Monday, July 29, 2019

Commandant's Guidance

The new Commandant of the Marines, Gen. David Berger, has issued his “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” document (1) which sets the course for the Marine Corps.  While all Commandants do this, this one is stunning in its bluntness and rejection of established practices and policies. 

Note: page number references are provided in the following discussion, for your convenience.

The document seems to be starting from the premise of Berger’s predecessor, Commandant Neller, who stated,

The Marine Corps is not organized, trained, equipped, or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment. (p.1)

This Commandant seems to be taking the statement to heart and looking to modify the Corps to be able to meet the requirements of future combat, as he sees them.  Fair enough.  Let’s run through some of the major changes.

Force design is my number one priority.   We will divest of legacy defense programs and force structure that support legacy capabilities. If provided the opportunity to secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure, I am prepared to do so. (p.2)

This seems to be suggesting that extensive termination of legacy equipment and capabilities is coming.  Potentially, this is a very good thing as all the services have extensive legacy equipment and capabilities that are ill-suited to our next war – with China directly or Chinese proxies.  The danger here is that what Berger deems unusable legacy capabilities may actually be quite useful.  One such example is tanks.  The Marines have been shedding tanks both from inventory (meaning active units) and from deployment with tanks being left out of the inventory of deployed ARG/MEUs.  There is a worrisome trend in the military, today, to eliminate or de-emphasize firepower in favor of data and networks.  As we’ve discussed repeatedly, this is misguided, to put it politely.  Since the guidance document offers no specifics, we’ll have to wait and see what gets cut and what gets emphasized.

This also raises a larger question.  The changes called for in the guidance document look to be substantial, sweeping, and revolutionary.  That begs the question, are they wise?  This is all going to happen based on the views of one person, Gen. Berger.  If he’s right that’s great but if he’s wrong we could see the Corps irreparably harmed for decades to come.  For example, this Commandant seems to be continuing and reinforcing his predecessor’s attempt to become part of the naval campaign – a very questionable proposition that duplicates many existing naval capabilities to no good purpose.  An example of the duplication is Berger’s statement that he sees value in the ‘Lightning Carrier’ (the F-35B LHA) (p.3).  This is an attempt to move in on the carrier budget with a decidedly inferior capability compared to the Nimitz/Ford.

There has been no discussion of the proposed changes nor has the Commandant invited any discussion.  In fact, the tone of the document strongly suggests that discussion will be actively discouraged.  That’s never a good thing.  This is the Emperor’s Clothes scenario.  Given the history of Navy and Marine leadership, my confidence that this one person has the right vision for the Corps is very low. 

Moving on …

The Commandant describes the organizational force emphasis.

The Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) will remain our principal warfighting organization; … III MEF will become our main focus-of-effort, designed to provide U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (U.S. INDOPACOM) and the Commander, 7th Fleet with a fight-tonight, standin force capability to persist inside an adversary’s weapon systems threat range, create a mutually contested space, and facilitate the larger naval campaign. (p.3)

Nice to see that he recognizes that China is the main threat.  Disturbing to see, again, the attempt to move in on the Navy responsibilities by ‘facilitating the larger naval campaign’.  Commandant, you’re not in the naval campaign business.  Stay in your lane.

Forward deployed forces are addressed.

The majority of defense professionals continue to support our conclusions regarding the efficacy of forward deployed forces …

This is not intended to be a defense of the status quo as our forces currently forward deployed lack the requisite capabilities to deter our adversaries and persist in a contested space to facilitate sea denial. (p.3)

Again, good and bad.  The good is that the Commandant recognizes that our currently forward deployed forces are incapable and bad that, despite that evidence, he wants to continue the practice.  The key will be how and whether he can make those forces more capable. 

One avenue the Commandant suggests, and another example of duplicating capabilities, is using HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) to launch anti-ship missiles. (p.3)  I have yet to hear anyone elucidate a viable CONOPS for such a capability.  Sensors, in particular, are a weak link that no one has addressed.

Regarding the amphibious force structure, the Commandant makes a noteworthy and wise statement.

We must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few when conceiving of the future amphibious portion of the fleet. (p.4)

He recognizes that our forces are too concentrated and represent too big a risk,

… illogical to continue to concentrate our forces on a few large ships. The adversary will quickly recognize that striking while concentrated (aboard ship) is the preferred option. (p.4)

and calls for more numerous and lower end transport ships so, good for that.  However, he then continues his expansion into trying to run the Navy with this statement,

 the Navy and Marine Corps must ensure larger surface combatants possess mission agility… (p.4)

I’m sorry but when did it become the Marine’s job to define larger surface combatant capabilities?  He then blatantly states that he’s looking to expand the Marines by absorbing some traditional Navy responsibilities.

… we must engage in a more robust discussion regarding naval expeditionary forces and

capabilities not currently resident within the Marine Corps such as coastal / riverine forces, naval construction forces, and mine countermeasure forces. We must ask ourselves whether it is prudent to absorb some of those functions, forces, and capabilities to create a single naval expeditionary force whereby the Commandant could better ensure their readiness and resourcing. (p.4)

He’s flat out saying that he thinks the Marines should be running chunks of the Navy and that he, the Commandant, is the person best able to run portions of the Navy.  Simply stunning!  The various services have always had a battle for budget slice and responsibilities but this is a naked power grab.

The Commandant then rules out traditional amphibious assaults.

Visions of a massed naval armada nine nautical miles off-shore in the South China Sea preparing to launch the landing force in swarms of ACVs, LCUs, and LCACs are impractical and unreasonable. (p.5)

Okay, that being the case, why are the Marines buying ACVs?  Why are we maintaining a large amphibious fleet that costs untold billions of dollars to buy and operate?  To be fair, the Commandant notes that the current amphibious fleet is not ideal.

He also correctly notes the vulnerability of the MPF fleet.

Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) … our MPF ships would be highly vulnerable and difficult to protect. (p.5)

Disturbingly, the Commandant seems totally committed to the mythical, hidden, forward operating base, dubbed Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO).

EABO enable naval forces to partner and persist forward to control and deny contested areas where legacy naval forces cannot be prudently employed without accepting disproportionate risk. (p.11)

This is exactly the kind of vague, near-magical capability that the Marines have been claiming without ever explaining how such a base will be maintained, supplied, and conduct significant operations all while remaining hidden and immune from enemy fires.  Until someone can explain that, this concept will remain pure fantasy.  The belief that this kind of base can perform all manner of combat miracles while ‘legacy naval forces cannot be prudently employed’ is wishful thinking at its most extreme.

The intrusion into naval matters continues,

We must develop capabilities to facilitate sea denial and sea control … (p.13)

Again, the Marine’s responsibility is forcible entry and actions from the sea, not sea denial and sea control.  The Marines lack the ability to execute their own responsibilities let alone intruding on the Navy’s.  Again, this intrusion is a budget grab, pure and simple.

In summary, the Commandant clearly has a vision for the Corps – a significantly different vision than any of his predecessors and he makes it clear that he has no interest in entertaining any discussion of his planned changes.  That’s a very risky position to take.  Dissent or disagreement is stamped out and rigidity is codified.  If his changes are all correct then … great.  If not, no one will tell him and, even if they do, he’s making it clear that he won’t listen.

To be fair, there is much to like in the document.  Many aspects of it have been discussed in this blog and I wholeheartedly approve.  However, there is much that is quite disturbing.  The systematic grab of naval responsibilities is the most troubling and is already leading to inefficient duplication of capabilities while neglecting core capabilities and missions.

For better or worse, this Commandant seems determined to radically change the Marine Corps for decades to come.


Friday, July 26, 2019

Mining Hainan

Given the near complete absence of mine countermeasure assets in the US Navy, the nightmare scenario in a war is an enemy that uses a few submarines to lay a handful of mines in mainland American ports and then has only to sit back and watch the Navy convulse in an effort to race back from the war front to clear and protect our ports.  Our entire MCM fleet - all 6-8 LCS (and the few Avengers and HM-53E helos that we might not have yet retired) – would have to be brought back from any overseas missions to conduct port clearance.  Even then, we’d only be able to clear and maintain a maximum of 8 ports even using the minimal, and inadequate, tasking of one LCS per port.  Unfortunately, the US has many dozens of ports.  While this mammoth convulsion was on-going, our commercial shipping would be brought to an abrupt standstill.  A clever enemy – and no one is accusing Russia or China of not being clever! – would be able to institute a total blockade of the entire United States via a handful of submarine laid mines.  How’s that for a return on investment in low cost mines and a few subs?

Such a move would have the added benefit, for the Chinese, of depriving the US fleet of its overseas MCM capability which means the fleet would be unable to go anywhere that mines were even suspected – which would be almost everywhere!  Thus, in one stroke, the Chinese could paralyze both our commercial shipping and our naval actions.

So, clearly a bad news scenario for us.

Fortunately, we are frantically working to build lots of additional dedicated minesweepers and new MCM helos.  Oh wait … we’re actually not doing that at all.  We’ll set aside the staggering stupidity of our non-existent MCM plan and force and press on to a related aspect .

Having recognized the catastrophic nature of this scenario, why can’t this scenario be turned around?  Why can’t we use our subs to lay a few strategically placed mines in and around the Chinese Hainan base/port, for example?  Why can’t we mine the various chokepoints around the South China Sea through which Chinese merchant shipping must pass?  Why can’t we mine the Taiwan strait?  And so on.

Theoretically, there is no reason why we can’t turn the scenario around.  Of course, the reality is that we no longer have the capability or weapons to achieve such a scenario.  Our mines are nearly obsolete and our subs almost never practice mine laying (see, "Offensive Mine Warfare - Operational Usage").

The attractiveness of being able to apply against our enemies the same mine warfare that we dread encountering is so blindingly obvious that one can’t help but be stunned by our near total neglect of offensive mine warfare.  What little mine awareness we have is directed towards the ill-suited and ill-conceived LCS MCM module.  We need to remember and regain our offensive mine warfare mindset and capability.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Wonsan Amphibious Assault And Mine Lessons

The US Navy has had two major post-WWII lessons handed to it regarding the link between amphibious assault and mines.  You may, already, be asking yourself, ‘Why two lessons?  Shouldn’t one major lesson suffice?’ .  For anyone but the US Navy, yes, a single major lesson should suffice.  But, I digress …

The two lessons were the Wonsan, Korea assault in 1950 and the aborted amphibious assault during the Desert Storm conflict (see, "Marine Corps in Desert Storm - The Great Diversion").  Let’s take a closer look at Wonsan.

The Navy Historical Center website very nicely summarizes the Wonsan operational rationale.

The great success of the Inchon Invasion led General MacArthur to order a second amphibious assault, targeting Wonsan on North Korea's east coast. After landing there, Tenth Corps could advance inland, link up with the Eighth Army moving north from Seoul and hasten the destruction of the North Korean army. Wonsan would also provide UN forces with another logistics support seaport, one closer to the battlefronts than Pusan and with greater handling capacity than tide-encumbered Inchon.

Wonsan's greatest value, though, was unintended: it gave the U.S. Navy a painfully valuable reminder of the fruits of neglecting mine countermeasures, that unglamorous side of maritime power that, when it is needed, is needed very badly. As Admiral Forrest Sherman, the Chief of Naval Operations at the time, remarked "when you can't go where you want to, when you want to, you haven't got command of the sea". This experience provoked one of the greatest minesweeper building programs in the Navy's history, one that produced hundreds of ships to serve not only under the U.S. flag, but under those of many allied nations. (1)

The Soviet Union had supplied North Korea with thousands of mines and technical advisors to help them plan and lay the mines using sampans operating at night.  The mines included 1904 era Russian contact mines and new magnetic influence mines sensitive enough to be triggered by a wooden minesweeper’s engines. (3)

Operation Wonsan was the clearance of mines from the Wonsan harbor and surrounding area in preparation for the amphibious assault.  The operation began on 10-Oct-1950, ten days before the assault was to begin.  The minesweeping and clearance operation was conducted under accurate artillery fire from the North Koreans.  On 12-Oct-1950, mines sank two US minesweepers, the USS Pledge (AM-277) and the USS Pirate (AM-275).  A Republic of Korea minesweeper, YMS-516, was blown up and sunk by a magnetic mine while conducting a clearance check sweep on 18-Oct-1950. (2)

SKorean Minesweeper Blown Up By A Mine

The landing force of some 30,000 Marines and soldiers arrived off Wonsan to begin the assault on 20-Oct-2019 but the mines had not yet been cleared and the assault force was forced to wait two weeks at sea while the mine clearance operation continued.

The minefields caused a 250-ship amphibious task force with 50,000 Marines and soldiers aboard to ‘yo-yo’ up and down Korea’s East coast for two weeks as NAVFE waited for Wonsan harbor to be cleared. (3)

Rear Admiral (RADM) Allan E. ‘Hoke’ Smith, TF Advance Force 95 at Wonsan was forced to message Washington,

“We have lost control of the seas to a nation without a Navy, using pre-World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ.” (3)

In the larger Korean conflict, five destroyers were severely damaged by mines and seven minesweepers were sunk. (3)

The incident offers some valuable lessons still immensely relevant today.

Clearance Under Fire – The mine clearance effort was greatly hampered by the North Korea artillery fire directed against the minesweepers.  We have totally ignored this aspect of MCM today.  We have too few MCM assets to allow for any combat losses.  We have no doctrine for protecting the MCM assets since our amphibious assault doctrine has the Navy standing 25-50+ miles offshore.  The LCS COBRA shoreline UAV is envisioned to function by slowly flowing back and forth, up and down the shoreline.  The life expectancy of the UAV will likely be measured in minutes.  We’re designing capabilities with no thought, whatsoever, to enemy resistance.

Sampans as Minelayers – This raised the question of how to counter what appear to be civilian craft?  Do we sink everything that floats and not worry about whether it was engaged in a military action or not?  Do we attempt to board every boat – while under fire?!  Do we allow the enemy a free ‘haven’ for mine laying?  This sounds ridiculous but the US has a long history of exactly that – allowing the enemy various types of free havens!  We have given this zero doctrinal attention.

Clearance Rate – I’ve talked about this repeatedly.  We simply do not have the right technology, the right number of assets, and the right mentality to conduct mine clearance in an operationally useful time frame.  This, alone, all but rules out amphibious assaults as a viable operation!

Technology Disparity versus Effectiveness – The US maintains a wide technological disparity over most potential enemies and yet we see time and again the stunning success of very low tech mines.  One can’t help but wonder if we’re pursuing the wrong end of the technology trail?  For starters, we need to acknowledge the incredible effectiveness of low tech mines instead of all but ignoring them as we have done for decades.  Next, we should be looking at simpler, more basic methods of mine clearance.  For example, instead of using exquisite technology to identify every mine, get its serial number, count the rivets on it, and neutralize them one by one, perhaps we should be looking at a method of indiscriminate destruction of every  object that even remotely looks like a mine – area destruction instead of precision destruction.  An example of such an approach would be to flood an area with a true swarm of small, suicidal underwater vehicles that just blow up everything they ‘see’ and don’t worry about what it was.  This is just one back-of-the-napkin idea.  I’m sure MCM professionals could come up with other ideas.

History is screaming lessons at us and the Navy is walking around with their hands over their ears.  We need to study history, learn the lessons, and change our ways.  Amphibious assault cannot occur in the presence of mines and we have no effective mine clearance capability.  The Marines, in particular, need to be pounding on this problem since amphibious assaults are their claimed reason for existence.


(1)Navy Historical Center website, “The Wonsan Operation, October 1950 --
Overview and Selected Images”, retrieved 21-Jul-2019,

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Next Cruiser and Mini-Hawks

Here’s a bit of news that has the potential to be something good for the Navy … or astoundingly bad.

RAdm. Ronald Boxall has intimated that the ship that replaces the Ticongeroga class cruisers won’t be a cruiser. (1)  What?!!!  That’s just crazy talk!  Well, grab your bilge keel and steady out for a moment and let’s see what he’s talking about.  Here’s the actual quote,

“People are always asking: ‘What’s the next cruiser?’ ” Boxall said. “What I’m telling you is that it might not be a cruiser. What we are looking for is what do we need our surface ships to do at the big level, what do we need to do at the small level and what do we need to do with unmanned because it is a different Navy out there.”

Um, okay …  Is it just me or does that sound like typical Navy buzz-talk that sounds good and means nothing?  Yeah, it does.  Let’s go just a bit further, though, before we write this off as typical Navy garbage.

“The hull Boxall described incorporates the surface force’s emphasis on off-board sensors that radiate and target with active sensors, while using passive sensors on the ship to avoid detection.”

Okay, now we’ve got something and, amazingly, it’s something that ComNavOps can get on board with.  The idea of off-board sensors which allows the host ship to remain silent is excellent.  Of course, the devil is always in the details and the article presented none.  However, when has the lack of details ever stopped ComNavOps from analyzing?  Since the Navy isn’t offering any details and, indeed, likely has none, ComNavOps will offer his own so that we can discuss the concept.

Recall that one of the tactics of carrier E-2 Hawkeye operations is to move well off from the carrier’s location and radiate while the carrier remains silent.  Thus, the carrier gains the benefit of radar awareness while remaining hidden.  In a very similar fashion, if a surface ship could send “mini-Hawkeyes” out to sense the surroundings while remaining electromagnetically quiet (EMCON), that would be a tremendous advantage.

What, you ask, is a “mini-Hawkeye”?  Well, that’s the devil rising from the details, isn’t it?  So, a “mini-Hawkeye” would have to be some type of unmanned, small, cheap sensor in order to effectively accomplish the task.  Let’s look at the “mini-Hawkeye’s” (mini-hawk) characteristics and see if the characteristics lead us to a description.

Size – A surface ship is not a carrier and even the biggest have very small flight decks.  So, a mini-hawk would have to be small – small enough to operate from a surface ship and small enough to be stored in large numbers on a ship.

Numbers – Related to size is numbers.  These sensors are likely to have a high attrition/loss rate so each ship needs to be able to store and operate large numbers.  In fact, one could easily imagine scenarios in which the mini-hawks are sent on intentional, one-way missions so as to extend the sensor range.

Cost – Given what we just said about small size and large numbers, it is obvious that the cost must be cheap.  Think of these mini-hawks as akin to sonobuoys and you’re beginning to approach the right conceptual ballpark.

Speed – There is a requirement for speed in order to get out to the sensing station in a useful amount of time.  A ship cannot afford to wait for hours while an unmanned sensor slowly makes its way out.  This largely rules out underwater (UUV) or even surface (USV) drones because they just can’t get on station quickly enough to be useful.  In other words, the mini-hawks must be aerial devices – UAVs of some sort.  Now, there is a potential use for UUV mini-hawks when the scenario allows for a more leisurely deployment of the sensor net.  Monitoring a chokepoint, for example, or dropping some UUV mini-hawks in one’s wake to check for trailing ships or aircraft.  UUV mini-hawks would not, however, be the main sensor.  UAV mini-hawks would be the main sensor.

While a degree of speed is useful, excess speed is pointless.  I’m thinking around 70-100 mph would be sufficient to get on station in a timely fashion without excessively impacting the size and cost.

Field of View – The mini-hawk must have a useful sensor field of view (FOV) – as large a FOV, as possible, in fact.  This is elementary.  Of course, it’s also contradictory with the requirement for small size!  One way the FOV can be maximized is altitude.  The higher the sensor, the farther the range of it FOV, within the inherent limits of resolution of the sensor.  This again argues for an aerial mini-hawk rather than a UUV or USV mini-hawk.

One thing to keep in mind is resolution.  We’re looking to detect ships and aircraft – fairly large objects.  That we can’t distinguish the number of rivets on a ship is unimportant.  Thus, the sensor can trade resolution for sensor range and FOV.

Range – We’re not looking for thousand mile range.  Our anti-surface weapons are limited to a range of 60 miles (Harpoon), 100 miles (Naval Strike Missile), and, possibly, out to 200+ miles (LRASM).  Thus, the mini-hawk only needs to be able to go a maximum of 150-200 miles – less, actually, depending on the range of its sensors.

Sensor – The obvious choice is radar, however, any kind of sensor could be potentially useful depending on the situation.  Thus, either interchangeable sensors are needed or, given the cheapness and numbers that we’ve already discussed, alternate versions of mini-hawk, each with its own type of sensor, are needed.  The sensors can include radar, IR, optical (recall our Tomcat discussion?), and any other sensor that might prove useful.

Tactical Application.  Here is how I envision the mini-hawk being used.  The host ship operates a steady stream of mini-hawks in all directions but, presumably, concentrated and oriented towards anticipated threat axes.  The mini-hawks would operate around 150 miles out and, typically, offset from the host ship’s course.  Multiple mini-hawks operating at differing distances and offsets to either side of the host ship’s course would further cloud the host ship’s location.  The mini-hawk would maintain constant, real time or reasonably semi-real time data communications.  What the exact form of the communications is, I’ll leave to the comm. experts.  The concept is that the host ship is provided with at least a semi-real time situational awareness of its surroundings without itself having to radiate.

On occasion, if the host ship needs a longer range “picture” the mini-hawks can be sent on one-way missions which would double the range.  One-way missions would also allow potential real time targeting updates during engagements.

Communications - The obvious challenge in this concept is the security and reliability of the communications, as I’ve repeatedly harped on.  Here is where I have to leave the discussion open ended.  I’m assuming some type of line-of-sight comm. method, possibly involving a relay UAV, but if we can’t assure our communications then the entire concept falls apart.

How, you ask, does this differ from the comm. issues I’ve raised for the Navy’s proposed vast all-encompassing network?  Well, for starters, the scope is far less.  This requires only one-directional (from mini-hawk back to the ship), fairly short range (200 miles or so), directional (the ship’s location is known), line-of-sight, narrow bandwidth, burst transmissions.  With these limited requirements, I would hope we can construct a functional comm. system that can operate in an electromagnetically challenged environment.  Contrast that to the Navy’s omni-directional, wide (huge!) bandwidth, continuous, ocean spanning, network comm. requirements and you instantly see that the Navy’s network comm. requirements are massively greater which translates to massively more susceptible to disruption.

Operation - Small UAV mini-Hawks would, ideally, be tube launched (VLS launch system?) or portable catapult launched (like the Scan Eagle) and recovered via a flight deck net.

So, taking all the above into consideration, we get a pretty good picture of what a mini-hawk would be:  small, cheap, short/moderate range, easy launch/recovery.  This sounds very much like a Scan Eagle or something similar.

As a design starting point, the Scan Eagle offers some attractive characteristics that closely fit our requirements.

Scan Eagle Specifications (2)
Length, ft
Wingspan, ft
Empty Weight, lbs
Endurance, hrs
Ceiling, ft
Max Speed, kts
Cruise Speed, kts
Payload, lbs

Scan Eagle UAV

Before anyone starts trying to describe why a Scan Eagle won’t work, note that I said the Scan Eagle offers a design starting point, not a final, perfect product.  I’m not even going to entertain comments about the Scan Eagle’s deficiencies so don’t bother.

Interestingly, according to Wiki, the Royal Australian Navy tested a Scan Eagle with a Sentient Vision Kestrel Maritime ViDAR high resolution digital video camera that is claimed to be able to cover 13,000 square nautical miles over a 12-hour mission (3).  Extremely small, light radars (NanoSAR B/C and the like) are also being developed specifically for small UAV use. (4)

In typical Navy fashion, they have the glimmer of a good idea – offloading sensors – and, as we’ve seen in other posts, are going to screw it up by turning it into a massive, ill-suited, unaffordable program of highly sophisticated, non-existent, unmanned vessels instead of keeping the concept simple, affordable, and based on existing technology.  Indeed, the Navy has already described a set of unmanned surface vessels of large size and complexity so they’re already well on their way to screwing up a simple concept!

On a closely related note, ComNavOps’ fear is that the Navy’s idea of the next cruiser is a ‘distributed ship’ that breaks a capital (cruiser) ship’s functions into multiple, separate smaller vessels, both manned and unmanned.  For example, one vessel, already suggested by the Navy, would be an unmanned sensor craft.  Another would be the shooter (small scale arsenal ship) and yet another might be a manned command and control vessel.  Of course, what this really does is needlessly and foolishly complicate the situation and produce a series of vessel, each almost defenseless, individually.


(1)Navy Times website, “Navy’s cruiser replacement won’t be a cruiser, says surface warfare chief”, David B. Larter, 9-Jan-2018,

(3)Wikipedia, retrieved 20-Dec-2016,

Friday, July 19, 2019

Boxer Downs Iranian Drone With Jamming

By now, you’ve heard about the downing of an Iranian drone by the USS Boxer while transiting the Strait of Hormuz.  The Drive/War Zone website is reporting that the downing was due to the action of a Marine anti-drone electronic warfare dune buggy chained to the deck of the Boxer rather than the defensive weapons of the ship. (1)

USS Boxer With LMADIS On Deck (1)

The Drive/WarZone published an article describing an anti-drone system known as the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS).  The system consists of a RADA RPS-42 short range, S-band, hemispheric, AESA radar mounted on an MRZR dune buggy.  On top of the radar unit is a gyro-stabilized CM202 multi-sensor optical ball that provides positive visual identification of targets. (2)  The systems apparently operate in pairs.  When a target is designated, the targeting data can be fed to various systems such as a Modi jammer which is a backpack signal jammer. (3)  Theoretically, the targeting data could be fed to a ship’s hard-kill defensive systems but it is unknown (and probably unlikely) that this was possible, in this case.  It appears that the Modi jammer was used to disrupt the ground control signal to the Iranian drone thereby causing it to crash.

LMADIS On Kearsarge (2)

The article also details several other extremely close encounters with Iranian aircraft and boats during the transit.  It seems clear that the decision to down the Iranian drone was a retaliatory action for recent Iranian downings of US drones and the choice of the drone as the target rather than, for example, an Iranian Bell 212 helo that passed “yards away from the deck”, was due to the unmanned nature of the Iranian drone.  Drones ‘plinking’ would seem to be the new sport in the Middle East.

There are a few aspects to this that merit some consideration.

Drone Survivability – While we have no idea how sophisticated the Iranian drone was, this is yet another example of the inherent fragility and lack of survivability of drones in combat.  Despite this mounting evidence, the US military continues to count on UAVs for all manner of tasks.  Worse, many of these tasks are the foundation of our combat capability.  When the UAVs are found to be non-survivable in combat, what will become of our combat capability without the foundations they were designed on?

Simplicity – The outstanding aspect of this incident is the fielding of a very simple system with a straightforward, limited (meaning focused) capability assembled from largely commercially available equipment.  This is outstanding.  It provides an immediately useful, basic capability rather than waiting indefinitely for an exquisite, leap ahead technology that will never deliver.  Whoever cobbled this system together deserves a salute.  K.I.S.S. !

Ship Defenses – For all the ultra high end, sophisticated sensors, electronic warfare, and defenses of the USS Boxer, the ship used a cobbled together dune buggy EW system chained to the deck for its anti-drone protection.  This is both commendable and highly disturbing that the ship’s organic defenses couldn’t handle the job.  This should also tell us something about designing systems for use against high end threats and ignoring the low end.  Where is the Navy’s cobbled together, low end, anti-drone system?  Has our development and acquisition system become so complex that we can’t respond with simple, basic, useful systems that can be quickly fielded?  Of course, we know the answer to that is, yes, our development/acquisition system is too complex to be responsive and useful.  We keep talking about innovation and speed of development/response but the evidence is that nothing is actually being done about it.

Engagement Bar – When armed UAVs first appeared on the scene, the civilian authority (the Presidential Administration) and the military latched on to them and began an almost free fire reign of Hellfires on terrorist targets across the world.  The bar on engagement had been lowered.  UAVs somehow seemed ‘okay’ and ‘permissible’ to use with little provocation or thought as opposed to committing manned air or ground forces to the same objective.  I’m not going to debate the wisdom of that policy.  The fact is that the criteria to use deadly force was lowered. 

Similarly, the spread of smaller drones seems to have further lowered the bar on engaging one’s enemies.  Drones seem to be acquiring a status of ‘free fire’ targets.  Countries seem to be considering anti-drone actions, even in international airspace, as freely permissible with little or no rationale.  This can only encourage further hostile acts and will, eventually, lead to intentional or unintentional actions against manned assets. 

We need to carefully consider the implications of this standard of behavior as we move forward.  Do we really want to allow unfriendly countries to believe that they have a ‘right’ to freely shoot down our drones?  Do we really want to limit ourselves to shooting down unfriendly drones as opposed to a much more extensive and severe reaction, if the provocation was worth it? 

For example, in this case, if we believed there was a bona-fide threat to the USS Boxer, should we have limited ourselves to downing the drone, which will do nothing to prevent a recurrence in the future, or should we have destroyed the drone, its launch site, its control site, and the personnel responsible for threatening our ship?  If the threat was real then we should have acted to permanently remove the threat capability, not just one drone, and send an emphatic message.  If the ‘threat’ was just a pretext to engage in some tit-for-tat drone plinking then we need to carefully consider what kind of behavior system we’re establishing.


(1)The Drive/The War Zone website, “Marine Anti-Drone Buggies On USS Boxer Knocked Down ‘Threatening’ Iranian Drone”, Joseph Trevithick, 18-Jul-2019,

(2)The Drive/The War Zone website, “USS Kearsarge Transits The Suez Canal With Anti-Drone Buggies Keeping Watch On Deck”, Tyler Rogoway, 20-Jan-2019,

Russian Carrier Kuznetsov

The Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov was recently severely damaged by a collapsing crane when the drydock the ship was in sank.  There have been some somewhat sensationalistic articles about the ramifications of the incident and the fate of the Kuznetsov.  For example, the National Interest website states,

The Russian Navy might decommission its only aircraft [carrier] without directly replacing the vessel, leaving Moscow’s fleet without any prospect of at-sea air cover for the first time in decades. (1)

Wow!  That’s some pretty big news.  Imagine the impact if the US lost all its aircraft carriers and had to operate with no naval aviation protection.

Kuznetsov - Impressive Looking But Not Combat Effective

All right, before we get too worked up about this, let’s back the sinking drydock up a bit and take a look at the reality of the situation.

For starters, Russia never had any naval air cover that amounted to anything.  Kuznetsov is a carrier in name only and doesn’t even begin to compare to, say, a US carrier.  Kuznetsov’s air wing consists of a mix of Su-33 (carrier based derivative of the Su-27 Flanker) and MiG-29K fixed wing aircraft and various helicopters.  For example, the 2016 Syrian mission saw an air wing of 6-8 Su-33, 4 MiG-29K and various helos – hardly an imposing example of air power!  Even then, two aircraft were lost due to arresting gear problems and the air wing had to be transferred ashore. (2)

Arresting gear problems aside, Kuznetsov’s meager air group is rendered even less effective due to the absence of aerial tankers, electronic warfare aircraft, and airborne early warning (AEW) and command/control aircraft.  So, the air wing is only marginally combat-effective by US standards.  Thus, the loss of Kuznetsov doesn’t have any real world impact because the carrier was never able to provide significant air power anyway.

The ship has been plagued by mechanical problems.  The vessel is powered by boilers and steam turbines that are described as defective and, indeed, the ship has suffered numerous propulsion breakdowns and is reportedly accompanied by large ocean going tugs whenever the ship puts to sea. Water pipes are, apparently, almost non-functional.  A 2016 mission to Syria, while highly touted and publicized, resulted in two lost aircraft in three weeks. (1)

Other problems have included defective fresh water supply evaporators, leading to severe water shortages, electrical problems which have cause at least one reported death, oil spills during refueling at sea, and arresting gear problems that have caused the loss of at least two aircraft. (2)

Historical reasons aside, the Kuznetsov, today, exists only as a symbolic attempt at prestige;  a public relations attempt to claim equality with the US Navy on the world stage.

Truth be told, the Russians are probably better off without the Kuznetsov and its manning and operating cost burden and this incident gives them the cover needed to discretely allow the ship to fade from view.


(1)National Interest website, “No More Aircraft Carrier For Russia? It Might Not Be A Bad Idea”, David Axe, 21-May-2019,

(2) Wikipedia, “Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov”, retrieved 15-Jul-2019,

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Another So-Called Amphibious Landing

I’m sick of this.  I just finished watching a YouTube video of a Talisman Sabre 2019 amphibious landing exercise.  The exercise appeared to be mostly (exclusively?) conducted by Australian forces.  The video is embedded below.  Watch it from around the 0:45 mark to around 4:30.  That’s where the landing scenes occur.  The rest is mostly various spokesmen talking about how wonderful it all was.

As you watch the video, note the total absence of anything resembling realism. Note the troops lounging on the landing craft.  Note the guys (beachmasters?) on the beach waiting for landing craft and standing upright, out in the open.  Note the troops slowly filing out of the landing craft.  Note the troops meandering their way up the beach after they get out of the surf.  Note the way all the troops and vehicles congregate to a single point (does that seem like something you’d do in combat?).  Do you see any troops bent over, sprinting for cover?

As you watch, ask yourself, does this look even remotely like a real amphibious assault?

Where’s the OpFor?  Where’s some smoke to add confusion?  Where’s the explosions (the Chinese do it)?  Where’s the aerial support?  Where’s the beach obstacles that any enemy would surely place there?

What did this exercise practice?  What combat scenario did this exercise prepare these forces for?

I’m not picking on Australia.  It just happened to be their video.  The US does this, too.  We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re getting anything out this kind of exercise.  What a waste.

Here's the link in case you can't see the video:

Australian Troops Conduct Beach Landing (

Navy Flight Hours Slashed

The Navy has been hinting for some time now that flight hours would be reduced and, possibly, and air wing deactivated due to a large naval aviation budget shortfall.  Details have now been announced.

According to a USNI News website article, non-deployed east coast P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol squadrons will see a 10% flight hour reduction, non-deployed MH-60R/s helo detachments will see a 25% reduction in flight hours, and support units such as Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 1, Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) 40 that flies the C-2A Greyhound airplane and bring passengers and goods to and from aircraft carriers at sea, C-12 logistics planes, and search-and-rescue aircraft out of Key West will see a 10% reduction in flight hours. The reduced flight hours will last for the remaining 11 weeks of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.  In addition, most demonstration flights (air shows and the like) have been cancelled. (1)

So, with readiness at historic lows, we’re reducing flight hours.  That’s the Navy’s way to address readiness.

How did this budget shortfall occur?  Don’t we pretty well know exactly how many flight hours we need to operate and train the various aviation units?

According to the article,  

… the shortfall was created by deployed P-8s and MH-60s over-executing due to fleet commander needs in U.S. 6th and 7th Fleets. The aircraft deploy with a certain number of flight hours allotted, and the local commanders are asking the aircraft to operate beyond those hours due to operational needs – particularly the P-8s operating in the Western Pacific, the Mediterranean and other forward locations … (1)

In addition,

Other unplanned events, such as the aviation component of the Hurricane Michael rescue and aid effort, have also contributed to spending money faster than planned, and naval aviation will now have to pare down its spending for the last two and a half months of the year. (1)

One of ComNavOps pet peeves is the use of the military for humanitarian assistance.  Using military assets for non-combat or non-combat training tasks puts unproductive wear and tear on men and machines, subtracts from the finite number of service life flight hours that aircraft have before they have to be rebuilt or retired, reduces readiness, takes away from combat training, and distracts from the mission of warfighting and warfighting preparation.  Now, we see the concrete evidence.  The Navy has specifically cited a humanitarian effort as part of the reason that we will now experience reduced flight hours and even lower combat readiness.

I have no problem with America performing humanitarian assistance missions but not by the military.  There are a number of other organizations who, with a little boost in funding, can perform the mission far more efficiently than the military.

Everything, EVERYTHING, the military does must, MUST, run through the filter of combat effectiveness.  Does the proposed action enhance our combat effectiveness?  If not, we simply can’t do it.  Does humanitarian assistance enhance our combat effectiveness?  No!  Not only does it not enhance combat effectiveness, it actually decreases combat effectiveness.

We must stop using the military for humanitarian missions.  Let’s buy USAID or some such organization a few cargo ships, fund some extra personnel, and let them do the mission instead of sending a carrier battle group to hand out meals.

The evidence is right here, in black and white.  Humanitarian missions hurt our military.

The other aspect of this is the insatiable appetite by local commanders for assets - assets whose use produces little discernible benefit.  Our prolific use of flight hours in the Med hasn't settled Iran down.  If anything, it's exacerbated the situation.  As I've said, we need to either kick some butt and enforce peace or leave.  Trying to exist in between is gaining us nothing and, likely, costing us.

Has China become a better world neighbor and tempered their runaway military buildup because we flew more P-8 patrols?  Not in the least!  So why are wasting airframe hours watching them if we're not going to do anything about it?

The local commanders will always want more assets under their control.  It's how they justify their existence.  We have to start saying no to mission requests.

We're running our military into the ground conducting pointless tasks and degrading our warfighting readiness.  The idiocy must stop!


(1)USNI News website, “Navy Reducing East Coast Flight Hours to Cover Costs of Overflying P-8s”, Megan Eckstein, 16-Jul-2019,

Monday, July 15, 2019


We’ve seen graphic evidence of the importance of shipyards in the maintenance of naval vessels.  Unfortunately, most of the evidence has been of the negative variety in the form of deferred maintenance, degraded functions on ships, early retirements due to neglected maintenance, hugely extended maintenance times when ships finally enter maintenance, and so on.  The misguided and foolish decisions by the Navy regarding reduced and deferred ship maintenance have led to a hollow fleet with widespread degraded performance that is barely operational and suffers from enormous maintenance backlogs.  Every grounding/collision report we read about lists multiple items of equipment that were non-functional or degraded.

In this post, we’ll look a bit closer at drydock maintenance.  The Navy uses both public (Navy run) shipyards and private industry shipyards.  The public yards focus their maintenance activities on nuclear powered carriers and submarines while private shipyards focus on conventionally powered ship maintenance.

The Navy operates four public shipyards, as shown in the table below with the number of drydocks each has.

Public (Navy) Shipyard Drydocks (6)
Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in (Hawaii)
Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (Washington) (c)
Norfolk Naval Shipyard (Virginia) (b)
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (Maine) (a)

Total Drydocks
(a) only east coast shipyard capable of refueling Los Angeles class
(b) only east coast shipyard capable of docking carriers
(c) only west coast shipyard capable of docking carriers

There are 18 drydocks among the four shipyards and the age of the drydocks is stunningly concerning.  The oldest was built in 1891 (that’s not a typo!) and the newest was built in 1962.  The average age is 89 years old. (2)

As noted in the table, Norfolk Naval Shipyard is the only public shipyard on the East Coast able to repair Nimitz class aircraft carriers in drydock and Puget Sound is the only west coast Nimitz carrier-capable drydock. (4)  Currently, the Navy has no drydock capable of supporting the Ford CVN-78 class aircraft carrier.  Can you believe that?  We built a carrier that we can’t drydock and repair!  I hope nothing happens to the Fords or they’re going to wind up permanent pier-queens.

Nimitz in Drydock

Also, most SSN-capable drydocks must be repaired, rehabilitated, and upgraded in order to support the Virginia/VPM class. (6)

The Navy has also certified 21 private shipyard drydocks for US Navy maintenance work, as documented in a Navy report to Congress (6) and shown in the table below along with the number of certified drydocks each yard has.

Private Yard Drydocks (6)
Atlantic - Norfolk, VA 
Atlantic - Mayport, FL 
Atlantic - Charleston, SC
Atlantic - Pascagoula, MS
Atlantic - Great Lakes & Bath

Atlantic Total Drydocks

Pacific - San Diego, CA
Pacific - Pearl Harbor, HI
Pacific - Seattle (Everett), WA
Pacific - Portland, OR

Pacific Total Drydocks

Total Drydocks

As the Navy’s internal report to Congress notes, the lack of drydocks on the Pacific side of the country does not bode well for future war scenarios with China.

There are three major problems with current drydocks:

  • Insufficient numbers
  • Insufficient capability
  • Poor material condition

The status of the Navy drydocks is succinctly summarized in a 2017 Navy draft study,

“the current capacity and capability of the shipyard’s drydocks will not support future operational needs,” the report [GAO] states. (2)

That pretty well sums it up, doesn’t it?  There’s not much more to say … although we will.


Rear Adm. Jim Downey, commander of Navy Regional Maintenance Centers and deputy commander for surface warfare at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), told USNI News in a Sept. 28 interview that his biggest concern is drydock availability. (3)

RAdm. Downey’s concern is all the more troubling because his statement comes at a time of intentional reduced maintenance by the Navy and shrinking fleet numbers.  Sooner or later, the Navy will have to attempt to catch up on the maintenance and then the drydock availability shortage will become even more acute.  If the Navy actually succeeds in adding numbers of ships to the fleet, again, the drydock shortage will become even more acute.

So, there you have it.  The Navy is trying to build a 355-ship fleet but lacks the drydock (as well as general maintenance) capacity to support a fleet of that size.  This once again illustrates the Navy’s fixation on building shiny, sexy, new ships at the expense of maintenance.

The scarcity of drydocks makes them particularly susceptible to physical vulnerabilities such as floods and earthquakes.  As a Navy Matters blog commenter noted,

Also, another concern I would have, is what would happen if we had a large earthquake here ? As you know, the Seattle area is prone to some rather large ones here. We are waiting for the big one, anything over an 8.0 on the Richter scale. (1)

What’s the Navy’s solution to a lack of drydock availability?  According to Downey,

“We’re looking very hard, where we have sufficient class size – say DDGs, LCSs, cruisers –where we could solicit those ships together and allow industry to propose how they would double-dock those ships, or sequence their docking so they could get more of our requirements done in a schedule that would benefit them and us.” (3)

Is that mind-boggling or what?  All the rest of us would say that the solution is to build more drydocks but, no, not the Navy.  They want to somehow, magically, try to cram more ships into the available docks.  Typical idiotic Navy approach to a simple problem.

On a more positive, though, at the moment, largely speculative note, the Navy’s NavSea has initiated a $21B Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP) plan to repair and upgrade all Navy shipyards.  Included in the funding is $4B for drydock repair and upgrades.  Whether the plan comes to fruition or falls by the funding wayside, as so many plans do, remains to be seen.  Will the Navy sacrifice new ship construction funding to support shipyard facilities renovation?  History suggests not but we’ll see.

It’s also unclear whether there is any funding for new drydocks.  I cannot find any evidence of such, only repair and upgrade funding.  Repairs and upgrades will help, most assuredly, but it’s clear from the various reports that we need more drydocks.  For example, we discussed in previous posts how vulnerable our fleet support infrastructure is to sabotage and Pearl Harbor type attacks.  If the Chinese wanted to seriously hurt our ability to repair carriers during war, all they’d have to do is sabotage the only two carrier-capable drydocks we have!

On a closely related repair note, the Shannon & Wilson engineering firm has an interesting short article on their website about settlement cracks and repairs for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard Dry Dock 6. (7)  It’s well worth the short read.

Puget Sound Drydock #6

On an interesting and related side note, Russia’s giant drydock, PD-50, sank in Oct 2018 with the carrier Kuznetsov inside. (5)  This appears to have left Russia with no very large scale drydock capability although I am nowhere near certain about that.  Certainly, it illustrates the vulnerability that the failure to procure adequate maintenance facilities can lead to and which the US Navy finds itself mired in now.

Naval fleets are built and operated with a vast and absolutely essential support infrastructure which includes repair shipyards, drydocks, etc.  The Navy’s myopic focus on new construction has placed the Navy in a dire maintenance shortage and resulted in a hollow force and unsupportable state that will only worsen as new ship classes come on line that have little or no drydock support availability or capability.  The Navy needs to recognize that viable fleets are not just a collection of brand new ships but are a function of support.  The Navy desperately needs to stop focusing on new ships and, instead, turn its attention to supporting the ships it already has or has committed to acquiring.  We are one major accident away from seeing a Ford class carrier laid up indefinitely for lack of a drydock!  Given the recent spate of groundings and collisions, this seems all too plausible a scenario.

Maintenance and drydocks, in particular, are the foundation upon which a viable naval fleet is built.  Our foundation is too old, ill-maintained, degraded, and too few in number.  We need to turn away from the shiny, sexy new construction and start building up the fleet support infrastructure.


(1)Navy Matters blog, “Open Post, H. R. Calhoun, April 2, 2019 at 6:40 AM,

(2)The Virginian Pilot website, Robert McCabe, 12-Sep-2017,

(3)USNI News website, “Navy Facing Drydock Capacity Issue in Surface Ship Repair; Testing Out New Maintenance Contract to Address Shortfall, Create Efficiency”, Megan Eckstein, 12-Oct-2017,

(6)Naval Sea Systems Command, “Report to Congress on the Long-Range Plan for Maintenance and Modernization of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020”

(7)Shannon & Wilson website, retrieved 12-Jul-2019,