Thursday, January 27, 2011

In Memoriam

High Flight

(Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee, No. 412 Squadron RCAF, KIA 12/11/1941)

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

In respectful memory of:

Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II, Roger Chaffee: Apollo 1, 1/27/1967

Vladimir Komarov: Soyuz 1, 4/23/1967

Major Michael J. Adams, USAF: X-15 Flight #191, 11/15/1967

Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, Viktor Patsayev: Soyuz 11/Salyut 1, 6/30/1971

Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Ron McNair, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis: Challenger, 1/28/1986

Rick Husband, William McCool, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon: Columbia, 2/1/2003

Requiem aeternam donum est, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part X: Secession Winter


In hindsight, it's fairly plain that Scott's plan to relieve Fort Sumter would have been too little, too late, even if it were possible to have put the plan into action immediately. Secretary of War Floyd had seen to that, having denuded the Southern harbor forts of men and materiel in the year before. It's a pity, because for once, Buchanan had been stirred to prompt action. In the first week of January, it was enacted just as Scott had said; a US Navy warship escorted the civilian steamship Star of the West down to Charleston, loaded with men and supplies to relieve the garrison at Fort Sumter. The mission was laid on with as much secrecy as could have been expected. It was, unfortunately, so secret that Major Anderson didn't know they were coming. As the ships entered the harbor, they were fired upon by cadets from The Citadel who were manning the guns of the landward harbor forts. Major Anderson could have supported the ships with suppressive fire, except that he had been drilling his men, and his guns were loaded with the wrong ammunition. He could only watch in frustration as the ships withdrew from the harbor.

In quick succession, almost as if in reaction, Southern states began adopting resolutions of secession. On the 9th, Mississippi. Then a day later, Florida, and a day after that, Alabama. Then on the 18th, Georgia. Louisiana and Texas would follow shortly, the latter under the protest of her governor, Sam Houston. Sam Houston argued strenuously against secession. No one could accuse him of animus against his state -- were it not for Houston's leadership at San Jacinto, there might not even be a Texas -- but passions ran too high for him to counter. Houston resigned rather than sign the instrument of secession.

Meanwhile, one last gasp at compromise had been made, this time by Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden. Crittenden proposed that the Missouri Compormise line be made permanent, and slavery allowed in perpetuity south of it. It was basically a non-starter; given that there was maybe ten square miles of decent agricultural land in the territories south of said line. Excepting California, which as we mentioned earlier, had entered the Union as a free state.

The positions had now hardened beyond a point of no return. The states that had bolted the Union were now dead-set on forming themselves into a new nation of their own.

As an independent nation, the Southerners would have many disadvantages, and only one clear advantage.

This is what I was getting at earlier with the Tale of the Tape: the Southern states faced a severe shortfall in terms of population, in terms of railroad and transportation capacity, and in terms of manufacturing capability.

Population: The states that would eventually become the Union held 21.6 million free, less than half a million slaves. The rest of the states together held five million free, with three million slaves. Of those five million, only about half were male; and not all of those were of military age, and not all of those could be spared for duty. On the face of it they were outnumbered four to one, and when you cut out the people left behind to guard and supervise the slave population, it was probably more like five or six to one.

Transportation: The transportation picture didn't look so dire, with the North having twice as many rail miles as the South, but that figure belied the picture. Northern rail lines would commonly go all the way through a town, allowing unimpeded access. Southern rail lines would commonly stop at the edge of a town, requiring a labor gang to unload a train and haul the cargo across town. Goods and cargo could not flow as smoothly. Not a problem in peacetime, especially where bulk goods are concerned; but it could become a crippling problem in wartime where every hour can count.

Manufacturing: New England alone equaled the output of all Southern states. What more need be said? The South could not produce its own munitions, heavy guns, or finished goods of any sort. They pinned their entire hope on being supplied with munitions from abroad.

All that said, the South still had one key advantage, one that would last a few years before the rest could catch up with them. They had no standing army.

Say what?

Yes, in a perverse way, that was an advantage. You see, in the Union, you had a sharp division between Regular officers and volunteer or militia officers, with the Regular officers having all the important commands in the early phases of the War. Some of those regulars were good. Some, not so good. A few couldn't find their own hindquarters with both hands, a map, and a compass. Some of their best officers were actually in militia or volunteer units, and it would take years for them to rise to positions of power and influence. The South did not have this problem, and could put their most able men in key positions right away. This gave them a crucial leadership advantage in the early stage of the conflict.

The lines were drawn, and just about everyone knew it was going to come to grief. Now, it was all a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Chinese Stealth Fighter

The wires are abuzz this week with new pictures of what is supposed to be China's answer to the F-22 Raptor. After taking a critical look at the pictures, I am somewhat less than worried, although I understand how a casual viewer might be alarmed.

For purposes of comparison, here's a picture of the F-22 Raptor. The first example, a YF-22, first flew in September of 1990; and the first F-22 squadron came on-line for duty in December of 2005.

At first glance, this looks scarily similar:

There are, however, a few key differences, as well as a few important details to point out.

(1) The first is, of course, the time delay between the first flight of a new prototype and the IOC date of the first operational squadron. For the F-22 Raptor, that was just over fifteen years, from 9/1990 to 12/2005. Now, I have no reason to believe that the Chinese engineers are total idiots, but at the same time neither do I have reason to believe that they're supermen. I don't see them paring too many years off that figure. So, if we're to believe that the first flight was fairly recent, IOC can be no sooner than 2020-2025. By which time, we'll have ... well, I'll save that point for later.

(2) The second is that, while the fuselage sure looks like it's got a nice low-observable shape, the devil's in the details. For one, the shape is only half the story, there. Do they also use the right radar-absorbing materials in the skin? And, taking a closer look at the front view, we see a huge potential problem:

I count four under-wing hardpoints. External carriage of weapons and/or fuel tanks pretty much destroys any stealthing advantage your fuselage shape gives you. Unless this aircraft has provisions for internal weapon carriage, they lose the stealth part of the battle pretty horribly. (Caveat: those may not be hardpoints, but may instead by housings for control actuators. Even so, those 90-degree corners make nice little echo boxes that render the sloping fuselage moot.)

(3) The third point is readily apparent from a rear-view shot:

Oh, dear. Fixed axisymmetric nozzles. No thrust vectoring for you! Thrust vectoring is damned useful to have. Not having it, and then getting into a turn-and-burn fight with an airplane that does, is going to suck.

(4) The fourth problem is something I once heard described as the Montana Syndrome, after the Montana-class battleship. The Montana-class battleship was supposed to be the U.S. Navy's answer to the Japanese super-heavies Yamato and Musashi. It wasn't. Yamato and Musashi both got their tickets punched by the Grumman Avenger and the Curtiss Helldiver, and the Japanese sailors never once saw the American carriers that did them in. The few hulls of the Montana class that had been laid down were never completed. The battleship was an idea whose time had come and gone. I'm fairly convinced that the manned tactical fighter is headed down the same road. So far as I'm concerned, the Chinese are welcome to spend as much money as they like on last year's model. By the time this sees service in squadron quantity, air combat will have changed almost beyond recognition, and the skies may well be dominated by laser weapons and unmanned combat aircraft.

In short: panic is unwarranted. Calls for extending the production run of the F-22, likewise. This fighter doesn't look as good as what we're already fielding in the first place, and it's the wrong answer to an almost outdated question, anyway. We've already got a solid lead in UCAV technology. Extending that lead is fairly easy, provided we don't let ourselves get goaded into reprising last century's best technology.