March 18, 2018

A Day on the America Part 2

Last time I talked about how I got a chance to ride the amphibious assault ship USS America from San Diego to San Pedro as part of LA Fleet Week 2016. I decided to split the post, due to length. (I took a lot of pictures.) When I left off, I had just gotten kicked off the flight deck, as they were about to start bringing planes aboard.

In the hangar deck, the ship's security detachment was showing off some of their guns. Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures, but I did get to handle one of their shotguns, an M9, an M14 and an M16. They all felt pretty much like I expected, and I remembered the M16 manual well enough to run the controls. One of the more interesting observations was that the guy I was with and I clearly had gun safety training, while the contingent of potential recruits we were next to clearly did not. It was enough to make one a bit nervous. I was also disappointed that I didn't get to handle the M240 machine gun they had out.

A little bit later, we watched from the hangar as a contingent of airplanes were flown aboard to be displayed during Fleet Week.

A V-22 Osprey landing aboard1

Watching air operations from the elevator well of the hangar


March 16, 2018

Thoughts on Tour Guiding

This post was written in April of 2017, while I was still an active tour guide on the Iowa. I've left it intact, as it remained accurate up to the time I left, and I didn't want to mess with tenses or the like.

My first look at Iowa

This time, I’m going to do something that takes no research at all. Instead of talking about battleships, I’m going to discuss my experience as a tour guide.

I started volunteering because, on my first visit to the ship, all the really interesting bits had ‘authorized access only’ signs on them. I asked how I could get authorized, and was told to volunteer. I picked Tours over Operations because I figured it aligned more with my current skills, and I’m really glad I did. Telling people about the ship is so much fun. That’s also why I’ve been doing the battleship columns here.


March 14, 2018

A Day on the America Part 1

In my first year as a volunteer on the Iowa, I got a once in a lifetime opportunity. Iowa was serving as the host for LA Fleet Week 2016, and had gotten about 15 tickets for people to ride up on the ships coming from San Diego. Fortunately, I managed to get one, and I got to spend 9 hours aboard the amphibious ship USS America (LHA-6). It was one of the most memorable days of my life. I've alluded to it before, but somehow never got around to telling the whole story. It's going to be mostly pictures, of which I took a lot.

Me on the flight deck of America2

Tuesday, August 30th began about 0215. I had to be at Iowa at 0300 to catch the bus to meet the America. Going down was the contingent from the battleship, a bunch of assorted bigwigs from various Fleet Week organizations, some people the Navy was trying to woo, and some Boy Scouts who had somehow gotten tickets. I tried to sleep, but couldn't.


March 11, 2018

Amphibious Warfare Part 5

After World War II, militaries worldwide began a reevaluation of amphibious warfare. The development of the atomic bomb had in theory made the massed invasion fleets of WWII obsolete, and they began to search for new ways of putting troops ashore, hampered by the strained finances of the postwar world. Of course, when war did come to Korea, traditional amphibious warfare came back one last time.

Marines crossing the sea wall at Inchon

When the North Koreans launched their drive south in June of 1950, they pushed the South Koreans, and the United Nations forces supporting them, into the Pusan Perimeter in the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. As more UN forces reached the Far East in August, most expected MacArthur to push them back in a conventional offensive. Instead, he chose to launch an amphibious landing at Inchon, near the capital of Seoul and over 150 miles from the allied lines. This was an incredible gamble. MacArthur was committing limited forces in an environment with narrow, twisting channels, high sea walls, and the largest tidal range in Asia. However, he believed that the North Koreans would think it was too dangerous and not be expecting the landing.


March 09, 2018

Military Procurement - Pricing

It’s probably worth continuing our exploration of the amazing world of military procurement. Specifically, I’m going to talk about pricing. Figuring out how much an airplane or a ship costs is surprisingly difficult, and it’s easy for those with a bias to twist the results to suit their ends. I’ll lay out how this is done, which can help to interpret the numbers you see.

Iowa under construction

Major military hardware is produced in only limited quantities and involves a massive amount of research, development, and engineering before the first unit goes into service. Because of this, the companies that build it are rarely willing to take the risk of paying for the development themselves and recovering the cost from the units that they sell. What if the customer suddenly decides to cut their buy in half? To avoid this problem, development is paid for by the customer separately from procurement of each item. Well, more or less. The actual answer varies with each particular system, accounting method, and time of the month. But in general, costs break down that way.


March 07, 2018

The Bombardment of Alexandria

We've talked about the early British ironclads at some length, but the ships in question saw combat only once. In 1881, the populace of Egypt revolted against the unofficial Anglo-French control of the country, threatening to depose the Khedive. The greater problem from the British perspective was that this also imperiled their control of the Suez Canal, the vital lifeline to British India. A squadron of ironclads was dispatched to Alexandria, and after riots in June of 1882, the Egyptians began to fortify the city, adding guns to the defensive works. The British repeatedly requested that the work be stopped, finally delivering an ultimatum that if the fortifications were not surrendered for disarmament, they would bombard the city on July 11th.

That morning, at 7 AM, the British moved in. The fleet consisted of the central-battery ships Alexandra, Invincible, Superb, Sultan and Penelope, the hybrid barbette/central battery ironclad Temeraire and the turret ships Monarch and Inflexible. The total broadside of this force was 22,500 lbs from 44 heavy muzzle-loading guns. Supporting these ships was a torpedo boat, a dispatch boat, five smaller gun vessels, and a telegraph ship that had picked up the undersea cables to Malta and Cyprus, and was relaying news of the bombardment to London in near-real time.


March 05, 2018

Russia's New Nuclear Weapons - A Skeptical Look

Putin’s announcement last week of several new and improved strategic systems has thrown the internet into a frenzy. They will supposedly render US ABM systems useless and, at least if you listen to some of the more hysterical pundits, completely change warfare as we know it.

Fortunately for the US, none of this is true. The systems announced are either fairly mundane or likely vaporware. Of course, recognizing this requires familiarity with military economics and nuclear history, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people are freaking out. In fact, it appears that Putin has simply taken a list of abandoned strategic weapons systems, repackaged them, and brought them out for political reasons.

We’ll start with the nuclear-powered cruise missile. This is not a new idea. The US investigated it extensively during the 50s, and ultimately decided against it. Nuclear reactors are heavy compared to conventional systems of similar power, and nearly impossible to test, given the risks of nuclear contamination if something goes wrong. Why Putin would buy a risky, expensive, and strategically dubious missile is not clear. Russia is traditionally very concerned with maintaining positive control over nuclear weapons, and having them flying around on an unmanned platform is not exactly likely to make anyone comfortable. Particularly given the communications problems involved in using a weapon like this effectively, I believe it to be a fake.

The nuclear-powered minisubmarine is much the same. Nobody wants to let nuclear weapons run around the oceans unattended, and communications have always been the Achilles heel of submarine operations. The characteristics described don’t go well together, as high speed means lots of noise and a relatively large size, while being undetectable also drives up size. The concept of using underwater vehicles to attack ports dates back to the initial plans for the first Soviet nuclear attack submarine, the November class.

The hypersonic glider is somewhat more plausible, although as is fairly common, the characteristics are rather overstated. Hypersonic aerodynamics are inherently inefficient, which means that range is somewhat limited and maneuver capability is nowhere near what proponents would have you believe. Too much maneuver means that you run out of energy and fall short of the target. The inconsistent information we’ve gotten on this one, such as very different speed values, make me classify it as probable vaporware.

The RS-28 ICBM is a fairly mundane development. They're building a new heavy ICBM because their previous one is made in Ukraine, but it’s not a game-changer. The ability to attack over the south pole is also not particularly novel, although the deployment of a missile with this capability does suggest a new Russian attitude towards arms control, which might profitably be answered with a similar attitude on the part of the US.

The Kinzhal hypersonic missile was quickly identified by the internet as an air-launched version of the existing Iskander ballistic missile. This is yet another system with roots in the Cold War, and it’s nowhere near as revolutionary as it’s made out to be. Iskander is an impressive weapon, but it’s not exempt from the laws of physics, and it’s well within the envelope of the SM-3 and SM-6 missiles. It’s also the subject of inconsistent performance claims, some of which are clearly stated to be terrifying when they actually aren’t. One mode is “a 90-degree dive at 7-800 m/s”. This sounds impressive, but it’s only about Mach 2.5. It could be useful if you’re attacking a missile site that doesn’t have another one covering it, but this is not the case at sea, and Mach 2.5 is well within the envelope of most SAMs.

The last system announced was a laser point-defense system for base protection. This is not a strategic system, and I’m not really qualified to evaluate how useful it is. Similar systems have been under development for years in the US, and have even been deployed for operational evaluation.

Putin blamed US missile defenses for the array of new weapons, but this is utter nonsense. The US has 44 ABMs with capability against ICBMs, mostly in Alaska. These are positioned to protect the US against missiles from North Korea, which also gives some protection against China. The Russians have enough missiles to comfortably overwhelm the existing GMD system, and most of them are on trajectories that are not within the system’s engagement zone anyway. It does bear pointing out, though, that he’d have no reason to do this if ABM systems are as ineffective as their detractors claim.

So what is he up to, then? Again, we must look back to the Cold War. During that conflict, the Russians twice managed to convince the US that they had a major edge in strategic weapons, first bombers and then missiles. In both cases, the US was comfortably ahead, but bad intelligence and Soviet deceptions lead to panic in the west. Later, Reagan used a similar strategy. Fake black programs were set up and details were “leaked” to the Russians, with massive funding flowing to programs in an attempt to duplicate American technology that never existed in the first place. The strain of these programs played a vital part in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There’s also a domestic political angle. The Russian presidential election is on March 18th, and Putin is presumably trying to bring the opinion the country more in line with the election results.

The other big question missed by the media is how all of this is being funded. Russia’s GDP is smaller than that of South Korea in nominal terms, and just behind Germany in PPP terms. Even with the mess that most of the west has made of military equipment procurement, it’s hard to see them being able to fund a strategic buildup of this magnitude, particularly when combined with ongoing operations in Syria and Ukraine, and the modernization of their conventional forces that we see articles about every so often.

Ultimately, since the end of the Cold War, the Russians have established themselves as masters of military vaporware. Their systems arrive late or not at all, and it’s impossible to definitively say just how effective they are when they get there. Putin’s latest announcement of a bunch of repackaged Cold War-era concepts is entirely in line with traditional Russian strategy. Hopefully we’re smart enough to avoid playing into his hands this time.

March 04, 2018

Propulsion Part 4

The pinnacle of battleship propulsion was the plant built for the Iowa class. Let's take a look in (possibly excessive) detail, to understand how these magnificent machines worked in practice.

Jim Pobog explaining the boiler control system3

To propel the 53,900 tons of battleship at 32.5 kts required 212,000 HP, produced by 4,444 tons of machinery.4 Iowa's machinery is arranged in four boiler rooms and four engine rooms, alternating in the space between Turrets II and III. Each boiler room contains two Babcock & Wilcox M-type water-tube boilers producing steam at 600 psi and 850 F. It can be divided into waterside and fireside, and we'll look at waterside first. The feedwater enters the boiler and first passes through the economizer, which is a heat exchanger in the boiler exhaust, to get as much heat out of the exhaust gasses as possible. It then goes into the steam drum at the top of the boiler. From there, the downcomers route it into the water drums at the bottom, where it enters the steam tubes that take it back to the steam drum. It is in these tubes that most of the steam is generated. As it leaves the steam tubes, the mix of steam and water is at about 485 F, and moisture separators return the unevaporated water to the steam drum. The steam goes into the superheater, where it is heated to the final 850 F and sent to the turbines. The water level in the plant is controlled manually. A boiler technician, universally known as a BT, was stationed near the steam drum. His job was to make sure that the water didn't get too high and flow over into the turbines, or too low, which would make the boiler melt.


March 02, 2018

Sea Story: Late Night Forward Pumproom Test

The following is from Jim Pobog, the tour department lead on the Iowa. He was a boiler technician on the oiler Mispillion off Vietnam, and has kindly given me permission to post some of his sea stories here. Here's one in honor of our recent discussions of engineering. Some of the terminology here is best understood after reading Propulsion Part 4.

USS Mispillion (AO-105) off Vietnam

One of the interesting effects of being at sea for long periods of time was that it was easy to lose track of what day it was. The repeated routine day after day led you to doing things on sort of an autopilot, never expecting variation.

At one of these times I was on watch in the fire room in the middle of the night. We were just station keeping, sailing in those big circles, back and forth up and down the coast of North Vietnam.

Quite suddenly the engine-order telegraph rang. The engine-order telegraph is the thing you see in movies, the large dial that indicates what speed the Officer of The Deck wants the ship to go. We were cruising along at Ahead 1/3, then… RIIIING!!!! RIIIIING!!!, and it shows All Back Emergency.

Now that is a thrill, having those bells come out of nowhere in the middle of the night.


February 28, 2018

Propulsion Part 3

The main tasks of the naval engineer once oil and turbines had been adopted were making the existing plants more powerful and more efficient. The most obvious way to resolve the mismatch between the desire of turbines to turn quickly and the desire of the screws to turn slowly was to use gears.5 The problem is that transmitting tens of thousands of horsepower through gears is not easy.

HMS Hood, the first battleship designed with geared turbines

The geared turbine first went to sea in large ships in 1916 with the three ships of the Courageous class, although they weren't technically battleships.6 This was necessary to allow them to make 32 kts, by far the fastest sort-of capital ships of the day. They also introduced new small-tube boilers, which were about 30% lighter for the power than the large-tube boilers in use previously. The first proper battleship followed a year later, when the USS North Dakota was refitted from direct-drive to geared turbines. But since there are very few details on that plant available, we'll look at the first battleship designed with a geared turbine plant, HMS Hood.7 She had separate high-pressure and low-pressure turbines on each shaft, along with astern blades in the low-pressure turbine casing. The outer shafts also had cruising turbines which could be clutched in at low speeds. At full power, the gearing reduced the 1500 rpm of the HP turbine and the 1100 rpm of the LP turbine down to 210 rpm at the shaft. Total designed power on each shaft was 36,000 hp, making Hood the most powerful ship afloat, although in practice turbines were easy to overload, and she made 32 kts using 151,600 shp on trials at a displacement of 42,200 tons. 24 small-tube Yarrow boilers produced steam at 235 psi, and 1,200 tons of oil could propel Hood 6,400 nm at 12 kts.