Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Russian Middle East A2/AD

This post is going to verge on political but I will do my best to keep the focus on the military aspects.

We’ve watched the Chinese steadily advance their goal of controlling the entire first island chain.  We’ve watched the Russians annex Crimea and they are in the process of seizing Ukraine

Now, we’re watching the Russians establish a military foothold in the Middle East, ostensibly in support of Syria’s efforts against ISIS terrorists.  Russian airstrikes against ISIS have begun, as I write this, however, initial reports suggest that the targets are Syrian rebels rather than ISIS terrorists.  That’s not exactly surprising.  Russia is going to prop up Syria while they consolidate their foothold. 

Those of us who can see patterns can clearly see that Russia is beginning a long term game to become the major power in the Middle East thereby securing oil supplies, ports, bases, weapon sales, political power, etc.  Worse, we see the beginnings of a new superpower A2/AD zone over the Middle East.  The US has, over the last several years, vacated the leadership role in the Middle East and Putin has adroitly stepped in to fill the vacuum. 

The problem with both the Chinese and Russian expansions is that sooner or later we will have to militarily confront them.  It might be over a Taiwan invasion.  It might be over support for Israel.  It might be over Russian sponsored terrorism directed at the West.  It might be over the flow of oil and Russia backed Iranian attempts to regulate shipping through the Persian Gulf.  It might be over something totally unexpected.  The point is that by allowing these expansions to happen, we are making our eventual response much more difficult and dangerous.

Don’t believe it?  The Russians today ordered the US to clear the airspace over Syria so as not to interfere with their airstrikes.  We’ll have to wait and see what the US response is but given our policy of appeasement in the South and East China Seas, I can’t really see us not acquiescing to the Russians.  We have no stomach for confrontation. 

Our future military situation has just gotten much, much worse.  We’ll be starting from a decided disadvantage and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.  We are being completely outmaneuvered politically.

On a related note, Russia is cranking out families of heavy armor vehicles while we’re cranking out jeeps.  While there is little the military can do about our political policies, they can stop the hollowing of our forces and start rebuilding for the high end combat that is coming.

Monday, September 28, 2015

LCS Variable Depth Sonar

There have been several recent articles about the LCS ASW module being overweight and how it’s not really a problem and what amazing new capabilities the module will bring to ASW warfare.  Of course, the module consists of technology that’s been in use for years so it’s kind of hard to figure how the module will bring amazing new capabilities but that’s not the point of this post.  Further, the Navy assures us that modules diet plan to lose weight is not a problem.  Of course, the weight issues have been known for years and, presumably, the Navy has been attempting to lighten the module for quite a while now and this is the result.  This version is, one assumes, the lightest version that the Navy could assemble over the last couple of years of effort while still maintaining the requisite capability.  Thus, it’s hard to imagine where significant additional weight loss will come from without cutting into capability but, again, that’s not the point of this post, either.

Setting the preceding aside, the main component of the ASW module, such as it is, is the Thales CAPTAS 4 variable depth sonar (VDS) or a similar variant.  This, according to the Navy is an amazing piece of technology that will allow us to accomplish ASW feats never before seen.  Of course, the Thales VDS has been around and in use by foreign navies for years and the US Navy never before deemed it worthwhile.  Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Be that as it may, if the VDS can add capability that’s a good thing.

What is it that makes the VDS useful over a conventional hull-mounted sonar, anyway?  Well, as the name implies, the VDS can be raised or lowered to any desired depth, somewhat akin to a helo’s dunking sonar.  This allows the sonar to listen under thermoclines.  Thermoclines are temperature gradients in the ocean that form layers.  The layers tend to reflect sound at the boundaries between layers.  Thus, sound at a lower layer can be trapped or channeled within that layer and not propagate to the layer above or below it.  A submarine can hide in a lower layer that a surface ship’s sonar can’t effectively penetrate.  Hence, the value of a VDS is that it can be lowered into a lower thermal layer and detect a sub that a ship with just a hull-mounted sonar can’t.

Which, again, begs the question, why hasn’t the Navy pursued VDS systems before?  I have no answer for that.  The old Soviet ships had VDS but I have no idea to what extent, if any, they were used.

Moving on …  Does the VDS bring with it any drawbacks or limitations?  As you might suspect from the question, the answer is yes. 

The first limitation is that the VDS requires around 20 minutes to deploy or retrieve.  Thus, the LCS can’t just hop around the liquid battlefield, nimbly racing to and fro collecting data.  Instead, it’s going to have to carefully pick its spots with the knowledge that once it commits to a spot, it will be there for an extended period.

Thales VDS

This leads to the second limitation and that is the vessel’s speed while the VDS is deployed.  The LCS was predicated on speed, speed, and more speed (not sure why but the Navy assures us that speed is critical).  Unfortunately, the VDS only functions at very low speed and, therefore, the LCS is limited to very low speed while the VDS is deployed.  Higher speeds will not only negate the VDS performance but may damage the unit if towed at too high a speed.  This presents a bit of a dilemma.  If the VDS is deployed and a torpedo is detected, the LCS can’t use its speed to escape.  It becomes a relatively immobile target.  On the other hand, if the LCS chooses to retain its speed capability, it can’t deploy the VDS and, thus, won’t be able to hear a sub or torpedo.  Hmm …  That’s a real Catch-22:  use the VDS and forfeit speed or use speed and forfeit the VDS.  The LCS can’t have both. 

Presumably, the Navy has already made the decision that the VDS is more important than speed or else they would not have pursued the VDS option.  Of course, that leads one to wonder what use the Navy foresaw for speed in the first place.  But, I digress …

If the Navy is committed to using the VDS extensively, that implies that the LCS is no longer removed from the ASW battle.  Sonar performance in littoral waters tends to be short range.  Recall that the original LCS ASW concept called for remote unmanned vehicles and vast underwater sensor nets that would be deployed and allow the LCS to stand off from the actual ASW battlespace.  So, with the LCS now conceptually committed to up close and personal ASW battles, we have to wonder about the LCS’ suitability for such a role.  Lacking the built-in quieting that a purpose-designed ASW vessel would have and operating noisy waterjets would seem to put the LCS at an enormous tactical disadvantage in ASW operations.

All of this leads one to wonder how carefully the Navy thought out the revised ASW module concept.  Has anyone gamed out how a loud, speed impaired LCS with no ship-mounted ASW weapons will fare in an ASW battle?  I strongly suspect that the answer is no and that a lot of sailors will pay the price to find out that the LCS is unsuited for ASW work. 

The VDS was a knee jerk reaction to the abject failure of the original ASW module and was not well thought out.  The Navy has to start thinking ahead and ensuring that they have logical and viable concepts of operation before jumping into development paths that make little sense.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Lost At Sea - A Navy Without A Purpose

ComNavOps has listed and described many Navy programs and policies that seem almost random in their adoption, implementation, and integration into the naval force structure. 

An America class LHA without a well deck – OK, so we’re committing to aviation assaults.  No, the third LHA has a well deck – so, we’re back to waterborne assaults?

LCS will dominate the littorals, clearing the way for the entry of high value units that could not possibly survive on their own.  No, the LCS requires an umbrella of protection from a Burke or a carrier group. 

The F-35 is the world’s most advanced aircraft – except that the Navy doesn’t seem to want it and doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

The Navy has established a training school for ship commanders, sort of a Top Gun for surface warfare – really?  What have we been training ship commanders to do for the last few decades instead of surface warfare and how bad have things gotten that we need a special school?

The carrier air wings are steadily shrinking – nearly half the size of the original Nimitz air wing - and yet we’re building bigger carriers?

BMD is, arguably, the Navy’s self-designated number one priority and yet the Navy has tried repeatedly to retire 11 Aegis cruisers well before their lifespans and all capable of BMD?

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Navy lost its most visible threat and, bizarrely, seemed to lose its self-awareness of its reason for existence.  That, combined with threatened budget cuts as part of the drawdown from the Cold War victory, led the Navy to desperately throw out all kinds of wild rationales for its existence. 

Eventually, the Navy settled on “littoral” – the indefinable shallow water threat that somehow (it was never explained how) rendered every other ship useless and vulnerable.  Thus was born the LCS.

Of course, littoral was eventually exposed for the fraudulent concept it was and the Navy had to find another rationale for its existence.  They came up with the Pacific Pivot and AirSea Battle.  Thus, the A2/AD zone was born.

It has become painfully clear that, as regards its purpose for being, the Navy is lost at sea.  It has forgotten its true purpose and is casting about wildly for anything that can justify its slice of the budget pie.  It does not want to risk becoming the Army which has, depending on your measure, borne the brunt of budget cuts.  And thus we see the Navy’s true purpose as espoused by its leaders:  to absorb budget and sustain itself.

The Navy’s core purpose has devolved into one of simple and base self-preservation – existence for existence’s sake.  The Navy no longer cares whether its acquisitions support any strategic, operational, or doctrinal needs.  It’s sufficient that the acquisitions absorb budget and justify more budget.  We’re lurching from one military fad to the next in the hopes that it will justify more budget:  littoral, unmanned, A2/AD, Pacific Pivot, offset strategy.  These are just marketing buzzwords intended to justify budget.

The Navy seeks to expand simply to expand.  Remember the old saying,

“The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

This about sums up the Navy’s purpose as practiced by its leaders:  to grow so as to grow.  To absorb budget in order to sustain itself.

The Navy’s leaders have completely forgotten or abandoned its core purpose.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Coronado SeaRAM Test

Here’s another of those seemingly innocuous news items that contain a bit more information than intended.

ASEAN Military Defense Review website has a brief article on a SeaRAM test conducted by the USS Coronado, LCS-4, on 14-Aug.

Coronado's Combat Systems Team shot down a BQM-74E utilizing the RIM-116 Blk1A/SeaRAM missile off Pt. Mugu. This test validates the LCS-2 Variant's Core self-defense capability and further demonstrates the ship's effectiveness against high-end missile threats.” (1)

This prompts a couple of thoughts.  First, given that the BQM-74E is a subsonic drone (around 515 kts at sea level according to the Northrup Grumman data sheet), this hardly demonstrates effectiveness against “high-end missile threats”.  High end threats in my book are the large warhead, supersonic, terminal maneuvering missiles (SS-N-22, BrahMos, etc.) that everyone but the US Navy seems to have.

Further, demonstrating effectiveness would have to involve realistic conditions like poor weather, unknown location and approach time, and enemy electronic countermeasures as well as multiple, nearly simultaneous incoming targets.  None of that was part of this staged test.

Thus, this test proved only that under perfect conditions a SeaRAM could shoot down a subsonic, non-maneuvering target drone.  Such a test is better than no test but not by much.

The second, related thought, is why hasn’t the Navy tested its Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM) against supersonic targets?  Perhaps they have and I’ve missed it but given the fact that they loudly trumpet every other test, I’m reasonably sure they haven’t.  Is it because the results are predictable and disappointing?  Well, who cares?  Isn’t that the point of testing – to find out what works and what doesn’t?  If RAM is ineffective against supersonic threats, let’s find out and then fix it or build a better system.  If RAM is effective, let’s hear about it! 

Let me be clear about this.  I have no information that RAM is ineffective against supersonic threats other than the lack of testing.  I’m speculating but in a logical manner.  I strongly suspect that this is like the Navy’s refusal to conduct shock testing on the LCS – they know it will fail and, therefore, why do it?

So, how did the test turn out?  From Defense Media Network website,

“This test success marks a major milestone toward full operation and employment of the SeaRAM system on U.S. Navy ships,” said Rick Nelson, vice president of Naval Area and Mission Defense product line at Raytheon Missile Systems.  “SeaRAM demonstrated that it is a vital weapon for defending navies against anti-ship cruise missiles, and provides warfighters with a capability found nowhere else.” (2)

“… capability found nowhere else”?  Ahh, you want to dial the hyperbole down just a smidge, there, Rick?  I think there are plenty of short range AAW missiles out there.

BQM-74 Target Drone - A Poor Threat Surrogate


This is the kind of testing that is so disappointing.  A test that demonstrates almost nothing of combat relevance is passed off as some big achievement.  As a result, we send our sailors in harm’s way with little knowledge of their ship’s realistic capabilities.  This is how you lose battles and lives.

(1)ASEAN Military Defense Review, “Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) Conducts Live Fire Test of Guns and SeaRAM”, Maki Catama,

(2)Defense Media Review, “First Raytheon SeaRAM Missile Fired from USS Coronado (LCS 4)”, Chuck Oldham, Sep 17, 2015,

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Top Torp

Well, here’s a bit of potentially good news.  Everyone is familiar with the Navy’s famous Top Gun fighter weapons school that used a dedicated opposing force to train pilots and an instrumented range to document training encounters and provide detailed debriefs and lessons.  Now, it appears that the Navy is developing a Top Torpedo school for submarines and/or ASW forces (1).  An instrumented undersea training range is being created off Florida and will contain 300 underwater acoustic sensors.

ComNavOps has long called for more realistic training.  Hopefully, this is a step towards that goal.  Still needed is a dedicated opposing force and realistic threat surrogates. 

(1)NavAir, 27-Aug-2015,

Saturday, September 19, 2015

China's Military Strategy

ComNavOps has long harped on the need for a coherent national geopolitical strategy and the military strategy that logically flows from it.  Without such a strategy we have no means of guiding our force structure development or developing operational plans and doctrine.  Of course, it’s equally important to try to understand a potential enemy’s strategy, as well.  Knowing what they’re trying to accomplish and how they’ll go about it will greatly influence our own plans.

As a quick reminder, a strategy should have three elements:

  1. A description of the problem
  2. A listing of the goals/objectives that are directly related to resolving the problem
  3. A statement of the means to achieve the goals/objectives

We’ll leave China’s broader geopolitical strategy for some other forum.  Instead, let’s look at China’s military strategy.


TaiwanChina considers Taiwan to be part of China and has stated publicly that it will return Taiwan to mainland control.  Unfortunately, Taiwan is modestly powerful, militarily, and enjoys the protection of the United States (the current Administration, notwithstanding).  Thus, military seizure is problematic.

Disputed Islands – The Chinese maintain claims on many islands in and around the South and East China Seas.  Unfortunately for China, these islands are also claimed by many other nations including Japan, Philippines, Viet Nam, and others.  Further, international law is not generally on the side of China in most of these disputed claims.


  • Isolate Taiwan from US aid and intervention and, ultimately, return Taiwan to mainland control
  • Seize the entire first island chain


  • Establish an A2/AD zone extending to the first island chain
  • Establish bases on disputed islands
  • Create islands with military bases in the disputed areas
  • Establish vast aviation exclusion zones
  • Use military force to interdict any foreign movement or presence in or around disputed islands or areas
  • Neutralize US military presence by aggressively disputing US military rights of passage and presence within the first island chain
  • Build an effective armor-based amphibious assault force to seize Taiwan and disputed islands as necessary

Now that’s a strategy and one that’s being effectively executed!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

I Don't Need Data, My Mind's Made Up

By now you’ve heard that Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, has publicly announced that the Navy will not ask for any exemptions for women in any combat job including SEALs or the Marines.  You’ve also heard all about the Marine’s study demonstrating that women drag down the performance of their units when compared to all-male units.  I’m not even going to bother offering a reference link.  The information is all over the Internet.  You can find it easily.

What I’d like to address is not the idiocy of women in combat positions – that’s self-evident – but, rather, Mabus’ leadership regarding this issue. 

The Marines initiated a pretty large and comprehensive field study to examine the ability of women to perform combat tasks.  I have to say, I was fairly impressed with the structure of the study and looked forward to seeing the results even though extensive personal experience assured me that the results were a foregone conclusion.  Still, hard data is difficult to argue with (unless you’re the SecNav).

Let’s set aside opinions on the wisdom of women in combat and, instead, ask why, if Mabus already had his mind made up, did he allow a therefore meaningless study to proceed?  A lot of time, effort, and money went into the study.  During this time of constrained budgets that money could have been well spent on a multitude of other things.  Instead, Mabus allowed the study to proceed knowing full well that he intended to ignore the results.  That’s a colossal waste of resources and an outstanding example of poor leadership.  If his mind was already made up (and he’s made no bones about stating that quite clearly), he should have cancelled the study, redirected the money and effort, and moved on.

This is just another in a seemingly endless series of very poor decisions by the highest levels of Navy leadership.

Pencil Whipped

You’ve all heard about the Marine’s recent operational assessment of the F-35B, the results of which formed the basis for the Commandant’s recommendation to declare Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for the aircraft.  You’ve also heard, here and elsewhere, that the assessment was barely able to achieve 50% aircraft availability.  What you haven’t heard is the rest of the story.  It’s far, far worse.

You’ll recall that the Michael Gilmore, DOT&E, the Pentagon’s weapon tester, wrote a memo describing the assessment in which he noted the lack of aircraft availability.  You can follow the link at the bottom of the post to see the actual memo (1).

Note:  Thanks to reader AltandMain for the link.

Let’s look a bit closer at what else was in the memo.

For starters, despite the Marines calling it an operational test (Operational Test One was the Marine’s title), Gilmore points out that it was not an operational test.  He presents a long list of reasons why it was not a valid operational test in any sense of the word (his assessment, not mine).  Let me sum up his reasons by saying that it’s clear that the aircraft involved in the test were not operationally representative nor were the conditions surrounding the test.  You can read the particulars yourself.

The memo documents in great detail, on a day by day, mission by mission, and aircraft by aircraft basis the availability issues that plagued the exercise.  What has not been reported but is documented in the memo are the additional factors that in a real world operation would have made the availabilities even worse.  Because the assessment was not an operationally realistic one, many of the aircraft systems that were or became inoperable were ignored.  In an actual operational setting their failures would have resulted in additional “downs”.

Of the six initial aircraft for the test, one had to be replaced part way through due to a fuel system maintenance issue that could not be fixed.  Again, in an actual operation, that aircraft would have been permanently unavailable (or, at least unavailable for an extended period).  Instead, the aircraft was replaced with a fresh one – certainly a distortion of the availability data!

Here is a summary of the daily aircraft operations and availabilities.  The memo describes the operations and specific availabilities in complete detail.  Again, follow the link to read the details.  Remember, there are 6 aircraft that should be fully mission capable each day.

May 18 – fly aboard six aircraft;  1 Not Mission Capable (NMC)
May 19 – daytime carrier qualifications;  1 NMC
May 20 – day/night carrier qualifications;  3 NMC
May 21 – day/night carrier qualifications;  4 NMC, 1 Partial Mission Capable (PMC)
May 22 – day/night carrier qualifications and misc training;  4 NMc, 1 PMC
May 23 – tactical training;  3 NMC
May 24 – tactical training;  4 NMC, 1 PMC
May 25 – tactical training;  2 NMC, 1 PMC
May 26 – media demo and replacement aircraft swap;  4 NMC, 1 PMC
May 27 – tactical training;  2 NMC

As you can see, the availabilities were poor and would have been poorer if many of the system failures hadn’t been ignored.  The stated 50% availability would have been on the order of 20% if this had been a real operation or real operational assessment.  Only one aircraft managed to fly each day throughout the exercise.  This is grim – all the more so for aircraft that were undoubtedly carefully selected for good performance and tweaked prior to the assessment.  Even this summary, grim as it is, does not convey all the failures.  Some aircraft were unavailable for scheduled missions but were eventually fixed in time to be counted mission capable by the end of the day.  Again, worse than presented.

Beyond availability, there were other problems, some not previously reported.

The flight mission data from the cockpit multi-function displays (MFD) and helmet mounted displays (HMD) were found to require large amounts of time to download.  The MFDs required 1 hour of download per hour of recording while the HMD required 4 hours of download per hour of recording.  It was noted that those kinds of time frames would adversely affect mission sortie rates.  I have no idea what the technical issue is but in the commercial world we can transfer gigabytes of data in moments.  This kind of problem seems incomprehensible.

Communications were also an issue.  Link 16 comms to the carrier were generally unworkable with the F-35 and carrier unable to send or receive target tracks.  Comms between aircraft were occasionally troublesome, also.  The memo notes that comms were not the focus of the exercise and the pilots did not write up the problems for maintenance – another example of potential aircraft “downs” that were not taken into account.

Radar and Electro-Optical systems were generally considered positive despite minor problems that should not be present after two decades of development and impending IOC.

Numerous problems were noted relating to the Autonomic Logistic Information System (ALIS).  Workarounds had to be deployed to transfer maintenance data.  Data files were found to be missing, corrupted, or incorrect.

Many more problems were cited in the memo although, to be fair, many were of the “to be expected” variety resulting from first time operations at sea.

Remember that this demonstration was carried out with extensive contractor support and ready access to shore based spares and equipment - conditions that would not be present in either a real operation or a real operational assessment.  Again, the availabilities would have been even worse without these aids.

Overall, the memo paints a far more serious and damning picture of the F-35’s readiness for operations than the Navy led us to believe.  Frankly, it’s baffling that the Marines would conclude that this was in any way a successful demonstration of the F-35’s readiness for IOC.  Calling this a successful demonstration is pencil whipping of the highest order!

So, if the demonstration wasn’t a valid operational assessment and the aircraft resoundingly failed from an availability perspective, what was the purpose of the "test"?  It’s pretty clear that it was intended as a media justification for declaring IOC regardless of the outcome.  Since it was not a valid test, nor even a DOT&E sanctioned test, there were no criteria and, thus, no possibility of failure.  The demonstration was just an exercise in justifying a predetermined decision to declare IOC.  My last shreds of respect for the Marine Corps as an institution are flying out the window.  We all had high hopes for the new Commandant but those hopes have been crushed with this demonstration.  Very disappointing.

[Update:  I see that the excellent Snafu website has a similar post up.  Rest assured that this is just coincidence and/or great minds thinking alike!  Go here to see his article:  Snafu]

Sunday, September 13, 2015

LCS Hellfire

As we all know, the current plan to beef up the anemic ASuW capability of the LCS is to incorporate the AGM-114L Longbow (Apache helo) Hellfire missile.  The Hellfire replaces the Griffon missile that the Navy briefly considered.  Here’s a few Hellfire specs.

Range:            500 yds – 5 miles (likely less with a sea level vertical launch)
Seeker:          millimeter wave radar
Speed:           Mach 1.3
Warhead:       20 lb, high explosive anti-tank (HEAT)

The missile’s active radar seeker gives it a fire-and-forget capability which, in turn, gives it the ability to engage multiple targets in a short time frame.  This is ideal for the small boat swarm scenario.  Hellfire is proven, lethal to small boats, and cheap enough ($100K+ per missile) to justify using for the intended purpose.

On the other hand, the Hellfire’s target set is extremely limited.  The target is strictly small boats that must close to a few miles or less to attack.  Presumably, this means small boats armed with RPGs and machine guns.  Larger missile carrying boats and fast attack craft (FAC) armed with small anti-ship missiles far outrange the LCS’ Hellfire and, thus, are not an applicable target set.

Still, assuming the Hellfire launch system does not wind up taking up too much deck space or internal ship’s volume, the missile is easily justified despite its limited target set.

The other question is whether the Hellfire will become part of the core seaframe capability or will be present only as part of the ASuW module.  Again, assuming the space and weight requirement is minimal, the missiles ought to be part of the seaframe although this is somewhat at odds with the Navy’s original intention of modular outfitting.  Of course, even the Navy has essentially admitted that the modular concept won’t work for the LCS.

Hellfire Missile

All in all, the Hellfire represents a good choice for the intended target set and can’t help but improve the LCS’ overall capability, at least to some small extent.  A small step in the right direction for the LCS!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Spruance Contract???

Well, here’s an absolutely fascinating bit of Navy contract news.

“Huntington Ingalls Inc., Pascagoula, Mississippi, is being awarded a $12,511,359 cost-plus-award-fee contract modification to previously awarded contract N00024-12-C-4323 to provide long lead-time material procurement and planning yard services for CG-47-class cruisers and DD 963-class destroyers.“

The DD-963 class is the Spruance class and, as far as I know, they’ve all been converted to uni-directional diving submarines. 

I don’t know if this is some kind of outdated cut and paste error or what.  I know there’s waste and fraud in the Department of Defense but working on non-existent ships seems a bit over the top!

Do any of you have any idea what this is referring to?

Sea Control Ship

One of the common suggestions that I encounter is the need for a sea control ship.  This is one of those concepts whose definition, and therefore capabilities and requirements, depends on the person bringing it up.  Everyone seems to have a different definition.

The original sea control concept was derived from the convoy escort mission and consisted of a helo carrier which would provide continuous ASW presence.  Around 14 helos on the ship would ensure that a couple were always airborne.

Sea control as often discussed today has evolved to include anti-surface and medium range anti-air in addition to the original ASW role.  Some even credit a sea control ship with a Marine complement for limited land operations.  The sea control ship most commonly described is a small hybrid carrier with a combination of fixed wing aircraft (Harriers, originally, and now F-35Bs) and helos with, perhaps, some AEW aircraft depending on who’s proposing the idea.

The Navy has experimented with the idea in the past.  The USS Guam was set up as a sea control vessel for a time.  Other countries have also experimented with the concept.  Notably, the Japanese have developed the helicopter destroyer (DDH) and the Soviets developed the Moskva class which combined a bit of a cruiser with an ASW helo carrier.

A sea control ship is one of those ideas that sounds good on paper but may not be worth it in reality. 

Let’s consider its function.  All sea control concepts seem to have ASW as the core function with the major capability being provided by helos.  Fair enough.  Now let’s think through the ship’s usage in a war against a peer. 

A helo carrier is not going to have much in the way of AAW protection other than RAM type short range self-defense weapons.  That means that in combat it would either need to be defended by more capable ships (a Burke, presumably) or relegated to peripheral combat areas that would not expect to see major enemy activity.

An escort is feasible but removes a highly capable vessel from other duty.  On the other hand, a Burke is, theoretically, ASW capable.  I say theoretically because Navy destroyers do not practice ASW enough to be proficient.  Still, a helo carrier and a Burke or two acting as a hunter-killer group is not a bad idea if we have enough Burkes to devote to this.  Presumably, this kind of group would be effective protecting approaches to other naval groups or attempting to deny known enemy submarine transit routes or operational areas.

Without an escort, a helo carrier would be relegated to peripheral activities such as protecting distant sea lanes or sitting on chokepoints.  Is this a worthwhile activity?  A carrier, even a smaller helo carrier is still very expensive to build, man, and operate.  If we think we can get enough benefit for the low risk then it would be worth it.  On the other hand, if the risk is low it’s probably because the possibility of reward is also low.

Finally, let’s look at the more modern definition of sea control.  Some people advocate a sea control vessel that is a jack of all trades.  It would have fixed wing aircraft (F-35B) and helos, anti-ship missiles, and at least medium range area AAW.  Frankly, I’m not sure what role such a ship would play in major combat.  It would be like an aviation frigate:  capable of lots of tasks but incapable of anything serious on its own.  It could operate with a carrier group but would be redundant since a carrier has its own ASW helos.  It could operate with an amphibious group but an amphibious group would always have a carrier supporting it so, again, it would be redundant.  It might be useful as a convoy escort which, of course, is what the modern frigate was intended to be.

Notional Sea Control Ship

Considering the various options and scenarios, it seems as if the Japanese DDH might be the best implementation of this concept.  If so, that’s not exactly the sea control concept.  Instead, it’s more of a focused ASW vessel.

The very idea of a sea control ship during war is on of those concepts that is appealing when considered in isolation but fails to stand up to rigorous analysis.  Proponents envision a sea control ship staking out a patch of ocean and then destroying enemy patrol craft and submarines.  Voila, a secured patch of ocean at a fraction of the cost of a carrier group! 

Now, let’s apply some analytical thinking to that concept.  Can a sea control ship fight an enemy destroyer similar to a Burke?  No.  That’s not even remotely realistic.  Can it fight fast attack craft (anti-ship missile boats/FAC)?  Under the right circumstances, possibly.  A helo, armed for anti-ship missions, can certainly defeat a FAC since very few FACs have any significant AAW capability.  However, the FACs generally far outrange the detection limits of a sea control ship’s sensors.  For example, the Chinese Type 022 (Houbei) missile boat carries C-80X anti-ship missiles that have a range of 60-200 miles, depending on the missile type.  A sea control ship’s onboard sensors would have an effective range out to the horizon (20 miles, say).  Of course, the ship’s helos could extend that range but every helo dedicated to surveillance is a helo subtracted from the ASW mission.

So, yes, if a sea control ship were willing to partially or completely sacrifice its ASW mission, it could detect and effectively attack FACs.  Of course, ASW is the foundation mission for a sea control ship so detracting from that mission is a risky proposition.

Now, what about when the sea control ship is detected by the enemy and faces aerial attack from aircraft and/or missiles.  The ship’s defenses would be limited to short range or point defense (RAM, most likely).  This is completely inadequate for AAW.  Some people argue for a sea control ship with a sizable fixed wing aviation component (F-35B, presumably).  Of course, once you upsize the ship to carry both a large helo and fixed wing component, you’re no longer talking about a sea control ship – you’re now talking about a nearly full size carrier which has been proven to be almost as costly to build, man, and operate as a supercarrier but without the full size carrier’s capacities and capabilities.  So, sticking with a small to moderate size sea control vessel, we see that it is completely vulnerable to air attack.  An escort, such as a Burke, could be provided but, again, that takes the Burkes away from their other high end tasks and negates the very rationale of the sea control ship which is that it can free up high end ships for high end tasks.  We could add VLS cells to provide a medium range AAW capability but, again, that increases the size of the ship for what would be a very modest increase in AAW.

What about ASW, the foundation mission for a sea control ship?  A sea control ship with a handful of ASW helos would be as effective as a surface ship can be and, in the right scenario, could be a useful and effective asset.  The problem is that helos are notoriously unreliable and high maintenance.  Thus, you need several helos in order to maintain a few in continuous operation.  That’s fine – inefficient but fine.  Such a sea control ship sitting atop chokepoints or transit routes could prove highly effective at controlling enemy submarine activity.  Recall, though, that in order to protect itself from enemy FACs the ship would have to dedicate several helos to surveillance which would not leave enough helos available for effective ASW.  Unless we postulate a very much larger ship (America class size), a sea control ship just can’t carry enough helos for both the surveillance/counter FAC mission and ASW, simultaneously.

All of this leads us to the conclusion that a sea control ship is not an effective or efficient concept for war unless we’re willing to dedicate one or more high end Burke escorts for its protection.  If we have sufficient Burkes then this becomes a viable concept.  If not, it isn’t.  This also suggests that a lesser Burke, say a modern frigate, might be a viable escort although the Navy currently has no plans to acquire a frigate.

Thus, the sea control ship, with ASW as its primary mission, is appealing in concept but fails when one considers the details of wartime employment unless a high end escort is provided.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Queen Elizabeth Class - All In Or Half-Hearted?

Beaking Defense website has an article about the UK committing to operating two carriers with F-35B air wings (1).  That’s good news for the Royal Navy and yet I see limitations and weaknesses being baked into the concept as well some disturbing trends being played out just as they have in the US Navy.

Ministry of Defense officials are saying that the UK is committed to operating two carriers regardless of the results of an ongoing defense review.  That strikes me as a bit optimistic but, not knowing the UK political situation, I’ll accept the statement at face value.

One of the trends in the US Navy is minimal manning.  The concept is that automation will allow reduced crews thereby saving on personnel costs.  The flip side of that is that significant maintenance must be performed by shore side personnel.  Thus, the manning isn’t really decreased but rather a portion of it is transferred from sea to shore.  Again, the concept is that the shore contingent will be able to service multiple ships at an overall decrease in manning.  That sounds good on paper but, thus far, the US Navy has not been able to make it work.  LCS shore side personnel have had to be far more numerous than planned and there has been no significant reduction in manning and, quite probably, an increase depending on how one counts the personnel.

Worse than simple overall personnel numbers is the issue of actual maintenance.  The US Navy has been dabbling in minimal manning for at least a couple of decades now and has amassed considerable practical experience with the concept.  The clear finding has been that minimal manning has proven very detrimental to the material condition of the ships involved.  Minor problems have been allowed to grow into major ones and ships have been early retired due to their poor condition – much of that condition directly attributable to the lack of manpower.

It now appears that the UK is going down the same path.

“To save costs, the Queen Elizabeth class has a fewer sailors for its size than older ships, she [Penny Mordaunt, Minister of State for Armed Forces] said, but it requires ‘additional shore support’ to compensate.”

I hope that the UK looks seriously at the USN experience before fully committing to minimal manning. 

Moving on, the Queen Elizabeth class will carry F-35B air wings.

“Each QE-class ship can accommodate 40 aircraft of various types, but not all of those are going to be fighters. … The maximum capacity for F-35s is reportedly 36 aircraft but during routine operations, each carrier might have only a dozen F-35Bs on board.”

The key part of the statement above is the suggestion that the carriers would operate with only a dozen F-35s during routine operations.  If true, this would be a major mistake.

How can a navy learn to operate an air wing under maximum combat conditions if all their operational and training time is spent operating an air wing that is a third the size?  There are just too many differences between a 30-40 aircraft wing operating at maximum capacity versus a 12 aircraft wing operating under leisurely peacetime conditions.

How will the carrier learn the deck “dance” of handling and placement of 30-40 aircraft under constantly changing conditions from only operating 12?

How will the carrier learn the art of juggling launches and recoveries under maximum sortie rates with only 12?

How will the carrier learn the task of munitions handling, refueling, and maintenance of 30-40 aircraft with only 12?

In short, a carrier does not seamlessly transition from 12 aircraft operated at a leisurely pace to 30-40 aircraft operating a maximum sortie rate without constant practice.  The USN devotes months of training workups to its carriers and air wings prior to each deployment and that’s with operating a full air wing routinely.  The art of maximum carrier operations is not something that can be picked up on the fly in a week.

This brings us back around to manning levels.  The reduced manning of the QE class presumably is what’s required to operate the dozen F-35s.  When the carrier surges to a maximum 30-40 aircraft it will need many additional personnel.  Where will these extra personnel come from?  How will they be trained if they aren’t routinely operating with the carriers?  Learning on the fly on a carrier is a recipe for disaster.

Reduced operations is a bad idea all around.  Remember the adage, fight like you train, train like you fight?  Routinely operating 12 aircraft when you intend to fight with 30-40 violates a very wise adage.

Royal Navy, are you operating two carriers because you just like the idea of being able to say you have the carriers or are you operating two carriers because you want to be able to place two fully loaded carriers into high end combat at a moment’s notice?

Lastly, here’s an interesting comment about philosophy.

“What’s more, Britain has prioritized warfighting over low-intensity operations, accepting a smaller fleet as the price of more capable vessels …”

If true, that’s a very wise philosophy and one which, sadly, the USN is abandoning with its emphasis on the toothless LCS, JHSV, smaller air wings, submarine and fighter shortfalls, etc.  Note, though, RN, the contradiction between the stated philosophy of emphasis on warfighting with the reduction in operations of the carriers from max size air wings (30-40 aircraft) to a dozen aircraft for routine operations.  Are you really committed to warfighting or not?  Will you be fully trained and ready, or not?  You certainly won’t have a full air wing at a moment’s notice.

That’s an interesting question, too.  How long will it take to get all those extra F-35s out to the ship?  Are they all going to be parked on a tarmac ready to launch?  Not likely.  Will the extra pilots be sitting around fully trained (and carrier qualified!!) just waiting to launch?  Will the extra maintenance crews be sitting around, ready?  Will the extra spares and maintenance/testing equipment already be on the carrier or will they also have to be assembled and transported to the carrier? 

Those who might suggest that the a dozen aircraft are just fine for routine operations and that the rest of the aircraft can be instantly surged are just not seeing reality.  The F-35 is not a WWI powered kite that can be piloted by someone with a few hours training and maintained by any mechanic with a pipe wrench.  Surging F-35s may take weeks or months and a carrier caught in a moment’s notice conflict will be severely limited in its capabilities.

It pains me to see the Royal Navy preparing to go down some of the same paths that the USN has already shown to be mistakes.  I hope the RN very carefully thinks through their carrier operating plans.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Appeasement - Follow Up

By now, I'm sure you've read about the Chinese task force passing through United States territorial waters (inside the 12 mile limit) near Alaska in an exercise referred to as "innocent passage".  This procedure allows ships to pass through another country's territorial waters under certain conditions.  ComNavOps has no problem, per se, with the Chinese exercising their rights.  There are, however, a few noteworthy aspects to this incident.

First, the timing was such that the incident occurred as President Obama was conducting a trip to Alaska.  The timing and the implicit message could not be more obvious.  However, we'll leave the political aspects and move on.

The maneuver cannot be interpreted as anything but provocative.  The Chinese ships were not in a position where they had no choice but to take that particular path.  The choice was deliberate.  This should speak volumes to us about our current policy of appeasement.  The more we back off, accommodate, and make peaceful gestures and concessions, the more aggressive the Chinese behave.  That's not surprising, really.  History tells us with 100% certainty that appeasement only encourages further aggression.

Remember the incident in Dec 2013 when the Aegis cruiser Cowpens was harassed and chased off from observing a Chinese carrier in international waters in the South China Sea?  We meekly left the area after being harassed and warned off.  We left international waters!  Despite this appeasement, China engages in deliberately provocative maneuvers in US territorial waters.  Do you see the blatant failure of appeasement?  And this is just one example.

So, the Chinese pattern of response to our appeasement is further provocation and aggression.  So much for appeasement.

What we should have done is observe the Chinese innocent passage by having our ships literally bump the Chinese the entire passage and having a non-stop succession of aircraft conduct low level supersonic observation passes over the Chinese ships throughout the entire passage.  If they wanted to send messages, we should have answered with our own.

I can already hear the sniveling and whining.  "We can't risk escalation".  Well, I've got news for you if you can stop wetting yourself long enough to hear it - the Chinese are escalating the situation on a daily basis.  We need to either get in the fight or back completely out of the Pacific and learn to speak Mandarin while we wait for the Chinese to reach San Francisco.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Combat In The Information Age

Proceedings has an interesting article about combat in the “Information Age”, as the authors put it (1).  The article is an odd combination of the authors “getting it” and “missing it”.  Let’s take a closer look and see what they have to say that we might learn from.

First, it should be noted that the authors are two active duty Lieutenant Commanders, one a Surface Warfare Officer selected for command and the other an Intelligence officer.  As such, they ought to represent a doorway into current naval thought and for this reason, if no other, their writing is worthy of consideration.

The authors discuss the recognition that weapons are becoming more lethal and that, as a result, there is a need to try to cut the kill chain further upstream.  They state that the implication of this is the need to manage our electromagnetic (EM) signatures “as never before”.  Of course, EM silence (EMCON) was the default state of naval units during the Cold War so the “as never before” statement rings a bit hollow and, to be fair, the authors point that out.  As they put it,

“In practice this means, among other things, controlling our EM signature while conducting any type of operations, with EM silence as our default posture.”

Again, this warrants a huge, “Duh!”, but at least they’re saying it.  They go on to say,

“While we became fairly proficient at emissions control during the Cold War, the lack of a meaningful blue-water threat since the fall of the Soviet Union and our vast accumulation of new EM systems have allowed us to forget.  Today, naval vessels and aircraft operate by default with multiple active radar, identification, datalink, and communication systems radiating.  Rarely are we forced to operate in a silent (or reduced) mode for any sort of extended period or while conducting complex operations.”

And there it is.  The authors summed up the entire EM issue.  We knew it.  We forgot it.  We don’t practice it.  You’ve heard me say this on a regular basis and now you’re hearing active duty, ranking officers saying it.

Could we even operate in an EMCON mode if we had to?  The authors, and ComNavOps, do not believe so.

“Similarly, in air defense, we so infrequently practice single-ship or group-restricted radiation operations in tactical scenarios that it is questionable whether we are proficient enough to use them in wartime.”

The lack of realistic training – another pet peeve of ComNavOps. 

The authors bring up another great point concerning the global, universally networked, all-seeing, infinitely datalinked, battle management system that the Navy is so enamored with and that is the awareness of what’s happening at the tactical level.  Allowing, for the moment, that this kind of mythical network can even work (it can’t), the authors point out a tactical level awareness problem.

“Much of the disruption effort will be executed by joint forces or at the operational level, so how will tactical-level Navy decision-makers know what is going on and how or when to exploit success?  For example, if the Air Force disables a sector of the adversary’s passive electronic-surveillance network, how will the officer commanding a surface action group 1,000 miles away know he is now in an advantageous position where his ship’s radars can be energized to locate and destroy an enemy platform in his vicinity?”

An excellent question and it again points to the need for realistic training so that these types of unforeseen problems can be identified and worked out.  Some might casually employ the hand wave and confidently assert that all levels of operation will seamlessly and flawlessly communicate to each other.  They might, or they might not, as suggested by the authors.

“We pay a lot of lip service to seamless joint integration, but it is specious to believe communications between operational and tactical-level commanders in a joint environment are either as fast or as thorough as required.”

Again, these are active duty, ranking officers saying this!

The flip side of the EM coin is also noted.  The enemy will be doing their best to control the EM spectrum and we must anticipate the loss or, at best, intermittent use of our comms, networks, and datalinks.  The implication is that we will be faced with fighting with a lack of higher level command and control – the opposite of what we have now where the movements and actions of individual soldiers can be monitored and ordered from the White House.  As the authors point out,

“In the Navy we are fortunate to be the heirs to a strong tradition of command-by-negation, distributed execution, and autonomous decision-making.  However, with the increase in volume of communications our ability to fight complicated scenarios with minimal or intermittent communications has almost certainly weakened.  We can regain it only with realistic and challenging training at all levels from fleet to unit and individual watchstander.”

Again, straight from the annals of this blog!

Well, so much for the “get it” portion.  Unfortunately, the authors still generally believe that the modern battlefield will be electronic, networked, datalinked, and comm’ed though, to their credit, not to the degree or with the effortlessness that the Navy thinks.  They fail to grasp the reality that modern combat against a peer will see all the magic devices on both sides come up well short due to a combination of countermeasures and the 100% certainty of weapons and systems being vastly overrated.  As a result, the combatants will quickly fall back on simpler, brute force weapons and systems with the resulting combat being closer to WWII than Star Wars.  Complexity is great for wargaming and public relations but when combat starts, simplicity will quickly become king.

We need to begin developing weapons and systems that can function without external inputs and we need to begin training for a state of degraded and lost external inputs.

(1) USNI Proceedings, “The Face of Battle in the Information Age”, Crooks & Robertaccio, July 2015

Thursday, September 3, 2015

E for Expeditionary

With all the challenges the Navy faces, what do you think Navy Secretary Mabus and CNO Greenert are spending their time on?  Ballistic missile defense?  Chronic maintenance and readiness problems?  The coming submarine and fighter shortfalls? 

Those are all good guesses but not even remotely close.

Mabus and Greenert have just created a new ship designation.  The new designation is “E” for Expeditionary.  It will be used to redesignate these ships:

JHSV, Joint High Speed Vessels will become EPF, for Expeditionary Fast Transport

MLP, Mobile Landing Platforms will become ESD, for Expeditionary Transfer Docks

AFSB, Afloat Forward Staging Bases will become ESB, for Expeditionary Base Mobile

I don’t really care what the ships are designated but is this really the best use of the SecNav and CNO’s time?  Is this really the issue that moves them?

Further, I doubt that this is just an innocuous redesignation.  I assume this will be used as justification to count these ships as part of the fleet rather than as the auxiliaries that they are.

Navy leadership is truly an embarrassment to the fleet and the nation.