data. No guesstimates here.

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Competition Meets Tactical: SOCOM and the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 1-6x

I love competition shooting, and I love modern military gear. Sometimes, the two worlds collide, and I always find such events fascinating. Let’s take a look at optics used on carbines.

Right now, the gold standard, go-to optic for three gun shooters is the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 1-6x. It provides excellent glass clarity, 6x magnification for long shots, a simple reticle that’s easy to work with, a wide field of view, a very forgiving eyebox, and a bright center dot for close-in stages all at a price point much more reasonable than a lot of its competitors. When it came out, it undercut the previous standard (the Swarovski Z6i 1-6X) by about $1,000, and money saved is ammo to practice with. Between the glass quality and the eyebox, on 1x it works a lot like a red dot, and the scope body basically disappears.

There’s always a catch though, and the catch for the Razor is the weight. It weighs 25 ounces, about ten ounces more than the Z6i. And that’s not including a mount for either. With a mount, you’re looking at almost two pounds of weight added to your gun. For 3-gun, it doesn’t matter, because stages aren’t that long. You shoot, dump your gun, move on. And lots of guys have a carrier for all their stuff when they’re not running through a stage.

The weight sucks to carry, but that’s also a lot of capability. SOCOM also loves the Razor. They love it so much they had Geissele make them a mount for that exact scope. It really fills a need that they’ve been looking to fix for a while: to get the benefits of a red dot and magnification in one optic.

Red dots are great, because they simplify aiming. Dot goes on the target, shoot. There are no sights to align. And because of the way the human eye perceives the dot, it appears in the same focal plane as the target. So you can maintain a target focus and still get accurate hits.

The only downside to dots is that they don’t give you any magnification. Aimpoint red dot optics were in use as early as Operation Gothic Serpent,1 where it quickly became clear that the one shortcoming of the dot was that it didn’t help with target identification. If a terrorist is in a crowd, he probably is dressed like everybody else, and magnification helps spot the small differences that give him away. An ACOG sight will help with this, but it’s got fixed magnification, and a tight eyebox, so it’s going to be slower than a red dot.

The Razor gives you all the benefits of both, plus enough durability to withstand the lousy operating environments and abuse that soldiers tend to inflict on their gear, all at a reasonable cost.2 The only penalty is weight.3 And that’s a price they’re willing to pay.

  1. I.e. “Black Hawk Down” over in Mogadishu. 
  2. I don’t know what Uncle Sam gets his for, but on the civilian market a Razor HD Gen II can be had for about the same price as a 4x ACOG. 
  3. When mounted in Geissele’s excellent mount, about 30 oz. or 1.88 lbs. 

MBT Roundup 2018

A few years ago, I wrote an MBT comparison for our procurement games. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about the Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams, we’ve seen some upgrade programs for both tanks, I’ve gotten enough data on the South Korean K2 to write on it, and Russia has introduced the T-14. Also, I love tanks. So let’s do another roundup. As always, I’m limited to open source guesstimates only.

The T-14 has a brand new 125mm gun, which can handle higher pressure rounds. So it’s almost certainly better than previous Russian guns. Whether it’s better than the latest Western stuff depends on whose propaganda you’re reading. I’m inclined to guess it’s going to be similar to the latest Rheinmetall options. Possibly a bit better because it’s newer.

Both the K2 and the newest Leopard 2 variants use the longer L55 version of Rheinmetall’s 120mm smoothbore, which gives more velocity than the Abrams’ M256 (a derivative of the Rheinmetall L44). Which would be better if all other things were equal, but they aren’t. The Americans use depleted uranium APFSDS rounds, which work better than tungsten (which Germany and South Korea use), all other things being equal (they still aren’t). Overall, tungsten sabot rounds from the L55 and depleted uranium sabot rounds from the L44 are about equal as far as armor penetration estimates are concerned. New rounds continue to come from the Americans, and there’s a plan to upgrade the L55 to the L55A1 which can take higher chamber pressures. Also, the Americans have finally added the capability to interface with datalinks on gun rounds in the SEPv3 Abrams, and this is present on the guns for Leopard 2 and K2. So this is very roughly a wash. Some magical person might be able to point to specific advantages of one option or another against specific targets, but this is all I’ve got with unclassifed, dodgy sources.

Damn it, this is classified too! UGH. In all seriousness, this too will be a wash in the main, because everyone’s got about the same technological problems, even if they come at it a little differently. Abrams and Leopard 2 have been receiving consistent upgrades, so their frontal armor should be just as good as the newer K2. T-14 has unclear amounts of protection on the turret, but only the gun is mounted there. Hull frontal protection should be good across the board too, given upgrades. Note that the Leopard 2 and Abrams have excellent side protection kits, should you wish to use them in cities full of scumbag insurgents. T-14 seems to have some quality skirt options as well, but K2 lacks similar levels of optional side protection. In terms of active protection, T-14 comes fitted with hard-kill APS systems from the factory, Abrams is getting Trophy kits installed (they’ve passed trials and money is allocated), K2 is fitted for but not with hard kill kits and the Germans are still trialing their hard kill setup. I should also point out that in the past the Americans have been reluctant to offer up their best armor technology in export models. The Abrams with export-level armor would be expected to be less good than the latest Leopard 2 variant or K2.

So you’ve been hit, and your armor is penetrated! That really sucks. Now what?
T-14 isolates the crew completely from the ammo. There are also blow-out panels on the bottom. Not sure about the turret, it might get wrecked, or there might be venting measures there. So those are all good things. On the other hand, the T-14 has the smallest crew compartment, so that means any penetration there is going to cause more problems. There’s always a bigger IED.

Abrams has the vast majority of it’s ammo in the turret bustle, again with blow-out panels. There’s also hull stowage for six more 120mm rounds, also with blow-out panels. Alternatively, if lots of hull hits from RPGs are expected, this can be emptied of ammo without too much difficulty. It’s only six rounds. Abrams has the biggest protected volume, which is why it uses fancy exotic materials for protection, but it also makes it very difficult to wound everybody.

Leopard 2 and K2 both have blow-out panels for their ammo stowage in the bustle. However, both have a large hull ammo rack (about 20 rounds or so) next to the driver up front. Neither has much in the way of bulkheads isolating this ammo and neither has blow-out panels for this stowage. Protect that hull, guys. Crew compartments are moderately sized, and should provide reasonable levels of safety due to dispersion. Leopard 2 is bigger internally than K2, and gets a bit of a nod here.

Also, while not strictly a survivability thing, more room means easier to jam upgrades in. So in order of most upgradeable to least: Abrams, Leopard 2, K2, T-14.

Tactical Mobility
Also known in some cultures as “driving around the battlefield.” Everybody’s got a 1,500 hp engine. K2 and T-14 should have a significant advantage from being 10ish tons lighter than the latest Leopard 2 and Abrams variants. Both K2 and T-14 have had transmission problems recently, however. Abrams has the gas turbine engine, which comes with some maintenance advantages because of the fewer small parts, but it is a very thirsty beast. The latest Abrams tanks have protected auxiliary power units, but I don’t have much data on how much this improves fuel economy. The Leopard 2 has a pretty boring twin-turbo diesel powerplant that seems to work well.

Strategic Mobility
Once again, the lighter tanks get the points here. I would be inclined to argue that the difference doesn’t matter for the purposes of ship-based transport, but a win is a a win.

The bureaucrats always get to put in their two bits. NATO-related stuff is going to torpedo the notion of a T-14 buy. Also, it hasn’t even passed Russian trials yet, and we don’t like being early adopters of anything. Otherwise, it comes down to who your friends are. America may not sell you the best and latest depleted uranium stuff if they don’t like you enough. The Germans may not support you with spare parts if you go off to war with the stuff. South Korea is new on the market and doesn’t have the same ability to bundle deals like the others.

I did find the approximate unit cost of a K2 on the internet. Unfortunately, costs of the others are going to be determined by upgrade package, which is kind of a bummer. Also, for all tanks, a lot depends on the terms of the purchase and what other equipment is included (spares, weapons, training tanks, etc.). So I’ll go out on a limb and say that a similar level of outfitting is going to cost about the same for new builds, and I think that’s pretty reasonable. I can’t adequately work out who might offer the best package deal. However, unlike the other two western competitors, there are a ton of old Abrams tanks sitting in the American desert. So the Americans ought to be able to give you a better deal on overhauled and upgraded tanks, and they probably will be available faster. Also, given relative labor costs, there might be advantages to the K2 or the T-14.

So which do we go with? Whichever one can get us the best pricing deal and meets the political obligations. I don’t see much difference overall with any of the options, at least not in any way that matters. MBTs don’t really have different schools of thought like IFVs do, so which one is not a big deal. They all provide reasonable quality; it remains to get them in reasonable quantity. One might argue that the large stock of old Abramses gives that an advantage, if modifying is cheaper than buying new. Or one might argue for the extensive, already-trialled options list available for the Leopard 2, or the newer K2 with more standard features and lower lifecycle costs from having a smaller crew.

Marine Raider Regiment Declines the M27

I’m a big fan of the AR-15 platform and of HK’s version, the 416, which became the USMC’s M27 IAR. The USMC really like the M27, and has moved it from being the squad automatic weapon to also being the squad designated marksman’s weapon, and soon to being the standard weapon for every man in the fireteam. But the Marine Raider Regiment has declined to get in on that, saying they’re happy with their existing M4s. Let’s unpack this a little bit. I’ve long held that while the HK 416 is a good weapon, it doesn’t do much that a well set up M4 doesn’t.

The Marine Raider Regiment1 is a special forces offshoot of the Marine Corps. So it’s under the auspices of SOCOM, not the regular Marine Corps. In terms of equipment, it gets to pick from it’s choice of stuff that SOCOM approves of and stuff from its parent service branch (i.e. the USMC). Previously, the carbine choice would be between USMC-standard M16A4s and M4s or the SOCOM M4s. Being a smaller group with a much greater ability to get new stuff, SOCOM has nicer M4s than the USMC does. Or Big Army for that matter.

M4s configured through SOCOM channels will probably have the following features: safe/semiautomatic/full automatic trigger group instead of the safe/semiautomatic/burst trigger group, a medium-weight barrel profile instead of the “government” barrel profile, and a longer, free float handguard. For the handguard, it will likely be either the Daniel Defense M4 RIS II quadrail2 or one of Geissele’s Mlok handguards.3 Either way, that’s most of what you get in a 416, other than the short-stroke gas piston system. At best, this would be a lateral move, to a new weapon system that doesn’t get you much else4, and is heavier to boot.

The M27 is also a little bit longer (16″ barrel on the M27, instead of a 14.5″ barrel on an M4A1). Which doesn’t sound like much, until you add a suppressor. And the Marine Raiders always run suppressors. Adding the suppressor length gets you back to the approximate barrel length of the M16. Longer is a little more awkward indoors, and the Raiders have mentioned that as another reason why they like their M4A1s.

None of this is all that surprising to me, but it’s always nice to see someone else confirm one’s analysis.

  1. f.k.a. MARSOC. 
  2. I discussed this rail in more detail in my M4 PIP post
  3. Discussed here
  4. In my post comparing the M4A1 PIP and the HK416, I talked a bit about how long each weapon can sustain a cyclic rate of fire. 

Improving the AR-15: Colt Canada At Bat

I’ve mentioned before that the AR-15 is a really great design. It got a lot of things right. It’s very hard to compete with a design that has had 60-odd years to fix bugs and get improvements. And when it’s not an AR-15 design that’s winning, it’s often a derivative. The popular HK416 is just an AR-15 with a few improvements that HK likes. Let’s look at another improvement project, courtesy of Colt Canada.1 Unlike the HK416, which you can buy today, this is a notional project.

colt canada rifle

Colt Canada has had a license to manufacture and sell Colt AR-15s (and derivatives) for quite some time, and their C7 rifle is basically an M16A1E1, rather than an M16A1 or M16A2. The C8 is very similar to the M4. Colt Canada also uses excellent hammer-forged barrels, which they make in-house.

Our first major difference is the handguard integrated into the upper receiver. Colt Canada already makes these for their IUR and MRR product lines. An integrated handguard is simpler, more rigid, and may be lighter depending on the design. It does lock the user into one type of accessory attachment system and handguard configuration, however. It also means that the handguard has to be designed cleverly to allow access to the gas block and the barrel nut.

Next, we have an integrated suppressor built into the barrel. Very cool. This should save some weight and length over attaching one on the end of a barrel. It also requires careful design to allow the suppressor to be easily cleaned in the field. Colt Canada discussed the finer points of this rifle design with the USMC, who are big on suppressors. I’m stoked about that, because I’m also a huge fan.2

The last is the power-pack in the stock, combined with a powered accessory rail system. Centralizing the battery should be a net improvement in weight, plus it means there’s only one battery to worry about. On the other hand, it makes the rail more susceptible to the elements and a possible failure point. I’ve heard lots of stories of these projects, but I haven’t seen much actual field testing. We’ll see.

Finally, let’s discuss what isn’t changing: the operating system. Colt Canada is sticking with the same tried-and-true direct impingement gas operating system. No short stroke piston here. I’m fine with this.

  1. F.k.a. Diemaco. 
  2. Those who actually do some research will find that suppressors really aren’t that expensive in the grand scheme of things. 

The Pizza MRE

Let’s kick off a series on army food by discussing some awesome news. Take a look:

eating pizza mre

At first glance, this picture is nothing special. A couple American soldiers enjoying a pizza. We Americans love our pizza. But look closer.

That is MRE pizza. Pizza in a ration, which means they’ve figured out how to make something solidly shelf stable without making it out of every chemical in Dow’s catalog.

To understand the significance of this, let’s take a step back. Like most military rations, MREs used to be absolute crap. But then the First Persian Gulf War happened. As you might be aware, there’s literally nothing in northern Saudi Arabia that is edible. Unless you like sand. So everything had to be shipped in, including food. Which meant dining options were MREs, MREs, or MREs. For everybody. Even the Generals. So instead of just a bunch of grunts complaining that food sucked, a bunch of generals with a constellation’s worth of stars on their shoulders were complaining that the food sucked. And that got some changes to happen, and the improvement program has continued ever since.

As part of the continuous improvement program for MREs, the guys at the US Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts conduct a poll of soldiers every so often. This poll asks soldiers to rate every ration in the current set of menus, and asks them what they’d like. Meals that consistently score poorly are pulled and reworked, and Natick tries to fulfill the requests. The most consistent request for many years has been a pizza MRE.

The problem was shelf stability. MREs need to last in a storage depot for a while. The usual benchmark is 3 years, and you might imagine this is difficult with a pizza. But they’ve finally figured it out, and soldier food is about to get better.

Competition Meets Tactical: SOF STI 2011s

I love competition shooting, and I love modern military gear. Sometimes, the two worlds collide, and I always find such events fascinating. Let’s take a look at a little bit of Special Operations history, courtesy of an old Gunbroker auction and the late, great Weaponsman.

First, some competition background. In the USPSA Limited1 division, the dominant platform is the double-stack 1911, often called a 2011, which is the trade name used by STI for their pistols. Since STI is the biggest builder of these, and where to go for a factory-type solution, the name has stuck. While people use other guns in Limited, the 2011s are the most popular. Since it’s based on the 1911, with its expired patents, its wide open for people to play with, so you can get your gun customized to your heart’s content. While it’s the indian, not the arrow, that decides results, nobody wants to shoot a lame arrow. Plus the 1911-style, single-action, sliding trigger is super easy to make amazing. There are no better triggers than a tuned 1911-type trigger for shooting.

Around 2006-2007, one of America’s elite special operations units decided to experiment with these pistols. Here are a pair of them.
STI 40s

A few things to note. They’re chambered for .40 S&W, not 9mm NATO like you might expect. Being based on the 1911, which was originally designed around the .45 ACP cartridge, 2011s tend to be easier to make reliable with longer cartridges. .40 S&W is a bit longer than 9mm NATO, so that helps. Plus, the vast majority of 2011s are chambered in .40 for USPSA,2 that’s where most of the experience in keeping them running is focused.

From the auction description:

Both of these STI 2011 .40 caliber pistols saw actual issue and use in a US Army SOF unit in 2006-2007. One pistol is in 93%+ condition and the other is in 96%+ condition. They are consecutively serial numbered and are quite possibly the only consecutively numbered set to be offered for sale. This consecutively numbered set comes with the following items: *** individual letters of authenticity from Larry Vickers (www.vickerstactical.com) for each pistol— original, unedited versions will be provided to the buyer *** six 140mm 17 round magazines *** one 170mm 22 round magazine *** one issued Surefire X200A light *** issued Safariland 6005 light bearing holster with end user modifications *** two Eagle Industries pistol cases

These are standard STI magazines with STI follower and basepad. This doesn’t sound odd, but most competitors will swap the follower and basepad out to get more capacity. More capacity is great at a match, but it tends to make the mags a bit more fussy, and extra maintenance requirements are not the friend of the combat soldier.

What did SOF think of these pistols? They liked them, but found the maintenance requirements to be more than they wanted to deal with. Specifically, issues came up with fine desert sand from the Middle East. This makes some sense. These are tightly tuned competition pistols, built for maximum shootability. Competitors don’t mind having to do a bit more cleaning of their magazines. And of course, as a general rule, guns with a metal frame and slide need more lubrication than those with a polymer frame and steel slide.

That said, in Vickers’ letter of authenticity, he said that “these were the only pistols sold outside the unit” (emphasis added). So likely lots of the men chose to keep the pistols, because they are awesome and shoot really well. Even if they might not be the best choice for a secondary weapon out in the sandbox.

  1. No electronic sights, no compensators, no barrel porting, magazines no longer than 141.25 mm. 
  2. Because power factor.