Category Archives: navy

Lexington’s Incomplete Modernization and Her Sinking At Coral Sea

CV-2_Lexington_and_CV-3_Saratoga

When the massive hulls of battlecruisers Lexington (CC-1) and Saratoga (CC-2) were designated to be completed as aircraft carriers  under provisions of the 1922 Washington Treaty, they represented a multi-generational leap forward for aircraft carrier design.  Eight hundred and eighty-eight feet long and displacing more than 44,000 tons loaded, these sleek monsters were capable of 33+ knots (some tales that Sara and Lex reached 40 knots during Fleet Problems in the late 1930s have never been verified) and could carry almost ninety aircraft.

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They were, in fact, far more modern in the 1920s than the fragile and short-range airplanes they carried.  Other than the massive IJN Shinano (built on the hull of the third Yamato), which never operated with aircraft, Lexington and Saratoga were the largest aircraft carriers built until the Midways entered service post-war.  They were 12 knots faster than the battle fleet, and potentially capable of powerful, far-ranging strikes not conceived of before they entered service.

USS Lexington Class Firing

The design of Lex and Sara was still largely experimental, and contained some oddities that time and experience would either correct or eliminate.  Famously, these two aircraft carriers were armed with a heavy cruiser’s guns.  Each carried eight 8-inch/55 caliber Mk IX naval rifles in specially contrived twin mounts.  The gun housings lacked armor, consisting of little more than splinter shields, in order to save topside weight.  (While the mounting of heavy caliber guns seems in retrospect an anachronism, doubts about the ability of aircraft to actually engage and sink surface ships who might cross paths with the carriers were well founded in the early 1920s.  Despite Billy Mitchell’s experiments, the age of dominance of air power had not yet arrived for the world’s navies.  Indeed, the loss of HMS Glorious in 1940 and the sinking of three more aircraft carriers by gunfire over the course of the war might give more justification to the heavy main battery than commonly believed.)  The aligning of the centerline of the flight deck with the hull centerline was discovered to necessitate significant ballast to port to offset the weight of the island.  All future designs, starting with Ranger (CV-4) would have the appropriate offset of flight deck centerline on the hull.

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Both vessels were given what was for the time a massive anti-aircraft battery.  Twelve of the new 5″/25 caliber Mk 10 AA guns were fitted, six on each side in single mounts, and controlled by the then-state of the art Mk 19 director.   A number of .50 (12.7mm) caliber machine guns installed in 1929 comprised the sole light AA capability.   As the size, speed, and lethality of carrier aircraft increased, however, it was clear that the .50 caliber machine guns were of dubious utility, and the development of the heavier 1.1″ (27.6mm) quad mount machine guns began.  Design delays in the 1.1″ AAMG were the impetus for the mounting of a number of 3″/50 caliber AA cannon until the design was ready for fielding, which occurred in early 1941.  The 1.1″ AAMG turned out to be a mixed bag.  When working properly, the 1.1″ proved effective in action, but maintenance and reliability issues, and the obvious requirement for a heavier projectile in the AA role against modern aircraft, led to the shipping of the famous twin and quad 40mm Bofors AA cannon beginning in mid-1942 on most US warships.

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However, that decision was still in the future when plans were drawn up in 1940 to modernize Lexington and Saratoga as Pacific war clouds gathered.   It was planned to remove the 8″/55 Mk IX mounts on both vessels, and replace them with four twin Mk 12 mounts carrying the highly effective 5″/38 caliber dual purpose gun mated to Mk 37 gun directors, two mounts per director.   The 5″/38 was more accurate than its predecessor, and had an effective ceiling of 37,200 feet, 10,000 feet higher than the 25 caliber gun.  In addition, the plans called for the replacement of the ancient Mk 19 directors, first developed in 1925, with the newer Mk 33.  The Mk 19 was incapable of computing for dive bombing, and was almost entirely ineffective at tracking 250-knot aircraft now fielded by the Japanese, further restricting the effectiveness of the 5″/25 to under 17,000 feet.

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The coming of war in December of 1941 meant that Lexington would be a desperately needed asset, and indeed she was active for the first four months in the Pacific war as a part of Task Force 11.  During a brief refit in March, 1942, Lexington’s 8″/55 mounts were landed, but the Mk 12 5″/38 mounts (and Mk 37 directors) to replace them were not installed, as Lexington was desperately needed in the fight against the Japanese Navy.  In addition, the Mk 33 directors destined for the older 5″/25 batteries were likewise not fitted.  In place of the planned 5″/38s, a temporary installation of more 1.1″ AAMGs and some 20mm Oerlikon cannon was instead completed.

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Photographs of Lexington as she steamed into the Battle of the Coral Sea are noteworthy for the absence of her familiar 8″/55 mounts, or the presence of the 5″/38 mounts which Saratoga would receive while being repaired from torpedo damage a couple of months later.   What Lexington was left with for anti-aircraft defense was a heavy battery of older 5″/25 guns whose effectiveness was hampered by outdated fire control, and light AA in insufficient numbers to effectively defend her.   Whether this made any difference in the loss of Lexington is anyone’s guess, but the possibility certainly exists.  The mating of the 5″/38 with the Mk 37 was the most lethal anti-aircraft combination to go to sea in World War II.   Perhaps such a combination could have caused the Japanese torpedo and dive bombers who fatally struck Lexington on 8 May 1942 to have missed, or might have destroyed them before they struck the ship.   What is indisputable, however, is that Lexington was sent into action against a modern and capable enemy with equipment and weapons that were known to be obsolete and lacking in combat effectiveness.  Operational tempo had restricted the US Navy’s ability to sufficiently modernize a capital ship to acceptable standards to meet the requirements of combat at sea.  Despite the very recent rapid expansion undertaken in America’s shipyards, the United States went to war in the first six months in the Pacific with the Navy it had, not the one it would require to fight and win.

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There is a lesson in there, somewhere.

 

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Sliders…

Sliders is shipboard slang for the greasy burgers served aboard. One little roll of the ship, and the slick burger slides away.*

The steel flight decks of carriers are coated with a non-skid material to give the extremely high pressure tires of carrier aircraft just a hint of traction. Unfortunately, hard use wears non-skid away fairly quickly, leaving bare metal exposed. Add in the grease and oil that accumulates, and maybe a touch of salt water, and a strong wind across the deck, and moving planes can quickly get downright sporty.

This video shows just how dangerous it can get, in a heartbeat.

Taken during USS Saratoga’s Desert Storm cruise, the VA-125 E-2C loses traction, and slides across the deck. The port prop actually strikes a tractor on the deck, and then jams its port wing fold into a VA-35 KA-6D’s port elevator.

Incredibly, no one was killed, and apparently no serious injuries were incurred. Word is that the E-2C and the KA-6D both had to be craned off the ship at the next port call for significant repairs before being returned to service.

H/T to Joe Kaposi on Facebook, who has a veritable treasure trove of flight deck mishap footage.

 

*Hot dogs, of course, are therefore known as “rollers.” Don’t get me started on how “autodog” got its nickname.

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PLA Navy tests new refueling pod for J-15 carrier fighter|Politics|News|WantChinaTimes.com

Having successfully copied the Russian-built UPAZ-1A aerial refueling pod, China’s PLA Navy can refuel a J-15 carrier-based fighter in midair in 5.3 minutes, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies said on Jan. 22.

via PLA Navy tests new refueling pod for J-15 carrier fighter|Politics|News|WantChinaTimes.com.

Spill’s on a bit of an air-to-air refueling history kick right now, so I thought I’d share this. Carrier aircraft almost inevitably use probe and drogue refueling. Our land based friends tend to use boom and receptacle, because it was designed for large bomber type aircraft. Booms also have much higher fuel transfer rates. But they require a large dedicated tanker, such as the KC-135. Obviously, you can’t fit one of those on a carrier. So probe and drogue it is.

There’s primarily two types of tanking in naval air, mission tanking, and recovery tanking. Mission tanking is used to extend the endurance or range of strike aircraft for a given mission. Recovery tanking is simply topping off returning aircraft to give them more time to land aboard ship, for instance, if the recovery is delayed by a foul deck or the pilot is having his turn in the barrel and repeatedly boltering (failing to arrest during his landing).

The US Navy used to have dedicated KA-3B and KA-6D tankers in its air wings, which carried sufficient fuel to perform both tanking missions pretty well. Today, the tankers of the air wing are simply F/A-18 E and F SuperHornets that have a buddy refueling pod slapped on. The long, long flights required to support operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and a few other places also means the Navy has increasingly had to rely on tanker support from the Air Force for mission tanking. KC-135s have an adapter to put a basket on the end of their boom.

Tanking is, like landing upon a carrier, one of those incredibly difficult feats of airmanship that naval aviators simply must become proficient in as a matter of routine, or they are useless to the fleet.

For the Chinese, this is especially so. The ski-jump take off they use on their carrier greatly limits the gross weight a fighter can take off with. If the fighter is going to carry a useful load of weapons, that means much less than full fuel can be carried. Hence the need for a refueling pod. Just how much one J-15 (essentially a Chinese carrier capable version of the Russian Su-33) can transfer is an open question. But a little bit of giveaway fuel is a whole lot better than none.

An UPAZ-1A aerial refueling pod on a Russian Su-24 fighter bomber. (Internet photo)

UPAZ-1A Refueling pod under Russian Su-24. Presumably the Chinese derivative is similar in appearance.

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The Brodie System

We’ve actually written about it before, but the video linked then has been removed, so here’s some more. Via War is Boring, with a tip o’ the hat to Comrade Arthur.

Here’s the short video:

 

And here’s a longer video showing more detail.

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Matt Udkow- Someone You Should Know

Weird thing about internet friends. You think you know someone… and then you learn something new about them. In this case, it was nice to learn that Matt was not just the kind of man I thought he was, but very much the kind of man one can admire.

Matt is currently an MH-65C helicopter pilot for the United States Coast Guard. But he started his aviation career with the US Navy, flying the big old H-3 Sea King. And so it came to pass that when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Matt, then stationed at Pensacola, Florida, was flying a logistical support mission from P’cola to Louisiana.

You may recall the scenes of helicopters of all sorts hoisting stranded New Orleans residents from rooftops to safety. Guess what? Matt was one of those aviators engaged in rescuing our fellow Americans.

In Matt’s own words:

I was blessed to serve as the SAR officer and pilot with the NAS Pensacola SAR Unit (renamed Helicopter Support Unit) from 2003 ?to 2005. During this period, my crew and I had the opportunity to assist with the SAR efforts in the New Orleans area following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. Out first SAR mission was on 30 August (27 persons hoisted), and the second one was conducted on 2 September 2005 (20 persons hoisted). In my opinion, these two missions were the pinnacle of my naval flight career.

Here’s the caption to this picture from Naval Aviation News:

Twenty survivors were happy to be off the flooded ground. The seated man on the right wearing a white t-shirt had a heart-attack on the way to Louis Armstrong Airport. I informed the tower, and we received permission to land in front of a huge line of helos and fly right over the terminal to drop him off first to waiting paramedics. AO3 Danny Smith, the crewman at the door, did a great job hoisting and managing the passengers, plus the three crew members and one photographer in the back. (Photo by Gary Nichols)

Now, being the military is a team sport. We love the image of the gallant individual, but no one man does great things. They all work together. So it is right and proper to share the credit with his crew:

My crew: (left to right): Myself (pilot), AW2 Jake Mclaughlin (rescue swimmer), AW2 Justin Crane (rescue swimmer), AW1 Kevin Maul (crew chief), Lt. Bryce Kammeyer (co-pilot). This was taken after landing after the first day, with two SAR sorties complete and 27 survivors hoisted. All of our crew and the civilian maintainers were very excited and proud of the work we had done.

Matt’s efforts were not without some controversy, however.

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Two Navy helicopter pilots were “counseled” about the importance of supply missions after they rescued 110 New Orleans hurricane victims before returning to base from a cargo delivery, the military said Wednesday.

One pilot was temporarily assigned to a kennel, but that was not punishment, said Patrick Nichols, a civilian public affairs officer at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

“They were not reprimanded,” Nichols said. “They were counseled.”

The pilots, Lt. Matt Udkow and Lt. David Shand, met with Cmdr. Michael Holdener, who praised their Aug. 30 actions but reminded them their orders had been to return to Pensacola after flying water and other supplies to three destinations in Mississippi — the Stennis Space Center, Pascagoula and Gulfport.

Matt made a decision. In this case, the right one. As I mentioned in an earlier post, that’s a skill that junior officers need to learn. Make. A. Decision. Yes, every decision has consequences. But so does failing to make a decision.

47 American citizens today were spared from possible death or injury by Matt’s actions. That’s something a man can hang his hat on.

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The Real Military Threat from China: Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles | The National Interest

“Air-Sea Battle” with Chinese Characteristics: a large fleet of land-based aircraft armed with some of the world’s most advanced anti-ship cruise missiles.

Lyle J. Goldstein

January 22, 2015

 

During the 1982 Falklands War, Argentina possessed a measly total of five Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles with which to face down the Royal Navy in the South Atlantic. Had that number been more like 50 or 100, that conflict might well have had a very different ending. This important lesson has not been lost on China’s military chiefs. Indeed, China has placed great emphasis on anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) development over the last three decades and is now set to reap the strategic benefits of this singular focus.

via The Real Military Threat from China: Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles | The National Interest.

Mr. Goldstein is indeed correct that large inventory of Chinese ASCM present a greater threat to US surface fleets in the Western Pacific than probably any other single Chinese weapon system.

But his analysis is too focused on the arrows in the quiver, and not enough on the eye of the Archer.

The huge numbers of cruise missiles are useless if rather precise information is lacking on the location, course, and speed of the intended target. And for all of China’s impressive improvements in maritime strike capability over the last three decades, their investments in maritime patrol aircraft and other targeting systems seem decidedly lacking.

To be sure, to influence the course of events ashore, a power projection navy such as ours must eventually close the coast, coming within easy sensor range of an enemy. But the great virtue of seapower here is the initiative to choose the time and place for such strikes.

That’s not to say the US Navy should simply assume it can easily better the Chinese. It shouldn’t. But it is a caution to the reader to not magnify the threat beyond all reason.

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Motherships and International Cooperation

Every navy faces the challenge of unlimited missions, and limited resources. Even ours. For our allies, the problem is even more acute. The European Union, taken in aggregate, is roughly equal to the US in terms of population and production. But it isn’t a single entity. It’s an extremely loose confederation of independent states. And because of that, the individual navies tend to be quite a bit smaller, both in total hulls, and the size of individual hulls. In spite of the importance of sea trade to Europe’s economic health, fielding navies large enough to secure that trade is virtually impossible, to say nothing of the post-war European tendency to shy away from militarization.

So when threats to sea trade arise, such as piracy off the eastern coast of Africa, no single nation can field a sustainable response. But by fielding international task forces, Europe, with the cooperation of other like minded nations, such as the US, and even China, and of all people, Iran, has managed to suppress the worst of piracy in the waters off the coast of Somalia.

Most Euro navies are frigate navies. And while frigates are quite the handy little warships, let’s face it, it’s a bit much for tracking and deterring pirates in 15m skiffs. Given our lack of frigates, the US Navy tends to support operations there with a Burke class destroyer. Which, let’s face it again, a multi-billion dollar warship is a bit much for taking on cheap boats.

Chuck Hill, of the invaluable Coast Guard Blog, shows a more sensible approach to countering low capability maritime threats, through cooperation of various nations and platforms.

The following was reported by the German Navy blog Marine forum, “8 January, PIRACY–Anti-Piracy Forces: Sweden is preparing for another mission (M-04) in support of EU operation “Atalanta”, this time working jointly with the Netherlands navy … COMBAT BOAT 90 fast interceptor craft, helicopters and 70 personnel to embark on Netherlands Navy dock landing ship JOHAN DE WITT.”

As you may recall, I have advocated using WPCs supported by a mother ship to supplement the larger cutters for distant drug interdiction operations.

Large amphibious ships are almost by definition “motherships.” Designed to operate and support landing craft, it is no great stretch for them to similarly support small patrol craft and other small combatants. The weakness of small craft is their lack of seakeeping. That is, their endurance and their crew’s ability to remain on station is limited. But by pairing them with a larger vessel, the ability of a small flotilla of craft to patrol large areas is greatly enhanced, at a fraction of the cost of maintaining several larger combatants on station.

Further, virtually all major amphibious ships have the ability to support significant helicopter detachments. Said helos are critical for the surveillance part of counter piracy operations, vastly expanding the task force’s field of view, and vectoring the limited number of patrol craft to the most likely targets of interest.

The one real disadvantage of this approach is that amphibious shipping is already in great demand for its primary mission. In our own Navy, we simply don’t have enough “gators” to support the requirements for our Marine Corps.

Some alternatives exist. The Navy’s Advance Floating Support Base (AFSB) would be a particularly good fit for this role. Of course, the limited number and costs of AFSB in the foreseable future means maintaining one on station is not realistic. Other options might include the Joint High Speed Vessel, though they have limited endurance.  My own first suggestion, years ago, was to buy used Platform Support Vessels at dirt cheap prices. The drawback with that platform is the cost of refitting them with command and control facilities, and more critically, the lack of sufficient helicopter facilities.

Chuck’s suggestion of using forward supported WPB and WPC Coast Guard patrol vessels is a good one, though again, the Coast Guard is hard pressed to meet its domestic demand signal for boats.

Other areas that would benefit from such a mothership concept include the Persian Gulf, and the waters near Singapore, where currently the Navy envisions extended deployments of LCS ships.

The US Navy has long operated alongside our partners and allies, and this is one area where such further cooperation is likely to be mutually beneficial.

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