Motherships and International Cooperation

Every navy faces the challenge of unlimited missions, and limited resources. Even ours. For our allies, the problem is even more acute. The European Union, taken in aggregate, is roughly equal to the US in terms of population and production. But it isn’t a single entity. It’s an extremely loose confederation of independent states. And because of that, the individual navies tend to be quite a bit smaller, both in total hulls, and the size of individual hulls. In spite of the importance of sea trade to Europe’s economic health, fielding navies large enough to secure that trade is virtually impossible, to say nothing of the post-war European tendency to shy away from militarization.

So when threats to sea trade arise, such as piracy off the eastern coast of Africa, no single nation can field a sustainable response. But by fielding international task forces, Europe, with the cooperation of other like minded nations, such as the US, and even China, and of all people, Iran, has managed to suppress the worst of piracy in the waters off the coast of Somalia.

Most Euro navies are frigate navies. And while frigates are quite the handy little warships, let’s face it, it’s a bit much for tracking and deterring pirates in 15m skiffs. Given our lack of frigates, the US Navy tends to support operations there with a Burke class destroyer. Which, let’s face it again, a multi-billion dollar warship is a bit much for taking on cheap boats.

Chuck Hill, of the invaluable Coast Guard Blog, shows a more sensible approach to countering low capability maritime threats, through cooperation of various nations and platforms.

The following was reported by the German Navy blog Marine forum, “8 January, PIRACY–Anti-Piracy Forces: Sweden is preparing for another mission (M-04) in support of EU operation “Atalanta”, this time working jointly with the Netherlands navy … COMBAT BOAT 90 fast interceptor craft, helicopters and 70 personnel to embark on Netherlands Navy dock landing ship JOHAN DE WITT.”

As you may recall, I have advocated using WPCs supported by a mother ship to supplement the larger cutters for distant drug interdiction operations.

Large amphibious ships are almost by definition “motherships.” Designed to operate and support landing craft, it is no great stretch for them to similarly support small patrol craft and other small combatants. The weakness of small craft is their lack of seakeeping. That is, their endurance and their crew’s ability to remain on station is limited. But by pairing them with a larger vessel, the ability of a small flotilla of craft to patrol large areas is greatly enhanced, at a fraction of the cost of maintaining several larger combatants on station.

Further, virtually all major amphibious ships have the ability to support significant helicopter detachments. Said helos are critical for the surveillance part of counter piracy operations, vastly expanding the task force’s field of view, and vectoring the limited number of patrol craft to the most likely targets of interest.

The one real disadvantage of this approach is that amphibious shipping is already in great demand for its primary mission. In our own Navy, we simply don’t have enough “gators” to support the requirements for our Marine Corps.

Some alternatives exist. The Navy’s Advance Floating Support Base (AFSB) would be a particularly good fit for this role. Of course, the limited number and costs of AFSB in the foreseable future means maintaining one on station is not realistic. Other options might include the Joint High Speed Vessel, though they have limited endurance.  My own first suggestion, years ago, was to buy used Platform Support Vessels at dirt cheap prices. The drawback with that platform is the cost of refitting them with command and control facilities, and more critically, the lack of sufficient helicopter facilities.

Chuck’s suggestion of using forward supported WPB and WPC Coast Guard patrol vessels is a good one, though again, the Coast Guard is hard pressed to meet its domestic demand signal for boats.

Other areas that would benefit from such a mothership concept include the Persian Gulf, and the waters near Singapore, where currently the Navy envisions extended deployments of LCS ships.

The US Navy has long operated alongside our partners and allies, and this is one area where such further cooperation is likely to be mutually beneficial.

USS Norfolk- A post war ASW dead end.

After suffering dreadful losses in the North Atlantic, Bay of Biscay, and Gulf of Mexico in 1942 and 1943, the U-Boat arm of the German Kreigsmarine sought to field a submarine that was technically much more advanced than the Type VIIc. Eventually this resulted in the Type XXI submarine, with much greater battery capacity, a hull optimized for speed underwater, and much improved sensors. Technical and production issues meant that Nazi Germany was able to build 118 before the war ended, yet only four were actually ready for service. After the surrender, under the terms of the Potsdam agreement, the US, France, Britain and the Soviet Union all received examples of the Type XXI.

The Type XXI would greatly influence the US conversion of its Gato-class fleet boats to GUPPY configuration. Even more importantly, it showed that the WWII approach to ASW would likely be ineffective in the future. The US Navy had to presume that any future Soviet submarine designs would benefit from the Type XXI design (and boy did they).

The slow escort carriers and destroyer escorts of the Battle of the Atlantic, able to cope with submarines with a submerged speed of 3-5 knots would be hard pressed to defeat submarines with a submerged speed of up to 20 knots. Where a plane or destroyer escort that forced a Type VIIc to submerge effectively removed it from the fight, a Type XXI based submarine might easily evade the short ranged sensors of the day, and continue to press its attack, and even submerged, outrun the destroyer escort.

The US Navy, seeing the threat fast submarines posed to carrier task forces, gave considerable thought to what would be needed to counter such a threat. Various technical and operational imperatives drove the design of a ship specifically intended to counter fast submarines. First, the range of the sonar needed to be greatly improved. Long range sonar means lower frequency sonar, which in turn means a much larger sonar transducer (and its associated sonar dome). Further, the deeper such a transducer is submerged, the better it performs. Both those considerations called for a significantly larger escort than the destroyer escorts, or even the fleet destroyers of World War II. The high speed of the Type XXI and its derivatives also called for a very fast escort, one that could maintain high speeds even in a high sea state. This again called for a larger ship.

While the primary mission of this hypothetical escort would be anti-submarine warfare, it would also need to be able to contribute to the air defense of the task force. Here though, it’s primary “weapon” would be its ability to act as a fighter director. This called for an extensive radar suite, and a spacious Combat Information Center. Again, that requirement argued for a larger ship. Since a task force’s primary anti-ship weapon was seen as the aircraft of the task force, the escort would not need a major caliber gun system. Instead, its guns would serve as its secondary anti-aircraft weapons. But it needed a high rate of fire, which meant several mounts of a high rate of fire gun, in this case, the 3”/70 twin mount. Again, multiple mounts drove the size up.

Given that the Navy had several hundred ships in reserve after World War II, finding the money to build new ones was very much a challenge. Still, the Navy begged enough money from Congress to lay down a prototype of the new anti-submarine hunter. Originally designated the CLK-1 (Cruiser, Hunter-Killer), while she was cruiser sized, she was built to destroyer standards for cost reasons, and was soon redesignated DL-1, for Destroyer Leader. Christened the USS Norfolk, and commissioned in 1953, she was less than a resounding success.

She was a big ship, some 540’ long, and displacing 5600 tons. Her 3”/70 mounts weren’t ready when she was commissioned, so her first battery was the regular 3”/50 guns. Later, when the 3”/70s were installed, they turned out to be maintenance nightmares, and not terribly effective at that. Other weapons included Weapon Alfa, with four mounts for the rocket thrown depth charge. Weapon Alfa likewise was a maintenance hog. Eventually in 1960, the excellent ASROC was added, finally giving the Norfolk an effective ASW standoff weapon able to capitalize on the excellent SQS-23 sonar.

USS Norfolk spent most of her career serving as a test bed for new weapons and systems, and as a laboratory for trying out new techniques and tactics. Her design was clearly far too expensive to build in numbers as a specialized ASW escort.

Nonetheless, she did inspire the follow-on Mitscher (DL-2, latter DDG-35) fast carrier task force escorts, and a series of other large destroyer leader types. Those classes had a primary focus on anti-air warfare, but still retained a significant ASW capability. The Navy was never able to afford as many of these large, fast escorts as it needed, but these later classes would serve as the linchpin of a task force screen until their replacement by the Ticonderoga class Aegis cruisers in the early 1980s.

Troop Transport

A couple years ago, we discussed the difference between troopships and Attack Transports. Briefly, Attack Transports were designed to move a unit, typically a battalion, its vehicles and equipment, and an initial issue of supplies of ammunition, fuel, rations and such, directly to the site of an amphibious assault, and land them with the Attack Transport’s own embarked landing craft.

Designated APA, there were a couple hundred Attack Transports commissioned during World War II, of various classes. Many were civilian cargo vessels bought into the service and converted to the purpose. Indeed, when they were built, they were partially subsidized by the government with just that possibility in mind. Many others were purpose built from the keel up (though still based on standard commercial designs) to serve as APAs.

While the APAs were invaluable for the hundreds of amphibious assaults during World War II, they were a relatively inefficient means of moving people from the US to the overseas theaters of war. For their size, they carried a small number of troops (typically around 850 to 1100) and were generally fairly slow ships at around 15-18 knots.

Of about 16 million service members in World War II, about half served overseas during the war. And for the most part, they didn’t arrive via amphibious assault. The build up of Army Air Force ground support units in England, the staging of over a million troops in England prior to D-Day, and the huge numbers of logistic troops in England, and later France all called for moving the largest practical number of troops in the least amount of time. And to do that, troopships were used.

Unlike APAs, troopships were almost universally simply the high speed pre-war passenger liners, taken into service and outfitted to carry as many troops as possible. No provision was made for supporting amphibious landings, as they were intended to operate from port to port, embarking and debarking in friendly territory.

One such liner pressed into service as a troopship (designated AP) was the USS Wakefield. Launched as the SS Manhattan in 1931, she was among the first US built fast, large ocean liners. Just before the war, she was taken in hand by the Navy and with a minimal conversion, served as a troop transport. Her first real mission was actually to transport British troops. A mission to move British troops to Capetown, South Africa was diverted to Singapore to reinforce the British garrison there. War in the Pacific broke out before she arrived. While fueling for the return voyage, a Japanese raid on the harbor resulted in a bomb gutting her sickbay, but not otherwise compromising her ability to sail. She quickly fled to make repairs elsewhere, and begin the job of moving US troops.

Later in 1942, returning to New York after a voyage to England, she suffered an on board fire the gutted virtually the entire ship. It took 18 months to repair her and return her to service. In the process, she was almost completely rebuilt, with the entire ship above the main deck being newly built.

On fire, and as a gutted hulk grounded off Halifax.

Placed back into service in 1944, she would serve two more years, moving about 110,000 troops overseas, and eventually helping to return many of them as well before being decommissioned in 1946.

For many soldiers, the troopship experience was a rather miserable one. They were extremely crowded. As a liner, the SS Manhattan typically carried about 1200 passengers. As a troopship, USS Wakefield carried 6000-8000 troops. Galley services were limited, so troops were only fed twice a day (the crew, however, were still fed the normal three times a day). Water and space for washing was limited, though the Wakefield was far better than most. She had a supply of fresh water for troops. Most troopships only had saltwater for washing and laundry. Freshwater on those ships was strictly for drinking and cooking.

Fast ships such as the USS Wakefield often sailed without escort. With a sustained speed of over 20 knots, it was virtually impossible for any U-boat to intercept her. Submerged U-boats would be left far behind. Any surfaced U-boat would find itself outgunned by the Wakefield’s respectable armament of four 5”/38 guns and four 3”/50 guns.

The USS Wakefield and a great number of other transports, as well as amphibious shipping and innumerable landing craft, while US Navy ships and craft, were manned by the US Coast Guard. With the Coast Guard placed under the Department of the Navy during World War II, the Coasties, in addition to fulfilling their peacetime missions, provided tens of thousands of personnel to crew a huge number of ships, freeing US Navy sailors for other missions.

Grab a cup of coffee, and spend about 20 minutes aboard the Wakefield.


The PCs, the little workhorses of the ASW fleet.

The US Navy in the years between World War I and World War II never had much of a budget. What they did have was a lot of ships built during the crash programs for World War I. Much expense and effort went into building small escorts for the convoy system to defeat the German U-Boat blockade of England. Among the ships built were small 110’ wooden subchasers and crude mass production 200’ Eagle Boats.

Much of the fruit of the massive shipbuilding program came too late to actually serve in World War I. Many of the ships saw only the most limited commissioned service before being laid up in reserve.

In the 1930s, as war clouds gathered over Europe, the US Navy looked at what it would need to provide convoy escort to England. And it quickly realized the fleet of laid up boats from World War I were not suitable for modern operations.

What was needed was a small, relatively inexpensive ship that could be mass produced by smaller yards that were more accustomed to building merchant ships or fishing vessel, and not require too many skilled workers to built. It should have decent endurance, sufficient size to carry a modern sonar, and enough weapons to successfully engage a U-Boat, either submerged or surfaced.

Such a small ship would also be useful in peacetime as a training ship for reservists and Midshipmen.

The Navy in the 1930s didn’t have enough money to buy a lot of ships, but they could afford to build a prototype or two. Eventually the Navy settled on a 173’ ship powered by diesel engines. Armed with two 3”/50 guns (or one 3”/50 and one single 40mm””), three to five 20mm guns, depth charges and the Mousetrap anti-sub rocket, the ships became known as the PC-461 class. Such modest warships, while commissioned vessels, rated only their hull number as their name.

The PCs were not really open ocean escorts. Instead they were intended to protect coastal convoys. They were, however, capable of crossing oceans, provided they could be refueled underway.

By the time the US entered World War II in late 1941, the Royal Navy had for the most part come to grips with the worst of the U-Boat menace to the North Atlantic convoys. The Kreigsmarine suddenly had a whole new array of fat, easy targets to attack, namely US shipping along the eastern seaboard, and throughout the Caribbean Sea. The PC program was barely started, and not enough were on hand to provide escort for these coastwise convoys. As production ramped up, however, PCs and their little brothers, the newly built 110’ wooden SCs began to escort convoys from New York to the shores of Venezuela.  While few PCs actually sank U-Boats, they did drastically reduce losses of merchant shipping.

As even more became available, PCs and SCs began to deploy overseas to the Mediterranean theater and to the Pacific theater to serve as escorts for amphibious convoys, and for general service in support of naval operations in those theaters. The PCs were far too slow to serve alongside the dashing fast ships of the carrier task forces, but in virtually every invasion of the war, they stood by to render service. One popular use was as control craft to shepherd landing craft to their proper beaches during an assault.

In the Pacific theater, several were modified with a cut down superstructure to serve as barge busters interdicting Japanese landing craft supporting isolated garrisons.

The crews of the 362 PCs eventually built were virtually all reservists enlisted or conscripted for the duration of the war, both their officers and men. Many had never been to sea in any fashion before reporting aboard their tiny ships and placing them into commission. After commissioning, the raw crew would have the barest of work-ups at a training center, then sail off to war.

Indeed, some were pressed into active service even before their training had been  completed. And that brings us to this:

The Navy rejected reports 72 years ago that Lt. Cmdr. Herbert Claudius sank a German U-boat off the Louisiana coast during World War II. In fact, Officials criticized his depth-charging tactics and sent him to anti-submarine school so he could learn how to do it the right way.

It turns out the Navy — not Claudius — was off target.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert set the record straight Dec. 16, when they posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit with combat “V” to the patrol coastal skipper. His son, Herbert Gordon Claudius Jr., received the award on behalf of his father.

Wartime service aboard the smaller combatants was always tiring, usually uncomfortable,* and quite often dangerous. Many served in the most tedious roles, with little recognition from the media, the public, or even their own service. Their mission as escorts was overshadowed by the massive Destroyer Escort program that replaced the PC program. They were certainly not nearly as photogenic as a sprinting fleet destroyer, or a heavily gunned cruiser with a bone in its teeth. And nothing like the glamor of aviation was attached to them. And yet, at virtually every invasion, they were on hand to undertake any mission assigned.


*PCs had a reputation as lively sea boats, and tended to roll quite a bit. Regular Navy sailors were aghast at their rolling. But the crews that manned them were usually so green that they didn’t realize just how bad they were compared to other ships.

A little more Chicago maritime history

Most of you know of the U-505, the captured German WWII U-Boat on display in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry. It’s a pretty fantastic display, and a real eye opener to go through.

But did you know that’s not the only Chicago area German U-Boat?

At the end of World War I, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was prohibited from owning or operating any submarines. Their fleet of existing boats was either scuttled, scrapped, or turned over to the victorious powers.

One boat was the SM UC-97, a type UCIII minelaying U-Boat. Commissioned just before Armistice Day, she conducted no wartime patrols. Instead, she was turned over to the United States. She was used as an exhibition on the Great Lakes for Victory Bond tours, to raise money to pay down the US wartime debt.


After that, she was sunk in 1921 as a target for the training gunboat USS Wilmette. And to bring us full circle back to Spill’s post on the Chicago Maritime Museum, USS Wilmette started life as the steamer Eastland, who sank pier side with the loss of so much life.

SC-97 was sunk about 20 miles offshore from Highland Park, IL. Her exact location was unknown for many years, but she was rediscovered in 1992, and her location was published 2013.

The Mobile Landing Platform

Before we start writing our series on the evolution of landing craft, let’s address one of the greatest challenges of amphibious operations.

Amphibious landings generally give the attacker the initiative to chose the time and place of their landings. As such, gaining an initial foothold is generally successful, provided reasonable attention has been paid to tactical realities.

Maintaining that initiative is the challenge. The key to this is ensuring a sufficient buildup of troops and logistics to overpower any enemy counterattack.

While the Marines have a reasonable force structure for landing the initial waves of an assault, the buildup phase is therefore critical. And the Marines and the Army both have significant numbers of ships dedicated to carrying the vehicles and supplies that any buildup would require. What is often lacking is a means to land those vehicles and supplies ashore in the absence of significant port facilities.

And so the Marines and the Navy have teamed up to build a ship especially intended to connect those prepositioned vehicle carriers with the landing beaches.

The Mobile Landing Platform is designed so that vehicles can be driven off of the prepositioned ship, onto the MLP, and thence onto a Landing Craft Air Cushion for delivery to the beach.

Based loosely on the design of a large semi-submersible heavy lift ship, the MLP can provide docking for up to three LCACs. While designed with fiscal austerity in mind, you’ll notice that the MLP has significant open deck space. Couple that with a reserve of power and water, that means that it can be configured for other purposes rather easily.

T-MLP-1 USNS Montford Point alongside a Bob Hope Class T-AKR in preparation for vehicle transfer exercises.

It’s important to note that the MLP is not an amphibious warship, nor indeed a warship of any kind. It belongs to the Military Sealift Command, and is crewed by Civilian Mariners. It is an auxiliary to support other ships.

Let’s take a look at an MLP in action.


Two MLPs, the USNS Montford Point and the USNS John Glenn, have been delivered.

The basic design of the MLP is also at the heart of the Afloat Forward Staging Base, which will be used as a mothership for mine hunting operations and other forward deployed elements that would otherwise require significant pierside facilities.

USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-MLP-3/T-AFSB-1)

The Puller and a second, as yet unnamed AFSB are due for delivery in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

One Hundred Years Ago, Royal Navy Revenge at the Falklands


On the morning of 8 December 1914 just before 0800, British Vice-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee received word that the German ships he had been searching for had appeared in the frigid South Atlantic waters off Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.   The day before, Sturdee had arrived from England with reinforcements for the remnants of a British cruiser force that had been shattered in the first defeat the Royal Navy had suffered in a century.

Five weeks earlier, Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s Südsee-Geschwader, consisting of the powerful armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, along with cruisers Nürnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden, had routed Rear Admiral Cradock’s undergunned and outmanned cruiser squadron at Coronel, off the coast of Chile.  Cradock went down with his flagship Good Hope (which sank with all hands) when, pounded to a wreck by Scharnhorst, her forward magazine exploded.  Monmouth, Cradock’s other armored cruiser, was also lost with all hands under the fire of Gneisenau and Leipzig.


Sturdee’s reinforcements were battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible, 20,0o0 ton vessels armed with eight 12-inch guns, capable of 26.5 knots, and the armored cruisers Kent and Cornwall.  Along with Glasgow and the elderly pre-dreadnought Canopus, Sturdee held a decisive advantage in both gun power and speed over his adversary.  Von Spee was entirely unaware of the presence of the British capital ships, which held a 6-knot speed advantage over Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, both of which were badly in need of overhaul and a hull-scraping.  Spee’s sixteen 8.2-inch guns were more than a match for Cradock’s armored cruisers, but were entirely outmatched by the heavier British batteries of Inflexible and Invincible.


The opening salvoes were fired by Canopus, masked by the landmass of Sapper Hill.  Unaware as of yet of the presence of two battlecruisers, Spee canceled the planned bombardment, still believing he could disengage and outrun the British cruisers and the elderly battleship.  It was not until near mid-day that horrified German lookouts spotted the distinctive fighting tops of the British capital units.  In a running fight that the German vessels had little chance of escaping, Scharnhorst succumbed to her wounds and rolled over at 1615.  Gneisenau would fight gamely on until the last of her guns were destroyed, and at 1800 she was ordered scuttled by her captain.  Admiral Graf von Spee was not among the 190 survivors plucked from the icy waters.


The battle had some final acts to play out.  Kent sank Nürnberg at 1930, and in the darkening seas Glasgow and Cornwall hunted down and sank Leipzig.   Only Dresden of Spee’s Südsee-Geshwader escaped, to be sunk in March of 1915.  (Among Dresden’s officers was a young Oberleutnant-zur-see named Wilhelm Canaris, who would go on to famed service in the next war.)

The Battle of the Falklands cost the Imperial German Navy the lives of more than 1,800 sailors.  British losses were ten killed and 19 wounded.  While the victory of Sturdee’s squadron was complete, and avenged Cradock at Coronel, some unflattering issues revealed themselves.  The primary was that British gunnery left much to be desired.  The sinking of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau took more than five hours, and 1,174 rounds of 12-inch ammunition from the battlecruisers.  Even considering Sturdee’s prudent tactics of fighting at or beyond the range of the guns of his opponent, his capital units expended more than half of their ammunition to score fewer than thirty hits on the two German cruisers.  British gunnery shortcomings, the skill and bravery of their German opponents, and the toughness of the German ships, would manifest themselves at Jutland eighteen months later.

In one of history’s ironies, Admiral Graf von Spee’s namesake panzerschiff, KMS Graf Spee, would meet its end almost exactly 25 years later, in December of 1939 in the waters of the South Atlantic once again.  She was scuttled because it was rumored that she was awaited outside Montevideo by British dreadnoughts.