Thursday, July 30, 2020

Battleship UAVs

We tend to think of UAVs as new technology.  The Navy has visions of UAVs cruising out to leisurely circle over enemy forces and report targeting data back to undetected ships that will launch missiles to rain down on the hapless enemy.  Indeed, this is the heart of the distributed lethality concept. 

Setting aside the immense degree of fantasy, wishful thinking in that concept, it is interesting to recall that unmanned spotter aircraft are not all that new.  Just as the Navy used DASH drones for ASW decades ago, so too US Navy battleships (remember those?) used UAVs for gunfire spotting from the mid-1980’s through the mid-2000’s.  Of course, at that time the UAVs were referred to as Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV).  The RPV of choice was the RQ-2 Pioneer.

RQ-2 Pioneer

As a reminder, the RQ-2 Pioneer was a mid-size, unmanned aircraft that was launched via rocket assist or a small catapult from the ship’s fantail and recovered using a net system.  It had an autopilot, inertial navigation, and 2-way C-band line-of-sight data link with a range limit of 100 nm.(4)  A common payload was the Wescam DS-12 EO/IR (Electro-Optical/Infrared) sensor. 

Battleship and RPV - A Lethal Combination

When not in use on the battleships, RPVs were disassembled and stored in steel ‘blast boxes’ aft of the Number 3 turret.(8)  The boxes were required to protect the units from the extreme over-pressure of the 16” guns.

Here are some specs on the Pioneer.

RQ-2 Pioneer UAV Specs (2)
Number built
1986 – 2007
5 hr
100 nm
75 lb
14 ft long x 17 ft wingspan
15,000 ft
110 kts

The USS Iowa became the test bed for the RQ-2 Pioneer in December 1986.  Iowa experimented with RQ-2 Pioneer RPVs in 1987 exercises (Display Determination ’87) with Turkey and managed to surreptitiously launched an RPV in spite of Turkey’s objections to provide spotting support for a subsequent live fire event.(3)

RPV Launch

The Marines obtained Pioneer aircraft in 1987 and operated them from LHA amphibious ships as reconnaissance assets.  Reportedly, 5 Austin class LPDs were also equipped to operate Pioneers.(4)

Wisconsin and Missouri used their Pioneer RPVs to provide reconnaissance during the 1991 Desert Storm conflict and participated in the amphibious feint directed at the east coast of Kuwait.

After Missouri’s initial sustained shelling of the [Faylaka] island, Wisconsin sent its Pioneer buzzing over Iraqi heads in preparation for another barrage, during which Iraqi soldiers could be seen looking up blindly into the air waving makeshift white flags signaling their surrender.

It would be the first time an enemy surrendered to an unmanned vehicle and a testament as to how brutally powerful the Battleships’ main battery were, even in the modern era of so called “smart warfare.” (1)

During Wisconsin’s eight months in the Persian Gulf in support of Desert Storm, she accumulated 348 RPV flight hours.(1)  Including land based Marine units, Pioneers flew 533 sorties during Desert Storm.(5)  Another report states that 30 Pioneers flew 858 combat sorties (2781 hrs).(6)

RPV In Recovery Net

In 1998, Pioneer  accumulated more than 300 at-sea flight hours and was continuously deployed with cruises on USS Shreveport; USS Denver; USS Austin; and USS Cleveland.(7)

While the Pioneer RPVs were quite successful, the main takeaway from the Navy’s RPV experience is the operating environment and, unfortunately, this lesson has not been recognized.

Permissive Environment – It must be noted that the battleship’s RPVs were used in permissive environments without aerial or surface-to-air threats.  Thus, the RPVs were able to leisurely hover over the target areas.  This is the model the Navy seems to believe in today.  The Navy makes absolutely no allowance for enemy resistance.  Would we allow UAVs to leisurely circle over our forces, sending back spotting information?  Of course not!  So, why would the enemy allow us to do that?  They won’t!  Why then, are we so sure that slow, non-stealthy UAVs will be the backbone of our battlefield surveillance efforts?  It makes no sense.

We’ve seen that the Saudis and Israel and even Iran routinely shoot down UAVs.  Why do we think our UAVs will survive over a Chinese force?  They won’t!  In fact, our UAV lifespans will likely be measured in seconds or, on a good day, minutes.

Summary – So, what does all this tell us?  It tells us that unmanned spotter – or, more generally, surveillance – UAVs can be a very powerful tool but not as we plan to use them.  Loss rates under current planning will be near 100% and effectiveness, in terms of surveillance, will be near zero.  The successful counter to this is numbers and, to a lesser degree, stealth.  If we flood an area with more UAVs than the enemy can shoot down we’ll accomplish our surveillance objectives.  To do this requires cheap, expendable UAVs that can be thrown into battle in large numbers combined with a very robust master data assembly program that can put together the fragmentary bits of data that are received before each UAV dies.  The concept is described in this post: “PieceIt Together”.  Here’s a closely related post: “The Next Cruiser and Mini-Hawks”.  And:  “UAVs – Numbers Matter”.

This discussion should also suggest the need for a UAV carrier capable of operating hundreds of small UAVs and managing their communications and data.

An excellent exercise would be for the Navy to send their chosen UAVs to monitor an Army unit tasked with destroying the UAVs – a true live fire exercise.  Add in our best efforts at disrupting the UAV communications and we’d have an exercise that would tell us much about our UAV capabilities and our counter-UAV capabilities.

The Navy needs to get serious about determining the survivability and effectiveness of UAVs in a peer combat scenario before we commit them to war.  UAVs are the foundation of so many of our plans and yet we have no evidence to suggest that they are survivable or effective in combat.  In fact, operational experience strongly demonstrates that they are neither survivable nor effective.


(1)“Battleships Pulled Off The Biggest Ruse Of Operation Desert Storm 25 Years Ago”, Tyler Rogoway, 20-Jan-2016,

Monday, July 27, 2020

Congress Is Doing Its Job - Why Isn't The Navy?

A Breaking Defense article paints a damning picture of Navy leadership (can Navy leadership get any worse?) and demonstrates that Congress, at least, is stepping up and exercising its constitutional oversight responsibilities, as they should.  Specifically, Congress is skeptical about the Navy’s unmanned vessels.

A new class of unmanned ships proposed by the Navy as a bulwark against growing Chinese and Russian naval might is running into deep skepticism on Capitol Hill, reflecting larger and broad frustration in Congress over the Navy’s stalled modernization push. (1)

Congress is finally exerting its oversight responsibility, much to the dismay of the Navy.

The House Armed Services Committee voted 56-0 Wednesday night to send its version of the 2021 Pentagon policy bill to the entire House, a document which slaps restrictions on the Navy and withholds money from the Pentagon until it delivers a long-delayed Navy force structure plan. 

The document also boosts Congressional oversight over the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel, an ambitious new ship the Navy hoped to begin building in 2023. The House’s skepticism over the program is shared by the Senate, which is looking to fence off money for the effort until the Navy demonstrates it understands the technologies involved. (1)

However, this is symptomatic of a larger issue between Congress and the Navy: neither trusts the other.  The lack of trust has arisen over the years and is due to a multitude of broken promises by the Navy and just plain lies in addition to monumental failures to perform.  For their part, Congress has failed to exercise oversight authority and has allowed the Navy to run amok until recently.

The bipartisan consensus to force the Navy to pump the brakes on the LUSV and put pressure on the Pentagon to deliver the shipbuilding and modernization plans reflect a larger uneasiness on Capitol Hill over the Navy’s strategy and its ability to build first-in-class ships on time and on budget.

Lawmakers clearly “are frustrated by the Navy’s last decade of cost overruns on new programs, programs being late, and technology being the thing that holds them up,” Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute says. 

The HASC version of the bill takes a bold stance in defense of its own oversight, withholding billions from the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance account and prohibiting the Navy from retiring any ships until Defense Secretary Mark Esper delivers to Congress the Navy’s long-awaited force structure assessment and the 30-year shipbuilding plan, both of which he took control over in February. (1) 

At long last, Congress is pumping the brakes on the Navy until they can produce a force structure plan.  Without a coherent plan, hopefully tied to a geopolitical and military strategy, Navy acquisition is just haphazard – hoping that whatever they can obtain will someday, somehow, prove useful.  The Navy hoped the LCS would prove useful and it didn’t.  The Navy hoped the Zumwalt would prove useful and it didn’t.  The Navy hoped the Afloat Forward Staging Base would prove useful and it didn’t.  And so on.  Hope is a poor acquisition strategy.

Congress has begun to see the decades-long pattern of acquisition malpractice from the Navy.

The LUSV has been singled out by lawmakers because the Navy has looked to charge ahead with plans to incorporate new and untested technologies on the ship without fully vetting and testing them before the program kicks off. It’s a repeat of the same approach the service took with new classes of ships like the Littoral Combat Ship, Zumwalt destroyer, and Ford aircraft carrier, only to rack up budget overruns and endure schedules slippages caused by time-consuming fixes and about-faces. 

What has lawmakers concerned is the speed with which the Navy wants to move on these big unmanned ships, and the fact that the service wants to start building while they’re still developing the unique technologies like propulsion systems that will power the ships on long transits with no sailors aboard to troubleshoot or fix problems that might arise. 

“Congress doesn’t have much confidence in the Navy’s approach,” on new programs including the LUSV, a former senior defense official told me. (1)

Here’s an interesting example of laudable Congressional oversight that has come far too late.

On the Senate side, an article in Proceedings — the US Naval Institute’s prestigious magazine — this week by chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, lambasted the Pentagon for years of “absurd acquisition debacles that have set back the country tens of billions of dollars and delayed necessary weapon systems.” The senators point out the Navy has struggled to build the first ships of successive classes. (1)

It’s great that Congress is stepping up and exercising its oversight, now, but where were they during the years of “absurd acquisition debacles”?  To step forward now and criticize the Navy without also accepting at least half the blame is hypocritical, at best.

The Navy’s lack of a long term plan is hurting them in Congress.

The absence of the 30-year shipbuilding plan and the Future Navy Force Study which will lay out a modernization strategy is weighing heavily on the Navy, especially now that planning is beginning for the 2022 budget. “The Navy needs to lay out a path for the purpose of the experimentation on the hardware side, and what is the experimentation on the doctrinal side, what are the milestones, and how are we going to move forward,” the former defense official said.  

“I think that would go a long way to providing a compelling vision, and then linking that vision to a strategy. Show me how all these bits and pieces fit in within new operational concepts — this is something that the Navy hasn’t done a great job of doing in recent years.” What has lawmakers concerned is the speed with which the Navy wants to move on these big unmanned ships, and the fact that the service wants to start building while they’re still developing the unique technologies like propulsion systems that will power the ships on long transits with no sailors aboard to troubleshoot or fix problems that might arise. 

It appears that the Navy has worn out its welcome in Congress and used up any reservoir of trust it had.  Now, Congress is reining in the Navy and the Navy has left itself in the position of being unable to justify any of its future acquisitions.  Congress is finally doing its job and exercising oversight.  Now, the Navy needs to begin doing its job and start presenting coherent acquisition plans that are tied to strategy.


(1)Breaking Defense, “Congress Pumps The Brakes On Navy, Demands Answers From OSD ”, Paul McLeary, 2-Jul-2020,

Friday, July 24, 2020


Note: This post was inspired by an Anonymous reader.  I'd like to give him more credit but that's all the information I have on him.  Regardless, thanks for the idea!

The Gyrodyne QH-50 DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter) was an early attempt at a long range, remote control, anti-submarine weapon delivery platform that could operate from small surface vessels and act as a standoff weapon.  It was produced in the 1960’s with 755 being produced, according to Wikipedia.

An extensive and excellent history of the DASH drone is presented in reference (4) below.

DASH - Note Co-Axial Rotors

DASH was part of the larger Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) effort that was initiated in response to the growing Soviet submarine threat.  FRAM allowed WWII vintage destroyers to be updated to a point where they could be effective against the latest submarines of the time.

The DASH drone was around 13 ft long with a 20 ft diameter co-axial rotor and weighed around 1100 lbs.  Cruising speed was around 50 kts.  Operating range was around 22 miles which was limited by the control ship’s radar horizon.  Take off and landing control was performed by a deck level control station with post-launch operational control being transferred to another operator in the Combat Information Center (CIC).  The drone could carry one Mk46 or two Mk44 torpedoes.  Until late in the program, control was blind with the CIC operator using only radar for situational awareness.  Later, a TV camera was added to the drone.

DASH Launch/Land Control Station

The drone was designed to be cheap and expendable.

Since it was expendable, DASH used off-the-shelf industrial electronics with no back-ups. The controls were multi-channel analog FM. Over 80% of operational aircraft losses were traced to single-point failures of the electronics. A total of 10% of the losses were from pilot errors, and only 10% of the losses were from engine or airframe failures. (1)

According to Wikipedia, half the Navy’s drones were lost at sea.

Beginning in 1965, some drones were adapted for reconnaissance work (SNOOPY missions)  and gun spotting with the addition of real time video, cameras, telemetry, and transponders.(4)  Loiter time was around an hour which offered plenty of time for the associated destroyer to work its target.

Some drones were adapted for ground attack with 2.75” rocket pods being mounted and used in Vietnam (2)

Later, as the drones were being phased out, some were adapted for use as target drones for live fire exercises.(3)

The program was cancelled and the drones withdrawn from service by the mid-1970s. 

By late 1969, DASH began to be removed from FRAM destroyers as they returned to their home ports for overhaul work. On the destroyer, USS CHEVALIER (DD-805), for example, the DASH hangar was converted into a "nifty looking" crews lounge with fake wood paneling and a suspended ceiling covering the overhead florescent lights. The only problem with this installation was that it was installed with pop-rivets. The first time CHEVALIER fired its after 5 inch guns, the entire hangar lounge was destroyed when the ceiling crashed down and most of the paneling fell off! The DASH hangar was later used to simply store all the stuff the crew bought overseas. (4)

A few interesting aspects of the DASH program are discussed below.

Standoff – The DASH drone was the early equivalent of the ASROC that we use today to provide a standoff ASW weapon.  The drones were also a lead in to the ubiquitous ASW helicopters we now use.  Interestingly, DASH’s range of 22 miles still far exceeds the range of the current ASROC which Wikipedia cites as 6 miles.

Cheap and Expendable – One of the distinguishing characteristics of the DASH drone was that it was cheap which allowed it to be obtained in large numbers and made it expendable.  This is a lesson we consistently forget, today.

Technology – DASH was new technology, for its time, and the result was a lot of failures (half the drones being lost).  This is to be expected from any new technology.  In fact, high failure rates are a characteristic of any new technology.  What stood out about this new technology implementation was that, as mentioned above, it was cheap.  This allowed the technology to be explored and slowly refined without incurring massive budget hits.  Contrast this with the LCS or F-35 or Zumwalt or almost any recent Navy program where the new technology was hideously expensive and production commitments were made before any prototype was built or, indeed, any design/construction plans were completed.

Speaking of prototypes, the DASH was initially prototyped using a modified existing Gyrodyne RON-1 Rotorcycle in early 1958.  By the end of 1958, a contract was awarded for the production of 12 additional prototypes which were used for testing in 1960.  Evaluations led to additional modifications which became the production version of DASH, the QH-50C, and production began in 1963.  We see, then, the program was executed responsibly with prototypes and testing prior to final design and production – the opposite of how the Navy executes programs today!

DASH with Torpedoes

Focus – The DASH program was also an example of focus.  DASH was designed and built to perform one task and only one task: deliver torpedoes.  This kept the cost low and the design simple which allowed large numbers of drones to be purchased, made losses acceptable, and sped up implementation of the program.  Contrast that with today’s obsession with making every asset a do-everything, wonder machine which, inevitably, winds up over budget and behind schedule.  There is a valuable lesson (some would call it common sense!), here, about focus and restraint. 

Summary - Unfortunately, DASH was just slightly ahead of its time.  The technology, such as remote telemetry, video, electronics, etc. was not yet advanced enough to allow the drone to realize its full potential.  The lack of situational awareness due to lack of sensors made the unit very difficult to operate.  Still, DASH provided valuable institutional experience for the Navy with both helicopters for ASW and remote controlled aircraft.  Ironically, many naval observers today are calling for unmanned UAVs to perform ASW chores such as weapons or sonobuoy delivery without realizing that we had this capability over fifty years ago!


(1)Wikipedia, “Gyrodyne QH-50 DASH”, retrieved 11-Jul-2020,

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

MAGTF - The Downfall Of The Marines

A recent comment by an anonymous reader, ‘W’, about the Marine’s MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force) provided the inspiration for this post.  ‘W’ suggested that the current problems and the current lack of organizational identity (at the risk of putting words in his mouth) began with the establishment of the MAGTF force structure.  I’d like to shamelessly latch onto the topic and expand on it because I think he was on the money.

Here is the relevant portion of ‘W’s comment:

It feels like the commander [ed.) the Commandant] is setting the Corps up for disbandment or incorporation into the Army, "naval infantry" and would become 1 div of specialized infantry like airborne or mountain. Its a sad way to go, I think it started with the MAGTF. (1)

According to Wikipedia,

The MAGTF was formalized by the publishing of Marine Corps Order 3120.3 in December 1963 "The Marine Corps in the National Defense, MCDP 1-0". (2)

The MAGTF took the Marines from a specialized force (amphibious operations) and attempted to turn them into an all-purpose, do everything, force.  It’s not hard to imagine that the genesis of the concept was budget driven with the idea being that the more versatile the Corps, the more it would be called on and, therefore, the more it would be funded.

Unfortunately, the lack of focus led to the Marines being employed in all manner of situations for which they were not specialized.  They became just another army unit.

There was also an enormous opportunity cost associated with generalization.  The generalization and loss of focus on the core amphibious mission cost the Marines their institutional knowledge about amphibious assaults as they embarked on a decades long turn towards purely land warfare.  In recent years, Marine generals have proudly announced that the Marines are taking the first steps towards relearning amphibious assault. 

Relearning?!!!?  It was your core mission.  How could you have lost it?  This is a sad commentary on Marine Corps leadership over the last couple of decades.

The loss of focus also meant that the technology, doctrine, and tactics of amphibious assault languished or was lost.  We wound up with doctrine calling for 25-50+ mile stand off assaults coupled with AAV/ACV landing craft that only had an effective range of a few miles – a mismatch of colossal proportions, to say the least.  By not maintaining focus on the core mission, the mission atrophied and was lost.

MAGTF also began the myopic focus on the aviation side of the Corps to the great detriment of the ground side.  Huge, questionable investments were made in the MV-22 and the F-35 with little or no supporting doctrinal or operational underpinning.  Again, it was a budget grab, pure and simple – an attempt to be all things in all situations instead being proudly specialized.

The Marines were once something special and respected.  Now, they’re just a poor, small copy of the Air Force and Army.  MAGTF destroyed the Marine Corps.


(1)Navy Matters blog, “Littoral Regiment Combat Team”, 22-Jun-2020, reader comment by Anonymous (‘W’), June 22, 2020 at 11:09 AM

(2)Wikipedia, “Marine Air-Ground Task Force”, retrieved 23-Jun-2020,

Monday, July 20, 2020

Command and Control

Historically, naval combat has followed a very decentralized command and control scheme with command decisions pushed down and out to the local commander.  This was both a requirement due to communications difficulties and a recognition that the on-scene commander generally had a better grasp of the situation.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, the US military has fixated on centralized command with prodigious efforts exerted toward accomplishing micro-management.  While centralized micro-management may be technologically feasible and operationally acceptable during peacetime or in low end combat scenarios, the coming war with China will likely see our communications disrupted, satellites destroyed, comm links jammed, and communication systems cyber-attacked with the result that our ability to exert centralized command will be extensively degraded.  If we don’t begin to retrain for decentralized command, we’re going to see local commanders cut off from command and floundering with no direction and no self-command experience and training to fall back on.

Let’s briefly remind ourselves of some historical examples of command and control, good and bad: 


At the time of Midway, the Navy’s carrier force was committed to battle and the outcome would determine the fate of the Pacific war for at least the next year.  If there was ever a time for the remote naval commander (Nimitz) to attempt to micro-manage a battle, this would seem to have been it.  Instead, Nimitz resisted the temptation and issued the following order to Admiral Spruance, the local commander at Midway:

In carrying out the task assigned in Operation Plan 29-42 you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage to the enemy. (4)

Nimitz offered his local commander generalized guidance and trusted the commander to act accordingly, using his best judgment.  As it turned out, Spruance executed the mission splendidly.  He was aggressive as needed and also exercised caution as appropriate when he opted to run on the evening of June 4 to avoid the possibility of a night surface battle with Japanese battleships.(4)

Nelson at Trafalgar

While Nelson was, of course, present at Trafalgar, he was remote in the sense that ship to ship communication was very difficult in those days, bordering on impossible in the heat of battle.  Therefore, Nelson briefed his ship captains on his general plan and intent and then, when the battle began, left each captain (the local commander, so to speak) to act as they saw fit within the context of the overall intent.  The result was a brilliant victory.

President Carter’s Hostage Rescue

President Carter not only exerted a high level of remote command and control but also planned much of the hostage rescue mission.

… we had to have six functioning helicopters. So I ordered eight helicopters … (5)

Carter continued to exert remote command and control right up to personally making the decision to abort the mission.  The result was a dismal failure.

Benghazi Embassy

The 2012 Benghazi embassy disaster was due in large measure to extreme levels of remote command and control both leading up to the event and during the actual fighting.  Multiple available response forces were alerted and left holding or told to stand down while various layers of remote command and control debated about what to do.  For example, from the Wiki write up of the incident,

By 4:30 p.m. ET, Pentagon officials had informed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the attack. The Pentagon ordered an unmanned aerial vehicle that was in the air conducting surveillance on militant camps to fly over Benghazi. The drone arrived at 11:10 p.m. local time (5:10 p.m. ET) and began providing a video feed to Washington. At 5:41 p.m. ET, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned CIA Director David Petraeus to coordinate.

In the end, they did nothing and disaster resulted. 

Soldier Cams

There is no better example of remote command and control than the existence and use of individual soldier cams.  These represent the epitome of micro-managing with remote commanders sitting in control centers watching events play out and issuing orders, often to individual soldiers.

Cold War Carrier Groups

During the Cold War, as the Soviets and Americans played naval cat and mouse, US carrier groups doctrinally operated under strict emissions control (EMCON) with no communications, whatsoever.  The local commander was left to execute the mission as they saw fit.  Indeed, one of the aspects of future war that no one is considering, today, is that in peer combat, ships will be operating under EMCON, as we did during the Cold War, so the sooner we learn to get comfortable with local command, the better.

These examples, good and bad, are not intended to be all-inclusive or to prove or disprove anything.  They are intended simply to illustrate the concept.

It has generally been acknowledged in the US military that remote command and control does not work and that the local commander should be left to act as he sees fit.  Despite that historical, institutional wisdom, our current military leaders are working as hard as they can to do the exact opposite.  The goal of today’s military leaders seems to be to exert control over every sensor, weapon, and individual in a battle.

Contrary to the current trend of ever greater micro-management, we need to give local commanders greater leeway and ultimate command authority.  We need to support local commanders, not command and micro-manage them.  We need to revert to ‘commander’s intent’ philosophy and then allow the local commanders to implement the intent as they see fit.

So, with all that said, what is our current military leadership actually pushing for?  That’s right … more micro-management.  Look at the current push to produce mega computerized battle management  software suites such as those listed below. 

  • Air Force Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) which seeks to connect all four services’ forces in all five domains of war: air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.(1)  This one is the very definition of micro-management on a mega-scale! 
  • Raytheon Multi-Domain Command & Control (MDC2) concept.(2)  A Raytheon graphic of the system actually says, “Battle Manager” (6), as one of its core functions – that’s micro-management of the worst kind.
  • Lockheed Theater Battle Management Core Systems (TBMCS).(3)  The name says it all !

Lockheed Theater Battle Management System Exercise

These are the systems being pitched to, and pursued by, the US military.  They are micro-management taken to the extreme with the system seeing what each individual soldier, sailor, ship, and aircraft sees and directing the actions of each on a second by second basis – which, of course, is the Holy Grail of the modern US military.

Raytheon Multi-Domain Command and Control

One final, and overwhelmingly important, aspect of this discussion is that a future peer war is going to degenerate into local command despite our best efforts.  The combined effects of cyber attacks on our command and control software and networks, GPS disruption, communications jamming, sensor disruption and destruction, satellite destruction, network attacks and hacks, and the inevitable confusion (‘fog’) of war will conspire to prevent the micro-management we so desperately want to implement.  When that happens, our local commanders will be left on their own – for the first time in their careers.  Like any first time event, it will not go well.  The local commanders, being unused to thinking on their own and bereft of guidance from above, will flounder and make devastatingly fatal mistakes because they will have had no experience at managing their own battles.

We need to immediately begin exercising local command.  We need to construct complex and challenging exercises, provide the local commanders only ‘commander’s intent’ for guidance, and then sit back and let them manage their battles.  At first, it won’t be pretty.  In fact, it will be downright ugly but that’s the point:  to make the mistakes in peacetime exercises rather than war where the stakes are life and death.


(1)Breaking Defense website, “Air Force ABMS: One Architecture To Rule Them All? ”, Sydney J. Freedberg, 8-Nov-2019,

(2)Breaking Defense website, “What Multi Domain C2 May Look Like: Raytheon’s Rick Yuse ”, Colin Clark, 19-Jul-2018,

(4)Naval War College Review, “Deconstructing Nimitz’s Principle of Calculated Risk”, Vol 68, No. 1, Article 4, Robert C. Rubel, 2015,

Friday, July 17, 2020

Transverse Bulkheads

A sizable group of naval observers and commentators, as well as the Navy, have little or no concept of what ship armor is or does and yet they have very definite, usually negative, opinions about it.  Most people believe that armor is simply a giant piece of steel that is bolted onto the side of a ship and which has the incidental effect of slowing the ship down, if not sinking it under the weight of the armor.  In fact, I’ve seen comments stating that the presence of armor on a ship will just make the ship sink faster due to the weight!  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Armor is actually a system of components that contribute to the overall physical protection of the ship.  Since this blog abhors uninformed opinions, let’s examine one aspect of ship armor and see if we can’t educate ourselves.

We’ve already discussed the general purpose of armor (see, “Armor for Dummies”) and noted that its purpose is not to provide total immunity to every weapon past, present, or future.  While armor often is designed to provide a degree of immunity to a specific set of weapons under a specific set of conditions, the larger purpose is to mitigate damage.  That missile/shell that hit your ship doesn’t have to mean a sunk ship or instant mission kill if you can mitigate the damage and that’s what armor does: it mitigates damage.

I am not an armor expert, by any means, but it is important to grasp the basic concepts.  To that end, let’s take a look at the use and function of transverse armored bulkheads.  Transverse bulkheads are simply ‘walls’ that span the ship from one side to the other.  They go across the ship (transverse) as opposed to running the length of the ship (longitudinal). 

The term ‘armored’, in this case, refers to the totality of the thickness of the bulkhead, the type of steel used, the structural design of the bulkhead, and the conceptual armoring design of the bulkhead.

It should also be noted that commercial and naval transverse bulkhead construction and governing rules may not be the same although there is a great deal of overlap.  Commercial bulkhead standards are readily available on the Internet, for those interested.

Friedman’s book on U.S. cruiser design provides an excellent description of the development of armor within the Des Moines class cruiser  (see, “Des Moines Class Cruiser”) and, specifically, the use of armored bulkheads:

There could be no hope of stopping very heavy guided bombs with deck armor, but if the ship were divided with heavy transverse armored bulkheads within the armored box, the fore-and-aft extent of damage would be limited.  The available tonnage would buy four 2.5-in STS [Special Treatment Steel] bulkheads, which would stop even the heavy nose fragments of a 16-in shell and would certainly limit damage by even a 3,000-lb armor-piercing bomb.  Bulkheads within the five armored zones so defined would probably be shattered by a large bomb, but the ship would remain afloat, since her floodable length would exceed the size of the compartment thus breached.

The heavy bulkheads were set between the no. 1 and 2 turrets; the no. 2 turret and the forward main machinery group; the two main machinery groups; and the after main machinery group and the no. 3 turret.  As a consequence, the ship could be expected to survive one major armor-piercing bomb hit without losing more than on turret or one main machinery group (boilers and turbines), unless she suffered the mass detonation of a magazine.  That was unlikely, because in the two relevant cases – the Boise, which suffered a shell hit, and the Savannah, a bomb hit – severe fires in the magazines were extinguished by flooding through holes in the shell plating before powder fires had built up sufficient pressure to cause an explosion.  The same heavy bulkheads would localize the effect of a torpedo hit; they represented a major advance in U.S. cruiser protection. (1)

We see, then, that the multiple transverse bulkheads separate the ship into multiple ‘boxes’ assembled end to end.  One can easily imagine that a single ‘box’, having been breached by an explosion, may well flood but the adjoining boxes will remain intact, thus preserving the ship’s overall integrity and buoyancy.

It should be noted that such transverse bulkheads were generally not penetrated by doors, cable runs, etc. below the armor deck.  Thus, they had no weak points for leakage in the event of flooding beyond whatever holes might be physically torn in them by an explosion.  You’ll recall that it was exactly this weakness and failure which lead to the recent sinking of the Norwegian frigate whose compartments had multiple penetrations which turned out not to be watertight.

The passages above vividly describe the main function of armor which is to mitigate damage.  Too many observers mistakenly believe that if armor cannot provide total immunity to every known or future weapon then armor has no value.  As we see from the description, the value of armor lies as much, or more, in mitigating damage, ensuring ship survival, and keeping the ship in the fight as it does in providing immunity to attacking weapons. 

Of course, the armor does provide immunity to a certain range of weapons, depending on the design and weight of the armor.  Generally and loosely, ship armor was intended to provide immunity to weapons equivalent to its own under a defined set of conditions:  for example, a battleship was designed to be immune to an enemy battleship’s guns, a cruiser was designed to be immune to an enemy cruiser’s guns, and so on.  The immunity was not total but depended on range, angle of impact, location, etc.  Again, generally, an immune zone was established in the ‘center’ of the ship where the critical magazines, guns, and machinery resided.  Outlying areas, like the bow and stern, were much less armored since they contained less critical equipment and functions.

The point of this post is not to debate the exact thickness of some bulkhead or the exact location or number of welds in a bulkhead.  In fact, there are many variations on the general scheme.  The point is to understand that armor is more than just a giant piece of steel bolted onto the side of a ship, as so many people believe.  Ship’s armor was a system of various components – the side armor belt being one of them – that functioned together to prevent or mitigate damage.  Understanding the various components and what each contributes to the overall armor protection scheme allows us to see the purpose behind armor and why modern ships should also be armored.  Nothing has fundamentally changed, over the years, about combat, battle damage, explosive weapons, or ship survivability and yet we’ve completely abandoned armor.  Does that make sense?  We’re now sending mutli-billion dollar ships into combat where a single hit will likely sink the ship and almost certainly render it a mission kill, at least.  Is this really wise, given the cost and time required to replace a ship lost in combat? 

We should also note that transverse bulkheads are just one component of the overall armor scheme.  Other components include bomb deck armor, main deck armor, void spaces, belt armor, citadels, collapsible sections, etc.  The overall system of armor is what made WWII warships so resilient to battle damage.

It is long past time to re-incorporate armor into all of our ship designs.


(1)“U.S. Cruisers, An Illustrated Design History”, Norman Friedman, Naval Institute Press, 1984, ISBN 0-87021-718-6, p.360

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

USS Bonhomme Richard Fire - Early Lessons

I’m sure you’ve all seen the news about the massive fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard, LHD-6, which engulfed most of the ship and burned for a day and a half.  The ship has been gutted, the superstructure is just a deformed shell, the forward mast has collapsed, and the damage list goes on and on.  I would be shocked if the Navy doesn’t scrap the ship.

In due course, the Navy will publish a report citing the usual litany of failures to follow established procedures, waivers of safety requirements, inadequate personnel, inadequate training, etc. and will conclude with a long list of recommendations, few of which will ever be implemented, and most of which will be paperwork related.  Nothing will actually change.  The Navy has had many dockside fires (remember the USS Miami fire) and has taken no significant preventative action before so why should this time be any different?  That sad reality aside, let’s see what lessons we can glean from this event even now, before the report comes out.

Manning - This is why you don’t send ships into combat (or even on peacetime patrols or into dockside maintenance!) with minimal manning crews.  Despite the use of 400 firefighters and the assistance of the San Diego Fire Department, the fire on the BR remained uncontrolled and spread widely for well over a day.  Had the ship been at sea with just its crew and no outside assistance, the ship would have been lost for sure.

The following statement demonstrates the manpower needs for serious damage control.  Note the statement of 400 sailors involved in the effort and the fire still spread out of control.

Some 400 sailors have been fighting the fire aboard the ship since the fire started “to make sure we make every effort to save that ship,” he [Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3] added. (2)

Ships are loaded with explosives, fuel, and other highly combustible materials.  Fire is always a moment away and a full damage control complement is the only thing that can possibly save a ship.  Injury count is up to around 60 – mostly smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion.  Excess bodies are required to fight fires and replace fallen damage control crew – and there will be fallen damage control crew (see, "USS Stark, Missile Inbound").  Minimal manning is a guarantee of lost ships in battle.

Zumwalt, with a minimal manning crew of around 140 will be unable to perform damage control.  A single fire in combat will mean the loss of the ship. 

Automated Firefighting – Navy ships have extensive automated firefighting systems.  In this case, reports indicate that the Halon firefighting system was deactivated.

A fire suppression system was inoperable when a blaze erupted aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego, so sailors fought the blaze with water, a top Navy official said Monday.

Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck said the Halon gas system had been turned off because it was being worked on while the amphibious assault ship was undergoing maintenance work. (3)

I would expect that there were other fire suppression systems in addition to Halon and I have heard nothing about their status.

If you’ve deactivated your primary fire suppression system, you’d damn well better have enhanced conventional firefighting systems on hand and extra firefighting crews standing by, in the workspaces along with extensive fire watch observers.

Fire watch, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is a procedure involving one or more observers whose job is to look for sparks, smoke, and fire, and is a requirement whenever fire producing activities occur.  These activities include burning, welding, grinding, and any other activity that can produce sparks, flame, or sufficient heat to initiate a fire.

Common sense would also suggest,
  • If you must shut down a firefighting system, do so only in small sections, leaving the remainder active. 
  • If you must shut down the entire firefighting system, no ‘hot work’ should be allowed for the duration.
  • If you must shut down the entire firefighting system, extensive manpower and firefighting equipment should be on hand and at the immediate location of the work.

Regarding automatic fire suppression systems … they always fail, even when active.  The history of industrial disasters has thoroughly proven this.  Industrial fire suppression systems are every bit as robust and extensive as Navy systems and yet they, too, always fail.

Combustibles - This is why you don’t send ships out fitted with combustible crew comforts.  War ships should always be ready for disaster which means they should always be in a combat-stripped condition with all unnecessary combustibles removed.  The implication of this is that we should not be sending ships on extended cruises that require excessive crew comforts.  War, and the Navy, is a combat business not a military cruise ship operation and there are no days off or safe days, even in port (Cole) or undergoing maintenance.

According to The Drive / The War Zone website,

The area where the fire started, which was the lower vehicle storage area, was filled with cardboard, rags, drywall, and other combustible material. (5)

Drywall?!  On a ship?  There’s an incredibly stupid idea.  A reader suggested that drywall (a common household wall covering also known as sheet rock) was actually something called Tri-Wall.  Regardless, combustible wall coverings have no place on a ship.

Combustibles being stored on a ship?  Especially one in maintenance where a LOT of hot work is occurring?  That’s just stupidly unsafe.

The fire is believed to have started below those spaces, in the lower cargo hold of the ship, known as the “Deep V,” Sobeck said.

It is a “huge open area where you store a lot of (Marine Corps) equipment and everything else,” he said. “That’s where we believe it was started.” (1)

It would seem unlikely that there was any Marine Corps equipment stored there considering that the ship was coming out of a two year maintenance availability.  The area was presumably filled with combustibles associated with the maintenance activities.  Those materials should never have been stored there.  They should have been brought onto the ship the day they were needed and should have been removed from the ship the moment they were not needed.  Sure, that adds extra cost but the several thousand dollars that the Navy saved cost them a $4B ship.

This also illustrates that office and berthing items have no place on a ship beyond the barest of  necessities.

Toxicity – As usual, the Navy’s official communications were less than accurate, to put it politely.

While the precise cause remained unknown Sunday night, Sobeck [Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3] said there was “nothing toxic” in the ship, and that the black smoke billowing from the amphib all day was caused by office and berthing items burning. (1)

“It’s an ashy fire; there’s nothing toxic in there,” Sobeck said. (4)

Nothing toxic?  This is a blatant lie.  Of course the smoke is filled with toxic chemicals.  Most items on a ship produce toxic gases when burned.  The ship is being totally consumed and that means that plastics, insulation, composites, paint, solvents, etc. are being burned and all of them produce toxic gases when burned.  As seen in the photos, much of the smoke is thick and black which is not what smoke from an office supplies fire looks like.  Either the Admiral is ignorant beyond belief or he’s just plain lying.  Make no mistake … he’s intentionally lying.  I understand that he’s lying to try to calm people but the way to calm people is to give them accurate, truthful information that they can then act on as appropriate.  Lying just reduces your credibility and leads to blog articles!

This is an emphatic lesson about why you don’t use plastics beyond the barest necessity – they’re toxic when burned.  We need to stop using plastics for crew comforts, deck coverings, wall coverings, and the million other applications.  Yes, plastics are wonderful materials but not on a warship.  The Navy needs to get ready to fight and that means stripping ship.  You veteran old timers know what stripping ship is.  We need to get serious about being ready for combat – or run of the mill disaster.

Note the collapsed mast.

One final question: what if this had been a nuclear ship?


(1)Navy Times website, “Admiral: Bonhomme Richard fire believed to have started in the ‘Deep V’ cargo hold”, David B. Larter and Geoff Ziezulewicz, 12-Jul-2020,

(2)USNI News website, “UPDATED: Fire Fight Intensifies on USS Bonhomme Richard, 5 Sailors Still Hospitalized”, Sam LaGrone and Gidget Fuentes, 13-Jul-2020,

(3)Washington Times website, “Fire suppression system on USS Bonhomme Richard was inoperable, Navy official says”, Julie Watson / Associated Press, 13-Jul-2020,