5 emerging weapons that aircraft carriers will have to defend against

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford during shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021.

  • The aircraft carrier has served as a flexible and imposing naval platform for nearly 100 years.
  • Modern carriers have a variety of ways to shield themselves from attack.
  • But emerging weapons will pose a new challenge to the next generation of aircraft-carrier designers.

We know how to kill aircraft carriers — or at least we know how best to try to kill aircraft carriers.

Submarine-launched torpedoes, cruise missiles fired from a variety of platforms and ballistic missiles can all give an aircraft carrier a very bad day.

Of course, modern carriers have ways of defending themselves from all of these avenues of attack, and we don’t yet have any good evidence of the real balance between offensive and defensive systems.

But what of the future? How will we plan to kill carriers 30 years from now? Here are five problems that the next generation of aircraft-carrier architects will need to worry about.

Undersea unmanned vehicles

British Royal Navy Astute-class submarine with HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier
A British Royal Navy Astute-class submarine on the surface with HMS Queen Elizabeth, June 13, 2021.

Submarines have long posed the deadliest threat to aircraft carriers. In World War II, every major carrier fleet suffered losses to submarines; in the Cold War, the US Navy viewed Soviet subs as a critical problem.

Against modern antisubmarine warfare capabilities, the biggest difficulties faced by a submarine involve finding a carrier, then getting into firing position (with either missiles or torpedoes) before the carrier’s aircraft and escorts can detect and kill the sub. If the boat’s commander isn’t suicidal, finding a potential avenue for escape is also an issue.

Unmanned submarines solve several of these problems. They can wait indefinitely along the likely avenues of approach, only moving to attack after they detect the carrier. And robot submarines don’t worry too much about how their families will manage once they’re gone.

Armed with only a few weapons, undersea unmanned vehicles, operating autonomously under preset conditions, could give future aircraft carriers a very serious headache.


Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford
An air intercept controller stands watch in USS Gerald R. Ford’s Combat Direction Center during an exercise, July 30, 2020.

Aircraft carriers already consist of a terrifyingly complex system of systems, from the ship itself to the air group to the escort task force. The Ford-class CVs will expand this even farther, operating as part of a system of weapons and sensors that can span across hundreds, even thousands, of miles.

The digital linkages of this network will be well protected, but hardly impermeable; it is likely that any foe will take steps to attempt to disrupt and compromise the computer systems that allow the Fords to have the greatest effect.

The impact of cyberattacks against carriers could vary widely; at a minimum, they could effectively blind the carrier, making it more difficult for the ship and its aircraft to carry out their mission. It could also reveal the carrier’s location, making the ship vulnerable to a variety of attacks, including missiles and submarines.

At the extreme, a cyberattack could disable key systems, making it impossible for the ship to defend itself.

Unmanned aerial vehicles

MQ-25 unmanned aircraft drone aircraft carrier
Sailors and Boeing team members move an MQ-25 unmanned aircraft into the hangar bay aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, November 30, 2021.

In Peter Singer and August Cole’s “Ghost Fleet,” American UAVs destroy two carriers (the Russian Kuznetsov and the Chinese Shandong) at the end of a carrier battle in the North Pacific.

In some sense, of course, drones represent nothing new; on the one hand, cruise missiles are little more than suicidal drones, and on the other hand, planes have been sinking aircraft carriers since the 1940s.

But modern, manned aircraft seeking to hit an aircraft carrier face near insurmountable obstacles; modern air defenses make a conventional approach suicidal. Cruise missiles help extend the range, but face the same problem in penetrating air defenses.

Autonomous UAVs, capable of using both stand-off and close-range weapons, have the flexibility to overwhelm air-defense networks, especially when they don’t need to worry about the survival of their pilots. They can dispatch weapons at various ranges, then close with the target and use themselves to inflict fatal damage on the carrier.

There’s nothing in the world more dangerous than a robot with nothing left to lose.

Hypersonic weapons

Russia navy frigate Zircon hypersonic missile SS-N-33
Russian navy frigate Admiral Groshkov launches Zircon hypersonic cruise missile in the White Sea, October 7, 2020.

China, Russia and the United States have all devoted extensive attention to hypersonics, which pose a threat in many ways similar to that of ballistic missiles.

Unlike ballistic missiles, however, hypersonics can approach a target from a trajectory that makes them extremely difficult to target with defensive weaponry. They combine the most lethal aspects of both ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, and with inertia alone can cause enough damage to a carrier to kill a mission, if not the entire ship.

And hypersonics may become more politically palatable than ballistic missiles, largely because of the association of the latter with the delivery of nuclear warheads.

Orbital bombardment

Project Thor kinetic space weapon

Aircraft carriers are inherently unstealthy; they cannot be made invisible to sensors in the same way that a plane, submarine, or even surface ship can be rendered effectively invisible. However, aircraft carriers have always derived a certain degree of their usefulness from their mobility.

The disadvantage of a static airbase is that the enemy always knows where it is; the tactical problem becomes a simple question of offensive versus defensive weapons. Aircraft carriers can use their mobility to take advantage of the difference between seers (surveillance systems) and shooters (stand-off weapon systems).

Orbital bombardment systems (nicknamed “Rods from God“) can solve that problem. Satellites equipped with tungsten rods, or really any other kind of kinetic weapon, can simultaneously identify aircraft carriers and attack them, without messy problems associated with networked communications.

The Rods from God, using kinetic energy alone, could deliver a tremendous blow to a surface target, either sinking a carrier or rendering it useless.

Can the carrier endure?

aircraft carrier
Sailors watch the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis sail alongside the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the Pacific Ocean, May 5, 2015.

Aircraft carriers are instruments of geopolitical influence. As long as they serve usefully in that role, nations will seek means to neutralize them.

The aircraft-carrier form has proven remarkably flexibly, serving in one way or another for nearly 100 years. From the USS Forrestal on, the US Navy supercarrier has existed in basically the same form since the 1950s, and is expected to continue operating into the latter half of the 21st century.

At some point, the game will be up; carriers will no longer pack the offensive punch necessary to justify their vulnerability. It’s not obvious when that day will come, however; we may only find out after the destruction of one of the Navy’s prize possessions.

Robert Farley is author of “The Battleship Book.” He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.

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A Chinese military drill could turn into full-scale attack, Taiwan warns

Taiwan China amphibious landing military exercise
Taiwanese troops during an exercise simulating an attempted amphibious landing by Chinese forces, May 30, 2019.

  • Taiwan’s Defence Ministry has presented possible scenarios for an all-out PLA assault, citing “Beijing’s goal to invade by 2025.”
  • The Ministry says China’s military could use one of its frequent drills near Taiwan to launch an assault on the island.
  • The ministry has studied PLA tactics for years and says it has “full control over the strength and the weakness of their approaches.”

Mainland China may stage a surprise attack on Taiwan by turning its joint drills close to the self-ruled island into full-scale combat operations, the defence ministry in Taipei has warned.

Such a move would be in keeping with Beijing’s goal to invade Taiwan by 2025, according to a ministry report submitted to the Taiwanese legislature.

The report said the mainland Chinese People’s Liberation Army was likely to use multipronged approaches to launch a full-blown attack, including joint strikes and landing operations, to seize Taiwan in the shortest time with minimal losses.

The report, which was worked out in line with Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng’s assumption in October that the PLA would have the ability to mount a full-scale invasion by 2025, urges the legislature to support weapons procurements to counter such aggression.

China amphibious tanks invasion
Chinese amphibious tanks land on a beach during a Sino-Russian military exercise in China, August 24, 2005.

The PLA might first use the pretext of staging joint war games involving its air force, navy and army on the east and south coasts of mainland China near Taiwan, to step up the intimidation factor for the Taiwanese public, the ministry said in its report.

“It will then send various kinds of its warships to the Western Pacific Ocean as a means to repel any foreign forces coming to Taiwan’s aid, and to impose strategic encirclement to discourage foreign forces from coming to help.”

The PLA would then turn its war games into real combat operations, which would include firing ballistic and cruise missiles at various Taiwanese air-defence positions, radar stations and command centres, the report said.

The mainland army’s strategic support force would also launch electromagnetic suppression operations targeting combat troop movements and important Taiwanese military facilities.

Once it had established sea and air supremacy, the PLA would then dispatch amphibious landing ships, transport planes and helicopters for troops to attack important military bases in Taiwan, the report says, adding the PLA would try to launch its operations in the shortest time possible, before the interference of foreign forces.

The report called on Taiwanese lawmakers to support the ministry’s special budget to acquire a variety of arms to strengthen its “air defence, counter-attack, air-control and sea-control” missions in order to repel the PLA aggression.

The island’s cabinet last month approved an additional defence budget of NT$237.3 billion (US$8.54 billion) to improve air and naval capabilities, including shore-based anti-ship missiles, land-based anti-aircraft systems, and attack drone projects.

Taiwan soldier shore beach landing amphibious exercise
Taiwanese soldiers conduct a shore-defense drill during a military exercise, September 16, 2021.

Taiwanese deputy defence minister Wang Hsin-lung said the ministry had devoted years to researching possible PLA invasion approaches.

“We have full control over the strength and the weakness of their approaches,” he said before the legislative session on Monday. Taiwan’s military included various scenarios in its training plans for troops based on its study of possible PLA operations, Wang said.

The PLA’s weaknesses included inadequate transport and logistic capacities, the ministry report suggested, which would make reinforcements and supplies difficult after landing in Taiwan.

The PLA would not be able to land all its forces in one go and would have to rely on non-standard ships that would need to use port facilities and transport planes that would need to take off from airports.

Given the island’s forces strengthening defence of ports and airports, the PLA was likely to find it difficult to occupy those facilities in a short time, making their landing operations highly risky, the report said.

The island’s military could also use its geographic advantage in the Taiwan Strait to intercept PLA operations and cut off their supplies, which would reduce the combat effectiveness and endurance of their landing forces.

The US and Japan had military bases close to Taiwan, and any PLA action would be closely monitored, the report pointed out. The PLA would also need to reserve some of its power to deal with possible intervention from foreign forces.

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New video provides another glimpse of the US Air Force’s mysterious, never-before-seen ‘chrome’ F-22

F 22
An F-22 Raptor flies during a demonstration of its combat capabilities at an airshow in Santiago, Chile, April 7, 2018.

  • A clip filmed at Nellis Air Force Base shows provides another glimpse of the mysterious “chrome” F-22 Raptor.
  • The mirror-like coating, never before seen on a Raptor, appears to cover most of the outer “skin” of the aircraft.
  • It’s not clear what the coating was for, though it may be for testing, possibly of targeting systems.

You probably already know it by now, but a really intriguing F-22 Raptor is flying over Nevada these days.

The aircraft, unmarked (i.e. lacking evident tail codes and registration) was first caught on camera on November 19, 2021, by the famous aviation photographer Santos Caceres as it “flexed” on departure from Nellis Air Force Base.

The aircraft‘s distinguishing feature is a “mirror-like” coating, never seen before on a Raptor. The reflective metallic coating appears to cover most of the outer “skin” of the aircraft leaving very evident panel lines, including some saw tooth ones above and on the sides of the fuselage (typical of stealth aircraft), as well as some unusual curvilinear ones (on the wings in the flaps area).

We don’t know what’s the reason for the new “chrome” or “mirror-like” coating, although it looks quite likely it was applied to carry out some testing activity, possibly related to IRST (Infra Red Search & Track) or other targeting systems.

Last year, The War Zone reported that Scaled Composites Model 401 “Son Of Ares” demonstrators flew a number of test flights over China Lake ranges covered with a reflective metallic coating (similar to the one used on the F-22), speculating the mirrored target could be used in possible low-power laser systems testing.

A post shared by santos caceres (@santos_caceres.lv)

The F-22 with the mysterious reflective coating was also recently filmed by Rich Traiano of the popular “The Nellis Spotter” YouTube channel among the aircraft of all types launching and recovering at Nellis AFB during WSINT 21B.

The clip provides a different look at both sides of the mirrored Raptor under different lighting conditions; needless to say, there are a lot of other interesting assets, including Aggressors’ F-16s, RC-135V/W Rivet Joint as well as plenty of F-35As. (BTW, some appears to be in full “stealth mode” — i.e. they don’t carry external AIM-9X launchers nor radar reflectors.)

Anyway, fact that the F-22 with the experimental coating took part in WSINT is, alone, worth of note too.

Weapons School Integration (WSINT) is the culmination of the USAF Weapons School: After 6 months of Weapons Instructor Course, students are put to the test during head-to-head engagements against one another simulating near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China, imbedding themselves in each other’s skirmishes. Instructors rate and evaluate the engagements from the planning phases all the way to execution.

“WSINT is not only the capstone event students must pass to complete the U.S. Air Force Weapons School Weapons Instructor Course, but it is perhaps the most multi-faceted. WSINT generates capable leaders who can not only plan, integrate and dominate in any tactical setting but can also lead any spectrum of teams, who are ready to deliver strategic transformational change.”

“We’ve learned over time that our adversaries model their training after our own tactics as executed in theater. So, if we are training to win, we must learn how to defeat ourselves. We are our greatest competition,” said Col. Jack Arthaud, US Air Force Weapons School commandant in a public release from last year. And, based on The Nellis Spotter‘s video, it looks like the “Chrome F-22” is playing a role in that crucial training this year.

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80 years ago, Japanese planes ended the battleship era for good

HMS Prince of Wales in Singapore
HMS Prince of Wales arrives at Singapore, December 4, 1941.

  • On December 10, 1941, Japanese land-based aircraft sank Royal Navy ships Repulse and Prince of Wales.
  • The attack effectively destroyed Allied naval power in the area and paved the way for Japan’s conquest of Southeast Asia.
  • The sinkings highlight the weaknesses of battleships, and navies soon stopped building them altogether.

Eighty years ago today Japanese aircraft shocked the naval world with a devastatingly effective attack against a group of Allied battleships.

The attack effectively destroyed Allied naval power in the area and paved the way for the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia.

Nevertheless, the events of December 10, 1941, remain poorly understood. While December 7 has become a signifier for shocks to the national security state, the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse has become a signifier for technological shocks.

How could the defense bureaucracies of half a dozen of the world’s largest powers have persisted in the construction of battleships in the face of the obsolescence that Malaya rendered so obvious?

British battlecruiser HMS Repulse
British battlecruiser HMS Repulse sailing from Singapore on its last operation, December 8, 1941.

To recap: Shortly after news of the Pearl Harbor raid reached Singapore, the Royal Navy (RN) received intelligence of Japanese amphibious attacks on Malaya. In an effort to disrupt the attack the RN dispatched Force Z, including the battleship Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser Repulse, and four destroyers to intercept the Japanese invaders.

Prince of Wales, which had inflicted eventually fatal damage on the German battleship Bismarck at the Battle of Denmark Straits, was the most powerful modern battleship in the Pacific Theater at the time and thus a serious threat to Japanese plans.

The British ships narrowly missed a Japanese task force in the night, in part because Prince of Wales radar had malfunctioned in the heat and humidity. The Japanese were aware of the presence of the British ships and launched a force of land-based bombers to conduct a sweep in the early morning of December 10.

This force, consisting mostly of G3M and G4M twin-engine bombers, found the task force in the late morning and proceeded to attack. Bombs and torpedoes disabled and then sank the British ships.

Aircraft had sunk and damaged battleships before; a Swordfish biplane damaged Bismarck in May 1941, the Royal Navy’s attack on Taranto had sunk or severely damaged several battleships, and of course, Pearl Harbor had been attacked only three days prior.

But aircraft had never destroyed modern battleships that could maneuver in the open sea and defend themselves with anti-aircraft weapons.

Royal Navy ships Prince of Wales and Repulse under Japanese attack
Royal Navy battlecruiser Repulse, bottom, after being hit by a bomb and near-missed by several more, as Royal Navy battleship Prince of Wales, top, generates a considerable amount of smoke during a Japanese aerial attack, December 10, 1941

Churchill referred to the attack as the war’s most shocking moment, and military historians and analysts have used it as a touchstone for thinking about how military technology becomes rapidly obsolete. And from a certain point of view, the events of December 10 demonstrated the obsolescence of the battleship.

The sinking of Force Z showed that battleships could not operate on their own without air cover. It conclusively proved that prewar naval authorities had made several critical errors in resource allocation and technology evaluation.

Finally, it demonstrated that military planners could not be trusted to manage their own toys. If the navies of the world could not understand, on the brink of World War II, that their primary technology platform was fundamentally obsolete, then how could they ever be trusted to manage their own affairs again.

As is usually the case, the event itself was far more complicated than its reputation. The Japanese planes weren’t carrier aircraft, but rather land-based twin-engined bombers, undercutting the case that carriers were suddenly dominant. Carrier aircraft would not sink an underway battleship until 1944.

crew of HMS Prince of Wales abandoning ship
The crew of HMS Prince of Wales abandoning ship after torpedo attacks by Japanese aircraft in the South China Sea, December 10, 1941.

The British ships were under the unusual condition of absolute vulnerability, with faulty radar and no fighter cover.

Force Z had come within a hair’s breadth of a surface night engagement against the Imperial Japanese Navy that might have substantially delayed the Japanese advance. Subjecting Japanese cruisers and transports to the 14-inch guns of HMS Prince of Wales would have resulted in a much different appraisal of the obsolescence of battleships.

Of course, there are big parts about the classic story of Force Z that aren’t wrong. Battleships would not play the decisive role in the Pacific, conceding that role to aircraft carriers. Navies would soon stop acquiring battleships altogether, as their superior armor and survivability could not match the long-distance striking power of the carrier.

The loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales would crystalize the narrative that was emerging in the wake of Taranto and Pearl Harbor and would clarify the emergence of carrier aircraft as a critical naval technology. Still, we should take care with how categorically we embrace the myths around the crucial events of 80 years ago.

Now a 1945 contributing editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a senior lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Farley is the author of “Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force” (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the “Battleship Book” (Wildside, 2016), and “Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology” (University of Chicago, 2020). He spent the 2018-2019 academic year in the Department of National Security Strategy at the US Army War College. You can find Farley on Twitter: @DrFarls.

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2 questions hang over the future of the world’s aircraft carriers

Marine Corps America F-35B lightning carrier
Thirteen US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II aboard amphibious assault ship USS America, October 8, 2019.

  • The world’s carrier-capable navies face a debate over whether aircraft carriers are cost-effective and able to survive high-end conflict.
  • Flat-decked aircraft carrying ships will always have some military utility, but countries will have to decide how much they want to spend on them.

What’s cooking with India’s third aircraft carrier?

The latest reports indicate that INS Vishal, slated to become India’s third operational aircraft carrier within the next decade, is being downsized over operational and financial concerns. The ship will be reconfigured to operate both manned fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles.

While there aren’t currently a lot of carrier-based drones, experience with land-based UAVs suggests that their naval counterparts will be smaller than conventional aircraft and less demanding in terms of space, allowing a modest ship to have a major strategic impact.

The question is part of a broader debate over aircraft carriers in Indian defense circles, with some arguing against the necessity of even a small third carrier.

As India goes so goes the world?

Aircraft carriers Ronald Reagan Queen Elizabeth Ise Carl Vinson
USS Ronald Reagan, left, HMS Queen Elizabeth, middle, and JS Ise, right, sail alongside USS Carl Vinson in the Philippine Sea, October 3, 2021.

The Indian Navy is hardly the only fleet thinking about how to balance the size and expense of a carrier against its striking power. From Japan to France to China to the United States, naval architects are giving thought to the strategic opportunities offered by small carriers.

Chris Cavas, for example, has proposed that the United States work with France to design a mid-sized nuclear aircraft carrier, a project that Japan might also find of considerable interest.

Analysts speak of the Great Carrier Debate, which is really characterized by two separate but related questions.

The first involves the vulnerability of the platform to various kinds of attacks. Can aircraft carriers be profitably employed in contexts where they face missile or submarine attack?

The second involves the expense of the platform related to other options. Does the carrier provide an economical means of delivering ordnance to a target, relative to other options?

When Americans discuss the future of the aircraft carrier we often think in terms of the ability of our giant nuclear-powered flattops to impose their will upon a target. The capabilities of a Ford-class carrier are undoubtedly spectacular. The Fords can generate enormous amounts of power that enable future modifications that can increase their offensive and defensive capabilities.

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing full-ship shock trials
USS Gerald R. Ford during shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021

Notwithstanding difficulties with the catapult system, the Fords (and future foreign carriers of similar size and capabilities) can operate large numbers of powerful, fixed-wing aircraft at a high sortie rate. But the Fords are obviously also extravagantly expensive and almost literally irreplaceable given shipyard capacity and shipbuilding rates.

Light aircraft carriers are less expensive and less demanding that the massive fleet carriers that the United States uses, and the development of carrier-based UAVs helps to close the strike gap between light and fleet carriers.

Historically, the need to operate larger, more powerful aircraft has driven an increase in the size of aircraft carriers. STOVL aircraft like the F-35B and AV-8B Harrier have cut against that, and UAVs seem to have a similar effect. Operating a UAV from an aircraft carrier is complicated but hardly impossible.

It isn’t clear what kinds of UAVs the Indian Navy expects to launch from the carrier, but there are no obvious reasons why aircraft carriers cannot eventually field an array of sophisticated drones. UAVs can also help extend the surveillance and strike range of a carrier.

We should think “what is the utility of a large, flat-decked ship that can act as a platform for manned and unmanned aircraft and can move from location to location at high speed?”

Japan aircraft carrier destroyer JS Izumo Kaga
Japanese helicopter destroyer JS Kaga sails with US Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea, October 30, 2021.

To risk an overbroad generalization, flat-decked aircraft carrying ships will have military utility for as long as range and mobility matter. Faster ships with bigger decks and more power will always be better at range and mobility than slower, smaller vessels. And thus to great extent a super-carrier like the USS Gerald Ford is always going to be better at everything than a light carrier like JS Kaga, or USS America, or the future INS Vishal.

The question is whether Ford will be enough better at enough things to offset her considerably greater expense.

Finally, there is good reason to believe that friends matter where UAV development is concerned. A multinational coalition of countries trading, licensing, and co-developing technology should do better at developing the UAVs necessary to make small carriers lethal than a single large country with few friends.

Lots of America’s friends either already operate or could use smaller, UAV focused carriers; the popularity of the F-35B has already demonstrated an appetite for projecting naval airpower from small platforms. The US should continue to work with partners such as Japan, Australia, India, and even Turkey to make light aircraft carriers into lethal military platforms.

Now a 1945 contributing editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a senior lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of “Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force” (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the “Battleship Book” (Wildside, 2016), and “Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology” (University of Chicago, 2020).

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The US military needs to realize that magic bullets don’t win wars

icbm minuteman
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, August 2, 2017.

  • US military dominance is fraying, as challengers develop means to counter to US material advantages.
  • In response, the military seems to be leaning toward more closely integrating nuclear weapons into its overall defense structure.
  • Such a shift would increase the risk of nuclear “brinkmanship” — and mutual destruction.
  • Erik Gartzke is professor and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

For as long as most of us can remember, the United States has been the most powerful country in the world. It still is, though America’s dominance is beginning to fray, as nations like China, Russia, and others develop countermeasures to US material advantages or just plain ramp up their spending on arms and international influence.

What is to be done? Washington is increasingly concerned about this apparent decline. One possible solution is for America to ramp up its defense spending. In part this is happening. The United States is also encouraging its allies to pitch in. But Americans seem unenthusiastic about major tax increases and Allies in Europe and Asia have resisted spending more on defense.

A seemingly attractive alternative has been put forward recently by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Rather than simply doubling down on its conventional military capabilities, America can move to more closely integrate its mighty nuclear weapons within its overall defense structure.

Austin’s grand strategy, referred to as “integrated deterrence,” sounds like a magic bullet. All America has to do is threaten an adversary with nuclear annihilation and it will fold. Yet, like so many things in life, there is a catch, one that the veteran military commander seems to have discounted or even ignored.

Nuclear weapons are different from other tools of war. These “bullets” are not supposed to be fired. With the exceptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the existence of nuclear weapons in the US arsenal has been based on deterrence, an approach to war that Austin seems to embrace.

Hiroshima after the atomic bombing of August 6, 1945.

Deterrence involves a different kind of game than conventional, or even asymmetric, warfare. In ordinary war, the winner is usually the side that is stronger. Victory tends to favor the side with the “bigger battalions,” as the proverb goes. This does not always happen — as America’s recent adventures in the Middle East attest. But it is the modal (most often) outcome.

Nuclear deterrence is instead won by resolve, by the side that wants victory more, rather than by the side that is more capable. This reality is illustrated by the game of chicken.

Imagine two teenagers who are about to hurtle toward one another in souped up hot-rods. As the vehicles are about to collide, the winner is the driver who stands firm, more willing to risk destruction to have his or her way. The loser, in contrast — the proverbial “chicken” — is the driver that cares more about survival and less about the stakes in the contest.

This proposed shift in grand strategy from tests of capability to tests of will is consequential. Indeed, broadening the nuclear “brinkmanship” game of chicken to more issues and contexts plays to inherent American weakness. Rather than stemming the tide of decline, “integrated deterrence” seems destined to increase it.

Chicken is generally not as favorable to the more capable country. Instead, it rewards those who are more willing to risk mutual destruction. These tend not to be status quo actors, those with the biggest stake in keeping things as they are.

Taking disputes to the brink of nuclear destruction naturally favors revisionist challengers, emboldening aggression on the margins of the US security cordon, where American resolve appears to be, and is, most tenuous.

putin arctic
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Navy deputy commander Mikhail Zakharenko aboard nuclear missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky in the Arctic, August 17, 2005.

As one might imagine, having nice things is a liability in the game of chicken. Those with old, dented, rusty, or otherwise tarnished jalopies can act with increased assertiveness. The very platforms that would pose a liability in other kinds of contests thus become more potent. Put in the simplest terms, chicken favors the reckless.

Countries like Russia, with its aging nuclear deterrent, and North Korea, with much less to lose in a major confrontation, are suddenly more potent. This is why, in 2014, when Putin faced NATO sanctions for Russian activities in Ukraine, he reminded the world that Russia retained a significant low-yield “tactical” nuclear capability.

Very little of this is speculative. America was schooled by its adversaries on the limits of chicken previously, in the 1950s.

Early in the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower relied on the concept of “massive retaliation” to deter Soviet aggression in Europe and Chinese advances in Asia. In all but a few cases, our nuclear threats failed. Subsequent presidents reverted to a hybrid model of deterrence, where much of the deterrent was implemented by US conventional forces abroad.

Today Austin and the US military face an even more challenging dilemma. US resolve is marginal in most of the places where the status quo is challenged and America seeks to hold the line.

Where America cares enough to risk everything to prevail, nuclear deterrence is likely to work just fine. But in the many situations where America is more capable, but less resolved than its adversary, integrated deterrence will backfire.

Because deterrence relies on values — on how much Americans are willing to risk in pursuit of a particular outcome — the nation will be better off to find its defense priorities now, rather than later, in the midst of a nuclear crisis.

In places where there remain question marks about America’s resolve, such as Taiwan, there is the decided risk of instability and war. US defense planners may best equip the nation for the future by confronting tough decisions about what conventional capabilities America can afford — and where it is willing to deploy them. The current leader of the free world said as much in 2007, when on the campaign trail: “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

Those advising President Joe Biden today should take note; there are no cheap or easy tricks to preempt this logic, no magic bullets, not even nuclear ones. While painful, reconciling America’s commitments with its willingness to pay is the most straightforward path in confronting relative military decline, one that best ensures stability.

Erik Gartzke is professor of political science and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies (cPASS) at the University of California, San Diego.

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Don’t let Saudi Arabia use a Formula 1 race to hide the abysmal way it treats its people

Formula One cars race at the French Grand Prix
Formula 1 cars at the French Grand Prix.

  • Saudi Arabia hosted its first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix on Sunday.
  • Saudi leaders want to use high-profile sporting events and other spectacles to distract from the grim realities of life in the kingdom.
  • Abdullah Aljuraywi is a Saudi activist and director of communications of UK-based NGO ALQST for Human Rights.

On Sunday, December 5, 2021, Saudi Arabia will host its first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix. Thousands of motorsport fans will gather to watch the action in the coastal city of Jeddah, where a new circuit has just been completed.

Global pop stars like Justin Bieber and David Guetta will provide glittering entertainment — despite (so far) pleas from those hurt the most by Saudi abuses, like the fiancee of assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi, imploring Bieber not to perform for the man who ordered Khashoggi’s murder, the Saudi crown prince.

The world is becoming familiar with Saudi Arabia hosting high-profile sporting events — iconic car rallies, golf tournaments, heavyweight boxing matches. Last month, Saudi Arabia expanded further, creating intense controversy when it acquired 80% of the English Premier League’s Newcastle United Football Club using over US$409 million from the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.

Such developments are a key feature of “Vision 2030,” the agenda launched by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as “MBS”). The kingdom has been investing heavily in sport and entertainment in a bid to attract foreign investment and diversify the country’s economy.

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - APRIL 28 (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY â MANDATORY CREDIT - "SAUDI ROYAL COUNCIL / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman gives an interview to the official TV channel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 28, 2021. (Photo by Saudi Royal Council/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, April 28, 2021.

It also aims to persuade us, the youth of Saudi Arabia — who make up two-thirds of the population — to believe that our generation has a bright, progressive future. A few weeks ago, for example, hundreds of thousands gathered in the capital for the opening parade of “Riyadh Season,” a five-month cultural festival aiming to boost tourism, which featured the American rapper Pitbull.

But it also wants viewers around the world to ignore the grim realities of life in the kingdom, in an effort to whitewash — or “sportswash” — Saudi Arabia’s international image, especially since the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 drew world attention to the authorities’ gruesome human rights record.

Khashoggi’s murder was not an isolated event, however. Since MBS came to power there has been an intensive crackdown against all forms of dissent, including widescale arbitrary arrests, the brutal torture of women’s rights activists, unfair trials and prolonged detention for a vast number of prisoners of conscience, and the sinister targeting of dissidents abroad.

This relentless repression is causing increasing numbers of Saudi Arabians, especially young Saudis like me, to leave the country and seek asylum abroad.

If we want to breathe freely and have our voices heard we must say goodbye to our homeland, a place where tweeting peacefully on social media can swiftly lead to arrest and lengthy prison sentences. What use to us are motor races and pop concerts, when we have soaring youth unemployment and no freedom of expression?

Human-rights abuses are everywhere in Saudi Arabia, and the F1 Grand Prix will be no exception. Drivers will be racing on tracks built by migrant workers, who are widely mistreated under the country’s kafala sponsorship system, sometimes described as modern slavery because of the way it systematically violates migrant workers’ fundamental rights.

saudi arabia
A demonstrator protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, October 8, 2018.

The track is just a few miles away from one of Saudi Arabia’s notorious political prisons, Dhahban. It was here that Musa al-Qarni, a campaigner for reform, was murdered in October, with injuries to his skull. His death highlighted the horrific abuse, and often torture, suffered by prisoners of conscience in Saudi jails.

Dhahban is also where the award-winning human-rights defender Waleed Abu al-Khair is held, and women’s rights activists like Samar Badawi were detained until earlier this year, having been imprisoned since 2018. Although they have now been released, the women remain subject to harsh restrictions such as travel, work and social media bans, thus silencing their activism.

Last month, the most successful driver in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton, spoke out ahead of the Grand Prix in Jeddah to voice concern and urge “scrutiny” over Saudi abuses. Hamilton’s comments followed a joint campaign by several NGOs urging him to reconsider his participation and make a stand for human rights.

Ahead of the Formula 1 race this weekend, more leaders in sport, in government and from the general public must follow Hamilton’s lead and speak out to ensure that Saudi Arabia cannot use the event to sportswash its abysmal human-rights record.

Events like the F1 Grand Prix should not be happening in places like my country where there is no freedom of speech or thought. Their presence serves only to distract attention from the regime’s brutal crimes.

But since it is now going ahead, all those involved, from fans to drivers to sponsors and other entertainers, should use whatever leverage they have to speak out about the grim human rights situation in my country, for the sake of a better future for my generation.

Abdullah Aljuraywi is a Saudi activist and director of communications of UK-based NGO ALQST for Human Rights.

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An AK-47 on tracks: Why Russia built an astounding 83,500 T-54 tanks

US soldiers in a T-54 tank
US soldiers playing the role of Soviet forces in a T-54 at Ft. Carson in Colorado, July 8, 1977.

  • After World War II, the Soviets were looking for a main battle tank to replace the heroic T-34 tank.
  • By 1946, they had devised the T-54, which entered production a year later and soon became legendary.
  • Over the next 15 years, the Soviets built 83,500 T-54s, and some are still in service in other countries.

Russia’s T-54 Tank Was a Cold War Beast: After World War II, the Soviets were looking for a main battle tank to replace the heroic T-34 tank that helped win the great patriotic war against the Nazis.

The Soviets needed a new, more powerful main gun. The Army also wanted a better hull, turret, and suspension. So Russian engineers nodded grimly and went to work. Their efforts were well spent, and by 1946, they had devised the T-54.

The T-54 soon became a legend when it entered production a year later and it is amazingly still in service with some smaller armies in the developing world.

T-54 tank: Have faith in the numbers

Soviet T-54 tanks in Prague
Soviet T-54 tanks in a suburb of Prague after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

Over the next 15 years, the Soviets produced a staggering 83,500 tanks. The Poles and Czechs made 21,000 more. China cloned it and made sure North Korea, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia had as many as they needed.

Then the T-54 spread to the Middle East. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan had ample numbers of the venerable tank. Dozens of other countries operated it.

Why the T-54 was popular

It was a sturdy platform, easy to operate, with plenty of spare parts, and a straightforward means to upgrade the tank.

This resulted in dozens of variants – engineering improvements that were made until the 1990s.

The key was the new gun

T-54 tank in Aleppo Syria
A T-54 at a Syrian pro-government forces position in Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed district, November 30, 2016.

In designing the T-54, the Soviets had learned from World War II that maximum firepower was the ultimate decider on the battlefield.

So they built the tank around the 100 mm (3.94 inch) D-10 series main gun. This had a range of 3,000 feet. The tube did not have a muzzle-brake, and this could have kept the recoil and muzzle rise down to a minimum. But it could fire many different types of ammunition, including high-explosive, fragmentation, penetration, and tracer rounds.

The T-54 could hold 34 shells and usually came with two 7.62 mm machine guns. Some models had a 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun.

The engine may have been underpowered

The engine the T-54 used was a V-54 series 12-cylinder water-cooled diesel engine that put out 520 horsepower.

This was underpowered compared to the subsequent Russian T-72B3 that had 1,100 horsepower. Nonetheless, the maximum speed of the T-54 was 32 mph.

The thick armor had disadvantages

T-54 tank in Ukraine
Pro-Russian militants lift a Soviet-era T-54 from the World War II museum in Donetsk for use against Ukrainian forces, July 7, 2014.

The turret was bigger with thicker armor. In fact, the original engineers did not scrimp on armor because, at the time, traditional high-explosive rounds were used by enemy tanks.

This thick armor made the tank heavier and less maneuverable, plus it was susceptible later to the shaped explosive charges from anti-tank missiles. The heavy, thick armor also required an improved engine in later variants.

The T-54 had its problems

The T-54 was far from perfect.

The main gun could not stabilize and firing on the move accurately was not possible. The gun was rifled instead of a smoothbore. Rounds fired from a rifled barrel have more friction and less force.

The T-54 also had limited downward traverse which resulted in preventing the “hull down” firing technique. Hull down refers to when the lower body of the tank is not visible, which is a position that is preferred in combat.

But what a versatile tank it was. Look at all the countries that used the T-54. It was popular for a reason and fairly straightforward to modernize with many types of upgrade kits. This is why some historians called it a Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle with tracks.

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The 5 best fighter jets that the US decided not to buy

F-35 and F-22
  • US aviation history is littered with highly capable fighter jets that the military didn’t buy.
  • Officials have to balance the cost of the fighter against the number they need for the missions they have in mind.
  • These are the five best fighters that didn’t survive that evaluation.

For every F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F-22 Raptor that enters service, there’s a long list of competitor fighters that didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another.

Sometimes, these fighters aren’t chosen because the jet Uncle Sam ultimately picked was simply the better competitor … but that’s not always how these decisions are made.

Like all military forces, the US military has to a balance capability against capacity. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you have 300 of the most advanced fighters on the planet if you need 500 fighters to accomplish your mission, so defense officials have to balance the cost of the fighter’s advanced capabilities against the capacity (or number) of fighters they need to make mission.

Northrup Grumman YF-23 Black Widow II US Air Force
A Northrop-McDonnell Douglas YF-23.

In this example, it might mean only purchasing 100 of those advanced fighters along with 400 cheaper, less capable platforms that can meet the mission requirements at hand.

In fact, this specific example (with different topline figures) mirrors the justification the Air Force recently provided for purchasing new F-15EXs, despite its lack of stealth capabilities. In a perfect world, the Air Force would only fly stealth fighters, but when it comes to balancing capability against capacity, stealth jets are just too expensive to buy and operate for America to transition into a stealth-only force.

Other times, fighter programs don’t survive because the Defense Department doesn’t have faith in the contractor to deliver what they promise, or because the capabilities offered by the aircraft aren’t ones the nation has a pressing need for at the time.

For whatever reason, these fighters didn’t make it into production… but if they had, they each would have offered some incredible, and often unique, capabilities.

5. F-16XL: The better F-16

For more than 40 years, the F-16 Fighting Falcon has served as the backbone of the US Air Force’s fighter fleet, but one year before the first F-16 entered service, the team behind its development had already developed a better F-16, in the F-16XL.

The fighter was so capable, in fact, that it went from being nothing more than a technology demonstrator to serving as legitimate competition for the venerable F-15E in the Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter program.

Ultimately, it would lose out to the F-15E based on production cost and redundancy of systems, but many still contend that the F-16XL was actually the better platform.

While that assertion may be subject to debate, there’s little debate as to whether the F-16XL could have been one of the most capable 4th-generation fighters on the planet. You can read our full feature on the F-16XL’s development here.

4. A-12 Avenger II: America’s first real stealth fighter

A-12 Avenger II
An artist’s impression of the McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics A-12 Avenger II aircraft.

On January 13, 1988, a joint team from McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics was awarded a development contract for what was to become the A-12 Avenger II, not to be confused with Lockheed’s proposed A-12 of the 1960s, which sought to arm an SR-71 sibling jet with air-to-air weapon systems.

Once completed, the Navy’s A-12 would have been a flying wing-design reminiscent of Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit or forthcoming B-21 Raider, though much smaller.

Although the A-12 Avenger II utilized a flying wing design, its overall shape differed from the triangular B-2 Spirit under development for the Air Force.

The sharp triangular shape of the A-12 eventually earned it the nickname “the flying Dorito.

For some time, it seemed as though the A-12 Avenger II program was going off without a hitch, but then, seemingly without warning, it was canceled by Defense Secretary (and future Vice President of the United States) Dick Cheney in January of 1991. You can read our full feature on the A-12 Avenger II’s development here.

3. YF-12: The biggest, fastest fighter in history

The SR-71 Blackbird may be among the most iconic airframes of the Cold War, but this incredibly fast design wasn’t always intended to serve only as a high-flying set of eyes.

In fact, a variant of the SR-71’s predecessor program, the faster and higher flying A-12, actually had a fighter-interceptor sibling in the form of the YF-12, and eventually (in theory at least) the F-12B.

The biggest changes the YF-12 saw when compared to its A-12 sibling were at the front of the aircraft, where a second cockpit was added for a fire control officer tasked with managing the interceptor’s air-to-air arsenal.

The nose was also modified to accommodate the Hughes AN/ASG-18 fire-control radar that had been developed for use in the defunct XF-108 program.

But the most important change between the A-12 and the YF-12 came in the four bays designed originally to house powerful cameras, film, and other reconnaissance equipment. One of the four bays was converted to house fire-control equipment, while the others were modified to house an internal payload of three Hughes AIM-47 Falcon air-to-air missiles.

You can read our full feature on the YF-12’s development here.

2. ASF-14 Super Tomcat for the 21st century

F 14D Tomcat
An F-14D Tomcat over the Persian Gulf region.

While the F-14D took on the title “Super Tomcat,” the effort to modernize the F-14 began under the moniker “ST21,” which, appropriately enough, stood for “Super Tomcat for the 21st century,” and make no mistake — that’s exactly what it could have been, with improved avionics, more power, more range, and more capability across the board.

But while both the ST21 and AST21 were billed as re-manufacture programs for existing Tomcats along with new-build aircraft, Grumman’s pitch to the Navy eventually included an entirely new-build Tomcat dubbed the ASF-14.

The ASF-14 would have looked like its F-14 predecessors, but the similarities would have been largely skin deep.

The ASF-14, with some 60,000 pounds of thrust and a better thrust-to-weight ratio than the F-14D, thrust vector control, massive internal fuel stores, huge payload capabilities, and incredible situational awareness provided by powerful onboard radar and a multitude of sensor pods, could have been a 4th-generation fighter with few — or maybe no — peers to this very day.

You can read our full feature on the ASF-14 proposal here.

1. YF-23: The Raptor meets its match

In the decade and a half since it first entered service, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor has been an air-superiority fighter without equal, but that hasn’t always been the case. For a short time in the 1990s, the YF-22 that would lead to the operational F-22 may have met its match in the form of Northrop’s YF-23.

Two YF-23 prototypes were ultimately built. The first, dubbed the Black Widow II by those involved with the program, was all black and powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney engines that allowed the jet to supercruise at Mach 1.43 during its first round of testing in 1990.

The second YF-23, painted grey and dubbed “Grey Ghost,” switched to General Electric YF120 engines, which offered improved supercruise capabilities, reaching Mach 1.6 in testing, just slipping past the YF-22’s Mach 1.58.

Ultimately, while the YF-23 could just about match the F-22’s acrobatics, Lockheed won the perception war by demonstrating their fighter’s capabilities in a more dynamic way. Lockheed test pilots showed off the aircraft’s ability to utilize a high angle of attack, fired missiles, and executed maneuvers that placed more than 9Gs worth of force on the airframe.

While the YF-23 could have done the same, Northrop didn’t in the demonstration. Many contend that it was this salesmanship, rather than strictly platform capabilities, that helped the YF-22 stand out in the minds of defense officials. You can read our full feature on the YF-23’s development here.

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6 wild facts about the legendary special operator who created SEAL Team 6

richard marcinko
  • After joining the Navy in 1958, Richard Marcinko became one of the most distinguished US special operators.
  • These days, Marcinko is a business instructor, author, and motivational speaker.
  • Even among American special operators, Marcinko’s record and reputation are exceptional.

These days, Richard Marcinko is a business instructor, author, and motivational speaker. In his earlier years, “Demo Dick” was the United States’ premier counterterrorism operator.

Marcinko enlisted in the US Navy in 1958 and eventually worked his way up to the rank of commander, graduated with degrees in international relations and political science, and earned 34 medals and citations, including a Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, and four Bronze Stars. But that’s just his military resume.

Even among the ranks of American special operators, Marcinko, his record, and his reputation are all exceptional — and it’s easy to see why. At 77, he is still training business executives as well as US and foreign hostage-rescue teams. He even worked as a consultant on the FOX television show “24.” His memoir, “Rogue Warrior,” is a New York Times bestseller.

“I’m good at war,” Marcinko once told People Magazine. “Even in Vietnam, the system kept me from hunting and killing as many of the enemy as I would have liked.”

1. North Vietnam had a bounty on his head

richard marcinko

As a platoon leader in Vietnam, Marcinko and his SEALs were so successful, the North Vietnamese Army took notice. His assault on Ilo Ilo Island was called the most successful SEAL operation in the Mekong Delta.

During his second tour, Marcinko and SEAL Team Two teamed up with Army Special Forces during the Tet Offensive at Chau Doc. The SEALs rescued hospital personnel caught in the crossfire as an all-out urban brawl raged around them.

Because of Marcinko’s daring and success, the NVA placed a 50,000 piastre bounty on his head, payable to anyone who could prove they killed the SEAL leader. Obviously, they never paid out that bounty.

2. He was rejected by the Marine Corps

Marcinko joined the military at 18 but, surprisingly (to some), he didn’t first opt to join the Navy. His first stop was the Marine Corps, who rejected him outright because he did not graduate from high school.

So Marcinko, who would leave as a commander, enlisted in the Navy. He later became an officer after graduating from the Navy’s postgraduate school, earning his commission in 1965.

3. He designed the Navy’s counterterrorism operation

You know you’ve made it when they make a video game about your life story.

After the tragic failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the U.S. attempt to free hostages being held by students in Iran, the US Navy and its special operations structure decided that they needed an overhaul. Marcinko was one of those who helped design the new system. His answer was the creation of SEAL Team Six.

4. He numbered his SEAL Team “Six” to fool the Russians

When he was creating the newest SEAL Team, the United States and Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War — and spies were everywhere.

Not trusting that anyone would keep the creation of his new unit a secret, he numbered it SEAL Team Six in order fool the KGB into believing there were three more SEAL Teams they didn’t know about.

5. His job was to infiltrate bases — American bases

The Navy needed to know where their operational sensitivities were — where they were weakest. Even in the areas where security was thought tightest, the Navy was desperate to know if they could be infiltrated. So Vice Adm. James Lyons tasked Marcinko to create another unit.

Marcinko created Naval Security Coordination Team OP-O6D, also known as Red Cell, a unit of 13 men. Twelve came from SEAL Team Six and the other from Marine Force Recon. They were to break into secure areas, nuclear submarines, Navy ships, and even Air Force One.

Red Cell was able to infiltrate and leave without any notice. The reason? Military personnel on duty were replaced by civilian contractor security guards.

6. He spent 15 months in jail

richard marcinko

Toward the end of his career, he was embroiled in what the Navy termed a “kickback scandal,” alleging that Marcinko conspired with an Arizona arms dealer to receive $100,000 for securing a government contract for hand grenades.

Marcinko maintained that this charge was the result of a witch hunt, blowback for exposing so many vulnerabilities and embarrassing the Navy’s highest ranking officers. He served 15 months of a 21-month sentence.

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