Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Zumwalt Self-Defense System Problems

We all know the story of the Zumwalt debacle in which the Navy built a ship with a main weapon that, despite using an Army/NATO/world standard 155 mm caliber gun, was completely incompatible with any other artillery system and, when the unique munition for the Zumwalt gun failed in performance and demonstrated runaway costs, left the Zumwalt with no functional main weapon.  Well, it now appears that the Zumwalt’s firepower problems extend to its self-defense capability, as well.

According to the 2019 DOT&E Annual Report (1), the Zumwalt is experiencing severe problems with the ship’s self-defense system – severe enough to render the system nearly useless. 

The Navy has discovered severe problems during the DDG 1000 SDTS [ed. Self Defense Test Ship] events that will adversely affect the operational effectiveness of the combat system if not corrected.  Consequently, the Navy has put the test program on hold and is currently working to identify the root cause of these problems. (1)

The report does not identify the specific problem(s), presumably for security reasons.  However, the magnitude of the problems can be gleaned from the status of the self-defense testing program,

The Navy conducted 4 of the 10 DDG 1000 tests planned for the Self-Defense Test Ship (SDTS) (3 of 6 planned developmental tests, and 1 of 4 planned integrated developmental and operational tests). The Navy canceled one integrated test event and one developmental test event because of unacceptably low performance predictions. (1)

The fact that testing could not proceed even by the Navy’s demonstrably lax standards is incredibly damning.  We also know that Navy performance predictions are always excessively exaggerated so if their own predictions were too low to justify continued testing, they must have been truly horrible.  We’ve seen the Navy routinely push poor performing systems along in order to avoid jeopardizing funding so, again, the fact that the Navy would cancel tests suggests staggeringly bad performance and very serious problems.

As I said, the report does not specify the problems so we are left to speculate.  Just for fun, let’s try to reason out the problem, shall we?

As the report describes, the system consists of several components (1):

  • Total Ship Computing Environment (TSCE) The command and control architecture unique to Zumwalt.
  • Multi-Function Radar (SPY-3) The new X-band radar going on DDG 1000-class guided-missile destroyers and the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78).
  • Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) The tracker and sensor data fusion and distribution system.
  • Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) Block 2 (SLQ-32B(V)6) The passive electronic sensor used to detect and identify hostile radars.
  • Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Block 1 with Joint Universal Weapon Link (JUWL) The short-range missile interceptor used to defeat air threats at close-in ranges, and the system used for radar-missile communication and support.  Within the U.S. Navy, only the DDG 1000-class ships and the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) use ESSM with JUWL.
  • Standard Missile 2 (SM-2 Block IIIAZ) with JUWL The unique Zumwalt variant of SM-2 used to defeat air threats at longer ranges.
  • MK 57 Vertical Launch System (VLS) - The DDG 1000-only vertical missile launcher variant.

So, presumably the problem lies with one or more of the components on that list.  Let’s consider the likelihood of each component being the problem (or part of it).

Total Ship Computing Environment (TSCE) This is just the ship’s internal network and it’s been installed on various ships/classes for some time and has functioned without notable problems.  This seems very unlikely to be the problem.

Multi-Function Radar (MFR/SPY-3) The radar is untested.

Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) This has been around for many years and has been installed on many platforms.  It is very unlikely to be the problem.

Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) Block 2 (SLQ-32B(V)6) This has been a separate developmental effort and has been reported to have some typical developmental problems but nothing all that severe.  The system has been in development for some time and its issues are well known and would not likely trigger surprise cancellation of the Zumwalt self-defense program.  In addition, it is independent of the active defenses.  This is almost certainly not the problem.

Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Block 1 with Joint Universal Weapon Link (JUWL) ESSM has been around for some time, has been extensively test, by Navy standards, and has reportedly performed well.  It is highly unlikely that the missile, itself, is the problem.  However, the guidance data link appears to be brand new and untested.

Standard Missile 2 (SM-2 Block IIIAZ) with JUWL SM-2 variants have been around for some time and have been extensively tested, at least by Navy standards.  It is unlikely that the SM-2 is the problem.  However, the guidance data link appears to be brand new and untested.

MK 57 Vertical Launch System (VLS) - The VLS has not been extensively tested but, other than failure to launch, would be unlikely to cause severe problems and a systematic failure to launch issue would, undoubtedly, have been noted and reported before now since it would be too big and obvious a problem not to be publicly noted and reported.  Further, a launch failure does not fall into the category of predictable performance problems which the report refers to.  Therefore, this is not the problem.

So, what did that little analysis leave us with?  The only candidates for problems are the SPY-3 radar and the JUWL guidance link.  Either could be a likely source of predictable failure. 

As you may recall, the Zumwalt was originally supposed to have the Dual Band Radar (DBR) which consists of the SPY-4 (S band) volume search radar and the SPY-3 (X band) horizon search radar.  The SPY-4 was deleted from the Zumwalt design as a cost saving measure.  As a result, the SPY-3 was to be reprogrammed to selectively perform volume search or (and?) its intended horizon search function.  The functionality was to be operator selectable.

It seems quite plausible that the intended modifications to perform volume search have proven to be problematic.  The volume search was not intended, not designed into the SPY-3, and has had an extremely abbreviated development and testing schedule.  It is reasonable to believe that now that Zumwalt is undergoing actual combat system tests, the previously untested radar is demonstrating poor performance.

The other problem candidate, the Joint Universal Weapon Link, is also a plausible trouble source.  Again, it is unique and untested.  However, weapon guidance links are relatively straightforward communication technologies and relatively easy to correct, one would think.  So, this is certainly a possible problem point but seems much less likely than the SPY-3.

The other potentially problematic aspect to the JUWL is the mechanism of transmission.  Assuming the SPY-3 is being used to transmit the JUWL guidance commands, it is possible that the demands of the simultaneous dual guidance/tracking functions are not working together correctly.  If so, this again leads us back to a flawed SPY-3.

Therefore, the logical conclusion is that the Zumwalt is experiencing severe problems with the SPY-3 radar.

Ominously, the SPY-3 is also installed on the Ford which has not yet tested its combat systems.  More problems to come for the Ford?

Zumwalt SPY-3/4

If all of the above speculation is correct, there is even worse news.  The Navy has been testing the SPY-3 on the Self Defense Test Ship (SDTS) but is planning to remove the SPY-3.  From the DOT&E report,

The Navy plans to remove the SPY-3 radar and TSCE computer equipment on the SDTS at the end of 2QFY20. (1)

Whatever problems the SPY-3 has, the Navy’s best hope of solving them lies with exercising the SDTS with the SPY-3 installed.  Removing it may greatly hinder or totally prevent diagnosis and correction of the problem(s).  Removing the SPY-3 does not seem prudent or wise but when has the Navy ever been accused of wisdom?

The poor Zumwalt program can’t seem to catch a break, can it?  Aside from the complete failure of its main weapon system, it’s had problems with power generation/distribution (which was supposed to be a strength of the design), ship handling concerns in certain seas, and now its self-defense system is useless.  Think about it, though – is it really bad breaks or is it just a very bad design concept showing its inherent and utterly predictable problems and failures?

We’ll be keeping an eye on this one.


(1)Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, “FY2019 Annual Report”, 20-Dec-2019, p.159-60

Monday, February 24, 2020

Chinese Territorial Objectives

An anonymous commenter recently discussed war with China in relation to US Army operations and land operations.   I replied with a discussion about China’s land objectives in a war.  I think it’s worth a post to repeat the essence of that discussion since China’s objectives will determine, in large measure, what our objectives will be.

Looking at a map, China has two semi-exposed flanks: to the east is N/SKorea and to the south is Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar with Thailand and Cambodia further on (Indochina). In the paranoid Chinese world view where everyone is potentially out to get them, these flanks are vulnerabilities and must be secured. Further, seizing Indochina solidifies their hold on vast sections of ocean and major shipping lanes in addition to resources.

Note:  I use the term "semi-exposed flanks". By this, I meant that the flanks are not under Chinese control but neither are they active threats - kind of like Mexico and Canada are semi-exposed flanks of the US - not controlled but not a threat (at least, not militarily). For the US, this means that we happily leave them alone. For China, being paranoid and having a global domination desire, semi-exposed flanks are unacceptable.

Taiwan, due to its proximity to China, represents another vulnerability as well as a long-stated political objective.  The seizure of Taiwan is a foregone conclusion on day one of any war.  China simply cannot allow Taiwan to exist as an enemy base that close to China’s mainland.  The Taiwan invasion will be massive and swift.  Taiwan will, undoubtedly, put up a good fight but will be swamped and the US will be unable to muster any significant assistance in time to do any good.  The most the US could hope to do is operate some Air Force stealth bombers in the area and attrite Chinese forces a bit.  It would be a useless gesture and would risk our very small fleet of stealth bombers for no strategic gain.

The Philippines are another enticing territory.  Control of the islands would provide the basing and staging to ultimately secure the South/East China Seas, expand into the Indonesian region, and roll back America’s Pacific presence.  At the moment, China is in the process of politically and culturally annexing the Philippines with the active support of the Philippine President.

Japan is the intriguing element in this analysis.  China desperately wants to eliminate Japan but Japan, supported by the US, represents a major military challenge.  Would China attempt to fight a war with the US without engaging Japan at the same time by politically maneuvering Japan into neutrality?  Undoubtedly, but given Japan’s attitudes towards China, it seems unlikely that would succeed.  Thus, any war China would initiate with the US almost automatically becomes a war with Japan, too.  Can China successfully fight Japan and the US? 

Much, much further in the future, China will want to deal with India, Russia, and the Middle East but those are a step too far for the moderate to near future.
Having some idea what China’s territorial objectives might be, we can begin to speculate about US reactions.  In other words, what territories would America fight for?

Taiwan is a near hopeless affair until the very end of a Chinese war.

Korea (South, at least) is defensible because Korea has significant armed forces of their own that could make a successful defense feasible.

Indochina is questionable. Would we care enough to commit to another Indochina war? I don't know but I suspect not.

These, then, are the possible areas where the US might engage in land combat during a war with China and, as such, are the areas where should be planning for operations and determining what force structure and size we need to be successful.

More importantly, we need to determine what naval and air forces we need since any China war will be primarily a sea and air affair.  While we may debate what exact force structure we need, there is no debate that the force we have now is not well suited for a China war.

For example, for an air war conducted over vast distances, if not intercontinental distances, we need long range, penetrating bombers and lots of them.  What do we have?  We have around 18-19 functional B-2s.  The proposed B-21 program is a step in the right direction but whether we can build the aircraft in useful quantities remains to be seen.  The Air Force “envisions” 175-200 bombers but the Air Force “envisioned 132 B-2s and we wound up with only 21 so …

We can go on and analyze what else we need but that’s not the point of this post.  Moving on …

This also demonstrates the need for a Pacific NATO-ish alliance.  Unfortunately, unlike NATO where several countries had credible, if small, militaries, there are only two such countries in the Pacific region:  South Korea and Japan.  Australia could build a credible military but has so far shown no great inclination to do so and has given very mixed messages about its desired relationship with China.  India, though somewhat outside the direct Pacific rim territory, would make a great addition for a Pacific NATO, having a credible military.  Unfortunately, the US and India have shown no great desire to engage closely with each other.  The US should seek to change that.

The main benefit to forming a Pacific NATO would not be the very small military force that most of countries could contribute but, instead, would be the basing opportunities they would, presumably, offer for the U.S.

Someday, someone will write about the future U.S.-Chinese war and state that the objectives and needs were evident in hindsight but no one could have foreseen them at the time.  Well, this is the time and hindsight is not required.  China’s objectives and our responses/needs are pretty evident.  Now, we just need to begin acting.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Supply Class

We’ve talked extensively about the Navy’s neglect towards the logistics aspect of naval warfare especially for a Navy that anticipates fighting in the far Pacific around China.  With that backdrop, let’s take a closer look at one of the Navy’s most capable supply ships, the appropriately named Supply class.

The four fast combat support ships of the Supply class provide underway replenishment for Navy ships and are the only such ships capable of keeping up with Navy surface/carrier groups. 

Supply Class

Around 2003, the ships were transferred from the Navy to the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and are now designated United States Naval Ship (USNS).

Bafflingly, the Navy has begun retiring them in a misguided attempt at cost savings because of their fuel consumption due to their turbine engines.  USNS Ranier and Bridge have been decommissioned and placed in reserve leaving the Navy with just two active fast combat support ships.

Hull Number

Here’s a few specs on the ships:

Displacement19,700 tons (empty), 49,000 tons (full)
Length754 ft (229.8 m) (overall)
Beam107 ft (32.6 m) (extreme beam)
Draft:  39 ft (11.9 m)
Maximum speed25 knots
Range :  6,000 nm
Crew :  160 civilian + 40 military
Propulsion4 x General Electric LM2500, 2 shafts, 105,000 hp
Aviation :  3x CH-46E Sea Knight or 3x MH-60S Seahawk (1)

Here’s a few specs on the cargo capacity of the ships:

Diesel Fuel Marine (DFM):  1,965,600 US gallons (7,441,000 l)
JP-5 fuel:  2,620,800 US gallons (9,921,000 l)
Bottled gas:  800 bottles
Ordnance stowage:  2,150 short tons (1,950 t)
Chill and freeze stowage:  250 short tons (230 t)
Water:  20,000 US gallons (76,000 l)

As built, the ships were equipped with several defensive systems:

1 x NATO Sea Sparrow Missile System (NSSMS)
2 x 20mm Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWSs)
2 x 25mm Dual-Purpose (DP) autocannons
4 x 12.7mm Browning heavy machine guns
4 x Decoy Launchers
1 x NIXIE Torpedo Decoy System

Incredibly, the defensive systems were removed when the ships were transferred to the MSC.

Here’s a brief description of the ship’s cargo handling capabilities as described for Rainier:

To successfully handle their given resupply-at-sea roles, such ships as the Rainier were appropriately equipped with industrial-strength transfer equipment to move stores to recipient vessels. It was not uncommon to resupply ships to service up to three awaiting vessels simultaneously especially during wartime. Rainier was outfitted with a sliding padeye station allowing the receiving ship to transfer heavy loads and providing excellent control of the load during transfer. Between the bridge and the single funnel were 4 x 10-ton cargo booms, two located along portside and two along starboard. There were 3 x double-probe steam-powered fueling stations and two single-probe steam fueling stations - these stations able to pump water, ship diesel fuel or aircraft fuel simultaneously using different probes to the same ship. Her aft deck held a large helicopter flight deck connected to elevators able to bring freight from below to the surface so two of the three available CH-46E "Sea Knight" transport helicopters could deliver dry and refrigerated supplies (via cargo nets) under their fuselages (this particular delivery system recognized as "vertical replenishment"). A third CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter remained in hanger in reserve. (1)

What prompted the Navy to decommission two of the ships?  It was purely a budgetary cost savings measure.  According to USNI News website,

Supply-class ships USNS Bridge (T-AOE-10) will decommission in 2014 and USNS Rainier (T-AOE-7) and will decommission in 2015 based on the 2012 Navy Force Structure Assessment, Navy officials said. The FSA reduced the number of Fleet oilers from 19 to 17, leaving two Supply-class and 15 Henry J Kaiser class oilers. …

The decision to decommission the Supply-class ships was based on the higher operations and support costs for the class. The Navy estimated maintaining the ships would be $32 million more than the Kaiser-class support ships … (2)

So, for a measly $32 million savings (likely optimistic – probably much less) the Navy gave up two of the most valuable ships in the world.  And yet, the Navy doesn’t hesitate to spend $15B on a carrier or $600M on a worthless LCS.  Does this make sense in any sane reality?  The $32M isn’t even round off error in the Navy’s budget.  This is the kind of insane decision Navy leadership makes on a daily basis.

Hey Navy, how’s the logistical support planning for those far Pacific operations coming?


(1)Military Factory website, “USNS Rainier (T-AOE-7) / USS Rainer (AOE-7)”, JR Potts,

(2)USNI News website, “Navy to Decommission Two Oilers in Cost Saving Scheme”, Sam LaGrone, 29-Apr-2013,

Monday, February 17, 2020

Depend On Yourself, Not On Others

This blog avoids politics and for good reason but this is just too good to pass up and, besides, it directly impacts military matters.  The United Kingdom (UK) has withdrawn from the European Union (EU) – Brexit – and the EU is now grappling with the resulting impact.  One of the major issues facing the EU is defense.  A Breitbart article touches on this and the discussion offers some insights and belated recognition of the philosophies espoused on this blog.

Britain’s vote to leave the EU in 2016 was followed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s arrival on the world stage. Since then, the feeling has only grown in the EU that its foreign policy has to change to meet the bruising, confrontational challenges of a new age. (1)

This is not a new age.  The world has not changed.  It’s the same brutal, ruthless, often evil world it’s always been.  The only change is that the West has grown soft and complacent.  Worse – far worse – is that the West has come to believe that the rest of the world is as civilized as the West believes itself to be.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Most of the world is a violent, hateful place ruled by warlords (regardless of what title they choose to bestow upon themselves) and governed by the ancient and still totally relevant principle that ‘might makes right’.  The strong survive and thrive and the weak die in subjugation.  Evolution does not reward meekness or pacifism as a survival strategy.

As the article succinctly states,

For decades now, the EU has tried to be the counterpoint of alpha male superpower politics, spreading its “soft power” brand across the globe based on economic and developmental aid, cultural clout and the promotion of human rights, among other non-coercive strategies. (1)

While it is laudable to strive for a world based on warm, fuzzy feelings and mutual respect it is also foolish to ignore the reality that the world is a brutal place and most of the world doesn’t respect or care about the niceties of polite society.  I’m not going to bother citing the litany of soft power failings - you know it as well as I do.

Now, the EU is being forced to confront reality.

“We Europeans must adjust our mental maps to deal with the world as it is, not as we hoped it would be,” Borrell [EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell] wrote in an article last week. “To avoid being the losers in today’s U.S.-China competition, we must relearn the language of power.” [emphasis added] (1)

Wow!  ‘The world as it is, not as we hoped it would be’.  That’s basic, eternal truth being relearned the hard way by the EU.  Hopefully, the US will also learn the lesson of reality from this.

How does one avoid being a loser in today’s world?  The answer is the same as it’s been throughout history – have a powerful military.  Unfortunately, that immediately leads to yet another painful lesson for the EU.

That will be something made even more difficult without the military clout of Britain. French leader Macron says “Europeans must take more responsibility for European defense.”

“The European Union needs to shoulder greater responsibility for its own security and also step up its geopolitical presence,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at the EU parliament this week. (1)

How long has ComNavOps called for the US to pull out of Europe and let Europe defend themselves?  Finally, at long last, the EU is beginning to recognize the faintest glimmer of this reality and the wisdom that motivates it.  If the EU wants security and safety, they have to fight for it.  No one is going to hand it to them out of the goodness of their hearts.  As the saying goes, ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’.

A US pullout from Europe is not only in the best interest of the US but it’s also in the best interest of the EU.  It will force them to end their welfare-like dependence on the US for security.  That dependence may have been necessary immediately after WWII but it hasn’t been necessary for many decades now.  That dependence not only is a source of weakness for the EU but it breeds resentment towards the US as all dependence ultimately does toward those bestowing the welfare.

Not only should the US pull out of Europe, the EU should kick the US out and take their proud and independent place among the nations of the world !

The road ahead for the EU will be difficult and painful as noted here,

Firas Modad, a senior analyst with IHS Markit, issued a downbeat assessment of the EU’s stature as it struggled unsuccessfully to keep the Iran nuclear agreement intact.

“Europe is regulated from Washington,” he said. “The European banking system depends on the dollar, the European economy depends on the European banking system. The Europeans don’t spend on their own defence. The weak don’t have a say. (1)

Again, this illustrates the vulnerability of dependence by the EU.  It will be challenging but the EU must accept responsibility for its own well-being and security and rise up and stand on its own.

Now, how does all this tie into military matters beyond the obvious call for the US to disengage from Europe?

The answer should be obvious.  Just as noted in the article, the US geopolitical strategy must recognize that the world is a brutal place that does not recognize our desire for gentle approaches.  The world respects power and only power.  That power can take many forms but its ultimate foundation is military might.

We need to stop bending over backwards, to our own detriment, trying to persuade barbaric countries/rulers to miraculously become civilized.  By all means, let’s try the soft approach the first time but when that fails, as it almost always does, we need to switch to the application of power.  That does not mean we should instantly bomb every country that doesn’t agree with us on the first attempt.  What it means is that we should defend our interests (and our boats, drones, ships, aircraft, and personnel) with all necessary force. 

I’ve posted on the moral and legal aspects of this so I won’t bother repeating myself.  Suffice it to say that the US needs to begin reasserting itself and its interests.

  • When Iran can seize two US boats and crews with no repercussions, we’ve lost our way and our nerve.
  • When Iran can shoot down US drones with no repercussions, we’ve lost our way and our nerve.
  • When China can seize US underwater drones with no repercussions, we’ve lost our way and our nerve.
  • When Russia can conduct unsafe harassment of US ships and aircraft with no repercussions, we’ve lost our way and our nerve.
  • When China can order us out of international waters - and we comply - with no repercussions, we’ve lost our way and our nerve.
  • And so on …

Just as the EU needs to relearn the brutal lessons of the world, so does the United States.  Our security is being threatened daily, in many different ways, and we need to begin defending ourselves aggressively.  While that defense should take many different forms, one of the obvious forms is the military.  Deploying around the world while being unwilling to act is pointless, wasteful, and provocative.  It’s past time for the military to take aggressive action, when threatened.


Note:  While it should not be necessary to say this, I’ll say it anyway for those who are incapable of grasping the obvious.  Calling for the US to pull out, militarily, from Europe does not mean cutting off all diplomatic, financial, trade, cultural, and scientific interactions.  All of that would continue.  It also does not mean zero interaction with European militaries.  There is nothing wrong with cooperative training, personnel exchanges, technology exchanges, etc.  In fact, there’s nothing wrong with the US maintaining basing rights or a military presence where it suits American interests. 


Breitbart website, “EU Mired In Squabble Over Who Should Pay to Cover Lost British Money”, 15-Feb-2020,

Friday, February 14, 2020

Blind Man's Bluff

ComNavOps is often critical of Navy actions and with incredibly good reason.  However, because I critically analyze the Navy and the results of that analysis are so often bad, it’s easy for readers to lose sight of the positives – and there are some! – about the Navy.  Here’s one such positive aspect.

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War against the Soviets, we constantly heard rumors about the activities of the US submarine fleet.  The eventual publication of the book, “Blind Man’s Bluff”, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew not only confirmed those rumors but detailed an incredible range of exploits far beyond anything imagined by rumors.  US subs routinely trailed Soviet subs undetected (to the best of our knowledge), skulked just outside (and sometimes inside!) Soviet ports and territorial waters, tapped underwater communications cables, and much more.

If you haven’t read the book, do yourself a favor and get a copy. (1)

Presumably, these same types of activities are occurring today.  While I can’t prove they’re happening, I assume that we’re trailing Chinese subs, mapping the underwater features of the East and South China Seas, trailing Chinese surface ships, collecting data and acoustic signatures on new sub and ship classes, locating Chinese listening arrays, collecting signals intelligence, and noting Chinese submarine operating procedures.  In short, I assume we’re prepping the battlefield and, given the supposed quality of our subs versus the presumed quality of Chinese countermeasures and detection capabilities, doing so largely undetected.

The Virginia class submarines offer a significant advantage.  Despite foreign claims, no other country can match the combination of silent operations and sophisticated sensors that a Virginia has.  Conventional powered subs (SSK) are quiet and hard to detect but the overall package that is the Virginia class is unmatched and this advantage will continue for many years to come.  I assume we’re using this period of advantage to prepare for war and to establish even more advantages in operations, tactics, signature collections, etc.

In combination with submarine activities, it is known that we are operating ocean surveillance ships (T-AGOS) equipped with surveillance towed-array sensor systems (SURTASS).  These ships are operating in the Pacific, collecting data on Chinese ships and subs, mapping the underwater arena, establishing acoustic databases, etc.

When war comes, the US will hold a significant undersea advantage.


(1)Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, Blind Man’s Bluff:  The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, PublicAffairs 2008, ISBN-13 9781586486785

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Navy Writing Off The F-35?

In the budget proposals currently being released, the Navy has abruptly changed direction and indicated that 2021 will be the last year that Super Hornets are purchased.(1)  The funding for Super Hornets that would have been purchased between 2022-2024 will be redirected to the nascent Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft, sometimes referred to as F/A-XX.  Interestingly, there has been no concomitant announcement of increased F-35C purchases to compensate for the truncated F-18s.

The Navy has always been lukewarm, at best, about the F-35.  For example, former CNO Greenert often downplayed the importance of stealth and the Navy has delayed and minimized its F-35 purchases as much as possible.

Recognizing that China is the driving threat, the Navy may have realized that the F-35 is not ideally suited for the Pacific theater.  A 2019 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report points out,

… in order for a future carrier air wing to be effective in a major conflict with China, it would need to develop aircraft that could operate consistently at ranges of up to 1,000 nautical miles from the carrier. That’s double the effective combat range of an F-35C. (1)

That being the case, which ComNavOps happens to agree with, it makes no sense to purchase either Super Hornets or F-35s.

This is one decision by the Navy that I agree with wholeheartedly.  That may surprise some readers but the logic is inescapable.  It is silly and pointless to purchase aircraft that are not suited for the mission.

While the Navy has not announced any increase in F-35 purchases, neither have they announced any decrease.  I’d suggest applying the logic of the F-18 termination to the F-35 and terminating its procurement, right now, in addition to the F-18.  It makes no sense to continue to acquire more aircraft that are not suited to the mission and it’s not as if the lack of new aircraft for a few years will matter.  We have more than enough aircraft to equip the one or two carriers that we’re struggling so mightily to put to sea each year.  If we need more aircraft, we can always focus on repairing some of the 50% of the aviation fleet that is sitting idle, awaiting depot level maintenance.

Of course, the corollary to the decision to terminate F-18 production is that the NGAD has to be suited to the task and be affordable in the requisite numbers.  History suggests that the odds of those two conditions being met in a new acquisition program are quite poor.  The potential saving grace in this situation is that the Navy will not be tied to a monster, joint acquisition program that only partially meets their needs as was the case with the F-35.  If the Navy can keep the NGAD a purely Navy program, they may be able to keep the requirements focused on their needs.

Of course, this also assumes that the Navy even understands what the requirements are.  Given the debacles and poor decisions of the Ford, LCS, CMV-22 COD, MQ-25, and now the unneeded frigate, it is quite likely that the Navy won’t get the requirements right even without interference from other services.  Still, hope springs eternal and we have to hope that they can correctly define the requirements.  If they fail, they will have no one else to blame.

Disturbingly, the latest statements from current CNO Gilday suggest that the Navy doesn’t know what it needs from the NGAD.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said late last year the service was still thinking about how it would move forward with carrier aviation.

“I do think we need an aviation combatant, but what the aviation combatant of the future looks like? I don’t know yet. (1)

Seriously?  You’re the top guy in the Navy and you don’t yet know what you need from the next aircraft?  That’s pathetically inept.  Do you really not know or are you just scared to put yourself on record and are waiting for myriad studies to give you the cover you need for deniability if it fails?  Why don’t you take a lesson from the Marine Commandant?  Although I have misgivings about his vision, he has a very precise vision and it didn’t take him more than about an hour in office to flatly, fearlessly, and emphatically lay out that vision.  So, come on CNO Gilday, either demonstrate some leadership or step aside and let someone with more vision and courage lead the Navy.

Moving on … Cost is other aspect that has to be addressed.  A $100M NGAD is simply not going to be affordable in sufficient numbers.  Again, the Navy’s history of cost control in acquisition is stunningly poor and does not give rise to confidence that the Navy can control costs and produce an affordable aircraft.

Even so, this is a golden opportunity for the Navy to terminate the F-18 and get out from under the crushing F-35 budget weight before too many are purchased.  It’s a chance to reset the entire naval aviation component.  The F-18 can serve as a gap filler while the NGAD comes on line, assuming it happens quickly (and it can – see, “How To Build A BetterAircraft”), and the F-35 can serve as the stealthy sensor platform that the Navy has talked about while allowing the [hopefully] better suited NGAD to assume the workhorse combat role.

No matter how you look at this, one thing seems clear: the Navy seems to be abandoning the F-35 already although, to be fair, they never really embraced it.  It appears they’ll make the minimum number of purchases required by the program directors and move on to the NGAD.

Honestly, the possibility that the Navy could dodge the bulk of the F-35 debacle has me positively giddy.  Of course, leave it to the Navy to quash that feeling with yet another poorly executed acquisition program.  Still, as I said, hope springs eternal!


(1)USNI News website, “Navy Cuts Super Hornet Production to Develop Next-Generation Fighter”, Sam LaGrone, 10-Feb-2020,

Monday, February 10, 2020


The UK just bought a batch of MANTAS T12 unmanned surface vessels from Maritime Tactical Systems (MARTAC, Florida) that are interesting in concept.(1) 

The craft is a very small (12 ft long), unmanned boat that was developed for monitoring tasks.  It comes in 4-38 ft versions, has a catamaran style hull and flat upper surface, is battery powered, and is controlled by a line of sight laptop.  Operational speed appears to be very slow (several knots? based on video estimate) presumably due to the battery power.  The boat’s specifications claim up to 20 kt speed but that is, presumably, a very short time burst as it would quickly deplete the battery.  The boats are claimed to be capable of swarm-like, formation sailing with multiple units (no one has yet elucidated a tactically useful swarm behavior but, I digress …).  Smaller versions have what appears to be a permanently mounted FLIR turret and the T12 boat has a 140 lb payload capacity.  An interesting capability is the ability to semi-submerge for reduced signature.

MANTAS (smaller version)

The UK purchase was $1.8M for 5x twelve foot units ($360,000 each) with 3 units going to the Royal Navy and 2 units going to the UK Joint Forces Command (now Strategic Command).  Apparently, in looking for a suitable craft, the UK prioritized low observability and production readiness.

MANTAS T12 Characteristics:
  • Length: 12 ft
  • Width: 3ft
  • Height: 14 in
  • Draft: 7 in
  • Craft weight: 210 lbs
  • Max payload weight: 140 lbs
  • Burst speed: 40 kts
  • Cruise speed: 8-20 kts
  • Cruising range: 60 nm
  • Ocean capable: sea state 4+

The list of claimed mission applications is vast and patently ludicrous, as most manufacturer claims are.
  • Beach surveillance
  • Cargo transport, ship to shore / ship to ship (seriously?  how much useful cargo can even the 38 ft version carry?)
  • HVU escort and interdiction (seriously?  how is a tiny, slow boat going to provide effective escort and interdiction for a HVU?)
  • Search and rescue (search, maybe, over a very limited area, but rescue? – an unmanned boat can’t rescue anyone)
  • Mine countermeasures (now you’re just pretending!)
  • Channel bathymetry
  • Monitoring residential areas
  • Dock inspection
  • Harbor/port security
  • Environmental monitoring
  • SIGINT / EW (the 1 ft altitude of the antennae suggest a very limited effective range)

The legitimate use for such a boat is simple monitoring as in harbor/port security tasks or examination of dock structures or hull conditions. 

In very limited circumstances it might be useful for clandestine ISR.

The obvious problems are that the payloads are small which limits what can be carried and operated.  Generally speaking, the larger the payload capacity, the greater the potential usefulness of the vessel.  The limitation is exacerbated by the fact that the sensors are just a foot or two above the surface of the water which drastically limits the field of view and range of the sensor.  The slow operating speed just makes the other limitations that much worse.  Combined slow speed and limited sensor range means surveillance coverage per unit of time is quite limited but if time is not a concern it could work.  Unfortunately, in combat, time is always a concern.

Some obvious questions include:

Comm Range – As with any unmanned vehicle, communications is a potential weakness and comm range, in particular, is a concern.  The comm range for this boat is unknown but is likely quite limited.

Control Range – The control appears to be line-of-sight.  Bear in mind that a vessel this low to the water has a line of sight, given wave action, that may be extremely short.  Is there really a benefit to using an unmanned boat when the control vessel has to be almost on top of it?  At that point, presumably, the control vessel has bigger, more powerful sensors located much higher and with much greater range.

Data Transmission Security/Stealth – Another unknown is whether the boat’s data is secure and stealthy (low probability of detection and interception).  Nothing on the vessel seemed to indicate any kind of advanced, directional comm links.  It might be possible to add such gear but then that cuts into the payload.

In summation, this appears to be niche boat suitable for non-combat port/harbor monitoring.  Given that, I have to wonder, why the push for unmanned port/harbor monitoring?  You still need operators and, without a crew, the boat’s usefulness is limited to purely optical monitoring.  It would seem that simply installing more cameras around the port/harbor area would accomplish the same thing.  Is this just a desire to be part of the ‘unmanned’ fad?


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


(1)Naval News website, “UK MoD Procuring 5 MANTAS T12 USVs for Royal Navy and Joint Forces Command”, Xavier Vavasseur, 28-Jan-2020,

Friday, February 7, 2020

Fleet Size Doesn't Matter

The Navy seemingly pulls fleet size numbers out of the air (actually, they pull them out of somewhere else but decorum prevents me from specifying the location) and with great frequency.  Today’s ‘number of the month’ is 355, however, in recent times it’s been anywhere from 300 to 355+, depending on who you ask and when.

As we’ve pointed out on these pages, the Navy has tried to play games with the ship numbers by counting hospital ships, logistics support ships, and other non-combat vessels.  Congress slapped them down on that attempt but they then they tried to include ‘commissioned’ ships that were completely non-combat functional like the Zumwalts and the Ford.  Again, Congress slapped them down and passed legislation requiring the ship to be counted in the fleet totals only after it was actually combat-capable.

The most recent mini-controversy involved suggestions by various people inside and outside of the Navy that the ship counting rules should be modified to include unmanned vessels.  However, CNO Gilday recently stated that unmanned ships would not be part of the fleet count (see, “Unmanned Ships Won’t Count”).

In short, the Navy is heavily invested in pushing for a larger fleet size since it means a bigger slice of the budget pie for them.  To that end, they’re playing games with the fleet size requirements and the counting methodology.  Congress and outside observers are also caught up in the fleet size and closely related ship counting issue.  However, what the Navy and all the interested parties are failing to grasp is that the fleet size, and ship count, is utterly irrelevant.

If fleet size was the only thing that mattered we could simply buy a few thousand combat canoes and all our problems would be solved.  Of course, any rational person instantly recognizes that despite the description as ‘combat canoes’, the canoes would have no useful combat power and would be utterly useless.

Wait … what now?

Are we saying that combat power is more important than ship numbers?

Of course we are!  In fact, it’s the only relevant measure of a navy.  Nothing else is relevant.  Not tonnage.  Not numbers.  Not ship types.  Not average fleet age.  Nothing.

It’s all about what the fleet can accomplish in combat.  That’s it.  Nothing else.  Pure and simple.

Okay, so what’s the problem?  Let’s add up the combat power and be done with this.  Well, therein lies the problem.  It’s very difficult to quantify combat power.  You can describe some of the peripheral factors that contribute to combat power, like number of VLS cells, but those factors only tell a small part of the story.  VLS cells, to continue the example, don’t indicate the size of the missile inventory (what’s the point of having 10,000 VLS cells in the fleet if your totally missile inventory is only 3,000 and wartime production is limited to 100 new missiles per year?), they don’t contribute to anti-swarm defense (VLS is only good against certain target types), they may not be usable in some combat scenarios (surface ships with VLS can’t get within range of many desirable targets without exposing themselves to enemy fire), they may not contain the appropriate missile mix for a given situation, and so on.  So, yes, VLS is a descriptor of combat power but only in a partial and imperfect way.

The other major aspect of ‘combat power’ is that it depends on the scenario.  For example, if our goal in a war with China is to simply execute a distant blockade, that requires far less combat power than if we want to scrub the entire South/East China Seas of all enemy assets.  So, the combat power that might be adequate for one scenario may be inadequate for another.

When we talk about combat power, what we’re really talking about is strategy and its derivative, operational planning.

Strategy and operational planning are what tell us how much and what type of combat power we need.  Strategy gives us our objectives and operational planning tells us what specific capabilities and assets we need to accomplish the objectives.  That’s our combat power requirement.

For example, we might feel good that we have 150 VLS cells distributed on 15 small, unmanned missile ‘barges’ but if those barges can’t survive long enough to get into launch position then they’re useless and don’t actually represent useful combat power.  Perhaps we really need a single guided missile submarine (SSGN) that has a very good chance of surviving to reach launch position – in other words, useful combat power.

So, is the Navy recognizing that combat power is the real measure of a useful fleet?  Read the following comments from Acting SecNav Modly and then decide for yourself.

“We haven’t done a really comprehensive force structure assessment in a couple of years; 2016 was the last one. So we started on a new path for that last fall, and what we’re finding in that force structure assessment is that the number of ships we need are going to be more than 355. And when you add in some of the unmanned vessels and things like that that we’re going through experimental phases on, it’s probably going to be significantly more than [355],” he [Acting SecNav Modly] said.

Modly, when asked why the Navy was betting so much of its ability to get to 355 ships by the end of the decade on quickly acquiring brand new ship classes that haven’t gone through the Navy and industry design and construction process yet, said, “I think ‘quickly’ is going to have to define everything we do, because the world is changing pretty quickly and we’re going to have to react more quickly.”

“This year, this budget will keep us on a path to grow to over 300, but the ultimate goal was to grow to an even bigger fleet than that,” and the Navy is already looking at its 2022 planning and eyeing multiple paths to grow faster.

We’re trying to make the case for a bigger Navy, and I will continue to make the case for a bigger Navy …  Modly continued. (1)

Do you see the focus on numbers rather than any coherent vision of useful combat power?

We need to stop focusing on ship numbers and counting methodology and start focusing on strategy, operational planning, and real combat power.  The Zumwalt may represent an increment of ‘1’ in the fleet size quest but it doesn’t represent any substantial increase in useful combat power.  The same can be said of the entire LCS class.  Submarines make up a substantial portion of our fleet count but many of our submarines are laid up, non-operational, due to a massive backlog of submarine maintenance.  They may contribute to fleet size but not to combat power.

The focus on numbers is a potential wrong-way street in the quest for a suitable Navy and, given the current fixation on unproven, unmanned vessels, a very likely wrong-way street.

Stop counting and start planning!


(1)USNI News website, “SECNAV Modly: Path to 355 Ships Will Rely on New Classes of Warships”, Megan Eckstein, 3-Feb-2020,