Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Two More LCS Ships Break Down

Now this is just getting silly.  I didn’t report on the LCS program’s latest failure, the engineering breakdown of USS Freedom which will require a complete diesel engine rebuild or replacement due to salt water in the lube oil and engine.  This occurred in mid-July.  I didn’t report on it because another LCS failure isn’t even noteworthy anymore.

However, we now learn that USS Coronado has just suffered an engineering casualty while underway from Hawaii to the western Pacific for its first deployment to SingaporeCoronado is now returning to Hawaii for damage assessment and repair.  Nice start to the deployment!

You’ll recall that Fort Worth suffered an engineering breakdown during her highly publicized attempt at deployment and sat in Singapore for months while the Navy tried to figure out what to do.  The Milwaukee also suffered an engineering plant failure and had to be towed back to Virginia.  Freedom has suffered multiple engineering casualties in its, so far, ill-fated career.  Coronado also suffered engine fires during builder’s trials in April of 2013.

These are no longer first of class issues.  These are systematic engineering failures across all the LCS vessels that have ventured out to sea.  I feel bad even talking about LCS problems because it’s like beating a dead horse – it’s just no fun anymore.

Typically, I offer analysis on whatever I post but there's no analysis needed for this.  What a waste of a program.  A lot of Navy leaders are losing a lot of credibility over this joke of a ship.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Third Offset Strategy

The Third Offset Strategy (TOS) is America’s great hope for future warfare, according to our current leaders.  We’ve consciously and deliberately ceded the advantage of numbers (quantity).  We seem to have no interest in bigger and better explosives (witness our stubborn refusal to upgrade or replace Harpoon until just recently), supersonic missiles, or wide area effect weapons like major caliber naval guns.  Our quality edge is eroding at an incredible pace with the Chinese having either caught up or on the verge of doing so in the areas of stealth, armor, ballistic missiles, etc.  The Russians have leapfrogged past us in the area of electronic warfare as evidenced in Ukraine.  That only leaves us a possible advantage in networking, data sharing, and autonomy, according to our leaders.  Hence, the Third Offset was born.

What is the Third Offset Strategy?  According to its principle architect, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work,

“The Third Offset is really kind of simple at its core,” Work said. (The first offset was nuclear weapons, the second smart weapons). “It basically hypothesizes that the advances in artificial intelligence and autonomy [are] going to lead to a new era of human-machine collaboration and combat teaming.”

Shades of Battlestar Galactica!!!

Somehow, in some unexplained way, this human-machine collaboration is going to overcome numerical and explosives deficits. 

What does human-machine collaboration mean, anyway?  Haven’t we had human-machine collaboration for decades?  For example, the Aegis system is a computerized battle system with human interface and oversight in which the human-machine system can operate through the entire spectrum of 100% machine (fully automated) to 100% human controlled.  Another example would be the flight control systems of nearly all modern combat aircraft.  The aircraft are not flight-stable so computer systems take the pilot inputs (control stick) and translate them into control surface movements that a human could not manage.

So, what does human-machine mean?  Honestly, I have no idea.  It seems to be more of a marketing thing than any actual technology.

Taking away all the hype and marketing, human-machine and Third Offset seems to be mainly an emphasis on unmanned vehicles and networks.  Of course, we’ve already discussed the problems with assuming that networks will work flawlessly in the face of peer level ECM and cyber attacks.  We’ve also noted that unmanned vehicles have a disturbing tendency to lose communications and wander off, never to be seen again.

Why we would base our entire future military strategy on such unreliable technology is baffling.

Let’s look a bit closer at the Third Offset Strategy as described by its chief proponent, DepSecDef Bob Work, in a speech he gave in early 2015 (2).

Work notes the temporal aspect of the TOS.  The first two offsets gained us advantages that lasted decades until the rest of the world caught up.  This is unlikely to happen this time around.   Unfriendly countries are hacking our secrets as fast as we generate them.  Essentially, we’re doing the R&D for our enemies.  Thus, any advantage we might gain from the TOS is likely to be very short lived.  As Work states,

“First, it's going to have a much more trying temporal component. In 1975 and in the 1950s, we knew our adversary and we said, "We can pick something where we will have an enduring advantage." We don't think we're in that type of environment right now.” (2)

So, by Work’s own admission, the TOS benefits will be short lived if they ever even exist.  His solution to this challenge is to focus on technologies that can be developed quickly – he suggests a five year period.  Unfortunately, any new technology that can be developed in five years almost by definition can’t have much of an impact.  Look how long it’s taken us to develop a straightforward aircraft, the F-35.  Does anyone really think we can develop a world-changing technological capability in five years?  Heck, it takes us nearly five years just to generate the requirements list that we can give to industry in a request for proposals!

To be fair, he offers a nod to longer range projects but having noted that we can’t seem to maintain secrets, there appears to be no possibility of reaping any long term advantages.

Work offers a fascinating observation about the source of new technology now as compared to during the previous offsets.

“And the third big difference is that in the 1950s and the 1970s, generally these advances were military capabilities that were brought along by military labs. But now with robotics, autonomous operating guidance and control systems, visualization, biotechnology, miniaturization, advanced computing and big data, and additive manufacturing like 3D printing, all those are being driven by the commercial sector.”

We’ve noted this phenomenon before.  Rather than the military driving development, the military is abdicating its responsibilities and depending on the private sector to come up with advances.  There are two problems with this. 

First, industry is driven by profit and will offer those technologies that can generate the most profit rather than those that generate the greatest military benefit. 

Second, industrial technology is highly susceptible to foreign capture.  Even setting aside hacking, industry runs on public disclosure of patents, statements of technologies for the benefit of shareholders, floods of technical papers by company scientists, informal networks of shared data, and so forth.  Anything industry develops will be known to foreign countries as soon as it happens.  It will be impossible to gain any lasting advantage.

Still confused about what the TOS is?  Let’s see what DoD Live website has to say.  They describe five key aspects (3).

  • Deep Learning Systems – this involves data pattern discovery;  the ability to discern patterns from less directly relevant data; an example would be radar detection of stealth aircraft using collated data from multiple sources

  • Human-Machine Collaboration – this is the use of machines to aid human understanding and decision making;  an example would be fused sensor displays

  • Human-Machine Combat Teaming – this is the pairing of UAVs with human platforms;  an example would be the Triton UAV paired with the manned P-8 Poseidon

  • Assisted Human Operations – this is wearable technology that enhances human capabilities;  an exoskeleton would be an example

  • Network-Enabled, Cyber-Hardened Weapons – this is the production of weapons that are immune to ECM and hacking

That list is fine but it’s already nearly obsolete as far as providing an enduring advantage.  Many countries are already engaged in Deep Learning Systems.  Witness the anti-stealth radar detection technology that is based on collating indirect data from multiple sources.  By all accounts, unfriendly countries are well advanced in this effort.  All countries are deep into Human-Machine Collaboration efforts, developing their own versions of fused sensor displays, for example.  Human-Machine Combat Teaming is more advanced in Russia than it is here.  Russian robotic-human pairings on the Ukrainian battlefield are reportedly well beyond anything we currently have.  Assisted Human Operations are a technology that has not yet been significantly applied by any country, as far as we know.  Network-enabled, cyber-hardened weapons are being pursued by all countries.

Clearly, we have no current significant advantages in any of these areas and, in some, we appear to be behind our enemies.  Whatever we develop will provide no lasting advantage and, quite likely, will not even provide a momentary advantage.  If fact, we may well find ourselves scrambling to catch up to other country’s Third Offset advantages!

As you’ve read this, do you see the military’s focus on technology over training, maintenance, tactics, etc.?  The US military has an almost myopic focus on technology – a belief that technology is the solution to every problem.

Consider this radical alternative …  What if, instead of focusing on non-existent technologies, most of which will never pan out, we were to focus on these aspects of the military:

Maintenance – What if we had an absolute dedication to ensuring that every piece of equipment works and that we have the best trained technicians in sufficient numbers to ensure that the technology and machines that we have work, work flawlessly, work reliably, and can be instantly and locally repaired when they do fail.  Hand in hand with that would go adequate and readily available inventories of spare parts.  For example, what if instead of a 50% readiness among our F-22/35 fleet we had a 98% readiness.  Or, what if instead of depots full of non-functioning F-18 Hornets, we instead had those 200 or so Hornets out in the fleet?  Our air wings would have around 20 extra combat aircraft each!  Or, what if instead of having to retire entire classes of ships early due to neglected maintenance and resulting physical deterioration, we took care of those ships?  We’d have many dozens more combat ships.  Our fleet wouldn’t be shrinking, it would be growing.  Imagine a force with that kind of physical readiness – it would be a force to be reckoned with.

Training and Tactics – What if our soldiers and sailors were absolute masters of their craft.  What if our Captains and Admirals actually knew how to tactically utilize a multi-carrier battle group?  What if we conducted regular and frequent live fire exercises?  Not only would our personnel be better trained but we’d uncover the flaws in our weapons before we have to use them in combat!  What if we conducted actual and realistic amphibious training assaults?  We’d see the flaws in our doctrine and correct them without paying the price in blood to do so.  What if we conducted realistic training rather than the silly set-piece training exercises that we do today?  Maybe our sailors would be prepared to fight instead of surrendering to any Iranian that wanders by.

Readiness – What if our readiness was always at peak levels?  What if our non-deployed pilots weren’t limited to bare flight certification hours like they are now?  What if we had actually usable doctrine for surface action groups, multi-carrier operations, amphibious assaults, and so on?  What if our non-deployed units were actually surge-ready, unlike now?  Readiness ties back to maintenance and training.  What if all that was good to go, all the time?

Force Structure – What if we actually had mine countermeasure assets in sufficient numbers to be effective?  What if we had offensive mine warfare delivery capability?  What if we hadn’t wasted money on the LCS and, instead, had a dedicated ASW vessel?  What if we had some SSKs?

Imagine if, instead of wasting time, money, and resources on some nebulous and idiotic TOS, we focused on maintenance, training and tactics, readiness, and force structure.  What an enormous and enduring advantage that would give us over our enemies.  That alone could be our Third Offset Strategy and it would be infinitely more beneficial than what we’re attempting now.  Compare such an impeccably maintained, trained, and ready fleet to the Russians who have major reliability problems.  Their fleets of submarines, for example, are barely seaworthy.  The level of their ship commander’s training is almost non-existent since they so rarely can afford to put to sea.  Their enlisted ranks border on untrained.  The Chinese suffer from some of the same shortcomings as the Russians, particularly in the quality of their enlisted ranks and the level of training and experience of their commanders.  We could enjoy a perpetual, staggering advantage just from the factors I’ve described. 

Maintenance, training and tactics, readiness, and force structure should be our Third Offset Strategy.  In essence, make what we have work perfectly before we buy more stuff that won’t work and make the quality of our personnel unmatched in the world.  There’s your advantage.  There’s your offset.


(1)Breaking Defense website, “Iron Man, Not Terminator: The Pentagon’s Sci-Fi Inspirations”, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., 3-May-2016,

(2)Defense.gov website, “The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and its Implications for Partners and Allies”, transcript of speech delivered by Bob Work, 28-Jan-2015,

(3)DoDLive website, “3rd Offset Strategy 101: What It Is, What the Tech Focuses Are”, Katie Lange, 30-Mar-2016,

Friday, August 26, 2016

Super Hornet Conformal Fuel Tanks

As the Navy is forced to get more service out of its F-18 Hornets, here’s a bit of simple technology that could add a surprising amount of capability to existing Super Hornets:  conformal fuel tanks (CFT).  The nice thing about the CFTs is that they don’t need to be 

Super Hornet Conformal Fuel Tanks Atop Wing and Fuselage

hung from pylons which use up available hardpoint attachments.  Instead, they are bolted to the airframe along the upper wing and fuselage.

“The CFTs sit atop the upper fuselage on either side of the central spine and run 24 ft. in length from the aft cockpit to the leading edge of each vertical tail. At 4.3 ft. wide at the broadest point, the CFTs hug the upper fuselage surface, rising to a maximum height of only 1.8 ft. just forward of the wing leading edge.” (1)

Just for fun, using the maximum dimensions gives an internal tank volume of

24 ft x 4.3 ft x 1.8 ft = 186 cu.ft. = 1389 gal = 9445 lbs (6.8 lbs per gal of JP-5)

For a pair of tanks, that gives 2778 gal or 18,890 lbs.

Using more realistic average dimensions gives an internal tank volume of

24 ft x 3.5 ft x 1 ft = 84 cu.ft. = 628 gal = 4270 lbs

For a pair of tanks, that gives 1256 gal or 8540 lbs.

In point of fact, the CFT’s are reported to carry 3500 lbs of fuel per tank (2) which agrees reasonably closely with our estimate of 4270 lbs.  So, 3500 lbs it appears to be.

The tanks apparently produce a slight decrease in overall drag.

“We knew it was essentially a zero-drag configuration and, although there was no content in the tanks, we could measure drag through fuel flow. We actually saw a little better performance, as it improves transonic transition.” (1)

“The CFTs add no drag to the aircraft at subsonic speed; at transonic or supersonic speeds they produce less drag than a centerline fuel tank …” (4)

The tanks weigh 870 lbs each, empty (1) and add 260 nm to the aircraft’s range and 130 nm to its combat radius for a total combat radius of 700 nm (3).  Combat radius claims are always suspect but that CFT’s add to the radius without using up hardpoints or requiring external fuel tanks is a significant benefit.

The tanks can be retrofitted to existing aircraft.

“The CFT …  is designed to be retrofittable for new-build aircraft. “The intent is to be able to install it in a shift,” says Walke [Bob Walke, Northrop Grumman F/A-18 programs director and chief engineer]. The CFT bolts onto the structure at three attachment points per side, which are designed to keep loads isolated from the rest of the structure and vice versa.” (1)

Development of the tanks was rapid.

“Northrop says the prototype units went from “napkin to first flight” in just 10 months. “The effort began in 2010 with low-level trade study work until 2012, when the decision was made to make a prototype happen quickly,” says Walke. Following a go-ahead in September 2012, the tank design was completed in January 2013, assembly began in May, delivery started in early July and flight tests on a leased F/A-18 were underway in August.” (1)

CFT’s supposedly offer a decrease in overall signature, enhancing stealth.

“The conformal fuel tanks are aerodynamically designed to help the F/A-18 have a lower detectability or signature. Boeing officials have said the conformal fuel tanks reduce the signature of the aircraft by over 50 percent.” (2)

“Enhancements to the aircraft’s radar cross section, including the EWP [enclosed weapons pod], produced a 50-percent improvement in its frontal low-observable (LO) signature.” (4)

I’ve read reports that suggest that the Super Hornet is the third most stealthy aircraft in the US inventory behind the F-22 and F-35.  I don’t know if that’s true and I’ve been unable to confirm it.

Conformal Fuel Tanks

So, a simple CFT adds range, decreases drag, decreases overall signature, can be retrofitted to existing Super Hornets, and is production ready (1).  Honestly, this improvement seems like a no-brainer.  I’m unsure why the Navy hasn’t moved forward with this.


(1)Aviation Week website, “Upgrade Of F/A-18 Fuel Tank Gains Ground -
Conformal fuel tank attracts Navy interest as part of possible Super Hornet upgrade”, Guy Norris, Dec 16, 2013,

(2)Military.com website, “Navy Tests Stealth-Like Features for Super Hornet”, Kris Osborn, 15-Jul-2014,

(3)Global Aerospace Solutions Website, “The F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet”, James Wynbrandt, date unspecified,

(4)ainonline website, “Boeing Pitches ‘Advanced Super Hornet’ For Future Threats”, Bill Carey, 15-Nov-2013,

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Farsi Farce Continues

The Farsi Island incident in which Iran seized two US Navy riverine boats has been an embarrassment of epic proportions and continues to defy logic and reason.  The latest development is the Navy awarding a Navy Commendation Medal to the only female crew member in that collection of misfits for exhibiting “extraordinary courage” in activating an emergency beacon while being held captive (1).

This is ridiculous.  After failing to do her job (gunner) and protect her crewmates and boats, she manages to do the least possible good thing and the Navy falls all over themselves to give her an award. 

If she had exhibited “extraordinary courage” she would have fired her gun prior to being captured. 

If she had exhibited “extraordinary courage” she would have ensured that her gun station had a full load of ammo, was loaded, and ready for combat before beginning the mission. 

If she had exhibited “extraordinary courage” she would have jumped the three  Iranians who took the ten sailors captive and inspired her pathetic fellow sailors to resist.

This is the Navy trying to make lemonade out of lemons while also kowtowing to the women’s movement.

I’ll give her this much credit – she attempted to do one tiny thing right while the remainder of her inept, cowardly crew sat and did nothing other than, in some cases, literally, cry.  So, good for that, but a medal for “extraordinary courage”?  What a farce.


I can't help but wonder if this entire episode reflects the pacification of our society at large.  We've eliminated the ability to resolve one's problems - everything must go through the courts, we're told.  Once upon a time, a good old fashioned butt kicking was sufficient to deal with a bully.  Now, we have to respect their life choices, work to understand them, appeal to their good nature (they probably don't have any), seek counseling for our own misguided impulse to physically stop the bully, and, ultimately, appeal to the courts for restraining orders.

We've prevented boys from playing dodgeball.  We've eliminated man to man fights.  We've demonized aggression among males while extolling the virtues of female feelings.  We've gender-downed our military standards.  We've eliminated aggressive, insensitive mascots from athletic teams.  We're turning football into touch football.  The list goes on.

Now, our military won't fight.  Their first, instinctive response is to surrender and cry.  Is it any wonder why?

Once upon a time our heroes were men of action; hard fighting men; aggressive men.  Have you noticed that now many of our military "heroes" are people who were captured?  Remember Jessica Lynch?  She got a Bronze Star, among other medals, for doing absolutely nothing other than being captured.  Remember the hero's welcome the crew of the EP-3 received after being released by the Chinese? 

We've pacified our society and now wonder why our military won't fight?


(1)Military.com website, “Female Sailor Recognized for Bravery During Iranian Detention Incident”, Hope Hodge Seck, 10-Aug-2016,

Monday, August 22, 2016

Why The Navy Needs A Really Large Tanker Aircraft

Once again, we are honored to have a timely guest post from Mr. Bustamante with his thoughts on Navy tanker aircraft needs.  Please be sure to read his bio at the end of the post.


Why the Navy Needs a Really Large Tanker Aircraft

Some Unruly Thoughts on Strike Warfare Against a Peer Competitor [1]

Figure 1. S-3Bs Conduct Aerial Refueling with the Hose-and-Drogue System

Source: open source

If the U.S. Navy expects to employ carriers against peer competitor who can establish substantial Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) defenses, it will need large tankers, much longer ranged tactical aircraft, and long-ranged standoff weapons.  The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has published several excellent analyses papers making the case that we face adversaries with A2/AD defenses designed specifically to counter American naval and air-superiority extending from 1,000 nm, to1,500 nm or more from a hostile coast.[2]  It is important to note that ships, submarines, aircraft are not automatically destroyed when they enter into an area protected by a sophisticated A2/AD network, but they do risk detection and ultimately destruction that is directly related to the time exposed to the enemy maritime strike-reconnaissance network.  This presents a formidable range requirement for naval aircraft designs built in the last four decades and one that seems unlikely to be met satisfactorily with external fuel systems like conformal fuel tanks.[3]  Ironically, a typical 1960s carrier task force had both long ranged attack aircraft (A-3s, A-6s, and A-5s), and the tanker assets necessary to support escorting fighters for long range strike missions.[4]  The USN today, however, finds itself without long ranged aircraft due to decades of aircraft procurement policy favoring sortie generation over “deck load strike”, failure of the A-12 program, and retirement of long-ranged legacy aircraft.  The requirement for a long range attack aircraft and a big tanker is driven by the physics of fuel consumption and the relatively short range of carrier aviation.  Tanker aircraft allow strike packages to launch with maximum weapons load, but minimum fuel loads, then aerial refuel to maximize fuel load, while simultaneously reducing stress on airframes and extending the life of aircraft.  Large tankers are not only more efficient at delivering fuel, they are also a welcome savior for aircraft returning with combat damage, or Combat Air Patrol (CAP) aircraft returning from an extended mission.  While the F/A-18 is criticized for its relatively short combat radius, the reality is that the longest ranged carrier-based fighters would be challenged by today’s A2/AD defenses.[5]  The current solution to this dilemma is provided by U.S. Air Force, which operates the core of U.S. military aerial refueling fleet, largely consisting of ~460 KC-135 and KC-10 aircraft.[6]  These aircraft have performed yeoman service for naval aviation, but the USAF tanker fleet is prioritized for USAF requirements: delivery of large volumes of fuel to a single large bomber.  USAF tankers are primarily configured to use a unique “flying boom” fuel delivery system, a rigid, telescoping tube that the tanker aircraft extends and inserts into a receptacle on the aircraft being refueled; however, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft refuel using the “hose-and drogue” system, which is a flexible hose that trails from the tanker and drogue (windsock) that stabilizes it in flight.[7]  The USAF also uses JP-8 fuel, while the Navy uses JP-5.  In order to fuel USN and USMC aircraft, Air Force tankers generally have to flush their tanks and install a modified hose-and-drogue system, the inventory of which is sufficient to equip about a third of the tanker fleet.[8]  The new KC-46A is equipped with both the flying boom and the hose-and-drogue systems built into the airframe, but aircraft fuel compatibility remains an issue. 

Figure 2.  USAF KC-135A Refueling a B-52D1

Source: open source
1.  The flying boom system designed specifically for fast, efficient refueling of very large aircraft like bombers.

The KC-46A is also just entering production and the current procurement plan is for only 179 aircraft.[9]  The balance of the USAF tanker fleet is also old and shrinking.[10]  Moreover, the USAF is likely to need every tanker to support a long-range bomber campaign in a high end conflict and these aircraft will be based to support USAF missions.  This is likely to leave Navy aviation without desperately needed aerial refueling capability in war.  This article will first examine the long range strike mission, review the aerial refueling requirements needed to support strike packages, and then show why current naval aircraft are not well suited the role.  Finally we will suggest some solutions to the issue.

Figure 3.  USAF KC-46A Refueling a Pair of F/A-18s1

Source: open source
1.  The KC-46A has both the flying boom system; and the hose-and-drogue system.

We should ask ourselves, does the USN have a requirement to conduct long range strike operations using carrier based aviation?  Dollars are tight - a large tanker, and possibly a large tactical aircraft program, must fully justify the additional expense.  We could accept the status quo where long-ranged naval strike missions are tied to the availability of USAF tanker assets.  After all, the USN, and USMC used USAF tankers to support long missions to Afghanistan following 9/11.  Besides, the USAF is tasked with deep inland strikes; the USN has plenty of RGM/UGM-109 Tomahawk missiles for long-range strikes and highly capable submarines for clandestine launches.  Finally, there is the argument that carrier aviation exists to provide local air superiority for naval task forces – thus an alternate strategy for carrier employment might call for blockade, minelaying, and commerce raiding instead of deep strike.  In the end, none of these propositions are entirely acceptable; particularly given that the Navy had a plethora of tankers and long-range attack aircraft in the middle of the last century.  This is a problem with a readily definable technical solution that was worked out in the 1950s and then fielded.  Large organic tanker capability is incredibly useful, even when conducting strikes well within the range of strike aircraft.  USAF tankers are not always going to be conveniently based to support naval strikes, especially if the Navy pursues operations outside the USAF’s primary theater of operations.  In practice, USAF aircraft flying from known, geographically fixed bases may prove to be more vulnerable to attack than an aircraft carrier.  The submarine launched deep strike mission is in direct competition with the use of submarines for the critical anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission and the commerce raiding missions, which I give much higher priority.  Further, an operational shift, or technological breakthrough favoring ASW might dramatically affect submarine survivability or effectiveness.  Finally, a good military policy is to retain redundancy and flexibility with weapon systems and units where possible. 

Modern tactical air operations place a premium on Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD); the ratio of aircraft actually delivering steel on target might only be one out every three or four planes.  Most of the aircraft in a strike package will be fighter escorts, electronic warfare aircraft, SEAD aircraft, command and control aircraft, and other air frames, just to make sure the bomb droppers get to their weapon release points.[11]  During the Gulf War, strike packages of up to 50-60 tactical aircraft were generally required to assure the penetration of 12-16 aircraft with ground attack munitions!  The proliferation of advanced SAMs and advanced fighter aircraft gives us little hope that the situation will dramatically improve.  Additional considerations are the extensive fortifications constructed by many potential adversaries to protect key military and civil infrastructure to complicate U.S. strike operations.  This will demand larger ordinance loads, and also gives us little hope of using external fuel tanks extensively as a solution to extending aircraft range.

So what would it take to support the fuel needs of a carrier task force (TF) strike package of 60 or so aircraft?  I am assuming the TF is willing to risk a high speed dash at 30 knots to penetrate 240 nm into the A2/AD network (~8hrs), and that stand-off weapons range is 60+ nm, so the strike package needs to penetrate (fly) about 900 nm get to weapons release point for stand- off weapons   The key determinants are based upon the combat radius and fuel capacity of the aircraft flying in the strike.  Table 1 below gives us a quick summary of open source data in very rough approximation of the fuel and combat radius characteristics of selected naval aircraft.  Aside from the F/A-18E and F-35C, several historical aircraft are included as “place holders” to approximate potential performance of future aircraft. 

Table 1.  Fuel and Combat Radius Data for Tactical Naval Aircraft

Source: open source data is approximate and are for illustrative purposes.
1.  Combat radius is a very complex and qualified figure, see end note 2.
2.  F-35C figures are yet to be demonstrated.

The F-111 was included in the table because it was originally intended to be a joint USAF/USN carrier capable design and approaches the maximum size and weight of carrier capable airframes like the A-3D Skywarrior and A-5 Vigilante, arguably the closest aircraft to a strategic bomber that the USN has produced.[12]  The take away is that naval aviation, now based upon the F/A-18, is short ranged, and hugely dependent upon aerial tanking to conduct very long range strikes.  Even the “long-ranged” F-14 has qualifications.  A very rough estimate for an alpha strike package of 60 F/A-18 aircraft (to include F/A-18Gs) will require at least 36,750 lbs. of fuel, and three refueling operations per aircraft to reach 900 nm.  A strike package of 60 aircraft would require over 2.2 million lbs. of fuel!  This figure could overstate the actual fuel requirement because long-range missions may allow aircraft to operate at speed/altitude profiles that significantly enhance their fuel efficiency.  On the other hand, commonly quoted combat radii, do not address the inevitable delays that occur when aerially refueling dozens of tactical aircraft.  Also note, that this mission also requires tankers operate at least 600 nm from the carrier.  The situation improves slightly for an all F-35C strike package (27,990 lbs. per aircraft, 1.7 million lbs. of fuel for a 60 aircraft formation – but it still is a formidable requirement.  It is also questionable if the USN will buy a sufficient number of F-35s, and even if it does, the only tactical jammer currently in the U.S. inventory is the F/A-18G.  The F-35 is supposed to deliver many capabilities that promise to reduce the size of strike packages and increase survivability, but these have yet to be demonstrated.  A partial solution is of course to use external fuel tanks, but these come at a performance penalty and also increase the detectability of the strike force.  For these reasons, and to simplify what can be a very complicated analysis, the strike package fuel requirement assumes internal fuel loads only.

Having stated the requirement, what tanker assets are available to support the strike tanking requirements?  Table 2 below provides a summary of selected aerial refueling aircraft in the U.S. arsenal and matches them to the number of tankers required to deliver 1.7 million pounds of fuel to support a 60 aircraft strike.

Table 2.  Summary of Selected U.S. Aerial Refueling Assets

Source: open source data; approximations are for illustrative purposes.

1. Note that with the exception of the KC-135, all of the other aircraft options fail to provide fuel at useful ranges.
2. Figures are rounded up to the nearest whole number of aircraft.
3. The more common EKA-3B could deliver 21,000 lbs. of fuel at 460 nm, enough to fuel 2.2 full F-4Js, but it also retained significant stand-off jamming capabilities and could still carry ordinance while operating as a tanker.  The KA-3 and EKA-3B were far and away the best aerial refueling assets the Navy built.  They were also the largest carrier capable aircraft ever built with about 82,000 pounds maximum take-off weight.
4. With two 300 gallon tanks.
5. The KS-3A program was cancelled afte a single prototype was built.  Had it entered production,it arguably might have been the most capable dedicated Navy tanker.
6. The F/A-18E configured as a "buddy tanker".

What Table 2 really demonstrates is the huge load efficiency of very large, land-based tankers with maximum take-off weights exceeding 320,000 lbs. (the KC-46A has a maximum take-off weight of 415,000 pounds - over five times heavier than the largest carrier aircraft ever deployed, the KA-3).  This analysis also underestimates the tanking requirements of a long range strike package because with the exception of the KC-135, all of the other aircraft options fail the ability to provide fuel at useful range.  It also shows that the best tanker the Navy ever acquired, the KA-3, was still inefficient as a tanker, requiring an almost one to one ratio of tankers to F-35Cs to support a 900 nm strike.  The very worst tanker option is the F/A-18E operating as a “buddy tanker” due to the short intrinsic short range of the airframe.  In fact, the F/A-18E “buddy tanker” configuration will burn most of its transfer fuel capacity to reach 600 nm

Figure 4.  The Navy’s Best Tanker Ever - an EKA-3B Skywarrior Refuels an F-14

Source: A-3 Skywarrior Association

This is reminiscent of the U.S. Army Air Corps fiasco in WWII called Operation Matterhorn: an ill-conceived strategic bombing campaign against Japan by basing B-29s bombers in India and staging them from airfields in China.  Every gallon of fuel, every pound of ammunition and other military supplies had to be flown over the Himalayas to China.  Because the B-29 was inefficient as a tanker, it took seven round trip B-29 flights to build up enough fuel for a single B -29 mission against Japan; prompting General Curtis E. LeMay the commander of XX bomber Command to say: “The scheme of operations had been dreamed up like something out of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ...”[13]  Carrier aviation, lacking both a large tanker, and long ranged aircraft, is in danger of repeating this error.

Matching requirements to assets, suggests a number of options the U.S. Navy can, and should take to improve its strike capacity against first class adversaries with advanced A2/AD defenses.  Specifically:

1)     In the short term, the Navy should study the feasibility of returning some of the 100 A-6E aircraft in storage to service after refurbishment and conversion into KA-6Es.  The A-6E was given new composite wings shortly before retirement and could provide a great deal of relief to the air wings.  Conversion to unmanned or optionally manned operation should be considered.

2)     Long term, the Navy needs to procure a very large, carrier capable tanker aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of 80,000 pounds or larger, and an objective transfer fuel load of 40,000 lbs. delivered to 600 nm.  This aircraft should follow the “payload over platforms” design philosophy and provide a robust “pick-up truck” functionality over stealth and other features.

a)     The aircraft could be unmanned or optionally manned.
b)     A flying wing or blended wing design seems appropriate to maximize lift and internal fuel capacity.
c)      The tanker should have several "joint" features for maximum compatibility with the USAF and allies that use the flying boom (e.g.  Australia):

i)        Incorporate a flying boom receptacle to enable the new tanker to receive fuel very quickly from USAF tankers, while simultaneously refueling USN aircraft.[14]  This would open a number of tactical advantages, shorten refueling times, and allow strategic tanker aircraft to complete their missions more rapidly.
ii)      Incorporate certain USAF mounts for large capacity external fuel tanks. 
iii)    Possibly incorporate a flying boom for refueling USAF fighters.

3)     From a joint perspective, the Navy and Air Force must continue to integrate operations and ensure equipment interoperability. 

a)     The U.S. military needs to move to a single aviation fuel type to minimize logistics issues.  Given the number of aircraft in each service, this means that the Navy and Marine Corps should adapt JP-8, which is similar in chemical composition, but has a lower flashpoint than JP-5.

b)     The Navy must also seriously consider incorporating the USAF flying boom/receptacle compatible system into large aircraft like the P-8 or future attack aircraft.  It also means that the USAF must maintain sufficient numbers of Wing Air Refueling Pods for legacy tankers to support naval aircraft.  This is key, the Navy must support the USAF 100% in obtaining funding for these pods.

4)     Future naval aircraft must place a much higher emphasis on range and payload than the past three decades.  Plainly stated, this requirement greatly favors a large, long-ranged heavy attack aircraft; the same physics of moving large bomb loads over great distance was exactly what drove the procurement of the A-3, the A-6, and the A-5.  This aircraft will need to be larger than the X-47B - it could also be a drone or optionally manned.  It should incorporate certain USAF mounts for large stand-off weapons and large capacity external fuel tanks. 

5)     Improve stand-off ranges with a very long ranged (1,200 to 1,500 nm) air to ground weapon.  This also favors a large heavy attack aircraft in A-3/A-5/F-111weight class. Consider:

a)     Adapting Navy aircraft to carry long ranged USAF air-to-ground cruise missiles with conventional warheads to support strike operations.  This implies a large attack aircraft to carry them: for example an AGM-129A missile weighs over 3,500 pounds.[15]
b)     Procure a long ranged air-to-ground ballistic missile with a conventional warhead to support strike operations.[16]

These are appropriate actions for naval aviation but the Navy in general needs additional reforms to conduct strike warfare against modern a2/AD defenses.  First and foremost is the procurement of a very long ranged (1,200 to 1,500 nm) ship launched cruise missile and/or ballistic missiles for strike operations.  These weapons need not only greater range than BGM-109 tomahawk, they require more sophisticated warheads, for example anti-radiation seeker heads, earth penetrating warheads, and EW packages like jammers.  Serious consideration to stealth and hyper velocity propulsion is essential. 

[1] This article addresses high end war against a peer competitor, not COIN operations.

[2] See AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept, May 18, 2010 by Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, and Andrew F.  Krepinevich and Jim Thomas.  Available at  http://csbaonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/2010.05.18-AirSea-Battle.pdf

[3] The details of combat radius are highly technical and dependent upon a number of factors (ordinance and fuel loads, ingress and egress altitude, dash speed, weapon drag, etc.), but typical tactical aircraft combat radii range from 350 nm to about 600 nm.  External fuel systems work well, but impose trade-offs in performance, particularly in maneuverability, radar cross section, and use, or interfere with, munition hard points. 

[4] This capability was developed because Admirals Mitscher and Sallada proposed a nuclear bomb capable attack bomber in 1945 with a 1,000 nm combat radius leading directly to the A-3 Skywarrior and later the A-5 Vigilante.  U.S. Aircraft Carriers, An Illustrated Design History, by Dr. Norman Friedman, 1983, pages 240 and 241.

[5] The F/A-18 does what it was designed to do, the problem is the carrier air wing lost the supporting cast of aircraft types.

[6] Formal Joint air refueling operations between the Air Force and Navy started in the early 1970s.  A 1988 memorandum of understanding (MOU) established joint air -refueling concepts.

[7] Congressional Research Service report RL32910,  Air Force Aerial Refueling Methods:
Flying Boom versus Hose-and-Drogue, by Christopher Bolkcom pages 2 and 3, June 5, 2006.

[8] The KC-10 is configured to allow the alternate simultaneous use of either the flying boom or the hose and drogue if equipped with Wing Air Refueling Pods (WARP).  This does not solve the issue of the services using different fuel types.  Only about one out of every three USAF KC-10s had Wing Air Refueling Pods (WARP), and these are low priority procurement items for the USAF.  Naval Air Refueling Needs Deferred in Air Force Tanker Plan by Hunter C. Keeter, Sea Power magazine, April 2004.

[9] http://www.af.mil/AboutUs/FactSheets/Display/tabid/224/Article/104537/kc-46a-tanker.aspx

[10] GAO found that the average age of the KC-135 fleet was 35 years back in 2003.  GAO-03-938T, page 4.

[11] A combat grouping of aircraft with different capabilities that are launched together to perform a single attack mission

[12] The C-130 is the largest aircraft to land and take off from aircraft carriers.  In October and November 1963, a KC-130F (BuNo 149798) made 21 landings and take-offs on the USS Forrestal.  It is important to note that the C-130 essentially shut down normal flight deck operations and was (remains) unsuitable for normal carrier operations.

[13] The Matterhorn Missions, by John Correll, pages 62-65, AIR FORCE Magazine, March 2009.  http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Documents/2009/March%202009/0309matterhorn.pdf

[14] Designed properly, a USN tanker could receive fuel from a USAF tanker via the boom, while also fueling two Navy aircraft.  In the case of a KC-10, or KC-46A, the possibility of fueling the Navy tanker (via the flying boom) and four tactical aircraft via hose and reel (two from the USN tanker, and two from the USAF tanker, is a possibility.

[16] The Douglas AGM-48 Skybolt Air-Launched Ballistic Missile from the 1950s suggests one possible weapon. It was very heavy weighing almost 11,000 pounds.


Mr. Bustamante is a retired naval officer who served the majority of his career as a Naval Special Warfare Officer, but also as a Surface Warfare Officer and Foreign Area Officer.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in Systems Engineering.  He also holds a Master of Science degree in Defense Analysis (Operations Research) from the Naval Postgraduate School in MontereyCalifornia. After retiring from the Navy, Mr. Bustamante worked for the legislative branch as an auditor and analyst, as a civil servant with the United States Department of State, and also in the private sector as an analyst in information technology project management.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Incapable of Learning

The Navy appears utterly incapable of learning.  What lessons have we documented on this blog that have simply and thoroughly smacked the Navy in the face?  How about this one, in particular,

Don’t try to combine disparate functions into a single platform.  That just leads to a platform that can’t do any of the functions well, costs a fortune to develop due to trying to reconcile contradictory requirements, and delivers years late for the same reasons.


So, what is the Navy trying to do now?  That’s right, they’re trying to combine intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) with tanking in the upcoming MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker.  From a USNI News article (1) we see that the Navy dimly recognizes the problem and the inherent design conflict.

“The problem that industry and the service are dealing with is the ISR and the tanking mission inherently requires two very different types of aircraft shapes or planforms, Shoemaker [Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker] said.

A primarily ISR UAV would be a high-endurance platform “probably not carry a lot of fuel, have a large wingspan,” to be an efficient platform, Shoemaker said.

For example, the highflying Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton UAV is built with a 131 foot wingspan and can fly unrefueled for up to 30 hours.

“If you’re going to be a tanker at range, you’re obliviously going to have to be able to carry a fair amount of fuel internal to the platform. That drives the different design for those two,” he said.”

Okay, so the Navy sees the problem. It’s the same problem they had when they tried to combine three radically different aircraft into a single F-35 and wound up with a gagstaggeringly (you like that word?) expensive aircraft that has only 20% commonality and isn’t optimized for any of the individual roles.  It’s the same problem they had when they tried to combine strike and fighter into a single F-18 Hornet and got an aircraft that was good at neither.  It’s the same problem they had when they tried to combine three completely different functions into a single LCS and wound up with a toothless waste of a ship class that has yet to put to sea with any meaningful capability.  And so on.

Having had these lessons stomphammered (I’m writing my own dictionary) home, what does the Navy decide to do about attempting to reconcile irreconcilable functions on a single platform?  Do they heed the lessons?  Do they do the smart thing?  Do they demonstrate that they’re capable of learning?  No, as evidenced by this,

”So the industry is working on an analysis of where that sweet spot is to do both of those missions.”

Sweet spot?  There is no sweet spot!  You’re combining ketchup and ice cream and thinking you’ll find the right mix that will taste good.  It’ll suck!

Since the Navy is too stupid to learn a lesson, here is the proper approach.

Build a single function, stripped down, dumb as dirt, basic as you can get, tanker.  It doesn’t need any military capability whatsoever.  It’s a flying gas station.  Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS).  Build these for next to nothing.

Build a dedicated ISR aircraft that does one thing only and does it exceedingly well.  Add no function that does not support ISR and keep it cheap.  When combat starts, these things will get shot down like Junior guys asking Senior girls to the prom so make them cheap enough to be readily expendable.

This is just simple common sense.  Don’t build a Formula 1 racer with a  pickup bed so that it can haul cargo when it isn’t racing.  It won’t do either job very well.  There’s a reason why we build separate race cars and pickup trucks.

The Navy’s ability to shrug off lessons and learn nothing never ceases to stunfound (I’m on a roll) me and this is just the latest example.  How the single digit morons running the Navy manage to get dressed in the morning is nothing short of a miracle – but I guess that’s what Admiral’s aides are for.


(1)USNI News website, “Navy, Industry Looking for Design ‘Sweet Spot’ for MQ-25A Stingray”, Sam LaGrone, August 18, 2016,