Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Test of Combat

At the start of WWII, the Navy’s main submarine torpedo completely failed in combat.  During the Viet Nam war, the F-4 Phantom was found to be deficient and ill-suited for aerial combat due to the lack of an internal gun, tell-tale high smoke engines, and unreliable missiles;  all this, despite extensive pre-war development and testing.  The Sparrow air-to-air missile was found to be nearly useless in its combat debut.  The Navy’s pre-WWII anti-aircraft weapons, the 0.50 cal water cooled machine gun and the 1.1” gun mount, were found to be totally ineffective against the threat when used in combat.  The Army’s main tank in WWII, the vaunted Sherman, was completely outclassed and “succeeded” only due to America’s ability to build it in vast numbers. 

The litany of weapons that failed their test of combat is a long one.  None of these weapons were designed to fail - quite the opposite.  Supporters loudly and proudly proclaimed that each and every one was a war-winning miracle of then modern technology.  All were extensively tested and judged a success. 

Despite all the development and testing, each failed in combat.  Why?  Well, a variety of reasons, I guess, but the two main ones seem to be a failure to anticipate the actual threat and a failure to test under realistic, near-combat conditions.

Failure to correctly anticipate the threat leads to design of a weapon that is ill-suited to its purpose.  For example, the F-4 Phantom was designed without a gun because the prevailing opinion was that dogfights were a relic of the past and would never be seen in modern aerial combat again.  As it turned out, dogfights are a constant of aerial combat.  The Phantom’s design assumptions doomed it to failure from the start.  Now, before any of you jump on me, yes, the Phantom was eventually able to serve successfully once better missiles and tactics were developed but it was still a failure, initially.

Failure to test under realistic conditions leads to a false sense of confidence in weapons that have inherent flaws.  The torpedo of WWII was never extensively tested under realistic conditions and its flaws only became apparent in combat.

Well, that’s a fascinating history lesson but what’s the point? 

As I read blog posts and comments, professional articles, and books from naval authors and observers, I’m struck by the near total confidence we have in our current weapons.  It’s an almost religious belief that our weapons will work exactly as advertised.  And yet, history suggests that most of our weapons will either fail totally or require extensive rework and re-development to eventually become even partially successful.  Has our technology risen above history?  Are we immune from technological failures now?  I don’t think so!  The LCS, for example, demonstrates clearly that our technological failures still abound.  So, why do we think that all of our weapons will work in combat?  Let’s consider some examples.

Sparrow - It Should Have Worked

The LCS’ Mk110 57mm gun is widely attributed with the ability to decimate scores of small boats in an anti-swarm scenario.  This, despite the lack of a fire control radar and test results from the DOT&E that show the gun is unreliable.  Plus, the gun has never been tested in a realistic scenario.

Talk about an article of faith, the Standard/Aegis AAW system is accorded an almost mystical level of ability despite the fact that there has never been a single combat launching of a Standard missile, as far as I know.  Further, there have been relatively few test launches and none under realistic combat conditions.  Heck, the Navy doesn’t even have drone targets that provide a realistic threat substitute so how can realistic testing be performed?  And now we believe the system is going to perform ballistic missile defense against even higher speed and harder to hit targets?

Will the Phalanx CIWS work in combat?  Again, it has never been successfully fired in combat nor realistically tested.

The standard 5” gun of the Navy has been tested, once, in combat and failed miserably.  The Vincennes fired somewhere between dozens and hundreds of rounds at small boats during its infamous encounter and failed to record a single hit.  Despite this, the 5” gun is still the mainstay of naval gunnery and has not been improved significantly, as far as I know.

The Zumwalt’s AGS 155mm gun is going to provide pinpoint accuracy at ranges of 50-70 miles.  I have yet to hear anyone voice even the slightest doubt about that.

The military has a variety of GPS precision guided missiles and yet no one acknowledges that GPS is unreliable even in peacetime and will be significantly degraded in war. 

We’re developing various UAVs like Fire Scout and BAMS which are assumed will function perfectly despite the obvious difficulties in maintaining control communications in a combat jamming and ECM environment.  In fact, we’re apparently losing UAVs over Iran even now.

And the list goes on.

History suggests, with near 100% certainty, that most of our weapons will fail in combat.  The only unknown is to what degree they’ll fail and how much effort will be required to eventually make them somewhat successful. 

Am I suggesting that we pack up our foul weather gear and go home because none of our weapons will work?  No!  For one thing, the enemy’s weapons aren’t going to work any better than ours.  What I’m suggesting is that we acknowledge the reality that our weapons will perform far below expectations and make reasonable allowances for that in our designs and tactics.  Let’s beef up our point defenses in recognition that Standard/Aegis is going to allow more missiles through than we think.  Let’s recognize that mounting single guns on ships is woefully insufficient.  Let’s wean ourselves off of GPS.  Let’s assume the AGS will not be as accurate as we hope and look at methods for correcting the spot of gunfire at the kind of distances involved.  Let’s assume the LCS isn’t going to be a miracle minesweeper and develop some alternatives.  Let’s assume that one JSF can’t take on ten of any other plane.  I could go on but you get the idea.

Let’s believe in reality, as demonstrated repeatedly by history, rather than PowerPoint capabilities and manufacturer’s sales brochures. 


  1. Its been a few years since I have been in the Navy, but even then the gun and missile shoots I saw aboard ships was not done in any realistic manner.

    1. Long scheduled in advanced so that the systems could be tweaked and prepared. Sometime even borrowing equipment from other ships to get the system to work

    2. Everything about the shoot is planned out including where the targets will be

    3. Safety overriding everything so that we never fired in bad weather or at night or if any other non-navy ship is in the area.

    4 No countermeasures, no radar or radio jamming, no chaff, no smoke and often the ship targets aren't even moving while the missile targets are on a pre-planned flight..

    Maybe they have changed this in the last few years but I doubt it. Even the sinkex’s they have done recently I have not seen any of the target ships outfitted even with chaff or smoke. They are just sitting there like ducks at an amusement park shooting gallery.

    I think the Navy will be in for a big shock if they get into a fight with someone who can shoot back, have countermeasures and will fight in bad weather, night or in a crowded shipping lane.

    1. I would like to have seen the Navy take one of the Spruance class that they sunk, run it into a target zone under remote control at 20 knots on a bad weather day. It comes into the target zone at a random time from a random direction, zig zaging, its EW system in jamming mode, firing off chaff and smoke and see how many would find the target, identify it, engage it and actually hit it.

      Add to that is put a couple of other ships in the target zone, some as neutral merchant ships, some as allied or US naval ships, each emitting the proper IFF, radar and radio signals to see if we can avoid blue on blue attacks.

  2. On October 14, 2000, a Sinkex subjected a ship to eight Harpoon missiles, two standard (SM-2) missiles, three Sea Skua missiles, four bombs from S-3 Vikings, and over 100 rounds of gunfire from 3", 100mm, and 5" guns. On October 15, it was still afloat. It was finally sunk by demolition charges. The ship? The ex-USS Ashtabula, launched 22 May 1943.

    That says something about modern weaponry or about obsolete construction methods, or maybe about both.

    1. I think it's a tribute to the construction methods we previously used.

    2. I looked up the fleet oiler Ashtabula. She looks to have been stripped before the live fire so she would have no fuel or weapons on board. I believe after one or two Harpoon shots amidships she would have been set afire. The same could be said about any hits aft with the main machinery; a Harpoon hit there would probably disable the ship.

      Sinkexs aren't always about testing weapons effects on ships. The incomplete battleship Washington in the 1920's and the ex-USS America were sunk for that expressed purpose and the carrier's exercise remains classified. This sinkex sounds like it was for target practice, so it was probably hoped the ship would stay afloat as long as possible.


    Sven over at D&F wrote on something similar, which may be of interest.

    The problem I see, is that, rather than the weapons dont behave as expected, the enemy (or you) dont.
    The F4 is a popular target to beat on, but if you actually look at what it promised, and what it delivered, it was very very good.
    It was designed and built as a fleet defence interceptor. To be launched quickly, to gain altitude quickly, to fly to the target at high speed, to fire on the target at range and to return home.

    I should point out that, apart from Carrier Capable, the Panavia Tornado Air Defence Variant was all but identical in ethos.

    The Phantom was quite a poor bomber escort, but find those words in its design spec.
    When the Phantom Pilots were given free reign to plan their own operation, they came up with Bolo, the VPAF response was to ground their premier fighter aircraft, and even Bolo was far from ideal.

    Phantom behaved as promised. That it was used poorly is not its fault.

    Thats not to discount that the armed forces may face a problem, but I feel its important to at least identify the problem.
    The massive reliance on GPS is fine for low end warfare, but falls apart when people start shooting down GPS satellites. Its for that reason the UK insisted on Star mapping and inertial navigation in Trident.

    "That says something about modern weaponry or about obsolete construction methods, or maybe about both."
    Theres floating, and theres fighting.
    Old ships take a lot of surface damage to sink, but not a lot to disable one.
    Bismarks first salvo blew its own radar, 400 direct hits from the big guns of the royal navy turned it to a flaming wreck, yet still it floated.
    Sub surface damage is a near instant death sentence, one torpedo disabled Bismarks steering, another torpedo sank the Belgrano

  4. Yeah, the Ashtabula was a non-combatant tanker (AO)with lots of un-compartmented space.

    In contrast, the ex-USS Horne CG-30/DLG-30 sank after 3 Harpoon hits on 7/14/08.

    In 2005, 2 Mk 48 torps blew the bow off ex-USS Fife (DD-991). The bow sank but the rest of the ship remained afloat.

    Looking over sinkex info on-line, it appears that 2000Lb and 2400Lb bombs do the trick as opposed to surface and submarine ordnance.

  5. The Horne was also 8,000 tons while the Ashtaboula was 35,000 tons full load. The tanker was designed to sail with entire parts of the ship liquid-loaded.

    TrT: Agree about Phantom: it did what it was designed for very well. True of other Century Series fighters. Everyone thought missiles made dogfights obsolete.

    Also on Bismarck. The Bismarck stayed afloat during her final battle and her surviving sailors claim that they sunk her, not the British shells. But it was moot at that point: being a bullet sponge didn't make the Bismarck a better ship after all her main guns were disabled and she was immobilized. It just made life hell on earth for her crew on what was a floating wreck with orders to never surrender.

  6. WGM
    "Everyone thought missiles made dogfights obsolete. "

    Within reason, they did.
    A strike aircraft coming towards a carrier is unlikely to have enough fuel to run away from half a dozen missiles AND carry out an attack AND get home.

    "The Bismarck stayed afloat during her final battle and her surviving sailors claim that they sunk her, not the British shells"
    I understand the commander of the RN flotilla eventually gave up on guns ordered his escorts to torpedo the ship. The Germans may have opened the literal flood gates before that point.

    But the point remains, although the ship was afloat, it was entirely inoperable.
    Its own guns blew its radar, and 30 minutes in to a 100minute engagement, the ship had lost any ability to shoot back.

  7. The reasons for poor testing are very well documented in Col Jim Burton's book The Pentagon Wars. Also the website: has an excellent series of articles by Pierre Sprey - the father of the A-10 Warthog on what makes great weapon system.
    A the website: you will find a series of articles that describe what is wrong with the Pentagon.

  8. A quick question>

    Does the 57mm Mk110 real need a radar baqse fire control to be effective? At the short ranges we are talking about will optical and infra-red base system work as well or better than radar based system againts the small boats they will deal with?

    1. GLof, I don't know wether the Mk110 needs a radar based fire control to be effective. That's a good question. The Navy apparently didn't think so when it opted for only EO control on the LCS, however, the Navy got virtually every decision wrong related to the LCS so perhaps that offers some insight?


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