Carriers, Mobility, Stealth and Initiative

Think Defence today has a post on the difficulty a potential foe faces in finding a carrier at sea. It is (like virtually all content there) well worth reading the whole thing.

Aircraft carriers are difficult to detect.

Perhaps more importantly, they are difficult to identify. Regarding the difficulty of detection, the seas are very big and, in comparison, even the biggest of aircraft carriers are very small. Modern maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) have radars that have ranges of hundreds of nautical miles (nm) but oceans extend for thousands of nautical miles.

Moreover, radar impulses can be detected by electronic support measures (ESM) systems at significantly greater range than the radar can detect the platform (air or surface or even submarine) carrying the ESM. In wartime, an MPA using its radar gives itself away, opening the way to it either being intercepted and shot down before it can locate the carrier, or to the carrier simply altering course and avoiding the MPA.

Of course, MPAs also have ESM, but this works only if the carrier and its task group (Carrier Battle Group: CBG) are emitting electromagnetically.

But if the CBG has adopted strict electromagnetic silence (and it can do so & this is exercised), then there is nothing to detect. So the MPA is reduced to the Mark 1 eyeball as its only useful sensor.

When I think of most post-World War II significant carrier operations, I generally consider their use in Korea, Vietnam, and of course, operations in the Persian Gulf, where they essentially stayed in fixed positions, and acted like additional airfields. The lack of significant enemy ability to interdict our forces at sea allowed us to sacrifice one of the carrier task forces’ greatest assets, mobility, at little risk.

Prior to World War II, it was widely assumed that operating carrier forces within range of enemy land based airpower was a recipe for disaster, and that shore based airpower would quickly sink or damage any carrier force. The first clue that this wasn’t quite so true came December 7, 1941.

Successful, if not highly fruitful, US attacks against Japanese outposts in early 1942 showed that by choosing the time and place to attack, carriers could operate to impede or suppress shore based airpower, and retire out of range before an effective Japanese counterstroke could be brought to bear.

The Fast Carrier Task Force (TF38/TF58) would often operate in wide ranging support of amphibious landings in the Pacific War. While FCTC would of course raid the target of a landing, it would also strike enemy installations far afield, to deny the enemy the ability to reinforce the defense of our objective, and to a degree, to conceal our objective. The ability of the FCTF to move hundreds of miles each day, to attack in unexpected places, meant the Japanese often struggled to counterattack. It was only at times when the fast carriers were tied to an objective that the Japanese were able to mount large scale raids to attack our fleet. The most obvious example of this is the horrible attrition imposed on the fleet while supporting operations at Okinawa.

After the Vietnam War, the Navy looked at what it might be required to do in a World War III scenario versus the Soviet Union. The primary task was to secure the sea lanes to Europe. The primary Soviet threats to the sea lanes were submarines, and long range land based bombers armed with cruise missiles.  We’ll leave the discussion of the submarine threat to another time, but the Navy realized it would be called upon to stop the long range bomber threat, both as a threat to merchant shipping, and to the carrier forces themselves.  Soviet long range aviation had a much longer strike range than the organic airwing of carriers. To charge in and raid the Soviet bomber bases, the carriers would have to be able to avoid detection. And so they spent a fair portion of the coldest days of the Cold War learning to do just that.

The force transits to its objective area in complete electronic silence. Deceptive formations are used dispersed over a broad area to ensure any detection system does not see the classic “bullseye” formation made famous in countless Public Affairs shots and never used in operations. Broad surveillance systems are known so any detection method is countered either by denying sensor information, misleading, or providing expected results consistent with something else. For example, ESM systems rely on active emissions from radars or communication systems. So nothing is radiated. Overhead systems are in known orbits, are predictable, and their sensing capabilities known. So the track is varied, weather is sought out to hide in when vulnerable, blending into sea lanes (while staying out of visual detection range of ships) and such techniques. Deceptive lighting is used at night so that the obvious “blacked out warship” is instead thought to be a merchant or cruise liner. Surface search radar identical to commercial ones are used. Turn count masking is used by the ships. Aircraft maintenance on the CV and other helo equipped ships is limited to prevent transmissions.

In NORPAC 82 using these and other tactics the CV force operated close enough to support each other, but far enough and randomly dispersed to avoid identification by anyone. One night in bad weather a man went overboard when the ship was within 200nm of a Soviet airfield in the Kuril Island chain. Despite launch of helicopters and active search methods by several ships in the successful SAR, including clear voice UHF transmissions, the force is not detected because no Soviet asset was above the radar horizon. No overhead system was cued. The force continued on.

The Chinese have spent the last 20 years developing anti-access/area-denial tactics, techniques, and procedures. And to be sure, any operations against China would be significantly different than operations in the northern reaches of the Atlantic or Pacific.

But to blithely dismiss the ability of a carrier strike group to avoid detection (or at a minimum, to avoid being recognized as a carrier group) is to overlook the long history of carrier groups successfully approaching enemy shores.

Robert Farley isn’t a huge fan of the Air Force.

And he’s pretty willing to tell you all about it.

I haven’t read his  book (though if he sends me a review copy, I’ll be happy to).

But he’s been more than willing to engage in a debate on what is the best role for airpower, and what is the structure that best provides it.

Farley penned a piece titled “Ground the Air Force” laying out his arguments.

The United States needs air power, but it does not need an air force.

In fact, it never really did. The U.S. Air Force, founded in 1947, was the product of a decades-long campaign by aviation enthusiasts inside the U.S. Army. These advocates argued that air power could not achieve its promise under the leadership of ground commanders. With memories of the great bombing campaigns of World War II still fresh and a possible confrontation with the Soviets looming, the nation’s would-be cold warriors determined that the age of air power was upon them. But it wasn’t. Advocates of an independent air force had misinterpreted the lessons of World War II to draw faulty conclusions about air power’s future.

That piece, of course, invited a response by COL Robert Spalding:

Robert Farley (“Ground the Air Force,” December 19, 2013) is so far wide of the mark that he brings to mind the difference between the miss-by-a-mile bombs of World War II and the precision-guided bombs of today that fly through windows. The defense establishment is certainly in need of new ideas. But getting rid of the U.S. Air Force will do nothing to make the Pentagon more efficient or effective. In fact, such a move would do grave damage to our national security.

Farley argues that Pentagon planners pushed for an independent air force because they had “misinterpreted the lessons of World War II” to conclude that strategic bombing — massive air raids on enemy cities — represented the future of warfare. But military leaders favored an independent air force because of what they had learned from the North African campaign: When ground commanders controlled aircraft, the results were disastrous. As Colonel F. Randall Starbuck writes in Air Power in North Africa, 1942–43: “One example, relayed by General Doolittle, was the incident where a ground commander asked him to provide a fighter to cover a Jeep that was going out to repair a broken telephone line. He refused. The plane that would have wasted its time on that mission shot down two German Me-109s.”

Farley’s counterpoint is here:

Was the jeep ambushed? Were communications restored? How critical were these communications to maintaining offensive momentum? Did anyone bother to ask? Maybe Doolittle did, and maybe he had good reason to believe that, on that day, one of his planes could catch and kill two Bf109s.

Col. Starbuck doesn’t tell us, and Col. Spalding doesn’t seem to care.
And this, in short, is why some people don’t trust the Air Force with airpower.

Deciding how to use scarce resources is the essence of military decision-making. Every commander will run short of assets, and have to weigh values in order to decide to let some missions go while pursuing others. Air superiority is surely a critically important mission, but so is communications maintenance and ground force protection. Pre-emptively choosing one mission over the others amounts to dogmatism, not decision-making.

In the West, seemingly based solely on the precedent set by the establishment of the Royal Air Force in 1918, we tend to see forces divided into armies, navies,  and air forces. A nice, simple triad of services. Of course, then you get various adjuncts, such as the Marines and the Coast Guard. And other additions, such as Naval Aviation, Marine Corps Aviation, Army aviation, and so on.

But it is not graven upon stone that there must be such a triumvirate of services. Let us assume the Air Force were to be abolished, or at a minimum, significantly reorganized. What might such a force structure look like?

One possible example is the Soviet Union.


Sure, why not? We in the Army have been stealing tactics and operational procedures and even equipment design ideas from them for decades. Why not organizational ideas? The Soviet Union was, and Russia continues to be, primarily a continental power, while the US is primarily a seapower. But the Soviet model can still serve to show what a different organization might look like.

The primary force of the USSR was the Soviet Army. The senior leadership of the Ministry of Defense, at the joint level, was always Army. The geographical district commanders (or Fronts)  for the various theaters of the USSR were always Army. This provided a unity of command. Obviously, in the US forces, having some geographical theaters under Army command makes less sense. The Pacific Command has long been seen as the property of the Navy, and with good reason, both historically, and operationally.

The Soviet Navy, even when it grew to be a true blue water fleet, was always seen as a supporting force, and while its various fleets may not have been under the direct operational control of an Army theater commander, the needs of that theater commander greatly influenced the tasking of each fleet.

In addition to Naval Air Forces as part of the Soviet Navy, the Soviet Union operated three “air forces.”

The first, Frontal Aviation (or VVS), consisted of what we roughly consider tactical airpower. Frontal Aviation Armies were directly subordinate to their Front commander. That didn’t mean they were solely dedicated to close air support, but rather this subordination resulted in close synchronization of effort between land and air power to achieve the Front Commander’s mission.

The second Soviet air force was the national air defense force, or PVO Strany. Tasked with the air defense of the Motherland, PVO operated directly under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense, and was not concerned with providing air defense to deployed forces. PVO  had their own air defense radars, command and control system, and even completely different aircraft designs. PVO fulfilled a role very similar to our own  Air Defense Command, though it was a completely independent service, unlike ADC which was a subordinate command of the USAF.

The final “air force” wasn’t really and air force, but instead was an independent armed service devoted specifically to the Soviet Union’s nuclear deterrent. The Strategic Rocket Forces had little interaction with the other branches. Unlike in our own Air Force, where missileers were (and still are) often considered those who couldn’t hack it as pilots, the SRF was considered the very elite of the entire Soviet armed forces.

I’m not advocating that we suddenly adopt a similar structure for our own DoD. But changing times argue for a look at just what roles and missions we expect our services to do. And looking at how other forces address similar problems can stimulate thinking as we look to our own challenges.

And if the Air Force wants to remain relevant in the 21st Century, maybe they can come up with better arguments to address critics such as Farley than they have to date.

Linebacker II- The Soviet View

It’s been almost two years since we wrote about Operation Linebacker II, the Christmas bombing campaign that was the swan song of US aerial attacks on North Vietnam.

“Spill” just alerted me to this piece on the campaign- a review of the campaign by the senior Soviet advisor to North Vietnam for air defense.

[scribd id=197604331 key=key-1uwfqcqbfsd558n1wdxn mode=scroll]

A couple of points:

  • The lunacy of following SACs faulty mission planning made the North Vietnamese air defense problem much easier.
  • Air defense guns, while deadly to lower flying tactical aircraft, were virtually a non-starter against the B-52s.
  • The NV fighter regiments, while fairly capable during daylight, were ill trained to conduct night combat. Note that SAC planners had actually considered them the greater threat, in spite of the deployed aircrews argument that S-75 missiles (SA-2 SAMs) were the primary threat.
  • The fighter you don’t see is the one that kills you.
  • Electronic Warfare worked. Chaff worked too, and was cheaper. But a combination of chaff and jamming was better.
  • But jamming had to be well thought out. It could hurt almost as much as help.
  • The EA-6Bs weren’t allowed overland because of their highly sensitive jammers. The EB-66s weren’t allowed up north because they were vulnerable.
  • Even under the best of circumstances, it took a lot of SAMs to kill a plane.

What’s in a name?

Ugh. Hand me some aspirin, willya?

I’ve been doing some research on the Chinese OrBat, and it’s giving me a headache.

First, I don’t read or speak Chinese.

Second, I’m so set in my ways in understanding the basic nomenclature norms of Western and Soviet states that learning a new one is like teaching an old dog a new trick.

The Chinese have a nasty habit of restructuring their entire nomenclature system from time to time, and even worse, have lately adapted the execrable Western habit of allowing marketing names to actually become nomenclature. And a system sold for export will have an entirely different nomenclature for the export product, even if it is identical.

Actually, on the understanding of the Soviet nomenclature, that’s a bit of a misnomer. What I really understood was the NATO reporting names for most Soviet systems. While some stuff, like tanks (T-54/55, T-62, T-64, T-72, T-80) used the actual Soviet designation, a lot of stuff used a designation rather arbitrarily assigned by NATO. For instance, what I spent the first half of my life knowing as the SA-2 SAM Surface-to-Air Missile system, was really the S-75 Dvina. If I were to say Fresco, Farmer, Fishbed, Flogger, every fighter pilot in the West would know exactly that I meant the MiG-17, –19, –21, and –23. While the Soviets used those numbers, I have no idea what they actually nicknamed those jets.

Similarly, most groundpounders know what an AT-3 Sagger is, but might be a little fuzzy on just what the 9K11 Malyutka is.  I sometimes forget that the NATO reporting name isn’t really the name the Soviets gave things.

The standard NATO reporting name system (an outgrowth of the standard reporting names for Japanese planes in World War II) made understanding easy for peabrains like me.

There really isn’t a similar system for Chinese weapon systems. I’m starting to glean the basics of how the Chinese name things. And about the time I do, they’ll probably change their system again.

AGS-17 Automatic Grenade Launcher

First in a short series of posts on fairly obscure Soviet weapons.

You do recall that the Soviet Union and China had a series of division sized clashes along their shared border back in the 1960s, right?

Well, they did. And at the time, the preferred Chinese tactic was much as it had been during the Korean War- massed human wave attacks. That’s pretty tough if you’re part of the wave. But its also pretty tough to defend against.  The need to counter possible future attacks, along with reports from the Vietnamese about US automatic grenade launchers just entering service, prompted the Soviets to design their own.


It took a few years, and never saw action against Chinese forces, but by the early 1970s, the AGS-17 was in widespread use amongst Soviet forces. A fully automatic, blowback operated grenade launcher fired from a tripod, the launcher uses a 30mm x 29 casing, with high explosive fragmentation warhead. It’s fed by a non-disintegrating metallic link belt stored in a 29-round drum.

The launcher can be used in direct-fire mode against targets out to 800m for point targets, or area targets out to its maximum range of 1700m. Interestingly, it can also be used in high-angle fire, almost like an automatic mortar, to engage defilade targets.

The AGS-17 saw extensive use during Soviet operations in Afghanistan, where it proved quite useful firing against Mujahedeen positions, especially RPG and anti-tank teams.  Variants were developed for mounting on vehicles, helicopters, and aircraft.  It has also seen widespread use in Chechnya and other Russian operations.

A refined, lighter version, the AGS-30, has entered service and is slowly replacing the –17.


Have Doughnut

In 1966 an Iraqi Air Force pilot defected to Israel flying a Soviet built MiG-21. The followng year, the US Air Force acquired the jet and subjected it to a series of operational test flights against the array of US tactical aircraft. As the North Vietnamese had just started flying the MiG-21, it was important to give US flyers the information on how best to fight the MiG. The top secret operation was known as  Have Doughnut.

Recently, the OpEval was declassified. And here’s your copy.

[scribd id=181067137 key=key-210cn0l5rgau6b661y1z mode=scroll]

H/T The Aviationist.

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.

A couple of quick hits

Since tomorrow is a travel day and you likely won’t get a lot of content from me **nudge**Jason/URR/Roamy**nudge**, here’s a couple of bits.

Naval strategy, power projection, hardcore show of force, however you want to describe it. Back in the early 1980s, the Navy, with the newfound guidance of the Maritime Strategy, went out of its way to show the Soviet Union that our Navy could hold them at risk.

USNI blog as a neat little article about that, and then there’s also this.

Do we still have this strategic level thinking and operation capability after 10 years of supporting the War on Terror? I hope so. The strategic pivot to the Pacific will certainly have the brighter minds of the operating forces trying to attain that capability.


Of course, it’s hard to have a lot of faith in that when the Navy still struggles coming up with a simple uniform for sailors.


Relative to the first piece up there, Exercise Able Archer scared the crap out of the Soviets. They thought the balloon was going to go up. I think it is fair to say that without that near panic, future efforts between Reagan and Gorbachev to reduce tensions would not have come to pass. And without that, we might not have seen the fall of the Soviet Union. Or at any rate, such a collapse may have had a distinctly different flavor.



Did I share this picture of Sox before? I dunno. But I like it. So you get it again.