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There Are No Benign Operations

Lieutenant John Miller, USN

(Note: Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright © (2017) U.S. Naval Institute / The submitted essay was titled, "First to Die: The Fighting History of the Peacetime Navy.")

In October 2016, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fired coastal defense cruise missiles at the USS Mason DDG-87), San Antonio (LPD-17), and Ponce (LPD-15) as they executed maritime security operations in the Red Sea. Despite operating in international waters as nonbelligerent, the ships fell under attack, yet in each instance, their crews successfully defended themselves. Because of these efforts, the U.S. Navy suffered neither casualty nor material loss and continued to operate.1 Unfortunately, this case is the exception rather than the historical rule. The successful self-defense measures executed by the Mason remain an anomaly.

When operating in close proximity to conflicts, the U.S. Navy’s readiness and response to attack is lackluster. U.S. ships executing routine presence operations have suffered indiscriminate attacks and losses on multiple occasions. In these cases, self-defense measures were either late or inadequate.

Since 13 October 1775, the U.S. Navy has spent the majority of its time at peace. Today, because of its technological preeminence, its numerical superiority, and the absence of peer and near-peer naval rivals, the naval service often overlooks its own vulnerabilities during peacetime.2 More important, it fails to imbue officers and enlisted sailors with an understanding of this vulnerability and its causes.


The attacks on the USS Chesapeake in 1807, the USS Panay (PR-5) in 1937, and the USS Stark (FFG-31) in 1987 serve as a small yet informative sample. While separated by decades, these three events demonstrate the persistence of the phenomena over time. The events share major similarities and important divergences.

Key differences include time, space, and technology. The geographic environments—off the U.S. East Coast, in the Yangtze River, and in the Persian Gulf—were dissimilar, but they are indicative of the diverse operational environments of the U.S. Navy. Differences across time and space also imply differences in technology.

Similarities revolve around the relative advantages of the aggressors, given their superior readiness and the element of surprise. The operational environments placed each ship in close proximity to conflicts: the Napoleonic Wars, Sino-Japanese War, and Iran-Iraq War. While the United States remained neutral, this proximity pressurized the operational environment, increasing the risk of misperception and miscalculation. In addition, the attacking belligerents had a readiness advantage vis-à-vis the Navy. Readiness paired with surprise leveraged the belligerents’ impact, regardless of intent. Decisions to attack did not reflect national policy or directive but rather the decentralized action of individual, regional, and theater commanders. As a consequence, the attacks were unexpected, and U.S. defensive measures were ineffective.

In addition, each ship received similar operational tasking defense of U.S. interests, deterrence of aggression, and assurance of allies through presence—and before being attacked, each was executing benign naval activity (sea and anchor, anchorage, and operational steaming). Because of maneuvering limitations and human complacency, these types of activities increase the efficacy of conventional and asymmetric threats. Nonetheless, they represent the lion’s share of peacetime operations.


After the First Barbary War, the U.S. Navy maintained its Mediterranean presence to deter the Barbary states. In May 1807, Commodore James Barron assumed command of the replacement Mediterranean Squadron, which included the frigate Chesapeake under the command of Master Commandant Charles Gordon.3 On 22 June 1807, the Chesapeake weighed anchor in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and proceeded to sea en route to the Mediterranean. The 381-man crew included four previously impressed deserters from the Royal Navy.

During the sea-and-anchor detail, the Chesapeake passed a British squadron anchored at Lynnhaven Inlet. As the ship approached Cape Henry, the 50-gun frigate HMS Leopard, under the command of Captain Salusbury Humphreys, closed with the weather gage with her gun ports open and tampions removed.4 The Leopard requested to send over a messenger, who, once on board, presented a written request from Royal Navy Vice Admiral George Berkeley to muster the Chesapeake’s crew to find suspected deserters. Barron refused and dismissed the envoy.5

Meanwhile, Gordon neglected to prepare his ship for action. When the order came to beat to quarters, preparations began; however, Gordon ordered the drumming to cease, leading to confusion across the ranks.6 The British fired two broadsides into the Chesapeake. The Americans returned only a single salvo, which occurred after surrender. With three dead and 18 injured, the Chesapeake gave up the four suspected deserters and limped into port with 22 holes in her hull and unseaworthy masts.7 As result of the premature surrender, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith initiated a naval inquiry and subsequent court-martial. The affair soured relations between Great Britain and the United States. Deteriorating relations, if not the attack itself, precipitated the War of 1812.7

The court-martial proceedings highlighted failures not only in material readiness, but also in communicating these shortfalls up the chain of command. Before getting under way, the crew loaded the ship’s guns; however, cables, baggage, stores, and the hammocks of the sick littered the gun decks and caused delays. Once obstacles were cleared, the absence of required ordnance materials prevented return fire. The gunners failed to fill requisite numbers of powder horns (primer) and reserve cartridges (charges) as ordered. Gun crews did not know the location of matches (fuses). No one heated loggerheads (ignitors). These shortfalls created further delay and limited guns to a single salvo. The Chesapeake’s lone shot occurred only after the gun crew retrieved a smoldering coal from the galley to ignite the match. Even if fired, at least four guns were not properly mounted, guaranteeing catastrophe.8

Multiple officers and midshipmen testified that no one informed Barron and Gordon of these material issues before the encounter. Because of stakeholder indifference, these reports never ascended the chain of command. On multiple levels, critical material assessments and clear reporting lapsed. These deficits impeded the Chesapeake’s defensive efforts and undermined decision making. 

In addition, the Chesapeake’s personnel readiness was low. Officers and midshipmen commented on the green and undisciplined crew, yet no one acted to remedy the defect. Gordon quartered the crew only three times and never exercised the guns while in command. He attributed this training void to the poor material condition of the vessel exiting the shipyards; the late installation of naval guns; stores onloads; poor weather; and limited manning because of illness. These constraints forced Gordon to prioritize sailing readiness over warfighting readiness. As was the practice of the day, he intended to exercise the Chesapeake’s guns during the trans-Atlantic passage. When the Leopard attacked, divisions struggled to muster their gun crews. Officers and sailors alike were off-station.

The peacetime environment engendered complacency and undermined readiness for combat. Mental disarming began with Barron’s orders, which asserted that the United States was “at peace with all the world” and required him to avoid actions that could escalate or create potential hostilities. This mentality transitioned the Chesapeake from a warship to a cargo and passenger carrier. The U.S. leadership assumed the Royal Navy respected U.S. jurisdiction. The Chesapeake’s collective construction of the peacetime operational environment devalued training and weapons readiness.9


From the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858, the United States maintained military forces in China to protect U.S. economic and political interests. U.S. gunboats patrolled along China’s rivers to deter pirates and arlords. By December 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War had escalated and Japanese troops were approaching Nanking. The State Department evacuated embassy personnel and interested nationals.

With conflict-ridden overland routes impassable, the Panay, a flat-bottom gunboat, received tasking to transport embassy staff, journalists, photographers, and foreign nationals up the Yangtze River. In concert with U.S.-flagged Standard Oil tankers, she shifted berths and anchorages to avoid bombing and shelling. Throughout this movement, the U.S. State Department provided the Japanese government with updates on her location. When shelled on 11 December, the Panay left Nanking for the last time. As she steamed inland, the shelling followed.10

On 12 December, the Panay and three Standard Oil ships lay at anchor on a clear, sunny afternoon. The crew executed a Sunday, holiday routine. Around 1330, a flight of three Japanese bombers appeared overhead. By the time they were identified, the first bomb had struck near the bow of the ship. It disabled the on-line boiler, 3-inch gun, radio transmitter, and anchor windlass, eliminating the Panay’s ability to maneuver, defend, and communicate. Casualties mounted quickly and included injuries to commanding officer Lieutenant Commander James J. Hughes and executive officer Lieutenant Arthur Anders. Before general quarters sounded, the Panay’s crew instinctively reacted and manned the eight .30-caliber Lewis machine guns.

The machine guns were an ineffective deterrent. A second wave of six Japanese dive-bombers continued the attack, bombing and strafing all U.S. ships in the anchorage. The Panay began to sink and the order came to abandon ship. After passengers and crew moved ashore, a Japanese patrol boat approached, opened fire with machine guns, and boarded the ship before she sank around 1554. Fearing for their lives, the Panay’s crew and passengers evaded Japanese forces for 50 hours before being recovered by the USS Oahu (PR-6), HMS Bee, and HMS Ladybird. The incident left two U.S. servicemen and an Italian journalist dead and many more injured.

In the aftermath, the Japanese government apologized, rendered assistance, and paid indemnities. They attributed the attack to a rogue commander, yet tensions continued to grow until they boiled over at Pearl Harbor.

The Panay’s design failed to account for the evolution and proliferation of aircraft technology. Built in 1927, her weapons included eight machine guns and two 3-inch guns mounted forward and aft. Both systems were inadequate for air defense. The .30-caliber machine guns lacked range sites and could not be trained forward. In his general quarters and air raid watch bill, Hughes chose to prioritize watertight integrity over access to magazines. Ready service lockers did not exist. As a consequence, the 3-inch guns remained unloaded throughout the attack. Even if loaded, the rounds required manual, preset fusing. Because of the size of the vessel and cost, the Navy elected not to modernize the guns. Hence, the Panay lacked available fire-control instrumentation.

Because of the Panay’s inadequate performance, the inquiry tasked the Bureau of Ordnance to evaluate her air-defense capabilities. The bureau argued that the 3-inch guns retained their air defense efficacy. The destruction evidently was insufficient to catalyze modernization.

In addition, the Panay’s personnel readiness and culture did not reflect her wartime operational environment. Following the Japanese invasion in July 1937, the crew never exercised their guns. While both 3-inch mount captains appeared on the watch bill, neither previously had fired the weapon. On the morning of the attack, a Japanese patrol boat, under arms with machine guns manned and shore-based artillery trained, boarded the Panay to inquire about Chinese forces. Despite this aggression and the persistent shelling, Hughes authorized a holiday routine, which included the transfer of eight sailors to the SS Mei Ping for liberty at the bar. The Panay neither manned additional watches nor readied additional weapons. Instead, she maintained the peacetime status quo.

Confidence based on false assumptions prevailed. Because of notification processes, the Panay’s leaders believed the Japanese knew their location and respected their neutrality. They further assumed the Japanese forces maintained integrated, top-down command and control and unity of effort within the war zone. When the first bomb fell, many felt the Japanese would soon recognize the three large U.S. flags painted on the ship and the flag flown from the main mast and desist. They did not.


Beginning as early as 1981, the Iran-Iraq War turned to the maritime environment and intensified into the Tanker War. Attacks on neutral shipping became commonplace, and U.S. naval presence was increased to deter the spread of conflict, protect neutral tankers, and assure allies in the Gulf. In February 1987, the Stark, under the command of Captain Glenn Brindel, deployed in support of U.S. naval operations in the Middle East. Completing an eight-day maintenance period in Bahrain, the Stark went to sea on 17 May 1987. By sunset, she reported on station in international waters, 20 miles outside Iranian and Iraqi war zones.11

Around 2000, a U.S. Air Force E-3 airborne early warningand control aircraft informed the Stark of an Iraqi military aircraft heading southeast into the Arabian Gulf. The E-3 also passed track information over the tactical data link. At 2015, the ship’s tactical action officer, Lieutenant Basil Moncrief, informed the commanding officer of the Iraqi aircraft. The ship’s SPS-49 air-search radar failed to acquire the Iraqi fighter for another 40 minutes. At 2058, the Iraqi aircraft turned and headed toward the Stark.

At 2102, the SLQ-32 electronic warfare suite operator identified a radar frequency that equated to a Mirage F-1. With the Iraqi aircraft at 43 nautical miles and closing, the senior operations specialist recommended that he issue a warning. Moncrief delayed. The Iraqi F-1 turned inbound and closed. At 2107, the aircraft launched its first Exocet missile, followed by a second. With detection of the aircraft’s fire control radar, Moncrief directed an increase in weapons readiness; authorized warning the aircraft; and ordered the activation of the fire control radar for illumination.

At 2109, the forward lookout spotted the first missile. The missile penetrated the port side but failed to detonate. The second missile followed and detonated the remaining fuel. Fire and flooding consumed the areas forward of the explosion. The crew of the Stark worked diligently to save the ship; 37 sailors died. Afterward, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government denied involvement, calling the attack as a case of misidentification by a single fighter. The U.S. government concurred.

The Stark failed to maintain a high level of material readiness because her officers and crew did not understand the dynamic threat environment. As a consequence, they configured their weapon systems for peacetime rather than war zone operations. While aware of the Iraqi aircraft, they neglected to configure the SPS-49, 2-D air-search radar until prompted by Captain Brindel. The close-in weapon system (CIWS), the ship’s point defense system, remained in standby. The weapons control officer console, the primary weapons user interface, remained offline. The separate target illumination radar, used for illumination of targets, remained in standby. The multifunction MK92 combined antenna system remained in search and achieved F-1 lock-on after the first missile launched. 

Without these fire-control systems, operators failed to engage the threats with either the 76-mm gun or the Standard Missile 1. Super rapid bloom off-board countermeasures launchers, commonly called chaff, remained unarmed until minutes before the missile struck. For much of the incident, it appeared the SLQ-32 console, capable of receiving aircraft and missile radar signals, stayed in silent.12 Finally, the Stark failed to maneuver to unmask the 76-mm gun, fire-control radars, and CIWS. Through misconfiguration and inadequate level of knowledge, the Stark crippled her warfighting capability before the potentially hostile aircraft launched its missiles.

The Stark also experienced a multitude of personnel readiness shortfalls. First, her officers and crew discounted intelligence reports that warned of indiscriminate attacks by Iraqi aircraft, increased night flights, and operations south of the declared war zone. Initial reports of an Iraqi military aircraft did not inspire an evaluation of sensor and weapons configuration and manning. Efforts instead focused on preparing the marine-air reporting system (MAREPS) report, required by higher headquarters after interactions with either Iraq or Iran. To compound this distraction, the executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Raymond Gajan, arrived in the combat information center to discuss departmental administration with Lieutenant Moncrief, the principal warfighter on watch. Meanwhile, Ensign Jeffrey Wright stood two simultaneous watches, one administrative and the other tactical. With competing priorities and false assumptions regarding the probability of attack, the watch progressed with a sense of peacetime complacency.

The crew on watch in the combat information center followed suit in terms of attentiveness and protocol. The weapons control console operator, responsible for the CAS and CIWS, left his watch station without authorization from the watch officer. When Lieutenant Moncrief ordered a warning of the F-1 Mirage, the assigned operator used an ad hoc template that left out critical information about the aircraft (i.e., altitude, speed, and heading). When the Stark received no response, her follow-on warnings did not escalate as permitted by the rules of engagement. Most of the watch failed to recognize the aircraft had turned inbound.

The officers on watch made no attempt to inform the crew and increase awareness. Watch-stander actions demonstrated a lack of training, disregard for the chain of command, and poor situational awareness. Positive actions to defend the ship were time late. The first missile struck before general quarters sounded. In the end, the Stark possessed neither the system alignment nor warfighting mentality to defend herself and/or retaliate.


The inquiries, investigations, and reports related to these historical cases read almost identically. They provide a list of readiness lessons identified yet unlearned as a Navy. If they had been asked at the time, the following questions could have served as key indicators of warfighting readiness:

• Do we understand the operational environment?

• Can we articulate our mission?

• Do we understand how our systems affect the mission?

• When did we last exercise our guns?

• Are our decks cleared for action?

• When did we last beat to quarters?

• Are our weapons and sensors loaded and aligned to fight? Chesapeake, Panay, and Stark

• Are our weapons and sensors adequate to meet the next threat?

• Are we mentally prepared to go into combat today?

These questions remain relevant today. The primary barrier to readiness remains the Navy’s organizational culture, competing priorities, and finite time. To avoid recurrence, we must challenge both commanders and sailors to answer the bell. The Chesapeake, Panay, and Stark memorialize the heroism and failures of all pay grades. To maintain maritime superiority, we must leverage the “strategic petty officer,” one who understands the operational environment, the mission, system criticality, and role significance. Leaders must devote time to inform, train, and empower subordinates to achieve continuous material and personnel readiness.

The Chesapeake, Panay, and Stark symbolize readiness shortfalls that fester below the surface of today’s Navy. As a force operating in contested domains, our maritime superiority depends on our sustained presence. When we sacrifice or mortgage our warfighting readiness, we become the next case study. Let us not rest on the laurels of the Mason.


1 Courtney Kube, “Second Missile Attack on USS Mason Near Yemen,”, 12 October 2016,

2 See G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London, UK: Penguin Books, 2015) and CAPT Dale Rielage, USN, “Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game,” Center for International Maritime Security, 12 January 2016,

3 See Department of the Navy, “Proceedings of the general court martial convened for the trial of Commodore James Barron, Captain Charles Gordon, Mr. William Hook, and Captain John Hall, of the United States Ship Chesapeake, in the month of January, 1808” (Washington, DC: Jacob Gideon Jr., 1822), 314.

4 On a man-of-war, the wooden gun ports ensure watertight integrity during transit while the tampions prevent excess moisture and sea spray from entering the muzzle of the naval gun. The opening of the gun ports and removal of tampions indicate a heightened state of readiness for action. In the Age of Sail, approaching a vessel from upwind provided a maneuverability advantage.

5 Department of the Navy, “Proceedings of the general court martial”; and John Stanier and John McArthur, eds., Naval Chronicle for 1812: General and Biographical History of the Royal Navy, vol. 28 (London: Joyce Gold, 1812), 354-355.

6 “Beating to quarters” is the equivalent of setting general quarters.

7 Stanier and McArthur, Naval Chronicle for 1812.

8 Most details of the Chesapeake’s encounter and material and staffing conditions are from Department of the Navy, “Proceedings of the general court martial.”

9 Department of the Navy, “Proceedings of the general court martial.”

10 Department of the Navy, “Court of Inquiry, bombing and sinking of the U.S.S Panay in the Yangtze River,” part I (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1938), All details on the Panay incident and aftermath are from this source.

11 Department of the Navy, “Formal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack on the USS Stark (FFG 31) on 17 May 1987” (Miami: Cruiser-Destroyer Group Two, 1987), Details and information on the attack on the Stark come from this source.

12 The SLQ-32 operator appears to have left the system in silent until the aircraft closed to missile release range. This decision would have prevented audible warnings of aircraft fire control radars and missile radars. See Department of the Navy, “Formal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack on the USS Stark,” 18.


Lieutenant Miller graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011 with a bachelor of science in political science. Upon commissioning, he completed graduate work in development studies and economic history at the University of Cambridge. In 2013, he reported to USS Barry (DDG-52) as the ordnance officer. He currently serves as the fire control officer on USS Monterey (CG-61).

Published: Tue Apr 03 13:59:38 EDT 2018