Friday, April 1, 2011

The M2 Browning .50 cal: A ghost gun from another era.

   Go ahead and name some piece of machinery originally designed and made in the 1920s that is still in use in pretty much its original form today. You'd be hard pressed to find anything as ubiquitous as the M2 Browning machine gun. The .50 cal or 'Ma Deuce' is like some dinosaur walking amongst us today, like the gator that chewed your leg off when you innocently went swimming in your Floridian urban sprawl condo pool that happened to extend into the Everglades; a hazard your sleazy real estate agent allowed to get lost in the fine print when you signed the lease.  Sure, you miss your leg but you find yourself respecting the ancient intelligence that chewed it off.

   The M2 Browning is a little like that.

   Its design is just so damn perfect that nobody has dared mess with it much and even today many of the newer modifications would be compatible with the original 1920s model. In today's shitty dystopian sci fi novel that we're all living in, it seems everything from washing machines to automobiles get manufactured with a built in fail date so you'll have to buy a whole new one from 'MegaCorp' in a few years; and toss the old one in the ocean somewhere where it'll kill five dolphins. Not so the .50 cal. Of course, this was a time before the Bladerunner corporations that make everything today owned the government. There was a time once when a government design contract meant the best possible design and was not the best possible way to spread corporation cash to the most Congressional Districts to get re elected.

   The designer himself, John Browning, was a pretty fun gun nut.

   He was born into it. His father, a Mormon pioneer and gun designer himself, was part of the mass exodus that followed Brigham Young from Illinois to Utah in 1847 in search of an American Jesus. Or something.  I love how religious folk like Browning are always drawn to weaponry. I just have a little trouble finding the part in scripture where Jesus liked to break out his peacemaker when things got sketchy. Sure, firepower is always handy but Jesus was not the type of guy with a backup plan in case the peace and love message didn't work out for him. It's pretty funny how his followers today tend to eschew that philosophy in favor of something with a little more stopping power.

   And the M2 Browning sure has a lot of stopping power.

   If you get clipped by a .50 cal round it's pretty much a death sentence. The hole in you is large and bleeding out from artery leakage is a bitch. And that's if you're 'lucky' enough to just get whacked in a limb. Anything in the torso gives you a few seconds to remember how Mom made Christmas fun by lying to you about the existence of Santa Claus and the origin of the presents under the Christmas Tree. Then it all just goes the way of nothingness. Browning himself, of course, would beg to differ and say a nine inch hole in your chest is just a flesh wound in comparison to the paradise to come.

   The young Browning designed his first gun in his father's workshop in Ogden, Utah when he was just thirteen years old. That certainly casts today's teenagers as a bunch of underachievers. But then again, that's what lack of  instant access to Lady Gaga's ass on YouTube once did to you; makes a horny teenager channel all that masturbatory energy into something productive like guns.

   Browning's first design was a single shot rifle which the Winchester company soon bought the rights to and, before long, the young Browning was fully employed by Winchester and producing a slew of single shot rifle designs; probably the most famous being the Winchester .30-30 that you've seen in just about every cowboy movie ever made.  Interestingly, Browning himself was responsible for WWI. Well, not really. But he did design the FN Model 1910 automatic pistol that offed Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that sparked the whole clusterfuck. Not Browning's fault, but still a mishap you are going to have to explain to Jesus at the pearly gates.

  But Browning's greatest legacy is probably the M2 .50 cal. Still a mainstay not just in the US military but in the militaries of over a hundred other countries, the reliable old .50 cal is still increasing the body count in multiple war zones today. The original design order was placed by venerable old war dog John J. Pershing when he was faced with the task of whipping up a US army to chuck onto the Western Front in 1917 to prove to the Euros that splendid isolation wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Pershing needed something heavy that could shoot down aircraft (those Fokkers were still bothersome in 1917) and a gun that could punch through the thin armor of the Kaiser's armored cars.

   Browning set about the task.

   The original M2 started out water cooled with a heavy water jacket, like the British Maxim gun that was proving so effective in the trench stalemate. It wasn't until after the war ended though and in the early 1920s that Browning's gun started to mature into something serious. The water jacket was obviously cumbersome and wasn't much use if you wanted to mount the gun in aircraft wings; aircraft being seen in the 1920s as the new 'stalemate busters' in any future war. That's why the Versailles Treaty allowed the defeated Germans no aircraft and how their glider program got started; ironically educating the likes of Kurt Tank and Willy Messerschmitt in the fundamentals of flight. Isn't it funny how the best laid plans of mice and men tend to backfire? Those early glider guys went on to design the Me 109 and the FW 190.

Browning's .50 cal with water jacket and top hat.

   With about 140,000 machine guns lying around and gathering dust after the Great War, the US felt no immediate need for new gun development. But then, as time went on, all these guns started becoming obsolete, Vickers, Lewis, Marlin... but not good old Browning's M19171A. It still had merits and just needed an upgrade for the 1930s. One of these was standardization. The brass were onto something when they issued a requirement for a heavy machine gun that could be used in a universal role across all branches of the services. A heavier barrel was introduced, designated the M2HB, that increased heat dissipation but sucked for infantry teams that had to carry the thing. But infantry fire teams were never where the .50cal's destiny lay. Its true home was as the standard gun on almost every tank, APC and WWII era fighter that the brass could spread it to. Unlike today, cost used to be a factor in the American military budget. And with the M2HB mounted on every vehicle and in every aircraft wing possible, saving taxpayer money was something that once made sense to law makers unguilty of taking 'Tyrell Corporation' cash.

Lego likes the .50 cal. You see the smile on that guys face?

   The M2HB (heavy barrel) is the variant we all know and love today. Today, it's mounted atop the M1 Abrams and standard on Humvees in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's pretty much confirmation of the success and ubiquity of a hundred year old design. It comes in very handy when you've got a bunch of 'insurgents' holed up in some structure but isn't worth an HE round from your main barrel. Thanks to Pershing and that heavy .50 cal round design order, you just spray the structure, knowing that rounds eat concrete like cookie monster and anyone inside who gets clipped loses his ability to run like fuck.

   But what good is a major gun like the .50 cal today without a personal interest piece?

   In today's bullshit media environment the only way to present something that the plebs will find interesting is to wrap it up in some story that makes sense to today's "gas your vehicle, work like fuck and watch the History Channel" for ancient aliens to know how better off they are than anyone in human history because they have TV and Internet and didn't get their ass conscripted into a war.

   So I present to you, American badass and volunteer, himself a ghost from another era, Audie Murphy.

   Sure he became a 'star' and banked some cash after his exploits in WWII but he was always the reluctant star and spent the first bundle he made on a home for his extended family. Always modest and the uneasy hero (as any true bona fide hero must be), he's always struck me as the ideal American military archetype. He harks back to a time in American history when you could admire a guy for his courage and stands in contrast to today when the media manufactures heroes by sheer control of the airwaves; like that dim blond Jessica Lynch that got 'rescued' from an Iraqi hospital in 2003 by Special Forces even though the Iraqi doctor that treated her was begging for her to get heloed out of there days before the media-industrial-complex decided they could latch onto the event and feed the plebs a feel good story.

   Murphy earned his Medal of Honor on a .50 cal in 1945.

Audie Murphy. A true American badass even before the media decided he was a 'hero'.

   I'm not going to try to bullshit my way through his actions. I'll just let his MOH citation speak for itself.

   "Second Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire, which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad that was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued his single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way back to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack, which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy's indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy's objective."

    In reality, the guy suffered from PTSD for the rest of his life. And this was a time when psychological casualties of war didn't exist officially. He did it from the exposed position of the mounted .50 cal on Sherman tanks at the time that made you sniper fodder. That's badass.

   Just like Browning's century old gun.

   It makes me wonder what humans will be firing at each other 100 years from now.

   Einstein's sticks and stones or George Lucas laser guns? 


Monday, March 21, 2011

Libya: The cavalry arrives!

   So NATO finally weighed up all the options and decided to act. After the Saudi "Day of Rage" fizzled, the point was made that the West would not intervene in Arab civil wars or support any rebels in the Saudi oil prize vassal state. They even stood by and offered no condemnation when the Saudi's steamrolled armor into Bahrain and started slapping the Shia around for daring to suggest that the 60% 'minority' Shia in that country should have a say in government. With the point made that the West won't always help rebels, it was time this weekend to swoop in on Libya and save those rebels making a last stand in Benghazi.

   Intervening in a civil war is serious business. That's why NATO only does it on a selective basis; like in Libya but not Bahrain; like in Kosovo but not South Ossetia. I feel sorry for all those citizens in places like Bahrain, Darfur, Burma, Congo and Rwanda who must be kicking themselves right now that their shitty piece of global geography contains no oil. With the Libyan rebels making a last stand against Gadaffi's forces in the eastern city of Benghazi,  the cavalry arrived just in time to rescue the garrison like John Wayne in some 50s Western. With a UN resolution to protect "civilian life" safely in hand, it was time to launch operation "Odyssey Dawn", a typical NATO moniker dreamed up by some pencil pushing general in the Pentagon. It does seem to suggest though that the West is embarking on a journey here and is unsure of the outcome. Seems about right. NATO are being purposefully vague about the objectives and even stated on Sunday that Gaddafi himself was not the target of British missiles when they levelled his compound in Tripoli. It's pretty funny when they resort to obvious bullshit like that but more interesting when you consider the wider Middle East context. This operation is supposed to look like part of the wider Sunni narrative of Arab uprisings against dictatorial regimes and is absolutely not a Western enforced regime change.

   So how did these attacks go down?

   Late Saturday evening the French flew some sorties out of Istres air base outside Marseilles and dangled some Mirages and Rafales over Gaddafi's arty and heavy armor sieging Benghazi. This was supposed to scare his army shitless but that never works in war. You need explosions and bodies to make a point and the French proved that in spades by coming back later that night in force and ripping Gaddafi's forces a new asshole. Where the US and Britain focused their attacks mainly against airbases and Gaddafi's compound mostly with standoff sub and cruiser launched Tomahawks (British Tornados, US F-15s, F-16s and B2s were also employed), the French seem to have gone straight for the jugular by going after Gaddafi's heavy armor and arty directly with their air force. That was pretty impressive for the French. I always get the feeling that the frogs are perpetually trying to overcome that 'surrender monkey' rap they got after WWII. We can safely presume Sarkozy will be running for re election.

   They caught Libyan armor napping in a field about ten miles outside Benghazi. Sitting ducks for the French, Gaddafi lost all his heavy armor sieging the city with a lot of the crews dying in their sleeping bags near their tanks without a mark on their bodies. Those pressure waves have a nasty effect of turning your insides to jelly while you sleep. Of course, this kind of rape doesn't come without its reasons and not all of them are about the French proving they have decent sized balls. A 2009 wikileaks cable revealed that Gadaffi was attempting to renegotiate the terms of French oil company Total's deal and give Libya a greater share of crude oil production. Ain't payback a bitch? Also, the Euros are pretty freaked out right now about the possibility of hundreds of thousands of hungry Libyan refugees winding up on their shores if Gadaffi gets to take his revenge on Benghazi. That might have been the final straw that set this NATO operation in motion.

   Still, it seems like Gadaffi's scorched earth threat to blow the Libyan oilfields might be back on.

Death by pressure wave is 'clean'. There are even pockets left to pick.

Big ass explosions are fun... from a safe distance. Thankfully, civilians don't drive cars in Libya.

   In fact, going by the sheer destruction and rapid turnaround in Gadaffi's fortunes, these initial strikes  could be seen by many as a little 'excessive'. Not only were Gadaffi's heavy weapons around Benghazi destroyed but also those retreating to Tripoli  have been subject to a free for all turkey shoot on the main highway. So much so that the Russians, Chinese and Arab League are starting to grumble about the US led coalition with Putin complaining that NATO overstepped the  'mandate to protect civilians' and was engaging in the' indiscriminate use of force'. Typical geopolitical stuff from the Russians who get pissed when the West pulls shit like this with the longterm view of oil price stability.

   Of course, that doesn't mean that they're wrong either. It's just means that no one has clean hands. The Russians are probably just pissed that $4 billion in arms contracts with Gadaffi went up in smoke, $2 billion of which were still pending when NATO swooped in and cancelled the contract with Tomahawks. Shit like that tends to make Putin suddenly care about civilian casualties. Let's face it, we're living in a dystopian future sci-fi novel where every nation state is dirty.

   That said, there's been pretty much a media blackout on the civilian casualties of these air strikes. As usual, the West is killing people in poorer countries to save their lives. US Navy vice-admiral Bill Gortney gave a press conference at the Pentagon on Sunday and showed a bunch of reporters a series of slides of the attacks and insisted there were no civilian casualties. Not even on the main highway to Tripoli. None of those cars contained civilians of any kind. You've gotta love that kind of bullshit.  Your population will only swallow it when it doesn't give a shit and that's a safe bet right now in Western countries where people are getting jittery about the price of oil.

The main Libyan East West highway is not ideal terrain for retreating armor.
     Gadaffi himself is understandably lying low.

    No more TV interviews for him. Now his bullshit comes only in audio format recorded over the phone. That's to aid him in his ongoing mission to dodge a Tomahawk. He has declared a ceasefire with the rebels (to try to buy some time) and threatened to open his arsenals to the civilian population to aid in the defence of the Libyan nation. It's unclear how many people would take him up on the offer of a free AK after he bombed them. He's still got a very healthy bank account though and even without air superiority and much diminished armor, his forces will still present a significant force. Gaddafi has vowed to fight a "long war" and it's still hard to see how a bunch of guys in pick up trucks with no training can defeat Gaddafi's professional infantry. NATO has been quick to point out that it won't be landing ground forces so it will up these 'rebels' to take the fight to Gaddafi.

   That's going to be an interesting fight. Urban warfare is tricky. And it can never be won by air power alone. If Gaddafi can avoid dying it's hard to see the rebels pulling this off in the absence of a proper command and control structure. Gaddafi's prediction of a "long war" doesn't seem too wide of the mark. He now has the West engaged in a third 'imperialist' war which is going to play in his favor on the streets of the wider Arab world. No matter what, if Gadaffi can stay alive, he is at least putting himself in position to make a deal with the West should things go south for him militarily; like a beachfront condo somewhere sunny and him getting to keep the billions in his offshore bank accounts.

   The coalition too will suffer from command structure problems. Who exactly is in charge of this op? Sure, it's the US right now but they are eager to wash their hands of the whole thing as soon as possible lest it disrupt other interests in the Middle East. For one thing, they don't want the Muslim Brotherhood in nextdoor Egypt getting elected on US imperialist populism fueled by refugees and ugly reports coming out of Libya. The nightmare here for the US and part of Gadaffi's "long war" strategy is the US losing control of Suez, central to US strategic planning in the Gulf. Defense Secretary Gates wants to hand over control of the mission later this week to someone but he doesn't know who yet. War by global commitee is a special type of clusterfuck and can get nasty if conflicting generals start slapping each other around in the press when things don't go the way they're supposed to. Odyssey Dawn indeed.

   Ideally for the West this ends with Gaddafi dead and a new compliant Libyan government installed which will go along with a new set of oil deals written by Western oil companies. Either way, this ends up pretty shitty for Libya. The thing is, although Gaddafi is an asshole, he has taken Libya a long way since the 1970s. The country has had the highest living standards in Africa. Various subsidized or free services in health, education, housing, and basic foodstuffs have ensured basic necessities for most people. In fact, quite a lot of Libyans were pretty satisfied with their lot and is why, a few weeks back when this 'war' began, Gadaffi was quick to portray the rebels as a bunch of 'drug addicts' and malcontents. Of course, he jumped the shark when he used his air force to bomb his own people and indiscriminately shelled his own cities. That likely lost him a lot of home grown support he might otherwise have had and caused mass desertions in his military. A lot of guys came back after he started winning and it'll be interesting to see if they stay now that he is 'losing' again.

   Right now, he'll likely portray this as a typical Western oil grab in another Arab country and try to churn out brutal urban infantry battles for as long as he can and play to a wider narrative. That narrative is that the West only gets involved in shooting wars in the Arab world when there is oil at stake. 

   And he won't be totally wrong.