Monday, February 28, 2022

Lightning Carrier

The notion of a lightning carrier keeps coming up.  So many people are enamored of this 'lightning carrier' concept without really understanding its capabilities or limitations.  I guess it’s time to examine this concept.


So, what is a lightning carrier?  For this discussion, the concept refers to the use of a big-deck amphibious ship operating an all fixed wing, F-35B, air group.  An example would be an America (LHA) or Wasp (LHD) class amphibious ship with an air wing of around 18-22 F-35B. 


Alternatively, though less common, proponents envision an amphibious ship with a ski ramp and arresting gear allowing the ability to operate F-18 Hornets.  However, this variation on the concept is simply not feasible and we’ll address that a bit further on.


Any discussion of a lightning carrier must start and end with the air wing.  In fact, the term ‘lightning carrier’ really means ‘lightning air wing’ because a carrier, any carrier, is its air wing.  With that in mind, let's review some of the limitations and constraints of a lightning air wing.



Lightning Air Wing


-The F-35B would operate at half the range and payload of an F-35C which is, itself, inadequate for the Pacific theater.  F-35 fanboys won’t accept this but it was clearly stated in an interview with the Ford program manager and documented in an older post.[1]  The range/payload limitation, alone, is reason enough not to pursue lightning carriers!


-A lightning carrier cannot operate a tanker aircraft and the lack of a tanker only emphasizes the aircraft’s lack of range.  Even if a tanker could magically be added to the air wing it would take away a combat aircraft slot from an already meager air wing.  It is possible to take off light on fuel and refuel after take off from some other, unspecified tanker source but there is no way to take off light in weapons and load more in the air!


-Similarly, the lack of an E-2 Hawkeye (AEW) precludes effective air wing control, combat direction, and situational awareness.  It has been proposed that a V-22 could be equipped with a radar as a substitute, however, any AEW V-22 would be a poor man's version of an E-2, at the very best.  It would have a smaller, less powerful radar - whatever type that would be - with resultant shorter effective sensor range which would, necessarily then, place it closer to danger to achieve the required detection and discrimination.  It would lack the room for sufficient consoles, computers, communications gear, and operators for the battle management function which is the true purpose of an E-2.  It would lack the endurance to provide long term coverage.  In short, it would be nearly useless in a high end combat scenario.  It is this same lack that renders the British carrier and air wing nearly pointless for anything other than very low end, low threat work.  Even if a V-22(AEW) were developed, each one added to the air wing would remove a combat aircraft.


-The above also applies to electronic warfare (EW) aircraft although it is, at least, possible to imagine an EW version of the F-35B being developed someday.  Of course, an F-35B(EW) would, again, eliminate a combat aircraft slot.


-We’ve previously demonstrated, in multiple posts, that a carrier needs to retain around two dozen aircraft for self/group defense.  Given that a lightning carrier can only accommodate around twenty aircraft, what does that leave for offensive operations?  Nothing!  At best, the carrier can barely defend itself and without AEW, EW, and tanker aircraft, not even that.  A lightning carrier would exist only to defend its existence which is pointless.


-Now, consider a lightning carrier with a theoretical maximum of 20 F-35B.  Now, add two AEW-modified helo/V-22 and two tankers of some unspecified sort.  That’s four aircraft added to the air wing which means four F-35B combat aircraft have to be subtracted.  That leaves a usable combat component of 16 F-35B.  Is that a useful combat component?  Is it worth operating – and risking – a $4B ship, 1000+ crew, and several escort vessels just to operate 16 F-35B aircraft with limited range and payload?



Lightning Carrier


We’ve examined the air wing.  Now, let’s take a look at some characteristics of the ship, itself.


-With no cats or arresting gear, half the deck is dedicated to landing spots.  Below is a photo of the USS America during an Oct 2019 Navy experiment in which the ship was operated as a lightning carrier.  Note the jam-packed deck that contained only 13 F-35Bs and note that half the deck is consumed by the landing spots which are kept clear for normal or emergency landings.


USS America Oct 2019

-Some have postulated a ski ramp on an amphibious ship in order to operate F-18s.  Boeing claims that an F-18 can launch from a ski ramp although the conditions of launch (weight, weapons, etc.) are unknown.  Boeing tested the concept from a land based mock up of a ramp as shown in the photo below.[2]  The maximum weapons load that I’ve seen in photos of the tests show two small bombs.  The internal fuel load of the aircraft is unknown.


Hornet Ski Ramp Test

Boeing conducted F-18 ski ramp take offs as a preliminary to possible sales of the aircraft to India.


A ski-jump launch may well impose a penalty in terms of the payload the jet can take off with, but Boeing says it has conducted multiple tests with different, undisclosed, kinds of payloads.


According to the company, these tests “show that the Super Hornet would do well with the Indian Navy’s Short Takeoff but Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) system and validate earlier simulation studies.”[3]


Note that Boeing carefully omits any information about payloads which is, undoubtedly, due to the fact that the ski launch requires reduced payloads/fuel.  If it did not, Boeing would be loudly and proudly trumpeting the fact … but they’re not.


A ramp might, at least, enable the use of EA-18G (EW) aircraft but could they take off from a ski ramp with a full load of EW pods?  That’s unknown.  Regardless, every EA-18G means one less combat aircraft from an already very small air wing.


Ski ramps take up huge amounts of deck space and, in the case of operating F-18s, would also require conventional arresting gear which, without an angled deck, prohibitively ratchets up the danger factor of recovery when the inevitable bolter occurs straight down the deck and into the aircraft parked and operating forward.  Danger aside, the combination of ski ramp and arresting gear would consume ¾ of the available deck space which would severely reduce the number of embarked aircraft.


In fact, from visual estimation, I’m fairly sure that a ski ramp and arrested landing area could not fit on an America/Wasp class ship given that they are around 200 ft shorter than a conventional carrier and do not have angled decks.


Below is an overhead schematic of the USS America with my wild estimates of the area needed for a minimal ski ramp and arrested landing area.  In fact, the ski ramp area is probably too narrow for safe take offs.  It should probably be the width of the bow.


Lightning Carrier Ski Ramp and Arrested Landing Gear Area


For comparison purposes, here’s a photo of an Indian carrier (932 ft long, overall) with both a ski ramp (the entire bow!) and an angled recovery (almost the entire midships and stern!).  There is simply not much room left for parking the air wing.  Indeed, the air wing is only 26 MiG-29K plus some helos and that’s for a carrier that is nearly the size of a US supercarrier.


Indian Carrier - Note Ski Ramp and Angled Deck Arrested Landing Area


-An unmodified amphibious ship could operate a maximum of 18-24 aircraft.  The largest amphibious ship, USS America, intentionally designed for maximum fixed wing capacity, can only operate 22-24 aircraft according to the Navy.  Any other amphibious ship will have even less aircraft capacity.


-An amphibious ship could be modified and rebuilt to operate larger numbers of aircraft but it would require a true rebuild of the ship involving large scale structural changes such as removing bulkheads to create hangar space, reinforcing other areas to compensate for the removed bulkheads, creating new compartments for aircraft maintenance and parts storage, creation of new magazines for added weapons storage, likely construction of additional munitions elevators, creation of additional aircraft control and communication compartments, a greatly enhanced hangar fire suppression system, and so on.  In other words, it would be hideously expensive, with costs likely rivaling or exceeding the original purchase.



Opportunity Cost


So many people are fixated on the idea of comparing our carriers to some other country’s carriers or some multiple number of other country’s carriers and proclaiming that if we have more naval aircraft then we are somehow superior.  Well, unless some country or countries challenge us to a one-on-one carrier match, it’s utterly irrelevant how many carriers or aircraft we have compared to someone else.  What matters is how our overall military force compares to an enemy and, within that context, how our carriers contribute to that overall force and to our overall military strategy (you know … assuming we had one).


The relevant question, then, is does a lightning carrier with its acquisition/conversion cost and operating cost of a crew of a thousands plus a dozen or so escorts justify the meager contributions of twenty or so  significantly limited aircraft and, more importantly, could the cost of this contribution be more effectively spent on any of dozens or hundreds of alternatives?  This is the opportunity cost.  Could the immense operating cost of a lightning carrier group buy us more and better overall military firepower in some other form?  For example, for the operating cost of a lightning carrier group, we could buy untold numbers of cruise missiles, or we could significantly harden multiple forward bases, or we could buy umpteen thousands of tanks, or many dozens of dedicated minesweeper ships, or  … the list of alternatives is nearly endless.


One of the arguments put forth for the conversion of amphibious ships into lightning carriers is that, if we’re getting rid of them anyway because of the Marine’s refocusing on small, hidden, forward bases - and there is no evidence of that, yet - then we could, at least, get some stop-gap use out of them as lightning carriers until they’re retired instead of retiring them early.  Again, this is an opportunity cost issue that goes back to the operating cost for a very meager capability.  Early retirement would free up a lot of operating cost funds that could be applied to any number of other weapon systems, each demonstrably more effective than a handful of limited aircraft.



Supplementing CVNs


Another argument for lightning carriers is that, while they are not equal to a conventional carrier, they could supplement conventional carriers by adding their small numbers of aircraft to the CVNs carrier group and the CVN can, in turn, cover the shortcomings of the lightning carrier. 


Good grief, NO!  A limited, constrained 'carrier' added to a CVN doesn't enhance the CVN, it pulls down the overall capabilities of the CVN group.  This would be analogous to adding a high school basketball player to a professional team.  The high school player doesn't add anything to the pro team, he pulls the overall effectiveness of the pro team down.


By having to split and further spread the CVN's AEW, EW, and tankers to cover the shortcomings of the lightning carrier, the overall effectiveness of the CVN is diluted and decreased.  At best, the handful of limited capability aircraft on the lightning carrier can defend their own carrier.  The lightning carrier would, as we previously noted, exist to defend its existence … the self-licking ice cream cone.



Amphibious Support


While a lightning carrier offers little to the high end air/strike war, it can offer a potentially useful short range strike capability in support of amphibious operations.  Twenty or so F-35Bs operating in support of ground combat could prove somewhat useful although, again, the limited payload and inability to carry some of the larger munitions internally (2000 lb munitions, for example) limit the usefulness.  High end ground combat requires constant ‘artillery’ support and aircraft, any aircraft, can only provide that support sporadically and in very small quantities.  Still, the concept offers some degree of usefulness although at an enormous operating cost.  Think about how many self-propelled artillery vehicles could be purchased for the operating cost of a lightning carrier!





Despite the enthusiastic support of so many naval observers, a rational examination of the lightning carrier concept clearly demonstrates that the combat capabilities of the carrier and its air wing are so minimal that it is not worth the operating cost.  More damning is the opportunity cost associated with the concept which shows that we could acquire far more combat capability, in any number of alternate forms, for the operating cost than can be supplied by the lightning carrier and air wing.


It seems clear that the limited combat capability makes the lightning carrier appropriate for only low end, low threat operations which then takes us right back to the opportunity cost issue.  It’s not even suitable for peacetime patrol type operations because we categorically refuse to use force during routine peacetime operations.  That being the case, there’s no point having a carrier and aircraft around because we won’t use them.


Unfortunately, despite the enthusiasm so many people have for the concept, it just can’t be justified.  It brings too little combat capability for far too great an operating and opportunity cost.











Friday, February 25, 2022

Case Study on the Failure of Deterrence in Ukraine

As we’ve seen, the United States attempted to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.  However, despite the combined military might of all of Europe plus the mammoth presence of the US forces based in Europe, Russia went ahead and invaded Ukraine.  Obviously, deterrence failed.  This failure offers us a chance to analyze the concept of deterrence and how deterrent efforts were applied and why they failed.  Let’s examine this case objectively.


Note:  This is a discussion of deterrence in the abstract.  None of this discussion should be viewed as a judgment or stance on the desirability of supporting Ukraine, or not.  That’s a separate issue.  The point is that the US made the attempt to deter Russia and it failed.  We can learn from that.


What deterrent actions did we attempt?


Deterrent Actions


Forward Presence.  Europe is the very definition of forward presence.  The number of troops, vehicles, aircraft, and ships surrounding Russia is almost uncountable and yet Russia was undeterred.  Why?


Proponents of forward presence – meaning overseas bases and forward deployed ships – claim that our forward presence is a deterrent.  This is the proffered justification for the endless, soul-sucking, maintenance-shredding, several month long deployments the Navy conducts.  We have forward presence all over the world.  In Europe, the US has something on the order of 60,000 troops and a couple of hundred aircraft.  In addition, the US has Army divisions based in the continental US that can deploy anywhere in the world in 24 hrs and Air Force aircraft that can strike anywhere in the world in 24 hrs.


It would be difficult to achieve a greater degree of forward presence than that which faces Russia and yet Russia was undeterred.  Why?


Clearly, forward presence, alone, is not a deterrent.


Sanctions.  The US threatened Russia with sanctions but publicly removed the most significant ones from consideration.  The remaining sanction options simply offered no significant pain to Putin.  Beyond that, Russia/Putin has never been impressed or influenced by sanctions so there was no reason to believe that watered down sanctions would accomplish anything … and they didn’t.  Putin clearly recognized US sanction threats for the hollow threats they were.


Aid.  The Russian invasion did not occur instantaneously, with no warning.  The military buildup took place over an extended period.  The US had the opportunity to supply Ukraine with sufficient weapons to possibly act as a deterrent but, ultimately, opted not to.  A RAND blog article cites US military aid to Ukraine in the amount of $2.5B since 2014.[1]  That averages out to around $310M/yr.  Aid was limited to lightweight arms and supporting equipment such as radios.[1]  Thus, the aid provided to Ukraine was insufficient in quantity or impact to provide a deterrent effect.


Information Warfare.  The USMC and the Navy, among other military and governmental organizations, have set up information warfare groups.[2,3]  The US’ attempt to conduct information warfare (whatever that might mean) was a total failure.  We failed to shape the narrative and failed to win the global perception battle.  We issued a steady stream of confusing and conflicting statements about ‘minor incursions’ and limited sanctions.  Our information warfare efforts (again, whatever that might mean) were an abject failure.


Willpower.  ComNavOps has repeatedly stated that presence, without the willingness to use that presence, is useless and this was an object lesson about the validity of that premise.  Of all the countries and forces amassed against Russia, none were willing to use their force.  That being the case, they may as well have disbanded and saved the cost of maintaining forces.  For the US’ part, the Biden administration made it crystal clear that they would not respond in any significant way to a Russian invasion.  This unwillingness to respond with forceful action is not just a Biden administration failing.  Under previous administrations, the Iranians seized our riverine boats and crews because they knew the US would not respond.  The Iranians shot down and seized our UAVs because they knew the US would not respond.  The Chinese seized our UUV because they knew the US would not respond.  And the list goes on endlessly.


It is likely not a coincidence that Russia chose the Obama administration as the time to annex Crimea and the Biden administration as the time to invade Ukraine rather than the Trump administration.  This has nothing to do with Democrat/Republican politics and everything to do with geopolitical willpower regardless of administration. 


All the deterrent actions in the world will not work if they are not backed up by the willingness to take forceful action, both militarily and non-kinetically.





A consideration of the above leads to the following inexorable conclusion:


There is no such thing as deterrence as a stand alone entity.  To have any hope, whatsoever, of an effective deterrent effect, the deterrent effort must be backed by ironclad willpower and the willingness – even eagerness – to use force.


This, then, leads to the obvious conclusion that the only truly effective deterrent is force and that really means that the enemy (the target of the attempted deterrence) must believe, deep in his psyche, that we will use force and will do so in a very painful manner.  That belief can only come from having witnessed or been the subject of such displays of force in the past.


Without the enemy’s absolute belief that we will use force, no other action or threat has the slightest deterrent effect.


Now, not all forceful deterrent effects need to be kinetic military actions - although that is the preferred action and the root of truly effective deterrence.  There are other actions that can be ‘forceful’.


Cyber Attacks.  We could have conducted massive cyber attacks on Russia during the build up phase.  After all, Russia is the source of most of the crippling ransomware attacks on the US so they’re long overdue for retaliation.  The Russian government is well aware of, and sanctions, the ransomware attacks.  Widespread cyber disruptions would have hindered Russian military actions, caused unrest among the population, and refocused Putin’s attention on domestic emergencies.


Trade Embargo.  We could have halted all trade with Russia and strong armed the rest of the West into co-operating.  The impact of that, alone, would likely have dissuaded Putin.


Economic War.  We could have frozen all Russian banking assets/monies, halted all economic transactions, and conducted a coordinated campaign to devalue the Russian currency. 


While these actions would, potentially, be effective to varying degrees, there is still no substitute for punishing, lethal, military action.





This is a Navy blog so how does all of this relate to the US Navy?


  • Forward deployments clearly provide no deterrent effect and are not only useless but are significantly counter-productive both in terms of trying to stabilize a region and in terms of negatively impacting our own combat readiness by increasing wear and tear on men and ships while deferring required maintenance.
  • If we want to have any chance at providing a deterrent effect from forward deployment, we simply must begin applying force.  Our philosophy must change from appeasement to forceful confrontation and our rules of engagement must be modified to allow disproportionate, escaltory, pre-emptive and reactive force to be applied so as to instill bone-deep, painful lessons in enemies.  We must lose our fear of escalation and embrace it as our standard.  If someone shoots down our UAV, we need to destroy an entire airbase of theirs.  If someone captures our riverine boat, we need to destroy an entire naval base.  If someone points a rifle at us, we need to kill every enemy soldier in sight.  The bone-deep lesson is that you don’t screw with the US.  That, and that alone, will offer the possibility of effective deterrence in the future.
  • We need to design and procure weapons and equipment that can be used in the ‘short of war’ region of the spectrum.  See, “Island Showdown”.





World events don’t happen in isolation.  China is taking careful note of what has transpired with the Ukraine situation.  Taiwan has to be watching the Ukraine events in sheer terror.  The US/West lack of response has given China the go-ahead to invade Taiwan with no fear of any significant response or repercussion.  Taiwan is as good as gone.



Note:  If you care to comment, be warned:  we are not going to discuss partisan politics and I will moderate such with a heavy hand.  If you care to comment, do so with data and logic, not emotions.




[1]The RAND Blog, Charap and Boston, 21-Jan-2022,





Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Commandant Berger on Deterrence

In a War on the Rocks website interview, Commandant Berger offered some thoughts on deterrence.  As you know, ComNavOps believes deterrence, in the form of forward deployment, is pure fantasy and a complete failure (how’s that forward presence and deterrence working out with Russia?) and we’ve proven it in repeated posts:


Here’s a partial list of deterrence posts:


“Forward Presence Deterrent Effect Disproved”

“Forward Presence – Deterrent or Provocation?”

“Not Deterred in the Least”



Now, here’s Commandant Berger’s thoughts on deterrence.[1]


Because from one argument, you could say that deterrence has worked. We’re not at war with China or Russia today, or Iran, so deterrence is working.[1]


I think that’s too simplistic a read, because if they’re advancing their objectives and ours are eroding, I would argue that deterrence is not working. It is working from a literal, “we’re not at hot war with them,” but it’s not working if their objectives are moving forward, and ours are moving backwards. I don’t think that’s winning at all.[1]


I disagree with Commandant Berger about, essentially, everything he’s done and is trying to do.  However, he’s not wrong about the failure of our attempts at deterrence.


Berger goes beyond that blindingly logical thought and poses some intriguing questions about deterrence.


What about deterrence by entanglement? What about deterrence by detection? What about all the different variations that we ought to think about? Those need to be debated. Those have to be discussed. Those have to be tried. What does deterrence by entanglement mean? What does deterrence by detection mean in practice? What does it mean, in the context, in other words, of not an open, hot conflict, but in gray zone every week, active campaigning … what’s going to work?[1]


Unfortunately, he didn’t go into any detail about these various levels and types of deterrence and how they could be implemented.  I’m inclined to believe that they are just variations on appeasement because it seems highly unlikely that we would back them up with force and, as we have demonstrated repeatedly, presence without action is pointless.  However, the questions alone are intriguing enough to warrant some thought.


Deterrence by entanglement?  What is that?  How would it work?  Could it be effective?


Deterrence by detection?  Again, what is that?  How would it work?  Could it be effective?


I’m intrigued.


Entanglement.  I have no idea what Berger thinks this means but I could imagine scenarios where we attempt to make an enemy’s actions so complex, so difficult, so consuming, that it creates a black hole for the enemy that sucks down resources and ties up their efforts to the point that they cannot disengage and their endeavor becomes net negative for them.  One could argue that this is exactly what happened to the US in Vietnam and the Global War on Terror.  Perhaps it happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, as well?  Is this deterrence?  Is it likely to succeed?


Detection.  Again, I have no idea what Berger thinks this means but I could imagine scenarios where the mere exposure of an enemy’s intent and actions might stop those actions.  For example, exposing the Chinese fishing fleet incursions in a major way – as opposed to the useless, sternly worded protests that we routinely do – might lead to cessation of the incursions.  This would likely have to involve a degree of force.  For example, a naval surface group riding to the ‘rescue’ of the Philippines in ‘repelling’ an incursion with full media coverage of the event and backed by a major military-conducted information campaign (the US military has stood up exactly this kind of media/information groups (roundly mocked by ComNavOps!) so here, perhaps, is a legitimate use for them?  Once relentlessly exposed on the world stage for the illegal, war-like act it is, China might drop the use of fishing fleet incursions.  Is this deterrence?  Is it likely to succeed?


As I said, I’m quite dubious about this but it is intriguing enough to warrant some serious thought.  Certainly, what we’re doing now isn’t working even a little bit so some alternative thinking is more than justified.







Monday, February 21, 2022

Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV) CONOPS

The Navy is embarking on a program to acquire dozens/hundreds of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) with [** warning: shocking news ahead! **] no concept of operations (CONOPS) to guide the design.  Okay, that was probably the least shocking news you could have read, right?  I mean, the Navy hasn’t developed a CONOPS for anything other than admiralty promotions in many decades so why would this be any different?  We’ve seen from the LCS program what happens when you commit to a full production program with no CONOPS and no prototype.  Way to learn a lesson, Navy.


Since the Navy won’t develop a CONOPS, let’s see what, if anything, we can come up with, along those lines, for a UUV.


The Navy is developing dozens of different UUV designs in many different sizes.  Most are just glorified torpedoes.  We’ll ignore those as the minor pieces of equipment that they are.  Instead, we’ll focus on the largest UUV, the extra large unmanned underwater vehicle (XLUUV, also called Orca).


… the Navy defines XLUUVs as UUVs with a diameter of more than 84 inches, meaning that XLUUVs are to be too large to be launched from a manned Navy submarine.  Consequently, XLUUVs instead will transported to a forward operating port and then launched from pier. The Department of the Navy’s March 16, 2021, unmanned campaign framework document states that the XLUUV will be designed “to accommodate a variety of large payloads….”  The Navy testified on March 18, 2021, that mines will be the initial payload for XLUUVs.  More specifically, the Navy wants to use XLUUVs to, among other things, covertly deploy the Hammerhead mine, a planned mine that would be tethered to the seabed and armed with an antisubmarine torpedo, broadly similar to the Navy’s Cold War-era CAPTOR (encapsulated torpedo) mine.[1]


The XLUUV will be based on the Boeing Echo Voyager with some Navy-specific modifications.  That being the case, let’s take a look at the Echo Voyager.


Echo Voyager is roughly the size of a subway car—it is 51 feet long and has a rectangular cross section of 8.5 feet by 8.5 feet, a weight in the air of 50 tons, and a range of up to 6,500 nautical miles. It can accommodate a modular payload section up to 34 feet in length, increasing its length to as much as 85 feet. A 34-foot modular payload section provides about 2,000 cubic feet of internal payload volume; a shorter (14-foot) section provides about 900 cubic feet.[1]


Boeing Echo Voyager

Echo Voyager has a maximum speed of 7.8 kts [2] and uses a combination diesel-electric propulsion/power system.  On battery, the vessel has a range of 150 miles at 2.6 kts whereupon it must surface and recharge its batteries using its diesel generator. 


With a single fuel module in its payload bay, Boeing claims the range is 6,500 miles.[2]  I’ve found no information about the size of the fuel module.  The statement that fuel modules are stored in the payload bay is important because that means that the effective payload space is less than the stated specification of 2,000 cu.ft.


The vessel has an obstacle avoidance sonar and inertial guidance.


The maximum dive depth is 11,000 ft.[2]


In 2019, the Navy contracted with Boeing to produce four XLUUVs for $43M which is just under $11M apiece.[2]  The contract was later expanded to include a fifth vessel.  Funding will come from a Navy Research and Development account similar to the funding mechanism used for the first two LCS.[1]


The preceding description suggests certain operational characteristics that will influence the CONOPS and selection of appropriate missions.



CONOPS Characteristics


Speed – As noted, the vessel is very slow.  The maximum speed is 7.8 kts and, presumably, the economical cruising speed is much less.  Given the statement about the range on battery being 150 miles at 2.6 kts, this suggests that the cruising speed is 2-3 kts.  This has a major impact on operations.  For example, pier launch and lack of forward bases means that for Chinese theater operations the nearest launch point (disregarding Japan which is not a guaranteed base of combat operations), Guam, would be around 2100 miles from the South China Sea.  Even at the maximum speed of 7.8 kts, the transit time to the South China Sea would be around ten days and a more economical cruising speed of, say, 3 kts, would result in around a thirty day transition time.


Payload – This is a small vessel with a correspondingly small usable payload.  Consider the Navy’s main postulated mission:  laying Hammerhead mines.  How many mines could fit in a 2000 cu.ft. payload space?  I can’t find any specs on the Hammerhead capsule size, however, there is a picture of the Hammerhead package so a reasonable estimate of the package size is possible.  Knowing the Mk54 torpedo size, we can visually estimate the overall package size.  Assuming the package is sized to fit a 21” torpedo tube, this gives us approximate dimensions of 21” x 21” x 19 ft, for a total of 58 cu.ft.  Simple arithmetic tells us that the maximum number of mines that could be carried in the 2000 cu.ft. payload space would be 34.  However, there needs to be room to move and secure the mines during loading.  It would be reasonable to assume that half the payload space would be dedicated to movement and securing the mines which would reduce the capacity to 17 mines.  Some sort of mine handling and ejection mechanism is required and that would further reduce the number of mines.  If the fuel module is also stored in the main payload section, the number of mines is even smaller.  A reasonable estimate would be a mine capacity of around 12.  See, ref [3] for an interesting discussion of this.


Hammerhead Mine Capsule

Range – On the face of it, the claimed range of 6,500 is excellent and suggests that not only can the vessel reach its operating area and return (4200 miles round trip from Guam to the South China Sea) but it will have enough excess range to effectively operate for an extended period within the operating area.  However, as noted, the submerged range is only 150 miles on a single battery charge.  Thus, in order to achieve the claimed range of 6,500 miles, the vessel will have to surface frequently … a very bad requirement for a submarine operating in enemy waters!


Communications – I’ve found no mention of communications in any description of the vessel which implies that once launched, the XLUUV will be largely autonomous.  Aside from being very dubious about the success of a truly autonomous vessel for any length of time, this suggests that the vessel’s usefulness in the surveillance role will be limited as that would require frequent and lengthy transmissions from the UUV back to its port - communications that would quickly pinpoint the vessel’s location for the enemy and given the UUV’s very slow speed, it would be quickly destroyed.



Concept of Operations (CONOPS)


In attempting to assemble a CONOPS, what do we have to work with?  We have a small vessel with a small payload (small on the scale of contributing to a war effort).  The vessel, itself, is very slow and unresponsive.  As with any submerged vessel, communications will be difficult once a mission is started. 


So, what does that suggest for a CONOPS?


It suggests that the only viable missions are those that are very slow developing and can afford to wait for very long periods of time and can be effective with very small payloads.


While various articles have postulated virtually every mission ever conceived in the history of warfare, there are only two viable missions that meet the criteria and constraints described above:


Mine Laying – An XLUUV can be effective as a mine layer but with a significant caveat: it is only useful and effective for a very small area.  Typically, mines are deployed in the thousands to tens of thousands for a single field.  The very small payload of the XLUUV precludes using it to lay a large field no matter how many XLUUVs we acquire.  That only leaves point mining of a very small area such as a channel or entrance to a harbor or a narrow passage between islands.  For example, one could imagine productively mining the entrance/exit to a Chinese naval port.


Surveillance – Given the combination of limited sensors, limited field of view, very slow speed (inability to follow a target), and communication issues, the only type of surveillance mission that would make sense is monitoring a very small, restricted area as described in the mine laying section.  In such a scenario, the XLUUV becomes, essentially, a static sensor and targets come to it (or not – that’s useful information, too).  The caution is that any important and restricted area will be heavily patrolled by the enemy.  Whether the craft is quiet enough to escape close scrutiny is unknown.  It will have to be extremely quiet since it will have no ability to fight back or maneuver to avoid detection.  Further, the extremely limited battery life that requires frequent surfacing to recharge is a major liability in this mission.  Without knowing exactly how stealthy the XLUUV can be (factoring in frequent surfacing for recharging), surveillance is a pretty iffy mission.





Given the lack of worthwhile missions, why is the Navy so enthusiastic about building these UUVs?  What is their rationale?  Cheapness, compared to a real submarine, is obviously a major factor and if the XLUUV had even a fraction of a real sub’s capability, this might make sense … but it does not. 


Does the Navy really view these as a cheap replacement for real subs?  That would be hard to believe but we’re replacing Burkes with small, defenseless, unmanned surface vessels so … maybe.  Could they, in some twisted way, view them as a cheap, indirect replacement for surface ships in the overall force structure? 


Is it technology for its own sake? 


Is it sheer, unmitigated stupidity?


A handful for the limited mine laying mission is reasonable but any more than that cannot be justified and yet the Navy seems committed to a large production run and making these a significant portion of the future fleet structure.  It’s baffling.





It is very difficult to postulate a worthwhile concept of operations other than the very limited mine laying mission described above, although that single mission does have some value.  That does not, however, seem to justify the acquisition of more than a handful of XLUUVs – certainly not the large program the Navy seems to want to pursue.


Acquisition of this XLUUV will require a supply/support logistics train, administration, operators, specialized equipment, specialized maintenance, etc.  Does the limited scope of useful missions justify all this?  I’m doubtful.


This seems to be yet another case of the Navy jumping on the unmanned technology bandwagon for no demonstrable good reason;  technology for the sake of technology.


This also continues the trend of minimizing the value of raw firepower in combat, as the XLUUV offers no significant firepower.


At best, this is a niche mission/craft with a significant cost in terms of acquisition and support.





[1]Congressional Research Service, “Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress”, 19-Jan-2022




[3]Strikepod Systems website, 1-Jun-2021,,very%20shallow%20water%2C%20or%20possibly%20the%20surf%20zone.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

At-Sea Billet Gaps

Several years ago, the Navy had several thousand at-sea billet gaps but vowed to improve the situation.  Today, in a USNI News website article, the Navy acknowledged that they have 5,000-6,000 gaps for at-sea billets.


The Navy has 5,000 to 6,000 gaps for sailors at-sea billets, the service’s senior personnel officer told a House panel on Tuesday.


The Navy currently has 145,000 billets at sea, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell said during a House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel hearing. Following the fatal collisions of 2017, the Navy added 23,800 sea billets in an effort to buttress manning on surface ships. The service is in the midst of assigning sailors to the emerging positions but is falling short by 5,000 to 6,000, he said.[1]



Added 23,800 sea billets?  For a fleet of 296 ships (the latest Naval Vessel Register figure), that’s an average of 80 billets per ship.  Given that the Navy acknowledges that its ships are still significantly undermanned, after adding 23,800 billets, how badly undermanned were we?  The implication is staggering!


For historical comparison, in 2014, Adm. Thomas Copeman noted that the Navy had an at-sea billet gap of around 8,000 (see, “Manpower Shortage”).


The number of gaps has decreased somewhat, from 8,000 to 5-6,000 so that’s a bit of an improvement.  If some twenty thousand additional at-sea billets have been added then it’s more of an improvement than it would seem on the face of it though still well short of what’s needed.





Before we leave this, something is bothering me.  The claimed number of at-sea billets seems awfully high … too high.  Let’s do a quick calculation.  Using the current Naval Vessel Register ship counts, we have the following number of ships and ball park crew sizes.  Let’s add them up and see what we get for at-sea billets.



Ship Type

No. of Ships

Crew Size

Total Crew

































Other Amphib














Total =





Our count leaves us around 45,000 billets short of the claimed number.  Also, bear in mind that dozens of ships are currently idled, awaiting maintenance and have only greatly reduced caretaker crews so our count is likely too high by a fair amount.  Even further, our carrier crew size includes the air wing which is half the carrier total.  Eliminating that would bring the count down to 75,530.


I have no idea what else the Navy is including in their 145,000 count but it smacks of waste and accounting trickery though I have no idea to what end.


I also note that the Navy’s infrastructure manning (acquisition, medical, administration, benefits, human resources, etc.) makes up 42% of the total manning per the Department of Defense 2020 personnel report.[2]  We’re short of manning for at-sea billets and yet 42% of the Navy is infrastructure?  Surely we could transfer the missing 5-6,000 personnel from desks to ships to eliminate the shortage?





[1]USNI News website, “CNP Nowell: Navy Short More Than 5,000 Sailors for At-Sea Billets”, Heather Mongilio, 9-Feb-2022,


[2]Department of Defense, “DEFENSE MANPOWER REQUIREMENTS REPORT, Fiscal Year 2020”, April 2019,