October 16, 2020

Open Thread 63

It's time once again for our regular Open Thread. Talk about anything you want that isn't culture war.

The RTW2 game has gotten to the point where writing it up and particularly pulling screenshots isn't really fun any more. I'm planning on posting March 1933 (already played) and then doing an epilogue where I play through 1950 and report what happened at a high level. After that, I'm considering doing something with Aurora, which nicely sidesteps the illustration problem because I can just upload the database and anyone who wants to check the game can install Aurora and open the database themselves.

But Aurora being free opens up other options. We could do a succession game, set in an unstable nation where the government is often replaced, and pass the database from player to player. I don't expect competent play from most people, but it will be amusing. Or we could try something else that I haven't thought of.

2018 overhauls are Secondary Armament Part 4, Going back to Iowa, The Washington Naval Treaty, Survivability - Flooding, my review of LA maritime sites and Falklands Part 7. 2019 overhauls are Riverine Warfare - China Parts two and three, my picture post on Iowa's officer quarters and JDAM.

Comments

  1. October 16, 2020Baker Easy said...

    So I remember - but can't find - a discussion about current supersonic transport projects (can't remember if it was here or SSC).

    I only have a vague memory of who our experts said to take seriously, but I thought they were fairly down on Boom, who have just released an official rollout video for their XB-1 demonstrator aircraft. My thoughts: * Wow, do they ever have a polished marketing effort * Airplane looks good. Put me down for one. * Their approach seems relatively realistic - the XB-1 is an effort to build up their body of design and manufacturing experience, and I suspect having an actual flying airplane does a lot to boost their credibility with potential customers and investors.

  2. October 16, 2020bean said...

    That was on SSC. I'm not sold on Boom, as they seem to be sorely lacking in the expertise necessary to turn a plane into an airliner. Aerion is a better bet, as they're building a smaller plane, and have better connections to people who can handle the regulatory side.

  3. October 18, 2020Carey Underwood said...

    @Bean what do you use for taking screenshots? You're on a windows machine, right?

    I've bound a couple shortcuts which have dramatically reduced the annoyance of this for my own purposes. I'm on linux, but I could make up a windows version.

  4. October 19, 2020bean said...

    I'm using the built-in snipping tool, which is a lot easier than print screen. It's not just the taking of the images. It's going in, pulling up the screens, framing the shot, saving it with the right name, then uploading it and dropping it into the post. While I do appreciate the offer, that's not the big issue.

  5. October 19, 2020FXBDM said...

    I've seen some commentary on the recent fracas in Nagorno-Karabakh and the importance of cheap drones there, including loitering munitions which I had never head of. It looks like the smaller powers are avidly developing those. I even saw a (non-military) commentator claiming that those would be a revolution compared to the introduction of tanks to the battlefield.
    How do you think the availability of cheap unmanned vehicles will affect naval affairs and ship design in the coming decades? For example: -Can one imagine a major surface (or subsurface, come to think of it) ship designed strictly as a drone carrier? -Can one imagine subsurface loitering ammunition that drift in tight sea passages but can avoid mine-sweepers and launch a torpedo when they "hear" a surface combatant? Kinda like a smart mine? -Is the whole drone swarm thing an exaggeration by click-seeking journos?

    I'd be curious to hear your thoughts and theories.

  6. October 19, 2020bean said...

    Naval warfare has had unmanned vehicles for 150 years.

    Sarcasm aside, this is overhyped. So far as cheaper electronics are leading to revolution, it's already happened. JDAM is the best example. It's cheap and it's very precise. But it's not as sexy as teh drones, so we get articles about those. Also, the capability is somewhat easier to get these days, so it's showing up in places that aren't the US military.

    I need to look more into what they're actually trying to do with unmanned systems. But that's a fairly major project, and not one I'm going to tackle right now.

    Can one imagine subsurface loitering ammunition that drift in tight sea passages but can avoid mine-sweepers and launch a torpedo when they “hear” a surface combatant? Kinda like a smart mine?

    This is basically a CAPTOR mine, which we had back in the 80s. Yes, it was fixed instead of drifting, and mostly targeted at submarines, but in practice, nothing we couldn't have done a couple decades ago.

  7. October 19, 2020FXBDM said...

    Thanks! I figured that might be the answer.

  8. October 19, 2020Chuck said...

    I imagine the transformative aspects of drones will be less in what we (as in the US and peers) do with drones than with drones giving non-peers limited versions of the observational and delivery capabilities that the US already possesses, in a way that is hard to counter.

  9. October 19, 2020quanticle said...

    The other thing to watch out for with drones is that a lot of commentators have been saying that drones render tanks suddenly obsolete. I wouldn't be too sure about that. One of the characteristics of both Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria is the relative dearth of anti-aircraft (and especially air-to-air anti-aircraft) assets on the battlefield. My opinion is that these two conflicts prove that drones can be effective when the other side isn't shooting back. But, then again, when the other side isn't shooting back, any weapon is effective.

    Especially in Nagorno-Karabakh, where there have been anti-air units integrated with armored units (especially short-ranged anti-air, like the Pantsir system), drones have been much less effective.

  10. October 19, 2020Directrix Gazer said...

    Pro-swarm commentators have a tendency to ignore the cases where scaling laws are adverse to dividing a capability between more, smaller units. There are quite a few.

    Having lots of small, relatively cheap platforms that can host sensors or effectors is useful, and I don't doubt it will allow for novel tactical and operational approaches. I think this is especially the case on land, where small size and low power (and thus signature) lets you hide among terrain and vegetation. As with any burgeoning military technology, though, advocates overstate the effect and fail to foresee counteracting innovations.

    For a long time the trend in anti-aircraft technology was toward heavier guns and bigger missiles, to kill tough, armored attack helicopters and fast, high-flying attack jets. I imagine now we'll see the bottom-end of light-AA fill out again, with quick-reacting, computer-controlled light guns, microwave beams, and lasers coupled with smarter pattern-recognition to pick the annoying flies out of the clutter.

  11. October 19, 2020Alexander said...

    "Naval warfare has had unmanned vehicles for 150 years"

    I'm not sure exactly what you're thinking of here, but fire ships have existed for over 2,000.

    I think that loitering munitions are a great way of keeping ground forces pinned down (e.g. the ALARM - https://www.navalgazing.net/Anti-Radiation-Missiles) but ships can't hide in terrain in the same way. They could be a very interesting option for tomahawks and the like, however, potentially even enabling them to be used against mobile land targets.

  12. October 19, 2020bobbert said...

    I am pretty sure it was a mine/torpedo joke.

  13. October 19, 2020bean said...

    @Alexander

    I was talking about mines. Fireships are a good call there, though.

    Re tanks in particular, those have been "rendered obsolete" pretty frequently over the last 60+ years. They're still around.

  14. October 20, 2020Doctorpat said...

    @Alexander ships can’t hide in terrain

    Isn't that a submarine?

  15. October 20, 2020Alexander said...

    @Doctorpat There might be a role for some sort of loitering weapon that could patrol the last known position of a submarine, but I expect it would have to be some sort of underwater (or perhaps surface?) drone, as a cruise missile would be hard pressed to detect a submarine at all. With SSKs being able to hide almost silently on the sea floor, I think that some sort of smart torpedo that you could leave near its last known position to keep it trapped could be very handy. Then again, as bean said, that sounds a lot like a CAPTOR. I was thinking more that aerial loitering munitions might not be particularly useful in naval warfare (except for attacks on the shore).

  16. October 20, 2020bean said...

    There might be a role for some sort of loitering weapon that could patrol the last known position of a submarine, but I expect it would have to be some sort of underwater (or perhaps surface?) drone

    That's more or less what they're planning to do with Sea Hunter, actually. At the moment, I think the plan is for it to be track-only, and they'll call in someone else if they need to kill it.

  17. October 20, 2020Lambert said...

    I hear the Azeris have been doing the equivalent of tying a brick to the gas pedal of their old AN-2 utility biplanes and flying them into Artsakh. This forces Armenian AA assets to open fire, revealing their positions.

    I do think recent technological developments will make a bigger difference for small and irregular forces, especially in low-intensity conflicts. The trend seems to be for things to be getting much cheaper. Off-the-shelf civilian technology can be jury-rigged for military use e.g. mobile phone IEDs.
    I wonder what the implications of cheap software-defined radios will be for people trying to counter the Great Powers' highly networked forces. And what are the odds that both Armenia and Azerbeijan are using Planetlabs as an outsourced spysat programme?

  18. October 20, 2020John Schilling said...

    @quanticle: The "relative dearth of anti-aircraft assets on the battlefield" may have something to do with the bit where Azeri (or maybe Turkish/Israeli) drones keep blowing up Armenian air defense systems up to and including multiple S-300 sites. That's been reported by enough credible observers, with imagery, that I'm pretty sure it's real. And while it's debatable whether the Armenians brought as much air defense capability to the field as they should have, the bit where enemy drones are loitering directly over the core air defense assets they did bring is a bad sign.

    Armed drones do have the potential for e.g. "making tanks obsolete", rather like allied air power did in 1944/45 only more so. Talk to a German armored commander from that war about how useful tanks are when the enemy owns the sky. Except, it's much easier to maintain a 24/7 presence with Reapers than it is with P-47s (or even A-10s), and the Reaper is more likely to hard-kill any tank that tries to move under its gaze.

    The unanswered question until now was whether this only applied when fighting pathethic third-rate armies without serious air defenses. The S-300 is a pretty serious air defense system, as are Armenia's shorter-ranged systems. They're not cutting it against modern drones, intelligently used.

    If there's still any doubt, it's what might happen if people start deploying more specialized counter-drone systems. But even the United States is behind the curve on that one, and Team Drone hasn't fully explored the trade space for increasing their own survivability.

  19. October 20, 2020bean said...

    John, I think you're probably overstating the case a bit. There's a couple reasons why the Armenians could be having so much trouble that aren't just because of how good drones are. First, there's the possibility that the S-300 isn't as good as we thought it was, which now that I say it out loud and remember that it's a Russian system they've been aggressively trying to sell, seems obvious. (Particularly because Armenia's are listed by Wiki as S-300PS, which was introduced in 1985. There's a distinct possibility that they were inherited from the Red Army and not upgraded in the last 30 years.) Then there's the fact that the system is only as good as the people using it, and it's very possible that the operators are just not that good.

  20. October 20, 2020bean said...

    It's also worth pointing out that the "drone" in question is an Israeli anti-radiation missile. Yes, it looks different from most ARMs and can loiter for longer, but it's still a specialized piece of hardware built by a major defense contractor. Those are usually pretty effective, but I don't think this is a sea change compared to what, say, HARM is capable of doing.

  21. October 20, 2020Placid Platypus said...

    Is this just Israeli-made hardware that they sold, or is it believed/suspected that Israel is actively aiding the Azerbaijanis? If the latter, what's their motivation? I'm not familiar with the full web of alliances in the area.

  22. October 20, 2020bean said...

    I don't know. They're too far from the ocean for me to really be paying attention.

  23. October 21, 2020Lambert said...

    I've not heard any allegations that Israel is doing more than selling arms to Azerbaijan.
    The accusations about sending combatants tend to be directed at Turkey and Syrians (not sure if they're pro-assad Syrians or anti-assad or mercenaries).

  24. October 21, 2020Alexander said...

    John's link has some of those missiles (drones?) crossing the border into Iran. Probably for the best if the Israelis keep that mess at arms length.

  25. October 21, 2020John Schilling said...

    Yes, the Israelis are selling drones to Turkey which is providing them to Azerbaijan, and maybe selling some directly to Azerbaijan. But if there are any foreign "advisors" operating the drones, those are almost certainly Turkish rather than Israeli.

  26. October 22, 2020Doctorpat said...

    Armed drones do have the potential for e.g. “making tanks obsolete”

    Though... we just got an article on how aircraft carriers didn't really make battleships obsolete. Well not after a multi-decade period in which battleships were fast, armoured, AA platforms that could also be used as battleships and gunboats.

    So, could we see tanks turn into fast, armoured, AA platforms that could also be used as battleships tanks and gunboats artillery?

  27. October 22, 2020Jade Nekotenshi said...

    The big reason why I wouldn't expect to see that from tanks, is that tanks are fairly small and compact. Battleships had lots of room, and it wasn't hard to turn the secondary anti-ship armament they already carried into something that doubles as heavy AA. They also had lots of deck space to bolt light and medium AA guns to. Tanks don't - even putting a single pintle-mounted 20mm cannon on a tank could be a trick, and any SAMs beyond one or two MANPADS-type things would require a dedicated chassis.

    Also, tank guns are generally smoothbore weapons designed for direct-lay shots, while artillery guns are generally rifled and designed for ballistic trajectories, so you're not real likely to see tanks that usefully do double-duty as arty unless the state of the art in tank guns radically changes.

    That said, drones probably won't make tanks obsolete any more than manned aircraft did, unless they're so much cheaper that nobody can afford to defend against them. That seems like a reach to me - you're likely to hit the limit of how many drones you can usefully field and/or how much anti-tank ordnance you can give them somewhere in there.

    It might mean, though, that you can't use tanks well unless you control the skies, which was almost the case already.

  28. October 22, 2020beleester said...

    Not totally crazy. I think the most likely scenario is that we start to see active protection systems sprout up everywhere - they can already shoot down anti-tank missiles, so extending that to shooting down kamikaze drones isn't much of a stretch. Which I guess is sort of the equivalent of "all the battleships go into the yards and come out with AA turrets crammed in wherever they can fit."

    But the cooler, more speculative idea is that we combine it with that story from last month about artillery being used to shoot down cruise missiles, and basically merge tanks, artillery, and AA into "Big armored box with a big high-angle gun", which can be used for any of those roles depending on what ammo you load it with.

    (I don't know about "fast," but the Abrams can do 45 mph on a paved road, which I think is pretty impressive for a tank.)

  29. October 22, 2020Jade Nekotenshi said...

    Artillery shooting down cruise missiles isn't totally surprising to me - that's been semi-standard in Naval circles for quite a while. (At the very least, our drills against subsonic cruise missile attack on a Burke included banging away with the 5", which is "artillery" by any reasonable definition.)

  30. October 22, 2020Chuck said...

    I can see drones essentially filling the role of semi-persistent cluster bombs. I'm imagining a swarm of small drones carrying something like a BLU-97/B, which is about 4 lbs. Individually, they are easy to shoot down (maybe), but you deploy them 20 or 30 at a time, they fly to the target area, and then they just meander around at treetop level looking for targets.

  31. October 22, 2020AlexT said...

    What's the current operating procedure for these "land denial" drones? Are they programmed before launch with a general area to patrol and act fully autonomously, or do they require at least permission to attack from a human ground controller? If the latter, might not the communication link be more vulnerable than the drone itself?

    merge tanks, artillery, and AA into “Big armored box with a big high-angle gun”

    Aren't there advantages in differentiating between things that should avoid coming under fire and things that expect to get shot at? Beyond armor thickness, I mean.

  32. October 22, 2020FXBDM said...

    @Chuck You know what that makes me think of? 1992 sci-fi movie Screamers. The intrigue was based on autonomous underground robots that would detect and attack anyone moving within their radius. (ok, they were self-replicating too, which complicated matters a bit)

  33. October 22, 2020bean said...

    In general, there's a prohibition against weapons that are autonomous and attack targets without a human in the loop. Mines are a partial exception, but even those aren't in great favor these days. Something which gets told "kill anything in this box that looks like a target" is going to look really bad to the media/public, even though it's probably better than just destroying the entire box, which is the traditional answer. I definitely don't think the position on this is philosophically sound and/or consistent.

  34. October 22, 2020Alexander said...

    If you aren't using them in an urban area I don't think that the risk would be excessive. Anyone have any idea how discriminating Strix mortar rounds are? I'd expect a modern system to be able to distinguish between a MBT and a car.

    IFVs often mount autocannon (and sometimes missiles) that can threaten helicopters, so with good sensors might be able to help protect the tanks. Failing that, more dedicated SPAAG/CRAM vehicles could be required.

  35. October 22, 2020Jade Nekotenshi said...

    Depending on the drones' control systems and/or missile guidance systems, dedicated ECM escort vehicles might make sense too.

  36. October 22, 2020AlexT said...

    The biggest problem I see with the concept of autonomous loiter drones, is that, in an actual war, there would turn up clever ways to trick them into attacking decoys or empty scenery, or simply flying into the ground.

  37. October 22, 2020John Schilling said...

    @AlexT: That's where loitering drones have the edge over basically every other weapons system ever. The loiter phase allows a human observer to carefully observe the intended target before expending ordnance, and without the pressure of "I have to kill them before they kill me!" amped by adrenaline.

  38. October 23, 2020Blackshoe said...

    If the effective counter to drones against tanks is the introduction of active protection systems, I wonder if this will expand the "capability trap" see discussion here regarding Guatemala. Thinking about many countries still operating tanks multiple generations behind (coughcough, everyone still operating T-54s or so), where if they decide they have to throw a few trillion Bongo Bucks (actual price: a few million dollars) to keep their T-54s competitive against a someone even as low down the scale as them (because even they can get some support from someone who get them some decently armed drones)...eh, maybe they don't even worry about it and quietly phase out the Mechanized Division and replace them as the Dictator's elite troops with some SOF like guys).

    Said more simply, if your vision of why you need to keep your older (but still capable in the right circumstances) tanks are to counter your not-entirely friendly neighbor's also older (but still capable in the right circumstances) tanks...might be able to save a few trillion Bongo bucks just to dump in your pocket to pay for hookers and blow and bribes to the police to keep them from noticing your hookers and blow.

    Granting that tanks are actually fairly easy to upgrade and there are lots of companies and countries out there that do a good business in upgrading older tanks to keep them semi-competitive.

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