Tag Archives: navy

Bryan Clark, Sea Control and Power Projection- The Future Surface Navy

On November 10, Bryan Clark, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, gave a presentation advocating changes in the structure and employment of the surface combatants in the US Navy. It’s a rather radical concept in some ways. In others, it’s simply a return to the traditional role of the Navy.

There are two fundamental roles for any navy, sea control and power projection. Sea control is ensuring that your fleet and merchant marine have the freedom to use the seas. Very generally, sea control is war against the enemy navy. Power projection is use of your navy to attack enemy forces and assets ashore.  Our own US Navy, in terms  of World War II, served in both roles. The Battle of the Atlantic, the epic struggle against the U-Boats, was largely a sea control battle. In the Pacific, the island hopping campaign saw the Navy in a power projection role. Of course, both theaters were not exclusively one other the other type of naval mission. You have to exercise sea control to be able to project power. And often the best way to exercise sea control is by projecting power ashore, to defeat the enemy’s base.

Clark is an interesting fellow to address the issue. In his naval career, he was a nuclear submariner. But he’s also been working as a strategic level thinker for years, and before joining the CBSA, served as a special assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations.  His focus there was at the operational and tactical level. His presentation is about 40 minutes long.

There are also two other videos, the introduction, and the Q&A session.

If you don’t wish to spend 40 minutes watching the video, Breaking Defense has a thought provoking article on Clark’s ideas, and some of the challenges.

Someone shoots a cruise missile at you. How far away would you like to stop it: over 200 miles out or less than 35?

If you answered “over 200,” congratulations, you’re thinking like the US Navy, which has spent billions of dollars over decades to develop ever more sophisticated anti-missile defenses. According to Bryan Clark, until 12 months ago a top advisor to the nation’s top admiral, you and the Navy are wrong.

Now for my thoughts on the matter.

Let’s take a look at how we came to have the surface combatant fleet we have today. Currently, the Navy has 22 Tico cruisers, 62 Burke destroyers, 28 or so Perry frigates, and a couple of LCS.  The Ticos and Burkes were conceived primarily as anti-air warfare escorts for the carrier battle groups. The Perry’s were seen as anti-sub escorts for merchant, logistics, and amphibious groups. The LCS are… well, that’s been covered elsewhere.

Prior to World War II, the cruisers and destroyers of the fleet were seen both as a screen for the main line of battleships, and as an offensive weapon to attrit any enemy screen of their own line of battle, and as weapons to attack that same line of battle. The carriers of the fleet were seen as an adjunct of the screen, primarily to provide reconnaissance and scouting, and to provide air defense over the fleet.

But by the end of the war, the air wing of the carrier was seen as the primary weapon of the fleet, both as an anti-surface warfare weapon, and for power projection ashore. It was also seen as the primary defensive weapon of the fleet. The cruisers and destroyers were no longer seen as offensive weapons, but rather as distributed sensors for the fleet, networking to provide that information to the air wing, and serving as backstops against any leakers that the air wing failed to destroy.

That focus on anti-air escort has remained with the surface combatant community to this day. To be sure, it is not the sole mission of cruisers and destroyers, but it is the driving force behind the design and construction of almost every major surface combatant class since World War II. The only other mission which the surface navy placed nearly as much emphasis was anti-submarine warfare. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that emphasis has largely been allowed to lapse. See the shedding of the entire fleet of Spruance destroyers, long before their useful service lives were over.

One of the main characteristics of the evolution of the fleet air defense escort has been the ever increasing range of the interceptors they employ. Radar range has effectively had roughly the same range since its introduction. The first interceptor used by the Navy, the Terrier missile, had an effective range of about 10-15 miles. Today, the SM-6 can theoretically engage at ranges of up to 150 miles.

Clark argues that the long range interceptor is a losing proposition, in that the SM-6 costs more than any missile it is likely to engage. Further, it’s likely that any near peer enemy can launch enough cruise missiles to simply empty the magazine of any cruiser or destroyer.  That is, if a cruiser carries 50 interceptors, the enemy only need launch 51 cruise missiles. Instead, he argues, the Navy should abandon the long range interceptor, and focus on short range interception, at about 35 miles, which means using the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). Where a Vertical Launch System (VLS) cell can only carry one SM-6, that same cell can carry four ESSM. Coupled with jamming and decoying, and with emerging laser and rail gun technologies, Clark argues that this defense would allow for sufficient magazine space to counter any likely attack, while also leaving sufficient cells for offensive weapons to destroy the launch platforms of the enemy. And he’s certainly correct that it is more effective to destroy the launch platform than to attempt to intercept every possible incoming attack.

But that revision to the missile defense doctrine ignores that any potential adversary with sufficient numbers of cruise missiles to overwhelm a cruiser or destroyer is an adversary that would be worthy of engaging with a carrier strike group. And thus we’re back to the point where the air wing is the primary offensive weapon, tasked to destroy the  launch platform. Kill the archer, not the arrows, as the saying goes. And with the air wing as the primary offensive weapon, that logically means the surface combatants are back to their historical role of defending the carrier. As to the cost argument, yes, an SM-6 does cost more than any single cruise missile it will likely engage. But that’s not the fiscal argument that matters. The real cost argument is, how much is saved by spending $4 million expending an SM-6? If it keeps a $15 billion dollar aircraft carrier from suffering a couple billion dollars in damage, that’s money well spent.

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Filed under Defense, navy

The VAQ Squadrons

The fielding of the EA-6B Prowler tactical jammer aircraft in 1970 brought about some significant changes to doctrine and organization in carrier air wings. Previously, electronic warfare was something of an odd duck in the air wing. Typically at that time, an air wing would have two squadrons of fighters, two of light attack, a medium attack squadron, and an airborne early warning squadron. The wing would also host some detachments of odds and ends, such as a couple of A-3 variants as electronic warfare support and tanker, a helo detachment for plane guard and utility use, and maybe a couple of reconnaissance planes.

The sophisticated Prowler, combined with the Navy’s growing recognition of the value of both standoff and escort jamming in the face of the North Vietnamese air defenses, led the Navy to organize Prowlers in squadrons of four aircraft. Each Prowler seats a crew of four, and as a planning factor, a squadron generally has 1.5 crews per plane, or roughly 24 flight crew. Of the Prowler crew, only one is an aviator. The other three were Naval Flight Officers known as ECMOs or Electronic CounterMeasures Officers. The Prowler community was one of the first where the NFO community was arguably more important than the aviators. After all, anyone could drive the bus, but the skills of the ECMOs were quite specialized. At any rate, with only four planes, a Prowler squadron would have more aircrew than a light attack squadron with 12 planes. These Prowler squadrons would be designated Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadrons (or TACELRONS) with the designator VAQ. For instance, the Fleet Replacement Squadron is VAQ-129.

It took several years for the Prowler to fully enter the fleet. While deployed aboard a carrier, a Prowler squadron would report to the commander of that carrier’s air wing. When in home port, the squadron reported to the Commander, Medium Attack/Tactical Electronic Warfare Wing, Pacific Fleet (or COMMATVAQWINGPAC) at NAS Whidbey Island, WA, where all the Navy’s active Prowler squadrons were based.

As the 70s and 80s wore on, the size of Naval Aviation varied somewhat, and so to did the size of the Prowler fleet. The Reagan era build up saw an expansion in the number of air wings, and so to the number of Prowler squadrons.

Concurrently, the Air Force, seeing the same challenges in a future air defense environment, looked to leave behind its legacy fleet of EB-57 and EB-66 stand off jammers, and integrate a modern, supersonic escort jammer. And so in the early 1970s, began a program to modify some early production F-111A Aardvarks to carry a version of the Prowler’s ALQ-99 jammer system.

Entering into service in 1983, a total of 42 were delivered to the Air Force by 1985, serving in five different squadrons. Officially nicknamed the Raven, the EF-111A was almost universally known instead as the Spark ‘Vark. The Spark ‘Vark served admirably, particularly in Desert Storm, providing the same jamming support Naval Aviation had come to count upon.

But soon after Desert Storm, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent so-called “peace dividend” drawdown, the Air Force made the decision to retire its F-111 fleet. And with that fleet gone, it was only a matter of time before supporting the EF-111A became prohibitively expensive.

Rather than spending the time and money to develop a replacement aircraft, the Air Force simply threw up its hands and said “we quit.” The Air Force simply forfeited what by now was known as the Electronic Attack mission.

But that didn’t mean the Air Force didn’t recognize the need for a dedicated Electronic Attack platform. Instead, it recognized that fielding its own platform was duplicative of costs. There was a perfectly good platform already in the Prowler. And in keeping with the Air Force ethos of central airpower management, the Air Force also didn’t see any reason why the Air Force should buy a platform already in service, duplicating the logistical tail involved.

Instead, the Air Force just decided the Navy would provide all its Electronic Attack assets in any future air campaign.

Now, the Navy didn’t really object to this. The only issues would be money for airframes and maintenance, and manpower to support such campaigns. After all, the Navy barely had enough Prowlers and crews to support its deploying carrier air wings. And there was no guarantee that a carrier air wing would be available to support any notional Air Force air campaign.

The Marines, operating their own Prowlers, quickly informed any and all that they were quite busy supporting Marine Air Wings and had no great desire to add any additional taskings, than you very much.

And so an odd hybrid series VAQ squadron was born. The Navy would buy extra Prowlers, and stand up the squadrons. The Air Force would not complain about Navy requests for funding for procurement and operations. Further, the Air Force would supply about half the personnel for the squadrons.

Known as Expeditionary squadrons, these VAQs would forego some of the training that traditional Navy VAQs went to, such as carrier qualification. Instead, these squadrons would be available to support taskings to a Combatant Command Air Component Commander.

With the retirement of the medium attack community COMMATVAQWINGPAC eventually evolved into Commander Electronic Attack Wing Pacific  or COMVAQWINGPAC (oddly, as there’s no counterpart on the Atlantic side.  COMVAQWINGPAC supports air wings in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, as well as all of what are now known as Joint Expeditionary Squadrons).

All the VAQ squadrons, both fleet and Joint Expeditionary, have either transitioned from the Prowler to the EA-18G Growler, or will shortly. In addition to the “schoolhouse” squadron, VAQ-129, VAQ-130 through VAQ-142 are currently stationed at NAS Whidbey. Additionally, VAQ-209, a Reserve squadron, is stationed at Whidbey. Three squadrons are currently Joint Expeditionary. Two new squadrons, VAQ-143 and VAQ-144 are expected to be established in the next couple years, and both with be Joint Expeditionary.

There’s one other interesting squadron at NAS Whidbey. Housing quite a few Air Force personnel at a Navy base is a tad unusual for those Airmen. There are quite a few things the Navy and the Air Force do differently. Where the rubber meets the road, most of the time, the integrated squadrons work well. But for certain personnel management issues, the Air Force needs its own on sight leadership. And so, to act as the parent command for Air Force personnel at Whidbey, the 390th Electronic Combat Squadron is stationed at NAS Whidbey. It’s not an operational squadron, and doesn’t own any planes. It serves instead as “ownership’’ of all the Air Force personnel.


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The Landing Craft Infantry

Faced with the challenge of mounting a cross channel invasion from England to France, the US and Britain realized that small landing craft like the famed Higgins boat would be enough to land the very first assault echelons, but the need to very rapidly build up forces on the far shore would require something more substantial. The ideal craft would lift a reinforced rifle company, be capable of berthing and feeding them for about 48 hours, and be able to land them directly upon the far shore.  The result was the Landing Craft Infantry (Large).

The basic hull was 158 feet long, with a beam of 23 feet. Power was provided by two “Quad Pack” Detroit Diesel engines driving two shafts with reversible pitch propellers.  The Quad Pack was an interesting engine design. No diesel engine of suitable size and power was in production, so Detroit Diesel took four of their existing 6-71 engines, and coupled them to a shared driveshaft. The resulting 1704 cubic inch displacement engine would be used in multiple ships. The LCI(L) had a top speed of about 16 knots, and could maintain 15 knots. At a cruising speed of 8-10 knots, the ship had a range of about 4000 nautical miles, allowing it to self deploy from the US to Britain or to the distance Pacific. While it could self deploy, it could not embark troops for such a voyage.

Nine hundred twenty three LCI(L)s would be built in ten US yards. Two hundred eleven were transferred to the Royal Navy.  Over the course of the program, the design of the deckhouse and the internal arrangements were changed as a result of feedback from the fleet. Originally, two ramps one either side of the bow were used to disembark troops on the beach. First flight ships also had a low, square conning tower. Later ships had a higher, rounded “castle” conning tower with better visibility, and the final batches of ships replaced the ramps with a single ramp through double doors on the bow. These ships also had a larger deckhouse, allowing an increase in troop berthing from 180 to 210.

Original low deckhouse.

Modified deckhouse.

Bow ramp and full deckhouse.

The basic ship was also modified for a variety of roles, such as Flotilla leader, and most famously, gunboats.  The gunboat conversions were so successful that a further 130 ships were built specifically as gunboats, and known as the Landing Craft Support (Large).

Almost immediatley after the war, virtually the entire fleet of LCIs was decommissioned and disposed of. Most were scrapped, though a few were sent to foreign navies or bought by private parties. Today, there are a handful still around, including one in California, and one in Portland, Oregon, undergoing restoration to serve as a museum ship. And one of the volunteers at that example has produced a 42 minute guided tour of LCI-713.

The ship belongs to the non-profit Amphibious Forces Memorial Museum. The next time I head up there, I’m definitely going to have to visit.

Oh, and as an added bonus, there’s an operational 78’ PT boat in Portland as well. But we’ll save that for another post.


Filed under history, navy


If you were to ask a variety of naval aviators from the past half century what their favorite plane is, you’d likely get a range of responses from the A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom through the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet. But if you ask a blueshirt on the 7th month of a nine month deployment, he might just tell you his favorite plane is the C-2A Greyhound Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) plane. Why? Because that’s what delivers the mail!

Adapting the wings and engine of the E-2 Hawkeye to a new, roomy fuselage, the C-2 Greyhound was the first and only aircraft designed from the start for the COD mission. An initial batch of 17 produced in the 1960s were retired in the late 1980s. But the design was so sound that a second batch produced in the late 1980s soldiers on today, and will do so for at least another decade and a half. Carrying the mail is an important function, but only one of several for the Greyhound. Critical cargo such as spare parts, bringing passengers onboard, and ashore, and even supporting special operations are all in the mix.

Two squadrons operate the C-2, VRC-30 and VRC-40. Typically, each carrier air wing is supported by a two-plane detachment during its deployment.

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Oddball Aircraft

We’ll post a little later about one of the oddities of the EA-18G Growler squadrons, but in doing a touch of research, I was reminded of one of the more obscure aircraft in the Navy’s inventory right now, the MZ-3A.

“M” stands for multi-mission. The “Z” stands for lighter than air. Yes, the Navy operates a blimp.

File:Handlers prepare to launch the U.S. Navy MZ-3A manned airship for an orientation flight from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., on Nov. 6, 2013 131106-N-PO203-532.jpg

Basically the Navy owns a commercial off the shelf blimp, and has used it primarily for various research programs. It’s been an on-and-off affair, threatened with cancellation several times.

The Navy actually has a long history of operating blimps (and that’s a story for another time), in addition to dirigibles. But as best as I can tell, this is the Navy’s first blimp since 1962.

Sadly, it’s a GOCO program. That is, the aircraft is government owned, but contractor operated. Which is a shame. It would have been very cool for some young officer to earn his blimp wing.

Yes, wing.



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Grumman at War

Spill mentioned today that with the retirement of the Prowler, the only Grumman aircraft on US decks now will be the E-2 Hawkeyes and C-2 Greyhounds. Mind  you, the E-2 will be around till at least 2045. But there was a time when the word “Grumman” was synonymous with carrier aviation.


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The Defense of the West-SeaCoast Fortifications

Unlike the eastern seaboard, the western coast of the continental United States has relatively few major ports. From south to north, the main seaports include San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Columbia River, and Puget Sound. There are others, but those are the “Big Five” handling the majority of seagoing vessels.

Interestingly, all five are quite suited to seacoast defense. Depending on the time in question, Los Angeles and Puget Sound might have posed a challenge for the defender, but by the Endicott period, the guns and mines available were quite suitable to close off each port.

Craig has an interesting post on the concerns the Union had for the security of San Francisco during the Civil War. At that time, San Francisco was by far the most significant western port, and as the shipping point for the vast majority of California gold rush gold that was financing the Union, could have made a very attractive target for a Confederate raider, or an adventurous foreign power, say England.

All of this was known by authorities in Washington.  In 1856 a survey of the terrain brought back numerous recommendations to fortify the bay. Those included additional batteries to supplement Fort Point and located on Alcatraz, Yerba Beuna, and Angel Islands, Point San Jose, and, most important to the Golden Gate, Lime Point opposite Fort Point.  I’ve highlighted some of those on a snip from the 1859 coastal survey map (which, by the way, indicates that someone had “cast a lead” into those waters to figure out the depth):

Similarly, last weekend I enjoyed the view from Cabrillo National Monument.  CNM and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery are today on the grounds of Naval Base Point Loma, but used to be within the confines of Fort Rosecrans, a Coastal Artillery post with several batteries guarding the entrance to San Diego harbor.


One of the interesting things about San Diego is that it has only one channel in or out. To say that Fort Rosecrans dominates that channel is something of an understatement. The seaward facing batteries control the approaches, and the channel itself was narrow enough that even a very modest minefield could completely seal the channel.

The Endicott/Taft period batteries consisted of 8 12” mortars, 4 10” guns, 2 5” guns (later replaced by 2 3” guns) and two 3” guns.

A mine casemate for a controlled minefield was also included.

To give you an idea how restricted the channel is, here’s the USS Chancellorsville, CG-62, passing through the channel.


During World War II, several additional batteries were added.  The big punch added was a pair of casemated 16” guns at Battery Ashburn (aka Battery 126).

Arguably the most interesting two batteries were Battery Zeilin and Battery Gillepsie. Battery Zeilin was two 7” guns on pedestal mounts, while Battery Gillespie consisted of three 5” pedestal mounts.

Both batteries were originally training batteries for the US Marine Corps. And therein lies an interesting side story.

The US Army’s Coast Artillery Corps was responsible for the defense of the US ports and harbors and those of its overseas possessions. But what of advanced bases?

During the interwar years, having tasted the success of large scale operations in World War I, the Marines were soon relegated back to fighting in banana wars in South America, and providing detachments aboard US capital ships. In search of a raison d’etre, the Marines looked to the Pacific, and like others, saw a likely war with Japan.

They saw that any US fleet movement across the Pacific would entail seizing and defending forward operating bases. And contra our vision today of the Marines storming the beaches, the hope was they would be able to occupy undefended, or lightly defended island outposts, and then defend them against Japanese counterattack. Accordingly, there was a significant slice of Marine Corps doctrine that focused on seacoast defense of forward bases. And Batteries Zeilin and Gillespie were training batteries allocated for Marine Defense Battalions to practice their trades.

And apparently, the instructors at Battery Gillespie did right by their students, as Marines manning 5” guns at Wake Island suceeded in sinking the IJN destroyer Hayatuke during the initial Japanese landing attempt, the first of many Japanese surface ships sunk during World War II.

Batteries Zeilin and Gillespie were turned over to the Army early in the war. And while Fort Rosecrans was never called on to actively defend San Diego, it stood guard throughout the war. Further it was a major training center for the Coast Artillery, providing training in both seacoast defense and anti-aircraft artillery defense.

The age of aviation rendered the seacoast gun obselete by the end of World War II, and Fort Rosecrans was soon surplus to the Army’s needs. Closed in 1948, it was turned over to the Navy in 1959, and continues to this day to be home to significant naval activities, as well as the lovely Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, and the beautiful and popular Cabrillo National Monument.


Filed under army, Artillery, marines, navy