Sunday, February 28, 2021

Striking Power of the Fleet

The Navy’s striking power has steadily changed throughout history. 


Guns - Initially, sailing ships carried their cannon right up alongside the enemy and then proceeded to pound away until the enemy submitted (sinkings were relatively rare).  With the passing of the age of sail and the advent of steam and armor, the only thing that changed was the range of the guns and the speed and maneuverability of the ships.  The objective was still the same – to batter the enemy until they sank (submitting was no longer an option). 


Aircraft - With WWII, the primary striking power of the fleet began to shift from naval guns to aircraft and the aircraft carrier emerged as the new strike force.  This continued through Vietnam and the Cold War.  So called ‘alpha’ strikes were the primary striking power of the fleet.  The battleship was retired without replacement and the largest gun in the fleet was the 5” and most ships have only one of those.


Missiles – More recently, missiles have begun to replace the aircraft.  Modern anti-air systems have grown too deadly for manned aircraft, even stealth aircraft, to be considered the primary striking force.  Not only does the Navy not have any survivable strike aircraft but even the limited buy of F-35Cs does not appear to be intended as strike aircraft but, instead, as surveillance and targeting nodes in the Navy’s fantasy network of sensors and missile shooters.  Thus, the Navy appears to envision the F-35C as a missile enabler/supporter rather than a strike asset. 


Just as importantly – and perhaps more so – defender’s anti-ship missiles have forced the carrier to stand off to such ranges as to nearly invalidate the use of strike aircraft.  Without a doubt, the new striking power of the fleet is missiles:  cruise, ballistic, hypersonic.




This, then, is the state of affairs, currently.  We are in the final stages of transforming from a carrier strike navy to a missile strike navy.  We already see more than ample proof of this in the form of Tomahawk missiles which have become the main strike weapon of the Navy.  Even the remnants of carrier aviation are geared not at delivering bombs but at launching missiles such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and the developing hypersonic missiles.  As ComNavOps has repeatedly stated, the new role of the carrier is not strike but, rather, escort and protection of the true striking force of the Navy which is the Tomahawk (hopefully, soon to be LRASM) armed Burkes.  SSGNs, until they are retired, also constitute a significant portion of our naval strike power.  While we are not replacing the SSGNs with dedicated replacements, we are expanding the missile carrying capacity of new Virginia class subs so as to provide a replacement in the aggregate.  One can question the wisdom of this but the trend towards missiles as the strike power of the fleet is clear enough.  Just slightly further in the future, one can readily see the movement towards hypersonic missiles on ships and aircraft.


While this ends the discussion of the development of naval striking power from its beginnings until now, I offer the next, predictable, future step in strike development for your consideration.


AI/Robotics – Though not available in any useful form, yet, one can easily imagine the next step in striking power to be artificial intelligence (AI) enhanced robotics.  Mere missiles will be rendered ineffective by AI-enhanced defenses and lasers which will require AI-enhanced strike weapons to overcome the defenses.  Such strike weapons will run the gamut from individual, small ground robots to AI-enhanced cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles.  The logical extension of this would be AI-enhanced swarms of missiles acting as a single striking entity but with the intelligence to actively and intelligently modify their attack in response to the defenses and targets encountered.





Before we discuss what all this means, let’s list the lessons from the preceding discussion:


  • Aircraft have been replaced by missiles as the striking power of the fleet and Tomahawk cruise missiles have become the standard strike weapon of the fleet.
  • The Navy has no stealthy (survivable) strike aircraft.
  • The role of the carrier has changed from strike to escort.  Carrier aircraft now exist to defend the Burke strikers.
  • Carrier aircraft cannot perform naval strike even with long range anti-ship missiles like LRASM due to the targeting problem.
  • Burkes, and SSGNs until they’re retired, are the new striking power of the fleet.





Now, what do those lessons mean for the future of the Navy?  What are the implications for force structure and operating doctrine?  Here are the issues and implications:


We should be adapting the carrier and the air wing to the new role of escort for the real missile shooters, the Burkes/SSGNs.  This means emphasizing long range, air superiority fighters which means that the current F-18 and F-35 are ill-suited and have no place in the future air wing and should no longer be procured.  We’ve already discussed how to obtain a new aircraft in just five years so ceasing procurement will not result in aircraft shortfalls (see, “How to Build a Better Aircraft”).


Even trying to use aircraft as LRASM shooters is only marginally effective due to numbers.  For example, a strike aircraft can only carry two missiles for any appreciable distance.  Thus, it would require huge numbers of aircraft to mass enough missiles to create an effective strike.  We’ve noted that it required nearly a hundred Tomahawks to partially destroy a single, undefended Syrian airbase in the recent past.  A full strike against a peer defended target would require 300 missiles or more.  That would require 150 aircraft or the entire combat air wing of four carrier air wings (and that would leave nothing for tanking or carrier defense!).  By comparison, a single SSGN can launch 150+ missiles and two SSGNs meet the requirements for our illustrative strike of 300 missiles.  This is why retiring the SSGNs without replacement is such a mistake.


Air wings need to be mainly fighter aircraft with a single shorter range strike squadron that can be swapped out, as needed, to further increase the fighter complement.  The strike aircraft should be a new, simple, low end design conceptually similar to the A-4 or A-7.


We need a new, very long range, very long endurance, air superiority fighter.  Conceptually, this would be akin to the F-14 and would encompass a combination of the best features of both the F-14 and F-22.


We desperately need a new cruise missile to replace the obsolete Tomahawk.  Presumably, this would be the LRASM which is being developed for aircraft launch and we should be working, right now, on a vertical launch, shipboard version (VL-LRASM), as well.  The Navy has discussed a desire for a VL-LRASM and done some preliminary work but development seems to have ground to a halt.  Further, we should be starting development of the LRASM replacement which should be an AI-enhanced, very long range missile.  The LRASM should be viewed as just a stopgap measure.


New missiles need to be self-targeting.  They need to be capable of being fired in a general direction and actively implementing their own search and targeting without the need for traditional surveillance and contact tracking and targeting.  This is a research effort that needs to begin immediately.  Pieces of the concept are already under development but a focused, integrated research effort is needed.


We need very long range, stealthy, survivable sensor assets to complement the very long range missiles that we currently have.  Million mile missiles are useless when paired with 20 mile sensors!  Our current UAVs, P-8s, helos, and whatnot that we are depending on for surveillance and targeting are not survivable over a peer battlefield. 


We need large caliber naval guns.  Are guns obsolete?  Of course not!  Naval gunfire is overwhelming and superior in every way to aircraft delivered munitions except in range.  There will still be circumstances where close range, overwhelming firepower is needed and large caliber naval guns are still be best solution for those scenarios.





Understanding the evolution of naval striking power enables us to see the current and future realities.  This allows us to properly design our force structure and assess which assets we currently have that will prove useful in combat and which won’t.


For far too long, our force structure design has been based on technology rather than strategy.  We’ve procured whatever new technology we could get without regard to its usefulness – hence, the useless LCS, Zumwalt, Ford, etc.  We need to return to combat needs-based asset design backed by a clear understanding of how naval combat and striking power is evolving.


We need to develop a force structure that will actually be useful in the war with China.  Our previous follies have already given us an LCS that has no use, whatsoever, in high end war along with Fords, Zumwalts, JHSVs, etc. that have little relevance or use.  Let’s not keep repeating that same mistake.

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Purge

As we begin the Biden purge of extremists (meaning, conservative white supremacists as opposed to black lives matter or other radical liberal groups) from the Navy, it is interesting to ponder the historical lesson of another naval purge:  the French navy at the time of the French Revolution.


The French navy was at a peak around the end of the American Revolution.  However, the French Revolution, 1789-1799, resulted in a purge of ‘elitist’ officers and organizations from the navy as ably described in the following excerpt:


The French navy suffered considerably due to the French revolution. Having finished the American War of Independence on something approaching a high (comparatively speaking), the French navy suffered a reverse that it never fully recovered from until well after the finish of the Napoleonic Wars.


Like most other European navies of the time, the officers were often from the upper-classes and, as you probably guessed, there was a large-scale purge of these officers in the early period in question. Their replacements were rarely of high quality and, too often, had little or no experience of commanding a warship at sea, much less a warship in combat. Many of the aristocratic officer class fled the country (or failed to return) and these emigrés wound up in the navies of Britain, Austria and Russia fighting against their former homeland.


Also the fervor of revolution and its ideal of equality meant that these replacement officers often had little control over the ship's crews. As an example, at the start of 1793 Vice-Admiral Morard de Galles took a small squadron to sea from Brest, upon their return he commented on the crew:


“The vaunted ardour which is attributed to them, consists uniquely of the words of ‘patriot’ and ‘patriotism’ which they repeat ceaselessly, and the acclamations of ‘Vive la Nation’, ‘Vive la République’ when they are flattered. Nothing can make them attend their duties.” (1)


Another consequence of the revolution was the disbanding of the Marine Artillery Corps (over 5,000 men), whose skilled crew men were considered too elitist. This left the navy with untrained men servicing the guns and the result was to limit the navy's fighting ability considerably.


In addition, the dockyards were not immune to the revolution and were centres of uprisings as much as the big cities. After the revolution, like the new ship's officers, the dockyard managers and commandants found that the workforce wasn't as keen on taking orders as it had been. This lead to a loss in efficiency in building and repairing vessels (and an increase in other losses), with the natural result that fewer ships in the navy were fully fit to go to sea. (1)


The purges crippled the French navy and left it unable to effectively combat the British navy in the ensuing years.  The lessons from this should be blindingly obvious but are clearly lost on the US Navy, today.  We’re conducting purge after purge of our own and each is further degrading our already hollow force.


Wait … purges??  We haven’t conducted any purges, you say.  What is ComNavOps talking about?  Well aside from the Biden ‘extremist’ (conservative) purge which is currently on-going, the Navy has conducted other purges.  Let’s recall …


We’ve already purged warriors from the military with our campaigns to feminize the military, lower standards to accommodate women, promote sensitivity, and create a warm and fuzzy, all-inclusive, feel good military.  Remember the Navy slogan, “A Global Force For Good”?  If that didn’t epitomize the ‘warrior-downing’ of the Navy, I don’t know what did!  The standout example of the result of this purging of warriors was the Iranian seizure of two riverine boats and crews by a substantially inferior Iranian force which saw the US Navy boats surrender without resistance by the crews (in direct violation of the US Armed Forces Code of Conduct, see ref (2) ) and the specter of sobbing crew members in captivity. 


The Navy has purged any officers with an ounce of combativeness, fortitude, and determination as evidenced by the number of commanding officers relieved each year for ‘loss of confidence’ for piddly, non-naval reasons.  The latest example was the commanding officer relieved for trying to make a celebratory plaque for his ship out of a captured AK-47 rifle from a weapons seizure his ship successfully conducted. (3)  We’ve ensured that the only commanding officers left are those who timidly get along, go along, and take no chances.


We’ve purged discipline from the fleet by neutering the Chiefs and their ability to apply one-on-one informal ‘corrections’ to worthy sailors.


And, of course, the current Biden purge seeks to remove conservatives who support politically right-leaning organizations.  Left-leaning organizations like black lives matter appears perfectly acceptable to the Navy as a summer of riots, destruction, killings, and seizure of government buildings went unremarked by the Navy. 


Merely ‘liking’ a post is now grounds for removal.(4)


Just by posting, retweeting, or liking an offensive post on social media — you could be participating in extremism,” Nowell (Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell Jr.) said. (5)


This is unconstitutional thought-police taken to an Orwellian level.


The Navy, supposed defender of the Constitution and free speech, seems to have bought into the Biden purge with an almost religious zeal:


“You may not personally know any shipmates with extremist beliefs,” Nowell said. “But I assure you that those forces of darkness are among us.” (5)


‘Forces of darkness are among us’ ????  What’s next … burning at the stake?


By the way, do you know which Constitutionally guaranteed free speech is most important to defend?  That’s right … it’s the speech you most vehemently disagree with.  Biden and the Navy are doing the opposite and purging the speech they disagree with.  When you join the Navy you accept certain limits on your ability to act but you do not forfeit your basic Constitutional rights.






As with the French navy, we’re systematically purging our fleet of the very warriors we so desperately need.  Much as I despise bringing politics into this blog, it seems we’re going to have to address the issue because this administration seems determined to turn the Navy into a political and social issue rather than a warfighting organization.  Biden’s purge is pretty transparently a purge not of extremists, in general, but of conservatives who disagree with the Democrat party line.  The speed with which the Admirals have lined up behind the Biden purge is appalling and frightening.  The Navy is losing future battles, today.


I really, really, don’t want to be writing these kinds of posts but the Biden administration is forcing politics onto the Navy and it must, therefore, be addressed.


For obvious reasons, comments will not be allowed. 







(2) US Armed Forces Code of Conduct, Article 2. :  “I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.”



Thursday, February 25, 2021

Fire Scout ASW - Promise and Challenges

Northrop Grumman (NG) recently conducted an internal test of an ASW (anti-submarine warfare) configured Fire Scout MQ-8C UAV (actually, a modified Bell 407 simulator of the Fire Scout) in Oct 2020.  The test was declared a success (it could have crashed on takeoff and it would have been declared a success – that’s the way these staged tests work) but the real point is that after years of commentator speculation about the benefits of UAV ASW, someone finally made an actual effort, regardless of the real degree of success or failure.  Yes, I’m aware of the 2017 MQ-9A sonobuoy tests but that was sonobuoy integration testing, not ASW testing. 


Moving on, let’s take a closer look at both the promise and challenges of UAV ASW.


A NG spokesman claimed that the Fire Scout could operate 100 miles from the host ship and with up to 12 hours endurance.(1)  Concept art and verbal descriptions depict a Fire Scout with two sonobuoy dispensers holding a total of 40-48 miniature sonobuoys although testing was apparently conducted with a single, smaller, sonobuoy dispenser.


Artist's Concept of ASW Fire Scout


Some advantages of an unmanned ASW platform include:


Extended Range/Endurance – The MQ-8C can, under the right conditions, extend the ASW range from the host ship and, again under the right circumstances, the endurance of the ASW effort.  The Navy/manufacturer claim 100 miles and 12 hours endurance, however, those are predicated on minimal loads and minimal sonobuoy usage – hence, the ‘right conditions’ and ‘right circumstances’. 


If the payload increases (carrying torpedoes, for example), the range and endurance drop dramatically.  NAVAIR lists endurance as 12 hours with a 300 lb payload (2) although this is somewhat misleading since transit time has to be accounted for (an hour out and an hour back, for example, at the 115kt cruising speed(2)).  Throw in reserve fuel/time and the endurance is further reduced.  Add heavier payloads – like a 600 lb Mk 54 torpedo – and endurance will drop drastically.  Still, several hours of loiter time is potentially useful and impressive.


Far more importantly, if the sonobuoy usage is heavy, the endurance becomes meaningless.  Once the sonobuoys are gone, the helo has little else to do but return to the host ship.  Yes, it can hang around and listen for a while but with no active contact, that would be largely pointless.  If sonobuoys are dropped in strings of, say, 5, a Fire Scout with 40 sonobuoys would be able to lay only 8 strings.  In a combat scenario, where every slight sonar twitch demands investigation, 8 strings would be used very quickly.  One might recall that S-3 Vikings, acting in the extended hunting role, tended to deploy sonobuoys in chevrons resulting in heavy sonobuoy expenditure.  Assuming a Fire Scout would behave similarly, sonobuoy depletion is an issue.  Thus, endurance is probably a misleading and meaningless claim. 



There are also some potential challenges to unmanned ASW which include:



Weapons – Currently, there are no plans to put weapons on an ASW Fire Scout.  This makes the Fire Scout only partially effective and requires two platforms (a second, weapon carrying platform) to perform the function of a single manned helo or P-8.  The lack of weapons also means that the Fire Scout will have to maintain contact until another platform can arrive which is no easy feat.


Communications – Operating at a range out to 100 miles puts the Fire Scout well beyond line of sight communications.  It will either have to climb to higher altitude to maintain communications or depend on some kind of satellite communications or other methods which are less likely to be available in combat.  This also raises the issue of the communications broadcasting the helo’s location.  The communications requirement to transmit the kind of data intensive packages involved in ASW detection and tracking – and from multiple sonobuoys! – is enormous, I would assume (not being a combat communications expert).  Add in the requirement that the data be near real time and the comm load is immense and continuous.  This just screams out detection of the Fire Scout.


Not to be ignored is the control communications link.  UAVs have a disturbing tendency to lose command link and wander off, never to be seen again.  There will be a certain degree of attrition attributed to command link loss.


Off-board Processing.  The communications discussion leads directly to the issue of off-board data processing.  Unlike the old S-3 Viking, SH-60 type helos, or P-8s which have sonar analysts aboard the aircraft, the Fire Scout will, of course, be unmanned and data processing will have to occur aboard the host ship.  This causes the communication issue just described and introduces a degree of lag between the Fire Scout and the host ship.  Of course, ASW is, generally, a pretty slow affair so this will likely not be a severe problem.


Payload – Fire Scout is a small helo and payload capacity is uncertain but limited.  I’ve seen widely varying claims but NAVAIR lists the payload as 700 lbs (2).  By comparison, a Mk 54 lightweight torpedo is around 600 lbs.  NG demonstrated a very small, very lightweight, 220 lb torpedo drop from a Bell 407 in 2016.(3)  Of course, it’s highly questionable whether such a small torpedo would be effective against a submarine given that our largest, Mk48 torpedoes, were deemed to be of questionable lethality against Soviet Union submarines.  Smaller diesel subs, less stoutly constructed, might be hindered by such a small torpedo but that, too, is questionable.






We see, then, that unmanned ASW potentially offers benefits for range and endurance but those benefits exist only under certain conditions and are potentially offset by the challenges such as limited payload, communications, lack of weapons, and off-board data processing.  The ability to potentially push the ASW outer layer further away from the host ship is useful and, to a limited extent, makes up for some of the capability we lost when the S-3 Viking was retired without replacement.


The major challenge seems to be the lack of weapons which means that any prosecution requires two aircraft to equal a single Seahawk or P-8.  The ability of an unmanned aircraft (or any platform, to be fair!) to hold contact on a submarine for an extended period until a weapon carrying platform can show up is highly suspect.


On balance, I’m not seeing sufficient justification for an unmanned ASW Fire Scout to replace a full size Seahawk helo.  Now, a very small, UAV carrier with a bunch of Fire Scouts might well be a useful addition to any naval group and this is the developmental direction I’d explore. 





(1)USNI News, “Northrop Grumman Pitching Fire Scout Helicopter Drone for ASW Missions”, Sam LaGrone, 16-Feb-2021,




(3)The Drive website, “Northrop Grumman Reveals New Mini Torpedo Aimed At Arming And Defending Navy Submarines”, Joseph Trevithick, 21-May-2020,

Monday, February 22, 2021

Networks and Royal Navy Signal Flags

In several posts, we’ve examined historical naval battles and analyzed them from today’s perspective to learn lessons applicable to our current strategies, doctrine, and tactics.  The timelessness of the lessons has been striking.


Today, we’re going to look not at a battle but at a technology and see what lessons can be learned.  Specifically, we’re going to look at the English Royal Navy system of signal flags, implemented in the age of sail.  As we do, we’ll keep in mind the parallel between the English flag system and today’s networks and command and control (C2) systems.


Before the advent of radio, communication between ships was problematic, to say the least.  Ships that were out of sight of each other were, essentially, out of communication.  Even within sight of each other, communications were difficult.  Simplistic signals involving sails or flags or lanterns or some such were used but their effectiveness was subject to degradation by darkness, weather, distance, and the confusion of combat.


Eventually, the Royal Navy attempted to standardize the meaning of a limited set of signal flags, as described below.


Between 1337 and 1351 the British Navy lists two signals in their old “Black Book of the Admiralty.” The first was to hoist a flag of council high in the middle of the mast, to notify all captains to come aboard the admiral's flagship for a meeting. Hoisting another flag aloft reported the sighting of the enemy. (3)


By the late seventeenth century things still had not progressed much. A code book issued for the British Navy in 1673 defined 15 different flags, each with a single predefined meaning, which was probably not too much different from what had been used since antiquity. (3)


Following this, the English came up with a major step forward when they established an extensive system of standardized signal flags.  From Wikipedia (4),


Several wars with the Dutch in the 17th century prompted the English to issue instructions for the conduct of particular fleets, such as (in 1673) the Duke of York's "Instructions for the better Ordering of His Majesties Fleet in Sayling". Signals were primitive and rather ad hoc ("As soon as the Admiral shall loose his fore-top and fire a gun..."), and generally a one-way communication system, as only flagships carried a complete set of flags. In 1790 Admiral Lord Howe issued a new signal book for a numerary system using numeral flags to signal a number; the number, not the mast from which the flags flew, indicated the message. Other admirals tried various systems; it was not until 1799 that the Admiralty issued a standardized signal code system for the entire Royal Navy. This was limited to only the signals listed in the Signal-Book. In 1800 Captain Sir Home Popham devised a means of extending this: signals made with a special "Telegraph" flag referred to a separate dictionary of numbered words and phrases. (4)


The system was straightforward and simple.


The signaling system in use by the Royal Navy at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar had been introduced in 1799 by Admiral Lord Howe and was further developed by Captain Sir Home Popham. Howe's original system was based on a set of flags numbered 0 to 9 that when hoisted in various combinations could transmit words, numbers, or messages listed in the Signal Book. Each letter of the alphabet was allotted a number, enabling words to be spelled out, The numeral flags could also be used to send numbers as such. But most signals were two-or three-flag combinations which referenced messages in the Signal Book, e.g. to discontinue the engagement, to pursue the enemy, to anchor, etc. The Signal Book was so arranged that the sender and receiver could quickly compose and interpret flag hoists. (2)


Howe's system was impractical for sending long messages due to the large number of flags required to spell out individual words. In 1800, therefore, Captain Popham developed a "vocabulary" system by which three- or four-flag hoists referenced words or phrases in the Signal Book. This was the system in use at the time of Trafalgar and Nelson's famous signal is a fine example of how it worked. This type of hoist was preceded by the so-called telegraph flag, indicating that a vocabulary message was to be sent. The signal was terminated by a finishing flag, functioning like the period at the end of a sentence. Receiving ships acknowledged the signal by hoisting the Affirmative flag, indicating that it had been seen and understood. If the signal was seen but not understood, receiving ships hoisted the Affirmative flag over numeral flag no. 8. For repeated numbers a substitute flag was provided. In Nelson's signal this flag, yellow with black stripes along the top and bottom, was employed in the hoist for the word do (No. 221), substituting for a second no. 2 flag.


The second signal that Nelson ordered to be hoisted was No. 16 in the Signal Book: "Engage the enemy more closely." This remained aloft until it was shot away in the heat of battle. (2)



Standardized signal flag systems, while a vast improvement over ad hoc signals, were still subject to distance limitations.  The sender and receiver had to be within visual range.  This was partially remedied by using signal chains whereby the sender could disseminate a signal to ships out of visual range by using a repeater chain of ships, each ship relaying the message to the next ship in line.  Of course, this required time for the message to slowly repeat its way along the chain and required a string of ships.  Fortunately, naval battles in the age of sail were generally fairly slow affairs, often requiring many hours to lead up to the actual battle.  The system also suffered from the confusion of battle where signals might be missed, misread, shot away, or otherwise fail since both the sender and receiver had, understandably, higher priorities.


Here is an example of the signal chain from the Battle of Trafalgar:


Accordingly the French admiral Villeneuve hoisted the signal to weigh anchor, and at six in the morning of 19 October the British frigate Sirius, waiting outside Cadiz, signalled to the fleet below the horizon ``Enemy have topsails hoisted.'' An hour later it hoisted signal no. 370, ``Enemy ships are coming out of port.'' The hoists were made to the next frigate in the signalling chain, Euryalus, which in turn signalled no. 370 to Phoebe with the accompanying admonition--superfluous in a service schooled to such discipline--``Repeat signals to lookout ships west.'' And so no. 370 travelled down the chain, from Phoebe to Naiad, Naiad to Defence (a line-of-battleship), Defence to Colossus and Colossus to Mars, standing in Nelson's line of battle itself, 48 miles from the mouth of Cadiz harbour. The news reached Nelson at 9:30. He immediately ordered ``General chase southeast'' and steered to place the fleet between Cadiz and the Straits of Gibraltar. The opening move of the battle of Trafalgar had begun. (3)



Regarding Nelson and Trafalgar, it is interesting that Nelson opted not to depend on signals for his C2, choosing, instead, to emphasize doctrine over command and control.  In fact, he conducted the entire battle while sending only two signals, neither of which was of a tactical nature.  Nelson understood that even a simple system like signal flags could, and would, be misapplied and misunderstood in the heat of battle and that the preferred method of exercising C2 was to not attempt to exercise C2.  He chose, instead, to depend on clearly defined doctrine which allowed local commanders (the individual ship Captains) to act without higher command direction and yet still unerringly act with total adherence to his intent.





As with the historical battles we’ve examined, nothing has changed from age of sail to today in terms of the lessons about communications and networks.  The same problems that plagued naval communications then still plague us today and will continue to do so on the future naval battlefield.  Weather will still degrade communications.  Confusion will still rear its head.  Signals are still susceptible to detection and interception.  And so on …


The technology has changed but the lessons remain constant.


Inevitable Confusion – Anyone who has ever played the child’s party game of passing a whispered message around a circle of people and seeing how distorted it comes out at the end can testify to the inevitable confusion and garbling of any communication.  A message that is crystal clear to the sender may be confusing gibberish to the receiver – and that’s without considering the effects of weather, distance, light, jamming, false signals, combat, or whatever other form of disruption occurs.  The sources of confusion may have changed (jamming, false signal induction, cyber attack, etc.) but the effects and the lessons remain the same.  Communications will be misunderstood and the advent of radio and electronic signals has done nothing to mitigate the confusion.  A famous example of this is the Admiral Nimitz’s radio message to Admiral Halsey during the battle of Leyte, in WWII, where the meaningless padding phrase, “the world wonders”, was accidentally left in the message and interpreted by Halsey as a sharp rebuke of his actions and wound up changing his plans.


Distance – Distance has been the nemesis of communications since time immemorial.  Even today, electronic signals degrade with distance as interfering phenomena are encountered.  Line of sight communications are impacted by distance and impose constraints and altered behavior by the sending platform. 


Interception – The mere sending of a signal, and frequency of signaling, even if the meaning is not understood, can provide the enemy with valuable intelligence (see, “The Battle of Heligoland Bight”). 


Here is an anecdotal story from a reader,


I spent a while working with a blokey from EW element of the Royal Signals, they would spend an entire exercise doing SIGINT traffic analysis of our own side during exercises in Germany.

It is really scary what can be discerned by traffic analysis alone (all the more prevalent when crypto is so effective - in the context of the battlefield timescale). (5)



The only truly secure signal, the only signal that cannot be detected, intercepted, and analyzed is the one that is not sent.



Doctrine and Commander’s Intent – The only sure form of communication is no communication and the best communication is no communication.  This is where doctrine and Commander’s Intent comes in.


During the Cold War, the US Navy carrier groups would routinely launch entire strike forces without a single radio transmission and aircraft could conduct air-to-air refueling with no transmissions.  Today, our forces have acquired a severe case of verbal diarrhea and are utterly lost without constant communications. 


We need to re-establish doctrine and relearn comms-out operations.  The corollary to this is that we need to drop our obsession with ever more intrusive C2 and return to allowing local commanders to command.  If we allow local commanders to command then we don’t need to communicate with them and that is, after all, the best form of communication.





Despite all the historical and current evidence to the contrary, we still cling to the fantasy of region-wide networks of sensors and shooters all tied together in a mammoth, flawless, seamless, real time network of instantaneously shared data and intel.  Just as the Royal Navy learned that the best form of communication was no communication, we, too, must learn to operate without communication and that means emphasizing doctrine and commander’s intent instead of the ceaseless – and useless – drone of higher authority clogging the airwaves.






(1)Richard Howe, Signal and Instruction Book, ca. 1776






(4)Wikipedia, “Naval Flag Signaling”, retrieved 25-Jan-2021


(5)Navy Matters, “The Battle of Heligoland Bight”, Dave Wolfy, January 6, 2020 at 12:10 PM

Thursday, February 18, 2021

LCS Scorecard

The LCS production run is nearing an end and the ships have been in service for over a decade so let’s take a moment and see how the promise of the LCS has panned out.




LCS Attribute





Arguably the number one design attribute of the LCS, the speed has been steadily reduced to a pedestrian 35-37 kts despite so much being sacrificed at the altar of speed.

Module Swapping


This was abandoned when stability and other issues were found to preclude rapid swapping.  The LCS is now a single function, non-swappable vessel.

Minimal Manning


The original minimal core crew of around 40 has ballooned up to 50-60 and now two crews per ship put the total core crew at well over one hundred.  Add in the module crew, helo detachment personnel, and shore maintenance crew and the manning figure is around 200+ per ship.



The rotating crew concept was supposed to enable extended forward deployments but the reality is that very few deployments of any kind have occurred.  Most LCS have remained pier side on a nearly permanent basis.



The LCS was originally targeted at $200M each which then increased to $220M and then on up to $750M or so before steadying out around $500M-$600M without modules.



After nearly two decades of development, no LCS has yet deployed with an effective module of any type despite each module having been dumbed down to nearly ineffective levels.



The initial plan called for 55 LCS.  The number was steadily reduced and currently stands at 35 vessels built, under construction, or on order.  The first four LCS have already been retired, leaving a current total of 31 and several of those have been designated non-deployable training vessels.




The LCS is the very epitome of a failed program.  Not a single promised capability has materialized and most capabilities have been significantly dumbed down.  The original concept has been completely abandoned and the entire LCS fleet has been reorganized multiple times along with total revamping of the crew training program.  Speed, range, and endurance have been downgraded.  The modules, which are the main weapon of the LCS, have failed completely and have been continually revised downward.  The ASW module was completely abandoned and re-conceptualized when the original concept was deemed a mistake.  The ASM and MCM modules are struggling with performance and weight issues.  The ASuW module has been hugely downgraded and has still not been fielded in any useful, combat-effective form.  The Freedom class variant is plagued by a systematic propulsion design flaw severe enough to cause the Navy to halt ship deliveries.  Most LCS that have put to sea have suffered major propulsion plant failures and many have suffered multiple failures.  The first four LCS have already been retired.  And the list goes on …


The promise of the LCS has utterly failed to materialize.  This is the very definition of abject failure.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Blue/Gold Manning Model Is Fundamentally Flawed

If you want to learn how to invest your money successfully, would you go to learn from someone who went bankrupt or someone who made a million dollars?  I think it’s safe to say that all of us would choose to learn from the millionaire.  It’s pretty simple, really.  Learn from those who have succeeded.  With that in mind, I was struck by the following statement from Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, Commander of Naval Surface Forces.


… the service is working hard to take lessons learned from years of struggles with the LCS and ensure the upcoming frigate program can hit the ground running. (1)


Referring back to the investing example, do we really want to take lessons from the most flawed ship program in modern history and use them to guide the frigate program?  Wouldn’t it make far more sense to apply lessons from a successful program … of course, we don’t actually have a successful program to learn from, do we?  So, that’s a problem.  Still …


“When we started building [the] frigate, we looked a lot at LCS and what we can learn – for example, the way we train on LCS, train to qualify, is a really good model and we’re going to leverage that for FFG-62.” (1)

Admiral, are you sure you want to apply the same training program that resulted in almost every LCS that put to sea being sidelined with major propulsion system problems, many of which were blamed on training deficiencies?  I would also remind the good Admiral that the entire LCS manning and training model was deemed a complete and total failure, was abandoned, and now a new model is being implemented with no discernible positive results, as yet.


Now, I understand that it is possible to glean negative lessons – how not to do something – from a failed program and there’s nothing wrong with that but the Navy is not using the LCS experience to do that.  They’re doing the opposite by pulling flawed results out of the LCS program, branding them as positive lessons, and using them to mold the frigate program.  Can anyone see any problem with that?


Moving on …


The following statement is the heart of this post:


“And then the manning, we just looked at what we’ve done on LCS, the blue/gold concept, and how we’re going to fit them out. And we think that is probably the way to get the most presence” out of the frigate hulls. (1)


Again, let us recall that the LCS program originally concocted a bizarre 3 crews for 2 ships (3:2) manning model in an attempt to keep the LCS actively deployed for longer periods with the three crews rotating and shuffling between two ships.  That, of course, failed miserably as the Navy quickly found that maintenance was being ignored and problems were simply being passed on to the next rotational crew.  There was no pride of ownership (or consequence of ownership) and it showed in degraded ships.  Of course, there was also the problem that the Navy couldn’t get an LCS to deploy long enough to rotate crews.


None of that mattered, in the end, since one of the various LCS study groups ultimately decided that the highly trained crews were actually not well trained and were responsible for multiple major system failures.  The entire manning model was abandoned and a Blue/Gold (2:1) model was adopted whereby two crews would rotate on a single ship - of course, that doubles the effective crew size and totally negates one of the major claimed benefits and justifications for the LCS which was minimal manning but, I digress ...


Let’s consider the implications of a Blue/Gold manning scheme.  Even if perfectly executed and the result is longer ship deployments by using rotating Blue/Gold crews, there’s a fundamental flaw with the concept and that is that the ships will be deployed longer!  The blindingly obvious result of longer deployments is less maintenance and shorter service lives.  We’ve already seen the detrimental effect of longer deployments demonstrated repeatedly across all ship classes that have tried extended deployments.


For example, the carriers have been routinely double deployed and extended deployed and when they finally get maintenance time they’ve been invariably found to require far more maintenance than anticipated.  Carriers have been nearly doubling their maintenance times and it’s resulted in carriers sitting pier side for months on end waiting for their turn at maintenance while other carriers are forced to do even more double deployments which further exacerbates the problem – a vicious cycle, if ever there was one.


The Navy is engaged in a fundamental contradiction.  They claim to want extended ship service lives (40+ years) and yet they want extended deployments which means less maintenance, shorter service lives, and premature retirement.


What we should want is the opposite of Blue/Gold manning with multiple crews and maximally deployed ships.  Instead, we should want single crews and ships that are minimally deployed and maximally maintained and trained.  In fact, ComNavOps has argued against any deployments (see, “Deployments or Missions?”).


Unless adequate maintenance time is built into the manning model, as with SSBNs, the Blue/Gold manning model is just a premature retirement and scrapping model.


The Navy is drawing lessons from a failed LCS program and now seeks to apply those failures to the frigate program.  Someday, we’ll look back and wonder how the frigate program got so screwed up.  Well, the answer is it started here and now and it was painfully obvious why it happened:  the Navy turned to a failed program for guidance.  Failure begets failure.  Don’t duplicate and propagate failure, abandon it!







(1)USNI News website, “SWO Boss: Study Pushing Further Changes to LCS, Informing Frigate Manning Plans”, Megan Eckstein, 10-Jan-2021,

Thursday, February 11, 2021

What If?

The US Navy and Marine Corps has grandiose plans for future combat based on sterile, clean, carefully orchestrated concepts of networks, sensors, and data all seamlessly and flawlessly linked to every unit and individual on the battlefield.  Our forces will have perfect situational awareness, perfect synchronicity, and a degree of omniscience almost unimaginable, all carefully controlled by massive artificial intelligence-aided command and control software. 


Let’s set aside the fantasy aspects of the preceding vision and just ask ourselves one simple question:  what if we find ourselves in a position where our assumptions are not valid?  What if?  … What then?


Here’s a highly relevant quote from retired Marine Gen. Charles Krulak,


“Where were we weak? We were weak in any kind of close terrain. If we got into urban environments, if we got into woods, if we got into any place where our systems, our overhead systems, couldn’t see, if they were able to get us dispersed, if we weren’t able to bring together our combat power, if we were dumb enough to continue to drive down the same roads, to walk like we did in Vietnam or drive like we did in Iraq, they would blow us up.” (1)


There it is;  the key assumption and key weakness in today’s vision of battlefield omniscience:  if we get into a situation where our systems can’t see.  If we get into a situation where our sensors can’t see or, seeing, can’t communicate their data or the data can’t be disseminated over the network.  If that happens, our entire concept of battlefield dominance breaks down and we lose.


Why might our systems not be able to ‘see’?  The list of possible reasons is long and, in the aggregate, quite likely:


Weather – Bad weather is still a reality and still negatively impacts sensor performance.  Clouds obscure and degrade lasers and satellites.  Rain impacts radar, infra-red (IR), lasers, and electro-optical (EO).  Fog impacts electro-optical, laser, and IR.  Waves degrade radar.  Wave clutter obscures targets.


Attrition – The enemy is going to do everything they can to destroy our sensors and platforms like the P-8 Poseidon, MQ-9 Reaper and similar large, slow, non-stealthy UAVs, MQ-8 Fire Scouts, etc. are going to have battlefield lifetimes measured in minutes, at best.


Obscurants – Multi-spectral chemical obscurant clouds hinder all forms of surveillance. 


Cyber – China, NKorea, Russia, and Iran have repeatedly proven their competence at conducting cyber warfare right now, during supposed peacetime, so one can only assume that the degree of cyber attacks will increase dramatically in a real war.  Those attacks will degrade and negate our communications, command and control, sensor nets, unmanned control systems, and many other aspects that we haven’t even thought of yet.  Won’t we be surprised when our F-35s are cyber attacked through their vaunted APG-81 AESA radar (if it can receive signals, it can be cyber attacked) and we lose control of various aircraft functions?  Also, if we go to war with any one of those enemies, you can be sure that the rest will drastically ramp up their cyber attacks against us in support of whoever we’re fighting.  We’ll be fighting a 4-front cyber war.


Jamming – Old fashioned and highly effective.  Jamming has evolved to become a computer controlled, frequency hopping weapon and, of course, there’s always good old, reliable, broad spectrum, high power jamming.  We’ll find our communications and signal links degraded or eliminated.


Fog of War – Since time immemorial, combatants have understood that nothing ever goes as planned and confusion reigns supreme on the battlefield.  To this day, despite all our vaunted technology, we constantly suffer confusion, often with fatal results, during our daily, peacetime operations.  We suffer friendly fire, ship collisions, uncertainty about whether we were actually attacked by anti-ship missiles (the Yemen affair), and so on.  In war, our UAVs will be shot down, our comm links will be disrupted, our networks will fail, and we’ll be completely confused.  Confusion is the normal state of affairs on the battlefield and all of our technology can do nothing to change that.


Cover – Buildings, foliage, caves, tunnels, camouflage netting, etc. all provide cover, to a greater or lesser extent, from radar, IR, EO, lasers, and satellites. 


Decoys – Decoys don’t hide anything but they degrade sensor performance by presenting false targets, adding to the previously discussed confusion.



What if any, many, or all of these mitigating conditions exist on a battlefield (and they will ! )?  Our omniscient sensing will be suddenly rendered suspect or useless.  What then?  Our entire foundation of future battle is based on a concept whose failings and vulnerabilities are readily anticipatable.  What then? 


What if our sensors, networks, communications, and artificial intelligence command and control systems are degraded or rendered useless?  What do we actually have to fall back on?  Frighteningly, the answer is … nothing.  We have no fall back mode of operation.  No alternatives.  No safety net.


What should be the ‘what if’ solution?  What do you fall back on when everything else falls apart?  Why, firepower, of course … broad area, high explosive, non-precision, erase entire grid squares, raw firepower.  Firepower makes up for a whole lot of mistakes, capability gaps, sensor failures, and intelligence shortcomings.  Not sure exactly where the enemy is?  No problem … blanket any suspect areas with high explosives and you’ve solved the problem.  You can figure out later which area they were actually in … if you can find any pieces of them large enough to identify.


The problem is that we’ve been eliminating firepower.  The Marines have shed all their tanks and much of their artillery.  We’ve allowed our anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, to become obsolete with only the possibility of the LRASM to replace it and budget constraints make that a dubious proposition.  We’re dropping thousands of VLS cells as we begin retiring Ticonderogas and Burkes and replacing them with small, weak, unmanned vessels.  We’re dropping the already weak 5” gun in favor of the 57mm overgrown machine gun.  We’ve got a looming submarine shortfall.  We’ve significantly cut back our SSBN deterrence in terms of both numbers of subs and numbers of missile tubes.  The Marines have eliminated their large 120 mm mortars.  Our offensive mine inventory is almost non-existent.  The SSGN is being retired without replacement.  The Perry class frigates were replaced by the non-combat LCS.  And the list goes on.


Any good battle operation planner routinely plans for failure scenarios, for the the things that can go wrong.  Contingency plans are drawn up to account  for and compensate for the unexpected and for the things that go wrong because … things always go wrong.  This is just good, solid, battle planning and yet, we have no such contingency plan for when our entire future combat model falls apart – and it will.  The only question is to what extent it will fail and considering the sheer number of failure modes, the extent of failure is likely to be significant.  The contingency plan should be pure, raw firepower and yet we’re divesting ourselves of firepower.  We need to reverse this trend and begin emphasizing firepower as we always have in the past. 


What’s the downside to building our firepower back up?  There isn’t one!  Worst case – meaning if it turns out that our networks work flawlessly – we’re left with excess firepower that didn’t get used.  Nothing wrong with that.







(1)Defense One website, “Want to Understand the Future of War? Talk to Chuck Krulak”, Tobias Naegele, 3-Feb-2018,