Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Confusion and Training

The Navy is in the process of establishing a TopGun type training program for surface warfare after decades of neglect.  During that time the Navy came to depend on simulation training and highly scripted exercises.  While a dedicated training program is a step in the right direction, it is woefully inadequate.  The simple fact that the training facility is going to be located at NAS Fallon in Nevada, far from any sea, is ample proof that the training will be inadequate.  By reason of its location, the training can’t be anything more than tabletop study and wargaming.  As I said, that’s better than the current situation but completely inadequate.  No amount of simulation can prepare a student for the chaos and confusion of actual battle.  No amount of simulation can replicate the physical sensations of a wildly heeling ship, the confused reports of crew, the inevitable mistakes and failures associated with a real situation, the darkness, the fog, the rain, the waves, and the resulting adrenaline and mental pressure that will be encountered in a real situation.

Let’s consider an historical example from WWII.  The first battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, resulted in one of the worst defeats ever for the US Navy.  I won’t recap the battle.  Summaries are readily available on the Internet and in many books.  One of the main reasons (among many) was the utter confusion that reigned despite all the training that the ships, crews, and command personnel went through.  Here are some quotes from Wiki that illustrate the level of confusion.

Prior to the battle, the approaching Japanese force was sighted by a US sub and a contact report was sent. 

“The warnings, however, were considered vague and the size of the force reported did not suggest an attack was pending.”

The approaching force was also spotted by RAAF Hudson reconnaissance aircraft. 

“The first Hudson misidentified them as "three cruisers, three destroyers, and two seaplane tenders".

Another reconnaissance opportunity was squandered due to confusion.

“Mikawa's run down the Slot was not detected by Allied forces. Turner had requested that U.S. Admiral John S. McCain, Sr., commander of Allied air forces for the South Pacific area, conduct extra reconnaissance missions over the Slot in the afternoon of August 8. But, for unexplained reasons, McCain did not order the missions, nor did he tell Turner that they were not carried out. Thus, Turner mistakenly believed that the Slot was under Allied observation throughout the day.”

Confusion continued as the battle approached.

“[Adm.] Crutchley left the southern group in Australia to attend the conference, leaving Captain Howard D. Bode of Chicago in charge of the southern group. Crutchley did not inform the commanders of the other cruiser groups of his absence, contributing further to the dissolution of command arrangements.”

Sighting reports were incorrectly evaluated.

“Turner, Crutchley, and Vandegrift discussed the reports of the "seaplane tender" force reported by the Australian Hudson crew earlier that day. They decided it would not be a threat that night, because seaplane tenders did not normally engage in a surface action.”

More confusion,

“Crutchley elected not to return with Australia to the southern force but instead stationed his ship just outside the Guadalcanal transport anchorage, without informing the other Allied ship commanders of his intentions or location.”

The Japanese launched floatplanes that offered an opportunity for the Allied forces to react but they failed to do so.

“Although several of the Allied ships heard and/or observed one or more of these floatplanes, starting at 23:45 on August 8, none of them interpreted the presence of unknown aircraft in the area as an actionable threat, and no one reported the sightings to Crutchley or Turner.”

Once combat started, confusion increased.

“[USS] Patterson increased speed to full, and fired star shells towards the Japanese column. Her captain ordered a torpedo attack, but his order was not heard over the noise from the destroyer's guns.”

“… knocking out power to the entire ship before Canberra could fire any of her guns or communicate a warning to other Allied ships.”

“[Capt.] Bode ordered his 5 in (127.0 mm) guns to fire star shells towards the Japanese column, but the shells did not function.”

“Bode did not try to assert control over any of the other Allied ships in the southern force, of which he was still technically in command.  More significantly, Bode made no attempt to warn any of the other Allied ships or personnel in the Guadalcanal area as his ship headed away from the battle area.”

“[USS] Bagley, whose crew sighted the Japanese shortly after Patterson and Canberra, circled completely around to port before firing torpedoes in the general direction of the rapidly disappearing Japanese column; one or two of which may have hit Canberra.”

Astoria'​s captain, awakened to find his ship in action, rushed to the bridge and ordered a ceasefire, fearful that his ship might be firing on friendly forces. As shells continued to cascade around his ship, the captain ordered firing resumed less than a minute later.”

Quincy'​s captain gave the order to commence firing, but the gun crews were not ready.”

Vincennes hesitated to open fire, believing that the searchlight's source might be friendly ships.”

So it was that a supposedly highly trained US and Allied force encountered total confusion for which they were unprepared.

Well, some of you say, that can’t happen today.  We have radar, IFF, and communications that ensure total situational awareness.  You’ll claim that actions are conducted from CIC so simulated training is all that’s needed.  History, however, begs to differ.

The highly trained CIC and bridge crew of the Aegis cruiser Vincennes made every mistake possible in shooting down an airliner.

The highly trained bridge crew of the Aegis cruiser Port Royal ran aground in broad daylight.

The highly trained crew of the submarine Greenville collided with a 190 ft Japanese fishery training ship causing it to sink.

There’s a reason why naval aviators qualify on the carrier rather than on the simulator.

There’s a reason why RN submarine command candidates qualify at sea rather than at a desk.

There’s a reason why the AF found that as simulator training increased, so too did crashes.

We’ve shot down friendly helicopters flying a clearly communicated flight plan. 

We’ve inflicted countless examples of friendly fire in recent conflicts. 

And so on…

There’s a reason why the TopGun training program was not a tabletop lecture.  The pilots had to fly to learn the lessons because no amount of lecture can replicate the heart pounding stress of pulling G’s, the possibility of air or ground collision, the effect of weather, the garbled radio communications, and the split second decision making that makes up real actions.

Similarly, no amount of lecture and tabletop training will replicate the confusion of real action at sea.  While we can’t engage in live fire, life and death training we can replicate the stresses as much as possible and the only way to do that is to be at sea.  This latest Navy training program is a step in the right direction but, as with so many Navy decisions, stops short of being a truly worthwhile program.

You recall all those Perry class frigates that we’re retiring and giving away?  Those would make excellent training ships.  Crewed for a few days at a time at sea, they would offer the opportunity to greatly enhance the value and realism of tactical training.  Throw in small boat drone target swarms, realistic cruise missile surrogates, and a dedicated opposing force (OPFOR) and you’d have the basis of as realistic training as possible.

I know some of you will moan about the cost but the cost of operating a dozen Perrys on a greatly reduced manning level pales in comparison to the cost of a ship sunk because we skimped on training.

In combat, confusion and chaos reign.  In a simulator, calmness and clarity reign.  We need to train for the former and the only way to do that is at sea.

Imagine …  Trainees are at sea.  The ship is pitching and heeling radically from constant full speed turns.  Just staying seated is a challenge.  Smoke is introduced into CIC.  Trainees are dressed for combat including gas masks.  Visibility is poor.  Voices are muffled.  Multiple threats are bearing down.  The noise level rises.  It’s harder to hear.  Some reports are completely wrong, some are partially correct, few are totally correct.  A swarm of surface drone boats are approaching quickly.  Friendly forces may be in the area.  Inevitably, data and commands are miscommunicated up and down the chain of command.  Enemy ECM compounds the confusion.  Occasional system failures occur.  GPS is blocked.  Higher authority wants to know what’s happening.   ……..  This level of training is badly needed and it can only take place at sea.


  1. Here's an article for you on this matter:


    What strikes me as appalling is how self-inflicted so many of the problems that society seems to face are.

    Let me know what you think of the article that I linked.

    1. Good article. Couldn't agree more. Thanks for the link.

  2. The Navy in particular can't decide what to do about training. On the one hand tactical trainers (using real mission equipment and configurations) are never maintained to the current version once fielded. In addition the stimulation equipment used to drive the tactical equipment usually costs more than the system itself. And again it is obsolete once fielded. This fits in with the entire O&M shortfall the fleet is seeing. Adding realistic confusion to already obsolete trainers would just be a Golden goose for the tactical system developers that would not be funded by the Navy.

    On the other hand, effects based (not physics based) simulations for C2 systems offer an affordable alternative to tactical training equipment. Usually by a cost factor of 10. However currently C2 simulations do not address the confusion factors that you rightly point out. This is because the Navy can't figure out what affordable and good training is. It really is a religious war within the Navy.

    However, introducing confusion into team simulation trainers would be fairly easy. Dropping reports, poorly worded reports, adding noise into headsets would all be easy to do once the Navy decides it is important. Adding fire and smoke would be harder but I think would be a good addition to the "classroom".

    I agree with you completely on the need for training in a "fuzzy" situation, just don't throw out simulation trainers until we have tried them.

    1. Anon, please don't misunderstand me. I'm not totally against simulators. They have a useful role. My objection is when the simulator is the complete and only training method. Simulators are good for mastering basics but there is no substitute for field (ocean, in this case) training. Consider the effects of simple, seemingly innocuous effects that can't be replicated in a simulator like heeling and pitching, sea sickness (!), unsure footing, days without adequate rest or meals, etc. Those all contribute to the confusion of a real battle and we need to learn to deal with them. So, let's use simulators but not as the only training method.

  3. I think if your going to simulate you really need something like this.
    Its just a fun little video really. Quite interesting though.


    If you can command when all around you are living through that ! Then your probably a fairly good commander my son.

    Sort of automatically introduces some confusion \ garbled communications and people forgetting their basic training etc

    Just need a full CEC \ Bridge and engineering version with some smoke and all tied together.


  4. CNO this is a fantastically appropriate post.

    The reality is that the Navy assumes that a great deal of training is actually conducted during deployments and the workups - it isn't so.

    If we want a good laugh we should direct the ready ARG to conduct an amphibious assault and attempt to physically sustain the marines from sixty five miles at sea using helicopters. We could repeat the scenario with a mock minefield between San Clemente and San Diego (simulating the Straights of Hormuz and force a carrier group to attempt to cross. Or tell the army to deploy a striker brigade via airlift, and attempt to sustain itself for 15 days using aircraft, but give the OPFOR S-3/400 missiles (Iran/Syria).

    An honest effort in any of these scenarios will illustrate how completely and totally divorced current US military from really ugly truths of war in the 21st century.


  5. During the 1970s, there was a group of defense reformers that argued that the trends that they were seeing would someday lead to a hollow force, unable to fight effectively, and with super-expensive, costly weapons.

    It's interesting that they've been attacked all of the time in the media, but so far, they've proved right.

  6. There's actually a pretty big report from one of the defense reformers published in 1980.


    It's a lengthy read, but it's shockingly relevant today, especially when it comes to cost overruns. It has become clear that in the past 40 years (and the author began this in the late 1970s), not much has changed.

    Anyways, like the last one, let me know what you think.


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