Monday, October 31, 2016

Up Close

ComNavOps has long stated that the US military has forgotten what was is.  Instead, in a frenzy of technological fantasy, we have embarked on a path of precise, guided, long range weapons intended to produce a “clean” war, conducted from afar, and harming no one but the enemy and even then the emphasis is on the enemy’s equipment rather than killing individual soldiers.  For example, the notion that the Zumwalt will stand off an enemy’s shore and pick off individual pieces of equipment with a precision and efficiency previously unheard of is pure cow droppings.  In a real war, we’re not going to even be able to see most of an enemy’s assets and personnel, let alone target them with that kind of precision.  There’s no getting around the need for massive, area explosives.  We’ll rediscover this when a war starts.

In a similar vein, ComNavOps has stated that the naval surface force battles will all too often come down to gun duels, just like WWII.  Our fantasy of stand off missile attacks will be found to be just that – fantasy.  We will rue the absence of large caliber naval guns.

The Army, though, light years ahead of the other services in beginning to prepare for actual war, has confirmed what ComNavOps has been saying.  War will be up close, personal, and violent.

“Our enemies are moving into complex terrain and they are evading our long-range detection capabilities,” McMaster [Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster] said. “The combination of those two things, the difficulty [of] targeting the enemy with long-range precision fires and the enemy’s elusiveness means we are going to fight in close combat.” (1)

There you have it.  The Army is beginning to recognize what ComNavOps and every combat veteran knows – war is not a dainty, precise, stand off affair.  It’s a down and dirty, close combat, fight for survival.  McMaster correctly identified the wishful thinking inherent in our fantasy of omniscient battlefield awareness and precision targeting.  When real war comes and we begin shipping bodies home by the hundreds and thousands, we’ll quickly come to appreciate the value of area effect high explosives.  You don’t deal with a sniper by carefully conducting a search of the building he’s hiding in, you vaporize the building with high explosives and move on without risking your own people.  We’ll relearn that lesson but not without a blood bill for the learning.

Kudos to the Army for at least beginning to remember what war is and starting to prepare for it.  The Navy and Marines need to heed the Army’s example.


(1)Defense News website, “McMaster:  Army Must Prioritize Close-Combat Capability”, Jen Judson, 28-Sep-2016,

Friday, October 28, 2016

LCS vs. Burke Construction Times

Here’s an interesting little tidbit.  What is the average construction time of an LCS (time from the date laid to date commissioned)?  Here’s the data.  I’m omitting the first two ships because they were the first of class and one would expect some longer construction times as the construction process was worked out.  Beside each ship is listed the date laid down, the date commissioned, and the number of months in between.

          Laid Down    Commissioned     Months

LCS-3     Jul 2009       Sep 2012         38
LCS-4     Dec 2009       Apr 2014         52
LCS-5     Oct 2011       Nov 2015         49
LCS-6     Oct 2012       Dec 2015         38
LCS-7     Nov 2012       Oct 2016         47
LCS-8     Jun 2013       Sep 2016         39

                                    Avg = 44 

 We see, then, that the average construction time for an LCS is 44 months with a record speed of 38 months.

Just for fun, let’s compare that to the construction time for a much larger and much more complex ship, the Burke class.  Here’s the same data for the six most recent Burkes.

          Laid Down    Commissioned     Months

DDG-107    Nov 2007      Nov 2010         36
DDG-108    May 2007      Oct 2009         29
DDG-109    Apr 2008      Nov 2010         31
DDG-110    Sep 2008      Jun 2011         33
DDG-111    May 2009      Oct 2011         29
DDG-112    Jun 2010      Oct 2012         28

                                    Avg = 31 

The average time to build a Burke is 31 months with a record speed of 28 months.  Interesting, isn’t it, that we can build a Burke in 28 months but it takes us 44 months to build the smaller, simpler LCS?  Worse, the longest Burke, 36 months, was two months faster than the fastest LCS!

Well, wait, you say, the Burkes have been in production for many years and the process has been optimized so, of course, it’s faster (setting aside the fact that the Burke is much larger and much more complex and ought to take longer, not shorter).  Fair enough.  Let’s look at Burkes 3-8 (we’ll set aside the first two just as we did for the LCS) when the production process was at the exact same stage as the LCS currently is.  Here’s the data.

          Laid Down   Commissioned      Months

DDG-53     Aug 1990      Dec 1993         40
DDG-54     Mar 1991      Mar 1994         36
DDG-55     Aug 1991      Aug 1994         36
DDG-56     Sep 1991      Jul 1994         34
DDG-57     Feb 1992      Dec 1994         34
DDG-58     Mar 1992      Mar 1995         36

                                    Avg = 36 

The average construction time for those early Burkes was 36 months.  Compare that to the 44 month LCS construction time.  We were building much larger, much more complex ships a lot faster and that was back in the 1990’s when didn’t have the benefit of the advanced computers and software to aid us in construction!

We can build Burkes faster than LCS’s!!!!

Okay, well that’s surprising and disappointing but it doesn’t really have any impact on anything.  It doesn’t really mean anything.  We’re not at war so what does it matter if a ship takes a little longer to build, right?  Wrong!

Simplistically, the cost of building a ship is the cost of the materials that go into it, the cost of the labor to build it (man-hours), and the overhead cost of the facility it’s being built in for the duration of the build.

Consider a simple example of a shipyard building one ship.  The materials are a known and constant cost for every ship of the type.  The man-hours are constant for every ship of the type.  However, the shipyard is charging us all their overhead costs for every day the ship is being built.  Overhead costs are utilities, the facility’s tax bill, salaries for everyone the shipyard employs but is not directly accounted for in man-hour labor charges (accountants, salesmen, lawyers, CEOs, secretaries, etc.), insurance, and so forth.  The longer it takes to build the ship, the greater the overhead charges and those overhead charges are significant.

Now, in practice, the overhead charges are not normally charged separately but are rolled into the man-hour charge figure.  Before starting construction (in fact, during the contract process) the construction time is known and the overhead charges for that time period are rolled into the man-hour charge.  Thus, just as we described in the simplistic description, the longer the construction, the greater the overhead charge which is reflected in higher man-hour charges.

So, to answer our earlier question, what does it matter if a ship takes longer to build?  The longer a ship takes to build, the greater the cost.  This is intuitively obvious and now you see why.  So, by having the LCS take 44 months to build, compared to 31 or 36 months for a Burke, we’re spending more than we should.  If a Burke can be built in 31/36 months, we should be able to build an LCS in around 18-24 months.  That would be a significant cost savings and might be enough to make us view the LCS in a somewhat different light.  Let’s be honest, much of the controversy over the LCS revolves around its “value” – the capability delivered relative to the cost.  Right now, the capability is little and the cost is a lot.  If the capability were a little and the cost were also a little, we’d view it differently or, at least, somewhat differently.

Why is the Navy accepting this kind of construction performance?  Anyone else see a problem here?  Maybe neither of these manufacturers should have been awarded contracts.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


A reader put me onto this article about artificial intelligence (AI) for unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV).  According to the article, an AI program has been developed that is capable of consistently beating fighter pilots in simulators.  If this is true, and that’s a huge if, this is the enabler that makes UCAVs a reality and I’ll have to readjust all my thinking about force structure, doctrine, tactics, etc.

I’m not going to recap the article.  Instead, I urge you to read it for yourself via the link at the end of this post (1).

The basic concept of the program is claimed to be a combination of fuzzy logic and programmatic evolution.  Fuzzy logic has been around for a long time.  The most interesting aspect of this, to me, is the use of programming evolution – survival of the fittest program.  Apparently, numerous, differing versions of the program were created and exercised.  As time went on, the more successful versions survived and were utilized to create newer and better versions and so on in a form of Darwinian evolution.

I’m sure there are limits to this program that prevent it from replacing pilots, yet.  For example, I’m assuming that it’s been developed as a one-versus-one (1v1) combat program as opposed to a one-member-of-a-team program.  An actual pilot not only needs to be able to win 1v1 aerial duels but also function as a member of a group and make evaluations about supporting other team members, assess mission accomplishment versus personal survival and supporting teammates, make decisions about mission accomplishment versus collateral damage risks, etc.  I’m sure the program can’t do any of that.  However, if they’ve managed to create a working UCAV AI then there’s no reason they couldn’t fold in the other aspects of piloting.


(1) website, “Beyond video games: New artificial intelligence beats tactical experts in combat simulation”, M.b. Reilly, June 27, 2016,

Monday, October 24, 2016

Independence LCS Aviation

On a relative basis, the Independence variant LCS is a bit of an unknown.  In part this is because the class’ first operational deployment is only now being undertaken despite the class having been first commissioned in Jan-2010.  That’s six and half years without a deployment by a vessel of that variant!  So, we don’t have much operational data to look at.  Now, with the arrival of USS Coronado, LCS-4, in Singapore for a deployment, we’ll hopefully get some insight.

USS Coronado

One of the unknown aspects is the variant’s aviation capabilities.  Outside of brochures, there is little actual operational data.  It is being reported that the ship is operating two MQ-8B Fire Scout UAVs and one MH-60S Knighthawk/Seahawk helicopter on this deployment (1).  This is significant because multiple sources have reported to me that the Freedom variant’s flight deck, while large, is significantly understrength, structurally, thereby limiting the variant’s ability to operate numbers or weights of aircraft.  The structural strength was reduced early in development as a cost saving measure.  I have no reports as to the Independence variant’s flight deck structure so it’s interesting to note the simultaneous operation of two Fire Scouts and one Seahawk.  Of course, the Fire Scouts are the smaller “B” version rather than the larger “C”.  This is an arrangement and number that has not been operated on the Freedom variant, yet, as far as I know.  This may, possibly, indicate that the Independence variant’s flight deck strength and aviation capabilities are a bit more robust than the Freedom’s.

Fire Scout MQ-8B

Also of interest is the note that the Fire Scouts are equipped with the Telephonics Corporation AN/ZPY-4(V)1 radar.  Of course, radar performance data shows ranges on the order of 14 miles so this is not exactly AWACS type monitoring (2). 

We’ll keep an eye on this deployment – assuming no more engineering breakdowns! – and see what we can learn.


(1)USNI News website, “Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado Arrives in Singapore”, Mike Yeo, 18-Oct-2016,

Friday, October 21, 2016


ComNavOps just read that an MQ-8B Fire Scout was used to laser designate a target for a Hellfire missile launched from an MH-60S helicopter.  I’m hearing more and more of these kinds of disparate pairings.  A submarine designates a missile for an Aegis cruiser.  An F-35 designates a surface target for a missile fired from a Poseidon.  And so on.

What’s the point?  What practical combat purpose does it serve? 

In combat, is a submarine really going to come to the surface to designate a target?  Is our supposed top of the line strikefighter aircraft really going to spend its time being just a target designator?  Is it really necessary for a UAV to designate for a helo given that they’re both the same distance from the target (Hellfire range is only a few miles)?  This strikes me as technological masturbation - pardon the crudity.  We feel good about cobbling together yet another unlikely and nearly useless combination of technology but what does it really get us?

This has become our idea of preparing for combat – stringing together useless bits of technology for its own sake.  Unfriendly countries, on the other hand, are developing bigger and bigger explosives and armor.  They’re developing the boom that will dominate the next battlefield while we’re developing apps for our soldier’s tablets.

I’m sorry but explosives trump techno-toys on the battlefield.  We’re focused on trying to figure out whether that enemy soldier in the foxhole is right-handed or left while our enemies are developing high explosive artillery barrages that render the question moot.  If you can obliterate an acre at a time it really doesn’t matter what, if anything, was in that acre – it’s gone!

We’re focused on developing little scooters for our soldiers to flit around the battlefield on but all the agility in the world isn’t going to matter when a Russian 9A52-4 Tornado 300 mm rocket launcher fires a full salvo which can cover 32 hectares (1) or a Chinese WS-2 MLRS fires a salvo of 400 mm rockets.

The Navy is building an entire class of LCS ships that have no boom whatsoever.

Hey, Navy and Marines, where’s the boom?


Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Word Of Warning

With possibly a single exception, not even the most ardent supporter of the LCS still believes the program accomplished what it set out to do.  In short, it’s a failure.  Beating that dead horse is not the point of this post.  Instead, let’s recall who the LCS’ biggest supporter was and who may be the single exception I referred to.  That person was Bob Work, now Deputy Secretary of Defense.  The man made outrageous claims that the LCS was the greatest warship in the world.  He flatly stated that the Navy got the ship it wanted, with the capabilities it wanted, at the price it wanted.  He demonized critics and cowed supporters.  In short, he was Adm. Rickover if Rickover had been completely wrong.

So, after championing one of the biggest failures of the Navy, Mr. Work has been rewarded with a new position as Deputy Secretary of Defense.  That alone is scary.  Worse, Mr. Work is, apparently, taking charge of the so-called Third Offset strategy which will, he claims, maintain our military edge over a resurgent Russia and China.

Think about this.  The man who championed the biggest failure in recent Navy times is now setting the military’s path for the next few decades?  Is this wise?  Is there any reason to believe that the man’s zealous backing of an epic failure is now going to produce a viable and successful result with an unproven and questionable approach to future warfare?

Still worse is that Mr. Work’s demonstrated demonization of opposition speaks poorly for the possibility of legitimate debate about the course he is attempting to place the military on.  The Third Offset’s dependence on networks, unmanned vehicles, data sharing, etc. are all highly suspect and, at the very least, deserve close scrutiny before we irreversibly commit to them.  Unfortunately, that type of scrutiny and debate is exactly what Mr. Work is famous for discouraging.

It is truly frightening how quickly and completely the military seems to have rolled over and acquiesced to this path.  Meanwhile, Russia, China, and, seemingly, every other country in the world is frantically developing heavy armor, more powerful artillery, stealth aircraft, advanced SAM systems, armored amphibious capabiity, advanced submarines, extensive mine warfare capability, supersonic cruise missiles, intermediate range ballistic missiles, etc.  In short, the rest of the world is rapidly developing the means to blow things up faster and more efficiently while we develop networks, operate green fleets, and factor climate change into our military planning.

Is the man who was so thoroughly wrong about the LCS the man to be setting the military’s future?  I don’t think so.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What Kind Of Contract Is That?

Here’s an Oct-17 contract announcement from the website.

“Lockheed Martin Corp., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., Fort Worth, Texas, is being awarded a $743,169,377 fixed-price-incentive, firm target and cost-plus-fixed-fee modification to the previously awarded low-rate initial production Lot 9 F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter advance acquisition contract (N00019-14-C-0002).  This modification provides additional funding and will establish not-to-exceed (NTE) prices for diminishing manufacturing and material shortages redesign and development, estimated post production concurrency changes and country unique requirements.  In addition, this modification will establish NTE prices for one F-35A aircraft and one F-35B aircraft for a non-U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) participant in the F-35 program. 

There’s a couple of interesting points here.  First is the absolutely baffling contract type description:  “fixed-price-incentive, firm target and cost-plus-fixed-fee modification to the previously awarded low-rate initial production Lot 9 F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter advance acquisition contract”.  Huh????  Be honest, do any of you understand exactly what that means?  Isn’t “cost-plus-fixed-fee an oxymoron?

Second, is the not-to-exceed (NTE) prices.  I understand what the phrase “not-to-exceed” means but how does it apply here?  There is no actual Lot 9 purchase contract in effect, yet, so how can not-to-exceed prices be established?

Why are the Lot 9 contract negotiations continuing to drag on?  Probably because no one understands what the contract says!

All this tells me is that there are way too many lawyers in the world!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Nice To Meet You, Wouldn't Want To Be You

Nice to meet you, wouldn’t want to be you!  That’s how Navy officers must be looking at prospective LCS commands these days.  LCS command is beginning to look like a one way ticket to career suicide.  Two LCS CO’s have been fired this year.  Given how few vessels are in service and how very, very few cumulative days at sea have been racked up by the LCS’s, that’s a staggering firing rate!

“Cmdr. Michael Wohnhaas, who commanded LCS Crew 106, was relieved “due to loss of confidence in his ability to effectively lead and carry out his assigned duties” on Oct. 13 by Commander of Naval Surface Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet (SURFPAC) Vice Adm. Tom Rowden.” (1)

“Cmdr. Michael L. Atwell, formerly the commanding officer of LCS Crew 101, was relieved of his position on Monday as a direct result of the investigation following the Jan. 12 propulsion casualty that has left the ship sidelined in Singapore.” (2)

It would be one thing if these CO’s were fired for committing a crime or for gross personal misconduct but these officers were fired for no reason other than having the bad luck to be in command when engineering breakdowns occurred – the same breakdowns that have systematically afflicted the LCS class and led to every LCS that has put to sea being sidelined for one problem or another.  Six of the seven commissioned LCS’s have experienced engineering breakdowns.  In its infinite wisdom, the Navy has concluded that the engineering breakdowns were, somehow, the fault of the command officers.  I understand the concept of ultimate responsibility resting with the CO but to blame the Captain for what is clearly a class-wide, systemic problem is insane.  All that’s going to do is scare prospective CO’s away from the LCS program!

If the Navy really wanted to affix blame where it belongs and demonstrate a loss of confidence they would fire the person who came up with the minimally manned crew concept that put overworked, overstressed personnel in situations they weren’t prepared to handle.  They would fire the person who developed the obviously inadequate training process for LCS engineering personnel.  They would fire the person who purchased such complex machinery that the best trained engineers in the Navy (according to the Navy) can’t seem to operate the equipment without screwing it up.  They would fire the person who developed a needlessly complex LCS engineering plant.  They would fire the person who specified a speed requirement that has no tactical utility but resulted in an overly complex engineering plant.  And so on.  Unfortunately, the Navy is more interested in PR and scapegoats than actual accountability.

Prospective LCS commanding officers …….  run away !!!


(1)USNI News website, “USS Freedom Crew CO Relieved Of Duty After Investigation Into Engine Damage”, Megan Eckstein, 14-Oct-2016,

(2)USNI News website, “USS Fort Worth CO Relieved Over January Propulsion Casualty”, Sam LaGrone, 28-Mar-2016,

Monday, October 17, 2016

Maddox / Mason Attacked Again?

The networked, unmanned vehicle Third Offset Strategy is absolute garbage.  It’s a concept put forth by a US military that’s floundering and has no clue about the future of warfare.  Want proof?

I covered this in a recent post (see, "Respond or Leave") and we’ve now seen it demonstrated again.  The USS Mason may have been attacked again, for a third time (1), after the retaliatory Tomahawk strikes on some radar sites.  Wait, what now?  “May” have been attacked?  Were they or weren’t they? 

Burke destroyers are fitted with the miraculous, all-seeing, all-knowing Aegis radar system, EO/IR/laser sensors, electronic warfare systems, signals analysis software, and helos for aerial surveillance.  All this is backed up by a network of other sensors in the region from surveillance aircraft, other UAVs, other ships, satellites, etc., all contributing to a digitally fused composite picture of the battlespace capable of counting the buttons on an enemy’s shirt.  We have layers of Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) software, regional analysis monitoring and software, various intel group’s analysis, unit and regional command staffs that monitor and analyze activities, and so forth.  Despite all this, we’re not sure whether the Mason was attacked?  It may have been?  We’ve spent a gazillion dollars on all this equipment, software, sensors, and analysis and our best assessment is that there may have been an attack?

Note that our befuddlement takes place in an environment unhindered by any electronic countermeasures.  In other words, we had “clear skies”, electronically, and still don’t know if an attack occurred. 

Despite this continued confusion, we’re going to base our entire future military superiority on this exact system of networks, sensors, and unmanned vehicles?  Recall the recent seizure of the two US riverine boats and crews in the middle of the most heavily surveilled region in the world and yet no one had any idea where they were. 

Let’s face it – our dreams of a Third Offset Strategy consisting of perfect battlespace awareness is just a fantasy conjured by people who have no idea of what war is or how to win one.  We’re seeing the proof of the fundamental failings of networked sensor systems on a daily basis but refuse to acknowledge it.

Having shredded the fantasy of the Third Offset Strategy, let’s now turn to the other disturbing aspect of the recent Mason incidents.  Does this sound at all familiar?  You all study military history or you wouldn’t be on this blog, right?  Recall the Gulf of Tonkin incident where the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy spent several hours on 4-Aug-1964 fending off attacks from North Vietnamese torpedo boats.  The attacks were indicated by radar, sonar, and radio signals – except that it later turned out that the purported attacks never happened.  That incident led, in part, to the US involvement in Vietnam.

Yeah, but that was a long time ago, you say.  Now we have sophisticated sensors.  That couldn’t happen today.  Cause now we have sensors that apparently can’t say if earlier missile attacks were shot down or just, mysteriously, dropped into the water short of the US ships.  Sensors that can’t say whether the Mason was again attacked or not.  Were any of the purported attacks on the Mason real or was it a case of a nervous crew seeing what they expected to see (recall the Vincennes airliner shootdown)?  Fifty some years apart, generations of electronics improvements, and we still can’t distinguish reality in a small, localized battlespace.  Fifty years ago, that confusion dragged us into Vietnam and now this incident(s) is dragging us into Yemen.  We should remember our history and tread very, very cautiously before jumping into yet another ill-considered venture.


(1)USNI News wesite, “CNO Richardson: USS Mason ‘Appears to Have Come Under Attack’, Sam LaGrone, 15-Oct-2016,

Friday, October 14, 2016

The High Cost of Ground Attack Helicopters

Guest author Mr. Bustamante returns with a fascinating and thought provoking post about attack helicopters.  This one will challenge your conventions.  Enjoy!


The High Cost of Ground Attack Helicopters
Are they really worth it? Are they survivable?

Just for fun: which aircraft has greater general flight performance characteristics?

Fieseler Fi 167 (circa 1938)

Bell AH-1Z Viper (circa 2000)
                              Source: Wikipedia

Point in fact: the Fieseler Fi 167 dominates the AH-1; with a maximum speed of 176 knots it was 20 knots faster, with a range of 703 nm it flew over twice as far, its service ceiling was 8,200 m - almost 2.5 times higher, and the Fi 167 could carry a 1,000 kg bomb or large torpedo, while the AH-1 is rated for 1,134 kg, the weight and configuration of weapon mounting points limits it to about a 500 kg ordnance loadout.  Purist will be aghast at this comparison, after all, the biplane lacks the modern sensors, weapon controls, and communications of the AH-1, but the performance characteristics of attack helicopters deserve closer scrutiny, particularly given the high cost of procurement and operations (the acquisition cost of the AH-64D Apache longbow at one point was almost $70 million - as much as an F/A-18).  


Few weapon systems are as enshrined in American military thought as the attack helicopter, but this reputation has never been proven in high intensity war.  In fact, considering the origins of the attack helicopter, its performance relative to alternative aircraft, its astronomical procurement and total ownership costs, the current and future threat environments, and historical battlefield performance; we should be very concerned about the tradeoffs made in buying attack helicopters.  The attack helicopter is arguably a niche airframe that is both costly, and deficient in performance relative to fixed-wing alternatives.  We must also consider that field artillery, now can deliver both precision and massed fires at ranges exceeding those of the attack helicopter. Justification of a weapon system is not governed simply by whether the system can do the job, but whether it does the job better than competing alternatives.  We have to remind ourselves that the mass purchase of attack helicopters was driven largely by United States Army.  The Army is motivated to view Close Air Support (CAS) as "aerial artillery" and it seeks to retain operational control of air power, in the same way as it controls artillery.  The USAF won the “control debate” in WW2, while still a branch of the Army, and then it won independence as a separate service.  The inter-service politics were nasty, but the Army was effectively pushed out of the business of fixed wing tactical aviation to any great degree, and saw the helicopter as a means for replacing assets lost to the Air Force.[1]  The wisdom or stupidity of this decision is debatable, but the driving argument in favor of the attack helicopter was not performance, but rather a bureaucratic response to the creation of the United States Air Force!  The few advantages that helicopters have over fixed wing aircraft is the ability to use terrain for cover and concealment, to take off, hover, and land vertically.  I argue that those capabilities are not sufficiently advantageous to overcome the huge performance and cost penalties, which makes it very tough to justify the purchase of attack helicopters for tactical aviation use. 

Army and Marine doctrine puts attack helicopters in competition with fixed-wing TACAIR.  Both services doctrine on attack helicopters is similar and assigns them the role of attack, reconnaissance, and security operations, although the USMC adds “anti-helicopter operations” and “… terminal control for …. CAS, artillery, mortars, and NGF.”[2]  More troubling, Joint Publication 3-03 Joint Interdiction, and Army doctrine list attack helicopters as assets capable of conducting interdiction operations; that is operations to prevent adversaries from employing surface-based weaponry and reinforcing units at a time and place of their choosing.  The interdiction mission has traditionally been a fixed –wing TACAIR mission because it has generally been conducted beyond the Fire Support Coordination Line (FSCL) – inside the FSCL, fires from any source must be coordinated with the ground commander; beyond the FSCL, any asset may attack without coordination.  Helicopters intrinsically have large acoustic and radar signatures, which makes them excellent targets.  This doctrine exposes attack helicopters to the full spectrum of enemy anti-aircraft systems without the raw airframe performance capabilities of fixed wing TACAIR (altitude, speed, and range), the ability to carry effective standoff weapons to minimize exposure to air defense systems, nor the sophisticated counters to protect TACAIR from these systems (e.g. jamming pods, stealth, etc.).

The issue of attack helicopters should be decided upon the merits, but any review of airframe performance makes it clear that fixed-wing solutions dominate the performance/cost debate; and this at a time when even vertical envelopment supporters are calling for, and funding, platforms with performance characteristics that exceed the performance envelop of any attack helicopter in service or under consideration (e.g. the V-22 and the forth coming Army led joint Future Vertical Lift program). Table 1 below compares U.S. attack helicopters with other tactical fixed wing aircraft:

Table 1. A Comparison of Common Tactical Ground Attack Aircraft1

                    Source: Federation of American Scientists, Wikipedia, and Global Security.

1.    These figures are for comparison only, actual combat loads, meteorology, and mission profiles dramatically affect performance.  Costs are even more difficult to quantify.
2.    No inflation adjustments have been made to this table.
3.    The GSh-30-2 is a dual barreled, recoil operated autocannon.
4.    Other AH-64 models (e.g. the AH-64D) can be equipped with launch rails for four air–to-air missiles.
5.    Ordinance load outs for attack helicopters are challenging.  The primary limitation is not weight but weapons hard points.   The AH-1 and AH-64 both carry an autocannon, and have four hard points for rocket pods (5” Zuni, or 70mm), or for a four AGM-114 Hellfire missile launch rack.  Additionally, some models add launch rails for AIM-9 air-to-air missiles.

It is worth noting that helicopter performance in “high hot” environments degrades substantially faster than fixed wing aircraft.  From the table above it is clear that fixed-wing aircraft dominate rotary wing attack aircraft in all measurable performance categories.  Specifically they are:

1.    More expensive to buy; and are much more expensive to operate and repair.
2.    Have lower performance (slower, less range, lower service ceilings).
3.    Have lower sortie rates.
4.    Carry dramatically lower armament load outs compared to fixed wing aircraft.
5.    Are less flexible than fighters or light attack aircraft (fighters have been pressed into service as attack aircraft, and most light attack aircraft can function as fighters, but attack helicopters cannot perform the fighter role).

So where exactly do attack helicopters excel? All of the aircraft in Table 1 have been successfully operated from makeshift dirt or grass runways, and all have excellent slow speed maneuverability, although only helicopters can hover, take off and land vertically. I contend that that ability is of limited use as the historical record of helicopter shoot downs demonstrates any low and slow moving tactical aircraft will be hugely vulnerable.  It is no surprise that the USAF prefers fixed wing solutions to close air support and never purchased attack helicopters, although it has acquired large numbers of rotary wing aircraft to meet other mission needs.  To summarize, when the costs and other performance metrics are considered; rotary wing aircraft fare very poorly compared to fixed wing tactical aircraft.  The final judgement on any weapon system is combat, so how have attack helicopters fared in combat operations?

The presumption is that attack helicopters are effective combat assets; but historical analysis does not support this.  The first mass employment of attack helicopters was in Vietnam; the Army and Marine Corps lost over 5,000 helicopters as complete write-offs, of which 277 were AH-1s.  This figure does not include aircraft that were shot down, or put out of commission due to ground fire, but later repaired to flying status.  It also does not count the number of UH-1s, AH-47s (they existed!), and OH-58s operating as attack helicopters.  Significantly, most of these losses occurred over South Vietnam or friendly airspace where the enemy could not deploy his most sophisticated air defenses.  Still, the AH-64, and to a lesser extent the upgraded AH-1s have benefited from a number of protective features to improve aircraft survivability.  So how attack helicopters performed in recent combat operations? Consider the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

“During the course of planning for ground operations in Iraq, the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and British Army all considered, and actually planned for, air-assault operations in front of the advancing armored columns. … Once operations started, however, no air-assault missions in front of the leading edge of the armored advance were conducted. [Emphasis added]  Interviews with all three ground forces indicated that the risks of these operations were seen as outweighing the possible benefits, so the senior ground commanders elected to cancel the planned missions.” [3]

It is worth recalling that the Iraqi military in 2003 was broken.  Yet the decision of the UK, USA, and USMC commanders to cancel vertical envelopment operations against doctrine is profound.  Commanders curtailed attack helicopter operations, but even with these limitations, attack helicopters still suffered serious losses against an enemy with no effective air force, and no organized air defenses.

“During the course of the roughly 25 days of major combat operations up to the fall of Baghdad, the Army and Marine attack helicopter forces suffered considerable damage. Several aircraft were effectively destroyed, and many others (for example, 46 of 58 USMC Cobras) took battle damage, mostly from infantry-type weapons, such as machine guns, RPGs, and small arms fire.”[4]

How bad was the situation for attack helicopters?  On 23 March 2003, the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment was drawn into a fight where one AH-64 Apache was shot down, and all 31 Apaches in the regiment took various amounts of battle damage. Following the incident, PBS interviewed Thomas White, Secretary of the Army and asked him to comment:

“I was disappointed that we didn't do better.  I mean, this was an Apache [AH-64] raid. We have invested an enormous amount of resources in attack helicopter operations in the U.S. Army. [Emphasis added] … We were very fortunate we didn't lose more aircraft.”

We need to be frank about casualties - they are inevitable - the real question is value: combat effect versus the costs of alternative options.  By this metric, attack helicopters were unable to perform their doctrinal role and did not deliver the combat effectiveness that was expected of them during the 2003 invasion of Iraq

It is now an open question how our rotary wing attack helicopter force would fare against a well led, well trained, well-motivated, force with effective weapons like the 2K22 Tunguska, which was designed to deal with threats like the AH-64 (see figure 2).[5]  Nor do we know how attack helicopters will fair when facing sophisticated artillery threats (modern multifunction fused tube or rocket artillery projectiles) employed en masse by our potential enemies.
Figure 2. The 2K22 Tunguska Anti-Aircraft System


To re-state the situation, not only have attack helicopters proven to be costly, and less capable than fixed-wing tactical aircraft, they have proven ineffective and vulnerable.  In fact, if the justification for buying attack helicopters is for use as a middle-weight force (which I take to mean COIN and ground attack in permissive environments), then the USMC has not only purchased the most expensive, and least capable aircraft for the mission; it bought into a weapons platform that it was unwilling to employ per doctrine due to survivability concerns.

So what conclusion can we draw?  The U.S. Army is constrained by long-standing policies on fixed-wing tactical aircraft, but the Department of the Navy is unconstrained and is free to pursue better alternatives.  From a price performance ratio, an amphibious task force would be far better served with two, or three squadrons of fixed-wing aircraft like a 21st century A-4, operating from an austere aircraft carrier (e.g. Midway class), than the current LHD/LHA with attack helicopters, and VSTOL jets.  Any shortfalls in cargo space could be addressed by other sealift (new AKA/LKA).  Someone will scream about the loss of vertical take-off and landing capability.  My response is: 1) a small carrier could conduct ground support flight operations to the limits of OMFTS – effectively the combat radius of the V-22; 2) the logistics/maintenance penalties of operating from FARPs will reduce sortie production to the extent that it is more effective to operate aircraft from ships; 3) if the ground force is operating so far inshore as to make carrier operations unfeasible, then fixed wing aircraft are capable of operating from improvised runways ashore (including dirt runways!); and 4) no rotary wing aircraft in production, or on the drawing boards, can keep up with the V-22.  


Mr. Bustamante is a retired naval officer who served the majority of his career as a Naval Special Warfare Officer; he also served as a Surface Warfare Officer and Foreign Area Officer.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in Systems Engineering.  He also holds a Master of Science degree in Defense Analysis (Operations Research) from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. After retiring from the Navy, Mr. Bustamante worked for the legislative branch as an auditor and analyst, as a civil servant with the United States Department of State, and also in the private sector as an analyst in information technology project management.

[1] The key point for this discussion is that the Army argued successfully that the attack helicopter fulfilled its requirements for close air support, but the origin of the attack helicopter is entangled in the larger inter-service debate over air power, particularly as argued between the United States Army and Air Force.  The most extraordinary claims are made by proponents on both sides of the issue; the two best summaries avoiding the partisanship are: The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate, by Douglas N. Campbell, May 1, 2003; and Army-Air Force Relations: The Close Air Support Issue, Rand R-906-PR, 1971.
[2] MCWP 3-2 Aviation Operations articulates USMC doctrine on aviation to include attack helicopters; Field Manual No. 1-112 articulates Army doctrine on attack helicopters.  Significantly, the two services organize attack helicopters very differently.  The Army organizes, and emphasizes the employment of attack helicopters in battalions consisting of 24x AH-64 helicopters.  Typically two attack helicopter battalions are assigned to division and corps in aviation brigades.  The Army also emphasizes that its attack helicopter battalions, even when conducting independent battalion sized operations, are always employed to complement other maneuver forces.  Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadrons (HMLA) mix utility and attack helicopters in a squadron of 9x UH-1 and
12x AH-1 helicopters.
[3] Rand briefing DB472, “Assessment of Navy Heavy-Lift Aircraft Options,” page 87.
[4] Rand briefing DB472, “Assessment of Navy Heavy-Lift Aircraft Options,” page 87.
[5] In addition to RAND studies, readers desiring more information on helicopter survivability may wish to read the article: “Are Helicopters Vulnerable?” by Dr. Carlo Kopp, published in the March 2005 edition of Australian Aviation.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


This blog exists to raise the level of discourse available on the Internet regarding naval matters.  Of late, the commentary associated with posts has often failed to do that.  Comments have become factually challenged and argumentative.  That is my fault for allowing it.

A typical example is if the statement is made that southern US cities have warmer climates than northern cities, someone will, inevitably, respond with a comment citing some southern city that, on some given day, was colder than some city in the north – as if that disproves the general statement.  This kind of comment is simply argumentative and does nothing to further the main premise.

Trying to find one example, somewhere in history, that appears to contradict a main premise is simply argumentative.  Now, if you want to take that example and build a logical case for an alternative view, that’s fine – unlikely but fine.  Just as the main premise is never built on a single example (single examples of anything mean nothing) so too, an alternative view can not be built on a single example.

There’s a famous saying that there are no dumb questions.  As far as this blog is concerned, there certainly are dumb questions and, more to the point, dumb comments.  In order to contribute to raising the level of discourse, you, the commenter, have to do your homework.  I expect a basic level of knowledge about naval matters which includes a familiarity with naval history and an understanding of the basics of naval operations and tactics.  You don’t have to be an expert but, I’ll be honest here, this is not the blog for amateurs who have no grasp of naval fundamentals.  There are plenty of books and websites where you can go to learn the basics. 

That said, I have no problem with someone asking a sincere question and trying to learn.  I’m happy to respond to that.  What I don’t want to do is embark on a long term educational foray spanning many posts/weeks.

I never delete a comment because it disagrees with me.  I do, however, delete comments, whether they agree or disagree, when they’re based on stupidity. 

What kind of comments am I looking for?  I’m looking for comments that further the discussion.  I’m looking for comments that address the main premise rather than try to pick apart some minor side detail.  I’m looking for comments that build on the main premise.  I’d love comments that have an opposing view and are supported with data and logic.  “You’re wrong”, is not a productive comment.

Data and logic – those are mandatory in any comment.  Given the short length of a blog post, I still try to cite data for my main points and I expect comments to make use of data and logic.  “The LCS sucks”, is not a worthwhile comment.  Offer some data to support the statement.

All of this should not discourage readers from commenting.  Instead, it should encourage readers to put a bit of effort into their comments and try to become part of a conversation rather than part of an argument.  I recognize that there is a fine line between discussing a point of disagreement and arguing.  The difference is that the former is done with an open mind and a willingness to learn and further the discussion while the latter is a simple attempt to “win” and serves no purpose.

Of course, there is always the requirement for politeness and respect.  Argue the points, not the person.

I’m sometimes asked why I don’t respond to a given comment.  The answer is that I respond to comments that meet the above criteria – comments that further the discussion, raise new and valid points, and offer insights.

I expect my readership to be a cut above the typical blog readership.  I’d rather have one good comment than ten pointless ones.  With that goal in mind, I’ve started, and will continue, to delete comments that fail to meet the criteria.

I encourage you to be part of something challenging and worthwhile.  Recognize, though, that means you may have to put a bit of effort into it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Respond or Leave

Everyone has heard by now of the apparent cruise missile (C-802 is the most likely) attacks on two US Navy ships.  If you haven’t, you can check out the USNI article (1).  The USS Mason, a Burke destroyer, launched two SM-2 missiles and one ESSM in response to the cruise missiles.  Both cruise missiles landed in the water short of the ships and there is no indication that either was shot down by the destroyers missiles.  It appears that either the cruise missiles never had a target lock or the destroyer’s electronic countermeasures prevented a lock.

I’m not going to waste time speculating about the performance of the weapon systems since we don’t have enough information.  Instead, let’s see what other lessons we can learn.

First, the fog of war is eternal.  Despite all our sensors, electronics, radar, IR, optics, and computer software, we don’t know whether the missiles we fired in defense hit anything.  How is that possible?  No one was trying to deny us sensor data as would happen in a peer war.  We had a completely unhindered view of a small battlespace and yet we couldn’t even see whether any of our three missiles hit anything?  This should serve as a lesson to all those who want to commit us to the vaunted Third Offset strategy based on networks, unmanned vehicles, and a wholly unfounded belief that we will have an omniscient view of the battlefield thereby enabling and enhancing our forces.  What a bunch of cow droppings!  We can’t see an uncontested battlefield clearly and it’s only going to be much, much more confused when a peer enemy contests the battlefield with electronic warfare.  We won’t know jack about what’s going on.  That’s the reality of war.  That’s the fog of war.  We should be training for that confusion rather than blindly believing we’ll see everything.  The fog of war is eternal and all-encompassing.  We need to embrace it and train for it, not ignore it.

Second, we need to respond with massive and deadly force – or leave the area.  Any other course is just going to get US sailors killed and ships sunk.  Failure to respond will simply embolden our enemies and ensure further attacks.  The various actors in the area need to understand that threatening US ships is a fatal mistake.  If it’s not a mistake and they can launch missiles at us with impunity as we demonstrate our restraint and passivity then we need to leave the area because we clearly aren’t doing any good.  I think the odds of us responding are negligible so I think we should leave the area.

Third, this illustrates the need for a counterbattery (countermissile, in this case) capability.  The moment the incoming cruise missiles were detected, Tomahawk missiles should have been heading towards the cruise missile launch point.   Further, a UAV should have been directed to the launch point to look for follow up attack possibilities.  The two cruise missile attacks were apparently launched an hour or so apart.  It’s not clear whether they were launched from the same point (there’s that fog of war, again!) but a UAV should have been overhead, watching, for the second launch.  A UAV might also have allowed us to preemptively attack the second missile launch site.  If we’re going to operate on the modern battlefield, split seconds will be all we have and a countermissilebattery fire capability is badly needed.

What response will the Navy and the country make?  If history is any indicator, none. 

What lessons will the Navy learn?  If history is any indicator, none. 


(1)USNI News website, “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend From Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack”, Sam LaGrone, 11-Oct-2016,