Is the US Navy Overrated?

A Discussion Paper

DRAFT: 15.5B

The US Navy is the largest, most impressive navy in the world, but is it really undefeatable? (Some Disconfirming Findings)

An Updated Knightsbridge Working Paper

Copyright 2005 By Roger Thompson, Professor of Military Studies, Knightsbridge University

This is a draft. Do not quote without permission from the author. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and are not to be construed as the opinions of Knightsbridge University. This is a work in progress and supercedes all previous versions. Former US Navy submariner Dr. Robert Williscroft cited an earlier version of this paper in his article “Is the Nuclear Submarine Really Invincible?” DefenseWatch, Oct. 4, 2004.


I would like to thank Dr. Andy Karam, former US Navy nuclear submariner and author of the book Rig Ship for Ultra Quiet; Captain John L. Byron, US Navy (retired), former nuclear submarine commander; Dr. Robert Williscroft, former US Navy Nuclear Submarine officer; Colonel Douglas Macgregor, US Army (Retired), author of the book Breaking the Phalanx; Lieutenant Colonel David Evans, USMC (Retired), former Military Correspondent for the Chicago Tribune; Rear-Admiral Fred Crickard, RCN (Retired); Jon E. Dougherty, investigative journalist and former US Naval Reserve sailor; Squadron Leader J. R. Sampson, RAAF (Retired); Henrik Fyrst Kristensen; Carlton Meyer, former USMC officer and Editor of G2mil Magazine; and Dr. Emilio Meneses (who provided me with much information on exercises between the Chilean Air Force/Navy and the US Navy), for their input, comments, suggestions, and constructive criticisms of earlier versions of this paper. I would also like to thank Captain Dean Knuth, US Naval Reserve (Retired) for providing me with background information on the sinking of two aircraft carriers in Exercise Ocean Venture 81 and for reviewing the section titled “David vs. Goliath”, Colonel Everest Riccioni, USAF (Retired), the father of the F-16 fighter program, and Lt. Col. Pierre Rochefort, Canadian Forces (Retired) for their advice on fighter combat, Major Lew Ferris, Canadian Forces (Retired) and Major Leif Wadelius, Canadian Forces (Retired) for their advice on ASW matters, Lieutenant Commander Aidan Talbott, RN, for his comparisons of the US Navy and the RN, and Captain Jan Nordenman, Royal Swedish Navy (Retired) for information on Swedish diesel submarines. My special thanks also go to Dr. Debora Shuger of the UCLA English Department, who kindly gave permission to use her late husband Scott Shuger’s unpublished book manuscript Navy Yes, Navy No. Finally, I offer my thanks to all my other sources, who will remain safely anonymous, for their generous assistance.

“The power of the United States in the early twenty-first century is greatly overrated. It is true that it deploys amazing cultural, economic, and military resources, but their efficacy is very limited. Culturally, there is no instrumental power. Economically, U.S. power is awesome and is very good for forcing bad deals on Third World countries, yet it too is difficult to bring to bear consistently and directly, especially on the other great powers. And the United States is as dependent on the world economy as the world economy is dependent on it. But it is in terms of military power that the United States is most overrated.” (emphasis mine).

Professor Chris Hables Gray, 2005

 As far as his comments in general, he feels that the Navy systems are oversold, overpriced, and undercapable. He is generally more pleased with the Air Force, but sprinkled criticism of us rather freely.” – Major General Perry M. Smith, USAF (Retired), reading his notes on a 1974 job interview with Secretary of Defense Dr. James Schlesinger.


Let me begin by stating that the US Navy is an important fighting organization, but it is not a person. It is not the flag, and it is nobody’s mother or child. It is an employer of hundreds of thousands of people, but importantly, one that has extracted billions of dollars from the taxpayers. It is not a religion, it is not sacred, and as such, it can and must be subjected to rigorous criticism when warranted. It is in the spirit of sincere and constructive criticism that I write this paper. I say this because, despite good intentions, and extensive documented evidence, often provided by current or former US Navy officers who want to turn this organization around, there are some who are apparently incapable of engaging in constructive but intellectually honest discussion on their current or former service. To these folks, the US Navy is America, and to criticize the former is to mock the latter. I dismiss this paradigm, along with any and all counterarguments that are based on emotion, hyperbole, willful ignorance, fideism, that rely on the Ad Hominem Abusive, the Ad Hominem Circumstantial, Ignoratio Elenchi, those without specific and documented countervailing arguments (in other words, those based on assumed facts that are not in evidence, better known as the old “I think you took these statements out of context, but I cannot rebut them because I do not know the actual context, and basically I do not like your argument so I am just grasping at straws to deflate it” gambit), and those based on disingenuous and unauthenticated contumacy or prevaricating bromides that do not wash with reality, common sense, or precedent.

In this age of rampant jingoism in the US, in which even the most thoughtful and well-reasoned criticism of the US military is sometimes inexplicably equated with contempt or polemical disrespect, some reactionaries might even go so far as to claim a paper such as this must ipso facto be tinged with “anti-Americanism.” Indeed, Michael Parenti said recently that “With the link between militarism and patriotism so firmly fixed,” in America, “any criticism of the military runs the risk of being condemned as unpatriotic.” I eschew this simplistic, linear thinking as well, but as a counter to those who do not, I do offer much praise for other branches of the US military, especially the US Air Force, for their professionalism, relatively high selection standards, and excellent aircraft. To borrow a phrase from a well known Jack Nicholson movie, if “you can’t handle the truth,” or are one of the many who are “blinded by hype about our technological and ethical superiority” then I suggest, respectfully, kindly and sincerely, that you go no further. No one should take what I am about to say personally. Besides, if you disagree with my thesis, and if the US Navy’s way of doing things is somehow validated in a future war, without too much “dumb luck” involved, then you have nothing to worry about, and hence, nothing to be angry about, either. If I am right, however, you have reason to be angry – at the US Navy, the Pentagon, the Congress, the President, and the defense contractors – but not me, for I am merely the narrator, and I will be kind enough not to say “I told you so.”

Thankfully, there are many US Navy officers (serving or retired) who are willing to speak about their navy’s failings. These men and women are the true patriots, not the credulous and defensive “Everything’s just fine, we’re the best, thank you” types who populate the Brobdingnagian US military-industrial complex, the Pentagon spin-doctors pumping out warmed-over double-talk, and all others who cannot see the reasonable forest for the trees. These reformers and thinkers try to make a difference, and they are the ones who are truly loyal for they realize that one does need to be an unquestioning reactionary to be a loyal and effective officer or sailor. One will find such men and women in the pages of the US Naval Institute Proceedings from time to time, but the most influential in these ranks are such men as the Late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Admiral Stansfield Turner, the Late Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, Captain John L. Byron, Captain Dean Knuth, the Late Scott Shuger, and former F-14 Radar Intercept Officer Jerry Burns, all of whom are quoted in this paper. To these men, and the men and women like them in the US Navy, I respectfully dedicate this paper. You have heard all the hype about the US Navy, I am sure, so this paper will give you the other side, the side that does not often make it into the mainstream media, or the US high school textbooks.

 Introduction and Objective (Quaere Verum)

“I never did give them hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.”
- Harry S Truman

For many reasons, Americans are a justifiably proud people, and it goes without saying that many Americans take great pride in the US Navy. Pride, naturally, is not always a positive thing, however, especially when it is excessive or misplaced. Excessive pride, or hubris, can blind its partisans and lead to overconfidence, and jingoism. Jingoism, substantiated by a prosperous economy and worldwide interests, a more warlike familiar to traditional national pride, was once very much in the domain of the British Empire. Now it has found a more affluent and comfortable home in America, the only major industrialized country that was lucky enough not to endure large scale attacks on its homeland in World War II. A goodly number of our American friends have made, over the past 60 years, many over-the-top statements about the prowess of their Navy and their armed forces in general. In recent years, as an example, I have rolled my eyes after seeing young Americans wearing t-shirts proclaiming: “United States Navy: The Sea is Ours.” American presidents and statesmen routinely assert that the US military is “the best trained, the best equipped, the best led…” (One American admiral (Skip Bowman) recently claimed that US sailors are also the “best-educated” in the world!) and a substantial number of Americans have bought into this boosteristic choplogic. These folks, unlike their more liberal countrymen, are sometimes quite unabashedly hawkish, and some brag that their grand fleet of supercarriers, cruise missiles, nuclear submarines and surface ships absolutely and unquestionably rules the seas now as Britannia once did, and more than that, that this fleet is practically unchallengeable. After all, they say, with the former Soviet Navy largely immobile, divided, decaying, deceased, or remaining indefinitely at dockside, who can challenge American naval dominance today?

The US Navy is absolutely the biggest and most expensive navy in the world, that is true, but if one looks back over time, and is objective, emotionally detached and, most importantly, intellectually honest, one can plainly see an embarrassing pattern of failure and underachievement, with pivotal combat climacterics (such as the victory at Midway) resulting mostly from the miscalculations of enemies rather than from any other single factor. The purpose of my disquisition is to describe and edify this historical pattern of failure and underachievement (not just the issues facing today’s Navy), and then to ask a very pertinent but controversial question: Is the US Navy truly the most capable navy in the world, or is it closer to being an overrated paper tiger whose dominance can be at least partially attributed to the mistakes of former adversaries? This is a touchy subject, and I will touch a few nerves in the process, but rest assured I will do my best to perform the task at hand with all due respect and sensitivity. Please also note that this is not so much a comparison test between the US Navy and any or all others, as a “Let's look at the claims made that these people are absolutely the best and see if we cannot find some examples of them not being so”. Thus I am not arguing that the US Navy is, for example, inferior to the Chinese Navy, or any other per se, but I do wish to challenge the basic and widespread assumption that American sea power is as singularly dominant or powerful as some people claim. This paper will be a “reality check” for a great many people.

I will begin by discussing various international naval exercises that have pitted the supposedly hegemonic US Navy against foreign diesel submarines (SSKs), with many ending with very poor results for the Americans, and how US Navy officers are told to lie about exercise defeats, especially those involving aircraft carriers. I will also discuss how the US Navy benefited handsomely from the mistakes of both the Germans and the Japanese, plus the ASW experience  and equipment of the British and Canadians, to buy enough time to establish itself as the dominant naval power, but one with many subtle and not so subtle weaknesses. I will describe the US Navy’s nearly continuous neglect of ASW, and how its obsession with supercarriers and nuclear submarines has retarded the combat capability of the surface navy, and forced the US Navy to rely on allies for essential services. I will demonstrate through historical case studies how bigger is not better in war, and that US naval pilots frequently do not measure up to those from various air forces. I will also discuss how racism, overwork, and the unpopularity of the Vietnam War eroded US naval power in the 1970s, which led one admiral to confess the US Navy would have lost a war against the Soviet Union. I will discuss how drug addiction, a bloated personnel structure, and an overweight and poorly educated populace has undermined the fighting skills and capacity of the US Navy, and how other, “lesser” navies have done better in some ways.

Throughout, I will provide examples, some based on unscripted exercise scenarios, and others from real life, that illustrate the many unfortunate and often ignored (or deliberately concealed) deficiencies of the US Navy. Among other things, it will become painfully apparent that unscripted or free-play exercise evolutions strongly suggest, almost ineffaceably, that foreign diesel submarines are quite dangerous to the US Navy, and that it needs the help of smaller allies in several key areas of naval warfare. I will also suggest that there is good reason to believe that the mighty US Navy is, with all due respect, simply overrated; a golden calf. In doing so, I will present a long list of woes that have afflicted or still afflict the US Navy, and one should keep in mind that these woes should not be viewed in isolation. Other navies have similar problems, or even worse; the Soviets/Russians are well known for having alcohol and morale problems, the Japanese, for all their ferocity in battle and iron discipline, have a tradition of thinking inside the box only (in other words, creativity and independent decision-making are not their strong suit). The difference is that not every other navy goes out in the world and tells everyone, and instills in its personnel, the notion that they are unbeatable, and then makes sure to gloss over or even hide deficiencies. The US Navy and the Pentagon seem to be the leaders in this particular realm, and my job here is to call them on it.

Before asking you to consider the documented examples below, I would like first to offer a counter to the most likely argument against my findings.

The “Exercises Aren’t Real” Argument: My Riposte

The examples below are from exercise scenarios, but some will say that one cannot draw conclusions from exercises because they cannot fully duplicate the reality of combat. Some might also say, erroneously, that exercises are only instructional, or academic, using scripted situations with predictable conditions and rules to train the crews on drills and procedures rather than to actually “fight the ship.” According to the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a controlled exercise is “an exercise characterized by the imposition of constraints on some or all of the participating units by planning authorities with the principal intention of provoking types of interaction.” In this kind of exercise, the crews are basically just practicing their various skills, such as gunnery, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), damage control, and learning how to operate damaged or degraded systems. In other words, they are about learning about combat, not engaging in it. In these controlled, unimaginative, scripted exercises, there are not supposed to be any winners or losers, and certainly no one worth his salt calls the media to report a “success” in such exercises. This is just part of the complex exercise equation, and it is not the part that interests me (except in those cases in which the rules, while appearing on paper to be restrictive or unfair, truly reflect the political realities faced by democracies in war, or that conform to the historical reality that many expensive weapons often do not work as advertised.)

Furthermore, I am engrossed by those controlled exercises in which enemy submarines disregard the rules to see if the US Navy is really as good as it claims to be. Such was the case in the September 1998 UNITAS exercise, which involved the US Navy and several South American navies. During the exercise, enemy diesel submarines were supposed to keep running at all times, making them easier targets for American sonar teams. This script was unrealistic and so enemy diesel submarine commanders decided to violate the rules by sitting silently on the bottom, which, apparently, nuclear submarines cannot do. According to reporter Bradley Peniston, the Americans were irritated by this unscheduled and uncalled for realism. “Local pride can get in the way of useful practice. Helicopter crewman Harder was eager for the rare opportunity to hunt foreign diesel submarines but found some of the Unitas navies weren’t playing by the rules, which insist the subs keep moving. ‘It’s all pride,’ the helicopter sensor operator said. ‘If they’re on battery sitting on the bottom, I’m not going to get them.’” The American actually complained that his side would have found the diesel submarine and attacked it -- if only the enemy submarine and her devious commander had cooperated! Harder was vexed that what was supposed to be an unrealistically easy target had a mind of its own, just like a bona fide enemy. This is just like playing darts and expecting the bulls eye or triple 20 to move about in order to be where your dart impacts, then making a fuss when you find they do not play according to unrealistic expectations.

I am also very interested in the so-called “force-on-force” exercises (or evolutions, during otherwise controlled exercises) in where there are indeed victors and the vanquished. In these exercises, which closely simulate combat, no ship, submarine or aircraft has any special advantage or disadvantage. NATO and DOD define a free play exercise as “an exercise to test the capabilities of forces under simulated contingency and/or wartime conditions, limited only by those artificialities or restrictions required by peacetime safety regulations.” The purpose of these evolutions is not to train crews, but to fight and hopefully win. As Robert Coram put it, “In a free-play exercise – no scenario and no rules – the orchestrated performance was tossed out. There is no better way to select and test combat leaders than by free play. Free play means winners and losers; it means postexercise critiques…Careerists hated free-play…True combat leaders loved it.” In these evolutions, rival crews do their very best to win, as there are considerable bragging rights endowed to the winners. Realism is important in these exercises. Exercise Tandem Thrust 99, an unscripted multinational “free-play” exercise, was “as close to war as we can possibly get,” said Commander Al Elkins, US Navy. “We’re in this exercise like we’re in a hot war. When our aviators take off, they have no idea what kind of threat is coming.”

No reasonable person would suggest that a ship that regularly fails in free-play or unscripted exercises is nevertheless in good shape for combat, and vice-versa. Now assume for just a moment that, rather than a list of failures, I will present a detailed list of US Navy successes in exercises instead. Suppose a modern US Navy destroyer had “sunk” an “all gun” World War II-vintage Turkish destroyer in a hypothetical free-play exercise. It would be outrageous for the obviously outmatched Turkish Navy to say “Yes, but exercises aren’t reality. In a real battle, my old ship and her guns would have clobbered that new American destroyer and her Tomahawk missiles.” That would be preposterous, and so is the claim that free play exercises, like the ones described below, are inherently meaningless. The fact is that consistent unscripted exercise results (successes or failures), are useful, meaningful, and provide reasonable analytical tools. And if free play exercises are not meaningful, then why does the US Navy invest so much time and money to participate in them? Because these types of exercises frequently reveal both the good and the bad news about how a navy might fare in a real war. I would propose referring a couple of the many interesting quotes one gets when googling 'purpose naval exercise'. I did not see a single 'just having a good time' and ‘shooting the breeze' statement. While not always the case, the standard, antediluvian excuse employed by the Navy’s apologists that all defeats (even in free play or unscripted exercise evolutions) are purely because the US ships or aircraft involved were operating under some sort of artificial restriction, unrealistic limitation or handicap is also often rather spurious, exaggerated, overly convenient, deceitful, and just a cop-out, and I will deal with that matter in due course.

I also do not fully accept the whole “These exercise defeats only involved allied submarines, and our allies are much better than our potential rivals,” argument, either, for the US certainly has a long tradition of underestimating its enemies (North Korea, China, and North Vietnam come to mind), and besides, if a friend driving a quiet diesel submarine can sink a carrier or nuclear submarine, what’s to prevent a rival from developing the same skills to do so? Courage, motivation, training, leadership and professionalism are not proprietary objects owned and trademarked by the western countries. The technology can be purchased from any number of countries, and the skills can be developed by any nation with the political will to do so, be they big or small, rich or poor, friend or foe.

On yet another level, some will also claim that since exercises are conducted in relatively small areas, it is easier for diesel submarines to detect and attack surface ships. In real life, the oceans are much bigger and it is more difficult for a diesel submarine to position itself to attack a much faster carrier battle group. I would ask those who support this argument to consider two things.

Firstly, many US surface combatant ships were sunk in the open ocean by slow, primitive diesel submarines in World War II, including the carriers USS Yorktown, USS Wasp, the escort carriers USS Liscombe Bay, USS Block Island, the cruisers USS Indianapolis and USS Juneau, the destroyers USS Mason, USS Reuben James, USS Satterlee, USS Jacob Jones, USS Hammann, USS O'Brien, USS Porter, USS Henley, USS Buck, USS Bristol, USS Leary, USS Leopold, USS Fechteler, USS Fiske, USS Eisele, USS Shelton, USS Eversole, USS Frederick C. Davis, and many other types of surface ships. US battleships were damaged by submarine attacks and taken out of action for long periods of time as well. In the case of the 35,000 ton battleship USS North Carolina, one of the most powerful and up-to-date ships of her time, and far more advanced than the ships destroyed at Pearl Harbor, she was taken out of action for two months by a single torpedo fired by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s submarine I-19. The carrier USS Saratoga, which was “the largest warship in the world” when she was launched, “was torpedoed on two separate occasions early in the war and was out of service for months.” In one battle, a single torpedo from a Japanese submarine left the 33,000 ton carrier “dead in the water” for several hours and she had to be taken under tow by a cruiser. In addition, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 71,890 ton supercarrier Shinano was also sunk by a diesel submarine, as was the 36,000 ton fast battleship Kongo. Submarines also claimed five of the largest British carriers.

Secondly, consider that even though carriers and surface ships are more advanced today, and are still much faster than conventional submarines, that does not give them any additional life insurance because in a war the enemy diesel submarine will know a) where the US Navy ships are coming from and b) where they are likely headed. They do not have to catch up to a carrier battle group making more than 30 knots; they can just wait for it, and no one can predict exactly where en route they are waiting. The only protection the US Navy will have is solid Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) skills, and as we will see in this paper, the assumption that the US Navy has such skills is not well-founded. Today's diesel submarines are far better than those of the past, and with the US Navy now concentrating more on the dangerous, noisy and shallow waters of the littorals, if anything, the potential threat from quiet conventional submarines is greater now than it was in World War II.

One more thing about exercises. I have noted over the years that our US Navy colleagues expect to always win, by virtue of possessing what they earnestly believe is superior technology (on which some say the US Navy has grown overly-dependent, and consequently, rather sloppy) and/or superior training. They simply cannot fathom the results when things do not go their way all the time. When a real crackerjack US Navy F-18 squadron beats a foreign squadron in a dogfight, for example, the US Navy’s supporters do not ask questions about exercise parameters. They just assume that American technology and training were better, so case closed. However, when a US Navy ship or squadron loses in a competitive free-play or unscripted exercise, the response is rarely "Well, you can't win them all," or "You win some, you lose some." Sadly, the more typical response is to call a foul at the very concept of being beaten. Were the conditions unfavorable to the US Navy? Did the US Navy fighters lose because they had to carry more fuel tanks and were therefore less agile, or had fewer landing bases available, than their land-based opponents? Was the exercise unfair to US forces? (As if war could ever be “fair.”) Remember former Vice President Bush, a Navy veteran, who said the following after a US ship shot down an Iranian airliner: “I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don't care what the facts are." I find this quote very much in keeping with the nihil ad rem culture of evasion, excuse-making, obfuscation, blame-shifting, buck-passing, and denial in the US Navy, and I urge you to keep this in mind as you read this paper. Denial, in the words of military commentator Stan Goff, is indeed “the grandest of American appetites.”

As for methodology, the first section relies on qualitative rather than quantitative data. The reason for this is simple. As Captain Dean Knuth, US Naval Reserve (Retired), will attest later, the US Navy keeps a tight lock on its exercise evaluation data, especially on the ones that include potentially embarrassing failures. These exercise reports, note well, are not available to the general public, and attempts to make them public have been suppressed by the Navy. Under these conditions, a statistical analysis is not likely. In fact, after conducting a thorough search of the available unclassified materials, I could not locate even one such study, and one can be sure that is just what the US Navy wants. This is a discussion paper, and thus my purpose is merely to ask questions and raise issues, rather than to comprehensively answer all of them. My task here is to try to put the pieces together, and see if any conclusions can be supported or extrapolated. Although helpful, one does not always need reams of statistical data and tables to recognize a plain fact especially when history, common sense, and credible authorities support the conclusion. We do not require a statistical analysis to understand universal truths. I always liked the way Bruce Russett lucubrated his methodology, so I shall indicate my concurrence by quoting him directly: “My intention is to be provocative... The argument is not one subject to the principles of measurement and the strict canons of hypothesis-testing – the mode of inquiry with which I feel most comfortable. Nevertheless the subject is too important to leave untouched simply because the whole battery of modern social science cannot be brought to bear on it.” Like Fallows, my mission here is to be “suggestive, rather than encyclopedic or definitive…” and as was the case with Fallows’ 1981 magnum opus National Defense, “Much of the story is told through anecdotage and case history, but these particulars are meant to suggest certain casts of mind, certain rules of organizational life…”

I would also add that it does not require a leap of faith to know that there is no such thing as an unsinkable ship, no matter how big it is, how many water-tight compartments it has, or how much armor plating it has. Nor does it require much imagination to comprehend that a nearly silent diesel submarine can most definitely stalk and sink even the largest surface warships (or, these days, noisy nuclear submarines) with relative ease. Diesel submarines were and are not necessarily restricted to home or coastal waters, either, contrary to what many nuclear submarine advocates emphasize. In fact, many diesel submarines have been “forward deployed” thousands of miles from their home bases, and operated against the enemy on the other side of the ocean. Such things happened in both World Wars, and during the Falkland Islands War of 1982, and they can happen today. Even Compton-Hall, whose writings avouch a pro-nuclear submarine slant, once cautioned: “It is a great mistake to denigrate SSKs: they will continue to be a menace for the foreseeable future and the Soviet Navy knows it.” Those who deny these facts are in fact denying reality. As Aldous Huxley once said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

David vs. Goliath: Do Diesel Subs Feast on the US Fleet?

“Even in the open ocean NATO fleet exercises demonstrate, time and again, that a proportion of SSKS (diesel subs) will get through the screen.” - Commander Richard Compton-Hall, Royal Navy (Retired)

“U.S. Navy exercises with diesel submarines since the mid-1990s have often proved humbling.” – John Benedict, National Security Analysis Dept., Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 2005. In 1952, the first major NATO naval exercise, Operation Mainbrace, was conducted in the North Atlantic. Involving 85 warships from the US and the UK, the exercise was the brainchild of none other than General Dwight Eisenhower, who wanted to demonstrate to the satisfaction of Norway and Denmark that NATO could indeed protect them in the event of a Soviet attack. Three US Navy carriers participated (the USS Midway, the USS Wasp, and USS Franklyn D. Roosevelt,) and the captain of the Roosevelt encouraged his crew to be vigilant in the face of a significant diesel submarine threat. Said Commander George W. Anderson, US Navy, “Any man who spots a periscope before it attacks gets special liberty to London.” Anderson’s crew soon got their chance to deal with a sneaky diesel submarine, HMS Taciturn, when the boat reportedly “got through the destroyer screen and promptly claimed hits” on all three US carriers, and other ships, with conventional torpedoes (curiously, although nuclear weapons were available at the time, simulation of their use was not included in the exercise scenario). The exercise umpires, however, all on the surface ships, did not concur, and they initially ruled that the submarine herself had been sunk. The matter as to “who got whom first” was supposedly subjected to a post-exercise review, but the definitive answer was, to my knowledge, never made public. Although in this case it was never proven that the submarine had been successful, at least not publicly, it is not at all far-fetched for a single diesel submarine to successfully attack three major surface ships. That very thing happened in World War I, as Richard Compton-Hall once described, when a “pathetic” German submarine, the U-9, took on and destroyed three British cruisers in one day. It is also not at all far-fetched that US Navy officers might overlook, elide, or fail to intromit successful attacks against the aircraft carriers that have formed the very basis for US naval power projection over the past 60 years.

 There have been many other exercises in the years since, but only a handful of these have become public knowledge, usually in the pages of a few periodicals and base newspapers. Another such exercise that drew public attention was in 1973. The exercise was code-named Uptide, and according to Thomas B. Allen, during this exercise the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (which has since been retired and the name now inherited by a cruiser) was sunk twice by enemy submarines and taken “out of action”. This defeat, however, remained officially unreported and strictly “off the record.” Later, in 1981, the NATO exercise Ocean Venture ended much the same way for the US Navy, with submarines destroying US Navy carriers, but this time, something very different and controversial happened -- an exercise analyst had the audacity to try to report the truth, and he paid for it later. 

Before I get to the ugly details of the matter in hand, here is a little background information from the Exercise Senior Analyst, Lieutenant Commander Dean Knuth, US Navy: “In September 1981, the largest exercise in Atlantic Fleet history reached a peak after a two-carrier battle group completed a transit across the Atlantic. The ships entered the Norwegian Sea and their planes struck simulated enemy positions in waves of coordinated air attacks. The NATO exercise was Ocean Venture/Magic Sword North, and it was the first time that-the Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet had amassed two American aircraft carriers, the British through-deck cruiser Invincible, and a large supporting force which included Royal Navy, Canadian Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard ships — all for the purpose of demonstrating the ability of the free world ‘to control the Norwegian Sea and contain Soviet sea power.’” During the exercise, a Canadian submarine slipped quietly through a US Navy aircraft carrier destroyer screen, and conducted a devastating simulated torpedo attack on the carrier. The submarine was never detected. A second carrier was also reportedly destroyed by another enemy submarine during this exercise.

Later, Knuth tried to use material from his official report in a magazine article, but when Navy officials read a draft of it, his work was promptly censored to minimize the potential fallout. Some might argue that the Navy had good reason to do this because it was ostensibly a matter of “national security,” but I find that claim a bit of reach because everyone knows that diesel submarines sank big aircraft carriers and other major combatant ships in World War II, as I mentioned at the beginning, and there have no great breakthroughs in surface ship survivability since then. The article was never published. Said Knuth in a subsequent newspaper interview, “The fact is our aircraft carriers were successfully attacked by torpedoes or missiles from submarines in our major exercises.”

In 2005, Captain Knuth, US Naval Reserve (Retired) told me that “We were interfered with by upper echelons of the Navy who wanted us to delete all references to sub attacks against carriers.” According to Knuth, Navy Secretary Lehman was trying to convince Congress to fund two new additional aircraft carriers and his case could have been seriously undermined if Knuth’s original manuscript came into the public eye. In Ocean Venture 81, “90 percent of the first strikes were by submarines against the carriers,” and this fact did not sit well with many naval aviators, or Lehman. In fact, Lehman resorted to Ad Hominem Circumstantial attacks and cheap shots against Knuth in the media, dismissing him as merely a “retired Lieutenant Commander” -- even though Knuth was still serving on active duty. As we all know, such tactics are commonly used when someone does not like hearing the truth, and thus they simply bypass the opposing argument altogether and just attack the person making it. At that point, Knuth said he got “fed up with the politics” of the Regular Navy, and transferred to the Naval Reserve, where he was eventually promoted all the way to Captain and became the Commodore of Naval Coastal Warfare Group Two (Atlantic). Had he stayed in the Regular Navy, Knuth doubts that he would ever have gotten another promotion, let alone two. He became Persona Non Grata in the regular Navy.

Although the Navy tried to hush the matter up, and ordered Knuth to destroy his original manuscript, he kept a copy of the censored version, and even in its expurgated form, it is interesting and titillating reading. In the censored version, titled “Lessons of Ocean Venture 81,” Knuth expatiates that the carriers Eisenhower and Forrestal “would never have made it to Norway in a wartime situation” because of the submarine threat. He continued: “The first major event of the exercise was strictly a World War II leftover not likely to take place in the future: carrier against carrier. The Forrestal's battle group steamed in total emission control and sneaked toward the Eisenhower group which was on track for the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gaps. This event was parochialism personified. In Battle of Midway style, the aviator admiral relied on long-range tactical air strikes against the Forrestal, with little or no fighter air support. The surface admiral dispersed all of his surface combatants away from his carrier and sent them quite effectively on an anti-surface mission against the Eisenhower. Unfortunately, in doing so, he unrealistically left his own carrier open for submarine and air attack.” He also noted “The most exciting part of the exercise was the transit of the Iceland-United Kingdom gap. In the previous five autumn NATO exercises, the carriers have always been attacked going through the gaps.” It is often said that in war the first casualty is truth, but in this case I would say the first naval casualty in a general war with the Soviet Union would have been the lie that US Navy aircraft carriers are invulnerable. Fallows made the same argument in 1981, saying those big ships will be the first to go down when things get nasty.

The USS Eisenhower was successfully attacked by a surface ship, said Knuth, but official reports by the commanders on scene seem to have overlooked this success: “An Orange missile ship sneaked to within weapon-firing range during the night and maintained station on the Eisenhower. At sunrise, the ship simulated emptying her missile load into "Ike" without herself being engaged until after signaling that she was engaging the carrier. The surprise attack was well described in traffic among warfare commanders on the satellite circuit, but when the carrier striking force summary report was received by the fleet commander, it stated that the Orange ship had been tracked and that a Blue ship, stationed between the carrier and the Orange ships, had been watching his actions. The report described a far different action than the confusion that had existed at the time of the engagement.” There was also an apparent “friendly fire” incident in which “a guided missile destroyer in Ocean Venture mistakenly harpooned the Eisenhower, mistaking a carrier for an Orange surface combatant. The composite warfare commander was so furious that he threatened to excommunicate the ship from the battle group.”

Knuth was remarkably sedulous in offering thorough criticism of US Navy battle group tactics, organization, intra-navy parochialism (aviators versus surface warfare and submarine rivalries) but spoke very highly of the British contingent: “The British force employment, asset management, commands and action reports were superlative and a model for our battle group to emulate.” He also conceded that British officers and men “are better trained than our best and their battle group commanders and staffs are highly proficient in tactics. My professional note in the December 1981 Naval Institute Proceedings explains in depth why this is the case.” Finally, Knuth admonished that “Our battle groups continually prostrate themselves before the hard-to-find enemy because of our perception of our own invulnerability… The enemy can locate battle groups easily, and with a large fleet of submarines, set up for a pre-planned attack. Our policy is normally to head straight for danger and not shoot until shot at first. When the Orange force makes a preemptive attack, it is usually of such a magnitude that the battle group is overwhelmed and lost.”

Despite the Navy’s censorship of the Ocean Venture ’81 article, and the fact that the redacted version was never published, the story became public knowledge in Canada. An anonymous Canadian submariner leaked the story to a Halifax newspaper, and indicated that this successful Canadian attack on an American carrier was by no means an isolated incident. It was a simple ambush in the North Atlantic, and it worked perfectly. Indeed, the article concluded that the Americans never knew what hit them, that they were embarrassed by this failure, and that they wanted to bury the matter then and there. The Canadian submarine did not fire the customary green flare to indicate a hit, for reasons unknown to anyone except for the skipper of the submarine, but instead simply took periscope photos of the carrier to prove its point. In doing so, the diesel submarine ambushed a surface ship in the same way that Germany’s U-boats had done it decades before. This news and Knuth’s original uncensored report, which ended up in the hands of Senator Gary Hart, caused quite a stir in Congress, and the US Navy had a lot of explaining to do. Why had not one but two American carriers been sunk, and why were the submarines responsible not detected? Why indeed had a small, 1960s-vintage diesel submarine of the under-funded and multi-dimensionally “bantam” Canadian Navy been able to defeat one of America’s most powerful and expensive warships, and with such apparent ease?

Conjointly, why were the Canadians able to do essentially the same thing to the US Navy in subsequent exercises in the spring of 1983? The Winnipeg Free Press reported that the submarine HMCS Okanagan “snuck to within a kilometer of the USS John F Kennedy, went through preparations to fire a salvo of torpedoes and slipped away unnoticed by the carrier or the destroyers…” The submarine got close enough “to score a lethal hit, Defence Minister Jean Jacques Blais said…” Blais went on to say, “This is a matter of some pride for submariners and shows the strength of our underwater boats at a time when satellite detection can identify surface ships more readily.”

There are several possible explanations. Firstly, the Canadian submariners have a long-standing reputation for being well trained and professional. Supporting this argument is Compton-Hall, one of the world’s leading authorities on submarines, who evaluated the Canadian submariners as “first class, aggressive and innovative.” Secondly, the Oberon-class submarines used by the Canadian, Australian, British, and other navies, built in the UK, but based on a German design from World War II, were probably the quietest in the world at that time. Of course, adverse acoustical conditions produced by temperature variations (thermal layers) and other factors may temporarily cloak even the noisiest submarines, but the nearly silent Oberon-class diesel boats running on batteries were still harder to find in such conditions than many nuclear boats. And in any case, Knuth described the acoustical conditions as being “excellent” for detecting submarines, so the answer probably lies elsewhere. A third possible reason is perhaps that the powerhouse US Navy just is not very good at hunting submarines, especially the ultra-quiet diesel boats available today. It is the last explanation that intrigues me, and it is the one on which I shall focus much of this article.

While Canadian submarines have routinely taken on American carriers, other small navies have enjoyed similar victories. The Royal Netherlands Navy, with its small force of extremely quiet diesel submarines, has made the US Navy eat the proverbial slice of humble pie on more than one occasion. In 1989, naval analyst Norman Polmar wrote in Naval Forces that during NATO’s exercise Northern Star, “…the Dutch submarine “Zwaardvis” was the only orange (enemy) submarine to successfully stalk and sink a blue (allied) aircraft carrier…” The carrier in question might have been the USS America, as it was a participant in this exercise. Ten years later there were reports that the Dutch submarine Walrus had been even more successful in the exercise JTFEX/TMDI99. “During this exercise the Walrus penetrates the US screen and ‘sinks’ many ships, including the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71. The submarine launches two attacks and manages to sneak away. To celebrate the sinking the crew designed a special T-shirt.” Fittingly, the T-shirt depicted the USS Theodore Roosevelt impaled on the tusks of a walrus. It was also reported that the Walrus sank many of the Roosevelt’s escorts, including the nuclear submarine USS Boise, a cruiser, several destroyers and frigates, plus the command ship USS Mount Whitney. The Walrus herself survived the exercise with no damage. Talented and wily enemies, of course, usually do not play by the rules, and they do not stick to a script.

Truthfully, it should come as no great eye-opener that Dutch submarines would do well against the US Navy. The Dutch submarine service has an enviable reputation, and has been praised by people such as the Late Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, Jr., US Navy, who was Commander, Submarines Pacific during World War II. Lockwood said in 1945 that Dutch submarines in the Pacific were “thoroughly effective. They handled their boats with great skill and do not need to take off their hats to anyone…” The admiral also mentioned his “high regard for their ruggedness and fighting skills.” Nowadays, many navies, including the US Navy, send their submarine officers to the Netherlands to undergo the legendary Netherlands Submarine Command Course. In November 2002, the Royal Australian Navy’s official newspaper described the Dutch course for prospective diesel submarine commanders as arguably “the best submarine training in the world.” US Navy students who have taken the course have also found it extremely challenging (in 2002, naval officers from the US, Australia, Canada, Israel and the Netherlands took the course, but unfortunately, the American officer failed due to a safety violation. The US Navy officer was the only one to fail that year, but in fairness, he was a nuclear submariner, naturally, and ergo was much less familiar with the workings of a diesel submarine and its battery operations.)

Reassuringly, Lieutenant Commander Todd Cloutier, US Navy, did graduate from the Dutch course in 2003, and he too elucidated the program’s “legendary reputation” and described it as “perhaps some of some of the toughest training a submariner can get.” Although this course is for experienced officers who wish to command a diesel submarine, he was also very impressed by the overall training received by Dutch junior officers. “A Dutch Junior Officer (JO) with three years at sea is quite proficient with the periscope. During my familiarization ride on Bruinvis, I saw a non-qualified JO take the conn and conduct a task-group penetration against a multinational task force. It wasn’t perfect, but quite impressive for a JO with less than two years on board.” This suggests that a US Navy officer of comparable rank would have been less capable.

The preceding section concerned aircraft carriers and surface ships only, but the US Navy has long maintained that its nuclear submarines are clearly and unambiguously superior to any and all diesel submarines. This dogma has been perpetuated for decades, said Rear Admiral C. Mendenhall, US Navy (Retired) in 1995, because the nuclear submarine force leadership “has been brainwashed by the Rickover nuclear-only philosophy.” Nuclear submarines are so superior, allegedly, that some US submariners have long said that they need not even worry about conventional submarines. In a 1998 report by Ivan Eland, he cited an article in which “One U.S. submarine commander reported that he would not even bother to destroy a diesel because he could detect the boat before it detected him; he said that he would simply avoid it.” Although this oblivious and antinomian thinking has finally begun to change, there is still much that needs to be done. What follows is intended to challenge that old establishment nonsense, and hopefully in a small way, contribute to its reform.

Like the Canadians and Dutch, the penumbral Australian submarine force has also scored many goals against US Navy carriers, and nuclear submarines as well. On September 24 2003, the Australian newspaper The Age reported that Australia’s Collins-class diesel submarines had taught the Americans a few lessons during multinational exercises. By the end of the exercises, Australian submarines had destroyed two US Navy nuclear attack submarines and an aircraft carrier. For the Australians, all three ships were easy targets. According to the article: “‘The Americans were wide-eyed,’ Commodore Deeks (Commander of the RAN Submarine Group) said. ‘They realized that another navy knows how to operate submarines… They went away very impressed.’” In another statement attributed to Deeks, it was expostulated that: "We surprise them and they learn a lot about different ways of operating submarines... The Americans pour billions into their subs but we are better at practical applications."

However, officially, the US Navy, a true military opsimath, soon went into damage control mode and oppugned that the Australians could beat an American nuclear boat in a fair fight. Said The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “The United States is justly proud of its military prowess, but apparently a little defensive when anyone else shows a bit of talent. Defense Week's ‘Daily Update’ on October 1, 2003, reported that the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was trying to downplay the fact that an Australian diesel-electric submarine had ‘sunk’ an American submarine during recent training exercises, and said the Australians were making too much of the simulated hit. Adm. Walter Doran said that the outcome ‘certainly does not mean that the Collins-class submarine in a one-on-one situation is going to defeat our Los Angeles-class or our nuclear submarines.’" But even if the American submarine was “supposed” to be sunk, or was using a noise augmenter to simulate a Soviet sub, or purposefully running with “degraded” Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) systems, (and there is no available evidence to support any of these excuses) then why did an experienced Australian submariner like Commodore Deeks, an officer in one of the most professional navies in the world, make such unsubstantiated, out-of-context, and unfair statements to the media? As Compton-Hall said, the Australian submarine service is “outstandingly efficient,” and has an excellent reputation. Because, I would wager, like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, the Australians had actually caught the Americans off guard and unawares. As we will see later, Captain Richard Marcinko, US Navy, strayed from the rules during exercises in the 1980s, and he achieved incredible results. War, as they say, is not fair, and anyone familiar with polemology knows that pre-emptive or surprise attacks have often proven devastatingly effective, as the Israelis demonstrated in 1967.

In October 2002, the Australians also reported that their diesel submarine HMAS Sheehan had successfully “hunted down and killed” the nuclear submarine USS Olympia during exercises near Hawaii. The commander of the Sheehan observed that the larger American nuclear boat’s greater speed and accelerability were no advantage because “It just means you make more noise when you go faster.” In the previous year, during Operation Tandem Thrust, analyst Derek Woolner set forth that HMAS Waller sank “two American amphibious assault ships in waters of between 70-80 metres depth, barely more than the length of the submarine itself. The Collins-class was described by Vice-Admiral James Metzger, Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet as 'a very capable and quiet submarine…” Although the Waller was herself sunk during the exercise, the loss of a single diesel submarine, in exchange for two massive amphibious assault ships, is quite a good bargain, and very cost effective.

Finally, during RIMPAC 2000 it was disclosed that HMAS Waller had sunk two American nuclear submarines and gotten dangerously close to the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Even more ominous, asserted researcher Maryanne Kelton, is that: “Even though the exercises were planned and the US group knew that Waller was in the designated target area, they were still unable to locate it. New Minister for Defence, Robert Hill, recorded later that the ‘Americans are finding them exceptional boats…in exercises with the Americans they astound the Americans in terms of their capability, their speed, their agility, their loitering capacity, they can do all sorts of things that the American submarines can’t do as well.’” In 2003, Commander Peter Miller, US Navy, spoke about his experiences with the Australian diesel submarines, and he paid the greatest (politically correct) compliment that a nuclear submariner can make. He said that the Australian diesel submarine was “on a par” with US nuclear submarines, and that “The Collins are great submarines.” 

The Collins-class submarines were designed in Sweden, and naturally, the Swedes themselves have been able to raise some eyebrows in the US Navy. In a 2004 presentation in Stockholm, Vice Admiral Kirkland H. Donald, US Navy, affirmed that “Today, Sweden manufactures some of the best built and equipped submarines and surface ships in the world. The GOTLAND class is not only quiet, but has a most impressive combat system. If I remember correctly, in the fall of 2000, there was a multi-lateral, blue-water ASW exercise where CDR. Gumar Wieslander and his crew in HSwMS HALLAND demonstrated remarkable prowess exercising against one of our finest ships USS ANNAPOLIS. That exercise, along with many others, reinforced the difficulties in prosecuting a well built, well maintained diesel submarine, with a well trained crew.” He did not say that the Swedish boat “sank” the Annapolis, but the subtle implication might be there if one reads carefully between the lines.

The Japanese have also proven to be formidable in their modern diesel submarines. Nuclear submariner Dr. Andy Karam noted in 2005 that: “During exercises with Japanese diesel submarines (I believe it was during the 1988 Team Spirit exercises), Plunger had some problems that led to our being beaten several times. We eventually learned how to fight against diesel boats, but by then, we probably would have been sunk. Part of the problem was the inherent quietness of diesel boats that made them very hard to detect on sonar. In addition, the Japanese crews were very disciplined - I got the impression that, if told to go to their bunks and stay there without moving, the crew would have done so indefinitely, without complaint and without breaking discipline.” The Japanese tradition of strict naval discipline goes back a long way. In the 1920s, “Foreign observers noted that even when Japanese ships were in dock, sailors not on duty were kept constantly busy with calisthenics. ‘We never dared to question orders, to doubt authority, to do anything but carry out all the demands of our superiors,’ recalled one former seaman.”

The Chileans deserve to be on the list too, as their diesel submarines have successfully attacked US Navy ships during exercises. In 2001, the unusually candid skipper of the nuclear submarine USS Montpelier (Commander Ron LaSilva, US Navy) recounted that a Chilean diesel submarine "Shot him twice during successive exercise runs.” As a result, LaSilva learned that “bigger and nuclear is not always better.” Commander LaSilva should be commended for his courage, for as we shall see later on, this kind of honesty is usually not the best policy for US Navy officers.

Interestingly, that same year, a Pakistani submarine also tried to approach an American carrier operating in the Arabian Sea. So many other minor naval powers have done it, as we have seen here, so why shouldn’t the Pakistanis take a crack at it? Fortunately, though, this time one of the carrier escorts, a Canadian frigate, detected the sub and escorted it from the area. This is a good thing of course, but it still raises a question for many American civilians; namely, what exactly was a Canadian ship doing in a US Navy Carrier Battle Group (CBG)? Surely, the world’s largest navy can fight its own battles, yes? Well, for years, Canadian ships have been integrated with US Navy CBGs, but the rationale for this arrangement is not purely political, as some might automatically suppose, nor is it tokenism. It has much more to do with the pronounced shortage of US surface combatant ships in the post-Cold War era (thanks, in no small way, to the US Navy’s dogmatic obsession with big-ticket supercarriers and huge nuclear submarines).  This would tend to explain why, contrary to popular opinion stateside, the US Navy, at least numerically, did not play the truly dominant naval role in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. Morin and Gimblett stated “These other (non-USN) naval forces have often been overlooked or dismissed as lesser participants because, when taken individually and then compared with the American naval deployment to the region, they looked insignificant. Even the British and French task groups were small. Taken collectively, however, the other forces totaled nearly fifty ships, approximating the American effort…” Indeed, “out of the total vessels dedicated to sanction enforcement, the Americans accounted for only one-third (15 out of 45), and even then the cruisers and destroyers were charged primarily with providing defence against air attack, effectively reducing their availability for other tasking.” They concluded “The relative balance of forces at sea between the USN and their allies meant that the Americans did not enjoy the same dominant position on the seas as they did on land…” Additionally, as we will see later, the fact is that Canadian ships are more capable in certain areas than are US ships.

Retuning to our friends from Chile, in 1998, U.S. News and World Report noted “In two recent exercises with Latin American navies, a Chilean sub managed to evade its U.S. counterparts and ‘sink’ a U.S. ship.” To be more specific, during RIMPAC 1996, the Chilean submarine Simpson was responsible for sinking the carrier USS Independence (this event was chronicled in the 1997 Discovery Channel TV documentary “Fleet Command.”) In a 1998 article, Robert Holzer, the Outreach Director at the Office of Force Transformation, provided more detail: “a Chilean diesel sub penetrated the perimeter of a U.S. Navy battle group and moved among its ships for several days. U.S. forces knew the sub, participating in an exercise with the Navy, would operate in an attack mode. Yet the Pacific Fleet could not find it. The Chilean sub demonstrated that it could have targeted and fired on U.S. Navy ships at any time. In exercises over several years, the U.S. Navy’s most advanced antisubmarine warfare (ASW) ships have been unable to detect the South African Navy’s Daphne (-class diesel-electric) subs, which were built 30 years ago.” To wit, in a 1995 articled cited by Benedict, “Two U.S. Navy ships reportedly exercising against a South African Daphne-class submarine were unable to detect it even at short ranges; a U.S. observer on the submarine commented to its crewmembers, ‘There is a $1B warship above you that doesn’t have a clue where you are.’”

In short, the US Navy would have its hands full if it had to fight diesel submarines. U.S. News and World Report also quoted Rear Admiral W. J. Holland, US Navy (Retired) who maintained if the US Navy had to deal with a hostile diesel submarine today, “It would take a month to handle that problem, including two weeks of learning.” Strangely though, Admiral Holland remains completely opposed to any plan that would involve the US Navy acquiring its own diesel submarines! In any event, the moral of this naval story is that the American sea service really needs “a healthy dose of humility and caution in future operations.”

Not surprisingly, NATO and allied diesel submariners (and probably some others who are not so friendly) are extremely confident in their ability to sink American carriers. In his 1984 book The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine, Andrew Cockburn wryly noted that European submariners on NATO exercises were far more concerned about colliding with noisy American nuclear submarines (running fast, and therefore, blind) than about being attacked by American ships. Despite the vast amount of propaganda put out by the US Navy, well-run diesel submarines running on batteries are quite capable of outfoxing nuclear submarines. As former Royal Navy submarine officer Ashley Bennington said in his 1999 response to an article on the Virginia-class submarines: “…You mention that the new Virginia class of nuclear submarines will easily detect diesel submarines, implying that diesels are noisy. As a general rule, however, diesel submarines, which use an electric motor that runs on batteries, are quieter than nuclear-powered subs, which constantly run coolant pumps.” One US nuclear submariner of my acquaintance had a slightly different take on this: “More specifically, nuke boats have the 60-cycle hum from an AC electrical system, the steam noise, main coolant pumps, and the turbines and reduction gears. Even when sound-mounted, these make noise a diesel boat lacks…” However, he disagreed with Bennington’s statement that coolant pumps must be kept running at all times. “The Ohio-class boats can run in natural circulation at low power; the LA class can do so only for emergency cooling only.” Former nuclear submarine officer Michael DiMercurio noted that both the Seawolf class and Ohio class boats can run in natural circulation, “below 35 percent power,” which certainly reduces tonal output and thus, makes the submarines more difficult to detect.

This applies only to low speeds, and when a nuclear submarine runs at higher speeds, as many probably would in order to stop a Chinese surprise invasion of Taiwan, for example, those noisy coolant pumps would need to run, and therein lies the problem. DiMercurio said that when a nuclear submarine runs at high speed, those coolant pumps are as “loud as freight trains,” which not only makes them much easier to detect and attack, it also makes it much more difficult for the speedy nuclear boat herself to hear possible adversaries, such as diesel submarines waiting to ambush. Compton-Hall once remarked that a nuclear submarine running at high speed is “deaf, dumb and blind,” and thus quite vulnerable. The nuclear submarine’s high speed advantage is indeed a double-edged sword, for it can cut both ways if not used with great discretion.

Bennington’s sentiments were echoed in late 2004 by Captain Viktor Tokya of the German Navy. Toyka said that conventional submarines, especially those with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), are more difficult to detect than nuclear boats. Captain Li Chao-peng of the Taiwanese Navy also concurred that diesel submarines are more cost-effective and are still quieter than any nuclear submarines. His navy has Dutch Zwaardvis-class diesel submarines and in 2002 he told the Taipei Times: “The only advantage that a nuclear submarine has over a conventionally-powered one is its endurance under the sea… But a diesel-powered sub like ours is much quieter than a nuclear one." He added that the Taiwanese diesel subs can definitely “compete” with nuclear boats. To be fair, though, Captain John L. Byron, US Navy (Retired), who served in both diesel and nuclear submarines, states that right now, the main advantage a diesel boat has is her captain and crew, rather than the boat herself. As he told me in 2005, “In 1960, then-Commander, now retired VADM Yogi Kaufman (my CO in USS Cavalla SSK 244, where I was a Sonarman Second Class) described submarine-vs-submarine operations as well as has ever been done: “Two blind men in a darkened room, each with baseball bats.” Having an acoustic advantage is useful, but it’s not a brick-bat certainty that the quieter boat wins. And when both are so quiet that detection range may be within 1000 yards, matters like problem geometry, speed, tactics, luck, and the minimum arming distance of weapons play in a large way. I’ve routinely seen diesels take out nukes, but it has more to do with a lack of skill mixed with hubris on the part of the SSN skipper and smart diesel guys than anything inherent in the platforms (it’s the wetware)…Diesel vs nuke still favors the nuke, if well operated by a smart & wily skipper. But the diesel guys tend to be smarter and wilier, so it’s a pretty fair fight than can go either way.”

Why are diesel submarine commanders generally smarter and wilier than those driving nuclear boats? Part of the answer is based on the relative ease of operation. Diesel submarines, as Scott Shuger told us, “require fewer men, and their crews don’t have to undergo as much time-consuming and expensive physics and engineering training. And if a submarine is simpler to operate, crew members can concentrate more on tactics. It’s long been suspected that the Navy’s all-nuke sub force is very strong on running submarines but not as strong at it should be on fighting them.”

Although, as we have seen here, naval officers often disagree on which type of submarine tends to be quieter, the smart ones agree that, for one reason or another, the modern diesel submarine is a worthy and dangerous foe for a nuclear submarine. As Aristophanes prophetically cautioned, “The truth is forced upon us very quickly, by a foe.” In this instance the foe is the conventional submarine and the truth could be rather awful for the US Navy, if it is ever revealed. Karam also opined that “Now, and when I was in the Navy, I firmly felt that we would prevail in any war, from sheer numbers if nothing else. But I also felt (and continue to feel) that any war would cost us more dearly in people and ships than need be the case. Finally, my assessment of our state of readiness when I was in the Navy and Reserves was similar to the situation that faced us prior to WWI and WWII - on paper, we looked great, but I was not sure that our administrative readiness was mirrored by our actual war-fighting readiness.”

Today, the US Navy has no diesel submarine combatants, and this means that although the diesel submarine is a very dangerous threat, the Americans must rely on smaller allies and friendly nations like Sweden, Canada, Chile, Peru, Columbia, Australia, and others to provide this vital training. This, it can be argued, is a very serious handicap for any blue water navy, much less the world’s largest. As Shuger deplored in 1989: “We currently depend on the diesel subs of our allies to perform the missions diesels do best. It's foolish to rely on the British, German, and Italian navies for our security. There are crucial scenarios in which having friends with diesels won't do us much good. The Soviets maintain missile sub patrols off both our coasts, and we can't expect Britain to help us patrol them.” Although there are fewer Russian subs stalking the US coast now than there were in 1989, they, the Germans and the Japanese made a nasty habit of doing so at various times, and future adversaries may well do the same.

Likewise, the anaclitic (for a superpower) US Navy has traditionally been very weak in mine countermeasures, and has often had to ask allies for those capabilities as well (because the US Navy considers it unglamorous). Remember the words of Rear Admiral Allan Smith, US Navy, who admonished his navy’s inexcusable inability to deal with primitive North Korean mines in the 1950s? When a major amphibious invasion had to be postponed because those crafty North Koreans laid mines in their path, the cocksure US Navy, which had pretty much abolished its substantial mine warfare forces, was profoundly embarrassed. Admiral Smith said “We have lost control of the seas to a nation without a Navy, using pre-World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ.” As the years went by, the embarrassment faded away, and the Navy’s mine countermeasures (MCM) assets dwindled and atrophied, and many of them were eventually stowed away in the low profile Naval Reserve. But in 1989, with insufficient mine countermeasures available, the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine in the Persian Gulf, and was taken out of action for 17 months. In 1991, the USS Tripoli suffered a similar fate, and she was only carrying the only MCM helicopter (an MH-53E) available in her area of operations. Just a few hours later, “The USS PRINCETON (CG-59) hit two mines. Luck was with the crew - only three of the 364 members aboard were injured. But the damage was substantial. The ship's superstructure was torn in two pieces at the midships quarterdeck. The gun and missile-launching systems were knocked out. The rudder, propeller, and main shaft on the port side were damaged, and her port engine had to be shut down. She was out of the war for good.”

When the Princeton was disabled, Rear Admiral Dan March, US Navy, sent a request for a ship to escort the Princeton back to port. The admiral specified that the escort ship must have a helicopter and “a good anti-mine capability” and, interestingly, he also said “I’d prefer it to have a Canadian flag flying from the stern.” The Canadian destroyer HMCS Athabaskan and her Sea King helicopters quickly obliged and were thus dispatched to husband the American ship back to port. Now then, why, exactly, did the American admiral specifically want a Canadian ship to do the job? According to Commodore Duncan Miller, Canadian Forces, the Americans knew that the Canadian ships “were the best prepared of any of the warships in the Gulf to counter the mine threat.” The Canadian ships had another advantage over their American friends in that the Canadian Sea Kings, although not dedicated as MCM platforms, were the only helicopters in the Gulf with Forward-Looking-Infra Red sensors for night missions, and that truly specialized in low level flying. Luckily, they were good enough for the job at hand, and were the best available. Canada has since developed a “world-leading” remote mine-hunting system, which drew praise in 2005 from Rear Admiral D. A. Loewer, US Navy, who is Commander, Mine Warfare Command. Some speculate that the US Navy will purchase the Canadian technology to improve its own MCM forces.

All told, said Commander Frank G. Coyle, US Navy, since the end of World War II, “14 U.S. Navy ships have been sunk or damaged by mines – more than triple the number damaged by air and missile attack.” Did the Navy learn from these unpleasant remedial lessons in mine warfare? As of 2004, “Our current mine warfare force consists of 14 Avenger (MCM-1) class minesweepers, 12 Osprey (MHC-51)-class coastal mine hunters, and two Squadrons of MH-53E helicopters.” All of these platforms are quite good, actually, but one wonders if there are enough of them to meet the needs of the world’s largest and most globally involved navy. That is not a very big force considering that America has a very long coastline, and that the US Navy is supposed to be the guardian of the oceans and primed for combat in the littorals. And it is unacceptable to make excuses or rationalizations such as “Well, our allies are supposed to do that,” which, for a superpower, is really just passing the buck. As one of my colleagues said recently, “A properly balanced blue-water Navy should have sufficient MCM capabilities instead of relying on its allies or coalition partners to provide them.”

In contrast, the much smaller Royal Navy has a much smaller coastline to protect, but it has three MCM squadrons, with a total of 21 mine hunters and mine sweepers. Unlike the Americans, all British MCM units are in the regular navy, not the reserve. The Americans also have destroyers and other helicopters that offer organic mine detection and/or sweeping capabilities, but they are not dedicated MCM platforms, and therefore are probably not especially well trained in that specialty. The same goes for the new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). The Navy recently signed contracts to build the first Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), and these ships can be customized with one of three mission packages, one of which will be MCM. These ships will be fast enough to keep up with carrier battle groups, which is commendable, but they will not be permanently dedicated to MCM (at times, they might be configured for ASW or ASUW). So, in a nutshell, yes, the US Navy is getting new MCM ships, but apparently only on a contingency basis, so all in likelihood, they too will be far less than ideal. One of my colleagues recently said that the MCM situation is in fact much worse now than it was 10 or 15 years as regards to the Navy's doctrine and training for neutralizing the growing mine threat in the littorals. Many believe that the US Navy's recent decision to embrace organic MCM is the wrong move as it will do nothing to rectify its deficiencies in countering the mine threat, and it would also create a dangerous illusion that perhaps there is no need for dedicated MCM forces. The most recent BRAC (Base Realignment And Closure) report suggests moving surface MCM forces to San Diego and MCM helicopters to Norfolk, VA (both are based in Texas). This is another bad decision. The fact is that MCM ships and helicopters should never have been based in Texas; the US Navy really needs adequate MCM capabilities on both coasts.

ASW: A Low Priority?

“Our ASW capabilities can best be described as poor or weak…” – Vice Admiral John Grossenbacher, US Navy, 2002

"ASW officers and enlisted men are more often treated like the Rodney Dangerfields of the air wing. They get no respect…” – George C. Wilson, onboard the USS John F. Kennedy

In the last section, I presented a list of US Navy ships and submarines that had been “sunk” in free-play exercises by diesel submarines. As any expert will tell you, however, there are a great many variables in ASW, and to be fair, it is quite possible that, because of adverse acoustical conditions, no navy in the world could have found some of those diesel boats. And while US submarines may sometimes use Noise Augmenters (NAUs) to simulate Soviet/Russian submarines, which until recently tended to be much noisier, there is no published evidence that this was the case in any of the exercises cited. Further, the use of NAUs is not especially common in multinational exercises (they are most commonly used in US national exercises for training surface ships and P-3 crews). Several Canadian ASW senior officers I consulted (with almost 70 years of combined service) indicated that they had never conducted an exercise with a US nuclear submarine using NAUs or operating under a handicap. One of them said that, for US Navy nuclear submarines, “Their job was to stay quiet to avoid us most of the time, even during exercises. Sounding like a Soviet would certainly have attracted our attention!”

In the few instances in which his nuclear submarine was asked to simulate a Soviet sub during multinational exercises, Karam said that the ship “simply operated as normal (i.e. without rigging for ultra quiet).” Also note well that diesel submarines often use NAUs in exercises as well – to make it easier for US ships, aircraft, and submarines to find them (more on that momentarily). Furthermore, most of the diesel versus nuclear submarine scenarios described occurred in the last five years, by which time Russian submarines had made great strides in quieting. As Cote articulated, by the mid 1980s, the Soviets had “a nuclear submarine that could elude SOSUS and frustrate efforts by tactical ASW platforms using passive sonar to establish and maintain contact with it.” The submarine in question, the Victor III, was an unpleasant surprise to the US Navy when it was first encountered. The boat was described by former CNO Admiral James Watkins “as quieter than we thought --- We learned that they were hard to detect.” Subsequent Russian designs were even better. Polmar said in 1997 that when the Improved Akula-class submarine first appeared in 1990, “Admiral J.M. Boorda, the Chief of Naval Operations, told the House: ‘This is the first time since we put the NAUTILUS to sea that (The Russians) have had submarines at sea quieter than ours. As you know, quieting is everything in submarine warfare.’”

Was this perhaps just a case of “threat inflation,” dreamed up by the admirals to extract more money from the taxpayer? I am not inclined to think so, for in 2003, DiMercurio, who usually tends to favor US submarine designs over the Soviets, admitted that the Russian Akula class submarine is “very capable,” and earlier in his career, he was candid enough to say that, at least in some ways, “The Russians were amazing and talented designers, and their submarines were the best in the world.” Polmar went on to say that the Navy’s claims that its new Seawolf-class submarine “is the quietest submarine in the world” were based on highly questionable or sparse intelligence. The Seawolf-class was cancelled after only three boats were delivered, but perhaps that is just as well as there were reports that these boats were not properly tested. In 2002, Diehl recalled that “The Navy has refused to perform shock tests on all the components of its newest type attack sub, the three-billion-dollar Seawolf. These supposedly required tests were designed to insure that all components would survive the stresses of most underwater explosions. The Navy apparently had diverted some of its testing funds to other uses. Such decisions continue to place those who volunteer to go in harm’s way at exceptional risk.”

Keeping all this in mind, and unless or until verifiable evidence proves otherwise, the tired, jejune supposition that the US ship that got sunk “must have been simulating a really bad old Soviet sub by running with a noise augmenter or some other handicap” should be considered knee-jerk rhetoric or wishful thinking, especially in recent years, and as such, an intellectual cul-de-sac.

Also, as we will see in this section and others, there is evidence to suggest that the US Navy’s ASW forces are definitely not as good as they should be, nor are they as good as those of certain allies. This traditionally insouciant attitude toward ASW can certainly make US Navy forces more vulnerable than those of other countries, and consequently, less combat effective. The Navy’s standard argument on its long-term neglect of ASW is, in so many words, that “We rely on our allies to help us with that,” and/or “The Soviets are gone now” which is ludicrous, considering that the US Navy has been the world’s largest navy for a long time now, that “The US military budget is almost as much as the rest of the world's”, that it did not rely on British or Canadian ASW assets in its deadly battles with the Japanese in the Pacific, and the Soviet Union was certainly not the only potentially hostile country with submarines, but I digress.

Since the end of the Cold War, and the demise of the Soviet submarine fleet, the US Navy has admitted that it has not made ASW a high priority, especially in shallow water, and it shows. Perhaps the most obvious recent evidence is the demise of the Navy’s carrier-based fixed wing ASW aircraft, the S-3B Viking. In 1999, the Navy discontinued the S-3B’s ASW mission, and now the aircraft are being retired, without a dedicated carrier-based fixed wing ASW plane to replace them. Furthermore, between 1991 and 2004 the P-3 Orion force has been reduced by 50%, and will suffer another cut, a further 33% reduction in 2005, and as Goldstein and Murray pointed out, the remaining P-3s “no longer focus on ASW as their principal mission” in most areas. For example, in 1998, Vice Admiral Richard W. Mies, US Navy, excoriated the laggard ASW training typical of the Navy's P-3 Orion crews. "'Take the average P-3 air crew,''' he said. ‘How much time do they have on top of a friendly submarine or a potential adversary submarine just tracking them? You'll find that many of the crews have very, very little operational proficiency time. And that's true across all the elements of ASW.''' (Incredibly, Caldwell reported in 2000 that the missile-equipped Orion, a large, four-engine turbo-prop patrol aircraft, with an airframe based on a 1950s passenger plane, was actually being used to subrogate for much faster and agile jet fighter aircraft on Combat Air Patrols).

Finally, the SOSUS warning net has been “effectively mothballed,” thus depriving the Navy of a much needed early warning system. The US Navy’s inability to deal with quiet non-nuclear submarines was made quite evident in 2004, when Crawley wrote that “During sonar training with other navies’ diesel submarines, a noisemaker or pinger is often installed to increase the sub’s noise level so that U.S. warships and submarines can find the quieter vessels.” The Gotland-class boat is “a very good submarine,” added naval analyst A.D. Baker III, editor of The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World series, “Unless we enhance the (Gotland’s) acoustic signature, we won’t find it.”

Mind you, there is also a new initiative to improve and coordinate ASW tactics, units, training, and equipment, which includes the recent loan of a Swedish Gotland-class diesel submarine. Although the temporary loan from the Royal Swedish Navy is a step in the right direction, some fear the Navy’s recent reemphasis on ASW skills does not go far enough, and by that they refer to the Navy’s steadfast refusal to build and develop even a small number of its own non-nuclear submarine forces (Admirals Zumwalt and Woodward, US Navy and Royal Navy, respectively, have both recommended buying diesel boats, and even Navy Secretary Lehman once said “These submarines are extremely quiet when operated at low speeds and for this reason substantial helicopter, subsurface, and surface anti-submarine warfare defense is required…”), the aforementioned retirement of the S-3 Viking, and the CNO’s requirement that spending for the new ASW initiative must not “break the bank.” One should also take note that even during the Cold War, when there was a clear and present danger projected by a potential foe with hundreds of submarines, both nuclear and diesel-powered, the US Navy was still not the most proficient navy in this specialty, even in deep water. It remains true to this very day that other forces, such as the Canadian Navy and Air Force, were and are arguably more committed to and more skilled in ASW (in deep or shallow water) than the US Navy, despite having some old equipment like the Sea King helicopter.

A few cogent examples from history will further illustrate my point. In 1942, after several years of sitting on the sidelines of combat, America was finally at war with Germany and Japan. German U-boats prowled the Atlantic under the cloak of ocean, fog and darkness, attacking and sinking an incredible number of allied ships (by some accounts, they disposed of approximately 12,000,000 Gross Registered Tons of merchant shipping in the Battle of the Atlantic). The British and Canadians had considerable experience dealing with U-boats, but the US Navy initially did not want to take ASW advice from its more experienced allies. Gannon wrote that as a result of “inexperience and poor training,” US Navy ASW was thoroughly ineffective during the first half of 1942. Not only were the Americans poorly trained, their ethnocentrism prevented them from adopting proven tactics developed by the British and Canadians (Gannon described the American CNO, Admiral King, as “The Imperious Anglophobe Admiral,” which is all the more interesting since, as Padfield pointed out, King’s mother was born in England – so one might wonder what Dr. Freud would have said about this). Germany’s Admiral Doenitz had a low opinion of American ASW at the start of the war: “By mid-April, the U-boats had been attacking the American east coast for three months. It appeared that their successes would continue indefinitely, and Admiral Doenitz could not resist crowing about it. ‘Before the U-Boat attack on America was begun,’ he wrote, ‘it was suspected that American anti-submarine activity would be weak and inexperienced; this conjecture has been fully confirmed… The crews (on anti-submarine vessels) are careless, inexperienced and little persevering in a hunt. In several cases escort vessels –coast guard ships and destroyers – having established the presence of a boat, made off instead of attacking her… On the whole… the boats’ successes are so great, that their operation near the coats is further justified and will continue.’”

Eliot Cohen and John Gooch noted that “The Germans believed that organization and doctrine, not lack of materiel, were the roots of the American problem. The war diary contains such entries as ‘enemy air patrols heavy but not dangerous because of inexperience.’ ‘(The enemy is not) able to make allowances and adjustments according to prevailing submarine operations.’ ‘The American airmen see nothing, and the destroyers and patrol vessels proceed at too great a speed to intercept U-boats, and likewise having caught one they do not follow up with a tough enough depth charge attack.’" The Japanese also thought the US Navy was badly trained in ASW. In late December 1941, a Japanese submarine prowled off the coast of Northern California, and was eventually detected. However, according to her skipper, Captain Zenji Orita, “We heard a number of patrol boats, and our radiomen listened in on many plain-language uncoded message exchanges. This made it easy for us to dodge the hunters.” Orita later pronounced that “The American ASW technique at that time was very poor…”

The British essayed to coach the recondite and insular US Navy on ASW, but their efforts were rebuffed for months. “Americans must learn by their own mistakes,” said Rear-Admiral R.S. Edwards, US Navy, to a British Commander. “…and we have plenty of ships to spare.” This egregious statement betrayed a callous disregard for the safety and lives of both Americans and allied sailors and merchant seamen. At that point the Briton told the higher-ranking American officer: “We are deeply concerned about your reluctance to cooperate and we are not prepared to sacrifice our men and ships to your incompetence and obstinacy.” Things got even less pleasant when Admiral King had to deal with the British directly. In his 1981 memoirs, Rear Admiral Jeffry Brock, RCN (Retired) described a noisy altercation he witnessed between Admiral King and a British Admiral named Noble. King had stormed out of a meeting with Noble, and looked emotionally drained from the experience. The normally calm and affable Admiral Noble then emerged from the room, also looking exhausted, and said to Brock, “I’m sorry you had to witness such a disagreeable scene. What stupid, ignorant uncouth bastards some of these people are. God preserve us from this sort of leadership if the Americans are going to be of any assistance in winning this war.” “Anglophobia did, no doubt, animate King in some measure,” wrote Cohen and Gooch. “On a number of occasions he went out of his way to inform admirals of the Royal Navy that Britannia no longer ruled the waves and that the United States Navy was the largest and best in the world. He rejected British cooperation in the final drive on Japan (partly on logistical grounds) – a rejection later overruled, luckily for the American forces in the Pacific. It is even said that he wished to change the navy uniform in an effort to eradicate any resemblance to Royal Navy uniforms.” This, ironically, came from a man who, as we will see in just a moment, eventually had to accept help from the despised British and Canadians for convoy escort in US territorial waters.

As noted above, the US Navy’s reluctance to cooperate with or listen to the British was not merely an issue in the Atlantic. British and Australian soldiers and marines had similar obstacles when dealing with the US Navy in the Pacific also. Russell Parkin offered the following: “The reports of British officers seconded to Australia to assist with the establishment of amphibious training, such as Lieutenant-Colonel Walker of the Royal Marines, are filled with frustration at being unable to institute what they considered to be useful training, After one exercise involving the RAN’s Landing Ship Infantry (LSI) HMAS Manoora and the USN’s APA (large amphibious transport) USS Henry T. Allen, Walker wrote acerbically: ‘It was quite a good exercise but, all the same, there is a lot which they (the Americans) could learn from us (the British) – if only they would!... What worries us is the American unwillingness to learn anything from British methods or to let the Australians and British have any say in running preparations for amphibious ops. For instance: Manoora was made to lower her boats empty and to go through that fatuous American boat-circling drill before the boats left to go inshore; from the beach we could hear the roar of landing craft engines five miles out to sea for one hours before the 0200 hrs landing.’” During a shore bombardment mission, an Australian officer named Vickery stated that the US Navy personnel on the USS Lamson were “‘unwilling to depart from set and standard ideas on procedure’ and ‘did not seem to appreciate the Army’s problems.’”

Although Anglophobia was obviously widespread in the US Navy, Admiral King was the main culprit. And, reassuringly, the British were not alone in their reaction to the man; some senior US commanders also took quite a dim view of Admiral King. According to Hickam, “Even General Dwight D. Eisenhower would say of his fellow American officer: ‘He is an arbitrary stubborn type, with not too much brains and a tendency toward bullying his juniors. One thing that might help win this war is to shoot King.” US Secretary of War Henry Stimson did not think very highly of the US Navy’s senior leadership in general, either. Cohen and Gooch said that Stimson “sketched the most biting portrait of hidebound American admirals, adamant in their refusal to look at the experience of others or even common sense, men who ‘frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan, his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true Church.’”

Returning to the issue of ASW, and just as an aside, Dan van der Vat professed that unlike the Germans, the Japanese submarine force never made a concerted effort to eradicate American merchant shipping, and for that the United States should be eternally grateful. “The United States was also singularly fortunate in that the Axis seldom functioned as a military alliance in the Far East: Admiral King’s troubles, had be been faced with coordinated submarine campaigns in both oceans simultaneously, hardly bear thinking about.” Astonishingly, “German urgings and appeals for attacks on American merchant shipping with the outstanding Japanese torpedoes (originally developed for surface vessels) persistently fell on deaf ears” in Tokyo.

Like the Americans, the Canadians, too, had serious ASW deficiencies, especially in the early years. However, by 1942, the Canadians had become more efficient and aggressive at fighting the U-boats, and as a result, the German U-boat commanders soon discovered that it was much easier to hunt in American waters rather than off the coast of Canada. Sarty noted that for a time Royal Canadian Navy warships actually escorted convoys out of New York City and through U-boat infested American waters because the much larger US Navy was totally unprepared for such operations, and even the signate President Roosevelt once confided to Winston Churchill that “My Navy has been definitely slack in preparing for this submarine war off our coast…You learned the lesson two years ago. We still have to learn it.” Roosevelt also quipped that “The admirals are something to cope with – and I should know… To change anything in the Na-a-vy is like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right, and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.”

The tenacious German U-boat commanders took great liberties in the poorly protected waters off the US Atlantic seaboard, insulting the hapless US Navy at every possible opportunity. One such skipper, Kaleun Johann Mohr, was especially enthusiastic about hunting American ships in American home waters in March, 1942: “He had not only mauled the American merchant fleet, but a recent observation had convinced him that he would have no trouble finding more targets for his remaining torpedoes,” wrote Hickam. “The American freighters and tankers had begun sailing close to shore, practically steaming over the buoys that marked the dangerous shoals off the capes of North Carolina. Mohr believed there could only be one reason for this foolhardiness. The merchant masters must believe that the U-boats could not operate in such shallow water. If it had been the coast of the British Isles, Mohr knew this might be sound reasoning. The U-boats needed depth to maneuver and hide when the Royal Navy was around. But the American Navy? Mohr only needed 30 feet of water, perhaps less, because he and the rest of the U-boat commanders were willing to attack from the surface in American waters. This meant all they had to do was go to a buoy and wait.” (emphasis mine).

In the first six months of 1942, there was “an aggregate of 397 ships sunk in U.S. Navy-protected waters. And the totals do not include the many ships damaged. Overall, the numbers represent one of the greatest maritime disasters in history and the American nation’s worst-ever defeat at sea.” In return, the US Navy was only able to sink six U-boats! (During the same period, the British et al. were credited with 32 U-boat kills.) So dire was the situation that at one point General George C. Marshall, US Army, wrote to Admiral King to say “‘another month or so of this’ would so cripple their means of transport they would be unable to bring US forces to bear against the enemy.” Indeed, the Germans had a very good chance of disabling the entire US east coast, as Hickam told us, if only Hitler had permitted Doenitz to have the required numbers of U-boats, and the time to do it. If that had happened, Hickam speculated that the losses to the US “might have proven terminal.” During those deadly months of 1942, “The American Atlantic coast no longer belonged to the Americans. It quite literally had become the safe hunting ground for the U-boats of Nazi Germany,” said Hickam, with U-boats destroying US ships “just a few miles off Norfolk, practically within sight of the American fleet.” Admiral Doenitz told a reporter in 1942 “Our submarines are operating close inshore along the coast of the United States of America, so that bathers and sometimes entire coastal cities are witnesses to that drama of war, whose visual climaxes are constituted by the red glorioles of blazing tankers.” By the end of June, Captain Wilder D. Baker, US Navy, finally said something about his Navy’s poor showing in the Atlantic – “‘The Battle of the Atlantic is being lost.’”

After much destruction, the seemingly intransigent Americans began to listen to the British and Canadians, but only because of direct orders from the President himself, who told Admiral King to establish a convoy escort system, as the British had long suggested. At the beginning, though, British ships were far better equipped and trained for ASW and convoy escort than were the US Navy’s ships. In 1939, said the Late Harvard Professor Samuel Morison, only about 60 US destroyers were equipped with sonar, whereas the RN had 165 such destroyers, plus 54 other ships. Hard to believe this could happen in a Navy that was destined to be “second to none” by President Wilson back in 1916. Morison also noted that in 1942 “The British were still far ahead of us in the use of asdic (as they called sonar); their sound operators on escort vessels were giving their officers more and better information than was supplied by ours. An American observer at the British Anti-Submarine School at Dunoon reported in June 1942 that lack of a specific, standard operating procedure for search and attack, such as the Royal Navy had had for some time, was the outstanding cause of our weakness in anti-submarine warfare.”

Interestingly, Morison, (an American) referred to “asdic” as the British term for “sonar”, when in fact it was the British who invented ASDIC (Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee), in 1917, then gave it to the Americans years later, who in turn gave it their own name, sonar. Brock, a Canadian who had served both in the RN and the RCN, noted that because of this change of names, and the fact that American-made sets were proudly labeled “Made in USA” many Americans came to believe, incorrectly, that it was an American invention, rather than a British one – whilst, I am constrained to point out, the earliest ASW sonar set was actually developed in 1915 -- by the French. “Our asdic gear, called today sonar, and used for locating submerged submarines, had been invented by the British Navy some twenty years before, and was still considered a secret. In fact we did not hand this invention over to the United States Navy until after they joined us after Pearl Harbor,” said Brock. The Americans apparently already had similar systems, but they were obviously not as good, hence the transfer of technology from Britain. “The same thing happened with our radar, which we had originally invented and deployed, calling it RDF. It is highly probable that the modern USN officer believes that these modern essentials of maritime warfare were invented in his own country.”  

It took time, but eventually the Americans were able to hold their own with the British in ASW prowess. US Navy ASW skills improved dramatically (but temporarily) and it is frequently understated in the US that most of the ASW operations in the Atlantic were, in fact, conducted by the British and Canadians. For its part, the US Navy is credited with destroying 127 U-boats at sea from 1941 to 1945, and that is a very high number indeed. But it pales in comparison to the work done by the British and Canadians from 1939 to 1945. The combined British/Canadian total was 491 (Canada started the war with a navy of only 11 ships, 5 of which were minesweepers, and just 1,800 men in the regular Navy, but by the end, the RCN accounted for the destruction or capture of nearly 50 German submarines, whereas the US Navy began the war with over 337,000 personnel and hundreds of ships), and thus it is an overstatement of the highest order for America or the US Navy to take sole credit for winning the Battle of the Atlantic, or for defeating Germany. I say this only because many Americans have been taught that it was so. Admiral Sir Max Horne, RN, who served as Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches during World War II, was said to have been “cynical about American methods and a little resentful about the way in which the American press and other news media continued to ascribe the credit for our successes to the efforts of American forces alone.”

And much of what the American public was told were outright fabrications, said Regan. “If the propaganda campaign next launched by the US Navy had been perpetrated by Josef Goebbels in Germany or Josef Stalin in Russia, Americans would have nodded sagely and reflected on the virtues of democracy and a free press. Instead the campaign was all-American and was used to conceal the failures of the same navy department and of its leader, Admiral Ernest King. Basically, the Navy department began issuing lies. They claimed twenty-eight U-boats had been sunk off the east coast whereas the correct figure was nil.” Regan summarized that “…the Navy PR officers were not so easily defeated as their anti-submarine operation,” in what amounted to a vast spin campaign to protect negligent senior admirals from public disgrace, and possible dismissal.

As Sadkovich said, at the end of World War II, with both Germany and Japan defeated, the US Navy emerged as "the most successful navy ever--although its success clearly owed something to the British and Canadians." Even Morison applauded the Royal Canadian Navy’s contribution in the Battle of the Atlantic: "Too much praise cannot be given to that gallant, efficient force of our nearest neighbor." The Imperial War Museum in London went even further, saying in one of their publications that “Without the Royal Canadian Navy, the Battle of the Atlantic could not have been won.” The American historian Ronald Spector also concluded that although few Canadian ships participated in the key North Atlantic battles of April-May 1943, “had it not been for the brave and tenacious efforts of Canada’s largely amateur sailors, who at times were providing nearly 40 percent of all North Atlantic escorts, there would have been no time or opportunity to assemble the decisive components of the Allied victory of 1943.” The little guys here clearly made a big difference (As I do my best to be intellectually honest, however, one should also read Marc Milner’s more critical account of the RCN’s performance).

As we all know, the US supplied ships to Britain and Canada during the war, and much ado has been made of this in the US, and there have been many statements that US ships were better equipped than those of other countries, which was true in some cases, but Brock also noted that even some of the newly constructed American-made ships were, in point of fact, rather poorly designed. His ship, HMS Bazely, was built in the US for the Royal Navy, and during construction he noted that “The United States Navy yards abounded with technical experts of every description who had never been to sea. They did not understand my reluctance to embark upon a long ocean voyage without a magnetic compass of some sort.” The US Navy insisted that only a gyrocompass was needed, but Brock’s small Captain-class frigate had been equipped with a gyroscope intended for a battleship or an aircraft carrier. “It simply couldn’t take the punishment required of any gyrocompass in a small vessel encountering heavy seas.”

He also complained about the American-designed ship’s ridiculously unwieldy communications equipment. The Bazely had 102 telephones and an automatic switch board, whereas a similar British ship would have been able to manage with just six. “These elaborate internal communication arrangements filled me with dismay because I had no idea how we were going to keep such a plethora of flimsy instruments fully operational under seagoing conditions,” he reported. “I asked one of the navy yard electrical engineers what we would do, for instance, with our bridge telephones in a heavy sea when our open bridge was being washed down with salt water. His reply was simple, and I guess, logical: ‘If the bastard busts, throw it overboard and plug in a new one. There’ll be plenty in your central stores. We mass produce them, you know, and they only cost twenty-three cents apiece.’ Such startling revelations as these in all departments of the ship gave us an entirely fresh outlook on how Americans get things done.” Brock’s disdain for US Navy communications equipment continued even after the war, when he did his best to sideline Canadian attempts to adapt US Navy systems. As he said “As far as I was concerned, we already had a better communications system than anyone else in the world except, possibly, the Royal Navy.”

It is also ironic to note that the US Navy also apprompted or bought warships from Canada and the UK (including an aircraft carrier, HMS Victorious). This last comment is a minor, perhaps trivial point of course, but it, along with the U-boat hunting statistics mentioned above and the reality that Canadian and British ships had to escort allied shipping through American waters, surprises many who espouse the traditional “If it weren’t for us, you’d all be speaking German” polemics so often recited in certain lay circles. Actually, when the British deployed some two dozen ASW trawlers to the US east coast in 1942, the British viewed it as a “rescue mission.”

That was World War II, but some things never change, or they change only temporarily. In fact, “By 1958, the CNO, Admiral Arleigh Burke, wanted ‘to know why the Navy’s ASW effort, despite all the high tech, was so weak and ineffective.’” In 1959, during the US Navy’s first test of a carrier task force’s ability to deal with nuclear submarines, the submarine USS Skipjack was chosen to play the enemy. According to Lieutenant Commander Stuart Soward, RCN (Retired), the Skipjack was “unrestricted in movements” and she proved to be too much for the US Navy surface ships and aircraft during the exercise. However, a single experimental Tracker aircraft of the RCN, with its new Canadian-designed ASWTNS (Anti-Submarine Warfare Tactical Navigation System) was also involved, and it was the only aircraft that could detect and maintain contact with the Skipjack. Sadly, the Canadian tracker was not carrying any exercise weapons, and could not attack, however if it had, Soward said the submarine would have been finished. The US Navy apparently agreed, and was so impressed with the performance of the Canadian plane and its systems that it almost immediately placed orders for the ASWTNS system.

Most Americans do not know this, but the US Navy found itself, once again, dependent on the Royal Canadian Navy for essential ASW forces during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. When Kennedy decided to quarantine Cuba, the US Navy, still far superior to the Soviet Navy, at least on paper, had to seek a coadjutor because it did not have enough ASW escorts to do the job (a familiar story). An American admiral came to Canada to request assistance in dealing with Soviet submarines, and the Canadians obliged by deploying much of their Navy, RCAF ASW aircraft, and the two British submarines under their control, to sweep the North Atlantic for Soviet submarines. According to David Robinson, the US Navy established a 600 mile submarine barrier south of the Grand Banks, and “It was a huge undertaking, and with American naval forces stretched to the limit with the Cuban blockade, major Canadian participation was essential to its success.” Later, the Canadian ships were asked to move further south, and just as they did in the early days of 1942, they patrolled the waters approaching New York Harbor. As the historian Tony German articulated, “The RCN took over a very substantial segment of what would have been a U.S. responsibility and certainly allowed at least one (anti-submarine) task group to move down further south.” In gratitude, the US Chief of Naval Operations (Admiral George Anderson, US Navy) and his wife came to Canada to have a private dinner at the home of the Canadian Chief of Naval Staff, just to say “thank you” for the help. It’s great to have allies, and the RCN also depends greatly on the US Navy (obviously), but one must wonder why the world’s greatest navy was not able to fight its own battles in its home waters, no less, not once, but twice since the beginning of World War II. And as I mentioned before, even now, the US Navy relies on Canadian escort ships to supplement its Carrier Battle Groups because it does not have enough of its own. Is this what a superpower’s navy is supposed to do?

The embarrassment for the US Navy does not stop there. If we look back at the early 1980s, we would see that Canada’s cheeseparing, anti-military federal leadership had allowed the Canadian Navy to almost rust out, yet due to its intensive training and emphasis on ASW excellence, it was still better at hunting submarines than the US Navy. In 1983, a retired British naval officer and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Mike MccGwire, told a Halifax newspaper that “ship-for-ship,” the Canadian Navy’s elderly ASW destroyers were still “better equipped, maintained, and trained” and “infinitely better” at ASW than American surface ships. At the same time, the new Canadian CP-140 Aurora aircraft was arguably far superior to its elderly cousin, the American P-3 Orion, and the Oberon-class submarines were much better listening platforms than the US Navy nuclear submarines of the time. During his service on the elderly nuclear submarine USS Plunger during the late 1980s, Karam offered that We were almost never detected during games with our own Navy, and then only when we approached on an agreed-upon bearing at a given time and usually cavitating or going active on sonar. I took many photos of our surface ships at close range at a time when they were unaware of our presence… Plunger made successful attacks against US carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and a battleship during my time on-board.”

Lugubriously, not much has improved in the US Navy since, and US submarines, ships, and aircraft today are often not as well prepared for ASW as Canadian units. Today, Canada’s incoming Victoria-class diesel submarines (formerly the UK Upholder-class), Halifax-class frigates, AKA the Canadian Patrol Frigate (CPF), both of which are or will be equipped with the AN/SQR-501 CANTASS towed sonar array system, are world-class ASW assets. Deployed in the mid 1990s, CANTASS weds the existing US-designed SQR-19 towed array with a “breakthrough technology” Canadian processor (the AN/UYS-501), and at that time both American and Australian naval officers called it the best in the world, as was demonstrated in many naval exercises. Both of those countries subsequently bought variants of this processor from Canada. In addition, the modernized Tribal-class destroyers, which were “the first warships in the world to depend entirely on gas turbine propulsion,” and the updated CP-140 aircraft are or will be in many ways better equipped, better designed, more suitable, and better trained for ASW than their current American equivalents, although the US Navy’s P-3 Orions will soon be replaced, if all goes well.

If one compares contemporary US nuclear submarines to the small Canadian diesel submarine fleet today, again one finds reasons to believe that the Canadians have better undersea ASW platforms. For example, contrary to the misleading agitprop now in circulation, some diesel submarines have excellent weapons systems, comparable to those found in the much more expensive nuclear submarines. Compton-Hall has said that the Canadian Victoria-class submarine has “an exceptionally good weapon system, equivalent to an SSN with Ferranti-Gresham-Lion DCC fire control… the submarine is extremely quiet,” and David Miller, formerly of Jane’s Information group, postulated in 2002 that the Canadian submarines “are the most sophisticated and capable diesel-electric submarines ever built.” Said Commander Jonathan Powis, RN, who commanded one of the Victoria-class boats while they were in British service: “The greatest strength of the class is its small acoustic signature. Benefiting from 35 years’ money and effort expended in quieting nuclear-powered submarines, they are extraordinarily quiet. On main motor they were shown repeatedly to be all but undetectable by passive sonar. Even when snorkeling, they had a signature comparable to a modern SSN… They presented a difficult target to active sonar as well because they were small and fully acoustically tiled, and much of their superstructure was made from composites. Moreover, because of their size, adversaries could not easily exploit magnetic anomaly detection and other nonacoustic signatures.” A small quiet diesel submarine can be exceptionally good at detecting an enemy, while not being detected herself.

The same cannot be said of US Navy nuclear submarines, which are considerably larger and, depending on what submariner you choose to believe, perhaps somewhat noisier. During RIMPAC 2004, for example, a Canadian CP-140 detected and tracked the redoubtable nuclear submarine USS Charlotte using sonobuoys and her magnetic anomaly detector. The ostensibly mighty Charlotte was depicted simply as “a huge metal object disrupting the earth’s magnetic field.” The initial stage of the hunt was scripted (the Canadians knew that the Charlotte was at or near the surface in a specific area), but after submerging the Charlotte did her best to evade the plane, and even tried to leave the designated exercise area. Nonetheless, the Canadian plane was able to maintain contact and track the submarine. As one pleased Canadian officer reflected, “This was good training… we had him early and we held him at an extended distance.” The Charlotte tried to shake the patrol plane, but she did not succeed. As the submariners say, “Aircraft, mark on top!”

Fortunately, these ASW failures and wantages are finally and slowly becoming public knowledge in the United States, for as the Congressional Budget Office revealed in 2001: “Some analysts argue that the Navy is not very good at locating diesel-electric submarines, especially in noisy, shallower waters near coastal areas. Exercises with allied navies that use diesel-electric submarines confirm that problem. U.S. antisubmarine units reportedly have had trouble detecting and countering diesel-electric submarines of South American countries. Israeli diesel-electric submarines, which until recently were relatively old, are said to always ‘sink’ some of the large and powerful warships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in exercises. And most recently, an Australian Collins class submarine penetrated a U.S. carrier battle group and was in a position to sink an aircraft carrier during exercises off Hawaii in May 2000. Thus, if a real opponent had even one such submarine with a competent commanding officer and crew, it could dramatically limit the freedom of action of U.S. naval forces in future conflicts.” For more on the relative deficiencies of US Navy ASW, please see the section titled “Lack of Training, Overrated Technology…”

A Lucky Break at Midway & the Big Carrier Navy

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” - Vernon “Lefty” Gomez

Verily it is a fair comment to say that foreign navies openly and unashamedly flaunt when one of their submarines “sinks” an American carrier on exercises. They have no problem letting the news media know about their triumphs. With a few courageous and candid exceptions, such as the people quoted in this paper, American nuclear submariners generally do not publicly reveal their own accomplishments against US Navy aircraft carriers. If they do, they do it anonymously, usually after they leave the service, or they provide only the sketchiest of details. Why is this so? Former US Navy officer Jerry Burns gave a pretty straightforward answer in 2000 -- because “Anyone who says something is wrong gets thrown out of the Navy.” Also, as Professor Thomas Etzhold pointed out, the US Navy does not want anyone to know that its carriers have been sunk (or even seriously damaged) in exercises. Ergo, officers are strongly encouraged to keep quiet about such incidents. Obviously, these gag orders only apply to US Navy personnel, not to foreign crews. The author of the 1987 book War Games, Thomas B. Allen, described this naval censorship during an interview with the American NPR network in 2003. “The Navy had a kind of unwritten rule: You can't sink an aircraft carrier in a war game. And if you talked to any submariner who had been in either an exercise or a war game, you get a whole story about how many times they really sank aircraft carriers.”

In 2000, Gutmann observed that “People on active duty do not tell reporters the truth if the truth is something they know their COs will not want them to say. Many, many service people have ruined or lost their careers testing this rule.” The Navy’s Public Affair Officers (PAOs) closely monitor interactions between journalists and Navy personnel to ensure that no one complains or says anything that does not tow the company line. In Gutmann’s experience: …”The PAO’s very presence, his dogged insistence on gluing himself to the reporter’s side, puts a wall between the reporter and the world he is trying to understand. When one does manage to corner an Actual Sailor (with the PAO a couple of feet away, trying to appear as if he really is just suddenly concerned with the condition of his finger-nails or the patch of linoleum he’s found himself standing on), the sailor will stand rigidly at attention (while the PAO is watching the sailor out of the corner of his eye), and then proceed to spout a lot of boilerplate that the reporter might as well have copied off the official DOD-sponsored Navy Web page. Going ‘off script’ in today’s military is too often a career killer, and nobody’s ready to take the risk of saying what they really think unless they’ve signed their resignation papers.” Hard to believe, but to me this does not sound very much different (or better) than life in the old Soviet Navy, with its Political Officers and GRU agents aboard ship, watching and listening for any sign of free, unstructured thought. Thankfully, in the US Navy, this PAO surveillance only pops up when journalists are aboard ship.

In this world in which great effort is made to conceal the truth, it is not surprising that a carrier cannot be “sunk,” even if it really did happen, such as in 1964, when an enemy UDT team sank the old escort carrier USS Card while she was in shallow water in the Saigon River. According to Dunnigan and Nofi’s 1999 book Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War, she did sink, and everyone knows it, but at the time the Navy could not bring itself to officially admit that one of its carriers, even a small one that had been converted to simply haul helicopters and planes (not operate them), could possibly be sunk so easily. The headline “US Carrier Sunk in Vietnam” would not look good in the US newspapers, but the North Vietnamese felt otherwise, and issued a postage stamp that proclaimed “Aircraft carrier of America Sunk in Harbor of Saigon.” Although by no means a supercarrier, the sinking of the Card was especially hurtful since she won a Presidential Unit Citation in World War II, so instead of saying she had been sunk, the Navy said she had only been “damaged” and quickly “repaired,” rather than sunk and refloated. In other words, the gist of all this is that the truth is suppressed for “the good of the service.” We can therefore deduce that the good of the service is the paramount concern in the US Navy; not the good of the country, and not the good of the taxpayers who bankroll these expensive platforms.

The US Navy’s aircraft carriers have plenty of supporters and wagtails, of course, including many politicians who cash in politically on the jobs that naval contracts provide to their constituents. One of their most common defenses is to invoke a sophism and imply that since no big American carrier has been sunk since World War II, America’s big carriers cannot be sunk. This is tantamount to saying “My residence is in one of the most dangerous areas of Washington, DC, and in 60 years, it has never been burglarized. The only possible explanation is that it must be burglar-proof.” The real reason that no big American carrier has been sunk in the past 60 years could simply be that no one in the area had the motivation, necessity and opportunity to try. Every time I hear this specious reasoning, or some variation of it, I quote the Late Newton D. Baker, former Secretary of War in the 1920s. Baker scoffed at Billy Mitchell’s claim that the so-called “unsinkable” and “invulnerable” battleship could be destroyed by air-delivered bombs. When Mitchell suggested doing a bombing experiment with aircraft and a stationary German battleship, Baker said “That idea is so damned nonsensical and impossible that I’m willing to stand on the bridge of a battleship while that nitwit tries to hit it from the air.” Had he done so, Secretary Baker might well have been killed, because as we all know now, Mitchell was right, the battleship went down, and Japanese aircraft did even better by later sinking two British battleships that were fully manned, equipped, and underway, but once again, I digress.

John Lehman was quite right when he said that no big American carriers were sunk during the war, but it is a fallacy to assume that this is because of some special quality of the American aircraft carrier (which, by the way, were more vulnerable to kamikaze attacks than British carriers because the American ships did not have armored decks), for if the Japanese had succeeded at Midway or Guadalcanal, and the US Navy should thank its lucky stars that they did not, we might not even be discussing the US Navy supercarrier today. Nor is it necessarily true that US carrier task forces have been a successful deterrent either because, as the Malayans aptly say: “Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm.” Those carriers did not deter the North Koreans or the North Vietnamese, either, for that matter.

As former naval intelligence officer Scott Shuger reminded us, the world’s largest carrier in World War II, the 71,890 ton Imperial Japanese Navy Ship Shinano, was sunk in 1944 “by four torpedo hits from a single American submarine” (the USS Archerfish). According to the sophic Captain Joseph Enright, US Navy, the skipper of the Archerfish, the Shinano was heavily armored and well-protected from torpedoes: “The weight of the steel installed for defensive purposes totaled 17,700 tons – about one-quarter of Shinano’s displacement and equal to the tonnage of many light cruisers… As for the watertight integrity of the ship, there should have been little cause for concern. Since 1935 Japanese warships were tested first by filling the underwater compartments with water, then, after the equipment was installed, by conducting air tests. The compartments of Shinano, which had been tested hydrostatically, were structurally sound, and watertight doors had been installed.” And even though the Shinano was unable to run at full speed because some of her boilers were unserviceable, she could still make more than 20 knots; faster than any diesel submarine. Like the Americans do today, The Japanese considered their first and only “supercarrier” to be virtually unsinkable, and yet four torpedoes violently disproved that claim on November 29, 1944. (If four US torpedoes could do this, imagine what horrors the Japanese could have inflicted at Midway, with the best torpedoes in the world, if only they had employed their submarines as effectively as the Germans did.) This achievement lends credence to the statement of French novelist Honore de Balzac that “Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true.”

Yes, the Shinano was not fully tested and cleared for combat duty, but the US Navy has most definitely sent carriers to sea when they were less than fully ready for combat, too. In the 1970s, the carrier USS Saratoga almost sank, twice, simply because of poor maintenance. Williscroft attested that the USS Independence was far from shipshape during her deployment in early 1998 (the conditions aboard were described as “atrocious”, with “critical maintenance being neglected… decks were waxed, but the crew was incapable of handling a real emergency.”) Such large but poorly maintained ships would be relatively easy to destroy, as was the Shinano.

Four years later, the carriers USS John F Kennedy and USS Kitty Hawk failed a major readiness inspection and a light-off assessment (respectively), with the Kennedy’s propulsion system declared “unsafe for operation.” In late 2001, the Kennedy was a deeply troubled ship that had failed a scheduled INSURV inspection just a few months before deployment: “…three of the ship’s four aircraft elevators, used to bring aircraft from the hangar deck to the flight deck, were inoperable; two of the four catapults that launch aircraft were in bad shape, and the flight deck’s firefighting equipment was ‘seriously degraded.’” Even worse, one of the Kennedy’s men said that the dilapidated ship, which required extensive emergency repairs to make ready, was not the worst ship he’d seen in his 19 years of US naval service. After the repairs were made and the Kennedy deployed in 2002, some Navy wives were still not sure that their husbands would be safe on such a run-down ship. “‘Will the Kennedy come home after it leaves?” wrote Karen Moore, whose husband is attached to the ship. ‘I worry that this ship is destined for disaster.’” Such a disaster, arguably, is more likely if the US Navy continues to deploy poorly maintained, undertrained and undermanned aircraft carriers. The Japanese did this sixty years ago with the Shinano, and it could just as easily happen to ships like the Kennedy and the Independence today. Even worse, at least the Japanese did not have to contend with attacks by nuclear-tipped torpedoes or cruise missiles, a fate that could now befall the US Navy at any time.

While on the subject, US Navy battleships have also been deployed in poor materiel condition, and during the US Navy's halcyon days of ample spondulicks under Ronald Reagan, to boot. According to military historian Geoffrey Regan, the battleship USS Iowa, launched in 1942, then modernized and reactivated in 1984, was nevertheless in many ways still an ancient vessel that was "basically unreliable." By the late 1980s, as Regan put it: "the Iowa was not in good shape. The new captain found a loose hatch in one of the turrets that had been leaking hydraulic fluid for two years. The crew in the turret used twenty-five watt light bulbs for fear of blowing fuses if they used fifty watt bulbs. In the gun-loading areas, bags of explosive propellant were torn and were leaking black powder. Nor was the crew up to scratch, quantitatively or qualitatively. The ship was short of good petty officers, had an annual turnover of crew of forty percent, and in one turret was short of thirty-seven of the 118 men who usually served there." Not only was the ship short of men, many of the men she did have were “dopers, marginal personnel” said the Iowa’s skipper, Captain Fred Moosally, US Navy. The Iowa’s deficiencies were obvious to many of her officers, including Lieutenant Commander Dennis Flynn, US Navy, the director of the ship’s strike warfare center. Flynn predicted in 1988 that the Iowa would be “sunk” in free-play exercises, and he was proven right. As former naval officer William C. Thompson II (no relation) recorded, in the fall of 1988, “The Iowa engaged NATO forces and was ‘sunk’ by a Dutch frigate hiding lurking behind a civilian oil tanker.” A few months later, in the Caribbean, the Iowa was again “trounced by the British, Canadian, and West German forces.”

In April, 1989, as the story goes, the novice crewmen in the Iowa’s number 2 turret were put on the spot during an exercise because they had to fire the guns with little or no experience with the equipment or procedures, and to complicate matters even more, they had never worked together before. The resultant explosion killed 47 men. As journalist Peter Cary concluded, “If ever there was a ship seemed fated for catastrophe, it was the U.S.S. Iowa.” A poorly maintained ship, like the aircraft carriers aforementioned, was sent to sea too soon, and it was theoretically destroyed in two exercises, and then partially destroyed in real life. A very sad story, but a strong reminder for the US Navy that even their most impressive ships can be destroyed easily, especially if they are not well maintained and their crews not well trained. (And no study of this kind would be complete without referencing the USS Pueblo debacle of 1968, in which a poorly trained, badly maintained, poorly equipped and overmanned US spy ship was sent on a badly planned mission to North Korea, was quickly captured (without a fight) and the crew was incarcerated for almost a year. The US did not retaliate, and North Korea still retains the Pueblo as a war trophy to this day. Perhaps this incident can explain why the North Koreans appear to have absolutely no fear of the US Navy.)

The pro-carrier argument I mentioned above loses even more strength when we consider how easily the US Navy might have lost the Battle of Midway in 1942. In his brilliant work “Our Midway Disaster: Japan Springs a Trap, June 4, 1942 ” Professor Theodore F. Cook theorized that had the Japanese been just a little bit more diligent and skeptical about the phony radio reports about Midway’s water problems, there would have been a very high probability that they would have won the ensuing battle. “Given the deadly suddenness of carrier warfare,” he noted, “How easily might it have been the U.S. Navy mourning the loss of three carriers… in exchange for, perhaps, one or two Japanese flattops on June 4, 1942?” Furthermore, he recommended that his readers ponder a rather unpleasant theoretical possibility: “What would have happened if the Japanese had won at Midway? With only one carrier left in the Pacific, how could we have resisted their advance?” One should never forget that the American victory at Midway was far from certain, and has been often been called a “miracle.” Heavily outnumbered and, much more importantly, thoroughly outclassed by pilots with substantially more flight experience and presumably much higher morale, the Americans prevailed, but this was largely due to the gullibility of a few Japanese naval personnel.

The Japanese were trained to much higher standards than were the Americans, especially in night fighting, and were better equipped in many categories, especially, said Morison, in “pyrotechnics and optics. Their starshells and parachute flares were brighter and more dependable than ours; their binoculars were so much better, especially for night work, as to be eagerly sought after by American officer and bluejackets. Their naval officers were excellent navigators.” Also, “The Japanese Navy conducted its battle training in remote waters where it could not be observed, and where they would be hardened by exposure to the elements. That this rigorous and realistic training under combat conditions paid off, was all too evident in the first months of the war… In contrast, the United States Navy normally carried out peacetime maneuvers and exercises in southern waters or where fine weather prevailed. Extra precautions had to be taken to avoid casualties and consequent unwelcome publicity.” He also spoke of Japanese superiority in torpedo training, “Moreover, the Japanese Navy fired torpedoes freely in practice and at maneuvers, thus improving them constantly; while the United States Navy had to economize when testing warheads and exploders, and never found out what was the matter with its torpedoes until the war had been going on many months.”

Orita, interestingly and provocatively, articulated that Midway could have been salvaged if only the Japanese had properly deployed its submarines to locate and attack the American carriers: “Had our submarines been used properly and effectively, the history of the Pacific War might have been written quite differently.” And as Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, IJN, observed, the losses at Midway could have been quickly avenged and the vestigial components of the US Pacific fleet erased if only Admiral Yamamoto had the nerve to order his additional carriers to Midway to continue the fight, but instead he sent them to the Aleutians. For the Japanese, a battle that should have been a cake walk was lost because, by their own admission, it was they who made “all the errors in this action,” despite overwhelming tactical superiority in most areas. This might lead some to conclude that the US Navy did not so much “win” at Midway, as much as the Japanese simply botched what should have been a certain victory.

By the way, although most historians believe that Midway was the turning point in the war against Japan, not everyone agrees. Some believe that the Japanese had a second chance to neutralize the US Navy in the Pacific at Guadalcanal in September, 1942. Orita conjectured that had the Japanese done what the Americans had expected at Guadalcanal, and that was to confront the Americans with a vastly superior force, both morally and materially, the Americans would have lost the battle, the remaining US carrier in the Pacific would have been destroyed, and Japan would have been unfettered and unrestrained in the Pacific for a very long time. Losing the carrier Wasp in September, 1942, to the Imperial Japanese submarine I-19, the US Navy had only a single carrier left in the Pacific, which had luckily avoided the torpedo that took her escort, the battleship North Carolina, out of action. During that month, “One air strike and two submarine attacks had very nearly wrecked what part of the American fleet could be used against us. Now they had only one (carrier) left in the pacific that could fight, USS Hornet. And only one battleship, USS Washington… Against this single carrier in mid-September, our navy could range eight. While Hornet could put about 75 planes into the air against us, Zuikaku, Shokaku, Zuiho, Taiyo, Hiyo, Unyo and Shoho could launch more than 360, all told. Against Washington we could pit Mushashi and Yamato, mightiest battleships ever built, plus eight other battleships far superior to the obsolescent ones America was keeping well to the rear. Mid-September of 1942 was the period of golden opportunity for the Combined Fleet.” The Japanese were still much better trained than the Americans at that point, and it looked as though the failure to crush the US fleet at Midway would be rectified in the Solomons.

Happily for the Americans, it was not to be. Instead, cautious Japanese officers did not use all the means at their disposal, and consequently lost a great strategic victory. As Orita put it, “We still had such superiority in forces that it seems almost unbelievable now that the chance to race down to Guadalcanal with overpowering strength was not seized. A swift and overwhelming blow could have been struck at Guadalcanal at any time between Sept. 15 and Oct. 1. There would have been absolutely no way for the Americans to counter it... in September, 1942, we had America nearly beaten in the Pacific. President Franklin Roosevelt at that time was actually considering whether or not to move his marines off Guadalcanal before they were slaughtered…Mr. Roosevelt was lucky. He put off making an immediate decision at all. Our high command solved his problem by not doing what Mr. Roosevelt feared most we would do – bringing down upon Guadalcanal all the force Japan could exert.” Once again, a devastating strategic victory was denied to the Japanese, even though their forces were superior in most aspects except that they did not have radar, but even this was not a fatal deficiency because as Overy said, “against mass air attack even radar warning was of limited value.”

Lieutenant Colonel Forrest R. Lindsey, USMC (Retired) did not cover the possibilities of an American defeat at Guadalcanal, but he did agree that if the Americans had not been so lucky at Midway, the Japanese would have been “essentially unopposed from the Indian Ocean to the California coast.” The only thing standing in their way would have been the American submarine force, but in the early years of the war American submarines were severely handicapped by poor training, overly-cautious skippers (many of whom were relieved of their commands; in fact Padfield said that proportionately more American submarine COs were fired than those of any other major navy), and what Spector called the “worst torpedoes” in the world. Harris used the word “abysmal” to describe the performance of American submarines during the first two years of the war, and backed up this assertion statistically: “The U.S. submarine score for 1942 was 180 ships, 725,000 tons (about equal to a monthly U-Boat total). The Japanese replaced 635,000 tons in the same period.”

As history tells us, US Navy torpedoes and submarine tactics improved markedly in the final years of the war, and the American submarine force played a decisive role in the allied effort to beat Japan. Even so, Compton-Hall argued that over the course of the war, British submarines were, boat-for-boat, generally more combat effective than American boats, and German submarines seized at the end of the war were found to be technically superior to American boats in a number of ways. Orita also ventured that much of the success of American submarines in the waning years of the war was because the US Navy copied a torpedo developed by the Germans. It really is incredible that the American submarines did as well as they did in the final years of the war because, in addition to the aforementioned shortcomings, and quite unlike the other major navies, US Navy submarine skippers “had to file a contact report and get permission to fire before engaging a surface vessel. This often meant the prey escaped.” According to Granatstein, “Admiral Jeffry Brock recalled that the fleet signal book employed by the RCN had one code for going into action: ‘Enemy in Sight. Am Engaging.’ The comparable USN code translated as ‘Request Permission to Open Fire on the Enemy,’ something that Brock was convinced was part and parcel ‘of the determined resistance of American officers to make any move at all without the written and signed authorization of someone senior.’” 

Had the Americans lost at Midway, the possible consequences for the US Navy could have been rather substantial. Lindsey projected that the Japanese could have moved on to capture Hawaii, and then proceeded against the American mainland: “Japan’s enormous striking power could reach and severely damage the cities, factories, transportation, and fuel reserves on America’s west coast. Strong enough attacks would also convince America’s leaders that continued war against Japan was impossible… The major American aircraft companies were well within carrier-based aircraft range and some were even within range of (Japan’s) battleship’s guns from fire support areas along the Pacific coast.” If this had happened, and it certainly was a strong possibility, then the modern day “big carrier” US Navy might have evolved quite differently, to say the least. Orita suggested that the Japanese submarine force was actually quite successful in the Indian Ocean, with one of their submarines destroying 13 enemy ships, totaling 78,000 tons: “(Commander) Fukumura got 9 of these – an excellent example of what the Japanese 6th Fleet might have accomplished had the Battle of Midway been won by us and all our other submarines loosed for attack operations in the west. Australia and India would have been cut off by sea. Years might have passed before any kind of major offensive could have been mounted against Japan, if at all!” Imagine what it would have been like if only the Japanese had coordinated with the Germans (who easily could and should have continued their U-boat campaign in American waters for at least a full year), then won at Midway, as they easily should have. As suggested earlier, both coasts of the US would have been subject to intensive and relentless attacks simultaneously during the second half of 1942, with German U-boats destroying oil tankers in the Atlantic, and Japanese battleships and carriers off the coast of California, blasting San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, all the while facing little resistance from the decimated and emasculated US Navy. Imagine the carnage.

Some opine that America would have won the war in the Pacific easily anyway simply because it was able to “out produce” Japan, or as one apologist said recently: “From January 1942 to August 1945, the United States launched 37 fleet carriers, 83 escort carriers and 349 destroyers. The Japanese built three fleet carriers, six small-carrier conversions, and 63 destroyers. Even if those sneaky, treacherous (Japanese) could have destroyed 50 percent of the West Coast production facilities, the war effort would not have been slowed, much less crippled.”

Case closed? Well, not quite. Lieutenant Burdick Brittin, US Navy, was a code breaker, and just before the epic Battle of Midway was to transpire, he confided in his diary “We have history in the palm of our hands during the next week or so. If we are able to keep our presence unknown to the enemy and surprise them with a vicious attack on their carriers, the U.S. Navy should once again be supreme in the Pacific. But if the (Japanese) see us first and attack us with their overwhelming number of planes, knock us out of the picture, and then walk in to take Midway, Pearl will be almost neutralized and in dire danger – I can say no more – there is too much tension within me – the fate of our nation is in our hands.” Apparently, Brittin was not fully convinced that the superior industrial capacity of the United States would make any difference, since it would clearly take much time to recover, rebuild, train and deploy a new fleet to replace one that was obliterated.

As Shuger said in 1988, “even the briefest review of military history also reveals that for every battle decided by superiority of weapons, there are ten in which the outcome depended on differences in intelligence, planning, tactics, communications, logistics, or resolve.” Indeed, if simply building more (and technologically more advanced) ships, tanks, and airplanes than your enemy, in and of itself, were a guarantee of an easy or inevitable victory, then how could Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, repel the gargantuan Soviet armed forces in the 1980s? Why is the US still there fighting the remnants of the Taliban? How could North Vietnam endure the most ferocious air assault in history long enough to force the world’s richest country to withdraw from South Vietnam? (During the air war over Southeast Asia, the US dropped the conventional equivalent of 640 “Hiroshima-type” atomic bombs, yet it did not win. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell to the communists.) Sadly, for the Americans, we must discredit the commonly held suppositions of people like the Late Admiral Arleigh Burke, US Navy, who in 1964 asked, “Do we really believe that a nation that’s starving can field a more powerful force in South Vietnam than we- the most powerful nation in the world?” Physically, definitely not, but morally, yes, absolutely.

Moreover, how does Israel, badly outnumbered by its neighbors, manage to survive, let alone be the dominant military power in the Middle East? As Dixon put it: …”there is the Israeli Army, the David of two and a half million Jews who in six days defeated the Goliath of 100 million Arabs. By its competence and vastly superior direction this miniscule army, drawn from a country poor in resources and gravely disadvantaged by its geographical position, managed to defeat an enemy from countries possessing inexhaustible reserves of natural wealth (including one half of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves).”

How too were the Finns able to vanquish the Russians in 1939-1940? How on Earth could resource-poor Japan squarely defeat Russia in 1905, and then invade and occupy China in the 1930s? Going further back into history, how was it possible for Hannibal and the Carthaginians to route the much superior Roman Army at the Battle of Cannae, or for Napoleon to clobber much larger Austrian and Russian forces at the Battle of the Austerlitz in 1805? War production is only one factor among many in the combat equation, and it is frequently a rather misleading one at that. Biddle declared in 2004 that, contrary to popular opinion, “predominance,” as measured by military expenditures, war materiel, and the number of personnel are, as independent variables, very poor predictors of victory. “Real battle outcomes cannot be explained by materiel alone; in fact, materiel factors are only weakly related to historical patterns of victory and defeat,” he noted. Using sophisticated mathematical models, Biddle demonstrated that the outcomes of combat in the twentieth century clearly detract from the outdated notion that “bigger and more expensive are better” in battle. As he said, “All told, the data show no support for a simple assumption that preponderance predetermines capability.” War production is a salient factor, but one cannot ascribe it to be the sole and direct reason for victory any more than one claim that cows and pigs are the cause of obesity, or that automobile manufacturers are the sole cause of car accidents. Think Mogadishu or “Black Hawk Down” if one needs a more recent example. And in 1998, Greider pointed out that “A still-classified study by the Defense Science Board concludes that a regional adversary, by spending $10 billion a year on defense and such things as missiles, commercial space satellites, and hardened underground facilities, could insulate itself against a U.S. invasion. ‘They could really screw up our current forces’, Vickers concedes.” (Vickers was the Director of Strategic Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington). This is a key point -- one that needs to be kept in mind – that just because the US Navy has no direct challenger right now does not mean that it cannot be defeated by a smaller enemy that knows how to exploit the US Navy’s weaknesses.

When in doubt, always remember the immortal words of Mark Twain: "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." It could be argued that, even if Midway had ended in its favor, Japan would have been defeated anyway, but not for the reasons commonly supposed. Overy argued convincingly that Japan’s defeat had more to do with the loss of its warrior spirit due to its long and pernicious war with China, which began in 1931, and by the stratocracy on the home front rather than from any other single factor. In other words, the Japanese public, not so much the ordinary soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen themselves, many of whom were quite willing to sacrifice themselves to protect the Emperor, was simply tired of making war and was not truly stalwart when things began to sour for them after the loss at Midway. A few of their most senior military leaders too, such as the crepehanger Admiral Yamamoto, had, shall we say, “defeatist” tendencies from the very beginning, which probably did not help.

Reluctance, diffidence, aboulomania, lack of coordination with the Germans, and insecurity also robbed the Japanese of many additional opportunities for victory, and right from beginning, with the abbreviated attack on Pearl Harbor. The prevailing wisdom in western circles is that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a mistake, but this theory has its critics. Russett agnized that the attack on Pearl Harbor was rational, well-planned, and from a Japanese standpoint, quite necessary and irrecusable to counter American and allied attempts to cut off Japan from its overseas natural resources. The attack itself was well executed, but it did not go far enough, and the Japanese did not press on when they clearly had all the means to do so. Hoyt criticized the Japanese for putting too much emphasis on hitting the American battleships at the expense of easier and possibly, more strategically valuable targets. “So eager were the Japanese fliers to sink battleships,” he related, “… they ignored the tanker Neosho, which was loaded with high-octane aviation fuel, If they set her afire she might have burned down the whole harbor,” thus denying the Americans the use of one of their most important bases.

In addition, Hoyt maintained, “The more important error was the failure of the Japanese to cripple the Pearl Harbor submarine base, which they could have easily done with another attack…Also, four-and-a-half million barrels of oil had been stockpiled at Pearl Harbor, located in dumps above ground, made an easy target. The Japanese ignored them.” All of these opportunities were extinguished simply because Admiral Nagumo lost his nerve and halted the thoroughly one-sided Battle of Pearl Harbor much too soon, when his enemy was very much at a disadvantage. (According to van der Vat, Nagumo “was prone to bouts of anxiety which prevented him from sleeping; even the smallest decision caused him stress.”) An extra day of attacks would have been all that was necessary to put the whole base and its ships out of action, or even out of existence, which in turn would have made life much easier for the Japanese in the years ahead. Luckily for the Americans, “because of tactical failure, the strategic victory was lost.”

And finally, while there is no doubt that, as it happened, America's carrier task forces and submarines did play a decisive and integral role in the eventual defeat of Japan, many Americans overlook the significant contribution of the Soviet Union to that same end. In actuality, the Soviet Red Army was responsible for neutralizing approximately 32% of Japan's army personnel, but this fact seldom appears in the typical American discourse on the war.

The Russians Mug the Kitty Hawk, the Saratoga, the Constellation, the Carl Vinson, and others…

“If there was any doubt about Soviet intentions… one had only to read the speeches of the Soviet naval commander, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, who had boasted that the United States had made a strategic miscalculation in relying on large and increasingly vulnerable aircraft carriers to project power in the world. The U.S. strategy would fail in wartime, Gorshkov alleged, because ‘the combat potential… of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers is inferior to the strike potentials of submarine and air forces.’”

Patrick Tyler

The examples above from unscripted naval exercise evolutions provide ample evidence of the vulnerability of US Navy carrier battle groups to attacks from diesel submarines, but of course there are other ways to sink a carrier, as the Russian Air Force knows well. In October 2000, the smart-looking aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was “mugged” by Russian SU-24 and Su-27 aircraft, which were not detected until they were virtually on top of the carrier. The Russian aircraft buzzed the carrier’s flight deck and caught the ship completely unprepared. To add insult to injury, the Russians took very detailed photos of the Kitty Hawk’s flight deck, and very courteously, provided the pictures to the American skipper via e-mail. In a story in the December 7, 2000 edition of WorldNetDaily, one US sailor exclaimed, “The entire crew watched overhead as the Russians made a mockery of our feeble attempt of intercepting them.” Russia’s air force is now only a faint shadow of what it once was, but even now, they can demonstrate that they can, if necessary, do significant damage to the US Navy. It is little wonder then that a Russian newspaper gloated that “If these had been planes on a war mission, the aircraft carrier would definitely have been sunk.”

Perhaps they are right. As Howard Bloom and Dianne Star Petryk-Bloom advised in 2003, both the Russians and Chinese now have the deadly SS-N-22 Sunburn missile at their disposal. This massive long-range missile, equipped with nuclear or conventional warheads, is extremely difficult to detect or destroy. According to Jane’s Information Group, it is more than capable of destroying any US aircraft carrier. More to the point, Timperlake (a former USMC fighter pilot and US Naval Academy graduate) and Triplett warned that the Sunburn missile is “designed to do one thing: kill American aircraft carriers and Aegis-class cruisers. The SS-N-22 missile skims the surface of the water at two-and-a-half times the speed of sound, until just before impact, when it lifts up and then heads straight down into the target’s deck. Its two-hundred-kiloton nuclear warhead has almost twenty times the explosive power of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima…The U.S. Navy has no defense against this missile system… As retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon put it, ‘It’s enough to make the U.S. 7th (Pacific) Fleet think twice.’” The only caveat, said Karam, would be the possibility of US nuclear retaliation against the enemy’s homeland.

Some would say that this example does not validate the anti-carrier argument because in a real war, the carrier and her escorts would have been more careful, and at a higher level of readiness. Indeed yes, but what if this mock attack had been the opening shot in an unexpected war? In that case, the arrogant and myopic thinking of the US Navy probably would have cost it one multi-billion dollar carrier and probably some of its escorts on the very first day. Multiple coordinated surprise attacks by aircraft, cruise missiles and diesel submarines could quickly emasculate many of the American carrier battle groups. And I feel obligated to point out that even if the carrier’s Aegis-equipped escorts had been on high alert, and indeed been running with their radars at high power, this could have made the group vulnerable to Russian anti-radar missiles. Holland noted in 1997 that “Ironically, the highly sophisticated computer and strong radar systems that compose Aegis also make an Aegis carrying ship an easily recognizable target…” And as one naval aviator told Wilson during his visit to the USS John F. Kennedy, the Russians “can make it rain longer than we can swim.”  

A politically incorrect statement for a naval officer, to be sure, but others have gone further. Captain T.S. Teague, US Navy, broke one of the cardinal rules of the US Navy when he, the skipper of the Kitty Hawk in the early 1980s, told Stevenson that yes, the Russians could “take out” his ship if they made an effort, and this was long before the Russians developed the SS-N-22. For some reason, possibly convenience, or wishful thinking, many US analysts tend to overlook or downplay the fact that the Soviets had deployed submarines with nuclear-tipped torpedoes more than forty years ago, and if even a few dozen of these weapons could be used effectively, the surface forces of the US Navy could be incinerated in short order. This is not new technology at all, and it wise to predict that eventually these weapons will fall into the hands of many nations, and some of them might wish to oppose the US. It would be apt to say that not only can US Navy carriers be destroyed, as evidenced by combat actions involving various battleships and big carriers in World War II and the frank admissions of US Navy officers; they can definitely be destroyed by a determined enemy, with good diesel submarines, good crews, and good torpedoes or cruise missiles.

And supercarriers can even be rendered harmless, at least temporarily, by things far less impressive than cruise missile or torpedo attacks, nuclear or otherwise. In 1975, for example, the Kennedy was rendered dead in the water for four hours, and therefore almost useless, and extremely vulnerable to a potential adversary, and all as the result of relatively minor “fender bender” with one of her escorts. According to Vistica, the CNO, Admiral James Holloway, US Navy, “was terrified the press would find out” about this, as it contradicted his own statements that nothing short of a nuclear weapon could stop a supercarrier.

Getting back to the Kitty Hawk incident, a Navy spokesman said that the Kitty Hawk had not been surprised, that they knew the Russian planes were not going to attack, and that the Russian aircraft were tracked almost from the moment they took off. In other words, “We were on top of things, no need to intercept, and certainly no reason for alarm.” When the Russians over flew the Kitty Hawk, the carrier was “in the process of refueling and therefore was not going fast enough at the moment of the refueling to launch planes.” It took 40 minutes for the first American aircraft to be launched, and the Russian Air Force was delighted with the results: “‘For the Americans, our planes were a complete surprise,' said Gen. Anatoly M. Kornukov, the Russian air force's commander in chief. ‘In the pictures, you can clearly see the panic on deck.’'' This episode sounds somewhat like what happened to the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway, where its aircraft carriers were caught off guard and attacked while their planes were being rearmed. Clever enemies often prefer to attack during periods of low readiness, or during poor weather.

Just for the sake of argument, let us assume that the US Navy had indeed tracked the Russian planes and fired at them (and/or their attacking cruise missiles). Even if this had happened, it still does not mean that the crafty Russian attack would have failed. The reasons for my pessimism were contained in a foreboding 2000 report by the US General Accounting Office. The report cast great doubt on the survivability of American surface ships because the Navy has continuously exaggerated “the actual and projected capabilities of surface ships to protect themselves from cruise missiles because the models used in the assessment…include a number of optimistic assumptions that may not reflect the reality of normal fleet operations.” For example, in its highly questionable testing of ship borne defensive systems, the US Navy assumes any such attack would occur in perfect weather, with a perfect American crew, and flawless equipment, which is a highly unlikely scenario.

Even if there had been F-14s on CAP above the carrier during the Russian penetration, their outrageously expensive Phoenix or Sparrow missiles might not have made any difference, either. According to a 2001 paper by Colonel Everest Riccioni, USAF (Retired), “The long range US Navy Phoenix missile was fired twice in combat in 30 years and missed both times – a zero return on a large investment.” Riccioni’s research indicated a clear inverse correlation between expense and the probability of getting a kill, or to put it another way, the more expensive the missile, the less reliable it is. The Phoenix missile (now retired) was easily the most expensive air-to-air missile in the world, and it was much less reliable than cheaper missiles or guns, and it was never properly or realistically tested. Said Fallows “…because of prohibitive costs, we have never conducted realistic operational training with the F-14 firing Phoenix missiles in the presence of jamming and tactical countermeasures. ((Secretary of Defense) Brown was saying that the biggest question about sophisticated, precision-guided weapons – whether they can overcome the efforts any competent adversary would make to thwart them, by jamming or deception or anything else – has never been answered in realistic practice). Nor have we demonstrated that we can load and launch the large number of Phoenix missiles against multiple targets that would be required to defense against a determined…attack.” That was written in 1981, but those nagging questions remain, even today. Thank goodness the US has chosen only incompetent enemies since Vietnam.

David Isenberg was not enthusiastic about the Phoenix, either. In 1990, he penned “The Phoenix has long been plagued by design and mechanical defects… Even if Phoenix missiles were consistently free of defects, they would still have several serious disadvantages. Radar-guided missiles such as the Phoenix emit powerful electronic waves that enemy weapons can home in on, a feature that makes targets out of the ships, planes and artillery units that fire those missiles.” As we will see later on, these powerful radar emissions can be exploited by the enemy. Additionally, said Shuger, “The 1981 shootdown of two Libyan Su-22’s by two F-14s was hardly a significant test. It was a mismatch if there ever was one: Leading edge fighters with fully exercised crews against clumsier ground attack aircraft flown by pilots so nervous they fired their missiles well beyond range.”

If there had indeed been a fight in the air that day in 2000, we should keep in mind two things. Firstly, there was always a small chance that a US missile might have homed in on the Kitty Hawk herself (these things can happen). Secondly, in Vietnam, Soviet AA-2 air-to-air missiles actually had a higher “probability of kill” per launch (about 22%) than the three most commonly used US missiles of the time (averaging about 11.2%). And despite the lopsided dogfighting success of the USAF (not the Navy) in Operation Desert Storm (during which it was obvious that Saddam Hussein and many of the fleeing Iraqi pilots had neither the courage nor the tenacity of a thoroughly committed opponent, like the Japanese Kamikazes, or today’s Islamic extremists, for example) it might not be a good idea to take for granted that today’s US air-to-air missiles are more reliable than their Russian counterparts. Indeed, many say a recent Russian missile, the AA-12 Adder, is comparable or even superior to the US AIM-120 AMRAAM.

Another question now comes to mind. If the crew of the Kitty Hawk really knew of the impending Russian visit, why did the US Navy decline to release the Russian photos? If the crew had truly not been surprised, the photos of the flight deck should surely reveal this, and clear the US Navy. If there had been some classified equipment or activity depicted in the Russian photos, surely the Pentagon could have censored the photos as required, then released them to show the world a crew at sea going about routine business.

Why also did the Kitty Hawk, 40 minutes later, finally launch aircraft to intercept the Russian planes that had already flown over, but did no physical harm to the ship? Why was it necessary to belatedly intercept the Russians if the US Navy was so confident that the Russians were no threat? And why did the Washington Times impart that the “Kitty Hawk commanders were so unnerved by the aerial penetration they rotated squadrons on 24-hour alert and had planes routinely meet or intercept various aircraft?” Because in asymmetrical warfare, the very concept is to strike when the larger, more powerful enemy is least prepared. This is what the Japanese did when they attacked Pearl Harbor in the early morning hours on a Sunday. This is why the 1968 Tet holiday offensive was launched when the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was in a low state of readiness. But then, perhaps it would have been more sporting of the Russians to have called in first before launching their mock attack.

As an aside, although the foregoing concerns fast jet aircraft, the US Navy has had troubles dealing with slower planes as well. Shuger told an interesting story in his 1988 unpublished book manuscript Navy Yes, Navy, No: “The Navy has established a classified radius X nautical miles around a carrier within which all aircraft will be escorted by airwing planes. As you might expect, not every intercept is perfect, so there are occasions when the bogey isn’t intercepted until less than X. (I know of at least one occasion in 1981 during the hostage crisis, where an Iranian P-3 patrol craft – which conceivably could have been carrying US-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles – flew more or less undetected and unintercepted within visual range of a carrier.) But fleet message writers feel that their job security requires that no reports top that effect ever leave the ship. So there is a definite party line about intercepts: They always take place at X nautical miles.”

A colleague recently reported a very similar incident between a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-3C Orion and an American aircraft carrier, also in the early 1980s. In the words of retired Squadron Leader J R Sampson, RAAF: “When I was an RAAF liaison/briefing officer en route from Diego to Perth for R&R sometime in 1981/82, I dined in the (American) admiral's suite and the admiral gave me a copy of a message that censured an air wing commander for allowing an RAAF P-3C to get in undetected amongst the CVBG (Carrier Battle Group) screen a few days earlier. According to the message the commander himself was in an F-14 cockpit checking out the TCS (Television Camera Set) that had just been installed as a new piece of F-14 kit. TCS enables long-range visual identification of targets. He was adjusting the FOV (Field of View) when he saw a P-3 swim across his screen, right on the carrier's bow at about 300 feet above sea level. He'd just come from CIC (Combat Information Center) and knew that no cooperating P-3's were due so he queried the FLYCO who queried the CIC who asked the on station E-2C. They didn't even have the capability to launch an F-14 intercept. Very embarrassing but the admiral gave me a copy of the message to take back to headquarters…” Embarrassing yes, and it proves that an enemy doesn’t even need speedy jet fighters to get through a US Navy battle group’s defenses. A large and relatively slow turboprop aircraft like the P-3 can do it just as well.

It almost goes without saying that even the older and relatively noisy Soviet/Russian submarines have a long tradition of tracking and stalking American carriers, but the American public occasionally needs reminding. The Soviets maintained a huge force of both nuclear and diesel submarines, and their boats were able to locate, pursue and close with US Navy carrier battle groups on many occasions. In 1966, the noisy Victor-class nuclear submarine K-181 trailed the carrier Saratoga and her escorts in the Atlantic for several days, and made “nine simulated conventional torpedo attacks on the aircraft carrier, from different directions and distances, and sent twenty radiograms on the task group actions to fleet headquarters. The K-181’s expert radiomen recorded the sound of the aircraft carrier’s turbines at different depths, invaluable information for another cruise.” Although the Soviet submarine was eventually detected, it was not by the carrier or by her escorts, but by the SOSUS warning net. Regardless, “it was a considerable triumph to put K-181 within killing distance of the aircraft carrier…”

Although the Americans did detect the K-181, it was not until well after she conducted her simulated torpedo attacks. In a real war, the carrier probably would have been destroyed before the Soviet sub could be localized and attacked. Something very similar happened in late 1967, said Tyler. A US carrier task force in the Atlantic “had been shocked by the sudden appearance of the conning tower of a Victor-class submarine. The Russian had popped up to thumb his nose at the Americans and to demonstrate a Soviet capability to penetrate the carrier battle group. It was a secret and unreported victory for the Soviet Union and an embarrassing and ominous moment for the U.S. Navy,” he said. Of course, the US Navy did the same thing to the Soviets as well, but most of us in the west either do not know or do not want to know the other side of the story.

Indeed, Shuger wrote in 1989 that the US Navy sometimes had great difficulty locating even the oldest Soviet submarines: “More than a decade ago, when there were dozens of U.S. ships and planes in the South China Sea looking for the one Soviet submarine then on patrol there – and it was obsolescent one at that; this was before the big Soviet naval build-up of the Cam Ranh Bay naval base in Vietnam – it would still go unlocated for weeks on end. Imagine the difficulties presented nowadays by the increased numbers of quieter Soviet subs.” Even the ill-fated Russian submarine Kursk gave the Americans a good run for their money. Truscott noted that in 1999, “According to the Russians, the US spent tens of millions of dollars trying to track the Kursk in the Med, with mixed success. The US Sixth Fleet, based at Naples, became extremely active in the search for the Kursk. By Russian accounts, the US Sixth Fleet restricted operation of its large ships and aircraft-carriers to stay out of the Russian sub’s possible area of activity. Captain Lyachin was certainly proud of the Kursk’s performance, later saying that the boat received a lot of attention from NATO’s subs, ships and planes, but ‘we almost always spotted them first.’ NATO found it difficult to establish prolonged surveillance and contact with the Kursk.” Given the US Navy’s tradition of substandard ASW, Captain Lyachin’s claims are not difficult to believe.

Specific encounters between Soviet/Russian subs and American ships are rarely publicized or described in so much detail, but Sontag et al. detailed that during the Cold War “Soviet subs seemed to be waiting to monitor U.S. naval exercises even before U.S. ships and subs arrived on site. A few times, Soviet subs had shown up in waters where U.S. exercises had been scheduled, then cancelled. Other times, Soviet subs barreled right into the middle of exercises almost as if they were trying to see how the U.S. forces would react.” In 1985, said Weir and Boyne, the Soviet submarine K-324, taking advantage of temperature variations in the Gulf Stream, “detected American SSBNs (nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines) on three different occasions, maintaining a combined contact time of twenty-eight hours” while another Soviet nuclear boat surreptitiously tailed another American SSBN for five days. In these cases, we can see that the US Navy's traditional belief in the inherent superiority of American nuclear submarines and tactics over their Soviet/Russian adversaries is not always justifiable or realistic.

Along those same lines, Kaylor reported that in 1986, "a U.S. attack-submarine skipper received a shock while tracking a Soviet sub in its home waters. The U.S. commander expected to hear his quarry long before it heard him. But suddenly the American sonar men heard a single loud, metallic 'ping' in their earphones. Listening with passive sensors that make no sound of their own the Soviets had picked up the American sub, then transmitted a single 'active' sound wave to fix its exact location. It was the Soviet captain's way of saying, 'Gotcha!' But in wartime, it would have been followed swiftly by a torpedo." Some have declared that between 1965 and 1975, “there had been more than 110 possible detections of US surveillance subs actively operating against the Soviet Union.”

A Canadian warship also surprised and pinged the very modern Ohio-class SSBN USS Michigan during filming of the informative 1992 NOVA documentary “Submarine.” This, of course, flies right in the face of the US Navy’s standard ballyhoo that its SSBNs cannot be detected by non-US forces. A US nuclear submariner, who wished not to be identified, also told me recently about an incident in which his elderly and relatively noisy nuclear attack submarine (launched in the early 1960s) had stalked and launched a simulated attack on a supposedly undetectable Ohio-class SSBN using passive sonar, “because our Sonar Chief steered us towards a part of ocean with lower-than-expected background noise, from the boomer screening the ambient noise. We were able to creep into their baffles to fire a water slug…”

In addition, the American media learned in September 1997 that a Russian nuclear submarine had gotten uncomfortably close to the carrier USS Constellation and other ships during a Pacific cruise. So close, in fact, an anonymous US Navy source “concluded later that the submarine would have sunk the Constellation near Seattle if there had been a conflict.” Holzer also mentioned that the same Russian submarine stalked “the USS Coronado, flagship of the U.S. Third Fleet, for several days. The U.S. Navy never knew it was there...” And Gertz recorded that “The submarine… loitered off the Washington coastline and practiced attack operations against the [USS] Carl Vinson during the carrier's training mission.” He concurred that the US Navy had great difficulty tracking the elusive submarine, and as he put it, “the Russian Oscar II-class guided missile submarine spent nearly two weeks in September about 100 miles off the Washington coastline and sailed undetected for days, eluding U.S. surveillance vessels and aircraft.” And even though their nuclear boats were very noisy until sometime in the 1980s, in 1997 Polmar said that the latest Soviet nuclear submarines were actually quieter than the US Improved Los Angeles-class, at least at tactical speeds of 5-7 knots. In any case, the Soviets/Russians, like so many others, have many high quality photos of American carriers taken by surprise and at close range.

The Chinese Know Thy Potential Enemy

The Chinese too have a strong interest in neutralizing American aircraft carriers, and in his 2000 book China Debates the Future Security Environment, Michael Pillsbury demonstrated that the Chinese have completed detailed studies of the vulnerabilities of US Navy carriers. He documented that the Chinese have noted the following possible weaknesses: lack of stealth due to the large number of radar reflections plus infrared and electromagnetic signatures, all of which make the carrier “very difficult to effectively conceal,” flight restrictions during bad weather, the inability to safely operate in shallow waters, decreased readiness during regular at-sea replenishments, poor ASW and mine countermeasures capabilities, and the structural vulnerabilities of catapults, elevators, and arresting gear. Sun Tzu put it best when he said the immortal words “Know thy enemy and know thy self and you will win a hundred battles.” It seems the Chinese have taken Sun Tzu’s advice to heart when it comes to their potential rivals.

These days, many analysts are quite concerned about a possible confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan. While O’Hanlon suggests that China does not have the necessary means to invade and occupy Taiwan, others feel the Chinese might still attempt to do so. If that does happen, it would be well for the US not to underestimate the Chinese. One need only recall Appleman’s book Disaster in Korea: The Chinese Confront MacArthur to see that the low tech Chinese have been a most dangerous and wily opponent for American forces. In 2004, Goldstein and Murray (The latter is a former US Navy submarine officer) predicted that if the US Navy comes up against Chinese AIP and diesel submarines blockading Taiwan: “…we find a plausible worst case would yield nearly fourteen U.S. ships sunk after a single tactical exchange. Playing out this model to its logical conclusion (iterations until all submarines in the People’s Liberation Army Navy are destroyed) with these revised inputs suggest that more than forty U.S. Navy (USN) ships could be sunk.” Thus, in their view, the Chinese submarine deployment of roughly 24 non-nuclear submarines would be destroyed eventually, but they could take as many as 40 American ships down with them, and that American aircraft carriers would “not be immune from submarine attack,” even if they remain in the comparatively low risk deep waters to the east of Taiwan.

The main reason for the predicted relatively heavy US losses is the degradation and withering of US ASW capabilities since the end of the Cold War. The Chinese have noted all of this and keep it in mind when they plan their exercises. The Chinese, for good reason I should suppose, are growing more and more confident in their ability to tangle with the US Navy. Said one Chinese senior officer in 2002, “We have the ability to deal with an aircraft carrier that dares to get into our range of fire… The U.S. likes vain glory; if one of their aircraft carriers could be attacked and destroyed, people in the U.S. would begin to complain and quarrel loudly, and the U.S. President would find the going harder and harder.”

Lax Security

One would think that the US Navy would spare no expense to protect its bases, especially those in which their nuclear submarines, both attack and missile boats, are stationed. One would think that effective, vigilant, round-the-clock, airtight, multi-tiered security would shroud an installation in which Trident missile submarines are based. One would think that the security around these nuclear missile-launching platforms would be almost impregnable. But if one also thinks that strong security measures were the norm in the US Navy during (and after) the Cold War, one should think again.

In June 2001, Lieutenant Commander Jack Daly, US Navy, told the audience of a radio broadcast called Judicial Watch that American nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier bases were becoming increasingly vulnerable to attack due to lax security measures. He cited an incident in April 1997, in which a Russian spy ship reportedly used a laser to attack a helicopter in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near two Navy bases. Daly and his Canadian Air Force pilot suffered permanent eye damage because of the attack, and Daly said it was now routine for Russian spy ships to go snooping around the US Navy bases at Bremerton and Everett, Washington. He also propounded that the spy ship that attacked his helicopter had “come to within 1,000 yards of the nuclear-missile-armed U.S.S. Ohio.” The reason why the Russians had gotten so bold, he argued, was that the US Navy had grown complacent and unconcerned about espionage and security. With the end of the Cold War, he said, the US Navy had basically let its guard down.

Lax security was also evident in October 2000, just a few weeks before the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, when a news team from WABC TV New York completed a two-month investigation on security at the naval stations at Norfolk, Virginia, New London, Connecticut, and Naval Weapons Station Earle in New Jersey. In all cases, the news team had absolutely no difficulty gaining access to the bases, were never asked to produce identification, were able to sail a small boat within a few feet of American ships without detection, and in Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base (home port for 78 ships) the journalists roamed freely, unnoticed and unchallenged, for four hours. They shot video of their incursion, and when Representative Jim Saxton of New Jersey saw the shocking tape, he said, “What you have shown me is absolutely incredible, it’s unbelievable!” It is hard to understate how much damage a team of terrorists could have done to the US Navy if they too could have penetrated the security at Norfolk and attacked the ships concentrated at the world’s largest naval base. Although it is certainly not common, according to, at times there have been up to five nuclear-powered carriers simultaneously in port at Norfolk.

Of course, both these incursions happened after the Cold War ended. However, it must be pointed out that even during the Cold War, security at US Navy bases was often very exiguous. Probably the most qualified man to speak on this issue is a former US Navy senior officer, Captain Richard Marcinko. Although he was once court-martialed for misuse of government property, it is hard to discredit a man like Marcinko when it comes to military operations. A former SEAL, with over 300 combat missions to his credit, he earned 34 citations and medals, “including the Legion of Merit, The Silver Star, and four Bronze Stars with a combat ‘V’ for Valor.” He is now an acknowledged expert on terrorism and is frequently consulted on US national TV news and current affairs programs. In the 1980s, during the watch of CNO Admiral James Watkins, US Navy, Marcinko and his SEAL Team Six were assigned to test security at major navy bases, and the results of his simulated terrorist raids were very disturbing. His team infiltrated the New London Naval Base, where nuclear submarines, including missile boats, are based. Marcinko’s team had little difficulty infiltrating the base, and it made a mockery of the militasters of the base security forces. In his own words: “I rented a small plane, and Horseface flew us under the I-95 bridge, wetting our wheels in the Thames as we swooped low. We buzzed the sub pens. No one waved us off. We rented a boat and flew the Soviet flag on its stern, then chugged past the base while we openly taped video of the subs in their dry docks, capturing classified details of their construction elements. The dry docks were exposed and unprotected – if we’d decided to ram one of the subs, nothing stood in our way.”

Marcinko’s team did far worse during his visit to New London. His men infiltrated several nuclear submarines, and thereby proceeded to wreak havoc therein. “First, they found the sentries – who were secure in their shacks drinking coffee – and silenced them. Then, they concealed explosives behind the diving planes of one nuclear sub. They boarded another Boomer sub and placed demolition charges in the control room, in the nuclear-reactor compartment, and in the torpedo room.” They were challenged by base personnel, but explained that they were just doing maintenance, and amazingly, they were never asked to identify themselves. Marcinko later briefed a very unhappy admiral and boasted, “I blew up two of your nuclear subs, and if I’d wanted to, I could have blown ‘em all up.”

Karam also reminisced that the SEALs also clobbered his submarine, the USS Plunger, during an annual drill. “One year, they swam across the shipping channel from North Island, ‘shot’ our topside watch and were in control of Control and Maneuvering within a few minutes.” To be fair, the US Navy is now taking security much more seriously, but only as a result of the attack on the USS Cole and the September 11th attacks. Despite the lessons taught by Captain Marcinko and his SEALS in the 1980s, little was done to improve security in the interim. Apparently the US Navy prefers to learn its lessons, when it does actually learn, the hard way.

The US Navy also has a rather spotty record when it comes to keeping sensitive information secret. For example, Shuger wrote that “while all information about Russian equipment is Secret, squadron cryptographic material – which might provide the only viable means of communication between friendly forces during wartime – is merely marked Confidential and accordingly, is subject to much looser controls… As a result, Navy squadrons are constantly misplacing or losing crypto. One of my skippers almost refused to assume command of the squadron because of this problem.”

A Few Realistic Men

“My own experience (in war games) is that I never have any problem getting a carrier… those fleets are going to get ground into peanut butter in a war.”

– Anonymous US Navy submarine commander on how easy it is to find and sink a US Navy aircraft carrier.

“One enemy diesel submarine lucky enough to get one torpedo hit on a CVN (nuclear powered aircraft carrier) or an AEGIS cruiser could easily turn US resolve and have a huge impact on a conflict… the challenge of finding and destroying a diesel submarine in littoral waters can be nearly impossible… In general…a diesel submarine operating on battery power is quieter, slower, and operating more shallow than a nuclear submarine.”

- Lieutenant Commander Christopher J. Kelly, US Navy

Earlier, I discussed how easy it is for foreign diesel submarines and air forces to attack American carriers. But it is not just the Russians, Chinese, Canadians, Chileans, Dutch, Australians, and former Secretary of Defense Dr. James Schlesinger who have reason to think the US Navy’s carrier battle groups are oversold, expensive and extremely vulnerable. Such arguments have been made often enough by US Navy officers. In the 1930s, a US naval aviator said: “Carriers combine great power with extreme vulnerability.” In 1939, another senior US Navy officer remarked “The vulnerability of our carriers constitutes the Achilles heel of our Fleet strength.” These remarks were true then, and they remain true today. It is also well known that the cantankerous Late Admiral Hyman Rickover, US Navy (Retired) did not think much of his own carrier-centered navy. When asked in 1982 about how long the American carriers would survive in an actual war, he curtly constated that they would be finished in approximately 48 hours. Former President Jimmy Carter, a former US Navy officer, and Annapolis graduate, was also none too keen on the big carrier Navy, either. Vistica mentioned that Carter did not want any more new carriers, and for the existing fleet to be cut dramatically.

The atypically unreticent and plainspoken submarine commander, Captain John Byron, US Navy (Retired) also intimated in the early 1980s that American nuclear submarines had little difficulty operating against carriers. “Operating against a carrier is too easy,” he quipped. “The carrier’s ASW protection often resembles Swiss cheese.” In a 1985 exercise in the Pacific, this was confirmed when one US nuclear submarine sank two aircraft carriers and eight other ships, and as per standard operating procedure, these painful results "were never publicly disclosed." Shuger, in 1989, noted: “I’ve seen enough photos of American carriers through periscope crosshairs – most sub crew offices feature one – to become a believer. Despite all the antisubmarine warfare equipment that carrier groups take with them to sea, in my own experience most exercises against subs ended up with my carrier getting a green flare at close quarters, the standard simulation for a successful torpedo or cruise missile attack.”

The respected naval affairs analyst Norman Polmar said in 1998 "It's just too easy for a diesel sub with even conventional torpedoes, let alone high-speed advanced torpedoes... that the Russians are selling, to get a shot and hit a carrier...That could really cause us problems." Former CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner, US Navy (Retired) has proffered many dire warnings that the US Navy’s continuing policy of building and deploying “big, over-powered aircraft carriers” is “ill-advised.” In his 2003 article “Is the U.S. Navy being marginalized?,” Admiral Turner submitted that “The day of large aircraft carriers with large numbers of high-performance aircraft is simply drawing to a close…With more accurate weapons, the ordnance-carrying capacity of the large carrier will no longer be as important. On the defensive side of the technology coin, we must recognize that technologies that make our forces more lethal will be available to others. When opponents acquire remote sensing and precision, long-range targeting capabilities, as they are bound to do, the huge detection signature of the hundred thousand tons of steel in one of today’s aircraft carriers will be a tremendous liability.” He also noted: “Our existing carriers will have plenty to do for the remainder of their operating lives, but a Navy built around these ships will not carry us into the emerging era of warfare any better than did the USS Arizona into World War II. To procure more large carriers today and expect them to be useful into mid-century is to be blind to reality.” (Emphasis mine).

The Late Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, US Navy (Retired), himself a former aircraft carrier skipper, was also an outspoken critic of the Navy and its infatuation with big aircraft carriers and its collective fear of change. He once said that if the United States continues on its path to build ever larger and ever more expensive aircraft carriers, it will eventually degenerate into a “bankrupt nation.” The most damning comment ever made by a senior officer was that of the Late CNO, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, US Navy, who in 1971 confessed that with the advent of long-range Soviet anti-ship missiles, if there had been a US-Soviet conventional naval war, the US Navy “would lose.”

If Zumwalt was correct, the only way the US Navy could handle the Soviet Navy was through the use of nuclear weapons, which in turn would provoke a Soviet response, and then, in all likelihood, both sides would be destroyed. Apparently, Admiral Thomas Moorer, US Navy, was worried also. When Soviet and US ships confronted one another in the Mediterranean during the October War of 1973, Goldstein and Zhukov observed: Soviet battle groups were using the actual U.S. aircraft carriers in the area as virtual targets, an act comparable to holding a cocked pistol to an adversary's temple. Adhering to a kamikaze-like, "battle of the first salvo" doctrine, the Soviet force of 96 ships was poised to launch approximately 13 surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) at each task group in the U.S. 6th Fleet deployed in the Mediterranean. U.S. Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, then chief of naval operations, recalled a Washington Special Action Group meeting at the peak of the crisis, during which Adm. Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated: "[W]e would lose our [expletive] in the Eastern Med [if war breaks out]."

Indeed, decades later, a submariner who was aboard a participating Soviet nuclear submarine stated that US ASW forces were not able to defeat the Soviet forces: “During the events of 1973, our submarine carried out its service for sometime in the vicinity of the Sidra Gulf, by the Libyan coast. Here, a group of U.S. Navy antisubmarine ships, evidently acting on some intelligence, or maybe presuming that there might be a Soviet submarine about, was vigorously carrying out a search operation for two days. However, we gathered the impression that the ships achieved no success. Nothing suggested that our boat had been discovered, even though we were thoroughly listening to their hydroacoustic transmissions and sometimes the hum of the ships’ propellers…” He also said: “I think that (the Soviet submarine fleet) would have withstood (a U.S. first strike)… There was no reason to believe that our submarine had been discovered by the probable foe… in October 1973. If so, then it is entirely possible that we could have been the first to deliver the below…” Given the American predilection for letting the enemy strike first (or, as in Vietnam, to “claim” the enemy struck first), it is reasonable to assume that the Soviets might well have struck first, and if they had, the American ships in the area would probably be destroyed or incapacitated very quickly, possibly before they could fully retaliate.

Another senior American officer who might agree with Zumwalt, Rickover, Turner, Carroll, Byron and Shuger is Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, USMC (Retired). In Exercise Millennium Challenge (2002), Van Riper, playing the role of Saddam Hussein, used small boats to destroy 16 US Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier and two helicopter carriers, in the Persian Gulf. As usual, the US Navy was not pleased with this successful attack against its most powerful ships, and so it stopped the exercise, “reactivated” the dead ships and continued as though nothing had happened. “‘A phrase I heard over and over was, ‘That would never have happened,’ Van Riper recalls. And I said ‘Nobody would have thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade Centre’… but nobody seemed interested.’” The irrepressible Stan Goff, is his own erudite yet polemical style, explained why this had to be: “The reason Van Riper’s victory had to be overruled is that it tears the scary mask off the bully and lets the whole world see the fundamental weakness of the vastly complex and expensive U.S. military monstrosity – the one that will invite not less but more ‘asymmetric warfare,’ the very monstrosity that is already mortgaging our children’s future.” Sadly, this kind of official denial is standard operating procedure in the US Navy. Consider also the American submarine commander who once said that, during war games, he “put six torpedoes into a carrier, and I was commended – for reducing the carrier’s efficiency by 2 percent.” The battleship admirals played the same mind and word games when they ran the navy, and we all know what happened to the battleship.

Many of the criticisms of the carrier-centered Navy come from US Army officers who see the Navy as a rival more than as a partner in national defense. One might dismiss army criticisms of the US Navy as merely parochial slander, but some Army critics make good sense. Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Macgregor, US Army, made a number of convincing arguments in his ground-breaking book, Breaking the Phalanx. Macgregor is a vocal critic of American military strategy, and his criticisms are not restricted to the Army. He argued that with the US Navy’s new focus on littoral warfare, the big carrier Navy is in even more danger now than during its days as a high seas fleet designed to face the Soviet Union. The fact that American aircraft carriers are so big, and so much firepower is concentrated on them, makes them attractive and worthy targets for weapons of mass destruction in littoral waters: “The concentration of several thousand sailors, airmen, and Marines in an amphibious or Nimitz-class aircraft carrier risks single point failure in future warfighting.” Also, as the quality and availability of cruise missiles increase, so do the chances of a successful attack on carrier battle groups: “The survivability of large carriers and amphibious ships depends on antiship missile defenses, which must perform perfectly within a few seconds of a missile alert. In both cases, very expensive platforms can be destroyed by relatively inexpensive weapons…”

Williscroft said in September 2004 that there are several possible nightmare scenarios that face the modern US Navy, and they most certainly will involve quiet conventional submarines: “The bad guys can station one of the new ultra-quiet AIP subs at a choke point, and seriously damage or even sink a carrier. An AIP sub can sneak up on a Virginia-class (nuclear submarine) deploying a Seal team with devastating results. A hunter-killer pack of several AIP subs can take out any nuke we have, once they find it.” Macgregor also noted that at a cost of approximately $4 billion for construction alone, the loss of even one Nimitz-class carrier would be morally and financially devastating. The loss of one or more of the $2 billion Virginia-class nuclear submarines would also be a tremendous burden on the United States Treasury.

This isn’t “Top Gun” & Watch Out for the Little Guy

“USN pilots worry more about being able to come aboard than about their tactics. It is not totally unreasonable, especially in bad weather, night operations. Fortunately, for the USAF, a landing makes about the same demand as breathing, and frees them to concern themselves with the tactics and doctrines of aerial combat."

- Col. Everest Riccioni, USAF (Retired), e-mail to author, February 2005

As we have seen, US carriers are remarkably vulnerable to attacks by submarines and aircraft, but what about the much-vaunted American naval aviators? How would the US Navy pilots fare in a dogfight with a much smaller, less powerful, but well-trained enemy? The evidence is not encouraging. Consider Canada, for example. Often criticized by US and NATO officials for very low defense spending (about 1.2% of Canada’s GDP is spent on defense), Canada’s armed forces are among the smallest in the alliance (currently at about 60,000 in the regular Army, Navy and Air Force, combined). These days, America’s northern neighbor, as Charles Moskos observed, comes close to fitting into the “Warless Society” classification in his national military taxonomy, in which military expenditures remain small in peacetime, and “the bulk of the military budget consists of personnel training costs…”

Despite this chronically low peacetime funding, (and even when both countries were fighting World Wars I and II, and Korea, Canada’s military budget was never even close to that of the US) Canadian pilots have routinely outperformed US Navy and Air Force aircrews in combat and in peacetime exercises. It is easy to understand why if one also comprehends that training and professionalism are the major factors in combat success, neither of which need to be excessively expensive, and the Canadians have a strong record in this area. Here, just for illustration, if you will indulge me for just a moment, are a few surprising highlights related to the Canadian war record, of which most Americans are unaware. In World War I, a group of just ten Canadian fighter pilots was responsible for shooting down a jaw-dropping 438 German aircraft. Even though many Americans sincerely believe that it was latecomers like the dapper Captain Eddie Rickenbacker in his stylish, French-designed Spad VIII that won the Great War, the Canadian, French and British pilots were the true eagles flying over the Western Front. Of the top ten allied aces (pilots with five or more air-to-air victories), four were from Canada, (the top-scoring Canadian had 72 confirmed kills), one was from France (the Frenchmen was the top ace), and the others were British. Canada, which at the time had fewer than eight million people (which is roughly the same number that New York City has today), produced 185 aces.

The renowned British military historian Sir John Keegan has made reference to the “legendary fighting qualities of the Canadians” in World Wars I and II, and described the Canadian Forces of today as being “highly professional.” In World War II, Canadian Spitfire pilot Buzz Beurling shot down 27 enemy aircraft (confirmed, plus 3 other probable kills, and 8 damaged) in only 14 flying days. He was nicknamed “The Falcon of Malta,” and as Lieutenant Colonel Rob Tate, USAFR, explained in 2004, Beurling’s triumphs were “one of World War II's memorable aerial-combat achievements.” In the 1950s, Canadian pilots flying the Canadair Sabre Mk. VI with its souped-up Avro Orenda engine “flew circles” around every fighter plane in NATO. From 1955 to 1958, Colonel Everest Riccioni, USAF (Retired) said he “used to instruct my squadron mates in F-100Cs operating against experienced, gutsy, competent Canadian pilots flying Mark VI Sabres…” He praised the Canadian pilots as being highly skilled and so aggressive that they “would rather fly through you than lose.”

During the days of Royal Canadian Navy carrier aviation it was well known that the pocket carrier HMCS Bonaventure could at times put more planes in the air than much larger USN ASW carriers of the Essex-class. Said Lieutenant Commander Roland West, RCN (retired) in 2005, “Having served in Bonaventure on many occasions, I can attest to the fact that there were times when our aircraft flew operational missions when our NATO allies decided to keep their aircraft on the deck. You can be rest-assured that at no time did our operational commanders put our aircraft and crews in flight safety jeopardy. As far as performance is concerned, there was always that pride in carrying out a role in such a manner that encouraged good competition and success in the operation at hand.” This was confirmed by Soward in his description of a 1969 exercise: “The operations of VS 880 and HS 50 meanwhile continued with the scheduled sustop, in spite of the high wind states and increasingly rough seas. Other NATO units terminated their carrier flying but Bonaventure pressed on with ASW operations and continued prosecuting submarine contacts and recording ‘kills’. In keeping with past performance, the carrier logged more flying hours with the Trackers and Sea Kings than any other carrier involved in the exercise… Unfortunately, about the same time, the USN carrier USS Yorktown, also a major participant in the exercise, suffered the loss of a Sea King and three crew members.”

Furthermore, although the diminutive Bonaventure (which displaced only about 19,000 tons) operated RCN Banshee jet fighters for years, US Navy Banshee pilots did not wish to risk a landing on a smaller carrier. One author put it this way: “In joint RCN-USN exercises, aircraft from both fleets regularly landed on the other's carriers.  However, the American Banshee pilots straight-out refused to attempt a landing on Bonaventure. The task was becoming so routine for the Canadian pilots that they were doing it before sunrise.” The fighter pilots on Bonaventure were also tasked with NORAD continental air defense duties while ashore, and they often beat USAF squadrons in the number and quality of interceptions. Also, Lieutenant Gordy Edwards, RCN, who served as an exchange pilot with the US Navy in 1960, said that Canadian pilots were, by default -- consider the geography -- more experienced in bad weather flight operations (This helps explain why Canadian aircraft can continue to fly in rough weather when the US Navy prefers to stand-down). As for the ground crew, another Canadian contemporary who trained with the US Navy at Key West, Florida concluded that the RCN’s aviation tradesmen were “superior in skill to equivalent USN” personnel.

In the early 1980s it was revealed that the average pilot in the Canadian Air Force flew about 300 hours a year, whereas his US Navy counterpart flew only about 160 hours annually. By the late 1980s, Canadian fighter pilots were at the top of the charts in NATO, flying more hours per year than all other allied forces in Europe (German pilots came in second, and USAF pilots placed third.) Since the late 1990s, Canada’s new military pilot training center has established a new standard of excellence, and is recognized internationally as having the most advanced pilot training regimen in the world. The official Canadian Air Force Web site makes it clear that Canada’s pilot training system is far ahead of the US Navy: “To date, Canada has sold more than $1-billion in training to pilots from Britain, Italy, Denmark, Singapore and Hungary since the inception of NFTC (NATO Flying Training in Canada) training in 1999. Using the most advanced and effective integrated pilot training system at the most modern training facilities currently available in the world, Canada has become the benchmark in military pilot training. ‘We have the leading edge, most advanced technology for pilot training in the world. It is well ahead of everyone, Britain, the United States, everyone. It is the model for other countries so we are very proud of that,’” said Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Houlgate, Director of the Canadian Aerospace Training Project.

Canadian fighter pilots, in particular, receive certain training benefits that are simply not readily available to many US Navy aviators most of the year, simply because Canada has huge, under populated areas that are ideal for flight training. American naval aviators at bases such as Oceana Naval Air Station (the largest US Navy fighter base on the east coast) must deal with massive military and civilian air traffic congestion, plus the close proximity of civilian living areas, and thus, very limited air space. As a result, according to journalist Jack Dorsey, their training, particularly at low levels, suffers because of safety and noise concerns. Canadian pilots training at Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada’s largest fighter base, have far fewer restrictions due to the base’s relative isolation, and have access to “five separate air-to-air ranges and a tactical air weapons range covering 700,000 square kilometers” (or 270,272 square miles, slightly larger than the State of Texas). That is one reason why many US Navy pilots covet the opportunity to fly at the Canadian base during the annual Maple Flag air combat exercises. But it is not just the vast air space that attracts the interest of American pilots. The new Canadian air combat training system now in place at Cold Lake “is the first system of its kind” to integrate a “rangeless” Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation system (ACMI) “with an electronic warfare system - the Surface Threat Electronic Warfare (STEW) system, which simulates surface-to-air and other ground-to-air threats.” “Together, these systems make up the most modern training system in the world today,” said Keith Shein of Cubic Corporation in June 2004. “The combination of these two training systems enables pilots to realistically view their performance and tactics on each mission.” Better training makes better pilots. Canada has a tradition of excellence in aircrew training, and that is why President Roosevelt once called that country “The Aerodrome of Democracy.”

In 1996, the famous American pilot and author, Colonel Walter Boyne, USAF (Retired) rated the Canadians and Israelis as the two most challenging foes for top US fighter pilots on exercises. That same year, a Canadian fighter team defeated all comers (six US Air Force and Air National Guard teams) at the prestigious William Tell competition. Some say no team in history had been as dominant as the Canadians were (they won accolades for Top Gun, Top Team, Top Operations, Top Element, and Top Weapons Director Team.) In 2001, US Secretary of State (and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), General Colin Powell, US Army (Retired) informed the new US Ambassador to Canada that the Canadian Forces, despite their tiny budget, are “quite good.” And in 2005, Brigadier General Jack Sterling, US Army, said “The Canadian Forces are a world-class, fully capable, professional force, and it will be a privilege to work alongside them...” All of this goes to show that the little guys should not be taken lightly nor should they be underestimated just because they do not spend a lot of money. As Brock once said, “In the U.S. they spend more on their retirement pensions for senior officers than we do in our whole national defense budget.” Even though the US defense budget is thirty to thirty-five times greater than Canada’s these days, Canadian naval and air units are often better trained, and in some instances, better-equipped than US Navy units.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I am Canadian and my Great, Great Uncle was one of the ten Canadian World War I fighter pilots described above. But the foregoing is not idle boasting, ethnomania, or a manifestation of the so-called “Canadian inferiority complex” because I certainly have published articles that were quite critical of the Canadian military (I have indeed thrown a few stones at my own house, but luckily, I am thick-skinned and I am no flag-waving partisan. I do not mind at all that my house might have some glass in it). As I see it, the Canada/US military comparison follows the same asymmetries as the classic David and Goliath contest, and I have focused largely on Canadian examples because, simply by default, I just know more about the Canadian military than I do about other minor military powers (although, for good measure, I have also included examples from Australia, Chile, Sweden, the Netherlands, and other countries that have modest but professional armed forces). The point I am trying to make is that, contrary to what most Americans believe, and despite Canada’s puny numbers and low funding, the Canadians (David, if you will) have indeed had great success competing against US Navy (Goliath) pilots. As for the reason why, perhaps part of the answer is, as Colonel Kalev Sepp, US Army (retired) conveyed, “Smaller often allows for better in key skills, the meager Canadian defence budget notwithstanding.”

Smaller, more parsimonious countries like Canada do not have to nor wish to incur the extravagant costs associated with supercarriers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the like, which siphon money from the training budget, and so they can devote more money and time to training than do the American forces. Nor can Canada and most other nations afford to pay $640 for a military toilet seat, let alone $435 for a claw hammer, which the US did in the early 1980s. And, contrary to what the mandarins in Washington would have one believe, this gouging by rapacious US defense contractors most emphatically did not end in the 1980s, despite the passing of the 1984 Competition in Contracting Act. In 2000, thanks to sloppy fiscal controls, the Pentagon paid $76 a piece for screws that actually cost only 57 cents. And as former Senator Gary Hart once recorded, “History suggests that it is possible to spend great sums and actually weaken one’s defense…” In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Pentagon could not account for $1,000,000,000,000 (yes that is one trillion dollars) of the taxpayers’ money. Perhaps this can help explain why the US Navy has so much trouble finding the money for training, despite having a much bigger budget than any other navy. Unsurprisingly, Mark Zepezauer noted the only way the Pentagon could have accomplished this would have been through “world-class incompetence or unparalleled deceitfulness (or both)”. “When it comes to throwing money away,” he said, “The Pentagon has no peer.”

Like the Canadians, The Israeli Air Force, quite probably the best-trained and most experienced in the world, has outshined the US Navy, and they have done so more than once. A joint USN-IAF air combat exercise in 1999 underlines and highlights the thesis that the US Navy is overrated. On September 14, 1999, The Jerusalem Post announced that the Israelis soundly dispatched the air wing from the USS Theodore Roosevelt (which, incidentally, was the same carrier the Dutch destroyed in 1999). Israeli F-16s squared off against American F-14s and F-18s. The final results were astonishing. The Israelis shot down a whopping 220 US aircraft while losing only 20 themselves. The 10:1 kill ratio was so embarrassing that the results were not “officially published ‘to save the reputations of the US Navy pilots.’” The magazine article on which the article was based, however, reported the kill ratio to be about 20:1.

Some dispute these figures, and claim that the Israelis had an “unfair advantage,” and did not include American victories from “stand-off missile hits.” Responding to claims by a US Navy spokesman that the aforementioned victory by Israel was meaningless, former F-14 Radar Intercept Officer Jerry Burns retorted “He gets paid to say that.” And as The Washington Times reported on September 15, 2000, the Navy Inspector General, Vice Admiral Lee F. Gunn, US Navy, was unimpressed with the Navy’s performance and its banal excuses. “Navy pilots were thoroughly beaten in an exercise against Israeli fliers. ‘An air wing commander was proud the Israelis only achieved a 6-to-1 kill ratio during simulated air-to-air combat maneuvers against a carrier air wing during a recent exercise, instead of the 20-to-1 kill ratio initially claimed.’” Regardless of the exercise parameters and conditions, it is likely that Israeli F-16s would have had the upper hand against US Navy F-14s and F-18s because the Israeli aviators were much more experienced and the F-16 is simply a more maneuverable and agile aircraft. Tests done in the mid-1970s confirmed that prototype YF-16 had “generally shown superior performance” to that of the YF-17, which became the F-18. F-16 pilots often say that the F-18 is a worthy opponent, with its excellent AOA (Angle Of Attack) capabilities, but it is also “a little underpowered with its smaller engines, and decelerates quickly.” And as we will see below, the soon to be retired F-14 “Tom Turkey” (especially the original A model) was never a particularly good dogfighter, even with the more powerful engines in later models.

This incident was not the first time the US Navy has found itself running behind the Israelis in air combat. In 1983, significant qualitative differences between the Israeli Air Force and US naval aviation became obvious when the US Navy botched a raid over Lebanon to suppress Syrian forces there. Aircrews from the USS John F. Kennedy were not properly briefed, launched with the wrong weapons, used outdated tactics, lost twenty percent of their aircraft, and in return, did very little damage to the Syrian positions. The Israelis, conversely, had enjoyed great success during hundreds of missions over the Bekaa Valley with negligible losses. Yes, the Israelis had far more experience flying over the region, and thus a major advantage, but even Secretary Lehman, himself a Naval Reserve aviator, granted that the Israelis were simply more organized, more creative, and had far better planning and tactics than the Americans did. “Their loss rate is much lower because they plan. They don’t do things on the spur of the moment. They have preplanning… And they use imagination. They’re damn good,” Lehman surmised. As Wilson blazoned in very colorful terms, US Navy pilots were shocked and mortified by their poor showing over Lebanon, especially when compared to the almost immaculate performance demonstrated time and again by the Israelis. One pilot on the Kennedy indicated his disgust with the Navy’s execrable performance by shouting “What a fucked-up mission.” Another confided to Wilson: “If the American people ever find out that we sent ten airplanes over there from this carrier to do what one plane could do, they’ll never forgive us. I’m embarrassed… I wonder if we learned anything at all from Vietnam.”

Lehman mentioned a lack of planning, which often reflects poor intelligence gathering and/or dissemination, and Shuger said the US Navy is notorious for this. The Navy, he remarked, really has no interest in or respect for the role of its own intelligence community, and that “Navy pilots launch from carriers on nationally significant missions without learning much of the relevant intelligence available to them.” This negligence goes right to the top of the Navy pyramid, in Shuger’s view, who illustrated this conclusion with the following: “One example of how this blasé attitude runs rampant even at high levels is the ‘Admiral’s brief’ at the Miramar air base where I was stationed when not overseas. Although we squadron intel officers spent considerable time preparing and presenting these weekly briefs, over the three and a half years I attended and/or gave them, neither the fighter wing Admiral nor his Chief of Staff ever showed up. In fact, in all my time at Miramar, I only spoke to an Admiral once. That was when I was more or less ordered to participate in a skit for his farewell party at the ‘O’ Club.”

Curiously, that same year (1983), the US General Accounting Office revealed that the US Navy had consistently exaggerated its aircraft “mission capable rates.” The GAO said “Current guidance allows aircraft to be reported mission capable although they – cannot perform the primary warfare roles for which they were designed and procured, and – have been designed for certain systems the Navy deems mission essential, but are missing the systems. It is possible therefore for an F-14 fighter aircraft, for example, to be rated mission capable even though it cannot launch air-to-air missiles, or if it is missing an APX-76 identification friend or foe interrogation set.” When a fighting organization uses such loose and meaningless readiness indicators, it is bound for trouble.

The Israelis, on the obverse, have no need to exaggerate their readiness. Consider their combat record in the 1960s and 1970s. As Shlomo Aloni recorded in 2004, Israeli fighter pilots flying the French-made Mirage IIIC and the Nesher (made in Israel, but very much a Mirage V type aircraft) and badly outnumbered, scored 397.5 air-to-air kills between 1966 and 1974. “Compared with the US air combat experience in Vietnam, the Israeli aerial kill exchange rate and overall air-to-air performance was phenomenal…” Aloni commented that the French Mirage IIIC was technically inferior to its contemporaries serving in the US Navy, but luckily, it did have a cannon, and in the hands of skilled Israeli pilots (who knew how to use obsolete weapons like a cannon to great effect) it became the most successful fighter of its era.

Aloni’s statement, while impressive and sincere, needs some qualification. If we look at the performance of the US Navy and Air Force’s primary fighter of the 1960s, the F-4 Phantom, against Soviet-designed North Vietnamese fighters in the early years of the war, the overall victory-loss ratio in aerial combat was only about 2:1 in favor of the Americans. Meanwhile, between July 1966 and the end of 1969, the Israeli Mirage and Nesher pilots shot down 116 Soviet-built Mig fighters (mostly with cannon fire) while losing only 9 to enemy fighters (a ratio of almost 13:1). Many of the enemy fighters faced by both the Israelis and the US Navy were the Mig-21 Fishbed aircraft. The Israelis, as you might expect, had little difficulty handling this opponent. According to Cockburn: “The Israeli Air Force consistently outclassed the Fishbed in the Middle East wars in 1967 up to the engagement with the Syrians over the Bekaa Valley in 1982, destroying an average of 20 for every Israeli plane lost.” The US Navy pilots also handled the Fishbed over Vietnam, but not quite as easily. As Rendall posted, the US Navy and Air Force pilots had far more restrictive “Rules of Engagement” than the Israelis did, and this no doubt undermined their performance. While these engagement restrictions were certainly not the fault of the pilots, they nevertheless were a key weakness for the US Navy, the US military, and other western nations who try to fight wars with lawyers as well as warriors. Adversaries that are less concerned with such legal niceties will prove to be quite challenging.

Hallion also cautioned that Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) were much more prolific in Vietnam than in the Middle East in 1967, and that complicated matters for the Americans as well. Others have noted that the Israelis, ironically, had an easier time shooting down enemy planes because there were so many available targets; Vietnam, to the contrary, was not a “target rich” environment for the Americans. As Riccioni detailed, the Arab pilots flying against Israel were not of the highest caliber, either. However, there were other major purely self-imposed obstacles that the Americans faced, such as having poor dogfighting skills and using missiles when guns would have been more appropriate (even the most advanced version of the F-4 used by the Navy, the J model, did not have an integral cannon). Spector grieved that “During the spring of 1968, F-4s from the carriers America and Enterprise fired a total of twenty-seven of these $150,000 (Sparrow) missiles without obtaining a hit,” and Cockburn also ruminated that the US over-reliance on missiles in Vietnam sometimes verged on the tragi-comic: “On one occasion during the Southeast Asia war, a U.S. F-4 pilot fired a Sparrow missile at an Australian destroyer because his look-down radar had informed him it was a low-flying helicopter. Luckily for the seaman in whose bunk the Sparrow ended up, the fuze was not working and the missile failed to explode.”

The US Navy put too much faith in missiles and technology, but nowhere near enough in training, said Spector. “As one senior officer observed, ‘The point is, we sent our people out there not trained for dog fighting. We sent aircraft out there not equipped for dog fighting… and occasionally (I probably should use the word frequently) we got into a nose-to-nose combat situation where neither the guy flying the airplane nor the airplane had ever fired a missile.’” Unnecessarily high losses were the end product of all this, and some US Navy carrier squadrons were badly mauled by North Vietnamese SAMs and aircraft: “Between July and October 1967 the carrier Oriskany lost nearly 40% of her combat aircraft. One squadron ‘went out with 14 brand new A-4s and something like 12 were shot down. Of course we picked up replacements, but really only one or two of the original planes were with us when we came home.’” The Oriskany was not the only carrier to absorb big losses. “In the last year of the war,” noted Vistica, “Saratoga lost seventeen of its planes. Between 1963 and August 15, 1973, when the war ended, 859 Navy aircraft were lost in combat or operational accidents.”

Stevenson further repined that the Phantom also had smoky exhaust, making it an easy target, plus the canopy restricted the crew’s field of vision, hence it had a very large blind spot. Plus, even Top Gun graduate Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson, who had flown both the Navy F-4 (in combat) and the Mig-21, said that, given a choice, he actually would have preferred flying the Mig-21 in daytime visual flight conditions. Ironically, if the US forces had used an older fighter, the Canadair Sabre Mark VI, a more powerful version of the USAF Sabres used in Korea, they actually might have gotten better results in air combat over Vietnam. The Sabre started out as an excellent all-gun fighter, although later versions were equipped with missiles, and its canopy gave the pilot a 360-degree view. Its engines were smokeless as well. These features probably assisted the Pakistani Air Force’s elderly Sabres in defeating Indian Mig-21s by a whopping 6:1 ratio in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War (although one would have to wonder how the Sabre would have fared against North Vietnamese SAMs).

Acknowledging its poor performance in air combat over Vietnam, in March 1969, the US Navy opened its famed “Post-graduate Course in Fighter Weapons, Tactics and Doctrine,” better known as the “Top Gun” course. Here, happily, is an instance in which the US Navy understood it had a weakness and actually did something about it. However, it can be argued that the Top Gun course, offered to only a very few select F-4 crews, who then refreshed their squadrons with what they had forgotten (or never learned) about the art of dogfighting, was only necessary because the US Navy had not fully trained (or equipped) its pilots in the essentials of close air combat. In effect, at least in the beginning, it might be considered a remedial course (not the so-called “Ph.D.” in air combat tactics) that taught US Navy pilots many of the tactics that the Israelis apparently learned years before, even though both countries were fighting air wars since 1966.

The impact of Top Gun, within the limits of Vietnam, is frequently overstated. As Hallion enumerated, even with Top Gun graduates in the skies at the end of the war, the overall victory-loss ratio for all US Navy and US Air Force F-4 crews in Vietnam was still disappointing (it never topped 3.38: 1. The 12:1 ratio some pundits offer only applies to Top Gun graduates collectively, a very small number of men). Shuger added that “Schools like Top Gun are considered such plums that entrance to them is generally restricted to the career-committed ‘top one percenters…’” and that it is not really necessary for promotions because “as long as an officer shows minimal competence in his specialty, he will probably continue to move in step with his peers for a long time, even if his overall military development is totally arrested. All he has to do is come to work and get more senior.” “So,” he chided, “the great majority of Fleet Average Aviators have been given no good reasons to care about the real nuts and bolts of the next war. For them, flying is prestigious and fun. Isn’t that enough?” He also said, “Working on your landing or other airmanship skills show you have the Right Stuff. Working on your knowledge of enemy tactics and weapons doesn’t. That’s why most fleet pilots know less about what they’d face in combat than they do about suburban real estate prices.”

That 3.38:1 ratio may not truly reflect the skills of the US Navy crews because it includes both Navy and Air Force F-4 crews, and the Air Force, remarkably, was slower to provide its pilots with advanced ACM training. Even if we discard the Rules of Engagement and SAM issues, Navy pilots in general lacked the training and weapons necessary to excel in close combat, and thus probably would not have achieved the same exchange ratios as the Israelis. And despite launching Top Gun, the top ace of the war was nevertheless a North Vietnamese pilot named Nguyen Van Coc, with nine air-to-air kills (including several F-4 Phantoms). All together, North Vietnam produced 16 aces, whereas the US Navy took seven years to produce its first and only ace team (pilot Lt. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and his Radar Intercept Officer, Lt. J.G. Willie Driscoll) who together were credited with five victories. The Vietnamese pilots had a certain advantage in that they stayed with their units and engaged in combat for longer periods of time than US Navy pilots. As we will see later, the relatively fast rotation of American pilots from unit to unit has been a serious problem. Cunningham and Driscoll earned distinction by shooting down three Migs in one day, but in turn were shot down that same day by a North Vietnamese SAM. Not exactly a Hollywood story, but they were the best the US Navy produced, and Cunningham was a Top Gun graduate.

All this makes the US Navy look pretty bad in comparison to the Israelis, but is it a condign comparison? Some say that the two organizations and the conflicts they have engaged in are apples and oranges, and perhaps they are correct, at least to a certain extent. This does not let the US Navy off the hook, or allow it to disculpate itself though, because it is also fair to say that the Israeli air combat record is second to none in the post-war era, whereas the US Navy’s record is considerably more mixed. Lehman was not just being kind when he said that the Israeli Air Force is “Damn good.” In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, “The Israeli Air Force had the fastest turnaround time from takeoff to takeoff of any nation on earth,” declared American author Rodger Claire. Analogously, the Israeli student pilots who converted to the F-16 in the late 1970s astounded their US mentors with their in-depth technical knowledge of the aircraft, and often knew more about what-was-to-them the brand new F-16 than the experienced American instructor pilots did.

To summarize, most analysts would concur that the Israelis have been highly successful. Contrarily, a goodly number of analysts would also agree that US naval aviation has suffered many setbacks and humiliations over the years, and has had to open special schools to rectify its self-admitted deficiencies. Finally, it would be very difficult to accept that US naval aviators were or are better-trained than their Israeli peers, especially in 1983, and considering the US Navy’s combat experience over Vietnam, this in itself should be a disgrace. The core issue here, or so it seems to me, is an apparent inability or unwillingness to learn from mistakes in the long run. Lieutenant Dave Draz, US Navy, served as an exchange pilot in the RCN in the 1950s, and he cut to the heart of the matter: “I soon learned that the RCN worked just as long and as hard hours as the USN, and just as skillfully. But more importantly, I became ware that ‘lessons learned’ were a part of every day life in the RCN. Quite frankly, while the USN was speaking around the clock, the next op order was being written by staff types with little or no attention being paid to the trials, tribulations and errors being made as events went on. Hence the USN was committed to making or repeating errors without taking any time to say ‘what if we did it this way.’”

Now let us briefly compare this somewhat negligent US approach to learning lessons with that of the Israelis. As Cockburn alluded, during the Six Day War, Israel lost one of its largest ships, a destroyer, to Egyptian anti-ship missiles. The Israeli Navy learned its lesson and promptly implemented a solution “by scrapping their few large destroyers and rebuilding their navy around small, fast, and highly maneuverable patrol boats.” Although the Israeli Navy is not in any way comparable to the US Navy in terms of missions, responsibilities, or strategic purpose, this example does show that one navy is capable of intelligent and rapid change, even if it means sacrificing the greatest symbols of naval might available (Germany’s Admiral Doenitz once thought about getting rid of his navy’s big surface ships too, but was talked out of it by his fellow admirals). The Israelis do indeed learn from their mistakes. One cannot always same the same for the US Navy.

Unlike Israel, Chile is not a great military powerhouse, but its air force is well trained, and they too have given the US Navy reason for pause. In the August 1989 issue of Air Combat magazine, author Jeffrey Ethell reported that Chilean Air Force pilots, flying the relatively unsophisticated but nimble F-5E, had trounced an American carrier air group and its hauteur confidence (including F-14s and F-18s) from the USS Independence in air combat exercises. The initial kill ratio was reported as 56:16 in favor of the Chileans, although later revised to 36:20, and as one might expect, this incident did not receive much press coverage in the United States.

It should be noted that in this exercise, not unlike the one with the Israelis previously discussed, pilots were not allowed to engage targets that were Beyond Visual Range (BVR), which obviously restricted the use of the US Navy’s long range Phoenix and Sparrow missiles. In addition, aircraft were not permitted to engage in “head-on” or “face to face” missile attacks, which meant that pilots had to maneuver into missile firing position behind the enemy, in the target’s rear quarter. Now this raises an interesting question; namely, were these restrictions unrealistic? In my view, the answer is not really. After all, US fighters in Vietnam and elsewhere were not permitted to engage in BVR combat, and even in Operation Desert Storm, most of the US air combat kills were achieved within visual range out of concern about possible fratricide. And as Riccioni pointed out earlier, the Phoenix and Sparrow missiles are far less reliable than the shorter-ranged Sidewinders, which both sides used in this exercise. Riccioni also mentioned that no one has yet come up with a truly reliable way to differentiate between friends, foes, and neutral aircraft with anything except the Mk. I Eyeball, which is also not perfect (recall the 1994 case in which US F-15s came within 1,000 feet of US helicopters, mistook them for Iraqis, and then shot them down with missiles).

This being the case, firing at targets that are BVR, especially with a $1.9 million Phoenix, or the $386,000 AMRAAM, is likely to remain risky, certainly expensive, and therefore, often discouraged in real life and in exercises. As for the restriction on using missiles against the enemy’s forward quarter, once again, Riccioni pointed out that “Good Navy pilots, smart pilots, prefer to remain away from the enemy’s lethal forward quarter”, and the vast majority of air-to air kills in modern combat have been secured by attacking the rear quarter anyway, so this too was probably of no great salience. Ethell reported that the Chileans got the jump on the F-14s and F-18s by listening for (and hearing from quite a distance) US radar emissions while simultaneously keeping their own radars on “standby” and flying low to avoid detection themselves. In this scenario, the Chileans attacked from the rear quarter anyway, as it was an ambush, not a joust, so the restrictions on the usage of the Sparrow and the Phoenix mentioned earlier would, in all likelihood, be mostly irrelevant in many of the individual engagements. Victory in air combat frequently depends on the element of surprise, which the Chileans definitely had and ruthlessly exploited in this scenario.

Surprise, said Fallows, remains the key to victory in air combat. As he pointed out, “The most lethal ‘ace’ of all time, the German flier Eric Hartmann, did everything he could to avoid prolonged ‘dogfight’ engagements. He claimed that of the 352 planes he destroyed during World War II, fully 80 percent were ‘kills’ by surprise. On the allied side, one air commander filed a report in 1944 that might as well have been taken from accounts of Korea or Vietnam: ‘90 percent of all fighters shot down never saw the guy who hit them.’” The problem with BVR, Pierre Sprey indicated, “is that the other plane is also looking for you, and these same radar systems serve as giant beacons, alerting any other plane in the region to your presence. If other planes are equipped with a “radar warning receiver” (that is, a ‘fuzz-buster’), they are quickly aware that someone is beaming radar toward them, and from what direction. The price of powerful radar, then, is to sacrifice off the top the element of surprise that determines 80 percent of all results. And for what? In Vietnam as in all other recent wars, the great majority of ‘kills’ was not based on radar detection but on the pilot’s own visual observations.”   

The Chileans quickly took down two F-18s, and they were very surprised at how easy it was to detect, stalk, evade, and kill F-14s in particular (The F-14 is a much larger aircraft than the F-5, and thus easier to find). Ethell also noted that the Chilean pilots ranged from very experienced to relative novices, so they were not an elite unit, yet he described them as being as good as or better than the intrepid and highly trained US “aggressor” squadrons. This outcome tends to support Nordeen’s consentient statement of 2004 that “It has been demonstrated during air wars of the past 50 years that skill, determination, and effective battle planning and tactics have allowed pilots of an outnumbered force of inferior aircraft to overcome the odds and emerge from an air battle – if not an air campaign – as the winner.”

The legendary Late Colonel John Boyd, USAF (Retired) was no fan of swing-wing airplanes like the Navy’s F-14, and there was much criticism of the F-14 in his 2002 biography. “Hollywood and the movie Top Gun notwithstanding, the F-14 Tomcat is a lumbering, poor-performing, aerial truck. It weighs about fifty-four thousand pounds. Add on external fuel tanks and missiles and the weight is about seventy thousand pounds. It is what fighter pilots call a “grape”: squeeze it in a couple of hard turns and all the energy oozes out. That energy cannot be quickly regained, and the aircraft becomes an easy target. Navy admirals strongly discourage simulated battles between the F-14 and the latest Air Force fighters. But those engagements occasionally take place. And when they do, given pilots of equal ability, the F-14 always loses.” In 2003, for instance, Robert DeStasio confirmed that USAF F-15s took on Navy F-14s in a series of three “2 versus 2” engagements, in which all the F-14s were targeted, and no F-15s were lost. Studies have also indicated that although both the F-14 and F-15 are complex and unreliable aircraft, the average number of daily sorties that an F-14 can fly is just .028, but the F-15 can fly roughly 0.5 (and the less sophisticated land-based fighters, like the F-5A, can fly 1.25 sorties per day). All this lends support to what even the former CNO, the Late Admiral Ernest King, USN, quietly admitted in World War II, that land-based aircraft are, in fact, naturally “superior” to carrier-based planes. The USAF certainly played the dominant role in the air war during Desert Storm, even though several carriers were involved.

The F-14 is now fading into the pages of history, and it is being replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. While certainly much newer than the F-14, some say the Super (expensive) Hornet is no improvement over the existing F/A-18C/D, or the F-14 itself, in fact in many parameters, it is actually less capable than its predecessors. Critics have roasted the new aircraft for its compromised “do-it-all-with-one-platform” philosophy, and in 1999, the US Marine Corps even stated that it would flat out refuse to buy the aircraft. Even compared to the stylish but overpraised F-14, the ill-regarded and oversold Super Hornet falls short in key areas. Consider payload and range, for example. Said Bob Kress and Rear Admiral Paul Gillcrist, US Navy (Retired) in 2002, “Though it's a whizzy little airshow performer with a nice, modern cockpit, it has only 36 percent of the F-14's payload/range capability. The F/A-18E Super Hornet has been improved but still has, at best, 50 percent of the F-14's capability to deliver a fixed number of bombs (in pounds) on target. This naturally means that the carrier radius of influence drops to 50 percent of what it would have been with the same number of F-14s. As a result, the area of influence (not radius) drops to 23 percent!”

“The Super Hornet program is still not the performance champion among combat aircraft,” echoed another critic, Bill Sweetman, in 2004. “The F-15 and Rafale will carry more weapons and fly farther, and the Rafale, F-16, and Typhoon will out-accelerate and outmaneuver the F/A-18E/F at high speeds.” Stan Crock pontificated that a great many naval aviators appear to be quite unimpressed with the new airplane, and consider it a step backward, not forward: “‘If the Joint Strike Fighter dies,’” frets one airman, “‘we're stuck with the Super Hornet.’”

One cannot talk about modern Navy fighters for very long without bringing up the movie that made them famous. Top Gun is just a movie, clearly, but it was made with the full cooperation of the US Navy, which then exploited its popularity to boost recruiting. “Indeed the Navy liked the film so much that Navy recruiters set up recruiting booths inside some theaters that were showing the film. According to the Navy, recruitment of young men wanting to become naval aviators went up 500 percent after the film was released,” said David L. Robb in his book Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies. Thus, it is probably fair to say that this film and the perceptions it created were quite influential in the United States. This movie was very much directed by the Pentagon, but Robb noted that most Americans “have no idea that the government has any say whatsoever in the content of films and TV shows.” But it does. In order to make use of Navy aircraft, bases, personnel, and such, movie producers must surrender some of their creative license to Navy officials who act, in effect, as script censors, removing scenes and dialog that might reflect poorly on the US Navy. When it comes to Hollywood productions, the Pentagon will indeed “change the facts to make the military look better than it really is.”

In Top Gun, the Navy nixed early story ideas about a mid-air collision and told the producers to change Kelly McGillis’ dishy and toothsome character (Charlotte) to a civilian so it would be safe for the Tom Cruise character (Maverick, a naval aviator) to court her. Curiously, though, several not-at-all favorable elements were left untouched and uncut by the Navy. The dentigerous Maverick, in his gossypine white Navy uniform, followed Charlotte into a Ladies’ Room at the WOXOF Lounge at Miramar NAS, and propositioned her. Maverick, a brilliant flyer with somewhat of an Icarus complex, is depicted as emotionally unstable, unreliable, glory-seeking, sophomoric, insubordinate (his wearing of that colorful leather flight jacket off base was against regulations), undisciplined, ungentlemanly, immature, reckless, overly aggressive, and “dangerous and foolish.” His trusty Radar Interceptor Officer and sidekick, Goose, is more mature and responsible then Maverick, and serves as the voice of reason, but is killed off for dramatic purposes. Despite these massive character flaws, Maverick is only slapped lightly on the wrist for his many, many transgressions, and nevertheless becomes a hero for his unyielding and unpredictable flying skills. The US Navy apparently had no problem with this. No matter what Maverick tried to do, he always got away with it, and was even rewarded. To some cynics out there, this sounds reminiscent of the USS Vincennes incident, in which members of the crew received citations for shooting down an Iranian airliner.

Unhappily, the relationship between Top Gun and the Navy goes far beyond recruiting and aerodynamic showmanship, however, because as Oscar Wilde once said “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.” Case in point, said Diehl, is the behavior of real Navy fighter pilots after Top Gun became a hit: “Navy Secretary John Lehman (himself a party-loving Navy flier) was once photographed congratulating Tom Cruise, star of the block-buster movie Top Gun. In the film, the Tom Cruise character flies the F-14 Tomcat at the Navy’s elite fighter weapons school. Cruise’s character repeatedly takes chances, such as buzzing an air traffic control tower. He enjoys being called dangerous and flies ‘at the edge.’ Unfortunately, the real Tomcat fliers would try to emulate this devil-may-care Hollywood image. The F-14 mishap rates would more than double in the years following the movie’s release – in numerous not-so-great balls of fire, to borrow from the Jerry Lee Lewis song in the soundtrack.”

There are other things one will not see in a Pentagon-controlled movie like Top Gun. Take the French Navy, for example. The French military and its technologies are often completely and utterly disparaged in the US, which is strange in that,

a)      French ships, ground forces, and gunpowder proved instrumental in defeating the British during the American Revolution,

b)      that the Emperor Napoleon once conquered much of western and central Europe, and has been described as a “military genius” by many, including Americans like Jay Luvaas, Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army War College,

c)      that as David F. Trask (Chief Historian at the US Army Center of Military History) once said, US units were heavily dependant on French weapons, ammunition and training during World War I,

d)      that in the final months of the same war, said Trask, the French Army captured many more prisoners and guns (139,000 and 1,880, respectively) than the Americans did (43,000 and 1,421, respectively),

e)      that the French invented ASW sonar, hydroplanes, compressed air-activated ballast tanks, altimeters, seaplanes, gyroscopes, parachutes, diesel engines and SCUBA equipment, and the famous Mirage III aircraft, which the Israelis used to absolutely dominate the skies over the Middle East in 1967,

f)       and that, as John Lehman said, “the origins of the U.S. Navy owe much more to the French Navy than to the Royal Navy.” Please note that I am not saying the French are wonderful; merely that their poor reputation in the US may not be fully deserved.

Be that as it may, the French Navy recently also scored some points against US Navy fighters. In December 2002, a French magazine reported that Rafales from the much derided new carrier Charles de Gaulle tangled with American F-14s and F-18s from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the combat-proven US Navy planes got their money’s worth out of the novice French fighter: “According to the 12F pilots, the low-speed maneuverability of the Rafale surprised their American counterparts. ‘Results were positive,’ modestly adds Lieutenant Commander (Philippe) Roux…. ‘Our training focused on close combat, which emphasizes the Rafale’s maneuverability, including rate of turn, turning radius, acceleration, deceleration and vertical maneuvers… The Rafale proved superior in each of these areas. The American F-14s and F-18s are proven, high-performance machines, and their crews know them inside-out, but they are still previous generation planes.” Another French publication also noted in 2004 that “The results of engagements against other fighter aircraft used by allied countries exceeded the highest expectations. According to the pilots of 12F Squadron, the Rafale is indeed an exceptional aircraft, and the score of victories obtained against F-14 Tomcats, F-15 Eagles and F/A-18 Hornets is remarkably high.”

US naval aviation is truly “up the creek without a paddle” these days, even against the allegedly inferior French military, but the fact is that US naval aviation has had serious deficiencies for many years. In 2000, Burns rued “We are a much less effective force than we were seven or eight years ago.” “At the start of the Kosovo conflict, says Burns, who at the time was stationed at the Strike Weapons Tactics School in Virginia Beach, U.S. Navy pilots hadn't been trained in using laser-guided weapons. ‘That's why we had such high miss rates in the opening phases of the war. We had to dispatch someone [to tutor pilots] in laser-guided bomb delivery techniques.’ Burns, who retired in 1999, says that when he last served on the Eisenhower in the Mediterranean, the carrier was ‘undermanned’ by 450 to 500 sailors. ‘They didn't have enough people to keep the [approach] radar fully manned at all times.’ If the weather closed in, he adds, someone would have to be sent down to the bunkroom to wake up a radar operator. ‘The Navy says operations are safe. But they aren't safe. Planes were running out of gas and they couldn't come on board.’ Flight training hours have been cut back so much, says Burns, that the last time his carrier fighter squadron went on deployment, its aviators were only getting 10 to 15 hours a month.” Under these circumstances, it should not be shocking to hear that during the Bosnian campaign of the 1990s, US Navy carriers were only able to generate 8,290 sorties, far less than the French Air Force (12,502), the RAF (10,300), and of course, the mighty USAF (24,153).

In September 2000, Lieutenant Commander Steve Rowe, US Naval Reserve, desponded that “During my 12 years as a naval flight officer, I took great pride in the unique contribution of naval aviation. Navy air was the nation’s enabling air arm. This unique capability is arguably no longer credible today. And will almost certainly become a paper tiger in the near future. Why? Because the leaders of naval aviation and the Navy as a whole have forgotten what the Navy is about. In the mad rush for dollars in an underfunded military, the leaders have neglected our core competencies, and grossly unbalanced support and force protection capabilities to favor strike aircraft.” In so doing, as noted earlier, the Navy has gutted its ASW aviation assets, but one might disagree with Rowe’s statement that the US military is underfunded. How is this possible, when the US military budget will soon be equal to the military budgets of every other country in the world combined? What this suggests is that even outspending the rest of the world is not enough if the money is not spent wisely. The cuts in flying hours have continued, even after President Bush took over and dramatically increased the defense budget. As Captain Bob Scott, SC, US Navy, said in 2005: “The Navy flew 17 percent fewer hours in fiscal 2004 compared to fiscal 2003 and has forecast slightly fewer flying hours in fiscal 2005.” Without a doubt, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a drain on the budget, even though so far the US has not lost very much equipment or very many personnel in either of these theaters, at least compared to what it lost in Vietnam, where thousands of US planes and helicopters were destroyed, and almost 60,000 US personnel died.

Given the multiple Achilles Heels already documented in US naval aviation, it may not be terribly preternatural that a few contemporary naval aviators now bestow great esteem on their historic rival, the USAF. The perceptive Commander Bob Norris, US Navy, flew F-18s in the Navy and also did a three-year exchange in the USAF, flying F-15s. When asked if an aspiring fighter pilot should go to the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy in Colorado, he actually encouraged the prospect to consider the USAF. Incredibly, for a naval officer, Norris was quite enthusiastic about the USAF: “The USAF is exceptionally well organized and well run. All pilots are groomed to high standards for knowledge and professionalism… Their aircraft are top-notch and extremely well maintained… Their enlisted personnel are the brightest and the best trained. The USAF is homogenous and macro. No matter where you go, you’ll know what to expect, and you’ll be given the training and tools you need to meet those expectations.” The Navy, he said is “heterogeneous and micro… Your squadron is your home; it may be great, average or awful. A squadron can go from one extreme to the other before you know it… The quality of the aircraft varies directly with the availability of parts. Senior Navy enlisted are salt of the Earth; you’ll be proud if you can earn their respect. Junior enlisted vary from terrific to the troubled kid the judge made join the service… The quality of training will vary and sometimes you’ll be in over your head…” The only truly positive aspect of flying in the Navy, according to Norris, was that “You will fly with legends and they will kick your ass until you become a lethal force.” So, in Norris’ opinion, unlike the US Navy, USAF training and aircraft are consistently excellent, and USAF enlisted people are better trained than Navy personnel. “Bottom line, son, if you gotta ask… pack warm & good luck in Colorado.”

Major Gregory Stroud, Arizona ANG, a former Navy pilot, “jumped ship” to fly F-16s in the Air National Guard in 1988, and he too was less than exuberant about naval aviation. Major Stroud has the great distinction of graduating from both the Navy Top Gun course and the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, and his comparison of the two courses was not flattering to the Navy. “The F-16A School (Air Force) was a much more comprehensive and difficult school which takes five months to complete and covers every tactic and mission the F-16 is capable of… Top Gun was fun and easy in comparison.” This news about Top Gun being overrated will surprise a lot of Americans, as will the disclosure that in 1999, the finest air combat training facility in the US was not at the Top Gun school, nor any of the other naval air stations, for that matter. No, that honor actually went to the Air National Guard’s Combat Readiness Training Center in Alpena, Michigan. According to James McCrone, of National Guard magazine, the technology provided to the part-time airmen of the Air National Guard at this range would have made Maverick and Iceman quite jealous….

Lack of Training, Overrated Technology, Bad Policies, and Technocratic Leadership

Despite its vastly superior numbers, resources and expensive weapons, the US Navy, the world’s only true heavyweight navy, continually fails to vanquish welterweight and lightweight naval powers. This would indicate that training and good officers, not big, expensive ships and bloated budgets, are the key to naval power. It is training, or lack thereof, that truly undermines the performance of the US Navy.

For example, even though the United States maintains the largest submarine fleet in the world (because the Russian fleet is mostly tied up at dockside), American submariners do not currently receive escape training. The Canadian submarine force has only 4 boats, and yet it has managed to acquire the most advanced submarine escape training facility in the world. In November 2003, it was reported that the US Navy was considering sending its submariners to Canada for escape training. (According to Karam, the US Navy closed its free ascent training facility, but even if it had been open during his tour of duty in the late 1980s, he, an enlisted “Nuke,” would not have received such training because the US Navy apparently felt that only the non-nuke sailors, and the officers, needed it). I for one think it is rather strange that the richest kid on the block might need to visit his poor cousin to go swimming. The British also have an excellent submarine escape training facility, and after touring that facility, Truscott remarked “it is hard not to be impressed with the quality of training offered to British submariners.” One can only imagine his reaction if he knew that American submariners no longer receive this kind of training.

In response to these criticisms, some US Navy boosters will say, defensively, that the number of days spent underway (“steaming days”) per year is strongly correlated with the overall combat readiness of a navy, and by that standard the US Navy does very well, and I agree. Yet, if the number of steaming days in itself is a true stand-alone way to evaluate readiness, then probably the best-trained navy in NATO in the late 1990s was the pocket-sized Belgian Navy. In 1996, a US Navy officer visited a Belgian ship during exercises in the Baltic Sea, and reported that “Belgian sailors seem never to stop sailing,” averaging 280 steaming days a year. The following year, the US Navy average for deployed ships in the Atlantic was only about 200 steaming days, and in Operation Desert Shield/Storm, elderly Canadian ships detached to the Multinational Interception Force in the Persian Gulf maintained higher “on station availability” than did the US Navy ships, and were praised by US Navy senior officers for being “an example for others to follow”. In 1990, authors Dunnigan and Nofi rated the Royal Navy’s overall seamanship as superior to that of the US Navy, but then that really should be no surprise.

The US Navy also opines that its officers and crews are the most professional in the world, yet media reports have indicated a startling number of American ship commanders have been fired or suspended in recent years, including the captain of the carrier John F. Kennedy, whose ship collided with a small dhow in the Persian Gulf in 2004. Accidents happen in every navy, as was the case in Canada with the recent disaster aboard the submarine HMCS Chicoutimi, but in his discussion on why so many US Navy commanders are getting fired, Raymond Perry said "I believe that the spate of CO firings is an indicator of the decline of professional warfighting skills of naval officers." Perry, who served for 29 years as an officer, said that when he was at the US Naval Academy in the 1950s, one of his professors observed "operational competence was no longer a true priority in the US military."

This assertion was verified by Rear Admiral Jeffry Brock, RCN (Retired), who reminisced about an exercise he observed in the 1950s. During the initial phase of the exercise, he reported that the US Navy Admiral (and staff) commanding the US Second Fleet, whilst en route to the UK, “lost almost two-thirds of their own forces. Furthermore, the exercise referees concluded that most of this damage to the United States Atlantic Fleet had been brought about by disastrous mismanagement and the misdirection of their own attack forces." Brock also let on that, even before losing most of the US ships in simulated combat, the American admiral had asked him to discreetly arrange for a Canadian ship to "pass across one or two charts of the northern-west approaches to the United Kingdom and the entrance to the Clyde." (Note that this happened after the fleet was already underway). Brock obliged, and soon thereafter, he observed something peculiar -- helicopters from the Saratoga were frantically delivering hand messages to the rest of the US Second Fleet. Then someone quietly informed him of what he had already suspected, that "the whole United States Atlantic Fleet had sailed without proper charts of their destination," and the Canadians had saved the day. Brock concluded, laconically, "I was appalled." He also said the American version of the post-exercise review was, to put it mildly, “a white-wash.”

That was more than forty years ago, and perhaps not much has changed since. Both the professor and Perry argued that then and now, political maneuvering and impressing the brass take priority over war-fighting skills in the peacetime US Navy. Many conscientious officers quietly agree with them. The reason why stultifying careerism runs rampant among US Navy officers is directly related to the Navy’s “Up or Out” policy, enacted in 1916, and used in all branches of the US military. This system, unlike those used in other English-speaking navies, requires US Navy officers to be promoted “on schedule” or face early retirement. This in turn creates insecurity, competition, a desire for impossible perfection, which in turn encourages dishonesty, a zero-defects mentality, which applies to everyone except the crew of the USS Vincennes (more on this in a minute), and ticket-punching taken to almost absurd levels. This American ticket-punching bemused Brock during the Korean War: “…I was intrigued by the frequency with which the command and fleet organization structure would be changed. I was eventually forced to the conclusion that much of this was due to an American desire to give as many senior officers as possible what they called ‘battle command experience.’ But it happened with such regularity and for such periods that it accomplished little for the war effort except to confuse this peregrinating band of heroes as much as it did the rest of us. Furthermore, there was no enemy at sea to provide the ‘battle experience.’ I believe, however, that these movements of USN ships and Flag Officers in and out of the war zone also had something to do with the kind of paper records needed for promotion – to say nothing of the acquisition of more medal ribbons, for which there was keen competition.”

Interestingly, though, the desire for battle experience is only strong when it is perceived as glamorous and/or career-enhancing. When Admiral Zumwalt was Commander, Naval Forces Vietnam in the late 1960s, he oversaw the brown water navy campaign on the rivers. Zumwalt was utterly dismayed at the poor quality officers that seemed to be prolific in his command. He wrote that “the level of competence hovered around zero. Vietnam was a dumping ground for weak naval officers at the commander and captain levels.” At the headquarters in Saigon, “Many officers were more concerned about their tennis dates and dinner plans than putting out a maximum effort to fight.” As for the reason why this was so, one need consider only thing: “Obtaining good officers was difficult since many good naval officers perceived that Vietnam service would be of no help to their careers, and more likely a step backward. I had always thought that when your country was at war, you sent your best men to fight it. I knew there were personnel detailers in Washington telling good naval officers not to go to Vietnam, and offering them a year at the Naval War College instead. In effect, these military officers were dodging the war just liked the young men who ran off to Canada.” To out it another way, a tour in Vietnam might be a ticket to “Out” rather than “Up” in the minds of these careerists.

This “Up or Out” system also ensures that some of the Navy’s most experienced and mature officers will be lost to the civilian world because, after all, only a very few officers in any navy will ever make flag rank. Even Defense Secretary Rumsfeld trenchantly called the US Navy’s officer promotion policy “lousy” in 2003, yet it remains in place at the time of writing. This is a systemic problem.

In addition, one should also recall the attack on the USS Stark and the shoddy damage control procedures used by her crew (men were fighting fires while wearing improper clothing and there was not enough equipment), the accidental and inexcusable attack on an Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes, and the more recent collision between the nuclear submarine USS Greeneville and a Japanese vessel. When the Japanese government found out that untrained civilian guests were actually at the controls of the Greenville before the collision, they were most undiplomatic. “It is outrageous. The US Navy is slack,” said the Japanese Defence Agency Chief Toshitsugu Saito in response. Also note that the Japanese have gone through this before: “In 1981, the nuclear submarine USS George Washington, en route to a liberty port, hastily surfaced in the East China Sea. It rammed and sank a Japanese freighter. Unbelievably, the sub did not report this collision until the next day.”

Paul Beaver, Military Editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly, told National Public Radio’s Lisa Simeone in 2001 that the US Navy is quite probably the only navy in the world that has a “civilian ride-along program.” Although civilians can visit British and Canadian warships, for example, they may only do so when the ships are at dockside, and they must leave the ships before they get underway. He added that Britain’s Royal Navy would never even consider such a ride-along program because of the inherent risks involved.

Regarding the Vincennes incident, former Chicago Tribune military correspondent Lieutenant Colonel David Evans, USMC (Retired), said it was "An operationally inept tragedy that caused the loss of 290 civilians, when the skipper had electronic (transponder) evidence that the 'target' was not an Iranian F-14 but a commercial airliner, not to mention that the captain was in Iranian territorial waters, where he had no business being since he was not under attack. Many US Navy officers feared this sort of thing could happen, calling their apprehension a case of 'Aegis arrogance.'" Even though nearly 300 innocent civilians were killed, the captain of the Vincennes, who also ignored a direct order to hold her position, was soon decorated with circumstantially dithyrambic praise in the form of the Legion of Merit for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of an outstanding service."


Shuger stated that the Vincennes tragedy was bound to happen sooner or later because “During my own experience in the Navy from 1979 to 1983, I repeatedly found defects in the Navy’s planning and preparation, defects that were individually exasperating and, collectively, indicate that the mental confusion on the Vincennes was especially severe but not uncommon.” He also said that this incident “offers an illustration of how the Navy’s readiness problems stem from human, rather than mechanical, deficiencies,” and as an example, he offered the following: “In reacting to what it took to be an Iranian F-14, the Vincennes crew displayed inadequate knowledge of a US-made threat aircraft. Captain Rogers and the crew thought they were aiming at an American-made plane, yet from what we know about what happened aboard, the crew displayed remarkably little understanding of how the F-14 works.” To wit, “The F-14 is a fighter/interceptor designed to shoot down fighters and cruise missiles… In other words, it is not a bomber and the odds of one of its Sparrow missiles successfully looking down into the electronic clutter produced by any body of water and locking onto a surface target are as low as the odds of a torpedo hitting a low flying-plane. In addition, nobody on the Vincennes seems to have noticed that or wondered why the ship’s radar-detecting equipment didn’t spot any sweeps of the unique F-14 radar coming from the blip.” Nevertheless, the airliner was targeted and destroyed.

After the USS Vincennes outrage, many agreed that the impenitent US Navy is fundamentally flawed in a number of cogent areas, and many wondered about the Navy’s so-called “wonder” technology, as well as the training deficiencies outlined above. Actually, many believe that the US military’s claims of a vast “technological edge” over other countries are lacking in substance. Captain Larry Seaquist, US Navy (Retired) said in the 1993 book War and Anti-War that the United States “has no technological monopoly in virtually anything… I’ve never found anyone to respond to my challenge to name three technologies which are under the exclusive control of the U.S. military. There’s nothing left.” In their controversial 1991 book, The Coming War With Japan, authors Friedman and Lebard argued that “the Japanese are in the forefront of high technology maritime construction,” that Japanese destroyers are the equals of US Navy ships (of course, Japan had access to US technology to accomplish this, however, it is rather unlikely that the US would sell Japan sensitive military technology unless US officials knew the Japanese already had the wherewithal to develop it themselves), and that “in certain technologies, such as electronics miniaturization – useful in advanced avionics, and fire-control systems, Japan is ahead of the United States.”

They also described Japan’s indigenously designed Type 90 main battle tank as “the finest main battle tank in the world,” and that with a well trained crew, it would be a very dangerous opponent for the American M-1 Abrams tank. The Russians also have a rocket torpedo, known as the Shkval, which “travels so fast that no US defence or countermeasures can stop it. It is particularly designed to attack large ships like aircraft-carriers. The rocket torpedo also enables Russian submarines with inferior sonar to knock out American subs before the slower US wire-guided torpedoes can hit their target. The Shkval’s high speed means it can punch a hole in most ships without the need for an explosive warhead.” Furthermore, Morin and Gimblett offered that even though Canada sent older ships to patrol the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, the Canadian ships had far better communications equipment than did the US Navy, and unlike the US ships in theatre, the Canadians were able to communicate easily with most of the allied coalition participants.

A British naval officer who recently completed a two-year exchange assignment with the US Navy told me in 2005 that even though he has great respect for the US Navy, “The RN is an incomparably better navy than the USN.” While Burns complained that American ships are sometimes under-manned, which is true, some US Navy units have far too many personnel. Lieutenant Commander Aidan Talbott, RN, described the US Navy as “cumbersome, vastly overmanned, stolidly managed, with massive institutional inertia and hobbled by internal and external politics.” He went on to say that he endured “monstrous levels of inefficiency in many respects” during his two year tour, and that in some ways even the most modern American surface ships were technologically “old-fashioned and manpower intensive” compared to British ships. “The engine control room of my last RN ship, a Type 23 frigate, was much more advanced than the Arleigh Burkes (DDG 51s) I went onboard. T23s and DDG51s are of (again, I think) similar design and procurement vintage yet the Arleigh Burke control room was very much valve wheels and dials compared to a T23 with remote operated control and digital displays. Don't get me wrong - T23s are hardly the latest technology by any means, but it was a significant change from an Arleigh Burke.”

Not only is the US Navy’s technological lead over others now largely illusory, that very technology, which is often used in an attempt to compensate for poor training, can certainly be a weakness and not a strength, especially against an intelligent, and better trained, enemy. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the US Navy, along with many other high technology military organizations, faced a potentially debilitating supply problem related to memory chips. At that stage, the US Navy had become almost totally dependent on Japan for semiconductors, and as TV journalist John Chancellor put it in 1991, “These tiny chips are needed for everything from supercomputers to jet aircraft, and makers of the most sophisticated electronic equipment, including military contractors, must depend on Japan for supplies. You can’t run today’s world without chips, but more and more, the United States, including its military, is dependent on Japan.”

One Japanese politician even said that if Japan decided to sell its memory chips to the Soviet Union rather than the US, the balance of power would have been jeopardized. Thankfully for the US military, the Japanese gradually lost their stranglehold on the semiconductor market, and the American industry rebounded. Notwithstanding this, for a time, the US Navy was almost completely dependent on its former enemy for essential computer hardware, and this supply weakness could theoretically have been exploited by adversaries. Obviously, the US (and all its high technology allies) would have needed to maintain a very good relationship with the officially pacifistic Japanese if they had to fight a protracted war during that era. A small, highly mobile, low technology enemy who had the savvy to exploit a falling-out between the US and Japan could have been very dangerous indeed. An unlikely scenario, yes, but still possible and plausible.

Even with a steady supply of semiconductors, the US Navy’s technology has not always been universally admired. In the early 1990s, for instance, the US Navy was one of more than 30 navies that visited South Africa. The Chief of the South African Navy kept careful notes on all the visiting warships, and the admiral gave the highest points for technology and personnel to the navy that impressed him the most. The winner was not the US Navy, nor the Royal Navy, nor any of the other usual suspects. Instead, the South African admiral gave the top honors to the modest and understated navy of America’s northern neighbor, Canada, for reasons that will be detailed below. This honor confirmed what many knowledgeable and worldly naval experts already knew about the Canadian Navy, whose ships regularly outmatch US Navy warships.

Although most Americans do not associate Canada with high technology military or naval systems, US Navy officers fawned over the new Canadian Patrol Frigates in the late 1990s, frequently stating that they were, in most respects, better than US frigates and destroyers. In a July 1997 report by the US-based Center for Security Strategies and Operations (CSSO), the Canadian Halifax-class frigates were compared to similar vessels from five allied nations. The CSSO argued that the Canadian ship had better self-defense systems than US ships because of its unique “completely automated combat system.” “Of all the frigates analyzed the Halifax class emphasizes survivability to the greatest extent,” the report declared. “The Halifax is the only frigate analyzed that has an advanced, state-of-the-art, fully distributed combat system with a distributed command and control system linked by redundant data buses.”

The Canadian ship was also rated the highest in ASW capability. The US periodical Forecast International chimed in by stating that “…the Halifax class frigates have matured into fine warships. The lead ship of the class has been the subject of unstinting praise from the US Navy, following visits to American naval bases.” In 2004, Wajsman recorded that the Canadian ships have a communication system that is “The envy of many NATO countries. It allows calls to be made from a compact console to anywhere on the ship or to anywhere in the world at the touch of a button. And it operates with multiple inter-face capability.” He also said that the Canadian Zodiac fixed hull light boats are the finest in the world, and that the CANTASS system remains “highly regarded” in the international arena. It turns out that the only major shortcoming of the Halifax-class is that it does not have 3D radar. These capstones were a major coup for a navy with only 9,000 sailors and a 1998-1999 budget of less than $1.5 billion (US).

If one compares the Halifax-class frigate to the US Navy’s premiere destroyer, the Arleigh Burke-class, the Halifax arguably has some distinct advantages in ASW. For example, all the Halifax-class ships have a world-class towed array sonar system, whereas only the first flight of the Arleigh Burke-class ships have a towed array. All the Halifax-class ships have an embarked ASW helicopter (the CH-124 Sea King), which, although quite old and in dire need of a replacement, is large, fully autonomous and therefore able to search for and attack submarines independently. Only the updated version of the American ship (the Flight IIA version) has embarked ASW helicopters, but the Americans prefer not to use their ASW helicopters as autonomous assets but rather as tethered extensions of the mother ships. For ASW, the US Navy LAMPS III SH-60 Seahawk helicopters relay acoustic data back to the ship for processing and receive operational directions from the ship through a datalink, which in wartime could be vulnerable to failure, jamming or spoofing. In doing so, the US Navy LAMPS III helicopter crews are quite limited in taking the initiative, and are not true “force multipliers” like the autonomous helicopters of the British and Canadian navies. Interestingly, although the Canadian Forces make great efforts to remain inter-operable with their American brethren, the US Navy Seahawk failed to impress Canadian officers during the recently completed competition to replace the Sea King. With some exceptions, Canadian senior officers much preferred the European-designed EH-101 Merlin over the American models, but were compelled to accept the Sikorsky H-92 (a larger and improved version of the Seahawk) because the more powerful and capable Merlin was too expensive.

Talbott also noted that US Navy officers were much more familiar with the technical aspects of their jobs than the principles of good leadership, and he felt that officer training is “excessively narrowly specialized,” and “extremely stove-piped.” He suggested that US Navy surface ship sailors are usually not trained to multi-task as well as their peers in the RN: “A British sailor would be trained to multi-task more, running X, W and Z systems whereas my experience was that a US sailor would only be trained to manage Y system. Note that I say it is only what they are trained to do - they may well be as capable given the equivalent training.” Even the US Army, which is also inefficient and oversold, is better at multi-taking than the Navy. In 2003, Nate Orme reported that the soldiers manning the US Army’s experimental heavy-lift catamaran were not like the Navy’s sailors. He said that “Army engineers have to be jacks-of-all-trades. Unlike the Navy, which has a specialist for nearly every task aboard a ship, Army sailors must multitask, since the crew size, about half that of a comparable Navy vessel is small and operational doctrine is still being written…”

Many others have also referenced overmanning and overspecialization in the US Navy, and the Blue Angels are sometimes criticized for this. The US Navy boasts that the Blue Angels flight and maintenance teams are the world’s best, but when one examines their very large, and seemingly bloated maintenance team, one really has to wonder. The Blue Angels perform with only six modern single-seated F-18 jets, whereas the Canadian Snowbirds fly nine two-seated Tutors, which are very much older. In an average year, each team usually does the same number of performances throughout Canada and the continental US (According to the Snowbirds’ official Web site, “On average they will fly approximately 70 air shows at fifty different locations across North America,” whereas in 2004 the Blue Angels were scheduled to fly 70 shows at just 34 locations.) The Canadian team flies more airplanes, and has only two spare planes (the Blue Angels have three) but it still manages with a much smaller maintenance team at each show. When the Blue Angels pilots do an air show, they bring along an additional 35-40 personnel in their very own C-130 Hercules, which, for no practical reason I can think of, is custom-painted in the same blue and gold scheme as the F-18s, but the Snowbirds only need to bring along about 10-11 people and obviously they do not have nor need their very own “airliner” (of course, both teams have more personnel at their home bases).

Clearly, the two-engine F-18 is a more complex aircraft than the 40 year old single-engine Tutor, and that might partially explain the manpower difference (although this explanation failed to fully convince some of the Canadian aviation technicians I interviewed) it is also true that US Navy technicians are very specialized, and as a result they need lots of them to do the same job that just one Canadian technician can do. Said Master Corporal Frank Gough, Canadian Forces, (US equivalent E-4) in 1993, “We have only five major trades which work on the aircraft. We have people who are more diverse and they can work on many systems at the same time.” Note: by 2005, the Canadians had only three major aircraft “maintainer” trades, based on land and on destroyers, whereas the US Navy had seven comparable trades:  

Canadian Forces (Land and destroyer-based)

US Navy (Land and destroyer-based)

Aviation Technician

Aircraft Structures Technician

Avionics Technician

Aviation Machinist Mate

Aviation Electronics Mate

Advanced Electronics Computer Field

Aviation Structural Mechanic

Aviation Ordnanceman  

Aviation Support Equipment Technician

Aviation Electronics Technician


Corporal Wes Cochrane (US equivalent E-3), an Aero-Engine Technician (now reclassified as an Aviation Technician) in the Canadian Forces, told Air Force magazine that US Navy aircraft technicians are awestruck when they meet Canadian technicians to compare skill sets and training. “They’re surprised when they hear me list off the systems that I’m qualified to work on: the engines, drive-train, fuel systems, flight controls, hydraulic systems, and so on. They’re quite amazed,” Cochrane related. In 2005, Canadian Air Force training curriculum developers surveyed and compared Canadian courses with all the other military aircraft technician training programs in the United States, and found that the Canadian Air Force Aviation Systems Technician course provides “the most comprehensive basic aircraft technician training in North America today.” Withal, some Canadian Forces aviation technicians have said that a trained Canadian Private (US equivalent: E-2) is in some ways comparable to an American E-6 in terms of their knowledge of aircraft systems.

Thus the Canadians are practically omnicompetent, while the US Navy training system produces disproportionately large numbers of specialists with relatively shallow and compartmentalized training. If the Blue Angels ground crew were really trained to multitask, as Canadian techs are, they would probably not need to send 35-40 technicians for each performance. Nor would they need 15 crew chiefs, when the Snowbirds have only one. This does not sound like an efficient or cost-effective arrangement, to say the least, and it may have something to do with US government’s policy of using the US military services as “job training” or “make work” platforms for the economically disadvantaged. In other words, the Navy and the rest of the US military often employ more people than they really need so as to provide more employment opportunities to the youth of America. Lieutenant Jason Hudson, US Navy, said in 2003 that the US Naval Service should not be a “Remedial Social Program” for troubled or unemployed youth, but it frequently is, nevertheless.

As for the Snowbirds and Blue Angels aircrew themselves, both are world-class, and very highly trained, although diminished standards were clearly evident in the Blue Angels in the 1990s. In 1996, the Commanding Officer of the Blue Angels, former F-14 pilot Commander Donnie Cochran, US Navy, resigned because he did not feel that his flying skills were up to the task. Other Blue Angels pilots described Cochran as “…a solid but not outstanding pilot who was not of the caliber needed to excel in the extraordinary maneuvers for which the team is famous.” Remember, Cochran was not just a Blue Angels pilot, he was the CO, and as such, he should have been the most experienced and skilled pilot in the squadron. He was not, and it does not reflect well on the Navy or its training and selection systems that he was nevertheless selected to lead the Blue Angels.

Overmanning affects not just the enlisted personnel, but younger officers as well. In 2003, Lieutenant Kevin M. O’Neal, US Naval Reserve, stated that there were only supposed to be 18 officers on his frigate, but there were in fact, 38. In his words: “This situation has serious ramifications. Division officers are showing up to no jobs. On day one, they lose faith in the system. They lose the incentive to work hard because they know the system is going to ask very little of them. ‘What is my job going to be?’ ‘You're going to be the assistant safety officer.’ ‘What does that entail?’ ‘I don't know; you're the first one. Oh, we don't have a place for you to sleep either.’ Welcome aboard.” This means that many officers will be denied the training and experience they need to become leaders because there are simply too many officers and not enough real jobs for them. Ironically, this is not an accident, either. This overmanning is actually the byproduct of a policy intended to improve officer retention. In other words, instead of trying to improve retention, the Navy just commissions more officers than it would otherwise need! O’Neal summed up by saying: “Leaders of the surface warfare community must address this serious issue. We need to reduce first-tour division officer manning on surface ships. More people does not equal better product. I am failing my junior officers. This is not acceptable.”

Overmanning was also a concern for Shuger, who served in an E-2 squadron (VAW-116) aboard the carrier USS Constellation. Even though intelligence officers are not treated with great respect in the Navy, every carrier seems to have far too many of them. “Each squadron had at least one air intelligence (AI) officer and the medium bomber squadrons had two. And the airwing commander has his own intel guy. On top of that aviation complement, the ship had its own intelligence division of several dozen enlisted specialists headed up by a commander and staffer by four or five other officers. And the Carrier Task Group Commander (a two- or three-star admiral) had his own intel staff – usually several commanders and/or lieutenant commanders. On paper, our job was to manage information about any potential task group enemy. But in reality there was rarely enough enemy to go around.” Shuger attributed this “intelligence bloat to “pointless empire-building,” and I think many would agree. It clearly degrades individual training and experience, as O’Neal said, and these are key elements in combat.

I do not like saying this, and I not wish to offend anyone, as members of my family have been attached to the US Navy, but poorly trained and inexperienced personnel are evident in many US Navy units these days. Williscroft said crewmembers of the USS Independence were “poorly trained” in 1998, and this, combined with broken-down equipment, impaired her readiness. Captain Ronald H. Henderson, Jr., US Navy, who took over command of the Kennedy after she failed her INSURV readiness inspection in 2001, had harsh words for some former members of the ship’s company, especially the chiefs and officers. “It was clear to me that there were a few chiefs in Kennedy who were, in fact, incompetent. But there were a lot of chiefs who weren’t getting any support from the chain of command,” he noted. His predecessor, Captain Maurice Joyce, US Navy, was relieved of his command, as was the ship’s chief engineer. “What makes me really upset is when we make the same stupid mistake over and over again,” admonished Henderson.

Stupid mistakes are easy to make when a ship has an inexperienced and undertrained crew. Said Henderson of the Kennedy crew in late 2003, “45 percent of my crew has never been to sea, ever, in any ship, on any ocean.” In 1999, Dorsey reported that 50% of the officers on the destroyer USS Arthur W Radford (a ship that suffered a serious collision) were just ensigns, the lowest-ranking and least experienced officers in the Navy. A 2002 study by the RAND Corporation confirmed that the experience levels of US Navy personnel do not compare favorably with French Navy and British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel. The study compared the skills and experience of US Navy F-18 pilots with RAF Tornado pilots and French Navy Super Etendard aviators, and found that “The British and French pilots have greater experience levels and more continuity in their units than the U.S. pilots.” In the same vein, a visit to a US Navy F-18 squadron by defense analyst Franklin Spinney in 1994 revealed “deteriorating readiness” and alarming training deficiencies. “According to the squadron commander, pilot training (particularly for those junior officers embarking on their first cruise) was barely adequate prior to the deployment… Furthermore, over the last 12 months of the cycle (the last six months of workup plus the six months on cruise), junior officers averaged 100 instead of the normal 120 carrier ‘traps’”. Another report issued in January 2000 confirmed that US Navy pilot skill levels in general were declining at the Navy’s air combat training facility at Fallon, Nevada. As the author noted, “Because incoming pilots are less proficient, Fallon basically uses its first week of flight training to bring pilots up to where they should be.”

The RAND study also compared American P-3 Orion crews and DDG-51 destroyer crews with their French and British ASW counterparts and concluded, once again, that the American ASW crews were, on average, the least experienced and the least cohesive. The French and British units were more cohesive and provided greater continuity because “While the typical career pattern for U.S. Navy officers takes them away from the operational ship world to various headquarters and staff assignments, French and British naval officers may stay in the operational community throughout their careers.” (Note: the French are actually much better than most Americans think. In 1999, the captain of the USS Halyburton, for example, appraised French (and German) sailors as being “the consummate professionals,” and applauded their “crisp radio calls and sharp ship maneuvers.”) Spector noted that even Soviet officers “spent far more time in each assignment than their American counterparts and often remained in the same ship for four or more years.” Soviet officers also stayed in their Navy much longer, on average, than their US Navy peers, with roughly 90% of Soviet Naval officers staying in the service for 20 years or more. And back in the days when Canada still had an aircraft carrier, naval air crews manning the Tracker ASW aircraft stayed together for four years, much longer than their counterparts in the US Navy. This apparently unique 4 year crew cycle allowed the men to form highly cohesive units, and as such those crews were said to be “profoundly superior” to US Navy aircrews in ASW.

One of the main reasons for this lack of continuity is that career US Navy officers are required, by law, to complete “Joint Duty” assignments (in the other branches of the armed forces), which as Perry said in 2005, require “specific education… and years spent away from an officer’s chosen specialty. My own experience has confirmed that this significantly reduces an officer’s available time for professional development in his critical specialty…” Perry also said this was a key factor in the recent and nearly catastrophic accident involving the nuclear submarine USS San Francisco. The CO of the badly damaged ship, which collided with a seamount, he suggested, did not have “enough time on the pond” because of the joint duty obligation. Here we have yet another systemic problem that interferes with training to add to the list.

US Navy enlisted men are also rather frequently shuffled from unit to unit, and new sailors have shorter enlistment contracts than do their counterparts in the French and British navies. The result is low standards of training and professionalism. The constant shuffling or rotation of personnel in the US Navy was a great concern to Gabriel, who said that it prevents people from becoming experts. “Most American officers,” he decried, “are amateurs… Amateurism is, of course, directly associated with rotational turbulence. Officers who move frequently are just about reaching a level of expertise where they can stop learning their job and carry out their tasks effectively when it is time to move to another assignment.” Captain Neil Byrne, US Navy (Retired) said much the same thing in 2001, and Captain Larry Seaquist, US Navy (Retired) also pointed out that during the course of any given year, the average US Navy warship will replace 50% of her crew with newcomers. 

The report also observed that unlike the British and the French forces, US Navy aviation units do not maintain consistent readiness to go into battle throughout the fiscal year. As Scott Shuger said, “Amazingly, it’s not uncommon for navy squadrons to cut back their flight hours drastically or even to be grounded due to the scarcity of aviation fuel near the end of the fiscal quarter. This even happens to squadrons already at sea. Several times during my carrier service we had to drop anchor and wait for more fuel money.” In 2000, an anonymous Navy officer informed Dougherty that during a recent exercise in Asia “five U.S. warships – including the flagship for the U.S. Seventh Fleet—(were) restricted from getting underway due to steaming-dollar shortfalls.” This inconsistent readiness is due to the US Navy’s rigid deployment cycle system and its “training philosophy.” The authors concluded that this “readiness bathtub” has “caused concern at the Chief of Naval Operations level.” The French and British do not have this problem because they do not use “fixed deployment and training cycles” and also because they strive to have their naval and air units consistently ready for combat at all times of the year. Spinney, on the other hand, verified that US Navy carrier-based squadrons receive no combat training at all for the first two months after returning from a cruise, during which “flying operations are limited to maintenance check rides and instrument flight/airways navigation training.”

In the December 2001 issue of Sea Power magazine, moreover, Peterson found substantial differences between US and UK naval training programs, and the differences did not make the US Navy look good. The article told the story of the lessons learned by the crew of the USS Winston S. Churchill, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, as she underwent Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) Tier I training for two weeks in England. The Americans came away deeply respectful of the RN and its highly realistic training regime. Said one US Navy sailor, “The Royal Navy brings realism to the next higher dimension… The aircraft are flying below the bridge wing, the artificial smoke makes you gag, the voices on the ‘comm’ (communications) circuit are harried like they are under attack, and the OPFOR (Opposing Force) seems to come from nowhere – and that is just the Thursday War!” Lieutenant Steven P. Murley, US Navy, remarked “It’s top notch. We’ve done a lot of things we don’t do in the U.S. Navy – an opposed port breakout with aircraft attacking us in the breakwater, for example… Our ORM (Operational Risk Management) would not allow it.” Commander Guy W. Zanti, US Navy also said “This training is outstanding…I’ve witnessed many of the drills firsthand. The antiterrorism and force-protection drills were superb – no other ship in my 19 years of experience has had an antiterrorism and force-protection exercise to the depth and level that this crew received.” The American officers also recommended that more US ships should undergo British FOST training, which is commendable, but one has to really wonder why the United States, the world’s only naval superpower, has to rely on the now second-tier Royal Navy (at least in terms of hardware) for training.

Low Morale, Racism, Drugs, Sabotage, plus a few Illiterates and Felons

"The US Navy is now confronted with pressures...which, if not controlled, will surely destroy its enviable tradition of discipline. Recent instances of sabotage, riot, willful disobedience of orders, and contempt for authority...are clear-cut symptoms of a dangerous deterioration of discipline."

- The House Armed Services Committee’s statement on the US Navy in the early 1970s

There are several other factors that must be considered in evaluating the readiness of the US Navy since World War II. Although most American sailors are decent and hard-working, over the years, a significant number of them have proven to be not only unreliable, but actually detrimental to combat readiness. During the Vietnam era, the combination of institutionalized racism against black sailors, a long unpopular war, the draft, and an over-worked fleet, contributed to serious morale problems, violence aboard ships, disruptions of operations, mutiny and sabotage. In 1971, “The Navy reported almost 500 cases of arson, sabotage, or willful destruction on its ships, while 1000 sailors on the USS Coral Sea petitioned Congress to stop its cruise to Vietnam. These ‘flattop revolts’ expanded the next year, as sailors signed petitions or disrupted operations on the Kitty Hawk, Oriskany, Ticonderoga, America, and Enterprise. Sabotage on the Ranger and Forrestal prevented their scheduled port departures while pilots became increasingly concerned about their role in the bombing campaign and questioned the war openly.” The USS Ranger, one of the mightiest warships in the world at the time, was taken out of action for more than three months, and all it took was a single disgruntled US Navy sailor to do it (who was later acquitted). Suspected sabotage has also been detected on nuclear submarines in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, including the famous USS Nautilus (apparently on more than once occasion), and the USS Spadefish, again, more than once.

These issues are strongly related to an overall lack of motivation. It is safe to say that most sailors in western navies join because their respective navies offer job security, training, and opportunities for travel and advancement. This is true in the US Navy also, but there was one major difference between US Navy sailors and other professional navy men, at least during the 1960s and early 1970s. As Freeman pointed out in his book about the disastrous fire that broke out on the USS Forrestal in 1967, most of the young sailors on the ship went into the Navy simply because they did not want to get drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Many of these young American sailors hated the military and never wanted to join the Navy, but felt compelled to do so to avoid more dangerous duty elsewhere. Like the National Guard and Reserve forces, the US Navy was considered a safe and legal choice for those who wanted to avoid direct combat. In effect, they were, in a manner of speaking, voluntarily “conscripted” into the Navy so that they would not be involuntarily conscripted into the Army. This provides some additional context for understanding why the US Navy had so many personnel problems in the Vietnam era. Every navy has malcontent (although it has been said that Japanese sailors were so loyal to the Emperor during World War II that they had few if any morale problems, even when the tide turned against them), the US Navy had much more than its usual share. For these unmotivated US Navy sailors, sabotage and protests were just a means of registering their dissatisfaction with the draft, and all things military. This is the price a democracy pays when its foreign policy starts taking on seemingly imperialistic undertakings in distant lands.

Making things even worse, during the Vietnam era the US Navy did little to discourage senior, predominantly white, officers, from really and truly living the good life, whilst the enlisted men they commanded, who often belonged to minority groups, toiled in unnecessarily overcrowded conditions below decks. In the case of one carrier task force commander, the admiral’s upscale cabin was described as being “‘like a New York Central Park South luxury apartment… The Admiral’s dining room… could seat ten comfortably around an oval table covered with starched white linen. The silverware was heavy and glistening. The meals were served with painstaking etiquette by white-coated attendants…’” Whilst the admiral lived in relative opulence and dined luxuriously, “‘Belowdecks, the crew was jammed together, 150 men to each open windowless, poorly lighted, ill-ventilated bay. They lived one atop the other, three bunks high, with no privacy and little storage space, with the constant noise of the ship’s operations jarring them. They took their meals in windowless, low-ceilinged mess spaces that doubled as warehouses for the bombs and rockets the airplanes would use.’”

Naturally, disparities between senior officers and enlisted men are found in every fighting organization, but the problem is especially severe in the larger ships of US Navy. This is because larger ships tend to be more socially stratified and less cohesive then smaller craft, and US carriers are by far the largest warships in world. In addition, as Spector told us, unlike some other cultures, Americans tend to be less class-conscious, and do not easily accept that someone is “superior” just because he or she has a higher rank. British sailors, for example, have generally had less comfortable ships, and have many of the same complaints, but “Where the American sailors- and the American public – emphatically differed was that they refused to tolerate the notion that officers were in any way superior to enlisted men, save in rank and responsibility.” Thus perhaps there are luxuries that a British admiral may have that might not be advisable for an American admiral to have.

There are a lot of unhappy people in the US Navy these days, and, as in the 1970s, sabotage is one way of indicating one’s displeasure. Let me be clear that sabotage is not a major problem these days, but every so often, someone does not want to go to sea for yet another six month deployment, and so sabotage pops up from time to time. In a recent case that the Navy called one of “national security,” an American submariner was convicted of 23 counts of “property destruction, conspiracy, theft, obstruction of justice, and drug use.” In 2001, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Cimmino, US Navy, admitted he sabotaged the nuclear ballistic missile submarine USS Alaska. All US Navy personnel serving aboard submarines carrying strategic nuclear weapons are supposed to undergo a most thorough and rigorous screening process, including very intrusive background checks and constant monitoring and surveillance by shipmates and superiors to ensure high reliability and good character. Somehow, the opsimath Cimmino managed to slip through the cracks of the system. In addition to being a saboteur and a drug user, he was also an adulterer (his girlfriend was the wife of another sailor), a thief, and generally a man with little common sense. When he found out that the Navy suspected him of sabotaging the Alaska, he actually “telephoned investigators to ask if the Navy had caught him on videotape cutting cables and wanting to know if polygraph results could be admitted in a court martial.” Cimmino plea-bargained the 23 counts, which could have earned him 300 years in prison down, almost unbelievably, to just five. In some other countries, such as China, such crimes by a sailor would almost certainly invite the death penalty.

Sabotage by American sailors has been a powerful and recurring guest character in the ongoing story of the US Navy (I am now looking into the issue of sabotage in the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Australian Navy since World War II, but have not as yet found anything substantial or concrete on the public record that would match the events described in the US Navy, especially during the draft and the Vietnam eras), but racism, as the Late Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, US Navy, posited, was an “integral part of the Navy tradition” until the early 1970s, and perhaps even later. In 1972, Lehman noted that on the USS Saratoga, “no white officer would walk unescorted on the second deck, where the enlisted mess was. There were many incidents of racially inspired muggings and beating by both blacks and whites and including some officers.” Certainly the institutionalized racism that rocked the fleet in the early 1970s is thankfully no longer so common, blatant or obvious, but morale problems linger for other reasons.

In the past six years there has been compelling evidence of serious morale problems among Navy junior officers. “In the fall of 1999,” reported Jack Spencer of the Heritage Foundation, “the Navy surveyed its junior officers to gauge morale. They expected a 15 percent response rate, but, to their surprise, over 55 percent of those surveyed responded. Of these responses, 82 percent responded negatively. Citing poor leadership, inadequate pay and compensation, and insufficient spare parts and equipment, only one-third said they planned to reenlist.” Notice that the primary reason listed for low morale is “poor leadership,” which, one might suspect, is a nice way of saying “bad senior officers and bad politicians, in that order.” Overmanning is probably also a factor in this equation.

Another problem is the US Navy’s low educational standards for enlisted sailors. In the dark days of the early 1970s, the Navy was forced to accept large number of “Category IV” recruits; the least intelligent people that are allowed to serve. “…in fiscal year 1971, 14 percent of new recruits were classified as in Group 4, while in fiscal year 1972, 20 percent fell in this group.” In 1977, “30 percent of all Navy recruits read below the 9th Grade level, although the majority were high school graduates.” Former Navy Secretary Lehman submitted that in the late 1970s the US Navy enrolled recruits “who were illiterate, convicted felons, drug users, and worse.” In 1985, Gabriel wrote that “the quality of personnel tends to be low” in the US Navy, and that many critical and highly technical positions in the US Navy could not be filled because of a shortage of well-educated sailors. To compensate, the Navy hired civilian CETS (Contractual Engineering Technical Service) people to handle these duties aboard ships. Distressingly, the Navy became dependent on these civilians, who were not under any legal or contractual obligation to stay when the ships deploy. The commanding officer of an aircraft carrier even lamented that he could not take his ship to sea unless he had civilian contractors aboard to maintain some of the ships combat systems. This too, is a serious weakness, although it may not be unique to the US Navy.

The admirals gloried about their “high quality” all-volunteer force in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but in 1993 it was reported that the Navy still had thousands of sailors who could not read material designed for a junior high school audience. The Navy confessed that despite its efforts to attract high quality people, “a quarter of their recruits can’t handle manuals geared to a ninth grade reading level.” These days, the required AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test) scores required to join the Navy are still relatively low. According to Rod Powers, the minimum acceptable score for the Navy is just 35 (and prior to 2003 the Navy’s standard was even lower), whereas the Coast Guard and Air Force each require scores of at least 40. The Navy will also accept 5 to 10 percent of recruits who are high school dropouts with GEDs as long as their AFQT scores are higher than 50. The US Air Force is far more selective, and does a relatively good job at compensating for the unreliable US education system in that it rarely admits anyone who does not have a high school diploma, and even these folks must have an AFQT score of 65 or greater.

Even though the vast majority of American sailors today are high school graduates, it must not be forgotten that due to low standards in the US public school system, “American high school graduates are among the least intellectually competent in the industrialized world.” Correspondingly, and predictably, “Americans are at or near the bottom in most international surveys measuring educational achievement,” especially in math and science. American universities, with some very notable exceptions, are not much better than the high schools as regards producing intellectually competent graduates. With the exception of certain Ivy League schools (but not all of them) and a few others, American universities are generally not very selective. Almost anyone in the US with a high school diploma (and the money to pay for it) can gain admission to a college or a university because many US institutions of higher learning actually have very low standards. “A College Board survey of 2,600 colleges showed that only forty percent required any minimum grade point average for admission and only thirty percent set minimum cut-off scores on the SAT,” said Anelauskas. And while fewer than 10 percent of US high school graduates will get accepted into Harvard, Anelauskas commented that European schools are even more demanding. “According to literacy studies by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, fewer than five percent of American high school graduates would meet the entrance standards of European universities.”

Even some people who graduate from US colleges have very poor reading and critical reasoning skills (and apparently, at a least of few of them have managed to become officers in the US Navy. Karam noted that one of the junior officers on his ship was “barely literate,” and needed his help writing reports). This crisis in education was illustrated well in recent studies by researchers at the Educational Testing Service. According to one of the researchers, “the literacy levels of U.S. college graduates ‘range from a lot less then impressive, to mediocre, to near alarming,’” and as Anelauskas surmised: “Surely if illiterate persons can graduate from American universities, it is not far-fetched to say that something is uniquely wrong with the American education system.” According to the The Times Higher Education Supplement of November 5, 2004, 35 of the 100 top rated universities in the world are in the US, but as Professor David VandeLinde of Bath University has said, there are tremendous variations in quality throughout the US system, and we must temper this statement with the knowledge that the world’s 100 worst universities are probably also American. Grade inflation and easy classes are to be found in almost every major American university these days. Even US doctoral programs, long considered the “gold standard” of education, are sometimes of poor quality, for as sociologist Dr. Barbara Lovitz declared: “Evidence suggests that poor quality dissertations are often passed. Adams and White (1994), in a study that looked at dissertations abstracts, found that a significant number of dissertations that had passed had obvious and sometimes fatal flaws.” Dr Yoon Tae-Hee, President of Seoul University of Foreign Studies and an Adjunct Professor at Clemson University, South Carolina, said in 2005 that "Anyone who is not mentally retarded can get a Ph.D. in the United States."

The Naval Academy itself is also far from innocent in these matters. In 2002, Commander Gerald L. Atkinson, US Navy (Retired), indited "…there is documentary proof of lowered academic standards at the Naval Academy. In 1990, a civilian chairman of the electrical engineering department was relieved of his post in mid-semester because he refused to raise preliminary grades in two electrical engineering courses and refused to raise grading curves 'across the entire (electrical engineering curriculum.)'" Atkinson exhorted further that "It is clear that the U.S. Naval Academy has been slowly and subtly but determinedly lowering standards over time at the Navy's premiere source of naval officers." In a 1996 interview with Annapolis professors, he noted, "They explained that '…fully 30 percent of the midshipmen in their classes were not qualified to be in any college, much less the Naval Academy.'" Finally, "In the early 1990s, the Academy added a Counseling Center, remedial courses, outside contracting for teaching remedial reading and writing… Courses that have been identified as too challenging have been eliminated or 'redesigned to be more reasonable to the needs of today's midshipmen.'" The Naval Academy is still considered to be one of the most selective universities in the United States, and one of the most distinguished.

In sharp contrast are the sailors and officers of today’s Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. Japanese sailors are universally and highly literate, and are exceptionally well-educated. Japanese schools are notoriously tough academically, and “Experts believe that an average high school education in Japan can be equated with an average college education in the United States.” It is very rare indeed to see overweight Japanese sailors, and even now the drug abuse rate in Japan is “still very low compared to that in other counties…”

On the other hand, drugs have most definitely undermined the combat readiness of the US Navy, and the problem was especially noticeable in the 1970s and 1980s. The drug situation aboard ships in the 1970s was described well by Spector: “Cheap and plentiful supplies of drugs were available to sailors when their ships visited Subic Bay and in many Mediterranean ports. Aboard many ships there was an elaborate substructure for the acquisition, concealment, sale, and distribution of drugs. At the top of the underground structure was ‘the boss or head pusher,’ most likely a ‘petty officer of E-4 to E6 level. He is in business for money…’ The head pusher presided over a network of drug runners, addicts, and habitual and casual users… One senior officer noted that at least ‘a few of the more stable and intelligent experimenters and moderate users (may) have become senior petty officers,’ and that abuse among commissioned officers was far from unknown.”

In 1981, it was revealed that 15% of the crew of the submarine USS Parche, including three of her officers, failed a drug test just before a scheduled deployment. The Parche was used for spying operations, and many of these covert visits to Soviet waters were extremely dangerous. Sontag et al. explained that some American submariners turned to drugs to help deal with the stress of dangerous intelligence gathering deployments, or to avoid going to sea altogether. “Parche wasn’t unique in her personnel problems, and the drug bust had intelligence officials worried,” they adduced. “Seawolf’s crew was disintegrating under the mounting frustrations of serving on a broken-down and cursed boat. The pressure inspired some of her crew to lose themselves in a marijuana haze. Some even proclaimed their drug use openly and loudly, just to get off of Seawolf.” (Emphasis mine.) Karam also reported that more than one US Navy nuclear powered ship has been “shut down from time to time because of sloppiness or in one case, (a submarine), for excessive drug use by the crew.”

None of this should be really surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the US Navy for the past 25 years, except possibly Tom Clancy. At that time, “Drug and alcohol abuse was rampant throughout the fleet,” wrote Gregory Vistica. “Forty-seven percent of the Navy’s personnel was smoking marijuana. Another 11 percent was snorting cocaine.” A 1981 crash on the deck of the USS Nimitz killed 14 sailors, and half of their bodies contained traces of marijuana. The Navy introduced mandatory random drug testing to counter this problem, but random testing by urinalysis definitely has its limitations. In recent years, naval aviators, SEALs, and other officers have been arrested for drug trafficking or usage, along with thousands of enlisted personnel (between 2000 and 2003, at least 10,000 American sailors have failed drug tests). Not even the great bastion of American navalism, the US Naval Academy, is immune to the scourge of drugs. In his famous 1971 article “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., USMC, wrote that drug use at the Naval Academy was “anything but unknown,” and almost thirty years later Burns further lamented, “It used to really mean something to be a Naval Academy graduate. In recent years they’ve had pedophiles, car theft rings, drug rings, cheating scandals and murderers.”

Four years ago, Admiral Robert Nader, US Navy, admitted that there is a serious problem with designer drugs like ecstasy in the US Navy. “We have a problem. I don’t want to hide that problem,” he conceded. This problem was evident on the infamous USS Vincennes in November 2004, when a total of 18 sailors were charged with drug offenses. “In one instance, two sailors used drugs while the ship was underway, endangering other crew members and potentially affecting the ship’s readiness.” Notwithstanding this, the Navy’s figures indicate the drug problem has been reduced substantially since the 1980s, but the evidence supporting that claim is quite unreliable, and in a warship disaster can result if even a few sailors are high while underway.

Why am I skeptical of the Navy’s claims of “winning” the drug war in its own ranks? Well, it should be pointed out that certain designer drugs now available pass through the body very quickly, and are more difficult to detect than others by urinalysis. In addition, the drugs of choice have changed since the 1980s. As the American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2002, “Because urine testing is based on an analysis of metabolites associated with the drug in question, and because alcohol and cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine all pass through the body within 24-48 hours, leaving no metabolites, marijuana is the only substance that is easily detected with urinalysis. Drugs that have a more significant impact on employment or work performance, such as alcohol and other illegal drugs, are not effectively tested for with urinalysis.” This, along with the evidence uncovered by a 1994 National Academy of Sciences report that random drug testing actually has little or no deterrent effect, makes it easy to speculate that the number of actual drug users in the US Navy could be much greater than the number that is caught these days. Other navies certainly have drug problems, however no navy in the world is more closely associated with the drug problem than is the US Navy. When one acknowledges that the US Navy has knowingly accepted felons and drug users to fill its ranks, that American teenagers have the highest “alcohol-and drug-abuse rate of any industrial nation,” including liberal countries like the Netherlands, then drug abuse in the US Navy is just another manifestation of a massive US criminal subculture. Drug abuse is undeniably self-destructive behavior, and even the US Congress has proclaimed that America is “the most violent and self-destructive nation on Earth.” For these reasons, I remain unconvinced that the US Navy no longer has a serious drug problem. (In all fairness though, the Soviets/Russians have also had very serious alcohol problems in their navy, too.)

Poor physical fitness is also evident in the ranks of the US Navy. In a 2001 column, investigative journalist John E. Dougherty revealed that a survey conducted by a team of doctors at Marywood University found that many personnel in most branches of the US military were unfit, overweight, and physically inactive. Abdominous US military personnel were almost as unfit and inactive as American civilians, in fact. The survey reckoned, “Military personnel do not exercise any more than the general population, even though some amount of physical training is required in all branches.” This is unsettling news to be sure, especially for Americans, who on average are among the most overweight people in the world (According to the OECD, in 1999, 22% of Americans were obese, versus about 20% in England, about 10% in France, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Norway, and 3% in Japan and Korea.) Dougherty, who served as a corpsman in the US Naval Reserve found a simple, but valid explanation for this embarrassing situation: “Our overweight, undertrained, physically unfit military is little more than a reflection of American society as a whole, I fear.” In 2005, a US Army nutritionist warned that the increasingly mastadonic average American is “quickly becoming a national security issue for us.” As the sage old saying goes, “The apple does not fall far from the tree.”

To put it as delicately as possible, and with all due respect, there is nothing in the US Navy that does not exist in American society, and that includes a substantial and lingering historical legacy of racism, substandard public education, widespread obesity and drug abuse.

What Tom Clancy Does Not Know or Will Not Say…

“We are inclined to overestimate our ability and underestimate our vulnerability.”

-Commander Dale Sykora, US Navy, former skipper of the nuclear submarine USS Dallas, 2004

Through his many best-selling books and movies, author Tom Clancy has created a crisp, sharp, spit-polished, efficient, and patriotic image for the US Navy. Some think he should be a paid public relations consultant or recruiter for the American submarine force. It may come as a shock to some of his readers, however, that the American ships, submarines, aircraft, equipment and sailors in his books are too good to be true. In 2001, Shuger suggested that Americans have placed too much stock in Clancy’s writings, and that is perhaps especially damaging since Clancy has moved from novels to non-fiction. The result, Shuger exclaimed, was that “millions and millions of people… have gotten most of what they know about warfare and the U.S. military from an ex-insurance agent who never served a day on active duty.” Furthermore, “Does he know what he's talking about? He certainly seems to know a lot about how planes, subs, and missiles are supposed to work, and how we and the Soviets intend to use them. And this makes his books that much more seductive. But is there any reason to think that he knows what will happen when those weapons and those intentions are put into the pressure-cooker of combat? The more complex war has become, the more ways there are for missions to go bad, and the graver the consequences. The history of modern warfare is replete with counterexamples to Tom Clancy's vision. The problem is that history hasn't sold 20 million copies. How unlike fiction is real war! Clancy has it in his head--and his readers are getting it drummed into theirs--that the U.S. military is a precise instrument, capable of almost effortless accuracy.”

Luckily, however, Clancy has competition, and what is more the competition is much more candid and realistic. Several recent books have effectively stripped off much of the shiny Hollywood polish on the American submarine force, most notably former Petty Officer Dr. Andy Karam’s account of life on the USS Plunger, Rig Ship for Ultra Quiet (2002), and Douglas C. Waller’s Big Red (2001). Both authors made it known that there is a lot of hype regarding US submarine training, but the reality is much less impressive. As for the legendary assertion that all US submariners are experts on “every system” in their boats, one sailor told Waller that was “All bunk.” Waller explained “The (submariner’s) qualification only made you familiar with the rest of the boat. It didn’t mean you could actually run other parts. If (the sailor) and the other missile techs suddenly died, those nukes in the back wouldn’t have a clue how to fire these rockets.” Former Petty Officer Karam, an Engineering Laboratory Technician, who eventually became a Chief Petty Officer in the Naval Reserve, concurred, and acknowledged that he could only work on other systems “in a pinch.” He continued “The Plunger, and, for that matter, any nuke boat, was sufficiently complex that one person simply could not learn everything to that level of detail in the 14 months we were given to qualify. Not if they were doing their own jobs, too.” One will not find this awful kind of truth in any Tom Clancy book. The non-fiction he produces on submarines is well written and detailed, but it is still essentially, at its core, Navy PR fluff.

British allies, of course, have long ridiculed American submariners for spending too much time and effort on nuclear reactors. Surprisingly, Waller wrote that some US Navy officers quietly agree. The Drill Coordinator on the USS Nebraska, Lieutenant Brent Kinman, US Navy, told Waller that American submariners talk too much about the reactor, like mechanics, and not enough about how to fight the ship effectively: “That was the problem with today’s submariners, Kinman thought. They were technicians rather than warriors. The average lieutenant riding these boats considered himself a nuclear engineer first and a submarine officer second. ‘It almost feels like we’re out there just driving the reactor around…’” Said Spector, “Critics also charged that nucs neglected seamanship and navigation. A report by Commander, Submarines, Atlantic Fleet in 1979 cited fourteen major submarine accidents that were, in whole or in part, dues to ‘less than sufficient performance with respect to seamanship.’ A retired nuclear submarine skipper declared than ‘an American submarine might run aground due to total incompetence in navigation and ship handling, but the reactor-control division records would be perfect as it hit.’” This overemphasis on engineering might explain why diesel submarines are so often triumphant against American nuclear submarines during exercises.

In his controversial “loved-or-hated” 1986 book Running Critical, Patrick Tyler presented evidence to suggest that the mainstay of the US nuclear submarine force, the first flight of the (688) Los Angeles-class, was not a first class attack submarine, and like the F-4 and the F-14 fighters, it was possibly more expensive than combat effective against potential adversaries. According to Tyler, the Late CNO Admiral Zumwalt was not impressed with these submarines: “To Zumwalt, the 688 submarines were a begotten class; shallow-running, unstable in tight turns, vulnerable at high speed, and too costly for the marginal advance they had given the navy over previous alternatives.” US Navy crews complained that the boats were incondite, built by reportedly lazy and indifferent shipyard workers, and based on a compromised committee-driven design that was demonstrably inferior to Soviet contemporaries in all areas except stealth, and even in that parameter, they were still inferior to diesel submarine contemporaries, of which the Soviets and many others had plenty. The result was a thoroughly mediocre submarine. Karam also thought the original Los Angeles-class boats were less than stellar performers, especially when they were deployed on “spec-ops” (spying). “At the time I was in, LA-class subs were fairly routinely detected on spec-ops – it seems they had a tendency to lose depth control at periscope depth because their fairwater planes were too high on the sail. I understand the improved 688s are better. The USS New York City was apparently detected routinely on one mission every time they streamed their floating wire antenna because sea gulls sat on the wire and hitched a free ride.” Even Admiral Rickover once said, in the early 1970s, when the US Navy was in particularly bad shape, than if he had the choice of commanding either the Soviet or the US submarine fleet in war, he would prefer the Soviet fleet.

Of course, American nuclear submarines have successfully attacked allied surface ships and diesel submarines on exercises too, and it would be unfair and remiss of me not to mention that, but nevertheless many allied and NATO officers are not overly impressed by American nuclear submarines or their crews. Compton-Hall, for example, lavished all but unqualified praise on the Dutch, Canadian, German, Australian, and Scandinavian submarine services, but his comments on the American silent service were decidedly mixed. Praise was included, but it was infrequent and sincerely qualified. For example, like Shuger, he said that the US Navy submariners are superb engineers, “but there is a case for saying that fighting capabilities took second place over a long period during the Rickover reign.” Sprinkled through his discussion on the Americans are terms such as “Rickoverized,” (which means obsessed with engineering), “dogmatic,” “conformism,” “conservation,” and “complacency.” He also took issue with the US Navy’s “habit of overstating fitness reports which is no kindness to the man or to the service. The effects have been felt far beyond deserved or undeserved promotions. A serious result has been that the cold-blooded, highly critical post-attack autopsies to which British command teams are traditionally and often embarrassingly, subjected have generally been avoided. Avoidance has led to over-confidence and lessons not being learned…” Shuger agreed that Navy Officer Fitness Reports are often far from candid. “Almost everyone who hasn’t been court-martialed gets mostly A’s in the set categories. And the narrative material is supplied by the officer himself and then mega-hyped by his immediate superiors into a superlative-soup that renders distinctions difficult.”

This same oblivious behavior was noted by a former captain of the Canadian pocket carrier HMCS Bonaventure, who reminisced back to the year 1968: “I do remember an American nuclear submarine getting his comeuppance when he was attacked by one of our Trackers. They thought they were absolutely foolproof. This guy was discovered, pinged on and attacked and nailed, the whole schmeer, and he couldn’t figure out why. We weren’t anxious to tell him either…” He concluded by saying that the defeated US submariners were amazingly and unjustifiably “overconfident.” And in the joint Indian Navy-US Navy exercise MALABAREX in 2003, the frigate INS Brahamaputra took on the seemingly formidable Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine USS Pasadena. The Indian ship “was able to detect Pasadena ‘from over 8 miles away’, and engage it, ‘getting a mission kill’ in the process,” said the Indian magazine Frontline. It would be reasonable to assume that the crew of that sub was also surprised by the result.

One last thing that you will not find in any Tom Clancy book is any substantive discussion on the US Navy's safety record since the loss of the submarines Thresher and the Scorpion. During the past fifty years or so, it was quite fashionable for US sailors to mock the Soviets, especially as regards to safety. Soviet nuclear submarine reactors were often poorly designed, and not as safe as their American equivalents, and I do not think anyone would dispute that. What some forget, or perhaps discount, is that the US Navy's safety record has also been frequently been called into question.

In both 1989 and 2000, the US Navy has had to order all units to stand-down from normal operations to review basic safety procedures, in both cases, after a string of serious accidents. Everyone familiar with the US Navy knows about the losses of the Thresher and the Scorpion in the 1960s, which forced the US Navy to improve its submarine safety programs, but there have been other, one might say, “near misses” since then that have not gotten quite so much attention. According to Arkin and Handler, in 1973, the USS Greenling sank below her test depth for a short time simply because one of her depth gauges malfunctioned. Such a descent can be fatal, needless to say, but luckily, this time, it was not. In the following month, the USS Guardfish “experiences a primary coolant leak while running submerged… The submarine surfaces and is ventilated and decontaminated, and repairs the casualty unassisted. Four crewmen transferred to the Puget Sound Naval Hospital for monitoring.” This was a serious accident, for as Shay Cullen put it, “Without this vital fluid (the coolant) the reactor will overheat and melt down, the worst nuclear disaster possible…” The crew “barely managed to avoid a meltdown. There was a serious radioactivity leak but what was more serious was the cover up, the deck log book and the command history were falsified.”

In a situation like this, in which there is loss of coolant, the repercussions can be very serious. Said DiMercurio: “The fuel in a nuclear reactor is ‘bomb grade,’ unlike a civilian reactor; it uses U-235, the high-octane variety, instead of natural uranium… If a U-235 bomb-grade uranium core melts in a loss of coolant accident, there is a possibility that it could form a critical mass at the bottom of the core. It is further possible that an uncontrolled nuclear reaction would then take place. In the least likely case, it would explode like a fission bomb and vaporize the ship. In the more likely case, it would cause a ‘prompt critical rapid disassembly,’ which is an uncontrolled runaway reaction that causes the nuclear fuel to thud in less than a full explosion but that is strong enough to blow open the reactor vessel and the hull.”

This is not very reassuring, but there is more. In 1975, “The USS Haddock (SSN-621) develops a leak during a deep dive while on a test run near Hawaii. The U.S. Navy confirms the incident, but denies the vessel is unsafe as crew members had charged in late October. A number of enlisted men had protested sending the ship to sea, claiming it had cracks in the main cooling piping, leaks, and malfunctions and deficiencies in other systems, including the steering mechanism.” Fortunately, there was no loss of life. Interestingly, it should be noted that a near fatal accident on the USS La Jolla in the 1981 was caused by none other than the father of Nuclear Navy, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, US Navy, himself. As Tyler tells it, thanks to Admiral Rickover, a bureaucratic tyrant par excellence, the ship went out of control, and nearly reached her test depth, and if she had continued her uncontrolled dive much longer, “That would have been it – another Thresher.” A few years later, DiMercurio, then a nuclear submarine officer, admitted that he “almost melted down a nuclear reactor,” although he did not say where or how (but he did mention that he served on the nuclear submarines USS Pargo and USS Hammerhead, however). In 2002, additionally, the research submarine USS Dolphin was also nearly lost because of a fire and flooding, and the crew had to abandon ship. And of course, there have been quite a few collisions (more than 20, by some accounts) between US and Soviet/Russian submarines, and while it would be unfair to place the blame entirely on the US Navy, it is well known that “the gung-ho attitude of American sub commanders, who regularly ignored the rule that they should maintain a constant distance from their ‘target’ of at least five miles,” was probably a salient factor.

What does all this mean? It means, by all accounts the US Navy has been lucky, very lucky, for as one US submariner who served on the USS Sargo said in 1983, “I’m really surprised we only lost two subs…There were times when we weren’t sure we were coming back.” As I said before, every navy has accidents, but given that the US Navy has had not one but two official safety stand-downs since 1989, mistaken an airliner for an F-14, and shot it down, accidentally fired a missile at a Turkish destroyer, and let us not forget the 1986 misfiring of a Tomahawk cruise missile by the USS Iowa, (The missile was supposed to fly within the Florida panhandle, but instead veered into Alabama, catching some unlucky marijuana farmers off guard. The Navy, amusingly, tried to pass it off as a carefully planned “drug bust” rather than an accident), one might actually form the impression that the US Navy is somewhat symphoric and bunglesome, and its denials and cover-ups only serve to reinforce Shuger’s 1996 statement that it is not a “reality-based” organization.

In addition to the aforementioned submarine accidents and near misses, there have been others involving nuclear weapons. According to the Center for Defense Information, in 1959, “A U.S. Navy P-5M aircraft carrying an unarmed nuclear depth charge without its fissile core crashed into Puget Sound near Whidbey Island, Washington. The weapon was never recovered.” Six years later, “An A-4E Skyhawk strike aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon rolled off an elevator on the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga and fell into the sea. Because the bomb was lost at a depth of approximately 16,000 feet, Pentagon officials feared that intense water pressure could have caused the B-43 hydrogen bomb to explode. It is still unknown whether an explosion did occur. The pilot, aircraft, and weapon were lost. The Pentagon claimed that the bomb was lost ‘500 miles away from land.’ However, it was later revealed that the aircraft and nuclear weapon sank only miles from the Japanese island chain of Ryukyu.” Although some doubt the weapon could explode simply because of water pressure (at that depth, roughly 7000 PSI, or that if it did explode, we would not know about it), the loss of a hydrogen bomb in itself is disquieting. Incredibly, or perhaps not so incredibly, the US Navy did not inform the Japanese of this accident until the mid-1980s! In 1992, a leaked US Navy document (“OPNAVINST 3040.5B. Nuclear Reactor and Radiological Accidents: Procedures and Reporting Requirements for”) indeed gave the commanders of US Navy ships visiting foreign ports the discretion not to inform the host nation in the event of a nuclear accident. Perhaps this is why New Zealand still refuses to allow US Navy ships to visit its ports, and has done so since 1984.

Finally, going back to World War II, there was also a friendly fire accident involving the battleship USS Iowa and one of her escorts that every American should know. The destroyer USS William D. Porter accidentally launched a torpedo at the Iowa, which just missed. The near miss was bad enough, but even worse, there were VIPs aboard the Iowa during that cruise, including the President of the United States and the Chief of Naval Operations! The captain of the Iowa wanted to court-martial the skipper of the destroyer, but was over-ruled by President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt so as to avoid “adverse publicity.” Both presidents FDR and George W. Bush have in some way tried to gloss over the Navy’s friendly fire problems, and that too is scandalous.

Misleading Congress and a Cultural Explanation

“… and you’ve got to consider the psychology of the Navy itself… The Navy, traditionally, technically, doesn’t do anything wrong.” – Former Army Research Director Raymond Walker on the Navy’s flawed investigation of the USS Iowa explosion in 1989

The question that now remains is: How has the US Navy managed to conceal all its glaring faults, bad policies, and weaknesses for all these years? Part of the answer is that the Navy has a history of not telling the full truth to Congress. It is well known that senior US Navy officers have a tradition of omitting information about the Navy’s weaknesses and deficiencies during public testimony. For example, in the early 1980s, wrote Scammell, Navy officers tried to conceal the shortcomings of the new Aegis system by using unrealistically easy operational tests, then by classifying the poor results: “An amalgam of sophisticated seaborne radar, computers, and surface-to-air rockets ten years in development, Aegis was built to simultaneously track up to two hundred aerial targets and to control thirty killer missiles. But in sea tests against sixteen easy targets – easy because they were lobbed in one after another instead of all at the same time, as they would arrive in combat – the supershield missed all but five…” Consequently, “The results of the sea trials were immediately classified, ostensibly for reasons of national security, and it was announced that the tests had been successful. When Congressional overseers eventually learned they had been duped –a gain because not everyone in the fiasco interpreted ‘patriotic duty’ as ‘staying silent’—the Aegis program was very nearly scuttled.” According to Representative Denny Smith, a Republican from Oregon and former F-4 fighter pilot, Navy officers deliberately deleted key passages from their initial test reports on the Aegis system to keep him in the dark on its failings.

This attempted cover-up was certainly not an isolated incident. Indeed, attempts by the Center for Naval Analyses to evaluate the Navy’s way of doing things have been subjected to political pressure not to let on about any “implied weaknesses in current hardware or doctrine,” said Shuger. And I suppose by now no one should be shocked to hear that in the mid 1990s, during tests of a new guided missile, the missile “melted its on-board guidance system. ‘Incredibly,’ an Army review said, ‘the Navy ruled the test a success.’”

Another part of the answer is that building ships, submarines and aircraft for the US Navy is big business, and with a few salient exceptions like Smith, pork-barreling throttlebottom politicians may not want to hear that the systems being built in their districts (and providing many, many jobs to voters) won’t work or are not really needed. When Representative Smith tried to hold the Navy accountable for the botched tests of the Aegis system and the attempted cover-up, “Trent Lott, the House Republican whip, asked Smith if he knew that killing the Navy’s Aegis cruiser program could affect sixteen thousand jobs at Ingalls Shipyard in Lott’s home state of Mississippi.” Lott is well known for his devotion to the shipyard in question, where his father once labored. He even forced the Navy to buy an additional ship that it did not request so as to keep jobs at the facility, and said “I’ll do anything for that (Ingalls) shipyard.” On top of that, noted Holland, “The case of the Navy’s F/A-18 (Hornet) strike fighter program also demonstrates that even legislators generally critical of the military will act to protect a program in which constituents’ jobs are at stake. When President Carter threatened to cut the Hornet program in 1978, Representative Tip O’Neil (D-Mass.) and Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), and Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) intervened. The planes are constructed by Northrop (California) and McDonnell-Douglas (Missouri), and the engines are built by General Electric (Massachusetts). In 1972, when Senators Lloyd Bentson (D-Tex.) and Thomas McIntyre (D-N.H.) led resistance to Defense Secretary Melvin Laird’s request for production money for the Trident submarine until the military produced an approved design, Senator Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) organized congressional support and was rewarded with a Trident base in his state.”

With politicians who are much more interested in jobs than effective and properly tested weapons, and officers who do not always like to reveal the truth (Of course, as we have seen here, some of today’s naval officers, especially the reformers, are more candid about the Navy’s deficiencies), the US Navy has great difficulty maintaining its credibility both in government circles, and at sea.

There is one final possibility that comes into play, and it is cultural, deeply-entrenched, and difficult to remove. My maternal grandparents were American, and I went to public schools in the US. I have also had experience as a student or as a lecturer in two other countries, and as such, I have a reasonably sound basis for making comparisons, both educational and cultural. It has been my observation (and that of many others) that American public schools and culture place much more emphasis on cultivating self-esteem than do those of other countries. This has led to a false confidence, or bravado if you will; a false sense of self-importance and to a certain extent, plain old fashioned narcissistic egotism. As a matter of fact, this streak of overconfidence goes back a long way in American history. Samuel Huntington, in his erudite book The Soldier and the State, made a scorching reference to it during the time of the great American navalist Alfred Thayer Mahan. “Not only were Americans bellicose, but they suffered from an overweening and highly dangerous self-confidence. The military officers expressed great alarm at the “national conceit” rampant in the United States…”

This overconfidence is manifested today in several ways. It manifests itself in international mathematics competitions in which American teenagers get the highest scores in “self-confidence” but the lowest scores on the actual exams. It is manifested when young Americans, with absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, audition on TV shows like American Idol, and then break into tears when a judge tells them something painfully obvious, like “You’re just awful. You have no talent. This was a waste of my time.” -- things they should rightly have known long beforehand. And it is also manifested in naval exercises, where American units are sometimes shocked that they can be easily defeated by a competent enemy with good tactics. Sadly, this over-confidence, combined with a misinformed and pork-loving Congress, may someday have profound consequences for the US Navy.


The US Navy is the largest navy in the world, and on paper, certainly the most powerful. Many believe it is the best navy the world has ever seen, and it is also unmistakably the most expensive navy the world has ever seen. On the latter point at least, there is no doubt. With the Russian Navy all but gone, and the Chinese Navy still ascending, the American Navy remains the dominant sea power in the world. Yet, as we have seen here, this heavyweight navy often has great difficulty handling the little guys. Indeed, if the US Navy were a boxer, one might say that his dominance is due mostly to his sheer size because he punches well below his massive weight. In this era of asymmetrical warfare, of David versus Goliath conflicts, perhaps it is time for America to rethink its naval strategy, lose some weight, and as sports announcers say, “focus more on the fundamentals.” For all the money America spends on its huge navy, it really needs to be much better. Edmund Burke once said “A nation without the means of reform is without the means of survival.” So, too, I would add, is a navy.

The Author

Roger Thompson is Professor of Military Studies at Knightsbridge University and a Fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society. He is an internationally recognized authority on combat motivation, military sociology, regular/reserve total force issues, and military bureaucratic politics. His seminal work on combat motivation in naval forces was endorsed by the US Chief of Naval Operations, SACLANT, CINCPACFLEET, best-selling novelist and submariner the Late Captain Edward L. Beach, US Navy (Retired), and the German, Australian, Chilean, Italian and Spanish Admiralties. His work in this area was translated into Spanish under the authority of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armada de Chile, Almirante Jorge Martinez Busch. He also received an Admiral's Medallion from the Chief of Staff of the Italian Navy, Admiral Guido Venturoni, for his contribution to military sociology. His work has also been acknowledged in writing by General Colin Powell. His 1994 MA thesis Brown Shoes, Black Shoes and Felt Slippers: Parochialism and the Evolution of the Post-War US. Navy was published as a book by the US Naval War College in 1995, and again by the Mine Warfare Association in 1997. The original publication was endorsed as "essential reading for professional naval officers" by the late former US Navy Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr.

Professor Thompson's contribution to military studies was recently summarized by the famous military sociologist, Dr Charles C. Moskos. Moskos, whose scholarly writings have been published in 19 languages, said: "Simply put, Professor Thompson is the leading scholar in the sociology of naval institutions. His book, Brown Shoes, Black Shoes and Felt Slippers: Parochialism and the Evolution of the Post-War US Navy, is a classic in the sociology of the armed forces and civil-military relations. It was my honor to give an endorsement to this book upon its publication." He concluded that Professor Thompson is a "most remarkable scholar and teacher." Professor Thompson has also published numerous military affairs essays in periodicals such as Canada's Navy Annual, Air Force, Conference of Defence Associations Institute Forum, Canadian Defence Review, International Insights, Esprit de Corps, and the Defence Associations National Network News. He has presented papers on military studies at international conferences sponsored by the Turkish Military Academy and York University, and has been invited to present a paper at the United States Naval Academy.

Appendix A

USN Ships Theoretically Destroyed in Unscripted Exercise Evolutions or Operations as reported by the Media since 1959

Note: This table is based on publicly available English media sources such as newspapers, magazines, books, journals and broadcast media. Only ships that have been named have been included. There have been many others, but unfortunately these ships were not specifically named in the reports.





USS Saratoga

Aircraft carrier


Soviet nuclear submarine K-181 (9 simulated torpedo attacks)

USS Independence, USS John F., Kennedy and USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (probable kills)

Aircraft Carriers


Soviet Navy’s 5th Eskadra

USS Eisenhower and USS Forrestal

Aircraft carriers


Canadian submarine and NATO submarine

USS John F Kennedy

Aircraft carrier


Canadian submarine HMCS Okanagan

USS Independence

Aircraft carrier


Chilean submarine

USS Constellation

Aircraft carrier


Russian nuclear submarine

USS Carl Vinson (probable kill)

Aircraft carrier


Russian nuclear submarine (practiced simulated attacks, apparently undetected)

USS Theodore Roosevelt

Aircraft carrier


Dutch submarine

USS Kitty Hawk

Aircraft carrier


Russian Air Force

USS Abraham Lincoln

Aircraft carrier


Australian submarine

USS Skipjack (probable kill)

Nuclear submarine


Canadian Tracker aircraft

USS Plunger

Nuclear submarine


Japanese submarine

USS Boise

Nuclear submarine


Dutch submarine

USS Montpelier

Nuclear submarine


Chilean submarine

USS Olympia

Nuclear submarine


Australian submarine

USS City of Corpus Christi

Nuclear submarine


Australian submarine

USS Pasadena

Nuclear submarine


Indian frigate

USS Charlotte (probable kill)

Nuclear submarine


Canadian CP-140 aircraft

1. USS Iowa


Fall 1988

Dutch Frigate

2. USS Iowa


January 1989

British, Canadian and West German units

USS Mount Whitney

Command ship


Dutch submarine

USS Coronado

Command ship


Russian nuclear submarine

Appendix B (Glossary)

AFQT              Armed Forces Qualification Tests

AMRAAM          Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile

ANG                Air National Guard

ASUW             Anti-Surface Warfare

ASW                Anti-Submarine Warfare

ASWTNS         Anti-Submarine Warfare Tactical Navigation System

BVR                 Beyond Visual Range

CAP                 Combat Air Patrol

CETS               Contractual Engineering Technical Service

CF                    Canadian Forces

CBG                 Carrier Battle Group

CO                   Commanding Officer

CVN                Nuclear-powered Aircraft Carrier

DDG                Guided Missile Destroyer

DOD                Department of Defense

GED                 General Equivalency Diploma

GRU                Glavnoe Razvedovatelnoe Upravlenie (Soviet Intelligence)

NAS                 Naval Air Station

NATO              North Atlantic Treaty Organization

OECD              Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

OPFOR          Opposing Force (simulated)

RAAF              Royal Australian Air Force

RCAF              Royal Canadian Air Force

RCN                Royal Canadian Navy            

RDF                 Radio Direction Finding

RN                   Royal Navy

SAM                Surface to Air Missile

SAT                  Scholastic Aptitude Test

SC                    Supply Corps

SOSUS            Sound Surveillance System

SSK                 Diesel Submarine                                

SSN                 Nuclear-powered Submarine

UDT                Underwater Demolitions Team

USAF               United States Air Force

USMC              United States Marine Corps