Archive for January, 2012


What PONCE is Asking Us

January 2012


Over the weekend, it was interesting to watch the various outlets report the plans for USS PONCE (LPD-15). The old girl has served her nation well for 41 years and is about to give some more.

I think the best quote to use as a starting point is here;

The Pentagon’s new budget proposals, unveiled Thursday, included money to turn a freighter hull into a full-time floating base that could be moved around the world for military operations or humanitarian missions.

But the fiscal year does not begin until October and, to meet a standing request from American military commanders in the Middle East, Pentagon and Navy officials decided to convert the Ponce to serve as a floating base in the meantime.

“This is a longstanding request that, with the opportunity now before us, we are fulfilling,” said Capt. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.

… Navy officials acknowledged that they were moving with unusual haste to complete the conversion and send the mothership to the region by early summer.

Longstanding. Yes. The request is:

… the staging base would allow commandos, helicopters, speedboats and even aircraft with a short-takeoff capability to operate in regions where the United States does not have access to installations on land.

While its value as a staging base for combat operations would be a priority, it also could be moved near an area suffering from natural disaster, to provide full logistics for the military to carry out relief missions for a region left without power, food or potable water.

Let that soak in. Read it again. Ponder – hasn’t this been a requirement for at least my lifespan? Haven’t we had such things before? Yes. Don’t we have a lot of platforms easily converted to do such things? Yes. Does it require a big deck to do it? No. Do we have ships already configured as such – yes. Why has it taken so long ……

To simplify things – let’s not even look at piracy for now and what the PONCE could bring to that game. In the broader sense, we have been at war with a non-state terrorist group, its affiliates and supporters for over a decade. This is a war that relies to an exceptional extent on Special Operations Forces. This we know.

As a navy at war, what have we “restructured” to support this outside deployment schedules, itty-bits in NECC, NSW, and certain “special” programs? Look back at the infrastructure that supported special operations in Vietnam and the very short turn around time they had from requirement to shadows pierside. This is not new. This is not radical. This does not require a technological breakthrough. Hey – maybe, ahem, that is/was the problem.

An “Afloat Forward Staging Base” or “mothership” is not a new concept. It is not sexy (to the non-professional), it doesn’t go real fast, but it does do something – it supports the warfighter and his ability to project power ashore and at sea. It multiplies the effect of smaller, more nimble forces to do their job with endurance and a greater sense of autonomy. MIW – sure. NSW – no problem … etc … but why PONCE now – why late – and why USS now?

Ships matter – ships that have enough “white space” to put in to them what you need, take them where they need to go, and have the endurance to stay long enough to make a difference. Not the too-clever-by-half mission module concept – but the inherent utility of “being there” with room to enable others – and to do so with nuance. The multi-purpose amphib, which the PONCE is – is more than simply an amphib – it has always been so – and will be again.

All the above leads to a simple question: through all the “fat” years in a decade of war with plenty of discussions of the need and utility of a “mothership” to meet the needs of this type of war, we did little. Now that we find ourselves in a shrinking budget, why do we panic like, grab the duct tape, bailing wire, and vice grips and rush out to the pier to coax the old girl to give just some more?

Are we that broken that with all our technology, communications, and armadas of Admirals – we find ourselves with this decision point? Are our priorities so out of whack – our processes so blinkered – our leadership so hidebound – that we find ourselves with this lash-up?

Don’t get me wrong – I fully support, encourage, and praise the modification and deployment of PONCE and present/planned follow on AFSB. Many happy returns – but really. This is how we do it?

“This is a longstanding request that, with the opportunity now before us, we are fulfilling … Navy officials acknowledged that they were moving with unusual haste to complete the conversion and send the mothership to the region by early summer.

It’s not like there weren’t other opportunities to do this to other ships over the last decade.

The interesting story would be – inside the “longstanding” timeline – who held back this decision, why, and what are they doing now? What was holding it back – and what finally broke the seal to let it go forward?

I know, call it an accountability review.

Once we do that – then we can have fun discussion about long range plans for the concept WRT active duty/reserve/CIVMAR/USS/USNS etc. There will be a long range plan right? We wouldn’t want to have someone else re-invent this later on will we? We do understand that this is a capability that will be needed for a long time – right? We are planning for the ability to have this “effect” in place longer than one ship’s deployment … right?

Maybe, I don’t want to be an officer. More so, maybe I shouldn’t be one. You guys seem to make it hard on yourselves to ask questions – to read, think and write. Enlisted types, when we do a version of ‘read, think and write’ we either are innocuous or irrelevant because of our rank, or are surprising (and thus welcomed) because of no one expecting us to think ‘big thoughts.’ But, whatever the case, us thinking aloud isn’t something that can cause officers to react. I’d dare say that it is almost safer for us enlisted types to think out loud because of our status in the military hierarchy.

In thinking back across the modicum of experience I have, I can only find one example of where someone (an officer) reacted negatively to me asking questions. It was a CAPT who was riding the SAN ANTONIO for one reason, or another. We were on the smoke deck, and I was attempting to talk to him about my Mobile Sea Base idea I had for the SAN (anyone read the news lately? I totally called this back in 2007). I don’t think the CAPT was as much bothered by my asking questions, as he just wanted from freakin’ peace and quiet while he smoked his cigar on the smoke deck. Whatever his motivations, it’s the only time I can recall ever being concerned about asking questions.

As many of you know, the Naval Institute invited me to the West ’12 Conference this year. One of the panels I attended was titled “Junior Warfighters: What Issues Keep Them Awake at Night?” the panel was comprised of O-3s and an O-4. I asked them questions, and the discussion turned to writing and publishing their thoughts. The answers I received were far outside of my perspective, and did not settle well with me. I couldn’t understand why they were telling me of their concerns for repercussions from their writing. They aren’t the first officers I’ve heard voice such a concern – quite the opposite actually. I have heard others say as such so often, that I’ve started to wonder if it was actually an excuse for not writing.

I watched the video made from the panel this morning, I asked if they had tried to get published, if they thought that publishing under a pen name would improve the discourse or be helpful in any way. But, again, the answers I was given were too far outside my perspective. I was told that it is important for a person to stand behind their words and thus not use a pen name. In addition to their concern for repercussions from publishing, the two perspectives caused a certain dissonance for me, I couldn’t get my mind around it. But, in talking about it on facebook, I think I’ve begun to understand.

No one reads, thinks and writes in a vacuum. I’ve often wondered (as have many others) why it is that the young seem to be the greatest source of innovation in the World. But, in coming to understand the answers I received at West I’ve also come to understand that a significant part of why the young innovate so much is that we do read, think and write in a vacuum in a greater sense than those older than us. We generally have fewer responsibilities – maybe a spouse, possibly no children, limited (if any) command authority. It seems to me to be one of the sublimely ironic absurdities of life that we give authority to those who have the experience to support keen discretion and wise decision making. But that to inherently have such qualities, one must have first lived a life, learned the resulting lessons and there-by limited their ability to fully engage in innovative discourse.

What this realization has lead me to is to wonder what this means for me. I’m a single guy, no kids, and no command authority; yet when I write these blogs, and talk publicly, I have a tacit sense of what I can and cannot say – I have tact. But, should I have less tact, in a sense? I don’t mean that I think that I should be bluntly provocative or that I should be writing the intellectual version of tabloids in my writing. But, that I should be even more bold to say some things, and even say things I know that others wish to say, but can’t due to other responsibilities their life choices have resulted in. Just as it tends to be the most junior personnel who have to scrub down a ship after a CBRN attack, shouldn’t it be the junior person who writes the words that cause senior personnel pause? After all, I am ultimately only responsible to myself. I do not have to worry about my words grossly affecting anyone else I could be responsible for. If the guy with kids to take care of can’t do it; the officer who would be judged more critically than I would can’t do it, or anyone with significant responsibilities can’t do it. But, somebody HAS to do it. Who better than someone like me?

I didn’t invoke John Boyd during the panel, though his ghost was probably cursing up a storm if it were present. But, Boyd’s example is replete with what it takes to fully engage in the discourse. Robert Croam’s biography doesn’t ignore the type of father or husband Boyd was – Boyd sacrificed a lot to be who he was. I cannot expect anyone (not even myself) to make the hard decisions he made.

Which only leaves me with the thought that we need a new dichotomy across the age axis in our Navy. We have the enlisted-officer dichotomy in the Navy that serves us extremely well. We should also formalize the age dichotomy so that our junior personnel can take advantage of their lack of responsibilities and station, so that they can think, read and write the things we need to stay innovative and ahead of any competitor.

Back on Sunday, January 8th the USS Bataan deployment became 291 days (41 weeks and 4 days) old. On that date the the USS Bataan (LHD 5) passed a mark previously held by the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) as the longest big deck deployment since the Vietnam War, which lasted 290 days in 2003.

Back on Friday, January 20th the USS Bataan (LHD 5) deployment became 303 days (43 weeks and 2 days) old. On that day the USS Bataan (LHD 5) passed the USS Okinawa (LPH 3) as the longest amphibious ship deployment in our nations history, previously 302 days set in 1990.

I have been told by the Navy that the expected return date of the Bataan ARG is sometime over the next two weeks, specifically that the Bataan ARG will come close but not break the current record for the longest US Navy deployment since WWII currently held by USS Midway (CV 41) – which was 327 days in 1973.

My experience with Murphy’s Law is that you never say never. If for any reason the Bataan ARG finds itself in contingency mode and unable to return on schedule, the day the ship would break the USS Midway (CV 41) record of 327 days from 1973 would be February 15th, 2012 – the day after Valentine’s day. That would truly be one hell of a heartbreak for families who are being asked to do so much, not to mention sailors and Marines who have already lived at sea for over 300 days.

The 11 month Bataan ARG deployment comes on the heels of the 8 month deployment by the Kearsarge ARG, and the sailors and Marines of the Iwo Jima ARG preparing to deploy are already being told to expect a long deployment.

The President’s people have come out after the FY13 budget announcement to boast how capable the US Navy is, basically stating that despite having fewer ships, the fleet today is so much more in capability than the fleet of era’s past. That is a completely true statement, but as an argument it avoids the details that make the argument worth any real value.

Fewer ships is less, not more, and sailors are being asked to do a lot more with less so that politicians can claim less is more. The results are unconcealed in plain view for all who want to see them – the Bataan ARG is scheduled sometime over the next 2 weeks to complete the second longest deployment in US Navy history since WWII all while political leaders preach the importance of dwell time for our troops in an era of persistent conflict, while the Navy leadership chooses to cut more amphibious ships, and all the while our leaders tell more sailors and families to get ready for more long deployments. The mismatch of political rhetoric and leadership actions are far from congruent by any objective standard.

The Navy has fewer ships right now than in a century and the fleet will be getting smaller based on the administrations latest budget released last week. It is embarrassing when Navy leaders make public political arguments that all is well in the Navy when in fact all facts show men and material are being pushed to limits at historical levels in support of a policy that clearly cannot be supported beyond the short terms of a single political cycle.

Bob Work suggested last week that the nation is moving into a naval century. If true then the United States is in big trouble and someone is either expecting a miracle or a major domestic political shift to be able to hide our serious strategic shortcomings from allies and enemies alike. Right now our nations best plan publicly disseminated is apparently to design new ships like LCS with very short life cycles, retire good ships with long life cycles like cruisers and amphibious ships early, and push existing ships that are already underfunded on maintenance to the limits of their material condition – and that is before the part where the Navy asks sailors to do more with less as part of the plan while kicking any potential serious consequences that result down the road.

By any objective analysis, what the administration is touting as the way ahead does not represent a very admirable opening move in our naval century chess game, and this administration is asking too much of both sailors and reasonable observers to accept the status quo of historical level deployment lengths as some sort of policy blueprint for the future that is a naval century. The administration is making a policy argument that technology allows our nation to do less with more even though the human elements are still very clearly doing a lot more with less.

My 8th grade African-American history class taught me that only a sucker or a slave will believe in the fallacy that less is more, but for whatever reason ‘less is more’ is the current naval century policy argument being forwarded by this administration. Less is always less. If the administration believes the Navy needs less today, that can be a perfectly valid argument, but the administration must also ask less of the Navy today to insure the Navy of tomorrow exists at the level of capabilities that are being predicted as necessary, and promised to allies. The Navy is at a critical juncture, and the choices are either short term domestic political plans or long term strategic plans.

When administration officials tout less is more while pushing men and material to historical operating limits, that is a poster child demonstration of short term planning for domestic political purposes. A truly strategic plan will accept the risk that less truly means less, and the future won’t be sacrificed for the political needs of the present masters.

Posted by galrahn in Navy, Policy | 6 Comments

land attack cruiser?

January 2012


The USS Ponce (LPD 15, the final ship of the Trenton- or modified Austin-class) received a second lease on life at the last minute last week. After more than forty years of service, she completed her last deployment in December, had just completed her final week at sea and was slated for decommissioning March 30. Instead, she will now be rapidly converted to a special operations and mine countermeasures ‘mothership’ and could be on station in the Persian Gulf as early as this summer, able to support MH-53E Sea Dragons, the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Gulf Cooperation Council and other operations under 5th Fleet. It is reportedly a capability for which U.S. Central Command has been clamoring since the 1980s Tanker Wars and will now — rather remarkably quickly — be fulfilled.

But for the one ship that was saved from the scrap yard, seven Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers with some 25 years of service are slated to go the way of the first five ships of the class (and from what at least one panelist claimed at West 2012, complex Aegis components don’t mothball very well). One of the seven reportedly requires expensive repairs and may also have significant problems with the Mk 45 gun mounts (it turns out the Navy has not always been a good custodian of taxpayer investments).

But for a Marine Corps that has only the prospect of six total 155mm Advanced Gun Systems on three Zumwalt hulls, the Mk45 5″ naval gun looks to remain the old stand-by for naval surface fire support for the foreseeable future. When the Navy retired the five Mark-26 Ticos, it also retired ten 5″ guns. It is now set to retire 14 more 5″ guns and 854 Mk 41 VLS tubes along with them.

Part of the reason we need a 155mm gun for NSFS is because US$1 billion Aegis-equipped warships are staying further and further offshore. I’m not the expert on the Navy’s rationale or the cost considerations of these Ticos, but as a Marine having already experienced a huge reduction in the Zumwalt buy, it’s hard to watch seven hulls with two naval guns apiece get tossed in the rubbish bin. Each ship and ship class is its own question. But if the Ponce can see new life, why can’t, say, the three hulls in the best condition of the seven Ticos facing decommissioning too? Strip off as much of the superstructure as possible and it seems like it might look not unlike a small version of an arsenal ship…

*Many thanks to URR for some righteous-indignation regarding the Navy’s stewardship of massive taxpayer investment in these hulls. I owe much of this post to his insight.

Posted by nhughes in Marine Corps, Navy | 26 Comments

The Small Wars Journal recently detailed the winners and losers of the proposed defense budget cuts. Thanks to President Obama’s new realignment towards the Pacific, the SWJ categorized both the Navy and drones as winners in the budget battle. With increased money flowing to both, new developments in drone technology will, or should, cause to the Navy to at least rethink its strategy.

The new threat to America’s Navy is China’s anti-ship ballistic missile with a range of over 900 miles, according to a Naval War College paper “Using the Land to Control the Sea.” China’s military believes the new missile will keep carriers farther from its coast. While China may or may not have the ability to strike a carrier 900 miles away today, we can assume that their missile technology will only improve. It’s possible that China could destroy one eleventh of our carrier fleet, and threaten the lives of 5,000 servicemen, with one missile.

Carriers will not go the way of the battleship anytime soon; the ability to launch aircraft off ships is valuable in any war. However, is it better to have dozens of smaller carriers specialized in launching UAVs and helos or fewer super-carriers capable of launching both UAVs and manned aircraft?

I think that there is more room for improvement in UAV technology. When I think about the technological advances in my lifetime, robotics, computers, and wireless technologies come to mind. These developments allowed for the increased reliance in unmanned vehicles and aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, considering the rising cost of developing the fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, policymakers will be loath to develop the sixth generation. The Navy is already seriously considering using UAVs as tankers circling above the carrier.

I will never fly a plane off a carrier, so I won’t pretend to understand how to. But I do know that drones weigh significantly less than piloted aircraft. The carrier landing X-47A prototype weighs 5,500 lbs fully loaded, compared to over 50,000 lbs for the F-35. Lighter planes need less space to take-off (thanks to varying cable resistance, the landing distance is about the same regardless of weight). Relying more on UAVs should enable our Navy to develop more, smaller carriers. Since drones are typically smaller, we could still have the same number of aircraft on a UAV-dominated, light carrier. In addition to having more carriers with which to promote America’s interests abroad, losing one of these ships will mitigate the impact on the overall war effort in a major power war.

Nonetheless, certain missions still require human eyes in the sky. Drones are most useful during super dull or super dangerous missions, but a pilot can provide a better perspective, and presumably a better response, in constantly changing conditions. In sum, I don’t know what the future of naval aviation will be, but I think we would regret leaving any option off the table.

Posted by jjames in Navy, Strategy, Tactics | 24 Comments

Under Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work provided the USNI West 2012 Conference with a very good and stirring speech on Thursday morning. The remarks were covered in a previous post, along with my personal concerns for whether Secretary Work’s perspective represented a too-sanguine assessment of what the budget situation would leave us for the coming decades. Indeed, over at Information Dissemination, Bryan McGrath summarizes well precisely the balance between the truth of the Secretary’s words, and the operational and tactical realities on the other side of the coin:

News reports and Pentagon statements indicate that the Navy will retire 7 cruisers and 2 LSD’s early, while cutting its shipbuilding totals 28% from the FY12 estimate for 2013-2017 (57 ships) to 41 ships in the same period with this budget. Retiring assets early from a Fleet already stressed to meet its commitments, and then eating your shipbuilding “seed corn”, strike me as odd ways to demonstrate an emphasis on Seapower. I’ve talked to some in the Navy who suggest that under the new plan, we’ll be able to field as many ships in 2020 as we do now, which is put forward as evidence of great progress and victories within the Pentagon bureaucracy. How this reconciles with the fact that the Fleet we have NOW does not meet the needs of the COCOMS–let alone the Fleet some project to be necessary to underwrite East Asian security in the face of Chinese expansion and modernization–evades me.

Mr. McGrath also emphasizes the realities that networking and technical sophistication is not a panacea, or a replacement for PRESENCE.

Clearly, the number of hulls as a measure of Naval power ain’t what it used to be. However, the suggestion that networks and precision guided munitions make hull counts unimportant points again to the basic physics problem that Naval planners have faced since the Phoenicians–a ship can only be in one place at a time. Quantity does have a quality all its own, and as I’ve advocated many times on this site, networks and PGM’s are of incalculable value when the Navy is fighting; however they are less important when the Navy is doing what it does the vast majority of the time–deterring and assuring.

Precisely. And not in the guided munitions sense.


Thursday morning, Under Secretary of the Navy (and more importantly, former Marine artilleryman) Robert O. Work skilfully executed his own “pivot”. Secretary Work had intended to deliver remarks regarding the program choices associated with the recently-released Defense budget. Well, you go to the podium with the speech you have, not the one you wish you had. It seems SECNAV was not going to publicly comment until later in the day, so Secretary Work chose not to publicly do so ahead of that, and instead delivered an enthusiastic and decidedly upbeat address on the challenges and opportunities facing the Navy-Marine Corps Team in the coming century.

Secretary Work referenced former CJCS Admiral Mullen’s talk of the previous day, and lived up to his well-deserved reputation for his grasp of history and its relevance to future events. Diverging from Admiral Mullen’s views of the uniqueness of the path ahead, Secretary Work outlined the challenges faced by President Eisenhower in 1953, an ongoing war far larger than the current and recent conflicts combined, an existential threat from a peer enemy about to detonate a thermonuclear device of their own, faltering allies asking for assistance in remote regions of the globe, and an electorate very tired of war. Indeed his example speaks to the tendency to consider present challenges as groundbreaking and unprecedented, when in point of fact, they are usually not nearly quite so.

Secretary Work proceeded to provide a Huntington-esque perspective on the history of America’s military eras, as defined by salient policy events. That perspective is worth summarizing here.

The Continental Era

July 4th 1776 to December 1, 1890

America’s Army was dominant, with an intermittent and largely coastal (with notable exceptions) Navy and small Marine Corps, no overseas bases, and a focus on western expansion across the North American continent. The era ended with the tragic events at Wounded Knee, which was the last of the frontier fights. During the Continental Era, for every month the United States was at war, she spends approximately six months at peace.

The Trans-Oceanic Era

December 1, 1890 to March 12, 1947

America becomes a two-ocean Mahanian maritime nation once and for all, and after massive military commitment to winning two world wars, is a world power with overseas bases, with far-flung interests, and security commitments to allies and former adversaries (whom we have to build up from virtual ruin) on almost every continent. The era ends with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine, and the beginning of the Cold War. For every month of war during the Trans-Oceanic Era, there are 5.2 months of peace.

The Cold War

March 12, 1947 to May 12, 1989

Containment of the Soviet Union, a peer adversary, which dominates Eastern Europe and makes serious inroads in Asia, southern Europe, and Latin America. Large wars in Korea and Vietnam, the respective growth and contraction of the US Military in the aftermath of those wars, and lots of little wars by proxy, and an existential threat of Soviet first strike. The Cold War is declared over on May 12, 1989, by President George H W Bush. Indeed, in 1990-91, forces from Europe are sent to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf War, more than a year before the final collapse of the Soviet Union. In this increasingly active era, aside from a Cold War for the entirety, for each month of hot war, the United States is only at peace for 2.67 months.

The Global Era

May 12, 1989 to December 31, 2011

Two wars in Iraq, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, protracted and expensive efforts at nation-building are the events of the most active time for America’s military in her entire history. For every month at war during this Global Era, America will have just 1.08 months of peace. The Global Era ends, according to Secretary Work, with the end of the war in Iraq

The beginning of 2012 is the beginning of the “Naval Century”.

This era, says Secretary Work, will be one of global American sea power, focused on the western Pacific, always a maritime region, and the Middle East, which is becoming increasingly so.

Secretary Work asserts that this nation’s military, its people and equipment, are tired out. They need to be refreshed, revitalized, and allowed to recover from the strain of two protracted wars. And the military needs to shrink. Especially in manpower, the single highest cost category.

I reproduce Secretary Work’s perspective in near entirety because I believe it is cogent and well-thought, from someone whose grasp of history is superb, and because it is worthwhile. It also allows us to put current conditions in context. Some of his points are excellent, and provide an insight into how Mr. Work thinks of what he calls the Total Force Battle Network and its shape in the coming decades.

This Total Force Battle Network will be characterized by a Navy-Marine Corps team capable of forcible entry and power projection globally, and an ability to keep vital SLOCs open to freedom of navigation. This Naval force will be characterized by thoroughly networked platforms and weapons, unmanned systems in all three dimensions, with technology-enabled combat power second to none. An increased emphasis on SOF throughout the services, Navy and Marine Corps included, and a more capable maritime domain awareness using unmanned and manned platforms to cover vital areas nationally and globally. Forward presence in vital regions will be credibly maintained. This force will be maintained and sustained by personnel strengths equal to the task, a break from the “optimal manning” experiment that went “too far”.

This will also be a force that is used less frequently than were forces in the Global Era, allowing for time to train and maintain, and to test and experiment with new technologies and new methods of employment. And, passionately, Mr. Work reminded us that the people who make up our Naval forces, Sailors and Marines, will remain the single greatest asset the Total Force Battle Network can employ. They will remain the professional, motivated, educated young warriors that are exemplified by CDR Ernest Evans, who told his crew of Johnston (DD- 557) “This is a fighting ship, and I intend to take her into harm’s way!”. And at Samar, when eight Japanese capital ships appeared on the horizon, turned his destroyer toward the vastly superior force and interject his little ship in between the Japanese and the escort carriers of his task force. The decision cost him his ship and his life, but helped save the Task Force and possibly the Leyte landings further south. It also earned CDR Evans a posthumous Medal of Honor. Our people and our Navy and Marine Corps will do the things that are required to be the best in the world, because, as in the past, they will be “great by choice”.

Secretary Work’s words should be inspirational to any Sailor or Marine who takes pride in his service. The Navy Undersecretary is definitely on our side. He is a man who says what he means and means what he says. The coming cuts, the $480 billion in the next ten years, are challenging but workable. They represent a drawdown of some 24% of the US Military, which Mr. Work points out is rather less than that of other post-war draw-downs, including the years of the “Peace Dividend” following the Cold War and Desert Storm. His was definitely a tone of confidence in the future of our Naval forces.

I hope he is correct. I hope we have a strategy commensurate with our capabilities, and our reach doesn’t exceed our grasp. And that our focus on SOF and unmanned systems will not require the “Plan B” of conventional forces in great numbers, because they simply will not be there. Whatever the numbers of ships, systems, and personnel we settle on, that cannot be the starting point for the ill-conceived concept of further pinching of pennies by chasing temporary savings (“Optimal Manning”, deferring maintenance, retiring warships at half their service lives) that result in driving up long-term costs and reducing effectiveness.

And I hope he is right about sequestration. Because, as upbeat and slightly sanguine as Secretary Work’s words were, even he admits that the cuts that would come in that event will devastate our nation’s defenses and make any meaningful National Military Strategy impossible.

In a new addition to the annual West conference in San Diego, USNI hosted an evening event for its members at the Ultimate Skybox overlooking Petco Park downtown. Made possible primarily by the generosity of Dr. Jack London, a member of the board of directors and longtime member of the Institute, the event was attended by Institute members young and old including a number of active duty officers as well as Undersecretary of the Navy, Robert O. Work, who delivered the Conference’s Plenary Address this morning.

Dr. London’s generosity also lent an element of style and class to the evening that was above and beyond the convention center feel of the larger conference. But while it is hard to complain about the weather — the low last night was probably around 60 degrees — and the open-air venue offered a beautiful nighttime view of the downtown cityscape from the 15th floor, the real heart of the evening was the company and conversation. While the panels and speakers at West 2012 have been excellent as always, the evening at the Ultimate Skybox stuck out as what the Institute is really about: not big booths or bustling convention center floors but simply facilitating conversations amongst its members, both the retelling of old stories and the sparking of new debates. And by sheer happenstance, Mary Ripley the Institute’s Director of Online Content and Media Marketing who makes this blog possible happened to discover than another longtime USNI member, Col. Mitch Rios, USMC (Ret) that just happened to be there that evening was the son of her father the late Col. John Ripley’s platoon sergeant in Vietnam.

Here’s to hoping that last evening marks a new tradition for the Institute in San Diego.

Just when you thought that the ARCTIC SEA piracy story couldn’t get any weirder, comes news via Fairplay of an arrest warrent being issued in the case, for the former head of Estonian Intelligence:

The decision to put out an international warrant over the hijacking of the timber carrier Arctic Sea in August 2009 stemmed from Erik Niyles Kross’s refusal to answer a Russian summons for questioning in December.

Kross, former head of Estonian intelligence, has been charged with planning and directing the month-long pirate takeover.

Arctic Sea had been under way off Sweden’s Baltic coast when nine Russian and Latvian men took the vessel. They were convicted of piracy in Moscow and Arkhangelsk and given stiff prison terms – after reportedly naming Kross as the mastermind.

Estonia’s government has said that Russian prosecutors are welcome to interrogate Kross in Talinn. The 4,706dwt ship later found and taken back by the Russian Navy off Cape Verde. – Fairplay

Just why would the former head of Estonian Intelligence want to hijack a ship full of timber? Maybe he’s crazy? Given his involvement, maybe there is something to the rumors that the ship was carrying something much more interesting than just timber. I can understand Mr. Kross’s refusal to travel to Russia for questioning. However, he can’t be feeling much safer sitting in nearby Estonia. I suspect the level of danger he is in depends on what he knows and how embarrassing it is to the Russian Government.

One question I would like answered is just where the ‘hijackers’ were planning to take the ship. They did not appear to be taking the vessel anyplace when the Russians arrived. Apparently, thanks to Russian threats, the crew is still not talking.

Surely this is not the final chapter.



January 2012


In the second panel discussion on Tuesday at West 2012, ‘The Future of Shipbuilding: what can the nation afford?,’ included some familiar but still valuable refrains. The litany of recent acquisition failures and the challenges now facing the U.S. Navy and the U.S. shipbuilding industry hardly need repeating here. It is all too familiar to all of us. The panel seemed to come down on the optimistic side, and it does seem like some important lessons have been learned and fixes are being implemented. But it was also apparent just how much more needs to be done.

While much of the discussion was good and insightful it remained rooted (not unjustifiably) in where we’re at and how we move forward with what we have now.

But if Alfred Thayer Mahan was in the room, I tend to doubt he’d be surprised about our predicament. I don’t mean the specifics, but that we are in the position we are in more generically. Mahan tells us that the foundation of a strong Navy is strong maritime commerce and maritime culture. Warships are expensive — and they were when we built our first six frigates. But from our founding to the time Mahan wrote The Influence of Seapower Upon History in 1890, we truly were a maritime nation and only a small fraction of our ocean-going citizenry were in the employ of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

We are perhaps more reliant than ever on maritime commerce, but ships built elsewhere, flagged elsewhere and crewed from elsewhere sustain the flow of commerce, energy and raw materials that contribute to our livelihood and way of life. There are obviously sound commercial reasons why much of this has taken place. And I’m certainly not advocating that we embark on some sort of state-driven commercial enterprise.

But it does seem like when we talk about fixing shipbuilding, we might benefit from a discussion about why the biggest ships and offshore rigs in the world are built more efficiently and more reliably elsewhere or why Maersk’s headquarters is in Copenhagen. And perhaps most importantly, why much of what domestic, commercial maritime shipping there is exists only due to a 1920s piece of legislation (updated in 2006) and why that legislation has done little to cultivate robust, competitive maritime commerce. We may not be able to pull global shipbuilding out of South Korea and China, but should we be resigned to a world in which the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Military Sealift Command are the principal customers of yards in the United States capable of building large ships? That’s certainly the reality we’re stuck with in the near-term, but are there ways we can re-incentivize American shipbuilding and American maritime commerce?

Posted by nhughes in Navy | 10 Comments
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