Wednesday, January 17, 2018

UAV Swarm Attack Against Russian Base

It’s being reported that a Russian airbase in Syria was attacked by a UAV drone swarm and that the attack destroyed or damaged Russian aircraft.  I’m not going to offer a link because the event can easily be found with a simple Internet search and, frankly, there is no reliable information to refer to.  Further, for the purposes of this post, it doesn’t even matter whether the event actually occurred or how.  What I want to discuss is the concept of a drone swarm attack in a land attack setting.

Let’s start by imagining the possibilities!  It boggles the mind.  Swarms of small, cheap drones attacking in perfectly coordinated precision, putting on an aerial display of pure wonder, and then either suiciding into their targets and/or dropping small mortar type bomblets.  Why, you could blanket an area with such an attack!  Yes, against an alerted, defended base many of the drones would be shot down, thereby reducing the amount of “weapons” that get through but it would be difficult or impossible to stop them all.  Sure, we’re not talking 16” battleship shell fire but it only takes a small explosive to ruin an airplane, right?  Plus, this attack could come from many miles away and it would only take, maybe, 30-60 minutes of flight time, depending on the distance.  That’s not instantaneous response to a fire call but it’s fairly quick.  Yes, it’s got to take a fair amount of time to set up the attack, get everything organized, and get all the drones into the air and assembled but the effort is worth it for the results.  This is the future of warfare, without a doubt!

Boy, if only such a technology had existed in the past, wouldn’t that have revolutionized warfare?  That kind of ability to drop explosives over a wide area from many miles away would have been something military commanders would have loved to …  to … ah …

Hey, now that I think about it, didn’t we used to have a system that could launch unmanned, ballistically guided, aerial systems that could drop small explosives over a wide area?  Yeah … yeah, we did!  It was called “artillery”, wasn’t it?  They used launchers that fired small, aerodynamically shaped, unmanned craft that carried payloads of explosive submunitions that the aerial craft would scatter over a wide area before suiciding themselves into the target area.  If I remember correctly, they called the unmanned craft, “shells”, and the explosives were called, “cluster” munitions.  I think they referred to the unmanned launch process as “firing”.  They would “fire” the “shells” from many miles away and they were unstoppable in flight, unlike swarm drones, and traveled at speeds immensely greater than swarm drones.  What’s more, I seem to recall that the “shell” attacks could go on and on for extended periods as opposed to the one-and-done nature of a drone swarm.  Furthermore, the “artillery” system could respond within seconds to a call for fire and the “shells” would arrive over the target in minutes.

Okay, I had a little fun with the writeup, there, but it illustrates the idea that in our blind and fanatical pursuit of technology we tend to overlook simpler, more effective, existing technologies.  Artillery puts to shame any drone swarm and yet we’re downsizing our artillery, have stopped developing cluster munitions, and are pursuing drone swarms with a zealousness that is obsessively fanatical.  Does that really make sense?

Our technology obsession is blinding us to the reality of far more effective methods just because they’re older.

Here’s an amusing story that illustrates the issue.  I was talking to some of my nieces and nephews at a family get together and they were all comparing notes about their new smart phones and all the latest features that each had.  Well, not to be outdone, I told them that my phone had a just-released new app that allowed flawless conversational verbal text messaging  on a real time basis.  They were amazed and they all wanted to know what the app was so that they could download it.  Of course, I told them that each of their phones had the app built in – it’s called “talking on the phone”!

The pursuit of technology can blind us to what we already have.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Third Zumwalt

There’s been an interesting discussion going in a recent post about the fate of the third Zumwalt, currently under construction.  The Navy has stated that they are no longer pursuing a replacement munition for the cancelled Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP).  Thus, the Zumwalt’s have no functional main armament.  Their guns, the very reason for their existence, are just paperweights.  The magnitude of the stupidity that led to this situation is staggering but typical of the Navy.  We’ll leave that aspect alone, however, for the time being.  Instead, the situation raises an interesting problem and opportunity. 

The problem is the obvious one:  it makes no sense to complete the third Zumwalt with a non-functional gun.  To do so would create a $4B+, 15,000 t ship that carries only 80 VLS cells and a limited radar system.  That's the equivalent of a super-sized frigate or a partially neutered Burke.  That would add almost nothing to the fleet's combat power.

The opportunity is the chance to complete the third ship as a prototype – the question being what kind of prototype?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Complete the ship as a heavy (by today’s standards) naval gunfire support vessel by installing 8” guns.  The guns can be either the old, already tested, Mk71 or some new design.  Yes, it would probably take a year or so to design a new gun but, who cares – the ship isn’t needed.  This would give the Navy a chance to re-acquaint themselves with heavy guns and begin the process of regenerating actual, effective naval fire support.

  • Install a navalized version of the Army’s MLRS/ATACMS in place of the guns.  Again, this would give the Navy a chance to explore another form of naval fire support and one with potentially much more range than the original Advanced Gun System would have had – potentially a major improvement!

  • Complete the ship as a UAV “carrier” by repurposing the hangar and flight deck to exclusive UAV operations.  This would give the Navy a chance to explore operational integration of UAVs into task groups.

  • Complete the ship as an advanced intelligence and surveillance vessel.  Unlike the Pueblo or Liberty, this ship would be able to defend itself and could be sent into high threat areas such as the South/East China Seas, off the Russian coast, or near NKorea.

  • Complete the ship as an advanced electronic warfare (EW) ship.  Load it up with every electronic warfare piece of equipment and see what a dedicated EW ship can do.  This would allow the Navy to explore offensive and defensive EW and see if a single ship can provide effective area EW protection.  The ship has plenty of electrical power for the equipment.

We’ve discussed the need for diversity in the fleet and the need for prototypes to promote that diversity.  Well, this a golden, if unwanted, opportunity to prototype something new and potentially useful.  Knowing the Navy, however, they’ll complete the ship with a non-functional gun and waste the opportunity.

Friday, January 12, 2018

AGS-Zumwalt Colossal Failure

The Navy has now confirmed that the Zumwalt’s Advanced Gun System (AGS), the entire reason the Zumwalt class was built, will not be getting any new ammunition round.  After the gun’s Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) was cancelled due to the cost per round reaching $1M (see, "A Ship With No Ammunition"), the Navy indicated that they would adapt the Army’s 155 mm Excalibur artillery shell for use in the AGS (see, "Excalibur - LRLAP Replacement").  This would have provided a range of around 20 miles or so – woefully short compared to the LRLAP’s reported range of 70+ miles.  Now, even this option has been dropped by the Navy.  Instead, the Navy will monitor industry over the coming years and wait to see if some new, suitable round happens to appear.  Unfortunately, given the AGS gun barrel’s unique twist arrangement, that’s a pretty unlikely occurrence. (1)

“A year after the Navy decided to abandon the Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) for the Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer, there is no plan in place for a replacement round for the Advanced Gun System (AGS) the ships are built around, service officials said on Wednesday.” (1)

What will the Navy do with the Zumwalts?

The Navy’s new plan is to focus the Zumwalts on deep strike land attack (Tomahawks) and anti-surface (Long Range Anti-Ship Missile – LRASM, maybe?) warfare by using the ship’s 80 Mk54 peripheral VLS cells.  I guess that makes the Zumwalt’s each an $8B+, lightly loaded arsenal ship?

Also, recall that the Zumwalt’s unique tumblehome hull form has some inherent sea keeping problems due to its shape (see, "Zumwalt Tumblehome Tests").  That was considered acceptable since the ship’s mission was intended to be shallow water littoral warfare rather than open ocean sailing.  Now, with the mission switched to largely open ocean work, the ship will have significant sailing issues to deal with.  The Navy had previously issued limitations on sailing in certain quartering seas.  This may be a mission that the ship has difficulty executing.

So, the Navy has built a $24B+ class of three ships whose entire reason for existence was the AGS and now the AGS is a non-functional, ocean-going, paperweight and the fall-back mission is one that the ship’s flawed sea keeping may render difficult or impossible to execute in common sea conditions.  Just plain, WOW !

Someone has got to be fired!  - or, as the Navy refers to it, promoted.


(1)USNI News website, “No New Round Planned For Zumwalt Destroyer Gun System; Navy Monitoring Industry”, Sam LaGrone, 11-Jan-2018, retrieved 11-Jan-2018,

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Frigate News

Here’s some interesting news about the Navy’s proposed new frigate.  As regular readers know well, ComNavOps is dead set against a traditional frigate.  However, I’m going to set that aside for the duration of this post and simply address the new frigate information that the Navy has provided.

From USNI News website we get the following bits (1):

  • The Navy has set a maximum average cost of $950M per ship for ships 2 through 20.  The first in class is, apparently, exempt from imposed cost limits.

  • The Mk41 VLS will consist of a minimum of 16 cells and a desired target of 32 cells of the full length strike variety.

  • The vessel will mount a minimum of 8 deck launched over-the-horizon anti-ship missiles and a desired target of 16.

Depending on what you believe the Burke Flt IIa cost, this gives us a price comparison.  Let’s go with the Navy’s value for the Burke of $1.8B.  This isn’t real but neither will be the frigate cost so at least we’re comparing fake apples to fake apples.  Thus, we see that the frigate, at $950M will be 53% of the cost of the Burke.

Of course, no one believes that the frigates will actually come in at the target price.  A more likely cost will be about $1.3B, I would guesstimate, which puts the cost around 72% of the Burke.

One might reasonably expect, then, that the weapons load of the frigate would be half that of the Burke.  As a reminder, the Burke carries 96 VLS cells and 8 deck mounted anti-ship missiles (though rarely actually carried).  Thus, the frigate’s 16-32 cells is well under half the Burke’s weapon load.  On the other hand, the anti-ship missiles will equal or surpass the Burke.

On the plus side, this is a significant upgrade in weapons load over the LCS and the LCS versions may have difficulty achieving the higher target levels.  This might, then, favor a foreign design.  On the minus side, this is still a somewhat light weapon load for a vessel that is likely to be around 70% of the cost of a full Burke.  This is the fear I’ve had from the beginning on this – that we would get a vessel costing 80% of a Burke with 25% of the weapon load – not a good value and one of the reasons I don’t want a frigate.

Now, the weapons load could be excused and might even be considered quite acceptable if the ASW capability was emphasized.  In other words, if the main emphasis of the frigate were ASW rather than AAW/ASuW then the cost and light weapon load might be fine.  However, I’ve not yet seen any specifications that lead me to believe that ASW will be particularly emphasized.  We’ll have to wait and see.


(1)USNI News website, “NAVSEA: New Navy Frigate Will Cost $950M Per Hull, More Than Double LCS Cost”, Sam LaGrone, 9-Jan-2018,

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Diversity On The Sea

Diversity equals resilience

In nature, if one type of tree develops a susceptibility to a particular disease or pest and largely dies off, another type of tree will take its place in the ecosystem and the overall strength of the ecosystem is preserved.  The ecosystem’s strength lies in its diversity.  If one species fails, another takes its place and the ecosystem goes on.

The same is true of military, and in this discussion, naval forces.  If one type of ship is found to be a failure, or even simply less successful, another type can take its place and the naval force adapts, lives on, and succeeds.  This occurred in WWII.  Our magnificent battleships, lined up neatly at Pearl Harbor, were suddenly found to be failures.  That was okay, though, because we had other types of ships, submarines and carriers chief among them, to take over their role.  Our naval diversity ensured that our Navy was able to adapt, live on, and succeed.

One can’t help but wonder, what if we hadn’t had such diversity of ship types.  What if our submarines and carriers had been excluded from the fleet in the name of budgetary savings and standardization.  What if every capital ship had been an unending progression of minor variations of, say, the Pennsylvania class battleship?  What if, instead of new ship types, we had succeeded the Pennsylvania class with the Pennsylvania Flt II and then the Pennsylvania Flt III and so on – an endless string of slightly improved Pennsylvanias?

Well, fortunately we didn’t do that.  Fortunately we developed new ship types like the long range fleet submarine and the aircraft carrier.  And, fortunately, we learned that lesson – that diversity of ship types equals strength and resilience in the never-ending evolution of naval power.  Yes, as I look proudly out over the row upon row of nearly identical Burkes, the Flt I’s , Flt II’s, Flt IIa’s, and now Flt III’s, I rest easy knowing that our diversity has prepared us for the next unanticipated upset in naval warfare and that we will have plenty of alternate choices to …  ah … um …       You know, as I look upon the ranks of Burkes, it occurs to me that we may not have as diverse a fleet as I thought.

Setting aside the small and non-combat capable LCS and the Ticonderogas that the Navy is in the process of retiring, it occurs to me that we only have one surface warfare ship – the Burke.  If an enemy were to find an effective counter to a Burke or if the dictates and conditions of future naval combat were to negate the capabilities of the Burkes, we wouldn’t have much in the way of alternate platforms to choose from, would we?

The same concepts can be applied to our one and only weapon system, Aegis.  If an enemy develops an effective counter to Aegis, we have nothing else to turn to.

Are we arrogant enough to believe that we are perfectly predicting what future naval combat will be like?  Every war ever fought has produced major, unanticipated changes to the prevailing notions of warfare.  Do we really believe that we will flout all of history and perfectly predict the next war?  It seems unlikely in the extreme.

So, where’s our diversity?  Where are the one-off prototype ships that explore new technologies and new approaches to naval combat?  The answer is that there aren’t any.  We’ve sacrificed innovation and diversity in the name of a few percent savings through standardization on the next ship to be built.

Well, now that you and I have had a chance to think about it, we realize that our current fixation on unending Burkes is wrong.  We should be building all manner of prototype vessels to try out new concepts and see what works and what doesn’t.  For example, 

  • Maybe we should have a few 16” big gun battleships in the fleet.

  • Maybe we should build a combination ship that’s half carrier and half cruiser.

  • Maybe we should build a prototype laser ship even if the technology isn’t yet perfect.  Hey, the technology wasn’t perfected when we built the first carrier, the Langley, but it paid off in experience and lessons learned, didn’t it?

  • Maybe we should build a submersible Aegis destroyer.

  • Maybe we should build a rail gun fire support vessel.

  • Maybe we should build a close-in MLRS and C-RAM amphibious assault support ship.

  • Maybe we should build a new generation LST.

  • Maybe we should build a replacement SSGN.

  • Maybe we should build a short range ballistic missile arsenal ship.

  • Maybe we should build a cheap WWII style attack transport as an alternative to our budget busting big deck amphibs.

I can go on all day listing alternative naval ship types that might prove useful in a future war.  Of course, many might not – that’s the nature of experimentation.  As long as we build these as one-off prototypes rather than leap instantly into buying 55 of each like we did with the LCS, who cares if they don’t prove useful?  We won’t be out much.

Building such prototypes has the added advantages of keeping our industrial naval design expertise fresh and vibrant and it would keep our shipyards active and up to date with new construction technologies.

Diversity equals resilience and, right now, our navy is not very diverse or resilient.  That needs to change because the next war is guaranteed to be unlike what we imagine and the more choices we have to choose from, the more likely that we’ll be able to adapt and win.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Defective F125 Frigate Returned To Builder

We complain about the incomplete and, in some cases, damaged ships that the Navy accepts from the builders and we wonder why they don’t enforce any warranty repair actions (turns out that most shipbuilding contracts don’t have any warranties!).  We also wonder why every other country’s ships are better built than ours.

Well, the better built part is easy to explain – they aren’t!  We just are more aware of our ship’s problems because we have much more open information sources for our ships.  Other countries have the same problems but they just aren’t publicized.

Anyway, here’s a bit of news that addresses both the warranty and the quality of build issues.  Germany has just returned the lead F125 frigate to the builder, after delivery, for repair of defects found during trials – and there’s a lot of defects and they appear to be pretty serious.

Here’s some of the problems as reported by Naval Today website. (1)

  • software and hardware issues
  • problems with the frigate’s operations room
  • listing problem - they list 1.3 degrees to starboard
  • overweight

Here’s an amusing bit of related information.

“According to the German Navy, the new frigates will require only half the crew necessary to operate the Bremen-class frigates. They will be able to stay at sea for up to 24 months and thereby reduce the transit times for the crews. The crews will swap in regular intervals directly in the areas of operations which means that the ships will have to make fewer port visits.” (1)

Does that sound like the failed LCS program?  I anticipate that the German Navy will find the same thing we did – that minimally manned crews can’t perform well, will be overworked and undertrained, and ship maintenance will suffer.  Well, good luck to them.

F125 Frigate

Back to the main point …    Hats off to the Germans for sending a defective ship back to the builder.  Maybe their example will inspire the U.S. Navy to do the same.

It is also worth noting that this disposes of the myth that other countries build better ships than we do.  A lot of observers want the U.S. to buy and/or build foreign ships and use foreign shipyards.  I have no problem with that, in concept, but the reality is that no one is building problem-free ships.  We just document and hear about our problems more than other country’s.


(1)Naval Today website, “Germany returns lead F125 frigate to builder, report”, 22-Dec-2017,

Friday, January 5, 2018

UUV Seizures

In the latest slap in the face for the Navy, Houthi rebels have reportedly captured a Navy REMUS 600 unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) off the coast of Yemen. (1) 

In a similar incident in Dec 2016, the Chinese Navy seized a U.S. UUV about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines as the drone was in the process of being recovered.  The UUV was later returned.

These incidents raise some interesting issues regarding UUV operations.


According to Peter Cook, Pentagon press secretary, the UUV is a sovereign American vessel just as any Navy ship is.

“The UUV [unmanned underwater vehicle] is a sovereign immune vessel of the United States.” (2)

The Maritime Awareness Project website affirms that position.

“… the seizure was unlawful because the drone enjoyed sovereign immunity as a U.S. vessel.” (4)

If UUVs are sovereign US vessels then their seizure in international waters is illegal, at best, and an act of piracy or war, more likely.  This is tantamount to a foreign country seizing a US naval warship which would be an act of war.

Clearly, the US has no policy for dealing with this occurrence other than strongly worded notes of protest.  Evidence for this is that the US has failed to defend or, indeed, take any action in the past when foreign countries have seized our military assets.  Recall the Chinese force-down, seizure, and dismantling of the EP-3 in April 2001 or the recent Iranian seizure of two riverine boats and crews.  No action was taken by the U.S. in either case.

We need to establish a response policy and, preferably, one that recognizes the illegality of the action and responds accordingly and forcefully.


If drones are going to be seized, we need to give consideration to providing protection for them.  We need to have ships or aircraft available to respond to seizures.  For example, the Chinese seizure of the UUV should have elicited a SEAL retrieval operation and/or sinking of the Chinese ship.  It is clear that the Chinese are not in the least deterred by either international law or U.S. military forward presence.  What is needed is a swift and brutal response that makes it clear that we will not accept the seizure of sovereign U.S. property.  You don’t placate a bully, you punch them hard in the nose.


Referring to the Dec 2016 seizure by the Chinese, a Chinese spokesman had this to say.

"The Chinese navy discovered the device -- and identified and verified it in a responsible and professional manner. … And they did so to prevent it from harming navigational and personnel safety of passing ships." (3)

While the statement is just the usual lies and spin from the Chinese, it does raise an interesting point – who is responsible for the operation of UUVs when they come in contact with commercial or naval ships?  Will a UUV apply the navigational and safety rules of the sea?  Are ships under any obligation to avoid UUVs?  Who is financially responsible if a UUV causes damage to a ship?  Who is responsible if a UUV causes a death?

The US seems to be operating UUVs on an ever-expanding basis and without enough positive control to even avoid seizures so what makes us think that we can avoid potentially detrimental interactions with ships?  True, a UUV is not big enough to substantially damage a ship of any size but they can certainly foul fishing nets, drag nets and equipment away, foul and damage rudders and props, and potentially cause collisions as ships attempt to steer out of their way.  They could certainly severely damage or sink fishing boats and put lives at risk.

We need to carefully think through our operational policies as they pertain to commercial and naval shipping.

Area of Operation

The Houthi UUV seizure suggests that we are operating UUVs within other country’s territorial waters.  This is not surprising as it is generally acknowledged that we operated submarines within enemy territorial waters during the Cold War.  It does, however, mean that we need to think through the ramifications of being caught operating within territorial waters.

Does the procedure of Innocent Passage (as defined in UNCLOS) apply to a drone?  If it does, can Innocent Passage be claimed if a UUV is conducting surveillance or even benign oceanographic surveys?

If one of our UUVs is caught operating in another country’s territorial waters is that an illegal act, as we would undoubtedly accuse anyone of who would do that to us, and would we acknowledge the illegality of it?  Are we prepared to accept the hypocrisy inherent in those positions?  Our behavior in the Cold War would suggest we are.  If so, that undermines our moral high ground as we criticize China’s manifold territorial transgressions.  Are we comfortable with that double standard?


If seizing American UUVs is going to become the new international sport, are we comfortable with the loss of technological secrets that goes with that?  If not, and referring back to protection and sovereignty issues, are we prepared to use force to protect our UUVs?

We have more than enthusiastically plunged into the production and use of unmanned vehicles/vessels without taking the time to think through the associated issues.  I would urge the military and government to think about these issues and formulate relevant policies before the various events discussed herein occur.


(1)Navy Times website, “Video reportedly shows Houthi rebels with captured underwater Navy drone”, Geoff Ziezulewicz, 3-Jan-2018,

(2)The Guardian website, “Chinese warship seizes US underwater drone in international waters”, Julian Borger, 16-Dec-2016,

(3)CNN website, “China returns seized US underwater drone” Steven Jiang and Kevin Bohn, December 20, 2016,

(4)Maritime Awareness Project website,