OCEAN WAR

The United States Navy insists that it has 277 ships on active-duty. About 132 are combat surface vessels; 75 or so are submarines. About 70 are logistical craft designed to supply the fleet. Do the math. 132 surface ships patrol the oceans. Yes, the Navy says they have a fleet of 160 or so non-commissioned ships held in reserve, but they are unavailable and ineffective during first strike scenarios. 

The New York Times agrees with the Navy. Everyone agrees—we have 277 ships. I hope the Navy and the New York Times are lying, because if they aren’t, we are in big trouble. We don’t have enough boats. 132 surface ships can’t control the Great Lakes, let alone the world’s seven oceans. Submarines, everyone knows, are almost useless except when used for nuclear deterrence.

The Navy’s Seventh Fleet is headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan. The fleet is responsible to cover 48 million square miles—from Japan to South Korea to Singapore, unless the far reaches of the South China Sea are included; then the square miles are too confusing for anyone to compute. China claims the whole of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory anyway, including all reefs, atolls, and islands.

How many ships bear this awesome responsibility to keep the sea-lanes open and safe from pirates and hostile powers like North Korea? The Navy says, 70. The USA deploys one aircraft carrier and 69 ships. Some news outlets have reported that an additional carrier group has been sent into the Sea of Japan to augment the current force configuration. A typical carrier strike group consists of eleven vessels, two of which are submarines. So, the total as of the date of this essay might be as high as 81.

Sorry, but someone is ordering our sailors to do an impossible job. The job is too big, the resources are too thin, and guess what? A flotilla of 81 vessels scurrying about the South China Sea trying to keep a lid on China, which is expropriating islands that belong to Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines while they build and fortify new ones wherever they feel like it is more than enough problems to exhaust any navy. People get tired. Accidents happen.

We have 70 ships in theater, the Navy says. We probably have 81. What does the other side have?

Well, we don’t really know. They lie. So do we. But we and they both watch; and we and they both spy and calculate.

Hillary Clinton—once upon a time (is there anyone who remembers?) she had the security clearances to know for sure—in one of her 2016 presidential debates, let it slip that Russian drone submarines are patrolling our coasts. These are cheap subs with no crews on board.

She said it once. Her assertion was never repeated in the press or public media. Everyone pretended they didn’t hear, for good reason. The number and types of ships in the Russian and Chinese fleets that are arrayed against our tiny arsenal of boats are state secrets. It’s all classified—out of reach of everyone except those with a clearance and a need to know. 

Chinese frigates like this one often stalk US ships in the South China Sea.

It seems clear to more than a few casual observers of Chinese shipping that the Chinese are building the most high-tech navy the world has ever seen. They have been building it for a few decades now. They have regularly practiced their sea-going skills in coordination with the Russian navy since 2012. Last year the Russians and China held joint naval exercises in the South China Sea, of all places. Joint land-based military exercises started in 2007.

China is selling it’s naval technologies and hardware to smaller countries that don’t normally threaten us. Thailand is buying Chinese subs. With military hi-tech weapons spread among a dozen or more countries in secret alliances with China, well, if it’s happening more than we know, does anyone think it’s good for our side?

But really, what would any reasonable person suspect are the forces arrayed against us? Look around. Hundreds-of-thousands of Russians live on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles from the United States.

Upscale area southwest of the airport in Havana, Cuba. (From Google Earth. Street View not available.)

Go on Google Earth and look at the Cuban neighborhoods. Some nice ones have Russian street names. It’s true. The Russians have a number of wonderfully designed, modern military bases for both subs and ships; and oh yeah, they have fighter jets and missiles, as well. Let’s not kid ourselves. Go look.

Am I trying to scare the public? Doesn’t the public have enough to fear? Isn’t terrorism, immigration, climate change, distant war, disease, and precarious health care (that could collapse any moment now that the GOP is in charge) enough to worry about? Of course it is. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson helped Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin build Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure. It is the world’s best.

Besides, our country has ten-thousand nuclear weapons buried hundreds of feet below the cornfields and deserts of our heartland to extinguish any threats, should we lose our Navy. Until they rot and their plutonium leeches into our soils, why needlessly worry? Everyone should sleep well at night, right? I don’t want to alarm anyone, I don’t.

Secretary of State Tillerson said we should sleep well, so why not? He knows all about the Russians, having helped them build their oil industry over many decades. Depending on when anyone takes its measure, Russia’s energy industry is the world’s largest and most productive—bigger than Saudi Arabia’s. People don’t believe it, but it’s true. Russia is the world’s biggest oil and natural gas producer and exporter. Secretary Tillerson must know what he’s talking about, right? 

Well, here is some stuff that is not so comforting. It might scare some people. Between 1975 and 2016 (41 years) our Navy experienced nine accidents, mostly between our own ships. Only two accidents involved the boats of foreign countries. That’s not bad. That’s not the scary part. But hear me out.

The Ehime Maru was on a 74-day voyage to train high school students to become commercial fishermen when it was struck on 9 February 2001 by a US submarine. It sank. Of the 35 on board, nine died, including four teenagers.

In 2001 a Japanese fishing-training boat, the Ehime Maru, with thirty-five Japanese citizens aboard, was obliterated near the Hawaiian island of Oahu, when the commanding officer of one of our attack submarines apparently hot-dogged the craft for civilian joy-riders. Our new president, George W. Bush, went on national TV to apologize to the Japanese, and the United States paid huge fines and compensation to the Japanese government and the grieving families of the nine who died, which included four high school students.

In 2004, the aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, ran over an Arab sailboat in the Persian Gulf. 15 people died, but the Navy never identified who they were, apparently, and no one was compensated, as far as I know. Two jet fighters parked on deck were damaged. The Navy relieved the commanding officer.

USS Belknap, guided-missile cruiser, destroyed in 1975 near Sicily.

The most serious accident was in 1975 when the same U.S.S. John F. Kennedy hit one of our own guided-missile cruisers, the USS Belknap, off the island of Sicily. The Belknap was completely destroyed; seven sailors died.

A fire burned on the Belknap for twenty hours just a few yards from the magazine where Terrier surface-to-air missiles were stored. The ship was constructed with aluminum, which caught fire. The entire above deck structure melted. It took nearly five years to reconstruct the ruined cruiser. In 1995, the Navy struck it from the Naval Registry and began using it for target practice. They sunk it during a live-fire exercise in 1998.

A year after the Belknap accident, the USS John F. Kennedy collided with another ship, this time the aging USS Bordelon destroyer during a refueling. The Navy struck the ship from its registry and sold it to Iran for parts in 1977. No one died.

So, during the forty-one years between 1975 and 2016, the US Navy had nine peacetime accidents, seven of which were friendly-fire and self-inflicted. 24 foreign nationals died; 7 U.S. sailors; 1 U.S. civilian. Ship losses: one cruiser and one obsolete destroyer. Maybe other losses occurred. I haven’t heard about them, if there were any.

The USS John S. McCain collided with a Liberian oil tanker, the Alnic MC, on August 20, 2017 in an early morning incident that killed ten sailors. The crash took the destroyer out of action for at least one year.

And now comes the scary part; hold onto your pants: In the seven months since the inauguration of our comb-over commander-in-chief (and keeper of our nuclear codes), the U.S. Navy has suffered four major accidents that have killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured scores more. We’ve lost two of our most powerful missile-guided destroyers—the U.S.S. Fitzgerald and the U.S.S. John S. McCain. It will be years before they are back in service. Readers can read about the fates of the USS Antietam and the USS Lake Chaplain in the links below.

At least two dozen sailors and officers have been disciplined, including a Vice-Admiral, a Commander, and a Lieutenant Commander. Admiral John Richardson, chief of Naval operations, has ordered an “operational pause” to all fleet commanders. He’s ordered a months-long review of protocols, because, he says, “there’s something out there that we’re not getting at.”

All this commotion is happening during a time when we’re planning to conduct war games against North Korea and are daily challenging the Chinese in the South China Sea.

Can I put things into perspective? If the accident rate of the past seven months was applied to the past forty-one years, the U.S. Navy would be short another 85 ships and 800 sailors. Thousands more young men and women would be maimed and wounded, and 250 promising Naval careers would be wrecked. In peacetime, essentially, the U.S. Navy might have lost one-third of its fleet and some of its best sailors and officers at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

The USS Antietam, a guided missile cruiser, grounded itself in Tokyo Bay January 31, 2017. It released over one thousand gallons of toxic hydraulic oil into the bay and damaged both of its propellers and propeller hubs. Repair costs will exceed $4 million.

Here are a few of the headlines from our country’s newspaper of record, the New York Times. All headlines are from articles written in 2017. I’ve read every single one of them. Readers can access their content by clicking on the links. The remainder of my essay is written below these headlines:

China and Russia Hold First Joint Naval Drill in the Baltic Sea

Naval Collision Adds to Fears About U.S. Decline in Asia

After U.S. Destroyer Collision, Chinese Paper Says U.S. Navy a Hazard

Filipino Officials: Chinese Navy Stalked Philippine Area

4 Accidents, 2 Deadly, Raise Questions About Navy Operations

USS Lake Champlain Collision at Sea

Bodies of Several Sailors Are Found Aboard Damaged U.S. Destroyer

Sleeping Sailors on U.S.S. Fitzgerald Awoke to a Calamity at Sea

Japan Says Deadly Ship Collision Happened Earlier Than Reported

Maritime Mystery: Why a U.S. Destroyer Failed to Dodge a Cargo Ship

Navy Ship in Collision Named for McCain’s Dad, Grandfather

Previous Collisions Involving U.S. Navy Vessels

After Dangerous Collisions, Navy Will Pause for Safety Check

U.S. Admiral Says Remains Found Inside Damaged Destroyer

Commander of Naval Fleet Relieved of Duty After Collisions

Top Two Officers on Navy Ship in Deadly Collision Off Japan Are Relieved of Duties

10 Missing After U.S. Navy Ship and Oil Tanker Collide Off Singapore

Navy Dismisses 7th Fleet Commander After Warship Accidents

Mississippi Shipyard to Fix Destroyer Hit in June Collision

U.S. Navy Relieves Seventh Fleet Commander in Wake of Collisions in Asia

Wreckage of U.S.S. Indianapolis, Lost for 72 Years, Is Found in the Pacific*

*Some readers may have noticed that the last headline seems to have no connection whatsoever to this essay. But they would be wrong. Recall that the battleship USS Indianapolis was the fiercest war machine we had during World War II in the Pacific. We used that ship to deliver the atomic bomb, Little Boy, (the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) to Tinian Island in the western Pacific Ocean sometime during July, 1945. It would be assembled and delivered to the Japanese people with terrifying effect on August 15.

From Tinian the Navy ordered the Indianapolis to advance to Leyte Island in the Philippines to prepare for an all-out assault and invasion of Japan scheduled to follow the atomic blasts that were soon to occur.

On July 30 the lumbering battleship encountered a Japanese submarine which delivered six torpedoes in the wee hours of the night. Two struck the Indianapolis. It took twelve minutes for the battleship to sink below the surface. The ship sucked four hundred men to the bottom and left behind an oil slick that would sicken the nearly one-thousand sailors and marines who survived to face the threat of death by dehydration, drowning, and sharks.  

The USS Indianapolis delivered the atomic bomb to the Air Force in the Pacific before being sunk by a Japanese submarine. The ordeal took the lives of nearly a thousand men during five days in the open sea. Read Devil’s Voyage by Jack L Chalker.

The Navy didn’t notice that their prized battleship was missing. After five days of vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations, and shark attacks, three hundred men were still alive (some in lifeboats, including the Commanding Officer) when an aircraft on an unrelated mission saw something suspicious and flew down to take a closer look. 

Twenty-two men who were pulled from the water remain alive today. The Navy court-martialed the commander, Captain McVay, and convicted him for not zig-zagging as he sailed. The Japanese sub-commander testified that zig-zagging would not have mattered. The Indianapolis was going to the floor of the ocean, in any event, he insisted. Nothing could have stopped what happened. 

Losing a ship, even in war, is a big deal in the Navy. It’s not something that anyone takes lightly, even when there are extenuating circumstances and good reasons for failure. Captain McVay committed suicide in 1968—clutching a toy sailor in one hand and his service revolver in the other.

The Navy has a history of not being able to keep track of its ships. The earth’s oceans are vast, and we don’t have that many boats on them. Hiding ships from our enemies means we sometimes hide them from ourselves.

Civilian boats are another matter. Merchant fleets deploy 51,405 ships on our oceans. Most of them are bigger and longer and heavier than our 277 Navy ships. Almost all run on auto-pilot most of the time, especially at night when the crews sleep. If the computer directs the tanker to ram a boat like the Fitzgerald, that’s what is going to happen. In collisions, chances are Navy ships will lose.

Collision avoidance should be easy. Crews need only have situational awareness and the ability to steer the boat. The problem is that to perform these tasks crews rely on a complicated matrix of technologies that always seem to fail in critical situations like combat or rule violations by other boats.

These technologies should be used to confirm human observation and decisions; instead sailors confirm what the technology tells them, but only when something goes wrong, which is almost always too late. An alarm sounds and a glance at a computer screen shows that a tanker is 500 meters to starboard, so a crew member looks out a window to see if it’s there. No! That’s bassackwards and will get someone killed. 

Officers might better demonstrate proficiency in the absence of high-tech aids for situational awareness and steering, then add high-tech proficiencies one skill-set at a time. Maybe they wear merit badges to enable COs to tell at a glance who can handle hydraulic controls and who is good at computer-aided navigation, for example.

Every officer doesn’t have to master every skill-set, and the least skilled officer should be able to turn off the high-tech systems they haven’t mastered in order to steer the boat and stop it using the skills they do have, when necessary.

Laser distance finders (like those used by golfers) and wide-field-of-view night vision binoculars should be standard issue. A half dozen or more sailors should be stationed around the perimeter of every boat and be required to report what they see or don’t see every five minutes or so. No snoozing!

Mischief Reef is the site of a Chinese airstrip and military installation built on a contested atoll in the Philippines.

Anyway, one thing about the four accidents this year (January 31, the USS Antietam; May 9, the USS Lake Champlain; June 17, the USS Fitzgerald; August 20, the USS John S. McCain) bothers me: the destroyer McCain was nearly sunk just two weeks after it challenged the Chinese at a contested atoll named Mischief Reef, which the Chinese have in recent years built-up into a military base.

I have a problem with coincidences that turn out bad for our side. Malevolent intent by an adversary is always possible. Every bridge officer should understand the protocols to avoid intentional (or unintentional) collisions initiated by rogue (or wayward) boats.

A Philippine-manned cargo ship, the ACX Crystal, rammed the USS Fitzgerald, a guided-missile destroyer, on June 17, 2017. Seven US sailors died. The night was clear; the seas calm. The commanding officer and another crew member were severely injured. Repairs will cost hundreds of millions and take years to complete.

Our Navy is a mess. Everyone knows it. The optics of powerful warships limping into port under the power of a dozen or so tugboats emboldens our enemies and demoralizes our patriotic fighting men and women. We have the wrong ships, designed the wrong way, for the wrong wars, for the wrong reasons. And our Navy is overworked to the max. We all know it’s true. It doesn’t have to be. It’s good to have high-tech systems, but they are useless during a crisis. Everyone must be proficient at low-tech and know how to enable it. Seriously.

Politics and corruption, profiteering and greed, laziness and lack of zeal are going to kill us all if we don’t wake up. It’s time for civilians to step up and defend our way of life. It’s time for corporations and billionaires to do what’s right—not what makes them wealthy at the expense of our country’s defense and the prosperity of our citizens and the people of the world who are looking to us for leadership.

We are going to regret privatizing our military and using contractors instead of citizens to fight our battles. We are going to lose our freedoms and our country if we don’t fight for both. Everyone must do their part. Corruption can have no role in the process.

We must use our power to make the world safer, freer, and better for everyone, not just ourselves. People are sick and tired of “America first.” We have so much, already. 

It’s time to share our advantages, with love. If we do what’s right, if we embrace public service and reach out to the disadvantaged in the world (the military, after all, doesn’t have the room or the money for every citizen), we won’t need to kill everyone who hates us like we’ve been doing for hundreds of years.

A year or two of public service by every American in bad neighborhoods and blighted communities might make a big difference in the why, how, and who we fight.

Billy Lee

Billy Lee

About Billy Lee

Billy Lee is a retired machine designer. His bona-fides include: raised a Navy brat; former anti-Vietnam War activist; Francophile; math lover; Egyptology enthusiast; MSU grad; likes Blues and Culver's fish sandwiches; father; grandfather; married to Bev, his best friend; Christian---but loves Obama, Hillary, and the gay people. Biggest problem facing civilization?---lack of CAPS on income, which permit the wealthy to loot corporations and public institutions. Possession by anyone of excessive wealth must be a felony enforced by international courts. The alternative is to continue the widespread poverty and human misery that have plagued civilization from before forever.
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8 Responses to OCEAN WAR

  1. Molly says:

    I shared this with my husband Dennis to get his reaction to your blog on the U.S. Navy. Dennis is a recognized expert analyst of the Chinese military, a retired assistant Army attache in Beijing, and a graduate of West Point. His comments were “if his point was that the U.S. Navy is overworked and spread too thin, then he is correct. The rest of the article, particularly the part about the Chinese Navy, is CRAP.” Dennis says it is true that the Chinese are building high-technology naval vessels, but they do not outperform our ships. They have one aircraft carrier, we have 17. Your take on the Chinese activities in the South China Sea is incorrect, in his viewpoint. Dennis does readily admit that our navy’s training procedures were changed and cut back years ago, which is the reason for all the recent mishaps. The Navy recognizes the problem but needs more money and time to beef up it’s training exercises. It is very alarming to me the number of accidents our Navy has incurred in the past few years.

  2. Billy Lee Billy Lee says:

    Molly: we don’t have 17 aircraft carriers. I challenge anyone to name them. People will learn that we are two active-duty carriers short of what the Pentagon has testified is the minimum number required to defend our country. I don’t believe the numbers, but I can identify only nine. My statements about the Chinese Navy are based on press accounts and the Navy’s own press releases. I believe the Chinese and Russian navies are more capable in 2017 than Dennis says, but I would be very happy to be proven wrong. Thank you for your excellent comment and feedback. I am grateful for your interest in my essay. And, if you read this comment, Dennis, let me thank you for your life, which you dedicated to defending our country, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

  3. Molly says:

    I apologize. I misstated Dennis. He says we have 10 or 11 aircraft carriers but several ships that serve the same capacity. And he also said he can’t speak for the Russian Navy. My sincerest apologies.

  4. Billy Lee Billy Lee says:

    No need to apologize. I have to fix my posts all the time when people point out my goofs, or I find them. I have no expertise in any field. That’s why my blog has the word Pontificator in its title. Nevertheless, I write truth as best I can. I fix mistakes ASAP. That’s why my blog essays are living documents and change when new information proves me wrong. Thanks, again, for your conscientious comments, which I always enjoy reading.

  5. Molly says:

    Just in from Dennis: Here’s the latest official USN list of carriers http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=200&ct=4

    And large amphibious ships (mini-carriers) http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=400&ct=4

    With links to all types of amphibious ships here http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ships/amphibs/amphib.asp

  6. Molly says:

    Bill, I know that you are constantly editing your blogs. And I shared that fact with Dennis and told him you are a brilliant mathmatician and a liberal (so is he). I can’t read your scientific or mathematical blogs, because they are beyond my understanding.

  7. Billy Lee Billy Lee says:

    I think I understand where the misunderstanding on number of aircraft carriers comes from. The Navy has eight amphibious assault ships, which are actually old aircraft carriers now used by the Marines to embark, deploy and land elements of a Marine landing force when necessary. That’s where the number 17 came from, I think. Nine aircraft carriers plus eight amphibious assault ships makes seventeen, but I am counting as carriers only those ships used to store and launch a large number of jet aircraft. All seventeen ships look like aircraft carriers. The amphibious assault ships were used as aircraft carriers back in the day, but now they are deployed for a different purpose.

  8. Molly says:

    My take is that ship officers no longer receive the intense training required in the old days (before 2003). They cannot keep up with the new technology. For whatever reason they no longer maintain the old-fashioned vigilance of watches and physical lookouts.

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