Review: Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century

Carrier aviation has always had a tendency to interest people. After all, flying aircraft of ships sounds crazy enough than one wouldn’t think it was a viable plan of operations if not for the very fact that a number of navies does so on a regular basis. Interestingly, quite a number of important changes have taken place when it comes to worldwide carrier operations in the last decade or so. This includes several new carriers being commissioned, and new aircrafts coming into service, making much of what is written on the subject out of date.

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Enter Harpia’s Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century – Aircraft carriers and their units in detail. The book goes through all navies currently sporting a commissioned carrier and fixed wing aircraft, and with “currently” that means the end of 2017. In short, the Royal Navy and Queen Elizabeth is included, but the Thai Navy is not following the retirement of their Harriers. Navies with more or less suitable ships but not having fixed wing aircraft, e.g. the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, are left out.

Readers can, and most likely will, have opinions about this line. Some will undoubtedly feel that it is a stretch to include Brazil considering the state of the NAe São Paulo (ex-Foch) or the Royal Navy considering that shipboard F-35 operations are yet to commence. Others will likely argue for a inclusion of a number of big-deck helicopter carriers and amphibious ships which arguably sport more shipbased aviation than some of the smaller ‘Harrier carriers’. Personally I would have liked to see some discussion around the feasibility of F-35B operations from a number of ships that have been speculated to be more or (usually) less ready to handle the V/STOL bird, such as the Japanese Izumo-class, the Australian Canberra-class, and the Dokdo-class of the ROKN. Still, I get that the line has to be drawn somewhere, and the basis of who’s included and who’s left out is clearly stated, which is nice.

One interesting feature of the book is that it puts the carriers and their aircraft into context. While chances are you have read a text or two about the INS Vikramaditya and its MiG-29K’s before, the book does not only (briefly) discuss the history of Indian naval aviation to put the latest program(s) into context, it also explains the contemporary doctrine and what role the carrier plays in today’s Indian armed forces, the likely composition of a carrier battlegroup, and not only lists but describes all embarked aviation units, fixed and rotary winged.

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More or less the same is the case with each and every country-specific chapter of the book. I say more or less, because every chapter is written by a country-specific expert (hence the ‘editor’ after Newdick’s name), and the setup and sub-headings vary slightly. While purists might find this irritating, I personally find it good that the authors have been given some leeway, as the unique situations in different navies are better served by getting more custom fit descriptions compared to being shoehorned into a ‘one size fits all’ template. I was a bit worried upon opening the book that the variances would be so big that the book wouldn’t feel like a coherent work, but having read it I don’t feel that is the case.

Over all the book is a very enjoyable read, though the Italy-chapter does suffer from the same kind of language-issues that I mentioned in my review of Harpia’s Tucano-book. However, I am also happy to say that the good points of the Tucano-book carries over as well. These include highly enjoyable pictures and top-notch full-colour illustrations, as well as excellent build-quality of the book. In fact, I am yet to manage to break any single one of my Harpia-books, and that include bringing an earlier review book along for a camping trip in the archipelago.

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The gorilla in the room when writing about carrier aviation worldwide is the completely outsized role of the US Navy. In short, the US Navy fields more and larger carriers and carrier air groups than the rest of the world together. How do you tackle this, without the book feeling unbalanced? The USN does indeed get a longer chapter than the rest of the countries. However, US carrier aviation is also remarkably homogeneous, being built around two clear templates: the Nimitz (and now Ford) with a carrier air wing and the smaller amphibious ships with their aviation elements, and the number of flying platforms has shrunk considerably compared to the classic cold war wings. This means that there is no need to give ten times the space for the USN compared to e.g. the French just because they have ten times the number of carriers. This makes the book feel balanced, and laid the last of my worries to rest. The sole issue I foresee is that developments in carrier aviation is moving rapidly in several countries at the moment (USA, UK, China, India, …), and that means that parts of the book run the risk of becoming outdated quite fast. Still, that will be the case with any book on the topic released during the next five to ten years (at least), and there is certainly enough ‘longlasting information’ to make sure that the package as a whole isn’t going anywhere soon.

Compared to the Tucano-review which I was very excited for, I was somewhat more lukewarm to the prospect of what felt like yet another carrier book. However, the book surprised me, and certainly grabbed my attention. The chapters are deep enough to include plenty new information to me, and of such a length that it is easy to pick up and read through a single chapter if you suddenly have a need for a quick rundown of the current status of Spanish carrier aviation (yes, such things do happen to me occasionally). Harpia’s telltale illustrations and tables are also found in abundance.

Highly recommended for anyone looking for an update of carrier aviation worldwide!

The book was kindly provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

Ballistic Missile Defence for Pohjanmaa?

As was noted earlier Finland has requested the export of quad-packed ESSM surface-to-air missiles for fitting in the Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS). In itself the request was rather unsurprising, but I did find it odd that the Navy was asking about the canister designed for the Mk 41 and not the dedicated Mk 56 ESSM VLS.

Operation Iraqi Freedom is the multi-national coalition effort to liberate the Iraqi people, eliminate IraqÕs weapons of mass destruction, and end the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Mk 41 Strike length launchers in action, as the destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) fires a TLAM cruise missile against Iraqi targets in 2003. Source: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

This week a key part of the answer was revealed, as the DCSA report for the Mk 41’s themselves was released. The Finnish request is for four 8-cell Mk 41, of the full-long ‘Strike length’ version. This is the same as carried by US Navy (and Japanese) destroyers and cruisers, as well as by a number of NATO frigates. The options for the strike length launcher include a large variety of US-built surface-to-air missiles, as well as the TLAM (Tomahawk) long-range cruise missile and the VL-ASROC anti-submarine weapon (a rocket which carries a parachute-retarded anti-submarine torpedo out to a considerable range). The downside is the size. To fit the large missiles, the cells are 7.6 m long. The logical choice if one want to fit Mk 41 solely for use with ESSM’s into a corvette is the 5.2 m Self-defense module. In between the two is the 6.7 m Tactical length cells, which add the SM-2 long-range SAM and the ASROC, but is unable to fit the TLAM or the SM-6/SM-3/SM-2 Blk IV (SM-2 with a booster). The SM-2 Blk IV and SM-3 are able to target ballistic missiles, while the SM-6 is a longer-range missile against airborne targets.

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Concept render showing the key combat systems of the vessel. Note the placement of the surface-to-air missiles. Source: Finnish MoD

Now, as late as last week I said in a discussion that it is not possible to fit the Strike length cells on the Pohjanmaa-class, as they are too long for a corvette. In all renders so far the VLS cells have been fitted in front of the superstructure, on deck level. Considering the low draft of the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, just over 3 meters, it is doubtful whether the cells can be fitted within the confines of the bow. However, if the single cell is mounted along the centreline as opposed to across it, and if it gets a stepped platform a’la Type 26, it just might be doable (or a reshuffle with the Mk 41’s moving into the superstructure and the SSM’s moving to the foredeck/mission bay/further forward/aft/somewhere else).

So why would the Navy be interested in a cell that is two sizes larger than the missile they are planning on pairing it with? The answer is likely that they want to keep all options open. While I very much doubt that the ASROC would fit Finnish doctrine, the TLAM could open up new possibilities. However, if the Defence Forces want more cruise missiles, buying more of whatever will replace the JASSM on the winner of the HX-program is likely the better option (or alternatively buying a long-range weapon for the M270 MLRS). However, the possibility to provide some measure of protection against ballistic missiles might be of interest. While it certainly would be a major undertaking, the vessels will be in service for a long time and “fitted for but not with” is a time-honored tradition when it comes to naval shipbuilding. It should be noted that all kinds of ballistic missile defences are politically highly sensitive. Analysts have noted the similarities to the acquisition of the multirole F/A-18 Hornet back in the day, where even if the fighters were capable of flying ground attack missions, political considerations meant that the capability was only taken into use at a later stage, with the MLU2 mid-life upgrade.

The strike length cells also open up the possibility to fit some interesting anti-ship missiles in the future, as both the LRASM and the JSM are currently being tested in configurations suitable for launch from the Mk 41. Being able to swap out a number of SAM’s for more anti-ship missiles might be an interesting option at some point down the road (or at least interesting enough that the Navy doesn’t want to close the door just yet).

I will admit that the latest development have taken me by surprise. However, it does seem like the Navy is serious about fitting the vessels with systems that will allow them to field firepower to rival some significantly larger vessels. The question is whether the budget will live up to the ambitions?

No Finnish Harpoon/ESSM-order (at least for now)

As the headline says, yesterday’s big news from the naval sector is not that Finland has ordered the Harpoon and/or the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). In fact, what has happened is that the US offers for two major Finnish naval programs have become open knowledge. This happened as the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency has requested clearance for the sale of 112 RGM-84Q-4 Harpoon Block II+ ER anti-ship missiles (of which twelve are of the older RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II version which will be upgraded) and 68 ESSM missiles. These kinds of pre-clearances are not uncommon, and allow for a rapid deal following a (potential) procurement decision by a foreign customer (thanks to Aaron Mehta for providing insights about US export).

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One of the latest renders, showing the refined corvette concept. Source: Finnish Defence Forces / Insinööriupseeriliitto

The background is two ongoing Finnish projects: the Pohjanmaa-class multirole corvettes and the PTO 2020 heavy surface-to-surface missile. The PTO 2020 will be found aboard the Pohjanmaa-class as well as replacing the current MTO 85M (roughly a RBS 15 Mk II) on the Hamina-class as part of their MLU as well as in truck-mounted batteries. As the MLU for the Hamina is very much underway already, the winner of the PTO 2020 will be announced during the first half of this year. I am still standing by my opinion that the RBS 15 Mk 3+ and the NSM are the two frontrunners, and would be somewhat surprised if Harpoon won the trophy (and even more so if the Exocet MM40 Block 3 did, though everything is possible).

The Pohjanmaa-class is still in the design stage, with the main contract(s) to be signed this year, and the building phase to start next year. The armament shown on renders include two quadruple mounts of PTO 2020 amidships, the new lightweight torpedo from Saab, the BAE/Bofors 57 mm Mk II deck-gun, and a battery of vertical launch system-cells (VLS). The two main VLS-systems on the market are the French Sylver and the US Mk 41 (a modernized version called Mk 57 is also available, and mounted on the Zumwalt-class). Both are available in different lengths, with the shortest Sylver, the A43 (an earlier A35 concept seems to have been dropped), being around 4.3 m long (or rather, high), and the shortest Mk 41 being 5.2 m long. The 8-cell module of the Sylver is also smaller and lighter than the corresponding 8-cell Mk 41 module, in part because the silos themselves are a few centimeters smaller. For a full run-through of the differences, see this post by the UK Armed Forces Commentary-blog, where the differences are discussed with a keen eye to the pros and cons for the British Type 26 Frigate.

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An ESSM leaving a Mk 41 cell. Source: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

Now, while some vessels, such as the current Finnish Hamina-class and the upcoming British Type 26, feature dedicated cells to their main air-defence assets, the VLS on the Pohjanmaa will likely be home to the ships main air defence weapons. This becomes evident as the ESSM offer is for the weapon quad-packed in Mk 25 modules, designed to fit the Mk 41-system. If the ESSM would be chosen, the Pohjanmaa-class would be by far the smallest vessel to feature the system. The decision to offer the Mk 41 is interesting, as there is a dedicated Mk 56 ESSM VLS-system if the sole use would be for the ESSM.

The ESSM is certainly a competent weapon, and shows what the Navy is aiming for. 8-16 cells with quad packs would provide for 32-64 medium-ranged missiles, a huge boost compared to the current 8 short-range Umkhontos found on the Hamina. While the Mk 41 is too big for the Hamina, the Mk 56 mean that half a dozen ESSM’s could potentially be fitted as part of the MLU if the Navy choose to go down that (unlikely) route. More interesting is that the ESSM could be fired from the Army’s NASAMS surface-to-air batteries, letting the Navy and Army use the same missile stock. The upcoming ESSM Block 2 will feature an active seeker based on that of the AMRAAM, and is potentially the version offered to the Pohjanmaa.

Interestingly, the AMRAAM-ER is a AMRAAM married to the engine of the ESSM, and no, I don’t know what exactly is the difference between an AMRAAM seeker married to an ESSM engine and an ESSM engine married to an AMRAAM seeker.

I am still inclined to believe that the Sylver might be the Navy’s preferred VLS due to the smaller footprint. However, as with the PTO 2020, we will just have to wait and see.

Hamina does the Classics

The question of the upcoming deck-gun for the refurbished Hamina-class FAC was cleared up today, as BAE announced a deal for four Bofors 40 mm Mk. 4 to equip the vessels of the class. This is in line with the original reports, and means that the vessels will retain an amount of gun-fighting capability post-MLU, an especially important feature considering the small magazine sizes of both the heavy anti-ship missiles as well as the Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles.

I’ll admit that the headline above is slightly misleading, as while the words “40 mm” and “Bofors” certainly are a classic combo, the Mk. 4 share little except the calibre with the classic Bofors L/60 of WWII-fame. In between the two, the Rauma-class FAC and importantly the Kataanpää-class MCMV (poised to stay in service alongside the Hamina) are both equipped with the Bofors 40 mm Mk. 2. This is based on the L/70 long version which is more or less a completely new weapon using a longer round (40 x 364 mm vs 40 x 311 mm) when compared to the original L/60. The L/70 first entered service in 1948, but has proven to be a solid design which is found in a large number of single- and twin-mounts in navies throughout the world.

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The Bofors 40 mm Mk.4 turret. Source: Courtesy of BAE Systems

The new Mk. 4 turret still rely on the same L/70 weapon, but apart from looking like a ball (or rather something like a slightly distorted truncated hexagonal trapezohedron, but let’s stick to ball for now), the nice thing is that it is able to switch between different kinds of round on the fly (up to 100 rounds can be stored in a ready to fire mode). Further improving the flexibility its ability to use programmable 3P rounds, which allows e.g. for precise air burst or armour penetration capability from the same round, the exact mode being set the instant before the firing takes place. Finland is now the third country to acquire the Mk.4 after Sweden (a single patrol vessel that underwent MLU, since retired) and Brazil.

In the meantime, work on the first vessel to undergo MLU, FNS Tornio (’81’), started right away after the deal with Patria was announced, and already by the 16 January Finnish public broadcasting company YLE was able to show pictures from Western Shipyards in Teijo which showed that the earlier 57 mm gun and most sensors and antennas had been stripped from the vessel. Interestingly enough, the CEO of Western Shipyards states that they secured the contract in close competition with Uudenkaupungin Työvene and RMC, the shipyard which is set to build the new Pohjanmaa-class (Squadron 2020). While the work would without doubt have provided valuable experience to RMC, it might very well have been hard pressed to finnish all four vessels before the first Pohjanmaa start to require full focus.

Saab Bound for Naval Grand Slam?

As the modernisation of the Finnish Navy’s surface fleet continues, Saab has managed to secure two key contracts. Earlier, it was announced that Saab would provide the new anti-submarine torpedoes set to be fielded by both the modernised Hamina-class FAC as well as the new Pohjanmaa-class corvettes (Squadron 2020). In many ways this was the low hanging fruit for Saab. Not only is development of their new torpedo well underway with Sweden as the launch customer, it is also based on proved technology in the form of the earlier Torped 45, making it possible to operate the older version from the installed tubes until the new Torped 47 is ready. Perhaps crucially, it is one of few weapons of its class designed with an eye to use in littoral and brackish waters, key features of the operating environment of the Finnish Navy.

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Leadship of the class, FNS Hamina (’80’) two years ago. Note forward 57 mm main gun, roof-mounted CEROS 200, and 12.7 mm NSV heavy machine gun behind bridge. Source: Merivoimat FB

This week Saab landed a bigger fish, as it was announced that they will provide the combat management system, fire-control system, integrated communication systems, as well as optronic sensors for the Hamina MLU. The odd bird out is the fact that the order include the CEROS 200 optronic sensor, which is already fitted to the vessels. Either these are worn out to the extent that buying newer is cheaper from a maintenance point of view, or there have been internal upgrades of the CEROS 200 since the original deliveries almost twenty years ago that have not been reflected in the name of the product, but are extensive enough to warrant buying complete units and not simply giving the CEROS its own MLU.

Another interesting inclusion is the Trackfire remote weapon station, with the Hamina now being the third class in the Finnish Navy to receive the RWS. The use of the Trackfire on the Hamina isn’t specified, but the wording in the press release does seem to indicate a single system per ship. As such, while it is possible that two stations per vessel will replace the port and starboard manually operated 12.7 mm NSV heavy machine guns mounted amidships, the likelier scenario is that they will take the place of  the main armament. There has been talk (so far unconfirmed?) that the main 57 mm guns (Bofors Mk 3) of the Hamina vessels will be removed as weight saving measures and transferred to the four Pohjanmaa-class vessels, and this would fit right in. While the Trackfire is usually seen fitted with a heavy machine gun as the main armament, it is capable of holding “lightweight medium calibre cannons”, i.e. weapons up to and including low-pressure 30 mm ones. This is not an unheard of solution, with e.g. the Israeli Typhoon RWS being used with a number of the different Bushmaster-series of cannons as the main or secondary gun on a number of different naval vessels out there. A 30 mm Bushmaster, the Mk 44, is already found in Finnish service on the CV 9030 IFV, but before anyone gets too enthusiastic it should be noted that this uses a longer high-pressure round, so there is no synergy to be had. Instead, something like the M230LF, based on the chain gun found on the Apache helicopter, is the more likely candidate.

Dropping down in calibre from 57 to 30 mm is not necessarily a bad thing, as the main use of the weapon will likely be air defence and intercepting light craft. Modern 30 mm rounds will do quite some damage against soft targets such as warships as well, though naturally you won’t win a gun fight against a large vessel sporting a 3 or 5 inch gun anytime soon (to be fair, if you find your FAC up against a destroyer at gun range something has likely gone very wrong already at an earlier stage of the battle).

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Jehu-class landing craft with a Trackfire RWS on top of the superstructure. For the landing crafts the usual mount is either a 12.7 mm NSV or a 40 mm GMG, with a 7.62 mm PKM as a co-axial weapon. Source: Merivoimat FB

At the heart of the Hamina order is the 9LV, an open architecture system which allows integration of different sub-systems, sensors, and weapons into a single integrated package. As such, different building blocks can be integrated into CMS systems from other manufacturers, or other manufacturers’ subsystems can be integrated into the 9LV CMS. That Saab gets this kind of a complete deal including both the CMS, FCS, integrated communication systems, and part of the weaponry is significant, especially when looking towards the soon to be decided contract for a main systems integrator for the Pohjanmaa-class, a job which will likely be of significantly higher value than the Hamina MLU.

The main implications is that this makes Saab the front-runner for the Pohjanmaa-class CMS. Earlier the Rauma-class FAC received the 9LV during its MLU, and now on the Hamina 9LV is replacing Atlas Elektronik’s ANCS 2000-system. While the requirements for the CMS of the Hamina and the Pohjanmaa are not completely identical, there certainly is something to be said when the former replaces one of the shortlisted CMS’s with the another one, instead of simply upgrading it. It should also be remembered that several subsystems, including most weapons, will be the same for both vessels.

Yet another noteworthy development is that Saab recently announced a new fixed face version of their Sea Giraffe, in the form of the Sea Giraffe 4A FF. I have earlier questioned whether Saab’s twin rotating mast solution would satisfy the requirements of the Navy, and it seems clear that the 4A FF is a possible solution for the Pohjanmaa’s main long-distance sensor. As Saab is also well positioned to secure the order for the new PTO2020 surface-to-surface missile, they just might be on track to secure all major Finnish naval contracts they are bidding for.

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FNS Pori (’83’), the newest of the four Hamina-class vessels, underway. Source: Merivoimat FB

Meripuolustuspäivä 2017 – Maritime Defence Day

The annual Finnish maritime defence day jointly arranged by the Navy and the Naval Reserve took place in Turku this year, and with a record-breaking audience. The program followed the established form, with lectures on the state of the Navy and the Reserve, as well as a panel discussion on current topics. On the whole, the Baltic Sea has become more important strategically and militarily over the last decade, but the current year has so far been relatively calm when compared to the last few ones.

Vice admiral Veijo Taipalus, commander of the Finnish Navy. Source: Own picture

As readers of the blog all know by now, the Navy is living in exciting times. The Pansio-class MLU is finishing up, after which the focus will shift to the MLU of the four Hamina-class fast attack craft. As has been reported earlier, the vessels will gain a serious anti-submarine capability in the form of light torpedoes. The big problem is still their lack of endurance and a room for growth, and I haven’t seen an answer to whether the needed ASW sensors and weaponry can be carried together with a full complement of missiles. The limited ice-going capability also won’t be going anywhere, which nicely brings us back to Squadron 2020 and it’s design.
 

Some ask if it’s too big for our archipelago.

It isn’t.

The noteworthy thing about the project was in many ways the lack of any spectacular news, in that everything seems to be fine. The acquisition enjoys broad political support, and is moving on according to schedule. This in turn means that the upcoming year will bring quite a number of interesting developments, with a number of key contracts awaiting awardment as well as procurement decisions to be made. Bigger news was perhaps last week’s speech by the chief of defence, general Lindberg, who noted that the Navy’s identified need was for six to eight vessels. Still, I won’t be holding my breath for a political decision to increase the size of the project.

The coat of arms of Pohjanmaa, here seen on the walls of Heikkilä sotilaskoti, will soon grace the first SQ2020-vessel. Source: Own picture

In the mid-term, the last fixed coastal guns are closing in on their due date. The 130 TK is a highly advanced weapon for it’s class, with a surprisingly high level of protection thanks to being embedded in the granite of the Finnish archipelago. Still, there’s no way around the fact that their fixed positions hamper their survivability. Following their eventual retirement there will be a gap between the long-range surface-to-surface missiles of the ongoing PTO2020 procurement and the short-range RO2006 (Eurospike-ER). Exactly how this firepower gap for intermediate range and/or targets of medium size will be solved is still open, though it was noted (without further details) that there are some “impressive capabilities” found amongst modern anti-tank missiles. Might this be a reference to the Spike-NLOS as a replacement for the 130 TK? The quoted range of “up to 30 km” isn’t too far off from that of the 130 TK.

Like the rest of the defence forces, the Navy is placing ever bigger importance on international cooperation. Sweden, being the main partner, received considerable praise, but also the increased cooperation with other Baltic Sea States was noted, with Estonia being singled out as a partner of growing importance. Next year’s main focus is obviously the major international exercise Northern Coasts, or NOCO18, which will be hosted by Finland during the autumn.  Turku is the main base of operations, and will also host the main event earlier next year when the Navy celebrate its centennial.

Second after readiness, NOCO is the main focus of the Navy at the moment.

For the Naval Reserve, things are moving on in a steady but unspectacular fashion. The umbrella organisation itself celebrated 20 years in 2017, though several of the member organisations outrank it in seniority. Oldest is the Rannikkosotilaskotiyhdistys, responsible for the soldiers’ canteens of the Navy, coming in at a respectable 99 years.

Rannikkosotilaskotiyhdistys has saved the day for many a young conscripts with a cup of coffee and a munkki (sweet doughnut). Their work for maintaining the morale of the troops should not be underestimated. Source: Own picture

Originally modelled after the German Soldatenheim, the Finnish sotilaskoti have been around since the very early days of independence, and the naval branch got deservedly decorated for their stellar service to the Navy and its servicemen and -women.

In the end, it’s probably good that we haven’t got anything more exciting to tell you about…

Until next year!

Collisions at Sea

Following two separate high-profile collisions of USN destroyers in the Asia-Pacific, there has been a host of theories and questions regarding how these tie in together. This post is not an attempt at determining the cause of the collisions, but rather a general comment on similarities and factors differing between the USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62)/ACX Crystal and USS John S. McCain (DDG 56)/Alnic MC collisions, and some of theories thrown around. I won’t provide any conclusions, but rather ‘Food for thought’, as my high-school teacher would have put it.

To begin with, both destroyers are of the same Flight I sub-variant of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which make up roughly the first third of the destroyers produced in the series. Both were operating in the western parts of the Pacific when being hit by civilian vessels in the side. There are however important differences as well.

  • USS Fitzgerald was hit in the starboard side, while sailing somewhat south of the main sea lane leading into the Bay of Tokyo from the west,
  • USS John S. McCain was hit in the port side, while roughly at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait.

While the waters around Japan are far from deserted, they still pale in comparison to how busy the seas around Singapore are.

When discussing collisions at sea, it is important to understand one basic difference between maritime traffic and the rules of the roads: as long as as you have water under the keel, you are more or less allowed to go anywhere you want. As there are no road signs or traffic lights, issues such as right of way are instead dependent on the position of vessels relative to one another. These guidelines are found in an international document entitled ‘Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972‘, though understandably it is usually referred to by its abbreviation: COLREG (or COLREGs).

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USN illustration of the collision between USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The most basic of the rules are that a ship coming from starboard (right) has the right of way, and a ship coming from port (left) has to give way. If two vessels meet head-on, both will generally hold to starboard (i.e. the seas feature right-hand traffic), though there are also a number of readily available signals which can be used to tell a nearby vessel that you will pass on their port side.

As such, a first thought is that the USS Fitzgerald would have had to give way to the ACX Crystal, while the Alnic MC would need to give way to the USS John S. McCain. However, it needs to be remembered that large ships take considerable time to turn or bring to a halt. For the collisions discussed here, it should be remembered that the destroyers are considerably more nimble than large container ships and tankers. There’s no cutting in front of a tanker just because you in theory have the right of way!

For the USS John S. McCain/Alnic MC-collision, the Singapore Strait feature a traffic separation area which adds another factor into the equation. This can be described as a highway of the sea, where westbound traffic all flow in a northern lane, with eastbound flowing in a southern lane, and in between there is a off-limits separation zone (virtual roundabouts allows vessels to enter ports in the area). These are found in other narrow areas with relatively heavy shipping as well, including the Gulf of Finland. The collision seems to have taken place just at the entrance to the traffic separation area. It is possible that these special arrangements would have caused one of the vessels to make unexpected course adjustments, or that a third vessel did something which caught the attention of the bridge watch to the extent that they did not notice the more immediate danger.

There has been a number of speculations in that there would be foul-play such as GPS-spoofing or hacking of key systems would have caused the accidents. However, as described above the COLREG does not depend on the position of your vessel, nor does it allow the bridge watch to depend upon systems such as AIS for watchkeeping. Regardless of if some of these were out of order, the watch need to observe the position of the other vessels around it and react accordingly (i.e. keep a safe distance and give way to vessels according to relevant rules). Even if something was hacked or the GPS was out of order, and to my understanding there is no indication of this being the case, this should not cause a collision in and by itself.

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The helm of the USS Fitzgerald, manned by Cmdr. Velez, then commanding officer of the destroyer. Source: U.S. Navy photo by MCS 1st Class Jennifer A. Villalovos via Wikimedia Commons
There has also been claims that the McCain would have temporarily lost steering, only to regain it later. This could be a number of issues, ranging from running into something physically obstructing the movements of the rudder, to something being wrong with the equipment operated by the helmsman, or anything in between the two. It is also unclear to me what exactly the ‘loss of steering’ include. For warships, there are usually multiple steering stations and some kind of last-ditch emergency steering which overrides any steering commands from the helm stations. However, if the loss of steering was only temporary, it might be that there were no time to initiate emergency steering procedures. It is also not uncommon for sudden and unexplained steering issues to eventually be traced back to the helmsman not fully understanding the workings of the system, e.g. how to properly switch between autopilot and manual control.

This brings us back to an issue which has been raised, and which I believe might very well explain the issues at play. The US 7th Fleet is severely overworked, with no time being allocated for training in the deployment schedule of the destroyers and cruisers. This in turn means that much of the training is handled while on deployment, with the older crew members likely overseeing younger ones during time they otherwise would be off-duty. In the end, this likely leads to the crew as a whole being less rested. The background to this is obviously the lack of any frigates or corvettes in the US Navy, meaning that the destroyers and cruisers has to do a host of tasks which they are overqualified for, and with tensions with China increasing the need for qualified ships are going up as well. The LCS-project was meant to solve part of this issue, providing a light ship for patrol and flag-waving duties were a destroyer isn’t needed, but as is well-known this has run into problems and delays.