Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Open Ocean Ship Detection

There is a misguided and incorrect belief among some military observers that ships are a relic of a bygone era – doomed to be instantly found and sunk in any war.  The belief is that ships cannot hide from modern surveillance systems such as satellites and radar – that every ship will be instantly detected the moment it puts to sea and continuously tracked until it is sunk, presumably moments after leaving port.

Is this true?  Can ships be flawlessly detected and tracked?  Well, the US Navy certainly seems unable to detect and track giant commercial cargo ships before colliding with them.  However, that’s not the kind of detection and tracking we’re talking about.  We’re talking about finding ships at sea somewhere in the middle of an immense ocean – ships that don’t want to be found.

I’ll state the reality flat out: finding a ship in the ocean is a very difficult task and tracking it is even harder.  Now, what evidence do we have to support that statement?

You’ll recall the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777-200ER, that took off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014 and flew into the South China Sea toward Vietnam and then Beijing and completely vanished and has, thus far, eluded all search and recovery efforts.  It was flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet.  The aircraft was emitting a transponder signal in addition to being tracked on flight control radars.  As the aircraft entered Vietnamese air control, it disappeared from radar and transponder tracking.  Although it vanished from tracking, it did not immediately crash.  Instead, it appears to have radically changed course and flew for several more hours, untracked. (1)

The aircraft eventually crashed, of course, and the crash location should have been easily pinpointed but the reality was that aircraft appears to have been nowhere near its believed crash location.  A large, non-stealthy aircraft, flying at high altitude in the Indo-China region should have been as easy a tracking exercise as there is and yet the aircraft managed to vanish and fly for several more hours, undetected and untracked.  What does that suggest about our ability to track small, stealthy aircraft, perhaps flying at very low levels and taking advantage or terrain or weather conditions to intentionally evade detection?  What does that suggest about our ability to track stealthy ships, partially obscured in wave clutter and hidden to varying degrees by weather?

A similar incident occurred with an Indian Air Force An-32 which vanished from radar on 22-Jul-2016 over the Bay of Bengal.  Extensive searches for a month turned up no sign of the aircraft.  Again, a large, non-stealthy aircraft, making no attempt to hide, managed to vanish completely.

These examples involved large, high flying aircraft which were not only making no attempt to hide but carried transponders to expressly enhance the ability to track them and yet each vanished without a trace.

Let’s look at some different evidence.

You’ll recall the supposed Oct 2016 Yemen missile attacks against the USS Mason, a Burke class destroyer?  The Mason reported several missile attacks over a period of a few days.  Despite the most sophisticated air surveillance radar and sensors in the world, along with the sensors of other nearby ships and other regional surveillance assets, no other ship or asset reported detecting missiles and the Navy was unable to say whether the Mason’s surface to air missiles, fired defensively, actually hit anything.  Further, the Navy was unable to say what happened to the attacking missiles.  All this led us, in this blog, to conclude that there was no attack (see, “YemenMissile Attacks”).  If the combined sensors of multiple ships and the regional sensors in the area couldn’t even definitively state that an attack had, or had not, occurred or what became of the various missiles, how do we expect to track ships and aircraft with flawless, omniscient accuracy? 

There is also the now legendary example of the Cold War carrier group that parked off the coast of Russia and operated for several days without being detected despite extensive efforts by the Soviets. (2)  If the Soviets, no slouch in the surveillance department, couldn’t find a carrier group off its coast, how will we track modern, stealthy ships?

Let’s consider some other aspects of the detection challenge. 

How about those giant, hulking ships that the Navy keeps running into?  Sure, you’d say that wasn’t a detection issue as much as it was a failure to recognize the available data and act on it.  An alert, better trained crew would have seen the ships coming.  Fair enough.  Now, let me ask you … when we go to war will both sides have only bright, alert, well trained people or will they have loads of tired, stressed, and insufficiently trained people?

How about the Vincennes incident where an airliner was clearly recognized by the data but the crew ignored or misinterpreted the data?  Just having a functioning sensor is not the end of the detection question.  You also need people who can correctly interpret the data.  Maybe, somewhere in the reams of satellite photos, there’s a shot that vaguely shows the ship you’re searching for.  Unless a person (or computer) sees the photo and recognizes it for what it is, you missed it.

We see, then, that there is a detection chain.  You need a capable sensor, a capable analyst (human or computer), and you need to act on what’s found and do so in a timely manner.  That ship that you found in a week old satellite photo is long gone.

Radar operators at Pearl Harbor detected the incoming Japanese attack planes but didn’t recognize what it was and didn’t tell anyone.  The sensor worked but the analyst and communication links in the detection chain did not.

War is an endless series of missed and misinterpreted data.  That’s what the ‘fog of war’ is.  Sure, our modern systems can generate far more data than ever before but that’s just far more data to miss and misinterpret.  Our sensor data has grown immensely more voluminous but our analytical abilities have not.

Consider every terrorist act ever committed.  In the post-incident investigation it always turns out that we had enough data to have identified and prevented the incident but we failed to correctly interpret and communicate.  Every time.  Every single time.  The issue is not the amount of data, it’s the interpretation and analysis of the data.

The evidence is quite clear.  Our ability to find and track ships at sea is quite limited, for a variety of reasons.  Now, add in the inevitable destruction of surveillance satellites in a peer war and the task of finding and tracking ships at sea becomes even more difficult.

Ships remain what they have always been: hard to find.


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On a related note, this is why the dreaded Chinese Carrier Killer DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile is pure media hype and a complete non-threat.  The Chinese have no ability to find carriers at sea.




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(1)The Atlantic website, “What Really Happened To Malaysia’s Missing Airplane”, July 2019,
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/mh370-malaysia-airlines/590653/

(2)Navweaps website, “How To Hide A Task Force”, Andy Pico,
http://www.navweaps.com/index_tech/tech-031.php

49 comments:

  1. This seems to be a great argument for handing the reigns over to AI beyond generating and sifting through data faster.

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    1. Yes and no. Yes, software can scan much more data than humans, however, much of the important data is ambiguous and requires interpretation. Have you ever looked at surveillance photos or sonar displays or IR images or even medical X-Rays? There's a whole lot of imaginative interpretation required. That odd shaped shadow? Is that a missile launcher or a tree?

      Data interpretation is a LONG way from clear cut. We will need humans to do the bulk of the interpretation and that means long delay times and missed/misinterpreted data. What software can do is quickly and efficiently eliminate the data that holds nothing of interest so that humans don't waste time looking at nothing.

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    2. Can an AI looking for a specific warship or class of warship be fooled by minor modifications? Will it miss my ship if I change the shape of the funnel? Or weld a few extra pieces on the deck here and there? Maybe reroute some exhaust to change the thermal "picture" or ding a prop ti change my acoustic "signature"?

      Alternatively; can I make cheap visual/thermal/acoustic decoys go fill my little corner of the ocean with false positives for the US Navy to chase and shoot at?

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  2. I would add to your list the recent attack on the Saudi oil assets. Cruise missiles were (we think) involved but we can't say for sure, or where they came from.

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    1. I wouldn't personally.

      The Saudis are business partners, not allies. Their military is seriously incompetent as demonstrated in Yemen. Is a regime support force at best, and the Saudis mostly don't do best.

      In reality, we would do a lot better being on the Iran side of the fence. As it is, Russia is in the process of handing us our backsides in the Middle East generally.

      Watch this space, its going to get seriously interesting.

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  3. (Don McCollor)...I believe at Pearl Harbor, the army radar crew stayed on to practice after they were supposed to shut down. They correctly identified a large approaching aircraft formation and reported it. The report never was passed on, because the next higher-up was aware a US B17 formation was scheduled to arrive.

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    1. Correct. The detection chain broke down, as it usually does in war.

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    2. (Don McCollor)...Worse, it was the last hours of peace. USS Ward (DD139) signaled at 06:35 "“We have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive sea area.” which reached the Admiral at 07:30. The attack came at 07:55. I think no one really believed it was going to happen...

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    3. The run up to WWII is a fascinating period of history. The US had plenty of information and correctly anticipated the start of war within a matter of days and yet failed to protect Pearl Harbor. Fascinating and baffling. On the other hand, Adm. Halsey, on his own initiative, entered a state of war BEFORE Pearl Harbor! So, some heeded the war warnings and some did not.

      For info on Halsey's declaration of war, see, "Battle Order Number One"

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    4. " I think no one really believed it was going to happen..."
      Kimmel's predecessor at Pearl , James O Richardson, predicted the Japanese would attack, as that was the logical thing to do. He had been fired by Roosevelt because he was 'too aggressive'

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  4. As usual, this is of up most importance and has USN done any trials, training, realistic exercises? Probably not....let's make sure we find out during a war that we can't locate the bad guys!

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  5. With the greatest respect, we aren't trying to find carrier groups in the middle of the Pacific.

    We're looking for incursions past the first island chain, and we're looking for incursions in the Arabian Sea. As you quite rightly point out, civilian shipping is going to run for port early in a conflict. So all that is left is targets. Targets that emit IR, lots of IR.

    So it becomes a question of targeting relevant IDs vs attrition of space-based recon assets. I don't know enough to forecast that.

    And AI is really good at looking at anomalies. And a big IR footprint is an anomaly. I'm not sure how familiar you are with medical AI advancements but the progress is stunning to me.

    So my suggestion, if you are looking from a space-based asset early in the hours of a war is don't be too complacent. You may find some cool targets, or you may get shredded.

    I suggest we might want to consider the effect of current policy in relation to Syria, and the resultant ability of Russia to have serious access to warm water ports in the Med, plus airbases that have a big impact on NATO capabilities.

    Further, we might want to consider what the alienation of Turkey means in terms of service delivery beyond Europe through Incirlik, and the status of the 50-ish B61 bombs that Turkey has on their territory. This stuff matters.

    And if we want to get really serious, how does all this matter to the global position of the US as the world's policeman?

    I've been glued to this and I don't like any of the things I'm seeing.

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    1. "With the greatest respect, we aren't trying to find carrier groups in the middle of the Pacific."

      You may have missed the thrust of the post. It wasn't about us finding Chinese ships (although that's applicable, too), it was about China/Russia finding our ships and, specifically, carrier groups. At the risk of repeating the post, there's a group of naval observers who believe that ships are no longer viable because they believe that ships can now be flawlessly detected and tracked. The post disproves that notion.

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    2. I was thinking that the area the Chinese and Russians have to look in is fairly limited compared to the open ocean.

      I don't see that ships are past their "best before" date, but I do believe that taking out space-based assets needs to be a very, very high priority.

      I believe an Iran scenario is particularly interesting as they likely have access to both Russian and Chinese intel. A conflict could get tricky.

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    3. INJ, at its death throes near ww2 end, had no trouble finding and hitting our armada with novice suicide pilots near the same patch of water east of Ryukyus chain.

      And I agree, DF-21 is a bit long in the tooth; they didn't even show up in the recent parade.

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    4. "INJ, at its death throes near ww2 end, had no trouble finding and hitting our armada with novice suicide pilots"

      Our fleet was 'anchored' to a fixed location near a known island. We had hundreds of ships in a relatively small location. Of course they'd find a ship!

      This has absolutely no relevance to the topic of ships in the open ocean that don't want to be found.

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    5. Unless it's a one shot launch & forget Doolittle raid, CBG gonna be repeatedly launching/loitering/receiving its attack crafts a 1000 miles from China, a scenario far from 'don't want to be found.' That's how INJ's MidWay fleet got whacked- trying to do repeated launches.

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    6. You have no grasp of how carrier operations will occur. Please go back and reread many of the relevant posts to understand how carriers will operate in war.

      Also, reread the post. Nothing I've said suggests that a carrier can't be found - only that it is a very difficult thing to do!

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    7. @Tim: I would suggest that you reread one of the blogpost's cites, which I'll relink here for you:

      http://www.navweaps.com/index_tech/tech-031.php

      That 1000 mile standoff* you give - area of a circle from the radius means we're looking at 3,141,592 square miles to search. For this example's sake let's cut that in half because we assume our "front" is towards the carrier, that's 1,570,796 square miles. 1.5 million square miles is a bit over SIX times the size of Texas. That's a lot of sea for a carrier to hide, especially with the deception measures and offset flight paths strike packages will use.

      *1000 mile strike radius is not currently achievable by any US carrier aircraft at the present. The most optimistic manufacturer's claim for the F-35C is 1100 kilometers, or 687.5 miles. With the same assumptions in play as per example above, this means that the area of sea where a carrier can hide is "only" the size of Mexico (approx 2.8 times the size of Texas).

      The further out you can keep your carrier, the harder it is for your adversary to find your carrier, because he has a wider search area, and his search assets must sacrifice patrol endurance to travel out that far. THat's why I think the Navy made the right choice with downgrading from UCLASS into CBARS, focusing primarily on the air refuelling mission - you need a tanker to extend the range more than you need a drone UCAV bomber.

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    8. @Wild Goose: I was thinking about 'hornets nest and poking it with a 10-ft pole'. While it's possible to get within 10-ft or even hand touch the nest, it is not advisable because it makes hornet's job easier of detecting me. If the pole can be extended, say another 2 ft (i.e. air-refueling), that means I can move in an area depth of between 10-12ft and side-to-side, like a belt wedge, but once I poke the nest, the hornets are gonna beeline at me, and if I can't knock it down in 1 swoop, then the only way for me to go is backward.

      So the question is really 2 folds:
      1. Can I get within 10-12 feet?
      2. Can I knock it down in 1 swoop? If not, can I outrun the hornets?

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    9. "once I poke the nest, the hornets are gonna beeline at me"

      Your analogy is … um … flawed. If you can outrun the bees then you can poke it as often as you want and with impunity.

      A carrier strike (not the wisest way to go but, for sake of discussion...) vanishes after it attacks. Nothing can catch up with the aircraft as they egress and they can't be easily backtracked to their carrier.

      Beyond that, I have no idea where you're going with your analogy.

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    10. Well, these bees gonna fan out at me (the ship, not the planes) at Mach 3+ (did you see their fast looking drone reconn planes in the parade?) while I'm going balls out at 40 mph trying to get the hell out. That means in the time these drones covered 1000 mile (about 30 min), I've moved 20 miles (maybe 40 miles if I get a head start right after launch). At 60,000 ft (or higher) looking down panoramically, I basically didn't move much in 30 min. And you're telling me, I gotta do this over and over again (sneak in, launch strike, recover planes, and out) after the flag is up?

      In Midway, INJ did find our carriers even after we cracked their code and got a jump on them first.

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    11. ???????????? What are you talking about? Maybe you should abandon the bee analogy and stick to actual ships and planes.

      Are you under the misconception that aircraft fly straight back to their carrier rather than flying circuitous routes designed expressly to avoid giving away the carrier's location? This tactic was figured out the day after the first aircraft launched from the first carrier!

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    12. "In Midway, INJ did find our carriers even after we cracked their code and got a jump on them first."

      Yes, they did find ONE of our carriers (out of 3). As you know, since you cited the battle, the Japanese fleet was sighted at 0900hr on 3-Jun and subjected to multiple attacks from then until all four Japanese carriers were sunk. The Japanese, in contrast, didn't launch their first attack until 1100hr on 4-Jun, over a day later! So, yes, the Japanese eventually found one of our carriers - the other two were not found - and paid the price of four lost carriers to do it.

      So, what was your point?

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    13. My point: Both sides can be found in battle. In Midway, it was ship on ship, however, in the case of China, it'll be our ship taking on their fort (i.e. carriers vs. peer level land based assets) the latter got 9-lives cuz they don't sink (e.g. that Syrian AB took 59 Tomahawk hits and was resuming air operation half day later.)

      As for the lead up, the minute their SATs went offline (our carrier position is most likely tracked as long as their original SATs are up), they'll know the gig is up and start looking (and China's geography and locations of their important asset pretty much dictate a front of 2000 miles stretching from lower Japan to upper PH where we might show up). It's still a big area, but it's not like they have to look for us in the middle of Pacific; hence it's just a math (and resource) issue to cover that 2000 mile front.

      Also, zigzaging homebound waypoints only mean the carrier had to stay around longer.

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    14. "in the case of China, it'll be our ship taking on their fort (i.e. carriers vs. peer level land based assets)"

      Only an idiot would even consider that. As gently as I possibly can, I say to you, you do not seem to have a grasp of modern naval operations. You're hypothesizing about something that no sane naval commander ever do.

      You need to do some serious studying on naval operations. Here's a starting point to consider: no carrier is ever going to venture within a thousand miles of China until significant rollback of defenses have occurred. Thus, none of your imagining could ever take place.

      As I state in the Comment Policy page, a certain base level of knowledge about naval operations is required to comment effectively. I urge you to study naval and carrier operations.

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    15. "..no carrier is ever going to venture within a thousand miles of China until significant rollback of defenses have occurred"

      It's self-evident a carrier can be hard to find if such supposition comes with a prerequisite of significant degradation of opposition's 'eyes and ears'.

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    16. "It's self-evident a carrier can be hard to find if such supposition comes with a prerequisite of significant degradation of opposition's 'eyes and ears'."

      Congratulations! You're now beginning to understand how a carrier operates.

      Delete
  6. Lately, I have been seeing regular posts of REAGAN CVN-76 afloat from what appears to be commercial satellites. If true, has that changed the big ocean little ship dynamic?

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    1. No. In peacetime we actually publicize the location of our ships so it's easy to get photos or whatever. In fact, USNI website publishes a weekly location tracker of our carriers and ARGs. The Navy documents their comings and goings, ports of call, exercises and locations. If you already know where they are, getting an image isn't difficult.

      War time? Different story.

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    2. It also helps that nobody is skeet shooting our satellites right now. Later that might not be the case.

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    3. Trondude: Satellite orbits are known and tracked, and the USN could regularly defend against them - in his artile, Pico mentions going to EMCON when ELINT sats made overflight, avoiding satellite tracks entirely, or maneuvering to present a different profile to obscure identification by EO sats.

      The other issue is that while shooting down satellites may be a militarily expedient option during wartime, it may not be politically tenable in the post-war peace. Any nation that shot down enough satellites to cause kessler syndrome would be an international pariah, because that much debris in orbit would deny space to everyone for a long, long while.

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    4. The first thing to go in any serious war is going to be recon satellites. And damn the consequences later. I suggest the Chinese are taking that task more seriously than anyone else at the moment, and that isn't good news.

      While you can hide some electronic emissions, how are you going to hide the IR footprint of the escorts? Gas turbines generate a lot of heat...

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    5. "While you can hide some electronic emissions, how are you going to hide the IR footprint of the escorts? Gas turbines generate a lot of heat..."

      @George: In the satellite context, IR refers to Infrared Imaging, rather than heatseeking like Sidewinder, because 1) IIR lets you see something of what you're looking at, and 2) atmospheric diffusion means that the effective range of detecting something, purely by heat signature, is very short, and not viable at all for a satellite in orbit.

      You hide from IR imagery sats the same way you hide from EO sats: by avoiding their orbits, by manuevering to present a more deceptive profile, and using decoys and deceptive lighting measures. The problem all search sats have is that their resolution is limited in order to have wide field of view, and from orbit, a carrier looks a lot like merchant shipping, size-wise.

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    6. Also while it's fine to say "blow the sats and damn the consequences later", if you've sucessfully kessler syndrome'd so hard that you can't replace your satellite infrastructure... well. That's a problem. This isn't Ace Combat 7, where, in the wake of Osea and Erusea kessler syndroming the world by shooting down each others sats, causing a chain reaction of debris blowing up everyone else's sats, spaceship Pilgrim One came around and presumably spent the next year clearing the debris. :V

      I don't see NASA having launched a spaceship with a legit bigass laser...

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    7. If you're engaged in an existential war for survival with China, orbital debris is the least of the problems. China certainly isn't going to worry about debris!

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    8. Sure, but even in an existential war for survival, where the aim is to survive, once you've won that war and survived, you need to rebuild in the peace - the Marshall Plan was a thing, afterall. The postwar rebuilding is going to be hard enough in the terrestrial sphere; no need to make it any harder by adding the need for an orbital cleanup and rebuilding your orbital infrastructure - if you can even clean up at all: worst case, you can't use space at all.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome

      I think you're underestimating the concerns of NASA a little: this isn't on earth, where gravity means all frag/shrapnel falls to the ground, this is in space, a vacuum, where objects in motion continue on, and satellites are regularly passing each other's orbits.

      That said, this is a potential future application for laser weaponry, the idea that you can use lasers to reach out into orbit and blind satellite sensors. A blind satellite and a destroyed satellite are just as operationally useless, and you have the benefit of not potentially creating a debris field so dense that it prevents you from using space.

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    9. You don't play future-rebuild games with existential survival. There's no point to saving space and losing your country. You deal with the existential threat first, by whatever means necessary, and worry about the clean up later.

      Almost unbelievably, history and crude etchings on subway walls seem to indicate that our country once operated and thrived without space. That's probably just a myth but, who knows, most myths are based on a bit of truth.

      Satellites will disappear on day one of a peer war. Seriously, this isn't even a debatable topic.

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  7. In the event of a peer-level war I expect that it will devolve to Mk. 1 eyeball really quickly. Commanders will use inclement weather to make moves, deception will come into play, jamming and targeting of enemy sensor platforms and very possibly complete elimination of orbital assets.

    I fear that we have become so fixated on precision beyond-visual-range toys that we have entirely forgotten how to fight close range visual engagements.

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  8. CNO,

    Your posts indicate that the basics of naval warfare have not really changed. It's hard to detect ships and planes over a wide area, launching missiles is not really a fire and forget event, it requires a lot of constant detection and guidance, at least until roughly the last 40-50km.

    Have you found any evidence that the Chinese are also thinking along these lines?

    What little I've seen online (ie google search) suggests they have fancy looking ships, but are trying to do the same as the rest of the world, using technology, and not planning for a visual range slugfest. If they were, they might focus more on larger calibre guns with guided shells, perhaps?

    Andrew

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    1. "not planning for a visual range slugfest. If they were, they might focus more on larger calibre guns with guided shells, perhaps?"

      You raise an interesting question. On the face of it, the Chinese appear to be largely duplicating the US Navy force structure. However, there's a huge difference in how they would be employed. For the foreseeable future, a Chinese war will be fought in the E/S China Seas. With that reality in mind, the Chinese can bring to bear not only naval assets but their entire land based missiles and aviation. Thus, there is no need for the Chinese to be able to fight a close range, guns slugfest. Once they sight a target they can step back and attack repeatedly with land based cruise and ballistic missiles and aviation. Their bomber force can launch long range, large anti-ship cruise missiles repeatedly for as long as their missile inventory holds out.

      The US, in contrast, has only what they can carry with them on their ships. Yes, there will be occasional Air Force contributions but with the nearest AF assets located in Guam or CONUS, those occasions will be rare and short-lived and that assumes that Guam remains operational which is unlikely.

      So, similar force structures but radically different operational concepts. Does that make sense to you?

      We have a tendency to view and assess enemy's forces through the lens of our operational concepts and that's never correct. We need to develop the habit of viewing an enemy's forces through THEIR operational perspective. That's challenging to do but necessary to get a clear understanding.

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  9. "I’ll state the reality flat out: finding a ship in the ocean is a very difficult task and tracking it is even harder. Now, what evidence do we have to support that statement?"

    Most of your examples are unrelated to the subject of detecting ships at sea, other than in the broadest sense (i.e. failures of technology to deliver on promise, and human fallibility).

    The only example given that actually relates to detecting ships at sea is the supposed difficulty of the Soviets detecting carrier groups at sea. Even this example was only for "several days".

    Does this mean the Soviets found them after several days? Is a mere few days worth of non-detection really useful, given the exorbitant cost of carrier groups and SAGs?

    And this is Soviet technology circa 1970s-80s, not Chinese technology 30-40 years later.

    The Chinese satellite system is their primary broad-area detection, identification and tracking capability. They have nearly 50 satellites devoted to open ocean tracking.

    This link provides a useful breakdown and assessment of their capability.

    https://satelliteobservation.net/2016/09/20/the-chinese-maritime-surveillance-system/

    Their conclusion,

    "Thanks to its satellites, China has optical, radar and electronic capabilities to detect, identify and track ships at sea. Even without taking into account real-time tracking from geostationary orbit, the wide-angle JB-9 constellation and the JB-5 and JB-7 SAR constellations can find contacts in a vast area every day, and have a good chance of refreshing the location of the most interesting ships every few hours. Consequently, it seems unlikely a naval group could hide in the ocean for long.

    However, when the weather is very cloudy, only the SAR satellites are able to look through, which severely limits the capabilities of the system. This does not mean China is blind: other means of detection, such as it trans-horizon radars, or its long range patrol aircrafts can complement the satellite system, and help challenge the defenses of US aircraft carriers. This makes a US intervention in a new Taiwan Strait crisis much more risky, and consequently less likely."

    So to survive in the Pacific, we need to find ways to degrade or destroy this capability. This could include SM-3s used in ASAT mode, jamming of SAR satellites, laser blinding or damage to optical satellites, or other means.

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    1. "Most of your examples are unrelated to the subject of detecting ships at sea, other than in the broadest sense (i.e. failures of technology to deliver on promise, and human fallibility)."

      Of course! We have little exact, direct evidence so we have to resort to related evidence which, fortunately, we have a fair amount of. The point stands - if we can't track large, non-stealthy aircraft (with transponders!) then we aren't going to be able to track stealthy (to some degree) ships that are actively trying to avoid detection.

      "China has optical, radar and electronic capabilities to detect, identify and track ships at sea."

      You're falling into the manufacturer's claim syndrome. Yes, China has the theoretical capabilities but it requires a detection chain to actually find something.

      Let me give you an analogy. You own a flashlight. In theory, then, no burglar can possible sneak up on your house without being detected. The flaw(s) in this conclusion is that you don't have 100%, continuous coverage. You have to go to sleep sometime and during that time you won't be scanning your property. Okay, let's say you hire someone to continuously walk around, looking. That's great but they can only cover a very small area at any given moment. That leaves 99% of the property uncovered. And none of this considers the possibility that the burglar may be employing cammo or other means of avoiding detection. You get the idea, here, right?

      Similarly, with satellite or other sensors, those assets can only cover small areas at certain times (unless they're in geosynchronous orbit). Further, someone has to analyze and recognize the data the sensors are collecting. As I pointed out in the post, with every terrorist incident it turns out we had all the data we needed to prevent it but no one recognized it for what it was.

      Have you ever looked at satellite images or BDA photos? They're just vague shadows. Yes, we have sensors capable of zooming in and counting rivets but then the area of coverage is vanishingly small. There's the dilemma. You can cover the entire Pacific with one photo but you won't have the resolution to distinguish anything or you can zoom in to count rivets but then you won't any useful coverage whatsoever. Now, if you had 10,000 satellites then you could have zoomed in resolution and good coverage but no one has that.

      So, yes, on paper, a ship can be seen at sea. In reality, it's very difficult to do. ALL THE EVIDENCE, direct and indirect supports this conclusion. ALL THE LOGIC supports this conclusion. ALL THE UNDERSTANDING OF OPERATIONAL ANALYSIS (how data is collected, analyzed, and acted on) supports this conclusion.

      "So to survive in the Pacific, we need to find ways to degrade or destroy this capability."

      Quite right and we've already demonstrated various means to do so and I'm sure there are other means that we haven't heard about (I sure hope there are!). Functioning satellites will be a scarce commodity in a peer war and most will be destroyed on day one.

      Do not mistake theoretical capability for reality.

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    2. "Of course! We have little exact, direct evidence so we have to resort to related evidence which, fortunately, we have a fair amount of. The point stands - if we can't track large, non-stealthy aircraft (with transponders!) then we aren't going to be able to track stealthy (to some degree) ships that are actively trying to avoid detection."

      Those two things don't have much in common.

      Commercial aircraft detection is primarily by land-based radar and transponders. If an aircraft is out of range (or line of sight) of land-based radars, then the only means of tracking it is self-reporting via transponders.

      Aircraft are smaller, move an order of magnitude faster, and only exist in the area of interest for a few hours at most.

      China's satellite system isn't designed to track short-lived, transient, aircraft contacts. It does appear to be designed to provide multiple revisits by different types of satellite over any given spot in the area of interest per day.

      Ships need to exist in the area under observation for days, weeks, or even months. That's many potential passes by many satellites. Many chances for detection.

      Obviously spec sheets don't give the full story, but they do provide the upper bounds for a system's capability. We should be concerned about these upper bounds, as well as an honest assessment of likely capability.

      My gut says the reality is somewhere in the middle. They don't have instant, 100% detection throughout the Pacific. But they do have a good chance of finding and tracking task groups, especially given the amount of time such groups have to dwell in and/or transit through the area.

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    3. I'll just say you have an unrealistic idea of how satellites work and how effective they are. I'll leave it at that.

      Ponder this … if China's sensors are as effective as you believe, why hasn't the Pentagon/SecDef abolished the Navy since it would be instantly spotted and destroyed in combat? Why are Navy ships built with stealth features since they can't hide from satellites anyway? Could it be that your assessment is a bit off? Something to think about ...

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    4. "if China's sensors are as effective as you believe, why hasn't the Pentagon/SecDef abolished the Navy since it would be instantly spotted and destroyed in combat?"

      1) The Navy (as with most human enterprises) lags behind the implications of technology.
      2) The Navy, as a political enterprise, is not something the SecDef can just abolish. And really we're just talking about the surface Navy. The subsurface Navy is still immune to satellite surveillance. Plus, Chinese coverage is focused on the Pacific. Other areas of the world are less of a problem.
      3) Detection does not mean instant death.
      4) The Navy has in place, or is working on, means to defeat wide area satellite surveillance (e.g. SM-3, exploiting gaps in coverage, ECM).

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    5. "Does this mean the Soviets found them after several days? Is a mere few days worth of non-detection really useful, given the exorbitant cost of carrier groups and SAGs?"

      @Anon2: If you refer to source 2, "How to Hide a Task Force", you'll note that the author states that they intentionally revealed themselves at the end of those 4 days, after operating in soviet waters and conducting mirror image training strikes on strategic soviet installations.

      The author also points out that had they been doing this for real, the Soviets would have learned on Day 1 that there was an American carrier group in the area, because getting your bases blasted to rubble is a pretty good indication that someone is up and about.

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    6. " Is a mere few days worth of non-detection really useful,"

      If you'll study the history of carrier operations you can answer your own question.

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  10. I agree with your premise. I found this ocean search capability claim for the Chinese Gaofen-3 (GF-3) satellite*: "extremely-wide-swath 650 km [~400 mi]" Not impressive for the open-ocean search problem you address here. Over the Horizon Surface Wave radar can detect out to 100 nmi from shore** but, again, not impressive. Open ocean acoustic surveillance is being revived and improved.*** SIGINT satellites will find you anywhere if you don't maintain radio silence. Satellite AIS**** provides deconfliction for ocean surveillance sensor contacts, but AIS can be faked*****. The ultimate problem in benefiting from open ocean sensor contacts of interest is the need to reacquire each one by other sensors that will then track, classify, identify and communicate back to the command center: this means tasking many air-, sea- and/or satellite-borne sensors, a tough materiel allocation problem especially in peacetime when the open ocean can be full of such contacts.
    *https://www.mdpi.com/journal/sensors/special_issues/gaofen_3_SAR_sensor
    **Thales coastWatcher100.pdf
    ***https://thediplomat.com/2016/11/us-navy-upgrading-undersea-sub-detecting-sensor-network/
    ****https://www.orbcomm.com/en/networks/satellite-ais
    *****https://www.technologyreview.com/s/520421/ship-tracking-hack-makes-tankers-vanish-from-view/

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