How the Army’s Delta Force and Nightstalkers teamed up to rescue hostages in Iraq, according to operators who were there

A US Marine Corps tank in Baghdad in April 2004
A US Marine Corps tank crew in Baghdad, April 2004.

  • A year after the US’s March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the country faced a growing insurgency.
  • That violent campaign challenged US special-operations forces tasked with operations to counter those militants.
  • In mid-2004, US Army special operators executed a rare daylight raid to rescue foreign contractors held hostage near Baghdad.
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Almost a year after the US invasion in March 2003, Iraq was starting to spiral out of control, with a complicated Islamist and sectarian insurgency forming up.

On a normal spring day in 2004, a gang of Iraqi kidnappers abducted five contractors, four Italian and one Polish, off the streets of Baghdad.

Soon after the abductions, the Iraqi kidnappers executed one of the hostages, releasing a video of it as a warning. If the Italian and Polish governments didn’t pay a hefty sum, the rest of the hostages would be executed one by one.

US and Coalition special-operations units began looking for leads on the location of the four remaining captives. The task fell primarily to the top special-missions unit in-country: the US Army’s Delta Force.

Alongside Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), formerly known as SEAL Team 6, Delta Force is the US military’s dedicated counterterrorism and hostage-rescue special-missions unit.

With four squadrons (A, B, C, D) of about 70 operators each, the Unit, as Delta Force is known, has an exemplary hostage-rescue record, with several successful high-risk operations since its creation in the late 1970s.

Part of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Delta Force and DEVGRU are the US’s first responders for any urgent hostage rescue and counterterrorism contingencies.

Find, fix, and finish

Black Hawk helicopters take off from Baghdad's Green Zone
US Black Hawk helicopters take off from Baghdad’s Green Zone, July 13, 2007.

A lot of groundwork has to be done before such an operation. The task force had to pinpoint the location of the hostages – a tall order in the middle of a growing insurgency that included several different sectarian militias and terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iran-backed Mahdi Army.

For the majority of operations, that intelligence would come from other raids, including details from prisoner interrogations or from cellphones or other materials gathered by commandos during other missions.

Any information gleaned from interrogations or devices would give the task force additional leads for more raids in a perpetual cycle until they got to their primary target. Essentially, US and coalition special-operations units would “raid” themselves to the top.

“Time is really off the essence in HR [hostage rescue] and CT [counterterrorism] ops. Hostages or HVTs [high-value targets] can literally be moved in a matter of minutes,” a retired Delta Force operator with several deployments to Iraq told Insider.

“We’ve had occasions where when we launched a mission the target was there, but by the time we had arrived they had moved. These kinds of missions are very kinetic, and you can come up with a dry hole even if you’ve got overhead ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] monitoring the area,” the retired operator said, speaking anonymously to discuss mission planning.

Italians held hostage in Iraq in 2004
A still image of three Italians held captive in Iraq, Umberto Copertino, Salvatore Stefio, and Maurizio Agliana, on April 26, 2004.

On this occasion, intelligence about the location of the four hostages came from a coalition special-operations unit that had debriefed a prisoner.

Once the suspected location of the hostages was pinpointed, JSOC and the intelligence community began monitoring the compound for any signals intelligence that might reveal more information about the kidnappers or the hostages.

In addition, JSOC teams conducted close-target reconnaissance of the area to gather more information about the building’s layout and the pattern of life of those inside.

On June 8, JSOC managed to pinpoint the exact location of the four hostages. Within minutes, the operators had donned their gear and the helicopters spun up for a daring daylight mission.

Objective Medford was on.

Usually, special-operations units operate in the night, using their advanced night-vision and thermal optics and goggles as an advantage. Daylight operations aren’t unheard of but are rare.

In this case, however, the Delta Force operators had to get to the compound as soon as possible to avoid a last-minute relocation of the hostages or, even worse, an execution. Every minute mattered.

‘We’re Navy SEALs, we’re here to get you out!’

US special operations troops during hostage rescue in Iraq
US special-operations troops during a hostage rescue in Iraq, June 2004.

The assault force was composed of a troop of Delta Force operators from A Squadron and eight special-operations helicopters from the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, nicknamed the “Night Stalkers.”

Four MH-60 Black Hawk choppers carried most of the ground force, while four AH/MH-6 Little Bird helicopters provided armed overwatch and assault support.

The assault force flew fast and low across busy highways and farms, touching down just outside the target compound. Knowing that their loud entry would alert the hostage-takers, the Delta Force operators sprinted toward the building.

In record time – just over 17 seconds – the Delta operators swept the compound and located and recovered the four hostages alive. The kidnappers still in the building offered no resistance.

Black Hawk helicopters prepare to land in Baghdad's Green Zone
US Black Hawk helicopters prepare to land in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, February 14, 2007.

A leaked helmet-camera video provides unique insight into a real hostage-rescue operation by one of the world’s top special-operations units.

As the Delta operators stormed the compound and secured the four hostages, Delta Force operator Jamey Caldwell shouted, “We’re Navy SEALs, and we’re here to get you out,” jokingly quoting the infamous 1990 movie “Navy SEALs,” starring Charlie Sheen.

The movie is a sore point for the Naval Special Warfare community, which sees it as bad publicity.

“That’s what we’re trained to do. We specialized in hostage rescue, and to me that was the most satisfying work. You’re risking your life for someone in dire need and making split-second decisions on whether the guy in the room is a threat or needs help,” Caldwell, now retired, told Coffee or Die Magazine last year.

Delta Force and the Night Stalkers had once again pulled off an impressive operation. As the insurgency flared up in the years that followed, they would have to repeat similar and more difficult feats on an industrial scale.

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.

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How the CIA teamed up with a reclusive billionaire for a secret mission to raise a Soviet submarine sunk 3 miles under the ocean

Hughes Glomar Explorer Color Photo
The Hughes Glomar Explorer.

  • In the mid-1970s, the CIA pulled off one of its most audacious intelligence operations.
  • Project Azorian involved the recovery of a Soviet submarine that had sunk deep in the Pacific.
  • To keep the months-long project a secret, the US turned to an eccentric billionaire for help.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

On August 9, 1974, most Americans watched President Richard Nixon resign in disgrace, but on the other side of the world, 178 of their countrymen were pulling off one of the most audacious intelligence operations in history.

On that day, the CIA completed the recovery of the Soviet Golf II-class diesel-electric ballistic-missile submarine K-129, which had sunk in the Pacific six years earlier while on a routine patrol.

The Soviets had given up on finding the boat after an intense search. The US, however, had an advantage.

K-129 lost and found

Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129
Soviet Project 629A class, called Golf-II class by NATO, diesel-electric ballistic-missile submarine K-129 in 1968.

K-129 was launched in May 1959. After upgrades in the mid-1960s, it had a new suite of electronic systems and carried one of the Soviet Union’s newest weapons: three R-21 nuclear-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missiles – the first missiles that Soviet subs could launch while submerged.

On February 24, 1968, K-129 and its 98-man crew sailed out of their base in Kamchatka. The sub had been ordered to operate under radio silence for its first two weeks at sea.

By March 8, however, K-129 still hadn’t reported in. After it failed to report for a second day, the Soviets panicked and launched a major search operation.

Thirty-six vessels scoured over a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. They were joined by 53 aircraft that flew more than 286 flights for over two months.

The Soviets even resorted to searching with submarines using their sonars at full power, and calling out to K-129 over open channels. But after months of operating in bad weather, with waves as high as 45 feet, they called off their search.

The US Navy had been watching closely. The Soviet search, done with no apparent concern about detection by US submarines and aircraft, made it clear that something extremely important had been lost – likely a ballistic-missile sub.

Navy submarine USS Halibut
US Navy submarine USS Halibut, October 14, 1965.

The US Navy had a massive advantage over its Soviet counterpart. The Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS, a network of underwater listening devices built to detect Soviet submarines, had picked up the sound of an exploding submarine in the search area.

The Navy was able to narrow its search area to 5 miles and sent USS Halibut, a cruise-missile submarine repurposed for intelligence operations, to find K-129. After more than a month of searching, Halibut found the Soviet sub.

K-129 was 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii, sitting 16,500 feet below the surface.

It had suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, but the most important parts of the submarine, including its missile silos, remained largely intact. At least one and possibly two of the R-21 missiles appeared to still be in their silos.

Realizing the value of a largely intact Soviet submarine with nuclear missiles aboard, the CIA immediately took the lead in a recovery effort, codenamed Project Azorian.

Early ideas included using rockets or underwater balloons to raise the wreck, but it quickly became obvious that the only way to recover K-129 was with a claw attached to a ship.

A perfect cover story

Howard Hughes Spruce Goose flying boat
Howard Hughes at the controls of the Hughes flying boat, nicknamed Spruce Goose, at its mooring in Los Angeles, October 31, 1947.

At that time, nothing had ever been recovered from a depth of 16,500 feet before, let alone an object weighing some 2,000 tons. The deep-sea mining industry was still in its infancy, but one American company, Global Marine, had a reputation as the best builder of ocean mining vessels.

The CIA secured Global Marine’s services in constructing and operating a vessel large enough for the mission. Lockheed was hired to make the claw, which was called the capture vehicle.

The CIA still needed a cover story. Fortunately, it found a perfect one in Howard Hughes.

A Texas oil scion and business magnate, Hughes had a reputation as an eccentric recluse, which made the cover story – a financially risky effort to find manganese nodules using unproven deep-sea mining methods – seem legitimate.

Hughes had taken on US government projects before, and he agreed to help the CIA recover the sub.

The Hughes Tool Company would be the public face for the Hughes Glomar Explorer, the massive 620-foot ship specially designed for one purpose: to raise K-129 from the sea floor and bring it into its hold through a “moon pool” in the ship’s hull.

The recovery

Hughes Glomar Explorer moon pool
The moon pool of the GSF Explorer, formerly USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer, in Benicia, California in 1977.

The Glomar Explorer arrived over the wreck on July 4, 1974, six years after the sub had been located. It spent the next month lowering the capture vehicle.

The Glomar Explorer was twice surveilled by Soviet ships. The first time, a missile-range instrumentation ship watched the Explorer and flew a helicopter around it for a few days before leaving.

The second ship, an ocean-going tug used for intelligence-gathering, stayed on the scene for weeks. The tug positioned itself so it could recover the Explorer’s trash and repeatedly harassed the US ship, once sailing within 50 feet of it.

But the Soviets had no reason to believe anything suspicious was happening, and the Explorer’s crew continued working. After about a month of lowering the claw, the Americans grabbed the sub and began to raise it.

Hughes Glomar Explorer forward docking leg
The forward docking leg of the GSF Explorer formerly USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer, in Benicia, California in 1977.

A few days into the recovery, disaster struck. Several hooks on the claw suddenly broke, and two-thirds of the submarine, including the portion with the missile silos and the code room, fell back into the abyss.

The fallen piece couldn’t be recovered, but the US crew continued to raise what was left. In a stroke of luck, the Soviet tug sailed away when the remains of the K-129 were just 1,000 feet below the Explorer.

With the wreckage aboard, the Explorer’s crew began picking it apart as the ship headed back to the US.

The CIA was preparing for a second recovery effort, called Project Matador, but on March 18, 1975, reporter Jack Anderson broke the story of Project Azorian.

CIA Director William Colby had personally persuaded other journalists, including Seymour Hersh of The New York Times, to hold their stories until after K-129 had been fully recovered. Anderson refused Colby’s requests and broadcasted his story on national radio.

A partial success and a lasting legacy

Glomar Explorer Soviet submarine burial at sea
US personnel perform a burial at sea for Soviet sailors recovered from the wreck of the submarine K-129.

With the CIA’s cover blown, the White House canceled the second recovery effort. Project Matador was shut down, and the Soviet Navy began closely monitoring the ocean around the wreck.

But the operation was still fruitful. The CIA has never fully disclosed what it recovered, but the haul is believed to include at least two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and a collection of documents, as well as the sub’s bell.

The recovered section also provided insight into Soviet submarine design, such as where important pieces were manufactured, how often they were replaced, and the thickness of the sub’s hull.

Six bodies and a number of body parts were also recovered. In September 1974, as they sailed home, the crew of the Explorer conducted a burial at sea for the fallen submariners.

CIA director Robert Gates gave Russian President Boris Yeltsin a recording of the burial in 1992. The Russians were also given the sub’s bell.

An enduring legacy of Project Azorian was the “Glomar Response,” a bit of legalese devised by the CIA in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Rolling Stone reporter Harriet Ann Phillippi in 1976.

The agency was legally required to reply, so it said it could neither “confirm nor deny” the existence of records relating the program. A court later upheld it as a legitimate response.

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Taiwan is buying high-tech US fighter-jet pods to keep a closer eye on China’s navy

Taiwan air force F-16 fighter jet
A US-made F-16V fighter takes off during a military exercise in southern Taiwan, January 15, 2020.

  • Taiwan will buy six MS-110 reconnaissance pods as well as training and related equipment with an eye toward better surveillance of the PLA.
  • The US State Department says the sale boosts Taiwan’s capacity to “meet current and future threats by providing timely intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Taiwan has signed a NT$9.63 billion (US$343 million) deal with the United States to buy six reconnaissance pods and related equipment to allow its air force to greatly increase surveillance over the Chinese navy’s coastal activities as the island shores up its defences against the threat from Beijing.

The deal, revealed by the island’s defence ministry on Wednesday through a government bidding website, was signed by the ministry’s mission stationed in the US and the American Institute in Taiwan, which represents US interests in the absence of formal relations.

According to the contract made public by the ministry, the deal was struck on July 7. The MS-110 reconnaissance pods would be delivered to Hualien in eastern Taiwan where the air force bases its F-16 fighter jet squadron, the contract said.

The MS-110 is a multispectral pod fitted to an aircraft to capture images and intelligence at long range.

In its report to the legislature in September, the air force said it sought to buy the pods from the US to fit its F-16 jets at a proposed cost of NT$9.81 billion for delivery between 2022 and 2029.

The island’s air force has 142 F-16 fighter jets. It has ordered 66 more advanced F-16V “Viper” jets from the US and opened a regional maintenance and repair centre for the warplanes.

Taiwan air force F-16
A Taiwan Air Force F-16V, left, at the Chiayi air base in southern Taiwan, January 15, 2020.

Taiwanese media said the poor quality photos of the Chinese battle group Liaoning’s passage in the Taiwan Strait – taken by the island’s military in April last year – prompted the defence ministry to buy the pods.

The deal – which includes six MS-110 pods, three transportable ground stations, one fixed ground station, spare and repair parts, system and logistics support, personnel training and training equipment – was approved by the US State Department in October.

According to US supplier Collins Aerospace, a unit of Raytheon Technologies Corp, MS-110 allows day and nighttime, wide-area and long-range imagery coverage.

The pod is compatible with advanced fighters – including F-16, F-15 and F/A-19 jets – and can capture high-resolution imagery at long range or stand-off range during both peacetime cross-border surveillance and wartime scenarios, Collins said on its website, adding that it could detect targets with a high degree of confidence and through poor weather.

In October, the State Department said the sale would help improve Taiwan’s capacity to “meet current and future threats by providing timely intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities for its security and defence”.

It also said the enhanced capability was a deterrent to regional threats and would help strengthen the island’s self-defence.

A Taiwan Air Force F-16 fighter jet lands on a closed section of highway
A Taiwan Air Force F-16 lands on a highway during an exercise.

On Tuesday, Beijing-based CCTV also released a video of a military exercise simulating an invasion of a Taiwan-like territory featuring nighttime amphibious landings and shelling.

Beijing has warned the US – which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979 – against selling arms to Taiwan or rallying its allies, including Japan and Australia, to support the island.

To tone down the confrontation between Washington and Beijing, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said during his visit to Singapore on Tuesday that the US did not seek confrontation.

“I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army.”

But he also said the US would stay focused on helping Taiwan.

“No one wants to see a unilateral change to the status quo with respect to Taiwan, and again, we are committed to supporting Taiwan and its capability to defend itself,” Austin said.

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With the US gone, Afghanistan’s air force has to rely on Zoom calls to learn how to fix its aircraft

Afghan air force UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter
An Afghan air force maintainer works on an UH-60 Blackhawk at Kabul Airbase, May 9, 2021.

  • The US is reducing its presence in Afghanistan, withdrawing its troops and contractors.
  • The US military has been training Afghanistan’s air force, which will be key to fighting the Taliban.
  • Without US support, that air force will struggle to maintain its aircraft and its operations.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As the US pullout of Afghanistan nears completion, the Taliban continues to seize territory. It has paraded vehicles and weapons captured from Afghan forces and filmed its execution of 22 surrendering Afghan commandos.

While the Afghan military is fighting back, it will soon have to do so without its biggest advantage: US-led coalition airpower.

Instead, the Afghan Air Force will have to provide that support, but even with $8 billion spent and almost a decade of preparation, it still may not be up to the task.

Logistical problems, a lack of trained personnel, and a demanding battlespace are taking its toll on the AAF. Afghan airmen have been training to fix their aircraft over Zoom calls with foreign contractors – a sign of the scramble to prepare for the challenge ahead.

The importance of airpower

Afghan air force Mi-17 helicopter
An Afghan Air Force Mi-17 helicopter flies past commandos during a military exercise at the Kabul Military Training Centre, October 17, 2017.

Airpower was vital in ousting the Taliban after the US invasion, and some of the coalition’s most important victories were made possible by the coalition’s air dominance.

Airpower is important to military operations in Afghanistan because forces attempting to capture and hold territory will have to mass together to do so, said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“They will have vehicles. They will have larger numbers of infantry converging onto targets and in infrastructure. The whole function of airpower is hitting a target, dropping bombs from fixed-wing aircraft and bombers, and taking them out,” Jones told Insider.

Air dominance also provides the Afghan military and national police with rapid transportation. Coalition and Afghan helicopters and transport planes can drop hundreds of troops and tons of supplies in remote locations that are otherwise inaccessible because of difficult terrain or Taliban presence.

“It’s the air capability that will bring those people there,” Jones said. “Ground transport is slow, and in the environment today, the Taliban does control some key roadways.”

“Because of that, air is really important in transporting key material, weapons, ammunition, and other kinds of support.”

A capable but compromised force

Afghan air force A-29 pilot
An Afghan A-29 pilot talks to maintainers after a mission, at Kandahar Airbase, May 6, 2021.

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s most recent quarterly report, covering the first three months of 2021, the Afghan air force has 162 aircraft, 143 of which were available for operations.

The AAF inventory is primarily composed of seven airframes.

For attack, it relies on 23 A-29 Super Tucanos and 10 AC-208 Combat Caravans. For transport, it has 23 C-208 Caravans and 2 C-130s. Its helicopter fleet is made up of 13 Mi-17s, 35 MD-530s (which can also be used for light attack), and 37 UH-60 Blackhawks.

The AAF has already shown its ability to fight and transport essentials. In 2018, it conducted its first emergency combat airdrop of supplies, its first nighttime airstrikes, and dropped its first laser-guided bomb.

But the AAF faces a number of logistical issues that prevent it from being fully effective.

The most recent SIGAR report noted that of the 42 aircrew positions assigned to those seven airframes – such as copilot or mission-system operator – only 18 are filled with qualified personnel. Only one aircraft, the C-130, had more than half of its aircrew positions filled by qualified personnel.

While four of the seven airframes met their readiness benchmarks in the first quarter of 2021, the three that didn’t – the MD-530, A-29, and UH-60 – are the most important for attack and transport duties.

Maintenance woes

Afghan air force UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter
Afghan maintainers work on an UH-60 Blackhawk at Kabul Airbase, May 9, 2021.

Things are particularly bad when it comes to maintenance. Only three of the seven airframes had enough qualified maintenance personnel, according to the SIGAR report.

To keep its aircraft flying, the AAF relies on hundreds of private civilian contractors brought in to train AAF personnel and maintain the aircraft until they are ready to do it themselves.

Those contractors are expected to leave around the same time that the last US troops withdraw, which President Joe Biden has said will be by the end of August.

According to the SIGAR report, the NATO command that oversees the training and build-up of the AAF concluded in January that “without continued contractor support, none of the AAF’s airframes can be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months.”

The training still needed and the shrinking timetable has made Zoom training a reasonable alternative despite challenges of such a hands-off instruction method, but the Afghan military also has to make sure that the AAF continues to receive the spare parts, engines, fuel, ammunition, replacement aircraft, and other material it needs.

Many of these items will likely have to be delivered by air, which is costlier and more time-consuming than ground transport. Given the high operational tempo the AAF will soon face, delays and cutbacks could be severe hindrances.

A hard future

Afghan air force MD-580 helicopter
An Afghan air force member loads rockets on an MD-580 helicopter, February 18, 2018.

The AAF is expected to play a key role in Afghanistan’s fight against the Taliban. The Biden administration understands its importance and has promised to continue funding and supplying it.

The AAF too has also shown signs of progress, increasing the number of fully usable aircraft in its inventory and raising its total flight hours year over year.

Some problems may be out of the AAF’s control. It relies on trained soldiers to call in airstrikes and to capture and hold territory. With the Afghan government increasingly reliant on local militias, the AAF may be unable to effectively coordinate with ground forces.

The Afghan air force’s limited pilot corps doesn’t only face threats over the battlefield, however. In recent months, at least seven pilots have been killed while off-base – “targeted and eliminated,” a Taliban spokesman said.

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Russia’s new stealth fighter has the same big problem as its first stealth fighter

A prototype of Russia's new Checkmate stealth fighter jet
A prototype of Russia’s prospective Checkmate fighter jet at the MAKS-2021 airshow, July 20, 2021.

  • Russia has officially unveiled its new fighter jet at the MAKS-2021 air show in Moscow.
  • The new jet appears oriented toward the foreign export market, reflecting an ongoing challenge for Russia’s stealth program.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Earlier this week, Russia officially unveiled amid much media attention its secret new fighter jet named “Checkmate,” or sometimes referred to now as the Su-75, at the MAKS-2021 air show in Moscow.

Checkmate indeed possesses all of the hallmarks of an impressive next-generation aircraft that can potentially hunt down the US Air Force’s F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. But is that really the endgame?

Foreign export market

Checkmate, new Sukhoi fifth-generation stealth fighter jet is seen during an opening ceremony of the MAKS-2021 air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia, July 20, 2021
Russia’s new Checkmate fighter at an opening ceremony of the MAKS-2021 air show, July 20, 2021

According to defense writer David Axe at Forbes, Rostec, the parent company of Russian plane manufacturer Sukhoi, will likely make Sukhoi’s new Checkmate fighter jet available to the foreign market.

In fact, Rostec’s recent teaser video for the jet “features actors portraying pilots from Vietnam, India, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates.”

He continued: “It’s obvious why Russia would want a fighter like Checkmate that can shoot down the United States’ own top fighters. It’s less clear that Vietnam, India, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates want the same thing. Here’s the rub. Without financing from foreign countries, there’s probably no way Checkmate gets built. But the fighter’s design might not appeal to the very buyers Moscow needs to make the project viable. And that would leave in the cold the one customer – the Russian air force – that might actually have a requirement for a fighter like Checkmate.”

Axe also cited Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author, who described the Checkmate as “a pig in a poke.”

“The actual question is who is going to buy that pig in a poke?” he asked.

Impressive specs

A prototype of Russia's new Checkmate stealth fighter jet
A prototype of Russia’s prospective Checkmate fighter jet at the MAKS-2021 airshow, July 20, 2021.

As reported in Popular Mechanics, the Checkmate comes with an “unusually pointy nose and an engine intake below the cockpit,” in addition to an “internal weapons bay designed to preserve its anti-radar shaping and can carry both air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance, including both infrared- and radar-guided air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground and anti-ship missiles, guided and unguided bombs, and unguided rockets.”

Boasting a hefty price tag of $25 million to $30 million, the first Checkmate is expected to take flight in 2023, and the actual deliveries of combat-ready planes could start as early as 2026.

A big problem

Russia's new "Checkmate" stealth fighter at its unveiling
Russia’s Checkmate fighter at the MAKS-2021 airshow, July 20, 2021

Another reason to fast-track the new jet to the foreign export market is the fact that Russia can barely afford to finance the Su-57 program, which, all said and done, could potentially end up costing tens of billions of dollars.

“This Checkmate is facing exactly the same obstacles as the Su-57,” Cooper said.

“The Russian government … has no money to complete its development and get it into series production,” he continued.

Sukhoi Su-57 is a stealth-capable fighter jet that is the outcome of the Russian Air Force’s PAK FA fifth-generation fighter jet program. The single-seat, twin-engine aircraft offers a supersonic range of more than 1,500 kilometers, which is more than two times the range of the Su-27 fighter.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

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A secret collision between British and Soviet submarines could’ve turned out much worse

Soviet Delta III-class ballistic-missile submarine
A Soviet Delta III-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, seen in August 1982.

  • On May 23, 1981 a Soviet submarine and a British submarine collided in the Arctic.
  • The accident heavily damaged both submarines, but it could’ve been fatal.
  • Except for a few accounts by sailors involved, the incident has been kept quiet for 40 years.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

On May 23, 1981 the Soviet submarine K-211 Petropavlovsk cruised quietly at 9 knots, 150 feet below the surface of the Arctic Barents Sea.

The huge 155-meter-long Delta III (or Kalmar)-class submarine was distinguished by the large boxy compartment on its spine which accommodated the towering launch tubes for 16 R-29R ballistic missiles, each carrying three independent nuclear warheads.

K-211’s mission was hair-raisingly straightforward: to cruise undetected for weeks or months at a time, awaiting only the signal that a nuclear war had broken out to unleash its apocalyptic payload from underwater on Western cities and military bases up to four thousand miles away.

British and American nuclear-power attack submarines (SSNs), or “hunter-killers,” were routinely dispatched to detect Soviet ballistic missiles subs (SSBNs) leaving from base to discreetly stalk them.

The quieter SSNs also awaited only a signal of war, an event in which they would attempt to torpedo the Soviet subs before they could unleash their city-destroying weapons.

Mindful of this threat, at half past seven that evening K-211’s commander halted his sub and pivoted it around so that its MGK-400 Rubikon bow sonar array could attempt to pick up any submarines sneaking behind it in the ‘blind spot’ of its wake – a maneuver known as “clearing the baffles.” However, the SSBN’s hydrophones did not report any contact.

In his book “Hunter Killers: The Dramatic Untold Story of the Royal Navy’s Most Secret Service,” Iain Ballentyne described what happened shortly afterwards:

“… at 19.51, the Soviet SSBN juddered as she sustained three short glancing impacts astern and from below, each lasting only a few seconds.

Immediately ordering the boat to periscope depth, the Delta III’s sonar team detect propeller noise on a bearing 127 degrees. The contact was judged to be a submarine.

Soviet Delta III-class submarine firing missiles
A rendering of a Soviet Delta III-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine firing SS-N-18 missiles, 1987.

Having ascended to achieve separation, K-211 also turned to starboard, but the contact was lost within a couple of minutes.”

The Soviet submarine surfaced and found that something had scraped off the rubber sound-dampening anechoic tiles lining the submarine’s stern and damaged its rear hydroplane. Furthermore, fragments of metal – undoubtedly from a Western submarine – were embedded in its right screw and even had punctured its rear ballast tank. K-211’s right screw had to be replaced and its rear stabilizing fin repaired.

A Soviet investigation subsequently concluded the metal had likely come from a US Navy Sturgeon-class attack submarine ascending from below and to the rear.

The Soviet commission might have been highly interested in British press reports later that year that the Royal Navy’s hunter-killer submarine Sceptre had returned to base in Devonport with damage from a collision from a “detached glacier.”

Only a decade later in September 1991, the Sceptre’s former weapons officer David Forghan described very different circumstances for the accident when interviewed on the television program This Week.

Sceptre, or SS-104, was the fourth of six Swiftsure-class nuclear-powered attack submarines launched by Vickers in the 1970s.

The Swiftsures were shorter at 83 meters and broader than the UK’s first-generation Churchill-class SSNs, and boasted retractable diving fins on their bows instead of on their conning towers. All but the lead ship used a shrouded pump-jet propulsor instead of a conventional propeller for quieter running and had their internal mechanisms isolated with rubber to further decrease acoustic signature.

That May, the Sceptre had been trailing K-211 for some time using her Type 2001 sonar, which had an underwater detection range 25 to 30 miles or 6 to 17 miles while moving fast, when it abruptly lost its sonar contact – around when K-211 shifted its position to clear its baffles. The British submarine continued cruising ahead when its bow smashed into K-211’s tail from below.

One of the Soviet submarine’s five-bladed propellers chewed into the front hull casing of the Sceptre, tearing a 23-foot long chunk off its bow and ripping off the front of its conning tower.

In “The Silent Deep,” by James Jinks and Peter Hennesy, one officer recalled:

“It started very far forward, sort of at the tip of the submarine, and it trailed back. It sounded like a scrawling. We were hitting something. That noise lasted for what seemed like a lifetime. It was probably on a couple of seconds or so. Everybody went white.”

Normally, such damage would have triggered an automatic shutdown of the submarine’s reactor, but Sceptre’s captain engaged a “battle short” – a manual override of the safety system for emergencies – to keep his 5,500-ton submarine under control. Emergency bulkheads were sealed as the wounded submarine fled the scene, believing itself to be pursued by a Soviet submarine for two days.

British submarine HMS Superb
HMS Superb, a Swiftsure-class submarine, on the Clyde in Scotland, May 20, 1993.

Chief Petty Officer Michael Cundell recounted in “The Silent Deep,” “We just made a sharp exit and escaped under the ice without a trace.”

Upon finally surfacing, the British submariners discovered the horrifying extent of the damage, as Cundell described:

“That tear started about three inches from the forward escape hatch [Cundell]. If that hatch had been hit or damaged – it’s about 2’6″ in diameter – if that had been ruptured, then the fore ends would have shipped water which would have made the boat very heavy. We would have probably sunk.”

Sceptre limped back to its home base of Devonport at night to conceal the damage, its scars camouflaged with a fabric shroud and black paint applied by the crew.

In port, fragments from the Russian propeller that had partially penetrated the pressure hull had to be removed. The Royal Navy meanwhile peddled the glacier-collision story to the media.

After months of repairs, Sceptre finally returned to the sea that fall, now under Capt. Doug Littlejohns. In the wake of the terrifying accident, he recalled, “The submarine was broken and so was the crew.” To build back crew confidence, he took them out on a white-knuckle practice run performing deep dives and fast maneuvers.

Both K-211 and Sceptre served roughly three more decades after the accident. K-211 remained part of Russia’s smaller SSBN fleet until she was decommissioned in 2013, when the first new pump-jet propelled Borei­-class began to replace the older Deltas. K-211’s nuclear fuel was finally removed in December 2018, and she was moved to Bolshoy Kamen for scrapping in 2019.

Sceptre was involved in several notorious accidents, suffering an onboard fire, snagging Swedish fishermens’ nets and leaping out of her cradle in port during an engine test. Her pump-jet propulsor reportedly had ingested debris from K-211 that left it noisier than usual during certain performance regimes.

She was the oldest operational vessel in the Royal Navy when she was finally decommissioned in 2010. Currently, Sceptre is in long-term storage, as the Royal Navy has been unable to pay for the defueling of a single decommissioned submarine since 2004.

According to Ballentyne, “To this day the Ministry of Defence will not admit the truth.” Questioned by an MP, a minister “skillfully evaded confirming or denying there had been a collision involving the Sceptre, or for that matter, any other British submarine.”

In fact, such collisions are far from isolated incidents. Aside from numerous collisions with commercial traffic, there have been other scarier run-ins between nuclear-powered submarines, such as two incidents involving Russian and US Navy submarines in the early 1990s, and the collision of French Triomphant and British HMS Vanguard in 2009.

Today, submariners continue to stalk each other deep in the oceanic depths, tracking and studying potential foes, thereby practicing the skills they would use in times of war. It’s a dangerous mission – and most navies prefer to keep any of the mishaps that inevitably occur as far as the public eye as possible.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the US. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

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The Navy sent another carrier on a rare trip to the high north. Here’s how sailors kept it going in harsh conditions around Alaska

USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in Gulf of Alaska
USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Gulf of Alaska after exercise Northern Edge 2019, May 25, 2019.

  • US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt sailed to Alaska in May for exercise Northern Edge.
  • The carrier took part in the exercise in 2019, when it became the first carrier to do so in 10 years.
  • The trips reflect the Navy’s increasing focus on the Arctic and its efforts to get used to operating up there again.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Hot, long days and dangerous working conditions are typical for Petty Officer 2nd Class Austin Moore, whose job is helping launch and recover aircraft from the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

The carrier routinely deploys to the Indo-Pacific region, where the warm weather adds to the heat on the deck and steam from the catapults. Moore’s complex duties only get harder when the carrier does nighttime flight operations.

When the flattop arrived in the Gulf of Alaska in early May for Northern Edge 2021 – a two-week exercise involving 15,000 sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen – Moore looked forward to wrapping up a six-month deployment in unfamiliar surroundings, bundling up against the cold for operations in a region where the sun barely sets at this time of year.

F/A-18 fighter jets take off from USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrer
Two F/A-18 Super Hornets launch from USS Theodore Roosevelt, April 29, 2021.

“Having that opportunity to have a daylight all day, we were always on our game, always a step ahead,” Moore told Insider.

The carrier’s trip reflects the Navy’s increasing presence in and around the Arctic, prompted by increasing Chinese and Russian activity there.

Lawmakers, including Rep. Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander, have also sought to increase the US military’s focus on the region.

Last month, Luria and other legislators introduced a bill that would require the Pentagon to complete an Arctic security assessment and develop a five-year plan to give the services the resources necessary for specific strategic needs in the region.

“The Arctic is where the future of military conflict and free trade will be decided,” Luria said in a statement.

Building up ‘core knowledge’

Crew on flight deck of USS Theodore Roosevelt flight deck
Sailors watch flight operations aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt during Exercise Northern Edge 2021, May 7, 2021.

Building sailors’ muscle memory for operations in those increasingly accessible waters has important implications for the fleet.

“We haven’t had sailors operating since in these areas since the late ’80s, since the end of the Cold War, so a lot of that core knowledge is no longer there, except for those of us who have done it,” said Lt. Alex Morgan, the Theodore Roosevelt’s assistant navigator.

“So it’s really important that we capture these experiences” and share them across the service, added Morgan, who plans the carrier’s movements. “One of the nice things is that nobody stays in one place very long, so we’ll be in ships and squadrons across the fleet within just a couple of years.”

Sailors load missile on fighter jet on USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier
Sailors move ordnance across the flight deck of USS Theodore Roosevelt during Exercise Northern Edge 2021, May 7, 2021.

The last 16 months have been tumultuous for the crew of Theodore Roosevelt.

A COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 lead to the death of one chief petty officer and sidelined the carrier for weeks following the ouster of its popular commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modley resigned after his remarks to the crew during a visit drew widespread backlash.

The carrier returned to San Diego in summer 2020, but that homecoming was brief. Now, after a “double pump” deployment, the carrier and about 3,000 crew members are switching homeports to Bremerton, Washington.

The flattop will undergo maintenance at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, including an upgrade to enable the flight deck to handle the F-35C.

The operations off Alaska capped a chaotic period for the crew and offered them a new set of challenges: cold weather, low visibility, stiff winds, long supply lines, and marine wildlife.

“We started all that planning when we’re operating off the coast of Guam, which was obviously a vastly different experience – warm temperatures, high humidity,” Morgan said. “Within the space of the week, we went from sweating at every step to bundled up and seeing our breath on the bridge. So it was definitely a mentality shift.”

E-2C Hawkeye launches from USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier
An E-2C Hawkeye launches from USS Theodore Roosevelt during Northern Edge 2021, May 3, 2021.

Theodore Roosevelt also participated in Northern Edge in 2019, the first time a carrier had done so in 10 years. Morgan and others said they leaned on the playbook from that experience.

“In 2019 the carrier was more limited,” said Morgan, who participated in the exercise for the first time this year. “We had to be closer to shore. We had more flexibility this time because our pilots were certified to operate farther from land.”

While the Navy trains to operate around marine wildlife, crew members said they were surprised by how often they spotted whales and dolphins.

“We had to be very cognizant of where we were operating and keep a good lookout,” Morgan said.

Water temperatures ranged from the high 30s to low 40s Fahrenheit, markedly different from the 80-degree water temperatures around Guam, said Capt. Eric Anduze, Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer. Keeping sailors warm became a priority, including shortening rotations to help “maintain awareness.”

“When you live in a floating metal box, it really permeates through the skin of the ship and makes everything extremely cold,” Anduze said.

Sailors signal F/A-18E fighter jet on USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier
Sailors signal an F/A-18E Super Hornet before it launches from USS Theodore Roosevelt during exercise Northern Edge 2021, May 4, 2021.

A person in water that cold can only survive about 20 minutes, said Ensign Jorge Miguel, a bridge officer of the deck. That leaves an extremely small window to maneuver the carrier and the resources necessary for search and rescue if someone goes overboard.

“You don’t want to wait 20 minutes,” Miguel said. “By then it’s too late.”

A lingering weather system created days of low visibility, reducing the ability to launch aircraft, Anduze said.

Operations slowed but didn’t stop, and that low visibility made extra vigilance necessary, Miguel said.

“If you’re not able to see out the window and see any contacts out there, at that point you’re relying on radars to see what you have in front of you and make the best decision with what you have available to you,” Miguel said.

Poor weather also caused problems for pilots one day during the exercise, forcing them to divert to an Air Force base inland, Morgan said. With the pandemic ongoing, the crew did not want to strand pilots overnight.

USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier near Alaska
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Gulf of Alaska during Exercise Northern Edge 2021, May 7, 2021.

“One of the unique things about being an aircraft carrier is you can always move the airport, but it was so thick that day, we had to delay recovery by several hours,” Morgan said.

“That was a lot of work between our air department [and] our meteorologists on board. We were working with the strike group and just trying to figure out where we can position the ship so that we can recover those aircraft before sunset,” Morgan added.

While longer days meant more light on the flight deck, Moore, who was aboard for the 2019 exercise, said they also made it more difficult to rest. Sleep deprivation is a major readiness problem for the Navy.

For Miguel, the experience presented a challenge partly because it was brand new, but he said novelty shouldn’t be an obstacle.

“Whether we’re in Alaska or, say, Fifth Fleet or Seventh Fleet, it doesn’t really matter. We should be able to execute and use to training that we’ve gone through to execute accordingly,” he said.

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What dodging North Korean missiles taught me about shooting down Kim Jong Un’s growing arsenal

North Korea Hwasong-12 missile launch
A photo of what North Korea’s government said was the August 29, 2017, test launch of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile.

  • A North Korean missile launch in August 2017 sent people in South Korea and Japan scrambling to bunkers.
  • The missile broke up and fell into the Pacific, but North Korea’s growing missile arsenal remains a concern.
  • The US, South Korea, and Japan all have missile defenses, but stopping an incoming missile is no easy feat.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As a South Korean military interpreter participating in a combined exercise with the US on August 29, 2017, my day began with a jolt, as a North Korean ballistic missile hurtled toward Japan at 6:00 a.m.

Not knowing the exact trajectory in the first few minutes, I quickly headed into underground bunkers near Seoul with my fellow service members.

Radars predicted that the missile would cross Japan’s airspace over its northernmost island, Hokkaido. Japan was faced with two options: shoot it down or let it pass.

The Japanese government chose not to intercept that missile. It ultimately fractured into three pieces and landed in the Pacific Ocean, but debris could have fallen onto unsuspecting citizens. Even worse, an actual nuclear strike could wipe out an entire city.

With North Korea demonstrating its ability to reach most of the US, improving missile-defense systems has quickly become a concern for everyday citizens.

Tokyo’s decision to disregard that ballistic missile compelled me to ask whether South Korea, Japan, and the US were well prepared for such missile threats.

Layered defenses, split-second decisions

Japanese TV report on North Korea missile launch
A TV news program reporting on North Korea’s missile launch, in Tokyo, August 29, 2017.

The US defends its territory with a layered system that has several chances to intercept a North Korean missile: in the boost phase soon after launch near the Korean Peninsula and Japan, again over the ocean during the missile’s midcourse phase, and lastly near US territory as the missile enters its terminal phase.

All three options, however, need much improvement.

An intercept over the ocean is challenging because Aegis ships and fighter jets must anticipate where it will impact, which is made more challenging by the fact that Aegis ships and fighters have never attempted to intercept a ballistic missile in combat.

For land-based defense, the Pentagon has slammed its own flagship system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, for its insufficient radars and unreliability: Its success rate is barely over 50%.

Improving the intercept ability of South Korea and Japan has therefore been important to the US’s own national interests.

aegis
US Navy Aegis-equipped destroyer USS Hopper launches a Standard Missile 3 during an exercise in the Pacific Ocean, July 30, 2009.

The US’s recent termination of the missile guidelines it imposed on South Korea in 1979 is a step toward allowing its allies to prepare defenses for North Korea’s long-range missiles.

With limits on the range and payload of its missiles now lifted, South Korea will be able to develop advanced missile-defense systems that could help deter long-range missile attacks.

My experience dodging North Korean missiles, however, highlights the need to review the intercept process further to reduce the risks posed by needing to make a split-second decision. Hesitance to shoot down missiles shows that technological ability does not necessarily equal safety.

Why did those countries decide not to respond during that August 2017 missile test? Within minutes of the launch, most countries could tell from radar tracking that the missile was headed toward the Pacific Ocean.

In the case of Japan, the government may have decided not to attempt to do so simply because it was an unnecessary risk. The missile appeared unlikely to harm civilians, and, more importantly, a failed attempt would send a catastrophic message that its US-backed missile system cannot stop North Korean missiles.

THAAD
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor in Seongju, South Korea, June 13, 2017.

A second possibility, however, is that Japan’s Aegis destroyers were unable to intercept the missile in the first place.

The North Korean missile reached an altitude of 550 km, higher than the 500-km range of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor. The Aegis interceptor may also have not been in the right place, as the missile passed over a region that is not a routine training area.

Why didn’t South Korea try to shoot it down? South Korea’s US-made Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) system reports a 100% test rate, but it has never been used in combat.

THAAD is also designed to shoot down missiles as they re-enter the atmosphere during their terminal phase. The North Korean missile was only in range during its first two phases: boost and midcourse.

Military and diplomatic challenges

Kim Jong Un smiles during inspection of North Korean missile site
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, at the test launch of a Hwasong-12 IRBM in Pyongyang, August 29, 2017.

What can be done about future missile tests?

In order to shoot down a missile during its boost phase, a ship with an SM-3 would have to be right next to the launch site and intercept immediately upon launch.

As the US military has noted, boost-phase intercepts are quite unlikely due to the challenges in anticipating a launch and the decision process needed to approve such a response. For fighter jets to intercept a missile in that phase, the jets would need to be at a provocatively close distance to the launch site.

None of the missile defenses in Japan or South Korea – which include US-made Patriot missile systems – can intercept missiles during their midcourse phase.

South Korea could technically develop a midcourse defense in the future, but past pushback from China indicates there will be a substantial challenge to doing so. Seoul suffered as much as $7 billion in economic losses when China boycotted Korean products in response to the deployment of the THAAD system.

With nearly one-quarter of South Korea’s exports and one-fifth of Japan’s exports going to China, safely navigating the US-China rivalry while ensuring a defense against North Korean missiles will be a complex military and diplomatic task.

Jessup Jong is a Korean Army veteran (Intelligence Branch at the Transportation Command) and a master’s student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is “Human Suffering in North Korea.”

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How the Soviet Union upended the US Navy plans to build a fleet of faster, quieter submarines

USS Seawolf attack submarine sea trials 1997
US Navy submarine USS Seawolf during sea trials, July 10, 1997.

  • Improvements to Soviet subs in the 1980s prompted the US Navy to pursue its own more advanced subs.
  • Work on the Seawolf-class submarines got underway in the mid-1980s, but the USSR’s demise upended those plans.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

There are only three of them.

Late in the 1950s, the Soviet Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines – starting with the November-class attack submarine – could dive twice as deep as most of their American counterparts and often had higher maximum speed. But they had a conspicuous flaw: they were a lot noisier.

That meant American subs were routinely detecting and trailing the Soviet submarines from a distance without being detected in return – a huge advantage had there ever been a conflict.

In the 1980s, however, the Soviet Navy began to improve its acoustic stealth game. The Japanese Toshiba and Norwegian Kongsberg firms had sold propeller-milling technology to the Soviets that allowed for a much quieter seven-bladed propeller on its new Akula-class attack submarines.

US Navy studies concluded the Akula exceeded the mainstay of the US submarine force, the Los Angeles class, for acoustic stealth and roughly matched the Improved Los Angeles variant. As the Pentagon was flush with money during the Reagan administration, in 1983 the Navy began designing the biggest, baddest – and fastest and quietest – attack submarine possible to restore its edge over the Soviet Navy.

The resulting Seawolf laid down by Electric Boat in October 1989 had a wider hull than the 7,000-ton Los Angeles, displacing over 9,000 tons submerged and measuring 108 meters in length.

Whereas the Los Angeles carried 37 torpedoes in four tubes, the Seawolf could lug 50 heavy-weight 533-millimeter Mark 48 torpedoes or Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which it could launch through eight over-sized 660-millimeter torpedo tubes. (The tubes size was meant to future-proof in case the Navy adopted larger weapons. It didn’t.)

The Seawolf could also use the tubes to launch surface-attack Tomahawk missiles.

Cmdr. Melvin Smith, commanding officer of the Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Jimmy Carter (SSN 23), looks on as the submarine transits the Hood Canal on its way home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.
Officers and crew of USS Jimmy Carter in the Hood Canal on the way to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington state.

The Seawolf submarine was built entirely out of higher-strength HY-100 steel so that it could endure dives as deep as 490 meters.

Its sail (conning tower) was reinforced for operations Arctic ice, where Soviet ballistic-missile submarines were known to lurk. Moreover, its S6W pressurized water reactor gave the Seawolf an extraordinary maximum speed of 35 knots (40 mph), allowing it to chase down disengaging adversaries.

But most impressive were the Seawolf’s advancements in acoustic stealth: A Seawolf was an order of magnitude quieter than even the Improved Los Angeles boats at 95 decibels. Oceanic background noise averages 90 decibels.

Even better, the Seawolf’s propeller-less pump-jet propulsion system allowed it to maintain acoustic stealth even when cruising a brisk 20 knots, whereas most submarines are forced to crawl at 5-12 knots to remain discrete.

Its huge 7.3-meter diameter spherical sonar array on the bow was supplemented by wide-aperture flank arrays and TB-16D and TB-29 towed arrays. These feed sensor data to the Seawolf’s BSY-2 combat system, which can engage multiple targets simultaneously using Mark 48 torpedoes directed either via a wire connected to the sub, or using their own organic sonar.

Thus, the Seawolf was designed as the ultimate submarine-hunter: stealthier, more heavily armed, and able to match or exceed its adversaries in speed and maneuverability.

These exquisite capabilities came at a steep price – namely $33 billion for 12 Seawolves, cut down from the initial plans for 29. Adjusted for 2018 dollars, that comes out to nearly $5 billion per sub, three times the cost of the Los Angeles boats. The HY100 steel also particularly suffered extensive weld-cracking problems, necessitating additional reconstruction.

Navy submarine USS Jimmy Carter
USS Jimmy Carter in the Magnetic Silencing Facility at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, August 16, 2006.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Seawolf’s premium capabilities and expense could hardly be justified as large numbers of Russian submarines rusted away at their docks.

Thus the Seawolf order was downsized to just three submarines which launched between 1995 and 2004: the Seawolf, the Connecticut, and the Jimmy Carter, numbered SSN-21 through 23. All three are based on the Pacific Ocean at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington State.

The last boat, the Carter uniquely was modified at an extra cost of $887 million into the ultimate spy and special operations submarine. Its hull was lengthened by 30 meters to incorporate a special multi-mission platform which can carry divers, or manned or unmanned underwater reconnaissance vehicles which can be deployed using special locks.

The 12,000-ton Carter also boasts thrusters allowing it to maneuver more precisely while in treacherous shallow waters and ocean floors. It is also understood to carry instruments allowing it to tap the undersea cables through which the internet and other long-distance communications travel.

Naturally, the Carter’s clandestine activities remain a secret, though its reception of numerous unit citations for unspecified reasons suggest an eventful operational career.

It’s known to have deployed an aerial drone to spy on North Korean coastal artillery, and it returned to port in 2017 flying a black pirate flag – traditionally flourished by a submarine returning from a patrol in which it has scored a victory.

In fact, all of the Seawolf-class submarines remain shrouded in secrecy, with very few photos or articles released to the press. What reports are available suggests the subs frequently traverse under the polar ice of the Arctic Ocean, at times testing specialized sonars and communications equipment.

USS Connecticut submarine Arctic ice surface
USS Connecticut surfaces through the ice during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018, March 18, 2018.

None of the Seawolf subs are known to have engaged in combat, however – unless you count the attack of a polar bear on the Connecticut’s rudder after it surfaced through the Arctic in 2003. You can see a picture of the engagement taken via the periscope here.

Meanwhile, more affordable ($1.8 billion each) Virginia-class submarines better suited for littoral engagements are entering service, retaining many of Seawolf class’s advanced features such as the stealthy pump jets, while ditching some of the bulk and gold-plating and making greater use of off-the-shelf technologies.

Later Virginias also sport vertical launch cells for rapid land-attack capabilities.

Demand for the Seawolf’s high-end capabilities may rise, however, due to the return of an undersea arms race involving the United States, Russia and China.

China’s submarine fleet will likely soon exceed America in numbers, though the majority of it consists of shorter-range diesel-electric submarines, and even its nuclear submarines are considered to be significantly noisier than their US counterparts. Russia continues to operate stealthy Akula and Borei-class boats and is developing improved successors as well as Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedoes designed to destroy coastal cities.

Thus the US Navy reportedly sees the beefier, more heavily armed characteristics of the Seawolf as a model for its next SSN(X) submarine – even if it comes at a similar cost of $5.5 billion per submarine.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

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How British special operators defied their bosses to rescue 2 comrades captured on a secretive mission in Iraq

40 Commando British Royal Marines in Basra Iraq
Members of 40 Commando Royal Marines on patrol in Abu Al Khasib, a suburb of Basra, March 31, 2003.

  • In September 2005, British special-operations forces in Basra faced a problem.
  • Two of their own had been captured during an undercover operation, and their lives were in peril.
  • In addition to hostile Iraqis, British SAS troops had to overcome reluctant commanders in order to save their comrades.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In September 2005, British special-operations forces found themselves facing a problem.

Two of their own had been captured and beaten by local Iraqi police during an undercover operation in Basra, and their lives were hanging by a thread.

The operators were members of the famed Special Air Service (SAS) – the British equivalent of the US Army’s Delta Force – and had been part of a surveillance operation targeting the police and their commander, suspected of rampant corruption.

Coalition intelligence also suspected the Iraqi police chief was working with insurgents, particularly the brutal Mahdi Army, a Shia militia organization supported by Iran.

The Shia insurgents had no love for the British. SAS, Special Boat Service (SBS), and Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) commandos had been targeting them in a nonstop for months as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.

That meant there was little room for negotiation. Other US or Coalition troops who had been captured by insurgents had been tortured and killed. If not rescued immediately, the two SAS operators faced the same agonizing fate.

An operation gone south

A British soldier jumps from a burning tank
A British soldier jumps from a tank set ablaze after a shooting incident in southern Iraq city of Basra, September 19, 2005.

The two operators, a sergeant and a lance corporal, were using a light disguise to better blend in to the environment.

As they were finishing their surveillance mission, they were compromised by some plainclothes Iraqi policemen. A scuffle ensued, and the British commandos fired their weapons, wounding some Iraqi policemen.

The two British commandos tried to escape, relying on their “native” garb for protection.

“I always thought as soon as I spoke to someone, they would realize I was British. But we had fake tan, hair dye – I was even driving an Iraqi taxi – because we were trying our best to fit in,” one of the captives, Sgt. Colin Maclachlan, said years later.

Maclachlan spent seven years in the SAS, serving in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone, where he was involved in the rescue of British troops held hostage in September 2000.

As they were leaving the area, they came upon an Iraqi police checkpoint and decided to try to talk their way out of an increasingly bad situation, but to no avail.

With an angered mob gathering, the Iraqi policemen handcuffed the SAS troopers and took them to the Al-Jamiat police station.

Screw the brass

Iraqis protest a British raid in Basra
Iraqi police and civilians demonstrate against a British raid which freed two undercover soldiers, in the southern city of Basra September 21, 2005.

The team to which the SAS operators belonged was too small to launch a rescue on its own, so they requested urgent reinforcements from Baghdad, where the main SAS contingent had its headquarters in the Green Zone, right next to Delta Force.

As the SAS commandos were preparing to rescue their own, the officer-in-charge received a call from the UK, ordering him to stand down any rescue attempts. The SAS operators, including the unit’s commanding officer, were dumbfounded.

The bureaucrats in London had also been taken by surprise and were slow to react. The political situation in the recently liberated Iraq was precarious. A complicated insurgency made up of terrorist groups and Sunni and Shia militias was threatening to destroy the very fabric of Iraqi society.

This political quagmire was the only rational reason for the senior leadership’s hesitation to rescue their own.

However reasoned that decision was, it was unacceptable for the SAS, whose leaders decided to disobey orders in this critical moment, risking court-martial to save their own.

An Iraqi boy taunts British soldiers in Basra Iraq
An Iraqi boy taunts British soldiers after a shooting incident in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, September 19, 2005.

Meanwhile, the situation inside the police station was deteriorating. The Iraqi policemen issued a statement, accusing the two British commandos of subversion, and published pictures of the operators looking harangued and beaten.

The Iraqis also put the British commandos through several mock executions.

“They had a pistol up against the back of my head, then there would be a click. There was lots of shouting, but I couldn’t really tell what they were saying. They were going to execute us,” Maclachlan told The Scotsman in 2009.

An assault troop of 20 SAS operators from A Squadron and roughly 40 paratroopers from the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) flew to Basra. (SFSG is a specialist unit designed to support other British special-operations forces.)

“I was keeping myself mentally alert and I still had faith in my SAS colleagues coming to get me though. But being at the sharp end of this incident, I had no idea about the hoo-hah which went on,” Maclachlan said.

As reinforcements were en route, the British military sent in a mechanized infantry company to try and negotiate the release of the two commandos. That effort failed, and those regular troops had to evacuate after a mob of Iraqis attacked them with stones and Molotov cocktails, setting one armored personnel carrier ablaze and lightly wounding several British soldiers.

The situation was getting worse by the hour.

‘Who dares wins’

A British military helicopter lands in Basra Iraq
A British military helicopter lands near the scene of an incident between Iraqis and British soldiers in the southern city of Basra, September 19, 2005.

With the reinforcements in Basra, the SAS launched another rescue attempt with helicopter and mechanized infantry support.

They stormed the Al-Jamiat police station, rolled over the wall surrounding the compound, assaulted the building, and took the Iraqis by surprise. But their colleagues had already been moved.

During an impromptu interrogation, Iraqi policemen revealed that the two SAS captives had been taken to a nearby compound. The ground force regrouped and made up another assault plan on the fly.

Once they reached the compound, they stormed the building through numerous entry points, a classic hostage-rescue tactic meant to disorient the captors and prevent them from killing the hostages.

At first the rescue force couldn’t find the captive SAS troopers and feared they had been moved again. But in another sweep of the compound, the task force found the two SAS operators handcuffed in a bathroom – beaten and disheveled but alive.

On that September day, the SAS leadership took a great risk, mutinying to save their colleagues. But it was a calculated risk that paid off. British political and military leadership gave post facto permission for the rescue attempt. The SAS lived their motto: “Who Dares Wins.”

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