Monday, April 22, 2013

The USS Ponce and Other Ponces.

This is what is on my mind :

The USS Ponce, an Amphibious Transport Dock, is the first ship in the United States Navy to be offically fitted with  a Laser Gun.

In Australian slang a 'ponce' is a title generally given to a person enamoured with false pretentions, that is, a 'poser' or a 'dickhead'. These people are often ridiculed and are considered as a source of entertainment. Their efforts to substantiate the implausible and impossible are often foolhardy and have the potential to inflict damage on innocent bystanders.

US Pentagon officials claim that the new high technology system offers a weapon at a fraction of the cost of traditional arsenal - "such as cruise missiles and rapid fire Gatling guns." (Los Angeles Times). They believe that a shot of directed energy costs under $US1. The Chief of Naval Research, Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder said in a statement. "Compare that that to the hundred of thousands of dollars it costs to fire a missile, and you can begin to see the merits of this capability."

The USS Ponce was launched in 1970 and in 2012 it was awaiting decommissioning and being sold as scrap in consideration of her age and an accumulation of rust. However, a contract was let for a rush retrofit of the ship and her re-deployment.

I am amused (raflol - in textspeak) that the Pentagon would even dare mention Gatling guns as though they were recently superseded technology. The Gatling gun did not see action until 1874 when it was finally embraced by the US military after its predecessor, the Coffee Mill (invented in 1861) was declared to be "...of no practical value." by the  ScientificAmerican in 1863. Gatling never got rich from government orders during the Civil War, but his gun did later achieve 'iconic status'.

Wikipedia states that the "USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15), an Austin-class amphibious transport dock, is the only ship of the United States Navy that is named for Ponce in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which in turn was named after the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico and European discoverer of Florida."

There are reasons why this re-fitted ship and its new weapon are on my mind. It is a puzzle to me as to why the inventors of weapons of mass destructrion contend that the more destructive the weapons of war, the fewer are its casualties. Their reasoning appears to be that anyone facing the use of these weapons will be inclined to either run away or send fewer combatants to face annihilation, or that the force using the weapon will deploy fewer personel due to the increased destructive power of this weapon. There are also some people on my mind who exemplify the stupidity of this reasoning and each is either ignorant, brilliant or insane.

They are Richard Gatling and Alfred Nobel and they follow in the footsteps of Juan Ponce de Leon and have set the scene for the beliefs of Rear Admiral Klunder.

In 1513 Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the mainland that he called Florida, in recognition of his day of discovery, Easter Sunday (Pascua Florida) and took possession in the name of the Spanish king. As provincial governor, Ponce de León had occasion to meet with the Taínos who visited his province from neighboring Puerto Rico. They told him stories of a fertile land with much gold to be found in the many rivers. Inspired by the possibility of riches, Ponce de León requested and received permission from Ovando to explore the island. As provincial governor, Ponce de León had occasion to meet with the Taínos who visited his province from neighboring Puerto Rico. They told him stories of a fertile land with much gold to be found in the many rivers. Inspired by the possibility of riches, Ponce de León requested and received permission from Ovando to explore the island. (

He returned to Spain and later, in 1521, he returned to conquer and colonize his land, but the fierceness of the natives prevented his success. He was wounded in the encounter and died in Cuba the same year.

Juan Ponce de Leon was one of the many fools appointed by the Spanish crown to search for the elusive city of Eldorado as well as the mythical Fountain of Youth. He was one of the many Spanish and English adventurers sent to the new Americas with the blessings of their countries to discover and monopolise the apparent wealth of the native indians. However, nobody of European descent could understand the tales of the natives and misinterpreted their folklore. In fact, the legend of the city of gold was merely based on native tales of a "man of gold" from beyond the mountains.
(* there is a very good book about this subject, The Golden Man - the quest for El Dorado by Victor W.von Hagen).

There are many fools populating our history, some of whom were convinced they were discovering, inventing and introducing technologies and beliefs that were benefitting mankind. There are two other brilliant people who had they been alive today, would recognize the devastating value of their brilliance.

Alfred Nobel was deeply disturbed that an obituary writer had confused the Nobels in reporting that his brother, Robert, had died and that the article was titled  "The Merchant of Death is Dead". Alfred was the inventor of a product which he proudly named "Nobel's Safety Blasting Powder" and named it 'dynamite', derived from the Greek dynamikos, 'power'. He had found a way to stabilise nitroglycerine, making it safe to transport and store. The inventor of nitroglcerine (which was highly unstable), Ascanio Sobrero, wrote that when he thought "...of all the victims killed...and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked...I am almost ashamed to be its inventor." He fervently believed that his invention was of benefit to mankind in that it would be of use for "the abolition or reduction of standing armies". Alfred left in his will, $9 million for the establishment of a foundation in his name, the Nobel Prize.

Richard Jordan Gatling was another inventor of whom we can all be proud of for finding a way to reduce our numbers. He was the American inventor of the first successful machine gun. He may well have been Alfred Nobel's psychic twin, for he also believed that his invention would shorten wars and reduce the number of casualties. He claimed that his weapon would "supersede the necessity of large armies and consequently exposure to battle and disease." But at least Richard must have possessed a sense of humour - he also invented a Flushing Toilet. Gatling also experimented with guns that were powered by electricity or gas but reasoned that it was difficult to carry a power source onto a battlefield.

One other person who was brilliantly mad and did realise the implications of his interference was Albert Einstein. Earnest Rutherford had speculated that the fission (splitting) of the uranium atom would release energy, but would also release more neutrons. The subsequent chain reaction would continue splitting neutrons and deliver an unbelievable amount of power.Of the atom being split he said: " Could a proper detonator be found it was just conceivable that a wave of atomic disintergration might be started through matter, which would make the old world vanish in smoke". Enrico Fermi later assembled a team of ambitious physicists and bombarded various elements with neutrons to see if the atoms would disintegrate. Fermi later won a Nobel Prize for Physics.   The "Manhattan Project", a massive research effort introduced by President Roosevelt with the director of the laboratory, Robert Oppenheimer, was largely the result of a letter sent to FDR by Einstein warning that German physicists had split the atom and were trying to develop a bomb unlike the world had seen before.

And so now, in 2013 we are living with the legacy left to us by brilliant madmen and fools. Some like Ponce de Leon sought to please their king, some like Nobel, found a way to make a dangerous product more available, some like Gatling were either hopelessly naive or wickedly hypocritical. These genius fools spread their immoral ideas through the channels of moral enterprise.They profess to bring improved technology to benefit men of war but they insidiously encourage the use of tools that offer all men more efficient  ways to kill.

The US Navy say their "consevative" data tells of the cheap cost of  a shot of "directed energy". What their data may not tell them is the real cost of delivering that energy. Are they again faced with the dilemma facing Gatling in being able to deliver the power effectively to the battle zone? Apparently, the installed laser's power can be "scaled" down to provide a "non-lethal"  alternative to ward off threats such as pirates, smugglers and terrorists. The laser does, however, have its drawbacks, testing has revealed it is disrupted by bad weather: Rain and clouds can scatter the beam, as can smoke, sand and dust.

The USS Ponce and its laser will be deployed in 2014. This follows the successful mounting and firing in 2011, when the laser set fire to an empty motorboat bobbing in the Pacific Ocean. However, generally the development of laser technology has been plagued by setbacks. Testing has revealed it is disrupted by bad weather: Rain and clouds can scatter the beam, as can smoke, sand and dust. It is not reassuring that the ship is an old rustbucket and has been saved from being scrapped and hastilty refitted. That the Pentagon did not risk the investment on a better ship should be a warning of their faltering belief in the success of the project. It seems that it is only an amphibious ponce with a laser gun, a floating platform for a new age Gatling gun.

At least now we know we may soon be safer from attack by those terrible 'terrorists' and other hostile seafaring mongrels. As long as a reliable power source can be found and the weather is perfect we will again have another machine of war. Leave it to Uncle Sam and the media to sensationalise the threat of war and our loss of freedom. We live in a virtual state of fear in the new age of paranoia, confusion and technology. When the weather is clear and their are no obstacles in the line of fire, and there is an experienced operator, and there is a reliable power source, and the ray is set at the right intensity, and the number of operating technicians is minimal, and the hardware damage isoptimum, and the casualties are maximum, and the cost is negligable - only then will the Pentagon have the perfect weapon of mass destruction.

And finally, there are two quotations that seem to reflect my opinion:

"The appearance of the machine-gun had not so much disciplined the act of killing - which was what the seventeenth-century drill had done - as mechanized or industrialized it." - John Keegan, The Face of Battle (1976).

"War always reaches the depths of horror because of idiots who perpetuate terror from generation to generation under the pretext of venegance." - Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier (1971).

Fare thee well me hearties, damn the torpedos and full speed ahead.