Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

There are some people who claim that the last 20-odd minutes of 2001 were originally intended to have a score by Pink Floyd. It's hard to disagree.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Against All Odds

Seventy years ago, the pieces were in motion that would lead to the largest battle in naval history.

The Pacific strategy that the Allies had been pursuing for two years and change had begun to show fruit. The Naval forces under Admiral Chester Nimitz, and the Army forces under General Douglas MacArthur, had zig-zagged across the ocean, bypassing some pockets of Japanese strength, while seizing other islands to use as way stations. Now, in late October of 1944, the fleet stood off of the Philippine Islands to support the Allied invasion.

This was not merely a vanity project of MacArthur's, although the man had vanity and to spare for it to be so. No, if the Allies were to win possession of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy would be in a terrible fix. Their weapons and ammunition were in Japan. Their fuel, though, that was in Southeast Asia. They had one chance, and one chance only, to smash the invasion.

They basically threw everything they had into the operation. It wasn't a suicide operation per se, it was a cold realization that if they lost the Philippines, the fleet wouldn't be worth much in any event. If they stayed in southern waters, they could maneuver, but couldn't shoot. If they stayed in northern waters, they could shoot, but wouldn't have enough gas left to get anywhere. It was well and truly "smoke 'em if you got 'em" time.

The Japanese fleet was divided up into three sections. The Northern Force, under Admiral Ozawa, had the remaining fleet carriers capable of sailing. Those carriers were mostly devoid of planes or pilots. The disastrous Battle of the Philippine Sea had seen to that. Nevertheless, Ozawa figured he could dangle the flat-tops out there as bait. If he could draw Admiral Halsey into a wild goose chase, if Halsey would go chasing carriers and leave the invasion beaches mostly unguarded, the operation had a decent chance of success. The Southern Force and Center Force would be heavy on large surface combatants, battleships and cruisers, and their target would be to strike the invasion beaches thus left unprotected. Southern Force would be under the command of Admiral Nishimura, and the Center Force under Admiral Kurita. Admiral Kurita's group had the Yamato and the Musashi, the largest battleships that had ever been (or would ever be) built.

The Northern Force would approach the Philippine Sea from the north. The Southern Force would wind its way through the Surigao Strait on its way to the landing grounds. The Center Force would drive up the middle, through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait.

The plan would depend greatly upon whether Halsey would take the bait. He took it, all right ... hook, line, and sinker.

Of course, the Southern and Center Forces still had to get there. And that was far from guaranteed. The Southern Force was turned back in the Battle of Surigao Strait after taking heavy damage. The Center Force came under heavy air attack from Halsey's carriers, and the Musashi went down somewhere in the Sibuyan Sea. They must have thought that they'd taken care of the Center Force, because no one would thread the San Bernardino Strait at night, in bad weather. Or so they thought.

So, overnight on the 24th, Halsey took most of the Third Fleet north to go hunting for carriers. He left Admiral Kinkaid with a small force of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort carriers to guard the invasion beaches from attack. This force was divided into three groups. Task Unit 77.4.1, call sign "Taffy 1", was under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague, on the escort carrier USS Sangamon. "Taffy 1" also included the escort carrier USS Santee, which I mentioned earlier. Task Unit 77.4.2, call sign "Taffy 2", was under the command of Rear Admiral Felix Stump, on the USS Natoma Bay. Task Unit 77.4.3, call sign "Taffy 3", was under the command of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague (no relation), on the USS Fanshaw Bay. Near enough, the Task Unit deployment ran from south to north, meaning "Taffy 3" held the north flank and "Taffy 1" the southern flank.

Thus it was at dawn on Wednesday, the 25th of October, that "Taffy 3" was the first to spot the ships of Admiral Kurita's Center Force.

The thing that you must understand, here, is that Yamato -- by itself -- outweighed all of "Taffy 3" put together. Against four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers, "Taffy 3" had six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. A more lopsided mismatch could hardly be found. And yet, they had one ace in the hole -- the other two Task Units were not under attack, and could throw their air wings into the fight. Clifton Sprague could count on four hundred aircraft -- mostly fairly new Grumman Wildcats and Avengers -- to turn up the heat on the Center Force.

Not that it mattered. Those thirteen small, thin-hulled ships were all that stood between the Japanese bug guns and the invasion transports. There was only one option.

Commander Ernest E. Evans on board the destroyer USS Johnston said to his crew, "A very large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can."

Evans ordered flank speed, and charged directly at the Center Force. He was followed shortly thereafter by Commander Copeland on the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts. After that, Admiral Sprague ordered the rest of his destroyers and destroyer escorts to attack, while he took his carriers towards a nearby rain squall. With all the aircraft launched, the escort carriers had only a single 5" gun, and weren't worth much in a gun fight.

The American ships had one other key advantage, though; their guns had radar-controlled gun directors. While the Japanese ships used dye markers on shells to gauge the range to a target, the American ships merely pointed their gun directors towards what they wanted to hit. Not that the tiny American guns had any realistic chance of piercing the Japanese armor ... but the Japanese had this odd habit of storing their torpedoes on deck, in unarmored containers. They would pay for that design decision today.

The Japanese guns would not have that problem ... except for two minor issues. One, the armor-piercing ammo the Japanese used would more often than not smash straight through the thin-hulled ships without arming, fuzing, or exploding. And two, the American ships were charging in so close that the guns could depress low enough to fire upon them anyway.

The Americans had a run of astounding good luck. Johnson's radar-guided guns scored at least 45 hits on the heavy cruiser Kumano's superstructure, setting it ablaze. Then, as soon as they were in torpedo range, they fired a full salvo of ten torpedoes at the Center Force, hitting Kumano, blowing off its bow. The battleship Kongo was forced to make a hard turn to avoid four torpedoes heading its way. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, stopping to assist Kumano, was taking heavy damage from aircraft. Even the flat-tops got into the action. The Japanese cruiser Chokai got close enough to the USS White Plains to get a reminder that yes, they do carry live ammunition. The gunner on White Plains knew that his 5" gun wouldn't do much damage to Chokai ... but those Long Lance torpedoes sitting on her deck? Another story. The resulting explosion was quite impressive, taking out her rudder and engines. A 500-pound bomb dropped a few minutes later finished the job. But their luck could not last forever.

Johnston was eventually hit, several times, and sank. So was the Samuel B. Roberts, but not before winning the name "The Destroyer Escort That Fought Like A Battleship." Survivors tell of Japanese sailors standing at attention and saluting while their ships went down. Japanese guns would sink two escort carriers, and one more destroyer.

Time and again that morning, these small fragile ships would charge ships ten and twenty times their size, doing what they could. Time and again, aircraft attacked with bombs, then with machine guns, and then lined up to make "dry" attack runs, so that they could draw fire from their comrades that still had ammunition. But as much damage as they were doing to the Japanese, they did not have the firepower to destroy many more ships.

They wouldn't need it. Admiral Kurita had lost two crucial things: surprise, and control of the battle. His ships were maneuvering wildly all over the place. They would have to be regrouped for a strike against the transports ... assuming they could get to the transports. The Third Fleet could show up at any moment, and then the tables would turn with a vengeance. Not that the tables were looking all that great in any case. Kurita had already lost three heavy cruisers, had three more damaged, and just about all of his ships had taken some abuse. He no longer believed he could accomplish his mission, and called for a withdrawal.

The Nihon Kaigun would never again sail in such force. The Battle of Leyte Gulf had broken the back of the Japanese Navy.

(Personal Note: My father was a Machinist's Mate on the escort carrier USS Santee, CVE-29. His assignment was as a ball turret gunner on a Grumman TBF Avenger in Torpedo Squadron 26. Seventy years ago, he fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.)

VT-26 Insignia

TBF Avenger from VT-26

USS Santee, CVE-29

Friday, October 17, 2014

How Long? Not Long...

I've been keeping an eye on fusion research for quite some time. Some thirty-odd years ago, I made a short list of developments that would figuratively keep the wolf from our door. There's no particular order to them. As I saw it then, our key long-term problem was resource exhaustion. It's still our key long-term problem. There are three things that can solve that problem if they arrive soon enough. Back then, I saw the first as cheap access to low Earth orbit. I still think that's important ... but I also think that we'll basically get it for free if we get the other two items. So today's list gets pared down to two: high-temperature superconductors, and controlled fusion.

Modern civilization is electrical power. That's a gross oversimplification, but it's nonetheless true that given enough economical, clean power, a lot of our problems go away. Not all, not by any stretch of the imagination, that's an unfortunate consequence of human nature. But just about any resource-based problem you can name can be either greatly reduced or even eliminated if you can throw enough power at it. Water shortage? Cheap desalinization fixes it. Emissions? Plentiful clean power fixes it. And once you take those two off the table, that buys us time to deal with what's left.

High-temperature superconductors are a force multiplier. Most of the power we generate -- about two-thirds of it -- vanishes between the generator and the user. This isn't due to sloth or inattention. This is a fundamental physical fact. If you push one ampere of current across one ohm of resistance, you lose one watt of power. Two amps, four watts. The power lost is equal to the square of the current times the resistance. High-tension lines run at scarily high voltage on alternating current, so that they can reduce the amperage to as low a value as possible. And even with some of the country's best electrical engineers having worked on it for a century or more, a two-thirds loss is the best we've been able to manage. Now, replace those power lines with a high-temperature superconductor. The resistance drops to zero. So do the power losses. At a stroke -- without adding any extra generators -- you triple the deliverable power. And that's before you get to the other things superconductors can do for you: better electric motors, better generators, better everything ... except heaters. The guy who tries to use superconductors to make a better electric heater is going to be a sad, sad man.

Controlled fusion is the other key. We're getting into a resource exhaustion problem to begin with because everything we try to extract power from runs out on us. Coal, oil, even radioactive isotopes will run out on us eventually. Fusion power relies on hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the entire Universe. Something like 95-99% of everything you see when you look up at night is hydrogen. It is, therefore, something we're extremely unlikely to ever run short of.

Virtually limitless power will change ... well, just about everything.

This is what makes Lockheed's announcement this last Wednesday so important.

For the last decade, several teams have been investigating odd corners of plasma physics to try to find a better way to control the fusion reaction. I've written several times about the Polywell project, founded by the late Robert Bussard, and they had some promising results from 2007 to about 2010, when they went dark. They're still working under a Navy contract, I think. But there were other approaches, too: dense plasma focus, inertial confinement, field-reversed configuration, Z-pinch ... one of them was bound to pay off sooner or later.

The announcement didn't have much detail. What Lockheed said is that they'd build a small reactor within the year, and have a prototype for a 100-megawatt model within five.

First, what this says to me is that the Navy is their primary customer. That's the right size to be a reactor replacement for the Navy's submarines and carriers, but it's also the right size to re-engine their frigates and destroyers. The Navy would like to start putting things like railguns on their surface combatants, but they don't have the power available to do that yet. This will change that.

Second, this is a project Big Oil won't be able to stifle. The small guys, like Bussard's old outfit, they could bully or stymie. Lockheed is the DoD's biggest supplier. If there's anyone that can tell Big Oil to help themselves to a tall, cool glass of SHUT THE **** UP, it's probably Lockheed, the DoD, or both.

Third ... we're close. Real close. I've always said fusion would be the transformational game-changer. We've never been closer to it becoming reality. It won't change everything, and not right away, but fission power will become obsolete overnight. The knock-on effects are going to be tremendous.

There does remain the possibility that it won't work. There's always that chance. I don't think it's very high, though; they wouldn't make such a public pronouncement and stake the company's name and reputation on it unless they were pretty damn sure of their success.

By the end of the decade ... we'll know.

And our world will never be the same.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Small World, Musical Division

You never know what you're going to find when you go down a rabbit hole.

Each of the armed services has a different scheme for aircraft identification. They all use tail numbers. But they have two different ways of coming up with those numbers. The Army and Air Force use the same kind of scheme, where aircraft are identified by fiscal year, and then by sequence within the year.

If you look close at the tail, you'll see black letters "AF", then under those the number 67. This aircraft was procured in FY67, and was the 463rd aircraft procured that year.

The Navy doesn't do that.

If you look very carefully under the horizontal tail -- and I do mean carefully -- you'll see the number 165675. That, very simply, means this is the 165,675th aircraft the Navy has bought since 1940. It's a nice, straightforward system. The downside is that you can't tell by BuNo when an airplane was bought ... but that's a fairly minor quibble.

A couple of weeks ago, I found a web site where you can look up all of those Navy numbers. All of them. So, I got to thinking ... Could I find the TBF Avenger my Dad flew on in WWII? (Flew on, not flew -- he worked the ball turret.)

That list contains the disposition of each airframe, when known. And that first run of Avengers makes for mighty depressing reading. Those that didn't crash or ditch either fell off the catapult, or fell overboard, or were shot down, or just took off for a sortie one day and no one ever saw it again. It made you wonder how anyone survived a tour of duty in Naval Aviation, back in the day. But I did find out a few interesting tidbits that I hadn't known before. For one, air wings went from one ship to another with some frequency. Not all the time, mind you, but if one ship was laid up for repairs its air wing would embark upon an available ship. Which is how the USS Santee, CVE-29, was carrying Torpedo Squadron 26, that you'd ordinarily expect to be embarked upon CVE-26, USS Sangamon. The other discovery came when I stumbled upon a web site devoted to the former sailors aboard the Santee. What I found ... wasn't at all what I was expecting.

See that kid with the saxophone, kneeling on the right? You may have heard of him.

Yes, Tito Puente, the King of Latin Music himself, played with the ship's band when my Dad was in the Navy. And he never once mentioned this. I'm guessing it's because Latin Jazz wasn't his thing. I don't think it was racial. When Chappie James got his fourth star, he told us about how he'd been his crew chief in Korea. But anyway ... I just wish I'd have known sooner.

And that's the other thing I found out: Santana's "Oye Como Va" was a cover. Speaking of covers ...

Anyway, I never did find what I was looking for. But I've found a whole new area of music to enjoy, so it's all good.