Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Port Royal Grounding Lessons

The USS Port Royal, an Aegis Ticonderoga class cruiser, ran aground on a coral reef just offshore of Honolulu International Airport on Feb. 5, 2009. 
According to the Navy, the ship ran soft aground, bow first, while moving very slowly during small boat operations. After four days the ship was pulled off the reef on 9-Feb.

The ship was coming out of an extended repair period which had begun in Sep 2008.  Despite the five months or so undergoing repairs in the shipyard, the vessel left with significant equipment malfunctions still unfixed.

The Honolulu Advertiser obtained the Navy’s accident report and published the
following information related to damage and causes.

Causes contributing to the accident included the following.

  • The Commanding Officer had had only 15 hours sleep in the previous three days and had not been at sea in the previous five years.
  • The fathometer was broken and non-functional.
  • Both radar repeaters on the bridge were broken.
  • The Global Positioning System navigation gear was broken and the crew had switched to an inertial navigation system, leading crew members to think they were 1.5 miles from where they actually were.
  • Watch-standers ignored alarms from the ship’s navigation gear concerning position discrepancies.
  • The quartermaster of the watch didn’t know how to take navigational fixes near the shore.
  • Ship lookouts weren’t on watch; they were working as food service attendants due to a manpower shortage.

Damage was listed as the bow sonar dome, propellers, shafts, various tanks, and superstructure cracks.  Repair costs were estimated at $40M.  Repair work was largely completed by late 2009. 

Port Royal - A Tough Warship?

Further, Navy Times reported that the “shock” of rocking gently on the reef while grounded caused damage to the vessel’s antennae and vertical launch cells and put the Aegis radar arrays out of alignment.
The Port Royal is the Navy’s newest Aegis cruiser and was the 27th and final Aegis cruiser built.  It was commissioned in Jul 1994 and is scheduled to be retired in Mar 2013 at which point it will be only 19 years old.  The ship is Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) capable.

Based on many of my previous posts, you probably think I’m now going to rant about the deficient level of training, leadership (CO) failings, failed CO selection criteria, or systemic maintenance shortcomings as a result of short-sighted Navy policies.  Well, you’re wrong.  Those things are readily self-evident.

Instead, I want to discuss the battleworthiness, or combat toughness, of the ships the Navy is building today.  Consider this astounding fact – the Navy is going to prematurely retire the newest, most capable Aegis cruiser in the fleet because the damage sustained from this incident, despite repairs, is too severe to allow the ship to meet mission requirements.  This is a warship.  It’s built for combat.  It’s meant to fight, take damage, and keep on fighting – at least, that’s the tradition of the Navy.  And yet we see a ship that ran soft aground, barely moving, and the result is a mission kill.  What does that say about the combat toughness of the ships the Navy is building today?  We’re in trouble!  This wasn’t a mission kill due to multiple anti-ship cruise missiles and massive explosions with resulting fires – this was a mission kill due to gently nudging the ship aground.

Can you imagine a WWII destroyer or cruiser being scrapped due to gently nosing aground?

Let’s look closer at the implications from this incident.  The physical damage was repaired relatively quickly and at little cost ($40M) – heck, that’s barely the cost of a new ice-cream machine for the gedunk stand.  Well, if there’s no lasting physical damage then what’s the problem? 

The problem is the electronics.  Modern electronics are so sensitive, so critically aligned, so delicate, that it takes next to nothing to render them inoperable.  Further, it appears that the ability to repair this type of problem is non-existent since the Navy is willing to write off the newest, BMD capable Aegis cruiser in the fleet rather than fix the issues.  That tells me that the damage can’t be repaired cost effectively – and that says a lot given the cost of new ships.  Hundreds of millions of dollars could be easily justified to keep the newest, most capable ship in service and yet the Navy doesn’t believe it can be done.

Note, also, that the VLS cells were damaged by the gentle rocking.  Again, that’s an alignment issue and doesn’t bode well for the combat toughness of the VLS system.  It’s frightening to think that a single hit anywhere on the ship could render all the VLS modules inoperable due to shock and vibration.

What is going to happen to a warship when it takes an actual hit with shock waves whiplashing the length of the ship?  We’re looking at one hit mission kills.  For that matter, a near miss may well produce a mission kill.  Sadly, the Navy has forgotten how to build tough warships.  This goes back to our KISS discussion.  A simpler, rugged design is better than a high tech design that is so fragile that it can’t fight.

Want to try a scary thought exercise?  Ask yourself who would win a one-on-one naval battle between a Burke DDG and a WWII Atlanta class cruiser (or even a Fletcher class destroyer).  Even allowing the Burke a few free shots from Harpoons, I think it’s quite likely that the WWII ships with the far superior armor and thicker, stronger steel construction could absorb the damage and continue to fight.  At gun range the Atlanta’s 16x5” guns would decimate the Burke in short order.  That the question would even be debatable speaks volumes about the Navy’s current warship design and construction practices.

The Navy desperately needs to get back in the business of building tough, combat ready warships.  If that means dumbing down the electronics so as to achieve a more robust combat system, that’s a trade-off that’s well worth it.


  1. "Consider this astounding fact – the Navy is going to prematurely retire the newest, most capable Aegis cruiser in the fleet because the damage sustained from this incident, despite repairs, is too severe to allow the ship to meet mission requirements."

    That may not be entirely accurate.
    If the Navy is planning on scrapping some of the fleet anyway, it may simply be a case of the ship being most damaged getting dumped.

    Given the number of systems inoperable before the crash, it doesnt sound like PR was in good shape anyway

    1. Rest assured, it's accurate. Consider the Navy's history of ship repair - Stark and Roberts were both nearly sunk but were extensively repaired and returned to duty and, more recently, the Miami was severely burned and will be repaired for around $500M despite the fact that LA class subs are being regularly retired.

      Further, sources inside the Navy have confirmed to me that the Navy did attempt to repair the electronic alignment issues and can't. Apparently, the entire ship was bent or warped just enough to put the various systems out of alignment and past the point of realignment. The bending/warping was due to the weak construction methods and thin materials used. The Navy wanted very much to repair the ship but was unable.

      Given that, the rest of your statement is true. The Navy was going to retire some cruisers (though that is looking like a political ploy - more on that in another post) so the PR was selected since it was no longer mission capable.

      Before the crash, PR was in typical shape. Most of us don't realize just how poor the maintenance of ships has become. Ships are routinely putting to sea with degraded or non-functional systems. This was not unusual. Navy leadership is violating the trust of the men and ships they are charged with caring for.

  2. The -47s were coming out just about the time I was getting out. I remember thinking that just about everything about that boat looked to be a recipe for disaster. Huge radar signature, stability problems, lack of armor, etc. At the time I figured that its job was to detect, fire, and die as I couldn't see it take any kind of punishment and continue the fight. I prayed I wouldn't get orders to one. I served on the Texas, CGN 39, and I always felt that if the s### hit the fan, the Texas would come out ahead. By the story on the PR, it looks like I might have been right.

  3. I think you're being too hard on modern naval constructors.

    By the end of WWII guided bombs and missiles demonstrated their lethality. German guided bombs crippled cruisers like the USS Savannah and sank the Italian battleship Roma, punching through thick armor in process. That, more than kamikazes, drove naval air defense in the 1940's and '50's: intercept aircraft before they could launch or drop such weapons.

    The undersea threat changed as well. Torpedoes now had reliable magnetic detonators that explode under the ship with a massive gas bubble that lifts, and then drops the vessel, crippling the strongest ship. Side armor or torpedo bulkheads were useless.

    The lesson for all navies was that armor beyond fragmentation protection on most surface ships gave very little return for the amount of tonnage used. The final conventional classes like the Des Moines cruisers were huge (almost WWI battleship size) and still offered weak protection against guided weapons; yet had nearly the same armament as prewar classes. Ditto the cancelled battleships like the Montana, Lion, and H-44.

    That was why the USSR, Royal Navy, and USN all built post-war ships lighter. Compartmentalization, redundancy in systems, and fire-fighting ability were seen as more useful.

    In addition, armor could not protect the electronics. As early as 1942 with the USS South Dakota, if the radar went down, the effectiveness of the entire platform was degraded. The same thing happened to a cruiser of Vietnam (the Worden?) which was accidentally hit by a friendly anti-radiation missile; total mission kill of the ship's radars, she had to return to the states. I don't think anyone onboard was even injured.

    In 1950 the USS Missouri ran aground off Virginia and a major effort was made to get her free. Numerous tugs, a failed attempt or two, they eventually unloaded all the ammunition and most of her fuel to lighten her. When they finally got her off, they found she had severe damage on her hull bottom by Turret Two. Some claim her damage from that grounding permanently weakened her and placed restrictions on firing that turret.

    That didn't make the Missouri a failure, it just demonstrated how grounding can damage even the best ships beyond what they are designed for.

    I think the Navy's decision to retire the Port Royal is in part to grounding damage, but also to the propensity of Navy leadership to get rid of older ships. The Navy had a couple other cruisers on the same list with the Port Royal.

    On a related note, I had mentioned a while back that the SPY arrays ideally were to be placed close to each other for proper alignment. The Burke and foreign Aegis ships all have them close together. Only the Ticonderogas have them widely separated. That was due to using the Spruance hull which was never designed for Aegis. To my knowledge, the Cole never had alignment issues after the bombing.

    While at close range the Atlanta would have an advantage, that's very close. A Burke with Tomahawks and Harpoons could hit her from over the horizon, even further if the -60 provides OTH targeting.

    1. Too hard?! I'm being too soft, if anything. You're aware that the Burkes are suffering structural failures of the transverse bulkheads and that external strengthing patches are being added? This is structural damage just from normal sailing. They were built way too thin skinned and thin ribbed.

      Your point about modern torpedos is totally valid but I'm not suggesting that modern warships can or should be able to laugh at torp hits. I'm suggesting (stating flat out!) that a ship should not be relegated to the scrapyard because it gently nosed aground and suffered only $40M of physical damage.

      From what I recall (might be wrong about this?) the Missouri ran aground at some speed as opposed to gently drifting aground while barely moving. One would expect severe damage if a ship ran aground at speed.

      You're correct that the Navy has been prematurely retiring ships but the idea that they would retire the newest, most capable Tico demonstrates that they were unable to fix the electronic issues. It's this electronic sensitivity that was the main point of the post.

      Also, I'm not claiming that armor provides invulnerability against modern missiles. I do claim that some armor is better than none and that ships need at least sufficient structural strength to withstand normal sailing.

      Further, unless we are consciously building one-hit ships, we need to revisit combat toughness. If we are going to build one-hit throwaway ships than we need to reduce the cost of construction dramatically. Building a $3B-$5B warship that can't take a hit without becoming scrap metal is not a cost effective decision.

      As I understand it, the Navy currently has no anti-ship Tomahawks (TASM). The Burke would get 0-8 Harpoon shots and that's it. Standard missiles can be used in an anti-ship mode but would have little effect on a WWII vessel.

  4. I agree ships need to be as durable as possible. But modern weapons make that a difficult challenge. I believe the Burke class, flawed as it might seem, is one of the best surface combatants out there. I don't believe a Type 45, Kongo, Udaloy, or anything in service today could have survived what the Cole did.

    Armor on WWII era ships focused on protecting the magazines and buoyancy. A narrow belt of vertical armor at the waterline and protected main turrets was sufficient against unguided artillery or bombs. Deck armor was difficult because of penetrations for access and the sheer size of area to be covered ("All or Nothing"). But the prevailing mindset was that you could stop a lucky hit from crippling a ship. It was estimated that about 2% of shots at long range hit the target back then. A ship armored as such could survive and possibly even get in some good shots of her own.

    But as the Arizona showed, a projectile with more velocity negated all that armor. Ok, that was a lucky hit on an unprepared ship. But the Germans in 1943 used guided bombs to devastating effect. The Savannah and Warspite were almost sunk, the Roma catastrophically so, with only a couple of guided bombs. Contrast that to the Yamato or Musashi which required dozens of unguided torpedoes and bombs to sink.

    I know there is a perception that WWII ships could always absorb incredible amounts of punishment and survive, even carry out their mission. But the early naval battles in the South Pacific in 1942-3 showed that destroyers and cruisers could be every bit as vulnerable as we see the Burkes today. The treaty cruisers built in the interwar period were nicknamed "tinclads" for a reason. What saved the ships that survived were the same things designed into future ships: compartmentalization, redundancy, and fire-fighting.

    I disagree about grounding comparisons. Four days or two weeks; no ship is not supposed to be twisted like that. But that touches on my point about Aegis and cruisers: two widely separated superstructures requiring close alignment may have made the ship difficult to repair compared to other Aegis ships.

    As designed the Burkes were supposed to carry Tomahawk in TLAM, TASM, and nuclear versions. Only TLAM is still in use. The same can be said about Harpoon: the sub-Harpoon went away in the 1990's. I can't fault the naval architects for building a ship around weapons that were later retired. Can you?

    1. You believe the Burke to be the best out there. I don't study the ships of other nations to any great extent so I can't agree or disagree. If the Burke is the best then it's the best of a sad bunch of designs.

      Regarding the damage the Cole sustained, I don't see that as a demonstration of survivability. Just the opposite. The bomb did not penetrate the ship, it exploded alongside with the bulk of the blast being disapated away from the ship. That the blast did the amount of damage it did (almost sinking the ship) is cause for great concern, in my view. Even a minimal amount of armor would have greatly mitigated (not totally negated) the damage. And that's the purpose of armor - not to confer invulnerability but to mitigate damage to allow the ship a better chance to survive and continue fighting.

      I know little about German guided bombs so I can't comment on that, either.

      The perception that WWII ships could absorb tremendous amounts of damage is based on them actually absorbing tremendous amounts of damage. The cruisers and destroyers fighting around Guadalcanal are a good example. While we lost many ships, none went down easily. If you haven't read it, check out Neptune's Inferno. The descriptions of the number of torpedo and shell hits the ships took is incredible and generally the ships were capable of fighting (admittedly to a degraded extent) to the end.

      I have no idea whether the Aegis array separations in the Ticos have a detrimental effect or not. If they do, that simply reinforces my point that the Navy is not designing ships with combat in mind.

      You raise a great point about the Cole's Aegis arrays. I wonder if they were operational immediately after the blast? For that matter, I wonder if they are operational today? It's possible that they remain unrepairably misaligned but the Navy is not inclined to say so. I've never heard anything about the Cole's arrays. I'll ask some of my Navy contacts and see if I can find out anything.

      No, I can't fault building a ship around weapons that were retired. But again, that reinforces my point that the Navy is no longer serious about combat or they wouldn't retire key weapons with no replacements. For the purposes of my thought exercise, if a few Harpoons (all a Burke has in the way of effective anti-surface weapons currently) don't sink the WWII ship, the WWII ship will surely sink the Burke. That should be setting off alarm bells for our combat designs of today. Whether a Harpoon(s) would sink a WWII light cruiser, I have no idea.

  5. In 1982, a former USN cruiser built in 1938, was destroyed by a pair of Royal Navy Torpedos developed in 1927.

    Such an old weapon was used, because the replacement, had a much smaller warhead, and it was doubted if it would significantly damage the heavily armoured warship

    Weapons and Defences move in concert.

    You can add armour until you are blue in the face, once the other side throws a nuclear tipped missile you aint surviving the damage.

    Although it is of course a worry that the ship was so badly damaged by a nudge, heavier warships will lead to heavier weapons, and they still wont survive a serious beating.

    That all said, its not all bad, HMS Astute ran aground without serious damage, and Vanguard rammed Triumphant, all three survived without any more than normal time in port.

    The NSM has a 150kg warhead, more or less.
    Its quicker to build a 300kg warheaded version of the NSM than it is a build a ship armoured enough to survive the hit.

    I'm sleepy and blathering, there may or may not have been a point there somewhere

  6. I agree totally with you about the lack of Tomahawk ASuW missiles and the Harpoon Block III. But then the Navy's focus has been myopically on land the last decade.

    The circumstances with ship & crew readiness aboard Port Royal are appalling. With GPS/INS the ship should have known the reef's location to within a few yards. I thought I read somewhere that a sub in a collision recently had a watch stander actually wearing an iPod at the time! Very sad, but based on the Port Royal case, entirely believable.

    Many ships in WWII would have been badly damaged like the Cole from a boat-borne IED. I know we disagree on this, but my take is that the blast put a lot of energy in the direction of the ship. Anything short of heavy armor would have failed, and possibly added itself as shrapnel to the blast when it teared. Some reports state the bomb was a shaped charge.

    My point in looking at the damage of warships back then was that ships sometimes were badly damaged from a single torpedo or bomb hit.

    Naval gunfire from anything less than a battleship many times did negligible damage, and often did nothing to the buoyancy. Torpedoes and bombs could, but even that had mixed results. A well placed hit, like the Arizona or Bismarck, was devastating. But that was to be the exception, not the norm. The Japanese super-battleships were expected to be sponges for incoming ordnance, and they performed as such.

    Guidance was a paradigm shift. Look up the Fritz-X and other guided bombs of WWII. Two Luftwaffe medium bombers sank the Roma with most of her crew. It took several carriers aircraft entire complements to sink each Japanese behemoth.

    Many foreign warships today have overlooked features the USN put in their ships. The Burke class has two ship-wide fire-fighting systems independent of each other with AFFF. Doubled main passageways run fore n' aft, halon for the engines, Kevlar armor around CIC and the VLS, and an NBC "citadel" overpressure system that turns part of the ship into a safe zone. It's one of the only surface combatants that has very little aluminum in the superstructure, adding to topside, and overall, weight but better against fire. To my knowledge, no other ship in foreign service has all of these features.

    For me the Cole bombing highlighted some of these features like the dual passageways and fire mains.

    Armored vehicles are the same way. The US Abrams and Bradley were the first to have halon extinguishers, blowout panels, and Kevlar blankets. On paper they looked comparable to older platforms like the M60. But killing them became a lot harder.

    The critique of the Atlanta v Burke is similar to me of the arguments made about battleship v carrier. The battleship was powerful, but only within 20 or so miles. A carrier of the time was frail in comparison, but could reach 200 miles or more. By 1945 radar and night-time operations gave the carrier true 24/7 reach. Guided weapons only added to that postwar. Battleships became obsolete not because the guns suddenly wouldn't work, but because a carrier cost less and reached much further. And could be easily updated with new aircraft; battleships were built around their guns. If we have a DDG properly & competently manned, and if it has TASMs and Harpoons, it would have similar overmatch. Right now those are two big ifs, unfortunately.

    Some good books on this subject matter are the Norman Friedman series of US warships. There is a volume on destroyers and one on cruisers. Very good for this field: the focus is on the technical aspects, not the strategic. His analysis of battle damage is great. Another one is Axis and Neutral Battleships in WWII by Garzke & Dulin. Same thing, only more in depth.

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  8. Makes me wonder how far away we are from seeing someone mate a Harpoon/Exocet with a British High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) round? 500 pounds of plastic/putty explosive would send a hell of a ripple through the superstructure.

  9. Bullets/shells require spin (for accuracy). A Missile has fins and a computer guidance system.

  10. The bridge navigational watch alarm system monitors bridge activity and detects operator disability that could lead to marine accidents. The system monitors the awareness of the Officer Of the Watch (OOW) and automatically alerts the Master or another qualified person if for any reason the OOW becomes incapable


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