Sea, air and land updates

Image courtesy of Flickr user manhhai

Sea State

The Navy Times has published an article claiming that the White House prevented US commanders from criticising China ahead of a meeting between President Obama and President Xi at last month’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC. According to two unnamed defence officials, National Security Adviser Susan Rice imposed a gag order on 18 March to ensure ‘maximum political manoeuvring’ on issues ranging from nuclear non-proliferation to trade. US PACOM Commander Admiral Harry Harris and others have been pushing for the US to confront China and its strategic gains in the South China Sea. The Pentagon has denied the claims.

Thirty nations are taking part in maritime exercises in the Persian Gulf and other Middle Eastern waters. Aimed at protecting international trade routes from militant threats, the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, led by the US Navy, runs for the next two weeks. It’ll feature operations focusing on mine countermeasures, infrastructure protection and maritime security operations, and will also present an opportunity to demonstrate new technologies, including unmanned underwater vehicles and the expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Choctaw County.

Is that a destroyer or a fishing boat? That’s the question being asked by observers and analysts after the future USS Zumwalt participated in sea trials last month. The destroyer has a radar signature 50 times smaller than the current fleet, due to its angular shape and reflective material. USS Zumwalt is due to be fully operational in 2018.

Flight Path

War on the Rocks has published a two-part series by Colonel Mike Pietrucha of the US Air Force on the challenges facing the USAF’s combat aviation capabilities in the future. In part one, Pietrucha looks at what he calls the USAF’s ‘unwavering commitment’ to a stealth force, arguing that the attributes often needed in combat aircraft—like range and payload—aren’t deliverable in stealth fighter designs. In part two, he claims that the USAF needs to return to one of its most effective tactics against air defence threats: low altitude.

Last week, the USAF released the initial findings of the Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team. The group conducted a year-long study on developing capability options to ensure air superiority in 2030, and concluded that an integrated and networked family of capabilities operating across air, space and cyberspace was the most viable option. The team also suggested moving away from the concept of a ‘sixth generation fighter’, with USAF’s decision to delay its analysis of alternatives to January 2017 reflecting that thinking.

Rapid Fire

Tammy Barneet of Robeline, Louisiana, became the first ever woman to be enlisted in the US infantry last Thursday. Barneet’s enlistment came in the wake of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s statement four months ago that all combat jobs in the military would be available to women. It isn’t the only reform that Ash Carter has been pushing; last week he gave a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies which outlined his ambitions to reform the US Department of Defense.

A lightweight metal foam has been developed that causes bullets to completely shatter upon impact. Created by researchers at the North Carolina State University, the composite metal foam is only about an inch thick and is much lighter than current armour plating. It’s hoped that it’ll eventually be used for body and vehicle armour. You can see it in action here.

And now for something completely different: the Israeli Army has launched a month-long, no-questions-asked campaign dubbed ‘Clear out your closet—return equipment to the army’. With 100 collection points at bases and police stations, former soldiers are being urged to return weapons and ammunition they have collected. 220 firearms and 1,000 explosives have been returned so far.

SAL Feature: the B-52 Stratofortress

When you think ‘B-52’ you might imagine an 80s pop group ; but alas, this week’s SAL feature looks instead at one of the most iconic aircraft of all time—the B-52 Stratofortress.

15 April marks the anniversary of the maiden flight test of the B-52 Stratofortress back in 1952. Boeing was awarded the contract for America’s first long-range, swept-wing heavy bomber in 1946. The original XB-52 design was for a six-engine, propeller-powered heavy bomber, but on 21 October 1948, the Air Force’s chief of bomber development told Boeing Chief Engineer Ed Wells and his team to scrap the propellers and come up with an all-jet bomber. In an Ohio hotel room, the team designed a new eight-engine jet bomber—still called the B-52—and presented the concept over 33 pages, accompanied by a wooden model of the bomber. And thus was born the B-52 that we know and love.  

The B-52 entered service in 1955 and a total of 744 were built with the last, a B-52H, delivered in October 1962. The Stratofortress can carry nuclear or precision guided conventional weaponry and is capable of dropping or launching the widest array of weapons in the US inventory. The B-52 was used extensively as a conventional bomber during the Vietnam War. The full potential of the bomber was applied during Operation Linebacker II—the 1972 Christmas air offensive which represented the biggest bombing campaign by the US over North Vietnam. Between 18–29 December, the USAF flew 729 night-time sorties over North Vietnam, dropping at least 20,000 tonnes of explosive.

The Stratofortress formed the cornerstone of America’s nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. The B-52 dropped the first hydrogen bomb over the Bikini Islands in 1956. In 1960, B-52s began 24-hour nuclear deterrent flights across the globe, with several nuclear-armed bombers in the air at all times. Those flights ended eight years later after a number of bombers crashed and crews were instead put on 24-hour ground alert.

The Stratofortress was a key platform during Operation Desert Storm, flying 1,741 missions and dropping 27,000 tonnes of munitions—amounting to 30% of the total Gulf War tonnage. The bomber also played a part in Operation Allied Force, the air campaign conducted against Serbia in 1999. In the first air strikes, seven B-52s carried conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles aimed at the Serbian Integrated Air Defence System and played a vital psychological role in the conflict.

The B-52 continues to serve an important function to the USAF, particularly in ‘assurance and deterrence’ missions. As recently as January, a B-52 flew over South Korea as a demonstration of force and solidarity in response to provocations by North Korea. The B-52 is the longest serving military aircraft in the world and will remain a major part of the US arsenal until 2044 with life-extending upgrades and maintenance. If you want to experience what it’s like to fly a B-52, this video from Gizmodo shows an entire training mission from pre-checks to aerial refuelling and low pass flybys.