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Are U.S. Navy surface ships sitting ducks to enemies with modern weapons?

Posted by John T. Reed on

In this article, I am acting like the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes

I am a West Point graduate. No doubt Navy people will scoff at the notion that I can comment intelligently about the Navy.

I am undeterred by scoffing or résumé-based arguments which are intellectually dishonest. If there is an error or omission in my facts or logic, point it out and I will take appropriate action to correct and apologize for it. Otherwise, you tacitly admit that I am right and you are just trying to distract attention from that fact.

This article plays a role in my forthcoming novel The Unelected President.

The Unelected President novel

Falkland Islands war

On May 4, 1982, a French Mirage jet owned and operated by the Argentinean Air Force fired a French Exocet missile at the H.M.S. Sheffield, a British Navy destroyer. The missile did so much damage that the British decided to scuttle (sink) rather than repair the ship.

The Argentineans also sunk the British ships Ardent, Antelope, Atlantic Conveyor, and Coventry and badly damaged Argonaut and Brilliant. In addition, 13 Argentinean bombs hit British ships and did not explode because of defective detonators.

I repeat, this is what Argentina, a country that has never fought a single war, let alone won one, did to the U.K. Need I say more?

I will anyway.

1967 Israel-Egypt Six-Day War

On 10/21/67, two Egyptian patrol boats—like large U.S. WW II PT boats—sank the Israeli destroyer Eliat, which was a 26-year-old former British destroyer. The Soviet-made patrol boats were P-6s with a crew of 25 each and a speed of 43 knots. They fired four SS-N-2 Styx missiles. Three hit and the Israeli destroyer broke in half and sank within two hours. The two Egyptian boats were not harmed.

Computer naval war games against the Soviets

I have read media stories that said whenever the U.S. Navy did computer war games against the Soviet Union, all significant U.S. Navy surface ships were destroyed by the Soviets within about 20 minutes of the start of the computerized war. How? Nukes. 

Although the Navy ships and their carrier-based planes perform spectacularly well against third-rate enemies like Afghanistan and Iraq, I wonder how they would do against Argentina or any other enemy equipped with modern weapons.

In short, I wonder if U.S. Navy surface vessels are obsolete.

Think about it.

They are large, slow-moving, metal objects that float on the surface of the ocean—in the Twenty-First Century!

Ocean liners were the main way to get across the oceans for civilian passengers until the second half of the Twentieth Century. Since then, most people have used planes because they are much faster and cheaper. Except the U.S. military. Civilians essentially got rid of their passenger “navy” around 1950. Only the hidebound military would still have a Navy in the Twenty-First Century.

Nowadays, civilians only ride passenger ships for pleasure cruises. An argument can be made that the Navy does the same. Only maybe the old line, “you can tell the men from the boys by the size of their toys” is a more accurate way to put it. Tradition for tradition’s sake, regardless of how much it hurts the nation’s defense.

Navy brass want to grow up to captain a ship. A big ship. The bigger the better.

Before WW II, they wanted to be captains of battleships. After WW II, British historian B.H. Liddell Hart said, “A battleship had long been to an admiral what a cathedral is to a bishop.” Now Navy officers want to captain aircraft carriers. Very exciting. Very romantic. Great fun. But obsolete.

WW II in the Pacific last time they were not obsolete

The last time we used them to fight worthy opponents was in the Pacific during World War II. At that time, warring navies had to send out slow-moving patrol planes to search for the enemy’s ships. The motion picture Midway does an excellent job of showing both the Japanese and the Americans doing this.

Low-visibility weather would often hide ships back then.

Easily detected

Those days are long gone. Surface ships are not only easily seen by the human eye absent fog or clouds, they are also easily detected, pinpointed, and tracked by such technologies as radar, sonar, infrared detectors, satellites, motion detectors, noise detectors, magnetic field detectors, and so forth.

Nowadays, you can probably create an Exocet-type, anti-ship missile from stuff you could buy at Radio Shack. Surface ships can no longer hide from the enemy like they did in World War II.


Satellites and spy planes obviate the need for World War II-type patrol planes and blimps, unless someone shoots them down, in which case planes can accomplish the same thing.

Too slow

Anti-ship missiles can travel at speeds up to, what, 20,000 miles an hour in the case of an ICBM aimed at a carrier task force. Carriers move at 30 knots or so which is 34.6 miles per hour.

Too thin-skinned

Can you armor the ships so anti-ship missiles do not damage them? Nope. They have to stay relatively light so they can float and go 34.6 miles per hour.

Cannot defend themselves

Can you arm them with anti-missile defenses? They are trying. They have electronic Gatling guns that automatically shoot down the incoming missiles. But no doubt those Gatling guns have a certain capacity as to number of targets they can hit at a time and range and ammunition limitations. They also, like any mechanical device, would malfunction at times. Generally, one would expect that if the enemy fired enough missiles at a Gatling-gun-equipped ship, one or more would eventually get through. How many? Let’s say the capacity of an aircraft carrier and its entourage body-guard ships to stop simultaneous Exocet-type anti-ship missiles is X. The enemy then need only simultaneously fire X + 1 such missiles to damage or sink the carrier.

In the alternative, the enemy could fire one Exocet-type missile at a time at the carrier. Unless they are programmed otherwise, having only one such target, all the relevant guns would fire at it, thereby exhausting the carrier task force’s anti- missile ammunition more quickly, in which case fewer than X +1 Exocet-type missiles might be enough to put the carrier out of action.

A U.S. 2001 Naval Academy graduate said of this scenario:

The combat scenario which you seem to be imaging surface ships facing is one of saturation fire.  14 planes loaded out with 6 Air to Surface each would defiantly [sic] win against one DDG, but that's a highly unlikely situation.

Reed response: I disagree. This saturation fire scenario is precisely what the Japanese did at the end of World War II, only they used kamikaze suicide planes rather than missiles. It worked. Our enemies will attack in the way most likely to work. If that’s saturation, they will use saturation.

As Japan’s top WW II Admiral Yamamoto said,

There is no such thing as an unsinkable ship. The fiercest serpent may be overcome by a swarm of ants.

U.S. warships also have electronic warfare jamming devices that screw up the guidance systems of some types of incoming missiles. These, of course, are ineffective against nuclear-tipped missiles that need little guidance.

Furthermore, if the enemy uses 20,000-miles-per-hour nuclear missiles, there is no known anti-missile defense. They move too fast for the electronic Gatling guns and do not need to ever get within the Gatling guns’ range to destroy the ships. Our enemy certainly would use nukes if they had enough of them and were in an all-out war against us.

Cannot hide, run, or defend themselves

In summary, Navy surface ships cannot hide from a modern enemy. They cannot run from a modern enemy. And they cannot defend themselves against a modern enemy.

Accordingly, they are only useful for action against backward enemies like Afghanistan and Iraq or drug smugglers.

Militant stepchild

The Navy has long been a sort of stepchild in the American military. And it has been a very militant stepchild throwing such ferocious tantrums that it was able to get its own air force—Navy carrier-based planes—and its own army—the U.S. Marine Corps. Not only does the Navy have its own army and air force, the Navy’s army—the Marine Corps—has its own air force, too. (Astronaut and later Senator John Glenn was a Marine pilot.) Unbelievable.

It should be noted that the Army does not have its own air force or navy. (The Army needs its own helicopters and small fixed-wing planes because they work very closely with ground units in combat.) Nor does the Air Force have its own army or navy. The missions of the Navy pilots could just as easily be carried out by Air Force pilots trained to use carriers as their base. The Army could perform, and does perform, the functions of the Marine Corps.


The Marine Corps was originally a bunch of soldiers stationed on ships to board enemy sailing ships and/or to repel boarders from the enemy sailing ships. Those tactics went the way of the wooden sailing ships 150 years ago.

The Marine Corps then claimed it was needed for amphibious operations. But the biggest amphibious operation ever—D-Day—was all Army—no Marines. The Marines did famously engage in amphibious operations in the Pacific in World War II, but they screwed up Tarawa pretty good and when they mastered the amphibious landing, there was no indication they were much better at it than the Army was in Europe. Also, it is an extremely limited role. The earth has a lot of water and a lot of land, but relatively few beaches. Then there is the whole idea of whether amphibious landings are a sensible way to wage war in the Twenty-First Century. They bear too much resemblance to the Charge of the Light Brigade or Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg.

The Marines continue to exist because they scream bloody murder whenever anyone points out that they do not have a separate mission from the Army. According to a 3/09 Baltimore Sun story, the Marine Corps Commandant urged the Marines to “...take the major ground combat role in Afghanistan...”

Afghanistan is a landlocked country—no coast! 

I would let them continue to exist and wear their distinctive uniforms in recognition of their history and espirit de corps, but I would make them a subsidiary of the Army, not the Navy, and their mission would be like that of the Green Berets: a specialized Army unit.

‘What business are we in?’

At Harvard Business School, the most-commonly-asked question as we analyzed actual business cases from the perspective of the executives of the company was, “What business are we really in?” For example, manufacturers of printers and copiers are really in the toner business.

The most famous article ever printed in the Harvard Business Review was called, “Marketing Myopia.” It said too many companies defined what they do incorrectly, usually overly narrowly. The classic example in the article was that the railroad companies generally failed because they did not realize they were in the transportation business, not the railroad business. When interstate highways and trucks ascended, the railroads regarded those technologies as the enemy. Had they thought of themselves as being in the transportation business, they would have embraced motor vehicles and highways and integrated them into their existing railroad capabilities.

Goofy ‘old salt’ affectations

Similarly, it may be that the Navy’s problem is that they think they are in the business of operating ships. When I was a junior at West Point, I spent a long exchange weekend at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. During the weekend, a midshipmen expressed contempt for many of the officers there explaining, “They think this is a ship,” while waving his hand at the Bancroft Hall dormitory in which we were sitting.

He went on to explain that many officers stationed at Annapolis refer to all floors as “decks,” all doors as “hatches,” all walls as “bulkheads,” and so forth. Sure enough, when I was a senior at West Point, our company tactical officer (disciplinarian) was a Navy Lieutenant and Annapolis graduate who was there as an exchange officer. He told cadets visiting him in his office to, “Close the hatch.” He once gave one of my company mates demerits for, “Shoes adrift.” (shoes not lined up under the bed straight enough)

The Army and Air Force have hatches, decks, and bulkheads, too, on tanks and aircraft, but I have never heard of a career tanker or pilot calling a door a “hatch.”

The Navy has a great history and tradition and they should make use of it. Many nautical phrases, like “batten down the hatches,” have become part of everyday language and appropriately so. But they are carrying it too far and engaging in affectation when they purport to be such old salts that they can’t stop themselves from calling a door a “hatch.” I point this out only to support my allegation that Navy officers see themselves overly narrowly as ship operators.

Command at sea

In Evan Thomas’s book Sea of Thunder, he says, “Ambitious naval officers avoided staff jobs if at all possible: the route to advancement and fulfillment was command at sea...” It’s hard to command at sea without ships—including very big ships—no matter how obsolete they are. Here’s one more quote from that book about WW II Admiral Bull Halsey. “Halsey was railing against inhumanity, but also against modernity, against a world in which there would be no place for a sea dog like Bill Halsey.”

They really are in the business of securing international waterways to prevent enemies from using them to attack us and enabling our military to use international waterways to attack overseas enemies. (A career Navy reader told me the U.S. Navy also protects merchant vessels. No, they don’t. They tried in the Gulf of Aden to prevent piracy but the piracy continues, by grade school dropouts in zodiacs. The oceans are too vast, the number of merchant vessels is too great, few are U.S.-flagged because of U.S. maritime union greed, and the Navy ships are too slow to respond to merchant 911 calls. You need air craft to do that, also,) That being the case, the Navy should either make much more use of aircraft or cede the role to the Air Force. The role of ships in the world has been greatly reduced, especially in modern war. In other words, it may be that the Navy actually needs its own air force. Actually, what the Navy may not need is its own navy.

At the outset of World War II, many erroneously thought that the battleship was the main naval warfare instrument. They quickly learned what the Japanese had already figured out. The aircraft carrier was the main weapon. Sixty-five years later, the U.S. Navy still thinks the aircraft carrier is the main naval weapon. Nonsense. Carriers became obsolete in the mid 1950s because of long-rang land-based bombers and missiles. In modern warfare, the ship is a sort of floating Maginot line.

Weakest link

A chain is as strong as its weakest link. Our new aircraft carriers are mighty in some ways—nuclear propulsion, jet aircraft, computers, nuclear weapons. But the technological chain they comprise has some extremely weak links which would, in a fight with a modern enemy, likely be fatal.

For example, the technology of the hull design is so old that it predates recorded human history—namely, the coffin shape to three sides and the bottom with a V-shaped prow on the front end. Cavemen carved that shape out of trees.

Making it out of steel instead of wood is late Nineteenth Century technology. The first metal-clad ships were the Monitor and the Merrimack in the Civil War. (A readers says in 1860, the Royal Navy launched an ironclad vessel known as HMS Warrior. Wikipedia says, “HMS Warrior was the first armor-plated, iron-hulled warship, built for the Royal Navy in response to the first ironclad warship, the French Gloire, launched a year earlier.”)

In terms of propulsion, the recently-built aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan is a steam ship. True, they heat the water with nuclear power rather than wood or coal, but the propellers are turned by steam. Before nuclear steam boilers, diesel engines were the most technologically-advanced ship propulsion. Steam boats are also Nineteenth Century technology.

One Navy guy told me they now use steam turbines instead of steam pistons so I’m wrong about Nineteenth Century technology. Irrelevant. The issue is whether heating water until it turns to steam requires nuclear reactors. It does not. Bunker or diesel oil will do just fine and you can combine bunker-oil-fired boilers with turbines. Most, if not all, land-based electric power plants nowadays use oil, gas, or coal to heat water into steam then send the steam through turbines to turn it into electricity.

Compare today’s Navy ships with those made of wood and powered by sail in the Nineteenth Century In terms of speed, the U.S.S. Lightning was the fastest clipper sailing ship and had a maximum speed of 18 knots under full sail. That is more than half the 30 knot speed of the nuclear powered U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier. Some progress. (A guy who claimed to be knowledgeable about such things said the top speed of the Reagan is actually secret, but figures it probably cannot be more than 44 knots. Whatever. There are no modern missiles—conventional- or nuclear-tipped—that can be outrun by a 44-knot ship.)

In contrast, the weapons used to sink ships have increased in speed from about 18 knots (about 21 mph) before gunpowder was invented to the 4 kilometers per second or 8,942 miles per hour that an ICBM warhead reentering the Earth’s atmosphere travels. Exocet missiles are slower, but quite fast enough.

If the nuclear engines do not produce much speed, what is the point? They can go a long time without refueling. Actually, not as long as a sail boat, but the wind is not always blowing the right speed or direction while the fission reactor is always hot.

I am not sure there is a lot of difference between putting lipstick on a pig and putting a nuclear reactor on the world’s biggest barge.

Gotta stop for gas every day anyway

Carriers may be nuclear powered, but their planes are not. That means the carrier has to rendezvous with aviation gas supply ships every day. So what’s the advantage of not needing to get diesel or bunker oil for the carrier’s own propulsion at the same time? I’ll bet that over the long run, taking into account the up-front cost of the reactor, using diesel or bunker oil as the fuel for the carrier’s own propulsion would cost less than using nuclear reactors.

Then there is the fact that carriers do not operate alone. They operate in a “battle group.” What’s that? A whole bunch of ships whose function is to protect the damned carrier. The nautical equivalent of a hip-hop star’s entourage. And what fuel propels the swarm of protector ships? Nuclear? Nope. They burn old-time fossil fuels. So not only does the nuclear carrier have to stop at the gas station daily for aviation fuel, all its protector ships also have to stop for diesel oil.

Once again, if the carrier has to keep stopping for 19th century fuel, why bother putting a nuclear reactor in it? I think it’s because you can tell the men from the boys by the size of their toys. Nuclear carriers are more impressive toys to a bunch of admirals who want to play “mine’s more powerful than yours.” They also cost more which means more pork for the districts and states of a bunch of congressmen and senators.

Sick sibling rivalry

Plus there’s the sick sibling rivalry need to make sure the Navy always gets more money than the Army. Nuclear powered carriers are excellent tools for beating out the Army for budget share.

Is anyone concerned that wasting money on surface ships hurts the national defense? I am. So are a number of big picture think tanks and former Defense Secretary Gates, but I think that’s about it. The Navy officers and Congress are out for their own selfish, childish interests.

Nuclear power does make sense for submarines because they do not have to gas up their weapons or entourage every day. Nuclear power makes submarines true submarines, no the “submersibles” that had to surface to run diesel engines to recharge their batteries every night in World War II. Nuclear submarines can stay on patrol until their food runs out.

Navy tantrums

Given their tantrum history, you can imagine how the Navy brass reacts to it being pointed out that their surface ships are obsolete in the modern world against modern enemies. Too bad! The national security is at stake here.

Plus you don’t have to imagine. This debate has been going on since General Billy Mitchell. He committed the heresy of pointing out that a plane could sink a ship with a bomb or aerial torpedo. The Navy swore it was not true. Mitchell was court martialed and forced to resign. Later, he was honored by having the B-25 bomber named after him, got the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, was on a USPS stamp in 1999, and received other honors—all posthumous. The mess hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy is named after Mitchell. But I’ll bet nothing is named after him at the U.S. Naval Academy. I’ll further bet that there are things at the Naval Academy that are named after the Navy brass who persuaded the Army brass to court-martial Mitchell for criticizing the Navy’s disdain for air power.

Congress and the President and the other services need to stand up, at long last, to their crybaby sibling and allocate the nation’s resources intelligently among the three major services. The fact is that the surface Navy is obsolete in modern warfare. Its budget and role should be drastically reduced accordingly. It is a sort of blue-water coast guard and a provider of floating island air bases (carriers) for actions against militarily-backward countries. I suspect the nation would be stronger, less vulnerable to attack, and have more money for more appropriate weapons if we spent the surface-ship money on longer-range aircraft and missiles and on obtaining rights to overseas island and continental air bases. Land-based aircraft, in addition to not being in danger of having their landing strip sunk, can carry heavier weapons and more of them.

Must stay away from land-based bombers

On page 48 of Sea of Thunder, Evan Thomas’s excellent book about the ‘last great naval battle,” the 1942 Battle of Leyte Gulf, he mentions that bringing one’s carrier within range of shore-based bombers violated naval doctrine.

Back then, the areas of the world’s oceans in which Navy ships dared not go were limited to a strip several hundred miles wide along the world’s coasts—namely the range of land-based military aircraft big enough to carry effective anti-ship weapons. In the late 1940s and early 1950s as the range of land-based piloted aircraft and unmanned missiles grew, the areas of the world’s oceans where navy ships could safely operate shrank until it disappeared entirely in the 1950s. Nowadays, all ships everywhere in the world are within range of land-based piloted aircraft or sea-, air-, and land-launched missiles.

Because of satellites, the locations of all the ships in the world are also known at all times. (A Navy reader said we still sometimes lose track of them. I’d like to know why since we now have all sorts of non-visual ways to “see” through clouds.)

And, nowadays, all carriers everywhere on earth are within range of shore-based bombers because some aircraft have almost unlimited range now. And you no longer need manned bombers. Unmanned missiles would probably be a better weapon to use to sink carriers and some of them truly do have unlimited range on planet earth. One of our drones can fly 14,000 miles on a tank of gas an can be refueled in flight.

Fly-over permission and range

A 2001 U.S. Naval Academy graduate reader said:

You mention in your Navy tantrums section that surface ship funding would be better spent on long range bombing.  I would submit to you that we already have aircraft that can achieve this function, but are rarely used because they require overflight consent and their on-station time isn't enough to maintain sustained combat operations.

Reed response: There is always the question of how many such planes we have and is it enough. I was not aware that it was harder to get fly-over permission than sail-over permission. Fly-over permission is only needed with regard to landlocked countries. Is he saying that the Navy is better for dealing with landlocked enemies than the Air Force?

That makes no sense. If on-station time (essentially range or size of fuel tank combined with good gas mileage) is inadequate, spend the money saved by no longer building aircraft carriers on increasing the on-station time of our planes. Our drones now have great on-station time, partly because they got rid of the pilot and all the equipment to protect him. By such things an increasing wing span, removing pilots and pilot-associated equipment and increase fuel capacity and mid-air refueling capacity, we can improve on-station time greatly.

The 2001 USNA guy also said:

The US Navy probably only needs a total of 180 total ships, none going any further than middle of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Apparently, the U.S. Navy currently has about 400 toys, er, ships and they are going farther than the middle of the Atlantic and Pacific. If we suddenly, unexpectedly get in a war with a non-third-world military, according to this USNA grad, our Navy should instantly run for home, although I must say that they would not be safe even here.

Via spy satellites, a modern enemy knows where all of our ships are at all times. They could hide from visual spotting by going to some area of the world’s oceans where there is almost always heavy cloud cover. But that would not help if the enemy in question used radar or infrared detection.

Furthermore, enemies with ICBMs or submarine- or plane-based missiles can sink ships anywhere in the world’s oceans or ocean harbors. The sad truth is that in 2009, a better-than-third-world enemy would not even bother to waste the ammo sinking U.S. Navy surface ships unless they dared to get within range where they could inflict harm on the enemy country or its interests.

At the end of World War II, both the German and Japanese navies were sunk in their harbors or when they dared even to begin to head toward U.S. personnel. That was in 1945, yet here we are in 2015 building ships that would immediately suffer the same fate if we were at war with any first- or second-world military.

If we were to somehow get into a war with, say, Argentina as the U.K. did in the 1980s, I expect we would not dare send U.S. Navy surface ships within range of Argentinean planes or missiles. We would fight them with submarines and air power, both manned and unmanned, and we would use ground troops only if we had a ground route that got them there or by air lift. We would not use troop ships as U.K. did in the Falklands War or as we did in the World Wars or Korea. Those of us who served in third-world Vietnam got there by civilian chartered jetliner.

And the 2001 USNA guy said,

One of the reasons I left the Navy was because of the intransigent attitudes of those in the upper echelons. I have argued that the Counter Drug Mission is at best ineffective (as the price of cocaine has gone down, not up since 1990) and that the military is losing the war for talent not because it can't compete in terms of pay, but because its inability to adapt.  Admirals (and I suspect Generals too) are only capable of planning for past threats.  The creativity required to imagine and design counters to future hazards is squashed by the [what] anyone [has to do to] get to Flag rank.

Reed response: In general at my Web site, I have complained that the U.S. military attracts and retains the wrong people and spends too much time doing the wrong thing. You can see the list of other pertinent articles at

‘Update your facts’

On 10/7/07, I got a phone message saying that I’d better update my facts because I don’t know what I’m talking about in this article. Tellingly, the caller failed to mention a single specific error in this article. That’s called an attempt at intimidation. Use elucidation, not intimidation, if you want to have any chance at getting me to change the Web page.

Fleet week

But as it happened, Fleet Week occurred in San Francisco this past weekend. I live in the San Francisco area. I was planning to take a couple of ship tours at Fleet week and I did on 10-9-07. I visited the USS Vandergrift, a guided missile frigate that no longer has any missiles and the USS Shoup, a guided missile destroyer.

First, I want to thank the crews for letting us civilians visit their ship, especially those crew members who conducted the tours. My wife and I were especially impressed with Chief Kevin on the Shoup.

Did the visits and briefings by the crew members change my mind about U.S. Navy surface ships being sitting ducks? Au contraire! I was shocked to learn that I had understated the case. The ships are more sitting ducks than I realized.

Those are the only weapons they have?!
Let’s start with the Vandergrift. I have no idea why this ship exists. Supposedly, it protects carriers. I don’t know how. It cannot even protect itself. It has a 3-inch (76mm) deck gun, six torpedo tubes (which are irrelevant to incoming missiles or planes), and an MK 15 Gatling gun. (They also have about four .50 cal machine guns that are mainly for preventing another U.S.S. Cole

A U.S. Naval Academy grad reader said:

The USS Cole, while tragic, was an easily avoidable incident.  The US Navy has spent decades perfecting Underway Replenishment, which is basically when two ships transfer weapons, fuel and other stores from one to the other while at sea.  The Cole stopped was completely unnecessary and was essential[ly] there to show the flag.  

You know what other weapons platform had a 76-mm cannon? A World War II Sherman tank. That tank weighed 30 tons, as did what it was shooting at roughly speaking. The Vandergrift weighs 4,100 tons, as do its opponents, if it is lucky. Do you know how long it would take to sink a 4,100-ton ship with a 3-inch gun? Me neither. I doubt it has ever been attempted. I doubt it is even possible. Molotov cocktails would probably be more effective.

The Vandergrift has one Gatling gun. It shoots 4,500 rounds per minute, which sounds impressive. But you cannot shoot any rapid-fire weapon that I am aware of at its maximum rate for very long for at least two reasons:

• You run out of ammo and at least have to stop to insert more ammunition into the high-speed feed mechanism.
• Unless they have some extraordinary cooling mechanism, the metal parts of the weapon will overheat and swell thereby causing the weapon to jam.

A U.S. Naval Academy graduate reader said,

The USS Vandergrift, as you stated is woefully inadequate for combat, which is why most FFG's are deployed to South America for counter drug operations.

So why was it ever built in the first place? Why does it still exist?


I asked and was told that they could not replenish the gun’s ammo while it is firing. They have to stop firing to do that. I do not know how long it takes, but it sounds like several minutes. What gun is protecting the ship during that time? Apparently none.

Is the U.S. Navy a sitcom—some sort of colossal joke on the American taxpayers and its sailors?


The Gatling gun is complex and subject to extreme stress while operating. Common sense would tell us that such a device would malfunction frequently. So you need multiple Gatling guns both so that some are still operating when the other runs out of ammo and so that others are still operating when one malfunctions. Plus you need one Gatling gun for each incoming missile or plane.

It shoots 4,500 rounds a minute. The rounds are 20-mm, tungsten or depleted uranium rounds. They have a range of about 2,000 yards—damn close when the target is traveling mach 1 or mach 2.

How much space do 4,500 rounds take up? So much that they can only put 1,550 rounds in one drum that feeds the gun. That drum is about the size of a 55-gallon oil drum.

So although it can fire 4,500 rounds per minute, it does not have that much ammo attached to the gun. In other words, it can only fire for about one-third of a minute or 20 seconds then it stops firing for lack of ammunition.

So the more accurate way to put it would be that it can fire 1,550 rounds for twenty seconds and then do it again after you install a new 55-gallon drum size magazine of belted ammo which has to be threaded through a long serpentine guide before the gun is ready to fire. I do not know how long it takes to reload after emptying a 1,550 round magazine drum, but I would guess it’s a couple of minutes at least.

As far as I can tell, the ship is defenseless during that time with regard to close-in targets. I doubt the 3-inch gun is effective at close range because it shoots at too slow a rate per minute (the crewman said 80 rounds per minute, but seemed skeptical when he said it) and traverses and elevates too slowly.

Can’t shoot forward

But here’s the topper. The Vandergift’s two guns are both on the back of the ship. The commander’s bridge is in the traditional place on the front and facing front. But the ship has to point its rear end at the enemy, like a skunk, to shoot at the enemy.

Very simply, it cannot shoot forward because the guns are blocked by the superstructure of the ship. Any enemy plane or missile that managed to attack the ship head on would have nothing to worry about other than the .50 cal. machine guns on the front sides of the weather deck. Those may have, I repeat, may have, been effective anti-aircraft weapons against propeller-driven planes in World War II.

A Vandergrift officer said they have “friends” (other U.S. ships) in the vicinity to help defend them. OK. Now tell me who’s protecting the friends. I expect those friends would say the Vandergrift is. And why does it make more sense to have two ships each with one Gatling gun than one ship with two Gatling guns? Are the guns coordinated electronically between ships? I doubt it. Are guns on the same ship coordinated so they do not shoot at the same target at the same time? I would hope and expect so. But I don’t know.


At the end of World War II, U.S. navy ships were covered with anti-aircraft weapons to shoot down kamikazes. They put one everywhere they could. Now, the U.S. Navy puts one Gatling gun on an entire ship. Why, someone on the tour asked. “Funding” was the answer we got. The Shoup has two Gatling guns, but it just got the second one. Why the delay on the five-year old ship? “Funding.”

This is an $800 million ship. I could not find the cost of the MK15 on the Internet. I wonder why. Anyway, I’ll guess it costs $1 million. So we are risking an $800 million ship and its crew to save the $1 million or whatever that each additional Gatling gun would cost!?


The crews of both ships said they could fire chaff (aluminum foil, or metallic glass or plastic fibers) into the air to confuse the guiding systems of incoming missiles. OK. But two points. That only confuses radar-guided missiles and it confuses all radar guided weapons in the vicinity, including your own. The MK 15 Gatling gun is radar guided. So it will not be hitting any enemy targets while chaff is in the air. And what’s to stop the enemy from using missiles that drop chaff as they approach. Chaff is World War II technology. Our enemies just might figure it out.

If there is chaff either from its own ship or from the enemy missile or plane, the MK 15 will put 1,550 rounds of ammo into 1,550 pieces of chaff.


What if the incoming missile or plane is heat-seeking rather than radar guided? The Shoup said they have an infrared decoy they shoot off that orbits the ship to distract heat-seeking enemy weapons. Of course, such a decoy would also screw up our heat-seeking weapons. One type of 3-inch cannon shell is detonated by target heat. Also, many other U.S. weapons, like the sidewinder air-to-air missile, are heat-seeking. Those weapons cannot be used when an infrared decoy is in the air.

Visual guidance

There is no human way to confuse a visually-guided weapon like a kamikaze or a missile with a video camera that is guided by a guy who can see the target in the video and controls the missile. The public saw some examples of that in Desert Storm where the picture on the TV screen was cross hairs on a building that would rapidly get closer until the picture abruptly ended as the missile struck the target. About the only countermeasure would be smoke if it was not a windy day or intense light that temporarily blinded the enemy. But as with the above countermeasures, they have about the same effect on both the enemy and our guys. We can’t see through smoke or light flashes either.

The Shoup, like the Vandergrift, only has one cannon, but at least it’s a five-inch one. It also has two MK15 Gatling guns, one on the front and one on the back of the ship. The Vandergrift has huge radar antennas and a bunch of little tubes that fire chaff that would confuse all radar including their own.

Sure wish someone would explain to me why or surface ships are not sitting ducks. I fear for the men I met today and for the nation they are supposedly protecting. Their training, courage, dedication, and professionalism are all irrelevant if they are the target of a missile they cannot stop. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.


One of the Vandergrift’s missions is to send boarding parties to suspect ships and boats. When the U.S. Navy did that once in the Persian Gulf in recent years, the suspicious boat which was approaching U.S. Navy warships, turned out to be a suicide bomb and all the U.S. sailors on the boarding party were killed. I suggest we knock off that tactic in suicide bomber territory and just draw a line in the water. Cross it, and we vaporize you. No boarding or even getting close enough to get hit. The civilians will figure out soon enough to stay away from U.S. warships like they did in World War II.

Maybe the majority of U.S. service people killed in the last six years died because we were pussyfooting around trying to avoid civilian casualties and the enemy was using that against us by disguising vicious enemy fighters as innocent civilians.


The Shoup has 80 missile silos that can hold one to four missiles each. Some of those are GPS guided. They are also multi-purpose depending upon the type of missile they put in each. They have available ship-to-ship, anti-submarine, anti-air, and ship-to-land (cruise missiles). The public saw the latter used in wars against Iraq. The typical video showed the missile blasting off straight up then seeming to falter before taking off at jetliner speed for the target.

Generally, those missile silos are impressive, but a couple of things. I asked if they had more missiles on board than were in the 80 silos. Yes. Another guy asked if they could reload the silos themselves. No. They need to meet up with a ship that has a crane. I would expect they have to do that in port also. Doesn’t seem like they could use a crane on one ship to drop a missile into a silo on another while the two ships are bucking up and down and rolling end-to-end and side-to-side. Well, then what’s the point of having extra missiles on board? To make it easier for the enemy to hit the ship’s magazine and blow it up? The missiles are all bunched together with 16 on the front deck and 64 on the back deck. Seems like one enemy round hitting the deck in the right spot could disable all the silos at that end of the ship.

Again, except for visual and GPS-guided missiles, it would appear that the Shoup would screw up its own missiles if it were taking chaff or infrared countermeasures against enemy missiles while firing its own. And GPS missiles can probably be fouled up by radio jamming or, in the case of advanced nations, shooting down the satellites.

When you think about it, World War II weapons were arguably more reliable if less accurate. The number of things that can go wrong with high tech is far greater and we have gone 70 years without a naval opponent who would test our Navy. I expect 70 years without a test means we’re cruising’ for a bruising’.

In all wars, including World War II and our next naval war, the two sides constantly modify their tactics and weapons. In the early years of World War II, our torpedoes did not work because they had been inadequately and dishonestly tested before the war. In Desert Storm, the same thing happened with our Patriot anti-missile missiles. In its early years, the M-16 assault rifle kept jamming because they Army refused to follow the recommendations of the investor of the rifle regarding chrome plating the firing chamber and inside of the barrel.

Have we really adequately tested the MK 15 Gatling gun in enough realistic circumstances to have shaken out all the problems like overheating and reloading? I doubt it. High tech weapons cost so much that the military cannot afford to fire them very often.

In World War II, the Germans would wait until the Americans had used up a clip of ammo to attack. They could count the number of shots and hear the pling of the clip being ejected when they were fighting from close range. Seems like an advanced navy could do something similar with the Shoup.

U.S.S. Cole

The Shoup is an Arleigh Burke Class Guided missile destroyer. So is the U.S.S. Cole, the American ship that was almost destroyed by Al Qaeda suicide bombers in a small motor launch in Aden. Those suicide bombers simply drove up to the side of the Cole and set off their bomb. They killed 17 sailors and wounded 39.

Knew it was coming but gave no warning

U.S. military leaders knew in advance, from intelligence, that an attack on a U.S. Navy ship was being planned, but because they did not know the date or location, they decided not to warn the fleet. I offer that in case you were under the misconception that the U.S. Navy leaders had brains or any common sense. Remember that the next time you hear the phrase “the lessons of Pearl Harbor.”

Four .50 cal machine guns

On the Shoup, we could see what the Navy did to prevent another U.S.S. Cole incident. What did they do? They put four .50 cal machine guns on the ship. There is one on each side of the front weather deck and one on each side of the rear weather deck. Will that prevent another Cole-type bombing?


I wouldn’t think so. Why not? The guns are mounted in an unprotected spot along the rail on the edge of the ship. The assumption that caused the U.S.S. Cole disaster was that the enemy would not attack while the ship was in port—even in a known terrorist area. Now we have a new assumption: that the enemy will not shoot at the .50 cal machine gunner.


Seems obvious that the way to attack now would be to have a sniper or RPG man shoot the machine gunner nearest the terrorists’ point of attack then approach at an angle that prevents any of the other three .50 cals from being able to hit them. The .50 cals do not have 360-degree coverage even when all four are shooting.

For example, assume that you impose a compass over the ship with the bow being north or 0º/360º. Terrorists could kill the portside front .50 cal gunner then attack from an angle of about 355º with impunity because no other .50 cal could aim at that pathway. The bigger weapons would be useless because they cannot shoot at targets so close or so low. In other words, the ship has blind spots when all four .50 cals are manned and ready and even bigger blind spots when one or more of those guns is out of action.

Hidden cannon

The enemy could also hide a cannon or recoilless rifle (big bazooka) in a building or vehicle near where a U.S. ship docks and fire at almost point blank range at the side of the ship at the water line. Very simply, the Shoup can protect itself from certain discrete threats, but not every threat. The enemy will study the ship and figure out the seams between its weapons. The Cole incident was one such effort. They almost sank a billion dollar ship with about $1,000 worth of motorized inflated boat and explosives. The only way the Shoup will be attacked is in a way that the Shoup does not expect.

In their zeal to avoid another Vincennes incident, the U.S. Navy has adopted a number of measures to avoid shooting down a civilian airliner like the U.S.S. Cruiser Vincennes did in 1988. No doubt any future air attack on a U.S. ship will be carried out by a civilian airliner that has been hijacked or flown from the ground so as to trigger the U.S. Navy’s civilian-casualty-avoidance measures. The Shoup’s weapons are of no use if the Shoup does not pull the trigger until it’s too late or never.

Visual gun direction

Also, those guns are directed visually. Smoke, fog, lasers, or bright light flashes could silently blind the gunners. So can a plain old moonless night. The silent, long-range heat ray that is now used in some crowd-control situations could drive the gunner away from his gun.

Outnumber them

The enemy could also just overwhelm the four gunners with multiple attacks that outnumber the two gunners on the side of the ship from which they attacked.

Some readers may think I am helping the terrorists by explaining how to do this. Nope. They can see exactly what I’m saying in photos of the ships or through binoculars in any port of call. The .50 cals are easy to see, especially when they are manned as they are when in port. And al Qaeda guys are no dummies. Bin Laden was a civil engineer. 9/11 was a very clever plan that was almost perfectly executed. (The planes that were intended to attack targets in DC both dove into the ground—one harmlessly to those on the ground in PA and one that bounced into the Pentagon thereby reducing its destructiveness.)

Back corners

Two .50 cals should have been placed on the back corners of the ship—probably mounted on flying stands that protrude from the ship so they can see all of the stern and sides of the ship where it meets the water. They are instead about 40 feet toward the bow in front of the back corners of the ship.

Blind spots

As it stands now, I do not believe those .50 cals can shoot at a bad guy directly astern of the ship after he gets to a certain closeness. They may also not be able to shoot down at the water right alongside the ship because they are mounted on the railing which is above the deck. That means you can only depress the gun so far and probably not far enough to hit someone who is close to the ship. Also, the ship hull appears to be tapered from top to water line so that the deck overhangs the side of the ship to an extent.

The two front .50 cals are in better shape because the front of the ship comes to a point rather than being perpendicular to the sides like the stern. But again, the guns should have put on flying mounts that protrude out beyond the main deck so that the gunners could hit enemies along the side of the ship at the water line. At present, I do not believe they could depress the gun that far.

More guns in better spots

They should move those guns and add more like an additional one right on the point of the bow that could shoot to either side of the ship if need be. They also need to provide some protection for the gunners manning those machine guns. Many military guns have a shield attached to the gun barrel. You can see a small version of such a shield in an otherwise unprotected ship rail position in the photo at

In other words, the new measures the Navy adopted to prevent another Cole are half-assed. Here we have a billion-dollar ship and several hundred crewmen and all the Navy does to help it protect itself from another Cole-type attack is to install four, unprotected, visual-only, World War II machine guns in relatively poorly-chosen locations around the ship. (They also have speed boats patrolling the waters around the ship now when in port.)

In short, the Navy appears not to have learned the lesson the Cole, namely, that ships in hostile ports are vulnerable to all manner of attacks that are not prevented by four .50 cal machine guns.

Anyway, as a result of my Fleet Week tours of current U.S. Navy ships, I am now able to report to the guy who said I’d better update my facts: mission accomplished.

The Navy needs to update its testing to make sure all possible problems are taken into account and the tactics, training, ships, and/or weapons modified appropriately. I think the Navy needs to sell the Vandergrift to the Coast Guard. It is too impotent to be a Navy ship. In 2007, the Shoup is too ready for the Battle of Okinawa and not enough ready for another Cole incident. Considering whom our enemies are, the Cole-type attack is the one they ought to be concentrating on.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 5/11/09 New Yorker article

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of the best-selling books Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. He also wrote an excellent article on being unconventional is combat and other types of competitions in the 5/11/09 New Yorker magazine. Militarily, it talks about David and Goliath, Lawrence of Arabia, and a naval war game contest repeatedly won easily by a computer with no preconceived notions about how to fight a war. It also talks about a girls youth basketball team coached by a guy who never played basketball that made it to the national championship final where a ref local to the opponent called a zillion fouls against the underdogs so they lost.

The basic point of the article is that conventional expertise in many competitive areas, especially war where there are few rules, is too inside the box and that outside-the-box commanders have often won spectacularly over much bigger or stronger opponents. See my The Contrarian Edge For Football Offense for a book-length discussion of the application of these principles to that field.

Here is an email I got in June, 2008. I did not publish the name of the sender because I did not get an answer to my request for permission.

Mr. Reed,
Rarely do I ever comment on anyone’s web sites, but I thought this was worth sharing.  I served in the Navy for 7 years and I had the extreme displeasure of serving aboard the USS Shreveport (LPD-12), which has since been decommissioned.  The ships that you talk about in your article seem to be much newer ships with new technology.  This is NOT the state of affairs of the majority of the Navy.  

The majority of the Navy is ships like the Shreveport, ships that were commissioned in the 60’s and are still operating as late as 2004.  While we were in a shipyard rotation in 2003, there were some shipyard workers who were tasked with sand blasting the barnacles and other sea debris from the ballast tanks of the ship.  The shipyard worker actually sand blasted through the hull of the ship.  Using sand and high pressure air, he created a hole from the inside of the ship to the outside.  

The running joke on the ship was that if we were ever hit by a missile, one of two things would happen.  One, the missile would pass right through the hull and not explode, while people stood around looking through the hole like in some TV sitcom.  Two, the missile would hit the ship and completely disintegrate it so quickly, that all the sailors would actually float in mid-air for a few seconds like a cartoon before falling into the water.
Unfortunately, the reality is that some of these ships currently in use are so amazingly old that the structural integrity of the metal been outlived and the paint is the only thing holding it together.  (This is probably why we painted so much.)  If these ships were ever actually attacked not only would the ship be unable to legitimately defend itself, the losses would be catastrophic.  The 17 dead sailors, as tragic as it was, aboard the USS Cole would be miniscule compared to a ship as old as the USS Shreveport being attacked with 400 sailors and 600 Marines aboard.
Your article is dead on accurate with officers jockeying for command and promotions and with the obsolescence of the current Navy.  Keep up the good work.
Thank you for your time,

Here are comments from a U.S. Naval Academy graduate reader:

You reference of Malcolm Gladwell's article on an inferior opponent can defeat a superior one is slightly specious in my opinion because as I'm sure you are aware, the US Military Rules of Engagement severely limit what actions our combat forces can use to achieve victory.

Reed response: How is this relevant? This is just, “Yeah, you’re right but we Navy guys have a good excuse for not winning.” The Navy is the least flexible U.S. military service because of its dependence on ships rather than an equipment configuration relying more on manned and unmanned aircraft.

If you analyze the value of the Navy's surface fleet based upon its combat worthiness, then yes some of our current ships are inadequate.  But to be perfectly honest, the surface fleets role has more to do with presence than it does combat.   As most of the world's commerce travel via the seas, the US Navy visible presence, is supposed to act as a deterrent against privacy.

Reed response: I suspect he means deterrent to “piracy,” not “privacy.” Well, that’s a reason for spending a zillion dollars on aircraft carriers that I never heard before, but it’s very topical with the recent pirate sniper incident. Obviously, the most sensible way to deter piracy is to put armed guards on the cargo ships, not to have the U.S. Navy trying to handle it. Furthermore, if the U.S. Navy is going to do that, we need to reinstate World War II-style convoys with air cover, not try to have enough U.S. Navy ships to cover every place in the ocean where pirates are or can be a problem. Also, since there are few ocean-going cargo ships showing U.S. flags nowadays—the U.S. maritime unions’ greed drove them all to foreign flags—whose commerce are we protecting? I read a book about Somali pirates. It indicated that multi-nation convoys are now often used off the coast of Somalia but they cannot get every merchant ship to wait for a convoy so the convoys have not stopped piracy.

Also, “presence” is only useful against third-world countries. If we were at war with, say, Argentina, as the U.K. was during the Falkland Islands war, the enemy would likely note our “presence” and say,

Oh, look! The stupid American have put their fleet within easy range of our land-based bombers and missiles.

The Argentinean Air Force sank six British Ships. Against first or even second-world militaries, naval “presence” is nothing but naval suicide and has been since about 1955.

The 8/17/10 Wall Street Journal had an article titled, “U.S. Sounds Alarm at China’s Military Buildup.” It has these two sentences:

A particular concern for the U.S. is China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile with a projected range of nearly 1,000 miles Some experts say the missile could herald the end of U.S. naval domination.

Could? What’s going to stop it? And domination is not the issue. The mere survival of U.S. Navy surface ships in the face of such a missile is at stake. But they probably need not worry. 1. the U.S. Navy would probably have enough sense to keep our Navy in port in a war against a grown-up military power. 2. An intelligent enemy would not waste ammo on U.S. Navy surface ships. They cannot hurt the enemy until they get within several hundred miles of the enemy shore.

The U.S. has not had naval domination of anything since around the mid 1950s if a developed country wanted to stop us. Any country with missiles can sink any of our ships that are within range of their missiles, some of which are cruise-type missiles that can be fired from long-range aircraft.

The 8/27/10 Wall Street Journal had an article about a new Marine “Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.” The photo accompanying the article looks like a floating tank. The article had several statements that caused me to think, “You gotta be kidding me.” They relate to the thesis of this article, namely, that the U.S. surface Navy is obsolete and has been for 55 years. Journal statements in italics, my comments in red.

If the program [to acquire 573 ETVs] is scaled back, it raises questions about the Marine Corps’ future as the U.S. military’s designated force for landing on beaches.

“Landing on beaches!?” When is the last time we did that under fire? Would you believe 1945 on Okinawa? (Our landing at Inchon during the Korean War was a successful surprise with relatively light resistance. Also, we landed at port there, not on a beach.) We don’t need to land on no stinking beaches. In 2010, against any but a third-world enemy, that would be suicidal, especially when we can now just vaporize the enemy beach defenses from the air as we did the Iraqi Army in Desert Storm.

Note the phrase “Marine Corps’ future.” Were you aware that the Navy’s Army—the Marine Corps—constantly worries about its future existence? That’s because the Marines know better than anyone that they have no real reason to exist.

Then the Navy figured that the Army was for land and the Navy was for sea so the Marines must be for the in between: the beach or the transition from sea to land. Cute. So the Marines became the U.S.’s amphibious fighting force. However, that is literally and metaphorically so narrow as to define itself out of existence. Obviously, the U.S. Army can handle the beach which, after all, is land. The most inept amphibious landing in World War II was probably Tarawa, which was run by our amphibious landing experts, the Marines. The Navy can handle the transition from sea to land as they do every time a boat goes into port or delivers stuff or people to a coast without a port per se, like Normandy on D-Day.

A very odd comment was made in 1945 when the Marine Corps was at the height of its power and renown.

Gazing upward, at the red, white, and blue speck, [Secretary of the Navy James] Forrestal remarked to [Marine General Holland] Smith: "Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years."

In other words, no matter how great they are doing, the Marines always live in abject fear that they are going to be folded into the Army, which they should be. They have a great tradition, record, and espirit de corps. They should continue because of that, but as a U.S. army unit like the Big Red One or the 101st Airborne Division. Being under the Navy is, and long has been, a bunch of BS. They should get a unit patch and a division commander or two, but no more Commandant or different uniforms.

…the new vehicle is designed to be launched 25 miles off shore, theoretically keeping Navy ships at a safer distance from enemy guns.

Say what!?

You’re going to make a squad or fire team of marines go 25 miles onto a beach in a floating tank!? They will be knee deep in their own vomit by the time they arrive.

And what’s this about keeping Navy ships safer?

Here are two lines from an old nautical poem of unknown origin:

Because ships are safe in the harbour
But that is not what ships are made for

If safety is the goal of the U.S. Navy ships, they should stay home. And since when is 25 miles the range of land-based weapons? There were cannons that could shoot farther than that at least as early as World War I, not to mention the invention of the airplane in 1903.

As I said above, U.S. Navy doctrine said stay outside of range of land-based enemy bombers in World War II. As I also said above, there was no place on earth where that rule could be complied with starting in about the late 1950s. The notion that enemy guns cannot shoot more than 25 miles sounds like something out of the late 1800s—an ancient rule for setting territorial waters boundaries.

And which Navy ships are we making safe: the big ones that stay 25 miles out at sea or the little floating tanks that will be put-putting toward the hostile shore for hours at horse-and-wagon speed? Seems like the bigger ships could handle enemy fire better than a floating tank.

Has anyone noticed that the Navy used to use ships to attack the enemy—losing lives and ships if necessary—and somewhere along the line morphed into an organization set up to preserve itself rather than the nation? Our mighty carriers—“4.5 acres of sovereign U.S. territory” and all that swaggering bullshit—have to be surrounded and protected by dozens of other ships. 4.5 acres of shivering U.S. Navy personnel with a mere four inches of steel between them and the deep blue sea if the enemy has anti-ship missiles is more like it.

The Navy seems to think its reason for existence is to protect its precious ships—or at least its big ships that are commanded by admirals. They apparently do not care much about the safety of floating tanks that are commanded by Marine gunnery sergeants or lieutenants.

Imagine the Army deciding its purpose was to avoid expending precious ammunition. I discussed this “preserve our precious, hard-to-replace-for-budgetary-reasons military personnel and equipment above all else” mentality as a by-product of the end of the draft in my article about why we need to reinstate the draft. The purpose of military personnel and equipment is to attack the enemy, not to provide careers or toys for military brass.

Taxpayer stinginess with funds for personnel and equipment (exacerbated by chronic outrageous military waste) has turned the U.S. military partially into a preserve-itself organization, not a defend-the-nation organization. (Yes, I am aware U.S. military personnel are dying overseas. Are you aware that we have not won a war since 1945? The purpose of the military is not to avoid dying or losing large pieces of equipment. It is to win our wars.)

The welfare of the men in the military is secondary to the war-winning mission. Protecting equipment is a distant third—unless you’re the U.S. Navy in which case operating your equipment is your true reason for existence, so preserving it apparently becomes job one.

To his credit, former Secretary of Defense Gates said,

We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again—especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the launch point further from shore.

Ya think? Note no one in the Navy or Marines—the experts on amphibious landings—is saying this. They are more expert on preserving their anachronistic role in the Pentagon than on the combat operations they use to justify their “do we still have that?” existence. The U.S. Navy brass has been lying about their continued relevance since airplanes started dropping bombs in World War I. Note also that Gates was still pussyfooting around out of fear of the Navy and Marine lobby. What he should have said is large-scale amphibious landings no longer are viable because of modern anti-ship weapons and that the damned idiots who ordered the EFV should be court martialed. For continued refusing to call a spade a spade, he should have been punished, too.

Here’s an email from a guy who says he was or is in the Navy:

Dear Mr. Reed,
I don't know when you wrote about the Navy being sitting ducks article and you may already know the things that I would like to point out, but you lead off the article with a statement that you would change any errors in your facts.

1. You cannot build an Exocet missile with stuff bought from the Radio Shack.

2. The Mk 15 is the last line of defense for a ship. Please research the RAM, Sea Sparrow, and the
SM-3. ( You could write articles on those that are informative and accurate.) It has an extraordinary
cooling system. It can engage multiple targets. It will not engage chaff because it considers speed and
bearing for targets.

3. The Army has 119 ships in the Army Watercraft Fleet, manned by 2100 active and reserve personnel.

4. The aircraft carrier has enough fuel on board to to sustain air craft operations for over a week. The
carrier can take on stores and fuel underway as can the other ships in the group. ( You could write
articles on the capabilities of UNREP and VERTREP.)

5. The Vandergrift is an electronic warship, she finds targets that other assets engage.

6. As for the placement of Caliber .50 machine guns, they are a part of the ships self defense plan.
The sailors on those ships are qualified with rifles and shot guns to react to waterborne threats.

These are a few errors that I found, if you are a man of integrity, please make the corrections to your article. Also research the SPY-1, Aegis, Electronic Warfare and Command and Decision systems for today's fleet and write about those. Feel free to E-mail back and we could discuss the the tactical capabilities of the Navy.
Joseph P. Harris SGT U.S Army and GM3 SW U.S. Navy

I did not find any of this persuasive. For example, he says it’s OK that the .50 cal do not cover all angles of attack but that does not matter because the sailors on the ship have rifles and shotguns. Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell got court martialed and driven out of the Army for, among other things, saying a plane could sink a ship. Even he did not say a rifle or shotgun could stop a suicide boat attack. I would be surprised if a rifle or shotgun fired from the deck of a Navy ship could sink an electric toy boat going full speed over the waves at a Navy ship.

Most of Harris’s directions assigning me homework should be directed at the Navy personnel who spoke to us on the above-named ships. They were my sources for stuff he disputes.

Here is another email I received [my comments in red brackets]:

Hello I do not know if you still update that page about u.s. navy ships sitting ducks but I thought I might give you some info for your page. I was a Mk 15 phalanx CIWS technician in the navy and I wanted to alert you to some facts for your page about it and Air defense. Phalanx is not electric its pneumatic, yes it only has enough rounds for 20 seconds of firing on a full load, No you cannot swap in a new drum, you attach a loading mechanism to the belt feed to the drum and crank in the new rounds. (rounds are not keep in a belt in drum)

For reference, a properly maintained CIWS is not prone to failures but it is maintenance heavy (it is an old system) The reason 1550 rounds is its load is even with barrel support and good metal firing the 20mm penetrators will warp/deform the barrels very quickly making the gun wildly inaccurate.

This all sounds like CIWS is a bad system but in fact It is a great system for what its designed for. It is the LAST Line of defense for a ship. If the missile got past the air guard, past the long range missiles the medium range missiles the short range missiles the 5" or 3" if it penetrates all other layers then CIWS is the answer. in PACFIRES and other operational tests It doesn't fail. It will hit anything incoming to the ship.

On the next topic, if a ship is struck by a anti ship missile the survivability of a ship is not in its armor but its design. bulkheads and water tight doors [these have been around since ships were first made of steel], A well trained Damage control team, that's what makes a ship survive not a armor belt, those were designed against shells, now that warhead technology has improved Armor just would not be effective. [The Japanese sunk a lot of U.S. ships in WW II with kaimkaze planes that were the equivalent of big shells and the sailors on those ships were very good at damage control and use of watertight doors]

It is true that carrier task groups are not invincible, Nothing is. [I did not attack lack of invincibility. I said they could be sunk by the Argentinian and a zillion other nothing-special navies in the first hours of a war. I said they were sitting ducks, not that they failed to be invincilble. There is a big difference between saying something is a sitting duck and saying it fails the invincible test.]

and did you know that yes its quite possible to sink a ship with a 3 " gun. [Could we get the names of the navies involved and the date when that last happened in naval warfare? Where was their well trained damage control team?] not as easy but with modern rear fuse rounds and quality precision fire control targeting we can put rounds in the engine bay or threw the bridge or take out the deck guns etc.

Nuclear carriers do take on Fuel despite being nuclear but it is not every day,[nit picking]

they also take on more than just JP-5 for their air wing, this might surprise you but they also act as a tanker for the battle group they sail with. [I am surprised but I see the logic] and do unreps with them for food and fuel.

Modern ships also do not burn Bunker oil, that generates billowing clouds and isn't efficient, modern warships are Gas steam turbine driven, they run on Diesel. [Whatever]

As for the navy being Obsolete [I did not say the whole navy was obsolete. I said that surface ships were obsolete. I further said the Navy should accomplish its mission with aircraft and I think the submarines are great as long as the enemy does not know where they are.]

I disagree to the extent that the mobile air power of the aircraft carrier is impressive [Impressive? Actually, I think that’s too much what the surface navy is really about: impressing laymen. The navy is supposed to be about winning wars and you cannot win a war with the nation’s aircraft carriers on the bottom of the ocean.]

and used in every major conflict. [We have not had a major conflict since Vietnam. The North Vietnamese navy did not sink the carriers, but they shot down a lot of Navy and Marine planes (That’s how most of our 800 POWs got to be POWs) and the North Vietnamese won the war. That was not very impressive.]

the stand off weapons capability of modern Burke class DDG is an arsenal in and of itself with Tomahawk and STANDARD missiles. [Stand off is what my article is about. There was a rule in World War II that the Navy needed to stay out of range of enemy land-based bombers. Since around 1956, no such place existed anywhere on earth vis a vis major enemies. The stand-off weapons capability of the non-navy missiles and aircraft that can be fired from land and submarines is also an arsenal and requires no multi-billion-dollar, floating metal object accompanied by an expensive entourage of other metal floating objects. The surface navy is an anachronism.]

We may not broadside anymore but the Navy is still very effective to get Power where it needs to be quickly. [We did not even broadside much in World War II. The surface navy today is literally a force that needs to run away from the weapons of significant modern enemies. “Quickly” is not a word that applies to any surface navy. The top speed of a carrier task force is the speed of its slowest ship. I am not sure what that is, but I suspect around 30 miles per hour. The Atlantic Ocean is about 3,000 miles by 12,000 miles; the Pacific, about 9,000 miles by 12,000 miles. With those distances, in a world with supersonic missiles and jets, 30 miles per hour is anything but quick.

Against a strong enemy, it is another reason not to have a surface navy. Running away from supersonic missiles and jets at 30 mph is not likely to be successful. Some may say our brave sailors would not run away. They would attack in spite of difficult odds. A certain amount of that is often needed in war, but there is a point at which it becomes mindless suicide—very expensive mindless suicide of a 5,000-man crew in the case of an aircraft carrier.

Near the end of World War II, the Japanese navy decided to show their bravery by leaving their safe ports and attacking the U.S. Navy involved in the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. They were sunk long before they got with in their gun range of our ships. Germany’s biggest battleship Terpitz was sunk in its safe harbor. Talk about a waste of German Reichmarks! We can make better use of 5,000 brave sailors and billions of military dollars.]

Thank you for your time , Yours truly Michael Kierum

P.S. everything I stated is public domain knowledge but sure your free to quote me. I would Like to add that the warping of the barrels only makes the gun inaccurate after the barrels heat up from use.

The 2011 book Rollback by Thoman Woods, Jr. has this on page 111:

Wiliam Lind, a key theorist of Fourth Generation Warfare, says the U.S. Navy in the twenty-first century is “still structured to fight the Imperial [World War II] Japanese Navy.” As Lind puts it, the Navy’s aircraft-carrier battle groups “have cruised on mindlessly for more than half a century, waiting for those Japanese carriers to turn up. They are still cruising today, into, if not beyond, irrelevance.”

Here’s another reader email:

Mr. Reed,

Just wanted to let you know the USN's own war games have made the same point as your article, though they've gone to great lengths to disguise the facts. It was called Millennium Challenge 2002. They got a retired Marine general to play the OpFor commander and when they left him to his own devices, speedboats and prop planes, he sank a good chunk of the fleet including a carrier.

Here's an old Army Times article on it ( and a more honest analysis by an expat paper that used to be in Moscow ( There's a followup to that from the little stand-off between American and Iranian ships in 2008 (

Hope this is all helpful.

Trevor Kroger

Mr. Reed, I saw this article on We Are the Mighty's facebook page, about these new Gerald Ford class carriers not working, despite their being 13 billion dollars apiece, just for the carriers.

I saw another article on the same site, about a war game conducted in 2002, called Millenial Challenge. Marine Lt  General Paul Van Riper led the OPFOR, which was Iran.  He sank the U.S. Navy battle group, using asymmetric warfare. He simply figured out how many cruise missiles each ship could deal with, then fired more than that, along with using suicide speed boat swarming attacks.

I think that shows two things; the surface navy is an obsolete force which is putting a huge strain on the U.S. government, and the military, in a war with Iran, would not use the asymmetric model. General Van Riper quit, after the Navy cried foul during that exercise, forcing him to stick to a pre scripted model, allowing blue forces to win. Very stupid.

Tim Brosnan

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