Thursday, May 28, 2020


The key to understanding this post is grasping and accepting that the engagement window for a ship to defend against attacking missiles will allow just 4 shots per target (see, “Engagement Range”).  Most of us have grown up seeing WWII videos of ship anti-aircraft gunners pouring thousands of rounds into the air as the enemy planes slowly approach and then enter their terminal dives and weapon releases.  Each target engagement can last for several minutes.  This is no longer the case.

While I view history as timeless in its lessons, irrespective of technological advances, this is an example where technology has altered the details, if not the fundamental concept.

Each target engagement will last 4 shots.  It doesn’t matter how many missiles you have in your magazine, you’ll only get 4 shots per target.  If you don’t understand this, there’s no point reading the rest of the post.  This is not an opinion on my part, this is simple and pure physics.

With that out of the way …

One of the problems that has become obvious over the course of many posts and comments is that most people do not understand the concept of escort vessels.  Really?  What could be more simple, you say?  You assign a couple of Burkes to provide anti-air (AAW) protection and, of course, being multi-function, they have the added benefit of being able to provide anti-submarine (ASW) protection, as well !  Well, there’s a little more to it than that.  In fact, there’s a lot more to it than that!

Unfortunately, far too many observers/commenters believe that around 2-4 escorts is sufficient for a high value target (HVU) like a carrier, convoy, or amphibious group because that’s all they’ve ever seen the Navy operate.  The more extreme observers might call for 6-8 escorts.  However, even this is woefully insufficient and now we’re going to see why and we’re going to correct this misconception.

As always, let’s begin with a review of history.

Historical Escorts

We forget just how many escorts a WWII carrier task force required.  Admiral Marc Mitscher described the escort requirements of a carrier task force in the following statement from Wikipedia.

Said Mitscher: “The ideal composition of a fast-carrier task force is four carriers, six to eight support vessels and not less than 18 destroyers, preferably 24. More than four carriers in a task group cannot be advantageously used due to the amount of air room required. Less than four carriers requires an uneconomical use of support ships and screening vessels.” (1)

The support vessels were cruisers and battleships.  Combined with 18-24 destroyers, the total escort requirement was 24-32 ships – a quantity that seems shocking to us, today, because we’ve forgotten the requirements of combat.

Having reminded ourselves of the historical precedents, let’s conduct an analytical examination of today’s requirements.  Escorts are needed to perform two basic functions:  anti-air protection and anti-submarine protection.  Additional functions such as electronic warfare and anti-surface protection are also required but can generally be performed by the AAW or ASW vessels.

Anti-Air (AAW) Escorts

There are several aspects to consider when discussing AAW escorts.

Threat Axis.  Unless you have absolute knowledge about the enemy’s attack plans – and you never do – the threat axis is unknown.  Yes, you may well have a general idea of what direction an attack will come from but a ‘general idea’ is far from certain. 

In WWII, the identification of the threat axis was a bit more obvious.  While aircraft could, and did, attempt to circle around and try to approach from alternate or several angles, their ability to do so was limited by their range.  Attacking aircraft were generally near their maximum range by the time they reached the target and began their terminal attack runs so they rarely had the fuel required to perform wide swings around their targets to approach from unexpected directions.  Additionally, wide swings provided more time for the defensive aircraft and AAA to attrite the strike so the strikes generally made fairly straight approaches with just some terminal maneuvering, especially for torpedo attacks.

Today, cruise missiles with thousand mile ranges can use waypoints to approach from any angle.  Therefore, every axis is a potential threat axis although more direct axes still have a somewhat higher likelihood of attack.

So, to cover ever axis requires that the escorts be arranged evenly in a circle around the high value unit they’re escorting.  This, alone, would suggest the need for at least a dozen or more escorts.

Effective Engagement Range.  We’ve previously discussed that the most likely AAW engagement scenario involves sea skimming aircraft or missiles that are detected at the radar horizon (call it 20 miles, optimistically) (again, see, “Engagement Range”) and that engagements will involve short/medium range ESSM missiles with very brief engagement windows.  Two salvos of two missiles each would be a fortunate engagement.  That being the case, those marvelous ships with a thousand VLS cells are pointless, as we’ve pointed out in the past.  Each ship, regardless of how many VLS cells it has, is likely to only get off four defensive missile shots per engagement.  That being the case, it is obvious that the only way to get more missiles into the engagement is to have more ships since more VLS cells per ship doesn’t help.  This, again, suggests the need for as many AAW escort ships as possible.  Thus, one would like to have 2-4 ships along every threat axis.  The arithmetic on this quickly leads to very large escort numbers.

Probability of Kill (pK).  It’s necessary to consider the defensive pK against attacking missiles when trying to determine the required number of escorts.  For example, if the pK is very high, you only need a few escorts because you only need a few defensive missiles but if the pK is very low then you need lots of escorts to make up for the individually low pK (recalling that each ship will only get a very few shots per engagement). 

So, what is the pK?  Well, that depends in great measure on the geometry of the intercept.  If the attacking missile is coming straight at you, then the geometry is simple, your defensive missile is not required to maneuver, and the pK is high.  At the opposite extreme, if the missile is going past you (nominally, a 90 degree off-axis defensive shot), aimed at some other ship/target then the pK is going to be very low because off-axis shots require a great deal of maneuvering by the defensive missile.

The reality is that modern attacking missiles, even one coming straight at you, enter into wild, violent, evasive maneuvers in the terminal attack phase precisely to make the defensive shot a somewhat off-axis shot and, thus, a lower pK.

There is very little data available on actual naval defensive missile engagements and what there is, is not encouraging.  Historically, the pK of defensive missiles, even against direct attacks, is 5%-25% (see, “AAW”). 

It’s readily apparent, then, that if the escort is not the main target, which it usually isn’t, the defensive pK will be very low which requires that multiple escorts be placed as nearly on the direct threat axis as possible.  The only way to ensure direct threat axis placement is with large numbers of escorts distributed evenly around the escorted target so as to ensure that there are at least some escorts in the direct path of the attacking aircraft/missiles.

Layered Defense.  The best defense is one that begins as far out from the HVU as possible.  Recognizing that the most likely engagement will occur at radar horizon distances (15-20 miles), the only way to push the initial engagement out from the HVU is to create multiple defensive layers of escorts spaced at 15-20 mile intervals out from the escorted high value unit so that the attacking aircraft/missiles have to pass through multiple layers and multiple engagement opportunities in order to get to the HVU. 

We did this in WWII with distant rings of destroyers backed by closer rings of cruisers and, finally, a very close ring of battleships (the WWII equivalent of Aegis).  To get, say, three rings requires a radius of 45-60 miles which means a 90-120 mile diameter defensive sphere around the HVU!  When one contemplates the number of ships required to attain effective engagement density across a 90 mile diameter defensive circle and still cover every threat axis, it becomes instantly apparent that many, many escorts are needed.

Positioning.  Modern aircraft and missiles are far too fast to allow for escort repositioning once an engagement has begun.  Whatever position the escorts are in when an attack begins is the position they’ll have to fight from.  Thus, we must have enough escorts to provide adequate protection from any axis.  Repositioning during an attack is not an option.

Anti-Submarine (ASW) Escorts

If the ASW function resides on ships separate from the AAW function then the escort requirement further increases.

Engagement Range.  Modern subs have torpedoes with ranges of up to 60 miles.  It is vital to detect and engage subs beyond their torpedo range to the HVU.  That means engaging at ranges of 60+ miles.  Given the slow pace of ASW engagements, great standoff distance is also necessary to allow the HVU to continuing advancing while the ASW engagement is being conducted.  If ASW engagement begins at, say, 20 miles, the HVU would have to immediately turn away and begin a high speed run in the opposite direction.  This is counterproductive in getting the HVU to its destination.

Subs also have guided missiles with ranges of a hundred miles or more although this becomes an AAW problem at some point.

Numbers.  WWII demonstrated that the most important factor in successful ASW was numbers of ASW assets.  The Cold War simply reinforced this lesson.  Thus, having a single ASW escort in any engagement is unlikely to produce a positive result.  Successful engagements will require multiple ASW assets.  Now, not all of the numbers need to be ships.  Some/all of the assets can be aircraft but, ultimately, the aircraft require ships to operate from.

Threat Axis.  Unlike the aerial threat, submarine threat axes are much more limited and are primarily centered around the course of the advancing HVU.  Subs that are significantly offset from the course of advance will be unable to achieve a viable intercept position without significantly increasing speed and making their presence known.  Thus, while a few flank and rear ASW escorts are needed, the majority can be concentrated along the forward arc of the direction of travel.

Electronic Warfare (EW) Escort

We should have a few dedicated EW escorts.  Our current ships are limited to small, underpowered SLQ-32 / SEWIP components that are designed to provide self-defense, only.   A dedicated, high powered area defense EW ship is needed that can operate antennae as large as needed and as many as needed along with numerous, high powered transmitters for jamming.  Think of this as the EW version of Aegis.

We use dedicated, large EW aircraft so why not ships?  Compare the size of even aircraft EW equipment to ship EW equipment and it becomes immediately obvious how meager our shipboard EW is.


Another factor in escort number determination is attrition.  Some extra escorts are necessary to allow for possible losses.  Without some extra escorts, the entire group would be forced to retire upon the first loss of an escort.

Escort Concept

Having considered the above requirements, let’s see if we can bring it all together and conceptualize an escort requirement.  We’d like to have multiple defensive rings similar to the following:

Escort Concept
Defensive Ring
Radial Distance, miles
No. of Escorts
engage leakers
main engagement zone
early warning / early engagement
ASW / early warning

a each ship covers a 20 deg sector
b each ship covers a 45 deg sector
c ships spread across 45 deg arc on course of advance

This gives us three engagement zones plus a distant ASW zone using a total of 38 escorts.  Most of you will be stunned at the number but it’s an historically and analytically supported requirement.  We’ve just forgotten how many ships are needed to form a survivable, defensible group. 

Another aspect that leads to larger escort requirements today is the increased range and speed of attacking weapons (aircraft and missiles).  In WWII, aircraft had to basically overfly the target ship to release weapons and their speed of approach was only around two hundred miles per hour which provided extended engagement windows (time) for the defenders.  With today’s weapon’s range and speed and the resulting short engagement windows, the only compensation is to engage further out and with more escorts.

This immediately leads one to wonder why the Navy never exercises with this kind of escort density.  Hey, it’s peacetime – I get it.  There’s no need to provide that level of escort on a routine, peacetime basis.  But, shouldn’t we be exercising this escort concept on a regular basis so that we know how to do it when war comes?  I guarantee you that none of our current admirals or captains have the slightest idea how to manage a wartime escort group, where to place the escorts, what tactics to use, or how to maneuver a large, spread out group. 

Consider the ASW escort challenge …  What will the rest of the group do if a submarine is detected?  Keep going?  Turn away?  How many escorts should engage?  Can we afford to detach escorts for prosecution of the target?  How do we compensate if we detach escorts?  This is the tactical level of control that none of our naval officers have any grasp of and never will since we don’t practice it.  We’re going to wind up learning the hard way when war comes and the price of that learning will be sunk ships and lost crews all because the Navy refuses to conduct serious combat exercises now, during peacetime.

Note that the above only applies to a single HVU or a closely clustered group of HVUs.  For a wartime group of 4 carriers, the carriers themselves will be separated by 5-10 miles so the size of the defensive rings and the number of escorts would have to be adjusted accordingly – something we should be learning about in exercises but aren’t.

We also have to make adjustments for reality.  While we might like to have thirty or fifty or hundred escorts, if we only have, say, 15 available then we have to modify our thinking.  Part of that modification might be to cancel missions that have inadequate escort availability.  Alternatively, we might have to sail with lesser numbers of escorts.  How do we adjust?  Where do we place our limited escorts?  How does inadequate numbers affect our tactical usage of the escorts?  These are the types of scenarios we should be exercising and learning, now, during peacetime, instead of wasting our time on useless deployments to show the flag or chase pirates in skiffs.  We are wasting this valuable peacetime.

Fletcher Class Destroyer
Finally, let’s compare our potential existing escort strength to the conceptual needs we’ve just described.  We have around 80 Burkes/Ticos so we can fill out two task forces – and that’s before we’ve lost any ships to combat.  Are two task forces enough to conduct a peer war?  I don’t think so.  Compare that to WWII when we built 175 Fletcher class destroyers, alone, and many dozens of cruisers and battleships.  Of course, we also had hundreds of older destroyers and destroyer escorts and, as the war went on, another hundred or so of newer Sumner/Gearing class destroyers.  We’re not even close to that level, currently, nor should we be.  We didn’t have all those ships when WWII started.  We built them rapidly as the war progressed.  The problem is that we no longer have the ability to rapidly build up ship numbers.  We lack the shipyards, the work force, and, worse, our designs have become so complex that it requires years to build a single Burke class destroyer.  We absolutely need to revisit our entire warship design philosophy with an eye towards simplifying it for rapid mass production.

All right, there you have it.  You now understand the role of escort ships and you have some idea of how many are needed and how they should be used.  For the Navy, it’s now time to start exercising these concepts and finding out what works and what changes need to be made.  We also need to start developing combat commanders who have actual command experience with large escort groups.  Peacetime is a precious commodity – it’s the time to prepare for war and we’re squandering it with worthless deployments, pirate chases, and flag waving.


(1)Wikipedia, “Fast Carrier Task Force”, retrieved 4-May-2020,

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Keep Buying More Ships

Recently, I mentioned that we’re producing ship captains and crews whose tours never leave dock.  I get the feeling that some of you may not have believed me.  Well, here’s a timely example.

The move of attack submarine USS Boise (SSN-764) to the dry dock at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia ... after the sub has been sitting pier side at nearby Norfolk Naval Shipyard for more than four years waiting for maintenance to begin. (1)

A submarine – one of our precious and most valuable assets – sitting pier side for four years waiting for maintenance.

Let’s just keep buying new ships, though, Navy.  Why invest in shipyards and drydocks when we can get Congress to approve new ships?  So what if most of our carriers and half our sub fleet is sitting idle.  As long as we can buy new ships, we’re happy!

How has no one been fired?

Nothing To Do But Wait


(1)USNI News website, “NAVSEA Says Attack Sub Repairs Much Improved as USS Boise Enters Yard Following 4-Year Wait”, Megan Eckstein, 26-May-2020,

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Marine Defense Battalions

You probably recognize that the Marine Corps Commandant’s land-based sea control units are, essentially, just a repeat of the WWII Marine Defense Battalions (MDB) which were created in 1939 to defend island bases against Japanese invasions and to provide coastal defense for forward bases.  Eventually, 20 MDBs were formed and dispersed across dozens of island locations.  Despite the name, the MDBs were not, actually, battalions but were closer to regiments or companies in size.

MDBs used coastal artillery guns and anti-aircraft guns to carry out their mission.  From Wikipedia, a MDB 1939 table of organization and equipment (TOE) included: (2)
  • HQ Company
  • Service battery - Six platoons, each with a searchlight and aircraft sound locator
  • Coast Defense Group - Three batteries, each with two Mark 15 5"/51 caliber guns
  • Antiaircraft Group - Four AAA gun batteries, each with four mobile 3-inch M3 guns;  two AAA machine gun companies, each with 24 Browning M2 water-cooled .50-caliber machine guns on AA mounts;  two beach protection machine gun companies, each with 24 Browning M1917A1 water-cooled .30-caliber machine guns

Does any of this sound familiar?  Substitute missiles for artillery and you have, almost exactly, Commandant Berger’s island-based sea control units.

So, how did these MDBs fare in combat?  The short answer is that none succeeded.  Every island the Japanese attacked to start WWII, they successfully seized.  The only notable, momentary, success occurred at Wake Island where the 1st MDB with 399 personnel (compare this to the Commandant’s vision of platoon size units) used six 5” guns to repel the first Japanese assault which consisted of 2 light cruisers, 6 destroyers, and 450 troops – a remarkably small assault force.  The Marine’s coastal artillery guns sank one destroyer.  F4F Wildcat aircraft sank another destroyer and the Japanese retreated.  Two weeks later, the Japanese returned with a heavier force and seized the island in just over one day.

At Guadalcanal, the MDB went ashore but did little.

[3rd] Marine Defense Battalion protected the beaches within the Guadalcanal perimeter, but did little more than fend off infiltrators, since the main Japanese counterlandings were all away from the perimeter and unopposed. (4)

And so it went.

As WWII progressed, MDBs were assigned to bases across the Pacific where most languished and did nothing.  The majority of MDBs were eventually reclassified as anti-aircraft units when it became apparent that the Japanese were no longer capable of conducting assaults or naval attacks.

A summary of the MDBs and their WWII service can be found in the links below (2, 3).

So, recognizing the marked similarity between the MDBs and the Commandant’s sea control units, what lessons and conclusions can we draw from the WWII MDBs?

Marine Defense Battalion 5" Gun
Mission.  There is a distinct difference between the MDBs and the Commandant’s sea control units.  The MDBs were defensive and were intended to hold and defend bases whereas the Commandant’s units are not intended to hold territory but, rather, to exert sea control over the surrounding region.  Yes, one could argue that exerting sea control is a form of defense but that’s getting into semantics.  The salient point is that the MDBs could not retreat or move when faced with an enemy whereas the sea control units are, doctrinally, intended to relocate rapidly from place to place when threatened (we’ll ignore the impossibility of doing so for the sake of discussion).

Success and Size.  The MDBs had almost no success and the primary reason was that they were too small to accomplish anything.  An MDB consisted of the equipment listed above and a total of three or four hundred rifle troops.  The Commandant’s small sea control platoon size units are even smaller – much, much smaller.  The envisioned Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) would have a troop capacity of around 75.  That’s simply far too small to survive any type of attack.  The only hope the sea control units have of success lies in somehow being able to magically remain undetected while launching missiles or being able to instantaneously relocate to a new, hidden location, while, again, remaining undetected.  This seems decidedly unlikely.

Forward Basing.  A key difference between the MDBs and the sea control units is that the MDBs were deployed to islands and bases in waters that we controlled whereas the sea control units are envisioned to deploy to secret, hidden bases deep inside enemy waters.  As we’ve repeatedly pointed out, no one has yet explained how a painfully slow, non-stealthy, short ranged LAW will be able to penetrate deep inside enemy waters while remaining undetected.  It is worth noting that the MDB forward basing concept proved to be worthless with the MDBs either failing when exposed to enemy attack or sitting idle on islands that the enemy couldn’t reach because they were in waters under our control.

Secrecy.  The MDBs were not secret, hidden units.  Their existence and presence was well known to the enemy.  Operating units with large artillery guns in secret was not a reality then nor is our fantasy of secretly operating units with multiple, large missile launching vehicles a reality now.

Resupply.  At the outset of WWII, the MDBs that faced Japanese attack were fatally crippled by an inability to obtain resupply.  Wake Island was a notable example of this.  Notably, this resupply failure was in waters that we nominally controlled.  Again, this should tell us something about our ability to resupply sea control units operating from islands deep inside enemy waters – it isn’t going to happen.  The fantasy that we can resupply and support units inside enemy waters is just that:  pure fantasy.  To believe that slow, non-stealthy, supply ships will sail deep into enemy waters, undetected, is delusional in the extreme.

Conclusion.  The lessons of the MDBs are screaming at us and yet we’re ignoring them.  The effectiveness and survival of the sea control units depends on a ridiculous degree of fantasy-level stealth (from non-stealthy ships and equipment !) that didn’t exist in WWII and doesn’t exist today.  Despite these lessons, we’re converting the entire Marine Corps to this nonsensical mission and abandoning every other worthwhile combat capability.  Somewhere, a Chinese general is smiling as he crosses the USMC off his list of threats.


(1)Wikipedia, “Marine Defense Battalions”, retrieved 12-May-2020,

Friday, May 22, 2020

Admiral James Kirk

This item caught my eye.  Rear Admiral James Kirk just took command of Carrier Strike Group 11 (CSG 11 – USS Nimitz).  This would be just another routine personnel move except that I recall that Kirk was the first captain of the PCU Zumwalt.  He assumed command of Zumwalt in Oct 2013 and served in the position until Dec 2016, which was shortly after the ship was fraudulently ‘commissioned’.

During his time in command, the Zumwalt conducted zero deployments, had no functioning combat system installed, conducted no workups or combat training, had no functioning gun, carried no surface to air missiles, had no combat capability whatsoever, and spent most of its time pier-side.

That was Kirk’s major command slot.  His only other command was a Perry class frigate.  His major command slot taught him nothing about naval combat or operations, gave him no large-ship shiphandling experience, and provided no experience operating as part of a naval task force.  In other words, he gained nothing from it related to naval combat experience or learning.

Now, Kirk is taking command of a carrier strike group.  He’s not a former pilot, he has no major command experience, and yet he’s taking command of Carrier Strike Group 11.  What jumps out from his resume as saying this … this is the guy best qualified to command a carrier strike group?

From his official Navy bio,

He has served in a variety of afloat and ashore billets as a Surface Warfare officer.  He has served afloat on destroyers, cruisers, frigates and staffs including USS Fife (DD 991), USS The Sullivans (DDG 68), USS HuĂ© City (CG 66), USS John S. McCain (DDG 56), gas turbine inspector on the staff of Commander, Pacific Fleet, and operations officer for Carrier Strike Group Seven/Ronald Reagan Strike Group.  He has commanded both USS De Wert (FFG 45), and USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000).

Ashore, Kirk has served as executive assistant to the Navy’s Chief of Legislative Affairs, action officer on the Joint Staff J8, executive assistant to the director of Surface Warfare (OPNAV N96), and as deputy for Weapons and Sensors to the director of Surface Warfare (OPNAV N96). His most recent assignment was as deputy commander and chief of staff for Joint Warfare Center, Allied Command Transformation in Stavanger, Norway. (1)

His only direct carrier experience was as operations officer for the Reagan group.  So, one command as a frigate captain and a staff position for a carrier and he’s the best we can produce to command a carrier strike group?  He’s the guy who’s best qualified to lead a carrier group into combat?  Seriously?

Now, let’s be fair.  There’s nothing wrong with his resume.  It’s a workmanlike, average, unremarkable body of experience.  There’s nothing wrong with it nor is there anything special about it.  We only have around nine carrier strike group commands in the entire Navy.  Shouldn’t the admirals in command of those groups be really exceptional, standout people with amazing resumes?

This guy is clearly on track to become CNO one day if he can maintain his mistake free, uneventful career.

This brings up another point.  With an immense backlog of ships sitting idle, awaiting maintenance, we’re seeing more and more captains and crews serving out their terms without ever leaving dock or rarely so.  We’re producing captains and admirals who are rising through the ranks with some serious lack of sea time and operational experience.  We’ve got submarines that have been idle for years, awaiting maintenance.  We’ve got submarine commanders whose total experience is just sitting beside a dock.

Is it any wonder that our ships are running aground and colliding with giant cargo ships?  Is it any wonder that our admirals are incapable of formulating effective operations and tactics?  Is it any wonder that we come up with idiotic ideas like small, unmanned ships to replace Burkes?

We have got to change.  We have got to get our ships to sea and conducting high intensity, realistic wargames.  We have got to start developing combat commanders instead of dockside babysitters.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Nuclear Power Debate

The nuclear power debate has raged since nuclear power became a viable propulsion method.  I have avoided doing a post on the choice of nuclear versus conventional power for two reasons:  one, I’m ambivalent about the issue and two, it’s impossible to reach any well founded conclusion with publicly available data.  Both sides fling numbers back and forth with little regard for the analytical rigor of the underlying figures.  Generalities abound, none supported by rigorous facts.

For example, one can compare the nuclear powered Ford at a construction cost of $15B (and counting!) to the conventional powered carrier, the Forrestal, at $2.1B (FY2019 dollars) (2) and conclude that nuclear power costs $13B more than conventional power.  While this may be arithmetically correct, it ignores all the other factors that go into carrier construction costs.  Thus, the figure is correct but the conclusion is not. 

Many studies have been conducted that purport to compare the costs of nuclear versus conventional power.  Most of the studies have been flawed, the majority badly so.  Surprisingly, relatively few studies have attempted to quantify the operational comparison of nuclear and conventional power.  In fact, the only such study I’m aware of is the 1998 GAO effort (1) which has, overall, some serious methodological problems and the resulting conclusions are suspect, at best.

Despite my reluctance to address this subject, it’s reached a point where I feel I have to.  Too many readers are making unsupported and incorrect statements about nuclear power, pro and con.  This blog is all about facts, data, and logic so I guess it’s about time to examine the issue.  That said, let’s look at the various aspects of nuclear and conventional power.

Installation Cost.  This is the obvious place to start and we immediately see all hope of analysis fall apart due to lack of data and lack of a consistent set of criteria.  For example, what is the installation cost of a nuclear reactor?  Well, that depends on what you choose to include or exclude as part of the installation.  The reactor container, itself, certainly is part of the cost but what about associated piping?  Do you include the reactor cooling system?  What about the cost of shielding around the compartments and equipment?  What about the systems and equipment required to convert the nuclear energy (heat) into electricity?  And the list goes on and on.

Similarly, what do you include in the cost of a conventional power plant?  Do you include the fuel storage tanks without which the power plant is an inert paperweight?  How about the fuel handling/pumping system?  What about the auxiliary diesel engines that are a common part of any conventional power system today?  How about the air intake and exhaust ducting and exhaust stacks?  What about the exhaust IR suppression systems that are required for a conventional power system?  What cost do you associate with the enormous ship’s volume that is consumed by the giant ducting runs?  And the list goes on and on.

The installation cost, then, will depend on what pieces you include and exclude.  If you favor conventional power, you’ll include every nuclear related item you can think of to drive up the nuclear cost and make your position look better and you’ll exclude all but the direct items for conventional power.  If you favor nuclear power, you’ll do the reverse.

In addition, while we can find some reasonably accurate costs for some of the isolated big ticket items like the GE LM2500 turbines, it’s very difficult or impossible to find accurate data for reactors or for any of the ancillary equipment, nuclear or conventional.  Worse, the costs that we can see, like the Navy’s SCN line item budget figures, are undefined.  For example, the 2020 Navy SCN budget document has a Virginia class line item that reads, “Nuclear Propulsion Plant Equipment” but no description of what is included in the cost figure.  For the Ford class, there is a line item that reads, “Propulsion Equipment” (it doesn’t even mention nuclear!), and has a cost of $2B but, again, no description of what is included/excluded in the figure.  It’s not even clear that the reactor itself is included in the SCN propulsion line items.  They could be Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) that isn’t accounted for in the SCN budget.  However, given the magnitude of the propulsion line items, it seems likely that the reactor is included.

On the conventional side, the SCN budget has no line item for propulsion.  There is a line item for HM&E (Hull, Mechanical, and Electrical) but the detailed breakdown of that line item shows no propulsion machinery.  Alternatively, propulsion may be included in the line item, “Basic Construction/Conversion”, but, again, there is not description of what is included in the line item.  There is a “Main Reduction Gear” line item but that seems extremely specific and the dollar figure is fairly small.

Conventional wisdom claims that nuclear power is more expensive to install but I can find no data to support or refute that claim.

So, we have no hope of determining even the seemingly straightforward installation cost. 

Manning.  Nuclear critics claim that it requires many more people to man and operate a nuclear propulsion plant than a conventional one.  Again, I can find no data to support or refute the claim.  We did just recently see that the USS Ford has two reactors which require <25 watchstanders (5) which suggests that there is no great manning penalty associated with modern nuclear plants and they may even require fewer personnel !

Operating Costs.  After the installation costs, there are daily operating costs.  Again, this all depends on what you include/exclude.  Nuclear proponents would claim that there are no daily operating costs (manning aside, which is a wash between nuclear and conventional) and that this is the major advantage of nuclear power.  However, what about the long term nuclear disposal and storage costs that ultimately become part of the overall operating costs of nuclear power and that continue for decades/centuries after the individual nuclear ship is long gone?

Conversely, what about the costs to operate an entire fleet of tankers to replenish conventional powered ships?  What about their crew costs?  What about the land based fuel tank farms that are required to support the tankers?  What about the drilling and refining operations to make fuel?  And on and on.

As we noted, the evaluation of this depends on what you include and exclude.  Without dipping into a quagmire of debates over what to include/exclude, and without attempting to put a specific dollar figure to it, it seems as if the operating costs of conventional power are far beyond those of nuclear given the requirement for a vast infrastructure of fuel processing, storage, transport, and tanker fleets to support conventional powered ships.

Operational Benefits.  This ought to be a major factor and yet almost no one factors it into their discussions.  If nuclear power conveys a significant tactical or operational benefit, that would compensate for, or outweigh, many disadvantages.  However, the only operational benefit is the reduced need for tanker support and even that is only a limited benefit since the carrier’s escorts all need tanker support.  Of course, eliminating the need for ship’s fuel frees up internal ship’s space for larger magazines, more jet fuel, more food and water stores, or whatever else the ship designer wishes to include.  Is this enough of a benefit to justify nuclear power?  I don’t think so.  The benefits are nice but not critical and do not enable any significant combat enhancements.

Battle Damage.  This factor strikes me as potentially one of the more significant aspects of nuclear power.  While a reactor is protected, to a degree, within the ship, the possibility of battle damage resulting in nuclear contamination is real.  What is the likelihood?  I have no way of knowing but it would seem unlikely that the reactor has any inherent immunity to damage so the likelihood would seem as great as for any other area of the ship.  The problem is that the potential exists for relatively minor damage to produce a serious contamination issue which could result in the operational loss of the ship.  I don’t know the ins and outs of naval nuclear power plants but, conceptually, a damaged ancillary system (cooling, for example) might be the source of a radiation leak even though the reactor had no direct damage.  Depending on the location and spread of the leak the carrier might have to be abandoned or operations halted from a relatively small amount of physical damage.

As I say, I have no inside information about the likelihood of such a scenario but the potential for radiation related battle damage seems all too high.  This factor, alone, strongly sways me away from nuclear power.

Midlife Refueling.  We have seen in recent post discussions that the stated midlife refueling costs for carriers are mostly fraudulent in the sense that the Navy includes extensive overhaul costs with the nuclear refueling costs (see, "Nuclear Carrier Refueling Costs").  So, again, we’re left with no actual, verifiable, authoritative costs to look at.  It seems clear, however, that of the multi-billion dollar overhaul and refueling costs that the Navy cites, the vast majority of it is for non-nuclear work.


So, where does all this leave us?  Well, it leaves us right where we started which is clueless.  We have no actual comprehensive cost figures to examine and what partial cost figures we have seem to be a wash – depending on what is included/excluded.  Therefore, I see no definitive conclusion based on costs.

Manning is a non-issue with manning levels seeming to be comparable for modern nuclear plants.

Operational benefits of nuclear power are limited and not significant.

The only factor that seems significant is the issue of battle damage and, unfortunately, we have no reliable assessment of the likelihood or severity of such an occurrence.

Once upon a time, when we were dependent on foreign oil, one could make a compelling argument for nuclear power based on our strategic vulnerability to oil shortages during war.  Today, however, the US is essentially energy independent so that argument is invalid.  This does, however, highlight the benefits of ensuring that our strategic resources are under our control (I’m looking at you, rare earths!).  But, I digress …

In the end, we wind up arguing about nebulous numbers.  Is it any wonder I find myself ambivalent about the whole issue?  If I had to offer a conclusion, I’d lean towards conventional power on the basis of the battle damage issue but, lacking definitive information on the subject, my ‘lean’ is not very strong.

I can conclusively and definitively state that I am deeply and profoundly ambivalent about nuclear power.


(1)General Accounting Office, “NAVY AIRCRAFT CARRIERS, Cost-Effectiveness of Conventionally and
Nuclear-Powered Carriers”, Aug-1998, GAO/NSIAD 98-1

(2)Navy Matters, “Forrestal – Ford Comparison”, 21-Oct-2019,

(3)Navy Matters, “Nuclear Carrier Refueling Cost”, 20-Nov-2019,

(4)Navy Matters, “Carrier Costs”, 23-Sep-2019,

(5)Navy Matters, “Ford Design Considerations”, 23-Mar-2020

Monday, May 18, 2020

Light Amphibious Warship Update

I just recently posted about the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) requirements (see, "Berger's Amphibious Ships") as they relate to the mission and one of the postulated requirements was for significant self-defense capability because it appears the vessel will be operating alone.  I’ve now found additional information that indicates that the vessel will have no significant self-defense capability.  From the LAW Industry Day question and answer document, we see that the Navy has ruled out anything more than 25/30 mm machine guns.(1)

Q: To help with cost analysis, is there any way you can share the intended Government Furnished Material with Industry?

A: The Government intends to have a very limited amount of GFM: a small communications suite made up from existing programs of record (similar to a MK 6 Patrol boat), a 25mm or 30mm gun system, Global Positioning System (GPS), Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), Automatic Identification System (AIS) and crew served weapons (e.g. .50 caliber machine guns).

Q: Is there a requirement for weapons and armament?

A: Yes, two MK 46 (30mm GWS) with control station and gun mounts which can hold pintles for common crew served weapon systems in order to provide 360 degree defense.

Q: Has the Government discussed providing other major equipment (ie: shafts, props, etc.) as GFE?

A: No, the Navy is only considering C4I and weapon systems at this time. (1)

Also, there is no question that this vessel will be a mini-LST as opposed to a mini-well deck amphibious ship.

Q: Does LAW require a well deck?

A: No, LAW will not have a well deck. Open deck stowage is desirable/preferred.

The door has been slammed shut on the ability to transport tanks.

Q: What military onload/offload requirements must be accommodated?

A: Must be capable of onload/offload of all existing USMC Rolling Stock inventory (except M1A1 Abrams tanks), including Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR), RT240 (Rough Terrain Container Handler) carrying a 20-foot TEU, and 11m RHIB on trailer.

Given that the Marines are dropping tanks from their inventory, I guess this is at least logically consistent albeit stupid beyond belief.

The more I learn about this abortion, the more idiotic it sounds.  A small, unprotected, slow, non-stealthy vessel with little transport capacity is going to penetrate deep into enemy territory, undetected, and depost tiny groups of troops who will win the war.  This is truly some top-notch fantasy.  

I really don’t know what else to say.


(1)LAW Industry Day 04 MAR Q and A.pdf,

Friday, May 15, 2020

Ford Certifies Another Elevator

USS Ford has finally certified another Advanced Weapons Elevator (AWE) for use.  As stated by Rear Adm. James P. Downey, program executive officer for Aircraft Carriers,

“Certifying Lower Stage Weapons Elevator 5 [LSWE 5] is extraordinarily significant, in that we now have the capability to move ordnance from the aft magazine complex deep in the ship through the carrier to the flight deck with a speed and agility that has never been seen before on any warship in any fleet.” (1)

A couple of thoughts, here, Admiral:

  • The speed and ?agility? (what the hell is elevator ‘agility’?) of the elevator is utterly irrelevant as the weapon elevators have never been bottlenecks in any previous carrier.  This is pure marketing garbage being repeated by the Navy.
  • There is nothing ‘extraordinarily significant’ about one more elevator.  Talk to me again when you have all the elevators working, as they should have been long ago, and then you’ll have something slightly significant though horrendously overdue.

The delusional Admiral goes on,

“In just the last few weeks, we’ve seen an increase in the velocity of flight deck operations and new system certifications aboard Gerald R. Ford that’s beyond impressive.” (1)

‘Certifications … that’s beyond impressive’?????  Impressive would have been installing working elevators during the ship’s construction, on time, and as specified in the construction contract.  Installing one more elevator when several still don’t work is not only unimpressive but downright embarrassing.  Even more embarrassing is you calling a partial achievement that is years late, ‘beyond impressive’.  The reality is that it’s beyond embarrassing and you, Admiral, are beyond pathetic.

According to the UK Defence Journal article,

In the past year, Newport News Shipbuilding has turned over four of the ship’s 11 AWEs to the crew … (1)

The shipbuilder has managed to turn over 4 of the 11 elevators in a year????  That’s horrible!  That tells us just how badly the Navy and the elevator manufacturer misjudged this project.

All of the above is staggeringly bad but there’s an aspect that is even worse.  Worse by far.  Here it is,

The ability to identify and to mitigate issues associated with each elevator’s unique operational tolerances has generated hands-on physical adjustments and software refinements, ensuring that future AWE operations are sustainable and reliable, say the US Navy in a release. (1)

Do you grasp the import of that statement?  It’s saying that the elevators are not copies of each other.  Instead, it’s saying that each elevator is so unique and is so complex and so finicky that they have to be individually fine-tuned and adjusted and individually programmed.  What does that tell us about future maintenance and repairs - whether due to normal wear and tear or due to battle damage?  It tells us that there is no hope of repair and that nothing done to one elevator is applicable to another elevator.

This is the equivalent of every single aircraft in the air wing being a completely different aircraft and requiring its own unique parts and maintenance.  That would be insane and yet that’s exactly what we appear to have with these elevators.  Nothing that’s done to one can be applied to the others!

This is beyond scary.  This is stupidity and insanity carried to the extreme.  And for what?  There was nothing wrong with the Nimitz class weapon elevators and yet we opted to create brand new elevators with never before seen technology just for the sake of new technology.  Even if/when they work, they will have solved no problem because there was no problem with the existing elevators.  We came up with an unnecessary solution to a non-existent problem.

And yet we have clueless Admirals praising this as somehow noteworthy.



(1)UK Defence Journal, “Fifth Advanced Weapons Elevator certified aboard USS Gerald R. Ford”, George Allison, 13-May-2020,