Friday, January 30, 2009

Video Del Fuego, Part XVII

Back in the late 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration had a problem. The United States had an adversarial relationship with a foreign power that, geographically, we knew almost nothing about. To the Soviet Union, accurate maps were state secrets. They were simply unavailable. So, if we were to have accurate information about where their new missile programs were located, we'd simply have to make our own maps. Not to put too fine a point on it, we'd have to fly overhead and take pictures.

The first aircraft the CIA built to accomplish this mission was the Lockheed U-2. As mentioned before, its basic design was an F-104 fuselage with a gigantic glider wing. It could fly higher than any other aircraft then in existence, and it was thought that this would give the U-2 a measure of protection from surface-to-air missiles. And it did, for a while. Between 1956 and 1960, the U-2 made a number of overflight missions of Soviet airspace, mapping sensitive missile sites. But with each year, Soviet defenses got progressively better. In May 1960, a U-2 flown by Gary Powers was brought down inside Soviet airspace, and the cover was blown.

But a replacement aircraft was already on the drawing board. In 1959, the CIA selected another Lockheed aircraft, the A-12 OXCART, as the replacement for the U-2. It was intended to fly higher and up to four times faster than the U-2: what it couldn't outclimb, it could outrun. The A-12 first flew in 1962, and was flown by the CIA between May 1967 and May 1968.

The interesting thing here is that Johnson introduced this aircraft as an interceptor, not as a spy plane. A natural enough bit of confusion, since there was an interceptor version in the works, the YF-12A Blackbird.

The major differences between the YF-12A and the A-12 are the addition of a second crewman to man the radar and missile systems. The recon equipment was replaced by a powerful AN/ASG-18 fire control radar, paired with the AIM-47 Falcon missiles originally developed for the XF-108 Rapier. There are a few other differences as well, easily visible from the front and side.

But the YF-12A was never authorized for full production. The Soviet bomber threat it was built to counter never really materialized. Instead, when manned recon was transferred from the CIA to the USAF, the USAF wanted a new aircraft developed from both the A-12 and YF-12A. The new aircraft would retain the second crewman, and would also add side-looking radar to the list of capabilities. This new aircraft would become the undisputed King of Speed: the SR-71 Blackbird.

Everything about this airplane is extreme. No manned air-breathing vehicle has ever flown faster or higher. The crews must wear full pressure suits. On the ground, the airplanes fuel tanks seep fuel from numerous seams, to give room for thermal expansion at speed and altitude. The engine lubricant is solid at room temperature, and must be preheated prior to engine start. The Blackbird's structure almost never experiences metal fatigue, since the heating it receives with each mission re-tempers the metal each and every time it hits Mach 3. And it demands the utmost attention from its pilots. At two thousand miles per hour, a pilot's attention cannot wander. A course error of one degree means half a mile per minute lateral deviation. The extreme operational conditions impose a hazard on the crew. Of 32 SR-71s built, 12 were lost to accidents.

But despite numerous missions over North Vietnam and other denied airspaces, no Blackbird was ever lost to enemy action. This isn't to say that it hadn't been tried. SR-71 crews had a fool-proof anti-missile system. Whenever they heard a launch warning, they simply advanced their throttle. Those few missiles that could reach their operational altitude of 85,000 feet poked through the empty air below and behind their intended target.

In the end, the march of technology brought the Blackbird's end. Not in the form of better defenses, no one ever did manage to build the system that could bring her down. But in the form of ever-improving satellite photography. The Eisenhower Administration was also pursuing a third recon option in the form of the Corona program. The technology was a long time in gaining maturity. But the latest generation, capable of beaming their pictures in real time back to headquarters, finally bring a capability to the table that the SR-71 can't match. Finally, in 1999, the Blackbird made its last flight, leaving several records that will probably stay untouched for decades to come.

But there's a postscript to the Blackbird story. Remember the YF-12A? Even though it never saw full production, its fire-control radar and missiles were such a useful combination that a slightly more advanced variant ended up finding life in the proposed F-111B air-to-air version of that aircraft. Well, the Navy decided that the F-111B was a stinkburger, but kept the AWG-9 radar and AIM-54 missiles for their new fleet-defense interceptor: the F-14 Tomcat. The combo of the AWG-9 and Phoenix could simultaneously track and engage six targets at once, at ranges of up to 100 miles away. Not that this has ever been proven in action. The U.S. Navy only fired two AIM-54s in anger, in 1999 against Iraqi MiG-25s southeast of Baghdad. Both missed.

It's really weird how things work out sometimes.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Video Del Fuego, Part XVI

I'm in the mood for another round of Vintage Thunder Chariots. Here's another one of my all-time favorites, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter:

For a fairly long time after the introduction of the jet fighter, conventional thinking had it that speed was king. So, throughout the '50s and '60s, designers pursued straight-line speed to the exclusion of all else, such as maneuverability and even weapons load-out. The F-104's air-interception load was, basically, a brace of Sidewinders plus its internal 20mm cannon. The theory was that it could chase down its prey in a tail chase, unleash a missile barrage, and call it a day. But in an old-fashioned dogfight, it would quite often come in second best. A clever pilot could always use the vertical to escape an unfavorable engagement, but it would almost always lose a turning fight. Climbs like a bat out of Hell, steers like a cow.

But God Almighty! There's not a production fighter in the world today that can catch it in a horizontal sprint. Every line screams speed. Its design is simplicity itself: a gigantic afterburning engine, with wings, tail, and cockpit grafted on almost as afterthoughts. It was, and is, an aircraft that demands respect from its pilots, and does not suffer fools gladly. But for those pilots willing to undertake its discipline, it offered an unmatched experience.

There's an interesting post-script to the Starfighter story. Back in the mid-'50s, the CIA wanted a high-altitude aircraft capable of penetrating Soviet airspace for purposes of reconnaissance. Kelly Johnson's Skunk Works undertook the assignment. Their basic design was to take the F-104's fuselage, lengthen it slightly, and add gigantic glider wings. The result:

The U-2 has, in a way, been far more successful than its progenitor. While the F-104 was retired by most of its users by 1990, the U-2 is still the go-to manned recon platform for the USAF, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Still, the Starfighter is the prince of the high-speed Thunder Chariots. But not the King. That honor is reserved for another fine Lockheed product, that we'll profile on another day.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"They Call Me MISTER President!"

Last year, halfway across the world, another Presidential election was held. But the election was largely a sham, since the only ballots that Mugabe holds any respect for are in the magazines of the rifles that his thugs carry, or the truncheons in their hands. Fifteen years ago, Zimbabwe was an exporter of food and minerals, an economic powerhouse of southern Africa. Out of that, Mugabe has managed to wreak utter havoc. The currency is worthless now even as kindling, starvation is rampant, and there are epidemics of cholera and even anthrax. The longer he clings to power, the longer his people must suffer the World Championship Rodeo of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

How extraordinarily lucky we are.

Today, for the forty-third time, one President has handed the reins of power to another President, without drama and without incident. Only a few of those transfers involved anything out of the ordinary. As President Reagan said in his first inaugural address in 1981, "The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-years ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle." Every four years, like clockwork, in good times and in bad, in peace and in war, no crisis has deterred us from this observance. While most of our allies also enjoy peaceful transfers of power, none have as long a tradition of it as we do. When President Washington first took the reins in 1789, the Kings of England and of France still enjoyed broad discretionary powers -- although the King of France would shortly lose them, along with his head.

I am of a mixed mind about the inaugural ceremonies themselves, though. Some of the goings-on I find a bit over-wrought. I have little patience for the preliminaries. So I pretty much ignored everything up to the oath of office itself. Unfortunately, the oath of office appears to have been administered by Chief Justice Ash Williams: "Look, maybe I didn't say every single little tiny syllable, no. But basically I said them, yeah." Note to short-bus Republicans: the oath was still valid. Now, if a zombie invasion crashes one of the Inaugural Balls tonight, that might be a problem, but I'm sure they have a contingency plan.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the oath, and the Inaugural Address. It was a pretty good one, I thought. It evoked FDR's first Inaugural without seeming too derivative. And he quoted Thomas Paine at the end. What's not to like? By reminding us of the crises we've met and mastered, he gives us confidence that we'll beat this one too.

Watching him deliver his address, it's plain that he's very comfortable speaking in public. This was something you never really saw with President Bush. Mind you, I'm not one of those people who thinks Bush an idiot. If he were, the F-106 would have killed him dead, back in the day. But he's got the most painfully ill-at-ease speaking style of any President I've seen, maybe even including Nixon. You never got the sense that he enjoyed it. President Clinton, on the other hand, enjoyed it maybe too much ... But that's a story for another day.

And now, the hard part begins for President Obama. When the speeches and balls are over tonight, starting tomorrow morning, he has to govern. He has to lead. If he can run the Executive Branch as effectively has he's run his campaign, and his transition, then I am guardedly optimistic for the future. You see, I still believe we can do just about anything we really set our minds to. If you should doubt that, go outside some night and look up. On the Moon, six flags and twelve sets of footprints bear a silent, eternal witness to what we can achieve if we plant our feet, fix our eyes on the ball, and swing for the fences. It won't be easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is:

These are the times that try men's souls.

The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.

You may not share my optimism. That's OK, it's a free country. But until the World Championship Rodeo of the Four Horsemen comes to your hometown, don't come crying "Apocalypse!" to me.

I intend to celebrate the curiously quiet glory that is our tradition: peaceful transfer of power. Going strong since 1789, and not done yet, not by a long shot.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Road Ahead

Right after the election, I posted that a new regionalism had taken shape. I still think that I was right to say that, although I have changed my mind as to the form it is taking.

To illustrate the point, let's take a look at a couple of maps, courtesy of the fine folks at Outside the Beltway. These maps display the results of the 2008 Presidential race, county-by-county. The first displays a winner-takes-all picture, the second, shaded by margin of victory.

To a first approximation, it sure looks like the "blue" areas correlate to where the largest cities are. To verify this, let's see if we can find a map of the lower 48 states, shaded by population density. Here, we see one from NASA's Image of the Day from back in October 2006. The information is usefully recent:

The correlation is fairly strong. It's not exact, of course, but will serve to illustrate my major point: the modern Democratic party is aligned strongly with urban voters, and the modern Republican party is aligned strongly with rural voters. This obtains whether we're talking about the Northeast, the Southwest, or points in-between. Look at Texas, for example. It's a fairly strongly Republican state, overall. But the urban counties surrounding Dallas, Houston, Austin and Lubbock all went Democratic.

What does this mean going forward? Possibly, it means that candidates for national office need to think less about swing states than about swing counties. Within a given state, the margin of victory will come not from the cities or the country, but from the border between them: the suburban voters. The only remaining regional question is, how strongly do suburbanites identify with the nearest big city? In the Northeast, a lot of people who nominally live "in the country" actually work in the city, and the electoral results show that. In Texas and the Southwest, a lot of suburbanites identify with the country, and the electoral results sometimes show that. Nevertheless, going forward, the suburbs are the battlegrounds. Who wins the suburbs, wins the states; who wins the states wins the White House.

The question is, which parties actually realize this? Let's have a look at the results of 2008 compared to 2004, as compiled by the New York Times:

What shows here is a broad sea of discontent, with most counties voting more Democratic than they did in 2004. Except, that is, for a swatch of the South running roughly from Appalachia through eastern Oklahoma. Here, McCain actually outperformed Bush's 2004 results.

Virtually no one asks why, because the answer is fairly obvious. In the Klan Belt, there are a lot of people who'd vote for Satan before they'd vote for a black man for any public office. The question then becomes, will the Republican party let this sort of thing trump their national interest?

The story appears to have blown over for the moment, but the Republican National Committee's response to Chip Saltsman's Christmas Card is going to be an important signal for the party's direction going forward. It's not as if Saltsman is just some schlub. He was Senior Political Advisor to Bill Frist while Frist was Senate Majority Leader, and then he was Mike Huckabee's campaign manager. He is currently a candidate for the Chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.

Geez, where do I begin? I can't imagine the Republicans hiring him now. Imagine the interview: "Critical failure of judgement? Tasteless lyrics bordering on racist? Why, those are just the qualities we're looking for in a Chairman here at the RNC! Welcome aboard, sir!" The state of his career is a fair bellweather for where the Republicans are headed. Surely, his RNC candidacy is toast. But if his career well and truly sinks without a trace, that's a sign that the RNC and Republicans in general feel the need to purge his ilk from their ranks. But, if he still holds important advisory posts going forward, if he's a major mover and shaker going into the 2010 election cycle, that tells a different tale.

Remember Item Six. Are the Republicans going to double down on the crazy? Or are they going to make a genuine effort to figure out the real reasons why they lost? Right now the craziness seems to be winning. If Rush Limbaugh chortling about "Barack the Magic Negro" is the best they can come up with, then it's liable to be a sad and sorry Republican Party that goes into the 2010 elections.

What a sad, sad end for the movement that William F. Buckley built. Whether you agreed with him or not, you always had to take him seriously. These clowns, not so much. It's good that he didn't live long enough to see this.