The Great White Fleet

In addition to being the 70th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Bulge, today also marks the anniversary of the sortie of the Great White Fleet.

Having rather unexpectedly gained an empire as a result of the 1898 Spanish American War, the US found itself a major player on the world stage. And President Roosevelt, eager to prevent any foreign adventures from nibbling at our fringes, decided to make an extraordinary display of American might. And so, the Great White Fleet set upon a journey literally around the world.

On this day in 1907, the main battle fleet set forth on a journey that would cruise 43,000 miles, touch upon six continents and last 14 months. The Great White Fleet truly marks the birth of the US Navy as one of the great fleets of the world, and emphasized the entry of the United States upon the world stage as one of the great powers.

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The Mobile Landing Platform

Before we start writing our series on the evolution of landing craft, let’s address one of the greatest challenges of amphibious operations.

Amphibious landings generally give the attacker the initiative to chose the time and place of their landings. As such, gaining an initial foothold is generally successful, provided reasonable attention has been paid to tactical realities.

Maintaining that initiative is the challenge. The key to this is ensuring a sufficient buildup of troops and logistics to overpower any enemy counterattack.

While the Marines have a reasonable force structure for landing the initial waves of an assault, the buildup phase is therefore critical. And the Marines and the Army both have significant numbers of ships dedicated to carrying the vehicles and supplies that any buildup would require. What is often lacking is a means to land those vehicles and supplies ashore in the absence of significant port facilities.

And so the Marines and the Navy have teamed up to build a ship especially intended to connect those prepositioned vehicle carriers with the landing beaches.

The Mobile Landing Platform is designed so that vehicles can be driven off of the prepositioned ship, onto the MLP, and thence onto a Landing Craft Air Cushion for delivery to the beach.

Based loosely on the design of a large semi-submersible heavy lift ship, the MLP can provide docking for up to three LCACs. While designed with fiscal austerity in mind, you’ll notice that the MLP has significant open deck space. Couple that with a reserve of power and water, that means that it can be configured for other purposes rather easily.

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T-MLP-1 USNS Montford Point alongside a Bob Hope Class T-AKR in preparation for vehicle transfer exercises.

It’s important to note that the MLP is not an amphibious warship, nor indeed a warship of any kind. It belongs to the Military Sealift Command, and is crewed by Civilian Mariners. It is an auxiliary to support other ships.

Let’s take a look at an MLP in action.

Two MLPs, the USNS Montford Point and the USNS John Glenn, have been delivered.

The basic design of the MLP is also at the heart of the Afloat Forward Staging Base, which will be used as a mothership for mine hunting operations and other forward deployed elements that would otherwise require significant pierside facilities.

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USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-MLP-3/T-AFSB-1)

The Puller and a second, as yet unnamed AFSB are due for delivery in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

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Stryker Airdrop

The Army’s Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle is not normally intended to be delivered by airdrop. But the Army and the Air Force did take a look back in 2004 at whether it was feasible or not.

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Army Deserter Is Jailed for Chasing the Conflicts That Steadied His Mind – NYTimes.com

After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point near the top of his class in 2008, Second Lt. Lawrence J. Franks Jr. went on to a stellar career with three deployments, commendations for exceptional service and a letter of appreciation from the military’s top general.

The only problem: None of it was in the United States military.

After being sent to Fort Drum, here in the snowy farmland of northern New York, where he was put in charge of a medical platoon, Lieutenant Franks disappeared one day in 2009. His perplexed battalion searched the sprawling woods on the post for his body.

What they did not know was that he was on a plane to Paris, where he enlisted under an assumed name in the French Foreign Legion. It was only this year when he turned himself in that the Army and his family learned what had happened.

via Army Deserter Is Jailed for Chasing the Conflicts That Steadied His Mind – NYTimes.com.

The conviction and sentence seem about right. After that, one hopes Mr. Franks can go on to live a productive life, albeit one not affiliated with the US Army.

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The Battle of the Bulge

Seventy years ago today, the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany launched the Ardennes Counter-offensive. Germany, being pushed back to its borders on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, was on the ropes. The massive Soviet armies were poised to strike into the heart of Germany, while in the west, the Allies had only two major obstacles to overcome before reaching the industrial Ruhr and Saar.

Hitler still saw the Soviets as the greater threat (reasonably enough). He reasoned that if he could split the British and American allies, he could either buy enough time to shore up the Eastern Front, or conceivably bring the British and Americans to the peace table. A delusion, to be sure, but that was the vision that informed his thinking.

Even with massive numbers, the Allies in the West couldn’t be strong everywhere. And so, accepting an operational risk, the Allies, pausing before their next attacks, decided to hold the Ardennes forest with only the lightest screen of troops, mostly green units in need of some experience, and depleted units still reconstituting after the trials of the Huertgen forest and other battles.

In great secrecy, the Germans managed to build a massive force for the attack.  From north to south, the 6th Panzer Army, the 5th Panzer Army, and the 7th Army were to attack through the heavily forested Ardennes, cross the Meuse River, and swing north to capture the critical logistical port of Antwerp. Denied the flow of material through Antwerp, at best the Allies would be stalled until spring. At worst, they might suffer a political rift and seek a separate peace.

Armchair historians are fond of pointing out that the Allies should not have been surprised by the German choice of the point of attack. Indeed, the Germans had attacked through the Ardennes in 1940 to envelop the French and unhinge their defense.

And while the Allies did twig to a coming German counterattack, they guessed wrongly as to German intentions. The Allies best guess was that the Germans would launch a spoiling attack against the northern arm of the Allies, namely against Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, to forestall his next planned offensive.

But there were good reasons why the Allies were willing to accept risk in the Ardennes. First, it’s a forest. It has a very limited road network. It was poor terrain for a mechanized offensive, whether for the Allies heading east, or the Germans heading west. And while the Germans had been able to move fairly rapidly through the Ardennes in the spring of 1940, with fair weather, they faced atrocious weather conditions in the winter of 1944. The choice to attack in bad weather was deliberate, as Allied tactical airpower was grounded. But that also meant the road conditions were so bad that German forces, already relatively lacking in mobility, were even less capable of rapid movement.

And the Germans, who had recently expertly used forests as stout defenses, soon learned that American soldiers too could capitalize on them to hold up rapid movement.

And Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges and Patton, who had spent twenty years between the wars studying and planning a war of maneuver, realized the key concept of a penetration of lines. If you can hold the shoulders of a penetration, you can halt it. Any penetration that overextends itself without reducing the shoulders invites being cut off and destroyed. And the greater mobility of the Allied armies convinced them that they could respond to any attack fast enough to both reinforce the shoulders and to blunt the main thrust.

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There are many, many valid criticisms of the Allied response to the German attack. Poor communication, disunity in command, being caught off guard. The failure to actually cut off and destroy the Germans once the thrust had been halted.

But at the end of the offensive, the Germans never even reached the Meuse, let alone Antwerp. For all the massive efforts, all they had gained was some trees.

The Germans losses were particularly troublesome. They suffered about 100,0o0 casualties. And every casualty they suffered in the Ardennes was a man not available to man the Siegfried Line, a defense where they might have inflicted even greater losses on the Allies. As far as Bradley and Patton were concerned, the farther west they killed a German, the better.

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle of the war for the US Army, indeed in its history. Over 600,000 men fought the battle, and 19,000 were killed, with 47,0000 wounded, and another 23,000 missing or captured. Some of the most desperate, bitter fighting in history occurred at the Losheim Gap, Eisenborn Ridge, Bastogne, St. Vith, and scores of other sleepy villages.

An entire Green Book is devoted to the history of the Battle of the Bulge, and makes some of the most compelling reading of the history of the entire war. You can read it here online or download it as a pdf.

The courage and fortitude of the average American soldier in the battle shines honor upon the nation and the service. Seldom have such feats of arms been equaled.

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Santa Robs Bank During S.F. SantaCon

A man in San Francisco pulled off an expertly camouflaged heist when he robbed a bank wearing a Santa costume during the annual SantaCon celebration on the weekend, when thousands of people were similarly dressed up and in the streets.

According to San Francisco Weekly, the unidentified Santa walked into a bank on the 400 block of Sutter Avenue at around 1 pm on Saturday, handed the teller a note, and simply walked out with an undisclosed sum of money.

via Santa Robs Bank During S.F. SantaCon.

P.P.P.P.P.P.

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MQ-8B Firescout aboard USCGC Bertholf

The Coast Guard’s newest class of long endurance cutters, known as National Security Cutters, is led off by the cutter Bertholf.

Equipped to carry a helicopter, here we see the Navy’s unmanned MQ-8B Firescout being tested aboard.

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