Looking Back . . .

This website was launched on May 22, 1995, when the World Wide Web was in the midst of an accelerated adolescence.  The site's original purpose was to make a centralized repository of hard-to-find information on specific military-related subjects available to researchers on the Internet. At first, its focus was the organization and aircraft of U.S. carrier-based aviation, based largely on research files that I had been diligently maintaining since my youth. Over the next few months I extended the website's scope to cover other research topics, most notably Russian naval developments in the post-Soviet era and the 1991 Gulf War air campaign. For most of the last six years, the delivery of information in these three main subject areas has remained the fundamental raison d'etre of this website.

Two important changes have since taken place.  First, the web is a much larger place than it was six years ago. There are many more sources of information online today than there were in 1995, a fact that has diluted much of the value of the original site content. As an example: the centerpiece of the original Vulture's Row was a squadron-level accounting of deployed carrier air wings, which in 1995 was (for someone with no direct service or industry connections) something that had to be painstakingly assembled by means of a great deal of open source research. Today, the same information is available at the casual researcher's fingertips through at least a half-dozen websites, including official U.S. Navy information channels. The Naval Historical Center's section on naval aviation has become so complete in recent years that much, if not all, of the current content offering on Vulture's Row is now superfluous. This general situation applies in varying degrees to most of the website in its current form.

The second major change took place in my own personal circumstances. In 1995, I was an undergraduate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, specializing in international relations and security studies, with something of a minor regional focus on Russia and the former Soviet Union. There was therefore a great deal of natural subject-matter overlap between my "occupation" at the time and the research and maintenance of this website. Indeed, I think that much of the original value of the State of the Russian Navy stemmed from the fact that I had (a) regular and continuous access to U.C. Berkeley's academic research stacks, including its collection of FBIS daily translations of Eastern European open media reports; and (b) both the time and an academic reason to undertake the laborious process of sifting through these and other open sources in hopes of finding rare gems of relevant information.

For better or for worse, six years later I find myself in a somewhat different position. The demands of my current professional life jealously lay claim to the majority of my waking hours, and while my occupation remains fundamentally analytical in character, it does not ordinarily involve work with sources directly relevant to the subject matter of this website. The unhappy reality is that I no longer routinely have time in the quantities necessary to consistently work with the open sources, build the analytical picture, and engage others in the collaborative exchange of information that was the underpinning of the site as I originally envisioned it.

. . . Looking Forward

In light of these changes, the site needs to be reoriented if it is to continue to serve a useful purpose. First, I have two observations, both of which relate to what I am convinced that I (and this site) should not attempt to do.  

  • Any kind of "current reporting" orientation is no longer tenable. In 1995, there might have been some hope of delivering value to the research community by clipping relevant news items on a weekly basis; on specialized subjects, you took what you could get at the time. Today, there are a great many alternative sources of raw current information, most of which are far superior to the collection product that I would reasonably be able to offer today. Rather than attempt to duplicate, poorly, the efforts of those that are much better positioned to collect and report open source intelligence in raw or lightly-processed form, this site simply needs to abandon all pretensions to the current reporting business.
  • The technical character of "hardware" is best covered by specialized alternative sources. There was a time when public technical specifications for specific pieces of military hardware were difficult to come by. This was particularly true before 1991, but continued to be true after the sudden and unexpected increase in the number and diversity of known Soviet/Russian weapons systems after the breakup of the USSR, when confusion reigned. Ten years after the event, this is no longer the case. Floods of organized public data on once-exotic systems like the S-300/SA-10 surface-to-air missile complex can now be found with a single query using a general purpose web search engine. Amateur aircraft spotters worldwide have made their collections accessible to all, making photographs (and even individual aircraft serials) available to anyone who cares to look. Large collaborative order-of-battle and TO&E projects have shed much light into the structure of military organizations worldwide. Within the natural limitations of what open sources can reasonably be expected to provide, the tangible material implements of conventional military power are closely watched and well-covered by existing sources. Again, this site would bring little to the table by attempting to duplicate those efforts.

A few years ago, when many of the really valuable information sources were a step or two removed from a lot of potential consumers, there was a real need for intermediaries to perform the aggregation and reporting function. Today, in a web now populated with primary sources and professional or near-professional collectors and aggregators, I am no longer equipped to usefully serve as one. Let me be clear: this is really no tragedy. From the perspective of an open-source researcher concerned with high-quality data, my obsolescence is a very good thing. But this cause for celebration does leave behind a website designed and built around a requirement that has since evaporated.

With all of this in mind, I intend to shift the primary focus of this website away from fact collection and toward the preparation of processed material at an "intermediate" level of analysis. To elaborate: imagine an analytical spectrum that measures the total amount of filtering and analysis required to prepare a particular information product, beginning with simple collection of raw unprocessed data at the "low" end, and ending with the preparation of highly-contextualized "politico-econo-socio-military" analytical product at the "high" end. In more concrete terms, the "low end" is represented by factual answers to specific questions such as "what is the diameter of the bow torpedo tubes in a submarine of class X?" The "high end" is represented by general analytical conclusions, estimates, and educated guesses derived from many raw facts placed in context, which seek to answer very broad questions such as "to what extent is the defense industrial base of country X (including submarine design and production) being realigned toward the export market?" There are plenty of existing resources serving both ends of the spectrum, with the low end largely covered by the general media and specialized news sources, and the high end largely covered in the public arena by foreign and defense policy journals. But the area that I am targeting lies between the extremes, at an altitude sufficient to discern important trends in the critical intangibles (which can be nearly invisible if one is too narrowly focused on the hard details), but well below the dizzying heights of strategic policy.  This broad middle ground is characterized by a free-ranging level of inquiry, and embraces the sort of educated speculation about specialized topics that inspired amateurs like myself have always found engaging.

What This All Means . . .

Anyway, so goes the overtheorized conceptual explanation of what is about to happen to this site.  Coming back down to more practical terms, I am reorganizing this site into several primary research directions called "programs," a term that I have intentionally selected for its breadth and flexibility.  As I use the term here, a "program" describes a cluster of related open source research activity, which may include the maintenance of any combination of knowledge resources such as articles, databases, FAQs, current development notes, and annotated catalogs of links.  The reorganization will be a gradual process, and it will proceed on a section-by-section basis.  Needless to say, there is a great deal of work to do.

I have drawn up some preliminary design plans for the overhaul of the site, although I do expect those plans to change as things progress.  Some things that are currently in the design specification:

Updates to Existing Content

  • State of the Russian Navy (Maritime Programs).  Update and expand Russian naval ship name index to include additional information on individual unit status. In light of continued stagnation in major shipbuilding programs, shift general focus to small combatants, discrete weapons systems, and the naval export market.  Develop materials on naval organizational, industrial, and (to the extent available) doctrinal/tactical developments in the decade following the collapse of the USSR.  Update and expand dedicated links library.
  • Vulture's Row (Maritime Programs).  Update all content to 2001, with particular attention to organizational tables.  Track changes in the posture of U.S. carrier aviation over the last ten years: a typical CVW today looks quite different from a typical CVW at the end of the Gulf War.  Begin focused commentary on future plans and programs for naval aviation.  Possible long-term objective: expand coverage of Vulture’s Row to include non-carrier naval aviation.
  • Gulf War Air Campaign Tables (Airpower Programs). Ten years after the conclusion of the war, new information about the details and prosecution of the air campaign has been emerging.  These historical tables were largely based on the handful of sources available immediately after the end of the Gulf War; they badly need to be revised and updated.

New Content

  • Post-Desert Storm Air Operations (Airpower Programs).  As news reports sporadically remind us, U.S. combat air forces routinely have been engaged shooting incidents around the world almost continuously through the 1990s.  These uses of force have ranged from isolated small-scale strikes against point targets (e.g., raids against SAM radars interfering with the enforcement of the Iraqi NFZ) to major multinational sustained air campaigns (e.g., Operation ALLIED FORCE in Kosovo/Serbia).  This program will attempt to tabulate the shooting incidents that have occurred between the end of the Gulf War in March 1991 and the present.  I currently have a dataset that is more or less complete through August 1999.
  • Information Warfare (Horizon Programs).  The concept of “information warfare” has been kicking around in mainstream thought for perhaps half a decade, and in the thinktank community for much longer than that.  The boundaries of the subject have always been somewhat unmanageable; discussions of “information warfare” encompass everything from the technical and faintly mundane (computer and network security) to the visionary and faintly fantastic (RMAs, strategic infrastructural warfare, and the configuration of armed forces in the year 2025).  At the moment, I am primarily interested in how evolving information technologies create new threats, vulnerabilities, and capabilities that are converting the “problem” of national security from what was predominantly a public-sector issue into something in which the private sector has a tremendous direct role.  This program is designed to focus on that aspect of the information warfare dialogue.
  • "Punch Stack."  Like all researchers, I collect information like a packrat.  While I have taken some tentative first steps toward the promise of a completely electronic library, I still find it quite convenient to work with a lot of material in print form.  In order to lend some semblance of order to this flood of paper, I have taken to organizing these materials into serial looseleaf binders, roughly organized by subject.  I keep newly collected, unsorted materials on a shelf next to a three-hole punch, where they await processing.  The "Punch Stack” is the electronic analog of that stack of papers; items that I have flagged as “interesting” but which I haven’t yet had a chance to analyze and fully integrate into individual programs.  This is as close to a “news” section as I’m likely to manage, a grab bag of subject-matter relevant items that I think will be of interest to the readership.  Because the analysis required is very light, I expect this to be the most frequently updated of the new sections.

As I mentioned before, this process is going to require a great deal of work, and by necessity will be a gradual one.  Nevertheless, I am committed to making it happen.  My primary motivation is a selfish one: this will allow me to maintain some degree of currency in the subjects for which I have held a deep-seated intellectual passion during all of my adult life.  But I do hope that there are others out there, both “professionals” and “inspired amateurs” alike, who have found and will continue to find this site interesting, and perhaps useful.  I’d like to thank all of you who have written over the years, whether to provide or request information, exchange thoughts, or simply to provide a few words of encouragement.  I look forward to interacting with many of you in the years to come.


Robin John Lee
August 11, 2001
Mountain View, California

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