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Mar 17, 2023

Comment & Discussion

As a nine-year-old, I remember sitting with my parents as President John F.

As a nine-year-old, I remember sitting with my parents as President John F. Kennedy delivered his Cuban Missile Crisis television address. Sixty years later, Lieutenant Kasturas's thoughts on a U.S. military base in Taiwan refresh those memories. His recommendation raises many unanswered questions.

While the United States was not going to allow the Soviet Union to place missiles 200 miles from Miami, how will China respond to an active U.S. military presence 150 miles from Quanzhou? Similarly? By the author's admission, such events could bring "incalculable losses for both sides."

We must be careful not to estimate China's reaction by using only U.S. logic. Deng Xiaoping's "hide our capacities and bide our time" may not be exactly Xi Jinping's mantra, but Xi enjoys a luxury over a United States that all too often thinks in terms of four-year political cycles, yearly budgets, and 90-day economic windows.

—Gene V. Giordano

I have criticized the use of the term "insurgency" to describe actions short of war by China, as well as the corresponding use of "counterinsurgency" (COIN) to describe U.S. and coalition responses to those actions. PRC state action falls neither within the doctrinal definition of "insurgency," nor within the traditional understanding of the concept.

Both the online and print editions of Mr. Koh's article carry the label "maritime COIN." However, the article includes not a single mention of either "insurgency" or "counterinsurgency"; Mr. Koh himself describes China's actions as "maritime coercion." The editorial decision to place this piece under the heading of "Maritime COIN" further illustrates just how imprecise that concept is and how little it adds to efforts to understand and counter the China threat.

—LCDR Brian Hayes, USNR (Ret.)

The Editor responds:

As we wrote when we kicked off the Maritime COIN Project last July, readers can use many labels for China's illegal activities at sea: insurgency, coercion, gray-zone war, or hybrid war. Mr. Koh's article was solicited as part of the project, so we published it under that moniker. Despite calling it different names, we are all seeing the same "rose."

One of Captain Tangredi's proposed Navy actions is to "overhaul and revitalize its approach to retaining a reserve fleet of decommissioned ships," noting that "the Navy's current method of mothballing ships is to preserve hulls at minimal cost with little regard for maintaining combat or engineering systems. . . . The ships are essentially scrapped in place."

With a peer competitor such as China, any war will not be a long, drawn-out affair providing time to get some of these ships out of mothballs. My question is: What is the point of mothballing these cruisers, destroyers, etc., if they will never be used? Navy ships are mothballed on both the East and West Coasts, and the cost is not insignificant. Plus, commentators have suggested that some of these ships, such as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers, were taken out of service with operational life left because of a lack of sailors to crew them.

This raises the subject of the all-volunteer force, which is in question given recruiting difficulties in most of the armed services. Even though the Navy wants to increase its size, is it in fact retiring ships because it does not have the sailors to operate them? The Departments of the Navy and Defense and the current administration need to level with the American people!

—CAPT Alan L. Williams, USNR (Ret.)

Of course she was ready for sea, having been in the yards for eight months—there were no known material deficiencies, and she was crewed by America's best.

The FOIA release reveals obstruction of justice, not a mystery. The lofargram that was part of Bruce Rule's testimony is not in the record, having been replaced with an irrelevant gram looking 70 degrees off the Thresher's bearing. The only mystery here is who replaced the evidence.

Speculation that seawater spray from small, brazed pipe failures in auxiliary machine spaces caused a ground fault on an ungrounded system, tripping main coolant pumps, causing a reactor scram and loss of propulsion is disinformation.

Flooding is unlikely. But quite possibly there was a leak in the condenser, as the Thresher notified the escort she was coming shallow to fix a problem. That is how chlorides in the steam system are handled—get to shallow depth to blow down the boilers.

Brazed joints provide a convenient scapegoat because the problems with them in the fleet were well known. But the problems were not serious enough to eliminate their use after the loss, which would have been the result if they were the real cause.

There's no evidence of reactor scram, just fast-speed coolant pump tonals going away, as Mr. Rule says the missing lofargram showed. A minor seawater leak from a shock-test-damaged steam condenser manifested as a chloride casualty that filled the hotwell, causing generator speed oscillation and flooding a drive turbine and locking the propulsion train. The high-pressure air system was plugged by an incompetently applied orifice restricting flow and compounded by the structurally deficient mesh strainers collapsed in the air stream, blocking the inlet pipe to the 4,500/3,000 pound reducer, cutting off ballast blow air.

Alleging crew performance problems is disrespectful. The Thresher was manned by America's finest. The depth test was conducted in 8,400 feet of water. Had she been somewhere with a sea floor at 1,500 foot depth, she would have hit the bottom alive. M division would have isolated the main seawater leak and pumped variable ballast to sea. The A-gang would have solved the air problem, bypassing the reducer to blow tanks, leaving the crew with the greatest sea story ever told.

The public is not so naive as to believe that Admiral Hyman Rickover and his technical elites did not grasp the significance of Mr. Rule's testimony. Buss frequency oscillation is a turbine generator speed-control issue caused by unsteady back pressure, the anomaly occurring below 1,000 feet—the first time that deep since shock tests. The call to escort of coming shallow is evidence of a chloride casualty. Damage to condenser foundation bolts noted in January 1963 is further evidence she suffered a seawater leak, which left her with a locked-up propulsion train and unable to deballast. Conducting the test in 8,400 feet of depth doomed her.

—Paul Boyne

I served on board the USS Permit (SSN-594) from 1973 to 1976, most of the time as damage control assistant and SubSafe officer. I offer some additional information on two statements in the article. This information came from several official briefings on the loss of the Thresher presented at schools and by senior officers.

Regarding the statement that the initial flooding occurred in the "engine room." Perhaps this was meant as a generic term for engineering spaces, but I was told the flooding began in auxiliary machinery room 2 (AMR2) located between the reactor compartment and the engine room. This is supported by the fact the reactor scrammed almost immediately after the flooding began; most of the reactor control equipment was located in AMR2.

As for why use of latent reactor heat was not authorized for emergency propulsion: I was briefed it had to do with the risk of uncontrolled criticality during rapid cooling. Two features of a pressurized water reactor (PWR) come into play.

First, a PWR requires water around the core to reflect fission neutrons back into the core. Without these reflected neutrons the reactor cannot remain critical. As a reactor heats up the water expands, becomes less dense, fewer neutrons are reflected back into the core, and the reactor loses power. This is the same effect as inserting control rods. The opposite is also true, cooling the reactor has the same effect as pulling out control rods.

The second feature is delayed neutrons. The fission process generates neutrons and fission products. After a delay, some fission products undergo neutron decay and emit additional neutrons. Delayed neutrons continue to be emitted after the reactor is subcritical. In older reactors there are more fission products, and hence more delayed neutrons.

Theoretically, with enough delayed neutrons and very rapid cooling, a reactor with scram rods inserted could nevertheless regain criticality. There are so many variables in this calculation that, at the time of the accident, the computations to prove with absolute certainty there would be no uncontrolled criticality were not possible. Remember, these were the days of slide rules not powerful computers.

—CDR John M. McGrail, USN (Ret.)

In my law practice, I took apart disasters of various types, such as why the wrong person was convicted of murder, why a death from natural causes was attributed to intentional trauma, etc. So, I opened the article expecting to see a new conclusion about why the Thresher sank. Instead, I found a vague statement that the Thresher was not ready to go to sea. Pressing on, I was reminded that the Naval Court of Inquiry concluded that a 2- to 5-inch leak in the engine room started the crisis, which was connected to the reactor shutdown.

The article contended that there was no major flooding, but it did not offer a clear alternative. That omission was disappointing.

One particularly helpful paragraph states that the Thresher became negatively buoyant "likely the result of some combination of excessive leakage and failure to pump out seawater to maintain neutral buoyancy as the submarine went deeper." The analysis still fails to tie up the loose ends about the flooding, reactor shutdown, and loss of buoyancy control.

Building the article around a thesis that the Thresher was not ready for sea is like explaining that a football team lost because the other team scored more points. If the FOIA data makes it even harder to explain the Thresher's demise, then I think it would have been better for the article to take a different tack, such as stating we may never know exactly why the Thresher sank.

—Bob Biddle

The USS Scorpion

More than half a century after the loss of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) and her 99-man crew, there are plenty of theories as to the cause of the sinking, but no firm conclusions.

Evidence submitted to the Scorpion Court of Inquiry into the 22 May 1968 sinking included her detailed maintenance history, acoustic recordings depicting the sinking, and underwater photographs of the wreckage. This prompted numerous theories: a battery explosion, various torpedo mishaps, or an undetermined mechanical failure such as a broken propeller shaft. In the end, the court concluded, "The certain cause of the loss of Scorpion cannot be ascertained from any evidence now available."

However, the court never saw a vital trove of evidence that has emerged, piece by piece, over the past 40 years, which paints the tragedy in a much darker hue. This long-buried evidence centers on a series of events occurring over the critical five-day span from the moment of the sinking at 1:44 p.m. on Wednesday, 22 May, through the declaration of "Event SUBMISS" at 3:15 p.m. on Monday, 27 May, several hours after the submarine failed to reach port at her 1 p.m. arrival time.

In sworn testimony to the Court of Inquiry, senior Navy officers repeated their public claims that the submarine was operating under conditions of strict radio silence during her return to port; therefore, no one suspected anything amiss until she failed to arrive on 27 May. This was a lie.

Instead, as former Submarine Force Atlantic commander Vice Admiral Arnold F. Schade and retired Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas H. Moorer Jr. revealed in 1983, when the Scorpion had finished her three-month Mediterranean deployment and reentered the Atlantic, she was diverted 1,200 miles southwest to surveil Soviet warships near the Canary Islands. Following that, Schade ordered the submarine to transmit "check report" burst-transmission messages at 24-hour intervals during the return to Norfolk. It was the absence of a 22 May message that triggered alarm.

Moreover, Schade revealed that, on 23 May, he sought and received permission to launch a massive, top-secret search for the Scorpion, employing Atlantic Fleet warships, submarines, and patrol aircraft, which continued up to the moment the submarine's disappearance could no longer be concealed.

The deception included the deliberate failure of the staff of the commander, Submarine Force Atlantic (ComSubLant), to notify family members about concern about the Scorpion, to the extent several dozen members braved a howling nor’easter at Pier 22 for hours on 27 May even though Navy leaders already knew the families’ loved ones were dead. The family members were unwitting pieces of a massive cover-up.

It was not until 2010 that two key witnesses to the Scorpion disaster came forward. Former Radiomen Second Class Mike Hannon and Ken Larbes disclosed that, while on duty at the command message center the night of 22–23 May, they learned that the Navy had detected the sinking in "real time," and that the same underwater sensors that recorded the sinking had also tracked a Soviet submarine that attacked and sank the Scorpion.

The Court of Inquiry never heard any of that evidence, according to retired Captain Dean Horn, one of its seven members.

The cover up was only half-successful. While the American public never learned the full story, the Soviets received a full report. The duty supervisor at the ComSubLant message center the night the Scorpion sank was Warrant Officer John A. Walker, veteran submariner and active KGB agent.

—Ed Offley, Author, Scorpion Down and Turning the Tide

Mr. Trevethan's article was very interesting, particularly because it seems to deviate rather significantly from public Department of Defense estimates in the 2022 China Military Power Report (CMPR), as well as some of the Navy's reporting on China's antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) programs. Given his role at the U.S. Air Force's Air University, as well as his work with the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), it seems as if it may be worth integrating ASBM research areas more closely between the Navy and Air Force.

Mr. Trevethan notes the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force's (PLARF's) ability to target moving ships at sea with a variety of ballistic missiles not typically identified as ASBMs. If he is correct, this increases the missile threat to ships inside the first island chain by nearly 1,500 missiles in addition to the DF-21D and DF-26B, including the DF-11A (600 km range), DF-15A/B (600–900 km), and DF-16 (800–1000 km). This claim hinges on the use of submunitions against ships at sea, warheads his article states have been available to the PLA since the 1990s. But that seems somewhat problematic, as missiles with no ability to maneuver in their terminal phase would surely only be able to hit a ship sailing in a straight line at a constant speed, an unlikely circumstance after missiles are in the air.

He also suggests a total of 960 DF-21D and 540 DF-17 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) spread between the PLARF's units in China's Eastern and Northern Theater Commands. The CMPR put MRBM launchers (total) at around 250 and MRBMs at 500-plus. It appears Mr. Trevethan's numbers take into account a count of launchers as well as reloads at battalion, brigade, and base levels, but I am very curious as to the nature of the considerable delta between CASI analysis and other, generally authoritative sources such as the CMPR. If CASI has data and analysis that is able to provide more fidelity than the CMPR, surely it should be more involved in that process. Otherwise, more comprehensive sourcing and citations might shed a bit more light on how CASI and Mr. Trevethan arrivedat conclusions so different from the analysis published by the Department of Defense.

—LCDR Blake Herzinger, USNR

The author responds:

I value skepticism and critics—they cause me to double-check before I say something. And I learn from those who know something I did not.

Analysis of institutions in a closed society is extremely risky. We are a bit like horses wearing blinders—we cannot see beyond the small amount of data we have. Worse, that information may be spun for our consumption.

Nevertheless, I am generally unimpressed with the work of our official agencies. Most of the time it is a product of assumptions. For example, several years ago, someone sent me an official Air Force order of battle on the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) for 2018, because I was working on a paper (that later became a book) on the matter. It assumed that all PLAAF fighter units had 36 aircraft or 48 aircraft bomber elements. Yet, in fact, fighter units uniformly have 30 machines (with 24 displayed on flightlines) and bomber units have 20 machines (displaying 18). Most attack units are similar to those of fighters.

Almost all units have more than one type of aircraft assigned, but the order of battle uniformly listed only one. The only thing consistently in agreement with my data was the latitude and longitude of major bases. It is perfectly usual to find official information is out of date. Indeed, this is almost necessarily true, even with the best analysis. Orders of battle are always changing.

My analysis is intended to show the normal peacetime inventory of missiles available in each theater. If a theater command is designated as an "active war zone command," its commander may issue orders directly to all PLA assets except those under direct control of the Central Military Commission.

My data is based on open-source internet items (both what my team observes directly and what is provided by other agencies) as well as imagery to assess launchers, transporter-erectors, transporters, and evaluation of observed formations. Brigades are supposed to have enough reloads to resupply all subordinate launch battalions. Bases (i.e., divisions) similarly are supposed to have enough reloads to resupply all subordinate launch brigades.

National reserves and factory reserves are not included in these estimates. "Small core" solid fuel missiles may rapidly be reconfigured by adding or removing a stage and/or by changing the warhead(s) mounted. There are upward of 20 types of specialized warheads, most of which weigh 470–500 kg, though some newer missiles may mount 800 or 1,100 kg warheads.

As a nine-year-old, I have criticized the use of the term One of Captain Tangredi's proposed Navy actions Of course she was ready for sea, I served on board the USS Permit (SSN-594) In my law practice, The USS Scorpion More than half a century after the loss Mr. Trevethan's article was very interesting,