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Date: 28 Feb 2020



Only 70 days until the worlds Submariners meet in The Swedish Naval Port of Karlskrona a UNESCO World Heritage Centre

The Swedish May 2020 Congress website  



The USSVI Convention in Tucson Web Page





Please give a big welcome to Master Chief Steve Ricard USN Ret. Our newest member of ISA/USA. I consider ETCM (SS) Navy Diver, Steve Ricard, as one of my closest shipmates from our service as River Rats at (Squadron/Naval Submarine Support Facility NLON). Steve served on the USS Nathanael Green SSBN 636G and USS Narwhal SSN 671. He lives in New London, CT, with his wife, Elaine. Steve is also the Groton Base Holland Club Chair. He is lucky he gets to work with another great Sailor Bud Atkins Holland Club National Chair and fellow Groton Base member.


Join 31 Other Nation’s Submariners for fun and travel.

Consider becoming a member of the ISA-USA; you will benefit in many ways.

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The New Explosive Theory About What Doomed the Crew of the ‘Hunley’



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A blast-injury expert takes aim at the mystery of what sank the most famous—and lethal—submarine of the Civil War

By Rachel Lance


The dark hull of the submarine rose a few inches above the waterline. Pale moonlight glinted off the quiet ocean as small waves lapped against the hull. The submarine was about 40 feet long, cylindrical down most of its slim length, but with a tapered, wedge-shaped bow and stern that hinted at how quickly it could slice through the water. The deadlights, with their thick, imperfect, handmade glass, were the only sign that there might be a crew within.

The HL Hunley was lying in wait to the east of Charleston Harbor, off the coast of South Carolina. The submarine had been there for months, practicing for its crucial mission and waiting patiently for flat seas.

Its bow carried the source of its destructive power. A spar made of wood and metal was bolted to a pivot on the bottom corner of the boat’s leading edge, and at the far end of this spar was a copper cylinder the size of a keg: the boat’s torpedo. The torpedoes of the time were simple stationary bombs, very different from the modern, independent devices that can propel themselves through the water from a great distance. To complete its mission, the Hunley would need to approach its target closely, then use this spar to press the charge directly against the side of the enemy’s hull.

On the deck of the USS Housatonic, sailors gazed out over a flat sea. The Housatonic was just one of many Union ships that had been prowling the waters outside Charleston for months, and tonight, like every other night, the silence was punctuated by the sounds of Union artillery.

The Hunley swam closer. It took hours to reach the ship.

A sailor on watch aboard the Housatonic spotted the sliver of dark metal hull exposed above the surface of the water and alerted others, but submarines were new technology, and the men did not understand the deadly shape in the water. Their cannons weren’t positioned to hit an object so close by and down below, so they attacked with small-arms fire. But the submarine remained undeterred.

HL Hunley pressed its torpedo snugly against the Housatonic’s side. One of the three thin metal rods protruding from the leading face of the bomb depressed slightly against the wooden hull. The fragile wire holding the rod precariously in place snapped, freeing the coiled energy of the compressed spring that was firmly wrapped around the rod’s body. The rod smashed against the pressure-sensitive caps inside the charge, and they released a fiery inferno. As the black powder exploded, the copper casing ripped open, releasing the fearsome pressures of explosive black powder into the water and against the wooden hull of the Housatonic.

In the Waves

In the Waves tells the story of how a determined scientist cracked the case of the first successful—and disastrous—submarine attack.


The USS Housatonic



The USS Housatonic arrived in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, in September 1862. It was part of a crippling Union blockade of Confederate shipping. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

A spray of shattered wood planks burst upward from the deck of the ship. The submarine had hit its target, punching a lethal blow through the boat’s underbelly. The force of the blast rippled through the entire ship, and even the sailors at the bow nearly 200 feet away instantly understood that their vessel would soon be on the ocean floor.

As the crew scattered to save themselves, the metal hull of the submarine silently disappeared. Those in Charleston awaiting the return of the Hunley, hoping to celebrate its successful mission, never saw it again.

One hundred and thirty-six years later, in 2000, in a massive custom-built water tank, archaeologists clad in protective coveralls and wearing respirators sorted patiently through the muck and silt that had slowly filled the hull of the submarine as it lay on the bottom of the ocean floor. Accounts of the Hunley’s sinking had assumed horrific scenes of the men trying to claw their way through the thick iron hatches, or huddled in the fetal position beneath the crew bench in their agony. Sinkings of modern submarines have always resulted in the discovery of the dead clustered near the exits, the result of desperate efforts to escape the cold metal coffins, to sit silently and wait one’s demise defies human nature.

The crew of the Hunley, however, looked quite different. Each man was still seated peacefully at his station.

* * *

My research adviser at Duke University was Cameron “Dale” Bass, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Dale worshiped efficiency. To save time, every day he wore the same type of black polo shirt, with black or gray cargo hiking pants that zipped off at the knee, and the same heavy black lace-up combat boots. The students in Dale’s lab researched injury biomechanics: the various mechanisms by which human beings got injured and killed. About half the students worked on car crashes, and the other half, including me, focused on explosions.

Before coming to Duke, I’d been a civilian engineer for the U.S. Navy, where I’d helped build underwater breathing systems. The Navy had sent me back to school to get a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, and in Dale’s lab, I was a natural fit to study underwater explosions. Most of my medical cases were from sailors injured during the Second World War. I combed through dozens of reports a day, looking for those in which a physician reported enough information to let me model the blast. The stories were usually the same: feeling of a sharp kick to the groin, with a stabbing pain in the gut. Sometimes they would immediately vomit blood, and sometimes they would have sudden and uncontrollable bloody diarrhea. Both are signs of severe trauma to the intestinal tract. Sometimes they would start coughing up blood, a sign of damage to the lungs.

I would routinely get lost in the misery of the injuries, and it was during one of these depressing reviews that I heard the staccato thunk of Dale’s combat boots coming down the hall. All of us knew that sound. If the boots kept going, we kept working. But sometimes we heard the boots stop a few steps past a door, pause and then reverse. This meant Dale had an idea. Today, the boots stopped for me.

“What about the Hunley.” The words were delivered as a statement. “Can your fancy software model it?” he asked.

“Sure,” I responded, without any idea what he was asking. “I don’t see why not.” In grad school, unless you already have a damn good reason locked and loaded, the correct answer to such a question is always yes. Whatever he was talking about, assuming it was a boat of some kind, the Navy blast software I had been using could probably model it.

The boots proceeded down the hall.

I pulled up a new browser window on my computer and began to investigate what I had signed up for.

People are born with the instinct to fight against their death, to struggle with their last breath against even the most unavoidable and uncompromising ends. And that universal instinct is why the Hunley case fascinates. The submarine is now housed at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina, where visitors are invited to “solve the mystery” at the end of their tour. The museum exhibits offer four theories: (1) that the torpedo damaged the hull and sank the boat, (2) that the crew was somehow trapped inside, (3) that the submarine collided with another object and sank, or (4) that a lucky shot fired from the crew of the Housatonic struck the captain.

Any of these theories would require that the crew members, with ample time to see their own deaths coming, chose to spend their last moments nobly in peace, seated at their stations. But that would defy human nature. Something killed these men. Something that left no trace on the boat or their bones.

If people near a bomb die, I always suspect some kind of effect from the bomb first. As I searched for information on the Hunley’s explosive charge, one image, in particular, kept appearing: a yellowed, faded scan of a cylinder, with hand-drawn lines and circles detailing its shape. “Singer’s torpedo,” proclaimed the large, old-fashioned calligraphy at the top of the image, with the more crucial information in a slightly smaller font below: “used for blowing up the Housatonic.”


A schematic diagram of the Hunley



A schematic diagram shows the HL Hunley and its crew shortly before the torpedo attack on the USS Housatonic. Seven men, sitting in a row, powered the submarine by turning a crank, which set the propeller in motion. With the exception of the captain, the crew sat on the port side to offset the weight of the crank, which was on the starboard side. The torpedo, positioned about eight feet below the water’s surface, was attached to the end of a rigid spar that was set at about 45 degrees from the sub; the angle was meant to keep the vessel from getting stuck in the hole the blast created in the ship’s side. Engineers also believed that the explosion’s recoil would push the Hunley out of the range of danger. But they failed to account for the effects a shock wave could have on a human body. (Illustration by Matthew Twombly)

According to this drawing, the Hunley’s charge contained 135 pounds of black powder. That is a lot of powder. It’s a lot of explosives.

The spar, attached to the bottom corner of the Hunley’s bow, had recently been conserved. What had initially seemed to be voluminous concretion, the accumulated crud of 13 decades underwater, had turned out to contain the peeled-back shards of the torpedo casing itself. I sat staring at photos of the beautiful, shiny copper ribbons. The bomb had to have been firmly attached to the end of the spar for those strips to be peeled back so cleanly. The spar was 16 feet long—which had to be the distance between the boat and the bomb.

At some point, the sun had set, and I realized I was destroying my potato-chip cache because I was starving. I closed my laptop, leaving open the browser windows so I could continue to stare at the pictures and articles later from home, over a burrito. I made my way out of the building, past the doors of open offices filled with other students still working into the night. As I swung my leg over my motorcycle, parked on the sidewalk outside the lab, I decided I could spare a few weeks to calculate the crew’s oxygen supply and determine whether suffocation was a realistic theory.

I have never so drastically underestimated the time it would take to solve a problem.

The next day I had the browser windows still open on my laptop, ready and waiting for Dale’s inevitable appearance in my office. “Well?” he asked. I angled the laptop screen toward him.

“This is the charge. One hundred thirty-five pounds of black powder.” I flipped to a second window. “This is the end of the spar. The charge was made of copper. It was still attached. The spar was 16 feet long.”

A third browser window. “These are the remains.” The image showed a neat, color-coded row of skeletons inside the hull of the submarine. Each color represented the remains of one individual, and each individual’s remains were crumpled in place at his battle station inside the boat.

“Nobody tried to escape. They died where they sat.” A grin spread slowly across Dale’s face.

* * *

Before I could begin to figure out whether the crew had somehow been killed or injured by their own massive bomb, I had to evaluate other theories that could explain their deaths. Had the men, for instance, suffocated inside the closed hull?

I was reasonably certain that suffocation, a term that specifically describes a lack of oxygen or cessation of breathing, would not have caused the deaths of the Hunley crew. They could have asphyxiated, a more general term that would include the effects of carbon dioxide. But their bodies’ painful symptoms would have warned them that their demise was imminent, giving them time to try to escape.

Carbon dioxide is normally a tiny 0.04 percent of each breath that we inhale. As the percentage starts to climb, more and more CO2 is driven into the bloodstream. At around 5 percent, a person starts to notice what underwater divers in one experiment politely labeled “distracting discomfort.” The pain and discomfort escalate as the CO2 levels rise because the blood itself becomes increasingly acidic. Receptors in the brain sense the increase in acidity and try to counteract it. The blood vessels on the surface of the brain dilate in an attempt to transport the acidity away from the sensitive neurons; this dilation causes a headache. The brain increases the breathing rate and the heart rate and expands all the blood vessels, trying desperately to increase the amount of blood being pumped past the lungs so they can process and eliminate the deadly gas. In the end stages of carbon dioxide exposure, the acid in the veins begins to chemically break down the myriad enzymes and proteins that control bodily functions on a cellular level.

To do the math on the breathing gases, I would need the boat’s interior volume, and to get that I would have to resort to some scientific sleuthwork. Over the course of a month, I downloaded every photo and diagram I could find of the Hunley and measured them meticulously to find all the sub’s relevant dimensions. After I used this information to create a three-dimensional model, my computer could tell me the size.


Conservator preparing to use solution on Hunley



Anna Funke, a conservator, prepares to use a salt-removing solution on the Hunley at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston. (The Post and Courier)

Based on the interior volume of the boat, I calculated how long it would take for painful levels of CO2 to build up, and determined the crew’s precise oxygen supply. The crew would have had a 30- to 60-minute window of warning—depending on their levels of physical exertion—between the time the air first reached a noticeable 5 percent CO2 and when it reached the low-oxygen level of 6.3 percent at which they might pass out. Carbon dioxide causes pain; the headache is sharp and profound, and the ragged panting feels like the body is struggling to catch up after a panicky sprint. It was implausible that the crew would have stayed peaceful and quiet for this length of time during such symptoms.

I had surpassed the threshold of reasonable scientific evidence, and therefore, for me, the theories of suffocation and asphyxiation were eliminated. Once I ruled out those theories, I turned back to examining my primary suspect: the blast.

* * *

The author Kurt Vonnegut once spoke in an interview about his time in the military in Germany during World War II, right after the firebombings that devastated Dresden. His job had been to excavate the bomb shelters and basements to remove the rotting corpses before the entire city started to stink of human putrefaction. The people he found had usually died without moving, without any signs of struggle, and were often still seated in their chairs. They were not outwardly wounded; they were not blown wildly across the room.

There are multiple ways for victims to die in a firebombing, and Vonnegut’s cases cannot be retroactively declared to have all occurred solely because of one single cause. However, they share the same key descriptors as the Hunley’s: undisturbed, no external injuries, dead where they sat or stood. To a blast researcher, this scenario sets off all the mental alarms. It starts our heads screaming that we should at least suspect what is called by our field a “primary blast injury.”

Medically speaking, the injuries from an explosion are neatly divided into one of four categories. A blast victim can receive only one type of injury, or they can receive a grab bag of trauma containing any mixture of the four. The injury types are numbered for easy reference: primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary. The last three injury types are logical, meaning that they make obvious sense, and even people with zero blast experience can predict that they are expected possibilities.

In contrast, a primary blast injury—the kind possibly incurred by the victims in the Dresden bomb shelters—is a strange and horrifying fluke produced by the bizarre physics of an explosion. It is usually the result of a shock wave.


Reconstructions of Hunley crew



Reconstructions of the Hunley crew at a press conference in April 2004. Their actual remains were buried the following day in a Charleston cemetery. (Stephen Morton / Getty Images)

A shock wave is a particular kind of pressure wave, and it can have a terrible impact on certain human tissues. It most commonly develops during an explosion, when molecules of air accumulated at the wavefront are shoved together by the explosive gas urgently expanding behind them. These molecules are so densely packed that they collide with one another far more rapidly than usual, generating a unique wave that moves faster than the normal speed of sound.

In its purest form, as defined by physics, the shock wave goes straight from zero to its maximum pressure in an instant; the change is so abrupt that, on a graph, it’s a vertical line. If it were a car it would go from 0 to 60 in 0 seconds. When the pressure of one of these waves reaches a certain threshold, it can disintegrate everything in its path. In blast physiology, we use the term a bit more loosely: Humans are so frail that we can die from fast-rising blast waves that don’t even qualify through physics as proper shock waves.

Most of the human body handles fast-rising waves surprisingly well. Such waves can move straight through water without causing much chaos and disruption, and human bodies are, after all, mostly water. It’s the gas pockets inside certain organs that cause the real drama. In the chest wall, which is mostly water, sound moves at roughly 1,540 meters per second. In the lungs, sound waves have to navigate a labyrinth of air bubbles, and they slow down to 30 meters per second. Therefore, a wave moving through the body that hits the lungs is suddenly forced to slow down by 98 percent.

If a shock wave traveling through the watery tissue of the chest wall is like an out-of-control semi-truck speeding down a mountain highway, then lung tissue is the gravel pit of a runaway truck ramp. The truck itself suddenly slows to less than 2 percent of its prior speed—but its great kinetic energy must still go somewhere. Cargo goes flying, gravel flies everywhere. Likewise, the delicate tissues that form the walls of the lungs rupture and shred, and blood sprays into the alveoli, the gas pockets needed for breathing. This breakdown is called spalling.

Brain tissue can also be affected by a shock wave, which can cause a traumatic injury without ever damaging the skull. Critically, the brain remains intact after a primary blast injury, and the only potential sign of trauma is a faint inkblot of blood that may be spread across its surface.

Fatalities from a primary blast occur at lower pressures than the pressure levels required to translate a human body. To rephrase that in plain English: A person will die, choked with blood, from a shock wave that was far too weak to move him.

* * *

I needed to go beyond my theory and test my blast idea, which meant I needed a model submarine and a body of water. My labmates and I conducted preliminary experiments at Duke’s Chilled Water Plant 2, which hosts a picturesque reclaimed water pond. The results were encouraging, but we needed to scale up and also conduct the experiment with black powder. Duke’s facilities were not an option; Dale and I knew without even asking that the safety office would never allow live explosives on campus. My boyfriend, Nick, helped find a test site: isolated, expansive tobacco, cotton, and sweet potato farm with an artificial pond. The owner, Bert Pitt, asked me to drive out to talk before he agreed to the project. Understandably, he had some questions.

Sitting on barstools at his white kitchen counter, Bert and I looked at pictures of the Hunley on my laptop as I explained the project. I was using a scale model, I said, not a full-sized 40-foot sub, so while I didn’t plan to sink it if something unexpected happened, the boat would be easy to retrieve. Bert was worried about the pond’s fish surviving the blasts. I told him that fish are surprisingly robust because fish don’t have bubbly lungs that would halt the blast wave and tear apart. Unless they tried to eat the charge, they should be fine. Bert nodded, then gestured through the kitchen’s sliding door toward the silver pickup truck outside.

“Well,” he said, “let’s drive out there and see if the pond has got what you need.”

The pond was beautiful, both in the traditional, picturesque sense and also in terms of my scientific perspective. “It’s all yours if you think it’ll work for what you need,” Bert said, watching me sidelong as we stood on the wooden pier, looking out over the water. I tried to suppress my joy and instead just firmly shook his hand.

“It’s perfect. Thank you.”* * *

Nick decided he was up for a lengthy drive to a mysterious munitions warehouse deep in the country. Brad Wojtylak, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, had called ahead so I could legally buy black powder in bulk. The warehouse was full of industrial shelving stocked to the brim with powder, ammunition, targets, and security boxes aimed at helping doomsday preppers bury and hide their gold and bullets. We carefully lodged 20 pounds of freshly purchased black powder—the maximum amount permitted in one vehicle—in the trunk of my little Pontiac.

We were on the highway heading east when the car in front of us started spinning in erratic circles. I never saw what caused the accident. Something sparked the coupe two cars forward to hit the concrete barrier that divided our left-hand lane from westbound travelers. The coupe began to turn doughnuts down the highway, catching the front end of the next vehicle in the line, metal, and plastic and glass flying off like whirling shrapnel.

A moment before the chaos, I had noticed in the rearview mirror the grille of a massive truck pressed nearly up against us, and now my eyes were glued to the mirror despite the rapidly shrinking distance between us and the melee ahead. Nick had the same thought I did and spoke only two words while digging his fingers into the handle of the passenger-side door. “BEHIND YOU.”

My brain shrieked: Black powder is impact-sensitive. We are a bomb.

I hit the brakes, and we came to a heated stop several feet from the crash. The truck behind me was so close I could see the wide-eyed fear in the driver’s eyes in my rearview mirror.

He should have been far more terrified.* * *

Several days later, I drove cautiously over the red dirt paths crisscrossing Pitt Farm. Crouching in the long grasses at the end of the pier, I tightened the small access panel that shielded the interior of our six-foot test submarine from splashing water. I had christened it the CSS Tiny and stenciled the moniker onto its stern.

I’d been struggling with a problem: It wasn’t my first day at the pond, and throughout our testing, the gauges I was using would work fine when we tested them beforehand but failed inside the boat during the test. The readings still didn’t make sense. Some degree of pressure transmission through the hull was almost inevitable.

After one of these failures, I asked the undergrad helping me to hit the bow with a rubber mallet to help me test the gauge. Unfamiliar with nautical terminology, he brought the mallet down squarely on the stern instead. I stared at him for a moment, processing the realization that not everybody knew the difference between bow and stern.

Then I had my eureka moment.

I grabbed the mallet and smacked the bow hard. The pressure reading inside the boat jumped. I hit the stern. Nothing. I understood then why the internal gauges kept failing: They could only read pressure waves traveling from one direction. They were facing the bow and wouldn’t read pressures coming from any other direction.

I had assumed because the charge was attached to the ship’s bow, that much of the pressure would naturally transmit from that direction. It turned out it was coming in from another direction, and I’d been missing it because I had pointed my gauges the wrong way.

Once I realized what was wrong, I borrowed a new set of underwater gauges from other Navy engineers—and these gauges were omnidirectional. That meant they could measure waves coming from any direction. The new gauges worked like magic. With each test, they showed an internal increase in pressure precisely with the arrival of the blast wave. This initial increase was followed by exactly what I expected: a jagged, erratic waveform of pressure, the initial wave bouncing around inside the small enclosed hull. The pressures were getting in, just not through the bow.

My research partner, Luke, a medical student, and former Army explosive ordnance disposal operator, carried the first charge from his truck to the shore and attached a black powder charge to the bow of the model boat. The 283-gram charges, like the model itself, had been built to a carefully measured 1/6 size scale. As he pulled the Tiny into the center of the pond, long, black foam-insulated wires trailed out behind it.

I triple-checked the gauges’ signals on my screen and held up a hand to Brad, the benevolent ATF agent who had volunteered to help with our tests. He bellowed the countdown and pushed the button on the blast box to trigger. First, I saw the plume of the geyser of water. Then I felt the pier vibrate. Last of all, I heard the blast.

Brad yelled from shore that he could feel that charge through the ground. What he meant was: This one was strong. Stronger than any of our previous tests with the boat. I was too consumed by staring at the whirring laptop to respond in any meaningful way. I waited for the screen to display the pressure waves from the charge.

There it was, the data from the pressure gauge tracking across the monitor of my computer. The squiggly neon green line—plotting pressure versus time—showed the jagged, erratic scream of bouncing waves trapped inside the hull of the boat. It had had sharp peaks, peaks with rapid rises—peaks that weren’t technically shock waves but still rose to a maximum in under the two-millisecond rise speed that would hurt human beings.

We set off as many charges as we could before the sun began to set on the pond. Blast after blast, we captured and saved the waveforms. I was thrilled to see that the readings looked consistent. And like the actual Hunley, the scale-model Tiny refused to show any damage itself, even after repeated blasts, even as it transmitted the pressures inside.

By the end of the day, the data saved on the laptop was worth more to me than anything I owned. I immediately backed it up in triplicate.

The next step was to translate all the squiggly pressure traces into a meaningful description of what happened on that cold night in February 1864. My end goal was not simply to sit in a series of muddy ponds and set off charges. It was to determine whether the crew had been killed by their bomb while cocooned inside the steel walls of their vessel.

Scientists do not like to throw around the word “proof.” We couch our words carefully. So because I am a scientist, here is the fine-print scientific disclaimer: There are other possible ways to explain how this pressure got inside the vessel and maimed the crew. But the theory I was beginning to develop was the most likely candidate, given the data that I had.

My analysis showed that the amount of pressure ricocheting around inside the metal tube, combined with the quick rise time of the wave, would have put each member of the Hunley’s crew at a 95 percent risk of immediate, severe pulmonary trauma. The kind that would leave them gasping for air, possibly coughing up blood.


Coin from Hunley Cmdr. George Dixon's pocket


Hunley Cmdr. George Dixon died with this coin in his pocket. Two years earlier, the gold piece had deflected a Union bullet, so he had it inscribed “My life preserver.” (Ira Block / National Geographic Image Collection)

Researchers had studied the remains of the Hunley crewmen and found that some had undamaged skulls and intact brains. The soft tissues were severely damaged and shrunk by long-term exposure to saltwater, but medical personnel who carefully examined the tissues found that some of the brains bore diffuse stains consistent with blood.* * *

The sailors in the Hunley would not have had time to realize the twinned truths of their victory and demise.

Inside the submarine that night, they all had items in their pockets that spoke of their belief that they would go on living. The smokers brought their pipes. George Dixon, in his 20s with a head full of blond hair, brought his pocket watch. The watch broke at the time of the attack, locking the hands forever at 8:23 p.m. Dixon’s head dropped against the side of the hull. His ankles were lightly crossed, and one hand fell to his thigh, his body propped up by the hull wall and his small captain’s bench.

The deck of the Housatonic had sprayed into a million shards of wood and metal hurtling into the air. Most of the crew had already run for the bow and safety, but as the ship gave a mighty heave to port, the few remaining joined in the mad dash forward. A cloud with the noxious stench of rotten eggs from the black powder drifted off across the smooth surface of the calming ocean. Five Union sailors had been killed.

The submarine drifted on the outgoing tide. With no one alive to operate the bilge pumps, eventually, it started to sink. Water rushed in, bringing the little boat to the sand but leaving an air space, inside of which, over the decades, stalactites would grow. The HL Hunley and its crew settled to a quiet grave 30 feet beneath the dark blue waves.

From In the Waves: My Quest to Solve The Mystery of A Civil War Submarine by Rachel Lance, to be published April 7 by Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel M. Lance

An Integrated Approach to Peer Competition in the Undersea Warfare Domain

By Lieutenants Sean Lavelle, Carson Burton, and Sara Burton, U.S. Navy | February 20, 2020

In World War II, U.S. submarines strangled the Japanese war machine. In the Cold War, U.S. planners feared an onslaught of Soviet submarines would prevent the U.S. military from successfully moving forces in theater to defend Europe. During the Falklands War, a few British submarines were able to keep the entire Argentine surface fleet in port. Since they came of age in World War II, submarines have been the central threat facing nations attempting to traverse the ocean during the war.

Today, Russia is fielding truly impressive nuclear submarines that challenge U.S. undersea supremacy. The new Yasen-class has the capability of carrying 40 Kalibr missiles, providing the opportunity to reach targets 1,500 miles from the point of launch. This means that a single Yasen-class submarine unlocated in the Atlantic Ocean could target any critical military infrastructure on the East Coast of the United States with conventional weapons. Other Russian submarines, such as the Oscar class, carry anti-ship cruise missiles that can travel 300 nautical miles. This may endanger freedom of navigation for the U.S. merchant shipping industry and could stop a carrier strike group from reaching the fight in Europe.

On a different front, China poses its own set of challenges to U.S. forces. While Russia may hold land-based forces and surface vessels at risk with small numbers of nuclear submarines, China’s approach is oriented toward fielding high-end diesel submarines in startlingly large numbers. In 2030, China estimates it will have around 100 fielded submarines versus the United States’s 53. The discussion of anti-access/area-denial technologies fielded by China focuses on ballistic missiles. But China’s massive submarine force is at least as large an obstacle to U.S. freedom of maneuver in the Pacific.

The threat today to U.S. military dominance across the world is real and urgent. Undersea infrastructure is at constant risk of destruction and espionage, and U.S. ships must operate under constant threat of attack

But U.S. forces have faced similar challenges in the past. In the Cold War, the U.S. Navy operated aircraft, ships, and submarines as cohesive units that worked together to find, fix, and maintain track of adversary submarines. They did this with the understanding that the order to transition from tracking to finishing those submarines could come at any time.

Today, some U.S. military leaders would contend that the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) blade is dull because of a lack of attention during the global war on terror. U.S. forces track adversary submarines with MH-60R helicopters, P-8 Poseidon aircraft, surface ships, and submarines. Together, this array of tools could pose a serious challenge to U.S. adversaries. But the U.S. Navy currently does not collate these tools into a sufficiently coherent unit. Each community tracks readiness individually, and each of their simulators connects reliably only with their own, making coordinated training ashore difficult. The MK-54 torpedo, shared by MH-60Rs, ships, and P-8s to destroy submarines, was deemed inadequate five years ago during operational testing. And tactical communication is made more difficult by the fact that each community has its language, culture, and approach to the ASW problem.

But U.S. ASW forces are not standing still.

The Counter

MH-60Rs, P-8s, destroyers, cruisers, and submarines all have large contingents that call Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia home. Taking advantage of that geographic proximity to building a more cohesive ASW force is the obvious answer for the U.S. Navy to become a more integrated fighting force. Thankfully, the maritime patrol and helicopter maritime strike communities, which fly the P-8 and MH-60R, have leaned forward to do so.

In 2018 and 2019, the two communities came together in a process called JAXMAN. The initiative consists of several months of coordinated exercises, tactics development sessions, doctrine synchronization efforts, and exchange flights where MH-60R aviators fly with P-8 aviators and vice versa. Over several months, the two communities generate significant lessons learned and improve community familiarity regarding capabilities, tactics, techniques, and procedures.

At the end of this process, members of the larger communities gather for a symposium to present and discuss the work accomplished, discuss the current state of the ASW force, and determine where the communities move forward to advance capabilities and integration. In November 2019, Rear Admiral Matthew O’Keefe (deputy chief of Naval Air Forces Atlantic), Rear Admiral James Waters (Submarine Group 2), Rear Admiral Andrew Loiselle (Carrier Strike Group 8), and Rear Admiral Pete Garvin (commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group) all attended to share their perspective on the current state and desired future of the Navy’s ASW force.

Out of this effort came five takeaways to build the combined ASW force needed in today’s Navy. Implementing them will require combined efforts across the ASW enterprise, which is comprised of maritime patrol, maritime helicopter strike, surface, and submarine communities.

Key Takeaways

  • Payloads over Platforms. In the past decade, ASW forces have been reconstituted with the MH-60R and P-8. These ASW platforms were much-needed improvements to the platforms that conduct ASW, but what is required next are the weapons that will finish the fight. The director of operational test and evaluation reported that the primary airborne ASW weapon, the Mk-54, was inadequate more than five years ago. New aircraft with the same old weapon will not provide the level of lethality required to match the threat.

The primary passive sensor used by ASW forces today is the SSQ-53 DIFAR sonobuoy. In 1969, the primary passive sensor used by airborne ASW forces was the SSQ-53 DIFAR sonobuoy. The Navy has fielded seven iterations of the SSQ-53, but it is still fundamentally the same tool used to track submarines in the 70s, which were many orders of magnitude less capable than the current threat. Just as is true across the force, the weapons and sensors we develop will have a more significant impact on our overall lethality than will the delivery platforms. ASW forces have corrected deficiencies in the platform category; now, we must address the payloads.

  • Acquisitions need to be user-oriented and integrated across platforms. It is not enough to consider requirements for new technologies from strictly an aviation, surface warfare, or submariner perspective, as OPNAV currently is structured. The ASW fight depends on overlapping capabilities. If the different stakeholders are not coordinating their pieces of that overlapping effort, it is very likely communities will invest in the same areas, leaving gaps at the seams. If every stakeholder invests heavily in tracking capabilities, for instance, but nobody invests in weapon lethality, we cannot complete the kill chain.

Additionally, the acquisition process must work more rapidly and with the end-user in mind. East coast MH-60Rs and P-8 operational squadrons reside in Jacksonville, Florida, but the acquisitions organizations that buy technology for these communities lie 700 miles to the north, in Patuxent River, Maryland. This makes it easy to work with the Pentagon and Congress to secure funding, but the distance from where U.S. forces train and operate makes it arduous for acquisition professionals to build technology in an agile manner. Constant interaction with the end-user results in delivered technology that could be much more useful. The industry learned this lesson 25 years ago. ASW forces need to catch up.

At a minimum, operational test squadrons should have ongoing colocation with operational squadrons to ensure a short feedback loop. This could take the form of wholesale relocation, or long-term detachment operations. Testing should not end at first fielding, but rather be a continuous process throughout the lifetime of a program of record. Co-location is the only way to ensure this happens.

  • Connect different platforms’ simulated training environments. The Navy needs to train realistically with the same coordinated command and control structures used at sea. Ships, submarines, MH-60Rs, and P-8s all have high-fidelity simulators that they use to train and maintain readiness. But none of these simulators can reliably link with those of their ASW playmates. This means that coordinated training happens solely in the air and at sea. This training is good, but simulators can model the high-end fight in ways the Navy cannot off the coast of the United States. Anybody can observe tactics we practice in international waters. Secure, simulated environments eliminate this problem.

Without connected simulators and with only limited integrated training during the work-up cycle, valuable training opportunities are lost. The rest of the Navy has recognized the need to simulate the coordinated fight and is investing in LVC (live, virtual, and constructive) training environments. Left uncorrected, the Navy’s inability to simulate the coordinated ASW fight is a strategic liability.

  • Accept failure in training. The training that is conducted often unrealistically avoids failure. ASW is a probabilistic endeavor. U.S. crews, no matter how talented and well-equipped, will fail from time-to-time. Submarines will escape through screens or break contact from tracking forces. The ability to recover from failure is, therefore, imperative. Our current readiness process does not force crews to hone this ability.

Our ASW forces’ wartime readiness is tracked by the completion of qualifications. A crew will go into a flight or simulator, face a scenario, and meet specific standards while accomplishing their mission. While there are many qualifications that require crews to successfully find, track, and kill adversaries, there are none that require crews to work through failure.

As a result, crews face this kind of adversity much more in real life than in the simulator. This is the opposite of what one would want and means that crews are unpracticed in responding to adversity. Changing readiness metrics to encourage fighting through adversity is an easy, administrative fix that could have an enormous impact on force-wide effectiveness. The Navy needs to make it not just possible, but mandatory, to face failure while achieving qualifications.

  • Establish a permanent organization responsible for integrating ASW forces. There is no organization whose primary mission is to develop coordinated tactics for the ASW fight. Undersea Warfare Development Center (UWDC) primarily is focused on submarines; Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) focuses on ships’ contributions; Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Weapons School (MPRWS) focuses on P-8s, and Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) hones MH-60R tactics. UWDC often makes efforts to be the coordinating organization, but it lacks teeth to make a change outside of the submarine community.

UWDC should look at its current force structure and consider allocating assets towards a permanent detachment for an ASW school of excellence in Jacksonville. This establishment would combine sailors from the helicopter, maritime patrol, submarine, and surface communities to develop and teach integrated ASW tactics to the fleet. Beyond coordinating cross-community efforts, this organization could run a weapons and tactics instructor (WTI)-level school for theater ASW (TASW) planning. This is badly needed to strengthen the command and control of TASW efforts. 

The Way Forward

No single asset can tackle the multifaceted threat posed by Russian or Chinese submarine forces alone. The JAXMAN process has identified several critical areas in which ASW forces need to invest in solidifying their dominance. It is now up to the stakeholder communities to follow through on those investments.

Over the next year, maritime patrol and helicopter maritime strike personnel will act on our identified areas and find new ones. Additionally, the JAXMAN team cannot stay solely focused on MH-60Rs and P-8s. It needs to bring submarines and ships into the effort to build a lethal ASW team more broadly.

When we look at the landscape of entities building new ways to tackle the ASW mission, we see UWDC, SMWDC, NAWDC, and MPRWS all working on their capabilities. JAXMAN is the method through which the Navy will synchronize these efforts, ensure they are applicable in the coordinated environment and spread the word about newly devised tactics and technologies to the combined fleet.

The Navy can more than pace the growing threat posed by its adversaries. We have to ensure we are working together to do it.



Fire Control Technician 1st Class Quincy Miller, from Savannah, Georgia, assigned to the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Texas (SSN 775), embraces his family during Texas' homecoming.

PEARL HARBOR (Feb. 24, 2020) Fire Control Technician 1st Class Quincy Miller, from Savannah, Georgia, assigned to the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Texas (SSN 775), embraces his family during Texas' homecoming. Texas performed a full spectrum of operations, including anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, during the seven-month Indo-Pacific deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Amanda Gray/Released)

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Pentagon Says Shipbuilding Money Routed to Border Barrier Was Early to Need, Shipyard Disagrees

By: Ben Werner

February 19, 2020 4:14 PM • Updated: February 19, 2020 5:56 PM





Amphibious assault ship Tripoli (LHA-7) sails the Gulf of Mexico during builder’s trials held in July 2019. HII Photo

This post was updated to include a statement from a Navy spokesperson.

THE PENTAGON — The Defense Department justified redirecting shipbuilding funds to pay for border barrier construction by saying the yards don’t currently have the capacity to spend the money, and a Pentagon spokesman told reporters. At least one shipbuilder disagrees.

Last week, the Department of Defense unveiled a plan to reroute $1.5 billion from two major shipbuilding programs and aircraft purchases for the Navy and Marine Corps to help pay for the estimated $3.8 billion bill to build physical barriers along the southwest U.S. border, according to a copy of a Fiscal Year 2020 reprogramming request obtained by USNI News.

Programs identified to have funds routed for border wall construction were selected because they were things Congress overfunded or where the funding was approved ahead of the Pentagon’s need or ability to sign contracts, Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said during a media briefing Wednesday.

“An example of that would be, the first one would be aircraft, more aircraft than what we requested, and the second would be shipbuilding,” Hoffman said. “We were funded to complete construction on an additional ship, and we don’t have the capacity, the shipbuilding capacity, the contracting to do that for a few more years.”

Under the reprogramming plan, the Navy will lose $650 million in early procurement for the yet-to-be-named amphibious assault ship LHA-9 and $261 million for a new Spearhead-class Expeditionary Fast Transport ship. Naval aviation will lose $233 million for two F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters and $155 million for one P-8A anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

“There is absolutely capacity at Ingalls to build LHA-9, and the most efficient and affordable way for Ingalls and the supply chain to deliver these ships to our nation’s fleet is to build them on four-year centers,” Beci Brenton, a spokeswoman for Huntington Ingalls Industries, told USNI News in an email.

In March, Congress debated adding the LHA-9 funding to start construction ahead of its anticipated 2024 start date to keep the shipyards operating at that efficient level. Otherwise, there were fears a gap between LHA-8 and LHA-9 would occur and would affect the cost or quality of LHA-9.

LHA-8 was procured in 2017, meaning that the optimal time for the shipyard to begin LHA-9 would be 2021. Though the Navy didn’t try to include full funding for the ship that early, the service and Congress were hoping to provide advance procurement funding as early as 2020 to allow Ingalls Shipbuilding to begin working with suppliers for whom a seven-year gap would put their business at risk, or begin activities at the yard where a seven-year gap would mean laying off experienced personnel.

“We’re working closely with stakeholders and [the office of the Secretary of Defense] OSD to ensure these impacts are minimized with the LHA,” Capt. Danny Hernandez, a Navy spokesman, told USNI News on Wednesday. “We plan to build the LHA in 2023 and plan to fund this later in budget closer to when we build the ship.”

Funding availability was cited as the only reason the Navy proposed waiting until 2024 to start LHA-9, James Geurts, the Navy’s acquisition chief, said last year during a Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee hearing.

“We’re concerned with it in ’24; it was there from an affordability standpoint. We’re going to look hard in the ’21 budget at potentially moving that to the left as funding allows because I’m also concerned with the seven-year break-in that ship, and I do not want to lose the excellent workforce we have cranking out LHAs right now,” Geurts said, referring to the seven-year gap between buying LHA-8, the future Bougainville, and buying LHA-9.

The Pentagon is still interested in building the amphibious warship, just at a later date, Hoffman said.

“We still intend in 2023 to continue that shipbuilding, but the funds were better used for a different purpose now than to be sitting there for two years,” he said.

Also, during Wednesday’s briefing, Hoffman confirmed John Rood, the undersecretary of defense in charge of policy, was resigning effective at the end of the month.

Rood played an integral role in revamping the Pentagon’s nuclear posture and deployment policies. This work included placing low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missiles on U.S. submarines.

Earlier this month, Rood released a statement confirming a U.S. Navy submarine was carrying at least one W76-2 low-yield SLBM. Rood did not name the boomer, but the Federation of American Scientists published a report stating USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) left Kings Bay Submarine Base, Ga., carrying at least one low-yield ballistic missile when it departed for a strategic defense patrol at the end of 2019.

James Anderson, the deputy undersecretary for policy, will assume Rood’s role until a permanent replacement is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

“Secretary Esper thanks John Rood for his service to the department and the critical role he played implementing the National Defense Strategy. John worked on a range of issues from modernizing nuclear deterrence capability, our missile review, and efforts to increase burden sharing among our allies, including NATO,” Hoffman said. “We thank him and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Nuclear Reactor Builder Warns of Loss if Navy Buys Single Virginia Attack Boat in FY ’21

By: Ben Werner

February 25, 2020 3:48 PM




USS Minnesota (SSN-783) under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding in 2012. U.S. Navy Photo

A critical nuclear submarine supplier could take financial hits for years if the Navy sticks to buying just one Virginia-class fast-attack submarine in Fiscal Year 2021.

BWX Technologies – U.S. Navy’s only manufacturer of nuclear reactors – would start feeling the hit to its bottom line by the end of 2020 if the Navy only buys one Virginia-class boat, said Rex Geveden, chief executive of BWX Technologies, during a conference call to discuss the company’s 2019 financial results with analysts Tuesday morning.

“The more significant impact starts for us in the calendar year ’21 and then starts to peak out later, two, three years later than that because of the way the funding ledge goes on those nuclear ships,” Geveden said.

If the FY 2021 budget is approved on time and funding for a second Virginia-class submarine is not restored, Geveden told analysts the negative effects would start appearing in BWX Technologies’ fourth-quarter financial reports. However, Geveden said he believes a budget deal will be delayed until at least November, so realistically BWX Technologies would not feel hits to its bottom line until the calendar year 2021.

“In terms of whether or not we can get a budget deal, I’m just looking at history,” Geveden said. “We never get a budget before October and that certainly in an election year, I cannot imagine a budget deal before the election being signed off by the President.”

The Navy’s long-term plan is to buy two Virginia-class submarines a year. The current contract with General Dynamics Electric Boat covers the purchase of nine subs between 2019 and 2023, with an option for a tenth sub.

The Navy has put funding for the second Virginia-class submarine atop its unfunded priorities list submitted to Congress. The $2.7 billion for the Virginia-class sub-accounts for more than half of the request, which includes about 30 items ranging from additional aircraft, military construction projects, weapons, and software upgrades.

“Congress has demonstrated its strong and bipartisan commitment to this second 2021 submarine, having already provided more than $1.1 billion in advanced funding to support it,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) in a statement released Thursday. Courtney chairs the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee.

Lawmakers get a chance to quiz Navy officials on their budget request on Thursday when Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly is scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee. Given the pass support by Congress to purchase as many fast-attack submarines as possible, Modly will likely be asked about the thinking only to request one Virginia-class in F.Y. 2021.

By only requesting funding for one sub in F.Y. 2021, the Navy is complying with the Electric Boat contract. However, if the Navy follows through with its current budget request for only one Virginia-class submarine in F.Y. 2021, Geveden said BWX Technologies would have to take the hit and manage the impact.

In future years, the Navy still wants to buy two Virginia-class submarines a year. Columbia-class production will start while the company is building Ford-class aircraft carrier propulsion reactors. For BWX Technologies, this production pace means the firm has to continue investing in its production facilities and employees, Geveden said.

“A Virginia on the margin doesn’t change our production capacity picture or our capital picture because we’re having to build out to be able to accommodate Columbia and to continue two Virginia-tempo as it is,” Geveden said


USS Colorado Returns Home

Story Number: NNS200221-08Release Date: 2/21/2020 11:01:00 AM

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By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ivana Campbell, Commander Submarine Force Atlantic Public Affairs

GROTON, Conn. (NNS) -- The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Colorado (SSN 788) returned from its maiden deployment to its homeport at Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut, Feb. 20.

Under the command of Capt. Jason Geddes, Colorado returns from a deployment to the U.S. European Command area of responsibility where it executed the chief of naval operations' maritime strategy by supporting national security interests and maritime security operations.

“I am humbled by the skill, hard work, and dedication these Colorado warriors displayed for our maiden deployment,” said Geddes. “It was an all-hands effort to include the love and support we enjoyed from our amazing families back home.”

Colorado arrived at Submarine Base New London to the greeting of friends and family members who showed their support with cheers and handmade welcome home signs.

“I’m absolutely excited and ecstatic right now,” said Lacy Gardner, mother to Sonar Technician (Submarine) Seaman Apprentice Demetrius Heiner. “I brought a sign that says, ‘Welcome Home STS Heiner I’m so proud of you.’”

Chief Electronics Technician (Communications) Justin Wright received the opportunity to be the “first kiss” with his wife Ashley of almost 13 years out on the pier when returning home.

“I’m just so happy,” said Wright “I found out a couple days ago that I got the first kiss.  This has been important for the last 48 hours. Been thinking about it every night.”

Wright was also greeted with hugs and kisses from his two children.

“I feel very happy,” said Kadence, daughter of Wright. “I want to go home and cuddle with him on the couch.”

During the deployment, Colorado steamed approximately 39,000 nautical miles with the crew supporting diplomatic relationships by conducting port visits in Haakonsvern, Norway and Faslane, Scotland, and celebrated the milestone of crossing into the Arctic Circle.

Twenty-one enlisted Sailors and five officers earned their submarine warfare qualification, known as "dolphins," while 12 enlisted Sailors advanced to the next paygrade and three reenlisted.

Colorado was commissioned in March 2018 as the 15th Virginia-class fast-attack submarine to join the fleet. The crew demonstrated critical navigational and ship handling skills throughout the deployment.

“It’s truly impressive that after only a year-and-a-half after commissioning, our crew displayed the toughness and tenacity required to go to the far-reaching corners of the earth in support of our nation’s interests,” said Master Chief Electronics Technician (Radio) Larry Alger. “We’re ready to get back out to the fight if called on to do it tomorrow.”

Fast-attack submarines are multi-mission platforms enabling five of the six Navy maritime strategy core capabilities - sea control, power projection, forward presence, maritime security, and deterrence. They are designed to excel in anti-submarine warfare, anti-ship warfare, strike warfare, special operations, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, irregular warfare and mine warfare. Fast-attack submarines project power ashore with special operations forces and Tomahawk cruise missiles in the prevention or preparation of regional crises.

The Virginia-class submarine is 377 feet long and 34 feet wide and weighs about 7,900 tons when submerged. Underwater, it can reach speeds over 25 knots.

China’s Navy Will Be the World’s Largest in 2035


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By Rear Admiral Michael A. McDevitt, U.S. Navy (Retired)

February 2020


Vol. 146/2/1,404

It is difficult to appreciate just how fast China has been able to create a blue water navy. One way is to compare it to the other great navies of the world, as the chart below does. This comparison is not a top-to-bottom order of battle inventory in which every ship of every class is counted. Rather it is a comparison of the number of Chinese blue water warships to other nations that historically have demonstrated the ability to operate globally. The ship count totals are projected to the 2020-2021-time frame.


Chart comparing major combatants of world naval powers


The chart shows that in terms of modern warships and submarines, China far outstrips any erstwhile naval competitors, except for the United States. While the PLAN’s far-seas capabilities are impressive when measured against the rest of the world, the U.S. Navy’s still overshadowed the PLAN—for now. Virtually all of the U.S. Navy’s warships are bluewater capable because they are expected to operate globally. The United States has both a qualitative and quantitative advantage in aircraft carriers, high-end air defense cruisers and destroyers, large amphibious ships, and nuclear attack submarines.

On the other hand, all of China’s ships—both the “blue water” ships listed above plus those not included in the chart because they are not “blue water” but are dedicated to “near seas” roles—are homeported in East Asia, providing a “home field advantage” over most of the U.S. Navy that are homeported thousands of miles away. What this means in practice is that daily virtually all of the Chinese Navy is either in port in China or operating in home waters in and around the First Island Chain. This yields a significant firepower advantage over the U.S. Seventh Fleet. 

How Large Will the PLAN be in 2035?

Chinese President Xi Xinping wants a “world-class force.” He wants the naval modernization associated with becoming world-class “to be largely completed by 2035,” just 15 years away. China has yet to publish its intended navy force structure objective, which remains a state secret. A few experts like Rick Joe and James Fanell, however, have published projections of PLAN strength in 2030. Building off their work and others’, here is my estimate of overall PLAN warship strength in 2035. 

To speculate on what the PLAN will look like in 15 years, a good starting point is to assess what it has done in the past 15 years.  In this short decade and a half, China launched and/or commissioned 131 capable blue-water ships and built approximately 144 other warships destined for operations only in China’s near seas, for a total of approximately 275 new warships.  During several of these years, China’s most modern shipyards were not yet in full production, so it is not unreasonable to forecast that over the next 15 years it could commission or launch 140 more blue-water ships to grow its far-seas capacity and to replace some of today’s blue water ships that were commissioned between 2005 and 2010. In sum, I predict the PLAN’s bluewater capable ships in 2035 will number around 270 warships. 

This mix will include many more submarines, perhaps doubling the size of the PLAN’s current submarine force. Submarines will increasingly be valued by the PLAN because they cannot, at least not yet, be tracked from space. The number of nuclear attack submarines will be a larger proportion of the PLAN’s overall submarine force. If the nuclear submarine construction hall at Huludao has the capacity analysts suggest, over the next 15 years, the PLAN could commission an average of 1.5 SSNs annually.

The need for air cover for surface ships operating away from China leads to the question of how large will the PLAN carrier force becomes? It seems that three will be in operation by the middle of this decade—but at issue is how many more carriers the PLAN thinks it needs, and how many will it have in the water by 2035. The PLAN has elected to take a measured approach to introduce carrier aviation. I see no reason for that to change. A third, larger, catapult-equipped carrier is under construction now and is estimated to be considerably larger than the Liaoning and her near sister—somewhere in the range of 85,000 tons.

This third Chinese carrier is an entirely new and unproven design. On a ship of this complexity, the construction and fitting out process could take some time. As the United States has learned to its dismay with the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the urge to stuff as much new technology as possible into a ship can result in expensive delays. The PLAN also needs to invest in new airframes for its carrier fleet, the search for a replacement for its less than optimum carrier-capable J-15 “Flying Shark” fighter is already underway, which could turn out to be the “long pole in the tent” on the road to realizing a viable carrier force.  

If one assumes a six-year building and outfitting period and the design remains relatively stable, the PLAN could have five to six carriers by 2035. By that time, Liaoning, if it is still in commission, will probably have been relegated to the status of an aviation training ship. 

PRC shipyards have demonstrated the ability to turn out destroyers, frigates, and corvettes in quantity, so building capacity is not an issue. Money, on the other hand, could be an issue, depending on how China’s economy performs over the next decade and a half. The PLAN will have an important voice in determining the precise mix of warships, but it may be forced to make sub-optimal choices if economic or leadership developments cause its budget share to drop

Turning to the near-seas category of warships, I estimate PLAN strength will remain constant. It is currently in the range of 160 ships (144 of which were commissioned since 2005). The biggest change will be replacing the 60 or so single-mission Houbei class fast-attack craft with frigates or corvettes that retain the same anti-ship cruise missile punch but also add antisubmarine warfare capability. 

In summary, in 2035, the PLAN will consist of approximately 270 blue-water ships of the classes listed in the table above, plus another 160 smaller ships, or special mission units. (This total does not include minesweepers, small amphibious craft, and sundry auxiliaries.) The result will be a 430-ship PLA Navy that will be the world’s largest, by far. By any measure, this navy will have to be judged “world-class.”

Sources for the chart above: DOD Annual Reports to Congress: Military and Security Developments on the PRC 2012, 2018, 2019, Janes Defense Weekly’s announcements of ship commissioning’s, IISS Strategic Balance 2018 and 2019 for all countries listed in the table, Websites for the Indian Navy, Royal Navy, French Navy, Rick Joe’s Diplomat series on the future of the PLA Navy, Ronald O’Rourke’s, semi-annual update of his Congressional Research Service report China Naval Modernization, Office of Naval Intelligence  (ONI) The Russian Navy 2015, and ONI’s The PLA Navy: New capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century.

 For more news from Commander, Submarine Forces, visit www.navy.mil/local/sublant/.

JFD Australia, Royal Australian Navy extend contract for submarine rescue system supply


James Fisher’s Perth-based business, JFD Australia, will continue to supply its submarine rescue system to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) for at least the next four years.

The company has been awarded a GBP 35 million (USD 45.2 million) contract extension with the Australian government to deliver its submarine escape and rescue system until December 2023 with an option to further extend to November 2024.

As explained, the contract extension will create a number of full-time defence industry jobs which, working with JFD Australia’s team will ensure that the submarine rescue system is “rescue ready” and on standby to respond to a submarine emergency anywhere in the world.

“We are delighted to secure this four-year contract extension from our valued customer, the Royal Australian Navy,” Eoghan O’Lionaird, Chief Executive Officer of James Fisher, commented.

“Keeping submariners and other defence force personnel safe remains our foremost priority. JFD Australia looks forward to continuing to be a reliable partner for the RAN through the ongoing delivery of its … submarine escape and rescue service.”

In Australia, submarine rescue involves sending a smaller or “mini” piloted submarine to a disabled submarine to rescue the crew on board and transfer them safely under pressure to the ocean’s surface where they are able to receive potentially life-saving decompression treatment in a specially-designed hyperbaric equipment suite.

Thanks Bud



John Bud Cunnally ETC (SS) Ret. USN – President

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