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Category: Robert Farley

B-52s for Israel, Revisited

[ 39 ] April 10, 2014 |

At War is Boring, I extend my remarks on the proposal to send B-52s to Israel a bit:

“B-52s for Israel,” as we’ve dubbed it, is a silly little proposal with approximately zero chance of actually being implemented. And it’s possible Deptula and Makovsky don’t even mean for anyone to take its details seriously.

Their bomber idea could be part of a media game of sorts, one that certain political constituencies are playing in order to broadly influence policy, rather than comprise policy.

But just for fun, let’s consider “B-52s for Israel” as a sober proposal.

Airplane People Should Talk!

[ 3 ] April 9, 2014 |

My latest at the Diplomat thinks through the reasoning behind future military engagement between China and the United States:

Because effective communication requires shared priors, China and the United States both have an interest in developing a common understanding of military problems and capabilities.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh and General Hawk Carlisle displayed a deft understanding of this dynamic in an article in the January-February 2014 issue of Air and Space Power Journal, which recounted the two officers’ recent visit to China. The visit was conducted mostly at the strategic and institutional level, giving the USAF leaders an appreciation for how the PLAAF understood the role of airpower in Chinese history.  While the visit displayed only some of the PLAAF’s most modern technologies, it did serve to highlight the institutional reforms that drive improvements in Chinese capabilities.

Air Force Continues to Make the Case for Its Own Abolition

[ 96 ] April 8, 2014 |

This is insane.

The Pentagon has developed the MOP bomb specifically for destroying hardened targets. It can penetrate as deeply as 200 feet underground before detonating, more than enough capability to do significant damage to Iran’s nuclear program. There are no legal or policy limitations on selling MOPs to Israel, and with an operational stockpile at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the U.S. has enough in its arsenal to share.

Israel, however, also lacks the aircraft to carry the MOP. Which means the U.S. would need to provide planes capable of carrying such a heavy payload. Only two can do so: the B-52 and the stealth B-2.

The U.S. has only 20 B-2s and would not share such a core component of nuclear deterrence. Nor is the Pentagon willing to part with active B-52s. Of the 744 built since 1955, all but roughly 80 have been decommissioned, sent to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and, in compliance with arms-control-treaty obligations, mostly rendered inoperable. With plans for a new long-range bomber delayed by defense-spending cuts and sequestration, current plans call for keeping the active duty B-52s in service for at least another 20 years.

But there are more than a dozen of the relatively “newest” B-52H bombers—built in the early 1960s—in storage. Some of these should be delivered to Israel. There’s no legal or policy impediments to their transfer; they would just have to be refurbished and retrofitted to carry the MOP.

Let’s set aside all of the political questions, and just focus on the tactical problems. The GBU-57 is a precision guided gravity bomb. This means that the B-52 cannot use it from standoff range; it has to get close to the target in order to drop the weapon. The B-52 thus becomes vulnerable not only to Iranian interceptors (including F-14s which may still operate a version of the long-range Phoenix missile), but also to Iranian surface-to-air missile sites. This is why air forces don’t normally fly B-52s through contested air space. If you’re the sort of country that can carry out a massive SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) campaign that will destroy long range SAMs along the bomber route, short range SAMs near the target, and every conceivable interceptor base that could launch fighters that could plausibly get in range of the B-52s flight path, then this is a manageable problem. Or you could just send a B-2.

Israel could carry out this sort of campaign against Syria, both because of the deterioration of the Syrian air defense network and the Syrian Air Force, and because the distances are manageable. The IDF Air Force cannot carry out a large scale, prolonged SEAD campaign against Iran, in large part because the distances are un-manageable. Iranian fighters can move outside of the range of Israeli fighter-bombers, and Iran can disguise its SAMs. This isn’t such a problem for a single strike package, or even a series of strikes, because the aircraft Israel would expect to use are small enough and fast enough to either evade Iranian SAMs or destroy Iranian interceptors. Moreover, the Iranians have little incentive to expose their SAMs and their interceptors to destruction in order to kill one or two out of a hundred or more fighter-bombers.

Israeli B-52s would immediately become the juiciest target available to Iran, and the Iranian military would likely take significant risks in order to shoot one or more down. Especially if the Israelis operated only a dozen, downing one would become a significant political coup. The presence of B-52s would, accordingly, make the Israeli SEAD problem immensely more complex, and significantly increase the potential costs to Israel of carrying out the strikes. This is to say nothing,

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of course, of the problems the Israelis would have in developing sufficient expertise to maintain the B-52s, and to fly them in combat situations. These issues are not lost on the Israelis, who retired their last large, multi-engine bombers in 1958. Essentially, Deptula is asking the Israelis to use B-52s in circumstances more dangerous than the USAF itself has been willing to use them since at least 1991, and probably since 1972.

In short, it would be dumb for the US to offer B-52s, but fortunately it’s unlikely that the Israelis would be dumb enough to accept them. David Deptula almost certainly understands this.

One of the reasons for creating an independent air force is to develop a cadre of experienced, professional airpower experts. These experts are supposed to do two things. First, they manage the use of military airpower in the most efficient and effective way possible. Second, they provide expert advice to civilian policy-makers and to the public with respect to how the military can utilize airpower to accomplish national objectives. This second role means that both active-duty and retired Air Force officers have a responsibility not to spout nonsense about airpower in public fora, largely because the patina of professional expertise leads civilian policy-makers and the public at large to take this nonsense seriously.

If the Air Force cannot either a) sufficiently educate its officers such that they appreciate the consequences of the tactical and operational advice they are providing to civilians, or b) inculcate a sense of responsibility with respect to their professional obligations as managers of airpower violence, then we’re better off without an Air Force. I suspect that people know where I stand on this question.

Poor Free Throw Shooting Spares Fair Lexington the Torch

[ 2 ] April 8, 2014 |

And here are our final standings for the 2014 LGM Tourney Challenge:


1 Lexington Bearded Ducksfarls0 260 160 200 160 160 0 Kentucky 940 99.3
2 bluedoguk 1bluedoguk 230 200 80 160 160 0 Kentucky 830 98
3 aintthatprettyracobeen 260 200 200 160 0 0 Florida 820 97.8
4 maybe this timesullivap 240 200 200 160 0 0 Florida 800 97
5 War On ErrorSouthSideFan773 270 240 200 80 0 0 Wisconsin 790 96.4
6* UnleashtheFurycabotgk 250 200 160 160 0 0 Florida 770 94.9
6* The ed17 1The ed17 270 220 200 80 0 0 Michigan St 770 94.9
8* Trent Richardsonthom0909 240 200 160 160 0 0 Florida 760 93.9
8* davidrrutherford 1davidrrutherford 240 240 200 80 0 0 Michigan St 760 93.9
10 Drunken Warthogssde1015 250 180 160 160 0 0 Michigan 750 92.7


Thanks to all for a good, clean fight, etc. etc. Recollect that LGM Baseball Challenge remains available… 

Big Time!

[ 30 ] April 7, 2014 |

Finally, our “go big or go home” advertising strategy pays off.
Wait; who forgot the URL?

Updates and House Cleaning

[ 9 ] April 7, 2014 |

The good people at SunAnt (who I cannot recommend highly enough) are currently in the process of updating LGM to the latest versions of WordPress and of the various plugins that make the site functional.  This will hopefully eliminate the spam problems recently seen in the RSS feed and the mobile site. We’ve also been hit with an enormous increase in comment spam, most of which has been caught by our “pending” folder before reaching the comment section.  This matters if you’ve had trouble commenting over the past week or so, as you may have inadvertantly been dropped into the spam file.  Send me a note if you’re concerned.

Ex Patt Kickstarter

[ 1 ] April 7, 2014 |

Students at my school have founded a magazine (“Ex Patt”) and are looking for some help to jump-start the second issue.  Here’s the pitch:

Ex-Patt Magazine, a new foreign affairs journal published by the graduate students of the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, is seeking your aid to help our publication grow into the Bluegrass State’s foremost publication on foreign affairs. As a registered student organization of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky, we strive to provide meaningful foreign policy analysis of today’s most pressing issues in order to inform local opinion within the Lexington community and provide our fellow students an outlet for their work. Covering topics from international development to commerce to security and diplomacy, Ex-Patt Magazine is the place to get prudent analysis on all of today’s hot button issues. With your help we plan to more than double our print production from 400 copies to 1,000 copies!

Worthy effort. Pitch in a buck if you’ve got one handy.

Sunday Book Review: Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy

[ 33 ] April 6, 2014 |

Why, in the wake of World War I, did the relationship between the US Army Air Service and the US Navy go so bad so quickly? Thomas Wildenberg’s Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry Over Air Power chronicles the conflict between aviation enthusiasts (personified and led by William Mitchell) and the establishment Navy during the interwar period. With control over aviation assets at stake, the sides argued over the effectiveness of airpower against warships and shipping. Mitchell and his acolytes took a maximalist position, holding the air forces had effectively rendered surface navies obsolete, and that the United States government should redirect money away from battleships and aircraft carriers and towards heavy bombers. Fighting the Navy couldn’t win Mitchell organizational independence, but it did hold the opportunity for gaining control of the immense resources that an independent air force would require.

The Navy and the Air Service fought for high stakes.  In the United Kingdom, the Royal Air Force was stitched together from the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, putting all military aviation assets under one banner.  The USN wanted to avoid this outcome at all costs, while Billy Mitchell wanted to create a similar arrangement in the US. In context of severe defense cuts at the end of the World War I, everything seemed to be on the table.

Wildenberg devotes considerable attention to the exercises that led to the sinking of the SMS Ostfriesland and several other old warships. With respect to the sinking of Ostfriesland, both sides had legitimate points to score.  Ostfriesland was older than most of the American battleships of the day, but not all, and not much older.  If bombers could sink her, then they could likely sink all but the most modern of the American standard type battleships. Three other issues made the exercise problematic, however.  First, Ostfriesland was stationary, considerably simplifying the problem of bombing.  In one of his more absurd moments, Mitchell explained this away in a passage that likely sets some sort of record for military dishonesty:

It does not make very much difference because we employ a massed attack.  A ship on the surface of the water in motion is much easier to hit than an object at rest because the relative speed between the airplane and the object being fired at is the thing that makes it difficult to secure hits.  If a water vessel could be moving at the same rate as an airplane there would be absolutely no trouble whatever hitting it because all you would have to do would be to get over the object and drop the bomb and as both the airplane and its taget would be going at the same speed you would be certain to get a hit.  Therefore the faster that a water vessel goes the easier it is to hit from the air.  This is not understood at all by people unfamiliar with bombing.  As to turning and zigzagging, the turns of surface vessels of any kind are so slow as to be almost negligible from the air.

Second, Ostfriesland was in poor shape, and lacked a crew. German battleships were well-known for their thorough compartmentalization and their watertight integrity, but looters and poor maintenance had made sealing Ostfriesland impossible.  The battleship was already taking on water before the bombing began. More importantly, with no damage control teams on board, even relatively minor damage could prove lethal. Finally (and in the only point that supports Mitchell) Ostfriesland had no munitions aboard.  This rendered the battleship effectively immune to loss through catastrophic explosion, although the ability of the bombs used by the Army Air Service to penetrate Ostfriesland’s magazines is in considerable question.

Mitchell did violate the rules of the exercise, but not to the extent that it made much of a difference to the outcome. The Army Air Service sank Ostfriesland and a variety of other old American and German vessels, helping both services to learn a great deal about targeting and bomb damage.  Mitchell’s interest was in propaganda, however; he used the sinking of the old battleship to argue that surface vessels of any kind were effectively obsolete in the face of determined air attack.  It bears note that Mitchell was not predicting that surface ships would become vulnerable at some point in the future; he made clear his belief that the USN was already obsolete as of the early 1920s.

It’s fair to say that Wildenberg is not impressed by Billy Mitchell, and that he generally tilts towards the Navy’s side of the conflict. Wildenberg lands clear punches, demonstrating that while Mitchell was an effective organizational commander and an excellent propagandist, he had severe shortcomings as a strategist.  The subject is complicated, because while planes can’t sink battleships as easily as Mitchell suggested, they surely can sink them. Mitchell’s claims for the capacity of aircraft to sink warships were wildly overstated, and were wrong in many of the particulars. But it’s less clear that they were so wrong as to be unproductive. The extent to which the battleship was obsolete prior to 1939 has been (in part because of Mitchell and his partisans) strongly overstated, but then most major powers either curtailed battleship construction or ended it entirely once World War II began.  It also bears note that Mitchell was quite right about the pointlessness of lighter-than-air aviation, and about many aspects of the interwar military aviation complex.

But then Mitchell’s advocacy was surely unproductive in terms of the details of how aircraft could be used for coastal defense. Heavy, level bombers were nearly useless in World War II for attacks against naval vessels, as warships proved far too fast, maneuverable, and heavily armed to succumb to high altitude level bombing. In a prediction that didn’t pan out, Mitchell suggested:

If the same method of battleship construction is continued, in the future no crew will stay on a battleship when aircraft come in sight.  The captain will have to stick at his post and will probably send for a bottle of torpedo fluid to help him, and everyone else will immediately jump overboard.  When the alarm of airplanes in sight is given, the crew will immediately put on gas masks, kapok coats in order to float in the water, asbestos shoes and gloves so as to be able to touch the hot metal, and parachutes so that they will be able to open them and come down alright when blown into the air.

Hyperbole yes, but not particularly helpful hyperbole. Dedicated dive and torpedo bombers, usually (although not always) developed by navies, would sink the vast majority of warships during the war.  Level bombers did better against civilian shipping, but this was not envisioned to be a serious operational task  in the early inter-war period.  And Mitchell was egregiously wrong about the effectiveness of carriers and carrier aircraft, which he believed would always be at a disadvantage against land-based air.  Granting that Mitchell had a point with respect to aircraft sinking warships also requires appreciating that he got the details entirely wrong, and that he advocated policies that would have produced tactical and organizational disaster.

But Wildenberg probably goes too far when he draws Mitchell’s personal history into the dispute.  He illustrates his narrative with passages from Mitchell’s life, stories that generally do not reflect well on the aviator. These passages  add color to the account (he probably shot his first wife, for example), but also tend to obscure the argument by portraying Mitchell more cartoonishly than is strictly necessary. There were undoubtedly a significant number of officers on each side of the three way argument between the Army, the Air Service, and the Navy who suffered from alcoholism, who liked the ponies a bit overmuch, and who wildly overspent their means. Detailing these characteristics primarily for Mitchell and not for the other antagonists leaves a lopsided story that is, if anything, unfair to Mitchell.

Wildenberg doesn’t present much in the way of a general theory of inter-service conflict, but it’s not hard to develop one.  Essentially, inter-service tension in the interwar period precluded the development not only of good cooperative procedures in areas of common interest, but also of the development of knowledge.  Mitchell had a sincere interest in the bombing exercises, but his goals were mainly political, rather than the development of tactics, techniques, and technologies for using air and naval assets together.  Mitchell wanted to prove that aircraft could kill specific battleships in order to kill the idea of battleships. The Navy appreciated that someone would try to sink its ships with aircraft, and even if it believed that Mitchell overstated the air threat, it did need a technical understanding of how bomb damage affected warships. The question was under what conditions, and what factors could either enhance the ability of friendly aircraft to sink enemy ships, or prevent the sinking of friendly ships by enemy aircraft. But faced with the political threat posed by Mitchell and his enthusiasts,  the Navy grew understandably reluctant to put even its older ships at the service of the Army.

In the long run, this dynamic would hurt the Army Air Corps more than the Navy.  Navy exercises and planning in the 1930s demonstrated the potential effectiveness of dive and torpedo bombers, even if it took some time in practice to develop effective anti-aircraft techniques.  The Air Corps entered the war with an excess of optimism about the role that B-17s could play in coastal defense, while simultaneously lacking any understanding of how heavy bombers might support the anti-submarine effort (although obviously the Navy hardly covered itself with glory on this score in the first year of the war). Threatening the Navy forced it to circle the (battle) wagons, which limited the extent to which the Air Service could prepare for the next war.  Everybody likes aggressive, enthusiastic activism than threatens entrenched interests, but those interests may respond in generally unproductive ways.

This is an interesting book, and if it had come out earlier I would have found it useful in my own work.  The research appears sound, and the argument is largely correct.  I can’t help feel, however, that the case could have been made more carefully. The book could also have been organized more clearly, as some of the early chapter are much longer than their later counterparts (this may be my own pet peeve). Nevertheless, it’s a good one volume account of how bitterly the Navy and the Air Service fought for prominence in the interwar period.


[ 19 ] April 5, 2014 |

I graciously accept

your surrender.

Technical Problems

[ 1 ] April 5, 2014 |

We’re currently having a spam problem with the RSS feed and the mobile site.

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Thank you for your patience.

Airpower Over Asia

[ 9 ] April 4, 2014 |

This week at the Diplomat, I answer some questions about the implications of Air Force independence in Asia and in Asian history.

While you concentrate your book on the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force, the argument would seem to hold for any independent air force. What do the major Asian air forces look like?

This is a very interesting question. Most post-colonial Asian states take the model of their former colonizer; Pakistan, India, and Malaysia all have independent air forces on the model of the RAF, for example. Revolutionary states tended to adopt the Soviet or Chinese models, in which the air force was subservient to the army. This includes China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Indonesia. The Japanese case is complicated, but the JASDF is more or less an independent service within the Japanese Self-Defense Force.

Next Divorce: Hello, Helsinki!

[ 17 ] April 2, 2014 |

Well, this explains it.

Almost a year after announcing their split in a stilted scene at the Grand Kremlin Palace, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila have finalized their divorce. The duo were married for 30 years and have two children together, though Putin’s official biography on the presidential website no longer makes any mention of Lyudmila.

The news marks perhaps the final chapter in the hushed but turbulent drama of Putin’s personal life. Rumors long circulated of a rift between the Russian strongman and his seldom-seen wife. The Kremlin regularly issued denials of such gossip, and Putin himself denied marital troubles, telling Italian reporters there was “not a single word of truth” in the speculation and that he had contempt for those whose “erotic fantasies prowl into others’



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