Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 PLAAF Year in Review

This was a particularly eventful year for PLAAF when one looks at the progress of the various new projects. The most noticeable of which is J-20, but this will look at various other programs too.

Coming into this year, the J-20 project seemed to be a little behind schedule compared to PAK-FA. There were a lot of questions about when the 3rd flying prototypes will come out. Earlier on, we saw the appearance of a heavily modified prototype No. 2011 which first flew in March. As previously discussed, this prototype really transitioned the project from the concept/demonstration phase to pre-production engineering phase. The next prototype No. 2012 appeared in July and had its maiden flight near the end of the month. Most recently, prototype No. 2013 and 2015 appeared in quick succession in the past month and had their first flights. These 2 prototypes have their pitot tubes removed. Speculations have been that No. 2016 and 2017 will also appear soon to join the flight testing phase. With the quick succession of these prototypes, it appears that J-20 may have moved into LRIP. I have in the past compared these prototypes to F-22's EMD phase, which had 9 flying prototypes. Bu in that case, the 9th EMD first flew 5 years after the first EMD. So it seems like J-20 is using a more aggressive flight testing program. We know that there is already a radar testbed testing out J-20's radar and possibly other avionics. So next year, we should see more of the initial prototypes coming out and getting transferred to CFTE for flight test programs. At some point, I think we should see J-20 prototypes starting to using domestic engine options. We should also see J-20s starting to be delivered to FTTC for developing tactics and testing out flight envelopes. But a lot of that stuff really cannot be tested fully until WS-15 becomes available. Despite all of the fast progress by CAC the past year, it's unclear what they will do with the engine problem. The earlier J-20s will probably use an underpowered engine.

The other project that received a lot of attention this year is FC-31, because of its appearance at Zhuhai air show. From what we've seen, it is still in the conceptual demonstrator phase waiting to get picked by PLA. J-20's first 2 prototypes were probably further along than No. 31001, so this project is several years behind J-20. PLAAF have the option of going with hi-lo option of J-20 and FC-31 or J-20 and some heavily modified variant of J-10. The next generation of naval aviation can either go with a naval variant of FC-31 or something completely different. At this point, it does look like FC-31 will be picked up by PLAAF and the official version will feature much changes compared to No. 31001. They will probably have to use some under powered interim option from Russia in the beginning while the domestic option is even further behind than WS-15.

J-10 program was in the background this year, but it may have been the most active PLAAF program. J-10A production and delivery continued into this year. J-10B production finally started at end of last year after a very long flight testing period, but the production level this year has been quite high. Most recently, the 48th J-10B came out. We've seen one brigade of J-10B joining service with FTTC aggressor squad. A second regiment/brigade will also be formed from this year's production. After this first batch of J-10B production, things are a little muddled. We saw a J-10B in primers with factory number 201 that came out at end of last year with some minor changes from the first batch of J-10Bs. Chinese bbs have speculated that this is the first of J-10C variant. The big speculation is that J-10C will be using AESA radar (as opposed to PESA on J-10B) and improved avionics compared to J-10B. I'm not sure that really deserves a new variant, but it seems like this particular aircraft has went through more flight testing than a usual production aircraft. So the second batch will definitely be different from the first batch. This second batch should be the first PLAAF aircraft to be equipped with AESA radar.

We did not see as much movement with flankers this year. It seems like more J-11B regiment joined service, but J-15 and J-16 project did not seem to move much. There is speculations that one or both programs may be waiting for an improved variant of WS-10 engine to become available.

Outside of that, we saw a lot of Y-20 program this year when it appeared at Zhuhai airshow. It seems like flight testing is going pretty well and the aircraft is likely to join service in a couple of years. Y-9 production has continued along with different special missions aircraft using Y-9 airframe. KJ-500 may be the most high profile of these projects. A recent satellite photo shows 3 KJ-500 at SAC airfield. The big challenge for the Chinese aviation industry is to be able to build more of these Y-9, Y-20 and other transport airframes to support various PLAAF operations. At current time, PLAAF is still relying on IL-76/78 series for transport airframe and aerial tanker.

So this was a more eventful year for PLAAF than the last couple of years when I had hard time writing the reviews. Outside of aforementioned programs, the continued advances in UAV is a big story and will continue to be that way next year. For next year, I would say the continued progress of J-20/31 will be the most followed items. But for me, the second batch of J-10B/C and the induction of J-16 will be just as interesting. They will be the main heavyweight in PLAAF for the next couple of years.

Naval Forces and Conventional Deterrence

A colleague recently pointed me towards a 2009 CNA monograph by Michael Gerson and Daniel Whiteneck entitled “Deterrence and Influence: The Navy’s Role in Preventing War.” As you may recall, back in October I recommended Gerson’s 2009 Parameters article as an excellent introduction to conventional deterrence theory. Their monograph revisits that foundation in greater detail before moving on to detail the unique contributions that the Navy and Marine Corps can provide within an American conventional deterrent.

Gerson and Whiteneck first develop a list of conventional military capabilities and functions that could hypothetically be communicated in various ways to an opponent in order to affect his calculus (Pg. 60): 

  • Prompt denial/defeat
  • Prompt punishment
  • Expression/demonstration of U.S. commitments, interests, and resolve
  • Forcible entry
  • Project and sustain power without footprint
  • Mobility and reach within and between AORs
  • Flexibility/scalability for proportional response
  • Rapid response/reinforcement from CONUS
  • Regime removal
  • Active/passive defenses
  • Major combat operations

They then map the list to the armed services most readily suited to accomplish the requisite tasks (Pg. 61):


As the Venn diagram indicates, they conclude that the Navy-Marine Corps team’s unique contribution to deterrence is the ability to project and sustain power without a land-based footprint in the immediate area of interest:
Compared to air and land forces, maritime power has two inter-related characteristics that make it particularly useful to the modern conventional (as well as nuclear) deterrence mission:
• Maritime forces can project and sustain forward-deployed, combat-credible power in peacetime, crises, and war
• Maritime power is minimally intrusive; in other words, it does not require a footprint on land  
The fact that naval forces can “loiter” and be minimally intrusive is an important and unique contribution to deterrence. The Army can loiter, but it cannot be minimally intrusive; the Air Force can be minimally intrusive (although, because it still needs some land-based infrastructure, it is more intrusive than maritime forces), but it cannot loiter. Only naval forces can do both simultaneously.
These unique characteristics are likely to be especially useful for conventional deterrence. Given that an adversary is likely to pay close attention to the local balance of power, naval forces are important because they can rapidly respond to an emerging crisis by bringing U.S. combat power to places where none existed before, or by augmenting existing forces already in theater to further swing the local power balance in the United States’ favor. The ability to quickly deploy, and indefinitely sustain, power in a region helps ensure that an opponent cannot hope to wait out U.S. forces in the belief that at some point there will be a favorable “window of opportunity” for aggression. (Pg. 73-74)
I’d point out that these measures of ‘loitering’ and ‘intrusiveness’ are relative and very much circumstance-dependent. A relatively light ground force positioned in an isolated area might not be viewed by the host nation as terribly intrusive, but in a crisis or war that isolation might make the force’s logistical sustainment quite difficult if actively opposed by the adversary. An airbase providing aircraft coverage within an area of interest is not necessarily any more intrusive than a naval base within the same area supporting warship patrols nearby. On balance, though, naval forces can loiter longer and can operate with fewer dependencies on land facilities within or near the area of interest than ground or air forces.
Gerson and Whiteneck also observe how naval forces can uniquely factor into crisis management and escalation control:
In an acute crisis, the Navy can be the optimal mechanism to signal credible deterrence without also unnecessarily provoking the adversary. Naval forces can get close enough to the possible combat area to communicate credible threats of prompt denial and/or punishment, while at the same time not getting so close that the leadership fears an impending U.S. attack and decides to strike first.
This is also useful in Phase 2, as efforts to employ compellence and signal escalation dominance…run the risk of inadvertently triggering the actions that we hoped to prevent. Although this risk cannot be completely avoided in Phase 2, naval forces can, at least, sustain a visible presence in the theater to signal the threat of additional costs without having to be stationed too close to the immediate battlespace. (Pg. 74)
Note that the preceding observations pertain solely to the deterrence-relevant capabilities and functions unique to naval forces. The deterrence-relevant capabilities and functions naval forces share with other services are just as important to understand; Gerson and Whiteneck thoroughly examine these as well.
All in all, an outstanding reference for students of conventional deterrence and maritime strategy alike.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Innovation, the Marine Corps, and Seventy Years of Vertical Envelopment

If you read this blog, then you probably have more than a passing interest in all things navy. Because of that interest, you have probably received a large dose of innovation articles in your social media feeds over the past year or so.  Frankly, I see the fascination with innovation as another passing management fad, which in a few more years will be overtaken by the next MBA-buzzword onto which we military professionals tend to glom.  That’s not to say military innovation in and of itself is trendy; of course it’s timeless, but the term has become so over-used in DoD circles lately as to be virtually meaningless.

One of the things that makes my eyes glaze over in the military innovation infatuation is desire to emulate Silicon Valley. Certainly modern civilization owes much to young entrepreneurs who have given us smart phones, social media, and instantaneous global communications. These technologies went from ideas to widespread consumer acceptance very rapidly.  However, innovative thinking and action in the U.S. military predates innovation in the Valley by a long shot. The one organization that has proven time and time again that they not only produce innovative ideas, but can translate them into executable combat operations is the United States Marine Corps.

USMC HO3S-1 departs with wounded Marine Korea 1951
B.J. Armstrong recently penned an article on exactly that subject:

"If military organizations don't fit the Silicon Valley mold for innovation, how did the Marine Corps accomplish such a wholesale and revolutionary innovation?"

To illustrate how the Marines broke out of their amphibious frontal assault mindset that made them famous in World War II, B.J. writes (and speaks, if you prefer video) about some forward thinkers in the Post-War Marine Corps who revolutionized maneuver warfare with the help of a new technology, namely helicopters.  These concepts were quickly proven in action during the Korean War and subsequent operations.

"The development of rotary-wing doctrine by the Marine Corps demonstrates that we need much more than the rebel innovator with the good idea. We need senior officers who are quick to recognize a problem and are willing to take action, despite the risks involved. We need senior officers who understand that if you aren’t innovating, you aren’t improving, and if you aren’t improving, you’re falling behind the enemy. Change is good."

Please allow me to interrupt this post with a shameless plug:

Wearing another hat, I am part of an organization called the Center For International Maritime Security. In keeping with the theme of smart ideas at a young age, we want to encourage students early-on to think about the importance of Seapower to global trade and national security.  To further this goal, we're sponsoring a Maritime Security Essay Scholarship contest.  So get those bored high schoolers on winter break off the couch and in front of your laptop to writing and maybe they'll even win some money!  
Fast forward seven decades later: Although helicopter technology is much improved, the the concept of vertical envelopment (or rotary wing air assault, if you prefer), has been largely unchanged since Korea.  Essentially, vertical envelopment involves seizing objectives on the flanks or rear of an enemy using helicopters, or other airborne assault methods, such as parachute troops.   Granted, helicopters provide modern militaries much more than just vertical envelopment, including revolutionized logistics, search and rescue, and scouting, to name just a few missions.  But their importance to maneuver warfare has been proven in practically every war since those early days of Korea.
Recently though, a new capability has begun to disrupt our traditional notions of vertical envelopment and rotary wing operations. The V-22, despite its troubled development history and opinions of continued naysayers, is radically changing the way the Marine Corps deploys and fights. Able to self-deploy over strategically significant distances, the Osprey's primary strengths are its range and speed.
A Liberian soldier and a United States Marine take cover as a V-22 Osprey
buzzes overhead in Tubmanburg, north of Monrovia.
 CreditJohn Moore/Getty Images
The Marines'  MV-22 operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were largely similar to those of other helicopters in their inventory.  But for post-COIN operations, the Osprey has opened a range of new operational possibilities.
The 2012 attack on the Benghazi consulate was a wake-up call to the U.S. military on a number of levels.  In previous decades, such a non-combatant evacuation operation would have likely been handled by a nearby offshore amphibious readiness group loaded with Marines and their helicopters.  But today, the U.S. Navy simply doesn't have the amphibious force structure to forward deploy ships to the right places in order to quickly respond to such contingencies.  Enter the Special Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response.  Two SPMAGTFs, each scalable up to a battalion of Marines and Sailors, were stood up in 2013 to provide a self-sustaining rapidly mobile "balanced, expeditionary force with built-in command, ground, aviation and logistics elements and organized, trained and equipped to accomplish a specific mission."  One force, based in Spain, was established to respond to crises in Africa, while the other is intended to support contingency operations in the Middle East.  The MV-22 provides the critical enabler to both SPMAGTFs' agility and mobility.

Earlier this year, eight MV-22s and 200 Marines from the SPMAGTF-CR quietly supported the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy staff in Tripoli, Libya. Then in the fall, a company of Marines self-deployed 1,500 nautical miles with MV-22s (refueled by KC-130Js) to Dakar, Senegal to assist in the Ebola outbreak response.  Some may argue that these ground-based deployments are pulling Marines away from their amphibious roots. Perhaps, but the MV-22 is really facilitating the Marine Corps' continued supremacy as the world's most expeditionary fighting force. 
The Marines aren't the only organization changing the way they fight because of the Osprey.  Nearly a year ago, while most Americans were finishing up their Christmas shopping, another group of military innovators from the Air Force Special Operations Command put the Osprey to its ultimate test.  On the morning of December 21, 2013, three CV-22s took off from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti loaded with a platoon of Navy SEALs to evacuate a group of stranded U.S. citizens from civil war-torn South Sudan.  Over 750 nautical miles later, while on final approach to the United Nations airfield at Bor, the aircraft were engaged with heavy ground fire from nearby rebel forces. The three aircraft, although badly shot up and leaking fuel, took turns sucking gas from the waiting MC-130 tankers while they quickly flew another 375 nautical miles to get four seriously wounded special operators to Entebbe, Uganda for transfer to a waiting C-17 and further medical evacuation to Kenya.  Through their skill and valor, the AFSOC pilots narrowly averted a major disaster and were awarded the prestigious MacKay Trophy. The point of this story is that a special operations vertical infiltration this long could not have even been conceived without the capability provided by the CV-22.   (By comparison, another ill-fated operation in 1979 to rescue the Iranian hostages involved a 600 mile RH-53 flight from USS Nimitz to the Desert One forward refueling point. Ironically, Operation Eagle Claw became the impetus for the U.S. military's acquisition of the V-22, among other initiatives).

The Osprey is certainly not without its weaknesses, including a limited cargo capacity compared to its predecessors and a lack of ballistic protection in the passenger compartment as demonstrated above.  But some of these weaknesses are being addressed, and the aircraft continues to evolve with the addition of new avionics, armor, and forward firing missiles.

Simply put, the Osprey has allowed Marine Corps to continue its tradition of warfighting innovation and maintain their lead as the expeditionary service of choice for America's Geographic Combatant Commanders.  But as always, people are more important to innovation than hardware. Be it Colonel Edward Dyer in the 1940s or today's Marine Corps and AFSOC Osprey pilots, military innovators turn ideas and new technology into operationally-relevant capabilities.  And today as it was then, without top-cover from senior leadership, good ideas tend to fizzle out.

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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why War Must be Studied

A colleague recently pointed me to LGEN H. R. McMaster’s excellent Veterans Day speech at Georgetown University last month in which he argued that the scholarly study of war is central to the prevention of war. I've excerpted some of his most eloquent observations below, as they speak for themselves:

There is a tendency in the United States to confuse the study of war and warfare with militarism. Thinking clearly about the problem of war and warfare, however, is both an unfortunate necessity and the best way to prevent it. As the English theologian, writer, and philosopher G.K. Chesterton observed, “War is not the best way of settling differences, but it is the only way of preventing them being settled for you.” As George Washington, who addressed Georgetown students in August 1797 observed, “To be prepared for war is the most effectual means to promote peace.” One of the patterns of American military history is to be unprepared for war either because of wishful thinking or a failure to consider continuities in the nature of war—especially war’s political and human dimensions…
…It was during the divisive Vietnam War that many universities confused the study of war with advocacy of it and tended to view military forces and weapons as propagators of violence rather than protectors of peace. Some saw war as the cause rather than the result of international tensions and competitions…
…It was Aristotle who first said that it is only worth discussing what is in our power. So we might discuss how to prevent particular conflicts rather than eliminate all conflict, and when conflict is necessary, how to win. And in the pursuit of victory, how to preserve our values and make war less inhumane.
And we might discuss war to understand continuities its nature and changes in its character. It was a misinterpretation of the lopsided military victory in the 1991 Gulf war that gave rise to what would become the orthodoxy of the Revolution in Military Affairs, the belief that American military technological advantages would shift war fundamentally from the realm of uncertainty to the realm of certainty. The language was hubristic. The United States would use dominant battlespace knowledge to achieve full spectrum dominance over any opponent. The U.S. military would shock and awe opponents in the conduct of rapid decisive operations. War would be fast, cheap, and efficient. The thinking betrayed what Elting Morison warned against in 1967 when he wrote the following in Men, Machines, and Modern Times.
"What I want to suggest here is the persistent human temptation to make life more explicable by making it more calculable; to put experience into some logical scheme that by its order and niceness will make what happens seem more understandable, analysis more bearable, decision simpler…."
The orthodoxy of the Revolution in Military Affairs aimed to make war more explicable and calculable. This fundamentally flawed thinking about future war set us up for many of the difficulties we would encounter in the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So we should discuss war in places like this great university because we have much to learn and because the stakes are high.
LGEN McMaster’s other topic was on academia’s important roles providing bridges between a free society’s warriors and the citizens they serve. His focus was on society’s need to prevent further erosion of the warrior ethos due to the many forces and trends that have weakened the civil-military bond in America over the past half century. 
I want to pull the thread slightly, however, on an additional reason why the veteran’s presence in the classroom as a student or scholar is so vital. Regardless of whether a veteran saw combat or not, he or she was a witness at some level to the complexities and difficulties of military operations. His or her experiences can enlighten (or if necessary, counter) those who have never witnessed Clausewitzian fog and friction first-hand. He or she will often be best placed to appreciate how military theory, which Clausewitz asserted was nothing more than a tool for self-education, both informs and diverges from circumstance-based reality. The veteran’s service not only enriches his or her study of war, but also that of his or her peers.
McMaster thusly concludes:
Understanding war and warriors is necessary if societies and governments are to make sound judgments concerning military policy. It is our society’s expectations that allow our military to set expectations for ourselves and our fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. And in our democracy, if society is disconnected from an understanding of war or is unsympathetic to the warrior ethos, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the fundamental requirements of military effectiveness and to recruit young men and women into military service.
I highly recommend the entire piece.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Travis Sharp Wins Hudson Center Seapower Stipend

From the Hudson Center for American Seapower website:

Hudson Center for American Seapower (HCAS) is delighted to announce Mr. Travis Sharp as the recipient of the 2015 American Seapower Stipend. The $5000 stipend is awarded to a promising student in an accredited Ph.D. program worldwide, whose primary area of study is directly related to the strategic contributions of American seapower.
Travis Sharp is a Ph.D. student in security studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He serves as director of the Strategic Education Initiative at the school’s Center for International Security Studies (CISS) and is an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He holds a B.A. from the University of San Francisco and an M.P.A from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. He also serves as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Mr. Sharp’s research will contribute to the study of conventional deterrence theory, focusing on the effectiveness of U.S. military power in dissuading rivals from provocative actions. Specifically, Mr. Sharp seeks to better understand the nature and proportion of deterrence attributable to American seapower within a concept he refers to as “silent deterrence,” or the promotion of international peace without fanfare.
Hudson received many excellent submissions from scholars around the world, and HCAS Director Seth Cropsey hopes to increase the number of stipends available in the future: “I am gratified by the depth and breadth of work ongoing in this field by a band of hardy scholars; I only wish we could have recognized more. I am committed to doing so next year.” Dr. Cropsey and HCAS Assistant Director Bryan McGrath thank all the scholars who applied for the stipend this year, and also their thesis advisers for providing valuable statements of support.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Enduring Myth of the Fragile Battlecruiser

The first battllecruiser HMS Invincible

     The repetition of the myth of the fragile battlecruiser continues even as the greatest victory of the class is now just over 100 years in the past. This particular capital ship has been on the receiving end of the naval world’s harshest criticism since three of their British number met untimely ends at the May 31-June 1, 1916 Battle of Jutland. In fact, the battlecruiser was a hybrid, cost saving platform designed specifically to support a mature British strategic concept of seapower. Its heavy losses at Jutland were more to do with early 20th century capital ship design and poor British tactical doctrine than the thickness (or lack thereof) of its armor belt. That particular myth was constructed in the wake of Jutland for good reasons of operational security, but there is no reason to continue to repeat it in the present day. The experience of the battlecruiser still has important lessons for contemporary warship designers. Every warship is a compromise of weapons, protective features, speed, and operational range. Operational employment is as important as physical design and construction in determining a warship’s vulnerability. Time marches forever forward and today’s invincible front line combatant can become tomorrow’s proverbial fighter with a glass jaw if not modernized to reflect technological change. Warship designers seeking lethal, high speed and survivable platforms on a limited hull would do well to consider the battlecruiser’s performance in their deliberations on how much of these qualities can be achieved in a single class. Sometimes operational employment and tactical doctrine can be just as deadly to a ship in battle as its lack of speed, armament and robust construction.

The ever-combative Admiral Sir John Fisher
    The battlecruiser was the brainchild of mercurial British technological innovator and strategist Admiral Sir John Fisher. Fisher’s well documented “need for speed” so denigrated in the battlecruiser myth was actually just one part of a well thought out plan to create a hybrid, cost effective, modern capital ship in support of British strategic interests. Fisher was appointed to a series of high level naval positions culminating in that of First Sea Lord in 1904 following his command of Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet from 1899-1902. While in that billet, Fisher became convinced that the high speed armored cruiser and the torpedo boat would prove significant threats to Britain’s fleet of slow, conventional battleships, still known in the late 19th century as “ironclads”.
      Fisher was appointed not so much for his ideas on naval warfare, but rather that Lord Selborne, the First Lord of the Admiralty and civilian head of the Royal Navy, recognized that Fisher “was the only admiral on the flag list willing and able to find economies in naval expenditure.”[1] His challenge was to reduce naval expenditures whilst combating the threat of armored cruisers to the Empire’s trade routes, meeting the threat of torpedo-armed small craft and submarines, and still maintaining a force of battle-worthy combatants to destroy hostile enemy fleets. Fisher’s elegant solution to these problems was what he called the “large armored cruiser” and massed flotillas of torpedo-armed destroyers and submarines. The large cruisers would protect British trade routes and carry the war to remote enemy colonies and bases. Destroyers and submarines would form the ideal defense for the “narrow seas” that Fisher defined as the Western Mediterranean basin and the English Channel.[2] The team of Fisher and his civilian superior Selborne was very successful in that their overall program of cutting old warships, geographic re-balance of the fleet, and introduction of new types of vessels kept British naval spending at or below the levels of 1906 for five years.[3]
     Unfortunately the British civilian and naval leadership did not buy into Fisher’s full scheme. While the feisty Admiral seems to have regarded his famous all big gun creation HMS Dreadnought as a mere interim step toward a high speed, high endurance heavy combatant, successive First Lords of the Admiralty from Selbourne through Winston Churchill hedged their bets by investing in both concepts. They refused to regard the traditional battleship as obsolete, and built successive “Dreadnoughts” as well as Fisher’s large armored cruisers which by 1911 were labeled as “battlecruisers” by the Royal Navy. Given that they were the same size as contemporary battleships, it is not surprising that naval traditionalists assigned them to capital ship duties within the British fleet. The balance of power in Europe also shifted in the period from 1905 to 1911 as Britain reached accommodations with its former imperial enemies of France and Russia, and the German Empire became a more significant threat. Rather than roam the sea in defense of colonial trade, the battlecruiser became the naval equivalent of heavy cavalry and found employment as the principle heavy scouting arm of the British battle fleet in home waters. These changes would place the battlecruiser in an environment not anticipated by Fisher and expose significant faults in British tactical doctrine.

Invincible explodes during the battle of Jutland
     The outbreak of the First World War at first saw the battlecruiser performing as Fisher had intended. The crusty admiral had returned to the office of First Sea Lord at the behest of an admiring Winston Churchill and immediately set about finding ways to use his creations for the intended purpose. Two of the original battlecruisers fulfilled their mission exactly as designed when they were dispatched from home waters to the South Atlantic on short notice to intercept the commerce-raiding squadron of German cruisers commanded by Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee. HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible destroyed Spee’s flagship the armored cruiser SMS Scharnhorst and her sister SMS Gneisenau on 08 December 1914 with little damage and few British casualties in return. In combat in home waters, however, Fisher’s creations faced more significant threats. During the 1916 Battle of Jutland, three British battlecruisers exploded and sank with heavy loss of life. This is the starting point for the myth that the battlecruisers were destroyed because their combination of high speed, heavy guns and thin armor made them extremely vulnerable to German shellfire.
Invincible sinking

   On the conclusion of the first day of the Battle of Jutland, the exhausted British battlecruiser commander Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty collapsed on the bridge of his flagship HMS Lion and uttered the famous quote to his flag Captain Ernest Chatfield that “something is wrong with our damn bloody ships and our damn bloody system.”[4] Beatty was actually right on both counts, but not for the reasons the mythologists suggest. The supposedly thin armor belts of British battlecruisers were not penetrated in battle. Instead, their turret roofs (17% of the total surface area of some warships’ decks) with relatively thin armor were the locations of German hits.[5] The explosions that sank the ships however were more the result of British tactical doctrine rather than thin armor. The Royal Navy had extensively experimented with director-firing of heavy guns at medium range as a method of achieving critical hits on opponents early in battle. Admiral George Callaghan, Admiral Jellicoe’s immediate predecessor as Grand Fleet Commander, did not fully trust the new system, and decided to mitigate its potential failings by significantly increasing the ammunition supply aboard British capital ships.[6] British doctrine called for high rates of fire to smother an enemy before they had a chance to effectively respond. The battlecruisers were carrying 50% more ammunition then their designed capacity on the day Jutland was fought to accomplish this goal.[7] British gunners also failed to close safety hatches in their turrets designed to protect ammunition magazines from explosion. This was done to achieve the high rates of fire demanded as integral to British tactical doctrine.
Burned out turret of HMS Lion which narrowly avoided Invincible's fate
   Contrary to other parts of the myth, the British Admiralty reacted within days of Jutland to remedy these faults. One report by British inspectors submitted immediately after the battle found “magazine doors were left open, lids were off powder cases, and all (turret) cages were loaded (with propellant charges).[8] The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, who had replaced Fisher in the wake of the Dardanelles disaster in 1915,   ordered immediate changes. By the spring of 1917 all of the faults in material condition of readiness, and doctrine were corrected. The battlecruisers under construction at this time, including the large Admiral Class warship that would become the HMS Hood were substantially modified with additional armor and protective measures designed to prevent further disasters such as those that befell HM ships Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible. Why then the false myth that thin armor caused the demise of the battlecruisers at Jutland?

The short path from turret roof to magazine
     When the after action reports were gathered and submitted to the First Sea Lord for approval and action, the occupant of that office had changed. The former Jutland commander Admiral Sir John Jellicoe suppressed the findings of the report, but left the changes it made in place. He repeated the false claims that the battlecruisers were built with inadequate armor and flash protection on numerous occasions. His unofficial reasoning was that fleet morale had suffered enough in the wake of the battle, but it was instead clearly a cover-up to protect the reputation of the Royal Navy in the midst of war.[9] John Jellicoe can probably be excused as it could be argued that it was prudent to avoid the disclosure of a deficient tactical doctrine in the course of an ongoing conflict. They story should not, however, be repeated a century on as gospel when it is clearly false. When historian Arthur Marder first began a systematic, independent investigation of the RN’s operational history during World War One, he turned to retired senior RN officers, some of whom had been on active duty during the First World War, as his first sources. They repeated the myth to Marder, he repeated it to the world, and it remained until the late 1980’s/early 1990’s when RN insiders / scholars such as David K. Brown, John Sumida, and Nicholas Lambert began to unravel and expose the false myth. 

     Why refer to the events of a century ago in conjunction with present U.S. naval strategy and operational and tactical doctrine? Every warship is a compromise in multiple characteristics including armament, survivability, endurance, and speed. A warship might be perfectly suited to perform in one strategic environment, but less effective in future situations. Continued modernization is vital to tactical success. HMS Hood was perfectly suited to the combat conditions of the 1920’s, but failure to modernize her as scheduled placed her in grave danger when exposed to 1940’s naval ordnance. Improper operational employment can be just as dangerous to a ship and her crew as lack of armor, or the active and passive defenses modern warships utilize in lieu of armor protection. Having an offensive ethos, like that of the battlecruiser, sometimes makes its advocates less observant of necessary defensive measures. The battlecruiser force was so concerned with rate of fire that they ignored their ships’ installed safety measures. If the U.S. Navy intends to transition to a concept of “Offensive Sea Control”, it might be tempted to omit or ignore defensive capabilities in order to achieve the perfect first salvo of cruise missiles against an opponent. Small concerns perhaps, but worth noting since the British battlecruiser force lost over 3000 sailors in one battle in large part because its offensive mindset blinded it to necessary defensive actions.

[1] Nicholas Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution, Columbia, SC, University of South Carolina Press, 1999, p. 91.

[2] Lambert, p. 116.

[3] David K. Brown, The Grand Fleet, Warship Design and Development, 1906-1922, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, Reprint Edition, 2010, p. 13.

[4] Nicholas Lambert, “Our Bloody Ships or Our Bloody System, Jutland and the Loss of the Battlecruisers, 1916”, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), p 29

[5] Brown, p. 30.

[6] John Tetsuro Sumida, “The Royal Navy and the Tactics of Decisive Battle, 1912-1916”, The Journal of Military History, Volume 67, No. 1 (Jan 2003), p 110.

[7] Nicholas Lambert, “Our Bloody Ships or Our Bloody System”, pp. 29-55.

[8] Brown, p. 168.

[9] Brown, p. 169.

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