Monday, May 25, 2015

Blind Faith

ComNavOps is disgusted and repulsed by unsubstantiated statements that are presented as blanket truisms, especially when spouted by uniformed military professionals.  The common and most disturbing one, currently, is that the future of warfare is unmanned.  I just read yet another article that laid out that suspect premise with absolutely no logical or factual support and then leapfrogged into the author’s pet idea of transforming the entire fleet into a giant UxV operation with no further thought.

Are UxV’s really the future of warfare?  Everyone seems to think so but there is no evidence to support that view.  Indeed, the new offset strategy being promoted by Mr. Work is heavily based on UxVs.  Now, admittedly, anytime a new idea presents itself, there is a dearth of evidence to support the new concept - understandable, since the concept hasn’t yet been implemented.  However, the concept can be logically evaluated through wargames, scale models, small scale trials, and simulated performance by surrogates.  If the experiments and tests warrant, the new idea can then be implemented in a carefully managed, phased approach so that we don’t forfeit our current capabilities on a shiny new toy that may not pan out in the real world. 

What we can’t do is instantly and totally commit to a new idea that is unproven or, worse, may demonstrate weaknesses that are glossed over because they don’t support the new idea.  Witness the LCS fiasco – a complete and total leap into a brand new concept with absolutely no evidence that it would work – and it didn’t.

All right, let’s look at UxVs.

To refresh, on the plus side,

  • Reduced risk for the operator.
  • Endurance – UxVs are not limited by human endurance and have already proven well suited to long endurance surveillance missions with the caveat of mean time between failures which currently is typically a matter of hours, not days.

On the minus side,

  • Communications, both control and data, are a major weak link.  Many UAVs have been lost to failed comms both as a result of deliberate enemy action and simple technology failure.  UUVs are notorious for wandering off during exercises, never to be seen again.
  • Situational awareness – Anyone who has flown real aircraft and simulators will attest to the fact that situational awareness is greatly reduced in a simulator/controller.  While this may not be critical for simple surveillance missions it will be for unmanned combat.  The air-to-air (or sea-to-sea) combat advantage currently lies overwhelmingly with manned platforms.

Neutral factors include,

  • Cost – while many suggest that UxV production costs should be less, the reality is that UxV costs are the same as the corresponding manned versions and, often, greater.  Logically, the costs should be about the same for the same capability.  The incremental cost of manning is relatively small and generally offset by the increased costs of communications and automation.  At the moment, there is no evidence or logic to support claims of cost savings.

That’s a cursory look at some individual factors that go into the evaluation of UxV applications.  Now, let’s try a little logical thought exercise on a more holistic basis.  Let’s look at a “typical” UAV mission as envisioned by proponents.

Specifically, let’s consider a deep penetration UAV strike into a heavily defended area against a peer enemy.  We’d have, perhaps, two dozen aircraft attacking a target, say, 300 nm overland and launched from a carrier 1000 nm away.  Each UAV would carry two guided bombs or moderately short range missiles of some sort.  There would be no electronic warfare (EW) support although we could theorize such but an EW UAV would broadcast its location and would be a magnet for enemy attack and would not last long.  The UAVs would be mid subsonic, at best.

How would such a strike fare?

The aircraft would be slow, only moderately stealthy, with poor situational awareness and probable communication/control lags (remember, in combat a lag of just a second is likely fatal).  They would have to penetrate several hundred miles of enemy aircraft, sensors, and SAMs with no EW assistance.  How many are going to make it to the target?  Not many.  How many are going to successfully strike and survive the return flight to be available for the next mission?  Even fewer.

Is that the kind of result that justifies a total conversion of the fleet to unmanned platforms as the CSBA offset strategy advocates?  I’m not seeing it.

UxVs have a niche role to play, for sure, but not a dominant one.  They simply don’t have the capability to be successful, at least not at the cost point we seem to be facing.  Now, if we could build a long range, penetrating UAV for $1M each instead of $190M each, we might be able to change tactics and conduct strikes with massive numbers so that some aircraft are assured of getting through.

The UUV situation is even more unproven with nothing but vague ideas being substituted for rigorous engineering and tactical evaluations.  Again, hardly the basis for an immediate remake of the fleet.

Unmanned supporters will likely grudgingly acknowledge that we don’t have the full technology yet but someday we will and therefore we need to begin the fleet’s transformation now.  Well, fine, then someday when the technology proves itself we can re-evaluate and, if warranted, modify the fleet.  In the meantime, converting the fleet structure to feature UxVs is akin to having removed all the masts from all the ships in the sailing navy because someone thought steam engines would someday be superior.  In the meantime, though, the hulls would float uselessly, unable to move, while hoping that someday an engine would come along that would allow them to move.

Simple thought exercises show that UxVs not only do not have any magic properties but that they have some significant weaknesses as combat platforms.  So, let’s continue to develop UxVs but let’s not bet the fleet on an unproven theory that has thus far demonstrated severe limitations.  The CSBA offset strategy needs to be halted in its tracks until we have enough operational experience to be able to pass a reasoned judgment.  Until then, it’s folly.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Combat MCM

A comment to a recent post inspired me to do a bit of thinking about combat MCM requirements.  Understand that for the purpose of this post the term MCM refers to mine clearance rather than simple detection and avoidance although those acts would certainly be part of the overall MCM effort.  What we’re talking about here, though, is clearance so as to allow large scale assault or movement operations.

There are three broad types of mine clearance – note, however, that the Navy would undoubtedly characterize these differently.  For my purposes, these categories will suffice.

Uncontested – This involves clearing navigational routes, generally commercial, under circumstances where the enemy is not actively attempting to prevent the clearance operation.  This would be typical of post-conflict clearance ops or clearance of nuisance (though serious!) minefields by terrorist groups or rogue nations attempting to exert their influence short of a declared war.  The Gulf tanker wars and associated mining would be an example.

Contested – This involves clearing navigational routes, harbor approaches, and moderately near-shore zones while the enemy is actively attempting to prevent the clearance operation.  This category strongly implies that the timely and safe movement of naval forces is dependent on the execution of this category of MCM.  For example, the movement of a carrier group through a mined navigational chokepoint might well require mine clearance while under fire and the time required to complete the task will be the limiting factor in the group’s speed of movement and subsequent tactical and operational relevance.

Amphibious Assault – As the category suggests, this involves clearing lanes for the movement of whatever connectors or amphibious vehicles the Marines and Navy finally settle on.  The lanes don’t have to be particularly wide relative to the other categories since ships won’t have to move through them (unless the Navy brings back LSTs!).

MCM technology has not received the attention that aviation, ship, or submarine technologies have.  Consider the recent advances in aviation and surface ship stealth, nuclear and hybrid electric propulsion, autonomous UAVs, weapon guidance, the Zumwalt AGS, the Ford’s EMALS, the Virginia VPM, the V-22 combination helo/aircraft, etc.  Now compare that to the advances in MCM.  There really aren’t any.  Sure, the same old MCM technologies are being done remotely via unmanned vehicles but it’s still the same old technologies, just with a better safety factor for the operator.

Now, let’s consider the requirements to conduct MCM in each of the three cases.  I cannot stress enough that I am not an MCM expert and this is one of those areas that requires in depth knowledge but is complicated by the fact that very little public information is available on the methodology of mine clearance or the performance characteristics of the available MCM equipment and platforms.  Nonetheless, we’ll take a shot at analyzing the requirements and see whether they point in the direction the Navy is moving or whether they suggest a different path is needed.

Uncontested.  For the case of uncontested clearance, the pace of operations will be somewhat relaxed, by definition.  Still, reasonably timely removal will be important to return the affected waterway to routine use.  Another assumption implicit in this case is that all the mines need to be removed – not just a narrow safe path.  This is likely to be the worst case scenario as regards sheer number of mines needing removal.  As such, the number one attribute of the MCM force would be endurance.  The operation will require quite some time and the MCM force needs to be able to stay on site for an extended period.  The secondary implication of this requirement is that the MCM force needs to be able to supply its own mechanical/repair support, housing for personnel, and basing for the individual MCM assets. 

Speed of removal, while desirable, is a lesser concern.  A few days or even weeks, more or less, is not critical.  Thoroughness, however, is critical.  The removal operation must be 100% as the merchant vessels using the route will have no mine detection capability.

Thus, for this category, we can postulate the need for a large mothership with long endurance and large capacity for supporting, operating, and housing equipment and personnel.  The individual MCM assets can be small, remote underwater or surface vehicles, helos, ships, divers, or any other asset.

Contested.  For the case of contested clearance, the underlying assumption is that the clearance operation will occur under fire and that speed of removal is paramount – the movement of a naval force being halted until clearance is achieved.  The MCM force will have to stand and fight although, by definition, significant combat support will be available.  Close range air defense by the MCM force is desirable but speed of clearance is the main priority. 

Speed can be achieved either through rapid clearance capacity inherent in individual assets or through the aggregate efforts of large numbers of slower assets.  For the former, we do not currently have the technology to enable sufficiently rapid clearance.  Current clearance technology only allows rates of advance on the order of a few knots.  Note that the technique of sweeping is rapid but is far from complete or assured.  Sweeping offers a nice start but the level of clearance required to risk the movement of major naval forces will still require a much more thorough effort.  Alternatively, large numbers of less efficient assets can, theoretically, achieve a combined useful speed.  Note, though, that large numbers of assets will attract enemy attention and complicate the defensive situation with many more assets needing to be protected.

Thus, for this category, we can postulate the need for assets capable of rapid clearance using as few numbers as possible.  Further, the MCM assets will probably have to operate in or near the minefield so as to minimize the defensive area.  This is completely at odds with the Navy’s original conceptual intent for the LCS although that intent, along with every other aspect of the LCS, has come into question. 

The Navy has no current capability that meets this criteria.  What’s needed is a conceptual vessel that can operate four helos while conducting its own ship-based clearance.  Note the lack of mention of remote controlled UUVs.  There simply won’t be the time to launch, recover, and service UUVs.  Add in the lack of speed inherent in UUVs and the absence of UUVs becomes understandable.  What we’re describing is a helo-destroyer (DDH?) or mini-amphibious ship.  Realistically, the technology for this case is largely non-existent.

Amphibious Assault.  For the case of amphibious assault, we need to clear lanes of approach for the connectors and amphibious vehicles.  Additionally, we may need to clear areas of operation for near-shore support vessels should the Navy ever acquire such.

While I don’t know enough to describe exact clearance methods, and there will be more than just one, certain generic characteristics are foreseeable.  Whatever clearance vessels or platforms are used, there will be attrition among them.  Thus, we will need sufficient numbers to do the job several times over.  For the sake of survivability of the platforms, speed is vital.  Armor and stealth would be desirable though not at the expense of speed.  The individual assets ought to be minimally manned in order to lesson the cost of attrition. 

One could make a good case for helos and UUVs in this role.  Surface vessels, whether manned or unmanned are too slow and vulnerable and, if damaged or sunk in the course of clearing, might well constitute a serious impediment to the connectors and vehicles.  UUVs, by nature of their submerged state, may prove effective and survivable.  A UUV’s inherent lack of travel speed and even slower clearance speed is mitigated by the need to only clear relatively small lanes and the ability to assign multiple craft to each lane.

Helos would be effective and have a degree of speed but are notoriously vulnerable to shoulder launched SAMs.  Thus, MCM helos should be armored to the extent possible.  The Soviet Hinds are a good conceptual starting point.

There may still be a need for a final, shoreline mine removal capability that would probably need to reside on the actual landing craft, whatever that might be.  Alternatively, one could envision a specially modified landing craft equipped for shoreline mine removal (line charges or some such).

So, having looked at the three MCM cases, what general conclusions can we draw about the MCM path we need to follow?

  • We need a dedicated MCM vessel that can operate 4 helos and conduct ship-based MCM as opposed to remote vehicles.
  • Remote vehicles are useful only in the assault scenario or the uncontested clearance scenario.
  • Effective MCM is inherently slow and we will need large numbers of assets to provide the composite speed of operation.
  • In two of the three cases discussed, MCM will occur under fire and the individual assets must be able to provide a degree of self-defense and/or offer a degree of survivability via speed or some other attribute.
  • Attrition will occur which again suggests the need for large numbers of assets.

Now, how do the preceding conclusions match with the MCM path the Navy is actually on?

  • The LCS will soon be our only MCM vessel and we will shortly be down to around 12-16 total depending on how many MCM modules the Navy procures for the LCS and whether the Navy continues with their stated policy that MCM will only be conducted by the LCS-2 version.
  • The Navy currently has no concrete plans for a dedicated MCM mothership.
  • The Navy’s inventory of MCM helos is aging, lacks a defined replacement (to the best of my knowledge), and is not survivable in a contested environment.
  • The Navy has bet “all in” on remote, unmanned minehunting vehicles which, thus far, are technological failures.

There seems to be a fairly significant mismatch between the requirements outlined in this post and the Navy’s existing and near-term planned assets.  China, alone, is estimated to have hundreds of thousands of mines in their inventory.  Contrast that with the number of MCM assets the Navy has.  We’re on the wrong side of that equation!

The Navy needs to urgently re-evaluate their MCM requirements and immediately begin building a significant MCM force along the lines described here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

CONOPS - Or Lack Thereof

ComNavOps is disgusted and repulsed by unsubstantiated statements that are presented as blanket truisms, especially when spouted by uniformed military professionals.  The common and most disturbing one, currently, is that the future of warfare is unmanned.  I just read yet another article that laid out that suspect premise with absolutely no logical or factual support and then leapfrogged into the author’s pet idea of transforming the entire fleet into a giant UxV operation with no further thought.

Are UxV’s really the future of warfare?  Everyone seems to think so but there is no evidence to support that view.  Indeed, the new offset strategy being promoted by Mr. Work is heavily based on UxVs.  Now, admittedly, anytime a new idea presents itself, there is a dearth of evidence to support the new concept - understandable, since the concept hasn’t yet been implemented.  However, the concept can be logically evaluated through wargames, scale models, small scale trials, and simulated performance by surrogates.  If the experiments and tests warrant, the new idea can then be implemented in a carefully managed, phased approach so that we don’t forfeit our current capabilities on a shiny new toy that may not pan out in the real world. 

What we can’t do is instantly and totally commit to a new idea that is unproven or, worse, may demonstrate weaknesses that are glossed over because they don’t support the new idea.  Witness the LCS fiasco – a complete and total leap into a brand new concept with absolutely no evidence that it would work – and it didn’t.

All right, let’s look at UxVs.

To refresh, on the plus side,

  • Reduced risk for the operator.
  • Endurance – UxVs are not limited by human endurance and have already proven well suited to long endurance surveillance missions with the caveat of mean time between failures which currently is typically a matter of hours, not days.

On the minus side,

  • Communications, both control and data, are a major weak link.  Many UAVs have been lost to failed comms both as a result of deliberate enemy action and simple technology failure.  UUVs are notorious for wandering off during exercises, never to be seen again.
  • Situational awareness – Anyone who has flown real aircraft and simulators will attest to the fact that situational awareness is greatly reduced in a simulator/controller.  While this may not be critical for simple surveillance missions it will be for unmanned combat.  The air-to-air (or sea-to-sea) combat advantage currently lies overwhelmingly with manned platforms.

Neutral factors include,

  • Cost – while many suggest that UxV production costs should be less, the reality is that UxV costs are the same as the corresponding manned versions and, often, greater.  Logically, the costs should be about the same for the same capability.  The incremental cost of manning is relatively small and generally offset by the increased costs of communications and automation.  At the moment, there is no evidence or logic to support claims of cost savings.

That’s a cursory look at some individual factors that go into the evaluation of UxV applications.  Now, let’s try a little logical thought exercise on a more holistic basis.  Let’s look at a “typical” UAV mission as envisioned by proponents.

Specifically, let’s consider a deep penetration UAV strike into a heavily defended area against a peer enemy.  We’d have, perhaps, two dozen aircraft attacking a target, say, 300 nm overland and launched from a carrier 1000 nm away.  Each UAV would carry two guided bombs or moderately short range missiles of some sort.  There would be no electronic warfare (EW) support although we could theorize such but an EW UAV would broadcast its location and would be a magnet for enemy attack and would not last long.  The UAVs would be mid subsonic, at best.

How would such a strike fare?

The aircraft would be slow, only moderately stealthy, with poor situational awareness and probable communication/control lags (remember, in combat a lag of just a second is likely fatal).  They would have to penetrate several hundred miles of enemy aircraft, sensors, and SAMs with no EW assistance.  How many are going to make it to the target?  Not many.  How many are going to successfully strike and survive the return flight to be available for the next mission?  Even fewer.

Is that the kind of result that justifies a total conversion of the fleet to unmanned platforms as the CSBA offset strategy advocates?  I’m not seeing it.

UxVs have a niche role to play, for sure, but not a dominant one.  They simply don’t have the capability to be successful, at least not at the cost point we seem to be facing.  Now, if we could build a long range, penetrating UAV for $1M each instead of $190M each, we might be able to change tactics and conduct strikes with massive numbers so that some aircraft are assured of getting through.

The UUV situation is even more unproven with nothing but vague ideas being substituted for rigorous engineering and tactical evaluations.  Again, hardly the basis for an immediate remake of the fleet.

Unmanned supporters will likely grudgingly acknowledge that we don’t have the full technology yet but someday we will and therefore we need to begin the fleet’s transformation now.  Well, fine, then someday when the technology proves itself we can re-evaluate and, if warranted, modify the fleet.  In the meantime, converting the fleet structure to feature UxVs is akin to having removed all the masts from all the ships in the sailing navy because someone thought steam engines would someday be superior.  In the meantime, though, the hulls would float uselessly, unable to move, while hoping that someday an engine would come along that would allow them to move.

Simple thought exercises show that UxVs not only do not have any magic properties but that they have some significant weaknesses as combat platforms.  So, let’s continue to develop UxVs but let’s not bet the fleet on an unproven theory that has thus far demonstrated severe limitations.  The CSBA offset strategy needs to be halted in its tracks until we have enough operational experience to be able to pass a reasoned judgment.  Until then, it’s folly.

Friday, May 15, 2015

F-35 Austere Basing - It's Over!

Navy Times website reports that the Navy has announced that NAS Lemoore will be the focal point for the F-35’s operation and introduction into the fleet (1).  The website article contained some very interesting statements.  Read the following very carefully and then we’ll discuss the implications.

“One thing is for sure, an F-35C squadron will have what Douglass [Cmdr. Brian  Douglass, F-35C project officer on the staff of Strike Fighter Wing, Pacific] called a few more enlisted maintainers around. Currently, an F/A-18E squadron has anywhere between 226 and 234 sailors assigned. An F-35C squadron will include 245 to 250 sailors.

Most of the extra maintainers are due to the planned creation of a completely new maintenance shop for each F-35C squadron. It will only be responsible for maintaining the outside of the aircraft and will be manned by aviation structural mechanics.

The skin of the F-35C is designed to deflect radar and make it tougher to see by potential enemies. This stealth capability is so important that there will be a complete new shop in the squadron, manned by sailors with special training and skills to maintain it.

‘The low observability of the F-35C is considered a weapons platform and that's going to be a huge mind shift for us to treat the exterior of the airplane and the maintenance with such care,’ Douglass said. ‘It's not that we don't care for the exterior of our aircraft today, but this is on a totally different level, and we want to keep it pristine, because that's part of the weapons capability. That's why we procured this airplane.’ “

Did you catch the reference to the manning increase of around 20 personnel for each F-35 squadron?  Recall - what does the Navy claim is the biggest challenge it faces regarding budgets?  The answer is personnel costs.  In their attempt to address this critical issue (their view, not mine) the Navy has designed the LCS, Zumwalt, and Ford with crews that are hugely undersized and totally inadequate for combat and damage control.  Despite being willing to risk the loss of major combat vessels in a bid to decrease manning costs, the F-35 squadrons will increase maintenance manning by 20 people per squadron!  You’ll recall that the F-35 was supposed to have a magical, telepathic, all-knowing maintenance program (ALIS – Autonomic Logistics Information System) that would decrease maintenance manning requirements.  Instead, we see that the F-35 will require 20 more maintainers per squadron.

Did you also catch what those extra maintenance people would be doing?  External stealth maintenance!  I thought the F-35 was supposed to be relatively maintenance free as regards its external skin.  I guess that wasn’t true.

Now, think about the implication of the stealth maintenance requirement.  This is going to upset a lot of people so brace yourself.  This admission that the F-35 is going to need large numbers of highly specialized and exquisitely trained extra maintainers just for the stealth aspect means that the fantasy dream that many F-35 supporters have of operating a few F-35s from hidden, disbursed, austere bases is totally unachievable – a complete fantasy.  Note the key sentence from the article’s quote,

“It's not that we don't care for the exterior of our aircraft today, but this is on a totally different level, and we want to keep it pristine, because that's part of the weapons capability.”

Note the phrase, “totally different level”, and the word “pristine”.  These are not achievable by a few mechanics taking care of planes in an austere jungle base.  I have severe doubts that this “totally different level” of maintenance is even achievable in a carrier’s hangar.

Now, there’s nothing surprising about any of this.  Did we really think that the F-35 was somehow going to get by with casual, low tech maintenance performed by a cigar-chomping, roadside mechanic with a pipe wrench when the F-22 requires near-surgical operating room precision and cleanliness to maintain?

Supporters, this is the official death knell of the austere basing concept.  Embrace it. 

Increased manning costs and the end of the austere basing concept (not that it was ever realistic) - the F-35 is the gift that keeps on giving.


(1)Navy Times, “NAS Lemoore prepares for F-35 arrival, more F/A-18s” Mark D. Faram, May 10, 2015


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Navy Testing Deficiencies

The Navy wants to build platforms and systems but they don’t want to maintain, test, or fix what they’ve built.  We’ve discussed this before but it’s becoming more and more obvious.  The recently released 2014 Annual Report from Director, Operations, Testing and Evaluation makes several things crystal clear.

  • Problems linger for multiple years – system after system in the report contains unresolved problems that have lingered for multiple years.  The Navy wants to build shiny new toys but they don’t want to do the dirty work of wringing out the bugs and making the systems work.

  • Refusal to report reliability data – this is a somewhat new development.  The Navy is beginning to engage in a pattern of not reporting data.  The EMALS and AAG reliability data that haven’t been reported for a year are a good example.

  • Refusal to carry out tests – the Navy is showing a pattern of refusing to perform tests.  The recent trend of refusing to conduct shock testing is an example as is the refusal to conduct ship self-defense tests in a realistic manner.

  • Failure to fund required tests – many DOT&E required tests are simply not being funded.

  • Failure to develop realistic threat drones and surrogates – this is a common theme among the various system reports.  The Navy is happy to spend billions on a new submarine but won’t spend a few million to develop a realistic submarine threat surrogate.  We lack realistic submarine, torpedo, and cruise/ballistic threat surrogates, among others.  The Navy is building weapons that it has no way to test!

  • Overdependence on simulation and overly optimistic simulations – the Navy has attempted to move away from physical testing and towards simulation testing.  The problem is that the simulations are ridiculously optimistic, as pointed out throughout the DOT&E report.  Everything works in simulation!

  • Extremely high failure rate of advanced technology combined with insistence on concurrent development – the more advanced the technology, the higher the failure rate.  That’s to be expected.  However, the Navy’s obsession with concurrent production and development means that the failures are costing us twice (or many times more!) as we install, remove, and reinstall in an on-going pattern as one problem after another surfaces after construction.

  • High failure rates due to lack of proper technical training for the crew – the lack of technical training is stunning.  Again, we’re happy to spend billions on procurement of highly advanced technology but we’re utterly failing to train the operators to use the technology.  The DOT&E report abounds with examples of failed or aborted tests due to lack of operator training.

  • Lack of system documentation – hand in hand with the lack of training is the lack of system documentation.  Documentation should be part of procurement (and, indeed, it is!) but it appears that while the Navy goes to great lengths to ensure delivery of the equipment they do not pursue delivery of the documentation with anywhere near the same degree of enthusiasm.


I didn’t bother citing specific examples.  Frankly, the report abounds with examples and I don’t have the room to cite even a fraction of them.  Read the report and you’ll easily find plenty of examples.

I can’t imagine how bad the Navy would be without the DOT&E group.  They are the ones insisting that the Navy’s weapons and systems actually do what they’re supposed to.  It’s clear from reading the report that, if left on their own, the Navy would skip from one new program to the next with little testing and we’d have a fleet of barely functioning equipment, much like the Soviets during the Cold War, if even that good.  The only drawback to the DOT&E is that they don’t have the authority to dictate Navy testing and test support – they can only advise and monitor.  Still, thank goodness for DOT&E !

Friday, May 8, 2015

Helo Assault

We often discuss amphibious assault problems and one of the common rationalizations for those shortcomings is the notion that we’ll use helos to conduct all or portions of the assault landings.  This kind of vertical assault is deemed by its supporters to be fast, stealthy, powerful, and “safe”.  I say “safe” because no one who discusses helo assaults ever includes a factual and logical assessment of helo survivability on the modern battlefield.  Well, with that lead in, you know we’re going to look at it.  

Far and away, the best historical record is the Viet Nam war.  The US had undisputed control of the air, at least in areas where helo operations took place, and faced an enemy with no practical radar or electronic detection capabilities that applied to helos.  US helos could roam the skies unhindered.  Indeed, helo insertions were a common tactic.  So, what were the helo losses in Viet Nam?  1%?  5%?  Surely not much more than that.

From the Viet Nam Helicopter Pilot’s Association website comes this statement (1).

“Total helicopters destroyed in the Vietnam War was 5,086 out of 11,827.”

That’s a 43% loss rate.

From that same site come the following statistics for the UH-1 family of helos.

          Served    Destroyed
UH-1         80         80
UH-1A         8          1
UH-1B       729         376
UH-1C       696         415
UH-1D     1,926       1,028
UH-1E       156         100
UH-1F        31         18
UH-1H     3,375       1,285
UH-1L         2          0
UH-1M         5          0
UH-1N         2          2  
UH-1P         3          0

Total     7,013       3,305

That’s a 47% loss rate for UH-1’s.

Now, let’s bear in mind that those loss rates are not for one-time missions.  Helos flew repeated missions.  The loss rate for a single mission might be acceptably low but it adds up over time.  Note, though, that that’s exactly what we’re talking about in an aviation assault.  A helo or MV-22 will conduct multiple flights over the course of an operation.  That acceptable 5% loss rate for a single sortie becomes 23% for five sorties and 40% for ten.

The next best historical example might be the Soviet incursion in Afghanistan.  I’m unaware of any data for that conflict but, anecdotally, the helo losses were staggering.

So, how do these examples and data inform our discussion of helo-borne assaults?

The obvious conclusion is that helos have a significant loss rate over the battlefield.  They are not inherently a highly survivable platform.  Low tech forces have enjoyed great success against helos.  The combination of shoulder launched SAMs and simple guns are a lethal and nearly undetectable counter to helos.  As we discuss helo assaults, we need to factor significant losses into the discussion – more so against a high tech, capable, disciplined peer.

We also need to bear in mind that the loss rate has a double effect.  The effect of losses during the assault (initial landing), itself, are obvious.  We need to remember, however, that every helo lost impacts the subsequent sustainment portion of the assault for the entire duration of the operation.  Those troops that were inserted need continuous resupply and support and every helo loss has a cascading effect on sustainment.

OK, that much is straightforward, if sobering.  Is there more to this?

Yes.  What is never discussed are the helo numbers that are available for vertical assaults and sustainment.  Look at the number of helos in an Amphibious Ready Group (MEU).

For a typical ARG based on 1 America class LHA, 1 LPD-17 class, and 1 LSD, the vertical aviation component consists of around

  • 12 MV-22
  • 4 CH-53K
  • 6 attack helos

There you go.  That’s 16 transport aircraft for an entire MEU.  Factor in losses and you can see that both the assault itself and the sustainment will be severely impacted.  Remember that losses don’t have to be combat related.  Helos and the MV-22 are notoriously unreliable and maintenance intensive.  Why do you think that every helo assault since President Carter’s disastrous hostage rescue attempt has included spare helos?  It’s not because of their reputation for utter reliability!  Where are the spare helos in the MEU?

We need to recognize that the Marines are sorely lacking in amphibious assault waterborne transport capability and no amount of rationalizing a vertical assault element will make up for that.  The 16 vertical aviation transports of a MEU will suffer heavy losses in an opposed assault and we must factor that into our discussions.  Helos can and will be useful in an amphibious assault but their vulnerability and limited numbers mean they are not a viable option as the main or even important means for conducting an opposed assault against a peer.  The limit of their assault capability is a light raid in an almost unopposed scenario.

Helo assault is not the answer.


(1) Viet Nam Helicopter Pilot's Association,

Monday, May 4, 2015

Congress vs. Navy

Breaking Defense website has an article about the Navy’s ongoing battle with Congress over the early retirement of Aegis cruisers (1).  You’ll recall that the Navy attempted to retire several cruisers a couple of years ago, well before their service life was reached.  Presumably, they wanted to free up funds and build a foundation of justification to build new Burke Flt IIIs.  You know, along the lines of, “We have to have more Flt IIIs because we don’t have enough Aegis AAW command cruisers.” – conveniently omitting the fact that the reason they don’t have enough is because they retired the most powerful ships on the planet well ahead of the end of their service life!

In any event, Congress balked at the attempt and directed the Navy to retain the cruisers.

The Navy, undaunted by Congressional mandate, came up with the thinly veiled stratagem of “idling” 11 cruisers (half the cruiser force) for a leisurely eleven year “modernization”.  No one, including Congress, believed that.  The cruisers, once idled, would never be seen again.  Congress responded to this end-around by mandating that only a few cruisers at a time could enter modernization and that the work had to be completed within a four year period of time.  This was the 2/4/6 plan whereby only two cruisers per year could enter modernization, the work had to be completed in four years, and only six cruisers could be in modernization at one time.

The latest development in this saga has Congress modifying the 2/4/6 plan to a 2/2/6 plan in which the modernization work must be completed in two years rather than four.  This seems perfectly reasonable.  Two years is plenty of time to modernize a ship if the Navy is actually serious about the effort and not just trying to use modernization as a back door retirement.

The problem, which has been discussed numerous times in this blog, is that the Navy has no credibility with Congress.  From the website’s article interviewing Randy Forbes, House Seapower Subcommittee Chairman,

“They really don’t want to do the modernization,” Forbes told me. “What the Navy really wants to do is what they did from day one: They want to take seven of these cruisers out of commission and destroy them.”

As evidence, Forbes points out that the Navy has not budgeted the money for modernization.  They're ready and eager to take the ships out of service but have yet to request modernization money.

“They have no credibility,” Forbes said. “They’ve got to show where they’ve put some money to do it.”

There are two points to get from this article.

1.    The Navy is not respecting Congress’ wishes.  Whether they agree with Congress or not, they are duty bound to obey their directives.  The Navy is displaying utter disrespect and contempt for Congress.

2.    Congress seems to have a much better grasp of naval force requirements than the Navy does.

We’ve previously covered the first point so let’s address that second one. 

Now, no one is claiming that Congress is a model of organizational wisdom and efficiency, quite the opposite, in fact.  However, of late, they are head and shoulders above the Navy and the military in general.

While the Navy is publicly bemoaning the shrinking fleet size (while simultaneously proclaiming that they are on path towards a 300+ ship fleet ?!), they are actually early retiring ships left and right.  The entire Tarawa class was early retired.  The Perrys were retired rather than upgraded.  They attempted to retire half the Aegis cruiser fleet, the most powerful surface combatants in the world.  A couple of auxiliaries, the lifeblood of the fleet, are being early retired with no replacement.  And so on.  Now, most of us would logically conclude that if the Navy deems a 300+ ship fleet important, that early retiring highly effective ships with plenty of lifetime left is foolish and illogical.  Thus, Congress is stepping in and providing some much needed logical oversight.  The same applies to the Air Force’s ill-considered attempt to retire the A-10 in order to fund F-35s.  Of course, we’ve already debunked that logic!

Congress was also the reason why the Navy was forced to stop the original LCS program and come up with a new frigate.  Of course, the Navy once again backdoored Congress with the slightly upgraded LCS that is now designated as a frigate – fooling no one.

What does it say about Navy leadership when Congress is exhibiting more wisdom than the Navy?!  It is rare that I can say this but, well done Congress.  Keep exercising your oversight responsibilities and hold the Navy to account.