Divers using side-scan sonar on Monday found the wreck of U-550. This discovery is a reminder that the oceans that flank America, and have often shielded the nation from the direct wrath of enemies, are not impregnable.
On April 16, 1944, the U-550 torpedoed the gasoline tanker SS Pan Pennsylvania, which had lagged behind its protective convoy as it set out with 140,000 barrels of gasoline for Great Britain, according to the U.S. Coast Guard website and research by Mazraani.
The U-boat slipped under the doomed tanker to hide. But one of the tanker’s three escorts, the USS Joyce, saw it on sonar and severely damaged it by dropping depth charges.
The Germans, forced to surface, manned their deck guns while another escort vessel, the USS Gandy, returned fire and rammed the U-boat. The third escort, the USS Peterson, then hit the U-boat with two more depth charges. The crew abandoned the submarine, but not before setting off explosions to scuttle it. The submarine hadn’t been seen again until Monday.
The American ships were destroyer escorts (DEs) of Escort Division 22 and manned by Coast Guard crews plus the Gandy, a Navy DE. The surviving German crew were taken to Great Britain.
Where have the tactics gone? In his article at the USNI Blog,LT Rob McFall points out this deadly silence on a fundamental navy skillset. He suggests a combination of obsessions with certifications and a fear of breaching OPSEC as the culprits in the U.S. Navy. While I heartily agree with the former, I believe the problem goes much deeper; as a community, our mode of operation has changed our relationship with tactics for the worse.
The navy’s process-driven culture has changed the value of tactics to a junior officer in the fleet. In a process-driven organization, there is always a right answer. There is a correct form with a correct format for every fault. For the junior officer, boards become much the same process as any certification, and the tactical learning meant to accompany those boards is likewise transformed. An “understanding and adapting” of tactics is replaced with the “memorization and application” of tactics. This becomes especially true with the dearth of training on enemy capabilities. The memorized lists of gouge are de-coupled from any real purpose when an understanding of an opponent’s capabilities does not accompany it. It is hard to discuss new tactics against an enemy one is unfamiliar with. Tactics become rote retention of the prescribed courses of action in the prescribed situations. Ideation is lost in behind the “proper answer.”
We also prioritize material condition and engineering over tactical proficiency. As most junior officers know, to gain a prized billet at a riverine squadron, as Naval Gunnery Liaison Officer, or even as an individual augmentee to Afghanistan, one must certify as an Engineering Officer Of the Watch. Such opportunities do not exist for officers qualified as Tactical Action Officers (TAO) or Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) Boarding Officers. While engineering is important, LT McFall mentions a “high-low mix” necessary to create a proper balance. In this case, that high-low mix would include conventional and irregular capabilities as show in TAO and VBSS respectively. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the engineering side is an absolute. This creates a situation where, at the end of their first division officer tours, many motivated junior officers gorge on engineering knowledge with no real option to pursue the “tactically oriented” high-end billets. This emphasis engenders natural career incentives against initial tactical pursuits in favor of engineering.
However, tactical innovation is not dead. At the junior level, there are still places where it gasps some breaths of life. Particularly, in higher-level security force schools like Ship’s Reaction Force-Alpha and VBSS. A constantly taught concept is “IBT”, or initiative-based tactics. The idea is that no choreographed tactic will save you, that mistakes will be made, and more important is the ability to quickly adapt and execute. Rather than memorizing a scenario’s worth of reactions, each boarding team member is given a set of capabilities and priorities to which he can apply them. It is a refreshing contrast to the checksheet mentality.
If the navy is to regain our original sense of purpose as warfighters, that appreciation of and incentive for tactical thought must be reclaimed. JO’s should be encouraged to actively question and develop tactics; boards for qualifications should value far more the ability to adapt capabilities and skills to scenarios, rather than merely repeat the approved responses. In the proper context, discussions on how and when to employ a ship in combat can be as engaging as discussions on taking down a room.
To create a systemic incentive for tactical thought, prime billets should also be offered to those who have accomplished first tour TAO qualifications or who have served extensively as VBSS boarding officers.The navy’s material conditions issues and need for engineering-oriented officers cannot side-line it’s end purpose, to build warfighters. No matter how well a weapon is maintained, knowing how to use it will always make the difference.
The last heyday of wide-spread tactical innovation in the U.S. Navy was during the Vietnam War’s riverine operations. A cunning enemy, a challenging environment, and a difficult mission did not give the black berets much choice in the matter. From interdiction operations to supporting delta amphibious movements to conducting flight ops on garage-sized boats, all and more showed an incredible level of adaption on the tactical and operational level. A navy in a time of relative maritime peace and stability must struggle against the institutional inertia it produces to find that hunger. We need to shake ourselves out of our comfort zone, because an ounce of that innovative spirit now will save a pint of blood later.
Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
Earlier this week I attended the Battle of the Coral Sea 70th Anniversary Commemoration at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Memorial. Rain earlier in the morning threatened to push the event indoors, but the weather was blessedly cool and dry. Yet storm clouds might be gathering on the horizons of the Australian-American partnership the ceremony celebrated.
70 years ago, a clash of carriers handed the Japanese their first major defeat in the war in the Pacific, turning back an invasion force enroute to Port Moresby. As the Australian ambassador noted on Tuesday it also signaled a change in Australia and New Zealand’s defense formulations. Britain’s ability and responsibility to defend her imperial possessions and former colonies formed the bedrock of the nations’ pre-war planning.
According to the honourable Kim Beazley, the structure of British imperial defense “had crashed on land with the Japanese capture of Singapore, and at sea with the sinking of the British warships Prince of Wales and Repulse.” The American decision to risk carriers to parry the southern thrust threatening Australia – while so much else in the theater was at stake – was praised and highlighted as one of the key moments later bringing the nation under the American security umbrella, where it has remained ever since.
A Future Crisis
Could Australia face another crisis and restructuring of its strategic security arrangements down the road? This depends much on the ability of China and the U.S. to play nice. Australia is bound to the U.S. in the ANZUS treaty, a firm defense alliance between the two nations and New Zealand (the Yankee/Kiwi portion has been much less firm, but is improving), and has contributed forces to major American-led military conflicts from Korea to Afghanistan. Just last month, U.S. Marines began to deploy to Darwin, Australia, as a step towards strengthening ties (unofficially, in the face of growing Chinese regional clout).
However, Australia is much more commercially dependent upon the Chinesethan the U.S., exporting less than a quarter of the goods to the U.S. it does to China, its biggest trading partner by both exports and imports. A serious spat between the two nations could cause Australians to rethink the benefits of their closeness to the Americans, especially if the cause of the row was of only marginal importance to the Aussies.
Similarly, the Chinese could begin to apply economic leverage to force Australia to scale back the level of its security and basing commitments (although done poorly this could risk a backlash). Conversely, the Chinese want to boost their own ties with Australia. In an April interview, Rory Medcalf, director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia pointed out:
Beijing has recently asked, or warned, Australia to build stronger security and strategic dimensions into its ties with China, to bring them more in balance with the very strong trade ties. In fact, Australia’s military already has quite good relations with the People’s Liberation Army and has provided a conduit of contact during phases when U.S.-China and Japan-China military-to-military ties were in trouble.”
Might Australia decide in the future it’s better to step from under the American umbrella and risk rain rather than a lightning strike? Might the Royal Australian Navy’s highly skilled mariners and expanding fleet be kept in port in the event of a conflict?
Some voicesare already cautioning against more closely embracing the American military build-up in the Asia-Pacific, warning of the danger of being drawn into “someone else’s” fight with the potential for dire economic consequences. This appears to be a minority opinion among the public and politicians. According to the Lowy Institute, 85% of Australians are to some extent supportive of the U.S. alliance. As Mr. Medcalf states:
if Canberra is asked any time soon to make hard strategic choices between China and the United States, the signs are clear about the choice it would make—it has intensified the alliance with the United States.”
Yet Mr. Medcalf also correctly points out 15% is a substantial minority, and could grow as the American footprint expands in Australia. I don’t foresee Australia dropping the U.S. for China as its main strategic guarantor any time soon, but if the relationship between the two nations is handled poorly by either side, and its benefits not fully explained, the Chinese would be only too happy to exploit the opportunity and apply pressure to limit Australia’s commitments.
The Americans can help ensure this doesn’t happen. Proactive prevention of the sort of liberty incidents that so inflamed relations with another key partner to the north are vital. Aggressive goodwill diplomacy and exchanges can remind the Australian public of shared values.
And of course, events like the commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea remind both nations of shared sacrifices. Said Ambassador Beazley:
As the distribution of global power becomes more diffuse, it is useful for us to have as a reminder American risk-taking for its friends at a time when the US position was by no means the superior one.”