Monday, August 31, 2020

Torpedo Development

The US Navy’s torpedo, in its current form, has been around since at least the early 1900s.  In fact, aside from improved guidance, the basic torpedo is almost unchanged.  Over the ensuing 100+ years, huge strides have been made in all kinds of weapons but, for some reason, the torpedo has languished.  Yes, there have been improvements in engine efficiency and sensors/guidance but the fundamental torpedo has not changed.  That seems odd, doesn’t it?  As with so many vital combat systems (ASW, naval gun support, armor, etc.), the Navy has shown little interest in the torpedo and made little effort to develop it. 

Well, it’s a torpedo, you say.  What else can be done with it?  It is what it is.  If that seems like a reasonable summation to you then congratulations, you’re a prime candidate for admiral in the US Navy.  For the rest of us, let’s take a look at what developments might be possible for the torpedo.

The Navy’s current heavyweight torpedo is the Mk48.  Here’s a few features and points of interest:
  • Mk48 has been operational since 1972.
  • Mk48 Mod 5 ADCAP (Advanced Capability) IOC 1987
  • Mk48 Mod 7 CBASS (Common Broadband Advanced Sonar System) IOC 2006

Mk48 Torpedo Features
19 ft long, 21 in diameter
650 lb, high explosive
$3.8M for current version
31 miles at 40 kts

So, what’s wrong with that?  It seems like a good torpedo, right?  Wrong!  Let’s see what other countries have in the way of torpedoes.

Russia leads the way in torpedo advances and development, dating back to the Cold War efforts of the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union/Russia has always relied on their submarine fleet to compensate for their lack of surface navy capabilities compared to the West/US so it is not surprising that they lead the world in torpedo development.

Germany and China also have some noteworthy torpedoes.

The UK’s Spearfish torpedo, while fairly pedestrian, is reported by NavWeaps as having an 80kt max speed version which would be impressive for a conventionally powered (non-supercavitating) torpedo.(3)

The table below lists some of the features and examples of torpedo developments that the US lacks.

Foreign Torpedoes
German firm in early 2000’s developed a 250 mph torpedo (1);  Russian VA-111 Shkval 230 mph (2);  SKorea has a supercavitating torpedo (see, “Korean Supercavitating Torpedo”)
High explosive weight
Russian 650 mm 65-76 with 992 lb warhead;  Russian 65-76 DST92 with 1225 lb warhead;
Very long range / very high speed
Russian 650 mm 65-76a with 62 mile max range and 50 kts max speed;  UK Spearfish with 80 kt max speed (3)
Wake homing
Russian 650 mm 65-76;  Chinese 533 mm Yu-6

The table demonstrates that existing technology is significantly beyond that of the US Mk48 torpedo.  Given our dependence on submarines to carry a lot of the naval combat responsibilities during war, this is disappointing.  As with mine countermeasures, ASW, naval gun support, ship armor, and so many other areas of naval combat, the Navy steadfastly refuses to recognize and support the development of key areas and torpedoes are yet another example.  Because torpedoes don’t garner giant sums of money in the budget, the Navy has little interest in torpedo development.  You would think the US Navy would have forever learned an institutional lesson about torpedoes from its WWII fiasco … but obviously not.

Clearly, the prize for the best torpedo in the world goes to the Russian 65-76 DST92, wake homing, 1225 lb warhead, 62 mile range, and up to 50 kt speed.  The US Navy Mk48 isn’t even in the running!

Before we move on from current, state of the art foreign torpedoes, let’s recall a torpedo from the past – the Japanese Type 93 Long Lance.  The Long Lance was a 24 inch diameter torpedo with a 1080 lb warhead and a range of 12 miles at 49 kts (22 miles at 36 kts).  This was a ship killer!  For more on WWII torpedoes, see “Torpedoes –Then and Now”.

Moving beyond the current state of the art – and the past! - , what future torpedo developments should we be looking at?  Here’s some possibilities:

Stealth – just as aircraft stealth took a giant leap forward with proper shaping and coatings, so too, might torpedoes benefit from shaping and coatings designed to reduce the acoustic signature and reflectivity of sonar sound waves;  torpedo noise reduction (propulsion, mainly) is certainly possible though possibly at the expense of speed

Supercavitation – the concept has already been demonstrated and just needs to be refined to allow more effective steering and target sensing

Multiple Warheads - a torpedo that can separate into multiple warheads like a MIRV or cluster bomb might prove useful in evading torpedo defenses and maximizing damage

Tagging – torpedoes that ‘tag’ a target rather then explode might prove useful in tracking ship movements and finding larger task forces;  magnetic or chemically attaching ‘warheads’ would seem possible

New Explosives – Significant advances have been made in air/land explosives and that leads one to speculate that similar advances ought to be possible for torpedoes;  for example, the equivalent to fuel-air explosives, using chemical-water reactions are theoretically possible given the existence of elements that react violently with water

Wake Homing – again, this technology exists and just needs to be adapted to US torpedoes and, possibly, enhanced

Chemical Trace Homing – small quantities of chemicals given off by the target ship are ‘sniffed’ in the water and tracked; this technology has been demonstrated in laboratories and rumor suggests is being tested in Russian submarines;  the challenge is to miniaturize it and adapt it to torpedoes

Terminal Evasive Maneuvers – enemy countries are working on active anti-torpedo interceptors so, just like anti-ship cruise missiles are capable of performing terminal evasive maneuvers, there is no reason why a torpedo shouldn’t be able to do the same

Littoral – the Navy found out that the neither the Mk48 nor the Mk54 lightweight torpedo were effective in shallow water ASW scenarios;  we need to develop a shallow water torpedo

Networking – cruise missiles are capable of networking, in flight, and performing self-designation of targets;  similarly, a torpedo salvo ought to be able to network and self-determine target allocation

Containerized Storage and Launching – just as VLS missiles are now containerized to reduce maintenance and protect the missiles from the environment, so too, should torpedoes be containerized for storage and launch

There you have some examples of the kinds of torpedo developments the Navy should be looking at.  I’m sure there are many other possibilities, as well.  If we’re going to depend on our submarines to carry the load in future naval combat then we simply must provide our subs with the very best torpedoes in the world.  At the moment, we are not doing that and, in fact, we are running a distant second to Russia.  The Navy’s failure to aggressively develop new torpedo capabilities hamstrings our submarine’s combat performance.  This has to change.  We cannot afford a repeat of the WWII torpedo fiasco.  We need to do the hard work and develop new torpedoes … now.


Friday, August 28, 2020

Navy Retires Three Avenger Mine Countermeasure Ships

Without even much debate, the biggest threat to the Navy is mines.  To counter that threat, the Navy has only a handful of Avenger class mine countermeasure (MCM) ships and some long past retirement age MH-53E helicopters (see, “MH-53E and MineCountermeasures”). 

Avenger Class MCM

As we all know, the Navy’s vision was for the LCS to replace both the Avengers and the MH-53E Sea Dragon helos and that plan has failed spectacularly.  There are currently no MCM-capable LCS ships and the MCM module is still years away from functional deployment, if ever.  Further, the module swapping concept that would have allowed for surges of MCM LCSes has also been abandoned in favor of two 4-ship squadrons of dedicated MCM-LCS, one on each coast (actually, only 3 of the 4 ships in each squadron are deployable with the fourth being a training ship).  Given that colossal failure, you’d think the Navy would be caring for the Avengers as if they precious, newborn babies, right?  So, what is the Navy doing?  They’ve retired three Avengers (1): 

  • USS Champion
  • USS Scout
  • USS Ardent

We’re down, now, to 8 Avengers and probably around 12 flyable MH-53E helos.  That’s our entire, global mine countermeasures force. 

Note that the helo fleet became operational in 1986 is now around 35 years old and the Avengers are around 30 years old.  Both are long past retirement age and both are substantially unsafe to operate.

We’re headed right down to ZERO mine countermeasure assets.


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Forward Presence Deterrent Effect Disproved

Long time readers know that ComNavOps believes that forward deployments (forward presence) provides no effective deterrence.  ComNavOps turns to history for proof.  There is no documented example of forward presence actually deterring an enemy from any action.  To be fair, this is trying to prove a negative which is not possible.  Approached from the other direction, there is a great deal of evidence that forward presence has NOT deterred our enemies.  Despite a significant Middle East presence by the US military, Iran continues to foment terror, attack shipping, disrupt shipping lanes, export weapons to terrorists, support terrorists, develop nuclear weapons, and harass US forces.  Despite significant US forces in South Korea, North Korea continues to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, sink SKorean ships, and conduct special operations penetrations of SKorean territory.  Despite a massive US force presence in Europe, Russia continues to annex and invade countries, destabilize countries, violate international weapon control treaties, and harass US forces.  Despite significant US force presence in and around the Pacific and South/East China Sea, China continues to build illegal artificial islands, ignore international treaties, violate territorial waters of neighboring countries, engage in a massive military build up, make illegal territorial claims, seize US military assets, engage in massive cyber attacks, engage in massive intellectual property theft, and harass US forces.  Clearly, US forward presence has no deterrent effect.

While ComNavOps view is obviously correct, most military observers continue to cling to the misguided belief that forward presence equates to deterrence.

The Stimson Center (non-partisan US policy think tank) has now come out with an analysis showing that forward presence has little or no deterrent effect (2) – exactly as ComNavOps has long stated.  They analyzed 100 events since the end of the Cold War and found that the number of forces forward deployed in a trouble spot had no deterrent effect but that the movement of new forces into the region did.

As Breaking Defense website sums up,

The Stimson Center recently completed an analysis of more than 100 events since the end of the Cold War, when the US used the armed forces to coerce another country without resorting to actual war. For example: US leaders have sent aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf to convince Iran to change its behavior, and held frequent military exercises with South Korea to demonstrate US resolve to the North. One key finding of the Stimson research is that, during a crisis, moving new forces into the region does significantly increase the chance that an adversary will back down. But the number of troops, aircraft, and ships already in the region prior to a crisis had no impact on the outcome.

The statistics show that permanent deployments are seen by our adversaries as part of the woodwork – factors that can be discounted when judging America’s seriousness. What caught the attention of the decision-makers the U.S. was trying to coerce was the demonstration of resolve when additional American forces are put at risk. Moreover, it was the fact of moving forces — not the types of forces moved –that mattered. (1)

For example, the Stimson analysis shows exactly what ComNavOps has noted about Russia’s behavior:

… the temporary deployment of US ground and land-based air forces to Eastern Europe in recent years seems to have put Russia’s threats to move beyond Ukraine on hold, at least temporarily, whereas the 30,000 troops based primarily in Germany did not seem to have been noticed. (1)

Stimson also noted that firepower trumps other forms of coercion.

Unlike other forms of escalation – such as economic sanctions, which may be interpreted as signs of weakness — adding firepower is what got the attention of potential adversaries. (1)

This finding simply reflects basic human behavior.  Our enemies are enemies because they are evil, corrupt, dictatorial bullies.  They are not rational human beings.  They function at an animal level of stimulus and response.  They display classic playground bully behavior that every school kid understands but which our government leaders on both sides of the aisle have forgotten.  Bullies respect and respond to physical pain which means firepower AND THE WILLINGNESS TO USE IT.  So, yes, economic sanctions and the like are seen as weakness, not strength.  Only the threat of physical harm is effective and that can only be effective if it is occasionally (or regularly!) applied.

To be fair, the article notes that forward deployments may serve purposes other than deterrence.

Permanent troop deployments overseas do serve many purposes. They seem to reassure allies about our security commitment, and that has value. (1)

An example of forward presence that serves a larger, positive purpose that is divorced from deterrence would be Guam.  Assuming we’re willing to seriously defend it - and there’s currently no evidence that we are – the base serves as a forward staging area rather than as a deterrent.  As a forward staging area it has value and is worth maintaining even though it clearly has no deterrent value.

Consider the Stimson findings in light of ComNavOps’ calls for ending deployments and removing our military from Europe, among other similar recommendations.  It is clear that our forward presence accomplishes nothing as far as deterrence is concerned.  We need to bring our forces home and spend our time training, maintaining, and executing missions.  Some of those missions may well be exactly the kind of rapid movements into a trouble spot that the Stimson analysis suggests actually produces positive results.

We also need to begin applying force on a more regular and consistent basis so that force movements are treated as threats to be taken seriously rather than just empty posturing.

Note:  The Stimson analysis is available as a book length treatise and I have not obtained it or read it.  I’ve only seen the Breaking Defense website article on it.  Thus, I’ve been unable to analyze the analysis.


(1)Breaking Defense website, “Fast Deployments Deter Better Than Bases: Stimson ”, Barry Blechman, 7-Aug-2020,

(2)”Military Coercion and US Foreign Policy”, co-edited by Melanie Sisson, James Siebens, and Barry Blechman, ISBN 9780367459963, Published May 13, 2020 by Routledge

Monday, August 24, 2020

Tactical Timidity

One of the worst characteristics a military individual or organization can exhibit is timidity.  Before we go any further, let’s define timidity.  For our discussion, timidity is the failure to act at an opportune moment due to doubt and uncertainty.  Timidity eliminates the possibility of bold success – and devastating failure.  The timid commander will experience neither and, as a result, accomplish nothing.

Let’s consider a few historical examples and then we can discuss the phenomenon.

First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal – 13-Nov-1942

The Japanese, in a major attempt to reinforce Guadalcanal, committed a large task force of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, commanded by Adm. Abe, to shell Henderson Field and prepare the way for transports carrying troop reinforcements.  After a confusing, point blank night battle, the defending US force was almost wiped out while Abe retained the bulk of his force intact and relatively undamaged.  The way was clear for Abe to continue on and completely eliminate the US naval presence, destroy Henderson Field, and assure the safe landing of the Japanese reinforcements.  Inexplicably, Abe broke off the engagement and retired.  His timidity likely cost the Japanese possession of Guadalcanal.

Battle off Samar – 25-Oct-1944

Japan’s Center Force, led by Kurita, was still very powerful, consisting of four battleships (including the Yamato), six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers. The group encountered the US escort carriers  and escorting destroyers (Taffy 3).  Despite incessant US air attacks by improperly armed aircraft which were generally ineffective and the destroyer’s heroic actions, Kurita’s force sank three destroyers and the escort carrier Gambier Bay.  At that point, the way to the amphibious shipping at Leyte Gulf was wide open.  Inexplicably, Kurita broke off the attack, turned away, and retired to the north.

German Surface Fleet in WWII

The Germans exhibited repeated, institutional timidity in the use of their surface fleet.  This resulted in the withholding of powerful ships (Tirpitz) from action and the piecemeal expenditure of other ships for little gain.

US Submarine Commanders – 1942

US submarine commanders in the first year of WWII exhibited the inbred, institutional timidity that their peacetime training had instilled in them.  They were cautious and timid in the extreme.  It wasn’t until more aggressive commanders took their places that the US submarine effort became effective.  Of course, the faulty torpedo issue didn’t help!

General George McClellan – US Civil War

Gen. McClellan’s repeated timidity was demonstrated by his refusal to press his advantage during the Peninsula campaign and the Battle of Antietam which could have dealt a decisive blow to the Confederacy.  Thus, the war dragged on and President Lincoln eventually replaced  McClellan.

Military history is replete with examples of timidity that forfeited the opportunity for decisive victory..  History is also full of examples of the opposite, which is calculated boldness and aggressiveness.  For example,

Battle of Mobile Bay – 5-Aug-1864

During the American Civil War, a Union fleet led by Adm. David Farragut attacked a Confederate fleet and three forts guarding Mobile Bay.  During the battle, when confronted with a minefield that could have stymied the Union attack, Adm. Farragut issued his oft paraphrased order, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”.  The Union fleet passed through the minefield and went on to defeat the Confederate fleet, seize the forts, and capture Mobile Bay.

I won’t belabor the point with endless illustrations of timidity and boldness.

Today, US commanders are the very epitome of timidity.  They spend their command tours in a state of near-paralysis, praying that no one in their command makes a mistake that could result in the dreaded ‘loss of confidence’ and removal from command.  US naval timidity derives directly from the zero-defect mentality that has taken hold of the Navy.  When mistakes are not allowed and no second chances are given, timidity quickly manifests and becomes the ruling culture.

While the formal antidote to timidity is intel, comprehensive intel is often unavailable at the opportune moment.  At that point, there is no substitute for an inherent sense of boldness and aggressiveness backed, of course, by tactical competence and experience.  Boldness requires self-confidence whereas timidity results from the complete absence of self-confidence.

It should be noted that timidity is not simply an artifact of hindsight where poor decisions or poor results are ascribed to timidity.  Someone can make bad decisions without being timid.  An aggressive plan can go badly wrong without having timidity to blame (Operation Market Garden in WWII, for example).

This leads us to note that there is a fine line between timidity and prudence.  Prudence can be thought of as the opposite of a calculated risk – it is a calculated caution.  Adm. Spruance’s decision at Midway to retire after having achieved a significant measure of success was a calculated caution that avoided a possible night battle with Japanese battleships – a battle he could not have won.  His prudence preserved the American success.

So, how do we avoid instilling a habit of timidity in our military leaders?  It starts with abandoning the zero-defect mentality and practice.  In fact, we need to practice the opposite.  We need to encourage officers to make mistakes that they can learn from.  We need to foster an attitude and environment of calculated risk taking coupled with forgiveness.

Encouraging mistakes is good but we have to provide a ‘sandbox’ where officers can exercise their risk taking.  That sandbox is wargames and fleet exercises.  No amount of policy papers encouraging mistakes will accomplish anything.  We need to turn officers loose in realistic exercises to try things and succeed or fail and to do so with no penalties for failing.  We need to be running ten times as many exercises as we do now and they need to be free form and realistic.

We bred timidity into our Navy and we can breed it out.  We just need to make it a priority.

Friday, August 21, 2020

USS Albacore and Submarine Development

The submarine USS Albacore prototyped the now-standard US tear drop shaped submarine hull and represented a major leap in technology.  During that same general time period, the US Navy made additional extensive improvements in submarine technology which saw the introduction of nuclear reactors, new hull shapes, new propeller systems, new diving/control plane systems, greatly enhanced quieting, deeper dive limits, new ‘flight’ control systems, and much more.

USS Albacore

So, what’s our interest in the Albacore, today?  It’s the lessons that Albacore offers about how to develop technology.  We’re so used to the incessant drum beat of developmental and acquisition - often, the two being concurrent! - failure that we’ve forgotten that we once completely understood how to engage in technological advancement and acquisition and, most stunning to us today, we’ve forgotten that we used to be able to execute large leaps in technology in very short time frames – times that, frankly, seem like fantasy to us and, if anyone proposed similar time frames and similar degrees of advancement today, we’d laugh them off as unrealistic dreamers.  So, let’s look at the Albacore and its lessons.

At the end of WWII, the Gato/Balao class subs represented the peak of US submarine technology but, even then, it was apparent to naval designers that there was so much more potential in submarines but that it would require some radically new technology.  Not even the evolutionary advancement of the Tang class, essentially an improved WWII sub, could realize the submarine potential.

Tang Class

The missing, necessary piece of the potential puzzle was a way to transform the submarine from a surface ship that could, on occasion, submerge to a true undersea vessel that was inherently more at home under the water than on the surface and would perform better underwater than on the surface.  Thus, in 1949, Navy designers began conducting extensive hydrodynamic research into new hull forms.  The Navy wanted to design and build a prototype new hull form and they embarked on that effort the right way, with extensive wind tunnel and water testing prior to construction of the actual sub.  By the time the prototype submarine, the Albacore, was built, the Navy already knew the new tear drop shape hull would work.  The purpose of the prototype Albacore, then, was to find the small problems and map out the performance envelope.

What you can’t do – and we didn’t – is leap straight into a production commitment of 55 ships (the LCS) before the conceptual design was even done and before research and development was even partially begun.

The Albacore lessons tell us exactly how to develop new technology:  theorize, research, test, develop, refine, test some more and when you have a solid concept, design and build a prototype – a single prototype, not an entire class based on unproven technology.  Albacore proved the validity of this approach.  Unbelievably to us, today, Albacore went from a theory in 1949 to a commissioned prototype in 1953 – just 4 years.  Today, it takes us 4 years just to line up all the component manufacturers in all 50 states that will supply parts for a new program!

Lest you think this was some kind of fluke occurrence, the Navy went from WWII style submarines in 1952 to true, modern, nuclear powered, attack submarines in 1959.  That’s right … in seven years the Navy developed a completely new submarine with all the features we now recognize in modern submarines and they did so using a series of developments and prototypes, as listed below.  Study the table below and contemplate the incredible advances, the unbelievably short time frames and the extensive use of one-off prototypes.

US Navy Submarine Development and Prototyping
Tang class
improved conventional WWII design
tear drop hull
first operational nuke sub; S2W reactor; prototyped on land at the S1W facility by Argonne National Laboratory in the early 1950’s
improved Tang; new acoustic sensors; new fire control; new maneuvering control
tested liquid metal cooled reactor
Skate class
first production run of nuclear subs;  based on the conventional Tang class
Barbel class
tear drop hull; combined control room, conning tower, attack center in one space, bow torpedo tubes;  diesel engines; hydraulic ballast controls
Skipjack class
1959 – 1961
nuclear power; single shaft; tear drop hull
nuclear powered fast surface radar picket submarine
first guided missile submarine, carrying Regulus missiles

Note the speed of construction with many classes being entirely commissioned within a one or two year period.  In fact, in the 4-5 year period from 1957-1961 we commissioned 16 submarines including 3 prototypes which, today, we accept as an article of faith that they take many times longer to build.

Skate Class

Also, note the small size of the classes.  We didn’t commit to production runs of dozens of units while we were still developing the technology.  Small runs of 3-6 vessels was sufficient to populate the fleet while avoiding the inevitable obsolescence that accompanies rapid technological change.  We built small classes, comfortable that as the technology advanced we could feed the developments into the next small class.  Contrast that with today’s desire to build classes of up to 55 ships with unproven technology.  Even the new frigate represents a risk in that we’re locking into a design for a production run of 20 despite the pace of technological advancement.  One can easily predict that we’ll soon be trying to shoehorn new technology into frigates that weren’t designed to receive it.

Barbel Class

Note, too, the concurrent development of different technologies: nuclear and diesel, for example, and the use of multiple, different prototypes.  Contrast that with the LCS or Ford where we attempted to combine every new technology into a single ship – and were puzzled why the effort failed.

USS Halibut Guided Missile Submarine

Today, we’d take all those improvements and force them into a single new design which would be three decades overdue and cost a bajillion dollars.  In contrast, the Navy wisely broke the developments up into small chunks and built single prototypes or small runs to evaluate the improvements and then fed the lessons learned back into the development and production cycles.

History screams lessons at us but we steadfastly refuse to listen.  Albacore and the early developmental efforts that produced today’s modern submarine provide us the lessons and template for our own development efforts and yet we ignore the lessons.  We need to study our own history, learn the lessons, and readjust our expectations to much faster and more productive standards.  We cannot afford to keep making the same stupid mistakes over and over.


Here’s a few more interesting tidbits about Alacore:

Albacore’s design was authorized in late 1950 and the submarine was commissioned in 1953.  By comparison, the first LCS required over 4 years to go from contract award to commission and the Zumwalt required 11 years!

Albacore used conventional diesel engines.

Not only did Albacore prove out the tear drop shape hull but the sub was used for other developmental advancements as her career progressed.  She was used to test various stern configurations and propellers including concentric contra-rotating propellers, various noise reduction measures, and various sonar equipment fits.  Albacore was decommissioned in Dec 1972 due to diesel engine obsolescence.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Real Ill-Fated Voyage

There are a group of military observers, and many within the military, who believe that unmanned platforms have near magical powers:  they’re invisible, they have unlimited range, they require no maintenance, they need no support personnel, and they can carry any sensor package regardless of size/weight.  In short, they’re invincible, unstoppable, war-winning machines.

The reality is that they’re subject to the same limitations, shortcomings, and failings of manned platforms and they’ve been demonstrated to require more personnel to operate than their unmanned equivalents.

I recently authored a short story post that described the failings of an unmanned fleet (see, “An Ill-Fated Voyage”).  While the story was an intentional exaggeration and collection of all the worst characteristics of unmanned vessels, the underlying reality was spot on.

In the fall of 2018, the Navy sent the DARPA / ONR unmanned Sea Hunter vessel (Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel - ACTUV) on an autonomous voyage from San Diego to Hawaii amid great fanfare.  Here’s a typical announcement of the event,

The U.S. Navy’s Sea Hunter unmanned surface vessel has become the first ship of any description to ever sail from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and back without the need of a crew for navigation and steering. (3)

Wow!  What an amazing achievement!  Sailing from San Diego To Hawaii and back without ever, once, being touched by human hands!

Sea Hunter - An Ill-Fated Voyage

Setting aside the hype of the event, the reality is a bit different.  The Sea Hunter was accompanied by an escort ship and sailors had to regularly board the unmanned vessel to conduct checks and make repairs.

In 2019 an unmanned Sea Hunter prototype autonomous vessel sailed from San Diego to Hawaii, but it needed to repair several broken systems along the way, forcing sailors to board the ship. (1)

… personnel only boarded the Sea Hunter for short periods from an escort vessel to check electrical and propulsion systems. (4)

The Navy acknowledges at least three major breakdowns during the voyage.

Sea Hunter MUSV traveled from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on its own with no intervention from a navigational standpoint. On the voyage out, a crew following nearby on an escort ship boarded Sea Hunter three times to fix mechanical problems. In one instance, one of two engines shut down, and two problems occurred with one of two generators. (5)

The Navy has also not stated how long the voyage took, presumably because the vessel broke down repeatedly and the sailing time would graphically demonstrate the failings of the vessel.

How successful was the voyage?

It was the first experiment of its kind, one the Navy has not repeated. Those mechanical problems point to work the Navy must do to reconfigure its logistics tail to meet the needs of a new class of ship. (1)

So, while technically true that the vessel eventually made the voyage with no crew – if you ignore the repeated boardings to fix problems that caused the vessel to break down – the voyage was less than successful.  Along the same line, I once swam a mile underwater.  Pretty impressive, huh?!  Of course, I popped up to the surface every ten feet to get a breath of air but, technically, I swam a mile underwater.  That’s what this Sea Hunter voyage was – a series of short voyages punctuated by breakdowns and repairs.

So, to sum up the voyage, it required two ships and a boarding crew to accomplish what a single manned ship could have done on its own. 

Hey, I understand that when you’re developing new technology you accomplish things in baby steps that may not seem that impressive on their own.  That’s how you learn.  I get it.  The problem is that what we’re trying to develop has no CONOPS underlying its reason for existence.  No one has done any public, documented validation of the concept.  No legitimate wargaming.  Nothing.  We’ve jumped into the deep end of the unmanned pool with nothing but blind faith to keep us afloat.

You know, if you work at it hard enough, you can convince yourself of anything.  Here’s an example,

“ACTUV represents a new vision of naval surface warfare that trades small numbers of very capable, high-value assets for large numbers of commoditized, simpler platforms that are more capable in the aggregate,” said Fred Kennedy, TTO [DARPA Tactical Technology Office] director. “The U.S. military has talked about the strategic importance of replacing ‘king’ and ‘queen’ pieces on the maritime chessboard with lots of ‘pawns,’ and ACTUV is a first step toward doing exactly that.” (2)

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?  Kings and Queens replaced by pawns?  The only problem is that the pawns are extremely limited in their abilities.  The word ‘pawn’ has come to mean an insignificant, minor person or asset.  That should tell us something!

Finally, let’s consider expectations versus reality.  Here’s what the Navy expects to happen,

The Navy intends for the MUSV to sustain speeds of 24 to 27 knots, operate in sea states 4 or 5, while surviving up to sea state 7; and spend 60 to 90 days at sea without returning to port, according to Navy slides reviewed by USNI News. (5)

Wow!  60-90 days unattended … and yet the reality is a simple, non-combat voyage required two ships and a hovering boarding crew to accomplish.  There is a huge mismatch between reality and expectations, here!


In case you’re unfamiliar with the Navy’s unmanned surface vessel vision, here’s a post on the subject:  “Navy's Manned-Unmanned Fleet Concept”


(1)Breaking Defense website, “Navy Wants Robot Boats But Will Still Need Sailors To Fix Them”, Paul McLeary, 6-May-2020,

(2)DARPA website, “ACTUV “Sea Hunter” Prototype Transitions to Office of Naval Research for Further Development”, 30-Jan-2018,

(3)The Drive website, “Navy’s Sea Hunter Drone Ship Has Sailed Autonomously To Hawaii And Back Amid Talk Of New Roles”, Joseph Trevithick, 4-Feb-2019,

(4)Hawaii News Now website, “This 132-foot vessel sailed from CA to Hawaii (and back) without anyone on board”, staff report, 15-Feb-2019,

(5)USNI News website, “Sea Hunter Unmanned Ship Continues Autonomy Testing as NAVSEA Moves Forward with Draft RFP”, Megan Eckstein, 29-Apr-2019,