Archive for the ‘naval’ Category

This NYT story is nonsense. Various rightwing barkies have taken the opportunity of the French armed forces’ deliciously 007-esque mission to rescue the sailing yacht Le Ponant to tout the following story around the media: the Royal Navy has been ordered not to detain pirates under any circumstances, for fear that they might something or other, because of the Human Rights Act. The details are opportunely left open; the usual formation of the story makes only two testable claims, one of which is that landing a captured pirate in Somalia would likely be illegal because the local authorities might cut their head off, and the other being that the pirate might claim political asylum aboard ship.

What the story does not actually say is why this would stop anyone from detaining pirates, or for that matter why the same doesn’t go for the French. After all, as a State party to the European Convention on Human Rights, France has the same legal obligations. Now, the first claim is obviously true in the sense that yes, Virginia, Somalia is a nasty failed state run by a mix of more-or-less Islamist warlords and Ethiopian army officers. Handing someone over to this lot for trial might well be illegal. But has nobody else noticed that it would also be intensely, profoundly stupid?

Who on earth would want to return captured pirates to the state, or rather un-state, that permitted them to operate openly from their territory? Even if the Somali authority they were returned to actually wanted to try them, you’ve got to assume there’s a significant chance of them getting away. In fact, the French mission gives us all the information we need; the pirates collected the ransom, went ashore, and seem to have planned just to drive off with it, which doesn’t inspire confidence in local law enforcement.

Further, there is no legal reason whatsoever to give pirates captured off Somalia to the Somali police. Pirates have a special status in international law they share with slavers, torturers and those responsible for genocide; they are hostes humanae generis, enemies of all humanity, which in practice means that any state that can catch them has effective jurisdiction in the case. Once the pirates are caught, there is absolutely no reason not to take them to a proper court back in London, or wherever. That given, why should we need to even think about handing them over to a jurisdiction where they might escape, be tortured, or be put to death?

The second testable claim is that a captured pirate might claim political asylum. This is true. A longstanding principle of the law of the sea is that of exclusive flag state jurisdiction, which means that a warship of state A is for all intents and purposes part of A’s national territory. The principle holds in a weaker form for merchant vessels. Americans really ought to be conscious of this, because they fought a war against Britain in part over the principle.

Now, a story. When I took my MSc in 2003-2004, my International Law course was taught by Commander Steven Haines, who had just resigned from his post as a senior legal adviser to the Royal Navy, round about the same time Elizabeth Wilmshurst walked out of her similar post at the Foreign Office. In fact, I heard Wilmshurst’s name for the first time from him. He didn’t give his reasons, but do I need to draw you a fucking diagram? (He’s also the only person I know who ever had control of a nuclear weapon. Cool, eh? Pity he took so bloody long to mark essays.)

Haines took part in the 2000 intervention in Sierra Leone, where he was involved in the decision as to what to do with limb-choppin’ war criminal Foday Sankoh after his capture. The military were keen to fly him straight out to Illustrious, as he’s not known for being a great swimmer and would be very unlikely to escape; Haines opposed the idea on the grounds that he might claim political asylum, which would have been politically more than problematic. Instead he was confined at the airport and then in the Freetown police station with a guard reinforced with British troops, but later cheated the courts by dying before he could be brought to trial.

So the problem is not new, but it’s not like it helped Sankoh any. And there is no reason why some one can’t spend their political asylum in prison; it doesn’t confer immunity for one’s crimes, and piracy is a crime. (That is both bathetically and pathetically obvious, but there is an important point here which we’ll come back to.)

To recap: yes, it would be illegal to hand over a pirate to Somali warlords for trial. No, this does not constrain anyone in catching pirates, because anyone who can catch them can try them. And frankly, not handing prisoners to the Somali “government” is a feature, not a bug. Yes, you can claim asylum aboard a foreign warship; no, this is no deal-breaker.

So what did those thrillingly tough and macho Frenchmen do with their six captured buccaneers? They, after all, aren’t letting themselves have their national essence sapped by do-gooding lawyers and bickering parliamentarians’ quibbles, right? Up to the yard-arm? Walk the plank? Hand them to the fun-loving fellas from Ethiopian Military Intelligence? Er, no.

Six pirates sont transférés à bord de la frégate Jean Bart et ils seront remis à la justice pour être jugés en France.

So yes, the six pirates were brought aboard the Jean Bart and will be tried in France.

Far too many people who should know better have swallowed this transparent bollocks at face value, or indeed, at a considerable premium. For example: here’s Information Dissemination getting it wrong. Here’s Abu Muqawama getting it wrong. Here’s Abu Muq getting it wrong again after initial treatment. I don’t have the stomach to look into the fever swamp.

So why, do you think, is this story being pushed so hard? The ur-text is this Times article, which consists of pure assertion – there is no information in there implying the central claim, that the RN has been ordered not to detain pirates – and a quote from swivel-eyed Tory Julian Brazer MP apparently reacting to the Times reporter. Repeat it a few times, and voila; new facts.

But who, pray, is keen on demonising the very idea of law as a constraint on state action? Try this comment at AM:

Ultimately the very notion of law itself may be bought into disrepute. As it is already in the ranks of the American forces.

See? It’s those bastard lawyers who MADE us torture them. Indeed it was; just not the same ones. This kind of embrace of raison d’etat has something of the power of all the ideas of a liberation from freedom about it.

By the way: as well as the Reuters report, Liberation has photos and commentary from the guy who runs Secret Defense.

Update: I’d forgotten that the original Captain Kidd was commissioned by the Navy to hunt down other pirates. He was a countergang that went wrong. Now there’s a far better lesson for you.

Last week: Two-thirds of Israelis want talks with Hamas. Not just that, but former secret-service chiefs were in the press arguing for it. Here’s Efraim Halevy talking to old-school TYR ally Laura Rozen. And here’s the data: ;not only did 64 per cent of Israelis support direct talks, and a majority of Labour and Kadima voters, but a plurality of Likud voters did as well.

Now; first, an air raid in fabulous Khan Yunis that kills five people including a couple of Hamas leaders. The inevitable retaliation; rockets hit Ashkelon and its various network-industrial nodes (oil terminal, power station, etc). A truly impressive amount of linguistic escalation. And a bloody punishment expedition.

Talks, even with the PA, are off. And this is worrying, even though the source is low credibility with a capital S. The whole thing has a kind of Lebanese feel; a mixture of extreme violence with a very low commitment to its actual aims. Consider the US Navy surface-action group that is annoying the Lebanese government; it’s not by any means a credible threat of effective intervention, so what is it doing there? (There is only one US aircraft carrier away from home; and she’s in the Arabian Gulf, not the Med.)

It also has a nasty echo of the incident back in 2002 that led Alistair Crooke to be blown as the SIS station chief in Tel Aviv; you may recall that he had secured Hamas agreement to a truce when, after some days of calm, an Israeli air raid intended to kill a Hamas man destroyed a block of flats and some children. A major suicide bombing instantly followed; shortly after, Ma’ariv was leaked Crooke’s identity and likeness and he was forced to quit.

What’s interesting here is that the war doesn’t seem to matter to the respective leaderships any more; it’s a second-order issue. (Amusingly, I remember that back in tha day Laura was asking for advice on how to buy euro-denominated bonds just after Bush’s re-election; more recently, this post. Turns out she didn’t.)

OK, so they want to shoot down that satellite; depending on who you believe, because of its Evil Nasty Chems, to keep the Secret Spook Systems aboard from the general enemy, or just to do a live-fire exercise with SPACE ROCKETS!!! and impress the Chinese. Well, the first one is nonsense, the second is unimpressive (Germany, Italy, France, Canada and Japan all have synthetic-aperture radar satellites – how rare can this one be? After all, this one’s defining characteristic is that it doesn’t work)…so it looks like the third.

And to do it, they’re rolling out the giant floating radar, or the USS Karl Stromberg as I like to think of it. Well, they better hope the waves aren’t more than 8 feet on the day, as its seakeeping is so dire that it can’t be towed with a sea state worse than that. The AEGIS system should, I think, be able to cue itself for a target that looks something like a re-entering IRBM, but this is pressing the limit of my knowledge.

Looking it up on Heavens Above, the satellite’s track is over Graham Land in Antarctica, up across Africa from Angola to the Middle East (and interestingly, straight over Israel), then across the Asian continent for a good view of the ME, India, Siberia, China and Korea, over northern Japan and then sharply southwards down the Pacific; it’s quite a way from the Stromberg‘s beat off Alaska, especially as they have to intercept head-on rather than a stern chase (the rocket does 3 km/sec and the sat 7.8). I wonder what the weather’s like in the Western Pacific for the “first week of March”?

The track passes close to the Marshalls; presumably they’ll take the GFR to Kwajalein or somewhere like it, where they have various other huge dish antennas and spookydooky things.

I promised more serious content; here goes.

Right, everyone is vexed about the RUSI report (PDF download) that was recently published under the names of Gwyn Prins (a minor hero of this blog’s, for his The Heart of War: Power, Conflict, and Obligation in the 21st Century) and the Marquess of Salisbury (no less, who hasn’t written anything I’m aware of).

The media discourse about it has been almost entirely devoted to this paragraph:

The United Kingdom presents itself as a target, as a fragmenting, post-Christian society, increasingly divided about interpretations of its history, about its national aims, its values and in its political identity. That fragmentation is worsened by the firm self-image of those
elements within it who refuse to integrate. This is a problem worsened by the lack of leadership from the majority which in mis-placed deference to ‘multi-culturalism’ failed to lay down the line to immigrant communities, thus under-cutting those within them trying to fight extremism. The country’s lack of self- confidence is in stark contrast to the implacability of its Islamist terrorist enemy, within and without.

This appears to be standard boilerplate Toryism/Decent Left stuff; I rather doubt that Islamists particularly care about anyone’s view of the Whig interpretation of history. Depending on partisan allegiance, this has either been read as being a sinister right-wing menace from “ranting old colonels” as the Grauniad‘s Joseph Harker put it (you haven’t read Rupert Smith’s book, have you?) or else as a roaring affirmation of everything good and true, as the Daily Mail put it, with the slight curiosity that most of the stuff they attribute to it doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the document. There is for example no reference to being a “soft touch” in the text, only one use of the word “immigrant”, and no suggestion of further restrictions on immigration. I have the strong impression that most of the journos responding to it have not read the document.

On substance, this point is of course silly; the common factor about British Islamist terrorists, as far as I can make out, is that they are members of my generation and therefore products of Ken Baker’s tenure as Education Secretary. “Our Island Story”, not multiculturalism, if the word still has any meaning other than the Orwellian one of “something not desirable”; Thatcher, not Wilson or Blair. I assume that this was Old Sarum’s contribution, as is the factless pabulum about “long established constitutional arrangements of the Queen in Parliament” and coded Euroscepticism. It’s quite clear, however, where Prins cuts in; there is a typically Prins emphasis on the intersection between traditional, big war strategy and human security issues, for example the politics of climate change, the weakening of both the Anglo-American and NATO alliances, relations with Russia, and world naval construction.

Further, the actual policy proposals the paper contains are almost comically modest compared to its tone and its reception; they want to set up two new committees, one a mixed committee of ministers and officials based in the Cabinet Office and serviced by the CabSec, and the other a committee of both houses of parliament. The first would be a sort of national security council, and the second an independent oversight committee of it. This is not terribly controversial, or dare I say it, terribly new.

Meanwhile, Mick DSM Smith reports on some more capability gaps; as Teh Defence Crisis rolls on, the carrier project is sliding right again, and all the four remaining T-22 frigates are to be mothballed, plus one T-23. According to our sources, the T-42 destroyers are “falling apart” and morale aboard ship is at rock bottom; I really have no idea why the T-42s are protected from cuts, as they are the only class of warship we have that was tested in combat and found wanting.

Regarding the carriers, we’re now getting to a point where the capability-gapping that was meant to make up the costs is committing us to going ahead; with fewer T-45 ships, no T-22 Block 3 ships, and fewer T-23 ships, and no air defence on the existing carriers, losing the new carriers will render most of the new amphibious ships useless. If the Government really wants to deliver them, it needs to start steelworking at Babcocks in Rosyth. Recap; the ships are to be built in four “superblocks” at Rosyth, BAE’s yards on the Clyde, and Vospers in Portsmouth, and then assembled in the drydock in Rosyth, the only one big enough. Once the Rosyth block is in the drydock, nothing else is going to use the drydock until it is either scrapped in place or the completed ship is floated-out. Some preparatory work was announced last week at a cost of £34m, but they have still not taken the vital step of actually checking the welding torch out of the locker and cracking on.

So what about those submarine cables then? There has been a mass of blogfroth about this, but I’m quite surprised by the degree of mis- or possibly dis-information that is circulating. For a start, Iran is not without Internet connectivity, whatever this webpage says. It shouldn’t be this difficult; after all, the route to anywhere on the Internet is public information, because that’s how it works. If you’re familiar with Internet routing, you might want to skip the next paragraph…or three.

OK, so we all remember what the Internet is, right? A set of diverse interconnected computer networks, using various standard protocols to make it all work. The two we need to think about here are the Internet Protocol (IP) and the Border Gateway Protocol, BGP. IP specifies how Internet traffic is broken down into packets – discrete messages – and how these are routed between the networks. Routers receive packets and forward them to routers nearer their destination, usually preferring the shortest path. This routing is stateless – each packet is treated as if it was the first – and nondeterministic, so all the packets in one session of some higher-level protocol could theoretically take different routes to their goal. This is why the Internet is capable of routing around a cable break.

But where does the router get its information from? How does it know which of the routers it can see is nearest to an arbitrary destination? Well, it looks this information up in a list, called a routing table; but where does it get the list from? This is where you need BGP, and specifically External BGP or eBGP. Remember that the Internet is all about the relationship between autonomous but interconnected networks; BGP deals with how the router at the point of interconnection between two networks behaves. It announces to everyone it can hear which blocks of IP addresses are behind it, and they announce to it which blocks they have a route for. And this happens further down the track; a third network beyond the second will be informed that you are there.

The effect is to distribute around the Internet a complete routing table. It can and always does contain multiple routes to many networks; this is OK. Various rules exist for choosing one of multiple routes, and network engineers spend a lot of time tweaking them to get things *just right*. Three things are not OK – you must never announce someone else’s route unless they announce it to you, you must never announce an address that isn’t globally unique, and a route must never form a loop. Announcements, once made, can either be withdrawn, or they can expire after a pre-set period of time.

OK, techie readers can start reading again. With this in mind, you should know that any router that has a full routing table knows where everyone else is and who’s reachable; if someone loses all connectivity, the Internet will know at the latest when the announcement expires and they disappear. So, if you’re as smart as the people at Renesys, you know that Iran is not disconnected from the Internet because they’re still sending BGP announcements to the world. In fact, Iran wasn’t in the top 10 countries by lost networks. Neither did Stanford’s Confluence project notice anything.

But but but but! Wasn’t it the USS Jimmy Carter? The special submarine that can go down and fiddle with them? Eh? Eh?

Well, the Carter is a very special boat; but one thing she is not is a time machine, so there was no way she could have cut two cables off Alexandria and then another in the Strait of Hormuz in two days. Or perhaps she is? Powered by the Holly Hop Drive, like enough. Or…was it Al-Qa’ida? Or the Russians? Or the Chinese? Or the Canadian Menace?

Unlikely; think of the co-ordination implied by getting ships to the right places unnoticed. And it wouldn’t be enough just to randomly drop the hook – the chances of nailing all three seem pathetic without using divers. And here we are parting company with the realities of conspiracy. Further, various governments have or could get the capability to fiddle with cables, probably by chartering a cable ship; realistically, though, doing more than one at a time would have been tough as there are only a very few cable ships in the world. (Here’s FLAG’s estimated times to repair; note that they have to wait for one ship to finish another job.)

But but but but but! Isn’t it incredibly unlikely for something like this to happen? Well, it doesn’t happen every day, put it like that. It does happen every day on land, though; people are always putting pneumatic drills and diggers and stuff through telecoms equipment. Anyway, this is a logical fallacy; it’s like the smartarse who claims they carry a bomb every time they get on a plane, because the chance of there being two bombs is tiny. You can’t add up independent probabilities; damage to a cable off Alexandria doesn’t somehow protect cables elsewhere.

Further, when was the last time four major submarine cables were severed? Well, not much more than a year ago, after an earthquake in the Taiwan Strait; it took weeks to fix. So what is going on?

The short answer is Lord Fisher’s; five strategic keys lock up the world, Dover, Gibraltar, Suez, Singapore, and Cape Town. He was of course talking ships, but the same geography and economics work for cables; it’s actually easier to lay cable at sea (no land to buy; no backhoes; no interfering nosey parkers), so cables go there. Once you’re at sea, of course, the geography will tend to make you follow the shipping routes like it makes the ships follow them. And the markets are cities, which are very often ports – so you’ve got to go to the same places. All of which means that cables pile up in exactly the same places where the ships do, which also tend to be shallow.

Hence both FLAG and SEA-ME-WE3 and 4 follow the old imperial seaway down the Mediterranean, over the Suez isthmus, down the Red Sea, and across the Indian Ocean via Bombay, Colombo, the Malacca Strait (or across the isthmus at Penang for FLAG), into Singapore and Hong Kong. Neal Stephenson wrote wonderfully about the building of FLAG for Wired; all fifty-six pages of it are here, and his remarks on the British Empire, submarine cables, and the role of Kew Gardens as part of the infrastructure of national power are probably unimprovable. Everyone links to that one, though; not so many to Rudyard Kipling’s poem about telecoms infrastructure.

SAT3-WASC-SAFE takes the clipper route down the Atlantic, swings round the Cape, and ends up in Singapore as well. Literally dozens of cables run through the narrow seas around Western Europe; another mass of ’em leave the western UK and Brittany, and head through the South-Western Approaches on the great circle route to North America. Southern Cross takes the same route as the 1920s British Cable from Canada to New Zealand, in order to link Australia and New Zealand with, well, everyone else.

The Guardian atoned for writing a really awful article – they confused routers with DNS servers, and appeared ignorant of the existence of national roots or of the huge developments since the 1990s in DNS resilience (F-Root is actually 40-odd physical machines using anycasting, under which any one of them responds to requests for and the first to answer handles the query) – by paying the money to the good folks at Telegeography to use their fantastic cable maps. These are one of those things that usually I can enjoy because it’s my job and you can’t, but the Grauniad has made the map publically available: and here it is. Get the picture, as they say. If you still think this is Teh War With Iran, by the way, you might want to check out this map from TAE.

However, that map is like the Tube map; it links the landing stations, but doesn’t show exact routes, which are tightly held information. But this blog gives you more; here’s a chart (PDF) of the cables in the South-West Approaches prepared for fishermen, in a hopeless bid to keep them from dragging nets across the wires. You’ll notice that there are a hell of a lot, they cross each other frequently, and they often get broken and repaired. You’ll also notice that the realities of geography don’t change – the Soviet General Staff used to call them the permanently operating factors.

Update: A six-tonne anchor has been found at the scene of the crime.

Update Update: Earl Zmijewski at Renesys blogs further and more.

I’m going to start with a word of caution: this will be the most technical of our discussions so far.

You say that like it’s a bad thing. Seriously, the Renesys team rarely update their blog, but when they do every bit is choice. Read the whole thing. Me, I reckon the squid are building an internetwork down there and they’re doing an experiment on ours to find out how it works.

The naval incident in the Strait of Hormuz has rapidly been blogged into next week; I think there may still be some angular momentum to be had, though. It now looks like the USN is backing off from the claim that the voice taunting them on an open radio channel was someone aboard one of the Iranian boats; typically for the area, there were many other vessels of many nations around, and it could have been anyone.

I’m also mildly sceptical of how Iranian or how military they were; the craft on the photos released doesn’t look like anything belonging to a navy or any other kind of military organisation and doesn’t have any obvious armament. It’s just a pretty standard skipper’s skimming dish with three or so huge outboards. Further, the UAE and Omani coasts facing that way are notorious for smuggling, and the capabilities and skills needed for running contraband are identical with those for coastal-forces warfare. So much so that the US Navy Seals’ boats were designed by a boatbuilder whose major clients were cocaine smugglers, and the earlier Higgins boat had quite a lot in common with craft used during Prohibition to bring in booze. Certainly the “white objects” chucked in the sea sounds a lot like a group of smugglers spotting a big grey government-looking ship and deciding to ditch the cargo.

Jim Lobe apparently reckons this is part of a generalised push by the adults in the State Department and the Navy to get an agreement on the prevention of incidents at sea signed; it seems a complicated way to get at it, but then, this blog’s motto should be “It’s complicated.” On the other hand, it’s a safe sort of time to tweak the US Navy’s tail; carrier readiness is not unusually high, and the USAF’s F-15 maintenance crisis must be an extra drain on the Truman‘s air wing. However, if the Iranian government was keen to get the incident agreement signed, which might mean some implicit recognition of their claims in the Straits, this could have been just the ticket as a reminder.

There’s something highly amusing, too, about the debate around what kind of an accent that radio voice had; in the early 1980s, Sandy Woodward took part in an exercise between the 5th Fleet and the UK Armilla patrol. The British group consisted of the County class destroyer Antrim, three T12 frigates and a fleet tanker; hardly formidable, especially as only Antrim had any surface-to-surface missiles. The US had the carrier Coral Sea and her task force; Woodward’s solution was to manoeuvre randomly until the formal kick-off, then have everyone move in under radio and radar silence, trying to blend into the merchant traffic. Eventually Antrim was challenged, at which point they replied posing as an Indian liner by dint of imitating Peter Sellars; this worked and they approached to within 20 miles, in range to simulate an Exocet launch. (Conspiracy theory: it was the British.)

XV230 Update

An extra titbit on Nimrod: XV230 was the airframe that had refuelled from a TriStar the most. In second place was XV235; and on the 5th November, this aircraft experienced a fuel leak from one of those 38-year old rubber seals. In other news, apparently the decision to stop Nimrods air-to-air refuelling had little effect; it referred to “operational” AAR, but all AAR except for training is by definition operational. This means that the restriction is entirely discretionary.

Especially, as last week, when the entire force is following the Admiral Kuznetsov group around.

You just don’t know what they’re going to do, do you? First of all they sneak up on Illustrious with one of our old subs!… but then you learn the true horror. How much more of our vital infrastructure is rigged to explode with the McNaughton Pipe? Fortunately, as will be made clear if you read that last link, we have the technology. After all, their underhand ways are not new.

Rob Farley has reviewed a book I’ve just been rereading, Marc Levinson’s The Box. It’s a history of containerisation and how it had a massive impact on the economy – Levinson argues that port and cargo handling costs were so great pre-containers that containerisation itself was enough to bring about a huge reorganisation of world trade. I think he makes a strong case, although it’s hard to judge as (as he points out) historical data on shipping costs is surprisingly troublesome.

What interests me, though, is the when. When Sea-Land’s first container ship, SS Ideal-X, sailed from Newark, New Jersey, for Houston in 1956, containers weren’t new. There had been a trade association promoting them for twenty years, issuing possibly the dullest periodical in the history of journalism (Containers). It had been formed by a consortium of European railways. In the late 20s, the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway had a fleet of three thousand boxes in use.

Postwar, other shipping lines and railways were at it too. There was no particular technical change that either required, or made possible, inter-modal container shipping. Levinson offers a lot of the credit to Malcolm McLean, the founder of Sea-Land, for envisaging it as a whole system. (So does everyone else – when he died, container ships around the world sounded their sirens to mark the moment.) But it’s also very interesting that, well, Sea-Land and later US Lines went bust. The world’s biggest container line is AP Möller-Maersk, owners of M/V Emma Maersk, which missed the boat on containers and didn’t own a single box or ship until 1973. First mover advantage? Don’t make me laugh.

The only people who did indeed experience an advantage from moving first were ports, rather than shipping lines. Because the relative location of the port and the final customer was less important, the ships tended to go where the cargo was, and where the cranes were. Hence, unless you got started and began handling boxes, the ships would go elsewhere; and there wouldn’t be the cash to build a container terminal later to win them back. No scope to wait and see. The shipping lines, though, were considerably more able to adapt. This remains a serious problem for most of Africa – without a reasonable promise of a load, nobody will build a terminal, and if you do, they won’t call. And without good shipping, there is unlikely to be much to ship..

Containers have been likened to packets in telecommunications. Certainly, containerisation has similarities with IP networking; the point of IP is that you only need to agree that you are going to exchange data in a particular way in order to internetwork. If you agree that you’re going to handle boxes of sizes 10/20/30/40″ by 8″ by 8″ with ISO standard twist locks, it doesn’t matter how they are transported or by what route, as long as they are. (This doesn’t mean, however, that standardising them was easy. Pas du tout.) Equally, it makes no sense to charge differential rates according to the contents of a container, and it didn’t take off until the shipping lines stopped trying to do this and just charged per box.

The Net Neutrality analogy is pretty obvious. Like the US telcos, they also fought bitterly about it, and lost out to those carriers who didn’t pry in the boxes.

McLean is also an interesting character. A classic example of those canny, obnoxious people from obscure bits of America who the mid-century boom and the great compression unleashed – like Richard Feynman, John Paul Vann, Steve Cropper, and more according to taste – he started off in trucking, and considered Ro-Ro shipping as a way of gaming the regulations, before realising it would be better to ship just the box body of the truck, not the chassis. Having made it with Sea-Land and a variety of distinctly funny financing, he decided to buy a huge swath of the North Carolina backwoods where he grew up and create a vast agricultural development, including a monster, super-industrialised pig farm and a scheme to strip the peat and process it to methanol.

Fortunately for all, he ran into a new trend on its way up – environmentalism, which forced him to leave the peat unstripped. Not long after that, US Lines went bankrupt after betting the company on one of McLean’s big ideas for a second time. The first time, in the late 60s, Sea-Land had ordered a new class of unprecedentedly huge container ships, the SL-7s. These were built to make 33 knots on passage, positively blistering speed for a freighter (not bad for a modern destroyer, in fact), and to provide a round-the-world service that would provide a daily sailing from each major port.

Naturally, making a giant container ship do 33 knots takes a shitload of bunker fuel, and the ships were ready just in time for the ’73 oil shock. Whoops. He was back, though, with another class of even bigger slow ships intended to save fuel – but he was still obsessed with the idea of a round-the-world service. Its failure brought US Lines low, and tripped him into a depression he only left by starting yet a third shipping line at the age of 72. It’s interesting that, having launched a brilliant piece of evolutionary technology, he was always unable to get away from the technocratic vision of an endless belt of ships circling the planet.

There is still, still not going to be a war with Iran. Carrierwatch: Carl Vinson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington are all in deep refit. Enterprise and Harry S. Truman are still at the stage of doing CARQUALs, in the Big E’s case for reserve squadrons, Ronald Reagan arrived back in San Diego on the 20th April, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was due in Norfolk on the 23rd of May.

John Stennis and Nimitz are currently on station in the Gulf of Oman, the latter ship having just steamed back from Somali waters. Kitty Hawk is due out of Yokosuka for her summer cruise soon, but is tied to the North Pacific by her commitments there. Stennis sailed on the 16th of January, so is due to turn for home on the 16th of June, Nimitz being on station until September.

However much cruft is retailed to the press, literally no reserve exists in the fleet. (It’s also worth remembering that the Charles de Gaulle returns toFrance soon.)

Every blogger and their cat has opined on the brace of sooper sensational stories in the Grauniad by Simon Tisdall. The first rehearsed the usual Dr Evil theories about Iranian super spies controlling the war in Iraq, as usual without any facts. Tisdall’s source pointed to the supposed Revolutionary Guardsmen arrested in Kurdistan – you would have thought that if there was any evidence, they wouldn’t need to keep trotting that one out, but the paper wasn’t in the mood to engage in source criticism, instead devoting much space to a variety of cool infographix – woo! a silhouette of a Bradley armoured fighting vehicle!

The second claimed that the US was considering doing a mea culpa and trying to turn to the UN, again factlessly. My two cents are as follows – obviously the first is empty, looking at the carrier plot. The second, unlikely as it may sound, might contain a grain of truth. It was recently reported that the Baker-Hamilton plan was being reoffdusted, after all.

This post, and this one, not to mention this one, recommend themselves.

Update: The Iran-Syria Operations Group, it turns out, has been disbanded.