Friday, March 30, 2018

Torpedoes - Then and Now

There is a widespread belief that modern torpedoes are instant and unstoppable death for any modern ship and that carriers and other ships have been rendered nothing more than targets waiting to be sunk.  Of course, we totally debunked that line of thought in a series of previous posts.

Let’s add another nail to that coffin by examining yet another aspect of the unstoppable torpedo myth.  There is a belief that modern torpedoes are somehow more lethal than in the past.  Is that true or just another torpedo-associated myth? 

Here’s a list of some common torpedoes, past and present, and their warhead explosive weights.

Country     Type                  Warhead

WWII Torpedoes

Japanese    Type 93 (Long Lance)  1080 lb
U.S.        Mk14                   643 lb
German      G7e                    616 lb

Modern Torpedoes

Russian     Type 65 Wake Homing   1225 lb
Russian     Type 53                678 lb
U.S.        Mk 48 ADCAP            650 lb
U.K.        Spearfish              660 lb
German      DM2A4 Seehecht         572 lb

It is instantly apparent that that the warhead weights are, on average, no greater today than in WWII and yet the entire world managed to operate vast fleets of ships without being instantly obliterated by torpedoes.  How could that be if torpedoes are instant death?  Well, we’ve already answered that so I won’t repeat it.

One significant change from WWII to now is the guidance mechanism.  WWII torpedoes were generally unguided.  Homing torpedoes were in their infancy towards the end of the war.  Today’s guidance systems offer a greater chance of success. 

Of course, the counterpart to guidance systems are decoy systems such as the U.S. Nixie.

Thus, on balance, it may be that there is no actual increase in success rates!  If it took 4-6 torpedoes to ensure 1-2 hits in WWII, it likely still requires 4-6 torpedoes today to ensure 1-2 hits.

The relevant aspect of this little examination is the realization that modern torpedoes are no more lethal than they were in WWII.  Please note that I am not saying that torpedoes are not a powerful weapon – they certainly are.  However, they are not the instant, one-shot kill that so many people erroneously believe.

The fact that we can now clearly see that modern torpedoes are no more (or less!) lethal than their WWII counterparts should serve to put the torpedo threat in its proper context which is that they are powerful weapons but no more so than many other large weapons.  We can successfully operate fleets of ships in the face of torpedoes just as we did in WWII if we treat the threat with the respect it deserves and apply effective ASW to the threat – which, sadly, we’re not.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

PT Boat

Conversations about the LCS, even among professional Navy officers, often seem to equate the LCS to PT boats from WWII.  I don’t know about any official Navy position (I doubt they have any official position!) but many Navy leaders seem to believe that the LCS can operate like a PT boat – skulking about concealing islands and shorelines, springing forth to deliver salvoes of death and destruction, and then vanishing back into the littorals to repeat the cycle, impervious to enemy detection or retaliation.

“It can hide behind islands and in shallow waters, sniping at the enemy fleet — much like the PT boats of World War II …” (1)

Referring to operations in the South China Sea and surrounding areas,

“With 50,000 islands for LCS to hide among, “good luck finding me,” Gabrielson said. “I know I’m going to be able find you…and I’m going to hurt you.” (1)

What an appealing and, dare I say it, romantic notion?  This kind of naval guerilla warfare tugs at the heartstrings of Americans and appeals to our notion of heroic naval combat.

If we could rejoin reality for a few moments, though, let’s look at what the WWII PT boat really was, how effective it was, how it was used, and what lessons it offers us today.

What was a PT Boat?  Without boring you with specifications that are easily found on the Internet, in its original form the PT boat was a very heavily armed and very fast boat that was designed to sink larger enemy ships.  This is almost exactly today’s distributed lethality concept, isn’t it?  The PT boats were an expedient stopgap measure that, it was hoped, could provide cheap naval firepower to some extent until we were able to ramp up actual warship production.

Restored PT Boat

How effective was the PT boat?  Relative to its original anti-ship function, the PT boat was almost totally ineffective.  As far as I know, of the several hundred PT boats that served, there were only a very small handful of successful anti-ship attacks and many/most of those were found to have been false claims after the war.  I would estimate that there were perhaps a half dozen successful attacks.

As the war went on, the PT boat found other roles for which it was better suited and proved far more successful.  The two notable roles were early warning and barge-busting.

Early Warning – Due to their abundant numbers, PT boats were able to be deployed in strings across possible enemy transit routes and were often able to provide valuable early warning and monitoring of enemy movements.  In essence, they acted like a distributed sensor net, as we would refer to it today.

WWII was mainly an “eyeballs” sensor war.  Yes, early radar was present and often played a useful role, especially towards the end of the war, but most sensing was via eye.  It might be visual sightings from an aircraft, the lookout station on a ship, the periscope of a sub, or the hills of a coast watcher but the prevailing detection method was visual.  Aircraft were used to extend the range of our eyeball sensors and, in this role, the PT boat excelled.  It was able to extend the range of visual sensing and cover a larger area.

Barge-busting – Later in the war, PT boats were found to be ideal for interdicting resuppy barges.  The PT boats were loaded with all manner of ‘gunboat’ weaponry such as 40 mm guns, 37 mm anti-tank cannons, rockets, grenade launchers, etc.  Again, the boats were very heavily armed for their size.

Finally, let’s note that, as reported by Wiki, 99 of the 531 PT boats that served in WWII were lost to combat related causes – that’s 19%.  Given that many of the boats didn’t really see any significant combat, that loss rate is actually much higher, probably two or three times that among boats that saw significant combat.

How Was the PT Boat Used?  Early in the war, the PT boat was used as a stopgap means of applying disproportionately heavy firepower from a cheap, expendable, and inefficient/ineffective platform.  It was a necessity born out of our lack of real warships.  It achieved very few sinkings although it did cause a fair amount of doubt and confusion among the enemy.

Later in the war, the PT boat was used far more successfully as a remote sensor with strings of PT boats being deployed along/across suspected travel lanes and approaches of enemy shipping.  The early warnings that these boats supplied were invaluable.

The barge-busting role provided interdiction of desperation supply efforts and, again, were quite effective.

The PT boats were also used for myriad transport, search and rescue, and patrol functions.  The large numbers of boats allowed them to be used for a variety of purposes while still being able to fulfill their main purposes.

What Lessons Does the PT Boat Offer Today?  History is always willing to educate us if we’re willing to learn.  Here’s what WWII’s PT boat experience can teach us today.

  • The PT Boat was the distributed lethality of its day and, as far as sinkings of enemy ships, was a failure.  The failure was due mainly to the lack of sensor range.  PT boats were limited to visual sensing and, typically, night visual sensing.  Thus, their sensor range was on the order of hundreds of feet.  Unsurprisingly, then, they were unable to find targets even when they had pretty good intel on target movements and timing.  The PT boat’s weapons far outranged their sensors. 

We’ve noted the same problem today where we may have weapons with hundreds or thousands of miles range but our sensors are more on the order of tens of miles.  That distributed lethality LCS with an over the horizon anti-ship missile is going to be limited by a sensor with a radar horizon range.  The Navy hopes to solve this by using a vast, magical “system of systems”, all-encompassing sensor net of non-survivable platforms linked by a vast network that is assumed to be impervious to enemy electronic and cyber attack.  We’ll see how well that works.  If the sensor limitation can’t be solved, today’s distributed lethality platforms will be no more successful than yesterday’s PT boats.

We should also note that sensors work both ways.  If the LCS is going to use its radar to find targets then it is giving away its position and the enemy’s radar can find it.

We should also note that the islands that are hoped to provide concealment for the LCS by allowing it to blend into the radar clutter of the shoreline will also significantly degrade the performance of the LCS’ radar as the surrounding hills and elevations block large sectors of the radar picture.  The Navy seems to note all the advantages while ignoring the disadvantages.  I have yet to hear anyone elucidate how the LCS will find targets without itself being found.

In short, history and today’s parallels with that history, strongly suggest that the LCS will be every bit as ineffective in the distributed lethality role as were the PT-boats.

  • Size matters.  In the barge-busting role, the PT boat’s small size and disproportionately heavy weaponry proved advantageous.  The boats were able to blend in with the surrounding island shorelines and were difficult to detect.  Navy Admirals who are envisioning the LCS as today’s PT boat may be overlooking the discrepancy in size between the 80 ft PT boat and the 400 ft LCS!

  • Numbers matter.  PT boats were very successful as remote sensors and were able to extend the situational awareness of the fleet.  Of course, many boats were lost during the course of that performance.  That was an acceptable trade because the cheapness of the PT boat allowed us to deploy large numbers and accept the inevitable losses.  Can we afford to treat a $600M+ LCS, for example, as an expendable remote sensor?  What’s more, we certainly don’t have sufficient numbers of LCSs to deploy an effective network of ships as remote sensors.  We had hundreds of PT boats and we have only 20 or so deployable LCSs.

  • Support matters.  The PT-boats had very limited endurance at sea and depended on crude forward bases and motherships for resupply and maintenance.  Today’s LCS also has very limited endurance and, by design, cannot support itself with even basic maintenance.  Among the 50,000 islands that Adm. Gabrielson references, how many have forward operating bases?  None.  How many could support a forward base?  Few.  How many of the forward bases would be survivable given today’s thousand mile cruise and ballistic missiles?  None.  How many LCS motherships do we have?  None.  So, where is the support for the distributed, PT-boat-ish LCS going to come from?  I have yet to hear the Navy explain that.

One final thought about PT boats. In WWII, they were safe from attack from anything that they couldn't see and, given their heavy weaponry relative to their size, they at least had a chance of fighting back. WWII was basically a visual range war. Today, a "PT boat" is subject to attack from dozens/hundreds of miles away, far beyond its own sensors. They're not survivable in combat for long and will likely never know where the attack that sank them came from and will, therefore, be unable to fight back.

On a related note, a much better equivalent to the PT-boat is the Chinese Type 22 missile boat which is stealthy, 35% the size of the LCS, and heavily armed with 8 C-80x type anti-ship missiles.  It also suffers from the same weakness as the PT-boat – limited sensor range.

Type 022 Missile Boat


(1)Breaking Defense website, “LCS In Pacific: Run Silent, Run Shallow”, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., 23-Jan-2018,

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Baby Steps

Regular readers know that ComNavOps is highly critical of the Navy’s training efforts.  I won’t bother rehashing all the problems but they can be summed up as “worthlessly unrealistic”.  I’ve been quite harsh in my criticism of Navy leadership on this subject and rightfully so.  However, ComNavOps is nothing if not fair and now it’s time for a little deserved praise.

The Navy is slowly bringing back the time-honored “battle problem” fleet exercises.  An example is cited in a USNI News website article that describes a fleet problem exercise that the Roosevelt strike group was given during their transit from San Diego to Hawaii (1). 

“The Fleet Problem, which asked the TR CSG to get from San Diego to Hawaii while either avoiding or taking out red force submarines, surface ships and other threats, was completely open-ended.”

Understandably, details were scarce but here’s a few comments that offer a glimpse.

“…with real adversaries out there, (opposition forces) being played by Pacific Fleet assets, not only Navy but full spectrum other assets that might be applied by a potential adversary.”

One hopes that “full spectrum other assets” refers to realistic ECM being applied against the carrier group as well as all out submarine warfare.

“…the unpredictability, the fog of war required us to work closely together to adapt to the threat and make decisions. We did some long-range strikes out there – at one point we had a wall of 14 fighters, each with two Harpoons apiece, going way beyond the horizon and striking against potential surface adversaries. That, I don’t think that’s been done in recent history… “

That such exercises haven’t been done in recent history is a scathing condemnation of Navy leadership but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

“In summary, Sardiello [Theodore Roosevelt Commanding Officer Capt. Carlos Sardiello] described the event as “(emissions control) operating environment, blue water ops, a large number of strike fighters going to the limit of their range, all that – it doesn’t get any more real than that in a Pacific Fleet fight,” he said.

These things we were doing were on the edge, the limitation of our capabilities and our tactics.”

No, they weren’t on the edge.  They only seemed that way to someone who hasn’t trained for this type of combat.  The Navy is still a long way from actually operating at the edge of their capabilities and it’s sad that they think this is the edge. 

What would have been much better is an open-ended Red Force enemy with significant resources at its disposal and presented with the other side of the fleet problem which would have been to use any and all measures to find, fix, and destroy the Roosevelt carrier group.  That would have provided some realistic and useful training – though not against relevant Chinese tactics but, still, it would have been far better than what was done.

As I said, it’s only fair to recognize this as a positive development, however meager.  Still, it’s a step in the right direction, even if only a baby step.


(1)USNI News website, “Fight to Hawaii: How the U.S. Navy is Training Carrier Strike Groups for Future War”, Megan Eckstein, 22-Mar-2018,

Sunday, March 25, 2018

FY19 Weapons Procurement Costs

Here is an informational post about various weapon procurement costs to help inform our discussions.  Unless otherwise noted, the cost data is from the FY19 Navy Budget Justification Book (1) and is the quantity and cost for FY19 purchase requests.

Weapon         Qty   Cost  Unit Cost

ESSM            45   $98M    $2.2M
RAM            120   $96M    $0.8M
LRASM           25   $81M    $3.2M
LCS OTH (NSM)    8   $18M    $2.2M  (note 1)
Standard SM-6  125  $490M    $3.9M
Tomahawk       100  $234M    $2.3M  (note 2)
Mk48 Torpedo    45   $93M    $2.1M

note 1 – presumed to be the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile as all other contenders have dropped out of the purchase competition

note 2 - FY18 qty and cost; no purchase request in FY19

This post has no particular point – just information to help sharpen our discussions!


(1)Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 Budget Estimates, February 2018, Navy Justification Book Volume 1 of 1, Weapons Procurement, Navy,

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Shallow Water ASW Story

“Torpedo in the water!”

The abrupt announcement from Sonar Control caused the usual instant flood of adrenaline in the combat watchstanders aboard the USS Morton.  Each silently and guiltily prayed that someone else in the ASW squadron would be the target.  The men collectively held their breath for a moment as Sonar rattled off the distance, bearing, and course of the torpedo.

“It’s headed for Fluckey.”

After a split second’s hesitation for those who weren’t the target to silently thank the gods of ASW, the group’s ships reacted and began the envelopment. 

Tactics for this kind of shallow water ASW operation had been learned or, in many cases, relearned, the hard way and the price of that learning had been blood and ships.  Now, though, the three other ships of the group - the Morton, O’Kane, and Gilmore (somewhat ironically, the Morton class ASW corvettes had been named for famous WWII submarine commanders) – began their well practiced envelopment maneuver.  What had previously been a four-ship, line abreast, hunting formation now peeled off in different directions to encircle the point where the torpedo had originated and which contained the enemy submarine.  The fourth ship, the Fluckey, which now had a torpedo pursuing it, had turned away to run at maximum speed.  That was how these envelopments worked.  The unlucky targeted ship turned and ran while the remaining three ships attempted to surround the submarine and fix it in the center of a triangle.

As Fluckey turned to begin her run from the torpedo, she also launched one of her Mk54 lightweight ASW torpedoes back down the bearing of the incoming torpedo.  This was intended to distract the sub while the three remaining ships began their envelopment and to, hopefully, cause the sub to break any control wires to the incoming torpedo.  There was also the off chance that the ASW torpedo would actually hit the submarine.  It happened occasionally, but not often.

As the three encircling vessels began to reach their assigned points of the triangle they shifted from their hunting mode of randomly alternating between active sonar and passive listening to continuous active searching.  It was imperative to find and fix the sub’s location and begin attacking before it could settle on its next target. 

By now, the torpedo chasing Fluckey was entering its terminal approach and it was apparent that Fluckey was not going to evade the incoming torpedo.  This was not unusual as the fleeing vessel in this scenario typically only managed to evade the torpedo about half the time.  This did not, however, mean that Fluckey was doomed.  Aboard the fleeing ship, the ASW mortar, an adaptation of the old Russian RBU-6000, trained back down the vessel’s wake as the ship, itself, abruptly slowed and turned to allow the ship’s hull mounted sonar to get a precise targeting fix on the incoming torpedo.  The data was quickly transferred to the mortar which twitched slightly to its final firing position and a volley of six compact ASW rocket propelled depth charges arced up and out to fall in a pattern around the torpedo’s predicted location.  The charges quickly sank a dozen feet or so and exploded as one on a timed fuze.  As often happened, the incoming torpedo was violently deflected off its path and, by the time it settled back down it’s direction had changed sufficiently that the small on-board sonar in its nose, with a very small and narrow field of view, was unable to reacquire the Fluckey and the torpedo headed off in a safe direction to eventually expend its fuel and sink to the bottom.

This tactic required perfect timing since slowing and turning the fleeing ship ensured that there would only be one, or at most two, attempts to deflect or destroy the incoming torpedo.  If the attempt failed, as it did about 20% of the time, the fleeing ship was almost certain to be sunk.  In the cold, hard math of combat, this was acceptable as the ASW corvettes were cheap and easily replaced.  Understandably, the crews did not share that feeling.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Fluckey cautiously turned back toward her sisters to eventually rejoin the hunt.

Meanwhile, as the rest of the group continued their search, the ships acted as gatekeepers, preventing the sub from slipping out of the triangle no matter which way it turned.  They slowly began constricting the triangle and herding the submarine towards the center.

Depending on the submarine’s behavior, this search could take many hours.  Passive sonar had proven ineffective in shallow water due to the ambient noise overwhelming and masking any target noise.  Non-nuclear subs were notoriously quiet and hard to find in shallow water.  Ultimately, though, active sonar had proven effective.  The “quietness” of a sub didn’t matter when active sonar was applied.  It was usually just a matter of time before the sub was localized. 

Of course, the drawback to active sonar was that it provided the submarine with a precise fix on the hunting ship’s positions and it was not uncommon for the submarine to fire back at its attackers.  O’Kane had encountered this a few weeks previously and had saved itself by turning directly into the torpedo and closing at full speed.  The ship had managed to get inside the torpedo’s safety range limit and then taken advantage of the proximity to the sub to launch a full volley of contact fuzed mortar charges which had achieved a single hit that damaged the sub, forcing it to the surface where the group’s 76 mm guns quickly ended the encounter.

The three searching ships continuously shared their data to assemble a composite tactical picture and triangulate the submarine’s position.  Aboard the Morton, the group ASW Commander decided that the tactical picture was solid enough for an attack.  Gilmore was currently in the best position and he transmitted the order for a short range ASROC launch.  Gilmore’s launcher trained out and the rocket fired.  The torpedo splashed down on top of the sub’s position and began its search pattern.  The submarine immediately went to full speed and turned away from the torpedo.  Unfortunately for the sub, it turned towards O’Kane which quickly launched a Mk54 torpedo to meet it.  The sub was now sandwiched between two searching torpedoes and running out of options.  This was exactly why the corvettes were always deployed in squadrons.  Numbers were the key to the corvette’s success. 

A final, desperate turn by the sub resulted in it heading towards Morton who also launched a Mk54.  At this point, with three torpedoes surrounding it, the sub’s fate was sealed.  O’Kane’s torpedo made the first hit and Gilmore’s ASROC torpedo quickly finished the sub.


This story is an exploration of corvette anti-submarine warfare tactics.  The tactics are based on a compilation and analysis of several papers and articles dealing with ASW, sonar characteristics, shallow water acoustic characteristics, and ASW weapons.  An example paper is listed below (1).

Notably, aviation assets are not involved.  I’ve described the force structure and CONOPS into which corvettes fit and the rationale for not including helos on the ships.  This scenario describes a set of tactics that could make that option viable.

This is a single scenario.  In the real world, there might well be other assets, both surface and aerial, that could be called upon for assistance.  It is not intended that this scenario and the ASW corvette be considered the only means or even the best means of conducting anti-submarine warfare.  It is simply one means using one type of platform and is intended to show how a low end platform can, with proper tactics, perform effective ASW without the benefit of helos.

To summarize, the following tactical elements were demonstrated:

  • Line abreast sweep
  • Envelopment – contacting vessel runs while others envelop
  • ASW hunting in squadrons
  • Short range active sonar
  • Continuous active sonar
  • Triangulation from multiple ships
  • RBU / Hedgehog as anti-sub weapon
  • Sail into short range torpedo contact to get inside torpedo safety limits
  • RBU as anti-torpedo tactic

I hope you enjoyed the story format!


(1)Naval Postgraduate School, “Passive and Active Sonar Prosecution of Diesel Submarines by Nuclear Submarines”, Erik J. Nelson, March 2008

Monday, March 19, 2018

Navy Wants To Deactivate Hospital Ship

The Navy operates two hospital ships:  USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort.  The Navy is planning to retire one of the two as part of the 2019 budget.  Perish the thought of cancellling an LCS but retiring a hospital ship is just fine.

ComNavOps is not a big fan of presence, deterrence, or soft power but if you’re going to conduct soft power operations a hospital ship is about the best example there is.  It’s hard to imagine a bigger positive impact than providing advanced medical care to areas of the world that lack it.

Here’s a few facts about the ships (1).

“When not in use, these ships operate with a skeleton crew. But in as little as five days, each can be converted into a 250-, 500- or 1,000-bed mobile hospital with a crew of 1,200 Navy Physicians, Nurses, Corpsmen, Technicians and support staff. These are some of the most highly trained medical personnel in the world – working together as only a Navy crew can – with the skills to handle primary, trauma, pediatric and orthopedic care. Each ship has 12 operating rooms, with specialized trauma centers and post care-unit beds included.”

Here’s a few highlights of Mercy’s career from the official Navy website (1).

USNS Mercy was built as an oil tanker, SS Worth, by National Steel and Shipbuilding Co., San Diego , in 1976. Starting in July 1984, she was renamed and converted to a hospital ship by the same company. USNS Mercy was commissioned 8 November 1986.

“On 27 February 1987 , MERCY began a training and humanitarian cruise to the Phillippines and the South Pacific. The staff included U.S. Navy, Army, and Air Force active duty and reserve personnel; U.S. Public Health service; medical providers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines; and MSC civilian mariners. Over 62,000 outpatients and almost 1,000 inpatients were treated at seven Philippine and South pacific ports. MERCY returned to Oakland, CA , on 13 July 1987.”

“On 9 August 1990 , MERCY was activated in support of Operation Desert Shield. Departing on 15 August, she arrived in the Arabian Gulf on 15 September. For the next six months, MERCY provided support to the multinational allied forces. She admitted 690 patients and performed almost 300 surgeries. After treating the 21 American and two Italian repatriated prisoners of war, she departed for home on 16 March 1991 , arriving in Oakland on 23 April. USNS MERCY is currently homeported in San Diego, California.”

USNS Comfort, like Mercy, was built as a sister oil tanker and converted to a hospital ship.  Comfort is based out of Norfolk and has had a career similar to Mercy.

USNS Mercy

The Navy will do anything to keep building worthless LCS vessels but a ship that actually helps people and enhances America’s reputation is going to be retired.  Where’s the logic?

We’ve all but officially acknowledged that war with China is coming.  Do we think there won’t be casualties and lots of them?  Hospital ships will be desperately needed – the LCS won’t be.  So, which one are we cutting?

The Navy has an endless string of bad decisions and this is the latest and one of the most egregious.


Friday, March 16, 2018

Naval Cornerstones

Consider these Naval Cornerstones:

  • People matter most
  • Doctrine is the glue of tactics
  • To know tactics, know technology
  • The seat of purpose is on land
  • Attack effectively first
  • We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training

The preceding truisms are time tested and proven.  Here are a few newer truisms for consideration.

  • Surveillance enables firepower.  The longest ranged weapon in the world is useless if your detection/targeting range doesn’t extend much beyond the horizon.

  • Armor sustains combat.  Ships need to be able to take a hit and keep fighting.  Today’s one-hit mission kill ship designs are idiotic in the extreme.  Designing a multi-billion dollar ship that can’t take a hit is just stupid on a plate.

  • Stealth is the terrain of the naval battlefield.  On land, terrain enables deception, delays detection, and dictates the battle.  At sea, stealth is what a ship hides behind.  That stealth can come from signature reduction, electronic warfare, decoys, etc. but without stealth in some form, ships are just advancing slowly across an open field.

  • Offense wins wars.  In recent decades, the U.S. Navy has forgotten that fact.  Our main weapon system, Aegis/Standard, is purely defensive.  Our air wings are half their size and our aircraft are short-legged and light on weapon payloads.  We have no effective anti-ship cruise missile.  We have no short/intermediate range ballistic missile.  We have no significant offensive mine warfare capability.  We have no effective naval gun support capability.  We have forgotten how to win a war. 

We need to refocus on high end, peer warfare and these truisms offer a good starting point as we design new ships, aircraft, and strategies.  Perhaps you have some of your own to offer?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Navy SEALs.  Who doesn’t love Navy SEALs?  Well, I guess in a show of hands, ComNavOps might be one of the very few who raises his hand as not loving Navy SEALs.  Let me be clearer.  I don’t love what they’ve become organizationally and functionally.

Recall the SEAL’s lineage.  It began in WWII with the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders, Naval Combat Demolition Units, and Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) and evolved over the years into the SEALs of the Vietnam era.  The founding missions were hydrographic surveys of potential assault sites, obstacle demolition, beach reconnaissance, infiltration, etc.  During the Vietnam war, there were two SEAL teams, one based on each coast of the US.

Underwater Demolition Team

There are now 8 SEAL Teams, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10 with Teams 7 and 10 having been formed in 2002.  There are also two reserve SEAL Teams, 17 & 18.

Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC or NSW) was established in 1987 in Coronado, and has responsibility for SEAL, SWCC (Special Boat operators) and SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) personnel (1).   The SEAL Teams were designated as such in the mid-1980’s from the previous Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT).

It is difficult to get an accurate count of the number of SEAL and NSW personnel.  No two sources seem to quite agree.  The SOCOM 2018 Fact Book gives the NSW manpower as “approximately 10,000”. (6)

From the Navy’s website,

“The NSW community is organized around eight SEAL teams, one SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) team, three special boat teams and supporting commands which deploy forces worldwide. The community is comprised of approximately 9,200 total personnel including more than 2,700 active-duty Special Warfare Operators, 700 Special Warfare Boat Operators (SWCC), 700 reserve personnel, 4,000 support personnel and more than 1,100 civilians.” (4)


“NSWC is the parent command to a total of 5,400 active duty and 1,200 reserve NSW personnel. It oversees four subordinate Major Commands known as NSW Groups 1-4, and their lower commands: eight SEAL Teams, two SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams (SDVT), and three Special Boat Teams (SBT). All even-numbered Groups and Teams are located on the East Coast, and all odd-numbered ones on the West Coast of the U.S.” (1)


“The total number of personnel in the SEAL teams comes in at 8,195.  Subtracting those assigned to SEAL Team Six, we get a figure of 6,895.  Looking at the total number of soldiers assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, we get 3,473. Can we lay this rumor to rest now? There are way more SEALs than there are Rangers.” (2)

Debates about the exact number of personnel aside, I’d like to examine the SEAL’s organizational growth and mission.

NSWC active duty personnel increased from around 5000 in 2001 to around 8100 in 2014 (3).  These are not all SEALs but the numbers provide a feel for the magnitude of the increase.  Funding increased from $260M in 2005 to $576M in 2014 (4).

Even very recently, NSW funding continues to grow.  From the 2016 budget justification document (5), we see that the specific account line for “Ship/Boat Operations”, which is a part of the NSW budget, rose from $87M in 2014 to an estimated $113M in 2016 – a 28% increase even after adjustment for inflation.

From two SEAL teams (and UDT) during the Vietnam War to the 8+ Teams and other NSW groups of today, it is clear that NSW has experienced explosive growth.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with growth if it’s necessary, right?  That leads us into the heart of this post.

What does NSW do? 

Popular impression is that SEALs conduct missions that originate from the sea and return to the sea.  The link to the sea is what distinguishes SEALs from other special forces such as the Green Berets or Rangers.  Of course, this is not completely accurate as we’ve seen SEALs deploy to completely land-locked areas and conduct purely ground actions.

Well, then, what is the official mission of the SEALs?  From the Navy NSW mission web page, we get this,

“NSW is postured to fight a globally-dispersed enemy, whether ashore or afloat, before they can act. NSW forces can operate in small groups and have a continuous presence overseas with their ability to quickly deploy from Navy ships, submarines and aircraft, overseas bases and forward-based units.  The proven ability of NSW forces to operate across the spectrum of conflict and in operations other than war, and provide real-time, first-hand intelligence offer decision makers immediate and multiple options in the face of rapidly changing crises around the world.” (4)

That’s a pretty generic and, therefore, worthless statement although it does offer two tidbits that we’ll come back to.

Setting aside the generic and largely non-specific mission statement, we all understand what SEALs do.  They do small unit, high degree of difficulty, high risk actions.  They attack high value targets, provide surveillance and intel, and the like.  This is admirable.  This is also redundant and counterproductive.

We already have several special operations forces dedicated to land operations.  Why are we using SEALs?  That’s redundant and wasteful.

What should SEALs be doing?  They should return to their roots which is actions on the sea and from the sea and leave the pure land actions to the other groups.

Now, here’s the counterproductive part.  Because of the focus on land operations, SEALs are largely ignoring many vital missions.  Let’s consider some possibilities.

  • Destruction/sabotage of the illegal Chinese artificial islands.  Those islands, especially while they were under construction were ideal targets for sabotage and destruction.

  • Destruction/sabotage of Iranian swarm boats and base facilities.  Iran is long overdue for some serious punishment for its repeated pattern of reckless and illegal behavior toward the U.S. Navy.

  • Seizure of vessels supplying arms and supplies to NKorea and Iran.

  • Sea-launched anti-terrorist surveillance, intel, and stike actions in Africa.

  • Capture and/or destruction of drug trafficking vessels in South America and Mexico.  Clearly those countries are incapable of effectively conducting their own operations.

  • Seizure of Chinese unmanned vehicles operation on, under, or over the ocean.

  • Destruction of NKorean naval vessels such as the SSBN that is being built.

  • Destruction/sabotage of the Crimean shipyards seized from Ukraine and the Russian corvette vessels reportedly under construction there.  Such clandestine efforts would be an appropriate response to Russia’s illegal, militaristic, expansionist activities and send a clear message about our resolve.

And the list goes on.  To be fair, some of these activities may be occurring without public knowledge.  In fact, one hopes they are!  However, nothing I’ve seen even hints at this.  The SEALS appear to be firmly wedded to the land and make no particular effort to hide that fact which makes it unlikely that they are conducting the kind of hidden missions I’ve outlined.

There’s one more aspect to the SEALs that needs to be addressed.  SEALs, along with other military assets, have traditionally been used to take actions that support our national security but which may, on the face of it, appear illegal according to international laws and regulations.  For example, it’s widely believed that during the Cold War we sent submarines inside Soviet Union territorial waters to conduct clandestine operations.  Similarly, it’s assumed that we send SEALs on missions that may violate territorial boundaries.

The justification for this is that the countries in question have, by their own illegal and irresponsible actions, presented a threat to our national security and forfeited their rights to the protections provided by international law.  This is not the point of the post so I’m not going to discuss it further.

Note that in the SEAL mission description quoted earlier, we see this snippet regarding SEAL missions, “enemy …  before they can act”.  This is formally recognizing the pre-emptive nature of special forces missions.  The SEALs exist to take action before an enemy can take action against us.  Thus, the suggested missions list I presented earlier and which some of you are undoubtedly furiously pounding out replies about the illegality of, now become clear for what they are:  pre-emptive and preventative actions.

The SEALs need to return to the sea and leave the purely land operations to the other groups.  Why do we have Delta Force, Rangers, Green Berets, etc. if we’re going to intrude into their responsibilities with SEALs?  Would we think it makes sense to have Green Berets conduct sea based operations?  Of course not and the Navy would pitch a fit if they did, so why do we think the reverse makes sense?

Here’s another tidbit from the mission statement,

“… provide real-time, first-hand intelligence …”

The original purpose of the UDT/SEAL force was to provide intel.  Over the years, that has morphed into active and intentional combat.  The SEAL community has lost its focus or, more likely, intentionally changed the focus in pursuit of a larger budget slice.  We need to return the SEALs to clandestine intel collection and isolated destruction/sabotage rather than wholesale land combat.

The SEALs were never intended for sustained land combat and yet that is what they have become.  They’ve become a naval army.

Let’s cut way back on the size of the SEAL force, return those billets to the fleet, and refocus the SEAL mission responsibility to the sea-based arena that it is supposed to function in.

I love SEALs but I don’t love what they’ve become.


(1) website,

(2)Sofrep website, “Navy SEALs or Army Rangers: Who Has the Higher Numbers?”, Jack Murphy, 6-Aug-2015,

(3)Government Accounting Office (GAO), “Special Operations Forces”, July 2015, GAO-15-571, p.46
(4)ibid, p.55

(4)Navy website, Naval Special Warfare Command,

(5)United States Special Operations Command Operation and Maintenance, Defense-Wide Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Budget Estimates, SOCOM-847,

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Combat Fleet Count - China vs. U.S. Comparison

I’m beginning a combat fleet count for China to use as a comparison to ours.  I’ll use the same criteria for inclusion.

To refresh your memory, the combat fleet is composed of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships (CVN, DDG, CG, FFG, SSN, SSBN, SSGN, LHA, LHD, LPD, and LSD).  Vessels like patrol ships, minesweepers, hospital ships, tugs, salvage ships, and ships whose designation starts with “T” or “A” are not counted as part of the combat fleet.  Yes, I know that China doesn’t necessarily use the same designations we do but I’ll do my best to apply the same categorization regardless of what the Chinese designations are.

I’ve included the Chinese missile boats (Fast Attack Craft – FAC) due to their heavy offensive firepower which makes them a significant battle fleet asset.  This is a reasonable inclusion but it does distort the total fleet size number comparison so take that into consideration.

Here are the numbers and breakdown as of the start of 2018

                  China(1)    U.S.

SSN                    14      51
SSBN                    5      14
SSGN                    0       4
SSK                    58       0
CV                      1      10
LHA                     0       1
LHD                     0       8
LPD                     4      11
LSD                     0      12
LST                    32       0
LSM                    31       0
CG                      0      16
DDG                    29      66
FFG                    49       0
FS (Corvette)          39       0
FAC (Missile Boat)    203       0

Total                 474     193

Here’s a few noteworthy considerations:

  • The U.S. has more “heavy” ships such as carriers, cruisers, and high end destroyers and, therefore, retains a firepower advantage.
  • The U.S. Navy has a huge advantage in carriers and, therefore, mobile aerial firepower but the Chinese have begun an aggressive carrier construction program and will likely match the U.S. carrier fleet in about 10 years.
  • China has a heavy investment in lower end ships such as frigates, corvettes, and missile boats, all of which are heavily armed for their size and would constitute a significant firepower threat.  This is the U.S. Navy’s vaunted distributed lethality realized.  We’re talking about it and the Chinese have done it!  So, all the U.S. Navy’s claims of disproportionate impact that distributed lethality will have on the enemy’s operational complexity and confusion, the Chinese have already applied against us many times over.  ComNavOps has severe doubts about the validity of distributed lethality but according to the U.S. Navy’s claims, China has already hugely overmatched and beaten us in this arena.
  • China’s fleet is, for the most part, new and getting newer all the time.
  • The U.S. fleet still possesses as qualitative advantage in technology although this gap is shrinking rapidly. 

I’ll continue to update this from time to time.


(1)Wiki, "List of active People's Liberaton Army Navy ships", retrieved 12-Mar-2018,

Friday, March 9, 2018

Combat Fleet Count Update

Here is the periodic update on the combat fleet size.  The Navy claims the fleet is growing and is well on its way to 300+ but what are the actual numbers?  Well, previous updates have shown that the combat fleet size is steadily decreasing.

To refresh your memory, the combat fleet is composed of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships (CVN, DDG, CG, FFG, SSN, SSBN, SSGN, LHA, LHD, LPD, and LSD).  Vessels like the JHSV, MCM, PC, hospital ships, LCS (we’ll count them if and when they ever get any combat capability), tugs, salvage ships, and ships whose designation starts with “T” or “A” are not counted as part of the combat fleet.

I’ve deleted the Ford from the count because, even though technically in commission, it is not a functional ship yet.

I’ve also deleted the six idled Ticonderoga class cruisers from the count since they represent a permanent decrease (they’ll only return to the fleet on a one for one replacement for a retiring Tico, according to the Navy, though it remains to be seen how this will play out).

Here are the updated numbers.

1980  392
1985  421
1990  405
1995  283
2000  243
2005  220
2010  225
2012  210
2014  205
2015  197
2016  191
2017  193

You can check the fleet size for yourself at .

So, we’ve gained two ships and halted the steady downward trend.  That’s good, I guess, but at that rate we’re not going to achieve any 355-ship fleet any time soon! 

I’ll close this post with the same statement I closed the previous Combat Fleet Count update posts:

Compare the Navy’s trend to China’s and ponder the implications for yourself.

I’ll continue to update this from time to time.