Category Archives: Submarine Forces

Notable U.S. Navy Ships Lost Since World War II

Notable U.S. Navy Ships Lost Since World War II

After an arsonist caused $450 million in damage to the USS Miami on March 2012, the U.S. Navy considered scrapping the submarine. The eventual decision to repair the Miami and return it to service in 2015 means that the Navy will not have to add to a rather short but fateful list – ships lost since WWII. Between December 1941 and September 1945, over 350 U.S. Navy warships and patrol craft were sunk or damaged beyond repair. In the nearly seven decades since, fewer than 30 ships have been lost directly due to enemy action or accidents. These are a few of the notable incidents:

USS Bullhead

On the same day that the city of Hiroshima was reduced to ash by the first atomic bomb, the USS Bullhead (SS-32) became the last U.S. Navy ship sunk by the enemy during WWII. The submarine is thought to have been hit by depth charges dropped by a Japanese plane on Aug. 6, 1945 off the coast of Bali. The wreck of the submarine has never been found.

Church service in the torpedo room of the USS Bullhead while on patrol in the Pacific, 1945

Church service in the torpedo room of the USS Bullhead while on patrol in the Pacific, 1945

PC-815

Commissioned in 1943, PC-815 would go on to earn the name “The Jinxed Sub-Chaser”. Lt (j.g.) L. Ron Hubbard (the future founder of Scientology) was the first man to take the helm, only to be relieved of command three months later following a series of embarrassing incidents (including the shelling of Mexican territory) that caused his superiors to lose faith in his ability. The next few years were uneventful for the PC-815 until Sept. 11, 1945 when it collided with the destroyer USS Laffey (DD-724), burst into flames and sank.

PC-815 running trials on the Columbia River in Oregon, 1943

PC-815 running trials on the Columbia River in Oregon, 1943

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New Tomahawks Inbound

New Tomahawks Inbound

110329-N-3396H-001Raytheon Missile Systems, prime contractor for the ship- and submarine-launched Tomahawk land-attack missile, is moving into production of a new order of Block IV all-up round missiles under a new contract, valued at $337.8 million, awarded by the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in June. Deliveries are set to start in 2013.

Meanwhile, the company is awaiting a NAVAIR decision on a sole-source award for development of an offensive antisurface weapon that would adapt Tomahawk subsystems to convert missiles to that new configuration. The plan is contingent on congressional approval and availability of funding.

Tomahawk, the Navy’s primary long-range land-attack missile, is deployed to some 140 ships including Ticonderoga -class cruisers and Arleigh Burke –class destroyers, as well as Ohio -class guided-missile submarines and Los Angeles – andSeawolf -class attack subs. It also is fielded by the Royal Navy’s Astute – and Trafalgar -class submarines. The U.S. Navy plans to field Tomahawk aboard the three Zumwalt -class land-attack destroyers now under construction and on Virginia -class attack subs. The cruisers and destroyers launch Tomahawk from the belowdecks Mk-41 vertical-launch system; the SSGNs launch the missile from vertical missile tubes and the attack subs from torpedo tubes.

Block II and Block III Tomahawks were employed extensively during Operation Desert Storm, with ships and submarines launching about 290 missiles. Tomahawks subsequently were used during Operation Southern Watch in 1992, Enduring Freedom in 2001, and Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

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Russian Bases in Vietnam or Cuba? Don't Panic

Russian Bases in Vietnam or Cuba? Don’t Panic

russ_CNO_0The sprawling Russian defense apparatus has some of the world’s biggest braggarts. You don’t need to look very hard to find examples in the Russian defense ministry or the military-industrial complex stating the impossible. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, for example, said that by 2013 “production capacity [at Russian shipyards] will allow us to build six submarines and an aircraft carrier every year.” Serious Western analysts of Russian military procurement reacted with derision. Not only does the Russian Federation currently not have any shipyards large enough to build a carrier, they noted, the shipyard that built earlier Soviet carriers is in the Ukraine, and the Russian navy doesn’t even have a finalized design that would allow construction of a carrier to begin. Rogozin’s statement was so self-evidently fraudulent that he was forced to retract it.

The Russians have an extensive and well-documented history of making incredibly bold and aggressive statements only to quietly retract those statements (with much less fanfare) a few days later.

The latest tempest in a teapot got started on 27 July when VADM Victor Chirkov, the commander in chief of the Russian navy, made the following remarks in an interview with RIA Novosti:

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The Incredible Shrinking SSBN(X)

The Incredible Shrinking SSBN(X)

ssbnProceedings, June 2012
There is vigorous debate concerning the affordability of replacing the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs), which are set to begin retiring in 15 years. Originally projected to cost $7.7 billion per unit, concern is growing that the “SSBN(X)” future follow-on submarine would crowd out funding necessary to modernize the rest of the Fleet.

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Iran: Atomic and Underwater?

Iran: Atomic and Underwater?

Iran7nahangReports in early June indicated that the Islamic Republic of Iran is in the early stages of developing nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs. The initial response from many observersmyself included, was to concentrate on the mechanics. Iran has no tradition of building submarines, apart from a few mini-subs and, apparently, plans for a 1,000-ton “semi-heavy” boat. Iran’s navy thus has no working Nautilus onto which to retrofit a nuclear plant. There are no shortcuts.

Iranian Kilo-class Nahang-class diesel submarine

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic has no tradition of naval nuclear propulsion. Combine the naval-architecture challenge with the nuclear challenge, and Tehran’s entry into the SSN club confronts steep engineering and financial barriers. Considering these barriers and the time it will take to surmount them, it appears whimsical for Iranian officials to assign much priority to an SSN program.

On the other hand, it wasn’t long ago that it appeared far-fetched to think China would invest lavishly in refitting an unfinished, 20-year-old hulk of an aircraft carrier it had purchased for scrap. And yet it did. Today the ex-Varyag plies the sea as a training platform for the People’s Liberation Army Navy. We kid ourselves if we project our own assumptions and cost-benefit calculations onto foreign nations with very different histories, customs and worldviews.

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Mine the Gap: Iranians and the Strait of Hormuz

Mine the Gap: Iranians and the Strait of Hormuz

Iran threatens to mine the Strait of Hormuz, petroleum markets react, world economies take notice, and more naval forces are sent to the region, upping the ante for Tehran and the U.S. Navy.

Iran’s top naval commander, Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, late last year warned that closing the strait would be “easier than drinking a glass of water.” The Obama administration has publicly dismissed the threat as “saber rattling,” but also privately informed Tehran that attempting to close the strait would trigger a U.S. military response.

“The laying of mines in international waters is an act of war,” Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, said in a Feb. 12 interview.
“We would, under the direction of the national leadership, prevent that from happening. We always have the right and obligation of self-defense and this falls in self-defense. If we did nothing and allowed some mining, it would be a long and difficult process to clear them.”

Whether an act of war or not (the international rules––admittedly more honored in their breach than observation––do allow for peacetime mining of high-seas areas under certain strict conditions), Iranian officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to Western sanctions over its nuclear program.

U.S. Navy photo of the USS Enterprise and USS Cape St. George transitioning through the Strait of Hormuz on May 11.

U.S. Navy photo of the USS Enterprise and USS Cape St. George transitioning through the Strait of Hormuz on May 11.

But the ultimate impact of such an escalation––if only in rhetoric––is unclear. According to a Jan. 23 report by the Congressional Research Service “…as in the past, the prospect of a major disruption of maritime traffic in the Strait risks damaging Iranian interests. U.S. and allied military capabilities in the region remain formidable. This makes a prolonged outright closure of the Strait appear unlikely. Nevertheless, such threats can and do raise tensions in global energy markets and leave the United States and other global oil consumers to consider the risks of another potential conflict in the Middle East.”


A key transportation route for a daily flow of 17 million barrels of oil––about 35 percent of world seaborne petroleum trade––according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Strait of Hormuz is approximately 175 nautical miles in length and narrows to 21 nautical miles wide, making it an “international strait” under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Such international straits, which are completely enclosed by the 12-mile territorial seas of the littoral states, have special protections under the UNCLOS regime, even as the United States has yet to ratify the treaty.

Since the end of World War II mines have seriously damaged or sunk four times more U.S. Navy ships than all other means of attack combined. Fifteen of 19 ships have been mine victims. And that doesn’t include many more ships sunk or damaged by mines, from the Corfu Channel crisis of 1946 to the Arabian Gulf Tanker War of the 1980s to the Tamil Sea Tigers sinking of the MV Invincible in 2008.

During the Tanker War in the Arabian Gulf, Iraq and Iran indiscriminately deployed several types of mines, including variants of the 1908 Russian-design contact mine that nearly sank the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) in April 1988. After the United States agreed to provide protection for convoys of oil tankers, the first convoy ran into trouble when the U.S.-flagged supertanker MV Bridgeton struck a mine that blew a large hole in its hull. Almost immediately, the U.S. Navy surface warships fell in line abaft Bridgeton, giving lie to the adage that every ship can be a minesweeper once. If more mines were present, Bridgeton was to clear the way.

In 1990 and 1991, Iraq deployed more than 1,300 mines in the northern gulf––including a weapon never before seen in the West. In the early morning of 18 February 1991, the USS Tripoli (LPH-10), which had embarked airborne mine-countermeasure helicopters, struck an Iraqi contact mine; four hours later, the Aegis cruiser Princeton (CG-59) fell victim to a Manta mine, a “mission-kill” that took the cruiser out of the war and cost about $100 million to bring her back on line. More to the point of the impact of a possible Iranian mining campaign in 2012, it took the Multinational Coalition forces more than two years of intensive mine-countermeasure operations to declare the northern Gulf mine free.

According to then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, in 2009 more than 1 million mines of 300 types were in the inventories of more than 65 navies. Russia had about 250,000 mines. The Chinese navy was estimated to have about 100,000 mines, including a rising mine that could be deployed in waters deeper than 6,000 feet. And North Korea had about 50,000 mines. All three sell weapons to virtually any navy or terrorist group, anywhere, any time, as do another 17 or so countries.

Iran has acquired a stockpile of 3,000 to 6,000 mines, mostly of Soviet/Russian, Chinese or North Korean origin. Most are unsophisticated but still dangerous bottom-moored buoyant contact mines, like those that damaged Roberts and Tripoli. Other mines, like the Manta that struck Princeton, are bottom mines that come to rest on the bottom and wait for a target to satisfy various parameters. These influence mines fire when increasingly sophisticate target detection devices sense magnetic, acoustic, seismic, water pressure, electric-potential signatures of their victims.

One Iranian mine, the Chinese-produced EM-52, is a multiple-influence (acoustic, magnetic, pressure) rocket-propelled straight-rising mine, armed with a 600-pound high-explosive warhead, that can be deployed by surface vessels in waters as deep as 600 feet.

The inventory also reportedly includes about 600 advanced, multiple-influence mines bought from Russia, including the MDM-3 that can be dropped from an aircraft.

Mines can be put in place by virtually any submarine, surface and airborne platform. To mine the entirety of the Strait of Hormuz effectively would take thousands of mines and several weeks if not longer. Iran could use Kilo-class submarines, which can carry 24 mines. But a larger operation would have to involve small craft and possibly commercial vessels, as well. A 2010 report by the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis shows these Iranian mine-laying platform capacities:

Physics will help bound the problem. Generally, the water depth of the strait varies from about 200 feet to 300 feet, but its approaches from the northwest are shallower, on the order of 120 feet deep. In the strait itself, depths can reach 1,000 feet and currents make deploying bottom mines an uncertain tactic. If deployed in deep water, even large-warhead bottom mines would have limited effect of surface traffic.

Libya’s mining of the Red Sea in the summer of 1984, for example, used East German-export multiple-influence bottom mines completely unknown in the West. Ships that detonated mines in deeper water had much less damage than those in shallower water. (A total of 23 ships claimed to be mine victims, although four were assessed later to be insurance scams.)

 

Not that bottom mines wouldn’t be employed where it made operational sense, but Iran would likely rely on bottom-moored contact mines that lurk close to the surface but remain difficult to detect and defeat.

Mines are only one element of Iranian anti-access/area-denial weapons, which include speedboats armed with guns and missiles, small and mini-submarines armed with torpedoes, shore-based anti-ship missiles, and aircraft.

In response to Iran’s mine-rattling, the Navy is deploying four additional Avenger-class MCM ships to the region, for a total of eight Avengers, as well as two more MH-53E airborne MCM helicopters added to the two already in-theater. The additional units will be based in Bahrain, home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. “I came to the conclusion we could do better setting the theater,” Chief of Naval Operation Adm. Jonathan Greenert told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a Navy budget hearing earlier this year. “I wanted to be sure … that we are ready, that our folks are proficient, they’re confident, and they’re good at what they do in case called upon.”

The Navy has also announced that the USS Ponce (LPD-15) is being refitted to support naval forces in the region, primarily focused on the MCM mission. An interim Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), her “main battery” will be AMCM helos and support craft. This, too, has been done before, with the conversion in the mid-1990s of the USS Inchon (LPH/MCS-12) as an MCM command-and-control ship.

In addition, the naval MCM “order of battle” include several Royal Navy MCM vessels and Royal Australian Navy assets, as well as MCM capabilities of America’s regional maritime partners.

“It’s a volume issue more than a technical challenge,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wayne Liebold, the skipper of the USS Gladiator (MCM-11), one of the Bahrain-based Avenger MCM vessels, told The Huffington Post. “My concern is going out there and having to search a large volume of water with large quantities of mines,” said Liebold, who has done three MCM deployments to the gulf.

Though easily detectable, the laying of several hundred mines in a matter of days could have a significant, albeit only temporary, effect on commercial and naval mobility. More broadly, however, the impact on world petroleum markets is unclear. During the Red Sea/Gulf of Suez mine crisis of 1984, commercial and naval traffic continued unabated, despite reports of underwater explosions, and world petroleum prices were virtually unaffected.

“Conventional wisdom might suggest that the initiation of hostilities in the Strait of Hormuz or Persian Gulf would stop or significantly deter the flow of maritime traffic through the strait,” Cmdr. Rodney A. Mills wrote in a 2008 Naval War College study, “but the ‘Tanker Wars’ between Iran and Iraq in 1980s show a different behavior by the shipping industry. During the eight years of the conflict, 544 attacks were carried out against all shipping in the Gulf, including more than 400 civilians killed and another 400 injured. However, after an initial 25 percent drop, the shipping industry adjusted to the risk and the flow of commerce resumed. Despite the threat, oil and other maritime commerce continued to flow even as the conflict intensified through 1987, when a total of 179 attacks were carried out, or roughly an attack every other day.”

In short, while Iran’s mines might not be show-stoppers, they certainly can be speed bumps that attack strategies, plans and timelines, in addition to ships and submarines.