June 25th, 1950


Today marks the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War.  Most of us here know that the war itself has not ended, that the DPRK and the ROK remain in a state of war, temporarily becalmed by an armistice signed in July of 1953.

The war was fought by Veterans of World War II, as well as their little brothers.  There were more than 36,000 US killed in action among the more than 130,000 American casualties in that war, many times the order of magnitude of Iraq and Afghanistan combined.  In just over three years.   There are lessons aplenty from that war regarding preparedness, combat training, leadership, and budget-driven assumptions.

There are several superlative works on the Korean War, fiction and non-fiction.  Here are some I recommend highly:

T. R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War

James Brady’s The Coldest War

Two Martin Russ works, The Last Parallel, and Breakout.

S. L. A. Marshall’s The River and the Gauntlet

Pat Frank’s magnificent novel Hold Back the Night

P. K. O’Donnell’s Give me Tomorrow

Clay Blair’s The Forgotten War

There are many, many others, including some incredibly good Army monographs, but those are among my favorites.  I lent out Marshall’s book some years ago (you know who you are!!) and never got it back.  So that may be my next purchase.

Anyway, the first test of the Strategy of Containment began in the early hours, sixty-five years ago this morning.

22 May 1968, Loss of USS Scorpion SSN-589


On 27 May 1968, for the second time in just over five years, the United States Navy announced the disappearance of a modern nuclear attack submarine.  The Skipjack-class SSN, USS Scorpion, disappeared on 22 May as she transited near the Azores.

589 sail

The cause of the loss of Scorpion continues to be a subject of fierce debate.  The recorded acoustic signature of the event has been analyzed extensively, and expert opinion is divided regarding what the SOSUS data points to.  Several recent books have addressed the subject, positing that the Soviets had targeted Scorpion and sank her with assistance from ASW helicopters, and intelligence gained from the capture of USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and the John Walker spy ring.  Other theories included a battery fire which caused a Mk 37 torpedo to detonate in the tube in the torpedo room, or an inadvertent launch of a Mk 37 which came back and struck Scorpion.  Other analysis points to a possible explosion of hydrogen gas, built up to unsafe levels during a charge of batteries, that doomed Scorpion.

Much has been made of the abbreviation of her overhaul and the postponement of the SUBSAFE work (initiated in the wake of the loss of Thresher, SSN-593, in April of 1963) by the CNO, and the tagging out of the Emergency Main Ballast Tank system.   However, there seems little that points to any neglected maintenance or repair being responsible for the loss of the boat.

Regardless of the cause of the loss of Scorpion, the submarine carried 99 US Navy sailors to their deaths.  Her loss should stand as a reminder that plying the sea is a dangerous occupation, and that there is a a cost in lives for vigilance and readiness for war, even a Cold War.   It should also serve as a warning, that a Navy without sufficient ships and sailors to meet mission requirements in peace must compromise that readiness and vigilance, which has a far higher price in the unforgiving occupation of war at sea.

Jet Bombers Go To Sea

One of the Lexicans tipped me to this, from the National Museum of Naval Aviation.


Douglas’ A3D (later A-3) Skywarrior was the largest plane ever operationally deployed aboard carriers. Earlier attempts by the Navy to field a nuclear capable bomber at sea were… marginal at best. Some P2V (later P-2) Neptunes were intended to be launched as nuclear bombers, but no attempt was made at providing a capability of recovering them aboard. The later North American AJ (later A-2) Savage was a hybrid propulsion bomber, with twin reciprocating engines, and a small jet engine embedded in the tail. It was not a terribly successful aircraft.

About the time the A3D started entering into squadron service in significant numbers, advances in nuclear weapons reduced their size to the p0int where smaller tactical aircraft, such as the AD (later A-1) Skyraider and the A4D (later A-4)* could carry nuclear weapons. The widespread adoption of in flight refueling also meant smaller strike aircraft could reach well into the heart of the Soviet Union after launching from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The A3D, with its great size and payload capacity soon found itself adapted to roles beyond the nuclear strike mission. Variants would serve as tankers, electronic warfare platforms, reconnaissance jets and even as transport. A-3s did fly a handful of conventional strike missions during the Vietnam war, but rarely ventured into the contested skies above North Vietnam.


The last Navy A-3s finally retired in the early 1990s.

A Dangerous Business

Msgt. Anthony asked in the comments if I might cover the loss of reconnaissance assets during the Cold War. I once started research on it, but timing and the overwhelming nature of it meant it never came to fruition.

But it was certainly an occupation fraught with hazard. For a look at US Navy air reconnaissance losses during the Cold War, let’s turn to a brief brochure published by the NSA.

[scribd id=251297782 key=key-KXw2kfp6iUrNgXYjQ7R3 mode=scroll]

Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite

A component overview of the Hexagon System.
A component overview of the Hexagon System.

The CIA declassified portions of it’s KH-9 Hexagon imaging satellite in 2011. Hexagon was first deployed into space in 1971. Between 1977 and 1986 Hexagon performed 19 missions, imaging 877 million square miles of the Earth’s surface. The KH-9 was also the last and largest imaging satellite to return it’s photographic film to earth.

KH-9 being assembled by Lockheed.
KH-9 being assembled by Lockheed.

Hexagon was desgined to replace the Corona series imaging spacecraft:

The KH-9 was originally conceived in the early 1960s as a replacement for the Corona search satellites. The goal was to search large areas of the earth with a medium resolution camera. The KH-9 carried two main cameras, although a mapping camera was also carried on several missions. The photographic film from the cameras was sent to recoverable re-entry vehicles and returned to Earth, where the capsules were caught in mid-air by an aircraft. Four re-entry vehicles were carried on most missions, with a fifth added for missions that included a mapping camera.

Between September 1966 and July 1967, the contractors for the Hexagon subsystems were selected. LMSC was awarded the contract for the Satellite Basic Assembly (SBA), Perkin Elmer for the primary Sensor Subsystem (SS), McDonnell for the Reentry Vehicle (RV), RCA Astro-Electronics Division for the Film Take Up system, and Itek for the Stellar Index camera (SI). Integration and ground-testing of Satellite Vehicle 1 (SV-1) was completed in May 1971, and it was subsequently shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base in a 70 ft container. Ultimately, four generations (“blocks”) of KH-9 Hexagon reconnaissance satellites were developed. KH9-7 (1207) was the first to fly a Block-II panoramic camera and SBA. Block-III (vehicles 13 to 18) included upgrades to electrical distribution and batteries. Two added tanks with ullage control for the Orbit Adjust System (OAS) and new thrusters for the Reaction Control System (RCS) served to increase KH-9’s operational lifetime. In addition the nitrogen supply for the film transport system and the camera vessel was increased. Block-IV was equipped with an extended command system using plated wire memory.[9] In the mid 1970s, over 1000 people in the Danbury, Connecticut area worked on the secret project.[10]

A reentry vehicle from the first Hexagon satellite sank to 16,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean after its parachute failed. The USS Trieste II (DSV-1) retrieved its payload in April 1972 after a lengthy search but the film disintegrated due to the nine months underwater, leaving no usable photographs.[11]

Over the duration of the program the lifetime of the individual satellites increased steadily. The final KH-9 operated for up to 275 days. Different versions of the satellite varied in mass; most weighed 11,400 kg or 13,300 kg.

I suggest going through the Hexagon Wikipedia page as is there are some very interesting photos of the different components of the spacecraft.


In 2013, Phil Pressel wrote the definitive guide to Hexagon called: Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon Reconnaissance Satellite. From the Amazon book description;

Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon Reconnaissance Satellite is the recently declassified story of the design, development, production, and operation of the Hexagon KH-9 reconnaissance satellite. It provided invaluable photographic intelligence to the United States government, and it stands as one of the most complicated systems ever put into space. In 1965 CIA Director John McCone issued the call for a satellite with unparalleled technical requirements that could visually map most of the landmass of the earth, photograph selected areas of interest, and return the resulting film safely to Earth. Developed by the Perkin-Elmer Corporation and operated between 1971 and 1986 Hexagon was the last film-based orbiting photo-reconnaissance satellite. This engineering marvel features the following achievements: the world’s largest spherical thermal vacuum chamber used to test the system; the development and use of new and sophisticated electronics, such as LED’s and brushless motors; the ability to precisely control the synchronization of film traveling at up to 200 inches per second at the focal plane, on a rotating camera, mounted in a moving vehicle and focused on a moving earth; sixty miles of film used on each mission; and, stereo photography of the entire surface of the earth. When film captured by the satellite was sent back to earth it launched in a film-return capsule which was snagged by an aircraft as it parachuted downward upon reentering the earth’s atmosphere. In 1972 a film bucket containing sensitive images sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, resulting in a daring rescue three miles underwater by the U.S. Navy’s submergence vehicle Trieste II. Featuring both technical details and historical anecdotes, former Perkin-Elmer engineer Phil Pressel has written the definitive account of this important chapter in U.S. intelligence and aerospace history.

Seems like an interesting book and as such Mr. Pressel has done quite a few media interviews. I recently watched this one from the International Spy Museum in Washington DC:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmWlw8Ufo6Q&w=560&h=315]

As Mr. Pressel mentioned in the interview, you can view the KH-9 Hexagon at the National Museum of the USAF. I do recall seeing it there but being rather time limited I didn’t quite have an appreciation for exactly what I was looking at. I look at the satellite with a guide and to our amusement we noticed a piece of plywood acting as a bracing member on the airframe (granted the KH-9 there is a “mockup” used to troubleshoot problems the real satellites may be having in space).

The KH-9 Hexagon as display in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the USAF.
The KH-9 Hexagon as display in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the USAF.


Continental AD, SAGE, IBM, and the computer revolution

We wrote about the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment that managed Continental Air Defense during the Cold War. When they were first fielded, the AN/FSQ-7 computer was the most advanced digital computer to ever enter production.


Tiered Readiness is coming.

Today, under the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) plan, Brigade Combat Teams  (BCT) go through a cycle where they are deployed or ready to deploy, recovering from a deployment or readiness term, or are training up to regain their readiness to deploy. For the most part, all BCTs in the Army have, for the last decade or so, shared equally in cycle. The large numbers of BCTs needed for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan dictated that almost every  BCT would sooner or later get its turn in the barrel.

But with Iraq over, and Afghanistan winding down, fewer and fewer BCTs are being tapped to deploy overseas. Particularly, the heavy BCTs, with tanks and Bradleys, aren’t deploying to Afghanistan.

More importantly, the Army is running out of money. It has already made the choice to shutter a large number of BCTs (though the remaining BCTs will gain an additional maneuver battalion).

But even with those cuts, the budget for manpower, training, and operations is under pretty severe stress.

So the Army, despite promising itself it wouldn’t do so, is going to take something of a strategic risk.

Cancelled training. Deferred maintenance. Grounded aircraft. That’s been the damage to military readiness from the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration in 2013. Now the Vice-Chief of Staff of the Army says the service may have to keep many units at lower levels of readiness for years. This is not a short-term expedient but new policy.

“We’re looking at having certain number of brigades at a higher level of readiness,” Gen. John Campbell told me last week. “Many of our units will go down much lower.”

“Some people would call that tiered readiness, where we said we never were going to go again,” the Vice-Chief went on, referring to the Cold War practice where units not in West Germany or South Korea sometimes never received their full allotment of troops, equipment, and training dollars. “I’d call it progressive readiness.”

A preliminary plan may be ready for public discussion within weeks, Campbell said. “We’re working through that now,” he said, as the service builds its 2015-2019 budget plan, the Program Objective Memorandum.

Campbell’s remarks suggest new willingness on the Army leadership’s part to shift it position on readiness, one that’s been urged by many thinktanks.

“While Army leaders have avoided cutting readiness to every extent possible, it is no longer feasible under current budget plans – even before sequestration moves into year two,” argues Mackenzie Eaglen, one of the think tank experts who recommended cutting readiness levels to guarantee the military’s ability to develop and buy new weapons.

“There is already a readiness shortfall this year that is being funded through war spending and additional untold readiness gaps based on all the services receiving fewer resources than expected when Congress finally passed a defense appropriations bill for 2013,” she said.

It is hardly a perfect solution, but then, it’s also the world I knew back in my own days of service.

Some BCTs will still receive the money and manpower to stay at full readiness, known sometimes as C-1. Fully manned, and trained in all the essentials of the commanders Mission Essential Task List, and having gone through a cycle of training from individual skills to full up BCT sized operations in the field at one of the Combat Training Centers against a dedicated Opposing Force.

Other BCTs… not so much.

They’ll have less money for fuel and maintenance for their equipment. Fewer spare parts. A smaller allocation of ammunition for training. Likely, exercised at battalion and BCT level will be cancelled or curtailed. They’ll get fewer rotations at the Combat Training Centers. They’ll be last in line for receiving new equipment.

And perhaps most painfully, they’ll get fewer people.

We talked above about some units being fully manned. But the truth is, no unit is ever really fully manned. Let’s say a rifle company has an authorized strength of 100.  The Army says it will be fully manned. But you’ve got people transferring out, and waiting for new bodies to come in. Then you’ve got people on leave, at various Army schools, people who are sick or injured (they still count toward you being fully manned, but aren’t available for duty), troops who are awaiting discharge either for completing their service, or because they’re unsuitable for the Army. Then there are the demands placed from above. It is not at all unheard of for a higher echelon to levy units for manpower, either for a temporary tasking, or for extended periods. Our notional rifle company might be lucky to have 75 troops present at morning formation.

My first two duty stations, I was assigned to units that were fully manned. My third wasn’t quite as lucky. We were constantly understrength. While we always had enough people to fully crew our Bradleys, we had only enough troops left over to field a single, understrength rifle squad per platoon. We needed another 10 to 12 troops, per platoon, to be fully manned.

We had enough money and assets to train on individual skills, and small unit collective skills. But it is hard to train a platoon to fight properly when every bit of doctrine that governs employing the platoon assumes a much larger unit, with a good bit more tactical flexibility.

The Army’s reasoning is that for the foreseeable future, should these lower tier BCTs be needed for a fight, they’ll have time to plus up their manning, and their training. We can only hope they’re correct.

If not, we can always ask the survivors of Task Force Smith how things worked out for them.

Possible Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

Reports are coming out of Syria that pro-Assad forces have used a barrage of rockets to deliver a chemical weapon attack on a Free Syrian Army stronghold.

Just days after U.N. inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate the possible use of chemical weapons, opposition activists allege that as many as 650 people have been killed in a poison gas attack. Two anti-Assad opposition groups say that a large rocket attack in Damascus on Wednesday morning was actually a chemical weapons attack launched by the regime. If the reports are confirmed, it could also be one of the deadliest single incidents of the entire war. Syria’s state media agency denied the claims.

There are wildly differing reports on the casualties — from “dozens” to 213 to over 650 (and now an unthinkable 1,300) — and still no formal confirmation on the cause of death, but witnesses and reporters on the ground confirm that some kind of attack took place in the Syrian capital and that children are among the dead. Reuters reports that photographers, including their own, have taken images and videos that “showed scores of bodies including of small children, laid out on the floor of a medical clinic with no visible signs of injuries.” (You can see several such images here, though you should be warned that they are very graphic and the origins are not fully confirmed.) A lack of obvious wounds would suggest that some kind of poisoning may the cause.

Reuters also quotes a nurse saying the victims “arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths,” which are typical symbols of gas attack victims.

Since the end of World War I, for the most part, civilized nations have shunned the use of chemical weapons, even as they developed ever more deadly agents.

Treaties prohibiting the use of gas warfare were signed in the aftermath of the Great War, and have, for the most part, been followed, not so much because of the paper the treaties were written on, but because the danger of being the first to use chemical weapons had to be balanced against being the last to have chemical weapons used against you.

During World War II, neither the Axis nor the Allies used chemical warfare, despite extensive preparations to do so, largely because of the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, even though MAD would not become a formal strategic concept for another 20 years, during the nuclear era of the Cold War.

And indeed, that same concept of MAD held sway through the bi-polar world of the Cold War era, with some notable exceptions. The most notorious uses of chemical warfare are probably those associated with the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.  While the Iran-Iraq war wasn’t exactly a proxy war between the superpowers, most observers would argue that the Soviet Union saw it as useful for the tensions in the oil-rich region to be high, and serve as a distraction to the US. But neither superpower was willing to intervene when the combatants resorted to battlefield use of chemical weapons.

The unwillingness to use chemical weapons has never been altruistic, but rather a fear of repercussions.  The tacit (and sometimes explicit) policy was that the escalation of chemical warfare would bring swift, incredibly violent retribution.

But that’s simply not the case today, especially in a civil war such as Syria. The quandary facing the US and most of the West in Syria is that while Assad is aligned with Iran, and a rather implacable foe of us, the rebel forces are increasingly composed of Islamist, Al Qeda types who are even more committed in their hatred of the West.  Would any intervention by the US or other Western powers in any way advance our own interests?  The vast majority of the US polity may recoil in horror at the death of hundreds, or even thousands of Syrian civilians, but after well over a decade of war in the Islamic world, those same US voters have little stomach for risking Americans in a fight that has no possible upside for us.

President Obama has stated that the use of chemical weapons is a bright red line that the combatants in Syria cross at their peril. But is it?

And if we don’t respond, have we shown ourselves weak, and invited future, more ghastly uses of chemical weapons, either in civil wars, or upon our own future battlefields, or worse, a terror attack against America?

Foxtrot Sub b39

One of the results of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the wholesale distribution of former Soviet weapons around the world. In fact, the Russians sold an old Foxtrot class diesel electric submarine to private interests in Canada, who subsequently sold it to the San Diego Maritime Museum.

The Foxtrot class was a refinement of German U-Boats developed (but not deployed) at the end of World War II. Built in large numbers, the Foxtrots were the early backbone of the Cold War submarine fleet, until generally replaced by early Soviet Cold War nuclear subs.

The b39 now sits pierside along the Embarcadero, open to visitors, and is  a very interesting display of early 1950s state of the art.




Forward ‘Torpedo Room with six 21” tubes.




Diving controls


Fire control /Torpedo Director Computer


Main passageway looking forward


Main passageway looking aft into engine room


Pantry- Unlike US subs, Soviet sailors generally received a glass of wine a day, usually with the evening meal




Two of the three diesel main engines. Actually, those are the valve covers. The pistons and blocks are below decks.


Third diesel engine. The engines power electric motors for motive power on the surface, and charge banks of batteries for submerged power.




After torpedo room with four tubes.


Crew bunks in the after torpedo room. With 56 enlisted sailors aboard, there were only 27 bunks, meaning everyone had to “hot bunk” while aboard. Officers had far more comfortable accommodations, if still quite austere by Western standards.


Your humble scribe on an interior communications phone.

Goldwater Nichols ‘86 in the Post-Post-Cold War Era

Galrahn’ Information Dissemination is always a good place for some deep thinking. Especially since we so often disagree with him. Keeps us on our toes, as it were.

And G’s added another contributor to his site, Lazarus. Lazarus’ first piece takes a look at the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 that established our current Department of Defense organization and how the Joint Chiefs and the regional Combatant Commanders interact and interface with the civilian National Command Authority.

A good example of a piece of history that ought to be re-examined by historians is the defense reform movement of the 1980s and the notable legislation it produced. The effort’s primary product, the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 has for all intents and purposes become canon law for the U.S. military. It is referred to reverently in U.S. Defense publications as if it were the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta. Its legislative creators thought that empowering the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and his staff to manage service issues would end inter-service bickering, prevent future Vietnam wars, and free the nation from the tyranny of military novices like Lyndon Johnson picking military targets over lunch. Critics like Navy Secretary John Lehman countered that the legislation would not cut defense costs and would prevent the individual military services from effectively allocating resources and personnel to their respective areas of warfare expertise. What resulted was more of a compromise. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) gained considerable power at the expense of the military service chiefs but the organization of the JCS remained unaltered despite the efforts of reformers to replace it with a council of retired officers who would not have service-centric views.  Although intended to improve Cold War military planning and organization, it made its strongest claim for legitimacy in a post-Cold War conflict. Goldwater Nichols was widely touted by its legislative backers as one of the keys to victory in the 1991 Gulf War by preventing excessive service chief and civilian meddling in the conflict and organizing the disparate U.S. military service into a victorious joint force. Buoyed by these pronouncements Goldwater Nichols sailed on through the 1990s and 2000s, unlike many other Cold War-era programs and organizational doctrines without significant review.

One change G/N brought was that the Chairman of the JCS became the sole primary military advisor to the President, as opposed to the individual service chiefs. The idea was to reduce interservice rivalry. As Lazarus notes, it has been a shift from rivalry to simply protecting each service share of the defense dollar pie.

It also greatly increased the command authority of the combatant commanders (COCOM)  in the field. Effectively, while the Chairman is the principal military advisor, he has no command authority over the COCOMs. In operational command, he’s just the messenger between the NCA and the COCOMs.  The chain runs from the President to the SecDef to the COCOM.

The individual service chiefs, such as the Chief of Staff of the Army or the Commandant of the Marine Corps likewise have no command authority over operations. Instead, they are responsible for providing ready, trained, equipped forces to the COCOMs to fulfill their missions.

G/N had two other major influences. First, “jointness” was greatly stressed, in an effort to increase the interoperability of the services. This has lead to a requirement for officers wishing to advance to flag rank to serve time on a Joint Staff.  To some extent, reducing parochialism is a good idea. But it has also lead to a fair amount of “make work” postings, inventing jobs so people can get their ticket punched. And there is a risk that time spent outside a warfare specialty will lead to a dilution of the very skillset these officers are prized for. Tom Clancy once had one of his characters, Bart Mancuso, asking himself how serving on a joint staff better prepared him to serve as COMSUBPAC, the commander of all Pacific Fleet subs.

G/N also greatly pushed for a more centralized planning in procurement for the DoD. Intended to reduce duplication of effort, we would argue instead that the need to justify every Program of Record through the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) has merely added complexity to an already byzantine process.  Some commodity areas are well suited for centralized procurement, such as foodstuffs and medical supply. But can we not safely assume that when it comes to major end systems, the Navy is probably better suited to determining what they need in a new destroyer than a panel of civilians backed by a staff from all the services?  How many votes at the table should the Air Force get when the Army starts looking at what it wants from its next generation Ground Combat Vehicle.

Among the “working class” officers of the services, mostly field grade officers, there is a strong sense that G/N has lead to an explosion in the numbers of General Officer/Flag Officer positions (and of course, their bloated staffs!) that is wholly inconsistent with the smaller actual field forces available to the country. The easy example is our Navy currently having more Admirals than ships. All the services are somewhat guilty.

Is it time to scrap Goldwater/Nichols? Probably. I mused at Information Dissemination that the organization should probably be shuffled every 20 years or so just to shake things up.

But the question isn’t so much “Should we replace G/N?” but rather, “What should replace G/N?”

I’m certainly open to suggestion.