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In the Bubble with Joe Buff

CNO Reflects on Navy “Tipping Point” Factors

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Our own Joe Buff, avid submarine warfare fiction and non-fiction writer, attended an April 8 New York Council of the Navy League luncheon where Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead discussed some of the Navy’s potential future “tipping points.” We recently wrote up a paper from the Center for Naval Analyses that examined the same subject.

By Joe Buff
Defense Tech Futurist and Submarine Warfare Correspondent

CNO Roughead said recruiting is a big challenge for today’s Navy because the parents of today’s youth are in many cases themselves not military veterans. This is an important sea change compared to prior generations of youths whose parents had served in Korea, Viet Nam, or WWII. Thus it is more important for the Navy itself to reach out as much as possible to prospective enlistees, recruits, Naval Academy applicants, etc. and their families — by visiting high schools and colleges for instance, as the CNO was doing while in New York.

The adequate size of the Navy is also challenged by currently anticipated defense allocation and appropriation levels that will probably fall short of what is required to sustain the current 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan.

Submarines are especially important. (ADM Roughead said he is often accused of having gone over to “the dark side” in that he thinks very highly of the immense utility of subs even though he is not a Submariner). He emphasized that the Virginia class is extremely capable and is very much not a “Cold War relic” as some anti-submarine pundits still claim. He pointed out that the replacement for the Ohio-class SSBN design now started will see the last sub of that new class serve until 2080, illustrating how vital and difficult it is to get key features of that design just right.

He commented that as we are seeing with China, a nation’s navy and its economy tend to rise or fall together. In years to come the U.S. is likely to see a shortfall in the size of the submarine force compared to global demand. It is very important that the USN not fall behind emerging competitors or it will become a regional not global navy. Capabilities per hull are important to remain genuine world leaders in undersea warfare, just as in surface and air warfare, but having the minimum number of hulls really needed is also vital as no warship can be in 2 places at once no matter how sophisticated it might be.

The Economic Soft Power-Military Hard Power Linkage

Monday, April 5th, 2010

By Joe Buff

Defense Tech Futurist and Submarine Warfare Novelist

The following is an editorial by Joe Buff, an award-winning writer specializing in undersea warfare fiction and non-fiction. He is also currently working as a producer on turning one of his novels into a major motion picture.

Engagement by talking, alone, has yet to prove its effectiveness on the international stage. To thrive economically, a maritime nation needs a strong navy. The high cost of sustaining that navy is worth it.

Businesses and consumers depend on merchant shipping that demands protection from security threats. These range from piracy (think of Somalia), to terror (possible al Qaeda takeover of a liquid natural gas carrier or another crowded cruise ship like the MS Achille Lauro), to spillover from regional wars (the costly “Tanker War” in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s, growing out of the Iran-Iraq War), to attacks against trans-oceanic territory (Falklands Crisis), to defeat or containment of invasions of allies and trading partners (Kuwait, Bosnia, Georgia) and preferably deterrence of such invasions (Israel, Taiwan), not to mention deterrence of nuclear rogue states (Iran, North Korea), and more.

This economy-navy linkage creates a national structural feedback loop, which can be positive or negative. A case study of the positive effect is the Peoples’ Republic of China. Her burgeoning shipping in the Gulf of Aden is being protected from pirates by her new blue water navy, encouraging more Chinese investment in Africa, helping to pay for an ever more capable navy.

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Japanese Minisubs Key to Pearl History

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Nova’s new season premier on PBS the night of 5 January, “Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor,” makes great TV watching for any World War II enthusiast or military historian. The episode is based in part on work, begun in the early 1990s, by three collaborating naval researchers: CAPT John Rodgaard, USN; scientist Peter Hsu; and Dr. Robert Neyland of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Accordingly, DOD held a conference call on 6 January between these experts and several military bloggers; I represented Defense Tech.

I learned quickly during the phone call that Nova only covered the team’s investigations through the year 2000, and the producers of the episode gave the team no chance to react to scripted conclusions. So it’s not surprising that there’s more to the story of Japanese minisub operations inside Pearl Harbor early on December 7, 1941. Rodgaard, Hsu, and Neyland have made a very convincing case that, contrary to most history books and the Nova episode itself, in fact two, not just one, of the five 45-ton, battery powered two-man Japanese minisubs – launched from their full-size mothership diesel subs outside Pearl Harbor between 0100 and 0300 local time that day – succeeded in penetrating the harbor defenses and then fired their two heavyweight Type-97 torpedoes. Using digitized photogrammetry, technical knowledge of the physics of underwater explosions, and an exacting timeline analysis, they demonstrated that one of these minis, the first to be launched that morning (which Nova called “Minisub #5”), was caught in a Japanese aerial photograph a moment after she’d fired one Type-97 at the battleship USS West Virginia and one at the battleship USS Oklahoma – and scored a direct hit on West Virginia. Mini 5 might have also hit Oklahoma. This information has significant implications both for historians, who figure out what actually happened in the past, and for historicists, who draw lessons from history to apply to today and the future.

The traditional take is that only one minisub got inside the harbor and fired its two torpedoes but neither scored a hit. This positions the Japanese minisub ops at Pearl as ineffectual, a mere afterthought to a decisively crushing carrier-borne aerial attack. The work of Rodgaard, Hsu, and Neyland supports a rather different conclusion. If two minis actually got near Battleship Row, and one of them got off two shots that helped destroy one or even two American battleships, then Pearl Harbor was an effectively executed combined arms assault by the Imperial Japanese Navy. But because the IJN was our sworn enemy during the world war that ensued, and because it lost unconditionally, it did not get to write the history books on the attack, at least in the West.

Why does this matter today? Because history provides raw data for historicists, especially in military matters. And what Pearl Harbor demonstrates to me, after the reinterpretation of events by Rodgaard, Hsu, and Neyland, is that undersea warfare power projection is an indispensable force multiplier for naval aviation during littoral combat. There are other important lessons here for today’s budget-strapped Pentagon planners and Members of Congress: Minisubs in modern form to be carried by fast and long-endurance SSNs and SSGNs – such as something that works well in place of the failed ASDS project, and various UUVs and sub-launched UAVs – deserve a priority in development and acquisition funding. Harbor security, which bears on both homeland defense and force protection worldwide, dare not shortchange the undersea dimension. Perhaps most generally and most importantly, ships and planes, no matter how capable and numerous, cannot do all the work that requires a robust, adequately resourced U.S. Submarine Force.

Part of the confusion over the years as to the role of Minisub #5 and the fate of the two courageous men aboard her comes from previously unresolved ambiguities concerning the track they took and their “final” resting place. I won’t reveal any spoilers here, but the research team’s answer ties in with another long-guarded secret of World War II operations at Pearl Harbor – a U.S. Navy secret only recently declassified!

– Joe Buff

A Christening on a Cold Dark Day

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

SSN-missouri

On Saturday, 5 December, my wife and I attended the christening at General Dynamics Electric Boat, in Groton, CT, of the U.S. Navy’s seventh and newest Virginia-class fast attack submarine, PCU (and soon to be USS) Missouri, SSN 780.  Listening to the speeches, and watching from the partial comfort of an open tent as her crew stood tall in the drenching, freezing rain on her hull, I was moved to reflect that the chill in the air could also be metaphorical. Last month, DOD stated that in order to balance the fiscal year 2011 budget, the annual construction rate of Virginia-class boats – only just raised at last by Congress to two per year – might be slashed to one per year for some while longer. 

This makes absolutely no sense at all.

For much of this decade, the U.S. Submarine Force has faced a steady rise in demand for service coupled with a steady decline in total in-commission numbers. In 2008, the nation’s overworked fast-attack subs were able to take on barely half of the multifaceted missions requested of them. America is getting locked in to having fewer than the 48 fast-attack subs we’ll need during a critical 12-year stretch straddling 2030 – a near-future era when the whole world will surely be facing critical stressors to peace. These include persistent terrorism and failing-state lawlessness on land and at sea, unresolved dangers of nuclear and other WMD proliferation, escalating drug wars, and rising  nationalism among armed sub-national ethnic groups and political factions. Military conflict will also arise from the economic catharses, population disruptions, and regime volatilities caused by globalized natural resource shortfalls and rivalries, unpredictable climate changes, resulting floods and droughts and famines, desperate mass human migrations, continued emerging pandemics, plus other interconnected disasters we can’t even name yet.  

China is building both diesel and nuclear subs at an aggressive rate, and shows no signs of stopping.  Russia, although her navy and arms industry are currently in disarray, is doing what she can to field a modest sized but up-to-date submarine fleet.  She cannot be counted out as a worthy peer competitor 20 years from now. Other nations, such as India and Brazil, are working actively to acquire nuclear subs for the first time, while still others, such as Iran, are seeking to strengthen their forces of modern diesels.  Increasingly, diesel submarines come equipped with long-submerged-endurance air independent propulsion systems. The immediate post-Cold War peace dividend is definitely a thing of the past.  What we have been dragged into now is a relentless, destabilizing arms race which will neither be stopped nor won based on altruistic rhetoric and de facto unilateral disarmament alone.

At a time when so many weapons procurement programs have faced serious delays and cost overruns, the Virginia-class building program continues to surpass contract performance hurdle after hurdle and delivers outstanding operational results underway. While he was Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Mullen set the Sub Force and submarine industrial base the joint challenge to get the cost of one Virginia down from $2.5 billion to $2 billion in constant 2005 dollars. Only when that happened, he said, could the construction rate of these very fine capital warships be raised to two per year. Since then, I was privileged to visit the GDEB facilities at Groton, CT, and Quonset Point, RI, as well as Northrop Grumman’s Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia. Everybody, from rank-and-file submarine fabricators to top executives, worked with Navy people, from plank owner sub crews to flag officers, to find numerous ways to speed processes and cut costs.

Admiral Mullen’s price benchmark has been met. The Missouri is on target for a record low unit cost, $92 million under budget, with a record fast delivery time, only 5 years and 2 months.  This is 9 months sooner than originally expected, and an amazing 38 months faster than first-in-class USS Virginia herself.

Now, DOD and Congress need to keep their end of the bargain made with, and met by, the contractor employees and Sub Force personnel alike. They must continue funding the Virginia class build rate at two per year. The Lexington Institute, a pro-defense think tank in Arlington, VA, stated recently that reducing the acquisition rate to one annually would be “a catastrophic mistake.” I think doing so would also be a gross personal insult to all the Submarine Sailors and submarine shipbuilders – and their families – who braved that wind-driven downpour in the low 40s on Saturday to hear SECNAV Mabus, Senator McCaskill (D-MO), Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), and the other distinguished speakers who praised their superb efforts on behalf of America’s national security.

– Joe Buff