Winter is Coming

Heat waves, rising temperatures, and retreating ice grab headlines today. However, receding sea ice in the Arctic and a concurrent increase in shipping traffic will intensify attention on the globe’s (still) frigid northern reaches. Though the United States issued a forward-looking Arctic policy with National Security Presidential Directive 66 in 2009, it has not seriously faced the implications of matching these policy goals to strategic ends and backing its interests in the region with capital investments. Our Canadian allies have, and we should seek to learn from their experience.

The Arctic was important to Canada and the United States well before the ice started melting.

Canada’s adaptation to the Arctic’s changing maritime geography is instructive. For starters, it serves as a reminder of Canada’s importance as an ally of the United States. Geography, heritage, and shared sacrifice have forged a special relationship between Canada and the United States and, like the Night’s Watch in the cold Northern reaches of the fictional world in Game of Thrones, I think we too infrequently give them proper credit for their support of our defense. This isn’t the first era requiring US-Canadian security cooperation in the Arctic – both countries jointly manned the “Distant Early Warning” Line of radar stations above the Arctic Circle during the Cold War.

The United States can look to Canada’s experience in matching ends, ways, and means in a new Arctic geography while under austere fiscal constraints to inform our own decisions as we contemplate our role in the region.

Canada is an Arctic nation, and this identity figures heavily in the Canada First Defence Strategy. Among the most important declarations in the strategy:

In Canada’s Arctic region, changing weather patterns are altering the environment, making it more accessible to sea traffic and economic activity. Retreating ice cover has opened the way for increased shipping, tourism and resource exploration, and new transportation routes are being considered, including through the Northwest Passage. While this promises substantial economic benefits for Canada, it has also brought new challenges from other shores. These changes in the Arctic could also spark an increase in illegal activity, with important implications for Canadian sovereignty and security and a potential requirement for additional military support.

and:

Canadian Forces must have the capacity to exercise control over and defend Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic. New opportunities are emerging across the region, bringing with them new challenges. As activity in northern lands and waters accelerates, the military will play an increasingly vital role in demonstrating a visible Canadian presence in this potentially resource rich region.

Canada First proposes Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) as the primary strategic means to accomplish the policy goal of demonstrating a visible Canadian presence in the Arctic. In early July of this year, the Canadian Government announced a preliminary contract to draft an execution strategy for the project and execute a design review of the proposed vessel, which will be based on the Norwegian Svalbard-class of ships. While representing a significant step towards realizing Canada’s goals in the Arctic, the proposed class has received a fair amount of domestic criticism. Some Canadians call the design too small, too light, and too slow. Others point to the vessel’s lack of armament, though some propose incorporating space for future weapons systems into the design. A final criticism of the class is that it is designed for light icebreaking duties, earning them the moniker “slushbreakers” in the Canadian American Strategic Review. Vessels designed for polar cruising typically conform to a “Polar Class” indicating a specific level of icebreaking capability. The proposed AOPS will be Polar Class 5, which means “Year round operation in medium first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions,” and represents the lowest year-round capability to negotiate polar waters.

A portent of future Arctic FONOPS?

The AOPS represents, as some Arctic watchers have noted, a compromise between an offshore patrol vessel and a dedicated Arctic warship. This is the essential difficulty in planning an Arctic force structure: though the ice is retreating, there is still plenty of it and significant seasonal variations present new design challenges to Naval and/or Coast Guard vessels. True Arctic vessels require completely different hull, mechanical and engineering systems that significantly impact their tactical performance. No bow mounted sonar. Poor speed and maneuverability. Et cetera. Indeed, given the fact that American and Soviet/Russian submarines have a long, distinguished history of operating under the sea ice, I would question a surface vessel’s ability to operate in a submarine threat environment while noisily plowing through ice floes. This is just one challenge among many to tactical surface operations in the Arctic, and they are probably the reason why (as noted at Information Dissemination yesterday) the US Navy hasn’t seriously considered itself an Arctic player beyond ICEX and some limited research and development projects.

There are similarities between Canadian and US Arctic policy. While, geographically speaking, Canada seems to have a stronger need for an Arctic presence due to its more extensive maritime claims in the region, the Bering Strait – a critical choke point – is in Alaska’s back yard. US policy for the Arctic includes the following as summarized in a recent report:

The USA names several military challenges with implications for the Arctic, including missile defense and early warning; deployment of sea and air systems for strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime presence, and maritime security operations; and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight.

It’s possible to fulfill many of these goals with submarines, but once the discussion veers towards sealift, missile defense, and freedom of navigation, a polar surface combatant seems a necessary part of an Arctic force structure. The United States will have to answer many key questions raised by these stated goals:

  1. Should Navy, Coast Guard, or joint assets fulfill these roles?
  2. How important is it to the United States to lead the exploration and militarization of the Arctic?
  3. What metrics of civil use and sea ice change will determine the extent and timing of the United States’ Arctic presence?
  4. What functions can/should an Arctic ship fulfill?
  5. How does receding ice impact the existing Polar Classification system? What baseline of Polar Class is appropriate to Arctic warships/coast guard cutters?

Answering these questions is the work of strategy, and it’s telling that a recent letter signed by both of Alaska’s senators requested just such a strategy. If the United States does forge a detailed Arctic plan, it would do well to consider the experience of Canada’s government. Canada has pioneered the militarization of the Arctic region and revealed many of the challenges inherent in operating beyond “The Wall.”

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. 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.

Distant Corner Lab

The Latvian-built Skrunda

Crossing the Baltic Sea recently from Gdynia to Karlskrona, both major naval bases, I had the opportunity to observe ships of both the Polish and Swedish navies. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Tom Kristiansen and Rolf Hobson book Navies in Northern Waters. I began to wonder how a big navy could benefit by observing these small fleets. Smaller navies commonly  look at their big partners in efforts to predict future trends and developments.

Small navies should be aware that they operate on the edges of major naval war theories like those developed by Mahan or Corbett. Such theories were based on the historical experience of leading navies at their times. Although it is possible to imagine a “decisive battle” between offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) or fast-attack craft (FACs) (see Israeli-Arab wars), most probably small powers and their navies will balance between global or regional powers, allied with one of them against another or left alone against superior power. From a cooperative naval power point of view they could nicely fulfil diplomatic or constabulary roles. But there are also other areas worth mentioning, where small navies’ views, development, and operational experience could be of interest to leading navies. Studying small navies provides:

  • The potential to turn knowledge of small navies into a theoretical framework would enhance our understanding of special cases in major naval theories:  This could be of some interest in narrow seas and littoral areas, for example. In this year’s BaltOps exercises, the U.S. Navy was represented by an Aegis cruiser USS Normandy, but in coming years a more frequent participant will probably be an LCS. Participation in such exercises would offer the opportunity to observe how LCS works together with mine hunters, FACs and corvettes from regional, coastal fleets in scenarios similar to Northern Coast, perhaps somewhere in Finnish archipelagos. Such scenarios much more closely resembles Capt. Wayne Hughes’ works and would offer expertise applicable elsewhere.

 

  • Insight into the political decisions related to small navies’ development, roles, and applications:  Not a direct benefit for the U.S. Navy, but helpful in arranging and maintaining networks of alliances, if and when needed. In literature the PLAN navy is often described as proficient in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Is this a view smaller navies in the South China Sea region share? Even regional powers like India or Japan could hardly fear the PLAN’s current A2/AD capabilities. Unhindered access of the U.S. Navy to some specific waters doesn’t translate directly to feelings of strengthened security among smaller allies. The relation is more complex and understanding their, sometimes hidden motives, should give better results.

 

  • The opportunity to foster innovation: Small navies act under pressure of constraints not unknown to big navies, but the constraints can be even greater. In a small navy, a proposal to build a well-armed corvette can trigger hot discussions not only about the budget but even also about national policy. Everything is condensed. Links between strategy, tactics, budgeting, and force structure are more visible. Maybe this is the reason why small navies have to be both pragmatic and innovative at the same time. A good example of the pragmatic approach I found in Navies in Northern Waters is the fact that in the 18th-century both Swedish and Russian navies still used oared galleys. Examples of innovation are not limited to modularity or ships like Visby. Take a look at the Latvian navy, non-existant some 20 years ago. It acquired used ships from different navies and created the core of mine warfare and patrol capabilities. This was very pragmatic, and the first new construction, the economic SWATH designSkrunda, shows great attention to versatility.

 

  • Educational value: Let’s use an example. Say the task is to propose a force structure for a navy that’s been neglected in recent years. Historically, the military conflicts in this country have been decided on land. The adjacent narrow sea has an average depth of around 170 feet. The navy has no independent budget, but is instead centralized in the DoD’s. The yearly shipbuilding budget is forecasted at $200 million and the navy is given the time span 20 years to build the fleet. Although there is a shipbuilding industry, it has never built sophisticated warships. Anyone attempting to solve this kind of problem gains a much greater understanding of decisions faced by and made by senior staffs in the real world. 

Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland. His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country

Sea Ghost Enters the Fray

Is the stealth worth it?

On Friday Lockheed Martin announced its entrant, the Sea Ghost, in the hunt for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) contract. On Sunday, Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, winner of the contract to demonstrate the feasibility of a carrier-based drone “launched from Pax River and flew for a planned 35 minutes. The aircraft reached an altitude of 7,500 feet and an air speed of 180 knots during its flight over the Chesapeake Bay before successfully landing back at Pax River.” The X-47B is testing operations in a land-based simulated carrier environment. Next year it will start carrier-based testing, followed by a demonstration of autonomous aerial refueling in 2014. The Navy expects whatever frame wins the UCLASS prize to enter the fleet in 2018. I’d like to take the moment to share a few unsolicited thoughts on the battle for the U.S. Navy’s carrier drone contract. With LM’s revelation, the field of contenders has most likely solidified into four, backed by well-known names:

  1. Lockheed Martin’s Sea Ghost
  2. Boeing’s X-45C Phantom Ray (or some follow-on design)
  3. General Atomics’ Sea Avenger
  4. Northrop Grumman’s X-47B Pegasus

Wired’s Danger Room has a good review of the contestants, and one similarity is worth noting. All but the Sea Avenger are of the “flying wing” variety, similar to the USAF’s B-2. This design confers some advantageous stealth properties through a reduced radar cross section, but comes at some cost of stability and handling. Instead, the Sea Avenger is essentially a souped-up version of General Atomic’s famous Predator drone.

 

While Navy has yet to release the contract’s request for proposal (RFP), detailing the requirements and criteria by which the contenders will be judged, the NAVAIR website states the Navy is looking for an, “aircraft system providing persistent Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities.” This closely matches the capabilities highlighted by the aforementioned companies’ websites.

 

Demonstrating the future of carrier aviation, but can it be done cheap enough?

With this, and with the shrinking range of carrier-based strike aircraft in general, in mind, the most attractive attributes will be stealth, range, mid-flight refueling (to further extend range), ISR capabilities, and the ability to carry stand-off weapons. By eliminating the weight and crew limitations of a strike aircraft, a UAV can greatly increase its range. But this does not eliminate the costs of crews, it merely shifts the crews’ location, tentatively increasing their safety and reducing some training and replacement costs. In fact, with extended ranges and increased ISR collection, each airframe may require more pilots and analysts than traditional manned craft.

 

The current state of UAV technology will allow the military to demand many automated functions in the UCLASS including carrier landings, following flight plans, and executing pre-approved weapon strikes. Unlike drones like the predator, the UCLASS is expected to be able to follow flight plans, essentially executing its mission devoid of human input unless an emergency or unexpected situation arises, in a way similar to how tomahawks or other missiles execute their strike packages. Technology has its limitations however. UAVs are not yet designed to perform intercept missions, or air-to-air combat. They can conceivably be programmed to use counter-measures such as executing limited defensive maneuvering or deploying chaff in the event of a certain input, such as detecting an inbound enemy missile. Yet because the UCLASS won’t be shooting its way through high-threat environments, it will have to rely on either escorts (limited by their range), the distance of its stand-off weapons, or stealth.

 

As pointed out at Information Dissemination by Rep. Randy Forbes, stealth can be quite expensive, and may have diminishing returns. The CNO also singled out the pursuit of stealth perfection as the potentially errant end of the cost-curve in an article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, “Payloads over Platforms,” widely (mis)perceived to be a critique of the F-35. In the context of the carrier battle, the single most important determinant beyond technological maturity may rightly be cost. To steal a common refrain from the debate over shipbuilding, quantity matters. Determining whether the ability to carry out deep penetration strikes far into an enemy’s territory will be better served by larger numbers of less-stealthy drones or a smaller number of super-stealthy drones will be an interesting exercise in analysis. That is until the drones are cleared for air-to-air combat, which could either be accomplished by human pilots taking temporary direct control, or eventually by programming the UAVs to fight themselves. Some final factors that will drive navies towards endowing their carrier drones more complete autonomy (see the writings of Adam Elkus for more on the ethical discussions surrounding such a move) are the vulnerabilities that satellite-based comms links with the UAVs will introduce, and the difficulty of maintaining and securing those links.

 

While the players for the first big U.S. Navy UAV contract may be familiar, there is room for innovative new companies to capitalize on emerging technologies like 3D printing to cheaply create UAVs tailor-made to the requirements of the Navy. Without the risk of human casualties, being willing to accept the loss of a few less-costly drones for an overall increased strike capacity is a trade-off worth exploring.

 

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

 

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. 

Divers Find Sunken WWII German U-boat off Nantucket

Side-scan sonar image of U-550 from GK Consulting & AWS Expeditions.

Divers using side-scan sonar on Monday found the wreck of U-550This discovery is a reminder that the oceans that flank America, and have often shielded the nation from the direct wrath of enemies, are not impregnable. 

NBC news provides an account of the naval action that sent the U-boat to the bottom:

On April 16, 1944, the U-550 torpedoed the gasoline tanker SS Pan Pennsylvania, which had lagged behind its protective convoy as it set out with 140,000 barrels of gasoline for Great Britain, according to the U.S. Coast Guard website and research by Mazraani.

 

The U-boat slipped under the doomed tanker to hide. But one of the tanker’s three escorts, the USS Joyce, saw it on sonar and severely damaged it by dropping depth charges.

 

The Germans, forced to surface, manned their deck guns while another escort vessel, the USS Gandy, returned fire and rammed the U-boat. The third escort, the USS Peterson, then hit the U-boat with two more depth charges. The crew abandoned the submarine, but not before setting off explosions to scuttle it. The submarine hadn’t been seen again until Monday.

Crew of the U-550 abandon ship.

The American ships were destroyer escorts (DEs) of Escort Division 22 and manned by Coast Guard crews plus the Gandy, a Navy DE. The surviving German crew were taken to Great Britain. 

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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