Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Lessons Learned and Forgotten

The Navy has learned many lessons throughout its history;  lessons that were generally paid for in blood.  Those lessons have served the Navy well.  Of late (on a relative basis, meaning the last few decades), though, the Navy seems to have developed a debilitating loss of memory and the lessons learned are being forgotten and ignored.  Consider, the following timeless lessons.

Aircraft operating over open ocean need two engines.  When there is no dirt below, the loss of an engine means the loss of plane and pilot if the aircraft does not have a second engine.  Despite knowing this, the Navy has committed to a fleet of single engine F-35 (JSF) aircraft.

WWII demonstrated that steel is cheap and armor is the most cost effective form of protection available.  Despite this, not a single Navy ship currently has any effective armor.  Multi-billion dollar ships are being hazarded for want of simple armor plating.

Aluminum is totally unsuited for naval ship construction.  The Navy witnessed first-hand the results of major fires on aluminum ships and, as a result, switched back to steel for the Burke class.  Despite this, the Navy has constructed one of the LCSs with all aluminum and the other with half.  Further, aluminum is creeping back into use as a major structural component of almost every class of ship.  The Navy claims it must use aluminum for weight reduction.  Really?  How did we manage to build every WWII combat vessel from destroyers to battleships not only out of steel but with heavier steel and added armor?  And now the Navy is using wood composites for its largest surface combatant, the Zumwalt.  The wisdom of that remains to be seen but a reasonable guess suggests that is going to be a mistake.

One Engine, No Guns

The Viet Nam war proved that the dogfight was not a relic of the past and will be around as long as aircraft engage in combat.  The Phantom was built with no gun and the aircrews paid the price.  The Navy learned the lesson and made sure that the Tomcat and Hornet carried guns.  Now, though, the F-35C is being built without a gun.

As seen throughout WWII and right up to today, the most important factor in successful damage control is manpower.  The larger the crew, the better the chance of saving the ship.  Knowing this, the Navy is nonetheless committed to minimal manning – as if our ships will never sustain damage in combat.  Again, multi-billion dollar ships are being hazarded for want of a sufficiently large crew to conduct effective damage control.

The Navy’s institutional memory is fading quickly and hard-learned lessons are being forgotten – lessons that will have to be relearned in blood, come the next conflict.

Any lessons you want to add to the list?


  1. ComNavOps Lesson Learned No. 2013-001: Just because it appears on a PowerPoint slide doesn't necessarily mean it can actually be done.

    1. Anon, quite right although, sadly, the Navy hasn't yet learned it.

  2. Here is one.

    Those who base their plans upon perfect control of the Chaos of war are fools.

    The US bases its plans off of perfect knowledge of threats, perfect performance of its systems and personnel. And the belief that stealth systems are full proof.

  3. Don't ignore the importance of anti-submarine warfare (ASW). We tend to let ASW atrophy at the close of every war: WW1, WW2, and the Cold War.

    It's a very important capability - and it's a core responsibility of the Navy. It's also a very hard skill-set to relearn. It takes time to build a world-class ASW force. And we always end up paying for it in the first few years of conflict with ships and men.

  4. Cruising Range: When it appeared in WW2, the Sumner Class was criticized for its lack of 'legs', 3300 NM @ 20 Kts. Hence the Gearing Class, a stretched Sumner, 4500 NM @ 20 Kts. Follow on classes had steadily increasing range, peaking with the Spruance at 6000 NM @ 20 Kts. Then came the Burke with a range of 4400 NM @ 20 Kts.

  5. Please do not perpetuate the myth about twin engines being required for safety. A single engine design is smaller lighter and more manuverable in combat. If you look at Vietnam most losses were due to planes that were heavy, couldn't turn, and had no guns. Very few A-4s, and A-7s were lost due to engine failure and there is no evidence that twin engines save you from AAA. I agree with your thesis, weapons systmes have to be base don what works based on empirical evidence and NOT on what armchari analysts THINK works. No one would want an F-16 with 2 engines. Look at the F-18 now an 80,000 lb pig that cannot turn. The F-4 and F-14 show what twin engine pigs do in ACM also. Use facts to build weapons systems.

    1. Jim, you may recall that the F/A-18 Hornet was the result of the Lightweight Fighter competition in the early 1970's. The winner of that competition was the YF-16 which latter became the Air Force F-16. Despite winning the competition, the YF-16 was rejected by the Navy. One of the major reasons cited for rejection was the single engine of the YF-16. The Navy wanted a dual engine aircraft. So, no, I don't think the single engine lesson is a myth. Any thoughts?

  6. You should read Robert Coram's book called Boyd to find out the real reason the Navy refused to buy the F-16. The twin engine requirement was stated as the reason but the pilots during the testing (ALL pilots flew BOTH aircraft) rated the F-16 as the better aircraft. Furthurmore, Northrop was a heavy contributor to the Nixon campaign and there was a Col that favored Northrop no matter what. Furthermore the Navy and Air Force both refuse to fly the other's airplane regardless of it's quality. If you think this is not how NAVAIR works, read the last Chapter of COl Burton's book The Pentagon Wars on the A-12 debacle. Also read Chuck Spinney's report and questions on the update to the F-18 in the 1990s where the Navy promised longer range with greater fuel efficiency without redesigning the wing. Only so that they could avoid a prototype fly off, they stated that it was merely an upgrade to the existing F-18 (from the LWF). This is how you get an 80,000 lb fighter.

    1. Yep basically this.

      Actually the F-16 has pretty good reliability:

      Only about 1/3 of these are due to engine failure and there is a backup APU. The rest are due to pilot error and operational issues, for which it's unlikely a dual engine would solve.

      The other issue is that dual engines suffer from efficiency (more boat drag) and unless widely spaced apart (in which case they lose even more efficiency), one engine will probably take out the other engine.

      Jim, I would agree that the F-18 "Super" Hornet is pretty unmanuverable. It's basically a bomb truck an that is it. It suffered from wing-drop issues.

  7. Sorry I came late to this ComNavOps.

    One vital lesson that first became apparent in WW2, was unfortunately proven again in the Falklands at the expense of many sailors lives, and is still relevant in the modern world is the need for significant numbers of 20-40mm automatic weapons bristling along the sides of the ship.

    After world war 2 it was thought that these would not be needed, because nobody would ever get that close to a warship again. Of course the Falklands proved that theory wrong, because ships operating close to the land were made vulnerable to low flying aircraft. If the Royal Navy ships had possessed more than just a pair of 20mm and a few 7.62mm each then maybe the result of the Argentine air attacks would have been vastly different.

    In that War the RN also came up against anti-shipping missiles, which we can treat much the same as a Kamikaze attack. Answer to that? Need plenty of AA guns to back up the missiles as a last resort.

    And in the modern context those plentiful guns would provide an excellent defense against attacks by small craft or other unconventional means.

    Going back to the Falklands for another lesson; the most important weapon that any fleet can bring to battle is airborne over the horizon surveillance. That one tool alone could have dramatically improved the performance of the Royal Navy in the Falklands campaign.


  8. Commander and all: Thank you for this site and your passion and knowledge! I am a student of history. I try to keep an even keel (pun intended!) on most subjects, but when it comes to military procurement, especially the Navy I am OUTRAGED! People need to go to Leavenworth for a decade or two! These individuals making these decisions are either stupid or treacherous! We can empirically prove that they aren't stupid so... TREASON! Hang a few! I am not falling into hyperbole. I mean these statements literally. How can this be happening to our beloved United States!?! Please, anyone, help me to understand better. Directly if you like at sadombrowski@yahoo.com. Please feel free. God bless America!