Category Archives: technology

Naval Weapons of World War One by Norman Friedman

Norman Friedman gives us an incredibly comprehensive view of the weapons used by the Great War navies of… ready for this…? Britain, Germany, France, the United States, Italy, Russia, Japan, Austria, Spain, Sweden, and other navies. Here, naval weapons include guns, torpedoes, mines and anti-submarine weapons. There must have been a risk that main guns would overshadow mines and torpedoes.

This is quite some book, and I can only marvel at the amount of research that must have gone into it. Perhaps I found some of the technological stuff a bit perplexing – there were so many different calibres of gun, for example, it is hard to keep track of them all! But Friedman doesn’t just offer a technological narrative, he also gives a very good background in the historical developments that led to the early twentieth century naval arms race, and how the manufacture and development of weapons progressed. Names such as Armstrong figure prominently. And that is refreshing, as so often we get a – dare I say it – geeky analysis of why a 4.99inch gun is different to a 5inch gun, without any regard for the ships that they were fitted to, the men who operated them, and the admirals who fought them. I have found quite commonly when analysing modern naval warfare, than some correspondents tend to get too bogged down with the technology – ie, the make up or resistors in a sea wolf launcher – with no regard at all for the human aspect of things.

One thing that surprised me is just how many different types of guns were in use. In these days of commonality and procurement-led equipment policies, it is hard to fathom that the Royal Navy used to operate all manner of different calibre and type of guns. It must have been a supply chain nightmare. Imagine all of the spare parts, maintenance know how, operating experience and ammunition complexities. I guess it was as a result of the rapid change in technology in the nineteenth century. After all, the Royal Navy fought at Trafalgar with smootbore muzzle loaders, and went into action at Jutland with huge, rifled breech loaders. And then when you take into account the massive innovations in explosives, then its little wonder that the navies changed so dramatically. After all, guns and rounds are the raison d’etre of any Dreadnought. And then we have the vastly complex issues of naval tactics in the Dreadnought age, the Battlecruiser conundrum et al. And then when you compare these issues among the various navies, you have a very interesting picture.

But here Friedman does place the technology well within the wider context. There is a lot of compare and contrast, which is of course vital when considering why and how certain navies fared differently to others. It is excellently illustrated with some first class photographs, which are well interpreted. I found it very illuminating indeed. As somebody who does tend to concentrate on the social history side of things, it would be all too easy to ignore technology as ‘cold’ history. But to understand the story of men who served at sea in the Great War, then we should be prepared to be engrossed in the weapons that they worked with.

Not only that, but it looks pretty snazzy on my bookshelf!

Naval Weapons of World War One is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, technology, Uncategorized, World War One

New Chief of Defence staff threatens to pull plug on UK Defence Industry

The new head of the British Armed Forces has criticised the UK Defence industry as ‘ailing’, in an article in the Mail on Sunday yesterday (18 July 2010, page 2). General Sir David Richards – the current Chief of General Staff of the British Army, and future Chief of the Defence Staff, warned that it was not the role of the military to spend money simply to ‘prop up’ British defence industry companies.

On that point, her certainly does make sense. Questions have been raised over UK Defence procurement for some time. In the same article, the Mail cites the £1.7bn paid for 62 Lynx Westland Helicopters, costing £27m each, from Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland. Apparently the MOD was repeatedly offered the option to buy American-built Black Hawk helicopters – far superior to the Lynx Wildcat – for £8m each. A similar situation took place years ago, when the MOD decided to purchase the SA80 rifle, largely as it gave business to British companies. The end-product was inadequate and needed large-scale modifications by Heckler Koch – bizarre given that the MOD could simply have bought from H&K in the first place.

What no-one seems to consider is, why is the UK Defence industry so expensive? Possibly due to prohibitively high costs of basing production in the UK, whereas foreign companies can pay staff less, and run on cheaper bills. Is it an option for companies such as BAE Systems and QinetiQ to up their game and become more competitive? Given the Generals comments, it sounds like ‘adapt-or-die’ will have to be their mantra. Thats probably why, in the recent BBC documentary, QinetiQ seemed to be moving into more civilian markets.

Not so long ago the British Defence Industry was the most productive and succesful in the world. Vosper Thorneycroft built ships for a multitude of navies around the world. Tanks such as the Centurion graced numerous battlefields during the Cold War. Even during the Falklands War, the Argentinian Navy had two Type 42 Destroyers. It does seem that in the past 20 or so years the British Defence Industry has lost its role in the export market – of recent British Defence projects, the only foreign interest in the Type 45 Destroyers is apparently ‘rumoured’ interest from Saudi Arabia. Only Austria and Saudi Arabia have purchased Eurofighters, and only Oman operates the Challenger 2 Tank. It seems that rather than buy British, many countries that might have done so in the past go for the cheaper American equivalents. Of course, there are very few truly British defence projects any more anyway. Its a sad state of affairs for what was once a thriving industry.

Where procurement is concerned, frequently the Government comes under pressure to buy British, in order to safeguard jobs. Defence debates in Parliament are always hallmarked by MP’s ready to stand up and speak out for jobs in ‘my constituency’. Recently thinkdefence analysed a Strategic Defence Review debate, and the words ‘my constituency’ featured more than any others. Of course MP’s have to stand up for their constituents – an MP who lets thousands of people lose jobs without a fight wont be an MP for much longer – but by the same token, this kind of lobbying leads to some hamstrung decision-making. For example, the Royal Navy is simply not large enough to warrant having three large main bases, but robust lobbying has protected jobs so far. At some point this will come to a head.

What astounds me most, however, is his comparison with Thatcher’s strategy of destroying loss-making industries such as coal and steel in the eighties. Although maybe not quite so overt as his predecessor, Sir Richard Dannatt, reading between the lines it IS a political statement. Hero-worshipping Margaret Thatcher leaves no illusions as to Richard’s politics.

Of course its important that the Defence budget is used to maximum effect by employing best value, but that doesn’t mean the threat of thousands of job losses should be talked about so flipplantly either.

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Filed under defence, News, politics, technology

How to build… Britain’s Secret Engineers

Aside from having a gramatically suspect title, this was another interesting instalment in the BBC’s ‘how to build’ series, that kicked off with a look at the Astute Class Nuclear Submarines several weeks ago.

QinetiQ is, essentially, the UK’s former Defence research and development in privatised form. Since formation in 2001 and floating on the stock market in 2006, QinetiQ has expanded and taken on concerns globally, including in the US. I’m not sure I personally agree with the country’s defence technology expertise being hived off to the private sector, even if the Government does retain a controlling stake. But thats an argument for another day!

The main focus of this programme is the work to make eight Chinook heavy lift helicopters ready for acceptance by the RAF. They were initially purchased in 1995 as CH3 special forces versions, at a cost of £259m. However, due to problems with their operating systems they never actually made it into service, and instead have been sat in storage for years. Reportedly, they could not fly in cloud. It was, to quote, the Defence Select Committee, a ‘gold standard procurement cock-up’. One that seems even more ridiculous, given the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan it was decided to strip the spare Chinooks down, refit them to CH2 standard and get them into use as soon as possible.

The work is largely being carried out by QinetiQ at Farnborough and Boscombe Down. We watch the project manager overseeing the final stages of the fourth Chinook, as the wiring is completed – a mammoth task indeed. One person I do not envy is the young engineer who climbed inside the fuel tank to work on a fitting inside – not for the claustrophobic, and he could only stay in there for short periods due to fumes. One of the final – and most interesting – parts of the project was the fitting of the rotor blades, something that looked paticularly fiddly.

Another interesting project is the Tallon unmanned bomb disposal vehicle, primarily being developed in America. Made out of very few parts, and with a highly maneouvreable arm, four cameras giving 360 vision, and enough power to pull a small family car, the Tallon is a prime example of the Defence industry reacting to the needs of the armed forces. Not only that, but QinetiQ are also developing the Tallon for civilian use. A fine example of how developments inspired by military needs can have spin-offs for civilian use too.

Its difficult to place too much stock on a TV programme, but the impression gained is one of a hard-working bunch of people who seem to appreciate that what they are working on is very important to the troops on the ground in Helmand. Its a shame however that the future looks bleak when it comes to UK Defence procurement, ie there isnt going to be much of it for the foreseable future. Therefore its probably wise for QinetiQ to be diversifying into civilian markets, such as developing stealth technology to prevent wind turbines interfering with air traffic control radars.

A company like QinetiQ should be the heirs of great British military inventors and designers such as Barnes Wallis, Donald Bailey and R.J. Mitchell. In particular, the UK Defence industry has fallen far behind when it comes to the export market – more should be done to create jobs for companies such as BAE and QinetiQ.

How to Build… Britain’s Secret Engineers can be watched on BBC iplayer

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Filed under defence, On TV, Royal Air Force, technology, Uncategorized