Friday, November 30, 2012

Offensively Sweaty Gweilo IV: Packin' Heat

Greetings, dear readers. It's time once again for another installment in the occasional series of answers to your burning questions for Hong Kong's most overheated resident.

It's after Thanksgiving, kids, and you know what that means: Holiday lights are up, and the temperatures are down. I wasn't quite sure what to expect on either front--Mrs. Blog and I got here in late January, so the arrival of winter is a new thing for us. But I can safely say that things are definitely gettin' festive up in here, and in a development that seemed unimaginable in August, I am now wearing a coat to work. It is waterproof.

Q: Dear Offensively Sweaty Gweilo,
I see that you're now wearing a waterproof coat to work. Way to stay behind the curve! I have been wearing a fleece for several weeks now. You probably already have hypothermia.

A: Yep, I noticed that. But to be fair, you also carry an umbrella on sunny days. The thing is, though, it's still not cold--not really. Not like it was in Chicago. I could easily walk to work in shirtsleeves and not be particularly uncomfortable (assuming it's not raining. I'll get to that in a sec.). At night it has gotten just chilly enough, like in the 50s, to warrant a jacket. Plus, this particular jacket, which Mrs. Blog bought me in Beirut, is awesome, and I'm not ashamed to admit I'm glad I have an excuse to wear it.

Q: But OSG,
 it's raining so much! Aren't you afraid you'll ruin your coat? It is awesome, as you pointed out.

A: Aha! But my coat is waterproof. This also means I am somewhat protected if I'm caught without an umbrella... and that means I can leave my umbrella at home more often. Everyone wins, especially the people I accidentally poke with it on the subway.

In your home country, does it get gray and rainy just as you're putting up holiday lights?

A: Depends on where you are, really. In Chicago, my most recent city of residence in the United States of Awesome, it tended to be a little cloudier during the winter. But mostly it just got cold. The cold of deep space. The cold of a Antarctic grave. The cold of a political strtegist's heart. Often, the sun would be shining on what appeared to be a beautiful day, but when you went outside, your tears would freeze. Anyway, the point is, is that there were lots of beautiful decorations, but it would often be more comfortable to view them from inside.

Q: Hey, OSG,
What are you doing to get into the holiday spirit? Besides listening to all the Christmas music playing in our grocery stores over... and over... and over.

A: Well, we're getting a tree! That's a big step--it's our first actual Christmas tree since we moved overseas. So exciting that I'm not even really concerned about cleaning up all the pine needles afterward. We're also enjoying all the holiday lights that have sprung up in the last month or so. My office building, the festively named K. Wah Centre, is festooned with an almost-complete holiday message in 20-foot-tall letters made of colored lights. It currently reads "Erry XM," but I'm sure they'll get it finished by the time XM rolls around.
In the meantime, Hong Kong, a city with an impressive skyline already, is becoming full of displays like this:

Megawatts' worth of peace on earth.

And our apartment is getting full of visitors. That's the kind of thing that warms a heart, no matter how kind-of cold and perpetually rainy things get outside.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A tale of two centuries

I should probably stop harping on this, but I can't help myself.

This week, the Internet was all atwitter about China's flying a jet off of (and onto) its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. I have written in some depth about why the carrier itself is not a huge advancement or a threat. I also have tweeted a bit about why the flight ops are also not worth freaking out about.

But a defensetech post this morning really illustrates the differences between China's naval airpower and more established navies'.

China operated a jet off an aircraft carrier, which Britain did for the first time in 1945 (the Chinese jet's lead designer, by the way, died of a heart attack during the testing. True story.) Yesterday, the U.S. hoisted a totally new type of aircraft onto one of its carriers for sea trials.

It literally is the difference between 20th Century and 21st Century airpower. China is learning to walk; the U.S. Navy is learning to Gangnam Style while wearing roller skates.

I firmly believe that trade between China and the rest of the world--including the U.S.--precludes any war (if not dance battle) in the near future. China isn't exactly hurting for resources either. But if push came to shove, the Chinese military has a huge advantage in manpower, but not much else... no matter what the Internet tells you.*

*Except for this blog. Always believe what I tell you. One of us... one of us... one of us....

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Crash, burn and... sell?

I have spent quite a few electrons here discussing China's foray into stealth aircraft technology. Although the Shenyang J-31 and Chengdu J-20 look pretty neat, they face a lot of "under-the-hood" technology issues, including basic stuff like engines, before they are ready for prime time... let alone poised to compete with the F-22s and F-35s of the world. (Even the 35-year-old F-117 design is more combat-ready.)

Well, in the last week, apparently the People's Liberation Army Air Force has reached a similar conclusion. The J-31, it has decided, is not worth buying. The China Aviation Industry Corporation, or AVIC, is marketing this shiny, new aircraft for export.

Stealth fighter for sale! Get your stealth fighter here!

This has several implications.

First, China doesn't have the same arms-export laws that the U.S. does, which limit what types of technology can be made available for sale. Of course, the government ultimately has to approve such sales, but there is nothing automatically keeping Shenyang or AVIC from selling the J-31 to a country like Iran. The Iranians, with a dismal track record of indigenous front-line aircraft production, would love to buy a squadron of these (if their economy weren't collapsing). For that matter, any number of Persian Gulf countries would love to get their hands on this type of technology... and Lockheed isn't going to sell them any F-35s.

Second, it implies a degree of go-get-'em that you don't usually see from Chinese arms makers. There is still a lot of old-school production inertia, by which I mean a Cold War Soviet-style process in which the government decides what it is looking for and orders its design bureaus to come up with it. Shenyang, by contrast, appears to have stone cold designed a plane without a PLAAF mandate. And now it needs to recoup the money it spent on research and development.

And third, of course, it underscores the limitations I outlined earlier in Chinese production of high-tech aircraft. And to be fair, AVIC seems to realize this:
“Operational effectiveness will be higher than current or upgraded fourth-generation fighters or almost equivalent to typical fifth-generation,” says Avic. The reference to fifth-generation aircraft presumably indicates the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35.

Not to keep flogging a deceased equine, but it's easy to build an airframe that looks nice. These days, it's even relatively easy to build and program computerized flight controllers (necessary to make the inherently unstable facets of a stealthy plane stable enough to fly). But making an effective warplane--that has the hardware to accelerate, climb, find targets and destroy them in a high-threat environment without being tracked--is much, much tougher.

So tough, in fact, that the J-31's foreign buyers might find themselves with little more than the equivalent of a winged white elephant with racing stripes... and a high-profile dud will have Shenyang crying all the way to the state-owned bank.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The medicinal properties of passing years

In our travels--and especially during our time in the Middle East--Mrs. Blog and I have visited a lot of places with painful histories. Lebanon is a great example of this: although there is obviously a fair amount of tension beneath the surface, and violence occasionally spills over from Syria, it is a peaceful and calm place today compared with 30 or even 10 years ago. Beirut is a beautiful place filled with amazing art, friendly people, ancient sites and delicious food. But everywhere you go, you can see the scars of war. Sometimes it's figurative, in the form of monuments or signs. Other times it's literal: the bullet-pocked shell of the Holiday Inn still squats among luxury high-rise developments on high-priced waterfront real estate.

A building with a troubled past.

But in the formerly troubled countries we visited, America was never one of the major belligerents in the conflicts that had scarred them (although U.S. troops were obviously in Lebanon in 1982, Israel played the role of invader/occupier in that one). That changed with our recent, brief visit to northern Vietnam.

I'll keep this short and sweet: Hanoi is a friendly place. I didn't run into any lingering dislike of Americans, which, depending on how cynical you are, may or may not be surprising considering how many thousands of tons of bombs the United States dropped on and around Hanoi. This is possibly because in the end, the United States threw up its hands and left the country after realizing that getting involved in someone else's civil war was not worth American blood and treasure. If you're North Vietnam in 1974, that's victory. And it's easy to forgive when you're the winner. Maybe things would have been different if the Paris peace accords had held up, or a more Korea-like situation arisen through other means.

I can't say that I totally understand the complex psychology behind present-day attitudes. But I am glad the country seems to be at peace with its past. In any event, this picture sums up the result:

Photo courtesy iPhone of the Blog.

Those, by the way, are tourist boats cruising under a unified Vietnamese flag through a bay that empties into the Gulf of Tonkin.

So maybe there's no animosity because despite all the atrocities and bloodshed, things ended up right where both sides wanted them. In 1975, Ho Chi Minh was able to spread his banner of communism over the entire country. And the U.S. leadership of that era would no doubt have been thrilled to know that in 30 years, Vietnam would be home to a nominally capitalist economy (and the Soviet Union, the "head domino," would no longer exist).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

That wasn't so bad

The 2012 U.S. presidential election is FINALLY over, and Barack Obama won in a relative snoozefest. No big surprises, unless you count the repudiation of all the anti-intellectual (and, really, counterfactual) backlash that sprung up against election data analysts like Nate Silver.

And then there's Florida. Oh, Florida, how you yearn to be at the center of electoral controversy. In my very first wet-behind-the-ears job out of college, I was an editor at the St. Petersburg Times. The year was 2000. The election was... complicated. Let's just say spending months trying to reframe the issue of "no one has any idea what is going on in Florida" in a story every day was taxing.

This year, of course, the sun is about to come up in Miami the day after the election and no one has figured which candidate carried the state. That came after days' worth of complaints about inaccessible polling sites and ridiculous lines for early voting. That's right, even when the election's outcome is not in doubt, Florida insists on being in the spotlight. What, LeBron James and Disney World aren't enough attention? Sheesh.

But like I said, aside from that this seemed to be a relatively painless deal. The same cannot be said, however, for what remains the best way of interpreting modern politics: the violent video game.

Let's do it again in 2016!

Friday, November 2, 2012

There's something in the air

Hello, Dear Readers of the Blog--A quick post today about the news on China's J-31, allegedly its latest attempt at building a stealth aircraft.

On Wednesday, according to unnamed "reports" cited in the reputable defense blog, the J-31 took to the air for the first time. This in itself is not a huge deal; flight testing is, quite obviously, a part of getting an aircraft operational. However, I just wanted to note that the engines, seen here…

Which Instagram filter did they use?

… once again do not appear to make any attempt at having stealthy nozzles. This graphically illustrates a problem Reuters summed up nicely in a feature a couple of days ago: China may have the raw materials and know-how (even if it was, ahem, "borrowed" from other countries' projects) to build an airframe with no problems, but high-performance engine technology remains out of reach. That is a big issue for a country with high-tech military ambitions:
"Historically, all major players in aerospace have possessed both airframe and engine design capabilities," said Carlo Kopp, the Melbourne, Australia-based founder of Air Power Australia, an independent military aviation think tank. "Until China can design and produce competitive engines, the performance and capabilities of Chinese aircraft designs will be seriously limited by what technology they are permitted to import."
Anyway, the bottom line is that the J-31 is in the air, but like its older brother the J-20, it does not appear to even remotely be on par with current-generation stealth technology, or even as stealthy as the grandaddy of stealth aircraft, the F-117 (whose design originated in the '70s). It may have flown on Halloween, but for now it's still missing some key tricks, although it's a treat for plane-spotters.*

*Terrible pun. Sorry.