Archive for November, 2009


Want to know what ships are docked in Tel Aviv? Need to track a tanker through the Strait of Hormuz? You can do it right now, for free, from home. The Marine Traffic Project takes advantage of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data to provide a near real-time position, speed, and course information on vessels in select regions. AIS data from ship transponders is collected and uploaded to the Marine Traffic Project in minutes. Combined with Google Maps, the data provides open source geointelligence on thousands of ships.

The US Navy does not regularly use the AIS system and does not appear on Marine Traffic maps (I will let our knowledgeable commentors explain the USN AIS SOP). However, as recent attacks off the Horn of Africa have shown, global shipping lanes are exceptionally vulnerable to low-cost tactics. Commercial shipping is the artery of the global market and the sinew of the international community. Tools like the Marine Traffic Project can provide valuable intelligence to armed groups looking to replicate the successes of Somali pirates, whether in the Niger Delta or the Persian Gulf.

Should access to AIS data be restricted? Are services using open AIS data a threat to maritime security? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Posted by Christopher Albon in Navy | 4 Comments

Former Marine and Special Agent Kevin Doherty is the owner of Nexus Consulting Group of Alexandria. He founded the company in 2005 to focus on US law while actively protecting US citizens, equipment and cargo from the threats of terrorism and criminal activity.

In shadow of the second attack on the Maersk Alabama and the murder by pirates of the Captain of the Singapore based MV Theresa VIII in the process of her hijacking, I interviewed him last Friday focusing on the role of private security companies, their efforts to defend American merchant ships from piracy, and the evolving threat going forward.

Salamander: How many people do you have working for you? Are they employees or are independent contractors?

Doherty: The operational people we bring in are independent contractors. Due to the nature of the contracts we get, they are very short term and therefore we cannot bring in full-time employees.

Salamander: Due you work with American flagged shipping companies, or are you international in scope?

Doherty: Currently we are only dealing with American flagged companies. We are looking to expand and are looking at a variety of companies that are interested in our services. For now though, we have dissected US lay enough that we are comfortable enough with them. We think we can work internationally; it is just that we haven’t focused a lot dissecting those laws.

Salamander: When you are executing your security contracts, are you operating under US laws, international laws, or does it depend on the contract you have with the individual companies?

Doherty: It’s actually, “all of the above.” We are all US citizens, we are responsible to US laws when on US flagged vessels, vessels are under international law when in international waters, but they follow the laws of their flag of origin. When our personnel are in transit through the territory of foreign countries, then you have to follow those laws as well.

Salamander: There are a lot of questions out there about arming merchant ships, with the two sides arguing if it is a good idea or a bad idea. There is a large difference of opinion and perspective between what you do and what many European and international organizations feel is the right path to take when it comes to keeping merchant ships away from predation by pirates. Why do you think they have the view that they have?

Doherty: I have to question what their agenda really is. Just this week we have the example of Somali pirates using deadly force. They shot and killed the Captain on one of the vessels. They are using deadly force to terrorize merchant mariners transiting the Gulf of Aden, who are just exercising innocent passage – trying to do their job.

The people who say, “Let’s not use weapons. Let’s not go there yet.” I question their agenda. I think a lot of that attitude comes from the fact that a lot of these organizations and a lot of those people who are supporting that stance are in the United Kingdom.

As I mentioned earlier, I used to be Special Agent Kevin Doherty. In my work, I used to travel through the UK. Even then, on official business with a diplomatic passport, I was not allowed to bring my firearm into the UK. They have some of the strictest firearms laws in the world, and you look that the IMO and you look at the shipping companies and you look at the insurers, they are mostly based in the UK.

You really have to question the agenda of those who know clearly that the Somalis are using deadly force, from AK-47s to RPGs. They are saying, “Don’t arm yourself against that.”

“What is your agenda?” That is my question.

Salamander: Having spent some time in the UK, and worked with the British military, I am very familiar with trying to deal with the point of view that they have.

Doherty: The thing is, they are not saying that we shouldn’t; they are saying that we can’t. They want us to maintain their standards – because they can’t maintain ours. I don’t understand how people can say, “Kevin, you can’t put weapons on ships, you escalate the situation.”

How much higher can I escalate? The pirates are already using deadly force. They are firing RPGs.

Salamander: I know that what you do is defensive in nature, but the company that used to be known as Blackwater was trying to do something quasi-offensive with their own ship, but that went nowhere.

One thing that we have talked about on our blog and that I would be interested in getting your point of view on is addressing piracy from an economic aspect.

Throughout the history of piracy, and written about as far back to Roman times, a common thread is the economic calculus of piracy that is closely involved with what risk is involved for the pirate to engage or not to engage in piracy.

If the pirates know that certain ships with certain flags have a defensive capability; economically, it makes no sense for them to make an effort to go after those ships. So, those flagged ships that do not defend themselves, or as we saw recently with the Spanish, come from nations that have a habit of paying ransom, one would think that the pirates would target those ships and nations.

Do you see that level of sophistication in the pirate operations, or are we giving them too much credit for economic literacy?

Doherty: Until the Maersk Alabama this week, I would say that you were giving them too much credit and sophistication. However, for them to be able to attack the Maersk Alabama twice in six months, is either statistically phenomenal or they deliberately targeted that vessel.

We have seen them indiscriminately attack ships, as we saw with the attack on “Grey Hull” German Navy ship that in the dark that they could not distinguish from a merchant ship at night. So there is an aspect of randomness to their attacks.

We have heard that there is an intelligence component coming out of London where insurance company sources are sending information to the Somalis telling them what different ships’ insurance thresholds are. The Somalis are asking for exactly the right amount of money that insurers will pay. They are not asking for $20 million, they’re not asking for $20,000; they are asking for $2.47 million dollars that just happens to meet the threshold of that specific contract.

Do I have the link analysis to prove that? No. Do I think it is suspicious? Absolutely.

Do I think that in light of the incident with the Maersk Alabama – where the Maersk Alabama was attacked by armed pirates twice in a six month period; like I said – it is statistically unfathomable or they were specifically targeted.

Salamander: Moving back from the broad view of piracy, let me ask you a few specific questions about your security teams.

What type of weapons or defensive equipment do they bring with them, or is that something you wish to keep close hold?

Doherty: We are transparent. I believe that the greatest threat to the merchant mariners out there is the RPG. We are seeing it deployed by the pirates more and more. It is a nasty weapon that can be used out to almost 1,000 meters. With that, when you are talking about armed security teams, you have to mitigate that threat, you need to be able to reach out to ranges up to and greater than 1,000 meters.

The weapon systems we are talking about are at a minimum a 7.62 round and higher. We have .50 caliber sniper rifles, semi-automatic, that we employ on some of our vessels because we need the ability to stop the pirates from using the RPG against the protected vessel.

Salamander: During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians used the RPG very effectively against very large merchant vessels. Do you know if any shipping companies have looked at that experience toward any possible steps they can take, if any, to mitigate that threat through how they load their ships – or any damage control assets they may carry?

Doherty: No, not that far. We saw in Iraq that RPGs can stop M-1 Abrams. Those are heavy armor vehicles. Merchant vessels make their money by shipping as much as they can at the smallest cost. If they start reinforcing their ships, they will not be able to operate that merchant vessel as a commercial enterprise.

We are going back to the old Soviet model of dealing with the RPG when they were fighting the Afghans. They realized that they could not stop the RPG, so the decided that they just needed to avoid them. To do that, we try to create a bubble around our vessels.

Salamander: Obviously you want to keep them away from the ship, but like we saw recently with a Chinese ship where the crew, for a lack of a better phrase, repelled boarders; if your security forces found themselves in a situation where pirates have made it on board a ship and in the course of defending the ship took some of the pirates prisoner – what type of legal ramifications are there for taking prisoners? Do you follow US, host nation, international, or some other legal arrangement?

Doherty: Piracy is a universal crime. The semantics though break down into if this is a pirate attack, or is this an armed attack, or is this just a trespasser. That is important. In defining someone as a pirate, which we can clearly do in the Gulf of Aden, because it is a universal crime, you can try them in any particular venue that has nexus to that piracy.

If it happens on a US flag vessel, they can be tried in the US. If it happens on a US vessel in international waters, they can be tried either in the US, or under the Tribunal in Kenya where there is an agreement. If it happens in Saudi waters on a US vessel, they could be tried in Saudi Arabia, they could be tried in the US – or even perhaps in the Tribunal set up by the UN.

The problem is that the threshold for evidence you need for something like a crime scene. We haven’t reached the point where the Captain and his crew can process that like a crime scene.

Salamander: The Chinese example is an outlier, but has there been any occurrences where a crew has successfully repelling pirates without a security detachment on board, or is that simply beyond the skill set or training ability of these merchant mariners.

Doherty: No, it happens daily if you look at some of the UK TMO reports. My last transit was made the 10th through 20th and there were seven reported attacks. All of which were repelled, none of which had armed security at the time they were attacked.

You will see the gambit; a potential pirate vessel close; merchant vessel speeds up or creates a large enough wake; goes to fire hoses; tries to make itself a tougher target; then the pirate probe breaks contact. We have seen this happen a lot in the last month.

The US Navy has put out best practices, and that is good. The problem is that the pirates are reinvesting their money. They are becoming better, faster, stronger, more sophisticated. They used to say, “Stay 800nm off the coast and you will be OK.” Well, last week we had a vessel get hit 1,000nm off the coast.

Then they say, “Do 16kts or better and you will be OK.” Well, Captain Phillips said he was doing 18kts or better when he got hit on the Maersk Alabama. The Sirius Star, I think, was doing 23kts when she was taken down. So they give you a list of best practices, but it still isn’t a silver bullet.

Salamander: That leads us right into my next question that you already answered to a certain extent; but I want to throw it out there anyway. It’s a two-parter in a way. There is always an arms’ race with piracy, and Darwin’s theory applies. With the money they are getting from the ransoms being paid – Spain being the last one to pay – and the pirates reinvesting that money like you said, I think that obviously a concern you would have would be the escalation in both equipment – for instance moving away from fishing old boats to something that can go faster then 23 kts – and weapons that as the RPG is the greatest challenge you have now – what could make the challenge even greater?

Doherty: It isn’t what we could see, it is what we do see. Last month the US Navy reported that it was shot at with a heavy caliber weapon. If they have the ability to reach out beyond 1,000 meters, if they start pulling out DShK, if they start pulling out true military assault weapons on these vessels – the DShK is the Russian equivalent of the US .50 cal machine gun – it is a nasty weapon. They clearly have those weapons available to them.

One of my biggest concerns is when one of those guys in Mogadishu decides that, “Hey, this is a good business model.” I think we can fairly say that to this point it is just the normal pirates, but when the battle hardened fighters in Mogadishu decide that they want a bit of that action, then it could get real ugly.

Salamander: The experience we have already had on the ground in Somalia is what it is, but a lot of what we are doing right now is strictly defensive; we are defending ourselves from the arrow and not going after the archer.

Doherty: Absolutely.

Salamander: So, the problem is that these pirate nests along the coast that everyone knows about.

When you look at the previous experience with piracy, when you are talking about the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and other places, that you do not really solve the problem until you clean out the nests. That means going ashore as a military action.

Doherty: Or diplomatic.

Salamander: Or diplomatic, exactly. I know you aren’t a diplomat, but I know you talk with people whose expertise is in this area. Do you see this progressing in the diplomatic area in any way, or is it one of these unfortunate areas where things will have to get worse until the international community finally says, “Enough.”

Doherty: I caveat this slightly by saying when I was Special Agent Doherty, I did carry a diplomatic passport and I do have a bit of a grasp on it. But to be diplomatic, there has to be an entity to talk to. At this point however, they are just too fragmented. You have Somaliland, Puntland, the Islamic Republic of Somalia, in addition to various clans who claim their particular areas. So, the destabilized nature of that nation is such a challenge, and unfortunately that destabilization is part of the problem of trying to deal with the diplomatic path to solve it.

Sadly, what we see in the end is that it takes some military force to come in and hold the ground and not let the factions to terrorize and fragment. To literally put boots on the ground, have curfews, etc. That is what we did in Iraq. We secured the area and then we gave space for the diplomats to come in and attempt to build a better situation both politically and tangibly. That is the model.

I don’t think though that this is the case here. It is such a quagmire in Somalia that no one is willing to dive in to that hornet’s nest. As a result, it is a Petri dish over there, where the fungus is growing tremendously.

Salamander: Do you see passive defenses, like the LRAD they used on the Maersk Alabama, or fire hoses in conjunction with evasive maneuvers as an effective long term tool in defeating an attack by pirates today? As part of your kit, do your teams include passive defense devices? What are your feelings going forward in light of the escalation of force by the pirates as we discussed earlier?

Doherty: Some of those systems are very expensive. I love the fact that those tools are in the toolbox. I love that the appropriate tools are available for the right level of attack. As those pirate vessels are trying to come alongside and they have a ladder and you have a firehose, then that is great and that is appropriate and correct.

However, as we saw with the LRAD last November, on the Biscaglia there was an unarmed British security team of four who were using the LRAD as their final protective line. The pirates we shooting AKs at the vessel, and the security team had to literally jump overboard, and the pirates took the ship.

The LRAD is not effective as a deterrent system as part of your protective barrier. It is effective as an alert system. I think the problem is when people look at these levels of escalation; they try to use these things you would use at Levels 2 & 3 when things have escalated to Levels 5 & 6.

It is analogous to a police officer using mace to stop someone who is shooting at him. It doesn’t work. It isn’t what it was designed for.

Salamander: As we wind things up, is there something that we haven’t covered or that you wanted to add, something you think would help the readers at USNIBlog get a better handle on what you do and what you see going forward concerning the security of our merchant ships?

Doherty: Well, we could talk about this for days because I believe in it, it is the right thing to do. It is bucking the system though, because the old ways as held by the old dogs are saying, “Don’t arm. Don’t arm.”

Well, it’s not about barbed wire; it’s not about halogen lights. It is about stopping the RPGs and the pirates who want to do harm to our mariners. Moreover, as former Special Agent Doherty as part of the intelligence community, I firmly believe that the US mariners are not going to be treated as part of this old model.

The Somalis still have a bone to pick with us dating back to 1993. I am convinced that the pirates are going to be paid the same in by the folks in Mogadishu, as they will by Lloyds of London.

We know this, as when the pirates got on board the Maersk Alabama the first time and they found out they had Americans, Captain Phillips stated that they were full of joy. I don’t think they will treat Americans the same as they will Filipino crews.

With that, we need to recognize that it is a mortal issue when you are going through those waters. We can’t be talking about fire hoses and barbed wire when the Somalis are talking about AKs and RPGs.

The next four posts will cover the invasion of Bougainville and are provided via guest author CINCLAX.– SJS

The Last Spoke in the Cartwheel


Strategic Progress

Before the Guadalcanal operation (Watchtower) even began in August 1942, it had been decided to neutralize the Japanese bastion of Rabaul by moving up the Solomons one step at a time until Rabaul could be pounded from the air on a daily basis. Operation Cartwheel—as it was to be called—had begun inauspiciously with strong Japanese responses by sea and air, and by the early fall of the year some people were even calling for a strategic retreat and the evacuation of Gen. Vandegrift’s First Marines. The Navy was having great trouble stopping IJN surface attacks on Henderson Field, and the “Tokyo Express” reinforcement runs from Rabaul could not be effectively stopped. Japanese night surface tactics and superior torpedoes were not yet understood by American commanders, and the soon-to-be-famous “Cactus Air Force” was often reduced to a handful of operational aircraft left to handle the daily Japanese air raids.

Rabaul continually haunted Allied leaders. No operation in the Solomons or New Guinea could be considered complete as long as Rabaul remained strong and served as a hub for aggressive Japanese troops to attempt the re-conquest of Guadalcanal or even eastern New Guinea.

Then the always aggressive VADM Halsey took over SOWESPAC and things slowly began to change for the better. By the summer of 1943 the Allies had moved into the Central Solomons, eventually capturing the Russell Islands, New Georgia, Rendova and finally Vella Lavella. Along with each conquest had come new air bases ever closer to Rabaul, relentlessly hacked out of the jungle by the seemingly tireless Seabees. Henderson Field had been some 560 miles from Rabaul; Munda (New Georgia) was some 200 miles closer, while Barakoma on Vella Lavella was only 320 miles from Rabaul. The ring was closing.

Moreover, Halsey’s campaigns had also worn down Japanese air and naval forces to the extent that they no longer had the upper hand in the Slot. Their surface warships had been sorely depleted, and many of their veteran IJN pilots had been lost in combat and operational accidents. The Cactus Air Force on Henderson Field had now grown into AirSols, one of the best small air forces in the world and a true “joint” command of Navy, Marine, USAAF and New Zealand planes operating out of multiple strips all over the Central Solomons. Masters of improvisation and scrounging since the dark days of Operation Watchtower, AirSols would take the unsuccessful P-39 and P-40 fighters (rejected for European service) and make them effective low-level fighter bombers. When they needed floatplanes, they snatched them off of damaged cruisers heading home for repair. Similarly, the vulnerable Lockheed Ventura patrol bomber was turned into a night fighter. Meanwhile new arrivals like the P-38, the F4U Corsair and F6F Hellcat would rule the higher altitudes against the Zero. Now AirSols “Black Cat” PBYs patrolled the nights over water and their “Dumbos” rescued hundreds of downed flyers who lived to fly and fight again.

Meanwhile Gen. Mac Arthur’s forces in New Guinea had slogged their way from Port Moresby to Buna and beyond, establishing a large air base at Dobodura (near Buna). There, Gen. George Kenny’s Fifth Air Force had established itself as the terror of the Bismarck Sea. On the last day of February 1943, Gen. Imamura (8th Area Army CO in Rabaul), sent out some 6900 troops to reinforce his garrison at Lae; eight destroyers and eight transports carried the load. Kenny attacked the convoy with 335 aircraft, and in two days the Japanese lost all eight transports, four destroyers and about 3500 soldiers. With the disaster of the Bismarck Sea battle, Imamura and his Rabaul Navy cohort Adm. Kusaka (11th Air Fleet) would dare no further reinforcement attempts in New Guinea.

So Bougainville would be the next—and virtually last—target of the Allied Solomons campaign. In the summer of 1943, Halsey’s staff in Noumea joined with VADM Aubrey Fitch from the New Hebrides, LTG Alexander Vandegrift, and RADM Theodore “Ping” Wilkinson at Camp Crocodile on Guadalcanal to complete their planning. If Bougainville was to be the logical target, the question remained as to where? It was estimated there were about 40,000 Japanese Army troops, plus 20,000 Navy personnel on Bougainville and its adjacent islands. Most of these were in the south: Kahili, Buin, and the Shortlands; there were also 6000 in the north on or around the Buka Passage. All these locations featured airfields which the Japanese could be expected to defend tooth and nail—as they had at Munda.

What the Allies needed was a relatively lightly defended location where they could build their own airstrips, and one far enough away from existing Japanese strongholds so that speedy overland reinforcement would be difficult if not impossible. After deliberating, they decided on Empress Augusta Bay, in the middle of Bougainville’s west coast and equidistant (about 50 miles) from Japanese strongholds. About 16 miles wide from Cape Torokina to Mutupina Point in the south, the Bay was not a well-protected anchorage from westerly storms, but it would have to do.

In many respects, Bougainville would be a repeat of Guadalcanal: establish a perimeter against initially weak resistance, construct several airstrips and defend them against counter-attacks, then go about the business of continuing to reduce the stronghold of Rabaul—only 220 miles distant. Unlike New Georgia or Vella Lavella, there would be no need to occupy the entire island.

Read the rest of this entry »

An Unofficial Coast Guard Blog is alive and well and is here to stay. Reports of our death are greatly exaggerated and is here to stay much to the dismay of trolls. is proud to be shipmates with USNI Blog in the naval blogosphere!

Unique homecoming to Vietnam for US commander

Hung parents

By MSCN Devon Dow, U.S. 7th Fleet Public Affairs

Posted: November 9, 2009

DANANG, Vietnam — On the day his side lost the Vietnam War, Hung Ba Le fled his homeland at the age of 5 in a fishing trawler crammed with 400 refugees. Thirty-four years later, he made an unlikely homecoming — as the commander of a U.S. Navy destroyer.

Le piloted the USS Lassen on Saturday into Danang, home of China Beach, where U.S. troops frequently headed for R&R during the war, which ended on April 30, 1975, when the southern city of Saigon was taken by communist troops from North Vietnam.

That was the day Le and his family embarked on an uncertain journey in a fishing boat piloted by Le’s father, who was a commander in the South Vietnamese navy. They were rescued at sea by the USS Barbour County, taken to a U.S. base in the Philippines, a refugee camp in California and finally to northern Virginia, where they rebuilt their lives.

Le returned on the Lassen, an $800 million, 509-foot destroyer equipped with Tomahawk missiles and a crew of 300. The ship and the USS Blue Ridge, the command vessel for the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, are making the latest in a series of goodwill visits to Vietnam, which began in 2003 when the USS Vandergriff paid a port call to Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.

“I thought that one day I would return but I really didn’t expect to be returning as the commander of a Navy warship,” Le said after stepping ashore Saturday. “It’s an incredible personal honor.”

“I’m proud to be an American, but I’m also very proud of my Vietnamese heritage,” said Le, who spoke a few halting words in Vietnamese.

Le said his service in the Navy is his way of trying to give back to the great Americans who helped his family begin a new life in the U.S. “My parents are proud that I am the Commanding Officer of a U.S. Navy ship and are excited that as part of my service I have the opportunity to visit the country of my birth, he said.”…


BZ to CDR Le and his Parents!

H/T BlackFive


Checking the fathometer

November 2009


For those who are not fully updated or familiar with the latest case of racial discrimination at the USNA, this time involving the Color Guard, please click here to get up to speed, and then come back.

As former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum stated this morning in the Philidelpha Inquirer,

‘It’s not a critical national-security matter when a few white male midshipmen almost get bounced from a color guard. After the Fort Hood killings, however, we should look at the military’s blind commitment to “diversity” and see if it’s blinding us to the obvious – and the dangerous.’

I encourage everyone to read the full article – but the danger he refers to is not the direct danger of an officer with a gun killing his fellow servicemembers wholesale – but is the broader danger an aggressive, exclusionary, close-minded, and corrosive philosophy can have on an institution’s culture – a culture that requires a meritocracy infused with candor to excel in peace and war.

First of all – at the core – what core competency of the Navy is a diverse Navy supposed to represent? One would hope that an organization that serves a nation would reflect its peoples diverse background as a natural by-product of the removal of all barriers to entry based on race, creed, color, or national origin.

The problem is – life is not that simple, clean, or easy. A percentage-to-percentage reflection of a nation’s diversity rarely occurs naturally, even if it is free of institutional discrimination. For reasons that fill up entire library shelves; socio-economic, cultural, family habits and traditions towards education, careers goals, and family structures vary wildly in such a diverse nation as ours.

Especially in high skilled areas of our economy that require a meritocracy due to the financial, life-and-death, or innate performance requirements of the profession; pure balanced diversity is the exception – not the norm. A simple walk through the Doctor’s lounge at your local hospital, a Silicon Valley research facility, a bio-medical lab in the Research Triangle Park, a Los Alamos laboratory, a nuclear power plant, a NFL locker room, or a hedge fund golf outing will show you that even in an open and fair society – perfect diversity is the exception not the rule – and perfect diversity does not equate with mission success.

Where we run into problems is when we refuse to accept reality – when we game the system – when we sell little bits of our soul in order to buy something that cannot be honestly purchased or to curry favor with important people. In a zero-sum game based on objective criteria used to achieve the best possible outcome, when an external factor – in this case race, creed, color, or national origin – is brought in that has nothing to do with the objective criteria, and is used to select a set-group of personnel defined by the external factors, what must be sacrificed to achieve that external factor’s percentage goals are those objective criteria. You intentionally sub-optimize your organization by dilution – replacing high objective criteria scores with low objective criteria scores.

In the case of Midshipmen – when you take out any pure athletic criteria used to bring in some MIDN – the objective criteria can very broadly be broken down to two areas; academic potential and leadership potential. To expand the number of the external factor driven aspects, you have to decrease the acceptance threshold of your objective criteria for those specific external factor sub-groups. As shown by the USNA’s own data – those tradeoffs have been made and continue to be made – specifically to increase self-identified minority MIDN numbers (in addition to the number of those minority candidates who made it using the objective criteria alone). To meet that external factor requirement – a #1 priority as we have been told – lower academic and leadership potential is accepted on the front end (and can be advertised high and low, far and wide) with the hope that enough of the sub-optimal group can maintain minimum standards and make it out the back end.

Of course, that means that some applicants that met the objective criteria of academic and leadership potential will not be accepted – but we have made the decision that higher percentages of minority MIDN are more important than academic and leadership potential. In the zero-sum game that is admissions – that is the first decision we made to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin.

As our MIDN have learned in their first few years exposed to the Navy – that is not the only time racial discrimination takes place.

There are organizations at Annapolis that are voluntary and represent USNA and the Navy. They get their picture taken; this has become a problem.

For instance, the “face of the Navy” that the USNA Gospel Choir and the USNA Crew team show are very different. Is that a problem? No, not really. It is only a problem if, at your core, you see race and racial politics in everything you do – regardless of the reality you live in. The MIDN and their generation don’t care – but they soon learn that those above them do. They care a lot.

This is where we reach another decision point; and we decide to discriminate – selectively. Where Gospel and Crew get a pass – lower profile perhaps – others do not.

You have in the USNA Color Guard a high profile voluntary organization that individual MIDN have spent years building seniority and experience to provide the most professional military bearing to represent the Navy to the nation. Groups such as the Color Guard pride themselves in being a meritocracy of shared discipline, shared values, and shared rewards. They are good because they are fair. They excel because they function on objective criteria – sustained superior performance. At least – that is what they thought.

In late OCT, we had the uniformed leadership at USNA decide that in order to artificially create something they desired to be true, that they would actively intervene and discriminate against two Midshipmen based on their race and gender.

This is fact. This cannot be defended. USNA has tried to spin it. Sandbag it. Confuse the issue with the now infamous “8v6” saga. What it has not tried to do is explain its actions in any logical and consistent way.

I think it says a lot about the Navy’s Diversity initiatives when we have to hide them, spin them, sandbag them – and when we get caught out in the open – we do something quite Soviet; we issue a gag-order to those discriminated against and their peers after the story breaks. That should cause a moment of self-reflection.

For three weeks on, this story continues to boil. The fact that the USNA discriminated on the basis of race has not been disproved, and the official denials are self-conflicting and debunked. The MIDN involved are not permitted to speak. The relationship between the Commandant of Midshipmen and his Midshipmen has been drastically changed from one of mutual admiration to mutual distrust.

In a larger sense, why has such a small example of what we have seen so often had so much traction? Well, primarily it is because we can identify a name and a face to the innocent party. As opposed to “X number in the reject pile,” we have two MIDN who are soon to be commissioned and in our Fleet. Two MIDN who know personally that they can be discriminated against on the basis of their race and wonder, “When will I be discriminated against again?” Argue that point if you wish, but put yourselves in their shoes; it happened to them once, why won’t it happen again?

Is this really where we want to be as an institution? Does this bring great credit upon the Naval Service? Is there another way?

What is the solution? As with most hard and complicated problems, the answer is simple. Live up to our standards. Demonstrate the innate integrity and fairness of our Navy. Implement a policy that is simple for the PAO, Commandant, and the Midshipmen to understand – and then carry it on to the Fleet. Have a policy that is easy to defend. One you are proud to defend and don’t have to hide from. One you can defend directly with simple, basic words.

Have a policy that we do not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. We do not make selections, limit, expand, or track the professional progress of our Sailors based on their race or ethnicity. Simple. Done. Move forward. Prove it by removing all reference to a Sailor’s racial or ethnic background. Remove all pictures from the all boards. Remove all doubt. They are of limited utility anyway, as we know – names, pictures, and faces are a poor way to understand self-identified race and ethnicity anyway.

Excise and redistribute the BA/NMP for almost all of our branch of the divisive Diversity Industry to other UICs related to supporting Sailors at sea and Marines ashore. The UCMJ has all we need to deal with bigots.

Will there be pressure from the larger Diversity Industry and their backers in Congress? Absolutely – they have jobs to keep and grievances to feed. Will there be a change in the ethnic makeup of those selected for officer programs? Probably. Some racial and ethnic groups will go up – some will go down – some may stay the same. If you have objective criteria – then you shouldn’t care. The Sailors don’t care. They just want someone to treat them fairly, do their job, execute the mission, be a leader, and bring them home from combat intact.

In any event, with more and more mixed-race citizens and minority percentages as a result of immigration patterns in the last 50 years – it will mean less and less with each passing year. That is a good thing. Like we did in the Truman Administration – why don’t we get ahead of the curve on this issue. This is not a time to be stuck in 1971 – we need to get ready for the second decade of the 21st Century.

For those who will object to the change, again – look for the reasons brought up at the beginning of the post; socio-economic, cultural, and family habits and traditions towards education, careers, and family structures. None of these are within the control of the US Navy – nor should they. What can we do? We can ensure that we reach out to all communities in the US – something the Recruiting Districts should already be good at. We could expand JNROTC, as is being done – to help local educators build the academic and leadership potential that is in every community.

Most of all – we should have faith in our people and our institution. Create a fair, just, and admirable institution – and the best will come to you. What would their ethnicity and race be? Who cares – they’re the best. The best attract the best of all colors.

If you value performance, potential, and excellence – that is what you will put your efforts towards – and is what you will get.

If you value race and ethnicity and make your decisions based on that – then you will get what all cultures that emphasize race and ethnicity get; strife, conflict, division, and unending episodes of racial and ethnic discrimination.

As a last note, we all know that these little – and large – “Diversity decision” issues are nothing new in the Navy. We have all, myself included, been party to them. With a wink, a nod, and perhaps a taunt-jawed acceptance – we have all gone along with it. With time and progress however, don’t all archaic theories and methods reach the point that they are no longer valid and usefull?

As with segregation in the past, don’t we have to eventually reach a point were we stop and conduct a little self-reflection? When do we reach the point where we say, “No. This must stop. This has gone on long enough. We are a good, honest, fair, and open institution. Discrimination in any form is beneath the honor and dignity of our Service. This will go on no longer.”

Good people with the best intentions made some hard decisions trying to fix a problem they were sold as a requirement. So hard, it seems, that decisions were made to “bend the curve” and take short cuts using methods that, in the end, they cannot defend and cannot survive the light of day.

As we look towards the second decade of the 21st Century, where next year’s class of Midshipmen were born as Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush challenged each other in the 1992 election – can we say, “Enough,” or will we have to wait for the next episode where we hide, mumble, spin, and blanch at what we have become?

George Vladimirovich Stepanoff was born in Moscow, Russia on April 23, 1893. Little is known about his early years except that his parents were Vladimir and Katherine Stepanoff and, in 1919, he was an Imperial Russian Navy officer stationed on board a Second-class Russian cruiser (destroyer) in Vladivostok.

During the Bolshevik Revolution Stepanoff remained loyal to Czar Nicholas and become part of the White Russian forces in the Pacific. In 1919, American, British, Canadian and Chinese troops occupied Vladivostok. Ships from those countries and France controlled the port. The story, as told by Mike Hall, Capt. USCG (retired), is that Stepanoff and his fellow shipmates seized two Second-class cruisers in 1918 and sold them to the Japanese two years later. The tale gains credibility by the fact that five Tverdi-Class destroyers were seized by White Russian forces and two, Tochni (Tochnyi) and Tverdi (Tviordyi), where transferred to the Japanese sometime between 1919 and 1920.

Apparently Stepanoff used some of his share of the sale to buy passage to the US. He then enlisted in the US Coast Guard on December 5, 1923 as a Boatswain’s Mate First Class. His first assignment was on board the newly commissioned tug Shawnee (WAT-54) stationed in San Francisco, California. By 1941 he had been promoted to Chief Boatswains Mate and was commanding officer of Raritan (WYT-93) based in Staten Island. Shortly after taking command, Raritan became part of the Greenland Patrol Forces based in Narsarssuak. While there he was promoted to lieutenant. After three years in Greenland Stepanoff returned to the States, taking command of USS Might (PG-94), one of the ten Canadian corvettes transferred to the US Navy as part of the reverse Lend-Lease. Following VE Day, Stepanoff, now a Lieutenant Commander, was assigned to Algonquin out of Portland, Maine.

In December 1946, Algonquin was in Cape Cod when a northeaster with seventy-knot winds hit the coast. A message from 1st District alerted Stepanoff that a four-barge tow trying to exit the Massachusetts end of the Cape Cod Canal was losing ground and was in danger of breaking up. When Algonquin reached the scene, she didn’t dare go alongside; she and the barges would have torn each other apart. But something had to be done quickly — the fourth barge with four men aboard was sinking. Bob Wilson, Algonquin’s executive officer, proposed a solution: Get as close to the barge as possible, inflate a fifteen-person rubber raft, float it over to them on a line, pull them back when they got aboard. The raft would be flexible enough not to cause serious damage in collisions with either barge or cutter. Stepanoff quickly agreed. They tried Wilson’s plan, and it worked to save two men of the four men before the barge sank. Nine months later and hundreds of mile to the east, Mike Hall, who had been on board Algonquin during the rescue and was now 1st Lieutenant on Bibb, used the same technique to successfully rescue all 69 passengers and flight crew from the Bermuda Sky Queen.

After Algonquin, Stepanoff went on to command Argo (WPC-10), Laurel (WAGL-291), Spar (WLB-403), and Yamacraw (WARC-333) interspersed with short assignments to Base Boston until retiring on May 1, 1955. In all, he served for twenty-two and a half years, not counting possibly as much as ten years in the Tsar’s Navy. During his service he was awarded the American Defense Service Medal with letter “A”, American Campaign Medal, Asian-Pacific Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, European-African Middle Eastern Medal, and National Defense Service Medal

After retiring, he lived with his wife Valentina in Ayer, Massachusetts. George Vladimirovich Stepanoff, Commander, USCG (Retired), died March 8, 1980, was cremated, and his ashes were buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge.

Author’s Note

I first heard about CDR Stepanoff from Mike Hall, Captain, USCG (Retired), who had served with him on Algonquin; afterwards Mike and Stepanoff became good friends. By the time they met, Mike had been in the Coast Guard for four years, almost all of which was at sea and most of that time was on board Spencer during the Battle of the Atlantic (see Bloodstained Sea for more about Mike Hall). Mike feels he learned more from CDR Stepanoff than from anyone else and still has a deep respect for his one time CO.

From what I know of Mike, he and CDR Stepanoff are cut from the same cloth. Both preferred sea-going assignments to being on shore, are leaders in the best sense of the word, are exceptional seaman, and have little tolerance for incompetence or bureaucracy. Sadly, there are few if any like them left today.

How do you properly honor a war hero who didn’t lead such an exemplary personal life? Can you separate a person’s professional legacy from that of his personal character? Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, WWII Marine Corps ace fighter pilot, Medal of Honor recipient and former POW, displaying his skills and bravery on the battlefield, with a record 28 Japanese fighters downed in combat.

He initially served with the Flying Tigers as part of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), a civilian organization contracted to defend China and the Burma Road. He later served as Executive Officer and then Commanding Officer of VMF-121, a Marine Corps squadron nicknamed the “Black Sheep Squadron.” It was there that he proved his mettle — with a record number of enemy kills, and it was then that he earned his nickname “Pappy,” since he was almost a decade older than his squadronmates. It was during a flight over the the Pacific island of Rabaul in early 1944 — after his 26th Japanese shootdown — that Boyington was shot down himself, picked up by a Japanese submarine and taken prisoner. He was liberated from Japanese custody in mid-August 1945 and was awarded the Medal of Honor by the president and the Navy Cross by the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

So, what would be so controversial about his birthplace of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, wanting to name the local airfield after their hometown hero? Much of the resistance can be traced to his post-war life, which was marked by battles with alcoholism, multiple marriages and divorces, estrangement from his children and financial instability. As a highly decorated war hero, he was sent by the Marine Corps on a Victory Bond Tour after World War II to give speeches and enlist continued support for war bonds. But, he was frequently drunk, seen cavorting with young female companions and generally considered a PR disaster by the Marine Corps. They medically retired him in 1947. He enjoyed a second round of celebrity when a Hollywood rendition of the Black Sheep Squadron was depicted in the popular 1970s show “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” starring Robert Conrad as Boyington’s character. The show was generally considered a hearty piece of fictionalized entertainment, but the squadron’s characterization as a group of drunks and misfits angered many of Boyington’s fellow squadronmates. So, how do you properly recognize his significant professional feats? Can you ignore his personal failings?

A 2008 documentary that screend at the Navy Memorial on Veterans Day chronicles the grassroots efforts of a group of Marines and their campaign to have the local airfield in Coeur d’Alene renamed the Pappy Boyington Field and the resistance in the community to do so. The film, “Pappy Boyington Field” produced by Kevin Gonzalez, interviews many local Marine Corps League members who were behind the effort to rename the field, as well as local media, Boyington family members and even Robert Conrad. Many guessed that the county government and airport advisory board were dragging their feet on the proposal because of his controversial history, but publicly they cited a “safety issue” in renaming an airfield. (A safety issue?) The Marine Corps League kept up the public pressure and the campaign was eventually successful. The renaming ceremony took place in 2008.

But the question remains: Does public recognition of a controversial figure condone his personal behavior? I’d like to think it doesn’t and that we should judge a person’s career by just that. But, I have to admit that I lose respect for public figures — however reluctantly they become public figures — who have reckless personal lives.

I never knew Col. Pappy Boyington or any of descendents and I have not read his memoirs, but I’m in awe of his bravery. I can only hope that his personal struggles after the war humbled him and made his character stronger by the end of his life. Watch “Pappy Boyington Field” and you decide.

To watch the trailer or to buy a DVD of the film, go to the “Pappy Boyington Field” web site:

This past Friday I had the great opportunity of attending the 12th Annual American Veterans Center Conference at the Navy Memorial in Washington DC. With its mission to “preserve and promote the legacy of America’s servicemen and women from every generation,” the American Veterans Center had an amazing array of speakers. Moreover, my fellow attendees ranging from World War II veterans to JROTC high school students demonstrated the center was remaining true to its motto, “From the greatest generation to the latest generation,” although GEN Petraeus would later challenge this notion.

The day started with a panel on the current operations of SeaBees. It’s really quite amazing to see all the work that’s being done by this small force 16,000. CDR Odenthal, Assistant Chief of Staff for Logistics, First Naval Construction Division, spoke about his time in Southwest Asia where SeaBees served in 13 countries on 4 continents. Now that’s keeping busy! During their time in Asia, SeaBees were responsible for building schools, clinics, and other structures to satisfy local needs. During the Q&A portion, one audience member asked, “Who provides security for you while you’re building?” Those who are familiar with the SeaBees know they build and fight, but this question highlighted to me just how incredible their capabilities are.

GEN Petraeus spoke next. FbL at The Castle Argghhh! has already given a complete play-by-play of GEN Petraeus’s talk and I won’t repeat it here. The most interesting point GEN Petraeus made was regarding the surge of 2007. In his opinion this was most importantly a “surge of ideas not just troops.” Ideas such as living in the community, instead of only in the large, luxorious bases went a far way in GEN Petraeus’s opinion. For example, Coalition Forces took to 77 additional locations in Baghdad–77 of the most violent spots. GEN Petraeus emphasized that the key to success in Iraq was the increased risk we were willing to take, a sentiment echoed by the battalion commanders at the Counterinsurgency Leadership event I attended in September.

GEN Petraeus also spoke fondly of today’s servicemember. While the event used the phrase “From the Greatest Generation…to the latest generation,” GEN Petraeus suggested that sacrifices and efforts of the newest generation have deemed the worthy of the title “the Next Greatest Generation.”

It was extremely humbling to witness the panel of Marines who fought on Iwo Jima. It was also interesting to see how each of them shared a different impression of the battle. COL Caldwell, who was the commanding officer of F Co., 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, which suffered the highest KIA rate of any unit in Marine Corps history, was present. COL Caldwell recalled one incident in which a Japanese soldier came running ablaze in fire at his men. The soldier was promptly shot by Caldwell’s men and upon searching his body, the Marines found a picture of the man with his five children standing at attention. This scene caused Caldwell’s “salty,” tough gunnery sergeant to break down in tears. Ralph Griffiths was a veteran of E Company, 28th Marines and served with the flag raisers of Iwo Jima. Unfortunately, he was wounded by the same shell which killed flag raisers Sgt. Strank and Cpl. Block. He also spoke of how hellish the island itself was.

After COL Caldwell and Mr. Griffiths spoke, Mr. Donald Mates and Mr. James White recounted their time together on Iwo. Part of an eight man team sent to disable Japanese mortars, White was credited with giving aid to a severely wounded Mates as well as beating back a Japanese attack. Laughter broke out in the audience as White recounted dispatching Japanese soldier after soldier. It was quite a different tone than the talks by COL Caldwell and Mr. Griffiths!

For me one of the most interesting moments of the day was Maj. Theodore Van Kirk’s presentation. As the navigator of the Enola Gay, Maj. Van Kirk dismissed any arguments against the dropping of the bomb. While he noted the nuclear bomb and war are terrible things, it was his firm belief that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved Japanese and American lives. Members of the audience who lived through World War II broke out into applause. In an academic setting it’s great to discuss President Truman’s decision, but as I sat there it became even more clear that this was the right decision. It ended a war through which many members of the audience suffered.

History and heritage seemed much more alive and personal to me, a midshipman, as the veterans of wars past and present shared their experiences at the American Veterans Center’s Conference. It was a fulfilling experience and a great reminder of the wisdom our veterans have to share.

———– has put video of the event online:
Click here to watch the remarks by the veterans of Iwo Jima. The first speaker is COL Caldwell, followed by Mr. Donald Mates.

Here for remarks by GEN Petraeus and here for a presentation by LT Thrun of the Civil Engineering Corps who served on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan.


Every year, millions of Oslo vehicles roll over these nondescript metal plates. Put down by workers to cover road construction, they lay undignified and unnoticed. But, there is history in these plates. They belong to Tirpitz.

Tirpitz sunk on November 12, 1944, an event brilliantly described last week by UltimaRatioReg. After the war, the Lonely Queen of the North was cut up and sold as scrap. A few of her armor plates were sold to the Norwegian Road Authority, who to this day use them in Oslo as temporary road surface. It is an anonymous but noble end to an august vessel.

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