Archive for the 'Navy' Category

FRAMEWORKS_17OK, with the core topic of this post, “Russians” may be a bit of clickbait, but they actually are a large underlying flavor to this stew history is cooking up.

This is the stew of the realists and their allies the antitransformationalists – something we should have a hearty appetite for after a few decades of the toasted rice-cakes fed to us by the Cult of Transformation.

The last year has seen a welcome shift in the center of gravity for navalists in the national security arena in a direction that will help our navy rebalance towards the end of the Terrible 20s that will be defined by budget stress and an excess number of sub-optimal platforms warping our perception of per-unit power projection. It took a few decades for us to get here, so let’s look at how we got here.

Dizzy in the head following our victory in the Cold War, a large cadre of people came in to positions of influence that really thought that not only was the world new, that war itself was new. They thought they had found a new world via an ahistorical, blinkered perspective of technological progression limited to their professional lifetime. Not unlike the nuclear weapons fetishdom of Eisenhower’s “New Look” – they thought they had a gift of being at the right time in a technological leap where their brilliance will be able to facilitate a transformation that decades and centuries of prior leaders could not make happen.

Aggressively following the post-Goldwater-Nichols diktat of Jointness, they picked up the McNamara Era mindset that, like GM made Pontiac, Chevrolet, and Oldsmobile versions of the same car by changing the grill and a few other items – all the services should be able to make do with the same kit.

Using carefully crafted green eyeshade practices that would make Quartermaster Bloomfield proud, they were convinced that the warfighter needed to make compromises to make the metrics fit in DC, regardless of the actual combat utility of the item in question. A penny-silly and pound-foolish track record only brought in more “oversight” and regulations – further compounding a system with each passing year decoupled from operational experience.

Few breaks were in place to counter an almost pentecostal fervor toward what was becoming a personality based procurement process. Any opposing ideas, cautioning, or points-of-order were seen as naïve at best, disloyal at worst. As dissent was silenced and blind endorsement rewarded, humility – and a refined evolution of systems gave way to an ego driven revolutionary movement.

Initial warning signs were seen as early as the Bush-41 administration, but the transformationalist party culminated at the opening of this decade when the grim truth of what we bought with this new movement began to displace water and make shadows on the ramp (if they made it that far).

What did we get? I’ll leave the other services alone, but what we got was A-12, ACS, titanium fire mains, warships without the ability to engage other warships, an entire class of sub-optimal hulls we still do not know what to do with, a Joint Strike Fighter that no one is happy with, technology demonstrators made of balsa wood, EFV, and flight decks full of light fighters circling CVN in some strange mobi-strip VFA-centipede refueling each other.

Yes, that does need to be reviewed almost monthly if for no other reason than as a warning to future generations.

So, what have Neptune’s copybook headings brought us that should give us cheer? Let’s go to the title of the post.

Range: Jerry Hendrix’s paper from CNAS last month, Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation continues to get traction. The first phase of this argument started when Jerry and I were barely LTs with the coming death of the A-6 and towards the end of that decade, the light attack mafia’s destruction of the VF bloodline. That argument was lost. The results are clear.

The end of the Cold War – followed by the decision to cancel the replacement aircraft for the A-6 Intruder, the A-12 Avenger II – began a precipitous retreat from range and the deep strike mission that had long characterized the carrier air wing. The rapid successive retirements of the A-6 Intruder, F-14 Tomcat, and S-3 Viking that followed, and the decision to replace these aircraft with variants of the F/A-18 Hornet – originally designed as a replacement for the short-ranged fighters and light attack aircraft – shrank the average range of the carrier air wing from over 800 nm in 1996 to less than 500 nm by 2006. This occurred just when competitor nations, led by China, began to field A2/AD systems with ranges of 1,000 nm or more.

Just in time for the design of the replacement for the F/A-18 that will patch over not just the range issue, but the shortcomings of the F-35C and the significant capability gaps that will exist in whatever carrier based drone fleet we develop. The heavy fighter should be back.

Reach: Now that potential challengers on the high seas are leaving brown and green water, another screaming voice can no longer be ignored. We really do not have a way to reach out and touch anyone. Those few ships that can carry a ASCM are stuck with an old but useful Harpoon, a weapon modern AAW defenses have made much less effective. Other nations have one to two generations better ASCM than we do. We are making progress towards something better, but for now – there isn’t much to distribute in our distributed lethality. The transformationalists were so busy looking in to the far future, they forgot that the now and near future may have to go to war at sea.

The joint DARPA/ US Navy LRASM program was initiated in 2009 to deliver a new generation of anti-ship weapons, offering longer ranges and better odds against improving air defense systems

Faster please.

Risk: Rest assured, the transformationalist have been chastened but not humbled in the last few years. Ignoring their track record, may of them have moved on to one of the last areas where PPT seems to trump physics, technology, and ROE – unmanned systems. Even there, smart voices are saying smart things that should help us be able to get something useful for the fleet. Not something ethereal that never makes it like the A-12, but perhaps something usable like the VIRGINIA Class SSN.

One of the better points in this regard was made recently by Bryan McGrath;

The Unmanned Carrier-Launched Aerial Strike and Surveillance program proposes one jet to do both jobs, but ongoing argument between the Navy and Congress has delayed its request for proposals: Some lawmakers want Naval Air Systems Command to focus on strike capabilities, but the Navy wants to maintain an emphasis on a long-range surveillance platform.

“The problem is, if you try to stuff both missions into one airframe, you end up sacrificing one,” former destroyer skipper retired Cmdr. Bryan McGrath told Navy Times. “We need both strike and surveillance, and we probably need them in two separate aircraft.”

More of that thinking will get shadows on the ramp sooner.

Russians: Ah, yes. Russia. As Dr. Dmirty Gorenberg pointed out this summer on Midrats, from a naval perspective, the Russians will have a lot of work to do in modernizing their fleet. Though we have their most high profile ship off Syria, the Slava Class Cruiser MOSKVA, she is just what is left of the former Red Banner Fleet of the Soviets. Russia is working now on her smaller ships and submarines, and then we’ll see what she can do later in modernizing larger ships. As she showed in the Caspian, her ships have quite a bit of punch relative to their size and have a good bit of kit.

With her navy again at sea – and this time putting ordnance down range – and her submarines once more haunting the shores of other nations, this is a great opportunity to bring out the realists cudgel against the ever-present Beltway transformationalists who are happy to spends billions of dollars for programs that never deploy, while Sailors and Marines are ordered to go in to harm’s way without the tools they need.

There is a lot to be positive about in the change of the conversation looking forward to the next year. This should help steer the development of unmanned systems, the replacement for the F/A-18, DDG-51, and the LCS albatross in a direction that will give us products we can be proud of. Programs that reach for a solid hand-hold before progressing forward, as opposed to making a leap of faith that results in to a fall in to the abyss.

Please join us at 5pm on 22 November 2015 for Midrats Episode 307: Our Own Private Petard – Procurement & Strategy with Robert Farley

This Sunday we are going to look at the big pixels that supports the entire national security infrastructure above it.

Using his recent article in The National Interest, The Real Threat to America’s Military (And It’s Not China, Russia or Iran), we will tackle the greatest challenge of a world power – those things it has no one else to blame for.

Procurement, strategy, and the choices we make. The run of the last 30 years of weapons development and strategic foresight has not been a very good one. Why?

Join us live if you can or pick the show up later by clicking here or by picking it up later by visiting our iTunes page.

Living roomThe citizens of our great country know little about the military, even less about what military members do, and scarcely are informed about the issues of the day. I did not serve in the military, but my kids do. All have served our country, whether in Teach for America or in the Navy. As I see it, most of my neighbors understand and appreciate service. Our volunteer fire companies are generally well manned. The Parent-Teacher Association and local service groups may have an ebb and flow, but they maintain a public presence, and my neighbors understand what they do. I don’t think that this awareness is so prevalent about contemporary military service. My neighbors’ understanding of training, deployment, geography, or mission might be generously described as “foggy”.


Being community minded (and an educator by trade), I propose a simple outreach program to alter the nation’s understanding of military service. To get us started, some math might help. There are 1.4 million in current service, and nearly 22 million veterans. We all have personal and community networks. These networks leverage from dozens to hundreds of contacts for each military person. If even a small percentage of those with military experience were to work their networks, the entire country could be exposed to this new information several times over. A local community will relish a short overview of veterans’ military perspectives. This overview might include a post-deployment discussion of what it means to be deployed, what you did, how important is it to get care packages, or what it means to trust your shipmates. I am not advocating lobbying or any persuasive posturing here, simply bridging the gap from those who have knowledge and experience to those who do not. The chasm is currently deep. It need not be. Like a mountaineer setting some pins for a safer traverse, are not we all better informed with enlightenment?


Against such a concept, I have asked our kids to share some of their thoughts with local audiences. Each time, they have graciously responded and prepared some thoughts for delivery and fielded questions. A local restaurant has donated their back room on a weeknight for the event, and I have made some postcards for hand delivery to the librarian, butcher, UPS deliveryman, teachers, neighbors, local government folks, and friends of all stripes. I buy a few trays for appetizers and leave the cash bar to the audience for drinks. The topics have been fascinating: “How the Navy prepares future leaders,” “Deployment 2013 – Who, What, Where, When and Why,” and “ The Rise of China’s Naval Power”. Every time, the question and answer periods have been wide-ranging and penetrating. Neighbors look at former school kids in a whole new light of respect, and the local business community gains confidence in our local citizens in service.

Case studies

I have five daughters, four of whom have attended the Unites States Naval Academy. The fifth is a Duke grad who worked two years in Teach for America. LT Ashley O’Keefe is our eldest. Upon her return from her first deployment, she spoke to a gathering of more than 40 people about her experience on her destroyer. She made a map of the port stops, clarified her role on the ship, and talked about enlisted and officer roles. Her perspective was very helpful to the uninitiated and veterans in the audience alike. She also found it personally helpful to put her thoughts together in a logical sequence – to make sense of the major milestones and accomplishments that she had just achieved. LT Lindsey Asdal just returned from her second deployment, and will put together a similar program on her next trip home. kirs

Sharing our insights to interested audiences can take many forms. Annie Asdal is a smart senior staffer for a regional real estate investment firm, and has spoken several times to a local hometown audience about return on investment, financial analysis, and investment models.

Finally, LTJG Kirsten Asdal recently reported to her first ship at Pearl Harbor. Before she reported, she completed a Masters’ in Contemporary China Studies, so she chose to mesmerize 50 or so attendees with a talk on “The Rise of China’s Naval Power”. She is well versed in the subject matter and her graphics and maps made sense to all in attendance. They were rapt with the implications of these global policies at work. Our youngest, MIDN 2/C Charlotte Asdal, is still a student at the US Naval Academy, yet she held the audience in crisp attention telling how the Navy trains future officers. She detailed leadership lessons, the mission of the Academy and how some of her many experiences shaped her ability to lead.

Where next?

DocumentThe French call these local discussion groups “salons” – they have existed for several hundred years. It would be my hope that a simple outline template could be circulated, perhaps by local public affairs offices, so that everyone in the military might utilize their existing community networks to chat about our military. The immediate benefits include keeping the community tight, a fun night in town with a strong speaker, and some national and international perspectives. Longer term benefits might include enhanced support for the military and a softening of the distance between military and civilian sectors. What topic would spark your community’s interest? I hope you can join us.


Please join us at 5 pm EST on 15 November 2015 for Midrats Episode 306: Author Claude Berube on his next book: Syren’s Song

This Sunday for the full hour our guest will be author Claude Berube to discuss his second Connor Stark novel, Syren’s Song. From the Amazon page,

Syren’s Song is the second novel featuring Connor Stark, and it promises to be just as engaging as The Aden Effect. This geopolitical thriller begins when the Sri Lankan navy is unexpectedly attacked by a resurgent and separatist Tamil Tiger organization. The government issues a letter of marque to former U.S. Navy officer Connor Stark, now the head of the private security company Highland Maritime Defense. Stark and his eclectic compatriots accept the challenge only to learn that the Sea Tigers who crippled the Sri Lankan navy are no ordinary terrorists.”

We will also discuss the craft of writing, how emerging real world events can influence the writing of fiction, and as we usually do with Claude, perhaps some other interestiing topics that crop up in the course of our conversation.

Join us live or pick the show up later by clicking here. Or you can also catch the show later on our iTunes page here (though the episode number might be different because …?)

M-60 main battle tanks are lined up in the staging area at the Dundalk Marine Terminal after being offloaded from the vehicle cargo/rapid response ship USNS ANTARES (T-AKR-294). The tanks were used by the 32nd Separate Infantry Brigade (Mechanized), Wisconsin Army National Guard, during Exercise Reforger '86.

“Hey 1980s! The second decade of the 21st century is on the POTS line, and they are wondering if they could make some copies of your stuff in the vault.”

As history shows, most times you don’t pick a war – a war picks you.

Of course, in a way, all wars are wars of choice. When faced with aggression, a people can always decide to surrender without a fight – or only after a token resistance. War is a test of national wills on many levels – big wars often result when one side misreads the national will of another.

In the 21st Century, could there possibly be a situation where we would, once again, have to fight our way across the Atlantic to support another entanglement in a European war? As 2016 arrives, are the odds of this greater or lesser than they were 1, 5, or 10 years ago?

Julian E. Barnes and Gordon Lubold at WSJ have a little required reading for you. From their article, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove, USAF put out this call that should have all navalists sit up and notice;

“For two decades we haven’t thought about the fact that we are going to have to fight our way across the Atlantic.”

Let’s pull that thread a bit. Don’t bother on how you get there, just start with waking up one day and getting the D&G that you need to ready a sustained opposed crossing of the Atlantic.

For those 45 and older, this should sound familiar.

NATO countries are discussing increasing the number of troops stationed in members bordering Russia and putting them under formal alliance command. The next talks on that idea are likely to come in early December, when foreign ministers gather and begin discussing proposals to be formalized at a Warsaw summit in July.

The Army currently has two brigades—of about 3,500 soldiers each—based in Europe. It has assigned one additional brigade in the U.S. to serve as a regionally aligned force that will rotate into and out of Europe. Gen. Milley said he would like to add more brigades to those rotating to Europe, and add attack helicopter units, engineering teams and artillery brigades.

Throughout the later years of the Cold War, the U.S. military conducted a massive exercise called Reforger, that practiced moving tens of thousands of troops from the U.S. to Europe quickly. While there is no need to revive the exercise on that same scale, a new kind of drill that echoed the old Reforger operation would be helpful, Gen. Milley said.

“Nobody wants to go back to the days of the Cold War,” Gen. Milley said. “We don’t need exercises as big as Reforger anymore. But the concept of Reforger, where you exercise contingency forces … that is exactly what we should be doing.”

Technology has changed, but geography has not. There are some constants from the 1st and 2nd Battles of the Atlantic in the first half of the 20th Century that still apply a century later. Some will repeat, some with rhyme. Some will surprisingly not be a repeat factor, some new factors will show up unexpectedly. There will also be new technologies that no one should talk about that will change the odds greatly in favor or one force or the other. There will also be new technologies that on one should talk about that one force or the other thinks will be “war winning” but once put in to operational use will be a complete dud.

Here are some things that have a high probability of being true in a 3rd Battle of the Atlantic if it happens in 2016 or 2026 or 2056.

– You do not have enough escorts. Those escorts you do have do not have enough ASW or AAW weapons.
– Those ASW and AAW weapons you are going to war with, in addition to not being adequate in number, there is a very good chance that one bit of that kit does not work and cannot kill anything. Hopefully you have a backup for the pointy end of the kill chain. If not, you are going to have a bad first year.
– Higher HQ is asking for too much information from deployed forces, and as a result, deployed forces are talking too much. As a result, the enemy has a better idea of your location than you think, and may have cracked your code.
– Your allied forces that on paper look good? Many of them aren’t what your N2/3 think. Some of them won’t even deploy. Some of those that do won’t engage the enemy to an effective degree.
– The threat from the air will be easier to counter than the threat under the water, though in the early stages, the threat from the air may be a larger concern than you planned.
– This is a game where “body counts” actually matter. If something is being sunk faster than it can be replaced, you need to change what you are doing.
– It will be seductive to think attacking bases will be a shortcut. It will help, but will not be a magic bullet.
– Finally, the war will go on much longer than you think. Though you may think that it is industrial capacity that is going to be your greatest challenge, it may actually be your ability to find competently trained personnel fast enough.

War, if it came, would be very much a come as you are event. We do not have a huge mothball fleet to reactivate. We do not have a huge Naval Reserve to recall. We do not have a diverse industrial capacity to quickly build up, nor, unlike the period right prior to WWII, do we have a few years headstart in new construction.

So, think about it. The geography is the same, technology and enemy different, but the mission is the same; a sustained, opposed crossing of the Atlantic.

The Navy’s knowledge of its own human terrain is like using a map of the world from the 14th Century. The Navy can do better.


Current Map of Navy Talent (or a Genoese map from the 14th Century)

Before we get too far into the weeds on one possible way to improve our talent management in the Navy, we are doing a survey to better understand the detailing process. Its for all officers and can be reached here.

And now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Wouldn’t you want $2.7 trillion more without a lot of effort?

A recent study by McKinsey Global Institute was headlined with the following:

Labor markets around the world haven’t kept pace with rapid shifts in the global economy, and their inefficiencies have taken a heavy toll.

This study on connecting talent with opportunity in the digital age found that online platforms could boost global GDP by 2.7 trillion dollars. The Navy (and DoD) can benefit from similar thinking.

I’m tired of this touchy-feely stuff – the military is for warfighting

Over the last fifty years, our manpower strategy was built on the assumption that the correct operation of superior platforms would ensure victory in a 20th century, system-centric conflict. However, the proliferation of disruptive technologies and the growing budgets of assertive near-peer competitors challenge this industrial-era model in an age of fiscal austerity. Meanwhile, demographic shifts complicate the latest cyclic officer retention challenge, especially among highly trained individuals such as cyber operators, special warfare personnel and aviators. And ultimately, millennial sailors display generational personality traits with diverging views on work from prior generations, including a tendency to switch careers. The consequences of the “war for talent” could have far reaching implications in the military’s ability to win the wars of the future. Talent management IS about warfighting.

Yeah, but we’ve been down this road before

Talent management is not a new topic, but during the last twelve months the stars and suits have aligned to begin to provide much needed reform on the military’s personnel management systems. Our leaders all appear to feel the budgetary pressure to do more with less in an increasingly complex security environment. The Secretary of Defense ordered a sweeping review of civilian and military systems this summer. Secretary Mabus’ Task Force Innovation (TFI) is undertaking broad reforms focused on developing a data-intensive approach to personnel assignments and career management. Last year, the CNO tasked his Strategic Studies Group to focus on “Talent Management in the 21st Century” rather than developing operational concepts. The Chief of Naval Personnel (CNP), VADM Moran, sounded the initial horn and is championing a basket of reforms to bring the Navy’s personnel system into the 21st century.

So what should we do?

We currently understand the richness and capabilities of our people about as well as the early explorers understood the world beyond the horizon. To meet emerging security challenges in a fiscally austere environment, the Navy must map its human capital to better understand and best utilize the unique talents of its individual Sailors.

A talent management system must know enough about its users to put the right person in the right job at the right time. However, the Navy’s own systems don’t provided the necessary data needed to truly understand and maximize the capacity of its personnel. Nor can IT alone deliver the force needed to maintain our competitive advantage in the mid-21st century. Innovative HR policies that give commands and officers increased influence in the assignment process are needed, along with the necessary digital systems to enable them.

Coming soon to a detailer near you?

We, the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), think a data-enabled, internal labor market approach to officer detailing might enhance unit effectiveness, improve human capital allocation, and engender greater trust within the service. We are working together with Navy Personnel Command on this project to examine the impact a market-based approach will have on detailing officers. The prototype will work with members of the Information Dominance Corps (IDC). The IDC provides a heterogeneous community with a robust requirement to field a wide bench of experts. The ability to match individual talents with billet requirements provides a large potential impact in this community, so it’s a great place to start.

Some considerations for a data-enabled, market-based approach

The efficacy of this market-based approach rests upon advances in cultivating, managing, and accessing large amounts of information. Current software technology allows us to quickly assimilate all the relevant personnel data about our Sailors into an easily configurable user interface. The resulting talent profiles would gather data from a variety of sources. These might include past education, language skills, demographics, and evaluations. Officers would then input additional information onto a LinkedInTM style profile to capture granular data that the Navy currently doesn’t have about its people.

Additionally, unit commanders could put forth detailed billet requirements onto a digital information exchange. As officers approach their rotation date and commanders approach the time to fill a billet, they would have the opportunity to communicate during a designated window of time. When the window closes, Sailors and commanders would then have to submit their preferences, and a detailer acting as a HR agent will facilitate the appropriate placement of each billet.

We don’t claim to have all the answers; this is an iterative learning process. We are spending time with detailers, COs, and members of the IDC to better understand their needs and requirements. We are also conducting this survey for officers. We hope our prototype system will add granularity to officer talents and billet requirements, increase transparency in the detailing process and offer the potential for a more accurate talent-to-billet pairing than industrial-era fill processes, and increase officer agency in the detailing process.

Ultimately, we are testing the hypothesis that injecting more agency, flexibility and transparency into the detailing process will improve it. We’ll measure results through interviews, fit/fill metrics, and job satisfaction surveys. Regardless of outcome, the lessons we learn will help the Navy continue to shape the force it needs to meet future threats.


Island building

Building an island out of a reef in the South China Sea

This week, international news media has highlighted the transit of a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer near one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. The media has been rife with speculation that this close encounter between the U.S. Navy and China was meant to provoke the Chinese military, and that it could represent a new level of cold-war style standoffs between the two countries. With respect to this event and recent others like it in the South and East China Seas, the United States has long maintained that it notifies China and the rest of the world in advance about maritime patrols like this, and that the U.S. Navy is violating no international laws or United Nations-recognized maritime boundaries.

Whether you’ve been following the events in the South China Sea over the last few decades (and the last few years in particular), or living under a rock, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the world’s two superpowers are going to have disagreements from time to time on things like foreign policy and sovereignty issues in this region. Offshore foreign naval activity, political castigation and tit-for-tat attempts to influence public opinion were hallmarks of the cold war, and that practice has not changed much in the current climate between the United States and China, just as it hasn’t between the United States and Russia.

The “status quo” surveillance and interception activity between China and the United States is not new. More recently, in April 2001, a U.S. Navy P-3E turboprop aircraft collided with a Chinese Air Force J-8 in the South China Sea, in what was later to be known as the “Hainan Island Incident”. In March 2009, there were repeated contacts between the USNS Impeccable and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea. In 2013, China unilaterally imposed an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, requiring all foreign civilian and military aircraft to identify themselves with Chinese authorities in advance despite not flying over the mainland or traditional Chinese airspace. The United States military promptly ignored this and intentionally flew military aircraft through the new ADIZ to demonstrate that it was not bound by unilateral airspace restrictions over international waters.

In 2014, China attended the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise for the first time, and sent an additional uninvited surveillance ship to spy on the exercise. The U.S. Navy has been flying maritime surveillance patrols over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea for some time now, and even occasionally invites news media to tag along on patrols. Just last month, China sailed a naval flotilla into the Bering Sea off the U.S. state of Alaska during a visit by President Barack Obama. A few weeks later, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of a man-made Chinese island at Subi Reef in the South China Sea.

Nothing about any of these instances is particularly unusual or surprising given the long history of mutual surveillance between superpowers, which is almost always conducted in a professional and predictable manner. However, in all of these instances, the tit-for-tat relationship between Chinese and U.S. military surveillance activity has been great headline news for media outlets, and it has encouraged fear, paranoia and speculation. While some consider the recent events in the South China Sea and China’s more aggressive naval activity to be an escalating conflagration, most have questioned whether the last few years have represented anything more than the status quo that has existed between world superpowers for the last seven decades.

At the moment, the answer lies somewhere in between business as usual and escalation. While maritime surveillance and aerial observation flights by all sides are normal and to be expected, there have been some developments over the last few years that have indicated an increased focus in the Asia-Pacific region and a flirtation with escalating tension in the region. It goes without saying that tensions in the South China Sea have been building for some time now between China and its neighbors, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all of which claim the Spratly Islands. The United States does not claim the islands or reefs in this disputed area, but it has a shared interest in ensuring that the region remains open to free vessel transit and that it is not dominated by one regional power given that the multiple overlapping claims by neighboring countries could lead to a war.

In addition to being in the middle of international shipping routes, the South China Sea has significant natural resources, including fisheries and oil/natural gas deposits. Most of the natural islands in the region, including the Spratly Islands, are far from the southern part of mainland China and lie closer to the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. However, over the last few years, China has aggressively increased its activity in the region in an apparent attempt to lay claim to these resources. The Chinese PLAN, Coast Guard and civilian fishing fleet have been involved in regular standoffs and minor skirmishes with regional neighbors. The Chinese government has begun to occupy previously uninhabited reefs in the region and has essentially terraformed them into artificial islands capable of sustaining military airstrips and bases, claiming that these man-made islands are sovereign Chinese territory with the territorial water and natural resource rights that accompany sovereign land.

Partially in response to China’s military buildup and expansion in the region, the United States has refocused more recently in the Asia-Pacific region than it has in the last two decades. An example of this is improved interoperability and increased training with regional allies, most notably the Philippines and Australia. Another example is a more aggressive policy of challenging Chinese actions with reactions, as evidenced by this week’s visit of a Chinese-occupied reef in the South China Sea by the USS Lassen. China, quick to capitalize on an opportunity to criticize the United States, has decried the American destroyer’s presence in the South China Sea as a provocation and an illegal violation of China’s territorial integrity, but the reality is that the USS Lassen was not much closer to China’s man-made island than the Chinese flotilla was to the coast of Alaska a month ago.

The recent visits by the PLAN to the Alaska coast and the USS Lassen to Subi Reef are nothing more than an ongoing part of the status quo. Despite media sensationalism, both visits were conducted in professional manners and neither represented a sincere threat or surprise. The threat of escalation lies not in periodic, predictable tit-for-tat surveillance and public relations victories. Escalation in this context is more worrisome in the aggressive territorial expansion of a regional superpower that seems to be capable of creating man-made islands out of uninhabited rocks that are thousands of kilometers off shore. In so doing, China is literally pioneering a new form of military and colonial expansion in that it is creating land out of the ocean – land that did not previously exist, and is then using this land to lay claim to the area’s natural resources and sovereignty.

If the United Nations or any major sovereign power recognizes China’s sovereignty over these man-made islands in even the slightest shape or form, escalation is a likely scenario. It is in the United States’ best interest to continue to challenge the territorial boundaries of these artificial islands precisely to avoid establishing a precedent or emboldening China or anyone else in the world to do this again.




Aviation Week. “Why Did China Participate in RIMPAC With One Ship And Spy On It With Another?” Accessed on October 27, 2015.

CNN.”China, Philippines locked in naval standoff.” Accessed on October 27, 2015.

CNN. “U.S. warship sails close to Chinese artificial island in South China Sea.” Accessed on October 27, 2015.

Reuters. “Angry China shadows U.S. warship near man-made islands.” Accessed on October 27, 2015.

The Washington Post. “See China’s rapid island-building strategy in action.” Accessed on October 27, 2015.


The Gaps in our Fleet

October 2015


Bae_systems_official_gcs_releaseIf you have not yet had the chance to catch up on what will be the Royal Navy’s next surface combatant, the Type 26 frigate, there is no finer place to go than to our friends at ThinkDefence.

They have the history of the program and its capabilities well covered. You owe it to yourself to spend some time reading the links.

In catching up, there were two things that came to mind about the ship and its program. Both point to two large gaps we have in our fleet that a program such as the Type 26 would have been a perfect fit.

First there is the obvious one. Our two major shipbuilding programs (DDG-1000 does not count – that is effectively a technology demonstrator program now) are the LCS/FF and the ubiquitous Arleigh Burke Class destroyers.

Let’s just review the most superficial aspects of those two ships. For LCS, let’s use the FREEDOM Class as the baseline:
– Length: 378′
– Displacement: 3,500t
– Speed: 47 kts at sea state 3
– Range: 3,500 nm at 18 kts
– Main gun: 57mm
– AAW: RIM-116 (range 4.8nm)
– Anti-Surface Missile: none yet; tbd. Possible bolt on Harpoon or other.
– Land attack missiles: none.

Now the DDG-51 Flight IIA:
– Length: 509′
– Displacement: 9,200t
– Speed: 30+ kts
– Range: 4,400 nm at 20 kts
– Main gun: 5″/54
– AAW: RIM 162 ESSM (27+ nm), RIM-66M (40-90 nm range), RIM-161 (ABM ~378 nm)
– Anti-Surface Missile: none.
– Land attack missiles: TLAM.

The Type 26:
– Length: 487′
– Displacement: 6,500t
– Speed: 28+ kts
– Range: 7,000 nm at 15 kts
– Main gun: 5″/45
– AAW: CAMM (13.5nm)
– Anti-Surface Missile: TBD to fit in MK-41 VLS.
– Land attack missiles: Possible TLAM.

Clearly, the Type 26 fits that “we don’t need a frigate” gap as a large frigate/small destroyer. As our British friends say, a nice bit of kit.

That brief outline above is the obvious gap filler, but not the most important one. The most important gap the Type 26 fills is in the programmatic mindset. How they got to the ship they did.

Where we were stuck in a narcissistic awe that was the transformationalist movement and begat LCS/FF and the Tomorrowland DDG-1000 (with the expected results warned of from the start), with time – and perhaps an eye to the slow rolling train wrecks across the pond, the Royal Navy took a different approach.

The most sensible part of the whole programme is its attitude to technology risk. Whether this is wholly intentional, or merely a happy by-product of Type 23 obsolescence and timing issues is for others to argue, but the fact remains, Type 26 has a relatively low level of technology risk.

Most of the major systems have been, or will be, de-risked on Type 23, with perhaps a few on CVF.

From an old Royal Navy publication (page 120);

To reduce programme risk, and in keeping with the principles of through-life capability management, there is a drive to maximise pull-through from the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, Type 45 destroyers and ongoing Type 23 capability sustainment/upgrades, in an effort to both reduce risk and capitalise on previous investment, and/or existing system inventory. So while the Type 45 is characterised by approximately 80 per cent new to service equipment and 20 per cent reuse, these percentages will be effectively reversed for Type 26

The air defence system, gas turbine, countermeasures, helicopter handling, combat management system, medium calibre gun, sonars and even the chip fryers will be in service on ships other than Type 26 GCS before they are in service on the Type 26 GCS.

Without a shadow of doubt, this is a good thing.

There is of course, design and engineering challenges, but at least, there are no major systems to develop in parallel.

There it is. That is the takeaway. That is the largest gap that the Type 26 fills in our fleet; an intellectual gap of humility.

It has been covered over and over through the years, and no reason to do it again, but going forward with every program we must not repeat the mistakes from the first decade of the 21st Century; we cannot ignore centuries of evolutionary success in shipbuilding to chase the revolutionary mirage. Technology risk is real, compounds, and surprises.

Good people with a lot of confidence will almost always over-promise and under-deliver their technology. That is why a culture of happy-talk, group-think, and best-case-only has problems.

You need a balance of styles and world-views. Bringing a program to a successful conclusion where it displaces water and makes shadows on the deck in a manner that is of use to the warfighter takes calm, humble, and firm programmatic leadership. Leadership, that while looking for promise, roots all in the firm soil of the tested, proven, affordable, and practical.

To do otherwise is to spend your money, time, and career building fleets of A-12s, SSN-21s, and DDG-1000s. For our fleet LTs and LCDRs of today that will lead the programs coming out of the coming Terrible 20s – remember the lessons of those programs and – if you don’t mind looking around a bit – look at what some of our friends did too.

You can learn just as much from clear-eyed close examination of failure as you can from success.

150511-N-VO234-286 SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 11, 2015) The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People's Liberation Army-Navy [PLA(N)] guided-missile frigate Yancheng (FFG 546) transits close behind. (U.S. Navy photo)

SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 11, 2015) The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People’s Liberation Army-Navy [PLA(N)] guided-missile frigate Yancheng (FFG 546) transits close behind. (U.S. Navy photo)

The United States has defended the freedom of the sea for decades and has been willing to use force to ensure that freedom of navigation in accordance with international law is not restricted. There is currently an intense debate over what the US Navy should do in response to Chinese land-building in the South China Sea. While China has declared these new islands, built upon reefs and atolls that previously never broke the surface at low tide to be their territory, and have been since “ancient times,” the status of the waters within 12 nautical miles does not qualify as “territorial waters” under international law. While China has not yet officially declared the waters within 12 nautical miles to be their territorial waters, constant rhetoric coming from retired PLA officials and the occasional Communist Party mouthpieces, like the Global Times or People’s Daily, have continued to conflate waters within the so-called “nine-dash-line,” China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), territorial waters, and “blue territory,” using the terms interchangeably, and currently accuse the US of “militarizing” the South China Sea and threatening China’s sovereignty.

It is obvious that whatever the United States does, the more bellicose elements within China will never be happy until the US has removed itself from Asia. Yet, at the same time, we must recognize that this is just a vocal portion of the Party and there exists a large community that does not want to seek conflict with the United States. Yet, if the US takes action against Chinese claims alone, this will strengthen the more bellicose wing and they will use the accusation that the US is “militarizing” the South China Sea to go forward with their own militarization, making the entire area more dangerous and threatening peaceful maritime trade. This is not to say that the US should not conduct freedom of navigation exercises and submit to Chinese claims, but should do so with more tact and understanding of the politics within China and the Southeast Asian region.

The Spratly Islands within the South China Sea are claimed by six different governments, not only the Chinese government in Beijing, but also by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Out of these, all but Brunei hold some territorial features in the South China Sea, with China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines all claiming features that do not qualify for territorial waters under international law.[1] Within China, it was seen as a break from traditional US China-bashing when Defense Secretary Carter stated at this year’s Shangri-La dialogue “There should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants [Emphasis Added][2]” because, from their perspective, the US typically only calls out China for its actions while the other countries get a pass. When the US conducts its freedom of navigation operations around the Spratly Islands in the near future, they should also sail within 12 nautical miles of the other claimants’ underwater features as well, and publish their actions accordingly. While this will still be seen negatively by the Chinese, especially the more aggressive faction, the inclusion of other countries will dilute the perspective that the US is only targeting China among the more moderate factions. In addition, by being more public about other freedom of navigation operations the US Navy conducts, such as those against other countries in the region like India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam which all claim excessive territorial and inland waters, [3] the US can show that it treats China no differently than any other country which flouts international law.

By being less openly confrontational and not singling out only China, we reduce strategic risk while still enforcing international law without sacrificing ideals. The two loudest of the other claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines, are unlikely to react to US freedom of navigation operations in a manner that will affect relations, the Philippines because it relies heavily on US military support, both in the South China Sea and in their south against Islamist insurgents, and Vietnam because they are working to balance China by coming closer to the US as evidenced by their support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Malaysia has typically tried to stay relatively neutral in the dispute publicly, and therefore the US should not expect a strong reaction. Thus, the US can still challenge China without risking other relationships, but still limit the accusations that come out of China.

Throughout history, war between a rising power and an established power typically happen when both sides view it as either not possible or inevitable. When both sides are aware of the risk and constantly work to reduce tension, the threat of war is reduced.
[1] Chubb, Andrew. “The South China Sea: Defining the Status Quo,” The Diplomat. 11 June, 2015. []
[2] Carter, Ash. 30 May, 2015. “The United States and Challenges of Asia-Pacific Security.” []
[3] DoD Annual Freedom of Navigation (FON) Reports. []


Lost at Sea

October 2015


When a cargo ship casts off its lines and sets sail towards distant lands and men of strange speech, it vanishes from society’s collective memory and drifts into our unconscious like a dream. So rarely do we think about ships underway that it seems only headlines like “tragedy at sea” reaffirm their existence.[1]

But the ships are out there, beyond the visible horizon delivering our oil, our clothes, our cars, and our phones. Ninety percent of trade is delivered by ships. There are over one hundred thousand ships at sea carrying everything we need to live.[2]

And on those ships are people who toil with the unpredictable nature of our oceans.

A sailor’s life is not typically marked by bravery or enthusiasm. It is an existence fraught with industrial hazards in the bowels of sweaty engine rooms and the challenges of navigating unfamiliar waterways. Satisfaction comes by earning respect from your peers but only when the quality of your work is good and your effort sincere. Out there, men and women learn how to be alone in an environment unfavorable to happiness.

Day-to-day existence for sailors is barely discernible, that is, until the proverbial storm catches us.

The presumed sinking of the containership El Faro shakes mariners’ to their core. We quiver when we learn she was adrift without propulsion, slipping down 50-foot waves and battling hurricane force winds. Under that type of tension the ship makes sounds – haunting sounds – that make any man tremble.

The only remnants discovered thus far include a badly damaged lifeboat, some empty life rafts and one life ring with the ship’s name stenciled on it – El Faro – which means “the lighthouse,” the place historically reserved for sailors safe haven after long voyages.

A lone, deceased sailor in an immersion suit was found, but not identified.

Before Americans collectively try to understand why a ship got underway with a tropical storm dead ahead, we should begin the dialogue with a realization. Our needs for cheap gadgets and widgets sometimes push seafarers out to sea into unsafe conditions. Like most delivery businesses, shipping companies depend on transporting their customers’ cargo on time and at a price dictated by the market. When freight is not offloaded when a shipper guaranteed its delivery, customers will inevitably seek a competitor.

But seafaring is different because the terrain is different. It’s uncontrollable. Sometimes safety has to be managed, not avoided. And although market forces put pressure on shipowners, we ought not forget who bares the true burden when the decision to set sail into a storm is made – sailors. They know the oceans are lonely and perilous, but they still muster the courage to say farewell to their families and work in the most challenging environment known to man.

Before El Faro entered the storm, Danielle Randolph, a deck officer aboard the containership, sat down on the ship’s communal desktop and wrote an email to her mother. Despite the ship’s course into almost certain danger, she did not lament or try to cause alarm. It was another day at sea. Outside, the winds were picking up and the waves were growing larger. “There is a hurricane out here and we’re heading straight into it,” she wrote.

All we can do is hope they made it safely to the other side.



[1] “Men of strange speech” from Homer, Book 1.178 in The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH. D. in two Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919
[2] Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013).

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