The us navy is the largest, most impressive navy in the world, but is it really undefeatable? Some Disconfirming Findings from the Post-War Era




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6/7/2005 DRAFT – Do Not Quote Without Permission

Is the US Navy Overrated?

A Discussion Paper

DRAFT: 15.0

The US Navy is the largest, most impressive navy in the world, but is it really undefeatable? Some Disconfirming Findings from the Post-War Era.


An Updated Knightsbridge Working Paper

Copyright 2005 By Roger Thompson, Professor of Military Studies, Knightsbridge University

This is a draft. Do not quote without permission from the author. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and are not to be construed as the opinions of Knightsbridge University. This is a work in progress and supercedes all previous versions. Former US Navy submariner Dr. Robert Williscroft cited an earlier version of this paper in his article “Is the Nuclear Submarine Really Invincible?” DefenseWatch, Oct. 4, 2004. This project will be listed in the German Armed Forces Institute for Social Research (Sozialwissenschaftliches Institut Der Bundeswehr (SOWI)) Database on Military Sociological Studies in 2005.


Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Dr. Andy Karam, former US Navy nuclear submariner and author of the book Rig Ship for Ultra Quiet; Dr. Robert Williscroft, former US Navy Nuclear Submarine officer; Lieutenant Colonel David Evans, USMC (Retired), former Military Correspondent for the Chicago Tribune; Rear-Admiral Fred Crickard, RCN (Retired); Jon E. Dougherty, investigative journalist and former US Navy sailor; Squadron Leader J. R. Sampson, RAAF (Retired); Henrik Fyrst Kristensen; Carlton Meyer, former USMC officer and Editor of G2mil Magazine; and Dr. Emilio Meneses (who provided me with much information on exercises between the Chilean Air Force/Navy and the US Navy), for their input, comments, suggestions, and constructive criticisms of earlier versions of this paper. I would also like to thank Captain Dean Knuth, US Naval Reserve (Retired) for providing me with background information on the sinking of two aircraft carriers in Exercise Ocean Venture 81 and for reviewing the section titled “David vs. Goliath”, Colonel Everest Riccioni, USAF (Retired), the father of the F-16 fighter program, and Lt. Col. Pierre Rochefort, Canadian Forces (Retired) for their advice on fighter combat, and Major Lew Ferris, Canadian Forces (Retired) and Major Leif Wadelius, Canadian Forces (Retired) for their advice on ASW matters. I’d also like to thank all my other sources, who will remain safely anonymous, for their generous assistance.


There is nothing wrong with America that the faith, love of freedom, intelligence and energy of her citizens cannot cure.” - General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower


Dedication

Let me begin by stating that the US Navy is an important fighting organization, but it is not a person. It is not the flag, and it is nobody’s mother or child. It is an employer of hundreds of thousands of people, but importantly, one that has extracted billions of dollars from the taxpayers. It is not a religion, it is not sacred, and as such, it can and must be subjected to rigorous criticism when warranted. It is in the spirit of sincere and constructive criticism that I write this paper. I say this because, despite good intentions, and extensive documented evidence, often provided by current or former US Navy officers who want to turn this organization around, there are some who are apparently incapable of engaging in constructive but critical discussion on their current or former service. To these folks, the US Navy is America, and to criticize the former is to mock the latter. I dismiss this paradigm, along with any and all counterarguments that are based on emotion, hyperbole, willful ignorance, that rely on the Ad Hominem Abusive, the Ad Hominem Circumstantial, Ignoratio Elenchi, those without specific and documented countervailing arguments (in other words, those based on assumed facts that are not in evidence, better known as the old “I think you took these statements out of context, but I cannot rebut them because I do not know the actual context, and basically I do not like your argument so I am just grasping at straws to deflate it” gambit), and those based on unauthenticated contumacy or prevaricating bromides that do not wash with reality, common sense, or precedent. In this age of rampant jingoism in the US, in which even the most thoughtful and well-reasoned criticism of the US military is sometimes inexplicably equated with contempt or polemical disrespect, some reactionaries might even go so far to claim a paper such as this must ipso facto be tinged with “anti-Americanism.” I reject this reasoning as well, and as a counter I do offer much praise for other branches of the US military, especially the US Air Force, for their professionalism, relatively high selection standards, and excellent aircraft. To borrow a phrase from a well known Jack Nicholson movie, if “you can’t handle the truth,” then I suggest you go no further.


Thankfully, there are many US Navy officers (serving or retired) who are willing to speak about their navy’s failings. These men and women are the true patriots, not the “Everything’s just fine, thank you” types who populate the US military-industrial complex, the political spin-doctors in the Pentagon, and all others who cannot see the reasonable forest for the trees. These reformers and thinkers try to make a difference, and they are the ones who are truly loyal for they realize that one does need to be a reactionary to be a loyal and effective officer or sailor. One will find such men and women in the pages of the US Naval Institute Proceedings from time to time, but the most influential in these ranks are such men as the Late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Admiral Stansfield Turner, the Late Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, Captain John L. Byron, Captain Dean Knuth, the Late Scott Shuger, and former F-14 Radar Intercept Officer Jerry Burns, all of whom are quoted in this paper. To these men, and the men and women like them in the US Navy, I respectfully dedicate this paper.


Introduction and Objective

I never did give them hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.”
- Harry S Truman


Americans are a proud people, and it goes without saying that many Americans take great pride in the US Navy. Americans boast that their grand fleet of supercarriers, nuclear submarines and surface ships rules the seas now as Britannia once did. After all, with the Soviet Navy practically eliminated, who can challenge American naval dominance today? The US Navy is absolutely the biggest and most expensive navy in the world, that is true, but if one looks back over time, one can plainly see an embarrassing pattern of failure and underachievement, with pivotal combat successes (such as the victory at Midway) resulting mostly from the miscalculations of enemies rather than from any other single factor. The purpose of my research is to describe this historical pattern of failure and underachievement (not just the issues facing today’s Navy), and then to ask a very pertinent but controversial question: Is the US Navy truly the most capable navy in the world, or is it closer to being an overrated paper tiger whose dominance can be at least partially attributed to the mistakes of former adversaries? With this in mind, I will begin by discussing various international naval exercises that have pitted the predominant US Navy against foreign diesel submarines (SSKs), with many ending with very poor results for the Americans. I will also discuss shortfalls in fleet composition, readiness, morale, mine warfare, personnel, security, training, and cohesion. I will provide examples, some based on unscripted exercise scenarios, and others from real life, that illustrate the many unfortunate and often ignored (or deliberately concealed) deficiencies of the US Navy. Among other things, it will become painfully apparent that unscripted or free-play exercise evolutions strongly suggest that foreign diesel submarines are quite dangerous to the US Navy, and it needs the help of smaller allies in several key areas of naval warfare. I will also suggest that there is good reason to believe that the mighty US Navy is, with all due respect, simply overrated. Before asking you to consider the documented examples below, I would like first to offer a counter to the most likely argument against my findings.


The “Exercises Aren’t Real” Argument: My Response

The examples below are from exercise scenarios, but some will say that one cannot draw conclusions from exercises because they cannot fully duplicate the reality of combat. Some might also say, erroneously, that exercises are only meant to be instructional, using scripted situations with predictable conditions and rules to train the crews on drills and procedures rather than to actually “fight the ship.” In this kind of exercise, the crews are basically just practicing their various skills, such as gunnery, damage control, and learning how to operate damaged or degraded systems. In other words, they are about learning about combat, not engaging in it. In these exercises, there are no winners or losers, and certainly no one calls the media to report a “success” in such exercises. This is just part of the complex exercise equation, and it is not the part that interests me. What does interest me are the so-called “Force on Force” exercises where there are indeed winners and losers. In many exercises there often are unscripted or free-play evolutions that closely simulate combat, and no ship has any special advantage or disadvantage. The purpose of these evolutions is not to train crews, but to fight and hopefully win. As Robert Coram put it, “In a free-play exercise – no scenario and no rules – the orchestrated performance was tossed out. There is no better way to select and test combat leaders than by free play. Free play means winners and losers; it means postexercise critiques…Careerists hated free-play…True combat leaders loved it.” In these evolutions, rival crews do their very best to win, as there are considerable bragging rights endowed to the winners. Realism is important in these exercises. Exercise Tandem Thrust 99, an unscripted multinational “free-play” exercise, was “as close to war as we can possibly get,” said Commander Al Elkins, US Navy. “We’re in this exercise like we’re in a hot war. When our aviators take off, they have no idea what kind of threat is coming.”


No reasonable person would suggest that a ship that regularly fails in free-play exercises is nevertheless in good shape for combat, and vice-versa. Now assume for just a moment that, rather than a list of failures, I will present a detailed list of US Navy successes in exercises instead. Suppose a modern US Navy destroyer had “sunk” an “all gun” World War II-vintage Turkish destroyer in a hypothetical free-play exercise. It would be outrageous for the obviously outmatched Turkish Navy to say “Yes, but exercises aren’t reality. In a real battle, my old ship and her guns would have clobbered that new American destroyer and her Tomahawk missiles.” That would be preposterous, and so is the claim that free-play exercises, like the ones described below, are inherently meaningless. The fact is that consistent free-play exercise results (successes or failures), are useful, meaningful, and provide reasonable analytical tools. And if free-play exercises are not meaningful, then why does the US Navy invest so much time and money to participate in them? Because these types of exercises frequently reveal both the good and the bad news about how a navy might fare in a real war. I would propose referring a couple of the many interesting quotes one gets when googling 'purpose naval exercise'. I did not see a single 'just having a good time' and ‘shooting the breeze' statement. While not always the case, the standard, blanket explanation employed by US Navy apologists that all defeats (even in free play or unscripted exercise evolutions) are purely because the US ships or aircraft involved were operating under some sort of artificial restriction, limitation or handicap is also often rather spurious, exaggerated, overly convenient, deceitful, and just a cop-out, and I will deal with that matter in due course.

On yet another level, some will also claim that since exercises are conducted in relatively small areas, it is easier for diesel submarines to detect and attack surface ships. In real life, the oceans are much bigger and it is more difficult for a diesel submarine to position itself to attack a much faster carrier battle group. I would ask those who support this argument to consider two things.

Firstly, many US surface combatant ships were sunk in the open ocean by slow, primitive diesel submarines in World War II, including the carriers USS Yorktown, USS Wasp, the escort carriers USS Liscombe Bay, USS Block Island, the cruisers USS Indianapolis and USS Juneau, the destroyers USS Mason, USS Reuben James, USS Satterlee, USS Jacob Jones, USS Hammann, USS O'Brien, USS Porter, USS Henley, USS Buck, USS Bristol, USS Leary, USS Leopold, USS Fechteler, USS Fiske, USS Eisele, USS Shelton, USS Eversole, USS Frederick C. Davis, and many other types of surface ships. US battleships were damaged by submarine attacks and taken out of action for months as well. In the case of the battleship USS North Carolina, one of the most powerful and up-to-date ships of her time, and far more advanced than the ships destroyed at Pearl Harbor, she was taken out of action for two months by a single torpedo fired by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s submarine I-19. In addition, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 71,890 ton supercarrier Shinano was also sunk by a diesel submarine, as was the 36,000 ton fast battleship Kongo. Submarines also claimed five of the largest British carriers.

Secondly, consider that even though carriers and surface ships are more advanced today, and are still much faster than conventional submarines, that does not give them any additional life insurance because in a war the enemy diesel submarine will know a) where the US Navy ships are coming from and b) where they are likely headed. They do not have to catch up to a carrier battle group making more than 30 knots; they can just wait for it, and no one can predict exactly where en route they are waiting. The only protection the US Navy will have is solid Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) skills, and as we will see in this paper, the assumption that the US Navy has such skills is not well-founded. Today's diesel submarines are far better than those of the past, and with the US Navy now concentrating more on the dangerous, noisy and shallow waters of the littorals, if anything, the potential threat from quiet conventional submarines is greater now than it was in World War II.


One more thing about exercises. I have noted over the years that our US Navy friends expect to always win, by virtue of possessing what they earnestly believe is superior technology (on which some say the US Navy has grown overly-dependent, and consequently, rather sloppy) and/or superior training. They simply cannot fathom the results when things do not go their way all the time. When a US Navy F-18 squadron beats a foreign squadron in a dogfight, for example, US Navy supporters do not ask questions about exercise parameters. They just assume that American technology and training were better, so case closed. However, when a US Navy ship or squadron loses in a competitive free-play or unscripted exercise, the response is rarely "Well, you can't win them all," or "You win some, you lose some." Sadly, the more typical response is to call a foul at the very concept of being beaten. Were the conditions unfavorable to the US Navy? Was the exercise unfair to US forces? (As if war could ever be “fair”) Remember former Vice President Bush, a Navy veteran, who said the following after a US ship shot down an Iranian airliner: “I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don't care what the facts are." I find this quote very much in keeping with the culture of evasion, excuse-making, blame-shifting, buck-passing, and denial in the US Navy, and I urge you to keep this in mind as you read this paper. Denial, in the words of military commentator Stan Goff, is indeed “the grandest of American appetites.”


As for methodology, the first section relies on qualitative rather than quantitative data. The reason for this is simple. As Captain Dean Knuth, US Naval Reserve (Retired), will attest later in this paper, the US Navy keeps a tight lock on its exercise evaluation data, especially on the ones that include potentially embarrassing failures. These exercise reports are not available to the general public, and attempts to make them public have been suppressed by the Navy. Under these conditions, a statistical analysis is not likely. In fact, after conducting a thorough search of the available unclassified materials, I could not locate even one such study, and one can be sure that is just what the US Navy wants. This is a discussion paper, and thus my purpose is merely to ask questions and raise issues, rather than to comprehensively answer all of them. My task here is to try to put the pieces together, and see if any conclusions can be supported or extrapolated. Although helpful, one does not always need reams of statistical data and tables to recognize a plain fact especially when history, common sense, and credible authorities support the conclusion. We do not require a statistical analysis to understand universal truths. I always liked the way Bruce Russett stated his methodology, so I shall indicate my concurrence by quoting him directly: “My intention is to be provocative... The argument is not one subject to the principles of measurement and the strict canons of hypothesis-testing – the mode of inquiry with which I feel most comfortable. Nevertheless the subject is too important to leave untouched simply because the whole battery of modern social science cannot be brought to bear on it.”


I would also add that it does not require a leap of faith to know that there is no such thing as an unsinkable ship, no matter how big it is, how many water-tight compartments it has, or how much armor plating it has. Nor does it require much imagination to comprehend that a nearly silent diesel submarine can most definitely stalk and sink even the largest surface warships (or, these days, noisy nuclear submarines) with relative ease. Such things happened in both World Wars, and they can happen today. Even Compton-Hall, whose writings reflect a slightly pro-nuclear submarine disposition, cautioned: “It is a great mistake to denigrate SSKs: they will continue to be a menace for the foreseeable future and the Soviet Navy knows it.” Those who deny these facts are in fact denying reality. As Aldous Huxley once said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

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