November 15, 2018

Two Recent News Stories

There have been a couple of interesting naval news stories recently, and I figured I'd offer my take.

First, the recent sinking of the floating drydock that was carrying Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia's only aircraft carrier. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the drydock sank, and it was only fast work from the crew onboard Kuznetsov that kept her from following. The most common story is that the pumps keeping the drydock afloat lost shore power, and the diesel generators that were supposed to take over had no fuel.

This is an entirely plausible explanation for what happened. Russia has long been plagued by alcoholism, corruption, and a conflict between a desire to retain the trappings of being a great power and the inability to actually pay for them. Kuznetsov herself has been in bad shape for years, and never deploys without a tug in case her engines fail. She was deployed to support operations off Syria in late 2016, but her air group had to be moved ashore after issues with the arresting gear lead to two aircraft being lost. The second one went overboard after a wire broke, while the first ran out of fuel while waiting for the system to be repaired. It could have been diverted to a land base, but this was not done. Needless to say, this would not have happened in the USN.

But the subject of bigger interest is the long-term effects of this failure on the Russian Navy. The Russians themselves have admitted that they don't have an alternate way to dock Kuznetsov, although they insist that the refit will be completed on time. The first rule of interpreting Russian defense announcements is that they're lying. Even though the carrier was only lightly damaged when the dock sunk out from under her (and bravo zulu to the crew for keeping her afloat) trying to do this kind of work afloat isn't a good plan. The Russians have no way of building a replacement floating drydock, (the one that sunk was built in Sweden in the 80s, and Kuznetsov herself was built in what is now Ukraine) and while they will complete a conventional drydock big enough in 2020, it's on the Pacific coast, in a commercial yard. So I expect this to be curtains for the carrier.

This whole episode is emblematic of the Russian military these days. This is a country with a big but not huge economy, that is trying to fund conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, while simultaneously building up its conventional and military forces. I'm sure the Russian Fanboys will call me names again for this, but they simply don't have the cash to pull this off, even if they weren't drunk most of the time.

The other story is one I'm less happy about. The Norwegian frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad was rammed by a tanker and had to be run aground to stop her from sinking. Well, when I say "rammed", I mean that she essentially forgot to look and darted out in front of the tanker, then got run over. This incident is rather reminiscent of last year's Fitzgerald and McCain collisions, with the crucial differences that the warship sunk but nobody died.

Helge Ingstad was returning from Trident Juncture 2018, which by all accounts was a highly successful test of NATO's ability to defend Norway from the Russians. She was in a fjord near the Sture Terminal, which handles 25% of Norway's oil, and the bridge crew apparently decided to play in traffic. The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, known as the COLREGs, are the standard "rules of the road" for preventing maritime collisions. If the crews in question are paying attention and they are obeyed, the chances of a collision are minimal, and vessels don't even have to talk to one another. In this case, the Ingstad decided to do 17.5 kts in the fjord, and was repeatedly hailed by both the tanker and the local vessel traffic control center, and assured both of them that things were under control, right up until she was hit. The damage was apparently so extensive that the captain decided to beach her immediately. Unfortunately, efforts to secure her failed, and she has since been essentially fully submerged, so if we do see her "put back into service" it will be by lifting up the nameplate and sliding a new hull underneath. The one bright spot is that nobody aboard died, making this the absolute front-runner for this year's William D Brown Memorial Award.

So what went wrong? The Norwegian Navy has an extensive collection of Fast Attack Craft, and FACs are notorious for disregarding such niceties as the COLREGs. It's quite likely that the bridge officers (the Captain was apparently elsewhere) were from that community, and tried to treat a 5,3000 ton frigate like a glorified speedboat. Unfortunately, they cost their nation a valuable frigate. The Fridtjof Nansen class are good ships, equipped with AEGIS if a bit lightly armed. It also appears that too much robustness was sacrificed to keep cost down, although in fairness a vessel half the size of an Arleigh Burke can't be expected to be as rugged. Another potential issue is the size of the crew. Lean Manning has been a major trend, although it appears that in many cases it was carried too far, and the Nansens are probably one example. There are a lot of jobs necessary to run a warship, and if there aren't enough bodies, people get overloaded and miss things.

Ultimately, working at sea will always carry risks. There are things we can do to mitigate those risks, but when people slip up, the maritime environment is unforgiving.


  1. November 15, 2018Dusk_Star said...

    I'm personally still amazed that the Norwegians put AEGIS platforms on a ship and then only give it 8 VLS cells. That seems rather wasteful to me! Especially since the class it's derived from had 48 VLS cells.

    Is there a good reason for that? What did they use 40 VLS cells worth of displacement on?

  2. November 15, 2018bean said...

    First, it's worth pointing out that the Nansen class only use ESSM, so they have 32 missiles, not 8. But I think it's basically down to budget. Norway presumably put a hard cap on cost or size, and an AEGIS frigate with 8 cells is a lot more effective than a non-AEGIS frigate with 48, so they cut the cells a lot. It was kind of stupid, and they were fitted with margins to let them carry more cells if Norway had ever wanted to fit them. Also, remember that these decisions were being made 20 years ago, when Russian power was at its nadir. I'm sure it made more sense back then.

  3. November 16, 2018Chuck said...

    This might sound crazy, but could Russia have their carrier worked on by a US yard? (I'm thinking NNSB) I can't imagine anything on the carrier isn't known fully to the US right now, and anything new they wanted to keep secret they could drop in later. As a matter of fact, seeing how a US yard does carrier work would probably give the Russians more info than they are risking.

    I only bring this up as the US and Russia seem to be in a strange "frenemies" state where I could see it happening. Of course, the question of how the hell they could pay for it is probably also a reason this wouldn't work.

  4. November 16, 2018bean said...

    Not a chance. One of the current issues facing the USN is that they let the yards, both commercial and navy, run down to the point that there have been submarines which have sat around for two years waiting for an overhaul. So there's no way they're going to OK to divert capacity to the ship of a potential enemy.

    And the Russians aren't going to ask either. There are definitely things the US could learn, and the implications to national pride are way too big. Also, our people don't know their methods/standards. (Although I suppose handing out free alcohol would make the transition easier, OSHA might have something to say about it.)

    They might try a third-party, either China (who currently has two near-sisters to Kuznetsov) or someone like Korea. The problem is that they've managed to annoy most of the world, so I doubt offers will be forthcoming. The most obvious candidate a decade ago would have been Ukraine, but they burned that bridge rather thoroughly.

  5. November 16, 2018Rolf Andreassen said...

    William D Brown Memorial Award

    What's this? Google isn't helping me.

    Lean Manning has been a major trend, although it appears that in many cases it was carried too far

    My understanding is that this is not entirely deliberate: The Norwegian navy (and armed forces generally) are having considerable difficulty recruiting and retaining their officers and NCOs. Presumably a modern warship only needs so many short-service conscripts, once you have enough to swab the decks.

  6. November 17, 2018bean said...

    The William D Brown Memorial Award is something Johan suggested, for the biggest screwup that didn't kill anyone. It's named after the captain that ran Missouri aground.

    My understanding is that this is not entirely deliberate: The Norwegian navy (and armed forces generally) are having considerable difficulty recruiting and retaining their officers and NCOs. Presumably a modern warship only needs so many short-service conscripts, once you have enough to swab the decks.

    Probably. But she was close to her designed compliment, which was about half of what a similar-sized vessel really should have.

  7. November 17, 2018Rolf Andreassen said...

    But she was close to her designed compliment, which was about half of what a similar-sized vessel really should have.

    Ok, but presumably the designer of the complement had to consider how many trained personnel they'd be able to keep around. I heard from someone who worked for the Norwegian Navy, so it must be true, that they were running the frigates at four-fifths capacity - that is, they were consistently keeping one of them in harbour - because they didn't have enough people to crew them all simultaneously. And that's with the low design complements.

    I found an article (in Norwegian, sorry) from 2017, saying that the frigate manning has been drastically strengthened due to the new government's increased defense budget; it mentions that

    [quote]I årevis lå flere av fregattene permanent til kai, ble brukt som reservedelslager og manglet besetninger[/quote]

    "For years, several of the frigates were permanently in harbour, uncrewed and being used as spare-parts depots"

    and then:

    [quote]Daværende generalinspektør for Sjøforsvaret, kontreadmiral Lars Saunes, iverksatte det første steget i en plan som som gikk ut på å bemanne opp fartøyene i Marinen. For eksempel er fire av fem fregatter bemannet som følge av dette[/quote]

    "The then Inspector General for the Navy, rear admiral Lars Saunes, began the first step of a plan to crew-up the Navy's ships. For example, four of the five frigates are now crewed".

    So presumably they can now run all the frigates at the same time!

  8. November 17, 2018Johan Larson said...

    Bean, if you're interested in organizing an annual William D Brown award, I'd be happy to fund a trophy or a plaque. Let me know. The end of the year is coming up fast.

  9. November 18, 2018bean said...


    That kind of manning rotation is fairly common. I know the British do it. But it's still a reduction in capability to lose the Ingstad. Normally, I'd expect the low-manning ship to be the one undergoing overhaul or something of that nature. Even if the Norwegians can crew all four remaining frigates, they now have one less active one most of the time.

    Military personnel policies are really complicated, and I don't have any idea what the drivers in Norway are.


    I appreciate the offer, but it's going to be web-only. For some reason, mailing the Norwegian Navy a physical plaque seems wrong.

  10. November 18, 2018Lambert said...

    That award reminds me of the highly coveted "Submariner's Brick" trophy given out at the local Scout raft race. It's given to the team who persevered the most in spite of the total structural failure of their raft.

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