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Sheffield’s Ghost Provides Lessons

Captain Joseph Pugh, U.S. Navy

A British media outlet recently reported that it had obtained a select, uncensored Royal Navy Board of Inquiry Report of 1982 on the loss of the Sheffield. This release compliments an edited first edition that was released in 2006. The newly released report, however, did not provide any access to the unencumbered original (which should be a good read).  To date, the full unblemished report is unavailable to the public. Inspired by related commentary , I secured a copy of the incomplete 2006 release to scrutinize through my own specific lens.

In reading the 35-year-old British report, it was not what was disclosed that grabbed my attention but what was not. Maybe the short period of analysis between the attack and the report contributed to this disappointment and surprise.

The original 25-page, heavily modified 2006 report contains 33 investigative focus areas, 48 findings, and 14 recommendations. The final report was very good (for the time) about addressing actions within the life lines of the Sheffield . The expected 1982 recommendations include: better watch standing, weapons, damage control procedures, materials, and maintenance. But the numerous annexes and recommendations are still not available, specifically for two items.  Prominently within the Inquiry’s Letter of Designation, the Board was directed to investigate, “The Task Group Commander’s Assessment of the Threat Before the Attack.” Modern vernacular would term this as intelligence preparation of the environment (IPE). Also missing was a comprehensive judgment on “whole-ship training and preparation of personnel.” The two are inextricably linked and were foundational issues which set the event into motion.

Intelligence must be integrated fully into the training, deployment, and employment of any naval force.  Units must understand the threat and be able to adjust dynamically to changes in the enemy’s presentation and weapons. The U.S. Navy uses a graduated process to train its forces—from individual operators, to units, to multiple warfare composite groups—in all warfare areas, kinetic and non-kinetic.  

But how can the U.S. Navy introspectively avoid repeating the mistakes of the British Falklands Task Force and the Sheffield —specifically in assessing the threat and training its operating units appropriately? Every effort must be made to ensure front-line operators have the latest information to protect and fight their platforms. Warfighting tactics must be refined regularly and dynamically based on the changing threat.  The ageless challenge is to deliver relevant threat intelligence in a timely and digestible manner to individual watch standers and decision makers. 

The naval warfare organizations (Sword, Spear, Saber) at the Office of Naval Intelligence, working with the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, select submarine squadrons, and the newly minted Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) are powerful partners in supporting frequent and regular threat assessments and operational updates to fleet warfighting documents. The Navy must use these distinct experts and their unique skills to assemble the natural convergence of theory and information into sound deck-plate tactics.

Commander Carrier Strike Group 4, Commander Carrier Strike Group 15, and Tactical Training Groups Atlantic and Pacific can then hone the staffs, units, and embarked personnel by training and testing them in realistic, challenging scenarios—both virtually and at sea – based on the developed tactics. These commands have a core mission to teach and assess afloat units as they work up the readiness ladder from fighting their platforms to conducting complex strike group operations. The greatest strength of these commands is their ability to educate ship, squadron, warfare commander, and strike group leadership to understand, plan, and execute warfare missions lethally and efficiently, while balancing risk and objective.  A robust tempo between tactics development and fleet training must be established and maintained to ensure operational excellence.

The U.S. Navy’s ability to communicate, gather intelligence, distribute lethal fires, and fight jointly is impressive. But, increasingly so are the warfighting capabilities of the United States’ peer adversaries. The USS Mason (DDG-87)’s successful engagement of Houthi-launched antiship missiles off the coast of Yemen a year ago instills some confidence in the current training process. Experts at the Office of Naval Intelligence and the warfighting centers of excellence continue to dissect those engagements to capture lessons, best practices, gaps in performance, and recommendations for improvement.  Reports that the USS Nitze (DDG-94)— sailing with the Mason off Yemen—did not detect or engage the incoming missiles, on the other hand, should give us pause.

The Navy cannot be complacent, as British reports suggest the Falklands Task Force and HMS Sheffield were about the Argentine threat. The world is a deadlier place in the 35 years since the sinking of the Sheffield— and current timelines to act/react are much shorter . This stark reality demands tireless intelligence preparation efforts in developing superior tactical performance. 

Captain Pugh graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1990. He started his career as a surface warfare officer before becoming a cryptologic warfare officer in 1993. From 2010-2012, he commanded the Navy Information Operations Command, Whidbey Island, Washington. 

Photo : HMS Sheffield, after being struck by an Exocet missile, alongside HMS Arrow on 4 May 1982.

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