What Drove the Rise of the English Longbowman?

The answer to this question can be found in the stories of the various ways people used bows and arrows in the times between the Norman Conquest and the Black Death. Sometimes their activities are lost to history because of the lack of records, at other times the royal administration may have discouraged popular archery either deliberately or by neglect. But an English tradition of popular archery existed throughout the period.

Much has been made of the Anglo-Norman experience of archery in their wars against the Welsh and its influence on the development of military archery in England. The Norman kings and Marcher Lords gained control of large parts of Southern Wales through conquest and alliance by the middle of the twelfth century. Then they used the archery skills of their new tenants and allies in their assault on Ireland. Part of the reason why the Southern Welsh archery skills have been emphasised is because of the graphic accounts of its effectiveness left us by Giraldus Cambrensis. Meanwhile there is evidence of archery skills developing in the English border counties, or more likely being discovered and exploited by the Anglo Norman rulers. But as accounts of military archery in Stephen’s reign make clear, there was an active English archery tradition at the same time as the Welsh archers were impinging on the Anglo Normans. But it is probable that the Welsh contribution to the development of military archery was to demonstrate the effectiveness of more powerful bows than were commonly used in the contemporary English tradition. At the same time, the Battle of the Standard strongly suggests that there was a tradition of archery in Northern England, probably encouraged by two centuries of Norse influence, and more centuries of warfare with the Scots. While the Norsemen did not make extensive use of military archery, they understood the value of archery. Their tradition of archery may well have concentrated more on longbow use, since there are tenth-century finds of longbows from Hedeby in Norway and Ballinderry in Ireland.

After King John lost the wealthiest parts of his cross-Channel kingdom to Philip Augustus of France military tactics in England developed surprisingly slowly. Despite the rapid expansion of both the types of weapons and the social classes included in the Assizes of Arms under Henry III it took until the end of the thirteenth century for the beginnings of the English tactical system became apparent. Edward I tended to use archers in the same way that William I and Stephen had: to provide general harassing or covering fire and to weaken bodies of stalwart infantry until the mailed horsemen could destroy them. That is men that might turn a battle their way rather than win it outright. The battles of the Standard in 1138 and Boroughbridge in 1322 are much more significant stages in the development of military practice in England. In both these battles, the small numbers of knights present dismounted to stiffen the infantry line while relatively large numbers of archers were placed in and around the front line to rebuff the oncoming enemy with arrow shot. But, for as long as the Norman and Plantagenet kings kept their focus mainly on Continental European matters, military practice continued to follow the Continental tradition with knights and mailed horsemen being the masters of the battlefield. As a result, the lessons of the Battle of the Standard were largely forgotten until the thirteenth century when a solution had to be found to a major military problem. England was no longer able to raise the numbers of mailed horsemen necessary to match those that could be raised in France and the German states.

The thirteenth century was the key period for the development of popular archery in England. Henry III and Edward I progressively extended the reach of the Assizes of Arms to include men from more social groups. Between 1230 and 1285 the duty of arms ownership for peacekeeping and military service was extended to include both free and serfs, so that by 1285 no healthy non noble layman aged between 16 and 60 was specifically excluded. Significantly, the most numerous groups were those that were expected to have bows and arrows. This was the time when the major official recognition and encouragement of archery happened; and by doing so it marked the recognition that an English tradition of popular archery existed. Edward III’s 1363 proclamation requiring archery practice only had force because the bow had been established as the legally required weapon of a majority of the population in the previous century. But a century earlier Henry III’s advisers must have discerned some level of interest in archery among the population of England when they added bows and arrows to the weapon types required by the Assizes of Arms. The reach and influence of the medieval kings of England was not sufficiently powerful that they could make men take up weapons that they had no interest in. This became apparent in the second half of the thirteenth century when Edward I was disappointed by the number and quality of knights coming forward in answer to his summons. While in part this had an economic cause, knightly arms were not cheap, there was also an element of weariness and resentment with Edward’s demands since he was at war so often. But it shows very clearly that it was difficult to force men to take up arms if they felt it was against their interests.

The main reason Henry III expanded the scope of the Assizes of Arms was the need to increase the pool of competent men available to recruit English armies from. With the loss of many of the his European lands, and resulting loss of both revenue and manpower, Henry and his advisers were left in a weak position in comparison with the king of France. So they had to look more closely at the potential military resources available in England. This led them to begin to include the English tradition of archery and so undo Henry II’s omission, after he had left archery out of his English Assize of Arms in 1181. They might well have remembered the ‘foundation myth’ of the Norman and Plantagenet kings of England, that an archer struck the fatal blow at the Battle of Hastings, they may have recalled the effectiveness of archery in Henry I’s and Stephen’s reigns as well as that of the Welsh archers. So they probably felt that the inclusion of military archery would help to balance the relative lack of mailed horsemen. The staged inclusion of archery in the Assizes of Arms may show that the royal administration didn’t realise initially the potential of the English tradition of archery to provide fighting men, and in particular were ignorant of the amount of archery practised by the peasantry, both free and unfree. Although there is very little evidence of archery as a sport in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, what little there is shows that members of the population at large enjoyed archery. While they were nowhere near as widespread and numerous as was the case in the late fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, they showed that popular archery existed. Whatever their motives, Henry III and his advisers could hardly have foreseen the fearsome power that the archers of England and Wales would bring to European battlefields in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

But one question remains: why did the Henry III and Edward I encourage military archery through their Assizes of Arms and the Statute of Westminster in the thirteenth century? Contemporary experiences of powerful infantry in North Wales, Scotland and Continental Europe all demonstrated the effectiveness of steady bodies of pike armed infantry. They could resist and even defeat mailed cavalry, the ‘battlefield kings’ of the time. Infantry armed with close-quarters weapons such as swords axes and shields found bodies of pike-armed men very difficult to defeat. Perhaps more importantly, steady pike-armed infantry could be raised and trained much more quickly than effective military archers regardless of whether the archers were using, shorter bows, longbows or crossbows. So why didn’t the English kings and their military advisors take the easier and more widely followed path and develop pike armed infantry? It was a sort of medieval military ‘scissors, paper, stone’. Good numbers of archers could negate pike-armed infantry and menace the horses at least of mailed cavalry. Pike-armed infantry could negate mailed horse but not archers. Infantry armed with close quarters weapons were not decisive forces in armies of the period because they were vulnerable to both mailed horse and archers. Mailed horse could negate unprotected archers (as the Scots managed at Bannockburn) and disordered pike-armed infantry. If the archers were protected by either infantry, including dismounted knights as at the Battle of the Standard or by mounted knights as at Falkirk they could to all intents and purposes win the battle. In addition to these abilities, archers were very useful as garrison troops, and light infantry for foraging and harassing the enemy. Looked at in these terms the real question becomes why was it only among the English and Welsh (and some English ruled lands like Gascony) that large numbers of men developed the ability to use increasingly heavy hand bows in war? This is particularly surprising since Henry II’s Assize of Arms issued in Le Mans in 1180 allowed those men belonging to the lowest income group included the option of having bows and arrows. It is believed that the robust tradition of popular archery in England and Wales is part of the explanation.

When did longbow archery become the dominant form of archery in England and Wales? The evidence recounted in this book makes it clear that shorter bows, between about 4 and 5ft in length, were in widespread use up to the middle of the fourteenth century at least. The most telling evidence comes from two legal reports mentioning bows and ell and a half in length (about 54in or 1.37m in length) and various illustrations. At the same time, direct evidence of longbows about two ells or yards in length also comes from other legal reports. Ireland has provided archaeological evidence of complete bows of both lengths; a shorter bow from twelfth-century Waterford and a longbow from late tenth-century Ballinderry. Yet by the start of the fifteenth century at the latest it is very difficult to find any trace of shorter bows still being use. They may well have been but longbows were the predominant form by then. Longbows are more demanding on the bowyer who has to find and work longer staves, and on the archer, who will have to master the long draw, and likely greater draw weight of the bow. The benefit is greater power in the arrow, and, vitally from the point of view of military archery, greater weight in the arrow and arrowstrike.

Evidence begins to emerge in the last two decades of the thirteenth century onwards of significant activities which point to deliberate development of the power of the bow used in England. It is possible that the archer freeman of York, Robert of Werdale made a small contribution to this change to the use of longbows in war, but we have no proof. This is a significant period in English military history since it marks the time when the Statute of Winchester completed the legal recognition of the English tradition of archery begun fifty years earlier. This royal encouragement of archery begins to be complimented by the development of an archery equipment industry in England. The earliest clear records of the import of bowstaves come from this time. The existence of craftsmen bowyers is confirmed in the records of expenditure on bows by royal officers for selected men that also comes from these decades. In the case of these purchase records the prices paid for the bows in the 1280s was the same as that paid by Edward III’s administration in the 1340s, implying a particular standard of bow was required. Evidence of this trend to more powerful bows also comes from stratified finds of arrowheads, where arrowheads with a socket diameter of at least 10mm become more common in the late thirteenth century and into the fourteenth century, demonstrating the more widespread use of heavy bows.

There is one piece of clear evidence of how and when long-draw bows that could be drawn to at least 30in, like those found on the Mary Rose, came to be the standard for military archery. It is a royal order made in 1338 to Nicholas Caraud, the King’s Artillier. He was instructed ‘to buy 4000 sheaves of arrows of an ell in length with steel heads.’ There would be no need for arrows a yard long if they were not going to be shot from longbows. As the Waterford bow and the description of John of Tylton’s bow and arrow show, bows around an ell and a half (c.54in or 1.37m) in length, shot arrows of around 26–27in (66–68cm) in length. Edward III was determined that the archers in his armies would have powerful bows, this was why the English and Welsh archers shattered the French armies. The first half of the fourteenth century was a time of significant technological change in the archery equipment used in the English tradition of archery. Long-draw bows became the norm; heavier arrows evidenced by arrowheads with larger socket diameters became the norm; stringers became more skilled at making strong thin strings that no longer required arrows to have bulbous nocks. Evidence of the way the royal administration drove these changes in the fourteenth century can also be found in the increasing number of records of imports of bowstaves including Edward II’s order for Spanish yew bows in the 1320s. By the 1340s the royal administration was issuing substantial orders for bows and arrows which give no measurements for the bows and arrows required. This suggests that bowyers and fletchers knew what the king expected by this time.

But this was also the time when the Luttrell Psalter showed some men shooting shorter bows at the butts. A reasonable deduction from all this is that the Royal standard for military bows was the longbow, and that this standard brought about a shift in the English archery culture to almost total practice with the longbow in the second half of the fourteenth century. This change might explain in part the complaints of both Edward II and Edward III between 1315 and the 1340s that the Arrayers were dilatory, corrupt and sending feeble, poorly equipped archers to muster. While the Arrayers may have been both dilatory and corrupt, they may also have been sending archers equipped with shorter bows like those shown in the Luttrell Psalter and other illustrations; men who were competent enough with shorter bows, but who struggled with the longbows in use in the royal armies.

How active and pervasive was the English tradition of archery? It is difficult to find much trace of it before the beginning of the thirteenth century, except for military archery mainly in Stephen’s reign, particularly the Battle of the Standard. This lack of evidence arises for two main reasons: lack of records and a general tendency to restrict the activities of much of the population through a rigid understanding of the significance of free and unfree status. Once Henry III started to erode this separation by including unfree men in the Assize of Arms, the wider tradition of archery was brought forward into national significance. The thirteenth century marks the time in history when written records increased enormously in number which gives us so much more information about the practice of archery in England. Much of this information is peripheral, just recording the ownership and use of bows and arrows. As such it provides illumination of the practice of archery by Englishmen of the time in a way that a tract from an enthusiast does not. The ordinariness of some of the records illuminates a tradition of archery among ordinary men which was the foundation of the near legendary skills and reputation of the English and Welsh archers in the coming decades.

Magna Carta and the Forest Charter restricted the physical penalties that could be exacted for offences against the aw in general and Forest Law in particular. This meant that more of the men engaged in illegal activities in the royal forests with bows and arrows survived to repeat their offences and develop their skills. Since the forests covered maybe a quarter of England in the thirteenth century, this was likely to be quite a large number of men. Moreover the vast increase in the number of private parks presented even more opportunities for men to practice archery illegally. In addition, the forests and parks provided opportunities for men with archery skills to gain good work as foresters, parkers and hunters. It is difficult to know how many foresters and foresters’ men used archery skills in their work in the royal forests, but given the number and size of the forests 1,000 would be the likely minimum. As has been noted above there were perhaps 3,200 private parks in the early fourteenth century, meaning at least 3,200 skilled archers could have been employed as parkers and hunters. In addition to these men there would have been a good number of men employed as hunters full or part time by noble and gentry households both lay and clerical. All these made up an elite in terms of skill, almost certainly men capable of using powerful longbows. Writs of summons and the pay records for Edward I’s Welsh and Scottish campaigns show larger numbers of archers being required than could have been supplied from this skilled group. He expected men who were conforming to the demands of the Assizes of Arms and the Statute of Winchester to come to his armies. These men would have had more variable levels of skill and quality of equipment and it is quite likely that many of them used shorter bows, 4 to 5ft in length. But as their achievements proved these bows were effective.

Huntsmen in England, regardless of class were more likely to practise bow and stable hunting than par force hunting. It is noteworthy that this was not just the case among the English before the Conquest but was also generally true in the reigns of the Norman and Plantagenet kings. The ‘Laws of Cnut’ noted above allowed all men the right to hunt on their land encouraging and acknowledging popular hunting before the Conquest which in turn suggests the existence of a popular archery tradition in England. After the imposition of Forest Law by William I this tradition was repressed, particularly where it related to hunting. Although the vast extent of the royal forests under the Norman and Plantagenet kings meant that forestry and hunting continued to provide employment opportunities for archers whether English or Norman. But when Magna Carta and the associated Forest Charter banned the imposition of ferocious physical penalties for illegal hunting in the royal forests in the first quarter of the thirteenth century popular archery grew. The importance of hunting to this growth of popular archery should not be underestimated.

When bows were used in illegal activities including poaching they seem to have been used by people from a wide range of social and economic groups. Many of the cases noted above were perpetrated by ordinary men and make clear that men carried bows at all sorts of times, not just when they were expecting trouble. This is made particularly clear in the cases where an unstrung bow was used as a club. But in the reports of both poaching and other illegal activities bows were used in a minority of cases. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, bows became more commonly used in crimes, reflecting the greater number of men practising archery in these later centuries. Before the fourteenth century it is fair to suggest that archery was a minority pastime.

There was a blossoming of popular archery in the thirteenth century and that this led to there being enough competent archers for Edward III to achieve great things in his wars. By doing so he ensured that popular archery became a defining characteristic of life in medieval England.

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U-Boat Tests with Bombardment Rockets

A small Wurfkorper Spreng 42 rocket used by the Kriegsmarine to test the idea of underwater rocket launching during 1942.

Preparations for underwater rocket launching trials with U-511, a Type IXC submarine.

An hypothetical illustration of the projected modification of type XXI U-boat with a “Ursel” rocket launcher.

These images were taken from an allied report dated 1945, “German Underwater Rockets”, produced by the “U. S. Naval Technical Mission in Europe”. As you could see, of the twelve experimental rockets, five were fitted with the “bugbeluftung”, a device set at the rocket nose meant to create a layer between water and the rocket body. That was made with exhaust gas ( a small fraction diverted, like the present Russian “Skhval” ). According the report the latter designs were functioning well. Range and speed were enough for the purpose initially in mind, to defend the submarine from attacking ships. Mind the sketch, with installation aboard a U-boat. It was to be trained and launched automatically by the SP-anlage.

In 1941 scientists at Peenemunde conceived the idea of launching artillery rockets from the deck of a submarine. The Kriegsmarine showed immediate interest and this led to a series of experiments in 1942 involving U-511, a Type IXC boat. A Schweres Wurfgerat 41 rocket launcher carrying six 12in (30cm) Wurfkorper Spreng 42 rockets was fitted to the upper deck. Surface launches proved successful, but surprisingly the tests also worked well underwater to a depth of 50ft (15m).

Six rocket-launching rails were welded to the deck of the U-511, and waterproof cables were run from the rockets to a firing switch inside of the submarine. The only modification to the rockets was waterproofing them by sealing their nozzles with candlewax. The firing tests from a depth of some 25 feet (7.6 m) were entirely successful. About 24 rockets were launched from the U-511, and additional rounds were fired from a submerged launch frame. The slow movement of the submarine through the water had no effect on the accuracy of the rockets. The 275-pound (125-kg) projectiles had a range of five miles (8 km). The only problem encountered was an electrical ground that caused two rockets to fire simultaneously.

Although these were preliminary experiments, Generalmajor Walter Dornberger, the head of the Peenemünde missile facility, presented the findings to the Naval Weapons Department, contending that rocket-firing submarines could attack coastal targets in the United States. The Navy predictably rejected consideration of an Army-designed weapon, the rocket rails were removed from the U-511, and in July 1942 the submarine departed on her first war patrol.

The potential for a new anti-shipping weapon seemed good, but there were guidance issues and insufficient resources to push ahead with development. Nevertheless, some progress had been made by the end of the war under a Research and Development programme called Project Ursel.

Subsequently, as the Type XXI U-boat was being developed, a rocket system was developed for attacking pursuing surface ships. The key to this weapon was a very precise passive, short-range detection system (S-Analage passir) to detect propeller noise from ASW ships. The submerged U-boat would then launch a rocket at the target. The echo-sounding gear performed well during trials, but the rockets were still in an early stage of development when the war ended.

In 1943 Otto Lafferenz, a director of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front), suggested the idea of launching V-1 flying bombs from submarines. This was also seriously considered but finally met with rejection for technical reasons. Then in late 1943, during a visit to Peenemunde, Lafferenz put the idea to Dornberger of launching A4 rockets at sea. The missiles were too big to be carried within a submarine and he came up with the idea of developing a submersible container carrying an A4 that could be towed behind a submarine. At a distance of 186 miles (300km) from the target (the A4’s normal range) the container would be moved to an upright position and the rocket launched. The idea met with considerable interest and the codenames Project Prüfstand XII (Test Stand XII), Apparatus F and Life Vest were assigned. But priority was being given to bringing the A4 into operational service with the Army and the development of a submarine-launched missile remained on hold until the autumn of 1944.

Eventually, a submersible torpedo shaped container was designed that measured 98ft (30m) in length and weighed 550 tons (499 tonnes). Access was gained by a hinged nose cap and the A4 missile was housed in the forward section. Behind this was a small control room and fuel storage tanks for the missile and extra diesel oil for the submarine. The container was fitted with water ballast tanks and power for all systems was supplied by a cable from the submarine. When the launch position had been reached, technicians would enter the container, prepare the rocket and finally return to the submarine. Following ignition, exhaust gas from the A4 would be re-directed through conduits around the missile and emerge at the container opening. Once the launch was completed, the container would be scuttled.

It was felt that undertaking launches against targets in Northern England and America would confuse the enemy about German rocket capabilities and make it possible to strike a number of previously inaccessible targets. Several Type XXI submarines would be adapted for rocket launch missions and one of these newer U-Boats could tow three containers, all trimmed for neutral buoyancy. Conversion of the submarines would be undertaken by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg and Wesser AG in Bremen. However, development of the project faltered and only one of three experimental containers had been completed in the Schichau Dockyard at Elbing by the end of the war. The biggest concern was ensuring container stability during launch while the accuracy of the missile’s flight presented a number of challenges that were never resolved. It is also worth mentioning that twelve dismantled A4 rockets were supplied to the Japanese and these were shipped from Bordeaux during August 1944 on U-195 and U-219, arriving in Djakarta in December 1944. What became of the wartime Japanese missile programme is unknown.

Rocket U-Boat Program

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U-511

Type IXC

Laid down 21 Feb, 1941 Deutsche Werft AG, Hamburg

Commissioned 8 Dec, 1941 Kptlt. Friedrich Steinhoff

Commanders 12.41 – 12.42

12.42 – 11.43 Kptlt. Friedrich Steinhoff

Kptlt. Fritz Schneewind

Career 4 patrols 8 Dec, 1941 – 31 Jul, 1942 4. Flottille (training)

1 Aug, 1942 – 1 Sep, 1943 10. Flottille (front boat)

Successes 5 ships sunk for a total of 41.373 tons

1 ship damaged for a total of 8.773 tons

Fate Sold to Japan on 16 Sept, 1943 and became the Japanese submarine RO 500. Surrendered at Maizuru in August 1945.

Scuttled in the Gulf of Maizuru by the US Navy on 30 April, 1946.

Postscript

In the Pacific near the end of the war, a U. S. submarine commander, Medal of Honor-winner Eugene B. Fluckey, experimented with launching rockets from his submarine while on the surface. At Pearl Harbor, Fluckey had an Army multi-barrel, 5- inch (127-mm) rocket launcher welded to the deck of the fleet submarine Barb (SS 220) and took on a store of unguided projectiles. she commenced her 12th and final patrol on 8 June.

This patrol was conducted along the coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk. For the first time in U.S. submarine warfare, Barb successfully employed rockets, against the towns of Shari, Hokkaido; Shikuka, Kashiho; and Shiritoru on Karafuto. She also bombarded the town of Kaihyo To with her regular armament, destroying 60 percent of the town.

Early on the morning of 22 June 1945, the Barb surfaced off the coast of the Japanese home island of Hokkaido and bombarded the town of Shari. The rockets were launched while the submarine was on the surface, at a range of 5,250 yards (4.8 km). During the next month the Barb remained in Japanese waters, attacking ships and carrying out five additional rocket bombardments, some supplemented by gunfire from the submarine’s 5-inch and 40-mm cannon.

The Barb’s rocket attacks were the product of one aggressive commander’s action, not part of a formal Navy program.

“panjagan?”

Several books (namely Kaveh Farrokh’s Sassanian cavalry book) speak of the existence of a Sassanid weapon that could fire volleys of 5 arrows repeatedly, calling it “panjagan”.

The most unique of the auxiliary arms possibly carried by the late clibanarii was the missile-launching device known as the panjagan, meaning `five device’. The exact specifications of the invention are unknown since there are no surviving remains but the written accounts state that the contraption could fire five missiles at once. Therefore, heavy cavalrymen armed with the missile weapon instead of the bow could not only fire many more shots at a much higher rate, but they could also spread their fire over a wider area as well. I wonder if the panjagan has anything to do with the nawak arrow-guide, which allowed Sassanids to fire projectiles similar to crossbow bolts from their bows with great range and accuracy. Arabs claim it was also very effective against armor.

To ensure greater speed and volume, a device was invented known as the panjagan (five device), allowing the knight to fire five shots with a single draw. This made archery particularly deadly, since an archer could fire five more arrows before the first set had reached its target. This implies that the arrows must have been prearranged for rapid access in groups of five in the quiver, contrasted to the regular Sassanian way of holding three arrows in the same hand as the bow. However, it is important to note that speed and volume of delivery were not the sole intentions of this weapon. Focused fire was another. It is likely that the panjagan allowed for the volley to spread over an intended area, creating localized “kill zones.” This allowed fewer people to concentrate “focused fire” on the enemy. No known actual samples of the panjagan have survived.

A translation of part of al-Tabari’s History (C. E. Bosworth (trans.), The History of al-Tabari, Vol. 5, The Sassanids, the Byzantines, the Lakmids, and Yemen, New York, 1999).

The story is that, in about AD570, the Sassanid king Khusraw I sent a force to Yemen to liberate it from the domination of the Abyssinians. This force originally numbered 800 men but 200 were lost at sea on the way. It was commanded by noble named Wahriz who Khusraw considered to be worth 1000 cavalrymen. On arrival, the force was joined by “a considerable number of people” but it was vastly outnumbered by the Abyssinian army sent against it. This army was commanded by the Abyssinian governor of Yemen, Masruq. Before the battle, Wahriz addressed his troops:

He ordered them to have their bows bent and strung, and said, “When I give you the order to shoot, let fly at them swiftly with a five-arrow volley (bi-al-banjakan).” (op. cit., p.247)

There is a footnote to this passage as follows:

This seems to be the meaning here, since Persian panj, “five,” is clearly an element of the word, presumably panjagan, “five-fold,” in origin. It is presumably related to the banjakiyyah of al-Jawaliqi, al-Mu’arrab, 71: a volley of five arrows, mentioned in a context which speaks of the Khurasanians. Siddiqi, Studien über die persischen Fremdwörter, 81 n.7, less plausibly interprets banjakan as referring to five-pointed or five-barbed arrows (“fünfzackige [Pfeile]”).

The battle was short-lived:

He then took an arrow, placed it in the center (kabid) of his bow and said, “Point out for me Masruq.” They did that for him, until Wahriz was sure of him, and then he gave the order “Shoot!” He himself pulled on his bow until, when he had drawn it to its utmost, he released the arrow. It sped forward as if it were a tightly stretched rope, and struck Masruq’s forehead. He fell from his mount. A great number of men were killed by that rain of arrows. When they saw their commander felled to the ground, their front rank crumbled, and there was nothing for it but flight.(op. cit., p.248)

It seems from this passage that the panjagan was not a mechanical device but a rapidly-shot volley of five arrows. It is somewhat reminiscent of the “Mad Minute”, whereby the British infantry before the First World War was trained to fire fifteen aimed rounds in a minute.

CSS-X-20 (DF-41), a new Chinese ICBM

China is developing the CSS-X-20 (DF-41), a new road-mobile ICBM possibly capable of carrying a MIRV payload. China appears to be considering additional DF-41 launch options, including rail-mobile and silo basing. The DF-41, which is expected to have a range of about 14,000 kilometers and be mobile. China has conducted several tests of the DF-41 but has yet to deploy the missile. The number of warheads on Chinese ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to well over 100 in the next 5 years.

China has still not completed development of the long-awaited DF-41 ICBM (CSS-X-20), which has been reported in development at least since 1997. The US Defense Department believes that this missile is capable of carrying MIRVs and rumors have spread in the media that the DF-41 can carry six to 10 warheads.

As is likely the case with the DF-5B, though, the number of warheads that the DF-41 carries may be significantly less––perhaps three––and the additional payload capability may focus on decoys and penetration aids to overcome the US ballistic missile defense system. The PLARF conducted its tenth test of the DF-41 in May 2018 and followed it up with a simulated second-strike exercise in January 2019, which may have included the DF-41.

This could indicate that the missile has nearly completed its development and testing cycle; however, the missile is not yet listed as operational in the 2019 Defense Department report. The DF-41 is expected to eventually replace the aging DF-5 ICBM and could potentially be launched from silos and railcars, in addition to mobile TELs.

China will put its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile into service as early as this year, according to a regional defence magazine.

The DF-41, which was described by Washington as the world’s longest-range missile, has entered its final test phase, according to Canada-based Kanwa Asian Defence.

With an operational range of up to 14,500km, the DF-41 would first be deployed to the advanced brigade of the People’s Liberation Army’s new Rocket Force based in Xinyang in Henan province, the report said.

From there, the missile would be able to strike the United States within half an hour by flying over the North Pole or slightly more than 30 minutes by crossing the Pacific, the report said.

But defence analysts said it was not clear if the DF-41 could break through the multilayered US missile defence system in the Asia-Pacific region.

“No one questions the longest range of the DF-41 is near 15,000km. But within just a few minutes of being launched, it might be blocked by the US’ defence system at its Guam naval base,” Professor He Qisong, a defence policy specialist at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said.

The solid-fuel, road-mobile ICBM had been tested at the Wu­zhai Missile and Space Test Centre – also known as the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre – in Shanxi province since last summer, the Kanwa report said.

The DF-41 has been tested at least five times since July, 2014, according to the US-based Washington Free Beacon.

Earlier reports from the website said US intelligence agencies had detected that the PLA’s missile force submitted a DF-41 missile to a “canister ejection test” from a railway-mounted mobile launcher on December 5.

The test was a milestone for Chinese strategic weapons developers and showed that Beijing was moving ahead with building and deploying the DF-41 on difficult-to-locate rail cars, in addition to previously known road-mobile launchers, the website said.

Kanwa chief editor Andrei Chang said the strike rate of the DF-41 would improve further after 2020 when China completed its home-grown BeiDou navigation satellites, helping to wean the PLA off its dependence on the US’ Global Positioning System.

But He said the US might develop technology to jam the BeiDou system’s signals.

“The US has spared no effort to upgrade its missile defence system year after year,” He said. “The missile systems – so far – are just a game of threats played among the great powers.”

Missile Defense Project, “Dong Feng 41 (DF-41 / CSS-X-20),” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 12, 2016, last modified June 15, 2018, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/df-41/.

Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM)

Some basic stats on the 25 year old AMRAAM.

A rival to AMRAAM is the Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM), the product of another international missile programme includes Saab Dynamics. This Matra/ BAe Dynamics-led programme included partners from the four Eurofighter-producing countries; Saab Dynamics was an exception but gave the project extra strength because of the export potential of the Gripen and the fact that AMRAAM was seen as a stop-gap solution on the Gripen.

The Meteor partners are Alenia Difesa (Italy), CASA (Spain), GEC-Marconi (UK), LFK (Germany), Matra/BAe Dynamics and Saab Dynamics. The missile itself has a multi-target engagement capability, shoot-up and shootdown performance, a mid-course datalink capability and a high resistance to sophisticated ECM environments.

Just as the IRIS-T had a near perfect customer base, the Eurofighter countries did not want to be dependent on US weapons and, therefore, developed their own missile so they can export it to whom they see fit. Both Eurofighter and Gripen automatically become more attractive to foreign customers who do not wish to be dependent on the US for spare parts. The Swedish Air Force cancelled its financial support for the Meteor development programme in June 1999 because of financial problems but, if parliament agreed to support it, money would come from other sources and development could proceed.

The Swedish Air Force acknowledged that although it could not afford to share in the Meteor development costs, it was still interested in the missile.

Industry partners reacted calmly to this news and waited to see what the political reaction would be. At the Paris Air Show the French government stated that if Meteor was chosen by the UK, it would support the programme and was willing to fund up to 20% of the development costs. Apart from the financial aspect, France would invest its technology and expertise in the programme so that Meteor could be installed on the Rafale and possibly the Mirage 2000-5.

On 20th October 1999 the European Meteor consortium teamed up with Boeing to create the opportunity to export Meteor to countries that used Boeing (ex-McDonnell Douglas) fighters and to compete in the US market against AMRAAM and/or its successors. In May 2000 Meteor won the competition to arm British Eurofighters and so increased the BVRAAM’s foothold in Europe. Whether Meteor will be carried by Gripens remains to be seen. At the Paris Air Show in June 2003, the head of the FMV test centre at Malmen, Colonel Per Olaf Eldh announced that the Gripen had been chosen to undertake the important flight testing of the Meteor missile. The aircraft had proved itself to be better suited than Eurofighter as it is more mature system.

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For years now there has been a ton of hype about MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, but now that it has reached operational status, blanket claims are being tossed around in the media as to its capabilities: headlines like “the best in the world“ and “the most deadly” are commonplace. But is it really that simple? Is the Meteor the dream missile every western fighter needs under its wings or in its weapons bays or is it a niche capability?

Rising Meteor

The truth is that the Meteor isn’t that new at all as it has been in development for nearly two decades. Still there is no doubt that the missile is extremely impressive, but it is not necessarily the best solution for the beyond-visual-range (BVR) job for all fighters and for all scenarios.

The Meteor’s roots can be traced back to the mid-1990st grew out of a common European need for a next generation BVR missile. This new missile had to have superior range and overall kinematic performance than the American AIM-120 AMRAAM. The UK, France, Sweden, Germany, Italy and Spain all participated in the program and although European aerospace and defense consortiums are nothing new, some aspects of what the Meteor brings to the fight is.

Meteor’s most impressive feature is its propulsion concept. Think of the Meteor more as an air-to-air cruise missile than as a traditional guided air-to-air rocket. For propulsion, it uses a solid fuel, variable flow, ducted rocket—also referred to as a ramjet—instead of a traditional rocket motor. What this means is that Meteor can throttle its engine during different phases of flight whereas a rocket delivers all of its potential energy in one continuous unmodulated burn cycle. This capability may not sound like a huge deal, but it is.

Nowhere to run to

When a standard air-to-air missile is fired at a target it delivers the same amount of thrust over a certain period regardless of the tactical scenario. If the target can be reached without the rocket motor burning out, or shortly after it does so, the missile will have a high-energy state during its terminal attack phase. This will allow it to maneuver very hard, easily countering a target aircraft trying to evade the incoming missile. If the target is farther away, the missile will usually climb to a high altitude while its rocket motor is burning and then coast on its built-up energy with gravity on its side until it reaches the terminal phase of its flight (its final attack run).

If the target isn’t too far away, and the missile is still above it, it will dive down on the target in an attempt to maximize its ability to make hard maneuvers. The longer the shot, the less energy the missile will have for its critical terminal phase of flight, and that is not a good thing.

Enter the ramjet powered Meteor. Instead of burning off all its fuel right after launch it can throttle its engine back during cruise, thus saving fuel. As it approaches its target it can throttle up, eventually making its terminal attack while at its highest possible energy state, around mach 4.5, even when fired over long ranges.

Not only does this mean the Meteor will have more energy to maneuver during the endgame of the engagement, but this capability also drastically increases the size of the missile’s “no escape zone.” Basically, the Meteor has a far greater ability to “chase” and catch enemy aircraft over long ranges.

So more than just being a better beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile via high-end sensors and a larger rocket motor, Meteor has a totally different—and much smarter—propulsion concept, that not only increases range but also increases its effectiveness of the missile over that range.

A missile that listens and talks to its master

The Meteor competes in other ways than just propulsion. It packs an active X-band radar seeker for locking onto targets during the terminal phase of its flight. In fighter pilot parlance this is when the missile goes “pitbull” and becomes a true fire-and-forget weapon. In other words, the firing aircraft does not need to guide it any farther toward its target in order to ensure that it gets a lock and can make its final attack on its own.

There is a common misconception about most modern BVR missiles, especially the AIM-120 AMRAAM. It is regarded as a fire-and-forget weapon, and it does have a mode to do just that. Basically it takes the targeting data from the aircraft’s radar and calculates where the target “should be” when it arrives in the target area.

It then flies out to that area using its own inertial navigation system. Once there, the missile’s small radar seeker, which has far less range and scanning capability than the radar on the fighter that fired it, starts to look for the bad guy. If said bad guy is within the AMRAAM radar’s cone of detection it can lock on and attack.

The problem is that at intermediate and medium ranges, fire-and-forget performance is abysmal. If the target is not where the missile thought it would be, within a limited cone of the sky, it’s a miss. As such, this mode is more effective for defensive shots as anything else or for shots taken at close ranges where there is less flight time in which the enemy can change course, altitude and tactics.

The way the AIM-120 missile is usually employed at range is by the fighter aircraft that launched it sending it mid-course updates as it flies out to the target. As it goes along its way, and as the range between the missile and the target decreases, its ability to predict where the target will be improves as it has much more recent telemetry to rely on. Ideally the fighter will provide updates to the missile until it locks its own radar on the enemy target.

There is a tradeoff between risk and reward for the pilot firing the missile. He can keep his radar pointing towards the bad guy and continue sending radar data to the missile to improve its chances of a kill, but that may expose him to the enemy as range between him and the target decreases. Once the missile goes “pitbull” and has locked its own radar on the target at close range the pilot can perform the “forget” part of fire and forget concept and can break its lock.

Like the AIM-120, the Meteor probably has a fire-and-forget mode, but mid-course updates are not only key to the missile’s success. Because the missile can modulate its throttle, the autopilot can provide the most efficient flight profile to the target in long-range shots. Greater range means less certainty of where the target will be by the time the missile is close enough to detect it itself.

The Meteor will be able to get those crucial mid-course guidance updates not just from the jet that fired it, but from “third party” sources as well. These can include other fighters, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, and land and sea-based radar and electronic surveillance systems that provide their own “sensor pictures” to the missile-firing aircraft via data-link. With many assets contributing to a common tactical network “picture” via common data-link waveform and language it provides information that anyone, including the Meteor-armed fighter and the Meteor itself, can exploit.

In fact, the launching jet’s pilot may never have to use his own radar at all to engage a target. Instead he simply assigns the missile a target on his situational display. The missile then gets continuous updates from third party sources—rather than the fighter that fired it—right up to its final attack sequence.

Even if the data-link does not provide high-fidelity “target tracks” that does not mean they are not engagement quality as the missile only has to have the target within its own radar’s cone of detection in order to initiate the terminal attack phase of its flight. This means getting the Meteor close to the target is good enough.

The Meteor’s data-link also has two-way capability, so the pilot could re-target the missile while it is already on its way. The pilot can also see the missile’s fuel, energy and tracking state in real-time. This is essential for making quick decisions as to whether or not to fire another missile at the target or to run away if it is properly tracking toward the target or has obtained its own lock.

The thing is that modern data-links on missiles are not exclusive to Meteor, or to modern air-to-air missiles for that matter, but let’s keep it to that scope for this piece.

Reaching peak AMRAAM

Enter the AIM-120D Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM), the latest incarnation of the 25 year old Raytheon-built AMRAAM which has even been adapted for surface-to-air use. The D model, which is just coming online right now, also has a two-way data-link with third party targeting capabilities like the Meteor. Additionally, it sports 50% more range than the previous version of the ARMAAM, the AIM-120C7, which itself had increased range over its predecessor variant the AIM-120C5.

Other improvements found in the AIM-120D include an enhanced seeker with a better ability to detect targets off-boresight (off the missile’s centerline axis). This is a big deal for the critical terminal phase of flight, since it can scan a larger area while trying to acquire the target on its own. This upgrade also makes it harder for the enemy to shake the missile of its trail.

The AIM-120D’s capability to engage targets at short range will also be enhanced by this feature, which is a boon for the F-35, which does not carry a short-range air-to-air missile while in stealth configuration. The EA-18G Growler, which is also limited to the AIM-120 alone, will also gain uniquely from this improvement.

This new AMRAAM will also feature a better navigation system with its inertial navigation system (INS) augmented with embedded GPS. Also like the Meteor, the AIM-120D has the latest electronic-countermeasure-countermeasures, making it very hard for the enemy to jam or confuse it.

Overall, these improvements elevate what has already been the “gold standard” of BVR air-to-air missiles for decades. What this new AMRAAM doesn’t have is the Meteor’s ramjet engine and all the benefits that go along with it.

More range over the current AIM-120 is in many ways needed to match the great leaps in fighter radar technology and networked warfare that have become a reality in the last decade and a half. Active Electronically Scanned Array radar sets can see much farther and in much higher fidelity than their mechanically scanned predecessors. This has left pilots who fly fighters equipped with them in a strange predicament where they can see the enemy from much farther away than their missiles are capable of engaging.

The F-15C’s APG-63V3 AESA can reach out much farther (on an order of multiples depending on the target and scenario) than the radar it is replacing. Being able to see bad guys at well over 100 miles away, but only being able to kill that bad guy at say 40 miles is an issue for the very unstealthy Eagle, but not so much for a low-observable fighter. In fact, the F-22 Raptor (and the F-35 eventually) really don’t need larger, longer-ranged missiles, they need more missiles.

More missiles, please

If you ask a F-22 pilot what they want more than anything else, you are very likely to hear “more missiles.” The aircraft, with its stealthiness, supercruise capability and superior situational awareness can get far closer to the bad guys without detection than their 4th generation counterparts like the F-15C. The problem is that the F-22 only has six AIM-120 AMRAAMs at its disposal, and the F-35 will only have four.

Finally, adding the AIM-9X to the F-22’s quiver will actually help with this deficiency as the missile has a limited intermediate range capability, but employing it against certain targets may be too close to comfort. A solution for this conundrum is quietly in the works in the form of a smaller BVR missile like Lockheed’s conceptual Cuda air-to-air missile, also nicknamed the “Halfaraam.” This thing is like the Small Diameter Bomb of air-to-air weapons and will theoretically increase the F-22’s beyond-visual-range missile load by at least double. The F-35 will also greatly benefit from it or a weapon like it.

Rendering of what the hit-to-kill Cuda would look like.

Parallel initiatives to develop such a weapon have been recently dubbed by the USAF the Small Advanced Capability Missile (SACM) and Miniature Self-Defense Munition (MSDM). These are two separate research and development programs that have been awarded to Raytheon and seem to have similar goals. Lockheed’s Cuda could also evolve into a competitor for such a requirement if it were to formally move outside of the exploratory phase or even as a self-funded weapon option.

Although details still remain sketchy, the Cuda’s compact size comes at the sacrifice of two things. The first is the deletion of a warhead. Instead of a 30lb-50lb shrapnel-encased charge and proximity fuse system like what most air-to-air missiles use, the Cuda will slam into its victims like a bullet. This hit-to-kill capability, which has evolved greatly in recent years via ballistic missile defense research, should cause more than enough trauma to fighters to take them down and would probably result in at least a mission kill against larger airframes.

The Cuda will also sacrifice range in comparison to its more long and slender BVR missile cousins. Instead of being able to engage targets at 50 miles (or in the AIM-120D’s case likely much farther), it should be able to do so at ranges of half that distance depending on the scenario. Using such a weapon offensively may be somewhat suicidal for 4th generation fighter, but for 5th generation jets it’s a day’s work.

Cuda, or a missile like it, will also likely feature extreme agility as it has to impact its target directly, not detonate its warhead nearby. This will also make it a capable short-range dogfight missile. This means aircraft like the F-35, that lack a short-range air-to-air missile during stealthy operations, would now have a good option for closer-range situations.

In many ways such a weapon will complement the AMRAAM, or even the Meteor, wonderfully. Instead of carrying a pair of AMRAAMs and a full air-to-ground internal load, an F-35 could carry an AMRAAM and two Cudas. This gives F-35 pilots more options and a greater ability to defend themselves as they make their way in and out of the target area.

These missiles would also likely be able to have the ability to engage surface and ground targets as well, like the AIM-9X, but at much greater ranges. For stealth aircraft, these smaller intermediate-range air-to-air missiles could be a viable weapon for suppression of enemy air defenses if adapted to that mission.

With all this in mind, when it comes to the Meteor and the F-22 and F-35, there simply is far less of a need for its extreme range, and its more bulky structure would just take up more precious real estate within the jets’ weapons bays than the AIM-120 currently does.

America’s air arms and the Meteor

So where does the Meteor and potential future missiles like it fit in with America’s air arms? The US will operate a 4th generation fighter fleet for many decades to come, including F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18 Super Hornets. At face value the Meteor may seem like a relevant weapon for these aircraft to have in high-threat, peer-state warfare scenarios, especially if they are upgraded with AESA radar sets and the latest data-link modems, but even this is on a case-by-case basis

Let’s take the US Navy for instance. With a resurgent threat from major peer-state competitors like Russia and China, the Meteor is the missile to have. It would match well with the Navy’s Super Hornet fleet which is almost entirely equipped with APG-79 AESA radars. It would also finally replace the AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missile that was retired with the F-14 Tomcat. Basically it would bring back a real “fleet defender” capability to the Navy’s Carrier Air Wings, and the Super Hornet could carry a lot of Meteor’s at one time if need be and bring them back to the ship. This is something the Tomcat could not do with the Phoenix.

The F-15C could use the Meteor as a longer-range alternative to the AIM-120D but fitment may be an issue. Carrying four on the F-15C’s belly stations should be possible, but the feasibility of mounting them under the Eagle’s wings above drop tanks is questionable. Still, the idea of an F-15C with a pair of AIM-9Xs, a pair of AIM-120Ds, and four Meteors is very enticing as it would make the best of the F-15C’s massive AESA radar. But really the jet could get by with AIM-120D just fine for its mission, which largely includes domestic air defense tasking, and in a major conflict it would not fight alone. And this is precisely where the Meteor’s value comes into play vis-à-vis the F-15C and the F-22, but that will have to wait for a moment.

As much as beyond-visual-range combat is hyped these days, and technology is certainly caught up with the concept, the operational realities that most 4th generation fighters will find themselves in the future doesn’t really support the idea that dog-fighting is dead. Rules of engagement and fear of friendly fire incidents make very long-range missile shots unpalattable during coalition operations like those we have seen time and time again against non-peer state foes over the last few decades.

The cold hard reality is that visual identification of the target is still where the bar sits for weapons release during many operations. Using targeting pods slaved to a 4th generation fighter’s radar (like the F-15C has today via the Sniper pod), or using the F-35’s Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) for long-range examination of aerial targets, can help greatly with this hurdle. The only issue is that using these systems for visual identification of a potential enemy still puts such an engagement deep within the range of any AIM-120 variant. As such, the benefits the Meteor offers would are nullified.

In other words, if you look at history, for the vast majority of operations the Meteor’s extreme range will be unnecessary. That does not make it irrelevant, far from it, but it all depends on what fighters an air arm has at its disposal. For instance, a country that is not buying the F-35 should invest in Meteor to get the best standoff range for their advanced 4th generation fighters. This is especially so if they feel like their fighter aircraft would be used outside of coalition operations with the US at the helm. A Super Hornet equipped Royal Canadian Air Force for instance that has to protect its great norther expanse could really use the Meteor.

Meteor and the USAF’s F-22A/F-15C air dominance team

Remember how we just discussed that the F-22 and the F-35 could use more missiles, lots more, especially to counter-balance against a capable home-team foe with a quantitative advantage? Well when we step outside the platform “vacuum” and look at the F-22 and F-15 as a team, you can see how the Meteor could be a huge force multiplier.

F-15C and F-22 battle doctrine is still taking shape, with small but critical initiatives underway to drastically improve their interoperability. Case in point the podded Talon Hate system which you can and should read all about in one of my past features linked here.

This big fuel-tank shaped pod hangs underneath an F-15C and works as a mobile information gateway data fusion center. It takes information shared among F-22s via their own proprietary and stealthy data-link, including sensor info and communications, and translates it, fuses it, and re-broadcasts it in a data-link waveform and language that F-15s can understand and display to their pilots. Most likely it also is capable of piping this information out to any Link 16 data-link user in the area.

In other words, it takes the F-22’s high-fidelity sensor picture from beyond the front lines and simulcasts it to Eagles and potentially all other allied platforms in the battlespace to see and exploit.

The F-22 can receive Link 16 information but it cannot broadcast in that same form as it could give away their location. By using the Talon Hate as a translator, the F-15s and F-22s can share a common “tactical picture.” This opens up the possibility to employ a whole host of tactics that combined equal more than the sum of their parts.

Boeing has unveiled concepts that have as many as 16 BVR missiles loaded onto an F-15 at one time. This loadout turns the Eagle into a small arsenal ship more than anything else. The missile laden F-15s, operating behind F-22s and even F-35s, who themselves are operating at the forward edge of the battlespace, can provide a steady supply of missiles for the stealth fighters even after their magazines run dry. Think of them as flying artillery batteries.

Working as forward air controllers of sorts, stealthy fighters, and especially the F-22, can use their forward position and advanced sensors to request and direct missiles shots from F-15s operating many dozens of miles behind them. All the while the unstealthy F-15s remain outside the range of the same enemy aircraft they are sending missiles towards to kill. This is where the Meteor’s extreme range and dynamic flight profile could be extremely useful. It keeps the stealth fighters in the fight long after they have expended their own missile stocks and keeps the more vulnerable F-15s at a safe distance from threat aircraft.

The opposite tactic can also be used, albeit at a decrease sensor horizon. The F-15C’s can use their massively powerful radars to scan the skies for enemy aircraft, and deliver that sensor picture to the forward operating F-22s and F-35s. With that information the stealth fighters can operate in their most deadly mode, electromagnetically silent with no radar emissions at all. Loaded with Cuda type missiles and with a full picture of the battlespace ahead, they can maraud enemy formations in great numbers.

So yes, the Meteor’s range could benefit the F-15C and F-22, but not necessarily that much when you put both aircraft in a vacuum. But when you put them together and enlist the F-15C into arsenal ship operations, having the longest-range missile available with strong “end game” kinematics really enhances the capability of the F-15/F-22, and even the F-35, air dominance team.

What’s new today is old tomorrow

Although the Meteor is just entering service, there are new technologies around the corner that may see the missile age far faster than the AIM-120 has over the last 25 years. Then again, if MBDA can react swiftly enough to changing capabilities, the Meteor could be upgraded and reconfigured to stay at the forefront of air-to-air missile technology, albeit this proposition takes a steady stream of cash to realize.

Multi-mode seekers, which primarily include both Imaging Infrared and active radar on a single missile, could benefit the AIM-120D and the Meteor, and will likely be commonplace on future BVR missiles. Such a setup means that during the terminal phase of flight the targeted aircraft will have to try and break the lock of both radar and a high-end imaging infrared seekers, the latter of which is impervious to electromagnetic jamming. Israel already has this technology working on their Arrow and Stunner interceptors and is looking to migrate the concept to the air-to-air realm.

Israel’s Stunner interceptor and its “dolphin” seeker head that allows it to house both infrared and active radar sensors.

Even tri-mode seekers, where BVR air-to-air missiles incorporate a anti-radiation homing function for suppression of enemy air defenses would be an ideal capability for stealthy aircraft with tight weapons bays and limited stores. This is exactly what was in the works to replace the AMRAAM in the late 2000s. The program was dubbed the Next Generation Missile (NGM) and later the Dual Role Air Dominance Missile (DRADM) before being cancelled by the Obama Administration 2013.

Since then other risk-reduction exploratory programs have emerged, like the Triple Target Terminator (T3) program led by DARPA, although not much has been heard about it for the last couple of years and it seems to have concluded after a limited flight test program was executed.

It is quite likely that any next generation BVR missile will also have a robust secondary ground-attack capability using GPS, radar and even infrared homing. It is even possible that versions of Cuda-like missiles may be adapted to facilitate laser targeting capability for striking small targets with minimal collateral damage. It’s all about flexibility and an extrapolation of the hot concept of “distributed lethality,” being able to use one weapon for multiple types of engagements, thus putting the enemy at greater risk over a larger area and in more ways.

The bottom line is that the AIM-120D signals the end of the AMRAAM’s design life cycle. This does not mean the final AMRAAM is not an incredibly capable missile, but there is only so much that can be pulled from a 25 year old high-performance missile design. The US will move to begin developing a new medium to long-range air-to-air missile very soon. In fact it seems pretty clear that a good chunk of this development has already happened with exploratory research and development programs, some of which were likely semi-clandestine in nature.

Then again, the Pentagon could just invest in and procure the Meteor and concentrate funding on developing smaller intermediate range missiles like the Cuda that are more tailored to its burgeoning 5th generation fighter force. This way the Meteor program would get a huge influx of money and would realize much larger production numbers, thus dropping the unit cost. It would also allow for quicker upgrades to the current design to be made to suit the DoD’s needs.

Well it won’t happen.

The problem is that doing so would have poor support from the defense lobby and no general will get another star on their collar or a big defense industry gig after retiring by importing a missile from Europe. There simply isn’t enough money in it for defense contractors and the US will have nothing to sell to customers overseas in the same class.

In fact, we have laws against that sort of thing and the Meteor would likely have to be built under license here in the US if the Pentagon wanted to buy it en masse. Even then there won’t be lucrative development dollars to be had. Instead the DoD will likely independently develop a similar missile at great cost and will end up with just an upgraded Meteor.

Is the Meteor a must-have masterpiece?

In the end the Meteor may have the longest range and largest no escape zone of any air-to-air missile in service today, but it is not necessarily the best solution for every fighter and every Air Force out there.

For 5th generation stealth fighters, who can operate far closer to threats than their 4th generation progenitors, quantity is more of an advantage than range alone for most combat situations. For 4th generation fighters with modern AESA radars and a quality networked fighting force backing them up, the Meteor can be very useful in limited situations and not really relevant in many others. But when you pair 5th generation fighters with 4th generation fighters and empower them with network connectivity, the equation changes and the Meteor can elevate both via a whole set of exciting new tactics. The AIM-120D can also do this, although to a lesser degree.

The thing is air combat is changing rapidly. With advanced unmanned combat air vehicles and automated swarm warfare that comes with them likely already a reality, as well as innovative ideas like the Cuda in development and airborne laser weapons on the horizon, both the AIM-120D and the Meteor are feel far less revolutionary than what seems to be right around the corner.

In the end calling the Meteor the best air-to-air missile in the world is a simplification of a very complicated proposition, although it certainly seems to have the best long-range engagement capabilities. The reality is that the title of best air-to-air missile in the world depends on what aircraft it is being deployed on and what aircraft it is being deployed against, as well as the combat scenario at hand.

For a Swedish JAS-39E Gripen NG, French Rafale or a Saudi Typhoon upgraded with an AESA radar the Meteor may be a dream weapon. If you are a country flying F-16s, Mirage 2000s or a similar 4th generation fighter without an AESA radar upgrade, limited networking capabilities, and especially if your country’s borders are not measured in the many hundreds or thousands of miles, the Meteor offers little benefit. Quite literally it can engage targets much farther than these jets’ radars can even see and for the air sovereignty/homeland defense mission its advantages are muffled.

Finally, the reality is that the real performance data and the raw capabilities of these missiles are closely guarded secrets. You can find range estimates for the AIM-120D from about 40 miles to nearly 100 miles. Info on the Meteor is just as inconsistent, with range claims form from around 60 to 130 miles. How these missiles actually perform in various real-world scenarios is more important than their basic “brochure” fly-out ranges and features. The AMRAAM has been test fired nearly 4,000 times and used in combat with multiple kills, the Meteor has a long way to go to catch up to figures like that.

Still, it is clear that the Meteor is a seriously capable weapon and it represents a leap in some aspects of BVR missile technology. Does that warrant the title as the best air-to-air missile in the world? Well that is up to you to decide. But as we have discussed, other leaps in air-to-air combat tech are right around the corner and there are strong indications that in this post operational 5th generation fighter reality extreme-range is no longer the Holy Grail air-to-air missile technology.

Archimedes (287-212 BCE)

Archimedes of Syracuse was one of the ancient world’s great scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. In mathematics, his work on geometry, particularly cones, spheres, and cylinders, was unsurpassed. He anticipated calculus and studied in depth hydrostatics, mechanics, matter, and force. He perfected the screw used in irrigation and solved many engineering problems associated with the use of the pulley, wedge, and lever. In geodesy, Archimedes estimated the circumference of the earth to be 300,000 stadia. Archimedes was the first to study and make an accurate approximation of pi.

Archimedes, like other ancient engineers, plied his craft in making fascinating inventions, particularly in military science. During the Second Punic War and the battle for Sicily in 212 BCE, the Romans laid siege to the Greek city of Syracuse, ruled by Hiero. Archimedes to apply his inventions based on research into the principles of mechanics to help defend the city. Plutarch, in his Life of Marcellus, described the fascinating array of military devices that Archimedes had invented. Although the Romans took the city and Archimedes was killed, they were astonished by the incredible power of Archimedes’ machines. Huge cranes were able to latch onto Roman triremes and pick them up and dash them against the walls of the city and rocks below.

According to the Roman historian Plutarch, Archimedes considered such work “ignoble and vulgar, ” and there is no mention of it in the fifty extant scientific works he wrote. He instead wrote about his fundamental discoveries in mathematics, chiefly formulas on finding the areas of various geometric figures and determining the volumes of spheres. But however disdainful Archimedes might have been about the practical uses of his scientific discoveries, he was a fervent Syracusan patriot. So when Hieron II, the ruler of Syracuse, begged his help in 215 b. c. e. at the moment of the city’s greatest crisis, Archimedes put his scientific genius to work in the service of war.

Syracuse, a Greek colony in modern-day Sicily that occupied a key strategic position athwart Mediterranean trade routes, had made the error of supporting the Carthaginians in their war against Rome. The Carthaginians were defeated, and now the Romans had come after Carthage’s ally Syracuse. A Roman invasion fleet of eighty ships showed up in Syracuse’s harbor to begin a blockade while some fifty thousand Roman troops prepared to besiege the city. Appointed general of ordnance for the city, Archimedes went to work. He designed a number of advanced war machines, including a huge swinging crane that hurled 600-pound leaden balls; rapid-firing catapults that shot bundles of Greek fire; and, if some accounts are to be believed, a system of giant mirrors that reflected concentrated sunlight to burn ships. For three years the Roman besiegers threw themselves at this array of military technology, to no avail: Roman ships were smashed to pieces and Roman troops were cut down at long range by high-velocity fire from catapults Archimedes positioned atop the city’s defensive walls. Finally, in 212 b. c. e., while the Syracusans were celebrating a religious festival, the Romans discovered an unguarded gate, and the city fell. Roman soldiers who poured through the gate found a half-naked elderly man sitting in a bed of sand, absorbed in drawing geometrical shapes. When one of the soldiers stepped onto the sand, the old man snapped at him, “Keep off, you!” Enraged, the soldier immediately ran his sword through Archimedes of Syracuse, then joined his comrades in an orgy of looting and killing that destroyed the city.

Archimedes’ Death Ray

While the name definitely hints at a common Steampunk/science-fiction trope, Archimedes’ Death Ray contraption has been the subject of innumerable historical debates that have either tried to prove or disprove its existence or at least effectiveness. In any case, the use of the so-called Death Ray mechanism was first mentioned by the historian Galens, 350 years after the Roman siege of Archimedes’ home-city of Syracuse (which in took place in 214 BC). Designed by the great Archimedes himself, the weapon setup possibly entailed a series of mirrors that collectively reflected concentrated sunlight onto the Roman ships. As a result, the concentrated form of light affected an increase in temperature, thus ultimately leading to the burning of the ships from afar (take a look at a modern ‘death ray‘ that aptly proves this phenomenon).

Now when it comes to credibility, Discovery’s Mythbusters already took two digs at the technology, and sort of disproved its potential. On the other hand, MIT conducted their tests in 2005 (by using mirrors in parabolic arrangement and a replica of a Roman ship), and they were actually able to set the ship on fire. However, in their case, the ship was stationery – which would have been impractical in a real-time scenario with the undulating waves and the ongoing naval maneuvering. But even this predicament was solved, when a Greek scientist named Dr. Ioannis Sakkas was actually able to set a moving ship on fire from a distance of 160 feet (49 m). He did it by distributing a total of seventy mirrors (each having 15 sq ft area) among seventy (or sixty) men, and the concentrated beam reflected from these individual pieces was able to set a rowboat aflame, thus possibly lending credence to Archimedes’ Death Ray weapon.

USAF TESTS HYPERSONIC WEAPON

B-52H serial 60-0036 operated by the 412th Test Wing’s 419th Flight Test Squadron conducts a captive carry test with a prototype of the hypersonic AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) on June 12.

B-52H CARRIAGE TESTS UNDER WAY AT EDWARDS AFB

The USAF conducted the first flight test of its hypersonic AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) at Edwards AFB. California, on June 12. During the captive-carry test an instrumented version of the ARRW prototype was carried externally by a B-52H from the 419th Flight Test Squadron. The mission was intended to record environmental and aircraft handling data. The test gathered information on drag and vibration impacts on the weapon itself and on the aircraft’s external carriage equipment.

The ARRW is one of several air launched hypersonic weapons being developed as rapid prototyping efforts by the USAF along with the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) and the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW). The weapon is expected to reach early operational capability by ­ fiscal year 2022. Lockheed Martin is developing the ARRW under a contract awarded in August 2018. It includes design, test and production readiness support to facilitate ­ fielded prototypes.

America’s longest-serving bomber just took flight with a new air-launched hypersonic weapon for the first time, the US Air Force announced on Thursday.

A B-52 Stratofortress heavy long-range bomber took to the skies over Edwards Air Force Base in California on Wednesday with an inactive, sensor-only prototype of the new AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), one of a handful of hypersonic weapons the Air Force is developing for the B-52s.

This first flight test, which you can read about in a very recent article of ours here, was simply to collect data on the drag and vibrations a B-52 would experience while carrying the weapon. The Air Force plans to continue ground and flight testing of the ARRW over the next three years, according to a statement from Lockheed Martin, which is the prime contractor.

At the heart of the AGM-183A is an unpowered hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, but that will be fully contained inside the nose of the missile until the rocket booster propels it to the appropriate speed and altitude. So, the pictures we have now give us the first look at the external size and shape of the complete weapon, including what appear to be pop-out fins at the rear of the booster.

The B-52H is carrying the missile under its wing on what appears to be a modified Improved Common Pylon (ICP). The overall length of the weapon seems to suggest it might be possible for the bomber to carry two AGM-183As under each wing. For this configuration to work, the weapon would have to fall away from the bomber first like a bomb before the rocket ignites.

This first flight test, which you can read about in a very recent article of ours here, was simply to collect data on the drag and vibrations a B-52 would experience while carrying the weapon. The Air Force plans to continue ground and flight testing of the ARRW over the next three years, according to a statement from Lockheed Martin, which is the prime contractor.

At the heart of the AGM-183A is an unpowered hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, but that will be fully contained inside the nose of the missile until the rocket booster propels it to the appropriate speed and altitude. So, the pictures we have now give us the first look at the external size and shape of the complete weapon, including what appear to be pop-out fins at the rear of the booster.

The B-52H is carrying the missile under its wing on what appears to be a modified Improved Common Pylon (ICP). The overall length of the weapon seems to suggest it might be possible for the bomber to carry two AGM-183As under each wing. For this configuration to work, the weapon would have to fall away from the bomber first like a bomb before the rocket ignites.

The Air Force has also expressed an interest in a new Heavy Release Capability (HRC) pylon, each of which can carry two 20,000-pound class weapons, which could also be an indication that the service is looking at this to be the full AGM-183A loadout for the B-52. A bomber carrying four ARRW would offer impressive stand-off strike capability.

Hypersonic weapons are a key research and development area in the ongoing arms race between the great-power rivals Russia, China, and the US. Hypersonics are particularly deadly because of their high speeds, in excess of Mach 5, and their maneuverability, which gives them the ability to evade enemy air-and-missile defense systems.

The hypersonic weapon carried by the B-52 on Wednesday 12 June did not contain explosives and was not released during testing, the Air Force said, explaining that the focus of the test was to gather data on drag and vibration effects on the weapon, as well as evaluate the external carriage equipment.

For the B-52, a nonstealth bomber that might struggle to skirt enemy air defenses, the standoff capability provided by a weapon like the ARRW helps keep the decades-old aircraft relevant even as the US prepares to fight wars against high-end opponents.

Standoff is one area the US military has been looking closely at as it upgrades its B-52s to extend their service life.

The Air Force, much like the Army and Navy, is pursuing hypersonic weapons technology as quickly as possible.

“We’re using the rapid prototyping authorities provided by Congress to quickly bring hypersonic weapon capabilities to the warfighter,” Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in a release.

“This type of speed in our acquisition system is essential — it allows us to field capabilities rapidly to compete against the threats we face,” Roper said, apparently referencing the challenges posed by near-peer competitors.

Russia, for instance, has developed the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile that can be carried by both bombers and interceptor aircraft.

Buttercup versus U-87

The U-Boats of World War One

Germany was one of the last of the major powers to begin a submarine-building programme for her navy. In many respects she followed the British model, developing and experimenting with new submarine designs rather than putting them into full production and then discovering that there were operational or constructional problems. While the British intended to use the submarine to defend bases and the coastline, the German navy’s intention was to use them as an offensive arm.

The key battle area would be the North Sea. This meant that any submarine deployed by the Germans would have to have a good operational range, the ability to remain at sea in the challenging winter months and a good surface speed, along with a high level of reliability.

It was not until February 1905 that the German navy awarded the first contract to build a submarine to the Germania Yard at Kiel. U-1 would be a 238-ton vessel with a kerosene engine and a single 45 cm bow torpedo-tube. One of the problems was that the kerosene created clouds of white smoke that could be seen for miles. Nevertheless, U-1 was finished in December 1906, and in the meantime a second and larger submarine had been commissioned to be built at the Imperial Dockyard at Danzig – U-2. In August 1907 two more slightly larger submarines, U-3 and U-4, were also ordered. It transpired that U-1 was unable to meet the operational requirements of the German navy, and the engine was not reliable enough.

The German navy was looking for a vessel that had a 2,000-nautical-mile surface endurance, a speed of 10.5 knots underwater, a surface speed of 15 knots, four torpedo tubes, two bow tubes and the ability to supply a crew of twenty with seventy-two hours’ air supply. Although the next twelve submarines were built with these specifications in mind, they did not fulfil them.

By 1912 it was still considered to be practicable only for the submarines to be out operationally for five days, working no more than 300 nautical miles from their base. In effect this meant they could operate on the eastern side of England and just into the English Channel from Heligoland.

The German’s first submarine casualty took place on 9 August 1914, when U-15 was rammed and sunk by HMS Birmingham. U-13 had been due to return from patrol on 12 August, but she failed to appear, in all probability having struck a German mine.

The German submarines had more success the following month when on the morning of 22 September U-9 sank three British cruisers, HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue. She also managed to sink the cruiser HMS Hawk on 15 October.

Technically, the U-19 Class of German submarine was an enormous step forward. It had a diesel engine, 50 cm torpedo tubes; it was much larger and longer and it also had six torpedo tubes. This type of vessel would provide the blueprint for many of the German submarines up to U-116.

Later on in the war larger submarines were ordered by the German navy, but many of these vessels were never completed. Those that were completed were often named after early German submarine heroes. U-140, for example, was named after Kapitän-leutnant Weddigen, who had commanded U-9 in 1914 but had been killed in action in U-29.

The Germans also deployed mercantile submarines, notably Deutschland (U-155). She was a blockade runner carrying cargo to and from the United States. She made two trips in 1916. Bremen accompanied her on the second trip but never arrived. A third, Oldenburg, was converted into a cruiser U-boat before she was completed. Ultimately Deutschland was also converted, with a pair of bow torpedo tubes and a pair of 15 cm guns.

Later in the war an improved version of this submarine cruiser was proposed, with six torpedo tubes and heavier guns. UD-1 was started but never completed.

When the Germans overran parts of Belgium in 1914 they acquired Bruges and Zeebrugge, both of which would be ideal submarine bases and, of course, closer to the proposed areas of operation. The Germans decided to introduce smaller coastal submarines. These were ordered in November 1914 and came into service at the beginning of 1915. They were known as Type UB submarines, just 88 ft 7 in. long, with a displacement of 127 tons and a pair of torpedo tubes. The idea was that they would be built in sections, transported by rail and then assembled at their base. The first was UB-1, which would operate in the Adriatic. The Type UB-3 came into service during the 1917–18 period. It was much larger: 182 ft long, a displacement of 520 tons and five torpedo tubes. These were such a success that they were to prove to be the blueprint upon which the Germans would design their Type VII U-boats for World War Two.

The Type UB submarines were designed for coastal operations. A smaller, Type UC, of which there were two variants, was also designed as minelayers. These too were transported by rail for final assembly, but the early ones had no means of offence or defence, although later models had torpedo tubes.

The British captured UC-5 and made a careful examination of the wreck of UC-2. This helped them enormously in unravelling German mining strategy and allowed the British to modify their own E Class submarines as minelayers.

There were also smaller Type UE ocean-going minelayers that had torpedo tubes. The later submarines in this series could operate off the United States coastline. A further Type UF coastal submarine was also planned. This was similar to UB-2 but would have four or five 50 cm torpedo tubes, but the Germans did not manage to complete any of these before the end of the war.

At the beginning of World War One the Germans had around twenty operational U-boats working with the High Seas Fleet. Initially they were deployed as a defensive screen; however, within days an ambitious plan was hatched to launch an attack on the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow. This was the operation in which U-15 was lost. U-5 and U-9 turned back because of engine problems, and U-18, although it managed to penetrate Scapa Flow, was sighted and sunk on 23 November 1914. Overall the German U-boats had lost 20% of their strength without claiming a single kill.

September 1914 had been a more promising month: U-21, commanded by Otto Hersing, had sunk the British light cruiser, HMS Pathfinder. He was to become a U-boat ace, launching twenty-one war patrols over a three-year period in which he sank thirty-six ships, including two battleships. As we have already seen, U-19 had claimed the three British destroyers off the Hook of Holland in September.

On 20 October 1914 an event took place that was to set the scene or terms of engagement for both world wars. Off southern Norway U-17 engaged the British steamer, SS Glitra. Kapitän-leutnant Feldkirchner boarded the vessel to inspect the cargo, after which he allowed the crew to board lifeboats, and then he sank the steamer.

On 26 October the pattern continued when Kapitän-leutnant Schneider on U-24 torpedoed SS Admiral Ganteaume without warning in the Dover Strait. This was the first time that a merchant vessel had ever been attacked in this way. Henceforth merchant vessels would become the prime target in attempts to wreck the economy of a wartime foe.

The significance of these two events was not lost on either the British or the Germans. The British had already mounted a blockade of Germany at a distance. Now the Germans felt confident enough to be able to launch their own counter blockade. Had they been able to maintain this blockade throughout the war perhaps the Allied victory would have been compromised.

By the end of 1914 the Germans had lost five U-boats, but had sunk ten merchant vessels and eight warships. On 18 February 1915, unrestricted U-boat warfare was introduced by the Germans. Henceforth any vessel found around the British Isles would be sunk without warning. Deciding whether a vessel was truly neutral was at the discretion of the U-boat captain.

The Germans lost Weddigen in March 1915 when U-29 was rammed by the British battleship HMS Dreadnought. His vessel was lost with all hands.

One of the most notorious submarine incidents took place on 7 May 1915. Kapitän-leutnant Schwieger, commanding U-29, fired a torpedo at RMS Lusitania to the south of Ireland. She sank in eighteen minutes and 1,200 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Controversy still rages around the loss of the vessel. She was registered as part of the British Fleet Reserve, she was in a war zone and arguably she was carrying munitions. However, such was the storm of protest from neutral America at the loss of her civilians that the German submarines were now ordered to ignore passenger liners.

On 19 August 1915, there was a similar but less well-known incident. Kapitän-leutnant Schneider (U-24), believing RMS Arabic to be a troop transport, sank her. But among the forty-four dead were three Americans. The Germans feared a backlash from the Americans, and as a consequence, on 20 September 1915, the U-boats were withdrawn from British waters, and for a while the primary area of operations became the Mediterranean.

By the end of 1915 the Germans had lost twenty U-boats, but had claimed 855,000 tons of shipping. The UC minelayers had claimed another ninety-four vessels. However, on 24 March 1916, UB-29, commanded by Oberleutnant Pustkuchen, sank the French cross-channel ferry, The Sussex, which had been mistaken for a minelayer. Eighty people were killed, among them twenty-five Americans.

There was another enormous diplomatic row, and this time the Germans withdrew all of their vessels on 24 April.

For the Allies the losses were beginning to be serious, and new counter-measures were needed. Up to this point, with depth charges still under development, a submarine could only be destroyed by ramming it or hitting it while it was on the surface. The British now created the Q-ship.

As far as the U-boat was concerned, the Q-ship would look like a tramp steamer, but in reality it was armed with guns and torpedoes, and its cargo was wood or cork, in order to make it almost unsinkable. The Germans discovered to their cost that these Q-ships were incredibly dangerous. U-36 was sunk by HMS Prince Charles on 24 July 1915. Less than a month later U-29 was sunk by HMS Baralong. One of the hardest-fought engagements between a Q-ship and a U-boat took place on 8 August 1917, when an eight-hour battle took place between UC-71 and HMS Dunraven. In all, Q-ships managed to destroy fourteen U-boats and damage sixty others. Twenty-seven Q ships were lost.

In October 1916 U-boats returned to British waters, and in that month alone they sank 337,000 tons, and between November 1916 and January 1917 another 961,000 tons. In February 1917 a further 520,000 tons were sunk. U-boat successes steadily continued, reaching a peak in April 1917, when 860,000 tons were sunk.

With the USA finally declaring war on Germany in April 1917, the numbers of potential merchant victims soared. In the period May 1917 to November 1919, 1,134 convoys, consisting of 16,693 merchant vessels, made their way back and forth across the Atlantic. This new convoy system would lead directly to the defeat of Germany: she simply could not stop the flood of munitions, supplies and men. The tide had certainly begun to turn against the German U-boat threat.

According to the Armistice the 176 operational German submarines were handed over between November 1918 and April 1919. The German navy had started the war with twenty-eight U-boats; 344 had been commissioned and 226 were under construction when the war ended. The Germans had sunk over twelve million tons of shipping, or 5,000 ships. Seven submarine commanders, headed by Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière (450,000 tons) topped the list. The U-boats had been seen to be a powerful, though not a decisive, weapon of war. The 176 operational U-boats handed over to the British were evaluated, stripped, parcelled out to Allies or scrapped. Germany was then prohibited from building or possessing U-boats.

Q-ship trap

A promising tactic was to hit the U-boat at the time it was doing its deadly work – attacking merchant ships – and this was done in two ways. More and more merchant ships were being equipped with deck guns to defend themselves. With a properly trained gun crew, a merchant ship had a good chance of striking a crippling blow against a U-boat, itself only armed with a single gun, and with a highly vulnerable pressure hull. A more offensive tactic was the use of Q-ships, small merchant vessels with concealed guns on the upper deck. The theory behind these ships was that they would clearly be too small to be worth a U-boat captain using a precious torpedo to sink one. However, if he closed in on the surface to a range that would allow him to finish off an apparently defenceless target with his deck gun, the Q-ship’s main armament would be revealed and a powerful barrage would quickly finish off the attacker.

For the idea to work, the Q-ship’s camouflage had to be perfect, even when watched through powerful binoculars by a cautious submarine commander. For example, one converted fishing vessel was towing nets in the correct way, but another fishing boat spotted that there were none of the usual swarms of seagulls competing for scraps from the catch. In the case of larger vessels, which might attract a torpedo, cargo holds would be filled with empty barrels or baulks of timber for greater buoyancy. Guns were disguised as sheep pens – providing fresh meat for the crew on a long voyage – or as life-belt holders. If a submarine stopped the Q-ship, the cover of a helpless merchantman might have to be maintained up to the crew taking to the lifeboats, leaving enough trained men hidden onboard to man the guns and open fire when the U-boat least expected it.

HMS Arbutus was an Anchusa-class sloop, completed as a Q-ship and based at Milford Haven. She had only just entered service, having been launched on 8 September. On 15 December she was on patrol some twenty-five miles off the Welsh coast in the St George’s Channel under her captain, Commander Charles Herbert Oxlade RNR. Oxlade, born in 1876, was something of an adventurer having gained an aviator’s licence in 1913 and served as a volunteer trooper in the Boer War. Now he was offering his ship as a target for U-boats.

The weather was filthy, blowing a gale and with rough seas, when Arbutus was hit by a torpedo from UB-65. Oxlade ordered abandonment, for real rather than deception as the ship was badly hit but stayed on board himself, along with his first lieutenant and a stoker party, to try to save his ship. Rescue vessels from Milford Haven attempted to tow Arbutus to safety but on the 16th, in continued foul weather she foundered and suddenly sank, taking Oxlade, his number one Lieutenant Charles Stewart RNR and six stokers with her. The remaining eighty-five crew survived. Another of Bayly’s Q-ships had gone, its dangerous game lost.

Demise of U-87

Success did attend the sloop Buttercup, however, and on Christmas Day of all days. She was escorting Convoy HD15, Dakar to Liverpool, when the convoy was attacked by U-87 under the command of Freiherr Rudolf von Speth-Schülzburg. Eighteen miles NWN of Bardsey Island in the Irish Sea, U-87 torpedoed the steamship SS Agberi (4,821grt). But von Speth-Schülzburg, on his first cruise in command, stayed too long on the surface. The escorts spotted him and Buttercup, driven at full speed by her captain, Lieutenant Commander Arthur Collier Petherick, rammed into the U-boat; badly damaged, U-87 could not submerge or escape. PC-56, a P-boat built as a Q-ship, was following up behind the sloop and sank the submarine with all hands, forty-four men in total.

On its fifth and final patrol, the U-87 departed Wilhelmshaven on 8 December 1917 heading to the western end of the English Channel via the Dover Straits. It sank two small sailing vessels on the way, and then on Christmas Eve, the 3238ton British steamer DAYBREAK off Northern Ireland. On Christmas day 1917, the U-87 attacked a convoy in St George’s Channel (in particular, the 4812-ton British steamship AGBERI, see NPRN 274777). One of the convoy escorts was just 150 yards away from the AGBERI when it was struck and turned to ram the submarine.

The logbook of HMS BUTTERCUP, an Arabis class sloop, provides the briefest of overviews of what happened:

02:42 SS AGBERI torpedoed.

03:30 While zig-zagging round AGBERI submarine spotted on surface. HMS P56 engaged and rammed it. BUTTERCUP fired and hit conning tower.

03:40 SS AGBERI sank. Submarine sank.

05:00 Rejoined convoy.

The Crew listed as lost in U87 are as follows: Adam, Friedrich; Andermann, Fr; Balleer, Max; Brandt, Johannes; Collinet, Joseph; Dahlmann, Friedrich; Dethloff, Otto; Dost, Fritz; Faßel, Herbert; Fimpler, Adolf; Gaßmann, P; Grill, Georg; Hansen, Robert; Heinrich, Freidrich; Hilgenberg, Karl; Hoffmann, Wilhelm; Hummel, Ernst; Jörgensen, J; Kloß, Karl; Koppehele, Fritz; Krimme, Otto; Kurth, Jakob; Labahn, Hans; Lehmann, Ernst; Lehmann, Walter; Ludwig, Edwin; Mrodzikowski, Anton; Patege, August; Petermann, Hermann; Preisker, Theodor; Reuting, Hermann; Schaff, Paul; Schnellke, Heinrich;  Siebel, Johann; Siebke, Gustav; Speth-Schülzburg, Rudolf Frhr. V.; Tetmeyer, Robert; Viebranz, R; Wandt, Kurt; Wille, Wilhelm; Willmer, Hubert; Wodrig, Franz; and Zander, Paul.

U-87 CLASS (1916)

U-87 (22 May 1916), U-88 (22 June 1916), U-89 (6 October 1916), U-90 (12 January 1917), U-91 (14 April 1917), U-92 (12 May 1917)

Builder: Kaiserliche Werft, Danzig (Werk 31)

Displacement: 757 tons (surfaced), 998 tons (submerged)

Dimensions: 224’9” x 20’4” x 12’9”

Machinery: 2 MAN diesel engines, 2 electric motors, 2 shafts. 2400 bhp/1200 shp = 15.5/8.5 knots

Range: 8000 nm at 8 knots surfaced, 56 nm at 5 knots submerged

Armament: 6 x 500mm torpedo tubes (4 b o w, 2 stern), total 12 torpedoes, 1 x 105mm gun

Complement: 36

Notes: These submarines represented an important advance on previous Unterseebootkonstruktionsbüro double-hull war mobilization boats, featuring a heavier torpedo armament and improved bow for better sea-keeping. The U-88 was mined off Terschelling on 5 September 1917, and the sloop Buttercup rammed and sank the U-87 in the Irish Sea on 25 December. The cruiser Roxborough rammed and sank the U-89 off Malin Head on 12 February 1918, and the U-92 failed to return from a Bay of Biscay patrol in September. The two surviving boats were surrendered and scrapped.

Type U-87

U-87

Ships hit by U-87