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Friday, December 11, 2015
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... History ... Technology ...

I read up recently on international military news. Once you get past all the crazy, never-ending Middle Eastern stuff, you next get a big dose of bad news from China. You’d think that the main Chinese threat would be its huge army, but no more; times have changed. In the past few years, the Chinese have been designing and building an increasingly sophisticated network of high-tech satellites, drones, stealth planes, subs and missiles, with the intent of keeping the US Navy and any of its cronies (especially Japan) far away from its coastline. Thus leaving China to do as it pleases with Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.

Until recently, the US Pacific Fleet, even with its huge sitting-duck aircraft carriers, could cruise the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea feeling relatively safe. The Chinese Navy generally couldn’t find our ships, as it didn’t have the sea-borne tracking and recognizance capacities that we do; and even if it could, it didn’t have enough modern subs and jets and destroyers to put up a credible challenge. That ain’t so today. What’s even worse, the Chinese now have missiles that can be launched by land or sea which are accurate enough (when coupled with a monitoring system of satellites and airborne radar drones and tracking planes) to hit a ship out in the open sea, thousands of miles away. Nuclear warheads are not needed; these missiles and their guidance systems are so good and so accurate that they can hit a carrier deck out in mid-ocean with a heavy conventional explosive warhead.

So, that’s a big headache for the US. And as if that weren’t enough, you can throw in what the North Koreans and Iranians are doing to develop long-range nuclear missiles, which in a few years could reach the US mainland. Yes, we are building anti-missile systems, but we are not sure if they are ready for prime time yet. As for the Chinese anti-ship missiles, the US Navy has a very good anti-missile interception system based around its ship-borne Standard missile (a bland name for a rather potent weapon; gone are the days of threatening missile names like “Shrike” and “Snakeeye” and “Nike”).

Unfortunately, anti-missiles are extremely expensive, and we can only deploy so many of them on any of our ships. By comparison, Chinese anti-ship missiles are cheaper, and thus the Chinese could likely shoot enough of them to eventually overwhelm our defenses and sink our precious aircraft carriers. If the Navy can successfully develop its planned rail gun, an electro-magnetic device that could fling a heavy projectile through the air at hypersonic speeds, they might have a better chance of surviving a rainstorm of Chinese missiles (a rail gun projectile will cost around 1/20th or less of what a Standard missile costs). But right now, the rail gun is still a number of years from battlefield deployment (possibly 10 years).

And then there’s Russia. Back in the Cold War days, Russia was the biggest and most serious military threat by far. And today they are still nothing to sneeze at, as they still have a lot of nuclear weapons along with a big army, navy, and air force. But there’s just something about the blustery ways of Russian thinking that sends them down dead ends, diverting their military dollars from new systems that could be just as big of a threat as the growing Chinese anti-ship system is now becoming.

Here’s the latest example. Back in the 1970s and 80s, the Soviets developed a big, fast swing-wing bomber plane, the TU160 “Blackjack”. It looked almost like our new (at the time) B1B bomber, but it was bigger, carried more bombs and cruise missiles, and could fly faster. It was definitely an impressive and potentially imposing threat when it first jumped into the sky.

But times have changed, and big, fast penetration bombers are mostly things of the past, given all the advances in radars, drones and satellite surveillance. The US still uses its trusty old B52 (and the Russians have their copy-cat TU95 “Bear”) bomber, but mostly for conventional bombing in lightly defended airspace or “stand-off” launching of cruise missiles. For the tougher manned missions, we would now depend on the B2 “Spirit” stealth bomber, and our Air Force is designing a new bomber (the LRS-B) that will probably be largely an advanced version of the B2. The LRS-B can hopefully shore up some of the shortcomings of the next-generation F35 fighter, which the military over-estimated in terms of tactical versatility and effectiveness.

As to the Russians — they are also planning to build new bombers. But guess what kind? Yes, a new version of the TU160! They seem to be out to perfect the generally obsolete “swing wing” design in a large frame aircraft with a big radar signature and big engines (which make it easier for infra-red missiles to home in on). Meanwhile, the US is working on its LRS-B, which will combine stealth, sophisticated sensors, combat cloud-capacity (data integration with all us airborne and ground platforms having battle-relevant info in the theater, not a stand-alone platform), ability to operate as drone (optionally manned).

The US military has made plenty of mistakes (the F-35 being a case in point), but it seems more willing than Russia to face its mistakes. For example, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US was planning to build a big, fast high-flying bomber called the B-70. But before we committed a lot of money to building and operating it, our Defense Department realized that the B-70 had become obsolete; Soviet defenses had advanced to the point where the B-70 could be shot down. So the US swallowed its military pride and called the two B-70’s that had been build “X-planes”, planes that would be used for future research.

So it’s back to the 1960s for the Russian Air Force. And it’s not the first time that has happened. The old Soviet Union continued to invest in big bombers while the US invested in ICBMs and missile submarines; i.e., the systems of the future. In the “spy in the sky” arena, both the US and the Soviets developed manned observation spaceships, to take photos of military targets from 150 miles up. However, the US realized that un-manned telemetric spy satellites could do the job much better at a lower cost, and the US “Gemini B” never flew. Of course, the Soviets did maintain a manned spy-base in space for a almost a decade (the three Almaz orbiting stations from the 1970s).

The US generally stayed one step ahead of the Soviets, and that helped to keep a big nuclear conflagration on the unthinkable side. We thus survived the Cold War. As to whether we will come out unscathed from the newly evolving world military threats from outside the old Soviet bloc, well . . . it’s a bit more uncertain.

PS, while I’m looking at military stuff, one more observation. The US Navy is now testing the first example of a “next generation” of warships, the destroyer USS Zumwalt. The Zumwalt is highly automated and is designed for maximum stealth from radar and sonar (and presumably for infra-red signatures from its smokestack), and has cutting-edge sensors to identify threats as quickly as possible and instantly share that information with other US Navy assets. It comes with a heavy-duty electrical system meant to support a rail gun weapon, once the Navy finally perfects that technology. And of course it’s super-expensive and has various other potential problems.

My observation is an historical one . . . to me, the Zumwalt looks a bit like one of the original ironclad warships from the Civil War, i.e. the Confederate ship CSS Virginia (better known by its previous Union name, the Merrimack). That resemblance might be appropriate, as both ships were on the cutting edge of a new generation of naval design. The Civil War ironclads soon made the old wooden sailing ships obsolete for military purposes. Let’s hope that the Zumwalt has a happier fate than the Virginia, though. Although the Virginia survived its famous battle with the Union ironclad “Monitor” during the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, she was destroyed by her own crew a few months later so as to avoid capture by impending Union forces.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:57 am      
 
 


  1. Jim, So it seems even the military evolves. Not sure what I think of that. Several tho’ts come to mind, but I doubt any of them will agree with your post. Actually, it is not really a matter of “agreement”, I suppose; as you simply seem to be listing the “evolving” that is part of the military; and there’s really no agreement or disagreement with that. So, with that point in mind, I will make a few comments that come to mind as I read this post—not agreeing or disagreeing, more an asking of some questions speculating on some of the points in this post..

    While I’ve never been one to be a “Berrigan” type, i.e., one who is willing to go to jail for long periods of time to protest such military evolution, I have tho’t about it over the years.

    It seems that the “evolving” of the military teaches us that even what is not the “best” for one human, many humans, one country, several countries, even the planet itself evolves. Recently I watched part of a program about the Nile crocodile (a deadly animal to all and sundry, it seems) that has existed for several million years, which makes me wonder if the military and its evolution will be around in 3 million years. (But I’m not sure the Nile crocodile has *evolved* in that long period of time; it might have just stayed the same.)

    Sometimes I think it’s all a big “man thing” going on. Each country (in your examples Russia and the U.S., China and the U.S., etc.) seems to want to be sure that everybody else knows they are stronger, bigger, can do more harm than anybody else.

    I find myself wondering: Should China explode one (or more than one) of its “evolved” missiles, destroy the U.S. or even “just” one city in the U.S., with whom would it be able to trade? Would other nations want then to trade with China? I doubt it; and I’m sure any trade China had with the U.S. would be ended immediately. Might China do more harm to itself than might be immediately apparent in a long term way vs. a short term way via a nuclear bomb to another country?

    Then, of course, there’s the old tho’t: How many times can one kill/destroy a person, a country, the world? If a country were intent on showing just two or three other countries that it was “bigger and better” than everybody else, how many times can it “kill” those other countries? What effect might it have on the entire planet with such an action? Might a country doing something like that ultimately destroy itself?

    It also occurs to me that what the public knows is available militarily is likely a very little compared to the much greater amount of what the public does *not* know about what the military has and/or is working on, which I hasten to add may not be a happy tho’t at all. This tho’t comes to mind because during WWII I had an uncle who was working on “top secret” things, which *much later*, whispered among only certain people in the family, turned out to be radar. It further turned out later that the “top secret radar” was not all that “top secret” as there was so much more that it seems my uncle never knew about. Some years later I read about some of the things Germany and our own country were working on that indeed far surpassed radar—some of which must have landed in the “X-planes” pile as no more was heard of it.

    Lastly, I find it difficult to think in terms of living in a wasteland or sorts where people fight for each morsel of food. Who wants to live in a place like that? Some things are actually worse than death, and it occurs to me that that might just be one of them.

    Has the world come so far from the U.S. dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that it forgets what those two bombs caused? Maybe it has; the young people today seem to have little to learn from history.

    In the end the two things that stick with me are: How many times need somebody/thing be killed to die? Once does the trick. Also, somewhere in all this it seems to me that there is a need in men to get “puffy”, throw out their chest, and maintain they are bigger, stronger, etc., than anyone else. I wonder: What might the evolution of the military be in a world where people would want to cooperate and do things that were helpful to and added to each other’s mutual benefit? What might *that* kind of evolution produce and look like? I would like to see some evolution there. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 12, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

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