Russia’s risky flybys may be attempts at ‘baiting us into shooting first,’ top US admiral says

A Russian fighter jet flying past the HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea
A Russian fighter jet flies past the Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea, June 24, 2021.

  • Russian forces have had several close encounters with NATO militaries in the Black Sea.
  • Those encounters come amid ongoing tensions following Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
  • Those actions may be attempts to bait US and NATO forces, the top US admiral in Europe warned.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Aggressive Russian maneuvers around US and NATO forces in the Black Sea in recent weeks appear meant to provoke a response, the top US Navy admiral in Europe said on July 21.

NATO militaries conducted exercises in the Black Sea from mid-June to mid-July, the largest of which, Sea Breeze, involved 32 ships and 40 aircraft from 32 countries.

In the days before Sea Breeze began on June 28, Russian aircraft conducted what Western officials called unsafe flights around NATO warships in the Black Sea. Russian and NATO forces continued to operate near each other in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea over the following weeks.

The latest encounters came amid heightened military activity in the region, but such interactions are not uncommon in the Black Sea, which has remained tense since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.

US Navy destroyer USS Ross in the Black Sea
US Navy destroyer USS Ross is seen from British patrol vessel HMS Trent in Odesa, Ukraine, during Sea Breeze 2021, July 2, 2021.

“NATO allies and partners operating in that area by themselves are constantly shadowed by Russian vessels, and by and large, those interactions are safe and professional, although they’re meant to intimidate,” Adm. Robert Burke, commander of US Navy Forces in Europe and Africa, said at a US Navy Memorial event.

“When a strike aircraft overflies a destroyer at 100 feet altitude and right over top, our [commanding officers] are making a judgment call whether that strike fighter is on an attack profile or not,” Burke added. “It could be argued that they’re baiting us into shooting first. We’re not going to do that first without provocation, but I’m also not going to ask my commanding officers to take the first shot on the chin.”

Russian and NATO forces frequently operate in close proximity. Russia regularly reports intercepts of NATO aircraft flying near Russian borders. NATO militaries often intercept Russian aircraft flying near their borders.

US officials have on multiple occasions criticized Russia for what they call “unsafe and unprofessional” intercepts of US aircraft and warships in the seas around Europe. Those include low-altitude flights over US warships, which are especially risky because of uncertainty about intent and the potential for accidents.

In the past, Russian aircraft would fly without weapons in a configuration called “wings clean,” Burke’s predecessor, now-retired Adm. James Foggo, said in 2019.

“In the interactions and the intercepts I see today, they’re coming out ‘wings dirty,’ or they have weapons on board,” Foggo said at the time. “That’s another bit of the calculus that goes in the commanding officer’s mind on … what is the intent of that pilot.”

russia navy us
A Russian Su-24 attack aircraft flies over the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea, April 12, 2016.

In his remarks this month, Burke said those close encounters have “tactical risk” that “could turn into a strategic issue.”

“That’s a big concern with this increasing aggressiveness. So we’ll have to watch that very closely,” Burke added.

Russian and NATO forces have continued to train in the Black Sea since Sea Breeze ended on July 10. NATO navies worked on interoperability and readiness, while Russian aircraft and coastal-defense units practiced attacking enemy forces.

Burke said this month that the seizure of Crimea was an “extreme” form of “constant bullying” by Russia that is meant to influence other countries and the Russian public.

That Russian action, including military buildups and restricting access to international waters, ultimately “results in some nations avoiding going to those areas, which is exactly the behavior change that the Russians are seeking,” Burke said.

Russia is “not 10 feet tall” and its leaders “understand and respect” NATO capabilities, but it has “heavily modernized” its military, particularly its submarines, and learned from watching the US fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Burke said.

“The Russian government is still very much an existential threat to the United States,” Burke said. “I think is as much of a threat today as the Soviet Union was in a Cold War.”

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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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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.

S├ębastien 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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With close military encounters on opposite sides of the world, Russia is sending a message to the West

The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender arrives in the Black Sea port of Batumi on June 26, 2021.
British destroyer HMS Defender in the Black Sea port of Batumi, June 26, 2021.

  • Russia’s military had close encounters with its US and European rivals in the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean in June.
  • The incidents and exercises were messages about Russia’s military capabilities, experts told Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Close encounters between Russia’s military and US and European forces in June were signals from Moscow to its rivals about its capabilities and how it was willing to use them, experts said this month.

On June 23, Russian combat aircraft flew over the British destroyer HMS Defender as it conducted an “innocent passage” near Crimea.

Russia claimed it fired warning shots and dropped bombs near the warship, which the UK denied, though the British defense minister said Russian jets performed maneuvers that were “neither safe nor professional.”

In the same area a day later, Russian jets repeatedly flew close to Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten while conducting mock attacks, creating what the Dutch Defense Ministry called “a dangerous situation.”

Eversten’s commander said it was in international waters and that the Russian actions were “irresponsible and unsafe.”

Those incidents have “a larger message,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

A Russian fighter jet flying past the HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea
A Russian fighter jet flying past the Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea, June 24, 2021.

“Moscow is increasingly willing and able to enforce what it sees as territorial and operational red lines, and Crimea and the Black Sea are a major focus of attention,” Rojansky told Insider.

Tensions remain high after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, and Moscow has sought to “set the precedent” that it controls its territorial claims there, Rojansky said, citing the 2018 Kerch Strait incident.

“All this traces back to Putin’s words in March 2014, when he justified the Russian seizure of Crimea as being about keeping NATO out,” Rojansky added.

Russia’s military drilled around Crimea throughout the end of June and early July, focusing on attacking the ships of “a notional enemy.” The US- and Ukrainian-led exercise Sea Breeze also kicked off in late June and was the largest iteration in its 21-year history, with 32 countries participating.

Moscow described Sea Breeze as “openly anti-Russian,” but US and NATO officials stressed that it was defensive in nature and done in accordance with international law.

“It’s one of the most robust Sea Breeze exercises we’ve conducted to date, and we’re proud of that,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said July 6.

F-35 fighter jet over HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier
Aircraft from HMS Queen Elizabeth during an exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, June 2021.

The Black Sea incidents also overlapped with Russian and British-led exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailing with US F-35B fighter jets aboard, conducted exercises and combat operations against ISIS during the final days of June.

US and British jets found themselves in a “cat-and-mouse” game with Russia, which angled to keep an eye on them as Russian warships and aircraft conducted reconnaissance and air-defense drills.

Their proximity was not a coincidence, according to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA.

Russia has deployed more forces to its improved military facilities in Syria, while the UK is putting HMS Queen Elizabeth, its newest carrier, through real-world testing during its maiden deployment.

“A force-on-force interaction that’s not planned is probably one the best ways to generate these kind of lessons and experience for the Royal Navy,” Kofman said on a recent podcast, adding that Russia used “the British deployment as an opportunity to essentially … train strike missions against NATO ships.”

‘Ready and present’

The Russian navy Varyag missile cruiser ensuring air defence in the Mediterranean Sea.
Russian guided-missile cruiser Varyag.

Mid-June also saw a major Russian exercise in the central Pacific Ocean, with warships and aircraft conducting what Russian officials called their largest exercise there since the Cold War.

Much of their activity was several hundred miles from Hawaii, but US officials said some Russian ships came within 30 nautical miles of the islands.

Russian long-range-bomber operations during the exercise twice prompted US F-22 fighters to scramble for potential intercepts, though US officials said Russian aircraft never came close to Hawaii. (US and Russian aircraft regularly intercept each other over the Pacific.)

The exercise was “unprecedented” in its size and its distance from Russia, according to Carl Shuster, a retired US Navy captain who was director of operations at US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in the 1990s.

“The Soviet Navy never conducted exercises this close to the Hawaiian Islands,” Shuster told Insider.

“The Russian political statement was ‘we’ve returned as a Pacific maritime power and can reach your territory just as you are reaching ours in the Black Sea,'” Shuster added. “The target audience of course was the Russian people and the American leadership.”

US Navy cruiser USS Chosin and Russian Navy destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov
Russian destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, foreground, with US guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin in the Yellow Sea, March 31, 2006.

The Pacific exercise – which took place around the Biden-Putin summit in Switzerland – was also a demonstration of military capability, featuring what Moscow called “the tasks of detecting, countering and delivering missile strikes against an aircraft carrier strike group.”

The ships involved included guided-missile cruiser Varyag, Russia’s Pacific Fleet flagship, and destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, which carries Kalibr missiles, a weapon that worries US commanders and “presented the potential military threat that gave the message credibility,” Shuster said.

US military forces “remain ready and present in the Indo-Pacific,” Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesman, told Insider, calling it the US’s “priority theater.”

The Russian warships that conducted the Pacific exercise returned to port earlier this month, but encounters between Russian and NATO forces in the Black Sea and the Pacific have continued. Russian officials continue to call the HMS Defender incident a “provocation” and warn about future run-ins.

“Russia will continue to foil such actions using the harshest methods, regardless of the nationality of the violator,” Mikhail Popov, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said this week.

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How a cheap Swedish submarine ‘ran rings’ around a US aircraft carrier and its sub-hunting escorts

USS Ronald Reagan
USS Ronald Reagan.

  • In 2005, the US Navy’s new aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan, sank after being hit by torpedoes.
  • This didn’t happen in combat but during a war game pitting a carrier task force, and its anti-submarine escorts, against a Swedish sub.
  • That sub, HSMS Gotland, pulled off that feat despite being a relatively cheap diesel-powered boat.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In 2005, USS Ronald Reagan, a newly constructed $6.2 billion aircraft carrier, sank after being hit by multiple torpedoes.

Fortunately, this did not occur in actual combat, but was simulated as part of a war game pitting a carrier task force including numerous antisubmarine escorts against HSMS Gotland, a small Swedish diesel-powered submarine displacing 1,600 tons. Yet despite making multiple attacks runs on the Reagan, the Gotland was never detected.

This outcome was replicated time and time again over two years of war games, with opposing destroyers and nuclear attack submarines succumbing to the stealthy Swedish sub.

Naval analyst Norman Polmar said the Gotland “ran rings” around the American carrier task force. Another source claimed US antisubmarine specialists were “demoralized” by the experience.

How was the Gotland able to evade the Reagan’s elaborate antisubmarine defenses involving multiple ships and aircraft employing a multitude of sensors? And even more importantly, how was a relatively cheap submarine costing around $100 million – roughly the cost of a single F-35 stealth fighter today – able to accomplish that? After all, the US Navy decommissioned its last diesel submarine in 1990.

Swedish submarine Navy
Sweden’s HMS Gotland with the USS Ronald Reagan in the background.

Diesel submarines in the past were limited by the need to operate noisy, air-consuming engines that meant they could remain underwater for only a few days before needing to surface. Naturally, a submarine is most vulnerable, and can be most easily tracked, when surfaced, even when using a snorkel.

Submarines powered by nuclear reactors, on the other hand, do not require large air supplies to operate, and can run much more quietly for months at a time underwater – and they can swim faster while at it.

However, the 200-foot-long Swedish Gotland-class submarines, introduced in 1996, were the first to employ an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system – in this case, the Stirling engine. A Stirling engine charges the submarine’s 75-kilowatt battery using liquid oxygen.

With the Stirling, a Gotland-class submarine can remain undersea for up to two weeks sustaining an average speed of 6 mph – or it can expend its battery power to surge up to 23 mph. A conventional diesel engine is used for operation on the surface or while employing the snorkel.

The Stirling-powered Gotland runs more quietly than even a nuclear-powered sub, which must employ noise-producing coolant pumps in their reactors.

The Gotland class does possess many other features that make it adept at evading detection.

It mounts 27 electromagnets designed to counteract its magnetic signature to Magnetic Anomaly Detectors. Its hull benefits from sonar-resistant coatings, while the tower is made of radar-absorbent materials. Machinery on the interior is coated with rubber acoustic-deadening buffers to minimize detectability by sonar.

The Gotland is also exceedingly maneuverable thanks to the combined six maneuvering surfaces on its X-shaped rudder and sail, allowing it to operate close to the sea floor and pull off tight turns.

Swedish navy submarine HMS Gotland in San Diego
HMS Gotland in San Diego Harbor during Fleet Week San Diego, October 1, 2005.

Because the stealthy boat proved the ultimate challenge to US antisubmarine ships in international exercises, the US Navy leased the Gotland and its crew for two entire years to conduct antisubmarine exercises. The results convinced the US Navy its undersea sensors simply were not up to dealing with the stealthy AIP boats.

However, the Gotland was merely the first of many AIP-powered submarine designs – some with twice the underwater endurance. And Sweden is by no means the only country to be fielding them.

China has two diesel submarine types using Stirling engines. Fifteen of the earlier Type 039A Yuan class have been built in four different variants, with more than 20 more planned or already under construction.

Beijing also has a single Type 032 Qing-class vessel that can remain underwater for 30 days. It believed to be the largest operational diesel submarine in the world, and boasts seven Vertical Launch System cells capable of firing off cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.

Russia debuted with the experimental Lada-class Sankt Peterburg, which uses hydrogen fuel cells for power. It is an evolution of its widely produced Kilo-class submarine. However, sea trials found that the cells provided only half of the expected output, and the type was not approved for production.

However, in 2013 the Russian Navy announced it would produce two heavily redesigned Ladas, the Kronstadt and Velikiye Luki, expected by the end of the decade.

Other producers of AIP diesel submarines include Spain, France, Japan and Germany. These countries have in turn sold them to navies across the world, including to India, Israel, Pakistan and South Korea.

Submarines using AIP systems have evolved into larger, more heavily armed and more expensive types, including the German Dolphin-class and the French Scorpene-class submarines.

Indian Navy Scorpene-class submarine Karanj
The Indian Navy’s third Scorpene-class submarine, Karanj, at its launch in Mumbai, January 31, 2018.

The US Navy has no intention to field diesel submarines again, however, preferring to stick to nuclear submarines that cost multiple billions of dollars. It’s tempting to see that as the Pentagon choosing once again a more expensive weapon system over a vastly more cost-efficient alternative. It’s not quite that simple, however.

Diesel submarines are ideal for patrolling close to friendly shores. But US subs off Asia and Europe need to travel thousands of miles just to get there, and then remain deployed for months at a time. A diesel submarine may be able to traverse that distance – but it would then require frequent refueling at sea to complete a long deployment.

Remember the Gotland? It was shipped back to Sweden on a mobile dry dock rather than making the journey on its own power.

Though the new AIP-equipped diesel subs may be able to go weeks without surfacing, that’s still not as good as going months without having to do so. And furthermore, a diesel submarine – with or without AIP – can’t sustain high underwater speeds for very long, unlike a nuclear submarine.

A diesel sub will be most effective when ambushing a hostile fleet whose position has already been “cued” by friendly intelligence assets. However, the slow, sustainable underwater speed of AIP-powered diesel submarines make them less than ideal for stalking prey over vast expanses of water.

These limitations don’t pose a problem to diesel subs operating relatively close to friendly bases, defending littoral waters. But while diesel submarines may be great while operating close to home – the US Navy usually doesn’t.

Navy submarine
US Navy fast-attack submarine USS Asheville and US 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge in the Philippine Sea.

Still, the fact that one could build or acquire three or four diesel submarines costing $500 to $800 million each for the price of a single nuclear submarine gives them undeniable appeal.

Proponents argue that the United States could forward deploy diesel subs to bases in allied nations, without facing the political constraints posed by nuclear submarines. Furthermore, advanced diesel submarines might serve as a good counter to an adversary’s stealthy sub fleet.

However, the US Navy is more interested in pursuing the development of unmanned drone submarines. Meanwhile, China is working on long-enduring AIP systems using lithium-ion batteries, and France is developing a new large AIP-equipped diesel submarine version of its Barracuda-class nuclear attack submarine.

The advent of cheap, stealthy and long-enduring diesel submarines is yet another factor placing carriers and other expensive surface warships at greater risk when operating close to defended coastlines.

Diesel submarines benefitting from AIP will serve as a deadly and cost-effective means of defending littoral waters, though whether they will can carve out a role for themselves in blue-water naval forces operating far from home is less clear.

S├ębastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.

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How ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ got cameras inside the cockpit of a F/A-18 fighter jet

Top Gun Maverick
  • Promotion for “Top Gun: Maverick” is starting to pick up as the November 2021 release date approaches.
  • In a recent interview, director Joseph Kosinski described how his crew pushed the technological envelope to create the movie’s in-flight action scenes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The long-delayed sequel to “Top Gun” is slated for November 2021, and promotion for “Top Gun: Maverick” is starting to pick up as the release date approaches.

Paramount Pictures partnered with the YouTube show “Could You Survive the Movies?” for an interview with director Joseph Kosinski about how his crew pushed the technological envelope to create the movie’s in-flight action scenes.

The new clip is an addition to the “Could You Survive the Movies?” episode that explores the science behind the original 1986 movie. Series host Jake Roper joined Kosinski for the conversation highlighted in the new clip.

Kosinski reveals that he studied to be an aerospace engineer before getting into the filmmaking game. That makes sense because the director behind sci-fi movies such as “TRON: Legacy” and “Oblivion” always has shown a bent for cutting-edge movie technology.

To help the actors get their performances right, the crew built a replica of an F-18 Super Hornet cockpit on the ground, and Kosinski rehearsed each scene with the actors before they did the actual scene inside a jet screaming across the sky.

Boeing F/A 18 Super Hornet
An F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Since the team was inventing new ways to film airborne action, the process could be incredibly slow.

“Some days, we’d work a 16-hour day and get 40 seconds of footage; 25 cameras running simultaneous,” Kosinski reveals to Roper in the clip.

The big reveal in the interview is that cinematographer Claudio Miranda worked with Sony to develop a new camera system called the Rialto, which is an add-on to Sony’s popular Venice 6k camera. Kosinski says they captured the footage using six Rialtos on each plane, with four cameras facing the actor and two cameras facing forward.

The images featured in the video suggest a kind of hybrid setup, because it looks like at least two Venice units are included in the four-camera array that’s facing the actors. The Venices are definitely too large to be connected to the front-facing cameras.

The Rialto comes with a 9-foot cable that allows it to connect to a Venice unit, so it looks like the filmmakers figured out places to stash the Venice units around the plane.

Even though the photos make the Venice look like a monster piece of gear, the unit weighs only 8.6 pounds and the Rialto extension units weigh 3-4 pounds. To anyone who lugged around digital cameras when they first arrived on the market, this will seem like impossible news. Welcome to the future.

You can play with this tech yourself if you’ve got the cash or qualify for Sony’s interest-free financing. A Venice body retails for $42,000, and a Rialto starts around $12K. Then you need lenses and all the other rigging. You can get started for around $65,000, but $100K would give you a ton of options.

You can watch the entire interview for yourself below.

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4 years before the Navy started blasting its new aircraft carrier, this team started planning to protect nearby animals

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 Navy put its new through shock trials, meant to test its response to nearby explosions, in June.
  • More than four years before the first blast, a team of scientists went to work to protect marine wildlife.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More than four years before the explosive went off beside the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford on June 18, a team of scientists began making plans for the ship’s shock trials. Their goal, however, was not battle readiness – they were trying to protect marine wildlife.

The process of planning the Ford’s shock trials began in 2016, according to Tom Douglas, the environmental impact director for the Navy’s shock trials.

“Planning for these are three to five years, if not a little bit longer,” he said. “It takes quite a bit of effort.”

Shock trials have a long history in the Navy, going as far back as World War II when the service discovered that “near miss” explosions still had the potential to incapacitate a ship.

As a result, the Navy conceived the test – which usually involves setting off explosives at various depths and distances from the ship – as a way to assess the impact of the shock and vibrations of a close blast on a ship’s equipment, a scientific report commissioned by the Navy explained.

Navy cruiser Arkansas shock trials explosion
US Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Arkansas during a shock test, March 17, 1982.

However, setting off a large explosion underwater also has the potential to disorient and disrupt the normal patterns of life or kill nearby marine life. As a result, environmental considerations now factor into the Navy’s decision-making.

One of the key aspects of the planning process involves choosing a location and time to conduct the trials. Douglas’ team considered one of four locations available to conduct the test, ultimately settling on a site off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.

“As far as surveys that have been conducted today, it has the lowest density of marine life, for any of the shock trial areas that we could utilize,” Bridget Watts, an expert working with the shock trial team, said. “We have gone back and looked at the past 50 years of wind and weather data to determine that June and July are the most optimum time of the year,” Douglas added.

The team also works the timing of the trial around the marine life that is in the area.

Douglas said that they have an “exclusion period” based on the migratory patterns of the North Atlantic right whale, one of the world’s most endangered large whales with less than 400 left alive today.

“We definitely want to do no harm,” Douglas said.

The Navy’s overall record on marine life preservation is a bit more mixed. For example, the service has been sued several times over the past two decades by environmental groups over its use of sonar in submarine exercises.

Last year, as part of its regular permit renewal, the Navy asked the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to increase the number of marine animals it harasses, harms, or kills in tests and training on the Pacific Coast.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the allowed level of “incidental taking” – the regulatory term for anything from disrupted behavior to injury or death of a marine mammal – “unacceptable” in a letter to the regulator.

Navy amphibious ship Mesa Verde explosion during shock trials
US Navy amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde during a shock test off the Florida coast, August 16, 2008.

Five conservation directors from the state said in a joint letter to the NMFS that, “The approval of such a high level of incidental take without requiring any additional mitigation measures represents gross neglect.”

The permission was granted on November 9, 2020, though with a requirement to institute shutdowns and delays if marine mammals are sighted within certain distances and to limit sonar use in some areas.

On the day of the trial, the team deployed a group of observers, veterinarians and scientists aboard the carrier to help ensure that marine life is not harmed.

The Navy creates a 3.5 nautical mile area around the ship – a mitigation zone – in which no marine life can be located before the blast goes off.

“We have about 10 or 12 people on the target vessel whose entire job is monitoring the area around the mitigation zone as well as the area near [the] ship,” Douglas said.

Said Douglas: “The blast radius has potential harm to small animals out to one to two kilometers. We monitor three times that distance.”

If the team spots animals or cannot assess the entire mitigation zone effectively, it can halt the trial.

“There are several points … where the CO of the ship and the shock trail officer request a ‘go/no go’ from the chief scientist,” Douglas said.

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

Capt. Jeremy Shamblee, the executive officer of the Norfolk-based Ford, noted that the team delayed the trial twice.

After the blast, the team continues to monitor the area for days, using a boat and aircraft.

“Surveillance is partially geared on just making sure that we’ve covered those areas enough and give them enough time to be able to find someone that either we can help or that we have to deal with or that we recover them [so] we can learn something from it,” Dr. Michael Walsh, one of the veterinarians who assists in the trials, said.

All told, more than 30 people are involved in the environmental aspect of the shock trials on the Ford.

Shamblee said the ship is hoping to wrap up the other two explosions that are planned for the trial by August.

Once the Ford’s trials finish, Douglas said his work will go on.

“We’re always … looking for increased science,” Douglas said. “How can we better look at lessons learned from this? How can we better do the next shock trial?”

– Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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The US Navy is shelving its dream of a powerful electromagnetic railgun to develop hypersonic missiles and other weapons

hypersonic projectile railgun
  • The US Navy is putting its dreams of an electromagnetic railgun on hold to pursue other weapons.
  • A Navy spokesperson told the AP that pausing railgun research frees up funds for hypersonic weapons.
  • The Navy has been working on a railgun since 2005, but now the Navy appears to be calling it quits.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Navy has decided to shelve the research and development of an electromagnetic railgun to build other weapons, such as hypersonic missiles and lasers, the Associated Press reported, citing a Navy spokesperson.

The Navy has been working on a railgun, a cannon that uses electricity rather than gunpowder to fire high-speed rounds out to distances beyond current naval guns, since 2005 and has invested over $500 million in the project, but the service’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget cut all funding for the railgun, The Drive first reported in June.

The Navy move “to pause the [electromagnetic railgun] program is consistent with department-wide reform initiatives to free up resources in support of other Navy priorities, to include improving offensive and defensive capabilities such as directed energy, hypersonic missiles, and electronic warfare systems,” Lt. Courtney Callaghan said in a statement, adding that research would be preserved should the Navy decide to restart the program.

Her comment is in line with the Navy’s latest budget request, which notes that “railgun technology and knowledge attained will be documented and preserved” and “railgun hardware will be realigned to maximize its sustainability to facilitate potential future use.”

Avascent Group defense analyst Matthew Caris told the AP that “the railgun is, for the moment, dead.”

Unlike traditional guns, the railgun propels projectiles forward using an armature between two rails that can be accelerated forward using a magnetic field generated by strong electrical currents pulled from a surface ship’s electrical supply.

A high-velocity projectile leaves the gun at speeds up to seven times the speed of sound. The kinetic energy is theoretically enough to inflict serious damage on a surface ship without the explosives.

Defense companies BAE Systems and General Atomics both built electromagnetic railgun prototypes for the Navy, and the service has conducted live-fire testing during the development process.

As the US worked to develop a railgun, China also expressed interest in this advanced combat technology. In 2018, images appeared online of what appeared to be a Chinese tank landing ship equipped with a railgun. The next year, Chinese state media reported that Chinese warships would “soon” have railguns.

Not much has come out on the project since then, and it is unclear if this is still an area of interest for China.

For the US Navy, there has long been some expectation that if the service developed a working railgun, it would use it to arm its Zumwalt-class destroyers, which have been in need of new weaponry.

Instead, the US Navy intends to arm these warships with hypersonic missiles, specifically the Conventional Prompt Strike weapon currently in development.

Commenting on US Navy investments in the development of railgun technology, former Navy officer and defense expert Bryan Clark previously told Insider that “you are better off spending that money on missiles and vertical launch system cells than you are on a railgun.”

The railgun, even with its range of more than 100 miles, lacks that many missiles. The rounds are more powerful than those of standard deck guns, but they are less powerful than a missile. And the gun has usage limitations, is high maintenance, and would likely put a strain on the ship.

“It’s not useful military technology,” Clark told Insider.

US Navy leadership has said that the service plans to field hypersonic missiles aboard a Zumwalt-class destroyer by 2025, at which point it will move to arm its Virginia-class submarines. The Navy expects each Zumwalt destroyer to carry up to 12 hypersonic missiles.

Hypersonic weapons can fly at speeds of at least Mach 5, but it is their maneuverability, unpredictability, and unusual flight path that makes them particularly dangerous. Existing air- and missile-defense systems are not well suited to countering this type of threat.

Because these weapons are difficult to defeat, hypersonic missiles have become a key area of strategic competition between the US and its rivals China and Russia.

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The US captured one of its most important military outposts from an enemy who didn’t even know it was at war

US troops plant US flag on Guam during WWII
US officers plant the American flag on Guam eight minutes after Marines and soldiers landed on the island, July 20, 1944.

  • In June 1898, the US Navy sailed to Guam to capture the island from the Spanish.
  • The Spanish, who didn’t know they were fighting the US, surrendered the island without a fight.
  • Guam is still a US territory, and it now hosts some of the US’s most important military bases.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In eight months of fighting in 1898, the US secured its status as a global power by defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War.

Fought on two continents, the war had a number of important moments for the US military. It led to the independence of Cuba (with the US as the dominant power there) and to US control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

While there were battles in both Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Guam was taken without a fight. Indeed, the Spanish on the island had no idea they were even at war.

An important stop

Map of Guam in the Pacific
Guam was an important stopover point between the Americas and the Philippines.

In the 1898, the big prize for Spain and the US in the Pacific was the Philippines. Guam was an important stop between the Americas and the Philippines, but neither Spain nor the US paid much attention to it.

The Americans had already positioned Commodore George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron off China in anticipation of striking the Spanish fleet at Manila. But after a May 9 meeting of the US Navy War Board, which was formed to develop a strategy for the war, it was decided that Guam should also be taken to support operations in the Philippines.

To seize it, Secretary of the Navy John Long issued sealed orders to Capt. Henry Glass of the USS Charleston, a protected cruiser en route from California to Manila.

In Honolulu, Charleston was joined by three troop transports. As instructed, Glass only read his orders after leaving Hawaii on June 4.

“You are hereby directed to stop at the Spanish Island of Guam,” the orders read. “You will use such force as may be necessary to capture the port of Guam, making prisoners of the Governor and other officials, and any armed force that may be there.”

Glass was also ordered to destroy any Spanish fortifications or naval vessels he encountered.

Complete surprise

Navy cruiser Charleston in harbor at Agana Guam
USS Charleston at the entrance to the harbor of Agana, Guam, June 20-21, 1898.

Though the orders said the operation “should not occupy more than one or two days,” Guam’s defenses were not entirely known, so while en route Charleston’s crew spent days firing on practice targets in the ocean.

Charleston arrived off Guam on the morning of June 20. Encountering only an abandoned fort and no Spanish ships in Agana, the capital city, Glass ordered his ship to sail to Apra Harbor.

To the crew’s disappointment, the only vessel there was a Japanese trading ship. Charleston fired several shots at Fort Santa Cruz to see if it was occupied, but it was also abandoned.

Spanish officials soon sailed out to meet Charleston in two small boats, one of which had a US flag on its topsail.

Upon boarding the Charleston, the Spaniards apologized. They had interpreted Charleston’s gunfire as a salute, and they told the Americans they could not respond in kind because of a lack of gunpowder.

The Capt. Henry Glass monument on Guam
The Capt. Henry Glass monument on Guam.

It turned out the island hadn’t communicated with Manila since April 14 – 11 days before the US declared war on Spain – and no Spanish Navy vessel had visited Guam in 18 months.

Glass told the Spaniards that their countries were at war and that he was taking over the island. He demanded Guam’s governor, Don Juan Marina, surrender the island in person aboard Charleston.

The delegation returned, and Marina requested to speak to Glass on the island instead, as he was not legally allowed to board a foreign warship.

The next day, Glass sent an envoy to demand the Spanish surrender and gave them a half-hour to comply. Twenty-nine minutes later, Marina surrendered.

The island’s garrison, which had fewer than 60 men, was disarmed and taken as prisoners aboard one of the transport ships, as were Marina and other Spanish officials.

The Americans then set sail for Manila, where they assisted Dewey for the rest of the war.

An important base

B-29 over runway at Harmon Field Guam during WWII
A B-29 bomber over the runway at Harmon Field, Guam, April 13, 1945.

After the surrender, Glass personally examined Fort Santa Cruz, where he raised the American flag.

The fort itself “was entirely useless as a defensive work, with no guns and in a partly ruinous condition,” Glass wrote in a report to Long.

Glass described the other forts on the island as having “no value,” and that the only guns that could be found were obsolete cast-iron guns used for saluting “but now condemned as unsafe even for that purpose.”

While the Spanish had neglected Guam, the US turned it into an important base.

The Japanese captured it on December 10, 1941, but the US retook it in a bloody 21-day battle in summer 1944, and used it as a base for B-29 bombing missions for the rest of the war.

Air Force Cope North Guam
An eight-plane formation over Guam during exercise Cope North 21, February 9, 2021.

Guam is now home to roughly 170,000 people, and its importance for the US military has only increased.

It is now the US’s “most critical operating location west of the international dateline,” Adm. Philip Davidson said before retiring as head of US Indo-Pacific Command earlier this year.

The major bases on Guam are Andersen Air Force Base, which often hosts US long-range bombers, and Naval Base Guam, which is home to a submarine squadron and is frequently visited by other warships.

It also hosts some 7,000 US military personnel, with more arriving as the Marine Corps relocates 5,000 Marines from Okinawa as part of a realignment plan. Their new home, Camp Blaz, is the Corps’ first new base in 68 years.

US Navy 7th Fleet USS Blue Ridge Guam
US, Australian, Japanese, and South Korean naval ships in Apra Harbor at US Naval Base Guam, May 22, 2019.

Guam is an unincorporated US territory, meaning people born there are US citizens but have limited political rights while they live there.

The US presence there has often irritated the local population, as when thousands of US sailors were quarantined there after a COVID-19 outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in spring 2020.

The US military presence also makes Guam a target.

North Korea has threatened it specifically in the past, and the island is believed to be a focal point of Chinese plans to neutralize US bases in the region in case of conflict.

China’s DF-26, its first conventionally armed ballistic missile capable of reaching Guam, has been dubbed the “Guam Killer.”

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The US Navy practiced blasting an aircraft carrier for the first time in 34 years. Here’s what it’s testing.

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 Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, went through shock trials on June 18.
  • Shock trials are meant to test how a warship’s systems handle the stresses of combat.
  • It’s the first time a US carrier has undergone these tests since the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This month, the US Navy released images and footage of its newest carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, going through shock trials 100 miles off the Florida coast.

The tests, done with the crew aboard, involved detonating a 40,000-pound explosive off of Ford’s starboard side. The explosion was so strong that it registered 3.9 on the Richter scale – roughly equivalent to a small earthquake.

It was the first of three such trials for the Ford – the next two will feature detonations closer to the ship – and was the first time a US carrier has undergone these tests since the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987.

While the US Navy is debating the usefulness of shock trials, the fact that they are being done on the Ford indicates that the Navy is serious about maximizing the ship’s survivability against 21st-century threats.

Old tests for new threats

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
Ford during shock trials on June 18, 2021.

Shock trials are meant to test how well a ship’s systems and components hold up during combat and are not uncommon.

USS Jackson and USS Milwaukee, both littoral combat ships, underwent shock trials in 2016.

The amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde and the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, both of which carry aircraft, went through shock trials in 2008 and 1990, respectively. USS Arkansas, a nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser, did them in 1982.

What is unusual is the fact that the Navy conducted the shock trials on the first Gerald R. Ford-class carrier in service. The Navy typically conducts shock trials on later vessels of a given class.

Navy amphibious ship Mesa Verde explosion during shock trials
A 10,000-pound charge rocks USS Mesa Verde off the Florida coast, August 16, 2008.

The decision to subject Ford to the trials may be motivated by the Navy’s desire to ensure that the carrier is combat-ready the moment it begins its first deployment, which is expected to be in 2022.

US Navy officials have acknowledged the increasing prevalence of modern anti-ship weaponry, particularly China’s DF-21D “carrier killer” and DF-26 “Guam killer” missiles.

A recent Congressional Research Service report on the Ford-class cited China as an adversary “with highly capable anti-ship missiles” that raised questions about “the prospective survivability” of carriers in a conflict.

The same report also noted that live tests had shown that Ford “has limited self-defense capability” against anti-ship cruise missiles.

New systems and capabilities

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
Ford during shock trials, June 18, 2021.

The Ford also has a number of new systems and capabilities that aren’t on its Nimitz-class predecessors and haven’t faced combat conditions.

A new weapons elevator system, designed with modern munitions in mind, is meant to reduce how long it takes to arm aircraft.

The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System uses linear induction motors instead of steam to power the carrier’s catapults, ensuring faster, smoother, and more efficient takeoffs for fixed-wing aircraft.

Ford’s new arresting system, known as Advanced Arresting Gear, also uses electromagnetic technology. In addition to decreasing the stress on landing aircraft, the new arresting gear allows larger unmanned aerial vehicles like the MQ-25 Stingray to land on the Ford.

Navy cruiser Arkansas shock trials explosion
US Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Arkansas during a shock test, March 17, 1982.

Ford also has a new Dual Band Radar system. While Nimitz-class carriers have multiple rotating radars, Ford has one stationary multi-purpose radar that is more sensitive to aerial threats and easier to operate and maintain.

The Navy says that the new systems together allow the Ford’s air wing to conduct 33% more sorties and reduce the number of crew needed to run the ship to about 4,500, down from the roughly 5,000 needed aboard Nimitz-class carriers.

Ford’s two A1B nuclear reactors, which are of totally new design, generate almost three times more power than the A4W reactors used on Nimitz-class carriers, increasing Ford’s electrical power capacity and generation substantially.

That power capacity allows Ford to reliably power all of its new high-tech systems and leaves the door open for possible upgrades to add systems like direct-energy weapons.

Carriers of the future

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

While the capabilities of the new systems are impressive, Ford has faced a number of setbacks, and a lot of work remains ahead.

Ongoing delays on the weapon elevators meant that not all of them were ready when the shock trials started, which means they won’t be fully tested during the trials.

Moreover, the Navy accepted the new carrier without it being able to handle the F-35C, which was supposed to be the backbone of the Ford’s air wing.

The jet still can’t fly from the Ford, but Navy officials say they hope to have at least six air wings with F-35s by 2025.

Navy aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy
The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy is launched into the James River on February 28, 2020.

Despite the setbacks, the Navy hopes that Ford, which was commissioned in 2017, will start its maiden deployment in 2022.

Once the shock trials are finished, the Ford is expected to enter a month-long maintenance period, the carrier’s sixth so far, which will fix any damage from the trials and install the final upgrades.

A second Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy, is currently being fitted out, while a third, the Enterprise, is in the early stages of construction. Those carriers are scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in 2024 and 2028, respectively.

The fourth Ford-class carrier was ordered in 2019 and is scheduled for delivery in 2032. It will be named after Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller, the first Black recipient of the Navy Cross.

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