All posts by Matthew McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reservist and currently works as a defense contractor providing Strategic Communications support. He served seven years on Active Duty as a SWO. In a former life, he was a journalism major and newspaper reporter.

Russia Resurgent Week: The Conclusion

By Matt McLaughlin

The Russia Resurgent Topic Week took a big-picture viewpoint of Russia and its strategic choices – and that was perhaps a fortunate approach. With ongoing developments every day with Russian activities in Syria, anything more time-sensitive would have been quickly rendered moot by events.

These events are instructive, though, in the sense that shootdowns and other Russia-NATO incidents are far from unprecedented – it is not difficult to argue that the East-West relationship is simply returning to form. That said, 2015 is not 1985, and the Russian military, in particular its navy, will take a very different form than in the last period of such tense relations. Michael Kofman addresses this, recognizing that although Peter the Great would recognize the Russian strategic imperatives at work, the fleet itself will be oriented toward the green water more than the blue. Small ships with powerful missiles can exert substantial coercive force within their home region, while a small number of legacy platforms like Kirov-class battlecruisers can continue to project power and prestige.

Of course, Russia itself has more grandiose plans, as described by Sean MacCormac in a re-posted article from September about Russia’s new maritime doctrine. Notable strategic priorities are control of the Arctic, presence in the Mediterranean, and cooperation with India and China as means of protecting Russian interests. A great global force is envisioned to provide the operational means to achieve these objectives, though the realities of shipbuilding may intrude.

Patrick Truffer examines the future of Russia’s fleet in great detail, looking at the current structure and capacity for new construction. He assesses the Russian Navy as capable of projecting power globally, but only in a single operation on a limited time horizon. Ongoing activities in Syria are readily displaying limits on Russian logistics and its virtually non-existent amphibious lift capability. But don’t forget a Russian submarine force that remains potent at the strategic level.

Dmitry Gorenburg makes similar points about shipbuilding capacity, while adding more description of operational doctrine and a force structure to implement it. Universal vertical launch tubes filled with precision-strike anti-ship and land-attack missiles can be fitted onto many varieties of small combatants, as well as submarines. These form “the heart of Russia’s naval modernization” and provide the multi-role ships necessary for a credible regional threat.

Shifting gears, Vidya Sagar Reddy finds signs of Sun Tzu’s influence in Russian strategy. By behaving aggressively in widely-dispersed theaters such as the Pacific Ocean and Black Sea, Russia is putting its principle competitor – the U.S. Navy – off balance. This gives Russia the initiative and ability to strike when and where its enemy is weakest.

Robert C. Rasmussen introduces readers to one of the tools Russia has been using to unbalance its foes – Reflexive Control Theory. If applied doctrinally to strategic communication, Reflexive Control Theory helps Russia keep outside powers uncertain as to real Russian intentions and operations. The end result is to induce foreign powers to make decisions favorable to Russian interests. This obfuscation has contributed, most notably, to keeping foreign powers from intervening in Ukraine, and (to use the most recent news) is probably at work in Russian accounts of its Syrian air strikes.

Despite superficial success – they’re operating in the Med, right? – Ben Hernandez asks if Russian maritime strategy is in fact adrift. This essay, re-posted from August, notes the extreme mismatch between rhetoric about the future and capability to build it. This has been described in other posts this week, but Ben adds that Russia could easily “paint itself into a corner” if it continues down this road. With nuclear weapons as the most cost-effective means of destruction, their employment in a fit of bellicosity grows more likely when Russian conventional capabilities cannot deliver the desired effects.

Finally, our gaze shifts to the Arctic, which appears in Russian strategic planning and is the subject of two posts. Laguerre Corentin makes the case that, in contrast with the bellicose rhetoric described in prior articles, Russia is positioned to pursue its objectives through application of international law and custom. It has had success with this approach since Czarist days, and is likely to continue to do so as long as its interests align with such methods.

Providing further analysis of Russia’s role in the Arctic, we reprise Sally DeBoer’s contribution from August about rival nations’ claims to Arctic territory. She examines Russian claims of the North Pole and other parts of the “donut hole” of high seas at the top of the world, as well as competing claims.

And closing out the week is a graphic depiction of the Soviet fleet of 1990 compared with the Russian fleet of 2015, researched and designed by Louis Martin-Vezian. The scale of the work ahead if Russia intends to reach the maritime heights of 25 years ago becomes clear.

Some have said over the years that post-Soviet Russia was only relevant on account of its nuclear arsenal. This was merely an excuse to ignore it in favor of other things as we met the supposed End of History. The fact is, Russia is, well, Russia – and as long as people call that territory home, those people will have certain interests that are not going away. Read a map; read a book; read the news. This week’s discussions have certainly not provided all the answers on Russian resurgence, though we hope to have offered a meaningful contribution; but to ignore the discussion and downplay Russia as a relic of the Cold War is folly. Russia is right where we left it, and will continue to make its impact felt.

Matt McLaughlin is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy.

Call for Articles – Russia Resurgent Week

Week Dates:  Nov 23-29 2015
Articles Due:  Nov 20 2015
Article Length: 500-1500 Words
Submit to: nextwar(at)cimsec(dot)org

Amidst headline-grabbing activities on land in Ukraine and Syria, Russia is steadily pursuing new strategies at sea. From assuring Black Sea access with the annexation of Crimea to joint Pacific exercises with China, recent Russian activities represent a level of commitment to sea power unseen since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

During the first week of November, CIMSEC will host a series exploring the maritime implications of Russia’s strategic goals, Russia’s capacity to execute its strategy at sea, and the implications of Russian strategy and policy for its neighbors, partners and adversaries. Potential topics, in order of broadest to most focused, could include: Is Russia a natural sea power, land power, or somehow both? What ends does Russia hope to achieve through sea power? What relationships is Russia looking to enhance or destabilize through stepped-up maritime activity? What asymmetries with the maritime strategies of NATO, the U.S., China, and others does Russian strategy hope to exploit? What policies should Russia pursue in the Arctic, and why? Does Russia have the economic and industrial strength to recapitalize its seagoing fleet? How much does the Russian economy depend on seaborne trade, legal and illicit? Does Russia possess an expeditionary capability? How does the concept of hybrid war, as practiced in Ukraine, extend to the maritime sphere? What role, if any, does or should Russia have in the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean? And, to all of these questions, how should other countries adjust their strategies to react?

Contributions should be between 500 and 1500 words in length and submitted no later than 20 November 2015. Publication reviews will also be accepted. CIMSEC will re-post selected older entries about Russian maritime activity, as well.

Matt McLaughlin is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy.

Confederate Aft End Was a Dead End

The following is part of Dead Ends Week at CIMSEC, where we pick apart past experiments and initiatives in the hopes of learning something from those that just didn’t quite pan out. See the rest of the posts here

Looking for whalers - CSS Shenandoah under sail
Looking for whalers – CSS Shenandoah under sail

The history of the American Civil War has very little to say on the Confederate Navy. What it does say focuses on commerce raiding, mostly by the CSS Alabama, which is well-known enough to be in high school history texts. But others were out there, too, such as the CSS Shenandoah.

Shenandoah was most notable for raiding whalers in the Pacific for months after the war was over (the news travelled to them slowly), and its flag was thus the last to fly in the Confederacy’s name. But for our purposes here the ship’s propulsion, not its politics, are our concern.

As was common in the mid-19th century, Shenandoah had a hybrid sail/steam system. When winds were good, the crew hauled up sails, and when the wind ceased, they lit off the boiler. What made this ship unique was a retractable propeller that (theoretically, anyway) reduced drag and increased the ship’s speed while under sail.

CSS Shenandoah drydocked
CSS Shenandoah drydocked

Did it work any more effectively than opening (or was it closing?) the tailgate on a pickup truck helps fuel efficiency? Apparently sailors of the time thought it did. Whatever the answer, it soon became a moot point as sails disappeared entirely from merchant and military fleets around the world. The retractable propeller truly was a dead-end technology, designed to address what turned out to be only a transient problem. As other technologies and procedures developed, the propeller “hoist” became a solution without a problem to solve.

A note on sourcing: While I did find online references to the propeller hoist, this post is mostly based on my memory of “Last Flag Down,” an account of Shenandoah’s cruise by John Baldwin and Ron Powers – a book I cannot recommend highly enough. For a short description of the voyage, see the family history of the XO, Lt. Conway Whittle (near the bottom of the page).

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant who never quite figured out the tailgate thing and ended up selling his pickup. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or his employer.

Landing Gear is for Pansies

The following is part of Dead Ends Week at CIMSEC, where we pick apart past experiments and initiatives in the hopes of learning something from those that just didn’t quite pan out. See the rest of the posts here

Despite (or possibly, because of) Washington Naval Treaty cutbacks in the 20s and the Depression-induced budget troubles in the 30s, the U.S. Navy experienced quite a period of experimentation during the interwar decades. Without a doubt, the most glamorous example was the airship program, which featured yet another ship called Shenandoah, and culminated in the rigid airships USS Akron and USS Macon (ZRS-4 and ZRS-5).

Imagine riding this up to Fleet Week.
Imagine riding this up to Fleet Week.

But we are not here to talk about those, strictly speaking – we’re here to discuss their parasites. Parasite aircraft, that is. Akron and Macon were flying aircraft carriers, each carrying three or four scout aircraft to serve as the long-range eyes of the fleet below.

The Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk originated in a 1930 Navy requirement for a small carrier-based fighter. It ended up not performing too well in that role, but was retained in service as the only aircraft small enough to fit through the hanger doors of Akron, then under construction.

Here’s the dead end – the truly daring, truly paradigm-shifting dead end. How many planes have you ridden in that possessed some form of landing gear? I trust that it was every single one. So what do you do with a plane that takes off and “lands” via a hook above the fuselage? If you’re the Navy in the 1930s, you ditch the landing gear. No fixed gear, no retractable gear – simply no wheels at all. The Goodyear company would have been very fearful at the lost business, if they weren’t also the ones building the giant ships carrying the tire-less biplanes. All in all, probably a good deal for them.

Hooking into the trapeze aboard the Macon… the parallel parking of the skies.
Hooking into the trapeze aboard the Macon… the parallel parking of the skies.

But aircraft that never kissed ground were not long for this Earth. The Navy’s lighter-than-air fleet followed the general trend of rigid airships, in which they died violent deaths. Akron went down in a storm in the Atlantic (killing Rear Admiral William A. Moffett) in 1933, and Macon went down in the Pacific while operating out of Moffett Field just two years later. Sparrowhawks lost their niche and paradigms were brought back to normal.

Still, it is worth pondering the lesson of the Sparrowhawk. It took something that every single aircraft must have in some form or another, and just did away with it when the need disappeared. It didn’t end up working out – but it deserves to be admired.

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant who doesn’t usually discuss parasites as frankly as he does here. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or his employer.