Thursday, June 1, 2017

Missile Training Should Not Be A Noteworthy Event

This little tidbit caught my eye and emphasizes one of my pet peeves.  The French frigate Forbin (Horizon class) conducted a missile firing exercise, launching an Aster-30

“This is the third Aster 30 firing by Forbin since it entered active duty.” (1)

Forbin’s first deployment was in 2009 so the vessel has been in service for 8 years and has fired 3 Aster missiles in that time.  That’s one missile firing every 2.7 years.  Is that sufficient to keep the crew trained, thoroughly exercise and debug the system, and establish a baseline of performance and reliability?

I don’t know how the French Navy works but in the US Navy a ship’s Captain could come and go during that 2.7 year interval and never fire the ship’s main weapon.  Crews can come and go during that interval and never see a live firing.  Is that really the degree of training that a WARship should have?

Before anyone jumps on me, I know little about the French Navy’s practices so if this article misrepresents the state of training to some degree, bear with me.  Perhaps the crew fires a thousand live missiles per year at some other training facility.  They don’t but the point is that the specific details don’t matter.  This article illustrates my theme that the Navy (I’m now talking about the US Navy) needs to engage in much more realistic and frequent training.

Yes, missiles cost money and there’s a limit on how many we can go flinging around in the name of training ……….  or is there?

A Standard missile costs around two million dollars depending on the specific version.  If every Burke were to launch a single Standard each month in training, that would be 12 missiles per year per ship.  Hey, let’s call it 10 per year because ships invariably are unavailable at times for maintenance and whatnot.  There are around 70 Burkes in the fleet so that equates to 700 Standard missile firings per year which would cost $1.4B in missiles. 

Hmm, that’s a lot of money, you say?  Well, consider these benefits – because it’s all a cost-benefit balance, right?

  • Hugely enhanced training quality with the crews operating actual systems with live missiles rather than simulations.  Crews become accustomed to the real thing. 

  • We’ll get a much better idea of the baseline reliability of the missiles and sensor/launch systems.  Today, a live missile firing is a major event preceded by days of preparation, tweaking of systems, inspections, etc. all designed to produce a successful launch.  That won’t happen in war.  Combat launches will be a little or no notice, come as you are event.  More frequent training launches will allow us to get a better feel for how the system works without a major workup period leading to the actual firing.

  • We’ll get a much better idea of the baseline performance of the missiles and systems.  What can we actually expect from the missile in terms of shoot-down effectiveness?  Of course, the Navy would probably still use simplistic, canned scenarios so the performance value would be vastly overstated but more launches would still give better performance data.

  • We would have to produce many more missiles per year which would increase the production capability of the manufacturer.  This would be vital in the case of war where would need large quantities of replacement missiles on a continuous basis.  This kind of training would force us to be better prepared for wartime production capacity.

  • Producing many more missiles per year would drive down the cost substantially, one would have to imagine.  That $2M figure becomes, perhaps, $1M per missile.  See, we’re saving money already!  So now this level of training only costs $700M per year.  That’s the cost of a single LCS and is almost insignificant compared to the overall Navy budget.

Is $700M per year still too much for you to consider?  Okay, how about cutting the launches in half and only doing 5 per year per ship?  Now we’re down to $350M per year.  That is insignificant.  That’s almost round off error in the Navy’s accounting ledgers.

The benefits of live fire training, especially if coupled with more realistic scenarios, are immense.  If even a single Burke is saved in wartime by being better trained and having missile systems whose reliability and performance are better understood, we’ll save the $2B cost of a lost ship and the $XB cost of its replacement.  That alone justifies the expense of the training.

Live fire training inevitably reveals the little things that aren’t accounted for in simulations.  Remember the Granada invasion when, despite all our military’s training, we discovered that none of the units could talk to each other?  Remember the Marines “return” to the sea and the first major amphibious exercise they attempted after decades of land combat?  They found hosts of “little” things that failed or that no one knew/remembered how to do.  You can simulate all the training in the world but until you do it live, you don’t realize that no one has the right size wrench to do the job.  And so on. 

Live fire training is absolutely vital and needs to become a commonplace event.  We need to find out how our systems perform without special tweaking prior to the event.  We need crews to be completely comfortable with the weapons and systems.  We don’t need to be able to make the system work with the most brilliant operator on the ship – we need to be able to make the system work with the worst operator on the ship.

It should not be noteworthy that a ship launches an AAW missile in training.  It should not generate an article read world wide.  It should not be the third time it’s happened in the eight year history of the ship.  Missile launches should be routine, commonplace events that evoke no particular notice.

The larger, overarching point is not the exact number of missile launches per ship per year but, rather, the incredible dearth of such events and lack of live fire exercise of all of our weapons and systems.  The Navy is supposed to be prepared to fight tonight, to use the latest buzz phrase, and the only way to ensure that level of preparedness is to conduct frequent, routine live fire exercises in as challenging scenarios as possible consistent with a reasonable degree of safety.

I’ve previously stated that the Navy should be largely non-deployed (I hesitate to use the word “homeported” because that has a different, inappropriate meaning) and should be spending its time training and this is exactly the type of training that the fleet should be routinely conducting.


(1)Navy Recognition website, 19-May-2017,


  1. War and training for war is messy, unpredictable, confusing and therefore VERY expensive. So many people refuse to understand that and instead want to try to impress order and cost effectiveness into it.

    I would love to have the future leaders of the Navy (because we have none right now) realize that we need an inventory of missiles to populate each ship and that we need to fire them at a sustainable rate to:

    a. Keep proficiency
    b. Rotate the stock
    c. maintain a modest continuous production line

    Whatever that costs is worth it.

    And if someone comes up with more cost effective weapons than missiles then great. Properly evaluate them in an operational environment and let's get better.

    But regardless of the weapon system you have to practice with it and that cost has to be planned for and sacred in the budget. Just like Ship/System Maintenance.

    When are we gonna find some Leaders?

  2. Part of a strategic review/planning process should include plans for this.

    I'd think that a strategic plan could free up some money by eliminating some un-needed programs. It will also cost some money by starting some needed ones.

    But even if we come in as budget neutral, it would make more sense for me to have a well rounded Navy that's designed for a specific strategy and well trained in that strategy; even if that means the Navy is smaller over all because we spend money on things like realistic training.

  3. Wonder how many things inside DOD are just like that:"oh,we can't do that."It's too expensive." "we can't operate like that."...plenty of excuses but when you break down the numbers and use some commonsense like CNO just did, actually, it would be quite affordable...

  4. I dont think the missiles themselves are the cost driver or barrier to more of theses training events. Range control, scheduling safety and risk is the big barrier.

    For example launching SM-6 in an actaul antiair event safely could involve shuttinga 200+ mile radius around the ship down to any aircraft or shipping and maintaining that exclusion. Doing that dozens of times a year on the east and west coasts and where ships are stationed overseas would not be possible even if the money was there.

    1. Oh come, now. You really don't think we could find an isolated spot in the ocean, away from common shipping lanes, that we couldn't use for live fire training? You understand just how immense the oceans are, right? Ships can rotate through the training areas at will.

    2. The oceans are vast, but they dont all belong to the US and no ship or aircraft is obligated to avoid an area just because the US Navy wants to play in it in international space. Shipping is the easier management problem, aircraft are much more difficult. Look at this illustration and you'll see the entirety of the east coast and gulf of mexico would be very difficult. I'm sure every US sailor would love to spend a couple of weeks in Hawaii every year and another month sailing back and forth just to shoot a missile.

    3. Your map graphically proves that the ocean is vast and HUGE areas are untraveled with any regularity. The Atlantic, for example, is 41 million square miles, covers around 1/5 of the Earth's surface, and is 3000-4000 miles across, depending on where you choose to measure. Any you'd have us believe that there isn't a 200 mile diameter patch that we can use for training?

      Did you check the scale of that map, by the way. Two hundred miles is almost a dot on the map!

      If I read it right, the map you reference is showing EVERY aircraft flight for the period even if it only occurred once - each is equally portrayed. Most of those flights are likely very infrequent.

      Are you familiar with NOTAMs? That's how the military notifies aircraft to avoid a specific area. It's a pretty simple, straightforward procedure.

      Your referenced map shows and almost unlimited number of places such training could occur in both the Atlantic and Pacific. No one is suggesting that it occur a half mile of the US coast under the most heavily traveled air corridors!

      Your referenced map vividly proved the easy feasibility of finding a suitable training area. Thank you!

    4. So apparently you believe the US has a right to shut down a section of ocean at will any time it wants for as long as it wants. Goes a little against the concept of freedom of navigation. The Chinese will love that, its right up their alley.

      Gotta love one dimensional analysis.

    5. I believe that the US can find an area to conduct training in. I believe that of all the aspects to this topic that merit discussion, location of the training is the least important. I believe that you're looking for an argument rather than any substantive discussion. I believe that I'll be moving on to more worthwhile discussions!

    6. Ok, you are a tough task master. So I will explain rather than expecting you to infer. I understand that expecting you to infer is improper as it is your blog conducted in your sphere of reference and your sphere of reference and your readers sphere of reference is not necessarily the same as mine. That is fair, proper and appreciated.

      1. International law does not allow the US Navy to claim open sections of the ocean as exclusively its own.

      2. Any nation or individual can fly or sail its ships and planes through international space as it pleases.

      3. If the US Navy wanted to regularly use an international ocean space for training with missiles, there is nothing that would prevent a dumb ass from ignoring a NOTAMS and flying through it OR an actor bend on an effect compelling an aircraft to fly through it.

      4. Given the above, and the range and independent targeting capability of current missiles the Navy could not risk the consequences of an accidental shooting of a plane or watercraft.

      5. Therefore it must conduct such an exercise in controlled space.

      6. Controlled space is very hard to maintain far from established facilities. The range of current missiles could require control of many thousands of square miles of space. (perhaps more than a hundred thousand)

      7. Almost all of the established facilities available to the US Navy are far from open untraveled ocean. Those that are near untraveled ocean, can't support the necessary cohort of assets. (like Johnson Island)

      8. Therefore establishing control regularly over an training space as you propose would be extremely costly, as many air and sea assets would have to be available during best condition to "scrub" the space for possible nontargets before during and after the training launch.

      9. Hence why its unlikely the Navy will ever launch many more missiles for training.

    7. Here's a small sampling of current open ocean training ranges, just to demonstrate the easy feasibility of establishing such ranges. Information is from the Navair site.

      Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR) - ASW and ASuW training. Located 50 nautical miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., the range processes and displays on-range tracking data for ships, submarines, weapons, targets and unmanned undersea vehicles and supports naval tactical task training for employment of combat systems, engagement of submerged targets and mission area training.

      Barking Sands Underwater Range Expansion (BSURE) and Barking Sands Tactical Underwater Range (BARSTUR) - BSURE is the deep water component of the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) located in Kauai, Hawaii. It provides underwater tracking and communications coverage throughout an area approximately 900 square nautical miles at water depths ranging from 6,000 to 15,000 feet. BARSTUR provides underwater tracking and communication for a coverage area of approximately 100 square nautical miles. PMRF facilitates training, tactics development, and test and evaluation for air, surface and subsurface weapon systems in deep water. It provides a full spectrum of range support, including radar, underwater instrumentation, telemetry, electronic warfare, remote target command and control, communications, data display and processing and target⁄weapon launching and recovery facilities.

      Portable Undersea Training Range (PUTR) - PUTR is a self-contained, portable, undersea training system equipped with multiple- transponders that accurately determine the position of various underwater participants, including submarines, surface ships, unmanned undersea vehicles, weapons and mobile targets. It also supports in-water tracking of weapons deployed by naval aircraft. The PUTR system covers an area of approximately 100 square nautical miles in deep water (over 1000 ft.) and can be deployed to various locations and depths in support of forward deployed naval forces and submarine forces pacific.

      Southern California ASW Range (SOAR) and Southern California Offshore Range (SCORE) - ASW and ASuW training. Located 68 nautical miles off the coast of San Diego, encompasses approximately 670 square miles. SOAR routinely supports air, surface and subsurface unit level torpedo firing exercises as well as inner and middle zone battle group training. SCORE can support a wide range of exercises, including surface ship over-the-horizon targeting exercises while ASW or other operations are being conducted on the underwater range.

      Clearly, training areas can be located and operated.

      I think that's enough of this unproductive thread.

  5. The French, like other European nations, are scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of funding their armed forces. And just like USA/USN, the response to a constrained fiscal environment isn't to adopt a more modest posture, but to preserve the scaffolding while hollowing out the substance, awaiting the dawn of increased funding that is forever just around the corner. It's the path of least institutional and political resistance.

  6. Unfortunately, CNO's plan threatens the (perceived) interests of two groups.

    One is the suppliers of training systems. Since these are largely computer-based, its easy for them to portray themselves as more modern, better, and cheaper. That's a powerful set of ideas for convincing politicians, along with the campaign contributions.

    The other, oddly enough, is the missile suppliers. They will feel threatened by the idea that their main customer would get a better idea of the performance of their product under challenging conditions, and by the idea that they ought to be selling the missiles cheaper because they're turning out more. Their case for convincing politicians of this is not quite so strong as that of the simulator suppliers, but they have a much higher-turnover business, so they can afford more campaign contributions.

    1. Sadly enough, I think you are right. If USN fired even just 35 SAMs a year, meaning a Burke would fire a missile once every 2 years, what would happen after a few years when the accumulated data comes back and results aren't as good as advertised by manufacturer?

      Better to fire once a year on a highly scripted scenario and perfectly trained crew than risk having half the fleet fire a missile once a year and realize that a bunch of problems exist, you don't want the CEO and board miss their quarter number and not make their bonus!

    2. NICO/John, I think you're both overlooking the staggering amount of money that the manf's could make by "upgrading" the missiles to address any flaws. We've seen that poor performance is not enough to stop the Navy from continuing to purchase a weapon system (LCS, anyone?). Consider the money being poured into the black holes of the F-35, EMALS, AAG, Zumwalt, etc.

      While I think you have a valid concern about the Navy not wanting to see bad performance data, the reverse is also possible - that the missiles perform well. The Navy would love that!

    3. Good performance is the other horn of the dilemma for the Navy continuing to pump money to contractors.

      If the missile preforms well, they will have more trouble trying to get a new or upgraded version funded. The contractor will only see price pressure down through continuous production and that looks bad on the Admirals Resumes when they try to get hired.

      Damned if it works, damned if it doesn't, so don't try it. Certainly not in a non-scripted "safe" test environment.

  7. CNO, on a related note, did you see this?

    While I don't think the author(s) go far enough in terms of criticizing the forward deployed practices that we use, it was nice to see a call for realistic training, nonscripted scenarios, and honest performance evaluations that don't necessarily resulted in the sacking of commanders. Proceedings is the most official source I've seen yet that has published an article along these lines. A welcome development.

    1. Nothing you haven't read here a hundred times. Now, if only the Navy will start listening!

  8. So, I admit to never having designed a missile, though I am an engineer by trade, and I have a question. Have any of you ever tried nocking the heads off of match ticks with a .22 rifle? Though I really, really like the idea of firing more actual tactical birds as a way of back-checking the manufacturer's projected numbers, has anyone ever suggested the idea of loading up a number of substitute training birds in lieu of war shots in some of the VLS cells for a week of AAW practice? Why not design a RAM-size/cost missile that responds to a ship's fire control system like an SM-2 would? Aim it at a small cheap target. Just a thought....

    1. You kind of lost me somewhere between .22 rifles and training birds.

      I think you're suggesting training missiles that would, presumably, be cheaper and therefore readily expended in training exercises?

      The Perrys used to have blue training missiles to exercise the launchers and missile handling. Today, with sealed VLS packs, there's nothing to train for, in that sense.

      I think you're suggesting an actual missile launch with a training missile. If so, how would that missile be cheaper since it would still need the same sensors, engine, speed, range, etc. as the real missile. The only thing it wouldn't need would be the warhead but even that cost would probably be washed by the need for a telemetry package.

      I think you may have a potentially interesting idea. Explain it a bit more.

    2. The British use a cold launch on some missiles, so some sort of glorified wooden missile would do for that sort of launch and no need to clear the airspace.
      Didnt torpedoes have training rounds which could be fired at an actual target submarine ?
      Unfortunately the computer generation has taken over , so computer simulations mean they dont even need a ship let alone a live missile firing.

    3. "some sort of glorified wooden missile"

      The Perrys had inert training rounds to allow the crew to handle the missile movement and preparation all the way to the rail of the launcher. I assume you're suggesting something similar. However, VLS missiles are pre-packed and don't require any crew handling so there would be nothing to gain from that. Moreover, much of the value in live fair training lies in the performance data that could be collected and the reliability data that could be generated. A training round wouldn't accomplish any of that.

      So, it's a good idea and it was actually done when we used mechanical launchers prior to VLS but it isn't really applicable today.

    4. The 'cold launch' I was thinking off referred to a vertical launch.
      The MBDA missile know as CAMM in its various versions , or Sea Ceptor the maritime one.
      'Wooden' was a reference to something of the weight and shape only without rocket motors or electronics.
      "..use a "soft vertical launch" system, whereby the missile is ejected from a tube by a piston. A short booster uses squib thrusters to point the missile at the target before the main motor fires."
      Its not as capable as the SM types of course. But didnt SM in the change over from launcher arm to VL have a small booster added to take it out of the launcher and to a certain height before the main sustainer boost toke over ? [RIM 156]

  9. Just found out USA has spent $123 BILLION on missile defense and GBI has a 9 out of 18 record or 50/50 chance of hitting anything, I think CNO is right, if USN tested more often missiles fired from DDGs and CGs, manufacturers would make a killing on upgrades and replacing defective parts!

  10. The British experience in the Falklands showed how unprepared they were for a combat situation. An alert comes in Exocet search radar signals detected, passed onto HMS Sheffield, who basically carried on what they were doing.At the very least they should have pointed the bow towards the threat. The sinking of HMS Coventry had a chain of faults and errors, it hardly seems credible that a modern ship could be hit from a low flying jet with iron bombs side on in the open ocean, then there was their missile system failures, from not being able to hold a track so that a firing solution could be made, and then when it did , to have minor part prevent a missile loading on the launcher.