Does Russia even need a carrier?

Russia’s aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on fire. Image from Reddit.

Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is on fire, and not in a good way. A large fire spread throughout the ship during recent welding work, and has so far killed one crew member (likely more, due to the extent of the fire). Anyone that has seen the fires aboard Forrestal can’t help but make an eerie connection.

Fighting the fire aboard the Forrestal. By Official U.S. Navy Photograph – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID USN 1124794 1124794#mw-category-media.

You would think this would be big news, but its barely scratched the Google News feed. Given that its Russia’s only carrier, you’d think this might change their Naval strategy or ship building priorities. For Russia though, this might prove to be overall a good thing.

Unlike the United States, Russia doesn’t have nearly the amount of foreign interests around the world. Most of Russia’s interests are right next door to them, in Eastern Europe and the South and Central Asia. These nations don’t require a Navy to reach. When war broke out in Syria and the Kuznetsov couldn’t launch and recover planes, Russia shifted to using other nearby airbases.

This is quite different from the United States, which uses aircraft carriers to project power around the world. The U.S. has multiple islands, two entire states and a number of Caribbean and Pacific territories to defend. Additionally, there are a significant number of Americans overseas, as well as a number of American owned companies that do business around the world. The U.S. needs a Navy to protect all these interests.

Russia’s Navy, in contrast, exists to foil the U.S. Navy. The small Russian economy can’t produce 11 supercarriers. Instead, Russia builds small, extremely capable vessels (such as the Buyan) that are fast, difficult to track and yet carry capable weapons such as the Yakhont anti-ship missile. Russia also builds an extensive and capable submarine fleet, with anti-ship missiles for use against carrier strike groups and fast attack submarines against U.S. ballistic missile submarines.

Remember too that Russia doesn’t need an outright win in any U.S. conflict. It’s sufficient for Russia to slowly take back former Soviet Union territory and keep the U.S. out of a conflict. Georgia and Ukraine are prime examples of Russia “nibbling on the edges of NATO” but keeping the U.S. at bay. In a possible large conflict, Russia would need a quick strike that would hurt the U.S. and convince them to do nothing. A strike on a carrier strike group from a Russian submarine, or an exchange of fire from a small Russian vessel against a NATO surface group, might be sufficient.

So for Russia, it would come as no surprise if they scrap their carrier. It doesn’t fit their naval strategy, and the cost to repair would be far better used building more submarines and smaller, more capable surface vessels. While we might laugh at them for this, given our wasting of money on stealth destroyers that can’t deploy or small ships that can’t fight, perhaps we have something to learn from the Russian Navy.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Investing in Active Shooter training

From Twitter

It’s been a bad week for the Navy. The bad news of two dead in a shooting in Pearl Harbor, HI, followed by three dead from a Saudi flight student in Pensacola is simply devastating. In a less publicized case, a Sailor died after a person ran a gate, traveling 81 miles per hour before he slammed into Petty Officer Oscar Temores’ car, killing him. This follows a string of other shootings in previous years, from the NOSC at Chattanooga, TN in 2015, to the USS Mahan (in Norfolk at the time) in 2014. These aren’t particularly dangerous areas of the country, so what, exactly, is going on?

First, some militarizes in the cases. Most don’t involve legal private firearms. They are either US Navy firearms (Pearl Harbor, Mahan) or illegally obtained weapons (Pensacola). And in all cases, its still illegal to have private firearms on a Navy installation.

Second, there were some warning signs that weren’t followed. The Pearl Harbor shooter was about to go to Mast (equivalent of a court hearing), but was issued a firearm for his watch station. The Virginia Beach gaterunner had multiple law violations before he ran the Little Creek Gate. I’m guessing we’ll find the Pensacola shooter had mental health issues as well.

Lastly, where were the Navy’s police (called Master at Arms)? In all cases, they responded pretty quickly. Nobody can respond instantly though. The Pearl Harbor shooting was over in less than 60 seconds. Police quickly engaged the Pensacola shooter, limiting his damage to 11 people, but if you’re in a big auditorium space with hundreds of people and no instant police, the sad reality is it will take time to lock down, time a shooter can use to murder more victims.

It doesn’t help that the Navy is struggling to recruit young MAs (see the low 2019 numbers here), most of whom are doing the day-to-day “beat” jobs. Less young MAs in cars and at gates, less police presence, and increased police response time. MA jobs have decent promotion chances compared to other ratings, but part of this is likely due to a lack of candidates.

The Navy is spending a lot of effort in conducting active shooter exercises. They’ve become more frequent and more realistic. However, they are always focused on training the police force. But past experience shows a shooting might not last very long, and most people are injured or killed in the initial seconds to minutes. In that case, the quick response by bystanders makes or breaks the encounter. Attacking the shooter in those critical first few seconds may mean the difference between a mass shooting and a few injuries.

Shootings will continue to happen, and given the number of weapons on a base, we can’t stop them. But we can out-think shooters. They’ll expect passive victims that don’t fight back. We shouldn’t give them that.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Was Secretary Spencer any good?

At Sea – Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, right, speaks with Carrier Strike Group 8 Command Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Bates in the in-port cabin during Spencer’s visit aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, Feb. 25, 2018. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kaysee Lohmann

Now that Secretary Spencer is officially no longer the Navy Secretary, I’m able to openly ask the question: why is everyone up in arms about him being fired? People (military and non-military) were hot and bothered by it on Facebook. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I’ll ask what should be the most important question: what, exactly, did Secretary Spencer do as SECNAV for two years?

If we judge his tenure by the shape of the Navy, it isn’t pretty. US Ship Force levels have been relatively flat. This is made worse by the continued deployment of ships to respond to, basically, everything around the world. The Joint Staff uses a process called “Global Force Management,” where each Combatant Commander requests presence of different forces. Aircraft Carriers in particular are the subject of much discussion, and when one breaks (like the Harry S. Truman), you have people arguing over how to surge another carrier out, rather than discussing whether a carrier is even needed in the first place. This causes our carriers and other ships to wear out, and given we can’t build them fast enough, we are left with a Navy full of worn out ships and crews.

Secretary Spencer had to have seen this, and yet in two years, we haven’t had any change. His long range ship building plan put us at 355 ships, maybe, in 2030. We’re building 10 ships a year…maybe. While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, China is set to overtake the US in ships by 2020. Numbers don’t account for crew readiness and weapon systems, but here again, the US is using relatively expensive weapons while China and Russia crank out increasingly cheaper missiles. Quantity becomes its own quality, and bankrupting the country to win the future fight isn’t a good option.

We could tackle this problem in a lot of ways. Building different ships, for example smaller carriers, would help get more ships to meet global requirements while saving higher-end ships for the big fight. Building a better shipyard infrastructure (getting away from having only a few places we can build Navy ships) could help lower the cost. Sharing ship designs with allies, similar to the F-35 program, could lower cost and make overseas repairs easier. Or perhaps we add in diesel submarines to help bring more submarines to the fight. Or we could build some smaller vessels, like the PCs of old, but with advanced striking power, to get a cheaper vessel that can fight in the littorals (the Littoral Combat Ship is anything but small or cheap).

But we have no innovation. The Long Range Shipbuilding plan sticks to traditional platforms, just calling for more of them. The one different platform, SSGN (converted ballistic submarines that shoot Tomahawk missiles and deploy SEAL teams) are going away, to be replaced by smaller Virginia submarines with specialized modules. Slightly innovative, but not enough to deal with China and Russia, who are designing very different Navies to fight very different wars in the future.

And how is that new carrier catapult working out? Even Bob Work was able to get LCS module price back on track.

We didn’t get much with Secretary Spencer. Our Navy isn’t in great shape, and ground wasn’t laid to make it much better. When the Secretary then decides to openly disagree with his boss, what did he expect would happen? If your boss is telling you to do something, and its not illegal, you get to disagree in private, but if he insists, then you get to resign.

For everyone mad about Secretary Spencer, I have to ask why. Is it because it was Trump that fired him? Did you really think Spencer was doing a good job? Because while I have some issues with Secretary Mattis leaving (I would prefer he stay on), I don’t see how Secretary Spencer was making our Navy great again.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

The problems with Open Source Intelligence

Did you know the Chinese detonated an underwater nuclear device in the South China Sea?!?

Even the Russians are worried!

https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=ru&tl=en&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.fontanka.ru%2F2019%2F11%2F22%2F078%2F%3Fref%3Dt

The Chinese are dismissing the claim as coming from some racist website. Well, we don’t believe them, do we?

https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3039040/us-far-right-bloggers-south-china-sea-explosion-claims

Except…it probably didn’t happen.

https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2019/11/no-china-did-not-secretly-detonate-a-nuke-in-the-south-china-sea-to-signal-the-start-of-wwiii/

The military has been asked more and more often to include news articles, social media and other internet sources into their intelligence analysis. Called Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), this information can sometimes be pretty insightful, especially in the case of Humanitarian Assistance missions, when cultural and long standing issues reported by the media can become central to solving a crisis.

The Russians in particular are great OSINT analyzers. Russian operatives scour over contracts, budget requests and laws in various governments, gleaning information such as weapons requirements that speak to future strategies. While its an often grueling process, it can turn up intelligence that can guide future decisions, without the risk of trying to steal classified documents.

But OSINT suffers from fake news. The above “nuclear explosion” is just one of many dead threads. Old pictures of ships in port passed off as current. Troop movements that just don’t exist. The list goes on, and there is no way to eliminate the fake news from the real news.

There is one age-old trick though: verifying source data. Looking at the metadata stamps on pictures makes it easy to find old material. Reading the data from a medical study debunks many of their wild claims. And in the case of the nuclear explosion, looking at NOAA and other nuclear montioring sites, plus understanding the actual units of radiation measurement, make it easy to see a normal background radiation measurement.

We’ll never ban fake news, but perhaps fake news will make us a more skeptical news consumer.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Hospital pricing, a long overdue change

Hospital pricing, from MSNBC

Going to a hospital is stressful. People generally go that are sick and want to get better. But even if you do, getting the bill in the mail a few days later can often send a shock to your system. After Rebecca died, I did get the final bill (that my insurance gratefully paid for), and the total was almost $100,000. Paying that out of pocket would have been pretty tough.

A little while back, I was visiting friends and one of them told me she had finally paid off the hospital fees associated with her little girl. It was shocking to me, since I’m blessed to have insurance and because her girl was two years old. But her insurance didn’t do a great job of detailing out-of-pocket expenses, so she and her husband got a bill that they just couldn’t pay in one chunk.

Thus, I was really happy to hear the news that President Trump pushed for price transparency rules that require hospitals to post prices. Initiatives like this have been moving forward before with varying degrees of success. Not surprisingly, hospitals and insurance companies are pushing back, but that’s no surprise. Every time an organization can hide their cost model it doesn’t benefit the consumer. Banks were like this years ago, and I’d argue social media sites are in this category now.

The more we learn about how hospitals charge people, the more people will shop around for routine procedures and force larger hospitals to embrace change. The only place this works now is in elective surgery. You can in fact shop around for LASIK eye surgery, and that has kept the surgery within grasp of most Americans, even ones without health insurance. As that same level of transparency gets applied to other areas of health care, we’re going to get better pricing, and stop saddling people with huge hospital debt.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Ask a Vet about their story

I will be forever amazed how well our country treats veterans. Anytime I’ve traveled in uniform, it becomes hard to pay for a meal. This is especially true if I’m driving in the middle of the country where there aren’t a lot of military bases. This Veterans Day will doubtlessly be no different, and I’ll get reminded again that this is a country full of great people that care.

Over this past week I had a chance to interact with some of the older veterans from WW2 and Korea. Those veterans are disappearing at an alarming rate, and it won’t be long until they are gone. After that, we’ll eventually have nobody that lived through the Cold War. That time is coming faster than we think.

These veterans have stories that bring these conflicts to life. One WW2 veteran told me about the large number of plane accidents near his hometown. It reminded me that while we increased production of everything from ships to planes, it doesn’t mean it was the greatest quality. We cranked out Liberty ships in less than a month, but more than a few brittle fractured in half due to cold weather and poor welding. Planes and other weapon systems had similar issues. There are a lot of training aircraft on the bottom of Lake Michigan due to equipment failures.

The Liberty ship S.S. Schenectady, which, in 1943, failed before leaving the shipyard. (Reprinted with permission of Earl R. Parker, Brittle Behavior of Engineering Structures, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1957.) From: https://metallurgyandmaterials.wordpress.com/2015/12/25/liberty-ship-failures/

I would encourage every non-veteran reading this to not just thank a veteran this weekend for their service, but ask them if they have 5 minutes to share a story. Our veterans can become increasingly isolated in their own little groups, and after a while your sea stories get old in the same groups of people. Having even a brief chance to hear about something they did will help bring the conflicts alive. You won’t read these stories in a book. History books capture facts and numbers well, but history is made by real people who are far too complex to capture on paper. This Veterans Day gives us a golden opportunity to remember that and carry on these stories in our minds before they are lost.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Open Skies and Comcast Cable: Both things that need to be cut

One of the Russian Open Skies Aircraft
By Oleg Belyakov – http://www.airliners.net/photo/Russia—Air/Tupolev-Tu-214ON/2007280/L/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17241781

Anytime President Trump goes to cancel a treaty, it sure causes a ruckus. Open Skies, a treaty we’ve had with Russia and 32 other countries since 2002 (although the idea traces back to 1955) that allows flights by very specific aircraft with very specific imaging equipment to fly anywhere over the countries of the signatories. It was designed as a mutual-trust building measure to help the then-Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries build trust with their NATO counterparts.

Now President Trump doesn’t see any point to it. Similar to the INF Treaty, Open Skies has outlived its usefulness, for a lot of reasons:

China is a bigger threat. Yup, China. China is absolutely loving the world created for it by the post-World War Two winners, and has benefited tremendously. Not being constrained by Open Skies, INF, START, or a host of other treaties, it remains openly belligerent to its neighbors. Dropping out of US-Russia agreements allows us to restart negotiations and add in China.

We have other surveillance. Open Skies flights are announced in advance, and both sides take steps to limit what can be observed. The actual usefulness of the flights is pretty limited. Plus, with advances in satellite technology, the flights don’t add much value unless you don’t have access to any satellite imagery. Given that you can purchase public imagery, the Open Skies treaty is increasingly becoming irrelevant.

It’s a swipe at Russia. Russia continues to behave aggressively. Ukraine? Georgia? Still missing pieces of territory. If you’re in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, you’re not exactly comfortable with this trend. This, on top of Russia’s push to legitimize tactical nuclear weapon use, makes them increasingly dangerous. Why reward that behavior?

Open Skies is like Comcast Cable. The subscription gives you so little, yet benefits the other side an awful lot. You know you can do better, but that inertia to keep it remains.

We need to cut the cord on Open Skies and all other deals until Russia stops invading its neighbors.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Breaking the SCIF phones

What all phones should look like after a SCIF visit.

If you’ve never heard of a SCIF before this past week, you probably don’t work in government. SCIFs are Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities. If you want to read or work on a document that is classified Top Secret, you work in a SCIF. As you can see from a released set of specifications, SCIFs are fairly intensively constructed. Floors and ceilings are solid, wires are in buried conduits checked by the NSA’s TEMPEST program, and access is tightly controlled.

It’s not surprising that when Republican lawmakers go into the SCIF with cell phones, it causes alarm. And it should. Photography equipment isn’t allowed, nor is anything that can conduct two-way communication. Already you have people calling for removal of clearances. But is that appropriate?

In short, no. Congressional Representatives and Senators get access to classified information based on their position. While they are required to take an oath of secrecy, they don’t have to go through the SF86 process. By electing them to their office, the people of the United States (whether they realize it or not) have declared their comfort with that individual having access to classified access.

While some very sensitive information is only released to certain individuals, its pretty small. A Congressman visited a site I worked at before and had access to everything. Now, his staff members did not, and I had to keep them out of certain briefings, but the Congressman himself was good.

In short though, you can’t take away access, unless you kick them out of office.

However, there should be consequences for violating rules. All the Armed Services have harsh and effective ways of dealing with this. Cell phones brought into a SCIF are normally sent to NCIS to be scanned. With people having most of their lives on a phone, losing it for a week while NCIS painstakingly goes through every image and file tends to be good persuasion. The Marines in Iraq, in response to people plugging their personal devices into classified computers, simply confiscated the devices and nailed them to a wooden board outside the SCIF. After walking by a board with iPhones and tablets nailed and screwed to the wall, you get the message quickly.

Confiscate and scan some phones, and put a policy in place that repeat offenders lose their devices. After a few of those, you won’t have idiots bringing phones into a SCIF.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency. The author kindly reminds you to keep your damn phone out of the SCIF!

Things that get worse

We like to think everything is going to get better over time. Mainly due to technological advances, this turns out to be true in most cases. Our phones tend to get better over time, or at least they get faster and have more memory (and get more expensive). We’ve gone from about two types of crap beer to so many microbrews that its becoming uncool to drink light beer. Our cars are safer, our water is better quality, and our appliances are more energy efficient.

Not everything is getting better. There are plenty of things that get worse, mainly due to human beings.

Home Building and the trades. I recently had a home built, and it was an ugly process. One of the most surprising parts was just how hard it was to find people that were willing to work, because most trades are solidly booked.

Locksmith? A week to get one in.
Electrician? Solidly booked, literally bounced from my house to another plus multiple emergency calls every week.
Brick and foundation guy? When I met him, he had five other jobs on the books.

Because of the shortage, we’re going to continue to get homes mostly built to lower, quicker to obtain standards. It’s not going to change until we get more people in the trades to help increase competition.

Wifi and Internet. Most people get internet in a cable modem, and then to an all-in-one wifi access point and router combo unit. The unit acts as a router, switch and wireless access point all in one, doing all three of these things poorly. Especially for bigger homes, the all-in-one sucks.

This is made worse by throughput. I have a small script that checks my internet throughput every hour, and its shocking how poor the connection can be from Cox. You might have a great WiFi device, but its like hooking up a new car to an old set of tires…you just don’t get the right performance.

Free Speech. We have access to tons of information via the Internet, and the exchange of ideas should be relatively free. But its not going to be, and social media is largely to blame. Social media is allowing people to remain in an echo chamber, and despite the increased connectivity, this is going to result in more restrictions on free speech.

Don’t believe me? I shared a Babylon Bee story and had a liberal friend of mine tell me he had never heard of the Babylon Bee. Now, Babylon Bee (a satire news agency) tends to be more conservative, but it’s very well known…unless your Facebook feed is being manipulated to never share conservative viewpoints.

Echo chambers lead to turning people into “others,” which make it far easier to legislate against and even commit violence against. At some point, we’ll have enough free speech restrictions that it will reach a tipping and we’ll snap back, but in the near future, social media is going to make it worse.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

How’s that Africa plan working out for us?

Map of Nigeria, from Nigeria.ru

With the focus on the Middle East, its easy to forget there are other parts of the world. Africa in particular tends to not make our news feeds. It always makes mine though, and yesterday was more bad news:

Nigeria looks to sign military cooperation deal with Russia this month

with this gem:

““We’re sure that with Russian help we’ll manage to crush Boko Haram, given Russia’s experience combating Islamic State in Syria,” Nigerian envoy Steve Ugbah said in an interview with Russia’s RIA news agency.”

Steve Ugbah, Nigerian Envoy

Ugh.

As a nation we suck at African relationships. Nigeria in particular is a key nation, with not only a relatively functioning democracy, but also a large population and large economy. Nigeria will be a leading force in Africa over the next 20 years. And that is about where our relationship ends.

Our State Department is not pushing relationships forward enough, unlike China and Russia, who are more than happy to offer economic and military incentives to advance their influence in the region. On the military side, we should be pushing for a military collective with African Nations that would help build military standards (similar to NATO), allow collective exercises, provide personnel exchanges and open markets to military sales. On the economic side, Africa presents a unique opportunity break China’s grasp on low-cost manufature and invest in a region that is unlikely to build a military super-giant devoted to destroying the United States. While we’re at it, let’s reevaluate how we do sanctions, since we seem happy to put sanctions on African countries for human rights violations while willfully ignoring those of Arab countries.

Africa could be our answer to China if we let it be. Let’s make that choice vice letting China and Russia turn Africa into their next backyard.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.