February 19, 2021

Open Thread 72

It's time once again for our regular open thread.

I recently finished an interesting book, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia. It's a look at the various communities that have dotted the shores of the Med throughout history, and how they used that sea to communicate. Heavy on commerce and sketches of life, rather light on battles and naval power, but still very interesting for a wider look at maritime power.

2018 overhauls are Amphibious Warfare parts two, three and four, Why Military Acquisition is So Hard, Classes and Dreadnought. 2019 overhauls are Rangekeeping Part 1, Commercial Aviation Part 7, Falklands Part 11, So You Want to Build a Battleship - Construction Part 1, Pictures - Iowa Boiler Room and German Guided Bombs Part 2. And 2020 overhauls are Aerial Cruise Missiles, Southern Commerce Raiding Part 1 and the Proximity Fuze Parts one and two.


  1. February 19, 2021Chuck said...

    Speaking of the Mediterranean, I wasn't aware that it was such an absolute bloodbath in WW2, specifically in terms if Axis shipping. This map is a piece of British propaganda, but despite that it's actually dramatically underselling number of ships sunk. (Interestingly, one of the leading killers was the oft-maligned Fairey Swordfish, including one month where the swordfish squadron operating off Malta sank 98,000 tons of axis shipping)

    @bean Any chance you might explore either this topic or the siege of Malta at some point?

  2. February 19, 2021bean said...

    I've been thinking about taking a closer look at the naval war in the Med for a while, and have even been gathering sources. Probably not immediately, though.

  3. February 19, 2021Dave said...

    Curiously, my introduction to the fascinating naval war in the Med is the Malta chapter of John Killen's 1967 Luftwaffe: A History, which is dated but beautifully written. Not sure what's newer and better now. The ArmouredCarriers.com folks have lots of details in their Med histories but also a very narrow focus on explaining to skeptical Americans why armoured flight decks were the right choice for the RN/FAA.

    ... speaking of which, the ArmouredCarriers damage control reports for armoured RN carriers make a stark comparison to Japanese attempts at same at the same point in the war.

    I agree the Swordfish's very important land-based work gets forgotten too easily. Still don't quite get why it was so effective compared to alternatives, but it was.

  4. February 19, 2021bean said...

    Vincent O'Hara has written quite a bit on the war in the Med, and David Hobbs recently came out with a book on the subject specifically covering the air war. My copy is currently en route. I have been looking for a new battles series for a while, and I may start on this one now.

  5. February 19, 2021DampOctopus said...

    Something I'm not clear on: where does the boundary lie between anti-air weapons for self-defence only, and those for defending other ships?

    Typical anti-air weapons in WWII were .50 cal MGs, 20mm Oerlikon cannon, 40mm Bofors, and 5-inch dual-purpose guns. I've seen descriptions of destroyers being used as anti-air pickets, so presumably the DP guns at least were capable of providing protection to other ships, but were any of the shorter-ranged weapons used in this role?

    Likewise, for modern USN ships, in order of increasing range, you have Phalanx CIWS, SeaRAM, ESSM, and various Standards. I assume that CIWS/SeaRAM are intended for self-defence only, and I understand that the Standards are primarily an area-defence weapon, but what about ESSM? Would it ever be used to defend another ship?

  6. February 19, 2021Blackshoe said...

    @DampOctopus: starting with the modern time, doctrinally speaking, there are four levels of air defense coverage: area, point, self, and HVAAP (page 114 of the PDF, HVAAP is a weird case). All ships are theoretically capable of self-defense ("This here .50 caliber? That's our ship's air defense system," says the guy on the minesweeper). CIWS and your RAMs are self-defense only. Standard is capable of all levels. ESSM is weird; you will find references out there that call it an area defense weapon, like here. I generally think of it more as a PD weapon. I certainly could figure out how to use ESSM in an area mode, I'm just not sure I would.

    BT, the difference between area and point is really vague deliberately, but obviously, area is a much broader volume than point defense.

    As far as WW2, probably everything above the .50 was capable of area air defense, but it's worth remember before the introduction of the German guided bombs, aircraft attack ranges were much shorter (quick Wiki studies suggest that the attack range for aerial torpedoes was around 1000M, which would have put it at outer limit of the 20mms, ). Plus, you can always cheat and extend your protection envelope by moving your supporting unit up the threat axis (assuming single axis threats, which probably isn't a good assumption in WW2).

  7. February 19, 2021echo said...

    On a related note, I'm really curious how networked air defense systems avoid the "I thought you were shooting that one" problem.

  8. February 19, 2021bean said...

    Blackshoe, thanks for that. Much better answer than I could have given. Re WWII, I’m not sure that the levels make quite the same type of sense back then, because everyone was working at much shorter ranges. .50 cal was on its way out when the war started, and 20mm was never much use for defending other ships due to range issues. The best parallels would probably be to call the 40mm a point-defense weapon (which I assume is “can defend other ships that are close”) and the 5″ an area-defense weapon.


    They talk to each other. I don't know the internal algorithms, but somehow they decide who is going to shoot at what (probably "who is best-placed to engage", with a coin flip if that's a tie somehow) and then do it.

  9. February 19, 2021Johan Larson said...

    Would you rather serve in the Army-est unit of the Air Force, or the Air Force-est unit of the Army?

  10. February 19, 2021bean said...

    Can I pick the Navy instead?

    Serious answer: The Army-est unit of the Air Force is probably Pararescue or Combat Controllers, who are proper special forces. The Air Force-est unit of the Army is going to involve sitting behind a desk. I'm not SF material, so Army it is.

  11. February 20, 2021Johan Larson said...

    Why would the Air Force-est job in the Army be a desk job? I was thinking it would be one of the Army aviation jobs, maybe flying an Apache.

  12. February 20, 2021bean said...

    Some of that was me making fun of the USAF, which is always good sport. Yes, it would probably be flying things, which still seems like a much better option to me than actual SF.

  13. February 20, 2021David W said...

    In WWII, weren't you defending other ships in the area by your mere presence? Given how many times I've read an account which includes 'and this destroyer was misidentified as a battleship/cruiser/aircraft carrier', just adding confusion and being a decoy would be protective. Not that anyone really wants to volunteer for decoy work, of course.

    Even if that didn't happen, torpedo bombers and kamikaze would likely have to fly close to you en route to their main target on the optimal attack run, so you could shoot at them or force them to use a less optimal path.

  14. February 20, 2021bean said...

    "Bean, you should write about the Mediterranean in WWII". "Hmm, that sounds like a good idea."

    24 hours later:

    "It's a good thing I have several books about the French Navy in WWII, because I need lots of detail around the Armistice negotiations."

  15. February 20, 2021Neal said...


    I finished reading Crisis Of Command by Michael Junge and I have a few thoughts and a question or two.

    The quibbles first. He needed a better editor to both straighten out the formatting, some of the arithmetic, and to both reduce the repetion in his asking of why commanders are relieved and to more clearly state, in the opening, what his exploration/consideration of the topic could yield in terms of suggestions. I felt he was extremely prolix in merely stating the problem.

    Some paragraphs appeared to have been airdroped in from other sections without much rhyme or reason. Again, something that a competent editor would have straightened out.

    I did not at all mind the academic tilt of the writing however, as he was striving to apply rigor in his prose. Beside, I give high marks these days to any author who can use the word "disinterested" properly as it shows he/she is trying to be careful with words and thoughts.

    Those bagatelles aside, I found his arguments to be an excellent prod to thinking about leadership. I found his case studies well described and always pertinent to the discussion. In other words, he wasn't reaching into some arcane or recondite corner of the Naval archives to try to make a silk purse from a sow's ear.

    I admired that he kept his attention to the Naval aspect of this as it could have been tempting to start to draw broad pan-service or large organizational leadership lessons. Those lessons could indeed be drawn here as I would argue that the Navy is not alone in entrusting important assets and lives to leaders and commanders, but that was beyond his remit in the original question he posed and it reflects his rigor in addressing it.

    Quick aside: This past year I have done a lot of reading about the submarine campaign in the Pacific and had grown to admire guys like Lockwood and Dick Voge. That admiration took a serious dent when reading how lightly they handled a skipper who sunk a mercy ship--taking the shot from a radar return with no apparent visual contact. Bad enough, but then basically lying about it was UNSAT at the least and more likely criminal. When you are favored however...

    Now my questions--particularly about Rickover.

    Junge makes the argument that as cantankerous as Rickover was, he demanded that his subordinates learn to think independently and do things competently. In fact it seems he drilled competence as the first and the last requirement of any officer and organization.

    Nothing wrong with that no? Add to his demand of 100% accountability and it would seem to be the perfect recipe for a highly-qualified force.

    Yet am I correct in sensing that Junge's main criticism of Rickover is that sometimes the picture is much bigger than just a single individual's accountability? Sometimes the system itself, or the construct under which one is operating, is flawed or has pitfalls and so one individual getting tagged with the blame does little to solve the real problem(s).

    Rickover's approach is alluring for the hard-charging take no prisoners types, but does it consistently, and completely, alleviate future hurdles? I would say that Junge believes not.

    My second question is if today's Navy is as complete a product of Rickover's methods as Junge makes it out to be. He certainly makes the case that, when it comes to Command responsibility and accountability, it is both unforgiving and grossly inconsistent--both trademarks of Rickover at times.

    I realize this is a book for the Naval service, but it is a great resource for mulling over the need for a consistent balance between the requirement for competence, independent thinking, and accountability, and a climate that can be forgiving and one in which mistakes made in good faith are learning experiences for all and not career enders.

    Last question: Apart from the safety and effectiveness of the nuclear sub fleet, was Rickover an overall net positive to the Navy's operations and ethos or has his legacy actually hampered progress in areas?

    Thanks again for the suggestion. Was well worth the time.

  16. February 21, 2021DampOctopus said...

    BlackShoe, thanks for the detailed answer. It seems that my being confused over the role of ESSM actually puts the boundary between self and area defence in about the right place.

  17. February 22, 2021ike said...

    It feels like there is some cross-over between Rickover-ism and the traditional British policy of 'pour encouragez les autres'.

  18. February 22, 2021Anonymous said...

    'pour encouragez les autres'

    That doesn't look very British.

  19. February 23, 2021echo said...

    We know the secret of making something sound sinister: say it in Foreign

  20. February 23, 2021Neal said...

    The British Admiral Byng was indeed shot. From Wkik: "Byng's execution was satirised by Voltaire in his novel Candide. In Portsmouth, Candide witnesses the execution of an officer by firing squad and is told that "in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others" (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres)."[37]

    Napoleon had a similar sentimen regarding the civilian protestors/rioters getting a smell and sound of grapeshot passing close by to clear the thinking. Crowd control in other words.

  21. February 23, 2021ike said...

    @Neal: I believe the crime in question at the court-martial was "Failing to do his up-most".

  22. February 23, 2021ike said...

    @echo: I think it works backwards if it is in French. I mean, most people would be appalled at watering your field with the blood of the unclean, but if you say it in French with your best singing voice and everyone will think it's adorable.

  23. February 23, 2021bean said...

    I've seriously thought about writing a post on Byng, because it is a very interesting story. Fortunately, it was the last time the British went to that level in scapegoating an Admiral for the failures of government policy. (The very short version is that he was charged with protecting Minorca from the French, but didn't get enough ships and was sent too late, so the island fell.)

  24. February 23, 2021ike said...

    Careful Bean, if you start down that dark path, before you know it, you will be writing about ships made out of trees and powered by cloth.

  25. February 23, 2021bean said...

    I've done so very occasionally with no ill effects so far. It'll probably be fine. I was planning to focus on the strategic/political end anyway. Also, some of my favorite ships are (partially) powered by cloth.

Comments from SlateStarCodex:

Leave a comment

All comments are reviewed before being displayed.

Name (required):

E-mail (required, will not be published):


You can use Markdown in comments!

Enter value: Captcha