Join CIMSEC’s DC Chapter this Thursday for an informal happy hour at Franklin Hall’s Roosevelt Room. Stop by for a drink and discussion on the latest maritime security developments and meet some interesting people – all are welcome! RSVPs not necessary but appreciated at email@example.com. All are welcome!
Time: Thursday, 18 Oct, 4:30-7:30pm
Place: Franklin Hall, (Roosevelt Room) 1348 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC (U Street/African-American Civil War/Cardozo stop on the Green/Yellow Line).
When war broke out between Japan and China in 1894, few expected a Japanese victory. Qing China had undergone its period of self-strengthening and modernization for much longer than the Japanese Meiji modernization period, had invested more money in its naval programs and platforms, and the Japanese Navy was supposedly outmatched both qualitatively and quantitatively. However, at the Battle off the Yalu River the Japanese defeated the Qing Northern Fleet in a decisive battle. So what went wrong in Qing self-strengthening? What left the Chinese so vastly unprepared for naval conflict?
Upon a close review of both primary and secondary sources, three key answers emerge. Firstly, the lack of a unified Chinese Navy under the Qing Empire proved fatal in the First Sino-Japanese War. Second, corruption and inefficiency in the institutions of the self-strengthening movement ensured poor commanders and a lack of equipment in the Beiyang Fleet. Finally, Japan’s unified command, professional officer corps, rigorous training, and use of French Jeune Ecole tactics won the day.
Naval Power and Combat in the Sino-Japanese War
Li Hongzhang, the Chinese scholar, diplomat, and military leader, remains a critical figure in understanding the self-strengthening movement in China. He led modernization efforts across the Qing Empire, setting an example through his own Huai Army and the Beiyang (Northern) Fleet. Regional armies and fleets like the Huai and Beiyang soon became the model on which the Qing Empire built its new armed forces in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion. This practice would prove to have fatal consequences during both the Sino-French and Sino-Japanese Wars as factional politics would override any sense of national duty in the Northern and Southern Qing Fleets.
On paper, the Qing Navy dwarfed that of the Japanese in 1894. The total size of the Chinese fleet at the time was “about 65 large ships and 43 torpedo boats.”1 By contrast the Japanese could boast just “32 warships and 23 torpedo boats.”2 These numbers bely the true strength of each fleet however, as “China’s navy still had a fourfold division in the Beiyang, Nanyang, Fujian, and Guangdong Fleets.”3 This division was foolhardy for several reasons. For one, it meant that the Chinese were never able to apply overwhelming force or superiority in numbers during battle. Despite the fact that the Beiyang Fleet was the largest of the regional fleets, and technically could match the size of the Japanese Navy, during the decisive Battle off the Yalu River, the Japanese had an 11 to 10 numerical advantage.4
The biggest problem the division created was that each fleet was regionally loyal and lacked loyalty to a central command or state. During the Sino-French War, the Qing Southern Fleet was annihilated by a French surprise attack. The Beiyang Fleet did little to help the Southern Fleet in this predicament, as “Li Hongzhang only sent two of the ships requested from his Beiyang fleet, and he withdrew these from the battle by asserting that the Japanese threat in Korea mandated their return north.”5 While this may have seemed a prudent maneuver at the time, allowing Li to protect two of his modern ships from senseless destruction, it cost him in the future. Just as the Beiyang Fleet had protected its own ships during the Sino-French war, in the Sino-Japanese war “the Nanyang officers now got their revenge on the Northern Fleet by keeping the Southern Fleet out of war with Japan for the most part.”6
Factionalism went beyond simply Northern versus Southern Fleet rivalries, as it even existed within the fleets themselves. Regional factions seem to have particularly irked Ding Ruchang, Li Hongzhang’s commander-in-chief of the Beiyang Fleet, where “there were many officers from Fukien in the navy, Ting Ju-ch’an (Ding Ruchang), being a Huai-chun man and being placed above them, found that his actions were constantly being circumscribed.”7 This reflects the latent issues of the regional army system as it created centers of power aside from the Emperor or the state. This in turn meant that there was a lack of loyalty, discipline, and efficiency in the fleet, all flaws that were exposed in the Battle off the Yalu River.
Another major issue faced by the Beiyang Navy was the corruption rampant in the late Qing empire. This was a major disappointment, since to many observers, the institutions behind the Self-Strengthening movement were initially very successful. The Japanese only began producing large scale warships some 15 years after the Qing successfully did so at the Jiangnan Shipyard. Even then those ships produced in Japan could not compete with those produced at Jiangnan where “In terms of armaments, those manufactured at the Jiangnan Arsenal were by and large superior to Japan’s.”8 The Fuzhou Shipyard, located further south, was even bigger, and where Dr. Benjamin Elman even refers to it as “probably the leading industrial venture in late Qing.”9 However, this success was not to last. Chinese regional leaders were skeptical of Li Hongzhang and the naval board, and refused to pay anything more than the bare minimum required for the basic maintenance of the fleet. They were wary of the naval board because, “its ineffectual Manchu director, Prince Chu’un, and his successor, Prince Ch’ing were unable to administer its funds properly and could not prevent the Empress Dowager from diverting the funds for other purposes.”10 Another observer commented that “the Admiralty has had big sums paid to it yearly the last ten years and ought to have a balance of 36,000,000 taels, and lo! It has not a penny, having allowed the Empress Dowager to draw on it for the many whims she has been indulging in.”11
Worse still was the impact the corruption within the Qing government had on the commanders of the Beiyang fleet, particularly those in command at the Battle off the Yalu. Even before the war this appeared to be a common concern amongst observers of Asian naval affairs, with one newspaper article commenting that the commander-in-chief of the fleet, Admiral Ding Ruchang, was not adequately trained for his role, “Ting (Ding), whose knowledge of naval matters does not fit him to do any of the real work.”12 Another article states that when compared to Japanese officers, the officers of the Beiyang fleet “labored and still labors under disadvantages arising out of birth, habit, and system.”13 The Qing Empire’s insistence on maintaining Chinese essence while embracing Western characteristics meant that soldiers and sailors remained undervalued in society, while Confucian scholars with little experience in war or tactics found themselves in positions of leadership. These ideas are reflected in secondary sources as well, with one going so far as to say that “Li Huang-Chang had characteristically staffed it (the Beiyang fleet) with ‘needy relatives and greedy henchmen.’”14 While the aforementioned article does seem to take a Japanese viewpoint, the author is correct in noting that Admiral Ding had no experience as a naval commander regardless of his past as an excellent cavalry commander under Li. In the end, the author’s label of Ding as “gallant but incompetent” seems to be fair.15
The ordnance supply officer for the Beiyang Fleet was Li Hongzhang’s son-in-law, Chang P’ei-lun, who Professor Wiliam Lockwood refered to as a “champion swindler.”16 He describes the cost of Chang’s corruption, whose ordnance department regularly filled shells with sand, and “When the shooting began, the Chinese fleet found that its total supply of ammunition amounted to fourteen shells per gun. Two 7,000-ton ironclads had only three shells in all for their 10-inch guns.”17 Benjamin Elman also notes that the Chinese were “hampered by woeful shortages of ammunition” at the Battle off the Yalu and that “Some were filled through the black market with cement rather than explosives.” Elman argues that this “suggests serious corruption problems in Li Hongzhang’s supply command.”18 Not only did this corruption limit the Chinese fleet’s ability to fire its guns during the battle, but having a limited number of shells also prevents effective live-fire gunnery training.
This lack of practice was certainly reflected in the opening exchanges of the battle, as the Chinese opened fire first, “The Chinese Admiral opened fire at a range of 6,000 meters (about three and three-quarters miles), the shot on both sides falling short, the effective range being around 5,000 meters.”19 The primary armaments of the main Chinese battleships fired 197 rounds, and scored just 10 hits.20 When they did hit, they knocked the Japanese flagship out of the battle, but they simply did not hit often enough to have a decisive impact. Overall, the Chinese fleet “scored about 10 percent of her tries. The Japanese, on the other hand, with their quick-firers scored about 15 percent of their tries.”21 While the Japanese ratio does not at first look overwhelmingly favorable, the Japanese guns had three times the rate of fire of their Chinese opponents, meaning that they were more accurate even as they fired many more shots.22
In perhaps the most staggering display of outright corruption, at the commencement of hostilities between China and Japan, Elman tells of an observer who noted that Chinese ships had about half their crews, while the salaries for the crews were still being paid in full.23 These gross indiscretions helped doom the Beiyang fleet at the Battle off the Yalu River. Underequipped, undertrained, understaffed, and with the wrong men at the helm, the battle could only go one way.
What is staggering is that for every institutional shortcoming suffered by the Chinese, the Japanese could point to an institutional success. While the Qing were unable to coordinate or consolidate their forces under a single command, the Japanese fleet was always unified, and trained extensively together as a single fighting force. This goes a long way to explaining the contrast in the conduct of the two fleets during the battle. While the Chinese opened fire from the extreme range of 6,000 meters, a Japanese account holds that the Japanese fleet held its fire until it had closed the distance to just 3,000 meters. Furthermore, the Japanese carefully coordinated their fire, “All the big guns on the Japanese vessels were directed towards the upper decks of the Ting Yuen (Dingyuan) and the Chen Yuen (Zhenyuan), the rest of the Chinese ships being fired at with guns of smaller caliber.”24 This tactical decision showed remarkable forethought on the part of Japanese commanders who knew their lighter weaponry could not hope to penetrate the armor belt of the two Chinese battleships. Although it is likely these sources were carefully checked by the Japanese government (who provided the authors with sources and documents), this tactic is borne out as fact by the reports which indicate that Admiral Ting was injured in the early stages in the battle, as Japanese fire crashed into the bridge of his ship and took out the signals mast, leaving him unable to communicate with the rest of the fleet.
The Japanese remained steadfastly disciplined throughout the battle while chaos reigned in the Chinese formations. This is due to the fact that while the Chinese had neither the funds nor the supplies for extensive training the Japanese prepared for war by “incessant training at sea. Special importance was devoted to gunnery, torpedo work, and steaming efficiency.”25 Another major failing of the Chinese fleet was the reluctance to create a true naval academy and professional officer corps. The Japanese did not hesitate to do so, forming a naval school in 1866. The Japanese naval academy had existed for nearly thirty years by the time the Sino-Japanese War began. Using graduates from the school Japan had built a professional officer corps, and could count on well-trained commanders throughout the fleet.
Chinese officers on the other hand, could boast of no such training. While some, like Captain Deng Shichang of the Zhiyuan, (who was recognized for his heroic conduct during the battle) had spent time overseas evaluating foreign fleets, they constituted a small minority, negating their impact in the chaos of battle. The vast majority of Chinese officers were trained in the Fuzhou arsenal, and “some observers described the Fuzhou-trained officers as cowards.”26
Many naval scholars suggest the Chinese focused too heavily on building ships while neglecting the training of their sailors. “The material growth continued at a rate more impressive than that of the Japanese Navy, obscuring the fact that the Chinese were doing little right other than acquiring more warships.”27 In Power at Sea, Lisle Rose attacks the Chinese mindset more directly, “China had chosen to concentrate on material power, Japan on the intelligence of its men behind the guns and in the engine rooms.”28 Perhaps the Chinese determination to adopt Western technology but maintain a Chinese essence blinded their mindset in this instance. The Japanese had no such pretensions, and strove to learn as much as possible about French Jeune Ecole tactics. Designed to help smaller fleets confronting a numerically and technologically superior enemy, these tactics were perfect for the young Japanese Navy. The Battle off the Yalu should be viewed as a textbook example of the Jeune Ecole in use against a quantitatively superior fleet.
The picture which emerges after an examination of the two fleets on the day of the Battle off the Yalu River yields up a stark contrast. The Chinese had more ships, thicker armor, and bigger guns, but were led by corrupt and incompetent officers, faced a dire shortage of ammunition, and had no overall strategy or tactics. Against them was a far smaller Japanese navy, designed and built around a cutting edge strategy taught to them by French officers, with a professional officer corps and years of extensive training at sea under their belts.
During the period from 1850-1941 practically every naval officer and expert was writing about the “decisive battle” that would invariably occur on the high seas in the next great war, where one fleet’s massive battleships would meet the others, and the two would go toe to toe just as Nelson and Villeneuve had at Trafalgar. This “decisive battle” seldom occurred however, with opportunities missed at Jutland, Heligoland Bight, Doggers Bank, Leyte Gulf, and more. But this decisive meeting of capital ships did occur at the Battle of the Yalu River and the Battle of Tsushima. This makes the Battle of the Yalu River one of the most fascinating moments in naval history.
The question of why the Qing failed despite their extensive modernization efforts and why Japan was so much more successful has occupied the minds of many historians throughout the years. Perhaps we have an answer in the form of Chinese failure to consolidate their regional fleets, rampant corruption, poor training, and inadequate personnel. These deficiencies were all exposed by a superior Japanese Navy off the Yalu River in the final, decisive battle of the Sino-Japanese War.
Aidan Clarke is an undergraduate student at Furman University, double majoring in History and Politics and International Affairs, with an interest in naval affairs. He has previously researched the U.S.-Soviet naval showdown during the Yom Kippur War, and is currently conducting a research project on the Russo-Japanese War.
The author would like to thank Dr. Lane Harris of the Furman University History Department for his assistance on the research and writing of this paper.
1. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
4. Herbert, Hilary A. “The Fight off the Yalu River.” The North American Review, vol. 159, no. 456, Nov. 1894, pp. 513-28. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
5. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
7. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.
8. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
10. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.
12. “THE SOUTHERN CRUISE OP THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 6 June 1890. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
13.“THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 29 June 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
14. Lockwood, William W. “Japan’s Response to the West: The Contrast with China.” World Politics, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 1956, pp. 37-54. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
18. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
19. “Summary of News: LATEST INTELLIGENCE HANDS OFF! RUSSIA IS FIRM LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME THE BATTLE OF PINGYANG THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE MOOR APOLOGISES LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME TO REASSURE JAPAN BAD NEWS FROM ST. PETERSBURG THE MILITARY CONTRIBUTION OF THE STRAITS SETTLEMENTS THE JAPANESE AT HAIYUENTAO THREATENING NEWS THE NAVAL FIGHT OFF THE YALOO GREAT FIRE AT MANILA THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE SAFETY OF THE TRANSPORTS THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 28 Sept. 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
20. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
24. Eastlake, Frederick Warrington, and Yamada Yoshi-Aki. Heroic Japan: A History of the War between China and Japan. London, Sampson, Low, Marston, & Company, 1897.
25. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.
26. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
27. Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914. E-book, New York, Routledge, 2000. Warfare and History.
28. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.
Featured Image: The Battle of the Yalu River by Kobayashi Kiyoshi. (Wikimedia Commons)
Technology adoption moves in fits and starts. The developing world cannot be forced into accepting new technology, but it can be enabled, and often in a surprising manner. A recent example is the leap in communications technology. During the 20th Century most of the world developed a robust network of terrestrial-based telecommunications based primarily on the ubiquitous land-line telephone system. Without this infrastructure in place Sub-Saharan African countries were largely left behind at the start of the information revolution. But at the turn of the new century something interesting happened. Rather than retroactively building an archaic phone system Africans embraced mobile phone technology. From 1999 through 2004 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa eclipsed those of other continents, increasing at a rate of 58 percent annually. Asia, the second fastest area of saturation, grew at only 34 percent during that time. The explosive growth of mobile phones and more recently smart phones across practically every African city and village has liberated economies and facilitated the free flow of information. This technology also enabled Africans to lead the world in mobile money payment solutions, bypassing increasingly obsolete banking systems.
Today, Africans have another opportunity to leap ahead in technology to protect one of their most important areas of commerce – their coastal seas. Africa’s maritime economy is absolutely critical to the continent’s growth and prosperity during the next few decades. On the edge of the Eastern Atlantic the Gulf of Guinea is bordered by eight West African nations, and is an extremely important economic driver. More than 450 million Africans derive commercial benefit from this body of water. The region contains 50.4 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves and has produced up to 5.5 million barrels of oil per day. Additionally, over 90 percent of foreign imports and exports cross the Gulf of Guinea making it the region’s key connector to the global economy.
Favorable demographics and industrious populations put coastal Africans in a position to prosper, but an increase in illegal fishing activities and piracy since the early 2000s has severely impeded this potential. The growth in acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea from 2000 onward points to the challenges faced by West African states.
According to Quartz Africa, illegal fishing activities in the region have a negative economic impact of $2-3 billion annually. “Fish stocks are not restricted to national boundaries, and that is why the solutions to end the overfishing of West Africa’s waters can only come from joint efforts between the countries of the region,” Ahmed Diame, Greenpeace’s Africa Oceans campaigner, said in a statement. Marine pollution, human, and narcotics trafficking are also major issues facing the region.
Due to the economic impact of illicit activities in and around West Africa a Summit of the Gulf of Guinea heads of state and government was held in 2013 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. This resulted in the adoption of the Yaoundé Declaration on Gulf of Guinea Security. Two key resolutions contained in the Declaration were the creation of an inter-regional Coordination Centre on Maritime Safety and Security for Central and West Africa, headquartered in Yaoundé, and the implementation of a new Code of Conduct Concerning the Prevention and Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illegal Maritime Activities in West and Central Africa. Adoption of this agreement has laid the foundation for critical information sharing and resource cooperation that can be used to combat piracy, illegal fishing, and other illicit activities in the Gulf of Guinea.
Though the Code of Conduct established an architecture for maritime security in the region, without enforcement on the water, diplomatic efforts are largely impotent. Key to enforcement is the ability to identify, track, and prosecute nefarious actors on the high seas and in coastal areas. So-called maritime domain awareness is gradually improving in the area, but current options for maritime surveillance are limited. The largest local navies have offshore patrol vessels capable of multi-day over-the-horizon operations, but even these vessels have limited enforcement capacity. Patrol vessels face maintenance issues and fuel scarcity. Shore-based radar systems at best reach out 30 or 40 nautical miles, but are plagued by power and maintenance issues. Moreover, a shore-based radar, even with signals correlated from vessels transmitting on the Automatic Identification System, only provides knowledge that a contact is afloat, not necessarily any evidence to illicit actions.
Latin American navies face similar maritime challenges to those in Africa and have learned that airborne surveillance is simply the best way to locate, track, identify, and classify surface maritime targets involved in illicit or illegal activity. A retired senior naval officer from the region related a study in the Caribbean narcotics transit zone to one of the authors that compared different surveillance mechanisms for the 11,000 square nautical mile area. The probability of detecting a surface target within six hours rose from only five percent with a surface asset to 95 percent when maritime patrol aircraft were included. Only a handful of coastal African countries have fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters, but these aircraft face similar issues to surface assets with fuel costs and mechanical readiness resulting in limited flight time on station.
Drone Solutions to African Maritime Insecurity
Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, as they are known colloquially, provide a way for African navies and coast guards to greatly enhance maritime security in a relatively inexpensive manner, similar to the ways mobile telephony revolutionized communications on the continent. Similar to the evolution of computing power outlined by Moore’s law tactical UAS are rapidly growing in capabilities while decreasing in cost. Improvements in sensors, endurance, and payload are advancing quickly. For any solution, acquisition cost, maintainability, and infrastructure required are key factors to be considered. The cost per flying hour of most UAS is negligible compared to their manned counterparts. Today’s fixed and rotary-wing systems, whether specifically designed for military use or for commercial applications, can be adapted for surveillance in a maritime environment without much additional cost.
Because each country has unique requirements and budgets no single UAS solution is appropriate. Maritime drones can be based ashore or on coastal patrol vessels. One viable option for countries with limited resources involves services contracted by Western Partners, a model which has already been proven in the region for other applications. Alternatively, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct provides a framework for a possible shared model. This agreement can provide the timely sharing of critical information ascertained by maritime surveillance and reconnaissance systems to aid in the enforcement of the maritime laws and agreements in the region. Contractor-operated drones could be allocated across countries by leadership in the five Zones delineated by the Code. Multinational cooperation on maritime security has already been tested in the annual Obangame Express exercise and during real-world counterpiracy operations. Understanding that not all countries have the investment capability to purchase their own stand-alone systems, consideration could be given to sharing the initial investment costs between countries. The logistics of system placement and asset availability would have to be determined by the participating countries themselves but the benefit of such a program would positively impact the entire region economically, enhance interoperability, and assist in regional stability.
Drones are already being operated across Africa by Africans. Zambia recently purchased Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles for counter-poaching operations. There are also African unmanned systems flying surveillance missions over areas plagued by violent extremists groups. UAS are even being used to transport blood and medical supplies across the continent’s vast rural landscapes. Shifting these assets over water is a natural progression. One concern about using UAS is airspace deconfliction. However, this problem is minimized because there is little to no civil aviation in most parts of Africa. Additionally, most maritime UAS would be flying primarily at low altitudes over water from coastal bases.
The leap-ahead capabilities that unmanned surveillance aircraft could provide to coastal security around Africa are clearly evident. African navies with adequate resources should make acquisition of unmanned air systems a priority. Likewise, western foreign military assistance programs should focus on providing contracted or organic unmanned aircraft capabilities.
Captain Rawley, a surface warfare officer, and Lieutenant Commander Patmon, a naval aviator, are assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet’s Maritime Partnership Program detachment responsible for helping West African countries enhance their maritime security. The opinions in this article are those of the authors alone and do not officially represent the U.S. Navy or any other organization
Featured Image: GULF OF GUINEA (March 26, 2018) A visit board search and seizure team member from the Ghanaian special boat service communicates with his team during a search aboard a target vessel during exercise Obangame Express 2018, March 26. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released)
The nature of a system’s technical performance is an important foundation for developing tactics and gauging readiness. Naval warfare is especially technically intensive given that a modern warship is an advanced machine made up of many complex systems.
Combat systems are rapidly evolving in the Information Age and are frequently upgraded through new software updates. This adds to the challenging of maintaining current skills and can require a force to regularly retrain its people. However, warfighting culture characterized by scripted training can mask a decline in technical competence. Such a decline can be seen in how standards fell for some of the most important tools that help the Navy guard against tactical surprise.
When American warships came under missile fire in the Red Sea two years ago they could have been far better prepared. Key environmental data that would affect the parameters of any anti-air engagement was left unaccounted for, thereby contributing an important degree of tactical surprise. Many years earlier the Navy had finalized key tools and procedures that would promise a significant evolution in environmental awareness and would have greatly mitigated this sort of tactical surprise. Somehow these tools never made it into the fleet in time.
John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL) has been at the forefront of the Navy’s technology development for decades, including leading work on networking and surface-to-air missile capabilities. In 1982 the Navy’s Aegis Program Office began supporting JHU APL work on radar propagation models. This effort intended to more precisely understand the performance of the Aegis combat system and better account for environmental variables.1 JHU APL expounded on the important tactical implications of knowing those environmental variables:
“Environmental impacts on missile detection can be complex. The environment may limit radar detection ranges and cause degradations in track continuity through the effects of land, sea, and precipitation clutter. Communications systems may experience outages or periods of increased interference. Weapon systems may encounter midcourse guidance errors and variations in illuminator power-on-target and bistatic clutter into the missile, which affect the missile engagement envelope. In addition, the environment affects radar configuration, ship stationing, situational awareness, and missile doctrine selection.”2
Variables such as the temperature of the ocean and air, humidity, sea state, and wind speed have a strong effect on how radar energy propagates throughout the atmosphere. The chart below shows the range at which a target transitioned into track by an AN/SPY-1 radar across 20 Navy live fire exercises in differing environmental conditions. It shows how environmental factors can affect detection range by as much of a factor as three to four.3 It points out how firm track ranges could be reconstructed from post-exercise analysis that factored in environmental data gathered by key measuring tools such as rocketsondes and helicopters equipped with environmental sensors.
Radar energy can behave very differently when acted on by environmental factors. Radar pulses can be absorbed by the atmosphere, sapping the amount of energy that can be reflected back toward the receiver. Ducting can create radar holes and skip zones where targets cannot be detected. Refraction can even make targets appear to change direction. Atmospheric effects can also worsen radar clutter on the ocean surface hundreds of miles away from the radar.4
These factors combine to affect the key performance metric of probability of detection and can even create false contacts. Because radar energy acted on by environmental phenomena will often have more unpredictable and complex behavior compared to simpler line-of-sight detection these effects can challenge radar clutter rejection algorithms that are built into combat systems.
One of the most significant tactical implications of the environment is that certain conditions can allow a ship to break through the fog of war and see through the radar horizon limitation. Refracted radar energy can travel far along the surface and allow a ship to detect a sea-skimming target for many tens of miles below and beyond the radar horizon. Environmental awareness is therefore critical to improving threat perception and adding to a ship’s depth of fire in a most crucial zone of tactical action.
These effects combine to make mastering environmental awareness a major tactical priority. A tactical memorandum (TACMEMO) issued by the Surface Warfare Development Group in 1995 reinforced this point:
“To adequately define expected detection ranges for a given threat, an accurate assessment of the environment and its impact on sensor systems and employment is required. Depending on the environmental conditions being experienced, system performance could be enhanced or degraded. The primary environmental factors which impact detection ranges are temperature, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, and local weather. The operating environment (e.g. near land/overland, littoral, or open ocean) also (affects) ranges.”5
These environmental effects are known, but the operational challenge is in accurately measuring them in real time and then making the necessary tactical adjustments.6 Potential solutions take the form of environmental sensors as well as modeling software that is wedded to combat systems. However, while shipboard sensors and measurements can collect environmental data, certain tools are required to gather additional data beyond what can only be gathered from the deck of a ship in order to produce higher-fidelity models.
High-quality environmental assessments were proven to require crucial range-dependent data that must be collected by periodically launched tools such as helicopters equipped with environmental sensors. JHU APL’s prototype SEAWASP system would model environmental conditions and would monitor the need to launch an expendable tool called a rocketsonde that was considered “the most effective of the expendable sensor packages for providing real-time environmental information” and where the rocketsonde was described as “essential for supporting radar performance assessments under many conditions.”7 JHU APL scientists also described the environmental helicopter as “the platform of choice” and suggested “the future may see environmental sensors on operational helicopters.”
By 2001 these systems were tested by operational units in several deployments and received enthusiastic reviews for inclusion in future Aegis baselines. The Navy Program Executive Office for Theater Surface Combatants (PEO TSC) asked JHU APL to plan to backfit their prototype SEAWASP environmental assessment capability onto existing ships and for incorporation into future system baselines.8 Guidance for using the SPY radar to help determine the presence of atmospheric effects was included in the form of appendices to the Aegis TACMEMO.9 Helicopter-based environmental assessment was mandated for Aegis Combat Systems Ship Qualification Trials (CSSQTs).
Yet somehow these efforts fell flat. Despite adequate testing and strong recommendations that the Navy widely field measuring tools like rocketsondes and helicopter-based sensors it appears these simple yet critical systems are almost nowhere to be found in the Navy’s operational forces today.
The Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) described the main lessons learned from the 2016 Red Sea attacks:
“The first and perhaps most significant lesson emerged from observing the impact of the Red Sea littoral environment on combat-system performance during an actual engagement. Until the events in October, the best understanding of environmental impact on system performance had come from computer simulations and live-fire exercises in the less-challenging conditions in the Virginia Capes or Southern California operational areas…We have updated our AWS, SSDS, and SPY radar doctrines to account for environmental impacts to system performance previously unobserved during a live Standard missile engagement.”10
Previously unobserved environmental conditions may have turned into tactical surprise in part because the Navy’s best understanding of these variables may have come from only a couple areas close to home that feature test ranges. Fixed test ranges can constrain environmental awareness through consistent conditions. Atmospheric refractivity also happen to be far more intensive in littoral regions. However, it seems the Navy lacked key environmental awareness in one of the world’s most important maritime chokepoints that lies within the Middle East littoral that was prioritized for a generation.11
If the Navy wasn’t environmentally aware in the Red Sea because things were mostly tested near Virginia or California then what does the Navy not know about the environment in the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, or everywhere else in the world the Navy deploys? Does the Navy have specifically-tailored doctrine statements and combat system configurations for all of these environmental conditions?
Once the environment is revealed to be crucial tactical context the force must develop an expeditionary environmental learning program as a most urgent necessity. The Navy already operates such programs to understand the environment on a global scale, such as how environmental factors have long been known to affect undersea operations and anti-submarine warfare. This understanding is operationalized through a global exercise program the surface fleet has maintained for decades, the Ship Antisubmarine Warfare Readiness and Effectiveness Measuring (SHAREM) program. Exercises under SHAREM are conducted across many geographic areas to account for different environmental factors thereby producing tailored tactics and revealing shortfalls.12 If not for environmentally-focused programs like SHAREM the tactical effectiveness of the surface fleet’s anti-submarine warfare capability would be far from ideal.
But does the Navy have a similar program that specifically seeks to account for the tactical effects of atmospheric refractivity? These environmental effects not only impact radar energy, but radiofrequency energy more generally. According to JHU APL the performance of major capabilities such as close-in-weapons systems and critical networks like the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) were also “shown during field tests to strongly depend on atmospheric refractivity.”13
The tactical implications are clear and profound, especially for networked warfighting. Environmental awareness is foundational to electromagnetic awareness.
SMWDC is setting an example by charging hard and implementing fast-paced corrective action after the Red Sea attacks:
“…Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training and live-fire exercises have been updated to keep pace…SMWDC teams have visited every deployed and soon-to-deploy ship to ensure each has the latest TTP, training, and combat-system configuration recommendations. Ashore, the Radar Systems Controller Enhanced Course has been restored as a critical tool to ensure our SPY radar operators are prepared for what they will face in theater. In addition, SMWDC has built a case study from these events that is being included in the curricula of tactical training schoolhouses across the fleet.”
Now the question remains as to how updated understanding of the environment will translate into other parts of the Navy’s force development. SMWDC said the attacks should result in updated performance models and pointed to the problem of the Navy having only a handful of baseline datasets drawn from the Virginia Capes and Southern California areas. The widespread lack of environmental assessment tools that were described as “essential” such as rocketsondes and helicopters with special sensors may also indicate very incomplete datasets.
Whether it be training, test and evaluation, or wargaming, these insights born from the Red Sea attacks may require many other parts of the Navy to update baseline data and contemplate extensive retroactive action. Such action could take the form of replaying wargames with newly updated environmental parameters and conducting expeditionary test and evaluation in less familiar waters.
Ultimately such an important evolution in environmental awareness should have been enough to prompt rapid and wide-ranging adaptation similar to what SWMDC is doing and what was hinted at years ago. At first, the Navy did appear to be in the process of introducing expected change. The importance of atmospheric refractivity on tactical possibility was being acknowledged in the form of new programs of record, tactical memoranda, and requirements, many dating back over twenty years ago. Upgraded environmental assessments were made mandatory in at least one key part of the Navy’s business in the form of Aegis CSSQTs. Key measuring tools such as rocketsondes and helicopters with environmental sensors were tested, proven, approved of, and required relatively little effort to equip.
Somehow the system comprehensively failed, and frontline warfighters came under fire while lacking the important degree of tactical awareness those key tools contribute. Now to best anticipate tactical surprise the Navy must look to update environmental understanding on a global scale.
Sea surface currents and temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean (NASA)
The SPY radar is the most powerful radar on the Navy’s large surface combatants, and it is perhaps the most important set of eyes for the Aegis combat system. But this critical radar suffered a decline in standards. After describing several issues with SPY radar maintenance the 2010 Balisle report noted:
“The SPY radar has historically been the best supported system in the surface Navy. If the SPY radar is one of the most important systems in the Navy and central to our BMD mission for the foreseeable future, then it is assumed that less important systems could well be in worse material condition.”14
In his article, “Is Your SPY Radar Enhanced, Nominal, or Degraded?” Captain Jim Kilby recalled the Balisle report’s warning and described his own experience in witnessing a decline in radar maintenance. After reminiscing about past standards Kilby said that somewhere along the way the surface fleet had “lost some of this spirit”and that Sailors “do not have the cultural model to fall on when they report to the ship.” This loss of spirit and culture could be possibly interpreted as the degradation of standards. Kilby felt he ultimately had to “provide that leadership” himself.15
Kilby may have felt he personally had to set a higher standard because he realized the Navy, institutionally, did not properly maintain it. The Balisle report suggested that Sailors are “perhaps losing their sense of ownership of their equipment and are more apt to want others to fix it.” Kilby relates a story where a contractor working as a combat systems instructor for his crew said he and his technicians used to have a tracking book so they “all knew where we were, combat-system performance-wise.” Captain Kilby then wondered to himself, “Why shouldn’t I know that too?”
If something can be measured then it can usually be optimized. Kilby pointed out “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” so they “decided to measure and track key parameters to better manage the system.” He went on to discuss how he personally instituted a new process on the warship to track the performance of the SPY radar that would go “beyond a superficial indicator level.” Kilby realized he had to know the quantitative results of maintenance actions in order to know how radar performance was trending, such as with respect to key metrics like effective transmit power. He went on to personally invent and decide on a “quantitative SPY radar material goal” to provide to the crew.
But is it really the responsibility of one ship’s captain to decide what the radar material goal should be for the SPY radar, let alone invent such a standard on his own? A crew that does not have a meaningful system to track the transmit power of their radar is like an armor crewman not knowing he should boresight the main gun of a tank, or an infantryman not knowing how to sight his scope. This was Kilby’s fifth Aegis tour and he certainly wasn’t inexperienced. His career track put him inside the Navy’s surface warfare directorate, the Ballistic Missile Defense office, and he partook in the Aegis Fire Controlman Deep Dive that resulted in new training. He also happened to invent this new radar tracking system around the first ballistic missile defense patrol of a freshly upgraded cruiser, a special unit that could find itself on the frontlines of defending against nuclear attack.
Perhaps change has taken place since Kilby published about his reforms. But it suggests that for a time the Navy did not have a meaningful set of standards in place for unit leaders to effectively know the performance of one of the most critical sensors in the fleet. What was Kilby’s personal invention clearly should have already been a Navy-wide process and standard. In the end his new methods were not unique innovations, but rather rediscovered responsibilities:
“SPY radar self-sufficiency can and should be supported by outside entities, but ultimately it is a function of my behavior, interest, and leadership. It is my responsibility. Specific results of transmitter power and phase must be understood, considered, and acted upon by operators and by me. The devil is in not knowing the details. As the commanding officer, I have to be personally involved. I cannot delegate this effort.”
The Navy’s lack of appreciation for the anti-ship missile threat is not confined to its own limited arsenal of such weapons, but also extends to the inventory of target missiles that seek to replicate those threats for force development. The Navy allowed a significant shortfall to emerge in its inventory of target missiles where tools that realistically represent the supersonic anti-ship missile threat are now very few and far between.
A 2005 report by the Defense Science Board described the shortfall at the time as “dire” and that the supersonic target missile inventory was “substantially deficient.” It pointed out the discrepancy between the tools on hand and the common flight profiles of weapons in the hands of great power rivals:
“The area of greatest concern to the Task Force was our gap in supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles for testing. The Russians have deployed at least three such cruise missiles that involve either sea-skimming flight profiles or a high-altitude profile involving a power dive to the target. At this time, we have no test vehicles for either flight profile.”16
Once the anti-air Talos missile was retired in the late 70s the remaining inventory was converted into Vandal target missiles. The Vandal would be the Navy’s main tool for representing the supersonic sea-skimming missile threat for decades. For other threats the AQM-37C long served as the Navy’s target for high-flying supersonic flight. However, it is incapable of maintaining supersonic speeds while executing a powered dive or sea-skimming trajectory – the two common flight profiles of supersonic missile threats the Defense Science Board noted.
The supersonic AQM-37C and Vandal target missiles were launched dozens of times per year for decades.17 But the firing rates fell to much lower levels after they left service in the early 2000s. After a viable replacement came online in 2005 in the form of the Coyote target missile the Navy would go on to launch less than 50 targets capable of supersonic sea-skimming flight across the next ten years.18 Admiral Phil Davidson also claimed that Navy units based on the East Coast went almost 13 years without shooting down any supersonic target missiles until 2016.19
The Navy launches several hundred target missiles per year but almost all are slow, subsonic payloads that hardly represent the supersonic anti-ship missiles that are commonly found in the navies of great power competitors.20 It also appears that supersonic target missiles are almost always fired from land. This diminishes the realism of the events with respect to exploring varying environmental conditions, especially those that would be found in open-ocean warfare.21
In spite of this, the subsonic target missile that according to the Navy is its “workhorse” will be replaced by another subsonic payload.22 As more lethal supersonic and eventually hypersonic weapons proliferate the Navy’s target missile inventory will continue to be almost entirely made of subsonic payloads that fail to accurately represent these advanced threats. The disparity between the Navy’s target inventory and the true nature of the anti-ship missile threat is poised to widen further.
Supersonic target missiles certainly are very expensive tools and it is impractical to expect most units to have a chance to practice with them. However, these tools are invaluable for ensuring realism for key force development activities.
Consider all the lessons SMWDC is learning and translating into the surface fleet, especially through their restarted Live Fire With a Purpose (LFWAP) events that aim to “test and validate TACMEMOs and latest tactical recommendations.”23 For the sake of tactical development and high-end readiness what good may come from firing salvos of supersonic target missiles in the general direction of some of the Navy’s finest tacticians?
For a force that is primarily made of highly sophisticated machines technical standards are a key part of warfighting readiness. In the case of naval warfare the abovementioned technical standards have especially important tactical consequences.
Naval warfare in the missile age is notable for having transcended the boundary of human limitations. The speed and intensity of engaging a salvo of anti-ship missiles that could be seconds away from impact is a tactical challenge that is mostly beyond the ability of a human to carefully manage with real-time inputs. Therefore the combat systems of warships, perhaps best exemplified by the Aegis combat system and the Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS), must be automated to an extraordinary degree to stand a chance of defeating missiles under trying circumstances.
The role of the operator then is to program pre-set conditions and instructions into the combat system. These are known as doctrine statements, up to and including fully automated responses for highly lethal situations. These doctrine statements can be built around the characteristics and flight profiles of potential threats, and can dictate how the combat system will automatically combine the various capabilities of the ship to defeat those threats.24 These automated doctrine statements can be the Navy’s last line of defense against tactical surprise because even if Sailors are caught off guard by a sea-skimming salvo breaking over the horizon the automated combat system can carry the day.
Effectively countering the anti-ship missile threat is very much a matter of crafting doctrine statements well in advance of a combat situation. Sailors should not be put in a position where they are forced to rapidly reconfigure doctrine statements in the middle of the fight in order to survive. More ideally, Sailors will be familiar with a variety of well-tailored doctrine statements they can choose from to meet a range of situations.
It is essential to know the state of a radar’s energy output and to understand the environmental factors that dictate how that radar energy propagates. Both are fundamental baseline context for ascertaining the ability to detect targets, knowing how to configure combat systems, and managing emissions control.25 Certain environmental conditions can also raise the probability of false alarms, and there may be situations with little opportunity to intervene in an automated response to make timely corrections.
How well does the Navy understand the nature of guiding a semi-active homing weapon such as the Standard Missile through environmental conditions below the radar horizon? How well has the Navy configured doctrine statements to guard against skip zones and other environmental effects that complicate how a ship can see and engage targets through its radar?
Consider the Red Sea combat events and how new doctrine statements and combat system configurations were key outputs from the learning experience, and how these updates were based on a specific environmental context. The Navy should look to this experience and see how it can learn similar lessons minus the risks of real combat. As an engine of tactical development can the Navy conduct expeditionary Live Fire With a Purpose events similar in design to the SHAREM program? Could the Navy produce refined doctrine statements by firing advanced target missiles in varying environmental conditions that resemble forward areas? Such a program could do well to sharpen the tool of Aegis.
Poor environmental awareness, low-fidelity target missiles, and lack of key radar performance metrics forms a recipe for less than ideal doctrine statements. Failing to maintain high technical standards across these areas suggests very suboptimal programming may be built into the automated combat functions of warships across the world.
Part Five will focus on Material Condition and Availability.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
6. Committee on Environmental Information for Naval Use, Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council of the National Academies, “Environmental Information for Naval Warfare,” 2003. https://www.nap.edu/read/10626/chapter/11#148
4. Objective. The objective of the SHAREM Program is to assess surface ship ASW readiness and effectiveness and recommend solutions for ASW warfighting gaps. This objective is met via the collection and analysis of sensor and environmental data in tactically relevant geographic operating areas.
a. SHAREM exercises will evaluate surface force ASW systems and tactics, techniques, and procedures in tactically-relevant environments. Evaluation of current and emerging threats and environments of national interest, as recommended by the fleet and force commanders and as directed by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Surface Warfare Division (OPNAV N96), will lead to development of tactically-focused exercise events and collection of tactically significant environmental data.
b. Environmental data will be collected in coordination with systems commands, naval laboratories, and Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.
c. SHAREM-sponsored exercises, Submarine Command Course (SCC) mini-wars, and limited objective experiments provide the opportunity to collect and analyze data to assess the full scope of surface ship ASW operations through the detect-to-engage sequence. Exercises should be conducted on underwater tracking ranges or in environments that reflect areas of operational interest.
“SHAREM has operated for 48 years and has transitioned from SWDG to SURFDEVRON, SURFDEVRON to STDG, and finally STDG to SMWDC, where it now resides. SHAREM is highly effective at informing future ship builds, releasing tactical memos (TACMEMOs) for future integration into tactics, techniques and procedures, and maintaining a database of all data collected.”
Excerpt: “The Aegis community had concluded that accurate combat system performance assessments were valuable to the Aegis warfighter in terms of ship stationing, adapting radar configuration appropriately to the environment, and maintaining awareness of self defense capabilities and limitations.”
Featured Image: SPY radar array on Aegis-equipped DDG-175 escort ship “Miyoko” of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces via Marie’s Garden Blog.