The Russian Navy

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the impressive blue water fleet built up by Admiral of the Fleet Gorshkov soon disintegrated into almost utter irrelevance. Russia simply had no money to maintain the fleet. Further, many of the hulls were obsolescent, held in service to artificially boost fleet size. 

Russia simply scrapped, abandoned, or sold off huge chunks of the fleet, focusing on maintaining a kernel of capability, primarily its nuclear armed ballistic missile submarine force.

Beginning about the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, however, as Russian economic fortunes began to improve, renewed emphasis was placed on naval capability.

The Office of Naval Intelligence recently released an overview of the Russian Navy’s past, and its current status.

[scribd id=293684910 key=key-BmJoy4imPSNSO7cY8nEK mode=scroll]

Take note that the first emphasis in renewed shipbuilding was on strategic capital ships. The top priority was to develop and deploy a new class of strategic ballistic missile submarines. The uttermost priority for Russia must be to continue to field a credible nuclear deterrence force.  After that, only then does submarine building focus on attack submarines.

Contrast that with developments in the surface forces. Shipbuilding capability, particularly for warships, is quite limited. And so rather than stress building large combatants, they’ve focused on building small, but quite capable, light combatants. New classes of corvettes, light frigates, and guided missile frigates are in production. Only after serial production of these types will Russia begin development of guided missile destroyers.

Note also that concurrent with our own Navy’s CNO’s emphasis on payloads over platforms, the Russians have taken a similar stance. Whereas our own LCS has a main battery consisting of a 57mm gun and Hellfire short range missiles, the Russian light warships have a Vertical Launch System capable of firing either the KALIBER series or YAKHONT series cruise missiles.

And Russia was sending a message recently when its corvettes and frigates used KALIBER cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea to attack targets in Syria. The targets almost certainly would have been easier to service via air strikes from Russian jets based in Syria. But that wouldn’t have served to remind a whole host of nations that Russia has a currently fielded capablity to conduct deep strike missile attacks at will from a stand off range that renders the launch platforms invulnerable.

The Russian Navy is unlikely to rise again to challenge the US Navy (nor the PLAN) for control of the high seas across the globe. But it is showing that it is becoming a genuine power in the region capable of complex operations and effective results.

VADM Crowder, Retired GOFOs, Double Standards, and Cognitive Dissonance


In the November 2015 issue of USNI Proceedings magazine, retired VADM Douglas Crowder asserted that retired Flag and General Officers should refrain from engaging in the political process , “stay on the sidelines, and away from public endorsements” of candidates in a general election.  In his “Hear This”, Crowder seems to believe the genesis of such activity was Admiral William Crowe’s endorsement of Bill Clinton.  In reality, however, such activities on the part of retired Generals and Admirals, including their entry into the political process as national candidates, goes back to the founding of our Republic.   There has never been a Constitutional prohibition on retired GOFOs participating in the political process, up to and including using the titles of rank that they have earned in the expression of their views and opinions.

For some reason, we are suddenly hearing that such Constitutionally-protected free speech is now “dangerous”, that it could lead to a “politicization” of the Armed Forces.   General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the senior Officer on the active list, intimated such when he called that free speech “unhelpful”,  and later scolded retired GOFOs for exercising their rights.  Apparently he missed the irony of an active agent of the US Government engaging in behavior that has a “chilling effect” on free speech, conduct expressly forbidden as a violation of the very Constitution which Dempsey swore an oath to support and defend.  Indeed, Dempsey’s immoderate and despicable conduct illustrates the two things very wrong with VADM Crowder’s admonitions.  The first is that there is virtually no complaint or outcry when a GOFO goes on record, either in print or the visual media, expressing support for the far-left agenda.   As an example, the gay and lesbian retired GOFOs who openly advocated repeal of DADT were described as being “courageous”, some were even lauded at Obama’s State of the Union addresses.  So how is it that, when contrary to the agenda of the far-left, such political expression becomes dangerous?   It can’t be.  Unless there is a double standard when it comes to Constitutional liberties.  Heaven forfend.   And, here is where the cognitive dissonance begins.   In this month’s Proceedings, Navy Commander Michael Wisecup cautions us on such dangers of retired GOFOs:

“…think of the implications to our profession if a political party could endorse and groom select active-duty (O)fficers into greater positions of authority in order to advocate for their platform.”

Which brings us to the far more disturbing issue that is wrong with VADM Crowder’s (and CDR Wisecup’s) assertions.  They have little to do with the true danger, the increasing trend of active-duty Officers carrying the political water for their masters.  Warning of the dangers of the lawful free expression assiduously ignores damage being done by the increasingly-politicized GOFO ranks at the top of our Armed Forces under Barack Obama.  Advocate for political platforms?  Are you kidding me?  Such instances are impossible to miss.

  • Martin Dempsey’s admonition against lawful free expression was not limited to simply criticism of retired GOFOs who are private citizens.  No, General Dempsey, while in the execution of his duties as an active duty  Military Officer, admonished a PRIVATE CITIZEN to desist from lawful free expression that the General found disagreeable.  Dempsey should have been relieved of his duties.  Had he had such objections to retired GOFOs speaking out in support of the far-left agenda of his political master, he would have been relieved had he not kept his mouth shut.
  • Admiral Mike Mullen’s shameful charade in front of Congress, when he offered, unprompted, his personal views on repeal of DADT, and proceeded to inform the US Military that any disagreement with them would be considered lack of integrity.  Such arrogance and poor judgment also should have been met with censure, but instead Mullen was declared a hero for advancing the political agenda of the far left.  That he lost any remaining respect from many of those he was charged with leading mattered little to him.  Mullen did, however, admonish Army MajGen Mixon for advising his soldiers to utilize their Constitutional rights in addressing their Congressional representatives.
  • After the Islamist terrorist act at Fort Hood in 2009,  in which Maj Nidal Hasan screamed “Allahu Akbar!” while shooting 45 Americans, mostly service members, 13 of them fatally, Army Chief of Staff Casey never addressed how a known Islamist extremist might have been accessed into his Army, or how he managed to be promoted to Major.  Instead, in an act of pathetic political sycophancy, Casey hoped the Islamist terrorism (still called “workplace violence”) would not affect US Army diversity efforts.
  • Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, also pushed incessantly for the codified racial and sexual discrimination known as “diversity”, instead of ensuring the United States Navy was organized, trained, and equipped to fight a war at sea.  The Navy, following his tenure as CNO, is woefully unprepared for such an eventuality.  However, it seemed far more important to Roughead that the Navy “looked like America”, selecting and promoting its leaders on criteria other than merit and suitability.  Race and gender (and sexual preference) have replaced competence and performance.  The mess Roughead made will take a decade to clean up, if it even can be.
  • In the midst of a sabre-rattling North Korea, with its rapidly increasing ballistic missile capability and nuclear weapons development, and a PLA Navy becoming ever more aggressive and capable, openly hostile to US interests and that of our allies in the Pacific Rim, COMUSPACOM Admiral Sam Locklear declared that the biggest security threat facing his forces was…….   global warming.
  • As part of the debacle of being relieved for cause as COMUSFOR-A, (ironically, because he and his Officers were highly critical of political leadership) Army General Stanley McChrystal let it be known he had voted for Barack Obama.  Revealing whom one voted for while speaking as an active duty Officer was once considered a serious taboo.  In fact, I don’t know if I can recall any senior Officer acknowledging such quite so publicly.  To the surprise of nobody, as soon as he retired, McCrystal went on to rail about his support for gun control and other leftist agenda items.  Nary a peep of protest from Dempsey.
  • Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USMC General “Hoss” Cartwright openly described Constitutional limitations to the authority of the Defense Department as “obstacles” to mission accomplishment rather than necessary bulwarks for the preservation of individual liberties.  In what context?  To push Barack Obama’s July 2009 agenda to expand the authority of Government over the internet, specifically privately-owned networks and information infrastructure.

Advocating for political platforms, indeed.  Yes, it is sometimes a tricky course to navigate, to follow the orders of the President as Commander in Chief, without being an active agent in his advancing a domestic political agenda.  But that is why much is expected (or had been, at least) of the professionalism and judgment of senior Officers.  Admiral William Leahy, despite his personal bent toward Republican conservatism, was able to serve his President, New-Dealer Franklin Roosevelt, loyally and superbly throughout the Second World War.  As did Dwight Eisenhower, who would become the Republican nominee in 1952.   There seem to be an ever-shrinking number of GOFOs in the higher ranks of our military with the character and willingness to do so.

The increasing politicization of the senior leadership of the Armed Forces of the United States means such egregious political pandering and subversion of our Constitution will increase, not decrease.  Yet, people like VADM Crowder and CDR Wisecup seem to think it is the RETIRED GOFOs that pose the danger to seeing our Armed Forces become yet another government weapon to be used against political opposition instead of fighting and winning our nation’s wars against America’s enemies.   I find that quite concerning.  Once again, just like we are told after yet another act of Islamist terrorism that law-abiding Americans are to blame for exercising their Constitutional liberties under the Second Amendment, it is actually the GOFO retirees who are the problem, not the invertebrate political lap-dogs on active duty doing the bidding of the left, and that those retirees should refrain from exercising their Constitutional liberties under the First Amendment.    Each of those assertions requires the embracing of a dangerous double standard.   And each requires a generous helping of cognitive dissonance.  A disturbing trend, to be sure.


SWO’s on the go.

CDR Salamander is writing at the USNI blog again. As usual, he’s concerned about the poor shipbuilding program that resulted in the LCS and the DDG-1000, and the lack of offensive firepower in the surface fleet.

And, as usual, he shows the conflict between the traditionalists and the transformationalists.

We have been floundering since the end of the Cold War when it comes to our ability to advance the fight from our warships. “Build a little, test a little, learn a lot” has morphed in to “Spend a lot, testify in front of Congress a lot, learn new ways to make PPT slides.”

But Sal sees a ray of hope, this one emanating from the current Director Surface Warfare (N96), Rear Admiral Pete Fanta.

Fanta is basically arguing that the current risk adverse system stifles innovation, and is not allowing existing systems and platforms to be developed to their full potential. For instance, we’ve all spent the last quarter century watching the Tomahawk missile be used as the weapon of choice for land attack from the sea. The original anti-ship version of the missile was retired because the long time of flight meant that it was quite likely its intended target would move outside the radar seeker field of view before it arrived, and the risk of attacking innocent neutral shipping was too high. It was simply assumed tactical air would handle shipping strikes at longer ranges.

But improved network capabilities and vastly more powerful electronics* mean we should be able to incorporate more modes of attack. We chatted with SWO Pro Bryan McGrath a few weeks ago, and the coming improved capabilities of the Tomahawk were to him pretty much the most exciting development in the near term for increased lethality in the surface force.

Similarly, Rear Admiral Jon Hill discussed adding offensive capabilities to the Standard Missile SM-6. SM-6 is an active radar guided air defense missile that is the primary air defense weapon of the Aegis equipped destroyers. Its primary mission is to shoot down airplanes and missiles.

But there is no fundamental reason why we can’t use it for other missions. For instance, an autopilot with INS/GPS and midcourse guidance from the Aegis system yields an incredibly efficient kinematic flight profile. Coupled with the active radar seeker and a backup imaging infrared seeker, software updates should allow an anti-surface warfare use.  The warhead is hardly optimized for this role, but given the lack of armor on virtually all modern warships, it would still pose a considerable threat.  A land attack role should be easily feasible. While it would be a very expensive approach for most missions, it would be quite well suited for the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) role.

For instance, as we noted yesterday, the Russians have deployed the formidable S-400 SAM system in Syria.  Suppressing the system is normally seen as a job for E/A-18G Growlers working with jammers and HARM missiles. But if the location of the system can be pinpointed, why not toss a couple SM-6s from over a hundred miles away? If nothing else, while the S-400 is busy dealing with that (all while being jammed by the Growler) other systems can close in to finish it off in a more traditional manner.

RADM Fanta is right, that there is enormous room for improvement at relatively low cost, that good, workable ideas are out there in the fleet, and that not every program needs to be a massive top down all up system of systems transformation. Let’s hope his style begins to catch on.


*The original Harpoon and Tomahawk ASM seekers were late sixties, early seventies technology, fielded in the early eighties. Take a look the computer or phone you’re reading this on. Do you think there might be room for improvement on Tomahawk?

20 November 1943 Tarawa; Keep Moving

Originally posted 20 November 2009:

The buildings in the “regimental area” of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina are modest, post-war brick buildings that, to the visitor’s eye, look more or less alike. Yet, each of the Marine Regiments of the Second Marine Division has its own storied history and battle honors.  As Captain J. W. Thomason wrote in his Great War masterpiece Fix Bayonets, these histories represent the “…traditions of things endured and things accomplished, such as Regiments hand down forever.”

There are symbols of these honors for one to see, if you know where to look. On a thousand trips past those symbols, there is one that never failed to make me pause and reflect. On the headquarters building for the 2d Marine Regiment hangs their unit crest. Aside from the unit name, the crest contains only three words. They are in English and not Latin, and they are not a catch phrase nor a bold proclamation of a warrior philosophy. They are simple and stark. Across the top of the unit crest is the word “TARAWA”. And at the bottom, the grim admonition, “KEEP MOVING”.


It was 66 years ago on this date that the Second Marine Division began the assault on Betio Island, in the Tarawa Atoll. The island, roughly two thirds of the size of my college’s small campus, was the most heavily fortified beach in the world. Of the Second Marine Division, the 2nd Marine Regiment (known as “Second Marines”) landed two battalions abreast on beaches Red 1 and Red 2. The assault began what was described as “seventy-six stark and bitter hours” of the most brutal combat of the Pacific War. More than 1,000 Marines and Sailors were killed, nearly 2,300 wounded, along with nearly 5,000 Japanese dead, in the maelstrom of heat, sand, fire, and smoke that was Betio.

Assault on Betio's Northern beaches

Assault on Betio’s Northern beaches

Marine Dead on Beach Red 1

Marine Dead on Beach Red 1

I will not detail the fighting for Betio here, as there are many other sources for that information. Nor will I debate whether the terrible price paid for Betio was too high. What cannot be debated is the extraordinary heroism of the Marines and Sailors who fought to secure the 1.1 square miles of baking sand and wrest it from the grasp of an entrenched, fortified, and determined enemy. The fighting was described as “utmost savagery”, and casualties among Marine officers and NCOs were extremely high. As one Marine stated, initiative and courage were absolute necessities. Corporals commanded platoons, and Staff Sergeants, companies.

Marines assault over coconut log wall on Beach Red 2

Marines assault over coconut log wall on Beach Red 2

The book by the late Robert Sherrod, “Tarawa, The Story of a Battle”, is a magnificent read. Another is Eric Hammel’s “76 Hours”. Also “Utmost Savagery”, by Joe Alexander, who additionally produced the WWII commemorative “Across the Reef”, an excellent compilation of primary source material. For video, The History Channel produced a 50th anniversary documentary on the battle, titled “Death Tide at Tarawa”, in November 1993. I also highly recommend finding and watching this superb production. It is narrated by Edward Hermann, and interviews many of the battle’s veterans, including Robert Sherrod, MajGen Mike Ryan, and others, who provide chilling and inspiring commentary of the fighting and of the terrible carnage of those three days.

 Master Sgt. James M. Fawcett, left and Capt. Kyle Corcoran salute Fawcett's father's ashes on Red Beach 1. MSgt Fawcett's father landed on Red 1 on 20 Nov 1943.

Master Sgt. James M. Fawcett, left and Capt. Kyle Corcoran salute Fawcett’s father’s ashes on Red Beach 1. MSgt Fawcett’s father landed on Red 1 on 20 Nov 1943.

Tarawa remains a proud and grim chapter in the battle histories of the units of the Second Marine Division. Each outfit, the 2nd, 6th, 8th, and 10th Marines, 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Tracks, and miscellaneous support units, fought superbly against frightful odds and a fearsome enemy. It is on the Unit Crest of the 2nd Marines, whose battalions paid the highest price for Betio, that the most poignant of those histories is remembered. Three simple words: “TARAWA; KEEP MOVING”.


The Day of Battle- USS Hornet at The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

With URR’s excellent weekend posts of covering the turning of the tide of the Solomon’s Campaign at the 1st and 2nd Naval Battles of Guadalcanal, let’s look at another grim moment in the campaign. This one took place three weeks prior, and at the time, was seen as a defeat. Indeed, the battle of Santa Cruz would set the stage that would lead to the November battles URR chronicled.

The pattern of the Solomons campaign was that surface warfare groups of destroyers and cruisers and occasionally battleships would operate daily (or rather, nightly) in the waters east of Guadalcanal, in the famed “Slot” of the Solomon Islands chain. Major operations, such as reinforcement convoys, either US or Japanese, would receive wide ranging support from carrier task forces attempting to provide air superiority. Intelligence services on both sides tended to note when such surges occurred, meaning that if our forces sortied carriers, the Japanese would surge theirs as well.

In late October 1942, while the issue ashore on Guadalcanal was very much in the balance, and the Japanese planned a major offensive by ground forces on the island to pierce the American lines. Supporting the operations ashore, the Japanese planned a major naval effort. The US Navy moved to counter this effort.

On 26 October, 1942, north of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Japanese and American carrier fleets would clash. During the battle, the USS Hornet, the newest carrier in the fleet, would be left a smouldering wreck, to be later sunk by Japanese destroyers.

One of the most amazing aspects of this battle was that the attack on Hornet was actually filmed by Navy combat camera crews.


The other US carrier, USS Enterprise, would be heavily damaged.  Of the eight carriers the US Navy built before the war began, only three would survive the war. USS Saratoga, USS Ranger, and USS Enterprise. Ranger was in the Atlantic, readying for the invasion of North Africa, and Saratoga was in drydock for repairs after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in August. USS Enterprise, badly damaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz, was repaired in forward waters. For a brief time, the US simply had no available carriers.

But while the US was losing carriers at an appalling rate, they also had literally dozens of fleet and light carriers under production.

The US Navy grasped that, but that was cold comfort when the Japanese Navy still possessed a force of several excellent fleet carriers.

What the US Navy soon grasped though, was that the heart of Japanese Naval Aviation wasn’t the carriers, but the naval aviators. The US Navy had a stupendously large training establishment that would churn out thousands upon thousands of well trained aviators. The Japanese, on the other hand, had a small, elite cadre of exquisitely trained carrier pilots. Unfortunately for Japan, the sustained operations since Pearl Harbor, and the very heavy losses of the Battle of Santa Cruz had gutted the ranks of aviators. The remaining Japanese carriers simply had no one to fly from their decks.

The Japanese Navy would spend the next 18 months struggling to train aircrews for their carrier fleet.  But lacking the investment in training resources the US could apply, they managed to produce numbers, but not quality.

The shortcomings of Japanese training would be apparent when, a year and a half later, the US invaded the Marianas. Officially the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot would see the results of 18 months of training utterly devastated by well trained US carrier air wings in possibly the greatest one sided aerial massacre of all time.

To this day, the US Navy spends a ridiculous amount on training its aviators. And it is worth every penny.

About that Freedom of Navigation Exercise last week in the South China Sea.

So, on October 27, the USS Lassen conducted a Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise in the South China Sea (SCS) sailing within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese built artificial island in the area.  Historically, and under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), artificial islands have never been recognized as sovereign territory, and thus, have no territorial waters associated with them. * That is, all the ships and planes of the world are able to freely operate or conduct commerce in those waters, including transit or passage, or fishing, or routine military operations. There are any number of places in the world where nations have staked out a claim of territorial waters, and the US has responded by conducting FON exercises. Probably the most famous was the 1986 Gulf of Sidra “Line of Death” incident, where Muhamar Ghaddaffi declared the gulf as territorial waters for Libya. The US Navy promptly mounted large scale FON exercises in those waters, with destroyers operating just outside the recognized 12nm territorial limit, and placing Combat Air Patrols well inside the limits claimed by Libya.

Libya responded with hostile acts that quickly ended badly for Libya.


Don’t bring a Nanchuka corvette to an A-6 Intruder fight.

While tensions with China aren’t as great as those with Libya in 1986, they are also likely a greater cause for concern in the long run.

After news leaked out that the Navy had not conducted any FON exercises near the artificial islands in the SCS, eventually the White House caved pressure from Congress, leading to USS Lassen’s voyage.

But as @AmericanHipple of CIMSEC notes, Chris Cavas writing in shows us that the exercise may accidentally undermine the Freedom of Navigation exercise.

New details about the Lassen’s transit became available Oct. 30 from a US Navy source, who said the warship took steps to indicate it was making a lawful innocent passage with no warlike intent. The ship’s fire control radars were turned off and it flew no helicopters, the source said. Although a US Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft was in the area, it did not cross inside the 12 nautical mile limit.

Here’s the problem with the statement from that source- innocent passage.

Innocent passage is a well established legal doctrine, both historically and under UNCLOS, that applies only to territorial waters of a sovereign state.

UPDATE: A clarification from Matt Hipple. He’s not arguing that it was an exercise in futility, but notes that if in fact it was conducted as Innocent Passage, it undermines the entire point of the FON exercise. It should be noted that Hipple’s views are his personal views, and not necessarily those of the United States Navy nor CIMSEC.

That’s not to say the US should commit overtly hostile acts within the areas claimed by China. But to fail to exercise genuine Freedom of Navigation, and to characterize the voyage as innocent passage is to tacitly acknowledge Chinese sovereignty.

Several actions could and should have taken place to emphasize that the US considers the waters to be international, and not territorial. Sailing on varied  courses and speeds, having the accompanying P-8A enter the 12nm zone, flying the embarked ship’s helicopter while within 12nm, and conducting fire control tracking drills against that helicopter, and small boat operations all would serve to drive home the point that the international waters of the world are available for the use of all nations.

Speaking of CIMSEC, a couple of Hipple’s coauthors have a very interesting piece on the paramilitary aspects of Chinese maritime power, and how they use it to frustrate US and other nations efforts in the region.

*Nor do they have an associated 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone, which actually might be of more interest to China.

Tracer 601, Ball, 3.2

If you’ve ever seen Top Gun, you’ve seen Maverick and Goose return to the carrier, and the Landing Signal Officer calls “Three quarters of a mile, call the ball.”

The ball call in naval aviation tells the LSO far more than simply that the pilot has the optical landing system in sight.

The reply is as shown in the title, Tracer 601, ball, 3.2. First, let me steal a post in it’s entirety from Steeljaw Scribe.

“Hawkeye, Ball…”

Since the E-2A went to sea in the early 1960’s, “Hawkeye” was the name used for the ball call to the LSOs. Later iterations of the E-2C continued that practice but distinguished the a/c type by markings on the nose (a white “II” for Group 2 E-2s, or a “+” for H2Ks today). The Advanced Hawkeye, however being heavier than the E-2C required something more than just “Hawkeye” but kept to a single word. In doing so, VAW heritage was called upon and just as “Steeljaw” has been used for special evolutions for the new Hawkeye, the E-2’s predecessor, the E-1B Tracer (or WF – ‘Willie Fudd’) was called upon. Now, with an E-2D on the ball, you’ll hear “Tracer, ball…”

Click to much greatly embiggenfy.

The first part of the reply tells the LSO (and more importantly, the arresting gear operators) what type of aircraft is on approach. That matters, because the arresting gear is adjustable, providing varying amounts of braking power based on the weight of the aircraft being arrested.  The arresting gear is always set to the maximum permissible landing weight for a given type of aircraft. But if the engine weight is set wrong, the result can be a broken aircraft, a parted arresting wire, or a failure to stop the aircraft in time. All these possibilities can lead to damage or loss of an aircraft, or worse, loss of life.

The second element, “601” is the aircraft’s MODEX number. Each squadron in an airwing is assigned a range of numbers, starting with 100 for the first squadron, 200 for the second squadron, and so on. With 5 E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes in a squadron, you’d normally see the MODEXs assigned as 600, 601, 602, 603, and 604.  Calling the MODEX lets the LSO know which crew he’s dealing with, as well as helping the Air Boss keep track of which crews he has airborne, and which are recovered.

The final element, the “3.2” is the remaining fuel on board the aircraft, measured in thousands of pounds, in this case, three thousand, two hundred pounds. Telling the LSO (and the Air Boss) the fuel on board helps keep them informed. Should the aircraft bolter (that is, not make an arrested landing, for whatever reason) knowing the fuel on board lets them know how much longer the aircraft can stay airborne. That helps them decide when or whether to send the plane to a tanker, or “Bingo” them, that is, divert them to a shore base.

A ball call can also contain a final element, either “Manual” or “Auto.”  This tells the LSO if the plane on approach is manually controlling the throttles, or letting the autothrottle (actually the Approach Power Compensator) control the approach.  Which method is used impacts how the LSO controls the approach and what calls he makes for corrections on the approach.

The Battle off Samar

For two decades prior to World War II, both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy assumed any war in the Pacific would culminate in a decisive battle in the waters off the Philippines archipelago.

B0th navies built their fleets, their doctrine, their weapons, and their training around this assumption. And in late October, 1944, that battle was joined, the largest naval battle in history, The Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Spread over three days, and hundreds of thousands of square miles, it was a decisive defeat for the IJN. But on the 25th of October, one portion of the battle was very nearly a catastrophe for the US Navy, and only by the dint of extraordinary heroism and sacrifice was disaster averted.

In mid 1944, having consolidated the capture of the Marianas island chain, the Navy actually argued to bypass the Philippines, and instead invade Formosa.* But shipping and a shortage of available Army troops meant any invasion of Formosa would be delayed an unacceptable length of time. With the resources available, an invasion of the Philippines was practical. Further, GEN MacArthur strongly argued that the US had a moral obligation to fulfill his promise to return. The Philippine people, and all other Asian nations, he argued, would never forgive the US for a failure to attempt to liberate conquered peoples.

GEN MacArthur won the argument. The next objective in the Pacific would be his target. But President Roosevelt was loathe to place either MacArthur subordinate to ADM Nimitz, or ADM Nimitz under MacArthur. And so were sewn seeds of disunity of command.

Under Nimitz, VADM Halsey lead the Third Fleet in direct support of the invasion. But the actual invasion forces were under the US Seventh Fleet, which was under GEN MacArthur’s command.

The IJN plan to counter the invasion was, as so many of their plans, a complex one that divided the Japanese fleet into three forces, the Northern Force, the Center Force, and the Southern Force.

Northern Force was centered around the remnants of the Japanese carrier fleet. But the air wings of the fleet had been ground to a nub months earlier in the Great Marianas Turkey shoot, and so the force carried only a paltry 108 planes. It was, in actuality, a sacrificial decoy force, intended to draw Halsey and his stupendously powerful Fast Carrier Task Force away to the north.

The rest of the Japanese plan was for the Center force to pass north of Samar, and for the Southern Force to pass through the Surigao Strait, and for both to fall upon the lightly defended invasion forces at Leyte.

It didn’t turn out that way. The Center Force was attacked during the day of October 24th by Halsey’s carriers, and forced to turn back. The Southern Force, harassed by submarine and air attack was later annihilated in the Surigao Strait by waves of destroyer torpedo attacks and a masterful battleship and cruiser gun line in history’s last “Big Gun” naval battle.

The decisive victory had been won! Except, it hadn’t.

In the waters to the east of Samar, under the Seventh Fleet, three groups of small escort carriers were providing close air support to the troops ashore, and a Combat Air Patrol over the invasion fleet. Escort Carriers, known as CVE, were jokingly said to be Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable. Based on converted merchant hulls, they lacked many of the survivability measure of warships. Armed with a single 5”/38 gun on the stern, and with an airwing of about two dozen FM-2 Wildcat and TBM Avengers, they were well suited for their role supporting invasion forces.

Three groups of six CVEs were operated in support of the invasion, with the call sign “Taffy.” Taffy 3 was the northernmost group, under RADM Clifton A. F. Sprague.** In total, Taffy 3 had those six carriers, and an escort of three Destroyers (DD) and four Destroyer Escorts (DE).

At 0637 on October 25, 1944, a scout pilot from Taffy 3 was astonished to spot a massive Japanese force coming round Samar and headed right for Taffy 3. The Center Force, under ADM Kurita, turned back the day before, had countermarched and resumed its mission.  The thirteen fragile ships of Taffy 3 now faced a force of four battleships, six heavy cruisers armed with 8” guns, two light cruisers armed with 6” guns, and eleven destroyers.  Taffy 3 was doomed. No force could withstand such an onslaught.

Instantly, RADM Sprague made a series of decisions, every one of them correct. First, he called for help, especially from the other escort carrier groups. Second, he immediately turned away from the Center Force and ran as fast as his carriers could go. And third, he began launching every plane he could to throw at the Japanese. And fourth, he had his ships begin laying as much smoke as possible. While US ships used radar fire control, the Japanese fleet was still restricted to optical fire control.

An escort carrier had a maximum speed of about 18 knots. Every ship in the Japanese force was at least 10 knots faster, and many were twice as fast. Sooner or later, the Japanese would be able to run down the carriers.

The escorting destroyers and destroyer escorts place themselves between the carriers and the oncoming armada. USS Johnston, under the command of CDR Earnest Evans, immediately turned to make a torpedo attack on the Japanese. Soon the destroyer USS Hoel joined, and the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts as well. All three would soon be sunk with heavy loss of life. But the combined efforts of these three ships and the others of the escort, the furious air attacks by Taffy 3’s planes and those of the other escort groups staved off complete disaster.

In the end, ADM Kurita’s heavy cruisers first slowed, then sank the escort carrier USS Gambier Bay.


An 8-inch salvo from either Japanese cruiser Tone or Chikuma straddles the burning U.S. escort carrier Gambier Bay on October 25, 1944 during the Battle off Samar. The Japanese cruiser can be faintly seen in the center right of the photograph.

But the storm of fire from the escorts and the American planes cost the Japanese three heavy cruisers sunk, and three badly damaged. ADM Kurita, with victory within his grasp, took counsel of his fears. He recalled his force and attempted to make good his escape.

In just over two hours,the Japanese had inflicted 1000 fatalities upon Taffy 3, and sunk four ships.

But as historian Samuel Elliott Morrison notes his history of the battle, ADM Kurita’s failure was a very minor tactical victory when he should have inflicted a major operational defeat upon the US Navy. The IJN in October 1944 was a spent force. The role of the Center Force was a suicide mission. Had he persisted, he could have further battered Taffy 3, and far more importantly, he could have fallen amongst the invasion forces and done unimaginable slaughter to them.

While Taffy 3 escaped annihilation at the hands of ADM Kurita’s Center Force, it’s ordeal that day was far from over. Possibly the most fear inducing weapon the Japanese fielded in the war made its debut an hour later. For the first time, the Kamikaze corps would dive their planes to their doom, and their targets were the thin decks of the carriers of Taffy three. USS Kalinin Bay would suffer ghastly damage, and the USS St. Lo***, already badly damaged by gunfire, would succumb to a Kamikaze.

In the dark days of the summer and autumn of 1942 during desperate fighting in the Solomons Islands, US Navy ships, equipment, doctrine, leadership and training were often overmatched by their Japanese counterparts. Two years later, under some of the most trying circumstances imaginable, young sailors, many who had never been to sea before a few months before, performed magnificently, a feat of gallantry and bravery that has few, if any, rivals in US Navy history.

Should you be interested in learning more of this battle, I strongly recommend Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer, and Samuel Elliot Morrison’s The Two Ocean War.

*Now known as Taiwan

**In an historical oddity, the southernmost group was under RADM Thomas Sprague, no relation to Clifton

***USS St. Lo was originally commissioned USS Midway, but that name was “clawed back” for the CVB class carrier CVB-41. Sailors say it is bad luck to rename a ship.

‘England Expects Every Man to Do His Duty’


When the fragile Peace of Amiens collapsed after just fourteen months in May of 1803, triggering the War of the Third Coalition, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was determined to invade England.  His goal was to remove once and for all the British interference with his plans for the conquest of Europe. In 1803, England was a part of that ultimately unsuccessful Third Coalition (Austria, Russia, England, Sweden, the Holy Roman Empire, Napoli and Sicily) opposing France and Napoleon’s alliance which included Spain, Württemberg, and Bavaria.

The main obstacle to those invasion plans, as had been so often in the past (and would be in the future) was the Royal Navy. Britain had stood, alone, against revolutionary Republican France, and against Napoleon, at various times between 1789 and 1803. In the autumn of 1805, a combined French and Spanish fleet under French Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve, operating in the western approaches of the Mediterranean, were to combine with other squadrons at Brest and elsewhere to challenge the Royal Navy’s sea power in the English Channel.

Lord Nelson, after less than a month ashore from two years at sea, was ordered to take command of approximately 30 vessels, which included 27 ships of the line, and sail to meet the combined French/Spanish fleet gathered at Cadiz.   Aboard HMS Victory, Nelson eschewed the more conservative tactic of engaging the enemy in line-ahead, trading broadsides while alongside the parallel column of the enemy. Nelson instead planned to maneuver perpendicular to the enemy line of battle, with his fleet in two columns. Nelson in Victory would lead the larger, northern (windward) column, while Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign, would lead the southern (leeward) column.

The goal was to divide the French/Spanish fleet into smaller pieces and leverage local superiority to destroy the fleet in detail before the remainder could be brought to bear. (The risk, of course, was the possibility that the allied broadsides would rake and destroy the British columns upon their approach before they could bring their own broadsides into action.)  It was a tactic used by Admiral Sir John Jervis at the battle of St. Vincent some eight years before, a British victory in which Commodore Nelson had served under the future Earl St. Vincent.

The French/Spanish fleet was larger, with 40 ships to Nelson’s 33, and counted more ships of the line, 33 to the Royal Navy’s 27. Several of the French and Spanish ships were far larger than even Nelson’s Victory, carrying considerably more cannon.   But the Royal Navy held two important advantages.

Firstly, the Officers of the RN were far more experienced than their French and Spanish counterparts, and of significantly higher quality. The bloodbath of the French Revolution, predictive of the Soviet purges of the 20th Century, saw the execution or cashiering of the cream of the French Officer Corps. Also, the British crews, particularly the gunners, were far better trained and disciplined than those on the allied ships. In the coming battle, both fleet maneuver and ship handling would be critical to the outcome.

Just after noon on 21 October, Nelson observed the French/Spanish fleet struggling with light and variable winds, in loose formation off Cape Trafalgar, wallowing in a rolling sea. Nelson and Collingwood led their respective columns toward the enemy, enduring broadsides without the ability to respond, and suffering considerable casualties.  However, allied gunnery was not accurate and the rate of fire was subpar, allowing the British warships to close.

As the two British columns sliced through the allied line, the battle degenerated into individual battles between ships, and sometimes two and three against one. Casualties on both sides soared, as cannon and musket fire raked gun decks and topside. Nelson’s flagship Victory herself was almost boarded, by the French Redoubtable, saved at the last minute by HMS Temeraire, whose timely broadside slaughtered the French crews preparing to board.

At quarter past 1pm, as Nelson walked topside with Victory’s Captain, Thomas Hardy,  he collapsed to the deck, struck in the left shoulder with a musket ball. The ball had torn through his chest and severed his spine. Nelson knew he had been mortally wounded.   Carried belowdecks, he lingered for about three hours, weakening, but still inquiring about the course of the battle. His last words, according to physician William Beatty, who was an eyewitness, were, “Thank God I have done my duty.”

Slowly, the superior British gunnery and seamanship began to tell.  Ships in the allied column, many a bloody shambles of broken masts, shredded sails, and dead crewmen, began to surrender.  By 4pm, the action came to a merciful end.  The result of the battle was a serious defeat of the French/Spanish fleet. The van of the allied line never were able to circle back and engage either of the two British columns. Twenty-two allied ships were captured, one French vessel sunk. The French and Spanish suffered almost 14,000 casualties, with more than 8,000 seamen and Officers captured, including Admiral Villeneuve. The Royal Navy had lost no ships, despite the dismasting of two frigates. Casualties numbered 1,666, with 458 dead, including Britain’s greatest Naval hero.


It was Nelson himself who was, of course, the greatest advantage the Royal Navy possessed. Nelson’s skill and aggressive command style, his ability to motivate men and engender something very close to complete devotion in his junior commanders, and his willingness to issue orders and refrain from meddling, all were part of the famous “Nelson touch”.   His tawdry personal life, his open affair with Lady Hamilton, a lawsuit against Earl St. Vincent over prize money from the Battle of Copenhagen, all this was overlooked, and in some cases added to the legend and celebrity of Horatio Nelson. His likeness, replete with empty sleeve (from a grievous wound received at Santa Cruz) adorns a 143-foot column in Trafalgar Square. Lord Nelson’s name is synonymous with the Royal Navy. The guidance he gave to his ships’ captains echoes down through the centuries. “No captain can do very wrong should he lay his ship alongside that of the enemy”**.

Ironically, the great victory at Trafalgar came one day after the annihilation of an Austrian army at Ulm, another in an unbroken string of successes for Napoleon’s armies on the European mainland. The Third Coalition, like the two previous would suffer defeat at Napoleon’s hand. As would the Fourth Coalition. It would not be until 1815 that Napoleon would be defeated for good, this time, on land, by Wellington at Waterloo.

Of course, Nelson hadn’t any knowledge of the Battle of Ulm, or even the campaign. But he likely did know that his defeat of the combined French and Spanish naval forces off Cape Trafalgar had once and for all eliminated the threat of invasion of the British Isles.

**A fascinating look at the evolution from Nelson’s entreaty of the duty of a Royal Navy captain to the risk-averse and centralized sclerosis of command that plagued the Royal Navy in the First World War is provided in a masterpiece by Andrew Gordon called The Rules of the Game (USNI Press). Worth every second of the read, as both a historical work and as a cautionary tale.

Crusaders Attack!

Which, they did a fine job of it, but never liked it. The most common attack employment of the Vought F-8 Crusader in attack was as flak suppression for Alpha Strikes over North Vietnam. But the preferred mission for Crusader drivers was always and ever hunting MiGs.


I’ll admit I never knew about the Shrike tests. And I can guess that the ‘sader guys were quite happy they never got tasked for the Iron Hand mission.