Tag Archives: Royal Navy

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. 

 

Procuring Maritime Leverage

A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Portsmouth, United Kingdom, assessing the historical, contemporary, and future relationship between the Royal Navy and the nation. Amongst the discussions that took place was one chaired by the former First Sea Lord concerning the issue of construction and procurement, in particular the ability of Britain’s shipbuilding industry to meet the requirements of the RN and at what cost. The UK still produces some of the most technologically sophisticated warships and weapons systems in the world, as the Type-45 destroyers are testament to. Yet, they increasingly come at a premium at odds with the current weak state of the country’s economy and an austere government that has instigated huge cuts to its armed forces, particularly its navy, following 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The rationalisation of Britain’s defence industry from decades of mergers and takeovers and the rise of monopolistic monoliths like BAE Systems do not help, with a lack of domestic competition for national defence contracts that might otherwise lower prices. Still, a major issue lies in the decreasing numbers and frequency of warship orders, and the higher cost per unit this inevitably produces. We’ve already seen Britain outsourcing certain shipbuilding capabilities, with four new Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers ordered from South Korea in February of this year, and it now seems unlikely that another tanker will be produced in the UK again for the RFA, at least in the short to medium-term future, as those skills are lost from its workforce. The question is where Britain draws the line. Does the UK and RN need to make a firm decision as to what industrial capacity it should safeguard in its national strategic interest, such as nuclear submarine construction, and what could be procured from overseas without loosing too much operational capability? Smaller patrol craft and minesweepers perhaps? To do so could produce a more affordable, sustainable navy, and abate the continuous reduction in numbers.

The UK’s next generation of fleet tankers will be built in South Korean not British shipyards

As a historian who studies the post-Second World War development of colonial naval forces into sovereign Commonwealth navies, this issue to me highlights a fascinating shift in strategic-economic relations that raises questions and concerns in areas of geopolitical uncertainty. For several decades, the vast majority of the world’s arms, particularly more technologically-sophisticated warships, came from the same small group of producers located in the traditional ‘First World’. The underdeveloped industries of post-colonial countries, a hangover from imperial policies to turn colonial economies into primarily suppliers of raw materials for the metropole’s industry, meant that they were often continuingly dependent on the former ‘imperial motherland’ to supply them with equipment for their nascent armed forces, subsidised by development aid packages. This was particularly the case in countries that didn’t wish to align themselves in the bi-polar international system of the Cold War, such as initially India. Countries like Britain derived not only economic benefits from such a relationship, including offloading its outdated and surplus warships, but political and strategic ones too from being able to shape the composition and capabilities of such beneficiaries to complement its own designs for ‘Commonwealth Defence’. India recognised the undesirableness of such a situation, and has made a concerted effort to overhaul its shipbuilding industry over the last fifty years, embarking upon ambitious indigenous construction programmes, including recently Shivalik-class stealth frigates and Vikrant-class aircraft carriers. Other formerly ‘developing’ countries, most notably China, also now have impressive manufacturing capabilities. With that comes opportunities for export, and as the industrial capacity of established producers in the West declines and is surpassed by the more-competitive emerging economies of the East, new defence agreements will be forged between untraditional partners. The link between economic and politico-strategic influence is intrinsic, and as countries such as Britain were once able to use naval procurement as leverage and a way of furthering their own interests, new producers such as China and India can be expected to do the same. This could lead to the creation of new strategic alliances and increased uncertainty in regions of escalating maritime tension and instability, with potentially frightening consequences for all.

Dr Daniel Owen Spence is Lecturer in Imperial and International History at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and publishes research on nineteenth and twentieth century naval history.

Joint Strike Shuffle

Her Majesty’s Royal F-35 Variant

While we at CIMSEC were debating another U.S. Navy procurement program people love to hate, Britain was making news with a major F-35 decision. Ultimately the decision showed a sensible prioritization of operational availability over top-end capabilities.

 

The U.K.’s Defense Secretary announced to Parliament on Wednesday it was swapping Joint Strike Fighter procurement for the Royal Navy from the F-35C carrier version to the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) model it had originally planned to buy. The Ministry of Defense gave the cost of installing the electromagnetic catapults on the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers (now estimated at $3.2 bil.) as the prime motivator. It will outfit the carriers with skijumps instead.

 

On the plus side, this decision reduces immediate budgetary pressures on Britain’s armed forces (including calls to scrap the second carrier) and will move up the timeline of Britain’s new aircraft carrier strike availability from 2023 at the earliest to 2020, with (scheduled) tests off the HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018. The U.S. Marine Corps and Italy, prior to Wednesday the only other purchasers of the ‘B,’ will also warmly receive this decision as it should help secure the viability of the variant and bring in some small additional economy-of-scale benefit to their buys.

 

The switch has some downsides for Britain. First, the F-35B compares unfavorably in a few categories of concern for a Navy, particularly an expected combat radius that’s at least 200nm less than its sibling, limiting the reach of Britain’s maritime power projection. Second, the decision reduces the cooperation potential of French fighters flying from British carriers hyped in the 2010 Franco-British defense treaties.

 

And there are other compatibility issues created by the decision. It limits the models of important support aircraft that can be flown from the carrier’s decks (I hear something like the Growler can be handy). Additionally, while there is some work being done on STOVL UAVs, catapult-launched UAVs are the focus of the U.S. Navy’s future carrier strike fighter efforts, limiting the potential future utility of Britain’s new carriers if and when it decides to go pilotless.

 

On the whole opting for operational availability over greater capability is a sensible move for the Royal Navy given current budget realities. The Royal Navy gets its carriers strike capability three years early, is much more assured of always having at least one carrier operational, and will no longer need French agreement on drydock and refit periods.

Crowdsourcing the Next Navy

When we think of navies, we think of tradition.

Source: Navy History and Heritage Command

The peculiar lexicon of Sailors (scuttlebutt, trice up, and wildcat come to mind), the boatswain’s pipe and lanyard, and the Beaux Arts architecture at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis are all audible or tangible indicators of the Navy’s reliance on tradition. As a result, innovation often seems antithetical to naval culture. An account from Geoffrey Till’s chapter in this book illustrates the Royal Navy’s resistance to the Aircraft Carrier:

No greater modification of any [of Her Majesty’s] ships that I proposed would have had the smallest chance of acceptance at that time. Prior to the First World War, the navy had no war experience for a very long time; and a long peace breeds conservatism and hostility to change in senior officers. Consequently, revolutionary ideas which were readily accepted when war came, were unthinkable in the peacetime atmosphere of 1912. Circumscribed by the then existing limitations my proposal was the furthest one could hope to go. – Lieutenant Hugh Williamson, RN (Page 192)

Fiscal austerity is forcing naval leaders to think about innovation: how do we use scarce means to provide the strategic ends we need? Over at Small Wars, the USNI Blog, and others, the term “disruptive thinker” has surged to the forefront of military professional discourse. At issue: do our military institutions produce and value disruptive thinkers and disruptive thoughts to foster innovation? The US Navy, however, beat everyone to the punch with little fanfare. Back in February, it quietly instituted a program to solicit disruptive ideas for development and potential adoption. In a US Fleet forces Command message (DTG 290708Z FEB 12), the Navy announced a new concept development program run jointly between Fleet Forces and the Naval Warfare Development Command. The message goes on to say:

VALUABLE IDEAS CAN COME FROM ANYWHERE, AND THE NAVY CONCEPT GENERATION AND CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM...WAS ESTABLISHED TO PROVIDE A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH FOR HARVESTING NEW IDEAS AND DEVELOPING THEM INTO CAPABILITIES FOR THE FLEET.

In January, I published an article in Proceedings jointly authored with a Chief from my previous command. He received the Fleet Forces message and phoned me immediately to push our idea through this program. I was initially skeptical: would our idea disappear into an invisible morass of bureaucracy? Would we ever receive feedback? Is this just a relief valve for unorthodox concepts?

Today, I can say firsthand that this new concept generation and development program is one of the most open and transparent processes I’ve ever seen. Action officers at the O-5/O-6 level worked with me to submit a concept proposal and have kept me regularly updated regarding its potential adoption. Senior officers and civilians at Fleet Forces (many of whom finished careers in the Navy and Marine Corps) are hungry for new ways of fighting, or of manning, training, and equipping the fighters. Junior officers and enlisted Sailors are a focus of this initiative.

For those disruptive thinkers out there, the Navy is waiting to hear from you. Cultures change – even ones that value tradition as much as the Navy. That’s because no one cultural narrative ever fits perfectly: the US Navy places great value not just on tradition, but also on independence and decentralization. We already crowdsource warfare. This model equally applies to peacetime innovation.

For more information, see the governing instruction. Those with appropriate access can go to HTTP://FIMS.NWDC.NAVY.SMIL.MIL/PORTALS/CONCEPTS/DEFAULT.ASPX to submit proposals. Also, the Naval Warfare Development command is holding a Junior Leader Innovation Symposium in Norfolk on 6 June. Registrants can attend either in person or virtually.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.