Peace Time: Lessons Unrehearsed

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December 14, 2018: Wartime lessons are not usually forgotten these days, but unless you get to actually practice some of those wartime conditions you tend to be unprepared for vital details and how important they are. There were some examples of this during a recent (and relatively rare) NATO naval exercise. Between October 25th and November 7th NATO held its largest training exercise since the Cold War ended in 1991. Lessons learned were at the cost of one Norwegian frigate sunk and an American amphibious ship (LSD Gunston Hall) suffering some damage when a landing craft (LCU) got loose during heavy weather off Iceland. A few sailors were slightly injured while dealing with the LCU. Another amphibious ship was diverted to an anchorage in Iceland until the bad weather passed.

The Norwegian frigate was not a victim of the notoriously bad weather in the North Atlantic (especially during Winter) but the incident revealed design defects in the new Nansen class frigates. The lost ship was nine years old and collided with a tanker at 4 AM in a coastal shipping lane. Apparently, the bridge watch made several mistakes (moving too fast, misidentifying other ships and general inability to deal with the situation) that led to the collision. The Nansen class ships were, on paper, difficult to sink. But a key safety feature (the stuffing boxes that sealed the bulkhead opening for the propeller shaft during flooding) did not work and the flooding spread to other parts of the ship that would have been watertight if the stuffing boxes had worked. This sort of thing has been encountered before with ship design features that were supposed to prevent the spread of flooding but didn’t. The loss of the Norwegian frigate had many similarities with the loss of the Titanic in 1912 (North Atlantic, a ship moving too fast, lookouts not correctly reporting what was out there, “unsinkable” design features that did not work when put to the test).

The dangers of operating at sea in dangerous waters are well known and yet losses due to crew errors and design flaws still occur. Actually, it could be worse. There are a lot more ships at sea now than a century ago and there is more technology to help crews avoid problems. You don’t hear about the many times the tech or training prevented serious incidents. But some things never change and one of those is the nasty weather found in the North Atlantic and North Pacific.

Better weather forecasting (especially weather satellites) have made it easier to avoid the worst weather and that is still the most frequently employed safety measure. But that is often difficult to do in the Northern seas when bad weather can cover an enormous area. In Alaska, for example, the flying weather is so bad during the Winter that the military sends many aircraft south for the bad weather season. In the Pacific, the bad weather is sometimes used to make a military operation work. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 succeeded in large part because the attack force crossed the North Pacific, exercising radio silence and with orders to sink any commercial vessel they encountered along the way to keep the movement secret. Normally there are few commercial ships up there after November. The Americans did not believe the Japanese would risk moving a large attack force via the North Pacific but the Japanese did just that and achieved surprise despite the Americans being on alert to possible attack from other directions.

In some parts of the world, the weather has a major impact on military pilot training. This is the case in the Philippines, which is sometimes hit by several typhoons (hurricane-like storms, but larger) in quick succession. In addition to airfield and facility damage, the training aircraft have to be flown out of the way, often a long distance because of the size of these storms. New pilots have to get 150 hours in the air to complete their training, which is supposed to take a year. But if there is a bad typhoon season, pilots may be delayed, a month or more, from completing their training.

These typhoons also severely disrupt all military aviation operations. Aircraft must be sent away, often far away, and bases battened down to minimize storm damage. Airbases can be out of action for weeks per typhoon. Warships are also at risk, although these days, weather satellites have eliminated the surprise factor. Not so in the past. On December 17, 1944, Task Force 38 was blindsided by a typhoon off the Philippines. Over 800 sailors were killed, three destroyers were sunk, and twenty other ships severely damaged, while many aircraft were damaged or destroyed. This was not the only time a Task Force ran afoul of a storm, simply the worst. One reason for the seriousness of this incident may be due to the fact that Admiral Halsey flew his flag from a battleship, which was much more stable in foul weather than a destroyer, particularly one which was low on fuel.

The typhoon "nursery" (for those north of the equator in the Pacific) is between 155 and 165 degrees east longitude, and from the Equator to about 20 degrees north, at least for most of the year. From January through March it's between 145-155 degrees. Further complicating matters, some ferocious storms form west of Japan in the Sea of Japan and a few even further north, over land in northeast Siberia and then gain typhoon strength as they move out over the water. Most of these "northern" typhoons don't get beyond storm (over 62 kilometers per hour wind) strength, but some do. For every typhoon, there are several storms of (somewhat) lesser ferocity, which could be almost as bad as a typhoon, as carrier operations are not possible during most storms, and this makes it easier for enemy submarines to get close to the carriers. All of this storm activity happened smack in the middle of the Central Pacific, an area where there are still some major American military bases and lots of ship traffic ready to get out of the way when the weather satellite shows a big storm.

Although the Atlantic has less damaging hurricanes, these storms have access to what the military like to call “a target rich environment.”) Military bases and commercial airports in areas likely to get hit by a hurricane survive in part because they have well thought out and frequently used plans to get aircraft and personnel out of the way before the big storm hits. Sometimes a lot of aircraft have to be left behind, usually because they are undergoing repairs or maintenance are not flyable. News photographers find these unfortunate aircraft (and large ships that could not run either) as great photo opportunities after the storm has passed.

 


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