February 19, 2021

Open Thread 72

It's time once again for our regular open thread.

I recently finished an interesting book, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia. It's a look at the various communities that have dotted the shores of the Med throughout history, and how they used that sea to communicate. Heavy on commerce and sketches of life, rather light on battles and naval power, but still very interesting for a wider look at maritime power.

2018 overhauls are Amphibious Warfare parts two, three and four, Why Military Acquisition is So Hard, Classes and Dreadnought. 2019 overhauls are Rangekeeping Part 1, Commercial Aviation Part 7, Falklands Part 11, So You Want to Build a Battleship - Construction Part 1, Pictures - Iowa Boiler Room and German Guided Bombs Part 2. And 2020 overhauls are Aerial Cruise Missiles, Southern Commerce Raiding Part 1 and the Proximity Fuze Parts one and two.


  1. February 19, 2021Chuck said...

    Speaking of the Mediterranean, I wasn't aware that it was such an absolute bloodbath in WW2, specifically in terms if Axis shipping. This map is a piece of British propaganda, but despite that it's actually dramatically underselling number of ships sunk. (Interestingly, one of the leading killers was the oft-maligned Fairey Swordfish, including one month where the swordfish squadron operating off Malta sank 98,000 tons of axis shipping)

    @bean Any chance you might explore either this topic or the siege of Malta at some point?

  2. February 19, 2021bean said...

    I've been thinking about taking a closer look at the naval war in the Med for a while, and have even been gathering sources. Probably not immediately, though.

  3. February 19, 2021Dave said...

    Curiously, my introduction to the fascinating naval war in the Med is the Malta chapter of John Killen's 1967 Luftwaffe: A History, which is dated but beautifully written. Not sure what's newer and better now. The ArmouredCarriers.com folks have lots of details in their Med histories but also a very narrow focus on explaining to skeptical Americans why armoured flight decks were the right choice for the RN/FAA.

    ... speaking of which, the ArmouredCarriers damage control reports for armoured RN carriers make a stark comparison to Japanese attempts at same at the same point in the war.

    I agree the Swordfish's very important land-based work gets forgotten too easily. Still don't quite get why it was so effective compared to alternatives, but it was.

  4. February 19, 2021bean said...

    Vincent O'Hara has written quite a bit on the war in the Med, and David Hobbs recently came out with a book on the subject specifically covering the air war. My copy is currently en route. I have been looking for a new battles series for a while, and I may start on this one now.

  5. February 19, 2021DampOctopus said...

    Something I'm not clear on: where does the boundary lie between anti-air weapons for self-defence only, and those for defending other ships?

    Typical anti-air weapons in WWII were .50 cal MGs, 20mm Oerlikon cannon, 40mm Bofors, and 5-inch dual-purpose guns. I've seen descriptions of destroyers being used as anti-air pickets, so presumably the DP guns at least were capable of providing protection to other ships, but were any of the shorter-ranged weapons used in this role?

    Likewise, for modern USN ships, in order of increasing range, you have Phalanx CIWS, SeaRAM, ESSM, and various Standards. I assume that CIWS/SeaRAM are intended for self-defence only, and I understand that the Standards are primarily an area-defence weapon, but what about ESSM? Would it ever be used to defend another ship?

  6. February 19, 2021Blackshoe said...

    @DampOctopus: starting with the modern time, doctrinally speaking, there are four levels of air defense coverage: area, point, self, and HVAAP (page 114 of the PDF, HVAAP is a weird case). All ships are theoretically capable of self-defense ("This here .50 caliber? That's our ship's air defense system," says the guy on the minesweeper). CIWS and your RAMs are self-defense only. Standard is capable of all levels. ESSM is weird; you will find references out there that call it an area defense weapon, like here. I generally think of it more as a PD weapon. I certainly could figure out how to use ESSM in an area mode, I'm just not sure I would.

    BT, the difference between area and point is really vague deliberately, but obviously, area is a much broader volume than point defense.

    As far as WW2, probably everything above the .50 was capable of area air defense, but it's worth remember before the introduction of the German guided bombs, aircraft attack ranges were much shorter (quick Wiki studies suggest that the attack range for aerial torpedoes was around 1000M, which would have put it at outer limit of the 20mms, ). Plus, you can always cheat and extend your protection envelope by moving your supporting unit up the threat axis (assuming single axis threats, which probably isn't a good assumption in WW2).

  7. February 19, 2021echo said...

    On a related note, I'm really curious how networked air defense systems avoid the "I thought you were shooting that one" problem.

  8. February 19, 2021bean said...

    Blackshoe, thanks for that. Much better answer than I could have given. Re WWII, I’m not sure that the levels make quite the same type of sense back then, because everyone was working at much shorter ranges. .50 cal was on its way out when the war started, and 20mm was never much use for defending other ships due to range issues. The best parallels would probably be to call the 40mm a point-defense weapon (which I assume is “can defend other ships that are close”) and the 5″ an area-defense weapon.


    They talk to each other. I don't know the internal algorithms, but somehow they decide who is going to shoot at what (probably "who is best-placed to engage", with a coin flip if that's a tie somehow) and then do it.

  9. February 19, 2021Johan Larson said...

    Would you rather serve in the Army-est unit of the Air Force, or the Air Force-est unit of the Army?

  10. February 19, 2021bean said...

    Can I pick the Navy instead?

    Serious answer: The Army-est unit of the Air Force is probably Pararescue or Combat Controllers, who are proper special forces. The Air Force-est unit of the Army is going to involve sitting behind a desk. I'm not SF material, so Army it is.

  11. February 20, 2021Johan Larson said...

    Why would the Air Force-est job in the Army be a desk job? I was thinking it would be one of the Army aviation jobs, maybe flying an Apache.

  12. February 20, 2021bean said...

    Some of that was me making fun of the USAF, which is always good sport. Yes, it would probably be flying things, which still seems like a much better option to me than actual SF.

  13. February 20, 2021David W said...

    In WWII, weren't you defending other ships in the area by your mere presence? Given how many times I've read an account which includes 'and this destroyer was misidentified as a battleship/cruiser/aircraft carrier', just adding confusion and being a decoy would be protective. Not that anyone really wants to volunteer for decoy work, of course.

    Even if that didn't happen, torpedo bombers and kamikaze would likely have to fly close to you en route to their main target on the optimal attack run, so you could shoot at them or force them to use a less optimal path.

  14. February 20, 2021bean said...

    "Bean, you should write about the Mediterranean in WWII". "Hmm, that sounds like a good idea."

    24 hours later:

    "It's a good thing I have several books about the French Navy in WWII, because I need lots of detail around the Armistice negotiations."

  15. February 20, 2021Neal said...


    I finished reading Crisis Of Command by Michael Junge and I have a few thoughts and a question or two.

    The quibbles first. He needed a better editor to both straighten out the formatting, some of the arithmetic, and to both reduce the repetion in his asking of why commanders are relieved and to more clearly state, in the opening, what his exploration/consideration of the topic could yield in terms of suggestions. I felt he was extremely prolix in merely stating the problem.

    Some paragraphs appeared to have been airdroped in from other sections without much rhyme or reason. Again, something that a competent editor would have straightened out.

    I did not at all mind the academic tilt of the writing however, as he was striving to apply rigor in his prose. Beside, I give high marks these days to any author who can use the word "disinterested" properly as it shows he/she is trying to be careful with words and thoughts.

    Those bagatelles aside, I found his arguments to be an excellent prod to thinking about leadership. I found his case studies well described and always pertinent to the discussion. In other words, he wasn't reaching into some arcane or recondite corner of the Naval archives to try to make a silk purse from a sow's ear.

    I admired that he kept his attention to the Naval aspect of this as it could have been tempting to start to draw broad pan-service or large organizational leadership lessons. Those lessons could indeed be drawn here as I would argue that the Navy is not alone in entrusting important assets and lives to leaders and commanders, but that was beyond his remit in the original question he posed and it reflects his rigor in addressing it.

    Quick aside: This past year I have done a lot of reading about the submarine campaign in the Pacific and had grown to admire guys like Lockwood and Dick Voge. That admiration took a serious dent when reading how lightly they handled a skipper who sunk a mercy ship--taking the shot from a radar return with no apparent visual contact. Bad enough, but then basically lying about it was UNSAT at the least and more likely criminal. When you are favored however...

    Now my questions--particularly about Rickover.

    Junge makes the argument that as cantankerous as Rickover was, he demanded that his subordinates learn to think independently and do things competently. In fact it seems he drilled competence as the first and the last requirement of any officer and organization.

    Nothing wrong with that no? Add to his demand of 100% accountability and it would seem to be the perfect recipe for a highly-qualified force.

    Yet am I correct in sensing that Junge's main criticism of Rickover is that sometimes the picture is much bigger than just a single individual's accountability? Sometimes the system itself, or the construct under which one is operating, is flawed or has pitfalls and so one individual getting tagged with the blame does little to solve the real problem(s).

    Rickover's approach is alluring for the hard-charging take no prisoners types, but does it consistently, and completely, alleviate future hurdles? I would say that Junge believes not.

    My second question is if today's Navy is as complete a product of Rickover's methods as Junge makes it out to be. He certainly makes the case that, when it comes to Command responsibility and accountability, it is both unforgiving and grossly inconsistent--both trademarks of Rickover at times.

    I realize this is a book for the Naval service, but it is a great resource for mulling over the need for a consistent balance between the requirement for competence, independent thinking, and accountability, and a climate that can be forgiving and one in which mistakes made in good faith are learning experiences for all and not career enders.

    Last question: Apart from the safety and effectiveness of the nuclear sub fleet, was Rickover an overall net positive to the Navy's operations and ethos or has his legacy actually hampered progress in areas?

    Thanks again for the suggestion. Was well worth the time.

  16. February 21, 2021DampOctopus said...

    BlackShoe, thanks for the detailed answer. It seems that my being confused over the role of ESSM actually puts the boundary between self and area defence in about the right place.

  17. February 22, 2021ike said...

    It feels like there is some cross-over between Rickover-ism and the traditional British policy of 'pour encouragez les autres'.

  18. February 22, 2021Anonymous said...

    'pour encouragez les autres'

    That doesn't look very British.

  19. February 23, 2021echo said...

    We know the secret of making something sound sinister: say it in Foreign

  20. February 23, 2021Neal said...

    The British Admiral Byng was indeed shot. From Wkik: "Byng's execution was satirised by Voltaire in his novel Candide. In Portsmouth, Candide witnesses the execution of an officer by firing squad and is told that "in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others" (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres)."[37]

    Napoleon had a similar sentimen regarding the civilian protestors/rioters getting a smell and sound of grapeshot passing close by to clear the thinking. Crowd control in other words.

  21. February 23, 2021ike said...

    @Neal: I believe the crime in question at the court-martial was "Failing to do his up-most".

  22. February 23, 2021ike said...

    @echo: I think it works backwards if it is in French. I mean, most people would be appalled at watering your field with the blood of the unclean, but if you say it in French with your best singing voice and everyone will think it's adorable.

  23. February 23, 2021bean said...

    I've seriously thought about writing a post on Byng, because it is a very interesting story. Fortunately, it was the last time the British went to that level in scapegoating an Admiral for the failures of government policy. (The very short version is that he was charged with protecting Minorca from the French, but didn't get enough ships and was sent too late, so the island fell.)

  24. February 23, 2021ike said...

    Careful Bean, if you start down that dark path, before you know it, you will be writing about ships made out of trees and powered by cloth.

  25. February 23, 2021bean said...

    I've done so very occasionally with no ill effects so far. It'll probably be fine. I was planning to focus on the strategic/political end anyway. Also, some of my favorite ships are (partially) powered by cloth.

  26. March 03, 2021Johan Larson said...

    I've been rewatching the HBO series "Chernobyl" and enjoying it. It really holds up.

    When did it become generally recognized within the Soviet Union that the problems with the socialist system of production and the Soviet state (the shortages, the shoddy goods, the corruption, the brutal and intrusive security system) were not temporary aberrations, but just plain how the system worked?

  27. March 03, 2021bean said...

    Officially? Never. Unofficially? It was a gradual process, probably starting about the time Brezhnev came to power and continuing through 1989. Life for the average citizen stopped getting better, while the military got a bigger and bigger slice of the pie. (That was, after all, how Brezhnev kept power). I'd suggest that the best indicator of this is probably alcohol consumption, which reached staggering heights during the period in question.

  28. March 03, 2021AlexT said...

    @Johan Larson

    I suspect there was a vast gulf of opinion inside the Soviet Union, and certainly within the Warsaw Pact, between the Russians and everyone else.

    My experience: I grew up beyond the Iron Curtain, and (after the Fall) I ended up on varying occasions talking to Russians. Their view of the Soviet era was markedly different, ie far brighter, than the common outlook in my country.

    Where I'm from, nobody ever had any illusions about exactly why we had Communism: it was brought by Russian tanks. I think the satellite states and the non-Russian soviet republics got a raw deal, but the Russians themselves were reasonably well off.

    That said, everyone, Russians and not-, had variants of the saying "however much you steal from the state, you'll never replace everything the state has already stolen from you", so..

  29. March 18, 2021Blackshoe said...

    @Neal: First off, sorry for taking so long to get back to you on this. Sorry for the long answer, but here we go:

    Yet am I correct in sensing that Junge’s main criticism of Rickover is that sometimes the picture is much bigger than just a single individual’s accountability? Sometimes the system itself, or the construct under which one is operating, is flawed or has pitfalls and so one individual getting tagged with the blame does little to solve the real problem(s).

    Rickover’s approach is alluring for the hard-charging take no prisoners types, but does it consistently, and completely, alleviate future hurdles? I would say that Junge believes not.

    Yes. Oversimplifying, but Rickover could demand accountability being held to a single individual because his system allowed that because in the ultimate source of accountability in the nuke world was Rickover. Rickover controlled the personnel system of the nuke world because he interviewed every single officer in the nuke world, and certainly knew/controlled all the people who made the personnel assignments. He controlled the materiel and maintenance world of it because they fell under his purview. Therefore, if a CO didn’t meet the standard, and needed to be held “accountable”-Rickover could verify that the system had given him adequate resources...or not! And even if the system had failed, Rickover had the power (and will!) to go back in and fix it, because again, he owned it all.

    Contrast that with the modern situation, where COs are held “accountable” for failures that they have no control over (maintenance issues, manning, deployment timing) or little practical control over (off-ship training). Higher echelons have adopted Rickover’s mantra demanding accountability and imposed it without the supporting infrastructure.

    It’s easy for upper echelons to demand “accountability” (side note: I forget if this is in the book, but “accountability” being blurred into a demand to fire someone largely happened because one guy-Dave Oliver-modified, inadvertently or not, a Rickover quote where the original word was “responsibility”) from lower echelons when “accountability” invariably means firing someone for something bad happens; however, upper echelons often cannot provide resources to meaningfully reduce risks that would get people fired. A contributing factor the Fitzgerald collision was the highly pressurized schedule of trying to get out the yards so the ship could be used for normal operation. In that case, the fleet commander did end up being held “accountable”, but largely because 7th Fleet is weird in that they are the administrative and operational commander for those ships. Far more routine is the Farsi Island debacle, which featured endorsements of the investigation from three different commands led by flag officers who all agreed that this was pretty fouled and also all agreed that why it was fouled up was definitely not their command’s fault.

    Ultimately, decisions, largely driven by budgetary battles in Washington and executed by leadership well above their pay grade end up forcing risks on Captains of ships to accomplish their missions while not being allowed to fail. Thus, when Something Goes Wrong, it’s easy for the investigators to note (for example) that the ship’s senior quartermaster was inexperienced and not qualified in accordance with some random instruction, but not that the QM was the best guy they had and couldn’t be fired because he couldn’t be replaced. Many such cases. Even worse, this creates an atmosphere for COs where they are forced to assume risk, and often lie (or at least make the situation look close enough to the truth to get by). And for all I dislike Rickover...he would never have allowed the supporting institutions to fail the ships like that. He was allowed to create his own kingdom and run it as he wished while being accountable only to Congress, essentially.

    My second question is if today’s Navy is as complete a product of Rickover’s methods as Junge makes it out to be. He certainly makes the case that, when it comes to Command responsibility and accountability, it is both unforgiving and grossly inconsistent--both trademarks of Rickover at times.

    IMHO, yes. Rickover’s system of trying to drive out risk and then punish resulting failures (gross oversimplification) was driven into the Navy by driving it into the officer communities. He put it into the sub and surface world through the nuke pipeline; aviators picked it up from being on (and in command of) nuclear carriers, and also aviation was kinda going that way, especially in the driving out risk world. By the actions of Rickover acolytes, this system was turned into the world of “one mistake gets you fired” that the Navy lives in now. Interestingly, the one Navy line community that never would have learned how to be like Rickover-and it still shows today-is the NSW(Naval Special Warfare, ie “SEALs”)/NSO (Naval Special Operations, most relevant being the EOD community). There is probably a fascinating study of the command cultures of those two organizations as a contrast to the more conventional line mindset. But I admit I’m biased, so it might not be as bad.

    Last question: Apart from the safety and effectiveness of the nuclear sub fleet, was Rickover an overall net positive to the Navy’s operations and ethos or has his legacy actually hampered progress in areas?

    Complicated question, especially because the safety and the effectiveness of the nuclear sub (and surface!) fleet are so much of his legacy. The Navy probably doesn’t hold onto their leg of the nuclear triad without Rickover, inasmuch as nuclear power ends up being inextricably tied to nuclear weapons for second-strike delivery (though maybe more work goes on into making BBBs a thing, I guess?). It is worth noting that there has only been one reactor meltdown in US history, and that was not a reactor owned by the Navy. The contrast to the Soviet Navy’s history WRT reactor safety and accidents is telling to me. A former bubblehead coworker said that the belief was that if there was a major accident at a USN reactor, that would mean the end of nuclear power for the USN. Not sure I believe that, but that does make sense as a way of understanding the stakes they think they operate under. Rickover undoubtedly created a safe and stable way to operate nuclear reactors and to minimize risk at all levels of operation. I am not certain that “minimize risk at all levels” is a system that wins wars, though, is a very different question (indeed, one of the major criticisms of the early US submarine force in WW2 was that the captains, trained in pre-war mindsets of minimizing risk to their equipment, were entirely passive and lacked a killer instinct. So they got fired/re-shuffled and younger guys came in who would take more risks). But on the other hand, how much of the modern failures are a result of his system, as opposed to his disciples failing to properly apply his system, or failing to really understand why his system worked? How much of it is normal bureaucratic sclerosis, and how much of it can be blamed on most of the Navy essentially lacking a mission after the end of the Cold War? Don’t know, but it’s got to be a factor. TLDR here is that I don’t know if we can judge Rickover’s legacy to the Navy until the Navy has had to engage in major combat operations against a near-peer competitor, or at least a relatively capable opponent, which they haven’t had to do since the 1980s (I’m going with Iran in Praying Mantis as “relatively capable opponent). I do not think today’s Navy going up against a certain Navy whose title includes the words “People’s Liberation Army” does well at all, for reasons I might get around to talking about in OT73.

  30. March 20, 2021echo said...

    I'll be really interested to read your followup post on this!

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