January 14, 2019

Open Thread 17

It's time once again for our regular open thread. Talk about whatever you want.

This time, I'm going to highlight what Neal said in the recent post on commercial aviation:

I would argue that the reliability, pretty decent schedule adherence (I know, not perfect), and safety make modern air travel a marvel of the modern world. It is simply economic infrastructure. Yes I wish it could be more pleasant with bigger seats, but it ain’t too bad for what it does and that is move millions of people every 24 hours.

[Airlines are] an industry that, just domestically alone, moves the equivalent population of Philadelphia to Minneapolis every 24 hours--and that was at the year 2000 so I am sure that it has increased.

Overhauled posts since last time are A Spotter's Guide to Modern Warships, my posts on the reactivation of the Iowas in the 80s and why doing the same thing today is a terrible idea, stability of ships, and parts one and two of Why the Carriers Are Not Doomed.


  1. January 14, 2019Eric Rall said...

    I came across an article last week (didn't save the link) arguing for converting existing merchant hulls into arsenal ships instead of building more destroyers. It's an intriguing idea (merchant hulls being so much cheaper than new warships), but I suspect it's unworkable except for niche applications.

    The big problems I see are survivability and fire control. Merchant ships are designed against the kinds of hazards they face as merchant ships: accidental collisions, mechanical failures, etc, not a concerted effort by other ships to kill them with missiles, guns, and torpedoes. To make a merchant ship anywhere near as survivable as a warship, you need to add point defense, countermissiles, torpedo defense systems, etc, and you probably need to re-work a lot of major systems to make the ship at least somewhat resilient against battle damage (and there's only so much you can do without rebuilding the hull from scratch).

    By the time you get done doing all that, plus putting the kinds of fire control you'd need to make productive use of your missile, then I don't know how much money you'd wind up saving, and at best you're still getting a slow, relatively fragile warship.

    It might make sense for niche roles where you aren't going up against anyone who's likely to try to shoot at you, so you don't need to worry so much about survivability: shooting missiles at ground targets in a country without an effective navy, or as ballistic missile defense launch platforms.

    It might also make sense as a desperation move in a major war, to fight alongside actual warships (which can help out with fire control, missile defense, and anti-sub screening) to put more missiles in the air, accepting that we're likely to lose the ships (and their crews) when enemy fire comes in. But we're a long way from that kind of situation, and something like that were on the horizon, we've got plenty of capacity to build more actual warships instead.

  2. January 14, 2019bean said...

    There are a lot of bad ideas floating around the naval/military sphere, and I've heard that the reappear on a predictable cycle of a certain number of years for each. This is one of them, and you've certainly identified several of the big problems with them. Warships are more than ships with weapons bolted on to them, and have been for north of 400 years.

    Without the article I don't know the details of what they were proposing, but it seems likely to run into the same problem that has sunk all arsenal ship proposals. Namely, that while enhancing combat power by strapping a bunch of missile tubes to a hull and reusing the expensive combat systems on another ship sounds great, it's really hard and makes you very vulnerable. For Tomahawks, it's not so bad, because those can be targeted relatively simply, but for SAMs, you're placing a lot of valuable missiles in a ship which can't actually use them if the Aegis ship nearby gets damaged or otherwise can't pass commands.

    The other issue is that we're not short of VLS cells these days. Nobody goes to sea with a full load. Maybe we should buy more missiles first.

  3. January 14, 2019Eric Rall said...

    Founding it: this is the article I saw

  4. January 14, 2019bean said...

    The most important thing to remember about Proceedings is that it's the Navy's equivalent of an internet message board, and there's no IQ test to publish.

    You'd do better stretching future Burkes to get more cells to sea. Assuming, of course, that was a really serious problem. Which it isn't. Another issue with this concept is that they aren't very useful in anything short of a war with China, which is what our Navy is going to spend most of its time doing. (This is despite the article's claims to the contrary, which doesn't really describe how warships normally work.)

  5. January 15, 2019bean said...

    Does anyone have any idea why certain posts are suddenly attracting a lot of spam comments? I've seen a single-digit number total until recently, but over the last few days, it's been common to see two in the sidebar at the same time. And most are on Museum Ships - Rest of World or Ironclads. Fortunately, the captcha is catching them, but it's kind of weird.

  6. January 15, 2019Echo said...

    This is a depressing subject, but have you considered a post on abandoning ships? Browsing pacific war articles, I was shocked by the horrific casualties Japanese battleship and carrier crews suffered in what should have been routine evacuations of damaged ships under tow. Was this a training issue? Crew safety not being factored into the design? Just bad luck or worse battle damage?

  7. January 15, 2019bean said...

    That's a very interesting question, and one I don't know the answer to. I'd guess that part of it was Japanese fatalism, part was inadequate damage resistance/control (people getting cut off by fire or overwhelmed by smoke before they can evacuate) and part may have just been that they tended to take lots of damage pretty quickly. It's on the idea list, though. Thank you.

  8. January 15, 2019Johan Larson said...

    TIL the US military has not one but TWO ways of doing aerial refueling. The Navy does it one way: the tanker extends a flexible hose with a funnel on the end, and the recipient aircraft maneuvers a connector into the funnel. The Air Force does it another way: the tanker extends a rigid steerable boom that connects to the body of the recipient aircraft.

    You'd think someone in the Pentagon would have noticed two completely different projects doing the same darn thing and had the two services hammer out a compromise.

  9. January 15, 2019bean said...

    You’d think someone in the Pentagon would have noticed two completely different projects doing the same darn thing and had the two services hammer out a compromise.

    They noticed a long time ago. The problem is that they need different things out of a refueling rig. Probe-and-drogue is fairly low-impact on both aircraft, but has a limited fueling rate. The Air Force actually used both systems in the early days (the F-100 is an example of probe-and-drogue in USAF service), but then standardized on the boom because they needed to do lots of refueling of bombers. Trying to refuel a B-52 with a probe and drogue would take forever. But fitting a boom on a plane that has to fly off a carrier is a problem, and you definitely can't do buddy pods that way.

  10. January 15, 2019John Schilling said...

    Navy Times has more on the Fitzgerald collision. Does not look good for the Navy, or at least for the 7th Fleet, but unfortunately there’s nothing to corroborate Navy Times’ version of what they say they saw in the official report, so some of that may be journalistic spin.

    It appears that the captain’s cabin was in the damage zone, with the result that the CO suffered traumatic brain injury. Arguably poetic justice for being in his cabin while his ship was transiting such a congested area, but a personal tragedy and one that certainly doesn’t help when it comes to getting a solid understanding of what went wrong.

  11. January 15, 2019bean said...

    That's rather horrifying reading. The sort of thing you expect from the navy of a 3rd world country having to explain why their ship is currently on its side, and not from the largest navy on the planet. Hopefully, the OPTEMPO in 7th Fleet drops some, and they can get their act together.

  12. January 16, 2019AlphaGamma said...

    Trying to refuel a B-52 with a probe and drogue would take forever.

    I was going to say that the RAF refuelled their Vulcans with them, but then looked it up and discovered that a Vulcan has less than a quarter the fuel capacity of a B-52.

    The UK has standardised on probe and drogue, although they last flew a plane capable of buddy tanking off a carrier in 1979. This is causing a problem with the RAF's new P-8 Poseidon MPA (among other US-built aircraft they operate), which is only equipped for boom refuelling. The RAF's Voyager (Airbus A330MRTT) tankers are only equipped with drogues, though there is talk of fitting them with a boom as other air forces have done.

  13. January 16, 2019AlphaGamma said...

    Potentially of interest here (don't think it's been shared before):

    A series of longreads on the flooding and near loss of HMS Endurance in 2008 in the Magellan straits, written by the ship's commander.

    Note this is not the Endurance that was in the Falklands, but the replacement which had the same name.

  14. January 16, 2019bean said...

    I'm slightly surprised that the RAF hasn't asked for a probe rig for the P-8. It doesn't seem like a particularly hard change to make, although after what happened with their last MPA, I can understand the MoD having a "no change" policy. I wouldn't be horribly surprised if Boeing came up with an adapter. What have they done with their E-3s?

    Actually, I hadn't realized that the P-8 had a boom system. I wasn't sure what their aerial refueling capability was, but it's worth pointing out that the vast majority of the US tanker capability is in USAF aircraft with booms, and the P-8 isn't going to fly off of carriers. So might as well fit it with the high-capacity system.

    Also, I'm still slightly surprised that we haven't seen at least serious proposals for a KC-40, based on the 737, for the Navy. I know there was such a proposal many years ago, and it seems a cheap and easy way to add more tanker capacity for the USN. The 737 is cheap to fly, relatively cheap to build, and the probe-and-drogue system is low-impact.

    And thanks for sharing those articles on Endurance. I'd probably heard of that incident, but I didn't know how close they came to losing her, and a bunch of lives.

  15. January 16, 2019Chuck said...

    The piece on the Endurance is really gripping and well written, with just the right amount of levity and technical detail.

    That seems to be a trend I'm starting to notice from various things linked off this blog. Is there a reason that seamen make good writers?

  16. January 16, 2019Marko said...

    Regarding quality of nautical writing, my guess is that it's a combination of having to write regularly in the course of work (Ships Logs, Reports, etc) and thus being used to it, and likely reading more than the average person, at least while afloat. Books are still the best way to kill time in cramped, isolated circumstances.

  17. January 16, 2019bean said...

    I'm not sure that writing documents like the log is going to lead to being able to write in a way that people actually want to read. People reading a lot while at sea is more likely. Or just chance/selection bias.

    Also, exciting news. The National Museum of the Surface Navy is coming to the Iowa. I think this is an official US Navy museum (although none of the reports are totally clear on this), and it's great that the surface fleet is finally getting its own museum, and that it's coming to my ship. They're looking to strip out more berthing spaces (which I'm a little sad about) and open up more of the ship, as well as putting more facilities ashore. If they get the same people who did the submarine museum, it's going to be great.

  18. January 16, 2019John Schilling said...
    Hopefully, the OPTEMPO in 7th Fleet drops some, and they can get their act together.

    It seems like there needs to be a culture conducive to a CO saying, without throwing away his career, "We really need some down time before we can take on that mission safely; since I haven't noticed us being at war, are you really sure you want to order us to do this right now?"

    7th Fleet pretty clearly doesn't have that; I hope this is something the USN generally can work on.

  19. January 16, 2019redRover said...

    I wonder why the Navy doesn't try to add refueling to a C-2 or similar. The loss of the KA-6/S-3 platform seems like it's been a major impediment to the strike capability of the carrier group, and land based options are great but don't seem like they fill the same niche.

  20. January 16, 2019bean said...

    I think it’s because they don’t have enough C-2s. The airframes aren’t exactly new, (I got to tour one at Miramar, and it was older than me) and I’d assume they’re reasonably heavily tasked elsewhere. There might also be speed issues. They Greyhound isn’t exactly a speedy aircraft, and a Hornet might well have trouble slowing down enough to tank off of one, even at full throttle. This was a serious problem for the B-47/KC-97 combo.

  21. January 17, 2019AlphaGamma said...

    I’m slightly surprised that the RAF hasn’t asked for a probe rig for the P-8. It doesn’t seem like a particularly hard change to make, although after what happened with their last MPA, I can understand the MoD having a “no change” policy. I wouldn’t be horribly surprised if Boeing came up with an adapter. What have they done with their E-3s?

    The E-3Ds have probes as well as receptacles- I have seen claims that they are the only aircraft currently flying with both. I don't know who built the probes.

  22. January 18, 2019redRover said...


    The airframes aren’t exactly new, (I got to tour one at Miramar, and it was older than me)

    They're making new E-2Ds, so I assume they could take the radar off and put more tanks in if they wanted new builds, or even use the old E-2Cs in the same way. After all, the C-2 post-dates the original E-2A, so there has to be a lot of commonality.

    Good point about speed! It would be iffy, but this suggests stall on an -18 is around 135kts https://bbs.hitechcreations.com/smf/index.php?topic=368823.0

    and Wikipedia suggests that a C-2 can do 250kts at 29k ft. You would have to do the math on IAS/TAS and so on, but I think it would be feasible at say stall x1.5.

  23. January 21, 2019bean said...

    Today I encountered something truly remarkable: a defense contractor complaining about a fixed-price contract being replaced by a cost-plus contract. I'm not sure this is a sign of the end times, as I'm still consulting Revelation, but it's definitely weird.

  24. January 24, 2019ADifferentAnonymous said...

    Was the contractor complaining on behalf of the public, or did they think the cost-plus contract would end up being less favorable to the contractor?

  25. January 24, 2019bean said...

    On behalf of the contractor, obviously. Have you ever met a defense contractor?

    (I think that they had done well enough bringing costs down on the previous contract that the government wasn't going to keep them at the same rate as before.)

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