Russia is saying goodbye to its last Soviet-era ballistic-missile submarines. Here’s what’s replacing them.

Russian Navy ballistic missile submarine K-84 Yekaterinburg
Russian nuclear-powered ballistic-missile sub K-84 Ekaterinburg in Murmansk, May 23, 2018.

  • Russia has announced plans to decommission the ballistic-missile submarine Ekaterinburg.
  • That will be the beginning of the end for the subs that have long been the backbone of the Soviet and Russian fleet.
  • They will be replaced by the Borei-class, Russia’s most advanced ballistic-missile sub.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In April, the Russian Navy announced that the Ekaterinburg, its second-oldest Delta-IV-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, will begin its decommissioning process in 2022.

The sub has spent almost two years laid up at port in Severodvinsk, and its decommissioning will be the end of a more than 36-year career, one with its fair share of mishaps and accidents as part of the Soviet and Russian navies.

Ekaterinburg’s decommissioning is also the beginning of the end for the Delta-class series of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, or SSBN, that has been the backbone of the Soviet and Russian SSBN fleet for decades.

The Deltas will be replaced by the long-awaited and much-anticipated Borei-class.

The Delta series

Russian ballistic-missile submarine BS-64 Podmoskovye in Severomorsk
Russian ballistic-missile sub BS-64 Podmoskovye at the Northern Fleet base in Severomorsk, July 3, 2019.

Known in Russia as the Project 667BDRM Delfin-class, the Delta IV boats are the fourth and final iteration in a long series of 43 SSBNs, the first of which was introduced in the early 1970s.

At 544 feet long, Delta IVs have four torpedo tubes and 16 silos. They were originally armed with R-29RM Shtil submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs, which were eventually upgraded to the R-29RMU Sineva in 2007. After 2014, some Delta IV boats were given the R-29RMU2 Layner SLBM as well.

The missiles are each capable of carrying four Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles, or MIRVs, each of which contain warheads that can be directed to different targets. The Shtil’s MIRVs carried 100-kiloton nuclear warheads, while the Sineva’s and Layner’s carry 500-kiloton warheads.

Seven Delta IVs are in service with the Russian Navy. One of them, Podmoskovye, was converted into a Special Mission submarine in 2016 for intelligence missions.

Instead of carrying nuclear missiles, the Podmoskovye acts as a mothership, carrying underneath it smaller subs like the Losharik, a secretive nuclear submersible believed to be used for espionage and which suffered a deadly fire in July 2019. (Losharik could be out of service until 2025.)

Aside from the seven Delta IVs, one Delta-III-class submarine, Ryazan, is also in service. All Delta IVs are currently serving in Russia’s Northern Fleet, while the lone Delta III serves with the Pacific Fleet.


Russian Navy submarine Yekaterinburg fire
A still image from RT footage shows crews trying to put out a fire aboard Ekaterinburg, December 29, 2011.

Ekaterinburg was the second Delta-IV-class boat to be built. Laid down in 1982 and commissioned in 1985, it has had an interesting history to say the least.

On August 6, 1989, during Operation Behemoth, Ekaterinburg attempted to launch all 16 of its R-29RM Shtil SLBMs while underwater – the first time any SSBN had tried such a feat. The first launch was successful, but a rocket-fuel leak in the second missile sparked a fire, causing the test to be terminated.

The missile itself was destroyed, but Ekaterinburg escaped without any serious damage. Exactly two years later, its sister-boat, Novomoskovsk, conducted the test successfully, launching all 16 missiles in three minutes and 44 seconds.

In 2011, a fire broke out on Ekaterinburg’s bow while it was in a floating drydock in Murmansk. Attempts to extinguish the blaze were unsuccessful, and the fire burned for almost a full day before it was decided to submerge the submarine to put out the fire.

While the fire was out, Ekaterinburg was heavily damaged and had to undergo a three-year repair process.

It was later revealed that Ekaterinburg was actually carrying its full load of nuclear SLBMs when the fire broke out, a violation of normal procedure. The decision to submerge, then, prevented what could have been the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

After being repaired, Ekaterinburg served as any other SSBN in the Russian Navy. It was involved in a few missile tests and conducted a number of patrols with the Northern Fleet.


Russia Borei ballistic missile submarine Yury Dolgoruky
Russia’s Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile sub Yury Dolgoruky at the Northern Fleet base in Gadzhiyevo, March 16, 2017.

Ekaterinburg and the rest of the Delta-IV boats will eventually be replaced by the Borei-class.

Though design work started in the mid-1980s, construction of the first Borei-class boat, Yury Dolgorukiy, did not begin until 1996, and it did not enter service until 2013.

Despite being smaller than the famous Typhoon-class, the Borei-class is considered the most advanced SSBN Russia has built. Features like new sonar systems and a pump-jet propulsion system make it considerably quieter than its predecessors. It also has a new suite of electronics and control systems.

The Borei-class has six torpedo tubes and 16 missile silos that house new RSM-56 Bulava SLBMs. The Bulava can carry anywhere between six to 10 MIRVs, each with 100- or 150-kiloton yields.

Russia Borei ballistic missile submarine Yury Dolgoruky
Russian Borei-A-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile sub Knyaz Vladimir at the naval base in Gadzhiyevo, July 3, 2020.

Like the Yasen-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine, production of the Boreis hit repeated delays, which in turn allowed the Russians to refine the design.

As a result, the Borei-A subclass was created, with different dimensions and even more advanced tech.

There are currently four Boreis in service. The most recent of them, Knyaz Vladimir, was commissioned last year and is the first Borei-A in service. The next Borei-A, Knyaz Oleg, is currently undergoing sea trials.

Two of the Boreis are assigned to the Northern Fleet, while the other two are assigned to the Pacific Fleet. The Russian Navy plans to have 10 Boreis in service by the end of the decade.

The 10 Boreis were originally planned to be distributed evenly between the Northern and Pacific fleets, but after the Umka-2021 exercise, in which three Boreis surfaced through the Arctic at the same time, the Russian Defense Ministry reportedly decided to prioritize their delivery to the Northern Fleet.

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To help fight COVID-19, Mexico is going to give away the mansions of 2 once-powerful drug kingpins

el chapo guzman
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, center, arrives at an airport in Long Island during his extradition to the US, January 19, 2017.

  • Mexico’s president recently a “mega raffle” with 22 prizes valued at $12.5 million, the proceeds of which will be used for COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Among the goods being given away are mansions that belonged to two of Mexico’s most well known cartel bosses: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – The million-dollar houses of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, formerly boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, and Amado Carrillo Fuentes, deceased boss of the Juárez Cartel, will pay for COVID-19 vaccines for Mexicans.

Mexican government recently announced it will hold a “mega raffle” on September 15 with 22 prizes and a total value of $12.5 million, including the two former drug lords’ seized mansions.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the money raised from the lottery will go “back to the people.”

“All of the money raised is going to be delivered to the people and help to buy [COVID-19] vaccines and medicines and to give away some scholarships” he said at his daily morning press conference on May 27.

The houses failed to sell when previously raffled by the Institute to Return Stolen Goods to the People, or Indep, which Lopez Obrador created to redistribute seized assets.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes
Amado Carrillo Fuentes, far left, in a photo found in one of his houses after a raid.

Carrillo Fuentes’ former residence is located in the exclusive Mexico City residential neighborhood of Jardines del Pedregal and is valued at about $4 million, according to Indep.

The property, seized more than 20 years ago, is over 32,000 square feet and has an indoor pool, nine bedrooms, several Jacuzzis and saunas, a wine cellar, and a party salon. According to the listing, Fuentes’ house is fully furnished.

El Chapo’s property is located in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state on Mexico’s west coast and his cartel’s home turf. It was where Guzmán escaped arrest in February 2014 by using a secret tunnel under a bathtub. Public records don’t say if the tunnel is still there.

El Chapo’s house has two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, garage and a front garden, according to the public listing. Although more modest, it is valued at $200,000, a high price for Sinaloa’s real-estate market.

The lottery also includes a historic box at the Estadio Azteca, the iconic Mexico City stadium that holds over 87,500 people. The box has its own story: It is where then-President Miguel de la Madrid handed the World Cup trophy to Diego Maradona in 1986, crowning Argentina champion.

Estadio Azteca
Mexico’s Estadio Azteca.

According to the listing, the stadium box is “in an excellent location” and has a 20-person capacity, a bathroom, and four parking spaces. The box is valued at $1 million and would be held until 2065.

In 2019, Mexico offered six other homes seized from Guzmán. Only three sold, bringing in a total of $227,844. One of them, the steel-enforced safe house where Guzmán sheltered after his first prison escape in 2001, went for $107,530.

The government held a similar raffle in September 2020 in which the top prize was the presidential jet, but the $130 million Boeing 787 Dreamliner failed to sell.

Lopez Obrador decided to hold another lottery where 100 winners would get $1 million in cash, but that also failed when only 30% of the tickets were sold. There have been no more attempts to sell the plane.

Drug lords’ mansions

mexico marine drug cartel
A Mexican marine lifts a bathtub covering a tunnel in one of Guzmán’s homes in Culiacan. The tunnel leads to the city’s drainage system.

Guzmán was one of the most notorious and elusive of Mexico’s drug kingpins until his final arrest in Mexico in 2016. He was extradited in 2017 and convicted in a US federal court in 2019 on 10 charges, receiving a life sentence in a US federal “supermax” prison.

In 2009, Forbes magazine ranked Guzmán at number 701 on its annual list of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion. (A woman believed to be Guzmán’s eldest daughter has a fashion line called “El Chapo 701,” referring to his ranking.)

Guzmán owned six houses in Culiacan alone. Most are middle-class properties, but they all have one thing in common: a hydraulic system installed under the bathtub to lift the tub and provide access to the municipal sewage tunnels he used to escape.

He also owned an apartment in Mazatlán, Sinaloa’s most famous tourist beach. The property is part of the Miramar apartment complex and is where he was last captured. The complex became a tourist attraction and remains Mexican government property.

El Chapo also built a picturesque luxury hacienda for his mother, Consuelo Loera, in the town of Badiraguato in the mountains of Sinaloa, where Guzmán was born. The hacienda has four rooms, a large kitchen, and a small chapel in the back.

Mexico Sinaloa Badiraguato Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sign billboard
A billboard welcoming Lopez Obrador ahead of his visit to Badiraguato, February 15, 2019.

After a violent attack by a group believed to be Guzmán’s enemies in 2016, Consuelo Loera left the property, which remains abandoned.

Carrillo Fuentes – known as ‘El señor de los cielos,’ or “the lord of the skies,” for using planes to smuggle tons of drugs into the US – died 1997 during plastic surgery to change his appearance.

Many of Carrillo Fuentes’ properties have met the same fate that Guzmán’s now face. His more luxurious residences – among them a 2,000-square-foot apartment and a 6,000-acre ranch – were in Argentina, where he lived for a year in 1996.

In 2018, Argentina auctioned his three properties there, selling them for a total of $14 million.

He had several other properties in Mexico, including an arabesque-like mansion in Hermosillo, in the northern state of Sonora, and a luxurious mansion in southwestern Jalisco state; the latter was known as “Casa Versace” after the Italian brand established its first Mexican boutique in 1994.

Carrillo’s property in Sonora was recently demolished by the state government, while Casa Versace was bought by a private owner and turned into a reception hall.

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How China is trying to fix the biggest problem plaguing its fighter jets

J-20 stealth fighter china
China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet.

  • China’s leaders regularly tout their fighter jets as symbols of military capability.
  • But China’s fighter jets have long had a major shortcoming: a lack of quality engines.
  • China’s defense industry has struggled with that flaw, but Beijing is working hard to fix it.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Of all the fighters in China’s arsenal, none are as important as the J-20.

The fifth-generation fighter also known as the “Mighty Dragon” is more than just a stealth fighter. It’s an example that China, like the US, can build some of the best military technology in the world.

It has become a symbol for the Chinese Communist Party, shown proudly at military parades and mentioned repeatedly in Chinese defense publications.

After a brutal brawl with Indian troops on their disputed border last year, China sent two J-20s to airbases in Xinjiang.

That deployment was too small to be of any real strategic significance, but the fact that China deployed its best fighter jet to a remote area in the Himalayas showed its seriousness. The J-20’s deployment to China’s Eastern Theatre Command is meant to send a similar message to Taiwan, Japan, and the US.

But the J-20, like all Chinese aircraft, has been hobbled by a lack of efficient and durable, high-performance jet engines.

That problem has plagued China’s defense industry for a long time, and it’s one Beijing is working hard to fix.

A longstanding problem

J-20 stealth fighter china
China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet.

China’s difficulties with jet engines may be surprising given the country’s massive and successful military buildup.

It’s also no secret that China is skilled at reverse-engineering foreign technology to make domestic copies. Virtually every Chinese fighter jet is based on stolen or reverse-engineered designs.

There is precedent for reverse-engineering jet engines, but while China has plenty of access to Russian jet engines, Beijing’s attempts to produce its own domestic designs have been largely unsuccessful.

One of its earliest versions of a domestically designed engine, the WS-10A, regularly broke down after just 30 hours of use.

There are many reasons for these failures. First, Russia is aware China has stolen its intellectual property before and is reluctant to sell Beijing its best engines. Moscow also doesn’t sell standalone engines, instead including them on existing jets, which makes copying them difficult.

Second, reverse-engineering skill don’t easily translate into proficiency at developing new jet engines from scratch. That requires technological know-how that takes years of intensive learning to develop and generations to perfect.

The ‘apex’ of technological manufacturing

J-20 stealth fighter china
China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet.

Perhaps most important, manufacturing jet engines is just extremely complicated.

“There are a few technologies that are really at the apex of technological manufacturing,” and jet engines are one of them, Timothy Heath, a senior international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation think tank, told Insider.

“These high-end technologies are so difficult to master that very few countries succeed. Many have failed,” Heath added.

The main difficulty lies in the metallurgy and machining. A single engine on a civilian Boeing 747 airliner, for example, has at least 40,000 parts. Temperatures in that engine can reach as high as 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and its fan blades can spin well over 3,000 times a minute during an hours-long flight.

Blueprints for such an engine can be copied, but the secrets to producing and shaping metal parts that can withstand those temperatures and spin at such tremendous RPM over thousands of hours – not to mention external factors like wind resistance and corrosion – without breaking aren’t easy to find.

Another disadvantage for China is that the entities tasked with developing these complex machines are state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Historically speaking, SOEs struggle with innovation and developing cutting-edge technology. The reliance on reverse-engineering shows that this is the case with China, though there are certainly exceptions.

“They’re better at just reverse-engineering simpler components and building simpler things,” Heath said. “All this requires a level of expertise and competence that SOEs just often are not very good at. You have to recognize the limitations of the SOEs in China when it comes to innovation.”

‘Crucial technology cannot be bought’

China J 20 Stealth Fighter
China’s J-20 stealth fighter at an air show, November 1, 2016.

China is more than aware of its engine problems.

Liu Daxiang, the deputy director of the science and technology committee at the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, last year called the development of domestic jet engines “a serious and urgent political task” and said China was facing an “unprecedented challenge.”

“The established countries in aviation have become more strict with us when it comes to technology access,” Liu said, adding that recent US efforts to restrict opportunities for Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei “tells us that crucial technology cannot be bought, even if you spend big.”

In an attempt to get direct access to the secrets of jet manufacturing, Chinese state-owned aviation firm Skyrizon, which has been blacklisted by the US government, tried to acquire a controlling stake in Motor Sich, a Ukrainian company that is one of the largest producers of engines for helicopters, jets, and missiles.

But the Ukrainian government this year stopped the deal, likely because of pressure from the US.

Despite the setbacks, China has made some progress. Modern variants of the WS-10 have progressed enough that some Chinese jets are being fitted with them, including a number of J-20s.

Chinese sources have said that the WS-15, an engine designed specifically for the J-20, “may be finished within one or two years” and that once those engines are installed, the J-20 will be “on a par” with the US’s fifth-generation F-22 Raptor.

Ballpoint pens, microchips, and jet engines

J-20 stealth fighter china
Chinese J-20 stealth fighters.

But many challenges remain. The complexity of the materials and metallurgy process, the costs of acquiring and maintaining the scientific and machining expertise, and the reluctance of other countries to assist China for fear of intellectual-property theft are but a few of them.

China faces a similar predicament in manufacturing high-end microchips and semiconductors. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars and major efforts by state-owned enterprises, China has not been able to create its own computer chips.

“It’s just that some of these technologies are extremely difficult to do, and it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it – if you don’t have the right combination of people, technologies, and skills, it’s just not going to come together so easily” Heath said.

But China doesn’t give up easily. In 2017, a Chinese state-owned firm announced plans to mass-produce ballpoint pen tips for the first time. China already made billions of pens, but only after a five-year, multimillion-dollar effort did it develop the technology to make tips for those pens domestically.

“All these elements can be reached only through long-term investment and incremental development,” a Chinese researcher said at the time.

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What China is learning from the battle that changed the course of World War II in the Pacific

Navy aircraft carrier Yorktown Midway WWII
US Navy cruiser USS Astoria steams by USS Yorktown after the carrier had been hit by Japanese bombs during the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942.

  • The Battle of Midway between the US and Japanese navies began on June 4, 1942.
  • The three-day battle was a decisive defeat for the Japanese and turned the tide of the war.
  • Now, 79 years later, the battle still holds lessons, and China in particular has studied it closely.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

On June 4, 1942, the US and Imperial Japanese navies faced off a few hundred miles from Midway Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean.

Over the next three days of fighting, Japan lost four fleet carriers and one heavy cruiser, some 250 aircraft, and over 3,000 sailors and naval aviators.

US casualties were light in comparison: one carrier and one destroyer sunk, 144 aircraft shot down or destroyed, and about 362 sailors and aviators killed.

It was one of the most decisive battles in history and one of the most important of World War II. The Japanese would never recover from the loss of so many of their best carriers and pilots. The US Navy had effectively turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.

The US Navy learned many lessons from the battle that helped win the war. Even now, 79 years later, the battle is still studied extensively – including by China.

Luring out American carriers

Battle of Midway
Douglas Devastator torpedo bombers unfold their wings for takeoff aboard USS Enterprise during the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942.

The Battle of Midway was an attempt by the Japanese Navy to lure out and destroy the remaining American carriers, effectively ensuring Japanese control of the Pacific.

At the time, all of the US Pacific Fleet’s battleships had either been sunk or put out of action by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the British Royal Navy had been dealt a devastating blow when the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were sunk a few days later.

The only thing standing between the Allies and the Japanese Navy were the American aircraft carriers, which, by chance, weren’t at Pearl Harbor during the attack.

Those carriers quickly proved their worth.

US Navy Yorktown aircraft carrier Midway Japan world war II
The USS Yorktown lists heavily after being hit by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes at Midway, June 1942.

On April 18, the Doolittle Raid bombers took off from American carriers and struck Tokyo, causing little overall damage but delivering a morale boost and a warning to Japan.

About a month later, two American carriers at the Battle of the Coral Sea fended off an invasion of Port Moresby, though at the cost of one carrier sunk and one damaged.

The Japanese sent a massive invasion force to Midway, including six carriers, seven battleships, 10 submarines, 15 cruisers, and 42 destroyers. At its heart were the four fleet carriers and their escorts, which were supposed to destroy the US carriers and clear the way for the invasion.

But the battle proved to be a disaster for the Japanese, and Midway remained in American hands.

Chinese lessons

Battle of Midway
Smoke and waterspouts from falling bombs obscure a US Navy ship, right, during a Japanese aerial attack at Midway, June 1942.

Though China wasn’t involved in the battle, Chinese military analysts today have taken a keen interest in it and have written about a number of lessons from the battle.

The first is the value of intelligence. The US had successfully cracked the Japanese naval code before the battle and, with the help of an intelligence operation, were fully aware that the Japanese were planning an invasion of Midway.

The warning allowed the US to prepare the island with more aircraft and send its three carriers. The Americans were thus able to confront the Japanese on equal footing.

The Japanese also incorrectly assumed that the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, which was damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, would be unable to fight. The US Navy, however, had made Yorktown’s repair a top priority.

During the battle, surveillance and reconnaissance failures led Japanese aircraft to attack the Yorktown a second time after it had already been heavily damaged. After the second attack, the Japanese believed they had knocked two American carriers out of action when they had only attacked one.

Japan navy world war II battle of midway
A Japanese heavy cruiser lies low in the water after being bombed by US naval aircraft at Midway, June 1942.

The Chinese believed that an overemphasis on battleships helped lead to Japan’s defeat. Though the Japanese had seven battleships, only two saw action during the battle, with the other five remaining with the invasion fleet.

The battleships could have played a decisive role as escorts for Japan’s carriers and possibly could have shot down more American aircraft. US battleships almost always sailed with fleet carriers when they were available in the theater, and they proved to be efficient aircraft killers.

The Chinese also believe that the Japanese failed to use their submarines effectively, noting that only one was actually in position near Midway. That Japanese submarine, I-168, managed to sink the wounded Yorktown and one of its escorts, the destroyer USS Hammann.

Chinese analysts also view Japan’s decision to order its carriers to both destroy the American carriers and support the ground invasion with airstrikes as a mistake, as it gave the carriers two separate missions at the same time.

Finally, the Chinese conclude that an attack on Midway was an excessive risk. Without land-based air cover, the Japanese were actually fighting on equal footing with the Americans, who had land-based airpower in addition to three fleet carriers.

Lessons from the war

Battle of Midway
US troops at attention behind flag-draped coffins of their countrymen killed at Midway, June 1942.

Chinese analysts note other failures of the Japanese during the war itself. Infighting and rivalries between the Japanese military branches were a significant problem, for instance.

Additionally, the failure to destroy Pearl Harbor’s oil tanks and ship-repair facilities on December 7 was disastrous for Japan’s overall war effort. Of the eight battleships sunk or damaged, only three – Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah, which was actually a target ship – were permanently lost.

The remaining five battleships were repaired and eventually saw combat. The Navy was also able to salvage valuable weapons and material from ships damaged at Pearl Harbor.

Today, however, a similar fight between the US and Chinese navies would likely play out much differently.

Midway WWII sunken ship Japan kaga
Researchers look at footage of the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga off Midway, October 16, 2019.

Longer-range weapons would increase the distance over which both sides’ could operate. Anti-ship missiles in particular have raised the stakes for surface ships and added to the importance of airpower and submarines. Satellites have also made it harder for navies to hide.

Moreover, China would be in a much different position than Japan.

While Japan never recovered from losing four of its best fleet carriers, China has in recent years proved itself a highly capable shipbuilder, albeit in peacetime. (By the end of World War II, the US had built another 28 fleet carriers and 71 smaller escort carriers.)

With China’s navy now the largest in the world and its relationship with the US tense, it makes sense for the Chinese to study one of history’s greatest naval battles, even if times have changed.

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A soldier who photographed World War II in Europe describes 6 of his photos that reveal the ‘insanity of war’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos
A dead GI in Germany’s Hurtgen Forest in 1944.

  • When Tony Vaccaro hit Omaha Beach days after D-Day, he carried a camera along with his rifle.
  • Vaccaro documented the war on his own as he fought across France and into Germany as an infantryman.
  • “I see death,” Vaccaro recalled in an interview at his studio. “Death that should not happen.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Michelantonio “Tony” Vaccaro wanted to serve his country with a camera during World War II, so he tried to join the US Army Signal Corps. But under Uncle Sam’s rules, the 20-year-old draftee was too young for that branch.

So Vaccaro, the orphaned son of Italian immigrants, became a private first class in the 83rd Infantry Division. By June 1944, days after the first wave of 156,000 Allied troops descended on the beaches of Normandy, Vaccaro landed on Omaha Beach, where he saw row after row of dead soldiers in the sand.

Vaccaro was armed with an M1 rifle. He also brought along his personal camera: A relatively compact Argus C3 he’d purchased secondhand for $47.50 and had become fond of using as a high-school student in New York.

In addition to fighting on the front lines during the Battle of Normandy and the ensuing Allied advance, Vaccaro photographed what he was seeing. At night, he’d develop rolls of film, mixing chemicals in helmets borrowed from fellow soldiers. He’d hang the wet negatives on tree branches to dry and then carry them with him.

When he had enough to fill a package, he’d generally mail them home to his sisters in the US for safekeeping and to ensure the images would survive even if he did not.

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos
Then-GI Tony Vaccaro on the wing of a B-17 Bomber in 1944.

From 1944 to 1945, he moved through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.

Along the way, he took photographs that few others – even the press and Signal Corps photographers – were in a position to take: a fellow soldier’s last step before shrapnel tore through him, a jubilant kiss between a GI and a young French girl in a newly liberated town, and many stomach-churning portraits of ransacked corpses that still haunt him.

During 272 days at war, he captured thousands of photos. After the Allied victory, he felt sickened and debilitated by the devastation he saw. He wasn’t ready to return to the US. And he never wanted to photograph armed conflict again.

He bought a Jeep and traveled with his camera, eventually photographing brighter moments, like the reconstruction of Europe and the beauty in the lives of famous artists and everyday people.

Vaccaro went on to make a name as a fashion and culture photographer. He traveled the world shooting for magazines like Look and Life and taking portraits of bigwigs including John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O’Keeffe, and many more.

A half-century would pass before Vaccaro began publishing the bulk of his surviving wartime photos. The surviving images have been shared widely, including in the 2016 HBO documentary “Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC. Tony Vaccaro,” in which Vaccaro revisits the history that he had to break Army rules to chronicle.

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos
Tony Vaccaro.

Vaccaro, now 98, survived a bout with COVID-19 last spring that put him in the hospital.

He continues roaming his neighborhood photographing everyday people and selling prints through Monroe Gallery of Photography. From his Queens, New York, studio more than seven decades after World War II, he closes his eyes and thinks of the brutality he documented as an infantryman.

“I see death,” Vaccaro told Insider. “Death that should not happen.”

Below, he describes six of his photos that he says capture “the insanity of war.”

‘White Death’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Near Ottré, Belgium, January 1945.

Vaccaro developed the roll containing this image while on leave in 1945. He remembers calling this photograph “Death In The Snow” at first, later deciding that “White Death” was a more “elegant” and fitting name to honor Pvt. Henry Tannenbaum’s service and sacrifice. Tannenbaum was killed in action on January 11, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge.

“When I first took this photo of a GI dead in the snow, I was not aware of who he was. What I did was to chip the snow away and look for his right arm, because in those days, [on] the right arm we carried our dog tags. He was Pvt. Henry Irving Tannenbaum. He was one of the soldiers who fought there, just like me. We fought in the snow. He died in the snow. He was my friend. I knew he had a son. … Many years later I got a call from his son.”

‘Gott Mit Uns’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Hürtgen Forest, Germany, 1944.

The burned body of a German tank driver, as seen through Vaccaro’s lens.

“He’s burning. This was frontline. You can smell him. We knocked out his German tank. We knocked it out, and he jumped out of there and fell dead in front of us. He was the pilot of this tank. Similar age [to me]. Here he’s gone. … But [before the photograph] I heard him scream, ‘Muter, muter.’ He was calling for his mother.”

“I took cover [by lying down next to him] and read his belt buckle: ‘Gott mit uns.’ … It means ‘God is with us.’ [Before the war] I had seen people that die and go to the church, and from church they go to the cemetery, like my father when I was four. This was a different death.”

‘Final Steps of Jack Rose’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Ottré, Belgium, January 11, 1945.

Vaccaro captured this image of a soldier he identifies as US Army Pvt. 1st Class Jack Rose of the 83rd Infantry Division, still upright, just after shrapnel from a mortar explosion severed his spine. The explosion, visible between Rose and the fence, threw Vaccaro back many feet. Rose, 23, was killed in action.

“That was Jack Rose. The last step. I was photographing him when this shell comes and explodes. He got killed there, in the village. … The shell could have come to me, too. I was lucky.”

‘Rhineland Battle’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Near Walternienburg, Germany, April 1945.

Vaccaro says the streaking on some of his war photos comes from the grueling conditions he was in – he didn’t have time to properly process and store his work in combat – and possibly from water damage due to a flood in the office where the images were stored after the war.

“We were going forward when a shell comes in, in the back, and explodes. This was Rhineland Battle. I was in a hole as the mortar exploded. I raised my arm up with the camera in my hand above the hole to catch this picture. If that shell had come 20 yards over, I was with these two [soldiers seen in the picture], and my hole was here, and if the shell came [where the two soldiers were or where Vaccaro was], I wouldn’t be here talking today.”

‘The Family Back Home’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Hürtgen Forest, Germany, January 1945.

When Vaccaro encountered this dead German soldier, it appeared that other American soldiers had already looted his valuables.

“This is a man who we killed in frontline [fighting]. … That was it. The family back home. A dead German soldier with the pictures he was carrying of his family. … Of course I had photos of my family too. … It reminds me of the tragedy of mankind. He’s not a German. He’s a human being.”

“We just must stop using ‘I’m Italian. I’m French. I’m Spanish. I’m German.’ That’s what makes us enemies of each other. We’re all humans. In Spain. In Germany. It’s a terrible mistake that man has made. We are humans. And nothing else.”

‘Defeated Soldier’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Frankfurt, Germany, March 1947.

Vaccaro captured this image after the war, while photographing the reconstruction of Europe for Stars.

“This man came back [from being a prisoner of war in the US]. He’s crying. … He gave up. You see where his family had been. The war is over. He came back, and his house had been destroyed. That’s why I call this the defeated soldier. He was German. … Later I was told that he lived here.”

“The point is, you see, on this Earth there is only one species, one church. Unfortunately we take this one species and create hundreds and thousands of churches, and each one is different from the next. And that’s why man is not attaining peace yet.”

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Why the Allies and the Nazis learned opposite lessons from the first major airborne invasion in history

Nazi Germany paratroopers Fallschirmjagers
German paratroopers landing on Crete during Operation Mercury, May 20, 1941.

  • The German invasion of Crete in May 1941 was the first major invasion led by paratroopers.
  • It was a costly victory for the Germans, which led Hitler to dismiss such operations in the future.
  • But the Allies saw the importance of paratroopers and invested heavily in their use during the war.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Early on May 20, 1941, thousands of German paratroopers, known as Fallschirmjägers, in hundreds of transport planes and gliders were preparing to assault the Greek island of Crete.

It was the first time a large-scale invasion was spearheaded almost entirely by paratroopers. The battle was the final part of the Axis invasion of Greece, and on paper, the numbers favored the Allies.

Germany’s 22,000-man invasion force was up against a combined British Commonwealth/Greek force of about 42,000, the Royal Navy was much stronger than its Axis counterparts in the Mediterranean at the time, and the only way Germany could win was by capturing Crete’s three airfields with Fallschirmjägers.

British intelligence knew this before the battle and told the commander on the island, Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg. When the Fallschirmjägers landed, they encountered intense resistance, but after a brutal 13-day slog, the Germans took the island.

The victory came at a huge price for the Fallschirmjägers – so much so that Hitler soured on large-scale airborne operations, remarking that “the days of the parachute troops are over.”

The Allies, meanwhile, learned the complete opposite lesson.

A costly victory

Nazi Germany paratroopers Fallschirmjagers
German paratroopers on their way to the cargo planes before their jump into Crete, May 20, 1941.

By the time Crete was invaded, the Fallschirmjägers had earned a reputation as elite soldiers, having assaulted air fields and strategic positions in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

At Crete, they would seize the island’s three main airfields, whereupon the rest of the invasion force would be airlifted in. Small amphibious landings were also planned, but the airfields were the prime objective, making the Fallschirmjägers the key to victory.

But the German victory at Crete was due as much to Allied communication and leadership failures as it was to the skill of the German paratroopers.

British soldiers bayonets Crete
British soldiers with fixed bayonets in a trench on Crete, May 1941.

Freyberg was convinced that the real German invasion would come from the sea and positioned most of his forces along the coasts, neglecting to properly defend or sabotage the airfields. Even when the airfields were under attack, Freyberg refused to commit his reserves to their defense.

Capturing the airfields was still difficult and costly for the Fallschirmjägers- only one of the three was taken, and only after high German casualties.

When the battle was over, Germany and Britain had both suffered over 3,000 killed.

About half of the British losses came from the Royal Navy, which lost eight ships to Luftwaffe air attacks. The Germans also lost 146 aircraft (mostly transports) destroyed and had another 165 damaged.

Inferior airborne equipment

Nazi German paratroopers parachutes
German paratrooper volunteers board a plane during military training, June 23, 1938.

A major reason Fallschirmjäger losses were so high was their equipment. German parachutes were based on an old Italian design and didn’t have risers, which meant Fallschirmjägers could not steer or change course in the air and had no control over where they landed.

The design of German parachutes also tended to force Fallschirmjägers into hard landings at dangerous angles, increasing the chances of fracturing or breaking bones far higher than those of Allied paratroopers.

German parachutes also did not have a quick-release system, which meant they could drag German soldiers along the ground if caught in high winds before they were fully detached, or leave them stuck for longer periods of time if they landed in trees.

Nazi Germany paratroopers Crete
German paratroopers take cover behind a wall during an advance on Crete, May 1941.

Finally, because they jumped at lower altitudes than Allied paratroopers and had poor parachute setups, almost all Fallschirmjägers jumped without their primary weapons, carrying only pistols or knives. Instead, their armaments were dropped in canisters that the paratroopers had to retrieve once on the ground.

These defects had disastrous consequences for the Fallschirmjägers at Crete. Many were killed before they even had a chance to fight.

On a number of occasions, Cretan civilians swarmed and killed Fallschirmjägers who were stuck in trees or didn’t have guns. Such widespread civilian resistance was a first for the Germans, and led to many reprisal killings after the battle.

Lessons learned

Nazi German paratroopers Italy
German paratroopers during their rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, in Italy, October 2, 1943.

Fallschirmjägers continued fighting after Crete. They conducted a number of smaller jumps around Europe, including as part of the Battle of the Bulge. For the most part, however, they were used as elite ground-based infantry.

Although they had lost the battle and inflicted heavy losses on the Fallschirmjägers, the Allies recognized the importance of paratroopers and invested heavily in perfecting the deployment of airborne infantry.

Allied airborne assaults were conducted on a much larger scale, usually in conjunction with a larger ground or amphibious assaults that paratroopers could link up with. American and British paratroopers also had much better parachutes and jumped fully equipped for battle.

The superiority of Allied paratroopers was demonstrated on D-Day in June 1944, when over 18,000 paratroopers jumped behind enemy lines in Normandy. Despite being scattered and confused after the jump, and without much of their equipment, groups of paratroopers were able to regroup and accomplish many of their objectives.

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The hunt for Germany’s largest warship proved that U-boats were the Nazis’ best weapon

Nazi Germany navy battleship Bismarck
The German battleship Bismarck after its completion but before it received its camouflage paint.

  • Early in World War II, Nazi Germany used its navy to isolate Britain from resupply by sea.
  • Germany capital ships, like the battleship Bismarck, were an important part of that strategy.
  • But it was Bismarck’s destruction in May 1941 that solidified U-boats as Hitler’s weapon of choice.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

On the night of May 18, 1941, the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen steamed out of its base at Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland), followed five hours later by the Kriegsmarine’s crown jewel, the battleship Bismarck.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were on a mission to wreak havoc on British merchant shipping. German U-boats were already very effective at this, but Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, head of the Kriegsmarine, hoped to demonstrate to Hitler the value of Germany’s surface fleet in order to avoid future budget cuts.

What followed was one of the most intense naval searches in military history, the result of which convinced Hitler that U-boats, not capital ships, were the Kriegsmarine’s best weapons.

Capital ships for commerce raiding

Nazi Germany navy battleship Bismarck
Bismarck off of Kiel, Germany, September 1940.

Britain was in a very desperate situation in May 1941. It had fended off the Luftwaffe’s relentless aerial onslaughts in the Battle of Britain but was still isolated and heavily reliant on supplies coming across the Atlantic.

The Kriegsmarine had been trying to block trans-Atlantic shipping routes since the war began, and its capital ships had played an important role in intercepting or sinking Allied shipping.

German surface ships also drew Royal Navy warships away from other duties, such as escorting convoys, and supported U-boats, which were then few in number.

Nazi Germany navy battleship Bismarck
Bismarck firing on a merchant ship in the North Atlantic in 1941.

Happy with earlier success in Operation Berlin, Raeder planned another commerce raid.

To maximize damage, the raid was to include Germany’s four best capital ships: battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were sister ships, and Bismarck and its sister ship, Tirpitz.

But Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by constant RAF attacks while being repaired in port in France, keeping them out of action for months. Tirpitz’s crew was also still being trained.

Prinz Eugen, not as well armed or armored as a battleship, was the only available ship capable of accompanying Bismarck. Not wanting to delay the operation any longer, German commanders ordered the ships into the Atlantic.

Battle of the Denmark Strait

Nazi Germany navy Bismarck Prinz Eugen
Bismarck seen from Prinz Eugen in May 1941.

The mission, codenamed Operation Rheinübung, was led by Adm. Günther Lütjens, the commander of Operation Berlin.

Lütjens was ordered to focus primarily on merchant raiding and to avoid fighting British capital ships if possible. But Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were discovered by the Royal Navy, which attempted to intercept the ships as they sailed through Denmark Strait and into the Atlantic on May 24.

The British force consisted of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood, which was widely considered the pride of the Royal Navy.

The British ships were no match for Bismarck, which was newer and better armored. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were able to fire full broadsides at the two British ships.

“When the big guns fired, the entire ship staggered,” Heinrich Kuhnt, a sailor on the Bismarck, recalled after the war. “It felt like it was bending. It was pushed sideways in the water. It was amazing.”

Minutes into the battle, one of Bismarck’s 15-inch shells hit one of Hood’s magazines. An enormous column of fire erupted from the battlecruiser, followed by a massive explosion that tore it in two.

“The ship broke into pieces,” Otto Schlenzka, a sailor on Prinz Eugen, recalled. “We were sure an explosion of that kind must have killed everybody.”

Hood went down with 1,415 sailors, all but three of its crew. Prince of Wales was also heavily damaged and had to withdraw. The Germans suffered no losses.

Bismarck’s end

HMS Ark Royal Swordfish
A flight of Swordfish torpedo bombers over British aircraft carrier Ark Royal in 1939.

Shocked by the violent destruction of the Hood, the Royal Navy committed nearly all of its available capital ships in the area to finding and destroying Bismarck.

Though it suffered no casualties in the battle, Bismarck received a number of hits that ruptured a fuel tank and caused flooding.

Lütjens, aware of the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority and of the danger of sailing a damaged warship, terminated the operation.

Prinz Eugen was ordered to continue commerce raiding on its own while the Bismarck headed for Nazi-occupied France.

Dorsetshire Bismarck survivors
Survivors from the Bismarck are pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire, May 27, 1941.

Bismarck briefly evaded its pursuers, but a British reconnaissance aircraft, flown by a US Navy pilot, found it on May 26.

Subsequent torpedo attacks from Swordfish carrier planes disabled Bismarck’s rudder, forcing it into a continuous turn.

With the Royal Navy closing in, Lütjens sent a final message to Berlin: “Ship unmaneuverable. We shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”

On May 27, two British battleships and two heavy cruisers attacked Bismarck. They fired over 2,800 shells in a little less than two hours, hitting the German battleship some 400 times. Bismarck was left dead in the water.

The Germans detonated scuttling charges to sink the ship, while British heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedoes to finish it off. Only 115 of Bismarck’s 2,221-man crew survived.

U-boat superiority

Nazi Germany navy U-boat submarine
A German U-boats, its crew on the deck and officers in the conning tower, arrives in Kiel, November 10, 1939.

Operation Rheinübung was a complete failure. Not only had the pride of the Kriegsmarine been sunk with nearly all hands, Prinz Eugen was unable to sink any merchant ships, meaning the primary objective was never achieved.

In the following weeks, the Royal Navy set about destroying the network German ships that refueled, resupplied, and rearmed German capital ships in the Atlantic. The result was the Kriegsmarine’s almost complete reliance on U-boats during the rest of the Battle of the Atlantic.

In the end, the U-boats were the Kriegsmarine’s most effective weapons. From September to December 1939, they sank 110 Allied vessels, while German capital ships only sank about a dozen.

Between July and October 1940, a period known as the “first happy time,” by German submariners, U-boats sank nearly 300 ships carrying over a million tons of cargo.

Between January and August 1942, the “second happy time,” U-boats sank another 600 ships carrying 3 million tons of cargo.

Hitler never ordered his capital ships into the Atlantic again, sending them to Norway or the Baltic instead. The Germans ramped up production of U-boats, which were easier to build than capital ships, and thousands of Allied ships were sunk before the war’s end in 1945.

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The Navy has a new ocean to worry about, it’s not clear how it’s going to deal with it, top lawmaker says

Navy aircraft carrier Truman Gibraltar
A US sailor takes a photo of Jebel Musa on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, December 4, 2018.

  • The warming Arctic is becoming a growing area of operation for the Navy.
  • The need for more presence in the Arctic comes as the Navy also refocuses on countering China and Russia.
  • Rep. Elaine Luria, vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, worries the Navy doesn’t have the right plan to meet those challenges.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reviews the US military’s footprint across the globe, one top lawmaker is questioning whether a new combatant commander is needed to meet growing threats from Russia and China in the increasingly accessible Arctic.

Three US combatant commands – Northern Command, European Command, and Indo-Pacific Command – converge in the Arctic. Each command has assigned forces, but those forces are very different.

Indo-Pacific Command has more than 100 naval vessels to operate around the Pacific Ocean, but US European Command has only a handful of guided-missile destroyers, which mostly focus on the Mediterranean. Northern Command has no assigned naval forces for its area of responsibility off the US coasts.

At two recent House Armed Services Committee hearings, Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Beach Democrat and vice chair of the committee, pressed Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck and Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters- leaders of Northern Command and European Command, respectively-about whether they have enough forces and the right operational structure to address the challenges in their regions.

Neither VanHerck nor Wolters said there were any problems, and Luria, a retired Navy commander, told Insider in an interview that she doesn’t see any lack of leadership.

However, the complexities of that huge geographic region and the competing interests there could require a new approach, such as assigning forces specifically to the Arctic.

“It happened over time that the map has shifted as far as where the combatant commanders’ geographic areas are,” Luria said. “Should there be a single combatant commander with forces assigned to the Arctic? It’s a question I was trying to kind of go after from the combatant commanders.”

Same forces, more demand

US British Navy Arctic
British navy frigate HMS Kent; US Navy guided-missile destroyers USS Roosevelt, USS Porter, USS Donald Cook; and supply ship USNS Supply in the Arctic Ocean, May 5, 2020.

The Arctic and North Atlantic have become a focal point in recent years with increased activity in the region from Russia and China.

The Navy in summer 2018 reactivated its 2nd Fleet to reassert itself in the region. Soon after, the USS Harry S. Truman became the first US aircraft carrier to operate in the Arctic in nearly three decades. The Navy’s presence there has only increased since then.

The Unified Command Plan, which lays out the organizational structure for the combatant commands, was last updated a decade ago with regard to the Arctic, and that region is now “the ultimate unfunded mandate,” said Heather Conley, who directs the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to military programs seen as needed but not included in its budget.

Those three combatant commands have their hands full – Northern Command with defense of the US, Indo-Pacific Command in the South China Sea, and European Command with its busy southern flank – Conley told Insider.

A subregional commander who can develop and advocate a coherent strategy for the Arctic is necessary, Conley said.

“You just don’t have anyone who wakes every day at a senior level thinking about the Arctic,” she said in an interview. “You have Congress … pushing the administration constantly, militarily, to think about this.”

That increased thinking is reflected in the Arctic-specific strategies released by the Pentagon and service branches – seven of them between 2019 and 2021 alone, Conley said.

“I’ve never seen such an amazing array of military strategies,” Conley told Insider.

Luria cautioned that great-power competition with Russia and China could increase the demand on the Navy around the globe, stretching it even thinner as it continues with other missions, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan and efforts to counter Iran.

“As soon as we started to implement the withdrawal from Afghanistan, one of the very first questions that was asked was, ‘Where’s the aircraft carrier?'” Luria told Insider. “Like, we need an aircraft carrier to support this withdrawal. If we don’t have land forces in the region, is that going to create even more of a demand on naval forces?”

‘Raising the alarm flag’

US Navy John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier construction
A crane moves the lower stern into place on the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy at Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia, June 22, 2017.

The global posture review announced in February is meant to help reprioritize how the military uses its forces and resources.

Its results aren’t expected until later this year, but Luria said the Navy needs to lean on allies while boosting its own presence in the Pacific and gaining proficiency in the North Atlantic and Arctic.

“If you ask am I satisfied with what our presence is in any [area of responsibility], my answer is going to be ‘No,’ because I think we need to grow the Navy and we need more forces and we need to deploy forward more,” Luria said.

Growing the Navy will require building more ships at a faster pace – even as the service struggles to maintain the fleet it has.

Continuous maintenance delays and operational problems that have plagued the Littoral Combat Ship program, the Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyers, and the new Ford-class aircraft carriers – which has been the focus of Luria’s ire – only compound the Navy’s challenge.

“Each one of those failures falls on the backs of the sailors on the ships that are deployable, right? So we see these double deployments of carrier strike groups and other ships, you know, really lengthy deployments,” Luria said. “So we need to build more, we need to operate and maintain more efficiently, and we need to stop decommissioning ships faster than we can build them.”

Luria has said she won’t support the Navy’s “divest-to-invest” strategy, which would decommission several ships to free up money for other assets, such as unmanned vessels, to prepare for a potential fight with China that could be decades away – a plan called Battle Force 2045.

Instead, Luria supports “modest investments” in research and development for new technologies alongside smaller investments in upgrading cruisers rather than scuttling them early, as the Navy wants to do.

While planning for the future is necessary, Luria said divesting ships now ignores immediate needs. The situation with China “really keeps me up at night,” she said.

“It’s not just the Navy, but as a country I think that we need to be focusing a lot more on that issue and the existential threat that we have from China,” Luria said, citing Beijing’s growing economic influence and the expansion of its military, particularly its navy.

Rather than settle for what it’s being given, the US Navy needs to make the case to Congress for what it needs to meet those threats, Luria told Insider.

“One of my biggest takeaways is I don’t feel like the Navy is sort of raising the alarm flag enough,” Luria said.

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What the IDF’s past special-ops missions reveal about how Israel takes out Hamas’ rockets and tunnels

Gaza v1
Fire and smoke rise from buildings after Israeli strikes in Gaza.

  • Fighting between Israel and Hamas has killed scores of people in recent days.
  • Israel has a number of secretive special-operations forces that engage in such fighting.
  • Those forces’ past operations indicate what kind of missions they might be doing now.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian militant group Hamas have clashed in Gaza and Israel for almost two weeks, with the death toll on both sides rising.

The violence – from riots and airstrikes to lynchings and rocket volleys – has reignited despite the signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries and were seen as potentially reducing tensions in the region.

Behind the headlines and the spotlight, it’s Israel’s special-operations units – among the world’s finest – that are moving the pieces and enabling the IDF’s operations against Hamas.

A mission gone awry

A rocket launched from Gaza city controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, is intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome aerial defence system, on May 11, 2021
A rocket launched from Gaza City is intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system, May 11, 2021.

For good reason, most Israeli special-operations in Gaza, the West Bank, or East Jerusalem go unreported.

Indeed, publicity usually means that a mission went south, as was the case in 2018, when a botched covert operation in Gaza offered a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of Israeli special-operations missions against Hamas.

Commandos from the elite Mista’arvim, an Israeli counterterrorism unit that conducts covert operations in denied or non-permissive areas, were compromised in Gaza during a highly sensitive intelligence operation.

The Israeli commandos had been operating inside Gaza for weeks when their cover was blown.

According to reports, the Israelis were trying to map out the location of mid- and senior-level Hamas leaders and plant tracking devices, presumably for follow-on strikes or another future contingency, such as the current conflict.

At some point, the Israeli team was compromised, leading to a shootout in which the Israeli commandos killed six Hamas terrorists, including a senior member of the organization’s military wing, but lost the mission commander to friendly fire.

Deception and special operations

IDF Israel security forces West Bank Palestine protest
Undercover Israeli security personnel detain Palestinians protesting US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, December 13, 2017.

The IDF certainly knows how to play the game, and its deception tactics are remarkable.

As the Iron Dome air-defense system intercepted thousands of Hamas’ rockets, the Israeli government suggested that a ground invasion of Gaza was imminent.

The IDF called up thousands of reservists while several brigades and equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, moved to the border.

That was enough for Hamas’ military leadership to send its thousands of fighters into the very extensive and well-developed underground tunnel complex the terrorist organization has been building.

Hamas Gaza tunnel
Members of Hamas’ military wing in a tunnel in the Shujaya neighborhood of Gaza City, August 17, 2014.

However, instead of sending in the infantry and armor, the IDF commenced a heavy bombing campaign, with hundreds of airstrikes against the tunnel complex, where thousands of Hamas fighters were waiting to fight.

Not only did the Israelis avoid a protracted and bloody urban-warfare campaign – arguably one of the most difficult types of military operations, as battles from Stalingrad to Fallujah have shown – but they also put Hamas on the spot for hiding in populated areas and thus intentionally increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Such an operation couldn’t have been successful without the necessary intelligence.

In the years and months prior, commandos from the Mista’arvim or from the Sayeret Matkal, which is also known as General Staff Reconnaissance Unit 269 and is the IDF’s equivalent to the US Army’s Delta Force, would have worked with Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, to create target packages for Hamas’ leadership and its infrastructure.

People inspect a damaged car after Israeli warplanes hit coastland in Gaza City, Gaza on May 17, 2021.
People around a damaged car after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, May 17, 2021.

Special operators serving in the Mista’arvim usually have an Arab background – much of the Israeli population is ethnically Arab – and can blend in to a hostile environment like that in Gaza, Lebanon, or Syria.

They would have been responsible for operating within the denied territory or for recruiting assets within Hamas who could provide intelligence to the IDF.

Details about safe houses, headquarters, and underground tunnel entrances, exits, and vents would be categorized for future use.

“The Israelis are top-notch, easily among the top five special-operations communities in the world. Although we work and have operated more closely with the Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, and Canadians, we do work with the Israelis quite often and have a reasonably close relationship with them,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider.

Underground fighting

Israel Hamas Gaza tunnel
An Israeli soldier at the entrance to a tunnel built by Hamas from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, August 4, 2014.

The Israelis are certainly not the first ones to deal with complex underground tunnels that are meant to avoid enemy airpower.

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong constructed hundreds of miles of tunnels alongside the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which snaked through North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to supply the insurgency in South Vietnam.

“The NVA had tunnels and underground facilities in Laos. We had teams that ran into air vents from underground structures. They could smell food cooking.” John Stryker Meyer, a former Special Forces operator who served in the covert Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), told Insider.

Eldon Bargewell, a highly regarded MACV-SOG and Delta Force operator, “chased an NVA into a tunnel that was an NVA underground structure of some sort and was shot in the chest by the enemy,” added Meyer, author of “Across the Fence,” which details covert operations during the Vietnam War.

“So the NVA/VC had tunnel structures, like at Marble Mountain, where SOG’s Command & Control North had caves under it,” which US special operators visited years later, Meyer said, referring an area near a US airfield south of Da Nang in South Vietnam.

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US Navy SEALs are training to fight on land and water in a ‘strategic location’ near Russia

Navy Special Warfare Hungary Danube Budapest
Hungarian special operations forces and Naval Special Warfare operators test Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R) capabilities in the Danube River in Budapest, May 5, 2021.

  • During the first half of May, US and European special operators teamed up for an exercise across Eastern Europe.
  • The drills were meant to test how conventional and special-operations units would work together in a major conflict.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In early May, the US Special Operations Europe (SOCEUR) conducted its largest annual exercise in conjunction with a smaller one, training with special-operations units from several NATO member and partner countries.

Trojan Footprint 21 and Black Swan 21 are especially pertinent as tensions with Russia in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are still simmering.

SOCEUR planned both exercises to happen at the same time to simulate a full-blown conflict with Russia ranging from the Baltic states and Scandinavia south to Ukraine and the Black Sea region.

Army Romania Ukraine Special Forces Green Beret
Romanian, Ukrainian, and US Army Green Berets conduct close-quarters-battle training during Trojan Footprint 21 in Romania, May 6, 2021.

US Navy SEALs, Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCCs), Green Berets, and Air Commandos were joined in the exercise by special operators from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Georgia, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Spain, Ukraine, and the UK.

The realistic exercises took place in Romania and across Eastern Europe.

Besides testing the interoperability of different national special-operations units in skill-sets such as close-air support, close-quarters battler, and visit, board, search, and seizure, the two exercises, particularly Trojan Footprint, focused on how conventional and special-operations units would work together in a major conflict with Russia.

Integration between conventional and special-operations troops is essential in a near-peer conflict environment.

Navy SEALs vs. Russia

Navy special operations Croatia Hungary Adriatic
Naval special-operations forces from Croatia, Hungary, and the US conduct maritime training in the Adriatic Sea during the Black Swan 21, May 8, 2021.

In a potential conflict with Russia, Naval Special Warfare units would be extremely valuable for several reasons.

Since the annexation of the peninsula, the Russian military has bolstered its presence in the region, making it a seemingly impenetrable fortress guarding Moscow’s southern flank both from land and air.

In addition to potent radar systems that can track surface vessels hundreds of miles out, Russia has deployed several batteries of the formidable S-400 anti-aircraft system – the same one that caused Turkey to be kicked out of the F-35 program – to Crimea.

Indeed, Moscow has turned the peninsula into a prime example of the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) concept, which aims to defeat US air and naval supremacy by threatening ships and aircraft with missiles and other weapons and thus preventing them from getting within range.

Air Force MC-130J special operations Albania
A US Air Force MC-130J during low-level flight training over the mountains of Albania, May 4, 2021.

Crimea, however, would be an ideal environment for Naval Special Warfare operations.

SEAL Teams can conduct over-the-beach raids and ambushes, maritime and land special reconnaissance, and underwater special operations, such as placing sensors on the ocean or limpet mines on enemy vessels.

Russian radar installations and A2/AD batteries and command-and-control systems would be a logical target for SEAL platoons.

But SEALs aren’t the only Naval Special Warfare element that could play an important role in a potential conflict with Russia.

An unknown gem

Croatia, Hungary, and the US Navy special operations Adriatic Sea
Naval Special Operations Forces from Croatia, Hungary, and the US conduct maritime training in the Adriatic Sea during the Black Swan 21, May 7, 2021.

Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) are one of the smallest special-operations in the US Special Operations Command.

With less than 1,000 commandos – out of about 70,000 special operators in the entire US military – Special Boat Teams specialize in maritime direct-action, special reconnaissance, and infiltration/exfiltration of other special-operations units.

“SWCCs are a perfect fit for a near-peer contingency. We’re such a small community people tend to underestimate our capabilities. But we bring so much to the table. We’re more than the ‘boat guys’ who transport SEALs on target. We can conduct operations unilaterally in both an open-sea and riverine environment,” an active-duty SWCC operator, who was granted anonymity to speak about the unit’s role, told Insider.

There are three Special Boat Teams, two focusing on blue-water, or ocean/sea, operations and one on brown-water, or riverine, operations.

Special operations forces helicopter repel Hungary
Austrian, Croatian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Slovenian, and US special-operations forces during exercise Black Swan 21 in Szolnok, Hungary, May 12, 2021.

They operate several special-operations platforms, including the Combatant Craft Assault (CCA), Combatant Craft Medium (CCM), Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH), which are all geared toward littoral and open-sea operations, and the Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R), which is essentially a gun platform designed for riverine operations.

“But perhaps our greatest asset is our stealth and firepower. Done correctly, the enemy would never know we were there, or they would be too dead to care,” the SWCC operator added.

Besides clandestinely transporting SEALs to Russian installations in Crimea, SWCCs can be very effective in rivers with the SOC-R. Riverine operations offer some great advantages, namely, speed, firepower, and stealth.

During Black Swan 21, SWCCs honed their riverine skills on the Danube River, Europe’s second-largest, which flows from Germany to the Black Sea and passes through 10 countries.

US special-operations units do have some real-world experience on riverine environments and riverine operations.

Naval Special Warfare SWCC Hungary Danube
Hungarian special-operations forces and Naval Special Warfare operators conduct infiltration and exfiltration training with Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R) in the Danube River during Black Swan, May 5, 2021.

During counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, Navy SEALs and Rangers sometimes used rivers to their advantage when the improvised explosive device (IED) threat made roads too dangerous.

In a number of operations, SWCCs transported a SEAL or Ranger ground force close to a target by river, where insurgents wouldn’t be waiting for them, to great success as the insurgents were caught unawares.

In the 2012 movie “Act of Valor,” which was sponsored by Naval Special Warfare Command and starred active-duty SEAL and SWCC operators, showcased the utility and advantages of riverine operations during a fictional hostage-rescue scenario.

In the movie, SWCCs clandestinely insert a SEAL squad that rescues the hostage from the terrorist base – located very conveniently right next to a river – and extracts them under fire.

Despite its fictional aspects, the movie shows how riverine special-operations capability can be used to strike very deep behind enemy lines, where an enemy wouldn’t expect it and thus would be less prepared.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

Read the original article on Business Insider