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Book Review: Roger Thompson’s “Lessons Not Learned”

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A friend recently pointed me to the 2007 book, Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture by Roger Thompson, published by the Naval Institute Press. The Naval Institute is a private institution completely independent of the USN and dedicated to the study of America’s national defense issues.

The book is highly critical of the US Navy and has drawn laudatory praise from the usual suspects – those who seek to gut the US military, including POGO anti-defense propagandists Douglas MacGregor, Winslow T. Wheeler and Pierre Sprey. (For rebuttal of just some of their many ignorant rants, see here, here, and here, for example.) These professional blowhards, and Thompson himself, believe they are fighting a deeply entrenched and lavishly funded “military-industrial complex” (i.e. they’re re-fighting the wars of the 1970s) and the US Navy’s supposedly vast propaganda arm. They also dismiss anyone who dares to criticize them and their writings as an industry shill, an agent of the mythical “military-industrial complex”, or a pro-USN propagandist. They also extend such slander to distinguished writers such as Tom Clancy.

But let’s leave the people aside, avoid ad hominem attacks, and focus on the book itself. Let’s see if it deserves the praise it has received from the above-mentioned individuals.

Thompson identifies four big threats to the US Navy – and thus to America’s ability to control the world’s seas, which rests on the Navy.

First is that of very quiet diesel-electric submarines. Such vessels, equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems, are very quiet and hard to detect. Yet, since the end of the Cold War, America has allowed its Navy’s anti-submarine skills, equipment, and force structure to atrophy, based on the wrongheaded belief that with the collapse of the USSR and with two ground wars in Asia, there was no more need for them. This was clearly wrong, and neglecting anti-submarine warfare has made the USN much weaker.

Nowadays, submarines – especially diesel-electric ones equipped with AIP, routinely embarrass the USN in exercises by remaining undetected and sneaking under American surface ships, in position to attack them with torpedoes or cruise missiles. This has happened numerous times during exercises involving allied navies’ subs, such as a Gotland class vessel of the Swedish Navy. It has also involved a Chinese navy Song class submarine in a 2006 incident in which the Chinese submarine sneaked undetected well within torpedo range of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. China currently has a large (and growing) fleet of quiet diesel-electric submarines of the Kilo, Song, Tang, and Qing classes. Iran has at least three quiet Kilo class submarines, while Russia has Kilo and Lada-class subs.

The second mortal threat is that of naval mines. China has up to 100,000 of them; Iran also has thousands, as do other enemies of the US. Naval mines could easily sink unsuspecting ships, and proved to be a real threat to the Navy and civilian American shipping in the 1980s, during the tanker war between Iraq and Iran, when the USN had to deploy considerable demining assets to the Persian Gulf. But since the 1990s, the USN’s demining skills and ship fleet have atrophied greatly, forcing the USN to rely to a large degree on allies. The French and Belgian navies have proven particularly efficient at demining and helpful in the effort. The USN even recently held an exercise featuring 40 allied countries sending their demining assets.

Remember, Dear Reader, how deadly Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) proved to be in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing thousands of American troops? The US Navy will face its own version of IEDs – naval mines – in future wars unless it greatly increases its inventory of demining ships and other assets and trains to regain demining skills.

And yet, the much-vaunted replacement for the Navy’s minesweepers, the fleet of Littoral Combat Ships with demining modules, won’t be ready for many years, because these demining modules haven’t even begun testing.

The third mortal threat is that of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). Thompson focuses mostly on the supersonic Russian SS-N-22 Sunburn (Moskit) and SS-N-27 Sizzler (Klub) missiles, which Russia and China both have (allegedly, so does Iran) and the latter of which is also sold with vehicle launchers that can fit on unsuspicious, innocently-looking container ships. These missiles can also be launched from ground platforms, aircraft, and naval ships and submarines. In other words, a surface ship could be attacked with these missiles from just about anywhere – and only one Moskit is needed to sink even a ship so big as an aircraft carrier.

Aircraft carriers’ size and flattop-like silhouette makes it even easier for anti-ship missiles to reach them. DDGs, cruisers, frigates, and other surface ships are much smaller and can be made stealthy (to a limited extent, Arleigh Burke class DDGs are – their radar signature is the same as that of a large fishing boat) – but even they aren’t completely safe.

During the 1982 Falklands War (to liberate the Argentine-occupied Falklands), the British lost many brave sailors and 6 ships to Argentine anti-ship Exocet missiles and dumb bombs. The British eventually triumphed, but paid a significant price. During the forementioned tanker war, when an Iraqi fighter mistakenly fired an Exocet missile at the USS Stark, a frigate, the vessel listed and nearly sank, and was saved only by the heroic damage control efforts of her crew (worthy a Medal of Honor, in my opinion). In the latter case, the damage was wrought by a single anti-ship missile.

Yet, China, Russia, Iran, and Syria all have more anti-ship missiles than they know what to do with. China alone has 500 Moskits, along with hundreds of ASCMs of other types, including the Yingji (YJ) family. Most of these are supersonic, unlike the transonic Exocet. Any naval combat between the US and any of these countries will likely involve a massive barrage of missiles being fired at USN ships, not just a few.

And yet, the Aegis missile defense system cannot handle more than 4 enemy missiles simoultaneously.

The fourth grave problem the USN faces, according to Thompson, is one of the Navy’s own doing: a poorly trained enlisted force, frequent shuttling of personnel from one assignment and ship to another, a cretinous up-or-out promotion system, and an officer corps more concerned about careerism, advancing in the ranks, and plum post-retirement jobs than with warfighting. (This is probably not true of the Navy’s current uniformed leader, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, but he was not the Navy’s CNO at the time the book was published.)

Nonetheless, there are several serious errors in Thompson’s book, which significantly undermine its value. Besides his incessant ranting against the mythical “military-industrial complex” and those who disagree with his views or point out his errors, his biggest error has been his advocacy of land-attack cruise missiles over manned carrier-borne aircraft.

He decries the cost of acquiring and operating the aircraft and training their pilots, as well as the cost of the carriers themselves. But Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles are not so cheap: one costs at least 1.5 million dollars, and each can be used only once. Once it’s expended, it’s gone and you need to procure a new one (and load it onto a launch-capable warship, which cannot be done at sea).

Meanwhile, planes can be used millions of times over during their multiple-decade service lifetimes. A typical tactical strike aircraft can have a life of well over 8,000 flight hours and deliver literally millions of cheap bombs (each costing less than 100K dollars) during its life.

Due to their high unit cost, cruise missiles can hit only a small, limited number of targets. They’re too expensive for any sustained operations and can be used only for small-scale attacks. During the First Gulf War, the US fired only about 100 Tomahawks – because they were so expensive. As Chuck Horner, the boss of the 1991 air war, said later about that conflict:

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Moreover, due to their small bodies and warheads, cruise missiles can hit only soft, unhardened, static targets. If any target is fleeting, or is even semi-hardened (e.g. a concrete structure), it is virtually immune to cruise missiles.

Furthermore, all cruise missiles except the most stealthy ones – and the Tomahawk is not stealthy at all – are very vulnerable even to the most modest air and missile defense systems. America’s enemies have two kinds of these. For large-scare area defense against cruise (and ballistic) missiles, as well as aircraft, they have air defense systems (wielding SAMs) such as the S-300, S-400, S-500, HQ-9, and the navalized HQ-16. For short-range defense of specific objects, such as buildings or weapon systems, they have short-range air defense systems like the SA-19 Grison, the Tor-M1, the Pantsir-S1, and the KS-1. Russia has the largest and most diverse arsenal of both types of systems, but has exported both kinds widely abroad – to China, Syria, Venezuela, Belarus, and many other countries.

This means that land-attack cruise missiles – which Thompson touts – are virtually useless, except against soft, unhardened, static targets not protected by any air defense systems.

A second major error in his book (besides his forementioned rants against his phantom enemies) is the claim that foreign submarines regularly defeat USN attack subs in exercises. This is an undocumented and false claim. Moreover, while Los Angeles class submarines are not very quiet by today’s standars, and don’t have the sophisticated sensors of the Virginia class, the latter class is much quieter than the submarines – diesel- or nuclear-powered – of any rival country, friend or foe – and has excellent sensors that can detect anything, including diesel-powered submarines, from 1,000 nautical miles.

The only problem is that the Virginia class – being very now – hasn’t yet entered service in large numbers (the first boat was commissioned in 2004 and their construction was upped to 2 per year only recently). Once they enter service in large numbers, they will clean the seas of enemy submarines – unless they are committed to other missions, which is likely.

Which brings me to another major flaw in Thompson’s book: his touting of the diesel-electric subs of rival countries as better than the nuclear submarines of the US Navy.

This is absolutely wrong. Not only are Virginia class submarines quieter than, and very much able to detect, enemy diesel-electric submarines, American attack subs (especially those of the Virginia class) also much more versatile.

In addition to the traditional submarine capabilities – sinking enemy ships and subs and laying mines – they can also launch land-attack cruise missiles, UAVs, and unmanned underwater vehicles; deploy and recover Special Operations personnel; and conduct espionage missions (including on enemy underwater cables, a mission that some USN subs have been conducting for decades).

The much-vaunted diesel-electric submarines of America’s adversaries and allies alike have none of these capabilities. (British Royal Navy nuclear attack submarines do, however, further validating the American model of a submarine fleet.)

This is not surprising, because foreign countries’ diesel-powered attack subs were designed only for operations not far from their countries’ shores – primarily in shallow waters (such as the Baltic Sea) or noisy, congested areas such as the East and South China Seas and the Persian Gulf. In other words, they were designed for territorial defense or in-theater anti-access/area-denial warfare.

But the nuclear attack submarines of the US Navy and its British counterpart – which Thompson himself admiringly calls “the one and only” on his website – are designed for totally different missions: for sea control as well as intelligence collection, Tomahawk missile attacks, launching UAVs and UUVs, and deploying and recovering Special Operations personnel, far away from home waters.

These submarines must, in short, do a far wider panoply of missions, and do so in any part of the globe, far away from home shores.

In short, American and British nuclear-powered attack subs can fight and win in any part of the globe. The submarines of their opponents can win only on their home court.

For all of these reasons, I cannot give the book more than a C. Thompson’s book gives a lot of interesting information and some useful advice for reforming the Navy and preparing it for tomorrow’s threats – and the Navy’s leadership would be wise to act upon it. But the book also contains the major factual errors mentioned above and is replete with Thompson’s rants against the mythical “military-industrial complex” and his critics, which is childish. For all of these reasons, his book merits nothing more than a C.

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Comments (1)

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  1. Derrell Poole says:

    Interesting read Zbigniew,thanks.

    I was a USN serviceman in the late ’70s – the Carter years, a period proported to be dismal in terms of the military. (BTW I don’t quite agree that ships could not replinsh their supply of Tomahawks at sea. We launched and replenished Harpoons (Tommy’s little brother) at sea and they ain’t all that much smaller. Replenishing at sea is one of the BIG prerequesits of nearly any system the USN uses.)

    Then came the ’90s and the first Gulf war where all the “expert” were freaking out about the battle-hardened 4th largest army in the world. Granted, this was after Reagon but any military serviceman who has paid attention knows that no matter what the policical, the Armed services are always on the cutting edge of the tech advances and what the experts didn’t seem to know then was that “we” were more than ready with all kinds of little toys (some known of, and some unknown) that made the “4th larghest” inmaterial.

    I don’t know about today but I still maintain the same general attitude and I regard the noise makers to be seekers of attention, sensationalism and on some mission or agenda.

    And another thing; if foreign diesal boats did get next to a carrier it ain’t cause the technology wasn’t their to detect them. Above all else the USN protects its bird farms! Whatever the reason – if this is true – watch what happens if and when the real McCoy happens!

    I wouldn’t write us off to anti-ship missiles just yet either.