Bravery Will Not Be Enough

By Captain Daniel S. Appleton, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Threats are increasing from nuclear, biological, and chemical munitions; rising mines; wake-following torpedoes; boarding and terrorism; and escalating numbers of small submarines difficult to track in shallow waters. Navy crews in littoral waters for extended periods will be called upon to operate for weeks or months in alert readiness conditions that impose sustained high stresses leading toward physical and mental exhaustion.

Initial damage and casualties most likely will occur from hits received during normal condition watches—not general quarters. When the hits come, ships of up to 10,000 tons will be picked up and shaken like toys. People will be thrown bodily into sharp corners of nearby structures, so that heads and faces are smashed and bones snapped like twigs. Bulkheads and structures will be torn and twisted like cardboard. Equipment and such heavy furnishings as file cabinets, desks, safes, and chairs will be torn from their mountings and hurled about like missiles, causing further injuries and destruction and blocking hatches and passageways. Deck gratings in engineering spaces will act as giant knives, shearing pipelines and wiring and releasing live steam, oil, and electricity. Bedding and linoleum deck surfacing will begin to burn and emit toxic fumes. Many ships today are just as "burnable," or more so, than were most in the early battles of World War II.

Learning to deal with this prospect calls for condition watch training of extraordinary depth and difficulty. Fleet battle training resources might be available to help for short periods before or during a hurried deployment (as they were during Desert Storm), but they are being depleted dramatically by reductions in fleet training command budgets. As budgets continue to shrink, new demands will be placed on shipboard leaders to conduct aspects of battle training heretofore guided largely by pre-trained off-ship specialists.

To begin realistic battle training, shipboard officers and senior petty officers must be able to explain to their crews why they need to be expert at the business of fighting. Fighting is different from simply operating combat systems or conducting damage control. It means delivering firepower while taking casualties; something very few U.S. ships have had to do in the past half century.

Four measures are indispensable to strengthening the shipboard fighting abilities needed to cope with the challenges of littoral warfare. All four call for leadership before the onset of emergencies, as well as during action:

  • Organize for battle
  • Prepare to cope with violence
  • Keep the crew informed
  • Train to fight

Organize for Battle

A central and persistent problem in organizing a ship's company for battle has been that many of a typical ship's crew report to different leaders at battle stations than they do within their regular department, division, and work center organizations. Each watch section of each high-threat readiness condition typically has its own distinctive chain of command and accountability below the level of the executive officer, which is effective only when people are at their stations. Some ships use four or five different readiness conditions, each with two or more watch sections. Parallel organizational structures based on principles of clear chains of command can strengthen team cohesion and enhance physical and psychological strength, but they must not conflict with the existing standard system of shipboard administrative organization, which can remain in full effect. Two principles that will serve as foundations for battle organizations are:

  • Full battle readiness. The overall goal of the battle training organization should be to make progress toward full battle readiness: expert ability to perform all designed operations under conditions of severe stress, extreme violence, or attempted enemy surprise.
  • Battle Systems. A well-structured battle organization should specify battle systems, such as combat system or auxiliary machinery system, each supervised by a battle control officer.

Within each combat system, combat teams and watch teams should be structured as follows:

  • A group of two or more persons who man assigned stations in close proximity in Condition I (general quarters) should be known as a combat team. A group of two or more persons who man assigned stations in close proximity in any section of a readiness condition should be known as a watch team.
  • The senior member of each combat team and watch team should be designated as the team leader. (Designating a technical specialist as team leader in preference to the senior member of the team can lead to serious complications of leadership and accountability in event of emergency, and abandons the distinction of seniority. However, there is nothing to prevent the senior member from designating a leading technician as a supervisor for specific types of situations.)
  • Each combat team and watch team should be assigned a formal title.
  • The ship's Watch, Quarter, and Station Bill should be structured and displayed to enable all hands to know the composition of each combat and watch team to which they are assigned. (The necessary sorting and printing are readily accomplished by computer.)

The chains of control of the battle organization should conform to the chains of control at general quarters and in each high-threat readiness condition, with the general quarters chain having overall supervision. The following levels of authority and accountability should apply within each readiness condition: Commanding officer, executive officer, battle control officers, combat team leaders, watch team leaders, combat team and watch team members

Prepare to Cope with Violence

Of all the burnables on board our ships, the most threatening are fuel, ammunition, and the crew's bedding. The threat of severe burns has been vividly described in a recent article by George W. Schiele:

"Fires on the Stark burned at 3500 degrees. Navy records show that sailors fought the blazes with scalding water lapping at their legs. The combustion of unburned fuel from the missiles after they struck started these fires, and shipboard contents such as linens, mattresses, curtains, uniforms, packing boxes and crates, wall paneling, insulation, and cables fed the fires. Many lives were lost because the fires and smoke kindled by the missile hits knocked out the ship's main firefighting systems, as had happened on HMS Sheffield five years earlier."

The means to reduce the flammability of ships and their contents have been available to the Navy for years. Sadly, they have been little used. Fire-resistant materials of the type needed to prevent recurrence of the Stark and Bonefish tragedies are not deployed, funded, or meaningfully contemplated in the Navy's current budget requests.

According to Navy statistics, from 1973 to 1983 there were an average of 148 fires per year on ships and on land, with fire losses in each of these years averaging almost $19 million. Losses from shipboard fires in 1985 totaled $35 million. While the debate rages, ordinary sailors continue to wonder why they must still sail in ships less safe than they can be.

Captain A. M. Smith (MC) U.S. Naval Reserve, recently wrote:

If future combat conditions at sea can be expected to mirror those in the 1982 Falklands War, in which a significant number of burn injuries were incurred, the widely disseminated television tapes taken on the bridge of the Aegis cruiser Vincennes (CG-49) while on station in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 1988 give some cause for concern. Even though the ship was at general quarters and under attack, it is difficult in viewing the videotape to identify any individual on the bridge wearing substantial protective vestments, much less those of a fire protective nature. As one experienced observer noted, ‘Not a single man was adequately protected against flash burns. Every face, every arm, every hand was exposed.' [He further noted] The apparent lack of protective clothing aboard Vincennes was in sharp contrast to crew protection aboard the Royal Navy frigate Broadsword , shown in a BBC videotape on patrol in the Persian Gulf in 1987. Every sailor was fully clothed in face mask, arm protectors, and gloves. The difference was striking.

The single measure most urgently needed to protect our Sailors and to help them to look and feel like warriors is a practical, flash-resistant combat uniform—including headgear—suitable for ship's work during high-threat readiness conditions and available without having to get to battle stations.

Advance preparations for violence must also include: all hands wearing dog tags, medical personnel trained to take care of trauma to women, polyester clothing prohibited, flame-resistant bedding covers, potable water dispersed to help treat burn victims, means to secure implements in active use in battle dressing stations against severe shock, a stock of small diameter wire rope and cable clamps to secure loose gear, blocks and tackle in place to help move laden stretchers from one deck to another, and visual lookouts protected to enable them to remain on station despite threats of chemical attack.

Keep the Crew Informed

One of the most effective procedures to strengthen shipboard battle capabilities, particularly when time is short, is to involve all hands in setting goals and keeping track of progress achieved. It can be difficult for battle control officers and assistants to tell junior officer or senior enlisted team leaders at just what they should train their teams to excel. Without ready access to performance standards, it can be difficult for junior personnel to take an active part in setting goals for battle drills and in benefiting from feedback. It also can be difficult for shipboard leaders to plan training effectively unless they have a reliable way of knowing the status of each team's current capabilities in comparison with its expected capabilities. Most important, it can be difficult for commanding officers to communicate their own team proficiency standards in such a way as to have their objectives and priorities clearly understood and actively pursued.

The first task in creating a useful procedure to keep track of changes in battle skills is to define explicitly the capabilities that comprise expert ability to fight for each ship. This may be accomplished by referring to the lists of exercises prescribed by applicable fleet exercise publications, type and unit commanders, and cognizant afloat training group(s); adjusting performance criteria as needed; summarizing performance criteria for each exercise in the format of visible computer displays, on which day-to-day evaluations, and names of evaluators, may be kept posted; and producing a hard-copy set of the selected performance criteria in a loose-leaf "Designed Capabilities Manual."

Train to Fight

When shipboard maintenance and administrative demands are very high, time for battle drills can be hard to come by. Under these circumstances, nothing should consume time on station that can be effectively accomplished by thorough preplanning before manning stations. Each drill should be planned in advance so that it may be conducted on short notice. The objectives of each drill should be made so clear in advance that personnel can sense responsibility for individual homework. And every opportunity for a drill should be exploited by manning battle or watch stations on every occasion in peacetime when they would be so manned in war—such as entering or leaving port, instead of "special" sea details.

Drills for condition watches are of immense importance to the battle readiness of a ship in the littorals. Watch teams must be thoroughly prepared to cope with sudden emergencies involving major disruption before battle stations can be manned. However, battle control officers and watch team leaders in several watch sections may be less qualified than general quarters personnel are in planning and conducting drills effectively. Condition watch leaders will need to develop their own repertoires of good drills.

Whatever is essential to the . . . Navy afloat . . . must find itself adequately represented in the administration. . . . Since armies and navies have existed . . . there has been a constant struggle . . . to keep the end-fighting or the readiness to fight-superior to mere administrative considerations .... There is a quaint, well-worn story, which yet may be new to some readers, of an administrator who complained that his office was working admirably until war came and threw everything out of gear.

A. T. Mahan: Principles of Naval Administration, 1903

Let us define our Navy's primary leadership goal as achievement of expert ability to fight. We must understand that the resources needed to implement measures having to do with shipboard battle organization, human protection, progress measurement, and battle training-interact with the resources needed for each of the others. But most important—the Navy should task one senior officer to coordinate the resources and cognizant agencies needed to strengthen these conditions throughout the Fleet.

Captain Appleton is a damage control expert and frequent contributor to Proceedings .



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