The investigation revealed all the usual suspects associated with any disaster: poor communications, violation of standards, ignorance of facts about equipment and procedures, lack of preparation, failure to anticipate the worst case scenario, equipment failure, misjudgments, and so on. I’m not going to bore you with a recitation of the details because, frankly, they read exactly the same as for any and every other accident and there is nothing worthwhile in them. Reports have been written, endless recommendations have been made (closing the barn door after the horse is out), and the same incident will, inevitably happen again sometime because no real change will occur. So, moving on …
|Chancellorsville Drone Strike|
As a reminder, here is a brief description of the drone from the report memos.
… the BQM-74E ia an aerial target drone produced by Northrup Grumman. It is turbine-powered, recoverable, remote controlled, and subsonic. It. is capable of speeds up to Mach .86 or 515 knots at sea level. It is 12.95 feet long, 5.78 feet wide, weighs 455 pounds, and resembles a small Tomahawk cruise missile, though is painted bright orange. (1)
On a macabre note, the test range personnel issued a “Rogue Drone” call 17 seconds AFTER the drone struck the ship.
The drone struck the ship at 13:14:00. The Test Conductor called "Rogue Drone" at 13:14:17. (1)
While there was plenty of failure on the part of the ship’s company to anticipate, observe, and engage the rogue drone, I’d like to focus on the drone control failure. The drone is controlled by the test range System for Naval Target Control (SNTC). From the report,
The SNTC consists of the following major components: Master control Consoles (MCCs). Target control Consoles (TCCs). Ground Radio Frequency Units (GRFUs). UHF antennas, GPS antennas, Model 53 Portable Test Set (PTS), Model 280-l UHF Transponders, Shipboard Transponders, Airborne Relays and associated ancillary equipment. The SNTC provides system operators with a Microsoft Windows based interface enabling system configuration and control. (1)
On a more complex scale, this is the equivalent of the handheld controller that you would use to control a remote control model airplane.
I’d now like to look a few specific aspects of the incident.
Network Issues – “The investigation determined that the SNTC was incorrectly configured and caused a significant increase in network message transmissions and system instability.” (1)
On a relative basis, the networking involved in controlling a target drone is about as simple as it gets. Further, this network had been in use for some time. Despite this, the network failed, to an unspecified degree. How many times has ComNavOps warned about our headlong pursuit of networks as the advantage we’re going to pin our war-winning hopes on? If we can’t make even simple, isolated networks work reliably how are we going to make staggeringly complex networks work in the face of enemy electronic countermeasures and cyber attacks? The desire to place all our hopes on data and networks is lunacy and this incident is yet another piece of proof.
Electromagnetic Issues – “The frequency spectrum that SNTC operates in is a congested electromagnetic environment and susceptible to interference that can result in difficulties controlling drone flight operations.” (1)
What the military fails to grasp is that ALL frequencies, across the entire spectrum, will be congested and susceptible to interference. This vulnerability will only get worse once the enemy initiates electronic countermeasures, jamming, and cyber attacks. We’re currently using the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum as if it’s a free tool that we have exclusive and unhindered rights to – and, in peacetime, that’s somewhat true. The enemy will quickly change that when war comes. This is analogous to our addiction to, and dependence on, GPS positioning. We need to accept that our free and easy use of the EM spectrum will not continue in combat. To that end, we need to build in much more simplicity, redundancy, and brute force in our EM use. We also need to train to operate in a compromised EM spectrum, something we’re only doing to a very limited extent, right now. Every exercise we do should include an OpFor dedicated to degrading our own EM environment so that we learn what equipment works and what is vulnerable and how to operate without an unhindered EM battlefield.
System Degradation – “Prior to the launch of the BQM-74E drones, one of which impacted CHV, the control team knew the target drone control system had failed or exhibited abnormalities several times that day;” (1)
Consider this statement:
Prior to the [fill in the blank] incident, it was well known that problems existed in the [fill in the blank].
This statement appears in almost every incident ever reported. The recent Burke collisions were laced with known manning, training, and certification problems prior to the incidents. The riverine boats that got lost and were surrendered to the Iranians were known to have problems with leadership, training, readiness, planning, and mechanical issues. And so on.
Despite this consistent element to every incident, the Navy has made no effort to change the culture which encourages personnel to ignore obvious problems. Until this changes, incidents will continue unabated. This is a leadership deficit, pure and simple, starting at the highest level.
Discrimination – “Based on previous tracking presentations, drone tracks would coast and appear to be inbound to the ship even after turning outbound.” (1)
We want to construct massive, regional, all-seeing, all-knowing networks with perfect awareness and real-time data so that we can bring our enemies to their knees with our overwhelming situational knowledge. You’d think firepower would play a part in victory, too, but our Navy leaders seem not to think that. But, I digress …
The point is that our very best Aegis radar system appears to have a systemic “latency” or inertia in that the displayed tracks “coast” toward the ship even though the actual object has turned away. Presumably, all tracks have this latent inertia and, if so, that’s got to make missile intercepts a lot more challenging since we never know whether that incoming missile that is engaged in terminal maneuvering is actually where it appears or if it’s jinked onto a new course! So, much for all-seeing, all-knowing, real-time, perfect awareness! If our very best sensor system has that kind of reality “delay”, you have to question the very foundation of our network/data wishful thinking.
There was nothing in the reports indicating that this latency inertia was a brand new phenomenon, just discovered in the course of this incident - quite the opposite. It appears to be a well known system flaw that has been around for quite some time. So, why hasn’t it been addressed? This ties back into the System Degradation comments and the deficiencies and culpability of Navy leadership.
Summary – Every incident like this is yet another in an endless string of opportunities for the Navy to institute real, positive, effective change and yet they never do. Instead, they write reports, generate long lists of recommendations, create more and more layers of paperwork, and accomplish nothing. The Navy’s biggest problem is not maintenance, readiness, training, manpower, numbers of ships, or anything of that nature. The biggest problem is leadership – the total, complete absence of effective leadership. Until that changes, nothing else will improve.