Jump to content

Sea Stories: The Duel


Recommended Posts

Sea Stories:  The Duel


In 1987, I was Operations Officer and Navigator of a guided missile frigate returning home to San Diego, CA from a deployment to the Persian Gulf.  We were in company with a Knox-class frigate, and as our Captain was senior to the frigate’s commanding officer, we were in tactical command.  Both of our ships were armed with the Harpoon anti-ship guided missile.  Now, my various ships across my naval career were armed with a variety of weapons, but the Harpoon was common to them all and was my hands down favorite.  A sea-skimming, internal radar-guided ship killer, the Harpoon packed an almost 500 pound high explosive warhead, which was delivered at speeds of over 500 mph, at targets up to 70 miles away, skimming the surface of the sea as it flew to make it difficult to detect visually or by radar.   Early versions performed a steep “pop-up” climb in terminal phase, before pitching down and diving on the target at a steep angle.  Later versions omitted this maneuver, (which actually made it easier to hit with a close-in defensive weapons system than simply running in at increasingly low altitude to impact.)  The weapon had a couple of different modes for use.  It could be fired straight at the enemy or set to fly off axis and then turn in to approach from a different bearing, so that a single ship could deliver several missiles arriving nearly simultaneously from multiple directions.  If you knew pretty exactly where the enemy was, it could be targeted to a specific locational “box” in the ocean to look for its target.  If you had less of an idea, you could just fire it along a likely bearing and turn its radar on and later off, to cover a larger swath of ocean while searching for its target.  The operator would program the missile in whatever way the situation called for, then launch it and move on to other business, as it was a “fire and forget” missile, obtaining its own terminal guidance with its onboard radar.  The Harpoon was a flexible, deadly weapon and I enjoyed learning to use it to its fullest capability as a form of maritime martial art.

As our little two-frigate surface action group was headed east across the Pacific, a matching pair of ships of the same classes was transiting west to begin their deployments.   The Navy, in a rare burst of focus on combat capability rather than political correctness, ordered us to conduct a tactical exercise as we passed in mid-ocean.  We were all directed to a generous sized locational box, and directed to pass through the box at the same time, with each group hunting the other and trying to sink the opponents with simulated weapons fire.  This was an evenly-matched duel of ships configured with exactly the same capabilities, so either luck or superior tactics would determine the outcome.   I was assigned as Tactical Action Officer for the period of the exercise, in essence fighting my ship while directing the actions of our junior partner.  And I planned to win this duel. 

Now, radar is a wonderful tool enabling you to “see” well beyond the horizon and in all weather and lighting, but it has one major drawback.  Radar impulses can be “seen” and tracked far beyond the range at which they can detect targets.  So driving around blasting radar signals into the air makes you very easy to detect and track.  It is a bit like hunting an armed opponent  in a dark warehouse.  You don’t want to go walking around shining your flashlight.  It was therefore assumed that all the ships in this exercise would have all their radars turned off.  All four of the ships were designed to hunt submarines, so they were all very quiet acoustically as ships go; it would be hard to hear each other using sonar.  What did that mean to me?  The most likely way we would detect each other would be visually – unless someone lit off a radar and tried to take a snap shot, hoping to destroy a slower enemy who was less prepared to fire back in return but who just happened to be in range.   This was a risky strategy at best, as the radar signal would give all the other ships in the game an instant ability to locate the shooter.  So the smart money was on a visual detection.  As is so often the case in warfare, whoever saw their opponent first was likely to win. 

Now, there is a pretty simple maxim at play here.  You can see farther when you are higher in the air, looking over the horizon and beyond the curvature of the earth.  That is why sailing men-of-war had crow’s nests and fighting tops.   Modern Navy ships are bristling with high-powered radars and powerful communications antennae, the radiations from which can physically fry a human body.  It is dangerous to be aloft among these systems, so normally, no one is placed high on the mast.  But as we were planning to be electronically silent, and as it was a fairly calm, pleasant day in mid-ocean, I asked the Captain for permission to put a lookout on the topmost radar platform, outfitted with a safety harness, a pair of binoculars and a sound-powered telephone connecting him directly to the bridge.  This greatly increased our visual detection range.  We mathematically worked out what would be the approximate range of a ship whose topmasts were visible from that known height above the water.  And we knew exactly how tall those masts were, as they were just like our own!

Some hours into the exercise, along the expected bearing of our opponents’ approach, the mainmast lookout reported first one, then another set of masts.  He relayed the relative bearings and coloration/configuration details.  This was definitely our prey.  We plugged the known bearing and estimated range information into our Harpoon control console, and simulated launching Harpoons at both of our opponents, using off-axis attack vectors.  We then called the launch, salvo size, target geographic positions and estimated impact time out over a dedicated exercise radio circuit, thereby registering our attack.  We had ordered our junior companion ship to be ready to fire should the first salvo not get the job done, after passing the details to them via visual communications (flashing light using Morse code.)    We had the lookout descend quickly, and once he was on deck, lit off a surface search radar to confirm the targets; our locations were near-exact and there were no other ships in the vicinity to act as unintended targets.

No second salvo was necessary.  Good guys 2, bad guys 0.  Sometimes the old ways are best.  Thus ended the duel. 


Harpoon Anti-Ship Missile | Military-Today.com

Edited by Gunboat1
  • Like 4
  • Thanks 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

There’s a good lesson here about not being so reliant on technology that you find yourself at a disadvantage when technology either doesn’t work or using it puts you at risk. GPS satellites down? Better know how to land navigate with a map and compass. Batteries dead on your optic? Better be proficient with iron sights.

Gunboat1 “won” a sea engagement in a modern warship using Jutland-type tactics. We can only hope that lesson was passed on. This also brings to mind the collisions at sea involving USN vessels... Fitzgerald and McCain.  Two modern warships with state of the art radar and navigation equipment, but they could have been better served with better trained (and supervised) lookouts and bridge teams while transiting heavily travelled passages.

Skill and initiative, in the end, will beat technology.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Please Donate To TBS

    Please donate to TBS.
    Your support is needed and it is greatly appreciated.
  • Create New...