Tuesday, April 28, 2020

An Ill-Fated Voyage

An Ill-Fated Voyage

The proud US Navy fleet left San Diego amid much publicity and ebullient speeches from naval spokesmen.  It seemed that every Admiral in the Navy claimed to have played a key role in developing and fielding this new fleet which was, by this voyage, ushering in a new era of naval power.  Press conferences sprang up like mushrooms.  You couldn’t spit without hitting another Admiral touting the wonders of this new naval concept.

The fleet was to be the first large scale demonstration of the wonders and magnificence of the manned/unmanned partnering that would define the Navy’s new fleet structure of the future.  The USS Ford, a Burke, a large displacement unmanned surface vessel (LDUSV), and five medium displacement unmanned surface vessels (MDUSV) were to sail from San Diego to the South China Sea where one of the MDUSVs would perform a publicly announced and greatly hyped unmanned Freedom of Navigation (FONOPS)  passage near one of the many illegal Chinese artificial island bases.  The voyage would not only usher in a new era of naval power but also send a clear message to China that the US Navy was still leading the way in naval technology.

In a nod to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, whose voyage had introduced the world to American naval power, the press had taken to referring to the fleet as the Great White Unmanned Fleet and the more supportive of the media were given MH-60 helicopter rides to take photos of the fleet as it pulled out of port.

As with the earlier unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), the unmanned vessels hadn’t been thoroughly tested.  The Navy had opted to ignore the DOT&E test protocols in their haste to get the ships into the fleet and avoid any budget reductions that a somewhat skittish Congress might impose if the vessels were found to have significant problems.  Still, this wasn’t a combat action, just a demonstration voyage and Navy leadership was quite confident that the unmanned vessels were up to the task.

Five days into the eighteen day voyage to the South China Sea, the unmanned vessel control systems on the Ford suddenly displayed an alarm.  One of the MDUSVs was registering water accumulation in the hull.  An inspection/repair crew was ferried to the vessel and discovered that the aluminum hull had developed a 6 inch long crack, presumably from the stress of prolonged wave action, that was leaking steadily.  Because the vessel had not been designed for manned operation, physical access was difficult and limited.  The repair crew was unable to reach the crack with sufficient access to effect repairs.  The decision was made to send a ‘prize crew’ of 18 sailors from the Ford to the unmanned vessel to sail it back to San Diego for permanent repairs.  With four other MDUSVs in the group, the loss of one vessel was not a problem.

Three days later, during group refueling operations, the third MUSV was found to be unable to take on fuel.  Again, an inspection/repair crew was dispatched and eventually concluded that a sticking check valve was the culprit.  While this would normally be a simple shipboard repair, the unmanned vessel had no spares and the limited physical access again prevented any effective repair.  As before, a ‘prize crew’ was detailed to sail the MDUSV to rendezvous with a fleet tug which would tow them to Pearl Harbor for repairs.

On day twelve, one of the remaining MDUSV automated monitoring systems reported seawater in the lube oil system.  Once again, this necessitated a ‘prize crew’ to sail the offending vessel to Guam for repairs.  Navy spokesmen noted that water in the lube oil was not unique to the MDUSV and was the same problem that had sidelined several LCS and the Zumwalt during its voyage from the east coast to its homeport on the west coast.

The following day, one of the two remaining MDUSVs suddenly veered out of formation.  Telemetry determined that the vessel had lost communications and was executing a failsafe return to base.

At this point, the fleet was down to the Ford, the Burke, the LDUSV, and one MDUSV.  Navy leadership determined that despite the run of bad luck the group was still more than adequate to perform a simple FONOPS and the decision was made to continue.

On day seventeen, having passed through the first island chain and entered the South China Sea, the group encountered heavy GPS jamming and spoofing.  While not overly affecting the manned vessels that could take manual fixes, the USVs kept wandering off course.  Not unduly worried, the decision was made to instruct the USVs to switch to inertial navigation (INS).  Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to the group commander, the USV’s INS systems were one of the things that had not been tested despite DOT&E warnings.  The MDUSV responded properly but the LDUSV veered off in a seemingly random direction.  Inside the South China Sea, this could not be allowed and the Burke was dispatched to collect the LDUSV and take it under tow back to Guam.

The group, now reduced to the Ford and the one remaining MDUSV opted to go ahead with the FONOPS given that they had essentially arrived at their destination, anyway.

The next morning, the MDUSV began its passage about ten miles off from the designated artificial island.  As the vessel drew abreast of the island, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel approached the MDUSV and a Chinese boarding party proceeded to board and take control of the vessel.  

The US reaction was one of instant anger and condemnation from the Ford with demands that the Chinese return the vessel immediately.  The Chinese reply was that the unmanned vessel presented a hazard to navigation within Chinese territorial waters and had been seized as a matter of safety.

The President’s National Security Council and the Navy met in emergency session with the President calling for the use of force to secure the return of the MDUSV.  However, the Navy pointed out that the Ford was without escort support and her weapon elevators were only partially and sporadically functioning.  Given the situation, the Ford would be unable to mount an operation with any reasonable chance of success and, if things escalated, might even be subject to seizure or sinking, itself!  Further, the precedent had been set in the Middle East that captured or destroyed unmanned assets were not worth taking military action over.  All things considered, the President reluctantly ordered the Navy to abandon the MDUSV and have the Ford retire from the area.

An ill-fated voyage, indeed.


This story is not meant to present any meaningful simulation of the Navy’s manned/unmanned group concept nor is it meant to imply that the rate of unmanned failures in the story is to be expected on a routine basis (although readers may recall that the first several LCS to put to sea ALL experienced major mechanical failures that terminated their voyages!).  The story is intended only to highlight the types of failures that could afflict unmanned vessels and how those failures might impact group operations.   More importantly, writing the story amused me.

The story also points out the danger in not fully testing new ships.  Readers might recall that DOT&E has been quite vocal about the Navy shortcutting tests and trying to skip shock tests, among other testing related issues.


  1. I thought the Chinese were going to board the Ford and decide not to bother, it's useless! LOL!

    Sadly, this is likely going to happen in the near future.

  2. In the Tom Clancy version, the PLAN jams the GPS and and attempts to hack the control system of U-boats.
    Disaster ensues when the U-boats go to automatic defence mode,
    damaging two PlAN ships. The US is then required to sink its own U-boats.

  3. The USN does plan on having both anti boarding defences (not necessarily lethal ones) and anti tamper devices on USVs.

    1. If someone has the stones to try to take an unmanned ship, nonlethal boarding defenses are not a deterrent. If anything they are an encouragement, because the boarders will only see an interesting challenge.

    2. "If someone has the stones to try to take an unmanned ship"

      China has already seized, stripped, and dismantled a US EP-3 MANNED aircraft and seized a US UUV WHILE IT WAS OPERATING! They certainly have the 'stones'.

    3. I think the thinking is during peacetime to deter fishermen from grabbing it. If a military grabs it, it will blow up, but likely only it's electronics during peacetime.

      And some of the thinking is optionally manned ships. They fly the flag, go to parties around the world, and maintain the ship. If the ship gets a very dangerous mission, like being picket, then the crew come off.

  4. You raise some good points, especially when it comes the need to make unmanned ships easier to repair and maintain at sea and the constant problems of insufficient testing. It seems unmanned ships ought to have a man-tended capability.

    Relative to the navigation issues, wouldn't an unmanned ship have the ability to follow the leader or sail a programmed course? I'm just thinking of a viable backup to a faulty INS.

    Like anything else, there will be teething problems with unmanned ships. But, that doesn't mean unmanned ships can't be useful.

    1. "sail a programmed course?"

      A programmed course is just a series of GPS waypoints (or INS waypoints). If you lose GPS either due to electrical/mechanical failure or EW/jamming/spoofing you lose the ability to follow the course.

      You might also want to recall the Avenger class MCM ship that ran aground in the Philippines while following a programmed course! I did an entire post on that one!

    2. I was thinking of something simpler like a following a set course and speed for a certain time. Something that wouldn't require GPS and isn't susceptible to jamming or spoofing. But, I would think any unmanned ship would have the ability to play follow the leader and guide itself on a parallel course a safe distance from the lead ship. Again, this is just a back-up to a faulty INS.

      According to Wiki, a flawed chart provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) contributed to the grounding of the USS Guardian. The cause of the flawed chart was human error.

    3. "a flawed chart provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) contributed to the grounding of the USS Guardian."

      Nope. The Captain's stupidity was the sole cause. Here's the post I did based on the official Navy report:

      "A Harsh Mistress"

      "following a set course and speed for a certain time."

      What you're describing is INS. It would be wildly inaccurate after any significant period of time due to currents, weather, waves, and other factors.

      I'm sure some kind of follow the leader guidance could be implemented but what's the point? The value of an unmanned vessel is to be able to send it off on a mission by itself (presumably into danger). If all you want is a barge to follow you, you can just tow it and save the cost of the unmanned control gear!

    4. On the Guardian grounding, its true that there were command issues involved. The Navy statement (06/20/13) on the report reads, in part, "(Admiral) Haney further summarized that a "lack of leadership" led to the watch team's disregard of visual cues, electronic cues and alarms in the hours leading up to the grounding, and that an ultimate reliance on what would turn out to be inaccurate Digital Nautical Charts (DNC) during the planning and execution of the navigation plan ultimately led to a degradation of the ship's navigation ability."

      In an earlier statement (01/19/13), the Navy reported, "On Friday, the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) provided the Navy preliminary findings of a review on Digital Nautical Charts (DNC) that contain inaccurate navigation data and may have been a factor in the Guardian grounding that occurred in the Sulu Sea on Jan. 17 Philippine time." Therefore, my earlier comment that a faulty map contributed to the grounding is applicable.

      As for the navigation issue, I was only proposing backups or work arounds in the scenario described to allow the unmanned ship to continue as part of the group. If it had the capability, the unmanned ship be sent course and speed corrections in real-time as if the ship was remotely controlled. This would be not much different than how we operate drone aircraft.

    5. "comment that a faulty map contributed to the grounding is applicable. "

      Again, not true. READ the Navy report. The inaccurate map was one of three (as I recall) that the ship's Captain had access to, it was known to have inaccuracies, and yet he chose to use it anyway.

      On top of that, the ship was presented with dozens of warnings and alarms from its navigation system and the Captain ignored every one of them. READ THE POST AND THE REPORT!

  5. We have got to decide, do we want to contest China at the first island chain or let them break out? If we want to contest them, we must have a presence in the first island chain and we must regularly operate inside the chain. And a FONOPS by an unmanned vehicle is not presence. Suppose the Chinese had not seized it and it had completed the transit. So what?

    We need either to get serious and quit playing stupid games, or just to give up and punt. We're going to get people killed to no good purpose.

    1. "If we want to contest them, we must have a presence in the first island chain"

      What will 'presence' do? It's done nothing so far. The only thing 'presence' will do is give us a grandstand seat to watch them take over the entire Pacific region while we conduct useless FONOPS.

      So, don't say we need 'presence'. Instead, tell me what, specifically you think presence will do that will actually stop China.

    2. I'm not talking about FONOPS. I'm talking about a real presence that says, "Don't mess with us. We're here and we're going to be here. Get used to it."

    3. "I'm talking about a real presence that says, "Don't mess with us."

      Again, what, specifically, would that presence do? We sail and fly the area regularly and it's done nothing to deter China and has, arguably, increased their motivation to control and conquer the region!!!!!

      You've got this vague notion that 'presence' will dissuade the Chinese. Tell me what presence and what actions you think will do this?

  6. The point you make about repair has been learnt in current European ships.

    Passageways are wide so people can access machinery/cables and people can pass.

    They are also on the outside to provide a blast absorber.

  7. Also in breaking news …

    Big business has swooped in on high-stakes political negotiations with China, parachuting in one of China’s top diplomats to speak at a Commonwealth office event as relationships between Canberra and Beijing deteriorate.

    Fortescue chairman Andrew Forrest surprised Health Minister Greg Hunt by inviting Victorian China Consul General Zhou Long to speak alongside him on Wednesday after the mining billionaire secured 10 million coronavirus tests from China, a 20-fold increase in Australia’s testing capacity.

    This is after yesterday when the Chinese ambassador threatened Australia because of our efforts to hold an inquiry into Sar-Cov-2.

    The Chinese Government hasn't spoken to us for 3½ years.

    Last year our coal exports were held up with mumbo jumbo reasons.

    There are unhappy with us for advocating in the 5 Eyes not to use Huwai.

    And we exercised in the South China Sea with the USN last week.

    Do you still doubt our resolve?

    1. PS Andrew Forrest is a billionaire who sells low quality iron ore to China only. He is 15% left wing and 85% right wing. The 15% does good.

      He has blown any credibility with our government. No-one in either party will listen to him again.

    2. So ... tell me about the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement that went into effect around 2016.

    3. What about it, we have one with the US too. In trade - multilateral trade liberalisation has been impossible to achieve. Nations are doing free trade agreements in the hope that one day they can be unified into multilateral trade agreements.

      Although after Sars-Cov-2 no one may be that interested in multilateral trade.

    4. The Australia-China free trade agreement is one of dozens of free trade agreements Australia has with trading partners.
      It isn't even a real free trade agreement - there's a host of provisions in it that are the opposite of free trade. It should really just be called the Australia China Trade Agreement.
      You may as well declare that the US is aligned to China because the US grants China Most Favoured Nation status.

      It's a nonsensical conclusion to draw. Australia and the US had trade agreements with Japan too in the 1930s and 40s.

      All major countries have trade agreements with each other. Even when they don't get along.

      And frankly, Australia is sticking up to China in a way that most countries are not. Certainly more than countries in Europe.

  8. "The Chinese reply was that the unmanned vessel presented a hazard to navigation within Chinese territorial waters and had been seized as a matter of safety."

    At that point, given the demonstrated history of those vessels, they have a reasonable argument!

  9. CNO. You know we have overwhelming air dominance in the SCS whether
    its from our carriers, Okinawa, Cheju, or other unnamed places. I also think sending unmanned surface ships is beyond stupid but do you really believe we would let china grab something significant without either a sub dispatching the attackers or a constantly orbiting platform like a reaper or F22? I am waiting for the day that china announces an exclusion zone around Hainan and what we do. I assume we will ignore it and make them make the first move.

    1. You need to brush up on your history! China seized, held, stripped, and dismantled a MANNED US EP-3 electronic surveillance aircraft. Do you not classify that as significant????? If they did that, why would you think they'd hesitate to seize an UNmanned vessel? Come to think of it, they already did seize an unmanned UUV WHILE IT WAS OPERATING!!!!!

      Regarding exclusion zones, they've already done that! China, in violation of all international laws and treaties, has claimed a 200 mile total exclusion zone around all it's actual AND CLAIMED territories. You're way behind the times!

  10. I know CNO didnt have the space but just look at Chinese media and PR push across the world concerning Covid and latest FONOPs. China is running circles around USA press releases in Africa and Middle East, too many just focus on US and EU population but China has been very adroit at messaging other significant populations around the world. Last FONOPs was supposedly chased away by Chinese navy, this message reverberates very well in the ME! Forget the immediate military implications of USN unmanned ships being towed away, can you imagine the PR disaster this will be when it happens??? And it will happen, just look at the latest articles on USNI and other navy articles, just like USMC is getting rid of tanks and anything heavy, USN really wants to get out of manned ships, get rid of some carriers and go full ahead on USVs. This CNO scenario sadly will happen before we think!

    As for boarding, I think its obvious Chinese will grab one. Why not??? They grabbed entire "islands" and terraformed them. What stops them from grabbing our USVs or even sinking them, if Iran! could shoot down a Global Hawk,what's so special about another USV?!?

    1. They grabbed an EP-3 and a UUV so I don't think they'll hesitate to grab a USV.

  11. God help me if my kid is on the ship that they make the first move on before the ROE are thrown out.

  12. I too have noticed the war like talk from Global Times like I have never seen before. They are showing their true colors.

  13. Unmanned naval combat vessels are the 21st century equivalent of Jeffersonian gunboats.

    1. An interesting and quite possibly apt analogy! I may have to do a post on the Jeffersonian gunboats. Good reminder!

  14. Could you discuss first moves? Lets say a type 052 was messing with
    one of our Burkes in the SCS like the incident recently where we had to swerve to avoid contact. I assume if it escalated the 052 could shoot their 5" at our 5" so whoever shot first had advantage. I figure the helos from each would try to take out each other first, but maybe they would not even be in the air. Since their so close to each other and the Burke would be waiting for Higher to clear the air assets above to do something. Any thoughts?

    1. Here is a actual war game testing deterrence with unmanned systems. This is from the executive summary - the report goes into more detail.

      The wargame began with China attempting to exert greater control in the region and the United States and Japan resisting this attempt. The game escalated at several points, first into conflict between unmanned systems, then eventually into one in which Chinese and U.S. military personnel were killed. There was both intentional and inadvertent escalation. The United States and Japan engaged in joint exercises and deliberately sought to provoke the Chinese. China took the escalatory step of declaring unrestricted submarine warfare in order to enforce a blockade of certain Japanese ports, and it sank an unmanned Japanese cargo ship. U.S. and Japanese antisubmarine warfare assets then sank a manned Chinese submarine, which represented the first human casualties in the game. The U.S. and Japan players were unable to deescalate the situation at this point. China retaliated with a missile attack against the U.S. and Japanese fleet, also causing human casualties. The game ended with the crisis still escalating.


    2. "Here is a actual war game testing deterrence with unmanned systems. "

      Thanks for the link. This was one of the dumber RAND studies I've read. Claiming to test deterrence as affected by AI and unmanned systems, it did nothing of the sort and the report basically acknowledged that in its discussion of the game limitations. The game, itself, was structured in about the most unrealistic manner possible. The participants acted in manners that were almost caricatures. None of the participant's actions reflected historical precedents of the respective countries.

      In short, the report contributed nothing and accomplished nothing. In fact, the first half of the report read like a RAND sales brochure.

      On the plus side, I did not find any misspellings.

    3. Here is another war game. Casualties are very high. 60,000 NATO on day 1.

      The United States can win World War III, but it’s going to be ugly and it better end quick, or everyone starts looking for the nuclear trigger.

      That is the verdict of a Marine Corps War College wargame I organized that allowed students to fight a multiple great state conflict last week.


    4. I see in the war game the Chinese are assumed to be able to target and hit the carriers with the DF21 and DF26 missiles out to 900 miles.

    5. "Here is another war game. Casualties are very high. 60,000 NATO on day 1."

      If anyone is surprised by the casualty count then it simply confirms one of my repetitive themes which is that we've forgotten what real war is.

      That aside, the game was concocted on utter nonsense. The very premise is that Russia has invaded and occupied the Baltics and Ukraine. The Baltics are all NATO nations and NATO didn't respond????

      The game then postulates a simultaneous war against China (Taiwan), South Korea, and Russia. A contrived, worst case scenario if there ever was one! Is it theoretically possible? Sure, anything is possible but it's ridiculously unlikely.

      Removing the simultaneously three-front war and restricting the war to Russia immediately turns the Russian war effort from a Herculean effort to a straightforward war against a moderately weak enemy.

      Unfortunately, there was no discussion about the individual strategies employed or strength of forces.

      As with the RAND game, the players sounded like a bunch of little kids playing war in terms of their decisions and grasp of war. This may be the most useful conclusion of the games - that our so-called professional warriors haven't got a clue what they're doing.

      On a final note, it's interesting to see that this game criticized the RAND game as decades behind in terms of pure gaming fidelity - exactly my observation in my previous comment!

      By the way, did you organize the game or was that the quote you pulled from the article?

    6. It was from the introduction to the article. All my war games I play are versus orcs.

    7. I assumed that was the case (the quote, not the orcs) but I wasn't 100% sure you weren't the author or instigator of the game.

      Reading these game writeups, as cursory as they are, reinforces my belief that the Commandant of the Marines has had his views shaped by some very suspect gaming. This frightens and disappoints me, to say the least!

    8. @David, so you've read my reaction and cursory analysis of the games … what's your thoughts about the degree of realism and usefulness?

  15. War games show possibilities.

    War Game 1 - it reinforces your belief that unmanned systems don't have deterrent value. No one has a moral problem killing a machine.

    War Game 2 - Japan started its war in WW2 while a European conflict was happening knowing England couldn't do anything about it.

    As to the Marine Corp.

    Firstly they are not abandoning forcible entry. Just slightly reducing it. Secondly they will NOT do follow on land operations. That's the Army's job.

    The proposed force structure is for stage 3 (of 4) war games.

    There are 3 groups of changes.

    F35B Squadrons. - The Marine Corp CANNOT get 16 pilots per squadron. So the thinking is why buy 6 planes per squadron at $100 million each if we can't fly them. They prefer having the pilots. Sar-Cov-2 means airlines will no longer be poaching military pilots, which has decimated air forces world wide. So maybe they will be able to retain pilots which they want.

    Secondly. Many changes they have high confidence in such as abandoning tanks.

    Thirdly. Changes relating to mobility and logistics they have a very low confidence they have it right.

    As to the battalions. They know they don't know. Therefore only one battalion is being change now for experimental.

    And the whole exercise is based on the fact that they CANNOT expect extra funding.

    1. I'm having a hard time understanding the purpose of the USMC going forward that justifies its cost.

    2. "I'm having a hard time understanding the purpose of the USMC going forward that justifies its cost."

      Me too! A few scattered, small units shooting missiles doesn't require 180,000 men and a 33-ship amphibious fleet. Not even close. The Commandant is going to have some explaining to do to justify his budget going forward.

    3. The early republic wanted a marine corp like the Royal Navy.

  16. The USN has chosen the FREMM frigate. I can't believe it. They have bought something that works and is automated so fewer crew. I really thought they would specify a cruiser in a frigates hull (which doesn't work).

    I can't believe they went with what's possible. Rather than what they hope is possible in 20 years.

    1. @david candy
      " I really thought they would specify a cruiser in a frigates hull (which doesn't work)."
      I was worried it would be LCS all over again, a ship with no weapons.

      I do think they specified a destroyer in a destroyer hull. The FFG(X) from Fincantieri is really a lot like a Burke with a diesel electric gas turbine drive train and less VLS cells.
      The FFG(X) is 496 ft length, 65 ft beam
      The Burke flight IIA is 509 ft in length and 66 ft beam.
      pretty close!
      @CNO Staterooms for the crew with their own heads! It's going to be a cruise ship. Probably why there are less VLS cells, they had to make room for all the staterooms.

  17. This is a few years behind the other comments, but I just 'rediscovered' this great site. Here are my questions. Do these 'unmanned vessels' have facilities and quarters in case any 'prize crews' have to board them and ride them? A cruise in the Pacific could mean a voyage of several days to several weeks if such a vessel has to be boarded and steered back. Do these vessels have water available for consumption, showers, laundry, etc.? Can water be produced via desalination? Food will be required, how is that stored? Where do these crews sleep? Are such emergencies and hence facilities factored in? Will these now manned unmanned vessels be escorted by another vessel to provide for the crews now tending to them? And remember, this scenario is in a time of peace.


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