Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

The Rise of the Social-State

As the clock struck midnight on December 31, 2000, at the start of a new millennium, there were approximately 360 million unique internet users. Just 1/1000th of the populations in the Middle East and Africa had access to the internet. Facebook was still but a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye.

Thirteen years later, this has changed dramatically. At nearly 2.5 billion people, the internet is used by more than 1/3 of the world’s population. More than 15% of Africans now have access to the internet – the majority of them getting it through mobile data via cell phones – while a whopping 40% of Middle Easterners are now online. That represents a growth of over 3000% (that’s three thousand) in just over a decade.

At the same time, social media use has risen exponentially. If all the Facebook users in the world were assembled into one place, they would make up the third-largest country on Earth with over 1.1 billion citizens (behind only China and India). While not nearly as numerous, there are over 500 million users of 140-character Twitter, with over 10% of those people in a single country:  China.

A Different World

You forgot the "@" before Mubarak.
You forgot the “@” before Mubarak.

People are no longer left to rely on the state-sponsored dictation of events, or even a few media outlets reporting what they’ve seen. With Twitter, first-hand accounts and pictures can be passed quickly; with Facebook, users can share and collaborate on growing trends; on YouTube, we can see with our own eyes exactly what is happening in Syria, Egypt, or on the streets outside Washington, DC.

The most enduring reality of the past decade has been the rise of the global individual. In 2006, Time‘s “Person of the Year” was the individual (“You,” to be specific). In response to old, slow, unresponsive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and a host of other countries, leaders were either deposed in a violent way or forced to make significant concessions antithetical to the totalitarian norm.

Global individualism has led to a prioritization of individuals and ideologues over the traditional concept of “nation.” When you can “like” the Syrian Free Army on Facebook or “follow” al-Shabaab on Twitter from the comfort of your own home, it doesn’t matter that you live in the land known as “Pakistan” or “Egypt” or even “the United States of America.” Individuals across the globe are organizing themselves more now by ideas and preferences than by borders or nationality.

This notion is not new in religious lore. In Islam, the organization of Muslims everywhere is known as the “Caliphate.” Before it was a UN-recognized state, Israel was the name of the global community of Jewish people. Today, we might call all fans of the Dallas Cowboys a “Facebook group” and all the internet subscribers of Muqtada al-Sadr his “Twitter followers.” In the 21st century, the diaspora is connected via wi-fi.

The Decline of Nationalism

At a recent gathering of more than 150 American citizens with at least some level of college education, I asked the assembled crowd to identify the corporate logos of Starbucks, Shell, AT&T, McDonald’s, and Fed Ex. 100% of the crowd was able to correctly identify at least 4 of the logos, while around 90% were able to identify all 5.

Immediately afterward, I asked the same 150 people to identify the national flags of Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Libya, and Chad. Approximately 80% could identify 1 flag, 60% could identify 2 flags, 33% could identify 3 flags, 10% could identify 4 flags, and only 1 person (an African studies major in college) could identify all 5 flags.

In an effort to drive the point home, I flashed the flags of five U.S. states: New York, Alabama, Delaware, Indiana, and Massachusetts. If you can believe it, the percentages were actually worse; not a single person was able to correctly identify all five state flags (to be honest, if I hadn’t researched for the event, I doubt I would have been able to guess more than three or four either).

This erudite experiment, though anecdotal and far from scientific, points to a larger global trend:  the decline of nationalism, and the rise of global individualism.

The Ideological Basis of Armies

In light of the recent revolutions that comprised “the Arab Spring,” one must ask:  how are armies fielded? In our textbooks, we are taught that armies are the property of nation-states, who field them in defense of their borders or broader national interests.

But isn’t the original concept of the nation-state simply an ideal? At its basic level, an army is stood by people coming together to protect themselves from harm by a common enemy. It follows, then, that the armies of the 21st century will follow this natural law—that they are fielded to defend ideals—and with that comes a monumental shift in the global political paradigm: the rise of the social-state.

This is not a new idea. In his book Jihad Joe, J.M. Berger estimates that more than 1,400 American citizens have taken part in some form of militant jihad over the past 30 years. As our communication and connectivity brings us closer, our money and internet history drive our future more than the votes we drop in the ballot box.

Yet simple connectivity cannot supplant real action from Internet users. In “Tweeting Toward Freedom,” the Wilson Quarterly noted that, “More than a million people have joined a Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition, but few among them have taken any additional action to help those in Sudan.” The most effective ideologues in this century will be those who can turn words on a computer screen into reliable action from their followers.

The Social State

In a Small Wars Journal article, Richard Lindsey wrote, “There comes a point in any insurgency where it must move beyond the reach of social media, and tangible gains must be made on the ground – positions occupied, personalities deposed, systems replaced, logistics realized, and governments overthrown.” Yet if insurgents and individuals can defend themselves from governments while operating within that government’s borders, they have already made “tangible gains…on the ground.” The positions, personalities, systems, logistics, and governance are provided through wireless or ether connections and supported via the “social compact”—namely, some form of user agreement.

If I can get access to the internet, I can pledge to a cause, fund that cause, and become indoctrinated to that cause. We might call this process “assimilation.” My physical location is only important insomuch as I can carry out actions for that cause in my specific locale or travel to a nearby location to do the same. The “social-states” created by this reality are the future of the world, where citizens are arranged by borders of thought, ideology, and preference.

On its face, this may seem like a unique solution to so many conflicts throughout the world. However, the “borders” created by such a reality are much more fluid, volatile, and confusing, and they will drive our concept of conflict. In the book Warrior Politics, visionary author Robert Kaplan surmises that “the spread of information in the coming decades will lead not just to new social compacts, but to new divisions as people discover new and complex issues over which to disagree.”

Rather than access to weapons and land, the ability to control the electromagnetic spectrum and access to the internet will define future battlefields as the “strategic high ground.” Cyber strike and defense will be the most critical mission sets as friend and foe alike use this medium to achieve not only kinetic effects against their enemies–including CBRNE—but important non-kinetic effects as well, especially those encompassed in the concept of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD).

Without respect for nation-state political borders, these effects will be felt indiscriminately by both supporters and opponents of the cause. Therefore, those who can develop the ability to discriminate their effects will find the most success and support.

The Tough Sell

A new global paradigm isn’t limited to the shores of Africa or the Middle East; it can be seen here in America. The government shutdown is a case study in the inability of governments to respond to large-scale discord in a way that maintains credibility – and in this century, credibility and confidence is currency. Those who cannot control the 24/7 opinion and social media reality will quickly cede their control to the growing social-state underneath.

Therefore, it will be in the best interests of major nations like the USA, China, Germany, United Kingdom, and France, among others, to counter these tendencies and find a way to “sell” the nation-state in a 21st century marked by individual power. More than Nazism, fascism, or communism, the synergistic effects of non-state actors, insurgents, and individuals through social media and collaboration will be the greatest existential threat to freedom as we know it—the kind of freedom nation-states enjoy—that the world has ever witnessed.

In his New York Times piece “The End of the Nation-State?” Parag Khanna reminds us that “[t]his isn’t to say that states have disappeared, or will. But they are becoming just one form of governance among many.” In an age where information and products consume our daily routines, nation-states are faced with a very tough sell, indeed. There are many questions that partisans, policy makers, and populations must answer: Is the nation-state worth fighting for, or is the social-state a better alternative? Are the two mutually exclusive? Is the paradigm shift inevitable?

We will shape the answers to these questions over the coming decades. In the meantime, the only certainty seems to be that we will be uncertain.

LT Roger L. Misso is a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) in the E-2C Hawkeye, recent MAWTS-1 WTI graduate, and former director of the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC). 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.

Battle of Litani River: Maritime Challenges in the Levant

Figure 1As the Syrian conflict drags on well into its third year, military planners continue weighing the differing contingency options and courses of action.  How do Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Israel protect themselves from a pre-emptive strike from the Baathist regime?  Is Russia providing advanced weaponry to the regime?  Will one or some of the various terrorist groups residing within Syria gain control of chemical weapons?  What exactly is the Russian navy doing in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea?  Who is the “opposition”?

The difficult limited choices (boots on the ground, non-fly zone, etc.) and the projection of future scenarios must be a heavy burden for military leadership that claim areas of responsibility for operations in Syria and around the Levant region.  Yet, the common military (and political) dialogue fails to discuss a very real sequel to any military campaign in Syria – What will happen in Lebanon? 

This “Switzerland of the Middle East” is a dynamic and aggravated area, susceptible to flare up and strife. Does it matter?  To the Israelis: of course it does, just look at the recent history of operations in Lebanon.  To the US: they have been involved in Lebanon (continually) since the early 1980s.  The recognized border between Lebanon and Israel is a memorial to the frozen conflict of which is just pending Hizbollah and/or Syria’s next move.

In June 1941, the Allies conducted a Syria-Lebanon campaign (known as Operation Exporter) of which little is written. British, Palestinians, Jordanians, Indians, Australians, and the “Free French” conducted an invasion of Vichy-controlled Syria and Lebanon, ultimately resulting in a victory, with the Free French General Catroux being placed in charge of Syria-Lebanon.  Shortly after, Catroux named both Syria and Lebanon free nations. Lebanon declared its independence in November 1943 with Syria claiming independence two months later.

In this campaign, Australian commandos as part of the British Layforce – an ad hoc assortment of special forces – conducted an amphibious raid into Lebanon through the southern Litani River area in an effort to seize key nodes (bridges and high terrain) in advance of the main force, driving north from Palestine towards Beirut.  The amphibious force was to coordinate with the 21st Brigade’s attack on the Litani River position, through an amphibious assault from sea near the mouth of the river. They were to secure the north and south banks of the river and prevent an enemy demolition of the Qasmiye bridge, allowing the 21st brigade to advance towards Beirut.  The landing force met unforeseen challenges posed both from their adversary as well as their own command and control.  These likewise hold lessons for naval planners contemplating operations in the region today.  

Limited Intelligence

The overall campaign commander, Field Marshal Henry Wilson, was unable to detail the force structure up to 10 days prior to the assault.  There were limited amount of intel handbooks to provide information on Lebanese and Syrian roads, towns, people, and enemy forces. The allied forces only had broad maps (1:200,000) of the area of operations and no prior intelligence on beach landing sites.  In response to this intel gap, action officers conducted a reconnaissance trip to Haifa to inquire on weather.  Finding that the landing area had heavy surf at 300yds from the beach, and given the dates of the pending assault, a landing was not assessed as favorable.

While the information available to naval planners has grown in the last 70 years, given ISR limitations and a robust Syrian air-defense posture, limited actionable intelligence will most likely still present a challenge.  Despite a recent Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) of Lebanon, the increased conflict in Syria and multi-national interest in the region pose a much more complicated environment and larger quantity of unknowns.

Conflicting Command Relationships

The senior officer of the amphibious force, consisting of the landing ship HMS Glengyle and destroyers HMS Hotspur, HMS Iris, and HMS Coventry, serving as escorts, delegated responsibility of landing boats to the commanding officer of the amphibious ship CAPT Petrie, RN.  Upon conversing with the other ship captains (who all recommended against a landing) CAPT Petrie decided to recover the boats and return to Port Said.  This decision was not concurred by Col Pedder, the Amphibious Landing Force commander, who argued that the risk was worth taking to maintain surprise (moonlight had showed their presence), but the decision was made to reverse course nonetheless.  The ships returned to Port Said on the afternoon of 09 June, and after a brief meeting decided to get underway and attempt the landing again – early the next morning.  The force returned at 0300 to the same spot (four miles west of the coast) and launched the operation under a full moon in calm weather. Various landing parties came under immediate fire upon arriving at the beach and many felt that the previous night’s loitering tipped off the enemy to their intentions.  Additionally, when the main force (X) arrived south of the Litani River they observed that the enemy had already demolished the Qasmiye bridge.

While the decision to delay the landing had been delegated to CAPT Petrie, he also had a responsibility to report to his senior officer that landing force commander did not concur with the decision.  Communication limitations may have hindered such a correspondence, but this hotly contested command relationship is another reminder of the inherent risks that are always involved in amphibious operations.

 

HMS Glengyle
                                                                                                     HMS Glengyle

Naval history books are filled with command and control mistakes during amphibious operations and Allied forces in World War II learned hard lessons in their gradual development of effective amphibious task force/landing force relationships.  Given the uniqueness of the Levant region and the Eastern Mediterranean there are multiple commands who may be involved.  Recent western-coalition amphibious exercises (i.e. Bold Alligator) found persistent errors in command relationships and no common understanding of an appropriate chain of command.  U.S. European Command (EUCOM), U.S. Central Command, and NATO all have operational area boundaries that meet in the Levant Region. Given the complexity of the area and environment, unless lessons of the past are understood, accepted, and acted upon the same issues may continue to haunt future amphibious operations in an around the Litani.

Faulty Navigation Skills

Two of the three landing parties (X and Z) had difficulties finding the correct landing site, resulting in the main effort (X party) landing one mile south of the intended objective and south of the Litani River, whereas the supporting effort (Z party) landed on the unintended side of the enemy forces.  This is not the first early morning amphibious operation (see Gallipoli) in which the leading guide used an incorrect navigational aid (small house vice a bridge).  Despite advances in GPS technology, the lack of updated environmental information and infrequent operations in this area should cause amphibious force planners to expect a comparable level of complexity. 

Six minutes after landing, a battery of field guns including 75mm guns, 81mm mortars and heavy machine guns opened fire on X party’s beach.  This may be viewed as irrelevant in light of today’s advanced equipment, but a friendly reminder that the 11 Scottish Commando’s arrival on the hillcrest overlooking the Litani river met with immediate friendly artillery fire should strike note of caution in maritime planners. 

Lack of Air Support and Coastal Shore Bombardment

Vichy French recon planes made repeated flights over the landing forces, while their destroyers moved down the Lebanese coast, firing into landing parties positions.  Despite ineffective shore bombardment on Z party, the X party sustained direct hits on troops and artillery with no effective friendly ship counter-fire.  It is unfathomable to think that two enemy French destroyers were able to freely maneuver on the coast, disrupting landing force operations, while three allied destroyers and one cruiser were assigned as escorts. 

This scenario easily translates to today’s operations and high-priority Ballistic Missile Defense platforms.  In the Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2AD) environment (easily framed in the Eastern Mediterranean) planners should be asking more than just strategic imperatives and instead  should be asking commanders for operational priorities.  Who is the main effort?  Who is supporting?  In response to the Syrian conflict, will a Lebanon amphibious operation ever be the top priority or will naval forces be asked to conduct multi-functional missions that overlap C2 relationships, confuse capabilities and responsibilities, and fail to achieve mission success?

From a Naval perspective the Levant region is ripe with challenges: small maneuver space in the Eastern Mediterranean, only 3 choke-point entries (Gibraltar, Suez, Bosphorus), and a concave coastline that presents decreased distance from coastal-defense cruise missiles and coastal batteries, as well as, various territorial water space considerations.  The amateur maritime planner may quickly consider these challenges as important for the status quo mission of maritime strike and ballistic missile defense, but with a bit more time invested a planner would quickly surmise that the Levant’s maritime domain is much more of a challenge for potential amphibious operations.

References:  McHarg, Ian “Litani River.” United Kingdom, 2011. www.litaniriver.com

@NavalPlanner is an experienced strategic and operational military planner. He strives to share his perspective on operational art and planning with fellow maritime enthusiasts on his blog.

USS Enterprise – A British Memoriam

           We are Legend; Ready on Arrival; The First, the Finest; Eight Reactors, None FasterBig EWhen a crisis confronts the nation, the first question often asked by policymakers is: ‘What naval forces are available and how fast can they be on station?’
                 – Admiral C.A.H. Trost, USN Chief of Naval Operations Proceedings, May 1990

 

In December 2012, in execution of the recommendations set down in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2010, the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), was ‘inactivated’ at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. Such ceremonies are always poignant events, a mixture of sadness and celebratory reflection on a ships life and achievements. It is estimated that some 100,000 American men and women had served on her during a distinguished 51-year career and many of them turned out to say farewell to this extraordinary warship.

She is not only extraordinary in her length of service in the U.S. Navy but also in her size and capabilities. She is 1,123 feet long (331 feet shorter than the height of the Empire State Building). Her displacement is 95,000 long tons, 4.5 times larger than the recently decommissioned Royal Navy Invincible-class carriers and still 25 – 30,000 long tons larger than, the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, the first of which will enter service in 2018, 60 years after the hull of Enterprise was laid down in a Virginian ship yard. Her 8 nuclear reactors allowed her to ‘steam’ at up to 35 knots, and meant she never had to refuel. She had a ships company of over 3,000 and could carry up to 95 aircraft. I often remember fondly a story my father told me in which he recalls acting as plane guard to a Nimitz class carrier in the Persian Gulf in 1991. In command of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Scylla (F71), he was struck by her effortless acceleration, while he practically had to burn the wardroom furniture to keep up. Even if not Enterprise, I imagine many a naval officer around the world has similar, lasting impressions of an American nuclear powered carrier.

Big E 2By any yardstick Enterprise is an impressive military asset, and all the more so when you consider she was laid down just 13 years after the end of the Second World War. Since then she has been involved in almost every major conflict since, beginning with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, including;

• Six deployments in support of Operations in Vietnam, during which she survived a devastating fire.
• Operation Frequent Wind (1975); the evacuation of U.S. citizens and at-risk Vietnamese citizens during the North’s invasion of the South.
• Operation El Dorado Canyon (1886); the bombing of Libya.
• Operation Earnest Will (1988); escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Tanker Wars.
• Operation Preying Mantis (1988) in response to the Iranian mining of an American warship during Earnest Will.
• Operation Classic Resolve (1989); demonstrating American support to Philippine President Corazon Aquino during an attempted rebel coup.
• Operation Joint Endeavour (1996) & Operation Southern Watch (1996); enforcing no fly zones over Bosnia and Iraq respectively.
• Operation Desert Fox (1998); launching airstrikes against targets in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq following his continued flagrant disregard for UN sanctions.

In more recent years, Enterprise was first to provide direct air support for Operation Enduring Freedom, the 2001 invasion of land-locked Afghanistan, delivering 700 seaborne airstrikes in just 3 weeks. She would later provide continued air support for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. She has even supported operations off the Horn of Africa against Somali pirates, quite a contrast to her baptism of fire off Cuba. I only list the most salient operations in which she played a significant part, but this list – by no means exhaustive – is sufficient to demonstrate the flexibility and utility of such a vessel. The above record also does not account for the ever-valuable ‘showing the flag’ missions, a task for which she would have had a powerful talent. One must never underestimate the diplomatic leverage a warship with such destructive potential can afford, either sitting offshore or docked in harbour; wherever she is in the world she is a potent expression of America’s engagement with that region. There is something sublime and deeply affecting in the design, scale and military capability of a carrier such as Enterprise.

But she is more than a military asset; she is also an American icon. She has hosted rock concerts, she had starring roles in the films Top Gun and Hunt for the Red October, and of course, her futuristic namesake explores the final frontier. She and her sister ships not only define how America prosecutes defence, but also help to shape an understanding of American culture and international identity. When commissioned in 1961 Enterprise was the embodiment of the post-war American spirit, powerful, flexible, responsive and technologically innovative, characteristics that all contributed to an over-arching commitment to global security1. She was a clear demonstration of America’s post-1945 ambitions and more significantly for a Brit like myself, a clear indication that the Royal Navy had been conclusively usurped as the world’s preponderant naval force (however I am yet to concede the title of the finest!). Seapowers around the globe still aspire towards what Enterprise defines. You only need to look to the shipyards of China, India, Russia and indeed, the United Kingdom, to get an appreciation for the far-reaching legacy of this ship, laid down half a century ago.

Big E 3Her inactivation has not hugely impacted America’s seaborne air-power capabilities. The U.S. Navy still operates 10 carrier battle groups across the globe (each purported to cost the equivalent of the entire Italian defence budget), capable of responding swiftly to any emergency, be it military or humanitarian. These groups continue to define America’s global defence posture. The Nimitz-class carriers, and the new generation currently under construction, present a clear indication that Washington still has an intention to remain a global presence to shape its and the world’s future from the sea and not from protracted and costly wars ashore.

At the de-commissioning event in December, Captain William C. Hamilton, Jr., the twenty-third and final commanding officer of Enterprise reflected on the ships history, “Enterprise is a special ship and crew, and it was special long before I got here”.

“Before I took command of this ship, I learned the definition of ‘enterprise’, which is ‘an especially daring and courageous undertaking driven by a bold and adventurous spirit.’ Fifty-one years ago, this ship was every bit of that definition.”

“Here we are 51 years later, celebrating the astonishing successes and accomplishments of this engineering marvel that has roamed the seas for more than half the history of Naval Aviation. Daring, courageous, bold, and adventurous indeed.”2

It is hardly surprising, and a reflection of the impression Enterprise has made on the American psyche, that a recent announcement declared that the latest Gerald R. Ford-class carrier will be named Enterprise, the 9th American warship to bear what has become a legendary title. When one considers the contribution of Big E to American security, diplomacy and military operations over the last half century, who can argue, as some are tempted to do here in London, if not in words but in their actions, that seapower is becoming less and less relevant to present and future global security?

 Simon Williams received a BA Hons in Contemporary History from the University of Leicester in 2008. In early 2011 he was awarded an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. His postgraduate dissertation was entitled The Second Boer War 1899-­1902: A Triumph of British Sea Power. He organised the Navy is the Nation Conference, which was held in April 2012 in Portsmouth, UK. The aim of this event was to explore the impact of the Royal Navy on British culture and national identity.

1. I must add at this point however that the USN relies heavily on RN mine-countermeasure vessels to ensure safe passage of his big-ticket assets in hostile waters.

2. ‘Enterprise, Navy’s First Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier, Inactivated’

Conning the Constitution

Constitution goes out to sea in Boston Harbor, August, 2012

When I reached Charlestown Navy Yard on August 19, 2012, it seemed like a perfect morning to be underway in the harbor:  clear skies, a forecast high in the mid-70s, and the ship going to sea was USS Constitution, set to sail on her own power for the second time in 131 years.  Reporting as her conning officer was certainly the last thing I ever expected to do. 

Six months earlier, Commander Matthew Bonner, Constitution’s 72nd commanding officer, asked if I’d be up for the job.  Boston NROTC, where I teach navigation and naval operations to midshipmen, has a long standing relationship with Constitution.  With only an Executive Officer and Operations Officer, the wardroom would be fully stretched that day.  I was understandably more than happy to help out. 

Once onboard, I surveyed the area where the navigation team and I would be working.  The harbor chart was laid out on a folding table in front of the ship’s proud 10-spoke wooden helm about three quarters of the way aft.  Navigation equipment was rather limited; a magnetic compass on each side of the ship’s wheel was the only permanently installed equipment.  Technicians from Naval Sea Systems Command, onboard to monitor the stability of the ship, had also installed a digital reader for course and speed. 

As the underway time of 1000 neared, the ship was buzzing with activity.  Constitution’s normal crew is around just over 50, but they had assistance from 150 Chief Petty Officer-Selects temporarily assigned for a two-week CPO heritage program.  Also onboard were several former Constitution commanding officers, Medal of Honor recipient Captain Tom Hudner (Ret.), three flag officers, and the British Consul General.  With the crew taking in the last line and casting us into the harbor, I could feel the shared excitement as we began our historic cruise. 

There was no conning to be done, initially.  One primary tug boat and a backup were towing the ship approximately three miles to a predetermined “sail box” just past the channel entrance where we would have up to a mile to maneuver with sufficient separation from shoal water.  Despite not having active control of the ship, two Quartermasters laid regular fixes from a handheld GPS receiver. 

Once in the channel, Commander Bonner and the British Consul General laid a wreath overboard to honor the 7 American and 15 British sailors who died in the fierce battle between Constitution and HMS Guerriere 200 years ago that day.  Constitution’s vanquishing of the British frigate was a milestone victory for the early U.S. Navy and also the occasion where the ship earned her famous “Old Ironsides” moniker. 

Summer weekends are popular times for pleasure boaters in Boston Harbor, and that Sunday was no exception.  Hundreds of boats were out in the harbor to catch a glimpse of America’s ship of state, with many trying to follow along for the whole cruise.  Fortunately, the Massachusetts State Police, Boston Police, Massachusetts Environmental Police, and U.S. Coast Guard provided escort and protection with a sizable exclusion zone around Constitution.

The two-hour trip to the sail box flew by.  Before I knew it, our two tugs were turning us around between Deer Island and Long Island and into position.  Around this time our “sail master,” a First Class Boatswains Mate, began barking commands to a hybrid team of Constitution crew and CPO-selects.  In well-rehearsed sequence and with dozens of Sailors on various lines, the crew raised Constitution’s three main sails.  The world’s oldest commissioned warship was coming to life. 

It was almost game time for me and my helmsman, a First Class Sonar Technician.  We reviewed what we learned the prior Friday during steering checks:  maximum rudder in either direction is 20 degrees, one full turn of the wheel is 10 degrees, therefore each of the wheel’s 10 spokes represents one degree of rudder.  There was no rudder angle indicator like one typically finds on ships.  Instead, a black marking on the line wrapped around the wheel moves forward and aft relative four rows of line on either side as the wheel turns. 

The Quartermaster recommended course 260T to return us to the western end of the sail box and back into the channel.  To verify we were on that heading, I called over to the still-connected tug’s captain.  Constitution’s two magnetic compasses fluctuated during the transit and now displayed conflicting headings, and since we were still dead in the water, our digital course repeater was unable to help.  After verifying that we were on the correct heading, I was ready to go.

“Conn, tug’s cast off!”  the Captain yelled to me, and with a “Rudder amidships,” we were off and sailing.  The entire crew, who had worked so hard and waited so long for this special moment, erupted in spontaneous applause as the tugs moved away and took ready station off our quarters.  I can recall the surreal feeling of looking to my left and right seeing no tugs and knowing that I was playing a small part in navigating this almost sacred warship, and would remember it for the rest of my life. 

I allowed myself only a brief period to soak in the moment and then kept my focus on driving the ship.  Although we were laying frequent fixes, I relied on input from the Captain, who had climbed partway up the ship’s rigging for a better view.  Standing by the helm, one has only a limited view of what is actually ahead of the ship.  As we intended to maintain course, only minor rudder adjustments were required. 

USS Constitution handled very surely.  At roughly two knots speed over ground, we pressed ahead.  Our speed, while slow, impressed everyone onboard since we had a tail wind of just about three knots.  That was just enough to fill our sails and keep Joshua Humphrey’s brilliantly designed ship moving ahead.  News helicopters circled overhead and hundreds of boaters kept up with what must have been a majestic sight.  The last time Constitution was underway on sail power was 1997, and prior to that was 1881. 

 

USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere have at it in 1812

Seventeen minutes later, our brief sail into history came to an end.  The tug returned, the crew partly lowered the sails, and Constitution was no longer under our direction.  It felt like no time at all, but I relished every second.  It was a great feeling to shake hands with the helmsman and quartermasters as we shared congratulations and absorbed up what we had just done. 

We were not finished yet, though, as the return to Charlestown was still ahead and Constitution still had one more show to put on.  The tug brought us to a stop just north of Fort Independence at Castle Island, where thousands (including my mom) had assembled for a view.  The crew came to attention, and with a thunderous “boom” a 21-gun salute commenced.   Dozens of surrounding boats answered with their whistles and the harbor was alive with enthusiasm.  Afterwards, in an unscripted moment, the Chief-selects broke out in “Anchors Aweigh,” soon joined by the whole crew.  We sang so loudly that the crowd on shore could hear, I later learned, and they loved it. 

 

LT Chris Peters, after the wardroom meal of hard tacks and salted beef

Around an hour later, a small crowd welcomed Constitution back to the Navy Yard, and we moored where we had started roughly four hours earlier.  Knowing that the day’s events were almost certainly something I would never take part in again, I took time to reflect before disembarking.  I thought of naval heroes like Edward Preble and Stephen Decatur who walked Constitution’s decks two centuries before.  Considering their bravery, courage, and the impact they and USS Constitution had on our early Navy and the country, I was incredibly humbled to feel so connected to their history.  I also thought of the professional, passionate Constitution sailors I met that day.  Those impressive men and women are heirs to and representations of our proud past.  On August 19, 1812, USS Constitution’s iron-like live oak hull repelled British cannon fire, but it was the courage and resilience of the American Sailor that won the day and continues to keep our Navy strong. 

LT Chris Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and an instructor at Boston University. 

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.