December 17, 2018

Open Thread 15

It's time for our usual biweekly open thread. Talk about whatever you want, even topics unrelated to the subject of the blog.

This week, I'm going to highlight Nomenclature of Naval Vessels, a 1942 publication on all of the terms that get used on ships.

Updates over the past two weeks include Ironclads, The Loss of HMS Victoria, The Death of Force Z, Parts One and Two on Huascar and The South American Dreadnought Race.


  1. December 17, 2018Neal said...

    Apart from the reports that were in the news, do the posters here have any insights/opinions/etc. into Russia's firing on, and subsequent capture of, the Ukranian vessels in the Sea of Azov?

    I know this is a topic that is fraught with geo-poltical implications, but I am curious if there is anything noteworthy as to how the attack was carried out. The news, understandably so, was rather general in simply stating the broad facts. Anything surprising as to how the attack was effected?

  2. December 17, 2018Johan Larson said...

    The people of the United States have decided on a great change of course. Bean, John, you might want to bite down on something for this.

    They have decided to cut US military spending by 50%.

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to decide what to spend the savings on. The military budget request for 2019 is $686 billion, roughly $2000 per capita.

    This is part one of a three-part mission. In part two we will consider what to cut from the military budget. In part three we will consider how to manage the transition to the shiny new less-guns/more-butter U.S. of A.

  3. December 17, 2018redRover said...

    What is the best estimate for how long existing munitions stocks would last in the even of a "hot" war against a near peer opponent?

    This seems like it would be the biggest impediment to prolonged conventional engagements against somebody like China or Russia, on both sides, because the combatants are both more lethal, and fewer in number, and fed from smaller munitions supplies. So, they fight with all the whiz-bang laser guided stuff for two weeks, and then have to revert to WWII era equipment because Pratt & Whitney can't come up with enough engine seals and Raytheon runs out of laser guidance heads.

    I'm sure the Pentagon is thinking about this, as is NATO and the various red forces, but it still seems like it would be interesting to know what the best estimates are.

  4. December 17, 2018bean said...


    You're going to have to spend a lot of it mitigating the economic damage. There are a lot of people dependent on military dollars for their livelihoods, from me working at a defense contractor to the guy manning the register at the KFC just outside the base. There are a lot of votes in that kind of stuff, too. Just look at how convoluted BRAC was to get around this same problem in the wake of the Cold War.


    I can't find a reference for it now, but I know during the later days of the Cold War, most NATO nations had a stockpile that was only adequate for a single-digit number of days of combat, at least in terms of the higher-end munitions. I doubt things have gotten better since then, and I know that USN ships routinely deploy with empty VLS cells these days.

  5. December 17, 2018Chuck said...


    I don't think this is necessarily a "new" phenomenon, my understanding of the opening phase of almost any war after the advent of artillery involves initial "decisive" strikes, and then a long positioning phase where each side tries desperately to restock while trying to seem as dangerous and well-supplied as plausible.

  6. December 17, 2018redRover said...


    For part 1: Massively beef up DARPA and related programs that focus on moving basic science to usable applications, invest in climate change mitigation programs,* work on the various problems our demography creates from both ends, and then bank whatever is left.

    Skipping ahead to part 2: Cut the Army, most of the Air Force, and most of the forward basing for the Navy. Focus on protecting the territorial integrity of the US and its possessions, with a secondary focus on freedom of navigation missions.

    *Especially ones that can be exported south to reduce immigration pressures on the US and Europe.

  7. December 17, 2018Johan Larson said...

    My sense is that the three areas that people keep complaining about are education, health care, and housing. Education and health care have been getting more and more expansive, as has housing, at least in desirable areas. These areas should be happy hunting grounds for anyone looking to fix systemic problems.

  8. December 17, 2018redRover said...


    I know, but it seems like the dropoff is particularly relevant now. If both sides are out of high tech munitions, or critical spare parts, do they back off and fight at a low intensity while they try to spool up their industrial base (and how long does that take)? Or do they go nuclear, particularly if one side has larger stockpiles than the other? Or is the war over by that point?

    It seems like in the past the tech was simple enough that most countries could hold at least a reasonable front on the basis of their collection of small arms and artillery, whereas today there is a much larger disparity between using first line whiz-bang stuff, and a bunch of guys with M-16s, at least in a near peer hot war.

  9. December 18, 2018dndnrsn said...

    @Johan Larson

    So bean has mentioned the economic hit. The other big problem: you are probably going to need a military again some day, and the skills that keep a military going will wither with a 50% military. The ideal is something that provides stuff of value to Americans while preserving as much as possible the sort of institutional culture and so on that you will presumably need someday when Jetpack Hitler menaces the grim cyberpunk metropolis of New Moscow and America must again go to war.

    Vast make-work project that employs everyone employed by the military already plus everyone else who has their shit relatively together but can't find an OK job, doing infrastructure stuff that is as close as possible to as many noncombat support elements of the military as possible. Some discipline and enough hierarchy to keep military-style organization feasible.

    Education is provided through training in this organization and benefits to "veterans" while health care is provided by same and by family benefits; some of the units of this outfit could educate and provide health care to "civilians" as well. Infastructure gets fixed. A vast make-work project with benefits will help the poor more than the rich, and help groups that are worse off due to discrimination thereby. Forcing people to mingle might get Americans to hate each other less. Hopefully this would also help relax the tensions that the US seems to suffer.

    So, keeps people employed and helps fix the US, hopefully. Meanwhile, you're keeping the organizational methods alive: maybe you can train the roadwork crews to repair a road really fast, then when you need to fight Jetpack Hitler, they can be taught to do it with shooting going on nearby.

    Also, the US is probably gonna have to somehow bribe all the various places around the world upset that now they have to pay for their own defence.

  10. December 18, 2018Johan Larson said...

    @dndnrsn, a half-caf US military will still be spending more than 300 billion dollars a year. That seems like plenty to maintain credible forces and expertise. It just has to take on significantly lower responsibilities than the current US military does.

  11. December 18, 2018dndnrsn said...

    @Johan Larson

    How many corporations, organizations, etc that do anything hard to do, learn to do, etc could survive a 50% funding cut without it really screwing up their ability to learn to do that stuff and teach how to do it?

    Meanwhile, another positive in favour of something to immediately employ as many ex-military personnel as possible: a bunch of demobbed military personnel going into an economy where finding a job ain't the easiest thing is potentially a problem.

  12. December 18, 2018Chuck said...

    @dndnrsn To take an opposite stance, freeing up wartime industrial capacity and manpower for civilian use is a big part of what produced the economic boom that started in 1945. While it is possible that the government could create a plan that would better allocate those resources, there are certainly those who would say it would be better if they didn't.

  13. December 18, 2018bean said...

    I can think of two major differences between 1945 and now. The first is that industrial capacity has gotten a lot more specialized since then. Back then, the basis of most industry was to take metal and turn it into a different shape and it within fairly broad limits it was easy to change a factory from making something for civilian production to making something for the military, and vice-versa. Today, that's very much not the case. The economy is far more dependent on things that are specialized and aren't like what the military does.

    Take someone who has spent their career writing military software. They know Ada well. Nobody outside the DoD uses Ada (because they're not insane). They may have a smattering of other languages, but in a field crawling in grads fresh out of school who know languages that are in demand, their resume is going straight into the trash. Converting this person into an app writer isn't going to be easy. (There are similar limitations in most other areas, including industry, but software is easy to understand.)

    Secondly, 1945 saw a lot of pent-up civilian demand. People hadn't been able to buy a refrigerator or a car for the last four years. Airlines needed new planes. Today, there's nothing like that to magically appear and soak up all the excess capacity that would be released.

  14. December 18, 2018bean said...

    @Johan's OP

    Scott's given us the exact answer to this question. We spend the other 50% breeding space mongooses.

  15. December 19, 2018dndnrsn said...


    A lot more stuff was made in the US back then, though. Widget Incorporated could go from making plane parts or whatever and could go back to making peacetime widgets. It's a lot less likely now that Widget Incorporated is in the US; that's why the loss of all these military and adjacent jobs would be disastrous. How bad the political climate is in the US gets exaggerated; a bunch of disproportionately young, disproportionately male, demobbed military veterans (some of them with combat experience) suddenly out in a market that probably doesn't have jobs for them would make it much worse. Especially since a lot of them would look for someone to blame. Do you want free corps? That's how you get free corps.

  16. December 21, 2018Rolf Andreassen said...

    Take someone who has spent their career writing military software. They know Ada well. Nobody outside the DoD uses Ada (because they’re not insane). They may have a smattering of other languages, but in a field crawling in grads fresh out of school who know languages that are in demand, their resume is going straight into the trash. Converting this person into an app writer isn’t going to be easy.

    I don't think this is true. Once you know how to code at all, picking up another language is a matter of a few weeks at most. Now, if the hypothetical DoD coder has learned a lot of bad habits and worst practices through being out of the mainstream of programming, that's one thing; but having worked in Ada, per se, is not a problem. A month building some toy project in Java, and he'll be ready to interview, if he's any good in the first place. If he's not good, that's a separate issue, but it has nothing to do with Ada.

  17. December 21, 2018bean said...


    I'm not in the software field, but I thought that once you're out of school, employers are normally looking for specific skills on your resume. (Also, at least some employers are seriously biased in favor of younger candidates, although that's not universal.) Maybe you could get an entry-level Java job, but it's going to be a big step down for someone with 15 years of Ada. Maybe I'm totally misinterpreting the coding job market, but I'm much more certain that the same applies to a lot of other people who aren't coders.

  18. December 21, 2018Johan Larson said...

    I’m not in the software field, but I thought that once you’re out of school, employers are normally looking for specific skills on your resume.

    It's complicated. Some employers are definitely looking for specific skills with the right languages and frameworks. Others care more about domain experience and knowledge. The really top companies seem to mostly care about being well trained and very smart.

    Someone who has spent the last 15 years coding Ada for a defense contractor would probably have to most luck looking for work for other defense contractors, where his domain knowledge really counts. If he wanted something beyond that, he'd be well advised to take a few weeks to learn the basics of Java and JavaScript, or something like that. And if he's switching fields, he'll probably lose some rank and pay. Fifteen years in, he might be level four; in a different domain he might be considered for level two jobs. He wouldn't be a beginner -- his experience definitely counts for something -- but he would lose ground.

  19. December 22, 2018Rolf Andreassen said...

    I’m not in the software field, but I thought that once you’re out of school, employers are normally looking for specific skills on your resume.

    So I've worked for two big tech companies; my experience is hardly universal - for all I know, BigTechCo #3 across the street does it differently. (And no doubt Widget, Inc. in the next town over, which hires a lot of coders but isn't a tech company, has another approach.) However, with that limitation, I've been the interviewer in a lot of tech interviews. What I'm looking for is familiarity with basic data structures, traversal, recursion, and above all the ability to have all that stuff in muscle memory so you can apply it to a problem flowingly, without thinking about the recursion as such, but just about how it applies to solve this specific problem in a way that's useful to the people who will be calling this code. If the candidate can do that I don't care if they write in Brainf*ck. The minutiae of the language we're working in are, well, not _completely_ irrelevant. They have to know at least the syntax for write a for loop and a function, or there won't be flow. But if they don't remember the name of the lookup function in a map, or if they want "insert" or "push", I don't care; that's what Google is for.

    It's true that most of the candidates I interview have C++ on their resumes, that being the language I mostly work in; but that's an artifact of recruiters sending me those candidates. I'd happily interview someone who wrote Ada on the whiteboard, if they could do recursion flowingly. (It's a pleasure to interview someone who knows their stuff; conversely it's agonising to watch someone have to stop and think, "now we're dropping down to the first child node...").

    To give you an analogy, asking about language is like asking whether the mechanic has worked with Imperial or metric wrenches. Yes, that's the basic tool, they're going to have to make an adjustment, but it's not the skill. The skill is knowing how to think about wrenching.

  20. December 22, 2018bean said...

    It looks like I was misinformed about software, and I probably came on too strong in general about how difficult it was to jump from defense to non-defense. But going from a level four to a level two is a pretty good reflection of the sort of hit you're taking in skills by having to retrain people.

  21. December 23, 2018doctorpat said...

    The USA did have a major drop in military spending at the end of the cold war. Something like 21% in nominal terms from 1986 to 1994, and hence a lot more in real terms. Surely step one would be to examine the effects of this?

  22. December 23, 2018bean said...

    I'm not sure the situations are the same. First, the fall of the Soviet Union meant that there was a significant reduction in the threat. We're talking about a much larger reduction in budget in the absence of a change in threat. Second, there was a lot more opportunity to discard old systems and keep the good stuff. We don't have a bunch of second-tier stuff kept in service to make up our numbers any more. So we'd be cutting useful stuff.

  23. December 24, 2018tanktics said...

    I don't know if you've noticed this - but the site is so slow that Google won't index it.

  24. December 24, 2018bean said...

    Huh? It is indexed by google. It's kind of low because robots.txt was configured to not let it index until about October, but it's there. It's the third hit for Naval Gazing if you make it search that instead of redirecting to navel gazing, although that's the obormot version for some reason. In other areas, shows up in the search results instead.

  25. December 24, 2018bean said...

    I just recently stumbled across an article so terrible I feel compelled to share it with you. We Are the Mighty is claiming that Yamato's guns are heavier than entire battleships. Because those guns apparently weighted about 3000 tons each, which means that on aggregate, the guns of a Yamato weighed as much as, say, USS Texas. This was weird, as I knew Iowa's were somewhere in the region of 100 tons, and that that's an absurd proportion of armament weight. So I check NavWeps. 181 tons each.

    I'm pretty sure what happened was that whoever wrote the article got the weight of each turret confused with the weight of each gun. And noobdy who read it before they posted it was ablut to notice that this made absolutely no sense. (There's also the bit where they keep saying Iowa was 40% lighter, which means they also don't understand treaty displacement. Why do people keep making that mistake?)

  26. December 24, 2018bean said...

    Could I get some feedback on the Electronic Warfare posts? Specifically, did they get no comments because I did a good job and nobody could think of anything to say, or because EW bores you guys, and I should go back to talking about battleships?

  27. December 25, 2018doctorpat said...

    Re: EW - I could only comment on a detail that I read somewhere else because generally speaking (to me) EW is just harder to talk about.

    1. It's far more recent than guns and armour and stuff, dating only back to the Russo-Japanese war at most? Meaning that a big chunk of the cool stuff is still classified or at least not public knowledge enough for me to be familiar with it.

    2. It is, literally, invisible.

    3. I think that there is a lack of controversy, which always helps to spark comment. Maybe if you examined the whole "is stealth a useful thing or was it just a flash in the pan".

    Having said that I do remember a WWII EW story. I read this literally in school, so who knows how much I've mangled the story, but here we go:

    Chaff, the use of lots of strips of aluminium foil dropped from planes (or fired into the air from guns) is a fairly solid 1st level counter for radar. And both Germany and England came up with the idea early in WWII.

    BUT, the Germans didn't use it, because they figured that it would be dead easy for the English to copy it, and wanted to preserve the effectiveness of their cool new, expensive, radar network.

    And the English didn't use it, because they figured that it would be dead easy for the Germans to copy it, and wanted to preserve the effectiveness of their cool new, expensive, radar network.

    So both sides had the tech, but never used it for fear of the secret getting to the other side.

    Eventually the air war reached the stage where the Allies were attacking far, far more than the Axis, at which point chaff (which benefits the attacking aircraft at the expense of the defending air defence system) would be far more useful to the Allies, so they started using it. Initially in a couple of major bombing campaigns to get the most use out of it while it was still a surprise.

    Meanwhile, the tech was public knowledge the entire time, because some English fiction writer had just come up with the idea and put it in a story. He was somewhat surprised to have British Intelligence suddenly appear on his doorstep.

  28. December 25, 2018Lambert said...

    I think the EW posts were a good introduction to the area, but too broad to generate much discussion.

    Don't see them as standalone works, but rather as something to link to if you ever want to talk about EW related things in more depth.

  29. December 25, 2018bean said...


    I could only comment on a detail that I read somewhere else because generally speaking (to me) EW is just harder to talk about.

    Very true. The weren't the easiest things to write, and most other authors seem to struggle with it, too. Everything I came across fell into one of three categories:

    1. Too superficial. A page, maybe two. (Less than one of my posts.

    2. Too technical. Want 15 pages on the equations behind radar jamming? We can do that. Want to get some idea of concepts without wading through all the math? Too bad.

    3. Too historical. Lots of detail on specific systems, but you have to disentangle concepts from a bunch of stuff about policy.

    Re chaff, you didn't butcher the story at all, actually. The one detail I would add is that the author was talking about suspending reflectors from kites, not dropping metallic strips.


    That's helpful. Thank you.

  30. December 25, 2018Johan Larson said...

    Bean, if you're looking for something to write about, you might address air defenses that can make the current generation of military drones (like the Reaper and Global Hawk) unusable. It seems to me these drones rely on altitude for protection; they simply fly high enough that really simple AA defenses like machine guns can't hit them. But that really only works against unsophisticated forces, like the Taliban.

    What are low-end militaries trying to do to make their airspace unsafe for military drones, and how are the drone users like the USAF planning to counter that?

  31. December 25, 2018Rolf Andreassen said...

    I wonder if you would want to talk a bit about the design philosophies of Great War destroyers? I came across the question on this reddit thread where I tried to answer about the low endurance of the destroyers at Jutland, but I would love to see you go into some depth about this. There seems to have been quite a bit of back-and-forth on this between classes of different years, much more so than in the case of battleships - you get Tribal+Coastal one year, then it's coal-fired Beagles, then the more endurance-focused Acorn class. Any insight on the different design schools involved, or the personalities that led to such drastic swings?

  32. December 26, 2018bean said...


    Predators and the like don't operate in the face of even a mildly serious air defense. Global Hawk might, but it's mostly high enough to be hard to shoot down. Can't say anything about counter-countermeasures offhand. They probably just don't operate them in the face of anyone who is too hostile.


    I recently got Friedman's British Destroyers through WWI. I'm sure the answer is in there, but I don't have it to hand, and it's not at the top of my reading list.

  33. December 26, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    Mostly agreed with doctorpat re: EW being harder to talk about. I enjoyed the series, especially the deception jamming stuff, but didn't have a lot of ideas for comment.

    The one thing I did sort of feel like I was missing was a sense of context of the technologies and how balanced over time. Granted this is probably hard. The question hides a ton of complexity: a complete understanding which types of combatants had which electronic capabilities against which types of opponents under what conditions in a given era is obviously well beyond a blog post or three. And insofar as these technologies were developed for hypothetical rather than ongoing conflicts (i.e. most of the Cold War), the balance was never observed and the informed guesses classified.

    Still, I find even a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. For instance, reading between the lines, I can infer from the existence of ARMs that Vietnamese SAMs could track US aircraft with some success--ECM wasn't absolutely dominant over ECCM. And footnote 2 of ECM suggests that in WWII, British ECM was good enough that the Germans countered it in large part by reducing reliance on radar--so ECCM wasn't absolutely dominant over ECM in aircraft search.

    There are probably a few more datums like this available--e.g. did planes in Vietnam avoid guided missiles via countermeasures frequently or rarely? And I just remembered your estimate from the Carrier-doom series that "EW will draw off about 50% of missiles that get close enough to be affected".

    Hard to explain why I value these so much, since it's obviously nothing like a complete strategic picture of anything... I guess it's about having an occasional reality check while reading about how these systems work in theory.

  34. December 27, 2018CatCube said...

    Put me down as another who enjoyed reading the ECM series, but didn't really have much to comment about.

  35. December 27, 2018bean said...


    One side is rarely totally dominant over the other. It's heavily dependent on a complex mixture of technology and tactics, and this stuff changes rapidly even within a given war.

    I do think my next post on EW would probably be an analysis of something like the electronic war between the bombers and the German defenses (or maybe the campaign against the German guided bombs, although there was less back-and-fort there). If you want the full version, it will be drawn from the book Instruments of Darkness, which is very good.

  36. December 28, 2018Li said...

    I really enjoyed the EW stuff. It's an excellent overview of declassified topics. There's just not much room for unclassified discussion.

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