The Strange Second Life of the M551 Sheridan Light Tank

The M551 Sheridan Light Tank had a checkered career during its service with the United States Army. You can read the details here, but the BLUF is that the M-551 Sheridan was envisioned as a lightweight aluminum, air transportable tank. It was equipped with a massive 152mm short barreled main gun that could fire anti-tank missiles in addition to conventional rounds that could defeat any known armored system at the time. It was a good idea in theory, but that was about as far as it went. The anti-tank missile never proved practical and the cumbersome one piece shells for the 152mm main gun were prone to split in two, spilling large amounts of propellant inside the tank which could lead to an internal explosion. The M551 Sheridan proved invaluable in Vietnam as its light weight allowed it to traverse mud better than most vehicles but suffered from a low rate of fire in combat. This resulted in the M551 Sheridan spending much of its time as a tow truck pulling heavier vehicles out of the mud as the tropical humidity tended to short circuit its electrical firing system.

An M551 Sheridan Light tank preparing to be forward deployed for a live fire exercise in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in December 1990. Arrayed around the tank is 20 x 152mm ammunition, 8 x MGM-51 Shillelagh anti-tank missiles, several thousand rounds of .50 cal and 7.62mm machine gun ammunition, 25 gallons of drinking water, three cases of meals ready to eat (MRE) totaling 36 meals for nine days of rations for the crew, two large tarps with framing , and radio gear for establishing a radio post. All of this equipment would be loaded onto the M551 Sheridan light tank before it deployed for combat operations. National Archives photo 6471195

An M551 Sheridan Light tank preparing to be forward deployed for a live fire exercise in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in December 1990. Arrayed around the tank is 20 x 152mm ammunition, 8 x MGM-51 Shillelagh anti-tank missiles, several thousand rounds of .50 cal and 7.62mm machine gun ammunition, 25 gallons of drinking water, three cases of meals ready to eat (MRE) totaling 36 meals for nine days of rations for the crew, two large tarps with framing , and radio gear for establishing a radio post. All of this equipment would be loaded onto the M551 Sheridan light tank before it deployed for combat operations. National Archives photo 6471195

After Vietnam, the U.S. Army had large numbers of Sheridan light tanks available that only airborne units wanted. There were proposals to scrap the M551 Sheridan program but cooler heads prevailed and in 1980, the bulk of the M551 Sheridan light tanks were sent to the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California. The NTC was tasked with providing realistic ground training to U.S. Military units that involved simulated tank on tank armored combat in a desert environment. This was an early recognition that many of the U.S. Military’s future battles would be in the Middle East. The M551 Sheridan was an ideal vehicle to form the nucleus of the Soviet opposition force (OPFOR)  and early exercises had the Sheridan’s operating in conjunction with local infantry from Army and United States Marine Corps units to test the combat effectiveness of U.S. and NATO Military units from around the world.

M551 Sheridan light tanks operating in their intended role as an air transportable light tank. Here, two M551 Sheridan light tanks are being airdropped from a C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft. The drop is a two stage process, both stages can be seen in this photo. A Sheridan light tank is in the process of being pulled out of the aircraft by its smaller and stronger deployment parachutes which represents the first stage. The tank already in the air has just separated from its deployment parachutes which deployed much larger second stage descent parachutes which are unfolding in the photo. This two stage process was done to prevent damage to the more delicate descent parachutes as the tank is being pulled out of the aircraft at high speed. National Archives photo 6462244

M551 Sheridan light tanks operating in their intended role as an air transportable light tank. Here, two M551 Sheridan light tanks are being airdropped from a C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft. The drop is a two stage process, both stages can be seen in this photo. A Sheridan light tank is in the process of being pulled out of the aircraft by its smaller and stronger deployment parachutes which represents the first stage. The tank already in the air has just separated from its deployment parachutes which deployed much larger second stage descent parachutes which are unfolding in the photo. This two stage process was done to prevent damage to the more delicate descent parachutes as the tank is being pulled out of the aircraft at high speed. National Archives photo 6462244

One of the early changes made to the M551 Sheridan was to make the tanks look more like the Soviet made equipment that the U.S. Military would encounter in the Middle East. Some of these changes were as simple as replacing the 152mm main gun with a fake barrel to make the vehicle look like a Soviet BMP-1. But other changes were as radical as adding  fiberglass body panels so that a Sheridan light tank looked like a Soviet T-72 main battle tank. Each tank was equipped with sensors to pick up laser signals indicating if the vehicle had been hit by a simulated round. A red light on the tank would light up to indicate a kill.

M551 Sheridan light tanks cross the desert during an Opposing Forces exercise at the National Training Center. The tanks have visual modifications designed to make it resemble Soviet armor.

A group of camouflaged M551 Sheridan’s travel in a convoy at the National Training Center. The lead tank has been mocked up to look like a Soviet BMP-1, the second tank has been concealed to look like a ZSU-23, the remaining tanks have been reworked to look like T-55 and T-72 main battle tanks. National Archive Photo 6425040

The combination of highly experienced Sheridan tank crews with infantry that practiced a radical form of combined arms maneuver warfare shocked many of the early units that went to the National Training Center. Exercises would be repeated until the visiting unit could master the OPFOR and this highly realistic training did much to prepare the U.S. Military for the 1991 Gulf War. The Soldiers and Marines who went to Kuwait and then into Iraq found themselves fighting an enemy less capable than the one they had been fighting in the Mojave desert for the previous decade.

The ultimate evolution of the M551 Sheridan OPFOR aggressor tank at the National Training Center was a highly realistic looking mock up of the Soviet T-72. This tank continued to serve in the aggressor role until 2003, a full 36 years after the Sheridan light tank first went into service. While the Sheridan had limited combat utility for much of its life, the Sheridan will be regarded as one of the most useful post World War II tanks operated by the United States Army. National Archives Photo 6425276

The ultimate evolution of the M551 Sheridan OPFOR aggressor tank at the National Training Center was a highly realistic looking mock up of the Soviet T-72. This tank continued to serve in the aggressor role until 2003, a full 36 years after the Sheridan light tank first went into service. While the Sheridan had limited combat utility for much of its life, the Sheridan will be regarded as one of the most useful post World War II tanks operated by the United States Army. National Archives Photo 6425276

The M551 Sheridan was retired in 2003 from the NTC, but it did get it’s day in the sun. During the 1991 Gulf War, there was concern that the Iraqi Republican Guard would cross the border into Saudi Arabia. This led to a hasty deployment of U.S. Army airborne forces with their Sheridan light tanks which then deployed along the border. The reality was that the M551 Sheridan wouldn’t have fared well against an Iraqi T-72, but that was something the Iraqi Army didn’t know. The sudden appearance of large numbers of American Sheridan light tanks along the Saudi Arabian border was enough to cause the Iraqi Army to pause and gave the Allied coalition enough time to mass sufficient forces in Saudi Arabia to prevent an invasion. For the second time in its career, the M551 Sheridan proved its worth by never firing a shot in anger.

Update: Russian Mistral-Class Amphibious Assault Ships

The soap opera over two French built Mistral-class Amphibious Assault Ships for Russia continues into another year. As previously written here, the French government halted delivery of both vessels after the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. France has been given the option by Russia of delivering both vessels or returning Russia’s payment plus penalties provided for in their contract. As the deal came close to 1.5 billion U.S. Dollars with potential penalties of $311 million if the ships are not delivered, neither option is particularly good for France. Russia seems to have acknowledged that the vessels will not be delivered and has retrieved its sailors and marines from France who had been training to take possession of the Mistral vessels

The International Business times has written that Russia is likely waiting to take legal action due to a clause in the contract that allows France to postpone delivery of the vessels for three months which will expire in February 2015.  The Ottawa Times has reported that during this time, Russia has formally asked France for a written explanation as to why it has not complied with the contract between the two countries. France is unlikely to respond to that request as any written document it produces will immediately become evidence against them in a potential lawsuit. The Canadian media has been closely following this story as Canada is the likely destination of the ships if they are not delivered to Russia.

The lead ship of the class, the French warship Mistral, sits framed behind an L-CAT ship to shore connector during exercises. This is a capability that Russia hoped to gain through acquisition of the Mistral-class warships. U.S. Navy Photo

The U.S. Naval Institute wrote that the France is open to delivering both ships, if Russia agrees to implement the Minsk Accords which would layout out a formal ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine and return much of the territory seized. It has been a given that Russia is unlikely to implement the accords and even if they did, there would be enormous pressure from NATO to keep the ships out of Russian hands. But with the sudden collapse of oil prices, Russia may be looking for a quick exit out of the Ukraine to get sanctions lifted against the country. An unexpected implementation of the accords would put France in a situation where it had to choose between Russia or NATO and the only sure outcome is that someone is going to be very upset.

The aging Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, here framed by the USS Farragut (DDG 99) during a goodwill visit, remains the only capital ship left in the Russian Navy. The Admiral Kuznetsov is not allowed to leave port unless it is in the company of a repair vessel and tugboat as it has broken down numerous times in recent years. This is a problem exacerbated by the fact that the ship’s engines and machinery were manufactured in the Ukraine and the current conflict has prevented Russia from obtaining spare parts. Unless the Mistral-class ships are delivered, Russia may find itself without a capital ship in its navy for the first time in centuries. U.S. Navy photo

Japan’s Last Aircraft Carrier, IJN Katsuragi

By October 1945, the IJN Katsuragi was Japan’s last aircraft carrier in service. Instead of an illustrious career as a warship, the Katsuragi was used to demobilize the armed forces of the Empire of Japan on islands bypassed by U.S. forces during the war. You can read the history here, but the BLUF is that at the end of World War II, the bulk of the Imperial Japanese navy was either sunk or inoperable. Out of what was once one of the largest fleets in the world, only 114 ships ranging in size from a tug boats to aircraft carriers were left in operable condition to repatriate demobilized Japanese forces back to the mainland. The aircraft carrier Katsuragi was the largest vessel available for this task and became the last Japanese aircraft carrier to see active service.

The IJN Katsuragi was an Unryu-class aircraft carrier that was completed at the tail end of World War II. The Unryu-class was an emergency development of an easy to build fleet carrier in response to the losses the Japanese Navy suffered at Midway. These ships would have no underwater protection and were given extra deck space to permanently store planes that couldn’t fit in the hanger. They were ships designed to get the most planes to the battle zone and Japans only attempt at mass producing an aircraft carrier. The class was to number 16 vessels but only three were completed before the war ended.

An aerial U.S. Navy photo of Kure Harbor. The aircraft carrier that is afloat at the top of the picture is the Katsuragi. The shadow cast across her deck is not from her island but from an elevator that has been blown upward by a bomb blast. The half sunken carrier at the bottom of the photo is the Amagi. Neither of these ships were combat ready and were likely anchored close to the naval depot to serve anti aircraft batteries.

By the time Katsuragi was completed, there were no air units to equip her and no fuel for her to leave Kure harbor. It was there that she and her sister ship Amagi (second Japanese carrier to be named this during the war) could do little more than act as anti-aircraft platforms. Katsuragi was hit by a 2,000 pound bomb that buckled her flight deck while her sister ship Amagi sank and partially capsized. When japan surrendered, Katsuragi was heavily damaged, but afloat and operable. The U.S. navy directed that the Katsuragi be taken in hand and given emergency repairs to make the hanger weather proof. While most Japanese crews were demobilized, a portion of Katsuragi’s crew was retained and the ship was commanded by her original war time Captain.

The repairs to Katsuragi were not extensive but enough to enable the ship to carry 5000 repatriated Japanese soldiers per a voyage. Over the next year, Katsuragi and her crew would make voyage across the Pacific to retrieve Japanese garrisons from places like Rabaul, Palau, Java, and Borneo. Her longest trip was to Australia to recover Japanese prisoners of war that were held there. There is a note on the Katsuragi’s Wikipedia page that the ship made 8 voyages and repatriated 49,390 Japanese, but there is no source for this number. Regardless, Katsuragi was the largest ship available for this task and carried out the brunt of the early repatriation effort.

The IJN Katsuragi was laid up by the end of 1946 and scrapped in 1947. When she passed from service, Japan was left without a functioning aircraft carrier for the next six decades. (Technical note, Japan claims its modern aircraft carriers are actually “Helicopter Destroyers…”

Let’s Make a Deal, Argentinian Food for Russian SU-24 Fencer Bombers

Argentina may be finalizing a deal to lease SU-24 Fencer bombers from Russia in exchange for shipments of Argentinian beef and wheat. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that Argentina is seeking to equip its military with long range aircraft to remedy the short range deficiency of its current fleet that cost it dearly during the Falkland Islands War. While the SU-24 Fencer is an older model, when equipped with modern Russian made AS-17 Krypton missiles, it becomes a potent standoff weapon that is more capable than any aircraft in the Argentinian inventory.  The potential acquisition of the SU-24 is causing the United Kingdom to reevaluate its defense strategy of the Falkland Islands. As recent years have shown though, this is just the latest escalation in tensions over the Falkland Islands.

A Russian SU-24 variable-wing bomber flying at low speed. The SU-24 is similar in function to the now retired American F-111 Aardvark and has side-by-side seating for the pilot and weapons officer. The SU-24 excels in maritime interdiction and can carry the full array of Russian precision munition weaponry for ground attack. Photo by Alexander Mishin and via Wikipedia

The current Falkland Islands crisis started in 2012 when a massive oil deposit was found under the islands. Up to 8.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil could be tapped beginning in 2017. That’s enough oil to secure the United Kingdom’s energy independence for the foreseeable future and could be the first of several deposits in the Falkland Islands exclusive economic zone. The coming economic boom for the Falkland Islands has rattled Argentina, who maintains an ownership claim to the islands, and has been undergoing an economic crisis and contraction of its economy. The current socialist government in Argentina has made threats of fines and imprisonment to any oil company and its workers who drill the deposit but the threats were mostly hollow until this announcement.

A graph created by The Heritage Foundation in 2013 showing the extent of oil exploration around the Falkland Islands.

Despite a worsening economic climate, Argentina’s socialist government has massively increased defense spending as a way of intimidating potential oil partners. The Argentinian military today is less capable than it was at the time of the 1982 Falkland Islands War but the socialist government is trying to acquiring newer and more capable aircraft designs.  Argentina tried to acquire Saab Gripen fighters through Brazil, but that was blocked by the United Kingdom. It next tried to acquire modern Mirage fighters from Spain, upgraded Kifir aircraft from Israel, and J-17 fighters from China. Given the deteriorating financial situation in Argentina it was believed that none of these deals would come to fruition and that is why the proposed transfer of 12 SU-24 bombers to Argentina came as a shock.

Russia has been experiencing hyperinflation due to declining oil prices and international sanctions for its actions in the Ukraine. One of the side effects has been an increase in food prices in Russia. This would seem to be a deal made in heaven as Argentina has a surplus of food and Russia has a surplus of military equipment that it doesn’t need. Russia has some 250 SU-24 bombers in active service and almost twice that many in storage. It costs Russia nothing to supply these aircraft to Argentina while it gets food essentially for free to artificially lower food prices. The deal also forces the United Kingdom to increase its defense spending while potentially delaying exploitation of its oil fields in the Falkland Islands, causing the United Kingdom to buy more oil from Russia.


A Russian SU-24 slightly pulled out of its storage bunker. The Russian Air Force has upwards of 500 SU-24 Fencer's sitting in secure storage sites like this around Russia. Photo by P.King via Photorama

A Russian SU-24 slightly pulled out of its storage bunker. The Russian Air Force has upwards of 500 SU-24 Fencer’s sitting in secure storage sites like this around Russia that could be used to supply Russian client states if needed. Photo by P.King via Photorama

Argentina knows that the United Kingdom will be without an aircraft carrier until 2023 at the earliest and that it has a unique window of opportunity where if they could reclaim the islands, the United Kingdom would have no capability for recovering them. In response to the growing aggression, the United Kingdom has deployed four ultra-modern Typhoon fighters to the Falkland Islands and 600 additional Royal Marines. While the Typhoon fighters are capable, the United Kingdom recognizes that any attack would likely be preceded by a massive incursion by Argentinian Special Forces who would attempt to destroy the aircraft on the ground and disable the runway they operate from. This threat may result in the United Kingdom increasing the number of troops and aircraft it maintains on the island which will only further escalate the situation.

While an actual conflict is unlikely at the moment, the United Kingdom recognizes that SU-24 would give Argentina the ability carry out hit and run attacks using the Fencer’s supersonic speed to fly-in, launch missiles, and flee back to the safety of Argentina before the United Kingdom’s Typhoon fighters could respond. This will likely result in the United Kingdom upgrading its air defenses from the current Rappier missile systems to something with longer range like the American Patriot missile system. Protecting its warships though will be more difficult as the SU-24 has a range of 2000 miles and unlike the 1982 conflict, could attack any relief fleet long before it reached the islands. The Argentinian air force made good use of the limited number of Exocet missiles it had in 1982 and sank three Royal Navy ships. The AS-17 Krypton is a much more capable missile coming in both an anti-shipping variant and an anti-radiation missile (ARM). It’s still not certain if Russia will supply the AS-17 to Argentina as part of the deal but there are a number of countries who might be willing to supply them.

The AS-17 is a sea skimming missile that was specifically designed to counter the American AEGIS air defense system.  In a potential attack, the SU-24 would launch a combination of both types so that any targeted ship would be forced to keep its radar active while it engaged incoming missiles. Even if the ship successfully destroyed the anti-shipping missiles, it would then be faced with having its radar destroyed by the ARM variant, leaving the ship defenseless to a follow-up attack. Argentina’s 12 SU-24’s could launch 24 AS-17 Krypton missiles in a single attack. These missiles would be flying just above the water at mach 3.5, much faster than the United Kingdom’s anti-missile systems are designed to counter.

For now, the Falkland Islands are secure with the current English garrison. So while the SU-24 is not necessarily a game changer in the Falkland Islands, it is a threat to the United Kingdom that can’t go unanswered. The real threat to the United Kingdom is if this deal is just the first step in Argentina becoming a client state of Russia. Nothing would benefit Russia more than a potential conflict between the United Kingdom and Argentina and Vladimir Putin is a smart enough leader to subsidize the Argentinian military. A handful of Russian SU-30 fighters to back up the SU-24’s, a couple of Aist-class hovercraft, some air-defense systems , and a few modern Kilo-class submarines would be enough to completely change the dynamic in the Falkland Islands.

100 Years Since the 1914 Christmas Truce

There has been a lot of play in the media about the 100 year anniversary of the 1914 Christmas Truce. You can read the story here and here, but the BLUF is that troops on both sides of the front laid down their arms and refused to fight on Christmas 1914. During the short ceasefire, they reportedly sang “Silent Night” in both English and German before having an impromptu soccer game. Some have said the Christmas Truth is a myth, but there is eye witness corroboration of the event. You can expect a fair amount of myth mixed into the story 100 years later but there is always a little bit of truth mixed in with the best myths. The last veterans of World War I may have passed on but they continue to inspire. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and best wishes for 2015.

U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35 Lightning II’s On U.K Aircraft Carriers

The Royal Navy has confirmed to the BBC that the only aircraft that will be flying off their newly commissioned aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales, will likely be F-35 lightning II aircraft flown by United States Marines through 2019. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that due to financial constraints in the United Kingdom, Britain will be unable to purchase enough F-35’s to equip her carriers anytime in the next few years. As the carriers are almost ready to operate, the United Kingdom is now looking to allow U.S. Marine Corps’ aircraft operate off their flight decks as a way of gaining training for the crew’s while they await aircraft. While this is a temporary fix, the Royal Navy is afraid that under current budget constraints, they may never be able to equip their two fleet carriers with a full inventory of aircraft.

HMS Queen Elizabeth soon after launching and being moved to a dock in Portsmouth, England for fitting out. The Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are the largest warships ever built and operated by the Royal Navy. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

The Royal Navy has an extensive history of operating catapult assisted take off – barrier assisted recovery (CATOBAR) fleet carriers. During World War II, the Royal Navy operated more than 20 fleet carriers, and dozens of smaller escort carriers, making it the second largest operator of aircraft carriers behind the United States. This capability allowed the United Kingdom to project force anywhere on the globe and they maintained fleet carriers in service up to the 1970’s. After a number of austerity measures cut funding to the Royal Navy, the last of her fleet carriers were to be culled in the early 1980’s. This would leave only the smaller and cheaper to operate “Baby Carriers” of the Invincible class to operate vertical/short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) aircraft like the Sea Harrier. In a changing world, the need for large fleet carriers was seen as diminishing and Great Britain was even arranging to sell her new baby carriers of the Invincible class.

In a tremendous show of firepower, HMS Victorious, HMS Ark Royal, and HMS Hermes sail together in 1960. By the 1981 Falkland Island war, only HMS Hermes would still be in commission. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

That all changed in 1981 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The Royal Navy was unprepared for a major fleet action and only had two fleet carriers left, both of which were slated to be scrapped in the coming months. Of these, HMS Hermes had been converted to a helicopter carrier and had her CATOBAR gear removed, while HMS Bulwark had been seriously damaged by a fire that rendered her unfit for service during the Falkland Island conflict. The Royal Navy had a brand new aircraft carrier in the HMS Invincible but she was very small and the United Kingdom had already agreed to sell her to Australia. That deal was quickly rescinded. The Royal Navy equipped HMS Hermes with 16 Sea Harriers and 10 Royal Air Force Harriers while HMS Invincible carried an additional 8. Together, they set sail for the South Atlantic to face a numerically superior foe.

The video below shows the Invasion fleet sailing from England. Despite the patriotic fanfare, the fleet was hastily assembled and HMS Hermes was a rusting hulk.

Both HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes gave admirable service at the Falkland Islands and the Sea Harrier performed better than expected, downing a number of high performance Argentinian aircraft that outclassed them. While the performance of the Sea Harrier has become the stuff of legends, the truth of the matter is more stark. The Sea Harriers never secured the air space around the invasion fleet and almost daily attacks by Argentinian aircraft sank a number of Royal Navy warships. This was a glaring deficiency in the capability of the Royal Navy but after the Falkland Island conflict, HMS Hermes was decommissioned and sold to India and the Royal Navy would be forced to get by with the three baby carriers of the Invincible class while a new fleet carrier was developed and built.

HMS Invincible returning to Portsmouth harbor after a refit. For the past three decades, the three baby carriers of the Invincible-class have born the brunt of the United Kingdoms force projection. The ships, originally designed for anti-submarine operations, have given valiant service in a role they were never meant for. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

A replacement fleet carrier would be long in coming though and the three baby carriers of the Invincible class, which were designed for anti-submarine operations, remained the royal Navy’s only carriers until the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean was commissioned in 1996. By the early 2000’s, the United Kingdom was forced to admit that the Royal Navy, once the most powerful navy on earth, now lacked the ability to defend her territories in the event of an attack overseas. This resulted in the United Kingdom ordering two brand new fleet carriers in 2007 that would be larger than any aircraft carrier ever operated by the Royal Navy. The two new ships, HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales, would be CATOBAR ships that would give the Royal Navy back its force projection capability for the next half century and could operate the newest and most capable aircraft.

A comparison between the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers vs. the older British fleet carrier HMS Eagle. The reduced aircraft load on the new Queen Elizabeth-class is the result of the increased size of combat aircraft. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

There was almost immediate trouble with the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers as austerity measures again led to questions as to whether the ships would be CATOBAR carriers or large VSTOL carriers. Further economic downturns led to the suggestion that the second ship would be sold or immediately placed into inactive reserve status while only one ship was operated. It wasn’t until September 2014 that the Royal Navy officially announced that both ships would be accepted into service. In anticipation of the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, the long serving Invincible-class carriers and their air groups of Sea Harriers were retired with the Harriers being sold to the United States Marine Corps. This left the United Kingdom without a functioning aircraft carrier for the first time in almost a century (the Invincible-class have been operating as helicopter carriers as a stop gap due to delays in commissioning the Queen Elizabeth-class).

In a sign of things to come, HMS Illustrious embarked 10 U.S. Marine Corps AV-8 Harriers in 2007 as part of a joint exercise. With the retirement of the Sea Harrier, the Royal Navy is left without a functioning combat aircraft to fly off of its carriers and is now reliant upon the U.S. Marine Corps to keep their air handlers trained. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

Now the United Kingdom has two modern fleet carriers but no aircraft to operate on them. The Queen Elizabeth-class is designed to carry 36 F-35 Lightning II fighters but the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense has announced that only 14 aircraft will be ordered over the next 5 years at the cost of 2.5 billion pounds. That amount includes some of the support costs for the joint strike fighter program but is a massive undertaking for a country as small as the United Kingdom. Critics of the Joint Strike Fighter have been quick to point out that the United Kingdom could purchase 50 brand new Boeing F-18 Super Hornets that have been upgraded to have F-35 like capabilities and reduced radar cross section for the same amount. That would be enough to completely equip one carrier and almost half the air wing of the second carrier with an aircraft that costs less to maintain, is almost as capable and would be ready for service within a year.

A Navy F-18 Hornet and an F-35 Lightning II fly together over Maryland. The Lightning is supposed to replace the F-18 in Navy service but Boeing has now offered an upgraded F-18 that has F-35 like capabilities at less than half the cost of the F-35. U.S. Navy Photo

One reason the United Kingdom is not worried with its rate of aircraft acquisition is that the United States will give them priority for aircraft delivery in the event of a crisis. There is precedent for this as the United States offered to give Israel priority for delivery of the VF-22 Osprey’s over the United States Marine Corps during Israel’s 50-Day Summer War in Gaza. That order was eventually cancelled as it was not needed but it was an option. In recent history though, the United States demonstrated its willingness to help the Royal Navy when the U.S. Navy prepared to transfer the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima to the Royal Navy as a backup carrier should either of theirs be damaged or sunk during the Falkland Islands war. This transfer would have included all of the USS Iwo Jima’s aircraft and hardware but was ultimately not needed.

In the event of a crisis, the United Kingdom would likely be able to rapidly acquire F-35’s from the United States by taking delivery of aircraft that were meant for the U.S. Marine Corps. U.S. Marine Corps Photo

For the moment, the Royal Navy is pushing forward with fielding the F-35, even as it is uncertain when enough of those aircraft will be available for service. Allowing the United States Marine Corps to operate off the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, while a novel training tool that also promotes international cooperation between military forces, is just a temporary measure that leaves the United Kingdom with two toothless tigers sitting in their harbors.

Ship Mounted Lasers, The Way of the Future

The U.S. Navy is making a big step into the future with ship mounted laser systems. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that the U.S. Navy has successfully mounted a powerful chemical laser aboard the USS Ponce. This system is called the Laser Weapon System (LaWS for short) has the ability to function as an air defense system, a point blank missile defense, and target small water craft. The actual weapon is a 30 kilowatt laser that uses heat to incapacitate or destroy targets. Despite being a relatively new weapon, the U.S. Navy’s LaWS system has exceeded expectations in trials and has successfully shot down drones and simulated missiles, all at the coast of .59c a shot.

The U.S. Navy Laser Weapon System or LaWS mounted aboard the USS Ponce (LPD-15) during exercises in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Navy Photo

The U.S. military has been trying to make lasers practical for decades due to the lower cost of operating them. In the early 1980’s, the U.S. Navy set the gold standard for air defense by pairing the AEGIS air defense system with the RIM-67 Standard SM-2 missile which had an average cost of $409,000 per a missile when produced in 1981. Thousands of SM-2’s were built to equip the cruisers and destroyers that utilized AEGIS  but over the past few decades combat aircraft and anti-shipping missiles have improved in capability. The U.S. Navy now fields more sophisticated and more expensive missiles like the new RIM-161 Standard SM-3 Missile and RIM-174 Extended Range Missile but these munitions come at a massive cost. Its still unsure how much these programs will cost but the Department of Defense has already given a preview of what the financial impact may be when it recently acquired PAC-3 Patriot Missiles at the cost of $2-3 million per a missile. Those procurement figures don’t include life-cycle costs such as upgrading missiles when new technology becomes available and replacing propellant when it reaches its shelf life. The U.S. Navy updated and upgraded the RIM-67 SM-2 missile 6 times over the course of it’s 25 year service life.

The destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) fires a Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) during a missile firing exercise. U.S. Navy Photo

While lasers are massively less expensive to operate, they had serious obstacles to overcome before they were practical. The first major obstacle was miniaturizing the technology to the point it was mobile. In the early 2000’s, Boeing developed the YAL-1 which was an airborne anti-missile system that utilized a chemical laser to destroy ballistic missiles while they were in flight or still sitting on the launch pad. It was the first practical application of a mobile air defense laser but the laser occupied the entire body of a Boeing 747 which is almost as big as the ships the U.S. Navy uses for air defense. The other problem was damage done by lasers tend to punch holes in targets rather than destroy them. The only way a laser causes an explosion is if the beam makes contact with something flammable like a fuel tank or a munition.

Fast forward a decade and some practical mobile laser weapon systems are already being used on the battlefield. Israel has been a leading advocate of laser development and uses the Tactical High Energy Laser as a part of its Iron Dome Missile Defense shield which can down missiles and mortar shells at $3000 a shot. The system has given decent performance but in an effort to develop an even better system, Israel is now working with Rafael Advanced Defense to develop Iron Beam, a complete replacement for the Iron Dome system that will exclusively use lasers to down entire swarms of missiles and drones. The U.S. government is footing a large part of the bill as a successful defense shield for Israel could mean a useful anti-ballistic missile system for the United States.

For now though, the U.S. Navy’s LaWS system is a gigantic step into the future and is a major advancement toward the fielding of the Littoral Combat Ship, which despite its small size, would be capable of fielding the LaWS system. One of the chief complaints about the Littoral Combat Ship is that it lacks air defense capability and would be almost defenseless near an enemy shore where anti-ship missiles are plentiful and cheap.  The Littoral Combat Ship lacks the space for a large magazine of anti-aircraft missiles but could mount a LaWS system that stored its chemical fuel in underwater blister tanks added to give the vessels greater stability in rough seas, a solution for another complaint against the Littoral Combat Ship. The current 30 kilowatt laser wouldn’t be of much use except for anti-missile defense but the projected future 150 kilowatt LaWS system could vaporize most of an aircraft with one shot.

Littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), left, and USS Coronado (LCS 4) underway in the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Navy Photo

While the LaWS system has potential and lasers will undoubtedly revolutionize warfare, we are still several decades from lasers becoming the dominate weapon of warfare. Still though, the years ahead of us look to be an exciting time of changes. To quote Shakespeare, it’s a brave new world.

Pearl Harbor Survivor, the Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 Flying Boat

It’s been 73 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, but at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center, a Pearl Harbor survivor Sikorsky JRS-1 Flying Boat is undergoing restoration. You can read the back story here, but the BLUF is that a squadron of Sikorsky JRS-1’s was present at Pearl Harbor the day of the attack, and the survivors were some of the first aircraft to fly combat air patrol in search of the Japanese fleet. The Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat was the 13th JRS-1 built for the U.S. Navy and today is the only aircraft in the Smithsonian’s collection that was present during the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. It is now undergoing restoration at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar located at the Dulles Airport. There is an observation deck inside the Udvar-Hazy Center that allows visitors to look down at the Sikorsky JRS-1 as work is being done.

The Smithsonian's Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat has been undergoing restoration for more than a year.

The Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat has been undergoing restoration for more than a year.

The Sikorsky JRS-1 was a militarized version of Sikorsky’s successful S-43 flying boat that was built for commercial airline service. The S-43 amphibian was so popular that none other than Howard Hughes purchased one. The JRS-1 gave good service in the early years of World War II flying antisubmarine missions. The JRS-1 was not outfitted to carry munitions but with minor alterations, the flying boat was able to carry depth charges. The life of the JRS-1 was short though and by 1944, most were passed out of service in favor of the similar looking but much more capable PBY Catalina flying boat.

The Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 undergoing restoration. Smithsonian Photo.

The Skiorsky JRS-1 at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was out of service by 1944 and saw a brief second life as a test aircraft for NASA. In this role, the JRS-1 was outfitted with an array of instruments and antenna for monitoring NASA experiments. The aircraft was retired from government service and sold to a commercial carrier before passing through a number of owners before coming into the possession of the Smithsonian in 1960. Instead of being restored and put on display, the Sikorsky JRS-1 was put into storage, where it remained for the next five decades. The Smithsonian has the only JRS-1 known to have been at Pearl Harbor. It’s not the only surviving model though, Fantasy of Flight in Florida has obtained Howard Hughes’ S-43 and is restoring the aircraft to flying condition.

This aircraft is possibly the Smithsonian’s JRS-1 in NASA service. NASA Photo

The restoration of the Smithsonian’s Pearl Harbor Sikorsky JRS-1 is ongoing and will take many more man hours to complete. The JRS-1 should be ready for display by Pearl Harbors 75th anniversary which will be a big event at the Udvar-Hazy Center. If you happen to be in the Washington D.C. area, this would defiantly be worth a trip as the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center is hands down the best of all the Smithsonian museums, and now, you can see a true Pearl Harbor survivor on display.

A Very Busy Aircraft, The F-4 Phantom in the 21st Century

The F-4 Phantom has been a very busy aircraft in recent months. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that Iranian F-4 Phantoms bombed ISIS targets in Iraq on December 3, 2014. In typical Iranian fashion, Iran has both confirmed and denied that they did the bombing, but there is blurry video of some F-4 Phantoms carrying out air strikes in Iraq. Only three countries in that area still operate the F-4 phantom, Iran, Turkey, and Israel.  The bombing took place on Iraq’s eastern border with Iran, which would be quite a haul for Turkey and the entire Middle East would be screaming if Israel carried out the attack, which leaves Iran by default as the likely country of origin. While the F-4 phantom has now been in service for more than 55 years and retired by most air forces, it has been a particularly busy aircraft since ISIS came to power.

An Iranian F-4 Phantom takes off. Despite arms embargoes and Iran’s Phantoms being almost 40-years old, the Phantom remains Iran’s best fighter bomber. Photo via Wikipedia.

The F-4 Phantom saw extensive service with the United States Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps in every conflict from Vietnam to the Gulf War. The United States has retired the aircraft but still converts some into aerial drones for realistic combat training. While the United States has been busy shooting down its old F-4 Phantoms, many other countries have been upgrading the F-4 into an aircraft that can confront and beat most 4th generation fighter aircraft. Notably, Israel still operates three squadrons of F-4 Phantoms that have been heavily upgraded with new avionics and engines. The success of the Israeli upgrade program has turned Israel into a leading provider of upgrade services to other nations F-4 Phantoms.

A U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom drops dumb bombs as part of a training exercise. The U.S. Department of Defense has made extensive use of the F-4 Phantom as an aerial target for realistic training of U.S. Fighter pilots. In 2013, the last U.S. F-4 Phantom was returned to service and converted to a drone. The remainder of the fleet will be used for spare parts for other nations F-4’s and the aerial target role will be filled with early model F-16 Fighting Falcons. U.S. Air Force Photo

Iran claims to have upgraded its F-4’s with indigenous engines and avionics but a close look at their aircraft shows them to look exactly how they did when delivered by the United States to the Shah of Iran in the 1970’s. The F-4 Phantom and the F-14 Tomcat remain Iran’s premier air defense fighters despite their age but arms embargoes have limited Iran’s ability to upgrade those platforms. Iran has kept it’s F-4 Phantoms flying through a program of smuggling parts, reverse engineering, and a lot of bubblegumming. This has kept Iranian F-4 Phantoms active in harassing U.S. aircraft over international waters and patrolling Iran’s borders. Just last year, an Iranian F-4 attempted to intercept a U.S. reconnaissance drone but was chased off by U.S. fighters before it could get into a firing position. With no foreseeable end to the restrictions on Iran by the international community, the F-4 could remain Iran’s main fighter and strike aircraft for decades to come.

Turkey is one of the largest F-4 Phantom operators in the world and has used its aircraft in bombing raids against Kurdish forces along the Iraqi border. All of turkey’s aircraft were heavily upgraded by Israel which has greatly enhanced the aircraft’s capabilities.  Turkey continues to use the RF-4 as its main reconnaissance aircraft and it was in this role that one of its planes was shot down by Syria in June 2012, almost bringing the two countries into conflict. As recent as April 2014, a Turkish RF-4 Phantom was involved in an altercation with Greek fighter aircraft when it was conducting operations over the Aegean Sea. Turkey continues to purchase newer and more modern fighter designs but the F-4 phantom will continue to be an important part of its air force for at least the next decade.

A Turkish F-4 Phantom making final approach to land. Turkey had all of it’s F-4 and RF-4 Phantoms modernized by IAI which has given Turkish F-4 Phantoms the ability to drop precision munitions like modern 4th generation aircraft. Turkey has limited aerial refueling capabilities and relies instead on using external fuel tanks for carrying out long range missions. U.S. Air Force Photo

Greece maintains the F-4 Phantom as a fighter bomber and the F-4 composes a large portion of its strike wings even as Greece purchases more modern aircraft models. In October 2014, Greek F-4 Phantoms participated in PARMENION 2014, an annual national defense exercise in Greece that had Greek F-4 Phantoms carrying out live bombing drills. The exercise is aimed at Turkey to show that the Greek air force stands ready to counter any aggression from their traditional geo-political rival. Greece had their F-4 Phantoms upgraded to the Luftwaffe ICE and American Wild Weasel standards by Daimler Chrysler Aerospace as IAI of Israel was already upgrading Turkey’s F-4 Phantoms. Greece has no plans to retire the F-4 Phantom in the next decade and Greece has traditionally kept small numbers of older fighter models in service for training and aggressor roles for 25-30 years after they are retired. This means that Greek F-4 Phantoms could still be flying by 2050, almost a century after the first F-4 Phantom entered service.

A squadron of U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantoms take part in a heritage flight in 2005. A number of F-4 Phantoms are now privately owned and operated in the United States. If you have a few million dollars sitting around, you to could own an F-4 Phantom. U.S. Air Force Photo

Several nations maintain large stockpiles of F-4 Phantoms. Germany retired the last of its F-4 Phantoms in 2013 but continues to operate some in the aggressor role for training and for experiments. Given the expansion of the Russian military and the outbreak of hostilities in the Ukraine, Germany will likely maintain all of its F-4 phantoms in storage for the foreseeable future. South Korea also has a large stockpile of F-4’s and continues to maintain some in active service with the rest in ready reserve in case of a war with North Korea. Japan has traded its RF-4 Phantoms for a new build reconnaissance version of the F-15 Eagle but like Germany and south Korea, maintains its F-4 Fleet in ready reserve in case of a regional conflict with China.

Japanese F-4 Phantoms take off together. Japan is in the process of transitioning away from the F-4 Phantom but will keep a large stockpile of the aircraft in ready reserve for years to come. U.S. Navy Photo

Despite its growing age, the F-4 Phantom remains an important air-superiority and ground attack fighter in the world and will likely remain so well into the 21st century. The cost of buying newer, 5th generation fighters like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, now estimated to cost $116 million per an aircraft, will likely force smaller air forces, like Greece and Turkey, to keep the F-4 in service longer than expected while they slowly procure enough of the F-35’s to secure their national security. Regardless, the F-4 is now an aircraft that can deliver precision munitions and utilizes the latest technology to maintain superiority over almost all Russian and Chinese built fighter-platforms. All of this means that the F-4 Phantom will remain a very busy aircraft for the forseeable future.

A French Soap Opera, What Will Happen to the Russian Mistral-Class Carriers?

France has halted the transfer of a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship to Russia in what is starting to look like a legal soap opera. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that France and Russia signed a deal for the construction of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to be built for the Russian Navy. After the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the international community imposed an arms embargo on Russia that should have stopped the transfer. Despite this, France and Russia had a contract and France was set to deliver the first ship in mid-November 2014 when the New York Times picked up the story and brought renewed pressure from the international community. France stopped the transfer and has now missed the deadline for delivering the first ship, putting France in breach of a $1.6 billion contract that it now stands to pay heavy penalties for.

The French amphibious assault ship Mistral, lead ship of her class, is guided into Norfolk Harbor in 2012 for joint operations with the United States Navy and Marine Corps. U.S. Navy Photo

The French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship is an ultra-modern aircraft carrier type vessel with a well deck for launching landing craft. It’s similar in function to the United States Wasp-class vessels but with a reduced cargo capacity and greater emphasis on air operations. France has been operating the vessels with great success, even participating in joint training operations with the United States Marines. This success prompted France to offer the Mistral-class for export in 2007 with the ships promoted as easy to operate vessels for nations that lacked experience with carrier operations. Interest came from places like Canada, Poland, and India, but the entire naval world was surprised when Russia ordered two ships from France in 2010 and two more to be built in Russia with French assistance for a total of four ships.

The Mistral-class ships are designed to operate American built landing craft, air cushion (LCAC) hovercraft for quick delivery of Marines from ship to shore. U.S. Navy photo

Russia has a proud naval tradition that has never fully recovered after the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. The Russian Navy enjoyed a brief renaissance during the cold war but it has seen its best ships mothballed or scrapped after years of neglect. Russia still has a formidable navy but most of it’s ships are 40-years old and it only has one aircraft carrier left in service. Acquiring a modern ship design from France was a way to fast track Vladimir Putin’s program of rebuilding the Russian military back to its Cold War status. The Mistral-class ships would give Russia a modern amphibious capacity and the opportunity for their engineers to gain experience that could be used in future indigenous designs, even if that experience came at a hefty cost.

The last Russian aircraft carrier in service, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was ordered in 1981 but not completed until 1990 due to financial restraints. The Admiral Kuznetsov has been plagued by mechanical problems and was an embarrassment to the Russian navy when it broke down and had to return to port for repairs during a September 2014 deployment meant to show the world that Russia was strong again. Photo via wikipedia

Now that hope is up in the air as France had until November 15, 2014 to deliver the first completed vessel to Russia. Four hundred Russian sailors have been aboard the ship, named the Vladivostok, for months training to take delivery but now France, under pressure from the World, says that it will not complete the delivery given Russia’s renewed military effort in the Ukraine. Russia is keen to keep the sale going as the four vessels could each land a battalion of Russian Marines anywhere on the globe. Russia will likely go to court and get awarded large damages, maybe even in excess of the $1.6 billion contract, but that still leaves Russia without its four mini-carriers that would have been the show piece of their navy. The French government has been silent on whether blueprints for the vessels have been delivered to Russia which might enable them to build them on their own.

So this leaves France with two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that it doesn’t need. The first vessel of the purchase, the Vladivostok, is complete and ready for service. The second vessel, the Sevastopol, has just been floated out of its dry dock for outfitting. Canada has expressed interest in buying the two ships which it would likely get at a significant discount as France mitigates some of its losses. Other potential buyers could be Australia which has been building its amphibious capabilities in response to the increased rhetoric from China. Poland has remained silent on if they would be interested, but India is focusing on building its own indigenous designs and is an unlikely destination now. France will likely try to find a quick solution as it is now responsible for docking fees and maintenance costs on the two Mistral-class ships since it is the breaching party.

Russia will fight in court to keep their Mistral-class ships as they represent an entire new generation of vessels when compared to their existing platforms. In this image, the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60), left, escorts the Russian amphibious ship RFS Kaliningrad (LSTM 102) during a joint exercise during 2012. Most of Russia’s amphibious assault ships resemble technology that was developed during World War II, an image that Russia wants to change with the introduction of the Mistral-class. U.S. navy photo

Both of Russia’s Mistral-class ships will likely end up in a NATO friendly country but there is a curve ball that could be thrown into this fiasco. The French courts could always take up the Russian plea and order the French government to deliver the vessels in accordance with the contract, arms embargo be damned. An even worse case scenario would be for France to sell the ships at a discount to a third party and then be ordered by the courts to perform on the contract and have to pay to build two more vessels. While that option would cause a lot of heartache within the French government, it would make for a very happy ship builder.