Tuesday, August 29, 2017


In a recent post, we discussed the Chinese multiple launch rocket (MLR) frigate for fire support (see, "Chinese Fire Support Frigate").  The main point of the post was that the Chinese were willing to experiment.  They took a retiring frigate and converted it to a prototype to try out a concept.  Whether the concept is deemed a success or not is irrelevant.  The point is that they prototyped the concept and were able to operationally evaluate it.

Contrast this with the US Navy’s near absence of prototyping and related practice of early retiring ships and getting no further use out of them. 

When was the last time the Navy built/converted a ship into a prototype?  The last example I can recall was the “conversion” of the USS Ponce to a mine countermeasures mothership and that wasn’t really a conversion, just more of a temporary change in assignment/mission.

I’m sure the Navy will tell us that prototypes are too expensive to build.  They’re one of a kind and we just can’t afford to build one-of-a-kind vessels.  Well, we can’t afford to build one-of-a-kind vessels after the Navy gets through gold-plating them, that’s for sure!  But, why don’t we use retiring ships as prototypes?  The ship is already built and paid for and conversions, no matter how extensive, are hugely cheaper than new ships.  Why not get some further good use out of retiring ships?

Here’s a list of possible worthwhile prototypes that could be constructed on existing or retired/retiring ships.  These prototype conversions could be done today.

  • Convert a retired amphibious ship (the Tarawa class comes to mind) to a UAV carrier.

  • Convert a Zumwalt to a laser/rail gun ship since it no longer has a useful gun.

  • Convert a retired Perry FFG to a dedicated, specialized, shallow water ASW vessel.  Load it with shallow water optimized equipment and try out shallow water ASW tactics.

  • Convert a retired amphibious ship to an ASW hunter-killer mothership to explore the tactics of shallow water hunting of submarines.

  • Convert a Cyclone PC to a small missile boat and find out whether we can successfully and usefully operate the type.

  • Convert an LCS (how about LCS-1 or -2 since neither is considered deployable) to an armed intel/surveillance ship for use in the South China Sea and off NKorea.

  • Convert an LCS (again, LCS-1/2) to a fire support ship with MLRS launchers.

  • Convert an old, smaller amphibious LSD-41/49 to a large caliber naval gun support ship with, perhaps, three dual mount 8” guns.

  • Convert an amphibious LSD-41/49 to a mine countermeasures mothership.

  • Convert a retired amphibious ship to an LCS tender to support a deployed LCS squadron.

Understand that these conversions would not result in perfect, optimized fighting machines.  They would be prototypes intended to study the main concept.  If the concept proved out then an optimized version could be designed and built.

For example, a Tarawa class UAV carrier conversion might be vastly oversized for the function but who cares?  If the concept of a UAV carrier proved out then an appropriately sized UAV carrier could be designed and built.

What I’m saying is, don’t bother writing a comment telling me how one of these conversions isn’t perfect for the role.  They’re converted prototypes – none of them are perfect for the role!  They’re just intended to demonstrate a concept.

There’s my list.  What conversion prototypes would you like to see?

Saturday, August 26, 2017

More Embarrassing Spin

ComNavOps understands positive spin but I’m really getting sick of the way the Navy is carrying it to embarrassing levels.  The latest is the Navy’s announcement that an LCS has used a helo/UAV to provide targeting for a Harpoon missile. (1)

“The U.S. Navy has for the first time used a UAV to provide over-the-horizon targeting information and damage assessment for a missile fired from onboard a ship.

I can’t say whether this is actually the first time a UAV has provided targeting information for a missile but it’s hardly the first time a UAV has provided targeting information for Navy weapons.  Heck, the Iowa class battleships carried RQ-2 Pioneer UAVs for targeting, spotting, and damage assessment.  They were used during the 1991 Gulf War, for example.  Prior to that, the Gyrodyne QH-50 DASH drone was used for targeting, spotting, and damage assessment during the Vietnam war.

Apparently, though, the use of a helo/UAV for targeting is something new to the Navy.  I guess they’ve forgotten.

“Speaking to Defense News, the commander of the Navy’s Task Force 73, Rear Adm. Don Gabrielson, said the Coronado’s MH-60S and MQ-8B used radar, electro-optical systems and other sensors to locate the target, pass targeting information back to the ship via data link to refine the firing solution, monitor and assess the missile, and then carry out damage assessment on the target. He noted that this is the first time the U.S. Navy has done so.

Again, while it might be technically true that it’s the first time a missile has received the targeting data, it’s hardly a new capability!  I’m sure this has been done before – I just can’t pull an instant reference out of the air.

This announcement rates a bored, “That’s nice”, coupled with a yawn.  There’s nothing new or even interesting about this.  As I said, I understand a bit of spin but this is embarrassing.  The Navy seems to be undergoing a cycle of reinventing the wheel (remember the post about discovering escort ships?) and wildly self-congratulating themselves.  This is what happens when you can’t accomplish anything substantial and you fall all over yourself trying to make mundane news seem important.

One might also note that this was the second test firing of a Harpoon from an LCS.  The first was a failure.  So, this amazing new, never before seen capability is one for two.


(1)Defense News website, “In an LCS first, drone supports targeting mission for missile”, Mike Yeo, 25-Aug-2017,

Friday, August 25, 2017

Antietam Grounding Report

The Navy has released (pried loose with a Freedom of Information Act request) its Command Investigation report on the Antietam grounding incident of 31-Jan-2017.

I debated whether to even comment on this because it feels a lot like beating a dead horse.  The Navy’s conclusion was that the grounding was due to general incompetence resulting from poor training and poor command behavior which is what I’ve been saying since I began publishing this blog.  How many more times and how many different ways can this be said before it becomes just background noise?  Well, in the end, I think it deserves attention.

To refresh your memory, the Antietam grounded during a failed anchoring attempt.  You can read the brief report for yourself through the link below.

The essence of the report is that absolutely no one involved in the entire evolution, from deck crew to CIC to bridge to the Commanding Officer did their job properly.  I’m not going to bother listing the specific failings.  They all fall under the heading of a lackadaisical crew that was improperly trained and led.

What I want to note from all this is the observation that if our Navy is not sufficiently well trained and led to execute a simple, basic act of seamanship like anchoring, what’s the odds that we’re combat proficient and ready to fight?  Yeah, zero.

We need to dump the entire officer corps, from the CNO on down, and start over.  They clearly aren’t doing their jobs.  Don’t anyone try to dismiss this as a one-off incident.  In recent times, we’ve had two Aegis cruiser groundings, an Avenger grounding, three collisions, and two captured riverine boats.  This is a systemic collapse of training and leadership.  If CNO Richardson had an ounce of integrity, he’d resign in humiliation.

I fully expect the recent collision reports to read much the same as this one when they come out.

What will take before Congress and SecNav realize that the Navy has a leadership crisis and cleans house?


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Frigate? That's A Battleship!

The cry from observers for the US Navy to build a frigate is incessant and deafening.  Further, most observers want the frigate to carry almost everything a Burke does and they cite a long list of foreign designs as proof that it can be done.  ComNavOps, on the other hand, has expressed ambivalence about a frigate, opting instead for a small, dedicated ASW vessel as being far more useful and relevant. 

So, who’s right – nearly everyone or ComNavOps?  I think you can predict the answer – it’s ComNavOps, of course.  That makes everyone else wrong.  Why is that?  There’s a lot of pretty smart people included in “everyone”.  How can they all be wrong?  Well, that’s what we’re going to look at in this post.

The explanation for “everyone’s” wrongness is two-fold:

1)     Definitions
2)     Relevance (CONOPS)

The first, definitions, is where a lot of people get tripped up and the discussions are largely a matter of semantics. 

What is a frigate?  Well, unfortunately, there is no actual, useful definition.  A frigate is less than a destroyer.  Less what?  Less size?  Less missiles?  Less crew?  Less range?  Less sensors?  The answer is, yes – less of everything.  That’s not particularly helpful because one less missile is still less.

Of course, that leads to the next question, less compared to what?  For the US Navy, that answer is easy – less compared to a Burke which is a “destroyer”.  Thus, anything “less” than a Burke is, by “definition”, a frigate.  To the rest of the world, however, the “less” comparison is far less (no pun intended) clear.  Russia doesn’t have destroyers comparable to a Burke so what is their “lesser” frigate compared to?  In fact, few other countries have a ship comparable to a Burke.

At this point, we need to take a small detour and discuss the classification of the Burke.  For that, we need to take yet another small detour and discuss historical ship classifications.  Historically, the biggest, most powerful ship was called a battleship.  A ship half that size/capability was called a cruiser.  A ship half the cruiser’s size/capability was called a destroyer.  A ship half the destroyer’s size/capability was a frigate/destroyer escort.  Smaller than that was a corvette.  So, we see that ship classifications were relative. 

Now, let’s return to the Burke classification detour.  To call a Burke a destroyer is ridiculous.  The ship’s size and capabilities are far beyond any reasonable historical description of a destroyer.  Further, and more importantly, the Burke is the largest, most powerful surface ship in the fleet and, arguably, the world.  Thus, by any criteria, the Burke is not a destroyer and a very good argument can be made that the Burke is the battleship of today.

Okay, this is mildly interesting but how is it relevant to this post?  It’s relevant because what most people are describing as a frigate is, in today’s world, a cruiser relative to the Burke’s battleship status.  Further, for most countries, the “frigate” is their most powerful ship.  If a “frigate” is your most powerful ship, of course you’d want to load it with as much firepower, sensors, armor, stealth, and whatnot as you could, right?  After all, it’s the “battleship” of your navy.  That’s fine but the problem is that US Navy observers have gotten caught up in the nomenclature and descriptions of other countries’ battleship-frigates and come to believe that is what a frigate really is.  It’s not.  What other countries are building and calling a frigate is really their attempt at a top of the line ship within the constraints of their budget.  The US Navy already has top of the line ships.  Lots of them.  We don’t need more.

So, what most people call a frigate is anything but.  It’s a poor man’s Burke.  The US Navy doesn’t need a poor man’s Burke – we have actual Burkes!  What we need are smaller, ASW specialized frigates.  Which leads us into the relevance explanation for everyone’s “wrongness”.

Every ship in the fleet should be designed and exist to support the overarching geopolitical and naval strategy.  As we’ve noted so many times, we have neither type of strategy and so we wind up with haphazard ship designs, types, and capabilities that do not meaningfully support our “desires”.  The lack of an actual, viable strategy makes this next part of the discussion a bit difficult because I’m going to have to substitute my own strategic thoughts and other people may have different thoughts – that’s fine.  I have no problem with anyone who has considered the strategic and operational level and concluded that a mini-Burke frigate is needed.  They’re wrong but at least they thought it through.

The problem is that most people just want a frigate in the abstract.  We need a frigate because everyone else has one and, therefore, we should, too.  That thinking is utterly divorced from any actual fleet need.  I’ll repeat – we don’t need mini-Burkes because we already have big Burkes and are continuing to build more as fast as we can.  The last thing the fleet actually needs is more Burkes.  Therefore, logically, why would we need mini-Burkes?

What does the fleet actually need to execute almost any type of strategy?  We need dedicated mine countermeasure ships, dedicated ASW ships to counter the burgeoning nuclear and, especially, non-nuclear (SSK) submarine fleets around the world, aircraft carriers, UAV carriers, logistic support ships of all types, small patrol ships (along the lines of upgunned Cyclones), and so on.  Nowhere in that list of needs is a mini-Burke or the mini-Burkes main characteristic, AAW.

Thus, anyone who calls for a mini-Burke frigate is doing so in isolation, divorced from any relevant context and that’s wrong – just plain wrong.

There you have it.  We don’t need frigates.  ComNavOps is right and everyone else is wrong.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Loss Of Confidence

The Navy has always operated under the principle that the commanding officer is always responsible for whatever happens regardless of whether he had any direct involvement or not.  The Navy has been hair-trigger quick to relieve commanders for “loss of confidence in their ability to command”. 

Isn’t it about time that the ultimate commander, CNO Richardson, be held accountable for the tragedies that are occurring under his command?  Isn’t it about time that he was relieved for loss of confidence in his ability to command?

USS McCain Rammed - Distributed Lethality Sinking

You all know about the recent USS Fitzgerald collision with a merchant ship that heavily damaged and nearly sank the destroyer.  Now, another collision has occurred between the USS McCain and a merchant tanker.  Several sailors are reported missing or injured.  Damage appears to have been severe.  No further details are available at this time.

What I would like to comment on is the Third Offset Strategy and the Navy’s much-hyped distributed lethality plan.  Both depend on absolute and extensive knowledge of enemy activities and locations.  Somehow, almost magically, we’ll know where all of their assets are and what they’re doing while remaining hidden, ourselves.  That sounds great on paper but is going to fail miserably in war.  How do I know?  Because we can’t even keep track of giant merchant ships that sail right up to us and ram us!!!!!!!  So, how are we going to find and track small, stealthy military assets that are using intentional deception, stealth, electronic warfare, jamming, and decoys?  We aren’t!!!!!!!!!  Our offset strategy and distributed lethality plans are idiotic and we’re being rammed with proof of that on a recurring basis.

The Next Pearl Harbor - Shipyards

We recently discussed carrier losses in a future war and noted the need to be able to “quickly” replace those losses.  I say “quickly” because carriers take a long time to build even on an expedited wartime basis.  The current 5-7 year construction time frames might be condensed to 3-4 years but that’s still a long time.

Currently, we have only one shipyard capable of constructing carriers and that is Newport News Shipbuilding yard in VirginiaNewport News is also one of only two yards that build our nuclear submarines and the only yard that refuels nuclear carriers.

If we were to somehow lose the use of that shipyard during a time of war, it would be a monumental loss.  Does this suggest a likely Pearl Harbor scenario to you?  If an enemy could destroy Newport News Shipbuilding yard, they’d effectively destroy all future carriers and half of all new submarines for the foreseeable future.

Yes, you reluctantly admit, that would be disastrous but it would be very difficult, likely impossible, for an enemy to destroy a facility that large without resorting to a nuclear bomb or a naval fleet so large that it would have no hope of assembling and sailing undetected to the east coast of the United States, you say.  Well, that’s probably true but there is no need for an enemy to resort to nuclear bombs, huge fleets, or wholesale destruction of the yard.  The yard has a few key points of failure, the most noteworthy and vulnerable of which are the enormous cranes that lift and move the subsections of a vessel.  Nowadays, ships are built in “lifts”, or subsections, and if you can’t move the subsections, you can’t build a ship.  It’s that simple.  Destroy the cranes and you destroy the yard, for all practical purposes. 

Specifically, there is only one crane that services aircraft carriers.  It is referred to as “Big Blue” and it is the largest crane in the Western Hemisphere

“Big Blue is a gantry style crane that stands 233 feet tall, and has a span of 540 feet from leg to leg. It weighs 4,600 metric tons (10.1 million pounds). It was built in 1976 by the German company Krupp. The two legs straddle the huge dry-dock at Newport News Shipbuilding, where the first Ford-class aircraft carrier is currently being assembled. On each side of the dock are a pair of rails, so the entire craned can move up and down the ship's length, and the payload is attached to a carriage on the main girder that can translate side to side.

As originally installed, it could lift 900 metric tons (just under two million pounds), but in preparation for building the Ford-class carriers the shipbuilders needed to increase that.  …  Now, each of the three hooks can carry 350 metric tons, bringing the crane's lifting capacity to 1,050 metric tons (that's just over 2.3 million pounds). Each hook has over a mile of 1-5/8-inch diameter wire rope behind it.” (1)

Similarly, Newport News submarine construction facility depends on cranes to move subsections and transfer “cars” to roll entire submarines out of the construction building and to a drydock for subsequent fitting out.  Destruction of the crane or transfer systems would cripple submarine construction for years.

Big Blue Crane - The Next Pearl Harbor?

Destruction of these couple of vulnerable pieces of equipment is a perfect mission for your basic sabotage and/or special forces.  Given the porosity of our borders, it’s quite plausible for China to slip a special forces unit into the country and target the cranes and transfer cars.

This blindingly obvious shipyard Pearl Harbor vulnerability suggests several measures we should be taking to prepare for, and mitigate, the impact of such a loss.

  • We ought to be be considering construction of conventional, non-nuclear, “basic” carriers with no frills, especially in light of today’s reduced air wing sizes.  These carriers would be complements, not replacements, for Nimitz/Ford class carriers.  Hopefully, such a basic carrier would be markedly cheaper and quicker to build and able to be built in yards other than Newport News.

  • We should begin qualifying additional yards to build carriers.

  • We should greatly beef up security around our critical yards.

  • We should acquire and stockpile replacement components for critical pieces of equipment such as cranes and transfer cars.

  • I’m never in favor of government run enterprises because they are, inevitably, inefficient and far more costly than private enterprise but, given the lack of yards qualified to construct major warships, thought should be given to re-establishing government owned and run ship construction yards.

There are “Pearl Harbors” all around us, waiting to happen, that would be far more devastating than the actual Pearl Harbor attack in WWII and we need to begin recognizing them and taking defensive measures.


(1)Gizmodo website, “The 233-Foot Tall, 4600-Ton Crane That Builds Aircraft Carriers”, Brent Rose, 26-Sep-2012,

Friday, August 18, 2017

Australia Unlikely To Support U.S.

ComNavOps has long opined that spending time, money, and effort into cross-training with friendly nations is largely unproductive and unlikely to ever be of future benefit.  The basic rationale behind this position is that most friendly countries lack the military resources to be of any actual benefit in a conflict and/or they lack the will/desire to join the US.

Countries whose entire navy consists of few frigates or patrol boats just don’t have the resources to make any difference in a war so what’s the point of spending time and money training with them?  Examples include any African nation, Canada, Philippines, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, etc.

One of the rationales put forth for the LCS was that it was small enough to train with other countries navies and not intimidate them.  If their navies are that small, what possible benefit can they offer in a war?

Similarly, countries who have demonstrated a reluctance to actively side with the US are unlikely to suddenly side with us in the future so what’s the point of spending time and money training with them?  Examples, include most South American countries, France, Turkey, Philippines, Italy, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, etc.

We can now add Australia to the group of countries that would be unlikely to support the US, according to a survey reported by Submarine Matters blog (1).  Without going into the details of the survey, the results indicate that around 70% of Australian citizens would opt to remain neutral and not support the US or Japan in any conflict.  The blog notes that the survey was funded by a grant from a Chinese citizen which instantly makes the data suspect.  Nevertheless, the general thrust of the survey probably captures the prevailing desire of Australia to remain neutral.  You can see the tabulated data by following the link below (2).

Further evidence for this neutral stance comes in a recent speech in which Australian PM Turnbull described China as a “good friend and partner” (3).  If Australia believes that China is a good friend and partner then their neutral stance makes perfect sense.  Australia is naively wrong about this but that’s another topic.

There’s nothing wrong with the US working to get basing rights in Australia, if we think that will benefit us, but to spend time cross-training with a country that is unlikely to actively support us in the region is a waste of time.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Australia is a good friend to the US but is unlikely to be a military partner in any conflict.  So, I’m not saying we should cut ties with Australia – far from it! – just that we should not spend time cross-training with them.  Further, when you factor in their meager military resources, there is even less reason to spend time cross-training.

I know some people are going to get upset over this but it’s just a simple question of where best to allocate our military training time and money – nothing more sinister than that.  Also note that this discussion pertains to war, not anti-pirate patrols and other peacetime activities - many countries will support us during peace.  The proof is what happens to that support during combat and history and surveys of capabilities demonstrate that few countries have both the capability and willingness to support the US in combat.  As I said, this is just a training and budget priority issue, nothing more.


(1)Submarine Matters blog, 6-Jun-2017,

(3)Defense News website, “Prime Minister Turnbull Dismisses Notion That Australia Must Choose Between China And US”, Mike Yeo, 2-Jun-2017,

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

MV-22 Assault

The Marine Corps has been rapidly moving away from the traditional over-the-beach amphbious assault using landing craft to an aviation based assault concept using helos and MV-22’s.  ComNavOps has questioned the feasibility of this approach in numerous posts.  Let’s continue to examine the issue.

Defense Update website has a fascinating article describing numerous helo shootdowns.  Here are some numbers to get a feel for the magnitude of the problem.

“The U.S. Army has lost more than 120 helicopters in the war on terror, about 25 percent of them due to enemy engagements. According to recent official statistics, some 57 U.S. helicopters had been downed in Iraq until Feb. 4, resulting in 172 deaths, or about 5.5 percent of total American deaths since the conflict began in March 2003. According to U.S. Army General Simmons, the U.S. Army has lost 29 helicopters to enemy fire since March 2003.” (1)

How have these losses occurred?

“The majority of the firefights involve machine-gun and heavy-machine-gun fire, categorized as up to 23 mm, Simmons said. But, he added, some surface-to-air missiles, such as SA-7s, SA-14s and SA-16s, have been used to shoot down Army helicopters.“ (1)

While that may seem like a lot of losses for a semi-war, we have to recognize that helos have heavy workloads and fly a lot of hours and missions.  It is simple statistical probability that some will be shot down or damaged.

“Army helicopters average 100 enemy firefights monthly and are hit about 17 times a month. Most times the helicopters are able to fly back to base. Simmons said that is a testament to the quality of pilots, crews and equipment. The number of flight hours for the Army has nearly doubled in the past two years. In 2005, pilots logged about 240,000 hours. This year, Simmons said, he expects that number to reach nearly 400,000 hours. In 2006, pilots and crews flew 334,000 hours.” (1)

On the other hand, highly sophisticated helos should be quite successful against ill-equipped and ill-trained terrorists so any losses should be viewed with a degree of alarm.

What about countermeasures and defensive tactics?

“As result [of losses due to SA-18 type missiles], U.S. military helicopter pilots in Iraq tried flying low and fast, hoping to elude heat-seeking missiles fired by insurgents. But the insurgents responded with heavy weapons such as machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and the loss rate of American helicopters soared. So the pilots went high again and insurgents replied with lethal surface-to-air missiles. The vicious circle continued.” (1)

It’s not just newer surface-to-air (SAM) missiles that threaten helos.

“What is still more vexing to Helicopter pilots flying combat missions in Iraq is the constant threat from RPGs. U.S. military helicopters are equipped with long-range sensors and devices to jam radar and infrared technology, but they have proven vulnerable to intense gunfire, as well as rocket-propelled grenades.“ (1)

American pilots learned to fear good old fashioned barrage fire in Vietnam and the threat remains just as valid today as then.

Helicopters are particularly vulnerable when landing.  At that time they have no choice but to be low, slow, and non-maneuverable – they have to be in order to unload and to maintain flight control in the inherently “unstable” hover mode.  Consider what this means for aviation assault.

“… pilots …  "yank and bank" in a corkscrew motion when approaching a dangerous or "hot" landing zone, dropping with a gut-churning, nose-high descent. Hovering, a helicopter is at its most vulnerable… Brig. Gen. Robert Milstead, a Cobra pilot who recently returned from commanding a Marine air wing in Iraq claims: "Above about 2,500 or 3,000 feet you are out of small arms range but you've got to worry about the MANPADS threat, by all means avoid 500 to 1,000 feet because you're hanging out there like a grape, to be picked!"

This is bad enough for conventional helos but now consider the MV-22, envisioned by the Marine Corps as the backbone of aviation assault.  The MV-22 is not a helo.  It is a conventional aircraft that can temporarily, carefully, and cautiously enter helo/hover mode for brief periods while landing and taking off.  However, it is even more unstable than helos while in hover mode and cannot even remotely “yank and bank” during its landing.

In Vietnam, helo assault pilots learned to come in fast and hard, hit the ground in a tightly packed grouping, unload the troops in seconds, and haul out.  Now, watch any MV-22 “combat” landing video – there’s plenty on YouTube.  MV-22 landings are the complete opposite of what I just described.  The MV-22 requires large spaces – there will be no such thing as tightly packed landing groups, slow, careful maneuvering to deal with the inherent instability of hover mode and the poor visuals that the pilot has, and a relatively slow rate of unloading.

UH-1 Huey Assault

We previously discussed helo operations and losses in Vietnam where over 5000 helos were destroyed – a 43% loss rate (see, “Helo Assault”).  Consider the helo assault losses in Vietnam and then compare the physical size and performance of the UH-1 Huey versus the MV-22.  As a reminder, here are a few relevant specifications.

UH-1 Huey
-          Size:  57 ft long rotor tip to tail
-          Fuselage:  20 ft x 8’7” approx fuselage =  170 sqft
-          Troop Capacity:  around a dozen troops with wide exits from both sides

-          Size:  57 ft long x 85 ft rotor tip to tip
-          Fuselage:  50 ft x 15 ft approx fuselage = 750 sqft
-          Troop Capacity:  around two dozen troops with one exit at the tail

As seen, the MV-22 fuselage, the major targeting mass, is 4.5 times the size of the Huey when viewed in profile.  Combine that with the greatly reduced combat landing performance of the MV-22 and the loss rate in a contested assault will soar even over the shocking Vietnam loss rates.

MV-22 - Compare the Size to the Huey!

Let’s look at more recent evidence.  Consider the Karbala battle:

2003 – Karbala, Iraq – During Operation Iraqi Freedom, ambush barrage fire from the Iraqi Medina division routed 31 US helos of the 11th Regiment / 3rd Infantry Division.  Two helos were lost (one to a non-combat crash) and all but one were heavily damaged.  The helo unit was effectively wiped out.

Recognize that all these helo losses were under best-case scenarios where the US had total control of the sky and the enemy was generally ill-trained and ill-equipped.  What will losses be against a peer, under contested skies, and against well trained troops with state of the art weapon and sensor systems?

So, with all that said, I have to pose the question,

How are we going to conduct a successful helo/MV-22 aviation assault?

The answer seems pretty obvious:  we aren’t.

If that’s the case, why are the Marines basing so much of their doctrine and acquisitions around aviation assaults?


(1)Defense Update website, “Deadly Scourge of the US Helicopter Pilots in Iraq”, Colonel David Eshel, 2007,

Monday, August 14, 2017

How To Build A Cheaper Carrier

Here’s a companion piece to the recent post describing how to build a better, cheaper aircraft and in only five years (see, "How To Build A Better Aircraft").  In this post we examine how to build cheaper carriers that still operate a full combat air wing.

We’ve noted the precipitous decline in air wing size and the corresponding, if utterly illogical, increase in carrier size (??!!!!).  We’ve also noted the exploding cost of carrier construction (yikes!!!!).  The logical implication of these observations is that we can get by perfectly well with a smaller, cheaper, carrier.  The overarching attribute of such a carrier would be simplicity.  Simplicity is the foundation that leads to size and cost reductions.  The simpler the carrier, the smaller and cheaper it should be.  With that in mind, let’s design a smaller, cheaper, simpler but still highly effective carrier.  Bear in mind that when I’m talking about a smaller carrier, it’s smaller only relative to a Nimitz/Ford supercarrier.  I’m, emphatically, not talking about the usual escort type carrier that so many people seem to want.  That kind of mini-carrier is of very limited use in combat.

As I’ve long harped on, the secret to a good ship design is a solid concept of operations (CONOPS).  With that in mind, the carrier I’m going to describe would operate paired with a regular supercarrier and two such pairs would constitute a carrier task force in combat.  I’m not going into any great detail on the CONOPS because that’s not the point of this post.  I mention the general usage simply to provide a context to understand where and how this ship fits into the overall fleet structure.

Anyway, here are the design points.

  • Ship size target should be the Midway of the 1980’s.

Length = 960 ft (vs. 1100 ft Ford)
Displacement = 50,000 t (vs. 100,000 t Ford)

  • Air wing size and composition should be a full size wing less helos other than a couple for Search and Rescue.

F-18/35 = 44
EA-18G = 6
E-2D = 4
Non-existent Tanker = 6

  • Catapults = 2 at the waist positions
  • Elevators = 2 or 3
  • Radar = TRS-3D or equivalent
  • SeaRAM / CIWS = 4
  • Power will be conventional rather than nuclear.  Naval engineers can determine whether we need 2 or 4 propeller shafts.

Air Wing.  The air wing will be a nearly full, standard wing.  Current air wings have 44 Hornets and so will ours.  We will also have 6 EA-18G Growlers, 4 E-2D Hawkeyes, and 6 non-existent tankers (if we have to pull S-3 Vikings out of the boneyard, we will).  The old Midway operated a larger air wing than this so we know we can fit this wing on a much smaller carrier than a Nimitz/Ford.

The reduced helo component means a significant savings in less maintenance space, parts storage, machine shops, magazine storage, and fuel storage.  The reduced pilot and maintenance tech numbers means less berthing, smaller galley, fewer heads, and less food and water storage.

Catapults / Elevators.  Carriers rarely operate all four catapults simultaneously.  Most of the time, only the two waist catapults are used and the bow is used for parking aircraft.  We’ll simplify and not even install bow cats.  We’ll go with two waist cats and call it a day. 

Without bow cats, we gain space under the deck at the bow that can be used for hangars or any other function.  Without the need for bow cats, we can also reduce the length of the bow and, thus, the overall length of the ship.  Further, with no bow cats, the bow deck space can be devoted exclusively to parking which “increases” the size of the carrier while actually making it smaller – meaning, that the parking area increases while the actual size decreases!

Sensors.  Carriers are always accompanied by Aegis escorts.  Further, carriers don’t radiate during combat.  Finally, carriers have no long range, advanced weapons that require sophisticated sensors.  Thus, there is no need for advanced radar suites.  The $500M Dual Band Radar and the $300M Enterprise Radar can be replaced by a simple TRS-3D, or equivalent – just enough for navigation and a bit more.  Both the SeaRAM and CIWS have their own radars so, again, there is no need for sophisticated ship sensors.

Weapons.  Carriers are always accompanied by Aegis escorts.  We’ll let the escorts do their job and provide the area AAW defense.  Our carrier will have only short range and close in self-defense weapons.  Four SeaRAM or CIWS will comprise the carrier’s weaponry.  Note that both SeaRAM and CIWS have self-contained radars which, again, is why we don’t need a sophisticated sensor suite for the carrier.

Crew.  The smaller ship size, less equipment, less complex equipment, fewer helos, smaller conventional power plant, etc. all translate to a smaller crew.  A smaller crew translates to smaller hotel services support staff – for instance, fewer cooks and food service staff will be needed.  Add in some judicious use of automation and crew size should be around 1/2 to 2/3 of the Nimitz.  Let’s call it 3000, total, including the air wing personnel.

Cost.  The ship will be 87% of the length of a Nimitz and have 50% the displacement which should significantly cut costs.  Admittedly, the basic hull components are the least expensive portion of the ship but the reduction in length and displacement still offers significant savings.  Let’s call it $700M in hull construction savings. 

The use of conventional power will result in significant construction cost savings and if we can get by with only two shafts/props we’ll save even more.  The 2002 Shipbuilding and Conversion budget shows a line item for “Nuclear Plant Propulsion Equipment” of $1.47B.  Let’s call it $1B in savings from the use of conventional power.

The minimal sensor suite will save hundreds of millions of dollars.  Let’s call it $300M.

The elimination of two catapults will save additional money.  Let’s call it $200M.

The various reductions in equipment will allow a reduction in crew size which means fewer berthing areas, smaller galleys, less food/water storage requirements, and generally less of all the ship’s hotel services which, in total, provides significant savings.  Some of that is reflected in the smaller overall size which we’ve already accounted for.  However, a great deal more savings comes from the reduced equipment, utility demands, hotel service equipment, etc.  Let’s call it $300M.

The various savings total up to $2.5B.  That means that compared to the cost of the last Nimitz built, we can build a smaller carrier for $2.5B less.  So, for $2.5B less than the last Nimitz, we can have a fully functional carrier that operates a full size air wing (less helos). 

Since you’re wondering, the last Nimitz class carrier, the Bush, was commissioned in 2009 and cost $6.2B in then year dollars, according to Wiki.  That’s $7.2B in 2017 dollars.  Thus, we can build our carrier for [$7.2B - $2.5B = $4.7B] versus the $14B+ for the Ford class.

Why wouldn’t we do this?

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Lockheed has let it be known that they are investing internal effort at packaging Patriot missiles onto naval vessels (1) – this despite the existence of Standard anti-ballistic missiles that already exist, do the same job, and already have integrated software tying the weapon into the ship’s sensors and fire control system – in other words, a complete and integrated package.  So, why is Lockheed looking at naval Patriots which would, at best, be redundant?  Self-interest.  They’re doing what’s potentially good for Lockheed.  If they can sell an existing product they can make money without any great development cost.

What’s wrong with that?  Nothing.  Self-interest is the foundation of capitalism and free markets.  However, Lockheed’s interests are not necessarily the same as the US military’s interests.  In fact, it would be rare and only coincidental if Lockheed’s interests and the military’s interests aligned. 

Lockheed’s interest is making money.  The military’s interest is combat.  The point is that we, and the military, need to recognize that when we turn to industry for products and support, we’ll get whatever the company believes will generate the most money for them rather than what will provide the best combat option.

When the Navy issues its final Request For Proposal (RFP) to industry for the new frigate, Lockheed Martin and Austal, the manufacturers of the LCS, are not going to respond with a brand new frigate design – they’re going to respond with a modified (to the smallest degree they believe they can get away with) LCS.  Why?  Because that’s what’s in their best self-interest.  It’s how they can make the most money.

When the government initiates the next F-35 program, the manufacturer isn’t going to respond with the most cost effective and efficient manufacturing program – they’re going to respond with the program that is the least likely to be able to be killed off just as Lockheed Martin set up the elaborate fifty sate/one hundred country disbursed manufacturing model that they knew Congress would be unwilling to kill due to the distributed jobs aspect.

When a manufacturer “tests” a developing weapon system, they’re not going to test it under combat conditions to see how it really works.  That’s not in their self-interest.  They’re going to test it in a contrived scenario carefully calculated to make the system appear as good as possible.

If Bath is asked about a potential new destroyer, they’re not going to propose a brand new design – they’re going to propose a modified Burke because that would be in their best self-interest.

Consider all the ship type variants that Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) has suggested for roles ranging from a frigate to ballistic missile defense (BMD) to amphibious assault, among others.  Each was based on – you guessed it – the LPD-17.  What’s the odds that the optimum frigate, BMD, and assault ship are all met by the same LPD-17 basic design?  Of course they’re not!  HII is proposing what they can make money on, not what would be the most combat effective solution.  HII’s interests do not align with the military’s.

LPD-17 Frigate/BMD/AAW/Assault

The point in this is that we, and the military, need to keep this self-interest concept firmly in mind as we deal with the defense industry.  We need to run everything we hear, see, or procure from industry through the cynical filter of “what’s in it for them?” and recognize that what we’ll get is a sub-optimum response or product that serves industry’s interests not ours.  That means that if we want an optimum service or product we have to drive the acquisition process and not leave it to industry.

When I hear comments like the those from former CNO Greenert, and now Richardson, saying that they can’t wait to see what industry “gives” us next, I cringe.  Industry will give us what is in their best self-interest rather than what we need.  Sure, industry will make some attempt to align their interests with the military’s just because doing so will increase the odds of them getting what they want: money.  That alignment, however, will be as minimal as possible.

There’s nothing wrong with inviting industry to make suggestions as long as that process of research and investigation is divorced from actual acquisition. 

On a related historical note, the Spruance was the first ship design that the Navy threw completely out to industry.  While the Spruance turned out to be a fine design, there was no guarantee that it would.  Witness the more recent LCS which was designed with minimal [useful] input from the Navy and wound up being an unmitigated disaster.

The military needs to stop throwing out open-ended invites to industry which allows industry to pick the product and, instead, start driving the acquisition process.  That means re-establishing in-house expertise, generating extensive and precise requirements, and demanding the exact product that will provide the best combat performance.  If the military doesn’t have a better idea of what’s needed than industry then we need to clean house on military leadership and start over.  The military needs to take back the acquisition process from industry.


(1)Breaking Defense website, “Lockheed Studies Sea-Launched Patriot PAC-3 & New 6-Foot Missile”, Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., 9-Aug-2017,

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Carriers And Tankers

The recent post about the Navy’s proposed unmanned tanker, the MQ-25 Stingray (see, "Navy Issues Tanker RFP"), engendered a lot of discussion about tankers, the various aircraft that could fill the role, and the need for tankers, in general.

Before anyone goes any further with this, it is mandatory to reread the excellent article on mission tanking written by guest author Mr. Bustamante (see, Why The Navy Needs A Really Large Tanker Aircraft”).

Now that you've done that, let's move on.

All of our tanker aircraft discussion is missing one key point – the only point that really matters, actually – and that is the role of the carrier.  To make the point with a ridiculous example, if we envision the role of the carrier to be one of sitting in a harbor providing combat air patrol (CAP) then we don’t need a tanker at all, or no more than a small, simple tanker for overhead recovery tanking, as a safety measure.  On the other hand, if we envision the carrier conducting 10,000 mile standoff strikes then we need a mammoth mission tanker and some much longer ranged strike aircraft!  

So, what is the role of the carrier?  I’ve answered this before in both posts (see, “AircraftCarrier – What Future”) and comments but it clearly needs repeating so let’s have at it, again, and see what it tells us about tankers.

Historically, the carrier has been a strike platform both for anti-surface and land attack.  Early in WWII, carriers would dart in from a long ways off, under cover of darkness, launch strikes, and retreat before an effective counterattack could be mounted.  Later in the war, when proper carrier groups could be assembled, carriers were a bit more willing to stake out a location and stand and conduct strikes secure in the belief that they had sufficient combat power to deal with any counterattack.

Today, we talk about anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zones that extend a thousand miles or more from an enemy’s territory.  These zones are established by the range of the weapons that can be brought to bear on any intruder – weapons such as mines, aircraft, land based anti-ship missiles, short range ballistic missiles, air launched anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines, and surface ships.  Compounding the problem for an attacking carrier group is the presence of sophisticated surface to air missile defense systems guarding high value bases and targets – systems with radars that can see and strike aircraft for hundreds of miles around.  Add to this fast, long ranged defensive aircraft armed with long range air to air missiles and it is almost taken as a given that manned aircraft cannot successfully penetrate and attack a land target defended by a peer enemy.

Increasingly, long range, penetrating strike is a mission given to cruise missiles.  That being the case, what role does the carrier serve?  Well, the cruise missiles (Tomahawks, at the moment) are mounted on Burkes and submarines.  Burkes need to get within several hundred miles of their targets.  Depending on how close the targets are to an enemy’s shoreline and how straight a course the missile will fly, the Burkes may need to penetrate hundreds of miles into an A2/AD zone to reach their launch point.  They’ll need protection to do that.  Some of that protection can be provided by their own Aegis/Standard defense systems, of course, but that alone will not be sufficient especially if we want to heavily load the VLS cells with cruise missiles rather than surface to air missiles.  Thus, the ideal escort for the cruise missile shooting Burkes is a carrier.  The carrier provides airborne protection for hundreds of miles in every direction and provides an added layer of protection to the Aegis/Standard missile defense.  Carrier aircraft also substantially decrease the likelihood of an enemy’s sensor platforms finding and targeting the carrier/Burke force.

Thus, the carrier becomes the escort for the Burkes instead of the other way around.  Or, to be more accurate, the carrier and Burkes mutually escort each other with the Burkes providing the group’s striking power.

Cruise missile shooting submarines are fine on their own.  Their inherent stealth makes them an ideal Tomahawk shooting platform and negates the need for a close escort.  Even here, though, we see another mission for the carrier – to hunt and kill the enemy’s anti-submarine forces, both surface ship and airborne.  If the carrier can relieve the pressure on the submarines, the subs can be more effective in the cruise missile shooting role.  Note, that I’m talking about dedicated cruise missile shooting submarines – SSGN’s loaded with 150+ cruise missiles, not SSN’s loaded with 12 cruise missiles – those are an ineffective and inefficient means of cruise missile delivery.

Of course, the Air Force’s long range bombers can also launch cruise missiles, if they can survive to reach their launch points.  Again, the carrier air wing can provide the local air superiority needed to clear transit lanes and safe launch points for bombers.

So, how does all this relate back to the subject of tankers? 

Understanding what the role of the carrier is, we see that the carrier does not, and indeed should not, have the role of deep penetrating, land attack strike against a peer enemy.  The job of the carrier and its aircraft is to secure local (though a very large “local”) air control for the purpose of escort.  Tankers are needed to facilitate that but not long range, stealthy, penetrating, high capacity tankers.  All we need is a medium capability and capacity tanker to support the far flung air superiority aircraft.  A fair amount of speed in the tanker would be helpful to get from one location to the next in an expeditious manner.  Other than that, the tanker would be a plain, non-descript airframe.  Conceptually, a higher speed S-3 Viking would do just fine.

Carriers and tankers are intimately related and yet we persist in discussing them in isolation.  When we discuss tankers we must do so with a clear understanding of the role of the carrier.  Of course, the role of the carrier comes from having a geopolitical strategy and the associated military strategy – one of my favorite, overarching themes.  When we lack a clear strategy we fall into a pattern of haphazard acquisitions, hoping that something we buy may prove useful in the future instead of purpose designing and acquiring assets that we know will support our strategy.

We should also note that as the A2/AD threat is neutralized and the operational distances are greatly reduced, the carrier can revert to its traditional strike role but, by definition, this will involve much shorter distances and require only a medium endurance and medium capacity tanker – just what we described for supporting the carrier’s air superiority fighters.

Monday, August 7, 2017

How To Build A Better Aircraft

As we discuss terminating the F-35 and why it’s a good/bad idea, I continue to hear the notion that we have no choice but to continue because stopping and designing a new aircraft would take too long and cost even more than the F-35.  Given today’s badly broken military development and acquisition practices, that is undoubtedly true.  However, it doesn’t have to be.  In previous posts and comments, I’ve described how to design a new aircraft, put it into production in five years, and do it for less than we’re paying now.  I’d like to pull all those comments and posts together into one post.

Here’s how to build a better aircraft.

To begin, we have to define what we even need in broad terms.

The first key recognition is that there are two main “theaters” of operation for aircraft:  Europe/land masses and the Pacific/oceanic region.  All other likely regions of conflict (Iran, North Korea, Africa) are subsets.  This recognition immediately leads us to the second recognition.

The second recognition is that a new aircraft must not be a multi-service aircraft.  The F-35 has proven the folly of this approach.  The requirements for a European/land mass aircraft will be radically different than for a Pacific/oceanic aircraft.

See?  We’ve already saved money by not trying to build a gargantuan, one-size fits all aircraft!

Being a naval matters blog, this post will now discuss only the Pacific/oceanic aircraft.  The Air Force can design their own European/land mass aircraft.

The third recognition is that the aircraft will perform one main role and only one.  Focus is the key.  Secondary functions are fine as long as they don’t impact the primary function or contribute more than 2% to the cost.  Thus, a fighter that has a mechanism to carry and release a bomb is fine as long as the capability in no way negatively impacts the main role of being a fighter.

See?  We’ve saved money by not trying to make our aircraft a combination strike, fighter, AEW, ISR, EW, tanker, drone controller, arsenal aircraft all rolled into one.

The fourth recognition, closely tied to the third, is that focus comes from a coherent, well thought out concept of operations (CONOPS).  This will tell us exactly what our aircraft requirements are.  Note that I’m not going to offer what I think the aircraft should be/do.  That would just bog us down in technical specifics that are irrelevant to this discussion.  Besides, if you’ve followed the blog, you already know what kind of role I think Navy air should play.

So, we’ve now got a clearly defined aircraft with a very specific and narrow functional role.  At this point, our aircraft program breaks down into two major sections:  technical and program management.

Technical Aspects

Airframe.  Choose an existing airframe.  There are many to choose from.  There are all different wing shapes and sizes, there are stealthy and semi-stealthy airframes.  There are single engine and multi-engine.  And so on.  The point is to pick an existing, proven, debugged airframe, if at all possible.  I suspect the F-22 airframe is a pretty good choice.  Maybe not perfect but perfect is the enemy of affordable.

See?  We’ve saved a gazillion dollars in basic airframe developmental costs by simply using an existing airframe!

Technology.  Choose the most advanced existing, proven technologies for sensors, engines, and weapons.  If it isn’t already in operation somewhere in the world, then it belongs in Research & Development and not on our aircraft.  With only existing technology, we eliminate development altogether and only have to deal with packaging of the items into the airframe and integration through the software.

See?  We just saved a boat load of money by completely eliminating technology developmental costs.

Complexity.  Don’t make it unnecessarily complicated.  The F-35 “do everything” ALIS maintenance, inventory, logistics, and mission planning software is needless complication and is racking up huge costs.  We don’t need sensor fusion unless there’s an existing, debugged, proven software package already out there.  We just need a basic “sense and shoot” level of complexity.

See?  We’ve just saved a bundle of money by keeping everything simple.  KISS is alive and well.

Management Aspects

Design.  Production cannot start until the entire design is 100% complete.

See?  We just saved a ton of money by completely eliminating concurrency costs.

Change Orders.  Design modifications are the enemy of affordable – affordable has a lot of enemies, doesn’t it?  We’ll establish our requirements from the CONOPS, embed them in concrete, embed the concrete in titanium, and not change a single, tiny item.  The inevitable changes can come down the road in the form of upgrades, after the aircraft is in service.

See?  We’ve just saved a ton of money by completely eliminating change orders, alterations, and concurrency costs.

Managers.  Program managers must be appointed for the duration of the program until the aircraft is in full production.  To do less is to lose accountability.  Managers must be held accountable.  If the program misses schedules, runs over budget, or otherwise fails, the managers must pay the price in the form of loss of pay, loss of benefits, possible court martial, and automatic discharge from the service.  This may seem severe but it’s exactly what private industry does with their managers.  Besides, would we really want to retain in service a manager who demonstrates that they can’t successfully manage a program?  Now, the flip side of accountability must also be applied.  If the program comes in on time or early, on or under budget, and meets all technical specifications then the managers should be given significant bonuses, raises, benefits, and promotions.  Together, the threat of punishment and the promise of reward are as powerful a motivational tool as we can provide.

Authority.  Hand in hand with this degree of accountability goes authority.  If we’re going to hold managers accountable to this degree, they need the power and authority to execute their program as they see fit.  Once we commit to a program, no one but the program manager can make decisions about the schedules, funding uses, technical issues, etc.  Yes, there are statutory requirements and milestones that must be met and which are decided by other people but all the program specifics must be under the control of the manager.  No more can some outside Admiral insert his pet feature into a program.  No more can outside forces impose schedule adjustments.  And so on.

Decision Point.  A death point is necessary.  A death point is a go or no go decision point and comes at the 2 year point in a program.  At that point, any competent program manager will know whether the project is viable.  If it isn’t, then we terminate with no further expenditures and no penalty for the manager.  If it is viable, we proceed as described.  Only the program manager can make the go decision.  Thus, he can’t be forced into moving ahead with a project that isn’t viable.  Conversely, the program manager or any outside person or agency with sufficient authority can make the no go decision.  This allows outside agents to terminate the program due to budget, changes in strategic or operational need, or any other reason.

Conflict of Interest.  Employment restrictions will forbid the project manager from ever working for a company that had anything to do with the project.  This eliminates any conflict of interest, delayed bribery/kickbacks, etc.

Contract.  A fixed price contract with cost reduction incentives will be the only type of contract allowed.  With the iron-clad, unchangeable specifications we’ll use, there will be absolutely no unknowns for industry and, therefore, no reason to need any kind of squishy, cost-plus contract.  There will be no separate contracts for multiple lots of aircraft.  There will be only one aircraft and one lot.  The last aircraft built will be absolutely identical to the first.

A side effect of this policy might be that instead of committing to production quantities of thousands, which inevitably get cut to hundreds, perhaps we’ll scale down our production programs to more reasonable quantities that can actually be built.

The entire quantity of aircraft will be specified in the contract.  The contract will specify that the manufacturer gets paid the full contract amount whether the government terminates or reduces the aircraft quantity or not.  Thus, there is no risk for the manufacturer and, therefore, no reason not to accept a fixed price contract.

So, let’s sum up, shall we?

Timing.  We’ve completely eliminated development, leaving only packaging and integration.  Requirements will be unchangeable.  All technology will already exist.  With all that in mind, there is no reason we can’t begin production within 5 years, quite likely less.

Cost.  I’ve noted many instances of huge cost savings.  With no development, existing technology, an existing airframe, and no modifications, there is no reason we can’t build the cheapest aircraft in modern history and cheaper by a huge amount, too!

The interesting thing about this concept is that the vast majority of it could be implemented by the Navy with nothing more than internal policy changes.  Yes, there would be a few aspects that might require legislative involvement but those are relatively minor, actually.

Note:  I don’t want a single comment telling me why this can’t be done under the current reality.  I know it can’t be done under the current reality.  This blog is partly about describing current conditions but also, partly, about describing the way things should be.  This post is one of the “should be” ones.  Let’s treat it as such.

And there you have it.  If we dropped the F-35 today, we could have a fully developed, fully combat capable, state of the art aircraft in production within five years and for a fraction of the cost of the F-35.

That’s how you build a better aircraft.