O, how the mighty have fallen

There’s a great deal of talk about the attack on two US warships in Jordan yesterday. While others have looked into who carried out the attack, who might have ordered it, and just what it all means, I decided to take a different tack — to look at the technical aspects of the attack.

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Others are comparing this to the attack on the USS Cole, which was nearly sunk in Yemen by Al Qaeda. While the general circumstances are similar (a US warship in a foreign harbor attacked by terrorists), that’s where the parallels end.

The Cole was hit by a massive (400-700-lb.) bomb below her waterline, where the water helped magnify the shock. Further, there is evidence that the explosive was “shaped” in intensify the blast. The bomb ripped a 40-foot hole in the side of the ship, right at the waterline. And as sailors say, you sink a ship by poking holes to let in water, not holes to let in air.

First, I’ve heard conflicting reports. Some sources say it was a Katyusha rocket, others say a mortar.

The Katyusha is a generic name for a rocket that dates back to World War II. It’s basically an unguided rocket, that spins (like a bullet or a football) to keep it going relatively straight in the direction you want it to. Essentially, you point it in the direction you want it to go, adjust the angle for the distance, toss in a tweak for wind, cross your fingers, and fire it off in hopes of hitting something important. The amazing thing is that these attackers fired off three of them, and one of them actually came close to its intended target.

Or it might have been a mortar. A mortar fires what is essentially a big bullet at the back, with gunpowder or some sort of propellant, and a big hand grenade at the front. You drop the mortar shell into a tube, a pin at the bottom fires the gunpowder, and the bomb comes shooting out the other end. Again, they’re pretty much unguided.

Now, let’s look at the intended target of the attack. The USS Ashland
is a Whidbey Island-class LSD. No, that’s not the drug, but a Landing Ship (Dock). The best way I can explain it is if you think back to “Saving Private Ryan”‘s opening scene, with the D-Day landings. Remember all the little landing craft running up on to the beach? The LSDs carry those around the ocean, along with helicopters and a bunch of US Marines. The Ashland is over 600 feet long, 84 feet wide, and displaces (“weighs”) over 16,000 tons fully loaded. In football terms, she’s two fields long and 28 yards across. She’s pretty big.

The USS Kearsarge (named after a mountain here in New Hampshire, bu we’re not quite sure which — we have two by that name) is even bigger. She’s about 850 feet long, 140 feet wide, and displaces over 40,000 tons fully loaded. She’s an LHD — Landing ship, Helicopter, Dock — and hauls around about 50 helicopters and Harrier jump-jets, three hovercraft landing craft, and about 2,000 Marines. I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that the Kearsarge could start a few wars all on her own — and, quite possibly, win them.

So, what would have happened if that rocket or mortar would have hit either ship? In all likelihood, not much.

Neither ship has armor, per se — the modern navy has largely dispensed with armor, with the exception of Kevlar sheets to protect certain vital areas. There are also rumors that aircraft carriers have more substantial armor, but that’s severely classified.

But these are warships. They’re built a lot tougher than civilian ships. And these mortars/rockets are not designed to take on warships. Their explosive charges would most likely detonate on impact, not penetrating before exploding where they would cause real damage. So a hit to the side would be inconvenient, perhaps mildly damaging, but not much trouble to deal with.

Further, these ships are designed to handle helicopters and jumpjets. They are essentially runways, built to hold the weight and absorb the impact of landing aircraft. A deck impact would be messy, and possibly injure or kill anyone out on deck nearby at the time, but not likely to endanger or cripple the ship.

I can only see three ways these weapons could cause serious damage. The first is if they hit the superstructure — the parts of the ship that stick up from the deck. These parts are less protected than the hull or deck, and could take a bit more damage from a mortar or rocket.

The second is the sensors. These ships have a bunch of antennae, for a multitude of radars, radios, and other electronics. An exploding rocket or mortar shell could raise hob with these, and in the modern age a ship is only as good as its electronics. One well-placed explosive could put a serious hurting on her ability to carry out her duties.

The final one is the most frightening. If the explosive hit a jet or helicopter on the deck, it could start a fire. Fire is the biggest fear of any sailor, especially on a warship filled with things that go “boom” when set ablaze — fuel, bombs, missiles, ammunition, and the like. Three times in modern days we’ve had aircraft carriers severely damaged by fires — the USS Oriskany in 1966, the USS Forrestal in 1967, and the USS Enterprise in 1969.

Fortunately, the ships were at anchor when they were attacked, and I doubt that any aircraft were on the flight decks.

So, here we are. The latest Al Qaeda attack on US forces can be called “all sizzle, no steak.” It was essentially the same type of attack terrorists routinely fire into Israel, those usually dismissed as “nuisances,” but against a target that can pretty much shrug it off. (The fact that those attacks are considered “nuisances” is yet more testimony that attacks against Israelis don’t count like those against Westerners.) From global terrorists with a body count in the thousands, and nearly sinking one of our more powerful warships, to essentially tossing a firecracker at a police car.

It’s almost tragic, to see where they are and looking back at where they were, and what they achieved. But I’m too busy laughing derisively and dancing gleefully to mourn.

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