April 01, 2018

Operation Staple Head

This is a topic first discussed while Naval Gazing was at SSC, but I thought it worth revisiting here.

USN security personnel patrol off San Clemente Island during operation Staple Head

In the summer of 2017, the USN conducted exercises off the coast of San Clemente at the Southern California Offshore Range, under the code name Staple Head. The original purpose was rather mysterious, but eventually several analysts, including yours truly, worked out what was going on. The exercise was a test of USN 3MS,1 apparently in response to a recent increase in the perceived threat level from Russia and China.2 Previous exercises had mostly been focused on non-lethal countermeasures to the marine mammal threat, but Staple Head 2017 was a live-fire exercise.3

This seems to indicate growing doubts as to the effectiveness of previous non-lethal 3MS, particularly as there were no reported strandings from the exercise.4 It's also possible that there were recent improvements in the specificity of the countermeasures, though.5 In terms of lethal countermeasures, torpedoes seemed to work quite well, although obviously the surface-launched Mk 46s had a shorter range than would be ideal. I don't believe VL-ASROC was used, probably for fiscal reasons. The Harpoon tests worked well6, but the Hellfires apparently didn't. I've seen speculation that the problem could be easily solved with some fusing updates.

Iowa launching a Harpoon7

The one big question is how this ties in to the impending retirement of the NMMP. Some reports indicate that NMMP animals have been used in at least some of these tests, although presumably not the live-fire ones. I'd guess that any 3MS test subjects will be split into a separate, probably black, program to avoid issues with the animal-rights groups.

Of course, this is not a new threat. The British devoted a substantial effort to 3MS in the Falklands War, apparently due to intelligence reports of Soviet marine mammal threats. Documents that have come to light since the fall of the Soviet Union suggest that the Soviets planned to humiliate the British and cause the invasion to fail, in the hopes that this would bring down Margaret Thatcher and even strain relations within NATO.

There was one other system that was tested, and was apparently highly effective. When I first reported it, I only knew it was called the Mk 221, but the nature of the system was revealed in the issue of Proceedings for the fourth week of March. It's a SRBOC round loaded with approximately 24,000 paperclips.

1 Marine Mammal Mitigation Systems

2 The use of marine mammals for attacking ships is clearly related in concept to the Soviet anti-tank dogs.

3 The USN requested, and got, an exemption from the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act specifically for this exercise.

4 Perhaps it's not entirely accurate to describe previous sonar-based 3MS as non-lethal, but it's my understanding that most affected animals didn't beach themselves.

5 It's also possible that the recent shift towards active countermeasures is, ironically, a response to environmentalist outcry over the effects of the previous non-lethal countermeasures.

6 Nominative determinism in action.

7 As far as I am aware, the Harpoon in question was not targeted at any marine life. The USS Iowa definitely did not participate in Staple Head 2016 or 2017. We asked if we could, but the Navy said no.


  1. April 01, 2018sam said...

    Just a note on the Falklands: Soviet 3MS wasn't the driving concern. The worry was actually weaponised aerial Rockhoppers; you would have thought that Seacats would be perfect for intercepting them and then playing with their prey until they ripped its head off, but it was found out in the field that the primitive AI-driven target acquisition didn't even recognise them as a threat due to the stubby wings; it wasn't until someone had the bright idea to lob the Rockhoppers out of a giant cannon. There are mentions of interference with some system called the YARN, which I wasn't able to chase down, so it might still be secret.

    It's understandable that your sources don't mention this, since it's all only come out since last year. The Soviet threat was played up because the Royal Navy simply had no answer to sustained marine avian bombardment at the time. In fact, today is the anniversary of the Cabinet papers discussing all this being released under the 25-year rule.

  2. April 01, 2018bean said...

    Interesting. For obvious reasons, I hadn't heard of that, but I'll check out the papers and revise accordingly. I do know that they did kill several whales in the Falklands, which is information that only came to light relatively recently. Now where did I put the password to my PRO account?

  3. April 02, 2018DC said...

    ...this is an April Fools' joke, right? Some of it seems plausible, but the paperclip thing?

    You're throwing me off with the SSC link being an OT nowhere near April 1...

  4. April 02, 2018bean said...

    ...this is an April Fools’ joke, right? Some of it seems plausible, but the paperclip thing?

    You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.

    You’re throwing me off with the SSC link being an OT nowhere near April 1...

    Last April 1st, Naval Gazing was barely off the ground. The nearest thread (4/2) was discussing armament, and it hadn't even gotten a name yet. If Staple Head was a joke, it might have originated later as a different kind of plot, been ignored, then resurrected later for April 1st.

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