Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I May Have Misjudged You

It is the American way to bend over backward in the peaceful direction.  We continually accept provocations, insults, humiliations, and even acts of war without significant response.  We naively assume that if we humble ourselves then our enemies will respond in a peaceful and reasonable manner.  Most Americans see nothing wrong with that approach, even as we recognize that it rarely works.  We’re comfortable with it because we know that while others may push us around, there’s a point beyond which we won’t submit.  We will strike back, and violently, if pushed far enough.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world misinterprets our actions as a lack of resolve.  For example, the Japanese badly misread US resolve prior to WWII and paid the price.  Iraq’s Hussein and Libya’s Gaddaffi (or whatever spelling you care to use) misread US resolve and paid the price.  And so on… 

The tragic aspect of this is that enemies, emboldened by a misread of our resolve, initiate actions which we ultimately have to counter with force.  If our resolve were clearer, fewer forceful actions would be required.  In other words, a small show of force early can prevent a much larger use of force later.  We had many opportunities to prevent the original Gulf War by responding emphatically and forcefully to numerous provocations.  The follow up invasion of Iraq would not have been necessary if we had acted more decisively in concluding the original conflict.  I can go on and on with examples but this is not a history lesson beyond establishing the premise.

Currently, N. Korea, China, and Russia are misreading our actions and are setting the stage for future conflicts.  This is not a political blog so I won’t go any further with this.  Instead, I’ll tie this premise back to the Navy.

The Navy, in its search for missions and justifications for the LCS, has latched onto the “presence” mission.  For example, the Navy plans to operate several LCS’s in the Pacific region.  ComNavOps has already made clear his opinion of that and this is the underlying reason.  The LCS is incapable of providing a forceful response.  Flooding the Pacific with LCS’s sends the (incorrect) message that the US lacks the will to forcefully confront N. Korea and China.  China is building modern, highly capable warships at an accelerating pace.  The US is countering with the LCS (and soon, the LCS 2.0).  China is not reading that as resolve – it’s reading that as weakness. 

The Navy claims that deterrence (see, "Deterrence and Bluff") is a vital mission but is failing to provide the force necessary to establish that deterrence.  Building the LCS is not accomplishing the presence/deterrence mission and the follow-on LCS is not going to either.  The Navy needs to get back to building credible warships if it wants to deter future conflicts.  To do otherwise is simply setting the stage for a future war.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

F-22 Lessons

As we attempt to understand the JSF (F-35) program and assess the F-35’s role in Navy and Marine operations, it is instructive to look at its closest relative, the F-22 Raptor program and, specifically, the operations and maintenance aspects.  A GAO report (1) offers some insight with the following parameters.

  • The F-22 has an availability standard, defined as the percentage of the fleet available to perform assigned missions at any given time, of 70.6%.  For 2011, the F-22 fleet achieved an availability of 55.5%.

  • The F-22 has a maintenance goal, the mean time between maintenance (MTBM), of 3 hours between maintenance events, excluding routine servicing and inspections.  This was a contract performance requirement but has never been met.  The MTBM as of 2011 was 2.47 hours.

  • The F-22 operational and support costs were estimated in 2005 to be $23,282 per flight hour.  However, updated projected costs for 2015 are estimated to be $49,549 per flight hour.

What do we learn from this?

  • First, and most importantly, modern aircraft are complex machines that are difficult to build, operate, and maintain. 

  • Promised capabilities will only partially be met (depending on whether you consider unconscious pilots to be a drawback, the F-22 fleet may not even be flightworthy!). 

  • Maintenance will be far more challenging, time consuming, and expensive than anticipated. 

  • Aircraft will not be mission ready at anywhere near anticipated or desired levels.

How does this relate to the F-35?

The promised capabilities of the F-35 will only partially be met.  We’ve already seen several performance specifications scaled back (G-limits, acceleration, etc.) or simply not met.  Some capabilities have already been deferred to future blocks or indefinitely deferred.  Some capabilities have been unachievable, thus far, with no sure guarantee that they are even technically achievable (the helmet issue, for example).  Some capabilities depend on the capabilities of other platforms that are having their own problems (the F-22’s communications link with the F-35 has been deleted from the F-22 modernization program – not sure exactly what that means since I don’t follow Air Force matters closely – maybe someone can explain that issue?).

F-22 - Predicting the F-35's Future?

F-35 maintenance will be every bit as challenging as the F-22’s maintenance.  In fact, the F-35 maintenance will be more challenging.  Think about it.  The F-22 is maintained on large, well equipped bases with a large pool of technicians and civilian experts to draw on and large stockpiles of spare parts, spare engines, stealth materials, and diagnostic instruments with maintenance performed under scrupulously clean conditions.  In contrast, the F-35 will be maintained in grimy, salty carrier hangars or Marine bases with much smaller supplies of spare parts and a limited pool of technicians.  For instance, the Navy has noted that none of the resupply (UNREP) ships has the capability to transfer the F-35 spare engines to a carrier and only one carrier, the Ford, has the capability to receive and handle the spare engines even if the resupply vessels could provide the engines.  Stealth maintenance has proven to be a severe challenge for the F-22 and will prove every bit as challenging, if not more so, for the F-35.

There is no reason to expect that F-35 availability will be any better than the F-22.  Even the F-22’s goal of 70% is a very low level of availability.  The Navy’s (and Marine’s) inherent lack of maintenance, parts, and manning will only exacerbate the problem.  The F-35 will be fortunate to achieve 50% availability.

How does all of this help us assess the F-35’s role in fleet and Marine operations?

For one thing, it tells us that the fantasy of stationing a few F-35’s here and there on austere or disbursed bases is just that, a fantasy.  Without access to high tech, well stocked bases with large pools of highly skilled maintenance techs backed by civilian experts, the F-35 availability is going to plummet.  Throw in actual combat conditions (deferred maintenance, combat damage, insufficient spare parts, challenging conditions, etc.) and availability is going to be in the 30% range.  The F-22 is only 50% now so it’s not much of a reach to make that prediction.  Further, the availability, whatever it may start as, will only decrease over time in a combat situation as damage, shortages, and cumulative wear take their toll.  Austere or disbursed basing is a fantasy after the first couple of sorties.  If you think otherwise then you’ll have to explain what miracle is going to elevate the F-35 maintenance and availability over the Air Force’s pampered F-22 levels under wartime conditions as just described.  This is just a common sense exercise.  Layer on the logistical difficulties of supplying multiple tiny bases under wartime conditions when we’ll have enough trouble supplying our major bases (you may have noticed that we don’t have much of a merchant marine fleet anymore) and the whole austere/disbursed basing concept becomes unworkable.

This takes us directly to the Marine’s vision of their future.  The Corps appears to be betting heavily on becoming an expeditionary air force.  Unfortunately, the preceding argues against that unless the Marines want to co-habit Air Force bases (as was done during Desert Storm) in which case one has to ask why we need a Marine air force.  The Marine Corps’ self-vision is truly baffling. 

Now, what about the Navy’s plans for the F-35?  Setting aside questions about the suitability of the F-35 for the Navy mission, the Navy is looking at an aircraft that is going to be largely a hangar queen due to the difficulties of providing the demanding level of maintenance that such an aircraft requires.  Again, to think otherwise requires a belief in miracles that the Air Force has thus far been unable to perform.  To be fair to the Navy, they do seem to be less than totally enthused about their acquisition of the F-35.  They won’t have much choice but to accept the aircraft although they seem to be doing everything they can to delay and, ultimately, reduce the required buy.

You’ll note that this is not F-35 bashing.  Instead, I’m looking at the nearest actual data point, the F-22, and making reasonable extrapolations.  It’s not bashing;  it’s a realistic assessment.  That the assessment is less than favorable is just the way it is.  Kill the program, not the messenger!


(1) Government Accountability Office, “Tactical Aircraft F-22A Modernization Program Faces Cost, Technical, and Sustainment Risks”, GAO-12-447, May 2012

Friday, April 11, 2014

The First Island Chain

The current issue of Proceedings has an article (1) which discusses the value of a “wall” strategy applied to the so-called First Island Chain (FIC) surrounding China.  The author contends that the FIC not only serves as the current limits of the perceived Chinese A2/AD zone that US strategists are worrying over but also as a good base for a defensible wall sealing China within the East and South China Seas, unable to break out into the Pacific.  He describes different types of wall strategies from purely defensive to a combination offensive/defensive wall behind which the US can launch offensive moves.

The author describes the defensive attributes of the FIC at length and declares that a properly equipped chain of defensive island nodes will be impenetrable.  Take a moment and reread the previous sentence.  For you students of history (and if you’re reading this blog you should be a student of history!), does this ring a bell? 

A string of fixed fortifications?  Unbreakable.  Impregnable. 

Maginot Line?

This is a post, not a book so I won’t explain the Maginot Line and its implications.  If you don’t recognize the reference, take a break, do some research, and come back when you’re done.

The success rate of defensive lines of this type is pretty spotty.  In fact, the US theory of maneuver warfare is, in large measure, a response to defensive lines and a recognition that defensive lines are easily overcome.  The defender is tied to a geographic location and gives up all initiative.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of geographic features that enhance one’s military capabilities as long as those capabilities are, ultimately, geared towards offense.  Defense doesn’t win wars – offense does.  A defensive mindset is a defeatist mindset.  That said, the FIC offers chokepoints, shallower areas for ASW, opportunities to deploy SOSUS-like sensors, and so on that can be used to provide local defense during the course of an offensive campaign.

The author suggests that the FIC offers the ability to maintain a somewhat minimized defensive line behind which the US can maneuver and surge towards breakthrough attempts.  Of course, this surge response concept neglects the speed of modern attacks.  For example, ballistic missile attacks are difficult to surge in response to.  By the time the attack is recognized it’s nearly over. 

In any event, the concept of breakthrough attempts brings us to the next problem with the FIC defensive wall concept:  why does China want to break out into the Pacific, anyway?  What’s out there that the Chinese care about?  Do they want to seize Pearl Harbor?  Land on Guam?  Attack California?

I just don’t see any target beyond the FIC that has China’s interest, at the moment, at least in the context of seizure of land.  That’s not to say that once they’ve seized and consolidated their hold on Taiwan they won’t set their sights further afield but that’s a conflict or two down the road, at least.  I do, however, see the Chinese sending submarines to mine US harbors and attack merchant shipping off our shores.  Such attacks would cause problems all out of proportion to the actual damage done.  Using the FIC chokepoints to prevent that type of attack is exactly the type of advantageous use the FIC could be put to – a defensive effort in support of an overall offensive campaign, as previously stated.

There’s one final problem with the concept of using the FIC as a defensive wall and that is the fact that the US doesn’t actually own any of the FIC and, therefore, has no rights to establish bases.  Whether the owning countries would agree to allow such basing in the event of a war with China is a highly doubtful proposition.  Would we invade and seize the territory of neutral or non-cooperative countries in the event of conflict?

In summary, the FIC can be useful as a barrier to Chinese submarine activity against US harbors and shipping but would be difficult on a variety of levels to  fortify for the entire length and establishes the wrong mindset strategically.  Further, for China’s most likely initial move, the seizure of Taiwan (and you can bet they’re re-evaluating their options in response to our passive reaction towards Russia’s seizure of Crimea and probably the entire Ukraine), the resulting action would occur well outside the useful range of much of the FIC – a point driven home by the RAND report that we previously discussed.


(1) U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “Defend the First Island Chain”, James Holmes, p. 32, April 2014

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What's In A Name?

The recent issue of Proceedings has an article (1) suggesting the need for a name change for AirSea Battle (ASB).  The author feels that the name, specifically the word “Battle”, is too provocative.

The article cites the origination of AirSea Battle from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA) as the root of the problem – the problem, the author feels, being that AirSea Battle described a conflict with China, specifically the A2/AD aspects of that conflict, and that naming the enemy serves only to antagonize the enemy, China.  The author goes on to note that the Pentagon has developed their own version of ASB (Pentagon-ASB or PASB) subsequent to the CSBA’s version and that China is not even named in the document.  While the actual document is classified, the public version of PASB combined with the comments from CNO Greenert and other members of Navy leadership suggest a document that is focused on inter-service communications and some type of nebulous cross-service capabilities swap.  The article, for example, cites an example of a helo dropping a sonobuoy to alert a submarine to launch a Tomahawk missile.  Why a helo would be positioned atop a submarine but a Tomahawk armed Burke/Tico would not is not explained.  Other previously cited  examples include such gems as having an Army ground unit control a Standard missile launched from a ship (why would the Army have a better radar picture than the ship?) and a B-2 bomber launching air-to-air missiles (really?! – we’re going to risk a billion dollar bomber, of which we only have 20, playing air-to-air tag?!).  To be fair, a friend of ComNavOps has actually suggested several worthwhile examples of inter-service communications and compatibilities though none have been suggested by DoD or the Navy.

The point of this post is not to debate ASB but to note that the PASB version appears to be a watered down description of capabilities, mostly defensive in nature, and largely of quite dubious value, whose main focus seems to be avoidance of confrontation with China.  Actually, ComNavOps believes the PASB to be mainly an exercise in budget justification, but I digress.

The focus on not upsetting the enemy is what is known as appeasement.  The history, and failure, of appeasement policies is well documented so I won’t belabor the point any further.  The takeaway from this post is the observation that appeasement has become so ingrained in our armed forces that a Navy Commander saw fit to write a six page article – an article, you’ll note, that had to have been reviewed and approved by upper level Navy leadership - suggesting a name change for ASB so as not to upset China.  Wow!?!!

For those who may not see the obvious analogy, consider the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the resultant AirLand Battle (ALB).  ALB did not attempt to water down our military stance to avoid upsetting the Soviets.  Instead, ALB publicly made it plain to the Soviet Union that we had a plan for dealing with them and that they would pay a heavy price if they opted to initiate hostilities. 

This is dealing with Bullies 101.  You don’t appease a bully, you punch him in the nose.  Instead, we’re tiptoeing around He Who Must Not Be Named.  Sorry, my bad.  That was Voldemort from the Harry Potter series.  I meant to say The Country That Must Not Be Named. 

C’mon, Navy, have the courage to at least speak the enemy’s name out loud.  Once you achieve that prodigious feat of intestinal fortitude, then tell The Country That Must Not Be Named what you’ll do to him if he steps out of line.  Of course, if the consequence of misbehaving is facing the mighty LCS then maybe I do understand why we’re opting for appeasement.  We should also make clear the benefits of not stepping out of line but that’s for the diplomats, not the Navy.

By the way, here are the name changes the author suggests in the article:

Air-Sea Capability
Air-Sea Connectivity

What’s next, some weak, inoffensive slogan like “A Global Force for Good”?  Oh wait …


(1) U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “The First Rule of Air-Sea Battle”, Cmdr. David Forman, USN, p.26, April 2014

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Stealth and Mission Accomplishment

ComNavOps just finished reading a fairly detailed article on another blog that  debated the merits of the F-35 and the Advanced Super Hornet being proposed by Boeing.  One of the points that was made was that the F-35 was stealthier by some factor and, therefore, superior.  That got me to thinking …  Why is a given level of stealth better than another level?  Proponents of various platforms (and I’m talking about aircraft, now) argue vehemently about the levels of stealth that their favorite aircraft possesses, or does not.

Let’s take a momentary side trip to dip our toe into the water of stealth.  Stealth is commonly expressed as Radar Cross Section (RCS) and in units of square meters, the smaller the better.  That’s intuitively obvious and understandable.  The smaller the RCS, the harder it is to detect the stealth object.  The problem is that the numbers are meaningless.  An aircraft has an RCS of 1.0 sq.m., for example.  OK, so what?  What does that mean in terms of detection?  How far away can that aircraft be detected and under what conditions?  I think it’s safe to say that none of us have the training to translate the RCS into actual detection criteria.  Add to that the fact that RCS depends on what facet (angle) of the aircraft the detecting radar is looking at, what frequency the radar is using, backscatter, backscatter detection capability by the detecting radar, ambient interference, and a host of other factors and it’s clear that meaningful stealth discussions are well beyond most of us.  What we fall back on are arbitrary numbers.  Aircraft A has an RCS of 1.0 sq.m. and aircraft B has an RCS of 1.5 sq.m. so we conclude that aircraft A is 33% better than aircraft B.  That’s numerically correct but operationally meaningless to us.

Sure, there are arbitrary levels of “visibility” assigned to various RCS:  Low Observable, Very Low Observable, etc. but how do they relate to real world operations?

What we should be looking at is stealth as it relates to mission accomplishment.  Is the level of stealth possessed by a given aircraft sufficient to allow it to accomplish its mission?  If a given level of stealth is sufficient then having a greater degree of stealth is pointless and simply adds cost.

Here’s a simple example.  Instead of aircraft, let’s consider a person who is trying to walk up to within rifle range to shoot me.  If I see him before he does so, he fails.  If his rifle has a range of 100 m and I can see him at 120 m, he fails.  If, on the other hand, I can’t see him until 90 m, because he’s wearing camouflage (stealth), and his rifle range is 100 m, he can accomplish his mission and shoot me.  That’s simple but here’s the key point …  If he has additional camouflage that prevents me from seeing him until 50 m, he doesn’t gain anything.  He still accomplishes the mission and the extra camouflage didn’t help.  If the mission happens to be to close within 50 m then the extra camouflage is needed.  You see?  The required degree of stealth is related to the mission.

The point is that once the necessary degree of stealth has been achieved, extra stealth is pointless.

Let’s take it back to aircraft.  If an RCS of 1.0 sq.m. is sufficient to accomplish the types of missions that the aircraft is intended for, an RCS of 0.5 or 0.01 or 0.0000001 doesn’t gain anything and simply adds to cost. 

Let’s take it back to JSF and Hornet which is what everyone gets all wound up about.  What level of stealth does the JSF need to accomplish its mission set?  I don’t know and neither do any of you.  Does the base Hornet have sufficient stealth to accomplish the mission set?  Again, I don’t know and neither do you.  Does the Super Hornet have enough?  Does the Advanced Super Hornet have enough?  Supporters and detractors of each aircraft sling RCS numbers back and forth without having any idea of what it means in terms of mission accomplishment.

Advanced Super Hornet - Stealthy Enough?


Again, someone is going to comment that extra stealth will allow the given aircraft to get even closer to the target or maybe fly in formation with enemy aircraft and laugh because they can’t see us even though we’re wingtip to wingtip.  Well, if that’s the mission then the extra stealth is necessary.  If that’s not the mission then the extra stealth is waste.  Remember, stealth is like the extra knot of speed in a surface ship:  each knot above around 20 kts comes at an exponentially increasing cost (I’m looking at you, LCS).  Likewise, each “ounce” of additional stealth comes at an enormous cost.  Therefore, stealth needs to be assessed relative to mission accomplishment.

There is no public data relating stealth to mission accomplishment that I’m aware of.  The JSF is supposed to be stealthier than the Super Hornet but does the difference matter in terms of mission accomplishment?  My gut feeling is that the Super Hornet is sufficiently stealthy to accomplish all but the most demanding missions.  Is that difference sufficient to justify the mind-boggling cost of the JSF program?  I don’t know.  I think the Navy could accomplish its strike fighter missions with the Super Hornet (and maybe adopt the Advanced Super Hornet).  Remember, stealth can be achieved through electronic countermeasures, optimized tactics, deception, and other means.  It doesn’t all have to come from the aircraft’s airframe.  Indeed, the Navy’s rather tepid endorsements of the JSF suggest that they feel the same.  Given the cost of the JSF, I’d like to see the Navy drop the F-35C and continue with Super Hornets and Advanced Super Hornets long enough to go back to the drawing board and design a new, dedicated, optimized Navy strike fighter that isn’t a compromised disaster and doesn’t depend on non-existent, PowerPoint wishful thinking technology – a plane that has a laser focus on the required mission set and nothing more.  Whether that requires stealth, networking, 360 degree sensor fusing, Mach+ speed, etc. should be determined strictly by the mission requirements not by the fact that someone thinks it would make for a nifty PowerPoint slide.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

USS Washington - Not a Priority

A USNI news article (1) states that funding for the mid-life refueling and overhaul (RCOH) of the carrier USS George Washington has been removed from the Pentagon’s unfunded priorities list submitted to Congress.  Currently, the Washington’s RCOH is unfunded and a funding decision has been deferred.  The Navy had placed the RCOH on its draft list but it didn’t make it onto the final Pentagon list.

All signs point to the Washington being early retired unless the budget situation radically improves.  ComNavOps assesses the likelihood of the Washington being early retired as a virtual certainty.  We’re currently at 10 (9 active) carriers pending the commissioning of the Ford.  I see the Ford being “swapped” for the Washington to keep the carrier force at 10.  Of course, the carrier force is mandated by law at 11 ships so Congress would have to amend the law but that’s a trivial exercise.

How’s that 300 ship Navy looking?  We may be retiring Ticos and carriers but with 32 LCS’s coming we should still be in good shape.



Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Combat Fleet Count - Update

We know the fleet size is trending upward because the Navy and the current administration assure of this.  Further, the various 30 year shipbuilding plans all describe a fleet solidly in the low to mid 300+ range.  A couple of years ago, the fleet size was around 280 so by now it must be in the 290-300 range, right?  Go ahead, take a guess – what is the current fleet size? 

Answer:  It’s 290.  Hmm …  I thought it would be a bit higher but, hey, we have been under pretty tight budget constraints, so I guess that number isn’t bad.

I wonder, though, what the combat fleet size is?  Setting aside the JHSV, MCM, PC, hospital ships, LCS (we’ll count them if and when they ever get any combat capability), tugs, salvage ships, and ships whose designation starts with “T” or “A”, what do you think the combat fleet size is?  Hint:  it was 225 in 2010.  By now it must be up to around 235 or so, wouldn’t you think? 

Answer:  It’s 205.  Wait a minute!  It was 225 four years ago and now it’s 205.  That’s a drop of 20 ships in a four year period.  But, isn’t the fleet growing on its way to 300+?  How can the fleet be growing and the combat fleet be dropping sharply?

This is an update to our previous discussion about fleet size (see, “Combat Fleet Count”).  Here’s the updated Combat Fleet Count numbers.  The count includes carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships. 

1980  392
1985  421
1990  405
1995  283
2000  243
2005  220
2010  225
2012  210
2014  205


You can check the fleet size for yourself at www.nvr.navy.mil .

So, what do we make of this?  The combat fleet size is steadily decreasing.  Deceptively, even the overall fleet size isn’t actually increasing.  We’re just counting previously uncounted ships like hospital ships, PCs, tugs, salvage ships, and whatnot.  The overall fleet count is being politically manipulated to seem like the current administration and Navy leadership aren’t gutting the fleet.  Check out SECNAVINST 4030.8B at www.nvr.navy.mil/5030.8B.pdf for the new counting rules.  We’re going to be counting rowboats, soon.  Fortunately, you and ComNavOps know better.  We’ve dug a bit deeper and see the facts. 

Sadly, it’s worse even than this.  You recall that the Navy is planning to “idle” 11 Aegis cruisers?  You and I both know that those are never coming back despite what the Navy claims.  Once laid up, the Navy will never find the funding to reactivate them.  As now, all available funding will go to new construction.  So, instead of 205 combat ships, we actually have only 194.  The Navy is already talking about early retiring a carrier and more amphibious ships as well as looking at the possibility of “idling” additional ships.  We are headed for a combat fleet count of 150 or so in the not too distant future.

I’ll close this post with the same statement I closed the previous Combat Fleet Count post:

Compare the Navy’s trend to China’s and ponder the implications for yourself.

I’ll continue to update this from time to time.