Back to Basics

Plotting a course to nowhere good

Things have been a bit hectic in my neck of the woods, hence the dearth of posts this summer. But if you are following the news and have any bit of curiosity about what’s going in the surface Navy – specifically, why is it so bad at driving ships? – well, then I didn’t want you to miss the below Navy Times article, appropriately headlined, “Maybe today’s Navy is just not very good at driving ships.

There is so much to be said, and I have too little time to say it. But others can. Here’s the general idea:

After 2003, each young officer was issued a set of 21 CD-ROMs for computer-based training — jokingly called “SWOS in a Box” — to take with them to sea and learn. Young officers were required to complete this instructor-less course in between earning their shipboard qualifications, management of their divisions and collateral duties.

It’s worked out about how you might expect.

The Salty Wog is not intended to be a venue for bitching about being a SWO. That said, there are reasons I chose not to continue down that career path on active duty. The Navy Crimes, er, Navy Times article about sums them up.

Read the whole thing for more.


Head Call

Hull tech heaven (Navy Times photo)

After years of delays, USS Gerald R. Ford has been commissioned, the revolutionary electromagnetic launch and recovery system seems to work, and all people can talk about are the… bathrooms.

Specifically, the urinals, or lack thereof.

For the first time, every bathroom on the Ford — known throughout military circles as a head — is designed to be “gender-neutral,” meaning all of the urinals have been replaced with flush toilets and stalls, Navy officials say.

There are certain practical benefits to such flexibility, even if a ship’s crew is only about twenty percent female.

But this is not the real reason for the design. I’m going to give away a secret here. When James Cameron made that record-setting dive into the Mariana Trench a few years ago, he discovered Something The World Isn’t Supposed to Know (no, not that city from “The Abyss”): the ocean floor is made up not of rock, nor of sand, but actually of discarded Navy urinals.

Because urinals are the worst.

They are maintenance nightmares. Salt builds up in the pipes and clogs up the system. People spit dip where they shouldn’t. And other factors you’d rather not think about. Anytime you walk into a head, you can expect half the urinals to be inoperative. So what do the hull technicians (ships’ welders and plumbers) do? They pull the urinals off. Lots are removed during planned maintenance periods… others, well, they go to sea and somehow don’t make it back.

Either way, once a ship is commissioned its urinal count begins to steadily diminish. It’s basically a law of physics.

So while the self-righteous people of the world are congratulating the Navy on gender equity or something, and the old salts rail about the days when ships were wood and men were steel and peed in wall-mounted porcelain, all the Navy really did was save its overworked engineers a lot of time and effort down the road.

Historical note: throwing urinals into the sea is a well-established tradition.

Highways of the Sea

Maritime power is much trickier than land power for the layperson to understand. Armies use weapons to control the land they stand on; navies cruise around singing to each other, or something – right? No. So, taking advantage of a couple recent events, let’s take a different approach.

Combined arms operations at a maritime choke point

Event one: It’s National Police Week and Washington, D.C., is crawling with cops from around the country. I drove home behind a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy yesterday, which is not a feature of my typical commute.

Event two: For some reason, Hollywood remade CHiPs. Fortunately the box office numbers indicate hardly anyone saw it, so they won’t feel compelled to do that again.

Why is this important?

Because the sea services are basically the highway patrol!

I don’t mean that literally – Posse Comitatus and such, after all – but in the sense that the fundamental purpose of a highway patrol, more so than municipal law enforcement, is the facilitation of commerce and connections across a wide territory. It keeps the roads open and functional. The sea services do the same in their environment.

In most states the highway patrol or state troopers are the only statewide law enforcement agency, so it’s true they spend significant time investigating criminal cases. Nevertheless, most people’s exposure to them is not in a criminal context, but just simple traffic enforcement. The purpose of enforcing safe driving and adherence to rules of the road is, yes, personal safety, but also to keep the roads open, keep the traffic flowing, and keep commerce humming. If you cannot trust that you will survive your daily commute due to unruly traffic-mates, you are unlikely to undertake it. The norms enforced over decades by the highway patrol are what give you the confidence you need. And that confidence is what enables the economic activity that supports us all.

That’s not to say some states and municipalities aren’t capricious or abusive in their manner of implementation. But the fundamental mission is critical.

On the sea, no one has to physically keep the ocean open – water is water, and ships float equally well anywhere. But, still, the world’s coast guards keep the busiest areas marked with buoys and cleared of obstacles – a job fundamentally analogous to transportation agencies ashore and the law enforcement agencies that support them. The world’s navies complement navigational safety by preventing brigandage and piracy of defenseless merchants. Such prevention and deterrence can only be conducted through presence. That presence gives bad actors a reason to stay home, and reassures legitimate mariners that they can come on in; the water’s fine. A navy or coast guard that isn’t visible on the sea lanes isn’t doing its job.

And in a world with a thoroughly global economy, it is up to the largest economic players to provide that global presence. Not even the California Highway Patrol is equipped for that job. But neither is France. Nor China. Nor Germany. Nor Brazil. Sadly, not even the queen’s Royal Navy can sustain such an effort nowadays. However it may grate upon you, America, to carry the weight for all those freeloaders out there, alternatives are lacking.

Without the highway patrol, you’ll have the Fast and Furious crew dominating the interstates with little regard for your safety. Without a forward-deployed navy, you’ll have contested chokepoints, maritime insurance premiums climbing through the roof and more expensive everything.

Fundamentally, the mission of a highway patrol is not to catch bad guys, and the mission of a navy is not to fight wars. Their common mission is to simply allow you and your things to get from place to place unfettered.

And, for the record, none of the four highway patrolmen in my family paid me to say a word of this!

Addendum: Please visit the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund or CHP 11-99 Foundation and consider a small donation.

An Ode to NavFit 98A

Released when Seinfeld went off the air, and still going strong

Released when Seinfeld went off the air, and still going strong

‘Twas Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight
On what we call an auspicious date,
For what transpired on that day
Was the birth of NavFit 98A.

Built on an Access database
With a point-and-click user interface,
NavFit was a fine design,
Ultra-modern and top of the line.

For writing evals and Fitness Reports
It could take inputs of all sorts
To ensure products’ consistency and sameness…
But this could not prevent eventual lameness.

One must make a new database if starting anew
And within it create a new FitRep, too.
The architecture, I think, maybe was rational
But was shown to be folly when it went national,
For it makes sense if it’s run by one central admin
But at what command, ever, has that ever been?

Everyone wants a chop, from divo to captain
But how is it sent in the format it’s wrapped in?
PII keeps the database from being sent to others,
So what do we do when we have our druthers?
Disaggregate! Yes! It’s the only solution
That permits proper chain of command distribution.
So sorry we’ve mooted the database construct
But we wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t sucked.

An .mdb file cannot be e-mailed
On NMCI – it always e-failed.
But it lets you change the file extension
Though beware! The receiver must pay attention
Lest he reveal his lack of knowledge
As an Academy grad, not an actual college.
If he doesn’t change the extension back
The file won’t open, it won’t unpack.

But if he succeeds and gets on a roll
Now we must watch out for version control
Since after all these .mdb e-mail exchanges
Someone now has to merge all the changes!

It’s about at this point we get to thinking
That somewhere there’s a Sailor too young for drinking
Who, when he enlisted, provided a birth date
That fell in that year of Ninety-Eight.
And we glance over longingly at Marine Online
And think “I’d at least take something from Ninety-Nine.”
There’s a programmed successor, but we cannot touch it,
For it’s behind schedule and over budget.
Oh, when, oh, when will we finally say
We’ve kicked the habit of NavFit 98A?
Really, quite anything will do,
A fillable PDF, a whiteboard, a tattoo.
Someone has a better way for personnel rating
Than an archaic system that leaves everyone hating.

Wait – what’s this? Could it be? Is that a… a transfer FitRep?

All is forgiven!

That document ejects me from this place that I live in!

I’m free! I’m free! I’m free! I say!
However you made this FitRep today,
A couple signatures on it, and I get away!
Thank you, thank you, NavFit 98A!


Barely Satire

The world according to the Joint Staff

The world according to the Joint Staff

Contrary to what you may have thought, the Navy hasn’t fought a war since World War II.

But don’t get too smug, all you soldiers out there: neither has the Army. Nor the Marine Corps. And the Air Force has never fought one at all.

It’s been subject to various revisions since 1947, but the common thread is that “unified” commanders, generally forward-deployed, are the ones who fight the good fight on the front lines. Today this takes the shape of the regional “combatant commanders” spread around the globe (plus some functional ones, as opposed to regional, like SOCOM). The services – that is, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force – simply provide forces to the commanders, who use them to meet national tasking. The commander is personally a member of just one service, but he or she is in charge of all the U.S. military forces within the Area of Responsibility (AOR).

The services operate under the authority of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which assigns them the duty of manning, training and equipping their respective forces. Title 10 also authorizes the President to assign the unified commanders who operate those forces. The end result is a perverse bit of nomenclature in which the Chief of Naval Operations is, in fact, in charge of absolutely zero naval operations.

If this sounds complicated, it really isn’t. As usual, it can be interpreted through the satire of the indispensable Duffel Blog:

Hello, Combatant Commander! How are you this morning?

Wonderful. Wonderful.

I’m calling today to ask you if you’re one hundred percent satisfied with your current force provider. Are they treating you right? Are you getting the properly equipped, trained and sustained troops you need for the various conflicts in your Area Of Responsibility?

Really, where would we be without Duffel Blog? Like all the best satire, it illuminates while inducing a giggle. Even I don’t know all the acronyms they use in this discussion of GFM (Global Force Management) but who cares? It still gets to the question every combatant commander should be asking – are the services sending me the right forces to accomplish the missions that I am tasked with?

So imagine the services as Q to the COCOM’s James Bond. No, too glamourous. Or the pit crew to the COCOM’s Jimmie Johnson. Eh, maybe not exactly, but you get the point. The services provide a force – and the Presidentially-appointed commanders use it.

And now you know.



One characteristic endemic to military life is constant turnover. The personnel churn never stops, especially out on the front lines where “arduous” duty takes place. My orders sent me to Bahrain for just under nine months; some folks are here for up to a year. Multiply that by about 40 and you can see that, within just my unit, people are always coming and going.

Yes somehow continuity is maintained.

BroadsidePartly this is because the Navy is the Navy is the Navy (or pick your own favorite military service) – certain things are the same everywhere and anyone can hit the ground running. But every team also has things unique to it, whether they be traditions or procedures or some cultural quirk, and these get passed on too. Some things die out, but others last. After several years, the originator has probably been long gone for one or two “generations”, but people still do it (Why? They know not the reason). Sometimes that’s bad, like in the case of a hazing culture, but more often it is good for cohesion and comradery.

There are lessons here.

Organizational culture, or culture in general, is like the English common law – it is “discovered” rather than imposed. Certainly most commanders (or other institutions) will push their own organizational visions, but many initiatives will fade away because they simply don’t suit the people, while others will grow and be perpetuated because they fit people’s needs. Change is constant, yet to endure, it must remain within certain steady parameters. To break through those walls requires visionary leadership that sees the need to do so, but can also align such radical acts with such fundamentals as the team’s mission or deeply embedded culture. Change for change’s sake is a losing proposition.

The continual passage of knowledge from the “old” to the “young” among the compressed generations of a single ship’s crew present another angle. Experienced crew members know a ship’s personality quirks (every ship has a personality) or the peculiarities of working in a certain area, like the Pacific or Middle East. New members don’t. Over the time they overlap, that knowledge is passed on, and the knowledge that Sailor 1 had in 2014 is retained long after by Sailor 2 in 2017. Ideally, anyway.

Did you ever hear something to the effect of “A person is smart, but people are stupid”? Time is the key. Over the years, individuals learn lessons about life and how stuff works. The older or more experienced they are, the higher the chances are that they’ve acquired some wisdom on the topic of life, or maritime affairs. They are often perfectly willing to share stories of their mistakes and how to avoid them.

Young people haven’t had that time. And we basically make (and break) careers out of refusing to learn from other people’s mistakes. The youth anthem for all eternity ought to be “This time will be different” – and if that’s not a song, it should be (OK, apparently it’s a bunch of songs).


Anyway, leaven the old and experienced with the young and inexperienced, and now you have “people” being stupid. Hence the need for continuing education – vocational, academic and otherwise – from the old to the young, from the senior to the junior, from the knowledgeable to the newb, to minimize the stupidity.

The trick is that when worthwhile change is made by one generation, it needs to pass on the reasons to its successors. If it’s a radical change with no clear rationale, follow-on generations will likely revert to whatever everyone else is doing, or did before. The turnover, or knowledge transmission process, must explain the why just as much as it describes the what and how.

At a unit level, this means pointing out how many inspections were passed, how many mission requirements were met, or how much extra liberty time was earned (there’s the clincher!) after investing in certain changes and sticking with them. Make it clear that things are the way they are for good reasons.

At a broader level, like say, the United States, it means remembering to view the country from the perspective of a recent immigrant. Why did they leave their country of origin? And why did they choose to come to the U.S.? What made that place stand out from all potential destinations? Understanding these reasons – the reason for our country to exist – is the key to keeping it a going concern for centuries to come. The positives identified by an immigrant need to be accentuated and further improved. And the things that repel him from his home country – let’s not do those. Please.

Don’t make me call SMOD.


Hope (?)

Death with a smile

Death with a smile

Reuters breathlessly reports from Farnborough that the F-35 had a dazzling debut at the annual UK air show, and that it is rapidly approaching readiness for real-world operations.

It reads like a Lockheed Martin press release. Nevertheless, let us hope this story is true. It’s bought with your money, after all. The airplane intended to be low-cost that will run $100 million a copy had better work as advertised, and for a good, long time.

However, this paragraph made me pause:

But U.S. officials argue the plane’s sophisticated fusion technology will let it spot enemy jets from such a distance that it never get into an actual dogfight, and that its cost will drop to around $85 million by 2019, stepping up competition with rivals such as Boeing Co F/A-18 and Eurofighter.

The second clause might actually happen – with steady production, costs will almost certainly drop. But the first… oh my, the first.

People forget history.

The aircraft: the F-4 Phantom II. The time: the 1950s.

Supersonic flight and missiles were revolutionizing everything – no dogfights would ever happen again. EVER. All the smart people said so. So the F-4, among other interceptors of the time, was designed without a gun.

But the Vietnam War popped up a couple years after the F-4 hit the fleet. That bubble got burst real quick.

The theory was supersonic fighters would be able to loose a missile at its target and be miles away before the unfortunate opponent even knew a fight was on. However, the tech hadn’t caught up. Missiles of the time weren’t quite as precise as Robert McNamara thought. And pilots would often slow down after the first unsuccessful pass in an attempt to turn around, get behind the target and try again.

Which put them in an oft-quoted situation – too bad there was no gun to remedy it. An externally-mounted one solved the immediate problem, but arguably the issue should have never occurred in the first place.

So now comes the F-35 – all three versions of it. It is a computer around which wings and an engine are mounted, with a bit of space for some weapons and a pilot. The “fusion” Reuters speaks of is (unfortunately) not the chimerical power source, but data from a plethora of sources all using the jet as a node for synthesis and analysis. This, combined with stealth, means it’s supposed to see and kill any aerial enemy before it can be seen and targeted itself.

Where to begin?

This is where we separate the men from the boys, and the general assignment reporter dispatched to an air show versus somebody who’s actually given a thought to the subject.

For argument’s sake let’s assume the F-35 fulfills every requirement (I sure hope it does). It remains the truth that all its immense technical capabilities will be controlled by humans, as war is a human endeavor. How we fight is constrained by any number of human factors, some intentional, some not. Rules of engagement will come into play – for example, if visual identification of a target is required before firing on it, then stealth and range are useless. If satellites are taken down (which will happen in the next Big One), then the datalinks are useless. And if the F-35 really does replace the A-10 in the ground attack role, as the US Air Force has long planned, then it’ll be down low where its radar won’t be able to see far and its noise will announce its presence to anyone with ears.

There might be mitigating measures for all these, to some degree or another. But the prospect of never getting into a short-range scrum is ludicrous. Just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean it’ll happen. And in this case, history shows it is virtually certain not to pan out the way the authorities expect. It is insulting that this stuff is still being peddled by the Joint Strike Fighter project office, uninformed news reporters buy it, and everyone else is expected to believe it.

As is common around here, I hope I’m wrong about everything.

PS – here is a recent background piece if you’re not up to speed on the F-35 project. You know, like a normal person.


Ripple Effects

Way back when – in April – I had a bit of a trend going of discussing things related to why the Navy is what it is, where things stack up in the world, and all the rest. But then a bunch of things popped up, like a trip to Paris, family being here in-country, an actual war (you know, ’cause they just sorta happen sometimes) – um, so I lost track.

It's time-consuming

It’s time-consuming

Let’s get back on it.

Question: Why are people so obsessive about shipbuilding plans?

Answer: Because ships take a long time to build!

Let’s examine the USS Ramage, a ship I’ll pick simply because my family has recently become associated with it. Ramage is a guided missile destroyer (a DDG), eleventh in the class and thus fairly representative of a mature program and the most common ship class in today’s U.S. Navy. The Navy placed the order to the shipbuilder in February 1990. Almost three years later, the materials were finally ready, and Ramage was laid down at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi, on January 4, 1993. The hull was put afloat a year after that, February 1, 1994, and Ramage’s commissioning was a further eighteen months later, July 22, 1995. And it didn’t actually get anywhere operationally useful until its first deployment, which only commenced on November 25, 1996 (yes, right before Thanksgiving – “you’re welcome,” said the Navy).

So, the length of time between placing the order and actually influencing national security took nearly seven years. That is longer than U.S. involvement in World War I and World War II. Combined. And remember, this isn’t a giant aircraft carrier or a first-of-a-kind project – this is literally the most common, frequently-built thing we’ve got.

On the positive side of the ledger, a typical DDG should last us about thirty years. Except – wait a minute – it’s 2016, and this ship is already twenty years old! Good thing the DDG program continues, and more are being built. But not many more.

The cruel truth is the surface fleet is disproportionately the product of the Eighties and Nineties. Seawater is a nasty environment to live in; ships get old and simply can’t go on indefinitely. Every single frigate is now gone. Their supposed replacement, the Littoral Combat Ship, is, er, not on schedule, and an overstretched fleet of cruisers and destroyers fills the gap, wearing themselves down and shortening their own service lives in the process. Their eventual replacements, to my knowledge, don’t even exist on paper.

Today’s conditions are the result of decisions made ten and even twenty years ago. So what will the Navy of 2030 look like? That is being decided today.


The Domain of Professionals

It is said that in war, amateurs devise tactics while professionals plan logistics. America’s status as a virtual island nation makes this doubly true – to even get to theaters of interest, much less conduct useful operations, logistics support is vital. Such innovations as nuclear power do little to change this – fuel for the ship may be unnecessary, but the crew still has to eat, equipment still needs spare parts and embarked aircraft still burn petroleum.

This has undergone many iterations – in the days of sail, ships could travel for months in between stops ashore for food, fresh water and timber. The advent of coal rendered ships’ schedules more dependable but also their cruising ranges more finite, and necessitated the establishment of coaling stations at places far afield for any country that wanted a global presence. Thus, the need for a navy to defend far-flung territories required the procurement of more far-flung territories in order to fuel that very navy. Such is the circular logic of imperialism.

The Royal Navy saw an obvious problem with this. In a maritime conflict, a fleet at sea would rapidly deplete its fuel and need to replenish somewhere. Through a few simple calculations of time, distance, and fuel consumption, an enemy who knew the general location of a British fleet could guess when and where it would need to refuel, and plan its maneuvers accordingly. So as early as 1870, the Royal Navy was already experimenting with ways of transferring coal from colliers to warships underway. In theory, this meant ships could replenish at sea, anywhere.

But coal is bulky, and ships need vast quantities of it. So it didn’t work very well.

The United States Navy took notes and made its own attempts – but what really enabled underway replenishment to work was oil. It’s much easier to pump fluid through a hose than pass boxes back and forth. On April 6, 1917, an American destroyer flotilla headed to the U.K. was successfully refueled off the coast of Greenland by an oiler under the supervision of none other than LCDR Chester Nimitz, the XO and chief engineer. It wasn’t standardized, though, until immediately before World War II, when RADM Nimitz did some further testing from his perch in the Bureau of Navigation.

A lot of things can claim to have won the war in the Pacific – unrestricted submarine warfare, Navajo code talkers, lucky pilots, plucky Marines – but ultimately none of them were possible without logistical backing. A recent post was about how big the ocean is. With an expanse so vast, no campaign or meaningful operation of any kind, could have been sustained without underway replenishment.

Here’s how it’s done.

(A note on the photos: Several are my photos, but I also borrowed a few from Navy public affairs where I didn’t have a suitably demonstrative shot. You will see the point of view of both the receiving and providing ship.)

  • Approach from behind and off to the side a bit.
Niiiice and easy...

Niiiice and easy…

  • Gently pull forward so your receiving station is even with the oiler’s chosen fueling station.
Anxiously awaiting their customer

Anxiously awaiting their customer.

  • Send over a shotline – i.e. shoot a grenade across with a thin line trailing behind it (which you can actually see in the photo below). The tanker’s crew will literally chase it down and pick it up off the deck.
Firing the shotline from USS Dewey (DDG 105) to Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Patuxent (T-AO 201). (U.S. Navy photo)

Firing the shotline from USS Dewey (DDG 105) to Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Patuxent (T-AO 201). (U.S. Navy photo)

  • The receiving ship will pull that line back, which the providing ship has tied to a cable and a “phone-and-distance” line. It has numbered flags on it so the conning officer has a visual cue for the distance between ships.
Sailors handle the phone and distance line on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. (U.S. Navy photo)

Sailors handle the phone and distance line on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. (U.S. Navy photo)

  • Then it basically becomes a matter of sending progressively bigger lines and cables back and forth until finally you have a spanwire under tension between the two ships. When it’s tensioned, you can send the fuel hose (as seen below). Using another tensioned wire at a different station, you can also send palletized cargo to and fro.
Sending over the nozzle and hose.

Sending over the nozzle and hose.

  • Pray that the ocean doesn’t look like this (the worst part was we couldn’t get food across… not that we’d have been able to eat much).


Keep in mind the ships are sailing in close proximity on a straight course for two or three hours. If you want to compress three hours down to three minutes, here is a frenetically-paced video for you. It can be nerve-wracking, yet is done with astonishing regularity without incident (most of the time).

Anyone with pretensions of global reach needs to be able to do this. It is not optional.