Tag Archives: navy

The Day of Battle- USS Hornet at The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

With URR’s excellent weekend posts of covering the turning of the tide of the Solomon’s Campaign at the 1st and 2nd Naval Battles of Guadalcanal, let’s look at another grim moment in the campaign. This one took place three weeks prior, and at the time, was seen as a defeat. Indeed, the battle of Santa Cruz would set the stage that would lead to the November battles URR chronicled.

The pattern of the Solomons campaign was that surface warfare groups of destroyers and cruisers and occasionally battleships would operate daily (or rather, nightly) in the waters east of Guadalcanal, in the famed “Slot” of the Solomon Islands chain. Major operations, such as reinforcement convoys, either US or Japanese, would receive wide ranging support from carrier task forces attempting to provide air superiority. Intelligence services on both sides tended to note when such surges occurred, meaning that if our forces sortied carriers, the Japanese would surge theirs as well.

In late October 1942, while the issue ashore on Guadalcanal was very much in the balance, and the Japanese planned a major offensive by ground forces on the island to pierce the American lines. Supporting the operations ashore, the Japanese planned a major naval effort. The US Navy moved to counter this effort.

On 26 October, 1942, north of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Japanese and American carrier fleets would clash. During the battle, the USS Hornet, the newest carrier in the fleet, would be left a smouldering wreck, to be later sunk by Japanese destroyers.

One of the most amazing aspects of this battle was that the attack on Hornet was actually filmed by Navy combat camera crews.

The other US carrier, USS Enterprise, would be heavily damaged.  Of the eight carriers the US Navy built before the war began, only three would survive the war. USS Saratoga, USS Ranger, and USS Enterprise. Ranger was in the Atlantic, readying for the invasion of North Africa, and Saratoga was in drydock for repairs after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in August. USS Enterprise, badly damaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz, was repaired in forward waters. For a brief time, the US simply had no available carriers.

But while the US was losing carriers at an appalling rate, they also had literally dozens of fleet and light carriers under production.

The US Navy grasped that, but that was cold comfort when the Japanese Navy still possessed a force of several excellent fleet carriers.

What the US Navy soon grasped though, was that the heart of Japanese Naval Aviation wasn’t the carriers, but the naval aviators. The US Navy had a stupendously large training establishment that would churn out thousands upon thousands of well trained aviators. The Japanese, on the other hand, had a small, elite cadre of exquisitely trained carrier pilots. Unfortunately for Japan, the sustained operations since Pearl Harbor, and the very heavy losses of the Battle of Santa Cruz had gutted the ranks of aviators. The remaining Japanese carriers simply had no one to fly from their decks.

The Japanese Navy would spend the next 18 months struggling to train aircrews for their carrier fleet.  But lacking the investment in training resources the US could apply, they managed to produce numbers, but not quality.

The shortcomings of Japanese training would be apparent when, a year and a half later, the US invaded the Marianas. Officially the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot would see the results of 18 months of training utterly devastated by well trained US carrier air wings in possibly the greatest one sided aerial massacre of all time.

To this day, the US Navy spends a ridiculous amount on training its aviators. And it is worth every penny.


Filed under navy

About that Freedom of Navigation Exercise last week in the South China Sea.

So, on October 27, the USS Lassen conducted a Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise in the South China Sea (SCS) sailing within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese built artificial island in the area.  Historically, and under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), artificial islands have never been recognized as sovereign territory, and thus, have no territorial waters associated with them. * That is, all the ships and planes of the world are able to freely operate or conduct commerce in those waters, including transit or passage, or fishing, or routine military operations. There are any number of places in the world where nations have staked out a claim of territorial waters, and the US has responded by conducting FON exercises. Probably the most famous was the 1986 Gulf of Sidra “Line of Death” incident, where Muhamar Ghaddaffi declared the gulf as territorial waters for Libya. The US Navy promptly mounted large scale FON exercises in those waters, with destroyers operating just outside the recognized 12nm territorial limit, and placing Combat Air Patrols well inside the limits claimed by Libya.

Libya responded with hostile acts that quickly ended badly for Libya.


Don’t bring a Nanchuka corvette to an A-6 Intruder fight.

While tensions with China aren’t as great as those with Libya in 1986, they are also likely a greater cause for concern in the long run.

After news leaked out that the Navy had not conducted any FON exercises near the artificial islands in the SCS, eventually the White House caved pressure from Congress, leading to USS Lassen’s voyage.

But as @AmericanHipple of CIMSEC notes, Chris Cavas writing in DefenseNews.com shows us that the exercise may accidentally undermine the Freedom of Navigation exercise.

New details about the Lassen’s transit became available Oct. 30 from a US Navy source, who said the warship took steps to indicate it was making a lawful innocent passage with no warlike intent. The ship’s fire control radars were turned off and it flew no helicopters, the source said. Although a US Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft was in the area, it did not cross inside the 12 nautical mile limit.

Here’s the problem with the statement from that source- innocent passage.

Innocent passage is a well established legal doctrine, both historically and under UNCLOS, that applies only to territorial waters of a sovereign state.

UPDATE: A clarification from Matt Hipple. He’s not arguing that it was an exercise in futility, but notes that if in fact it was conducted as Innocent Passage, it undermines the entire point of the FON exercise. It should be noted that Hipple’s views are his personal views, and not necessarily those of the United States Navy nor CIMSEC.

That’s not to say the US should commit overtly hostile acts within the areas claimed by China. But to fail to exercise genuine Freedom of Navigation, and to characterize the voyage as innocent passage is to tacitly acknowledge Chinese sovereignty.

Several actions could and should have taken place to emphasize that the US considers the waters to be international, and not territorial. Sailing on varied  courses and speeds, having the accompanying P-8A enter the 12nm zone, flying the embarked ship’s helicopter while within 12nm, and conducting fire control tracking drills against that helicopter, and small boat operations all would serve to drive home the point that the international waters of the world are available for the use of all nations.

Speaking of CIMSEC, a couple of Hipple’s coauthors have a very interesting piece on the paramilitary aspects of Chinese maritime power, and how they use it to frustrate US and other nations efforts in the region.

*Nor do they have an associated 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone, which actually might be of more interest to China.


Filed under China, navy

Tracer 601, Ball, 3.2

If you’ve ever seen Top Gun, you’ve seen Maverick and Goose return to the carrier, and the Landing Signal Officer calls “Three quarters of a mile, call the ball.”

The ball call in naval aviation tells the LSO far more than simply that the pilot has the optical landing system in sight.

The reply is as shown in the title, Tracer 601, ball, 3.2. First, let me steal a post in it’s entirety from Steeljaw Scribe.

“Hawkeye, Ball…”

Since the E-2A went to sea in the early 1960’s, “Hawkeye” was the name used for the ball call to the LSOs. Later iterations of the E-2C continued that practice but distinguished the a/c type by markings on the nose (a white “II” for Group 2 E-2s, or a “+” for H2Ks today). The Advanced Hawkeye, however being heavier than the E-2C required something more than just “Hawkeye” but kept to a single word. In doing so, VAW heritage was called upon and just as “Steeljaw” has been used for special evolutions for the new Hawkeye, the E-2’s predecessor, the E-1B Tracer (or WF – ‘Willie Fudd’) was called upon. Now, with an E-2D on the ball, you’ll hear “Tracer, ball…”


Click to much greatly embiggenfy.

The first part of the reply tells the LSO (and more importantly, the arresting gear operators) what type of aircraft is on approach. That matters, because the arresting gear is adjustable, providing varying amounts of braking power based on the weight of the aircraft being arrested.  The arresting gear is always set to the maximum permissible landing weight for a given type of aircraft. But if the engine weight is set wrong, the result can be a broken aircraft, a parted arresting wire, or a failure to stop the aircraft in time. All these possibilities can lead to damage or loss of an aircraft, or worse, loss of life.

The second element, “601” is the aircraft’s MODEX number. Each squadron in an airwing is assigned a range of numbers, starting with 100 for the first squadron, 200 for the second squadron, and so on. With 5 E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes in a squadron, you’d normally see the MODEXs assigned as 600, 601, 602, 603, and 604.  Calling the MODEX lets the LSO know which crew he’s dealing with, as well as helping the Air Boss keep track of which crews he has airborne, and which are recovered.

The final element, the “3.2” is the remaining fuel on board the aircraft, measured in thousands of pounds, in this case, three thousand, two hundred pounds. Telling the LSO (and the Air Boss) the fuel on board helps keep them informed. Should the aircraft bolter (that is, not make an arrested landing, for whatever reason) knowing the fuel on board lets them know how much longer the aircraft can stay airborne. That helps them decide when or whether to send the plane to a tanker, or “Bingo” them, that is, divert them to a shore base.

A ball call can also contain a final element, either “Manual” or “Auto.”  This tells the LSO if the plane on approach is manually controlling the throttles, or letting the autothrottle (actually the Approach Power Compensator) control the approach.  Which method is used impacts how the LSO controls the approach and what calls he makes for corrections on the approach.


Filed under navy, planes

Crusaders Attack!

Which, they did a fine job of it, but never liked it. The most common attack employment of the Vought F-8 Crusader in attack was as flak suppression for Alpha Strikes over North Vietnam. But the preferred mission for Crusader drivers was always and ever hunting MiGs.

I’ll admit I never knew about the Shrike tests. And I can guess that the ‘sader guys were quite happy they never got tasked for the Iron Hand mission.


Filed under marines, navy, planes

Daily Dose of Splodey

The Mk45 5”/54 gun was, until recently, the standard in production medium caliber gun for US Navy warships, being replaced in production (but not in existing fleet units) by the Mk45Mod4 5”/62 gun, which is mechanically almost identical, but has a longer barrel for greater range. It fires the same ammunition as the earlier 5”/54.

Here’s an older video, dating from the early 1990s showing a demonstration of the lethality of proximity fused rounds against simulated truck type targets.

The “HECVT” projectile stands for High Explosive Common Variable Time. That is, it’s a high explosive shell. Common means it is a general purpose round, as opposed to having an armor piercing body, or prefragmented anti-aircraft body. It is, by far, the most common round- hence, Common. Variable Time oddly doesn’t stand for Variable Time, but instead for Proximity fused. That is, a small radio transmitter in the nose of the fuse senses when the round is within a predetermined distance from an object, and then initiates the bursting of the charge. Variable Time was a cover story from when VT was invented in World War II to keep the Germans or Japanese from discovering how VT worked, and either developing their own, or countermeasures to defeat it.


Filed under Artillery

Offensive Standoff Mine Warfare

Traditionally, particularly since the end of World War II, the US Navy has had a terrible weakness in its ability to defend against naval mines. The debacle at Wonsan in Korea is a prime example, but even more recently, the US has struggled against both Iranian and Iraqi mines in the Arabian Gulf.

What we’ve traditionally been pretty good at though, is offensive mine warfare.

Mines are the ninjas of warfare: silent, deadly and a bit unsavory. Sneaky weapons that are extremely effective not just for the damage they cause, but also for the fear and uncertainty they sow.

Naval mines are especially potent. American air-dropped mines in Japanese waters in 1945–chillingly but accurately code-named Operation Starvation–sank more ships than U.S. submarines in the final months of the war. The 1972 mining of Haiphong harbor helped drive North Vietnam to the peace table, while Saddam Hussein’s underwater booby traps threatened U.S. naval supremacy in Desert Storm. “In February 1991 the Navy lost command of the sea—the North Arabian Gulf—to more than a thousand mines that had been sown by Iraqi forces. Mines severely damaged two Navy warships, and commanders aborted an amphibious assault for fear of even more casualties,” says a U.S. Navy mine warfare history.

But when a high-altitude B-52H bomber dropped a Quickstrike naval mine on September 23, 2014, something extraordinary happened: instead of falling into the sea below, the mine glided to a splashdown 40 nautical miles away. The reason? The mine had wings.

My usual image when thinking of minelaying is the traditional round contact mine with horns sliding over the rails at the stern of a ship. And while the US had large numbers of ships for that role in World War II, * the fact is, it’s usually quicker and easier to lay an offensive field either via aircraft, or sometimes, via submarine.

As an historical aside, one reason for Operation Starvation was that the XXth Bomber Command ran out incendiaries temporarily, and the Navy was smart enough to have a large supply of air dropped mines on hand for them to use. As soon as stocks of incendiaries were replenished, the B-29s went back to torching Japan to the ground.

And of course, our own familial connection to aerial mining is that our father dropped the first aerial sea mine from a jet aircraft in combat way back in 1967.

Back to the linked article, first, where the author describes a JASM-ER, that’s pretty obviously a typo, as the program in question is JDAM-ER. The Joint Direct Attack Munition, which you’ve seen heavily used in Iraq and Afghanistan, take a dumb Mk80 series bomb, and straps an Inertial Reference System and some guidance fins, and adds a GPS update capability. JDAM-ER simply adds a pair of folding wings to the package, which gives it the ability to glide for considerable distance, up to 40 miles when dropped from altitude.

That standoff capability means the launching aircraft is that much further removed from the heart of any enemy air defenses.

Simply buy changing the fuze, a JDAM-ER can become an aerial laid mine. While the Mk80 series bomb bodies make imperfect sea mines (ideally a sea mine would have a much thinner case and more explosives) better an imperfect mine than no mine at all.

And it’s not at all inconceivable that the range couldn’t be extended by quite a bit.  For instance, back in the 1980s, the Navy strapped surplus AGM-45 Shrike rocket motors to 1000lb GBU-16 Laser Guided bombs to produce the AGM-123 Skipper II guided missile. A similar arangement could give a Quickstrike/JDAM-ER combo a nice little standoff boost.

It should also be noted that aerial launched mines aren’t the only standoff mines available. When the US adopted the Mk48 torpedo, they found themselves possessed of a large inventory of obsolete M37 torpedoes. Many were converted to the Mk67 Submarine Launched Mobile Mine. Launched like a torpedo, it steers itself to a programmed point, then sinks quietly to the bottom, to await shipping traffic. While the SLMM is approaching obsolescence, there’s no real reason earlier models of the Mk48 can’t be converted to perform the mission.


What’s all this have to do with the real world? Remember that China’s current naval strategy is basically know as A2AD, Area Denial and Anti-Access. That is, they plan to deny the US Navy the ability to operate in the Western Pacific. There are various components to this, including an outer island chain as tripwires, cyber attacks, a massive fleet of cruise missile carrying ships and airplanes, quiet diesel electric subs, and the threat of offensive air and missile strikes on our bases in the region.

Current US thinking is that, should it come to shooting, China understands that the loss of its outer island chains, specifically the artificial islands it is currently building, is just the price of doing business. Strikes on the mainland of China, however, would be seen as a dangerous escalation, which, that’s something you have to think twice about with a nuclear armed state that has its own internal stability issues.

But mining the home ports of the Chinese Navy is altogether different than sending a Tomahawk** missile in the fleet headquarters building. And as an operational matter, denying the Chinese fleet access to the seas makes defeating the rest of their A2AD scheme much simpler.  The point of A2AD is that it represents to many threat axes, that no fleet can overcome it. But if you can thwart the threat from one or two axes, the maneuver and initiative that sea room gives the US frees up options to achieve access.

Further, mining the waters denies China the ability to use those sea lanes that it is very, very dependent upon for world trade. Both the US and Chinese economies would be badly affected by a shooting war, but I’d argue that the US has sufficient trading routes that would not be blocked that it could better weather the economic disruption.

Finally, one neat thing about a minefield. How many mines does it take to make an effective minefield? Really? None. As long as the enemy believes you have seeded a field, it is a minefield. As a practical matter, one mine going off make a real minefield. And the enemy is forced to devote considerable resources to clearing that field. Whereupon you can seed that field again, starting him back at square one, and reacting to your actions, which is the definition of holding the initiative.


*Usually converted destroyers, known as DMs, or Destroyer Minelayer.

**One wonders, has anyone considered converting Tomahawks to standoff sea mines?



The Stars are in our Future

Well, celestial navigation is, anyway.

The same techniques guided ancient Polynesians in the open Pacific and led Sir Ernest Shackleton to remote Antarctica, then oriented astronauts when the Apollo 12 was disabled by lightning, the techniques of celestial navigation.

A glimmer of the old lore has returned to the Naval Academy.

Officials reinstated brief lessons in celestial navigation this year, nearly two decades after the full class was determined outdated and cut from the curriculum.

That decision, in the late 1990s, made national news and caused a stir among the old guard of navigators.

Maritime nostalgia, however, isn’t behind the return.

Rather, it’s the escalating threat of cyber attacks that has led the Navy to dust off its tools to measure the angles of stars.

After all, you can’t hack a sextant.

I was in the “never should have quit” camp, btw. That’s the same position I take on paper maps and protractors for land navigation.

USNA Celestial Navigation


This 1940s sextant is among the supply stored at the Naval Academy. Midshipmen were tested on celestial navigation for more than a century before the required class was cut in the late 1990s. (By Tim Prudente / Capital Gazette)

GPS does offer several advantages over celestial navigation. For one thing, much greater accuracy, measured literally in single digits of feet. For another, it is continuously updating. Other navigational systems, such as inertial, start with a known fix, and then “drift” after that, with the error in position accumulating over time until the next opportunity to update from a known position.

But as the cited article notes, you can’t jam a sextant. Sorta. Cloud cover actually does a pretty good job of jamming a sextant.

Ordinarily, I’m not at all in favor of gold-plating a system. Here, I’ll make a bit of an exception.  While having midshipmen pick up a sextant and the sight reduction tables is the best way to learn, I think it would  be pretty silly for the XO or Navigator to stand on the bridge wing shooting Local Apparent Noon with a 100 year old design.

Why not field a modern gyro stabilized star/sun tracker? And of course,  an iPad app that you simply input the sightings into. Heck, you could have that capability built into the star tracker.

This is not some fantastic idea I just came up with. Did you know some early  ballistic missiles used celestial navigation, with automatic trackers? Day or night, once the missile got up high enough above any clouds and most of the atmosphere, the needed stars were always visible.

The Navy (and the Army to a certain extent) desperately needs to relearn how to operate in an Emission Controlled (EMCON) environment. That means not only using EMCON to deny the enemy information, but also retaining the ability to work when networked sensors are denied or degraded. As fast as we are increasing our capability to field better capabilities through networks, you can bet China and others are working to disrupt or exploit those networks.


Filed under navy, Electronic Warfare