Sunday, November 29, 2015


One of the vital but relatively unknown vessels of the Navy is the T-AGOS ocean surveillance ships.  The Navy operates a small fleet of these vessels under the Military Sealift Command.  This post offers a brief look at these vessels and their function.

As you might imagine, getting detailed information on the functionality of these ships is difficult.  The vessels are broadly tasked with surveillance of submarines.  Presumably this includes both tracking of submarines and development of detailed acoustic profiles of submarine classes and specific submarines.  Their primary “weapon” is the SURTASS surveillance towed array sensor system which is intended to monitor submarines at very long ranges. 

Additional functions include oceanographic and hydrographic data collection.

SURTASS is the mobile version of the well known SOSUS system.  In its baseline configuration, the array was passive only but now includes a vertical array active low frequency (LFA) source.  This allows operation in a bistatic mode.  USS Impeccable began operating the LFA in 2004.  Smaller versions of the LFA have been developed for the Victorious class vessels. Other versions of SURTASS are being developed for enhanced shallow water submarine detection.

The horizontal array is 4900 ft long and is towed at a depth of 500-1500 ft.

Ships and Characteristics
The Navy currently operates four T-AGOS ships of two classes.  The three-ship Victorious class was begun in 1986 and the one-ship Impeccable class was started in 1993.  Additional ships were planned in the Impeccable class but were cancelled for budget reasons.

The ships are built with SWATH (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) hulls for stability at low speed and in heavy weather.

The current list of active T-AGOS vessels is:

Victorious T-AGOS-19
Able T-AGOS-20
Effective T-AGOS-21
Loyal T-AGOS-22
Impeccable T-AGOS-23

Here are a few physical characteristics for the Victorious class.  The Impeccable class is similar, though larger.

Length:                       234 – 281 ft
Displacement:           3400 – 5400 tons
Speed:                       10 – 13 kts;  3 kts when towing
Crew:                          20 mariners, 5 techs, and up to 15 Navy crew

USS Impeccable

Impeccable Incident

There is a demonstrable and common sense need to provide protection for these ships when they operate near unfriendly countries.  Impeccable was invoved in a famous incident of harassment by Chinese vessels in 2009 that illustrates the need for protection.  From a Naval War College report comes this summary of the incident (1).

“[Impeccable] … was engaged in lawful military activities in China’s claimed EEZ. On 8 March 2009, five PRC vessels—a navy intelligence ship, a government fisheries-patrol vessel, a state oceanographic patrol vessel, and two small fishing trawlers—surrounded and harassed Impeccable approximately seventy-five miles south of Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The fishing trawlers maneuvered within twenty-five feet of Impeccable and then intentionally stopped in front of it, forcing Impeccable to take emergency action to avoid a collision. The U.S. government protested the PRC’s actions as reckless, unprofessional, and unlawful. China responded that Impeccable’s presence in China’s claimed EEZ had been in violation of Chinese domestic law and international law. Impeccable returned to the area the next day under escort of a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93).”

Note that Impeccable did not have effective protection during the incident.  Failure to provide protection is a recipe for disaster.  You’ll recall the Chinese forcedown and subsequent seizure and looting of the EP-3 aircraft some years back.  Without ready protection, we run the risk of losing a valuable and highly secret vessel.

The Navy continues to search for a mission the LCS can be effective at.  Adapting a LCS to the T-AGOS mission would be a possibility.  With at least a minimal level of self-protection as well as some useful speed, the LCS-AGOS could operate with a degree of defensive capability that the T-AGOS does not possess.  Of course, the LCS is inherently endurance-challenged but modifications ought to be possible to greatly increase the range and endurance.  This is not a perfect option but might be a way to get more use out of an otherwise fairly useless platform.

In summary, the T-AGOS vessels provide a very valuable function in the Navy’s subsurface warfare effort and, though less glamorous, deserve increased attention, upgrades, and protection.  All in all, an interesting class of ship!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Harpoon Block II+ - What Changed In Three Minutes?

The Navy is in the process of testing the Harpoon Block II+ missile.  The main feature of the II+ is the ability to accept in-flight guidance.

Is that really a big deal?  Or even a moderately worthwhile capability?

Harpoon has a range of 60 miles and a speed of 540 mph.  Doing the math, that translates to 9 miles per minute.  Thus, at max range, the Harpoon will cover the distance to the target in 6.6 minutes.  Is there really going to be a need to update the targeting in 6.6 minutes?  A ship target moving at 30 kts, for example, will move 3.3 nm in 6.6 minutes – presumably still well within the Harpoon seeker range – and that’s the worst case of max range and max target speed. 

Presumably, the mid-course guidance (it’s called “mid-course” because it happens part way through the flight, not at the last second) would take place at around the 3 or 4 minute mark of the flight.  Seriously?  Is there really a need for mid-course flight path changes after 3 or 4 minutes?  Even a very fast ship would only have moved a mile or two and most targets less than that.  Presumably, we had a pretty good target fix when we launched.  It won’t have changed that much!  Yes, we can launch on bearing only but if that’s all we had at launch, we’re not going to have any better data 3 or 4 minutes later.

For any case of less than max range or less than max target speed, the need for mid-course guidance just goes from not realistically needed to utterly not needed.  There just seems to be little need for mid-course guidance updates.  This seems like a capability that sounds nice when you say it but is not worth the cost and added complexity.  Remember, not only does the Harpoon have to carry additional equipment (cost and complexity as well as weight) but whatever guiding platform there is has to have a transmitter capable of sending signals in whatever format is required (cost and complexity).

By the way, what platform is going to provide the mid-course guidance data?  Any platform that has a good enough fix on the target at the moment of mid-course correction almost certainly had the same good fix at launch with exact knowledge of location, course, and speed thus rendering the need for mid-course guidance moot.

Honestly, I get the feeling that this is just a hyped capability designed to get more developmental funding for the manufacturer.  This is a solution looking for problem.  There’s a lot of things I’d rather spend the developmental money on than this.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

UAV Tanker Killer

War on the Rocks (WOTR) website has a fascinating article on the vulnerability of our aerial tanking capability which inspired this particular post (1).  WOTR points out that aerial tanking is a fundamental capability that is crucial to all our combat operations.  Further, the availability of tanking is taken for granted.  WOTR posits the question, what if our tanking is threatened?  The article goes on to describe threats and solutions.  It’s a very worthwhile read.

The particular aspect that I’d like to focus on is the potential use of enemy long range, stealthy UAVs as anti-tanker weapons.  We don’t hesitate to envision and design all manner of long range, stealthy UAVs that will triumphantly penetrate deep into enemy airspace and carry out devastating attacks with near total impunity.  Being slightly more realistic, we don’t hesitate to envision and design long range, stealthy UAVs intended for persistent surveillance deep in enemy airspace, again with assumed impunity.

Well, fair is fair.  If we can design such magnificent machines so can the enemy.  Let’s face it, on a relative scale, designing and building UAVs is not all that difficult and a bit of cyber spying and hacking would provide any design specs the enemy couldn’t figure out on their own.

Now imagine a long range, stealthy UAV whose design purpose is to be a tanker-killer.  It would probably have a degree of autonomy to identify tankers on its own and decide where, when, and how to kill them.  The UAV could even be designed as a suicide craft to be expended against the tanker.

Tanker locations, at least generally, can be fairly well predicted.  They have to be somewhere along the path to a worthwhile target and placed in the flight paths of the combat aircraft who need the fuel.  Knowing where our bases are, where the targets of interest are, and having observed our general flight paths, it wouldn’t take much of a thought exercise to predict tanker locations. 

Long endurance, stealthy UAVs can fly to the predicted areas and simply wait while conducting search profiles.  A little bit of artificial intelligence software can aid in backtracking observed aircraft flight paths to further refine predicted locations.

For relatively little effort and cost, the enemy could paralyze our air operations by seriously affecting our tanking capability and capacity.  I know many of you are having a knee jerk reaction and saying that no enemy UAV can fly thousands of miles into our airspace, undetected, and destroy our tankers.  We’d see them and easily shoot them down.  To go back to the previous thought, we think our UAVs will penetrate thousands of miles of enemy airspace and carry out all manner of destruction and surveillance, undetected.  We can’t have it both ways.  If UAVs are that good then they’ll be that good for the enemy, too.  If UAVs aren’t that good then you have to ask about the wisdom of our current UAV path.

Tanker - UAV Target?

The purpose of this post is to anticipate a possible enemy course of action and, thus, be prepared to counter it.  If we believe this is a realistic possibility then we need to be prepared to provide UAV detection around our tankers and provide the means to destroy the UAVs.  I don’t know what level of detection capability is needed.  Is an F-15’s radar sufficient to detect UAVs for many miles around a tanker or do we need to pair AWACS and tankers?  Does a UAV have enough of a radar and IR signature for an AMRAAM or Sidewinder to successfully engage it?  Hopefully, the military is looking closely at these kinds of questions.

On a broader scale, hopefully the military is looking at our forces from the enemy’s perspective and trying to anticipate their actions just as we’re doing here.  Unfortunately, I see far more emphasis on acquiring things then on developing tactics and conducting realistic wargames against an “enemy force” that is free to engage in any manner they wish.

Anyway, take this as a simple thought exercise in the realm of tactics.  The military needs to do a lot more of this.

(1)War on the Rocks, “Short Legs Can’t Win Arms Races: Range Issues And New Threats To Aerial Refueling Put U.S. Strategy At Risk”, Greg Knepper And Peter W. Singer, May 20, 2015,

Friday, November 20, 2015

LCS and Netfires NLOS

I’ve stated repeatedly that the LCS’ major failing was the absence of a well developed Concept of Operations (CONOPS) prior to committing to the program.  This lead to pointless capabilities like excessive speed which had no tactical purpose, unfeasible concepts like module swapping in a tactical timeframe, missing capabilities like the lack of air defense, and cost overruns due to attempts to include all manner of capabilities because there was no CONOPS to evaluate usefulness against.

That said, what is the single biggest complaint voiced about the LCS?  It would probably have to be the lack of armament.  That brings us to the Netfires NLOS (Non Line Of Sight) weapon system.  The failure of that system lead directly to the lack of armament complaint.

Let’s take a moment to briefly review what NLOS was intended to be.  NLOS was a family of vertically launched missiles including a Precision Attack Missile (PAM) and a Loitering Attack Missile (LAM).  The 117 lb missile had a range of around 20-25 miles.  Missiles were to be equipped with IR, GPS/Inertial, and semi-active laser homing.  The system was to have networked the missiles, in flight, to provide autonomous target recognition and allocation, real time targeting updates, and damage assessment imaging.  The missiles were to be launched, arrive over the target area, autonomously identify and allocate targets, and attack.  Supposedly, the missile had a multi-target warhead with both shaped-charge capability and blast fragmentation.

For the LCS, the system was envisioned to provide both a land attack capability and anti-surface capability (the anti-swarm mission).

If the LCS had actually achieved this capability, we’d be having a somewhat different discussion about the LCS.  Yes, the LCS would still have the same inherent flaws but at least the armament complaint would have been largely alleviated for the ship’s intended role.  The LCS would still not be a frigate with long range anti-ship missiles but, to be fair, that was never envisioned as the LCS’ role.  And, yes, the modular concept would still be a weakness in that a LCS that was not equipped with the ASuW module would be helpless against a swarm.

The NLOS was certainly the key to the ASuW module and, arguably, key to the LCS’ success overall.

So, aside from historical enlightenment and amusement, what do we learn from this?

Among other lessons, we learn the folly of committing to a production run of a warship whose main weapon is experimental at the time of commitment.  Most experimental weapons never pan out and, in this particular case, the Army had already declared the NLOS a failure and cancelled the program.  I wonder why the Navy thought this would succeed?

The point of this post is two-fold:  to provide some historical perspective on the LCS’ armament issue and to try to recognize and understand the Navy’s failure.

It’s not just that the NLOS failed.  As I said, weapon programs fail all the time.  The real issue is the Navy mindset that chose to ignore the history of failure of weapons development, in general, and the Army’s pronouncement of failure for this system, in particular, and, instead, chose to believe that this would be the program that would defy the odds.  Any reasonable person would have opted to stop the LCS acquisition program at the point that the NLOS was cancelled and wait until a suitable alternative could have been procured or developed.  Of course, the truly reasonable person wouldn’t have even begun an acquisition program where the main weapon didn’t actually exist – but, I digress.

The Navy’s ability to ignore reality is legend but at some point you’d like to see some recognition of reality especially as the Navy pursues lasers, railguns, BMD, Fords, LX(R)’s, UCLASS/UCAV, etc.  If the Navy doesn’t start to do a better job of recognizing reality, I’ll be writing for the next 30 years!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Definition of Insanity?

Over the years, we’ve seen that the Navy’s ability to estimate costs is laughable, at best.  Given that history, you’d think the Navy would have learned to bump up their estimates.  That makes the latest procurement program, the LX(R) replacement for the LSD-41/49 class another sad affair in the making.

The LX(R) is going to be a modified LPD-17.  So, with nothing more than that statement, what would you, the reader, estimate the cost of the LX(R) to be?  Probably the cost of the last LPD built ($2.1B) with some minor adjustments for specific equipment removed and specific equipment added plus the inevitable cost increases that just plain seem to accrue to shipbuilding, right?  Same ship, same cost.  Seems reasonable.  So, what does the Navy think?

From a USNI News website article comes the Navy’s view of the cost (1).

“The Navy and Marine Corps were able to design an LX(R) dock landing ship replacement with greater capability for less money by starting with the higher-end San Antonio-class LPD-17 design, stripping away unneeded features and adding back in desired ones, service officials said last week.”

The same ship, with greater capability, for less money.  Does that sound reasonable?

“Johnson [Capt. Bryon Johnson, OPNAV N953] said the program had to stay within a cost cap but said he was confident the first ship would stay within the cost cap and deliver on time.”

Consider the Navy’s track record of meeting first ship cost and schedule goals.  Would you think it’s more or less likely that the first LX(R) will be delivered on time and one budget?

“Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, who served as director of expeditionary warfare (OPNAV N95) until July, said at a Marine Corps Association event last month that, in fact, the Navy and Marine Corps had far surpassed cost-reduction goals while descoping the LPD design.

‘We drove that to a cost cap that was given to us by [the chief of naval operations], and we, with our industry partners, with [Naval Sea Systems Command], drove in the right requirements. And we got the most we could possibly get out of that ship, and it almost looks like an LPD-17, and we got it well under the cost cap,’ he said.”

An even more optimistic view, huh?  Costs will be well under the cost cap.  I don’t know what the cost cap is.  I think they’re referring to an internal target cost rather than a Congressionally mandated cost cap and I think the internal target is $1.6B per ship.

“Current N95 Maj. Gen. Chris Owens said the approach is ‘attractive to [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and it’s attractive on Capitol Hill’ due to its efficiency. Ultimately, he said, it will ‘give us a bigger ship, greater capability, not only in size and capacity but also in things like aviation capability, the medical capability and perhaps most importantly in this day and age of split and disaggregated operations the command and control capability that the LSDs lack.’ ”

There it is again – a bigger ship with greater capability for less money.  Does that seem believable?  The Navy will take the exact same ship they just built for $2.1B and make it bigger, with more capability and they believe it will be cheaper?  Isn’t that the definition of insanity - doing essentially the same thing and expecting a different outcome?  They're going to build essentially the same ship and expect it will cost significantly less - insanity.

LX(R) - Insanity?

Someday we will be discussing the LX(R) cost overruns and debating why they happened.  Well, the starting point is right here, right now, with the Navy’s typical wildly underestimated costs. 

What will the LX(R) really cost?  As I said, it will be the cost of the last LPD built ($2.1B), less removed equipment, plus added equipment, plus inflation, and plus that inevitable cost creep that seems to affect Navy ships.  The removed and added equipment will probably be a wash and cancel out so that leaves us with $2.1B plus the inevitable creep so let’s call it $2.5B.  There you have it.  With no specifications to look at, a reasonable cost estimate would be $2.5B.  Ask yourself, who is more likely to be right about the LX(R) costs, ComNavOps or the Navy?

The Navy’s inability to learn lessons is legendary and this is the start of yet another example.

(1)USNI, “Navy: LX(R) Will Be Cheaper, More Capable Thanks To Using San Antonio LPD Design As Starting Point”, Megan Eckstein, November 5, 2015,

Monday, November 16, 2015

LCS ASW Tactics

Here’s a just-for-fun post.  Let’s speculate about LCS shallow water ASW tactics.  I don’t think the Navy has gamed out an LCS ASW concept of operations so let’s do it for them!  Now, before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that none of us has the background to discuss this authoritatively and if we did we probably wouldn’t be able to discuss it publicly.  So, as I said, this discussion will be just speculative fun.

Let’s start by summarizing what we think we know about the LCS as it relates to ASW.

  • Let’s start by recognizing that we’re focusing on shallow water ASW because there are better ASW platforms for deep water operations and the LCS hasn’t got the endurance to conduct sustained deep water ops.

  • The LCS is not built for ASW.  It does not have machinery quieting built in, it lacks a hull mounted sonar, its water jets make it an acoustic beacon (it’s a better target than hunter), and it has no ship mounted ASW weapons.

  • The only ASW weapon the LCS has is the helo and it can only operate one helo.  Reports state that the LCS-2 variant can operate two -60 type helos but I’ve heard that flight deck structural issues limit it to one helo.

  • The ASW sensor suite consists of a variable depth sonar (VDS), SQR-20 multi-function towed array (MFTA), and the MH-60R helo’s AQS-22 low frequency dipping sonar (ALFS) plus sonobuoys.

  • When deployed, the VDS limits the LCS to very low speeds.

  • The MFTA requires a pretty fair water depth in order to be towed without dragging on the sea bottom.  I don’t know what the minimum operational depth is but I’ve heard the general statement that the MFTA is not really useful in shallow water.  I’ve also heard that it is possible to only partially stream the MFTA in order to keep the array from sinking too deeply but then a partial array is only partially effective.

Now, let’s summarize what we think we know about the shallow water ASW environment.  Due to its nature, shallow water is a very noisy place.  Bottom flow, river discharge flow, numerous civilian an commercial vessels, surf/shore interaction, tidal movement, civilian craft, bottom debris including lots of wrecks and metal structures, and lots of biologics (animal life) all contribute to making shallow water a very noisy place.  Thus, detection is likely to occur only at much shorter ranges than in deep water.  Passive sonar is going to be far less effective resulting in an emphasis on active sonar which, again, is inherently shorter ranged.  Further, the mixing of fresh water from rivers with the salt water and the effects of solar heating will cause lots of transient thermal and density gradients which will further complicate acoustic detection and result in shorter range detections.

Finally, let’s summarize what we think we know about the SSK, the likely shallow water opponent.  SSKs are very quiet, slow moving, and quite deadly with long range, fast torpedoes.  Well, that wasn’t hard to summarize!

So, now we understand the LCS, the environment, and the enemy (hmm, the Navy has people study ASW for years and we just became experts in a couple of paragraphs!).  With that knowledge, what ASW tactics can we postulate that would emphasize our strengths, mitigate our weaknesses, and maximize our chances for success?

The helo is clearly the strength of the LCS.  It allows the ship to remain at arm’s length and is immune to counterattack (at least from the sub!).  Unfortunately, the helo is also an inherently weak platform when available in only limited quantities.  The old saying is that if you have one helo, you have none.  That’s in recognition of both the helo’s chronic maintenance issues and the limited endurance (Lockheed’s product brochure lists mission endurance as 3.3 hours) and small payload that requires frequent returns to the ship for maintenance, refueling, and rearming.  Remember that ASW is a very long term operation requiring persistence, patience, and endurance.  Even a functioning helo is only available for several hours out of each 24 hour cycle.  Thus, a ship with only a single helo will only have sporadic ASW helo coverage.  When you subtract the maintenance, refueling/rearming, and transit times, you quickly realize that the best a single helo can offer is 4-6 ours of actual ASW coverage per day.

The obvious solution to limited helo availability is to increase the number of ships, each with a helo, and pool the helos so as to maximize helo availability.  Four helos, and hence four ships, sounds about right to ensure one helo is always on station.  This, then, dictates an LCS ASW tactic of operating four ships as an ASW squadron.

How, then, do we utilize the four ship squadron, tactically?

We must first acknowledge that even four helos operating simultaneously can only provide a very limited coverage area.  Dipping sonars in shallow water are just not going to provide wide area coverage.  More realistically, as we discussed, one or two helos are going to provide extremely limited coverage.  Thus, in order to maximize our chance of detection, we’ll have to involve the ship’s sensors.  A reasonable approach to this is to stake out a square of interest with a ship at each corner and work in towards the center with the helos starting at the center and working back out towards the ships.  Hopefully, the constricting box will herd the submarine towards the center where the helos can locate it or, eventually, all four ships can combine to locate and prosecute it.

The alternative approach is for the ships to stand well off and let the helos work the area of interest alone but their limited coverage is unlikely to succeed.

Having located a target, how do we attack it?  As we noted, the LCS has no ship mounted ASW weapons so the attack will have to be by helo.  There’s nothing wrong with this except for the helo’s limited availability and limited payload (two torpedoes, max).  We may have to make multiple attacks over several hours due to limited availability.  Maintaining contact on a very quiet target for that length of time will be a challenge and, again, multiple ships will be useful to track the contact.

Related side comment:  If I were the Navy, I’d have designed the LCS with the ability to share ASW tracks and data in a common tactical picture.  I wonder if they did?  I’ve not heard of such a capability.

Lastly, we have to recognize that asking an unoptimized, acoustically loud ship to play tag with an SSK is asking for LCSs to be sunk.  It’s a fact of combat.  Again, this argues for operating in multi-ship squadrons.  If one ship is sunk or forced to run, the others can maintain contact and continue the prosecution.

One of the weaknesses in this concept is the LCS’ inherent susceptibility to enemy aircraft since the LCS has only very short range AAW capability.  It would be nice if the group could combine AAW resources for self-protection but that isn’t possible.  In an area of likely enemy air activity a Burke may be a requirement for self-defense.  If so, the Navy should also think about incorporating the Burke into an LCS/Burke hunter killer group – but that’s a topic for another time.

Of course, all of the preceding discussion presumes that the LCS is operating alone in the ASW role.  It is quite possible that other air or submarine assets might join in which would necessitate modified tactics.  We can’t cover all the permutations in one blog post so we’ll stick with just the LCS.  This should also provide us with the tactical baseline from which to modify tactics as other assets enter the equation.

The sharp among you may be wondering about the value of 4 LCS/4 helos versus a single small helicopter carrier that could carry, say, 12 helos.  If, as we’ve described, helos are the key to shallow water ASW, then a helo carrier would be suitable and offer more helos.  For probably the same cost as four LCS, a helo carrier would provide 3X the helos.  Something to think about.

So, what do you think?  Anyone have a different idea about how to go after shallow water subs with the LCS?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Battlefield Interdiction

What is the definition of the term “interdiction” as applied to amphibious assault combat?  It’s the act of preventing the movement of enemy troops to a point where they can mount a counterattack.

We recently discussed D-Day and noted that interdiction of German reinforcements and counterattacks was instrumental in the success of the assault.  In WWII, the enemy had to be pretty much within visual range to mount any kind of effective counterattack because most weapons had only a line of sight effective range.  Even artillery required that the enemy be within visual range to provide spotting.  Thus, if we could keep the enemy beyond visual range, their counterattack would be negated.  Further, counterattacks generally consisted of troops (in tanks or mounted, perhaps, but still troops).  On a practical basis that meant that interdiction could occur within a few to several miles of our forces and be effective although, of course, it could also occur much farther away than that.

Now, let’s consider the modern assault battlefield and the range and composition of today’s counterattack.

Today, counterattacks do not have to consist of troops, at all, but can consist of cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges of hundreds or thousands of miles as well as artillery supported by UAVs in addition to conventional armored units and troops.  Interdiction has become a much more difficult proposition.  The enemy no longer has to move to within visual range.  Thus, our interdiction efforts must be able to occur at much longer ranges.  I’m not sure that “interdict” is even the right word anymore.  Regardless, we need to be able to stop cruise and ballistic missile counterattacks which means either shooting them down in the air (the hard way to do it) or disrupting and preventing their launch at greatly extended ranges (theoretically, the easier and more efficient way to do it).

The point is that our interdiction efforts must range much further than in WWII.  In fact, those ranges may take us within the heart of enemy defensive systems, further complicating the interdiction effort.

If you think about it, an opposed landing no longer needs to have enemy soldiers anywhere near the landing site to be considered “opposed”.  Opposition in the form of cruise and ballistic missiles and long range rockets and artillery can constitute an effective opposing force with absolutely no enemy troops in the immediate vicinity of the assault force.  This also casts doubt on the “land where they ain’t” concept.

So, as we contemplate amphibious assaults, we need to provide a means of interdicting enemy forces that may be hundreds of miles from the assault site and may have no need or desire to move closer.  Again, the term interdiction is probably no longer even valid so don’t get hung up on the terminology.

Now, how can we do this?  What forces can an amphibious assault group call on to accomplish this interdiction? 

Naval Gunfire?  It won’t be naval gunfire – that can’t even reach the beach! 

Marine Artillery?  It won’t be artillery since that doesn’t generally have the range and it won’t be available until later waves.  Worse, the Marines are cutting back on artillery as they pursue “lightness” of force.

Helicopters?  This is a viable option within relatively shorter ranges.  Attack helos are effective.  Unfortunately, amphibious assault groups don’t have sufficient numbers for effective long range interdiction of multiple targets.  Worse, every helo sent on interdiction missions is a helo unavailable to provide the crucial, initial support for the landing itself.  Still worse is the vulnerability of helos to modern shoulder launched surface to air missiles and gunfire (ZSU and the like).  Compounding this vulnerability is the probable need to move deeper within the enemy’s air defense systems in order to reach the counterattacking units.

Cruise Missiles?  Cruise missiles are viable and effective against fixed targets.  Moving targets are relatively impervious to cruise missile attack.  A further limitation is the limited inventory in an assault group.  Cost is also a factor.  At around $1.5M per missile, it’s an expensive way to provide explosions.

Fixed Wing Aviation?  This is the most effective and flexible option though it comes with the attendant risk of pilot losses and difficult rescue operations.  The problem is that the assault group will not likely have sufficient numbers of aircraft to handle the interdiction.  This is where Air Force support will be required.  Assuming there are bases close enough to the interdiction sites to allow a sufficient sortie rate, the Air Force can provide both the strike capability and the escort support needed to conduct successful interdiction.  However, the assumption of adequate basing is highly suspect.  Bases in likely regions of conflict are neither numerous nor secure from cruise and ballistic missile attack.

UAVs?  While viable, this is not currently an effective option due to the lack of aggregate payload relative to the need.  A handful of UAVs, each carrying a couple of Hellfires or bombs is just not sufficient for the task.

Of course, in the real world, we would use a combination of all of these assets.

The point is that we need to anticipate the requirement for very long range interdiction and build forces to address that need.  We also need to consider the degree to which we can count on Air Force support.  While viable and effective at the task, the Air Force suffers from lack of basing in likely regions of conflict and susceptibility of those bases to attack by ballistic and cruise missiles with the result being a potentially significantly impact on sortie rate.  That being the case, we need to ask whether we need significantly more interdiction range firepower organic to the assault group.  At first blush, the answer would seem to be, yes.

Possible options to enhance the assault group long range interdiction capability include the following.

  • UAV carrier and a large, strike-oriented UAV air wing.
  • Arsenal ship and/or SSGN to greatly increase the on-scene inventory of cruise missiles without consuming the AAW escort ship’s VLS cells which will be needed for surface to air missiles.
  • Short range ballistic missiles
  • Significantly larger carrier air wings so that more aircraft are available for interdiction

In short, if we are serious about amphibious assaults we need to begin developing the necessary doctrine and procuring the necessary tools for a viable assault capability.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Swarm Reality

C'mon, people.  Think this swarm thing through.  If we are in an all out war with Iran which includes 20 mile free fire zones with no regard for civilian casualties and collateral damge, unlimited attacks on bases, ports, and small boat piers (again, with no concern for collateral damage), aerial sweeps for small boats, etc. then the swarm threat is no more than a minor nuisance - an afterthought.  A swarm attack won't even be able to get started.

Unfortunately, that's the least likely scenario.  Far more likely is that the US will either be ambushed with no warning or will allow itself to get sucked into a "limited" conflict with politically guided, proportionally graduated application of force coupled with extreme concern for collateral damage.  In these scenarios, we won't be identifying and engaging everything in a 20 mile radius - we'll be forced to wait for demonstration of hostile intent (we won't fire until fired upon) and we'll be forced to obtain unmistakable positive ID of enemy boats before firing.  Is that boat a civilian boat or does it have RPGs hidden under the usual piles of junk?  We won't know until someone shoots.  That swarm boat that we can see is beside a civilian boat - we won't shoot.

These are the circumstances in which swarm attacks will be effective.

I'm seeing way too many unrealistic assumptions about helos.  An LCS carries one helo (the -2 version may possibly carry two although that's highly questionable and has never been demonstrated to the best of my knowledge).  Helos are notorious for being down all the time for maintenance.  Even when operable, they're only airborne for a few hours each day.  The odds that a helo will be airborne, in the right position (not investigating something a hundred miles away), and appropriately armed at the moment of an attack is extremely poor.  

Further, a helo can carry 4-8 Hellfires.  So, a single LCS (or Burke) can, in theory, kill a maximum of 4-8 boats (realistically, probably only a couple) before it's out of weapons (assuming the boats have no shoulder launched SAMs which helos have been proven to be highly vulnerable to).  That still leaves the rest of the swarm to deal with.

Helos are not the answer.  At best, they may be useful as a small part of a layered defense.  Most likely, they won't be available.

Don't just match up individual weapons.  Instead, think through the overall scenario.  Yes, a helo can kill a boat but in a realistic scenario will not likely be all that effective or available.  Ask yourself what weapons the Navy actually has and what platforms would realistically be available.  There's nothing wrong with "what we ought to do" suggestions but recognize that those are different from "what we can do".  

Don't just spit out individual weapons.  Think through the scenario.  Reader GAB had a great comment about the perils of exposed personnel trying to operate anti-tank-ish weapons while receiving incoming rockets and shrapnel.  Yes, in isolation, a Javelin or TOW or whatever can destroy a boat but what is the reality of the overall scenario?  Can exposed personnel effectively aim a weapon from a high speed, pitching, rolling ship being showered with rockets and shrapnel?  Can you even target a boat that is hidden in the waves or spray half the time?  Sure, a weapon can pitch up to get a clearer view but it still needs an initial target lock.  What is the effective target lock range under those circumstances versus the Wiki specifications for weapon range?

Circumstances, rules of engagement, and practicalities are going to have far more impact than weapon specifications so let's think along those lines.  What I'm asking is that we think this through from a realistic perspective.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Iranian Swarm Craft and Weapons

We've discussed swarm attacks so it might be fun to see what some of the swarm craft look like and what kind of weapons they carry.  I'm not even remotely an expert on Iranian weapons so forgive me if I misidentify some equipment.

Here's a picture of several small craft presumably training as a swarm.  

Next, we see a nasty little craft, the Zolfaghar class, that carries two small Nasr-1 anti-ship missiles in cannisters and two torpedoes in the small bulges on either side of the cabin.

Here's a picture of a boat with what might be a ZU-23-2, twin cannon 23 mm gun.

Here is a boat firing a 107 mm rocket from a launcher atop the cabin and mounting a machine gun on the bow.  The rocket reportedly has a range of around 5 miles although in unguided mode against a relatively small target like a warship (compared to trying to hit somewhere in a city), the effective range is presumably much less.

Next we see an RPG being fired from a small boat.

For a bit more variety, small craft can also be used to lay mines.

Here's a Seraj class boat.  Note the rocket launcher atop the cabin.

Here's a nicely armed boat with rocket launcher, bow cannon, and stern machine gun.

Here's the same boat type shown launching a rocket from the launcher atop the cabin.

Here's a British made, very fast Bladerunner reportedly being reverse engineered for swarm attacks.

And, lastly, here's a Ya Mahdi high speed, unmanned boat.  Iran claims that it's radar evading due to its high speed.  I'm not sure they understand how radar works.

That gives you a feel for the variety of swarm craft and their weapons.  This is not meant to be comprehensive and I'm quite likely wrong about some of the identifications.  Feel free to jump in and correct me.

Bear in mind that these are the smaller swarm craft.  Iran, and other countries, also operate somewhat larger missile boats that would attack from much longer distances.  As one might expect, there is some overlap between the two broad categories of boats.  Of course, the problem with missile boats is that the missiles generally outrange the boat's sensors, requiring the boat to approach much closer than strictly necessary.  

Still, the variety of boats and weapons coupled with the purported numbers has to give a naval force pause for thought especially in the confined waters of the Gulf.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Swarm Attack

We often talk about how effective various guns or missile systems will be against a swarm attack but we never look at a swarm attack from the attacker’s perspective in order to get a more realistic idea of what a swarm attack will be like.  If we had a better idea of the characteristics of the attack, we’d be better able to evaluate our defensive systems.  That said, let’s take a closer look at how a swarm attack will be conducted.

I have to preface this discussion with the disclaimer that I have no inside information about swarm attacks.  The ideas put forth here are strictly my own based on what I might do.  Iran practices swarm attacks, to some degree, but I’ve never seen an authoritative write up on the methodology.

The entire crux of the swarm problem is one of dwell time.  Dwell is the time that a weapon must remain focused on a single boat before it can move to the next target.  Until the target can be definitely observed to be killed, the weapon must continue firing.  Otherwise, the target continues to close.

The problem is that a kill may occur without being obvious.  Consider a boat coming straight at us.  Suppose the first shot (be it gun or missile) kills everyone on board, thus rendering the boat mission killed, but the boat continues on its course, at speed.  How will we know that the boat has been killed?  The answer is we won’t.  To all appearances, the boat is undamaged and continuing its attack.  Thus, we’ll have to fire a second shot.  And a third.  And so on, until it becomes obvious that the target is killed.

How do we know a target is killed?  When it’s dead in the water it can be assumed dead.  Ideally, this would occur catastrophically – the boat would blow up leaving just a partial hulk floating motionless on the water.  More likely, the boat will gradually slow down and eventually come to a stop due to accumulated hits and holes from shrapnel.  The problem is that this can take several minutes per target.  Meanwhile the remaining boats are approaching at high speed.   The math on this is grim.  Take a reasonable number of attacking boats, apply a reasonable dwell time of several minutes per boat, and do the math of approaching speeds versus dwell time and you’ll see the problem.  It doesn’t end well for us.

For those of you who doubt the concept of dwell and believe that one shot will equal one kill, please take a look at the videos that are available of gunnery target practice against small drone boats.  There are only a few videos available that I know of but they are consistent in showing the lack of effects from the gun rounds.  The typical drone boat motors back and forth in front of the guns (always at very close range and on calm seas) and over the course of several minutes eventually slows down and comes to a stop.  That’s dwell time.  Fragmentation munitions, which is what almost all the guns fire, just aren’t effective at instantaneously stopping a boat.  A multitude of small shrapnel holes just won’t sink a boat in a tactically useful time frame.

Similarly, the idea of a gun firing a contact explosive munition is unappealing and unlikely to succeed.  For starters, the odds of achieving a hit on a small, fast, bouncing target that is frequently obscured in waves from a bouncing, high speed, maneuvering firing platform is very low.  Recall the Vincennes incident in which many dozens of 5” rounds were fired at boats and no hits were achieved.  Let’s face it, hitting a small, fast, moving target from a another moving target is a very difficult thing to do.

So much for the problem.  Now, the enemy can figure this out, too, so what are they likely to do that would enhance their chance of success?  What can they do to increase the dwell time?

Armor.  The most obvious tactic would be to add some simple Kevlar type armor around the cockpit to help protect the crew and increase their survival time.  We’re not talking about battleship armor that can shrug off 5” shells but, rather, simple flak armor to lessen the effect of shrapnel.  Flak vests for the crew would be another obvious addition.  Depending on weight, some simple armor could be placed around the engine and throttle linkages to minimize shrapnel damage.  Remember, the goal is not to make an invulnerable boat but to increase the dwell time to the point where some boats are assured to reach firing range.

Decoy Boat.  A lead, unmanned, decoy boat is another obvious tactic.  A heavily armored, remote controlled boat or two placed in the front of an attack specifically to absorb incoming fire for several crucial minutes while the remaining boats are closing would be very effective.  We would have no way of knowing whether the boat is a decoy or not and would have to honor the threat by engaging it until it is dead.

Remote Control.  Along the lines of a decoy boat, an entire attack consisting of several unmanned, remote control boats equipped as “suicide” boats would be effective and expendable.  Shrapnel would have no effect on the crew since there wouldn’t be a crew and sinking a boat via tiny shrapnel holes is a very time consuming exercise.  Such high speed drone boats already exist for very little cost. 

Obscurants.  Infrared, visual, and radar obscurants exist which could be dispensed by launchers and provide protection against missiles, in particular.  This would be a cheap capability and one readily deployed from small boats.

Active Protection.  Active protection involves destroying incoming missiles by automatic, point defense systems.  The best known example of this on a small scale is the Israeli Trophy system that is mounted on their tanks.  A system small enough to be mounted on tanks can certainly be mounted on a small boat.  On the other hand, this is a more complex and costly option and is probably less likely.

Flares/Chaff.  They work for planes and there is no reason they couldn’t be mounted on small boats and be effective.

Multiple Angles.  Attacking from around the clock is still an effective tactic, especially against smaller ships that may only have one or two weapons and have blind spots masked by the ship’s superstructure.  This would be challenging to achieve against an alerted ship but would be effective.

These are just a handful of ideas off the top of my head that could enhance the effectiveness of a swarm attack.  I’m sure Iran can think of others.  The point is that with some idea of how a swarm attack might occur, we can begin to intelligently assess the effectiveness of our defensive systems.  Here are a couple of obvious conclusions.

Catastrophic kills are required to minimize dwell time.  This strongly suggests the need for missiles.  Guns, especially with fragmentation munitions, are ineffective in the swarm scenario.

Fire and forget missiles are needed to allow rapid, multiple engagements and avoid the one-at-a-time engagement scenario which leads to high dwell times.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Missing Parts

We’ve discussed the Navy’s disturbing and increasing practice of deferring portions of ship construction until post-delivery in order to evade Congressional cost caps and make construction costs look better than they are.  The Navy is accepting incomplete ships and then adding the missing portions at some later date … in theory.  The problem is that once a ship has been delivered the urgency, and the money, to complete it drop off drastically. 

Next Navy website reported on this scheme for the Ford class carrier Kennedy, CVN-79 (1).

“The Navy also expects to reduce the CVN-79 cost by as much as $250 million by deferring installation of a number of systems, including the MK 53 Electronic Warfare (EW) Decoy Launching System (DLS), also known as NULKA, built by Lititz, PA-based Sechan Electronics; Surface Ship Torpedo Defense System; and the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program Block 3, a technology-development program that is intended to provide electronic attack capability.”

Note:  The quote appears in the article but is sourced from an website report which is behind a paywall. 

I note this development because it is part of the Navy’s pattern of focusing on new construction to the detriment of maintenance and readiness.  Partially completed ships simply contribute to the hollowing of the fleet.  The Navy receives shiny new ships that make the fleet count look good but are missing significant portions of their combat capability.  You’ll recall that the LPD-17’s were delivered with millions of man-hours of work left incomplete.  The LCS’s were delivered with entire compartments left incomplete.  If the missing portions were quickly added back after delivery that would be OK (neglecting the accounting fraud and disdain for Congressional cost caps) but fragmentary reports that I get suggest that the missing work is not being promptly completed.  I have seen indications that the LPD-17 class and at least the earlier LCS have remained incomplete for long periods or may still be incomplete.  I cannot document the degree of lingering incompleteness so consider this a cautionary note rather than a fully documented issue.  I will continue to keep an eye out for more information about deferred construction issues.

(1)Next Navy, “Navy Strips CVN-79 Of Close-In AAW Enablers”, Admin, 5-Dec-2014,

Monday, November 2, 2015

Implicit Recognition

We've noted the Chinese annexation activities in the South and East China Seas and strongly suggested that the US do something about it before it becomes a fait accompli.  Well, of all the possible options, the US opted for arguably the worst one.

As reported by USNI News website, a Navy destroyer made an Innocent Passage near Subi Reef (1).  As a reminder, Innocent Passage is a formal procedure which allows a foreign country to pass through the territorial waters of another country in a prescribed, non-threatening manner.  Thus, the Innocent Passage procedure is, at the very least, implicit, if not explicit, recognition of the other country’s territorial rights and claims.  Therefore, the Navy’s Innocent Passage near Subi Reef was implicit, if not explicit, recognition of China’s ownership and territorial rights to the reef.

Alternatively, the Navy could have done nothing which would have continued the status quo and preserved the US’ position that China does not own the artificial islands. 

Or, the Navy could have conducted a passage that did not conform with the Innocent Passage procedure thereby explicitly denying China’s claims.  This would have required nothing more than operating a radar, pointing a gun, performing some other extremely mildly threatening act, or simply stopping for a period of time.

Not only did we just acknowledge China’s claims thereby cutting the legs out from under our allies who also claim the features, but we set a precedent that China can now use against us in future actions.  In the court of public opinion, how can the US take any aggressive action in the future after having acknowledged China’s claims, without looking like the aggressor?  We just severely limited our options.

China started the process of illegal annexation of the area and we just backed their play.  You’ve got to hand it to the Chinese.  They’re playing hardball and we’re just fumbling around.

(1)USNI, “U.S. Destroyer Made an ‘Innocent Passage’ Near Chinese South China Sea Artificial Island in Recent Mission”, Sam LaGrone, November 2, 2015,

F-35 Tidbits

Here’s a quick update on the F-35, courtesy of GAO (1).

Software.  First, a refresher on the F-35 software development.  Software is being developed and delivered in blocks with each block adding new capabilities and moving the aircraft closer to full operation.

1&2     A  Training
2B       Initial Warfighting Capability;           Marine IOC
3i         Extension of 2B;                                Air Force IOC
3F       Full Warfighting Capability;              Navy IOC

Engines.  Engine reliability is still a major issue.

“Data provided by Pratt & Whitney indicate that the mean flight hours between failure for the F-35A engine is about 21 percent of where the engine was expected to be at this point in the program. The F-35B engine is about 52 percent of where the engine was expected to be at this point.”

Look at those percentages.  That is some awful reliability!  Who’d have thought that the B version would have the more reliable engine?

Cost.  As of Dec 2014, GAO reports the total program cost estimate as,

Development             54.9B
Procurement              331.6B

Unit Cost                    $159M per aircraft

So there you have it.  With all the proclamations about $80M aircraft, the actual unit cost is $159M.  That’s a little different than what the program managers and LM are telling us, huh?

Concurrency.  This is a stunning bit.  We’ve thoroughly documented that the practice of concurrency (production of an item while it’s still being designed and tested) inevitably adds cost as products have to be reworked multiple times to fix and modify problems uncovered during testing.

“As of June 2014, DOD estimated that at that point about $1.7 billion in funding was needed to rework and retrofit aircraft with design changes needed as a result of test discoveries.”

$1.7B required for concurrency corrections??!!  The report doesn’t state how many aircraft are affected but let’s say there are 100-200 that have been produced or are in production at this point that are affected, so that works out to around $9M - $17M per aircraft for concurrency fixes.

Is that the end of the concurrency costs?  Well, no.

“… with more complex and demanding testing ahead and engine reliability improvements needed, it is almost certain that the program will encounter more discoveries.”

So, the concurrency costs will continue to add up.  I hope the F-35 supporters add these costs into the production costs as they make their claims about how cheap the F-35 is.

Finally, bear in mind that this aircraft hasn’t even come close to working through all its test points.  There are lots more problems to come.

(1)GAO, “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter”, Apr 2015, GAO-15-364