Monday, February 20, 2017

Of axes, defibrillators, and fighter jets... [RANT]


This is an axe.

It is simple tool, dating back thousands of years.  It consists of a wooden handle with a sharpened stone fixed to one end.  While this axe is primitive in its origins, it is an ingenious design.  By placing the sharpened stone at the end of long handle, early humans were able to increase the moment-of-force, allowing the stone to make a much deeper cut than if the stone were held in the hand directly.  This made it great for cutting and bashing things.

The stone axe provided early man with an invaluable tool.  Useful as a both a building tool and a weapon, it helped catapult man into the most dominant life-form on the planet.


This is also an axe.

This SOG "Fast Hawk" tactical tomahawk utilizes a 420 stainless steel blade with high tech ballistic polymer handle.  It is sharper, harder, lighter, better-balanced, and comes with a nylon sheath.  It is better than the stone axe in every conceivable way.

But it is still just an axe.  It cuts and bashes things.

Now imagine a wood-chopping contest between two people.  Each is tasked with rendering a equal-sized log into firewood.  One contestant gets the stone axe, the other gets the high-tech tomahawk.  No contest, right?

Not so fast.

Imagine the tomahawk is given to a 75-year-old grandmother who just finished off a cup of sleepytime tea.  The stone axe is given to a 28-year-old lumberjack who just finished off a six-pack of Red Bull.

In this case, the tool being used is not nearly as important as the person using it.

This uses a stone-age tool as an example.  Surely things would be different using something more modern, right?

Since my "day job" is in the medical field, allow me to wax poetic about one of the more dramatic devices I get to use:  The defibrillator.



LifePak 300 Defibrillator (Ah the memories...)
That big white box you see above is the Physio-Control LifePak 300 defibrillator/monitor.  This device is capable of monitoring heart rhythms and performing defibrillationsynchronized cardioversion, or transcutaneous pacing as needed.  It is heavy, cumbersome, and utilizes a dim LCD display that is nearly impossible to read in direct sunlight.  These machines proved popular with EMS agencies in the 90s due to their ruggedness and ease of use.

I hated these damn things.

LifePak 12...  Better in every way.  
The LifePak 12 ended up replacing the venerable 300 in many EMS agencies.  While still heavy and cumbersome, the LifePak 12 offered many advancements and improvements.  12-lead electrocardiograms (instead of 3-lead) were now possible in the prehospital setting, allowing improved diagnostics, treatments, and improved patient outcomes.  The LifePak 12 also offered a myriad of other options including capnographypulse oximetry, and non-invasive blood pressure monitoring.  Defibrillation was now done using "gentler" biphasic energy.

Despite all of the extra bells and whistles, the Lifepak 12 did not have a particularly profound effect on cardiac arrest outcomes.  In the out-of-hospital setting, the odds of surviving a sudden cardiac arrest was about 4%.

Not only did fancy new defibrillators have little effect on cardiac arrest survival outcomes, but it was also found that more advanced techniques found in the Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) had little effect as well.  Intubation and IV drugs like epinephrine, atropine, and lidocaine, seemed to be of little help.  In fact, it was found that cardiac arrest survival rates were slightly better when treated with basic life support (BLS) techniques.

After a review, it was surmised that the emphasis on advanced techniques was taking focus away the most important factor in cardiac arrest survival:  High quality cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

In 2005, the ACLS guidelines were re-written to focus more on the basics:  High quality CPR and early defibrillation.  Therapies like intubation were now considered "nice to have" rather than "need to have".  Thanks to this change, cardiac arrest survival rates pretty much doubled, with over 8% of pre-hospital cardiac arrest patients surviving without severe neurological deficits.

Training, not technology, resulted in the largest paradigm shift in the outcomes of cardiac arrest patients.  Much like our example of the two axes, the determining factor in the end was not the tool being used, but the person using it.

LifePak 15



Zoll X-Series
The two defibrillators you see above represent the "cutting edge" of the market.  Both feature full color LCD screens, wi-fi and bluetooth connectivity, and lithium-ion batteries for longer life.  More importantly for cardiac arrests, both devices utilize a feature that assist CPR performance.  The LifePak 15 uses a metronome, while the Zoll uses a "Real CPR Help" feature that gives feedback on both speed and depth of CPR compressions.

So, as someone who uses defibrillators on a regular basis; which device would I prefer?

Both devices have their advantages as well as their faults.  The LifePak is easier to use, as it uses dedicated controls as opposed to the Zoll's "soft keys".  Its printer is front-and-center and uses larger paper, making ECGs easier to read.  It is also more rugged.  The Zoll, on the other hand, is smaller, lighter, and its "Real CPR Help" feature is more advanced than the LifePak's simple metronome.

In the end, it does not really matter.  Both devices work equally well at delivering an electrical shock to a patient's heart.  Cardiac arrest outcome will have much more to do with the competence of the health provider than whatever equipment they are using.  That competence can only be achieved through training, practice, and experience.

If it was my loved one laying on the floor; I would prefer to have an experienced, well-trained paramedic using the venerable LifePak 300 than a newbie with a Zoll X-Series.

F-35B
Much like an axe or a defibrillator, a fighter jet is a tool.  Whereas the ax chops stuff and the defibrillator shocks hearts, the fighter jet delivers ordinance unto an enemy combatant.  Also like the axe and defibrillator, jet fighters have become more technologically advanced with time.

While many (myself included) have extolled the virtues of one fighter platform over another, the most important factor is often the most ignored:  The person using it.  Like the lumberjack using an axe, or a paramedic using a defibrillator; a fighter's effectiveness has more to do with the crew behind it.

An aircraft cannot fly without well-trained pilots, maintainers, and logistics personnel.  Without these people and their skills, even the most advanced fighter cannot leave the ground.  And like any other tool, it is the the competence of these people that make it work.

Purchasing a modern jet fighter is just the first step.  These fighters are of little use if they end up being "hangar queens".  These fighters need to be used, not necessarily out of anger, but to increase the competency of the crews behind them.

The Best Fighter for Canada will depend not on the various fighter manufacturers, but the men and women of the RCAF.  Whatever the Government of Canada ultimately decides to replace the CF-18 with, the more important decision will be what level of support is given in the long term.  Emphasis must be placed on proper training time.

Concentrate not on the machine, but the person behind it.








Saturday, January 28, 2017

Defence Policy in a Post-Trump Era


Kakistocracy

nounplural kakistocracies.
1.
government by the worst persons; a form of government in which theworst persons are in power.

Well...  Here we are.

The largest, most powerful, most technological advanced military in the world has a new Commander-in-Chief.

This Commander-in-Chief campaigned on a premise of American nationalismisolationism, and military build up.  He has promised to ban immigration of an entire religion while forming a registry of those whom are already citizens.  He is a climate-change denier.  He is a racist.  He is an unabashed misogynist whose advances toward woman may be sexual assault.  

One would have hoped that Trump would have tempered his controversial ascension by surrounding himself with a less-controversial staff.  Instead, his Vice-President is an outspoken critic of LGBT rights.  His Chief Strategist is known for promoting white-nationalists views.  Trump's pick for Secretary of Treasury made millions by foreclosing on people's homes when the housing market crashed.

I could go on, but you get the idea.



The election of Donald Trump has sent the rest of the world into a tailspin.  His isolationist views, combined with his anti-NATO rhetoric and "bromance" with Vladimir Putin has left American allies worried...  For good reason.

For decades now, the good ol' USA has deemed itself "the protector of the free world".  Following World War II, it has been omnipresent around the world, devoted to fight the global spread of Communism.  After the end of the Cold War, it continued its presence under the auspices of fighting a War on Terrorism.  This meddling has run the gamut from polite political pressure, to rigging foreign elections, to outright military occupation.  Of course, this has all been done under the auspices of "securing freedom".

America's aggressive foreign policy has allowed other nations to take advantage.  Friendly nations in "hot zones" see their own militaries supported by the USA's considerable military might.  Friendly nations in the Middle-East and South Pacific regions have come to depend on this.  Other friendly nations, like Canada, have taken advantage of America's largesse by cutting military spending.

It would seem as if that era is coming to an end.

Trump has promised to increase American military strength while simultaneously reducing its footprint around the world.  This seemingly contradictory plan would likely leave a huge power vacuum in certain areas while simultaneously encouraging other major military nations to both fill that vacuum and beef up their own forces.

One could argue that it is America's prerogative what it does with its military.  The problem with this argument is that many of the world's current conflicts have been influenced by, if not directly caused by American intervention.

In other words, America made this mess...  And may be up to the rest of us to clean it up.

You guys better start getting busy.  
This new era leaves Canada with no other option.  We must pay more attention to our defence.

Trump's America still needs Canada, make no mistake.  Expect the relationship to change, however.  Our two leaders are off to a rocky start.  While President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau got along famously, Justin and Donald are downright adversarial.  Considering their respective
election platforms, one could not imagine these two having much in common.

Trump will likely demand that Canada spend more on defence.  As a NATO member, Canada is obliged to spend at least 2% of its GDP doing so, but only contribute about half of that.  We likely will not have much choice in the matter...  Not because Trump says so but to compensate for the USA's decreased presence worldwide could make the world a more dangerous place.

Check out the latest SKIES Magazine for a look at the RCAF Super Hornet!
Given the potential quandaries surrounding a Trump presidency, the current Canadian government's plan to acquire 18 "interim" Super Hornets may be surprisingly prescient.

The reasoning behind the acquisition was a "capability gab" that many questioned.  The truth is a matter of semantics.  With its current CF-18 fleet, Canada had no issue fulfilling its NATO and NORAD commitments...  Just not simultaneously.

The timing behind the decision seem suspiciously in tune with Trump's rise to power.  The announcement itself came less than two weeks after the US election.  The first declaration of a "capability gap" came within days of Trump's selection as the Republican presidential candidate.

Coincidence?

While Trump's rise to power is certainly not the sole reason behind the Super Hornet acquisition, it was undoubtedly a part of the discussion behind closed doors.  Canada's defence policy is heavily influenced by American defense policy; and Trump symbolizes a monstrous paradigm shift in that department.

Do not expect Canada to be the only nation influenced by America's new leadership.

Trump's commitment to South Korea is secure for the moment, but the future may prove shaky with The Donald threatening to pull troops out.  America's softening towards Iran under Obama will likely be put into full reverse.  Plans to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is not exactly going over well with some.   Expect this to become the "new normal" for American diplomacy.



Some of the rhetoric coming from the White House goes beyond the pale and gets to be damn right scary, subtly threatening adversaries and allies alike.  The message is clear:  US military support can no longer be taken for granted.

Thankfully for Canada, Trump has yet to mention NORAD in his late-night Twitter ramblings.  Canadians should not get too complacent however, as it may just be a matter of time.  Canada would do well to pursue a more independent defence policy now that its neighbor has gotten much more rowdy and unpredictable.  It does not help that Canada's other neighbor is being down-right creepy lately.

Given the differences in our two leaderships, expect a widening rift between the US and Canada.  Some would blame that rift on our current Liberal government, yet even former Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stated: "The Trump presidency is a major source of global uncertainty," that will reverse seven decades of US foreign policy.

Canada would seem to have two choices:


1)  Attempt to stay in America's favor.  Doing so would require cutting ties to the rest of the world, and imposing similar bans on muslims, etc.  This would help keep our relationship with our largest partner healthy.  In doing so, however, Canada would be relinquishing our foreign policy and our very sovereignty to the whims of President Donald J. Trump.  We would be a medium-sized fish sharing a tank with a great white shark.

or

2)  Relinquish our coveted partnership with the USA and pursue better relations with other nations.  Step up our NATO and UN commitments to help fill the gap left by the US.  Most importantly, assert our independence to assure the world that Canada is not simply "America Lite".

Not an option, unfortunately.  

One would hope that Trumps ascension to the presidency is a mere outlier that will be corrected in forthcoming American elections.  We cannot afford to make this assumption, however.  This could be the hallmark of something far more sinister.

For decades, Canada has based its defence strategy on the assumption that the good ol' USA would have our backs.  As of January 20th, 2017 that is no longer the case.

Time to get busy.












Saturday, January 21, 2017

Who is fit to make procurement decisions?



One of the prevailing thought regarding military equipment procurement is to simply "let the troops choose".  This is a great idea...  In theory.

As the end user, they are no doubt the MOST IMPORTANT stakeholder in procurement selection, as their very lives may depend on that equipment.  Unfortunately, they do not have the final say in such matters.  New equipment is often foisted upon them, with little regard to their desires.  Not only that, but their voice is often the quietest, assuming it is heard at all.

In reality, it is not the soldier that picks out his or her rifle, the sailer that picks his or her ship, nor the pilot who picks his or her aircraft.  That decision is not even carried out by the upper-echelon brass like generals or admirals.  Instead, the decision is ultimately made by those holding the purse strings: Politicians.

Notice the look on the SAR Tech's face?  
While the thought of a greasy politician having the final say in military procurement may seem odorous to many of us, the politicians are ultimately answerable to us the taxpayer.  It is our money that pays for this stuff, after all.

Anybody who has been paying attention the last few decades can see how this system can (and well) go horribly, horribly wrong.

In an attempt to balance budgets, military procurement spending can be drastically cut.  Programs can be delayed, reduced in scope, or sometimes cancelled altogether.  These actions are all too familiar to Canadians.  Some more egregious examples of politics causing disastrous consequences to military procurement projects include:

  • Avro Arrow
  • EH-101
  • Used British submarines
  • Long delayed FWSAR replacement
  • CF-18 replacement announced then postponed, then "reset", then restarted from scratch
  • And so on, and so on, and so on...
Using these examples, it is easy to suggest that a more effective process be implemented.  The fix would seem to obvious, let the military choose its own equipment?

This leads to its own set of problems.

The military utilizes a "top-down" command structure.  Decisions are made by high-level staff and disseminated throughout the lower ranks.  Debating or criticizing those decisions is highly discouraged.  Upper-echelon staff may take popular sentiment into consideration but are under no obligation to do so.  

Would a general not want the best rifle for his or her soldiers?  The best aircraft for his or her pilots?

Sure.  But...

General Mark Anthony Welsh III 
Meet General Mark Welsh.

Welsh served as the USAF's Chief of Staff from 2012 until his retirement in July, 2016.  During his tenure as Chief of Staff, Welsh was a staunch advocate for the modernization of the USAF.  According to him, the three biggest priorities were the F-35 fighter, the KC-46 aerial tanker, and the LRS-B (now known as the B-21).

Welsh was undoubtedly influential in the selection of Northrop's Grumman's B-21 Raider winning the USAF's LRS-B contract back in late 2015.  

In the year that followed, Welsh retired from active service...  And was then appointed to Northrop Grumman's board of directors.  

Lt. General Charles Bouchard

Like Welsh, Bouchard rose to the very top of the command structure, serving as Commander for 1 Canadian Air Division.  Bouchard is an honored officer that led the NATO mission in Libya.  Welsh also happened to be a top man at the RCAF during the Harper government's ill-fated announcement to procure the F-35.

Bouchard retired from the RCAF in 2012.  Shortly after, he was offered a position as a government appointed "independent monitor" looking into the CF-18 replacement.  Bouchard bowed out, stating he was "too busy".  

Less than a year later, Bouchard was named as the lead for Lockheed Martin's Canadian operations.  The transition from top man in the RCAF to military contractor took less than eighteen months.  Federal law requires a minimum of a one year "cooling off" period between holding a senior military position and taking up a corporate position.  

Fans of the The Walking Dead know that revolving doors can be scary.

While one should not assume any conflict-of-interest with Welsh's and Bouchard's rapid (and lucrative) transition to the private sector, neither one really passes the smell test.  

Both are shining examples of the "revolving door" that exists between defence contractors and the militaries that warrant their existence.  Corporations like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing fill their executive ranks with ex-military brass.  This allure is obvious, as high-ranking military officers can transition from a relatively modest military salary to a much more lucrative private-sector one...  All whilst still collecting a pension.  

By recruiting high-ranking staffers like Welsh and Bouchard, military contractors not only get access to years of military experience, but they get access to that member's sphere of influence and contacts. For top brass, this often includes government contacts as well as military.  This influence furthered by the countless lobbyists and political donations made to those seeking power.  

All this translates into an all-to-chummy relationship between the military, the government, and the defence contractors.  Meanwhile the end user (the troops) and the financier (the taxpayer) are often left out of the conversation.  



If all this sounds eerily like the Military-Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address...  It is.  A self-perpetuating cycle where procurement drives industry, which drives politics, which drives procurement.  

It is up to us, the common citizen, to ensure this cycle does not continue.  We do this by holding our elected official accountable and making our voices heard when needed.  









Friday, January 13, 2017

Can Trump really cancel the F-35?

United States President-Elect Donald Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.  In his late night Twitter rants, he has gone so far as to suggest that the Pentagon's JSF purchase be curtailed in favor of more Super Hornets.  This, of course has had serious repercussions toward Lockheed Martin's stock price.


[Let's get this out of the way:  The fact that the future American president is willing and able to negatively effect the value of people's investments through a single tweet is bone-chilling.  The value of the JSF program is estimated to well over a TRILLION dollars throughout its lifetime.  Any decision regarding its future should be carefully planned, thought out, and communicated...  NOT summed up in 140 characters or less.]

Ugh.
Can Trump "fire" the F-35?

In a word:  No.

The F-35 has already entered initial operating capability (IOC) with both the USAF and the USMC.  Despite a seemingly never-ending series of delays, the JSF is now considered part of the American arsenal.  At this point, no amount of political pressure could cancel the F-35 completely.  The USA has bet its airpower future on the JSF, and it is just about "all in".

Currently, the American fighter fleet, while still impressive, is populated mostly by aircraft that were designed and built in the 60s and 70s.  Even the USAF's flagship fighter, the F-22, is approaching its 30th birthday.  These airframes are aging.  Replacements are needed.

This does not render the F-35 completely off-limits, however.

Trump may be able to make good on his threat merely by reducing production of the JSF in favor of higher numbers of legacy aircraft.

For the USN, the alternative is clear:  More Super Hornets.  The F/A-18E/F is already a proven yet relatively modern design.  It is likely the stealthiest fighter in the US inventory besides the F-35 and F-22.  Developments like the Advanced Super Hornet concept show that there may be even more potential for the airframe.  Given the popularity of the Super Hornet with the USN, combined with the cost and continued development issues with the carrier version of the JSF, the F-35C is in most danger of being dropped altogether.

For the USMC, the F-35 is safe.  There is no alternative to the F-35B.  Current AV-8B Harriers are well past their prime, and there is no other comparable STOVL.  This requirement is needed to operate from the USMC's smaller carriers.  The F-35B's existence could even be further rationalized if the USN drops the F-35C, as the F-35B would remain as the Pentagon's sole carrier-based stealth aircraft.

F-16V "Viper"

For the USAF, there are a few alternatives.

An updated F-16, the F-16V "Viper" brings the familiar Fighting Falcon into the 21st Century.  It lacks any sort of stealth treatment, however.  Currently, the F-16 is constructed in the same Fort Worth assembly plant as the F-35, so it may not be practical to build both.  At best, the F-16V could be considered a lower-cost supplement to the F-35A, but not a realistic alternative.

As per Trump's tweet, the Super Hornet may be a possible alternative to the F-35A for the USAF, but such a thing would be BIGLY unpopular with the upper brass.  Unlike the USN, the USAF is quite infatuated with the JSF, and having to replace it with a Navy fighter would incur major pushback.

The Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle could be seen as a possible alternative.  While lacking the F-35's all-aspect stealth, it is a "stealthier" fighter.  No one would argue against combat prowess and strike capability of a platform based on the F-15 Strike Eagle, either.  Unfortunately, the F-15's design is nearly 50-years-old.  It is also an expensive aircraft to fly and maintain (even compared to the F-35).  F-15SEs would likely offer very little in terms of cost savings.

Foreign-made aircraft; like the Gripen, Typhoon, and Rafale would pretty much be non-starters.  While the idea has been bandied about by some, the idea of the Pentagon approving a foreign designed and built aircraft in such large numbers could be dismissed based on security risks alone.  Not to mention the sheer embarrassment of such a thing.  At best, perhaps Boeing could license-build the the Gripen, as it already partners with Saab for its T-X bid.  Like the F-16V, any American Gripen would likely be a supplement to the F-35, not a true alternative.

Realistically, the USAF would want to keep as many of its planned F-35s as possible.  At most, it might compromise slightly and allow "lesser" airframes to take residence with Air National Guard units.



Even if Trump's staff manages to miraculously devise a plan to reduce planned F-35 numbers in favor of other fighters, there is still a BIGLY YUGE political wall to climb.

The position of US President does not carry unlimited power.  There are checks and balances (i.e. political bureaucracy) that ensures a single individual cannot run roughshod over the will of the people.  In order to make any serious changes to the JSF program, Trump would need the support of the majority of the US Senate and House of Representatives.  This poses a problem.  Trump may share a political party with the majority in both houses, but he is still very much a Republican outsider.

The F-35 was purposely "politically engineered" to be hard to kill.  Various contractors and sub-contractors for the program are littered across the map.  Any Senator or Representative voting against the JSF would be risking the loss of high paying jobs in their constituency.  Given the vitriol surrounding Trump's upcoming presidency, do not expect everybody to simply "fall in line".  Especially if the upcoming four years are as golden as the month leading up to his inauguration.

The President-Elect's own pick for Secretary of Defense; Jim Mattis, even doubts that Trump would cancel the JSF program.

Killing the JSF may be a near impossibility.  Given Trump's language, however, it would be reasonable to prepare for possible cuts to the F-35.  This is where foreign buyers need to be extra-cautious.  If the USA significantly reduces its planned JSF numbers, unit prices will undoubtedly skyrocket.  Nations that are betting the future of their air force on the F-35 may be in for a rude awakening.

The Trudeau Government's plan to put off buying the JSF in favor of some "interim" Super Hornets may end up being surprisingly prescient.  Risk management is never a bad thing.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

About those ads...


I was initially hesitant to allow advertising on this blog.   I did not want the appearance of "shilling", nor did I wish to add to the clickbait-culture of the internet.

Since their implementation, the ads have provided a very modest income.  Google Adsense is set up to pay out only if the earnings are above $100.  For this humble website, that means months between payouts.  I certainly will not be quitting my "day job" any time soon.

I would like to put this money to good use, however.



This year, I decided to take the most recent payout and donate the majority of it to the Wounded Warriors of Canada.  Some of you may remember this non-profit group from this past summer's "22 Push-Up Challenge".  WWC's goal is to help veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD and other mental illnesses, as well as their families.

Their website can be found here.

This holiday season, I encourage all my readers to consider donating or volunteering their time to those in need.  A little can often go a long way.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or whatever holiday you choose to celebrate this season.

-Doug


Friday, December 16, 2016

Best Starfighter of the Galaxy is...

What?  You thought it might be something else?

While science fiction has many examples of what could be described as a starfighter, there really is nothing more iconic than the Incom T-65 X-Wing starfighter from the Star Wars universe.

Instantly recognizable by both young and old, the X-Wing has not only taken a prominent role in film, but in countless video games, comics, novels, toy chests, and model shelves.  The X-Wing ranks up there with pop-culture icons like the starship Enterprise, Batman, Barbie, or Mickey Mouse.

In universe, the X-Wing is just as legendary.  As the ship that blew up the Death Star, it became an everlasting symbol of the Rebel Alliance and their fight against the Galactic Empire.

What was it about the X-Wing that made it so special?

Oddly enough, the X-Wing does not really stand out when compared to other starfighters in the Star Wars universe.  In relation to other starfighters, the X-Wing is decidedly average.
The TIE fighter is more maneuverable, the A-Wing is faster, the B-Wing has more firepower, and even the venerable Y-Wing was more durable.

Being superlative in a category does not make a good fighter, however.  TIE fighters lacked deflector shields, B-Wings were unreliable, A-Wings were notoriously unforgiving, and Y-Wings were too sluggish when pitted against Imperial fighters.  The X-Wing, while not class-leading in any particular category, struck the right balance of speed, agility, firepower, and ruggedness.

It was this balance that made the X-Wing so popular with Rebel pilots.


Incom, the manufacturer behind the X-Wing, was responsible from successful Clone War designs like the Z-95 Headhunter and ARC-170.  The X-wing evoked design elements from both.  The X-Wing design ended up in Rebel hands thanks to the defection of Incom's design and engineering staff.  This was exceptionally good news for the Rebel Alliance, as their current fleet of venerable Y-Wing fighters were ill-equipped to deal with faster and more maneuverable TIE fighters.  The arrival of the X-Wing for space-superiority missions allowed the more robust Y-Wing to take on heavy assault duties.

The design philosophy behind the X-Wing was simple in theory, difficult in execute:  A starfighter that was easy to learn, easy to maintain and deploy, yet deadly in the battlespace.  Incom managed to to find the perfect balance.

The need for ease of use was necessary due to the Rebel Alliance's pilot diversity.  Imperial pilots had the advantage of strict training regimens starting from an early age at the Imperial Academy.  Rebel pilots, on the other hand, came from much more diverse backgrounds.  Rebel pilot ranks were filled by smugglers, farm hands, Imperial defectors, and even planetary royalty.  To help ease transition, Incom fashioned the X-Wing's controls similarly to the T-16 Skyhopper, a cheap airspeeder that was a common sight throughout the galaxy.

The X-Wing's ruggedness and deployability was inherent to its design.  Unlike Imperial TIEs, it was equipped with a hyperdrive.  This was mandatory for the Rebel's hit-and-run tactics; surprise attacks quickly followed by a jump to light speed.  R2-units provided navigation duties, power management, and minor repairs in flight.  Not only did its distinctive S-foils help cooling, but they helped spread out the engines and laser cannons.  Spaced apart, a hit on one was not always disastrous.  Plenty of X-Wing pilots can share stories of a engine nacelle being damaged, but living to fight another day thanks to their heroic R2-unit rerouting power and facilitating repairs in the heat of battle.  This would explain why many X-Wing pilots became so attached to their astromech droids.


The design philosophy behind Rebel snub fighters served as an antithesis to that of the Empire.  Having no shortage of pilots, the Empire's strategy was simple:  Overwhelm using sheer numbers.  Unlike their Rebel counterparts, most TIE fighter variants lacked deflector shields or hyperdrives.  TIE pilot that survived a mere handful of missions were considered "elite", earning them the privilege of helming more advanced ships like the TIE Interceptor or even the TIE Avenger.

In contrast, the Rebel Alliance knew that skilled combat pilots were a valuable commodity.  Even if a battle was not a full success, an X-wing pilot could often "limp home" allowing them to live long enough to fight another day.  One such pilot, Wedge Antilles, lived long enough to become a veteran of not one, but TWO Death Stars.

The X-Wing, like other Rebel fighters easy to deploy.  Whether it from a capitol ship, jungle planet, or even the frozen wasteland of Hoth, the T-65 was always ready.  With no hyperdrive and requiring dedicated infrastructure, Imperial TIE's required a nearby Star Destroyer or other base.



The X-Wing was so successful that its design lives on 30 years later.

While superficially similar, the newer T-70 X-Wing shares very few components with its predecessor.   Advancements in miniaturization has resulted in a sleeker shape, allowing for the enhanced atmospheric performance.  The T-70 also mounts a rear-firing blaster, useful for defense against pursing fighters.

Continuing the fine tradition of X-Wings scoring a killing blow against "planet killers", Poe Dameron led a force that scored the killing blow against the massive Starkiller Base.

Oh man...  I have done SO many hours in this simulator...
The X-Wing stands out as the quintessential starfighter...  Or fictional fighter in general.  While much of its lasting endearment is based on the strength of the Star Wars franchise, the X-Wing still serves as the gold standard of cool spaceship models.  

While other fictional craft like the Millennium Falcon, the Enterprise, and even Serenity evoke just as much nostalgia as the X-Wing, these are one-off spacecraft that are given ample screen time and may as well be considered part of the cast.  By comparison, the X-Wing is ubiquitous, usually flown by secondary characters.  The X-wing itself is content to be a supporting character, never the star.  

It is this "everyman" status that makes the X-Wing great.  While the Star Wars franchise tends to focus on the Skywalker family, never forget that the Empire is brought down by countless Rebels that have no affinity for the Force.  It is these "average" Rebels that are the true inspiration behind the franchise.  Risking everything against a more powerful foe simply because it is the right thing.  

Yes, I will be watching Star Wars: Rogue One this weekend.  Like its protagonists, I too choose to rebel.  


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Best Starfighter for the Galaxy: The Runners Up.

(Clockwise from upper-left) Viper, Thunderfighter, X-Wing, Starfury

Science fiction is filled with examples of small, deadly spacecraft able to engage in dogfights as well as conduct attack missions on enemy capital ships and space stations.  Usually, these are flown by the story's heroes against overwhelming odds.

What is the best starfighter in all the galaxy, or universe for that matter?

For this article, I will focus on starfighters that occur in franchises (i.e. properties that consist of multiple mediums:  TV, movies, games, etc.)  I will disregard most of the star fighters that occur in science fiction novels, as there is simply no way to account for the overwhelming number of designs.  Most of these designs fall into several archetypes, anyway.  We will also ignore star fighters that occur strictly in video games, as these fighters have to worry about game-balance issues and the like.


There is, of course, the Wing Commander franchise.  This series consists of some excellent games...  And a truly awful movie.  Since the movie leaves such a bad taste in my mouth, I will disqualify the Wing Commander franchise simply out of spite.

Babylon 5's Starfury
Fans of Babylon 5 will immediately recognize the distinctive shape of the Earthforce Starfury.  Armed with plasma weaponry, the Starfury stands out for paying attention to Newtonian physics.  This starfighter does not maneuver similarly to a earth-borne aircraft.  It accelerates, decelerates, and changes direction by utilizing its four vectored thrust engines and various thrusters.


What really makes the Starfury interesting is its design aesthetic.  In universe, it's practical, no-nonsense construction is immediately recognized as a human design.  Alien races are recognized by their design aesthetic as well.  For example, the Vorlon use more organic squid-like shapes, while the French-empire-inspired Centauri use a more gothic design.

While small, the Starfury is capable of faster-than-light by utilizing jump gates.  Unlike the other starfighters here, the Starfury cannot operate inside an an atmosphere and requires either a carrier or spacestation.  A later version, the Thunderbolt, rectified this issue...  But looks a little too similar to another starfighter.

Starfuries get bonus points for displaying some incredible WWII inspired nose art.

[For those who have not seen it, I highly recommend watching the Babylon 5 series.  While the early CGI may not have aged well, the storyline, dialogue, and acting are absolutely brilliant.  It requires a bit of patience, as the first season starts off slow, but the second-through-fourth seasons are a huge payoff.  The fifth season is hit-or-miss, but worth the watch.]


Buck Rogers Thunderfighter
In one form or another, the Buck Rogers franchise has been around since the 1920s.  The franchise, while undergoing changes over time, ultimately centers around a modern-day human who gets frozen in time only to reawaken in the 25th century.  Buck Rogers has been brought to life through comics, role-playing games, and television.

Most readers will recognize the campy television series of the early 80s.  Despite occurring in the year 2491, the series utilized disco music, shiny spandex body suits and even Gary Coleman.  Despite the shows flaws, Buck Rogers and the 25th Century did have some interesting production design.  Not the least of which was the Thunderfighter.

The main starfighter of the Earth Defense Directorate, the Thunderfighter was a two-seat fighter capable of faster-than-light travel thanks to star gates.  For special missions, a four-seat variant was available with two-abreast seating in a widened cockpit.

Thunderfighters relied on a sophisticated combat for combat maneuvers.  Unfortunately for its pilots, these computers were rather predictable in their tactics.  Combat losses were high until Rogers suggested pilots relied less on the combat computer and flew more "by the seat of their pants".

Battlestar Galactica's Viper
The dirty secret behind Buck Roger's Thunderfighter is that it was originally a design study for Battlestar Galactica's Viper.  Both were designed by legendary concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, a man who is name is attached to an embarrassing amount of science fiction franchises.

The Viper itself is an iconic design.  A blunt-nosed fuselage with three engines places in a pyramidal shape, each affixed with a stabilizer fin.  A simple shape that can be easily doodled, yet enough interesting details to make it seem real.  While the design has gone through some changes over the year.  It has maintained its basic shape.  During preproduction of the 2000's reboot series, the decision was made early on to dramatically change just about everything...  Except the Viper.

Depending on the series, the Viper was armed with either "laser torpedoes" (original series) or mass driver cannons (reboot).  They were capable of operating in a planetary atmosphere, but worked their best when deployed out of the pinnacle of Colonial warships, the Battlestar.

In the rebooted series, more computer systems in state-of-the-art Mk7 models were easily hacked by enemy Cylon forces.  In a desperate attempt to mitigate this, older Mk2s were brought out of mothballs.  These more "analog" fighters gave Colonial forces a fighting chance.  Surviving Mk7s were later corrected of their vulnerability.



As great as all these starfighter designs are, they all pale in comparison to the legendary status of the true winner.  So what does that leave as the Best Fighter in the Galaxy?

As if you didn't already know...  Tune in tomorrow.