Archive for the 'aviation' Category


Flying High Again

Ozzy, Flying High Again

I don’t really know much about military  procurement, so there’s not much I can offer as a comment, but I saw this and I was kind of intrigued.

Apparently, Boeing has been vying with some European manufacturer for a while now and the procurement game has finally come to an end with Boeing coming out on top. The article pronounces, with surprise, that it seems that Boeing won for now simply by cutting prices and creating a better product. Who would have thought?

This is a matter of efficiency, and think how much money we could save if we just got the procurement process to go right ALL THE TIME. We could buy all the same stuff and have new money left over to fix roads or give to poor people or whatever. The point is that efficiency is a magical thing: it gives you the same stuff for less!

I also think tankers are just kind of interesting because they are very important for the U.S. to be able to fly everywhere without having bases everywhere (though it seems that we do, as a matter of fact, have bases everywhere). But if we DIDN’T have bases everywhere, our planes could still fly to every part of the globe. Very useful for power projection.

Now all we have to do is figure out how to create a sustained competitive market for building missiles and gatling guns…markets that are hard to build competition for.



I start my day with Top Gun

So many different things to talk about. This is more of a grab bag, but I’ll try to relate the different things that show up.

First, I’ll get the most unrelated part of this post out of the way: check out these maps. Kind of cool.

But now back to the titular (someone help me with usage here. Strictly speaking, it seems this word only refers to titles of POSITIONS, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it used to mean just the title of something) theme of this post.

Top Gun is an old movie these days, and in fact, it was old already even when I first saw it.  First time through, I was sad that Goose died, but I didn’t really latch on to much else. Of course, being a young kid, the dogfighting was pretty sweet.

As I’ve grown older though, I really do think the movie actually succeeds at a more complicated level, and for all the complaining I do about pop culture being vacuous and utterly degrading to the spirit of citizenship, self-realization, and free-thinkingness, there are, indisputably, pop cultural phenomenon that go on to deeply mesh with themes and questions floating around in, well, the popular culture. Superman is a prime example (though his time is fading, or is it now that reboot is being contemplated on the order of Batman Begins). Seinfeld (for you younger people, think The Wire) is another case in point. Pop sometimes touches something so deep and so universal that it explodes out of its cliched garbage pit and onto the map of cultural history.

I am not assuming that you already think Top Gun is such a movie, but I will try to convince you that it deserves this praise.

My main argument consists of identifying the way in which this movie succeeds at depicting a certain kind of male camaraderie. Now right off the bat, you might say, what value does such a sexist and retrograde theme have in our progressive society? My answer is that art does not need to be all things at once. There is art that celebrates women, gays (band played on), blacks, and every other group under the sun. Now of course, anytime you have a movie discussing the DOMINANT group in society, you’ve got to be careful. A movie about whiteness would be very troubling, and so a movie about maleness should be seen as suspicion right from the start.

It’s fair to say though that maleness is different than blackness or whiteness. Separate bathrooms for whites and blacks is unacceptable, but separate bathrooms for men and women seems almost required by a variety of reasons. Anyway, I think there is room for a movie about men that treats the subject with care and poignancy.

Immediately, there is the issue of interpreting the movie as homosexual allegory, (click this link, the movie is hilarious and smart) and indeed, there are many ways to read the movie to support this.

However, I reject the reading that Top Gun is only about homosexuality, though I think what it does do is to highlight how close maleness trends toward homosexuality at some points. In point of fact, I think the movie treats the issue of homosexuality in a very sensitive way. As far as I know, there is not a single use of a gay slur or insinuation in the entire movie. Rather remarkable considering the movie is supposed to be pop cultural romp through a seductively misrepresented fighter pilot culture. Instead, I think the movie is about a special type of humor and camaraderie that can most often be found amongst men.

Having grown up attending an all boys prep school, I can really appreciate how well this movie captures the rough and tumble friendships of men in competition with each other. This relates to my point, said many times on this blog, that competition is the social production of excellence. In Top Gun, the movie is about one man (Maverick) who is competing against an enemy that cannot be defeated: the legacy of dead father. No risk is too much to take when the enemy is invincible and so beyond life. Even Iceman is a less dangerous opponent for Maverick.

Goose on the other hand is the representation of the free-wheeling and easygoing humor that greases the tension that arises out of close competition with peers. I know at my high school, the friendly banter, and yes, insults, flew fast and furiously, but it was all cover for the sober business of trying to succeed in an environment of very competent other people. Each kid in my high school (well not quite all) was an achiever. They wanted to do things, and so did everyone else. Finding the niche where one could flourish was not easy, and had to be earned by each person. Goose is the family man who wishes that Maverick would just relax and not take so many risks, but he goes along for the ride no matter what. So, not only does he represent humor, but the spirit of loyalty that pervades friendships formed under stress and tribulation.

In the end though, Maverick does succeed at the highest level, and he does so primarily by being able to move the target of his competition from his dead father onto the actually existing Russians. The final scene of the movie more than anything I think illustrates the respect that develops between two people that are struggling to be the best. I found this patten to be very pervasive at my school. There was one kid who I was in constant competition with. We even had several violent clashes. It would be fair to say that we came as close to hating each other as you can do without actually invoking the emotion of hate. And that’s the beauty, I did not actually hate my opponent, and in time, our competition developed into a powerful and abiding friendship, as well as a healthy dose of respect for the fighting spirit of the other.

These day, fighter pilots in the U.S. military have an enormous advantage over their opponents. The F-22 for example (see my post here) is a technological marvel and as this handy video shows, frees up a lot of the pilot’s brainpower so that he can focus on strategy rather than keeping the plane from ripping itself apart, or running out of fuel, or all the other mentally taxing parts of flying an airplane close to the speed of sound while others are trying to kill you.

Also, with pilotless drones, there may not be a need for the top gun pilots for that much longer. You see, there is no glory in modern warfare (death is dealt so effectively from far away), but there was in dogfighting, the last bastion of one on one combat augmented by obscenely powerful technologies. That era may be coming to a close as well.


V-1 Rocket Countermeasures

During WWII, the Germans used the first cruise missiles to attack England. Known as the V-1, “flying bomb” or “doodlebug.”

What I found amazing and worth writing down was the way in which allied fighters tried to counteract these attacks. One way was to shoot them down, which is amazing in itself, because they were rocket powered, yet their speeds were slow enough that human pilots could engage them (but only the fastest interceptors).

But what really piqued my interest was that some allied fighters would fly next to a V-1 and knock their wings into it to override its gyroscope, thus forcing it down. That’s right, they would fly up next to a rocket in a propeller plane and ram their wings into the V-1. Wow.


Drone warfare — update

Today’s NYT has an article about the use of drones to fight Al Qaeda (an issue I’ve just started paying attention to, see here). It doesn’t try to address the rate of civilian casualties, but it does suggest that drones are used in conjunction with, not to the exclusion of, capturing people and pumping them for intelligence.

The article also suggests that using drones is a better way of keeping pressure on Al Qaeda and has an effect on how freely they can move and communicate. Again, another hard claim to assess, but one that’s definitely worth making.

The last point of the article is just that the Obama administration is really relying heavily on the use of drones. Should be a good chance to see if total civilian casualties (air and ground) rise in proportion to the use of drones, although again, it’s hard to separate any increase in casualties from being caused by just a plain old increase in fighting in the region.

P.S. Talking about drones makes me think of Skynet.


Drone warfare

I got interested in the debate about using drones to attack people in Afghanistan. There is a lot of outrage on all sides of the political spectrum about these attacks, but I think the arguments get kind of muddled.

The main arguments seem to be the following two.

1. Drone attacks kill civilians. Here’s a quote from the most authoritative and recent study I could find about drone attacks.

Our study shows that the 114 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan from 2004 to the present have killed between 830 and 1,210 individuals, of whom around 550 to 850 were described as militants in reliable press accounts, about two-thirds of the total on average. Thus, the true civilian fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 32 percent. See here for the full report.

2. Drone attacks kill terrorists. You wouldn’t think two would be an argument, but the point is that these people can’t be interrogated if they’re killed in a drone attack. Thus, critical intelligence is lost.

The problem with both  1 and 2 is that neither addresses the most relevant substitution scenario for a cutback on drone attacks, which seems to be conventional airstrikes by people flying planes. Unfortunately, human manned air strikes don’t seem to be much better. The evidence for and against this claim is detailed and would require a more careful look than I can do here. But here‘s one statistic that claims that since conventional air strikes were sharply curtailed by McChystal, civilian casualties have fallen 28%. Now, who knows what that means, because as always, there’s no control. Maybe if we had stuck with conventional bombing, casualties would have fallen 50%. Still the evidence is suggestive: when we stopped using planes and started using drones, we kill less total civilians.

But one could ask, is total civilians the right metric to even be using? I think it’s interesting to think about what numbers should be even used to assess policy, but there is reason to think that a percentage of total air-strike deaths (the above study says that about 1/3 UAV death is a civilian) is not the most important statistic. If we used some other method, and only had 25% civilian casualties, but we had to kill 700 more people due to the crudity of the targeting, would that really be a victory? Again, there is no good evidence that compares the relationship between efficiency (most insurgent deaths per civilian killed) and total civilians killed. Also, should there be a number relating taliban leaders killed to number of civilian deaths? It seems that the predators might miss  1/3 times, but when they hit, they seem to get pretty important targets.

The drone campaign is indisputably effective at killing al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.  The Long War Journal reports that from January 2008-January 2010, drone strikes killed at least 15 high-value al-Qaeda targets, 1 high-value Taliban leader, and 16 mid-level al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. See here for the full article.

To continue on, point number two is deceptive, because again, the next best option is not capturing these people and interrogating them. Rather, the next best option to a precise hellfire missile from a predator is a 2000 bomb from a manned fighter.

Finally, there are all these arguments being bandied about blaming predators for helping terrorists “recruit” more fighters, but this is a REALLY hard argument to evaluate. Presumably, all civilian casualties motivate hatred toward america to the same degree, and so drone attacks would seem to be a pretty small part of the overall picture. Also, pretend the U.S. used no drones and caused 1000 deaths due to troops on the ground where if they used drones and troops, 2000 civilian deaths would be caused. Does this give the insurgents 2x the recruitment power? I doubt it. I bet that the U.S. pretty much gets hit with all the hatred it’s going to get hit with after a very few amount of deaths, the type of deaths that are going to be inevitable anyway when you’re occupying a country. So, three questions.

1. Are drones causing a significant PERCENTAGE of total civilian deaths — I don’t know, but I doubt it’s huge.

2. What is the marginal impact of drone deaths on hatred toward America or ease of Taliban recruiting? Probably not big.

All told, someone should try to get on top of these deceptive and relatively superficial numbers that are being bandied about in this debate. There’s way bigger problems with drones than using them to shoot terrorist leaders. Though I’m not making light of using drones in war. For example, there are international law issues as well as the ethical consequences of automatizing war, or playing war in virtual reality. But instead most of the focus seems to be on small, albeit, very tragic, accidental drone killings.

PS: here‘s a neat link with an interactive database discussing air bombing civilian deaths.


the Yo-Yo (both high and low)

Learning all sorts of interesting stuff from this fighter pilot textbook.

Take this gem, about a maneuver called the yo-yo, which I mistakenly thought was named for the children’s toy: “The Yo-Yo is very difficult to explain. It was first perfected by the well-known Chinese fighter pilot Yo-Yo Noritake. He also found it difficult to explain, being quite devoid of English.”

Well known fighter pilot? Yo-Yo Noritake? Never heard of him.


Why the Luftwaffe?

As I mentioned in this post, I’m reading a really bizarre but interesting book about fighter tactics. Right now, I’m just getting through the preliminaries, but one thing that is shocking is how much better Nazi pilots were than their British and American counterparts. The top five Luftwaffe aces all had more than 200 victories, whereas one of the very best RAF aces had at most 75 victories. I’m not sure what explains this difference, whether its better aircraft or more engagements or what, but its kind of amazing to think that the allies reclaimed the skies over Europe after the battle of Britain. How did they do it given that their opponents were awesome pilots?