Thursday, June 30, 2022

No Fuel, No Fly

One of the topics that keeps cropping up is airfield attacks and one of the most common rejoinders to discussions about attacking an airfield is that a runway can be repaired in hours so, therefore, it’s not possible to put an air base out of commission for any length of time and attacks are pointless.  Well, this is a complete fallacy so let’s address it and dispose of it.


How can an attacker halt the operation of an air base?  Well, the way to answer that is to list all the things an air base needs in order to operate.  In no particular order, some of the major needs include:


  • Runways
  • Aircraft
  • Munitions for the aircraft
  • Maintenance facilities
  • Spare parts
  • Fuel
  • Mission planning facilities
  • Control tower


And, of course, there’s always the simple attrition of the personnel.  Kill enough people and the base ceases to operate.  For the sake of this discussion, we’ll set the personnel issue aside and focus on the equipment side of things.



Now, let’s consider the impact of the loss of each of those.


  • Runways – easily repaired;  just an annoyance
  • Aircraft – easily replaced within limits
  • Munitions for the aircraft – no weapons, no useful flight;  relatively easily protected by dispersal and bunkering but a severe problem if a significant portion is lost
  • Maintenance facilities – no fix, no fly;  nearly impossible to protect though hardened maintenance hangars are possible;  modern aircraft require constant and copious amounts of maintenance;  this is a vulnerability
  • Spare parts – easily replaced but can be problematic for extended periods
  • Fuel – no fuel, no fly;  fuel storage is almost impossible to protect and dispersal is not really a viable option; resupply is a major difficulty that requires specialized ships;  major vulnerability
  • Mission planning facilities – no planning, no productive missions;  tough to eliminate;  easy to hide/disperse
  • Aircraft control (tower) – easily replaced;  easily moved;  difficult to eliminate


 So, what did that tell us?


It tells us that the wise attacker is going to ignore certain air base targets, such as runways, as unproductive and ineffective and focus, instead, on other targets that are easy to destroy, difficult to repair/replace, and produce large negative consequences for the base. 


Foremost among these attractive targets is the fuel storage and dispensing facilities.  Almost by definition, the fuel storage has to be in extremely large tanks.  It’s simply not practical to try to operate an air base using small, dispersed storage containers such as bladders or 55 gal drums.  The number required and the degree of difficulty moving and manipulating them is prohibitive.  This might have been feasible, to some extent, during WWII when we had small prop planes that didn’t require all that much fuel but that’s not the case with today’s jets. 


Below are a few fuel capacities for single aircraft, just to provide an idea of the amount of fuel needed to operate an air base.  Take the numbers below and multiply them by many dozens of aircraft, every day.  Bladders and drums are just not a viable option.  A centralized, very large fuel storage facility is required along with a robust dispensing system consisting of extensive piping and pumps.


  • F4F Wildcat fuel capacity is 117 gal to around 140 gal, depending on variant
  • F-35 internal fuel capacity is 18,250 lb (2765 gal)
  • B-2 internal fuel capacity is 167,000 lb (25,500 gal)


While fuel storage can be broken down and dispersed into somewhat smaller storage tanks, they would still be quite large and fixed in place.


Underground tanks with some hardened covering could provide some degree of protection but, again, given the fixed – and known! – location of the storage, an enemy would have no problem targeting them with penetrating weapons.  Underground tanks are an engineering and regulatory nightmare which shouldn’t matter to a military but it does.  I’m not aware of any active, underground fuel storage tanks at air bases but I don’t follow that kind of thing so maybe there are.


Once damaged or destroyed, the fuel storage and dispersing system is not an easy thing to repair or replace.  It would take months, at best, to construct new fuel facilities.


As a historical reminder, while the Japanese put Pearl Harbor and the US fleet out of business for a [very] brief period (Enterprise refueled and replenished in Pearl Harbor 36 hrs after the attack), the real damage and long lasting effect would have occurred if they had destroyed the fuel storage facilities.  Instead, they misguidedly fixated on destroying the Navy’s obsolete battleships.  The true vulnerability of Pearl Harbor was the fuel storage.


Fuel Storage at Pearl Harbor - 1943

Clearly, fuel storage and dispersal is a major weakness of any air base and offers the potential to put an air base out of action for an extended period.  Add in damage or destruction of munitions storage, maintenance facilities, and spare parts storage and a base would have a very difficult time restoring itself to operational status … all without touching the runways.


This is how an intelligent enemy would attack an air base.  This puts an end to the ‘runways can be quickly repaired’ rejoinder.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Dumbing Down ... and down ... and down

The dumbing down continues.



The Army is tossing its mandate for potential recruits to have a high school diploma or GED certificate to enlist in the service … [1]



Nothing else to say.








[1] website, “Army Drops Requirement for High School Diploma Amid Recruiting Crisis”, Steve Beynon, 24-Jun-2022,

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Liaoning Photo Analysis

It’s always good to know the enemy’s capabilities and equipment so let’s take a quick look at some photos of the Chinese ski ramp aircraft carrier Liaoning and see what it can tell us about Chinese ship design philosophy.  As a reminder, the Liaoning is the former Soviet Kuznetsov class ship, Varyag, which was stripped down after the collapse of the Soviet Union, acquired by the Chinese, and completely overhauled and rebuilt.  Here’s a photo of the carrier:


Liaoning - Stern View

Let’s look at some aspects of the ship that offer insights into Chinese naval philosophy and ship design.


Copy - The first thing that jumps out is that the Chinese rebuilt the ship as a near carbon copy of US aircraft carrier design to the extent possible for a ski ramp variant.  Aside from the obvious direct copies of the angled deck, starboard side midships island, stern sponsons port and starboard, smaller forward sponsons, four arresting cables, and bow and waist ‘catapults’ (take off spots), there are other, smaller duplications.  The optical landing system on the port side is a carbon copy of US systems in design, function, and location.  The flight deck lighting scheme appears to be a direct copy.  There even appears to be a copy of the US standard stern debarkation platform. 


China has produced no visually unique design features.  There is no evident innovation.  This kind of blind copying is illegal (patent and other infringements) and unethical – which China doesn’t care about in the least – but, worse for China, bypasses all the learning that led to the end result.  That learning is also called institutional knowledge.  Yes, by stealing and copying the designs of others, China has leaped to the desired end point but has done so without the intervening steps which produce underlying knowledge and expertise.  This deprives them of actual design understanding and experience and makes future modifications and improvements difficult, if not impossible.  Bad for them, good for us.


The Chinese have so committed to matching the US Navy that they’ve adopted literal copying as the path to achieving that match.  While this may, indeed, result in matching, or overmatching based on numbers of ships, it precludes them from true naval innovation.  They won’t/can’t come up with a truly unique naval design that might give them a decided advantage.  In contrast, the US has attempted to develop unique designs and technologies such as the Zumwalt, LCS, unmanned vessels, EMALS, Advanced Arresting Gear, and so forth.  Of course, most of those attempts have been dismal failures but the attempts were there.  China appears to have limited themselves to outright copying.  Again, bad for them, good for us.



Weapons Fit – One noteworthy point of departure from US carrier design is the ship’s weapons fit.  The Chinese have a clear philosophical leaning towards a more robust defensive weapons fit.  Here’s the defensive weapons fit for the Liaoning (note, photos show the weapons fit varying over time so this is a typical, recent fit):


  • 3x HHQ-10, 18-cell short range anti-air missile (3 x 18 cells = 54 missiles)[a]
  • 3x Type 1130, 30 mm CIWS
  • 2x 12-barrel RBU ASW rocket depth charge launcher
  • 4x Decoy/Chaff launcher (24 barrels ea)
  • 4x 16-tube ???? (port and starboard midships, function/type unknown)

 [a]Reports list 4x HHQ-10 but I’ve only been able to verify 3x in photos

Here's some photos of the various weapons and locations:


Weapons Fit - Starboard Stern

Weapons Fit - Starboard Amidships


Weapons Fit - Port Forward


HHQ-10 Launcher


Weapons Fit - Port Amidships


Weapons Fit - Port Stern


By comparison, a typical US Nimitz class has the following typical defensive weapons fit:


  • 3x Sea Sparrow, 8-cell anti-air missile (3 x 8 cells = 24 missiles)
  • 3x 20 mm CIWS
  • 4x SRBOC (Super Rapid Bloom Offboard Chaff), 6-barrel (4 x 6 barrel = 24 barrels)

Clearly, the Chinese believe combat is inevitable and that more robust fits are the way to emerge victorious.  In this, they are correct.  US ship designs have become positively anemic regarding weapon fits. 


Consider the weapons fit on WWII carriers.  They were crammed with weapons of all types.  Of course, there is no direct comparison between the weapons of WWII and today but there most certainly is a direct and valid comparison in the density of weapons and, in that, today’s ships and carriers are woefully lacking.  The Chinese design, while it pales compared to WWII designs in weapons fit, is still an improvement over our carriers.


What this demonstrates is that the Chinese are serious about combat and we are not.  They expect their carriers to fight and be exposed in combat and are attempting to provide the weapons to enable their ships to survive.  The US, on the other hand, has designed carriers so expensive and so bereft of weapons that it is unlikely that we will even risk our carriers in combat and, if they do engage in combat, they have a reduced likelihood of survival.



Philosophy – The photos show a complete, fully functional carrier, albeit one that has no front line future in the Chinese navy due to its ski ramp and the evident desire of the Chinese to move beyond ski ramp carriers and on to conventional, large, ?nuclear?, carriers.  Why would the Chinese spend the money and resources on producing a carrier that they knew would not hold a front line position for very long?  Not only that, but they also built a brand new carrier, the Type 002 Shandong, which is a functional carbon copy of the Liaoning.  What does this imply?


The implication is that the Chinese are deadly serious about developing carriers that are equivalent (or superior !) to the Nimitz/Ford designs and that they want to do so as quickly as possible.  Thus, the Liaoning and Shandong are temporary vessels intended to develop carrier construction techniques and manufacturing infrastructure and to gain operating experience while the succeeding conventional carriers were being built and outfitted.  Ponder the immensity of that … the Chinese built/rebuilt two entire, large carriers just to operate them for a few years in order to gain experience!  That speaks to a focus, intensity, and drive to achieve military superiority that we utterly lack.  Can you imagine the US building an entire carrier just to operate it for a few years to gain experience?  It’s outside of our mindset to even contemplate that.


The other telling implication is the mere fact of the carrier’s existence.  While we are debating the usefulness of carriers and many US naval observers are calling for further reductions – or outright elimination ! – of carriers, the Chinese are pushing as hard as they can to build a carrier fleet.  That tells us that the Chinese see great value in a carrier fleet and that, alone, should serve as a strident warning to us as we steadily reduce our carrier power.  We’re debating carriers while the Chinese are building them as fast as they can!  That strongly suggests that the Chinese envision an eventual head-to-head carrier battle with the US and are working to ensure that they come out the winners. 


Alternatively, they may envision a future where we have reduced our carrier fleet to the point of impotence and, when that happens, the Chinese intend to be right there, dictating naval supremacy with a powerful carrier fleet that will vastly overmatch whatever remnants of a carrier fleet we leave ourselves.


The Chinese have seen the lesson of WWII in which powerful, roving carrier groups were able to control the seas – and thus control the land ! - and they see the obvious application of that lesson to today’s battlefields.  We, on the other hand, have bought into the network/data approach which sees no great value in firepower.  The Chinese have placed their bet on firepower while we have bet on data.  I know which I think is the winning hand.


The Chinese are coming for us and they’re not even pretending otherwise.  We need to take heed.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Force Design 2030 Update Analysis

Marine Commandant Berger has torn apart the United States Marine Corps with a series of controversial decisions and actions.


Best case, Berger is a genius who sees what no one else does but has failed to convey that vision in a persuasive manner and, as a result, is struggling to find support and get buy-in.


Worst case, Berger is a bona-fide idiot who hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing and the communications deficiencies simply reflect that general ineptitude.


Whether you believe his vision to be a change for the better or for the worse is up to you (hint:  it’s for the worse, by a huge amount !)


With that as a backdrop, Breaking Defense has presented an article analyzing the latest Marine Corps Force Design 2030 update document.  Let’s see what gems are offered.


Concurrency - One of the issues that just leaps off the pages of the 2030 update is that the design has no defined end state.  It is an unfinished product with no defined end state that is constantly evolving as the changes are being enacted.  If this were a ship, do you know what we’d call this?  That’s right … concurrency.  Berger is designing as he’s building.  We’ve documented the abject failures that every attempt at concurrency has produced.  Why would applying concurrency to FD2030 be any different or produce a better result than concurrency applied to a ship?  It wouldn’t … and yet we’re knowingly and intentionally doing it.  The US military adamantly refuses to learn lessons even when the lessons are etched on a board and then the board is used to smack the military leadership across the forehead.


Marine Littoral Regiment - From the article,


The update also notes that “We focused the MLR [Marine Littoral Regiment] too much on lethality and not enough on sensing.”[1]


Hasn’t ComNavOps been harping for years on targeting being far more important than weapons?  For years!  And Berger and the Marines are just now beginning to vaguely grasp this fundamental concept?  The highest ranking Marine in the Corps didn’t have an inherent grasp of targeting?  And he wants us to believe he understands everything else well enough to destroy the Marines in pursuit of his vision?


Amphibious Ships – The update repeats the need for 31 big deck amphibious ships despite the public statements that the Marines are out of the assault business.  The ineptitude in the communication of this issue is emblematic of the Marine’s overall floundering communications.  Are the Marines in the assault business or not?  If not – as they have stated – then they have no need of any big deck amphibious ships.  The logical discontinuity in this is gapingly wide!


The article offers this apt summary of amphibious force planning,


… the “dumpster fire” that constitutes amphibious fleet planning today … [1]


Also of note,


One minor change is that the light amphibious warfare program is now being referred to as the landing ship, medium (LSM).[1]


This is the kind of change for the sake of change that permeates today’s military (and, to be fair, industry!).  This is just unproductive churn in search of a public relations gain.


Wargames – Part of the reason Berger can’t get any buy-in for his vision is that he’s released almost no supporting information so that people could look at it and understand his rationale.  While insisting that it’s all based on exhaustive wargaming, there has been zero information about those games.  Apparently, -and perhaps recognizing the communications problem – the Marines are going to release some wargame summaries.


The Marine Corps now plans to publish unclassified executive summaries of its wargames beginning in November 2022.[1]


This will be a welcome development if, indeed, the Marines follow through and offer something informative and substantial … I’m not counting on it.  You don’t generally go from paranoid secrecy to openness.  I expect the summaries to be bereft of useful information and to read like a sales brochure extolling the virtues of the game and the Marine’s masterful vision … but we’ll see.


Focus – One of the [many] criticisms of Berger’s strategy is that it seems myopically focused on China and ignores the rest of the world.  Stung by that criticism, FD2030 is now being referred to as a global strategy despite nothing about it having changed.  That’s reprehensible marketing spin that is disingenuous, at best, and fraudulent, more accurately.  Changing the name doesn’t change the concept.  It’s still a one-theater, single enemy strategy.


Logistics – A major weakness/flaw in Berger’s concept is logistics.  The belief that we can establish large footprint units (yes, those missile launching trucks, supporting trucks, machinery, supplies, etc. automatically constitute a large footprint) and keep them resupplied pushes the limits of credulity and the Marines still have not addressed the issue.


… the update identifies logistics as the major unresolved issue since resupplying widely distributed units inside an adversary’s defensive zone is extremely challenging.[1]


Hey, Berger … logistics is the very first issue you should have addressed.  Remember the saying about professionals practice logistics?  What does the fact that logistics remains unresolved say about your professionalism?  Why are you proceeding with a concept that has unresolved logistics issues and no defined end state?





FD2030 is an undefined concept that lacks targeting concepts and a viable logistics support plan.  Targeting and logistics are the two fundamental pillars of any force/operation design and neither have a viable solution.  Despite those fundamental deficiencies, Commandant Berger is pushing ahead and concurrently designing as he goes which never turns out well.


FD2030 should never have seen the light of day.







[1]Breaking Defense, “Analyzing the biggest changes in the Marine Corps Force Design 2030 update”, Mark Cancian, 14-Jun-2022,

Monday, June 20, 2022

So Close … Too Close?

USNI News website is reporting that the Independence variant LCS USS Montgomery (LCS-8) recently conducted a demonstration launch of Hellfire missiles at targets on land.[1] 


Well that’s exciting.  The LCS can now support ground forces.  That’s good, right?


“This test proved the critical next step in increasing lethality of the Littoral Combat Ship,” Cmdr. Dustin Lonero, the commanding officer of the ship, said in a Navy news release. “Using our speed and shallow draft, we are now uniquely optimized to bring this level of firepower extremely close to shore in support of our warfighters and operators on the beach.”[1]




Just out of curiosity, what’s the range of Hellfire?  The article credits the Hellfire with a range of around 5 miles.  Um … that’s not very far for ground support.  Unless the troops are literally at the water’s edge, the LCS would have to approach closer than 5 miles to land to get its Hellfires in range.  In fact, the maximum inland support range is only 5 miles and even that would require the LCS to be beached.  Is there really a lot of ground support to be done less than 5 miles from shore?


Moving on …


Do we recall that the Navy has stated that its amphibious ships can’t approach land closer than 25-50 miles due to the threat from anti-ship missiles?  And yet, now we’re going to send the LCS within 5 miles of land? 


Do we recall that the Russians just lost a Slava class cruiser operating close to shore? 


Do we recall that the ex-HSV Swift was demolished off Yemen by a rocket/missile attack?


Are we now saying that we’re going to operate an LCS – which has minimal self-defense capability (and I’m being generous) – within 5 miles of enemy land?  While not a multi-billion dollar ship, the LCS still costs around $600M.  That’s not cheap and expendable.


Have we thought this through or, like most Navy actions, is this just a random impulse with no detailed Concept of Operations supporting and justifying it?






On a side note, the Navy also had this to say about the awesomeness of the Hellfire:


“The Longbow Hellfire missile already plays a key role in the up-gunned surface warfare mission package,” the Navy said in the news release.[1]


Just one problem with that statement, Navy.  It’s categorically false.  The surface warfare module is the hugely dumbed down version of the original which called for the NLOS networked, loitering missile which had a range of around 22 miles.  Thus, a 5 mile Hellfire is not a component of an up-gunned surface warfare module.  Instead, it is the sorry and pathetic end result of a failed and now significantly down-gunned module.  It’s an embarrassment not a success.






[1]USNI News website, “LCS USS Montgomery Fires Hellfire Missiles in Land Attack Test”, Mallory Shelbourne, 16-May-2022,

Friday, June 17, 2022

Shaping the Battlefield

An absolutely astute statement appears in Marine Commandant Berger’s Force Design 2030 (FD2030) update document from 2021.  Here it is,


Adversaries will not grant us the time and freedom of maneuver to create conditions necessary to ‘set the theater,’ in the traditional sense.[1]


Given the general idiocy of the FD2030 concept, it is remarkable that the update document would include such a profound statement.  I’m not being sarcastic; I mean that sincerely.


If you recall, Saddam Hussein’s failing in Desert Storm (well … one of them, at any rate) was allowing the allied coalition to leisurely build up its forces and pre-position them prior to combat as well as allowing time for extensive recon and planning.  The coalition was able to shape the battlefield (set the theater, as the FD2030 document describes it) to their specifications and timing.


The value of shaping the battlefield is self-evident and doesn’t require any additional discussion.


So, given the evident importance of shaping and the brilliant recognition that future enemies (that would be China) will not allow us the time and freedom to leisurely shape the battlefield, why are we wasting time with unproductive naval deployments that accomplish nothing?  If we won’t have the time to shape the battlefield (‘set the theater’) once our enemies commit to war then we should be shaping the battlefield today, during peacetime, while we do have some time.  We are, in effect, losing the battle before it’s begun!


Instead of wasting our time on nearly year long ‘cruise ship’ deployments, we should be,


  • Hardening bases
  • Establishing additional forward bases
  • Establishing alternate forward bases
  • Mapping the E/S China Sea sea beds and measuring the underwater characteristics (salinity, thermoclines, temperature, currents, acoustic conditions, etc.)
  • Establishing surge forces
  • Pre-positioning initial combat forces
  • Rehearsing logistics (Pacific Reforger) and practicing convoy movements
  • Establishing regional communication systems
  • Establishing networks
  • Training to the point of exhaustion on a daily basis


China understands the importance of pre-war battlefield shaping and is actively pursuing it. 


  • They’ve established a network of [illegal] islands throughout the E/S China Seas. 
  • They’re establishing bases in the Solomons and other areas. 
  • They’re setting up ASW defenses around the E/S China Seas. 
  • They’ve been industriously hardening their bases. 
  • They’re working hard to bring other countries into their sphere of influence (the Philippines, for example).
  • They’re mapping out Taiwan’s defenses and air defense capabilities with constant aircraft penetrations to observe responses.
  • They’ve forced the US to virtually abandon the E/S China Seas.



As FD2030 notes, China won’t grant us the time to shape the battlefield.  The FD2030 statement is brilliant and yet the entire US military is ignoring it and its implication.  China is shaping the battlefield while we stand idly by.





[1]Force Design 2030, Annual Update, April 2021

Monday, June 13, 2022

SSC Connector Update

It’s been awhile since we last checked in on the Navy’s LCAC replacement program, the Ship to Shore Connector (SSC) in Nov 2018 (see, “SSC Update”).  That program should be about wrapped up by now, right?  Let’s check the status.





The Navy/Marines are pursuing an acquisition program of Ship to Shore Connectors (SSC) which are nearly identical replacements for the Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC).  As a reminder, the Navy has 72 existing LCAC with a payload capacity of 60 tons.  The Navy plans to acquire 73 SSC with a payload capacity of 72 tons.


Ship to Shore Connector, SSC

Nearly Identical LCAC


As described in the previous update (link above), an interesting new feature is the ability of the SSC to disembark vehicles directly into the water instead of on land.  Presumably, this is aimed at offloading AAV/ACV vehicles into the sea as a means of bypassing the standoff range problem for amphibious ships.  The SSC would bring the vehicles to within a few miles of shore and drop them into the water to continue to shore on their own while the SSC retires to safety.  Unfortunately, this is yet another example of concurrency with this feature having been added part way through production and needing to be back fit to earlier production craft.


The SSC costs $79M each, based on the FY22 Navy SCN budget documents.[1]  After an initial flurry, the purchases are being funded at a rate of one or two per year (none in 2020 !) with a total of 25 having been funded, so far.  Acquisition began with the first contract awards in 2015 to Textron (New Orleans, LA).  Now, seven years later, the acquisition ought to be about done and the SSCs should be in the fleet and smoothly functioning.  Unbelievably, however, the second SSC (101) was only delivered to the Navy on 27-Aug-2020, five years after contract award.  Seriously?  Five years to build a small craft that is a near twin to the existing LCAC? 


Despite a hopeful start to what ought to be a simple follow on to the LCAC, the SSC program has been plagued by problems which have caused multiple, long delays.  GAO identifies the start of the program as May 2009.  Delays have pushed IOC back to the end of 2022 or beyond.  That’s 13 years and counting for a simple evolutionary development of the LCAC.  That’s pathetic.





The main problem with the SSC is the gearbox – what is it with gearboxes and the Navy? – which is undergoing its third round of design changes attempting to deal with premature wear.  This is yet another example of the folly and cost of concurrent development and production.  Once the gearbox problem is solved (it never was on the Freedom class LCS and now they’re all being retired !), the solution will have to be expensively retrofitted to the SSCs already produced.  I don’t know why the Navy can’t grasp the idea of testing first, then production.  But, I digress …


In 2019, GAO noted,


… testing of Craft 100 (the test and training prototype craft) continues to pose challenges, and electrical system stability and command, control, communications, computers and navigation integration challenges must be resolved … [2]


More recently, cracking propeller blades have become a problem and solutions will, again, have to be back fit to already produced craft.


The program is pursuing two concurrent solutions to address cracking found on 10 of the 12 tested propeller blades when the crafts were loaded with weight as they would be during an amphibious assault.[3]


Seriously … blade strength???  Isn’t this past technology that we mastered long ago?  We’ve been making propeller blades of all types since before WWI.  Is this an example of trying to cut every possible penny out of a program and then we wind up with understrength items that have to be re-developed and retrofitted and wind up costing ten times the amount of any potential savings?  Penny wise and pound foolish?  Grumman used to have the right philosophy about physical strength and ruggedness … they overbuilt which earned them the nickname ‘Grumman Iron Works’.  There are plenty of places we can cut costs but the actual product should not be one of them.  Moving on …





Given the Marine’s numerous public statements that they are out of the amphibious assault business, one can’t help but ask the blindingly obvious question, ‘why are we buying amphibious assault landing craft (or, for that matter, new amphibious ships and ACVs)?’


Given that the Navy is building LHAs without well decks and LPDs with less well deck capacity than the ships they’re replacing, again, one can’t help but ask the blindingly obvious question, ‘why are we buying amphibious assault landing craft?’


Possibly as a partial recognition of that logical disconnect,


In a briefing to Navy senior leadership, the program stated that it is considering reducing the total number of craft from 72 to 50. It is also considering updating the cost baseline, which the program indicated will likely result in a breach of statutory unit cost thresholds.[3]


And, if we’re out of the assault business and just need occasional administrative unloadings from amphibious ships then why not procure LCUs for 1/5 the cost?  The latest Navy budget documents put the cost of the LCU at $17M each[1] which would be a huge savings over the $79M SSC cost.


Speaking of cost efficiency,


The program stated that Textron has indicated in the past that eight craft per year are necessary to achieve economies of scale … [2]


However, as noted, we’re only procuring one or two per year due to the various ongoing problems and delays.  Between the very low production rate and the responsibility to fix interminable problems, Textron has to be losing money badly on this program.





So, despite an initial promising start to the program, things have bogged down badly, problems have arisen that are proving difficult to solve, concurrency has reared its head, and the manufacturer is likely losing money.  This has become another long, drawn out development program like the F-35 and, like the F-35, it is now obsolete before it is even fielded.  The Marines have dropped out of the amphibious assault mission, leaving this a craft without a purpose.  As we consistently see, protracted development is the mortal enemy of relevance.





[1]Department of Defense, Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 Budget Estimates, Justification Book Volume 1 of 1, Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy, May 2021,


[2]Government Accountability Office, “Weapon Systems Annual Assessment”, May 2019


[3]Government Accountability Office, “Weapon Systems Annual Assessment”, Jun 2021

Friday, June 10, 2022

Helicopters in Combat

We’ve done posts on the survivability of helos in combat and it isn’t good (see, “Assault MV-22” and “Helo Assault”).  Going back to the horrendous helo loss rates suffered by the US in Vietnam, the same for the Soviets in Afghanistan, the loss of an entire group of 31 Apache helos in Karbala in 2003, as well as the many isolated shoot downs over the years, it is obvious that helicopters are quite vulnerable over the modern battlefield.  Today, the trend in high loss rates seems to be continuing with the Russians in Ukraine.


This leads to two obvious questions:


  1. Is there any future in helo combat operations?
  2. If not, why is the US so heavily invested in helicopters?


Let’s tackle the first one. 



Is there a future for helo combat ops?


The short answer is, yes, there is a combat role for helos but it is a carefully constrained role.  The original vision of helos roaming the battlefield, ready to swoop down on the enemy like a diving hawk is no longer valid – if it ever was.


The overwhelming conclusion from every battlefield helo operation in history is that helos that operate on their own, unsupported, are very vulnerable and will suffer very high loss rates if the enemy has any degree of anti-air capability, whatsoever.  Any enemy soldier with a man-portable, surface to air missile is a lethal threat to helos and is virtually undetectable and unstoppable.  In fact, old fashioned barrage gunfire is still highly lethal and almost impossible to avoid or counter.


Hey, let’s detour, slightly, and talk about tanks for a moment.  Modern tanks from foreign countries have had a tough time on the various Middle East battlefields.  We see video after video of tanks being destroyed by an enemy soldier with a man-portable, anti-tank missile/rocket launcher.  These soldiers are virtually undetectable and unstoppable.  Are tanks useless on the modern battlefield?  The answer is the same as that for helicopters.


In both cases, what we see in video after video is tanks/helos operating individually or in small units, unsupported.  In that situation, tanks/helos have very poor detection capabilities – not because their sensors are particularly bad but because an individual soldier is easily concealed and very difficult to detect.  It is clear that unsupported tank/helo operations are going to suffer very high loss rates.  There’s nothing wrong with helos or tanks, per se;  it’s the battlefield tactics and doctrine that is wrong.


I keep saying ‘unsupported’.  What does that mean?  What kind of support can increase the survival and effectiveness of tanks/helos?


Let’s continue with the example of tanks.  ‘Support’ has historically and doctrinally been a case of infantry and tanks operating together, each supporting the other.  It has been the job of the tank to supply suppressing fire, destroy fortifications, and deal with enemy vehicles while the infantry suppresses the enemy’s anti-tank troops.  Infantry and tanks have to work together, providing mutual support.  This is not something that can just happen spontaneously.  It has to be trained and exercised, like any other tactical action.  Unfortunately, the Marines have historically completely ignored this (while they still had tanks) and I see little evidence of the Army training for this.


The exact same concept applies to helicopter combat operations.  Why wouldn’t it?  Helos require co-ordinated ground support from the infantry (preferably mech infantry and/or armor to allow greater mobility and ground coverage).  Helos can supply the stand-off fire support for the infantry while the infantry suppresses enemy anti-air capability. 


We’ve seen that when helo units are sent on isolated, unsupported missions, even seemingly benign ones, it often turns out poorly (the aborted non-combat evacuation mission by a group of CV-22s in South Sudan in 2014, for example).


I’m not going to attempt to go into any greater detail about the specific tactics of helo-infantry mutual support because, frankly, I don’t know them.  Land combat is outside my area of expertise.  I can recognize the problem and the general solution but not the specifics.


On a related note, the same need for mutually supporting elements applies to naval operations.  For example, we’ve all mocked Commandant Berger’s Light Amphibious Warfare (LAW) ship – and rightly so, for a variety of reasons – but none of us, myself included, have analyzed the LAW within the framework of a multi-component, mutually supporting force.  To be fair, Berger has declined to share his operational concept whereby the supporting elements for the LAW are laid out … I suspect because there is no concept of operations (CONOPS) and there are no supporting elements.  That aside, even I can’t imagine any supporting concept that would allow the LAW to be effective unless we dedicate large surface escort groups of Burkes and carriers to accompany each LAW which then totally invalidates the LAW mission.  So, this failure lies at the feet of Commandant Berger but it still illustrates the idea of mutually supporting elements and the specter of failure that accompanies the lack thereof.


The overarching lesson is the need to fight as a combined arms force with each element supporting the other.  This will allow each element to do what it does best and do it effectively.  Militaries around the world, ours included, have failed to recognize and implement this lesson and the results have been repeated failures.


We, as observers and analysts, have also failed to recognize this lesson and we persist in assessing weapon systems in a one-on-one evaluation with no allowance for supporting elements and tactics.  It’s one of my pet peeves in discussions.  We need to look at the overall situation and assess how the item under discussion fits within a larger framework.  Only then can we render an informed and useful judgment. 


So, with all that said, is there a future for helo combat ops?  Yes!  … but only with proper, mutually supporting elements and well developed, highly trained tactics and doctrine … which given our lack of interest in doctrine and tactics is almost a no.

Now, the second question …



Why is the US so heavily invested in helicopters?


This one is a little harder to answer, partly because I’m not a land combat expert and partly because there is no good answer.


For the US military, with its obsession with technology, the helo is highly attractive.  On paper, the helo has all the characteristics that the military loves:  it’s cheap (on a relative basis!), it’s a very high density weapons platform that is packed with firepower, it’s a high tech wonder that can be constantly upgraded with ever more advanced technology, it’s extremely mobile and provides excellent area coverage, it requires less crew than a tank, and it just looks menacing and lethal (you’ve gotta love the look of an AH-65 Apache!).  The problem is that paper doesn’t fight and in the real world helos are not being effectively used and, for that reason, border on combat failures.  Still, it’s easy to understand the allure of the helo for US military leadership.


Another way to approach this question is to look at the reverse aspect.  What if there was no such thing as helos?  What would we be spending our budget on?  … bullets, rifles, bombs, mines, mortars?  Those things aren’t shiny and sexy!  They don’t knock the socks off Congressmen who are being asked to provide funding.  Sadly, our military leaders don’t want to make the effort to ‘sell’ Congress on dirty, mundane items that are – or should be - the backbone of combat.  Instead, they want to hold up pictures of sexy, menacing helos.  That’s how they think you get budget funds!


This kind of thinking is a symptom of the modern military affliction of laziness.  Yes, laziness!  We want to win wars (well, actually we don’t and haven’t really tried to win a war since WWII but that’s another topic) but we don’t want to do the hard, dirty work that’s required.  We want a clean, dainty, stand off weapon with precision guidance that we can easily control from well up the chain of command.  Well, that’s a helo.  Too lazy to crawl in the muck and do the hard work of winning a war, we’d rather zoom around and look good so … more helos!


A final ‘answer’ is yet another of the afflictions we suffer from and that is the refusal to acknowledge reality and the enemy’s competence.  We assume that everything we do will work perfectly and nothing the enemy does will have any effect.  With that assumption, the helo looks great!  The fact that almost every battlefield example of helo combat operations has turned out poorly doesn’t even register on our leader’s minds.  Enemy MANPADs may be ubiquitous but our own delusions are even more prevalent!





Helo combat operations are viable but only with proper doctrine, tactics, and training.  We need to stop training in isolated units (helos practice a raid, for example) and start training in combined elements (helos and infantry practice a raid, for example, with air cover thrown in along with artillery support).  We’re going to fight combined (I hope!) so why aren’t we routinely training that way?  In fact, we shouldn’t train any other way.


We need to rigorously re-evaluate our helo combat doctrine and tactics.  What we have is not likely to work.  We need to figure out why and modify our doctrine and tactics accordingly.  Where is the combined helo-infantry Top Gun school?


To be fair and repetitive, I’m not a land combat expert and perhaps some of this already exists.  If so, I’d be glad to hear about it.