Conducting live-fire exercises using live ordnance and actual ships enhances realism and the effectiveness of training. Three decommissioned U.S. Navy ships were used as targets and sunk during the RIMPAC 2012 exercises in the Hawaiian operating area.
It’s called a sink exercise, or SINKEX, and provides air, surface, and submarine warfighters the opportunity to gain proficiency in tactics, targeting, and live firing against surface targets.
“We did three SINKEXes, which are live-fire exercises with real ships,” said Vice Adm. Gerald R. Beaman, commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet, who was in overall command of RIMPAC 2012. “We put three hulks to the bottom.”
The three target ships were formerly underway replenishment ships that kept battle groups supplied while under way.
Ex-USS Niagara Falls (AFS 3) was a Mars-class combat stores ship commissioned in April 1967, decommissioned and transferred to Military Sealift Command (MSC) in September 1994 as USNS Niagara Falls (T-AFS 3), and deactivated in September 2008. She was sunk 63 miles southwest of Kauai in water 15,480 feet deep.
Ex-USS Concord (T-AFS 5) was a Mars-class combat stores ship commissioned in November 1968, decommissioned and transferred to MSC in October 1992, and deactivated in August 2009. She was sunk in water 15,390 feet deep, 61 miles off the coast of Kauai.
Ex-USS Kilauea was sunk in water 15,480 feet deep off of Kauai. The former ammunition ship was commissioned in August 1968, decommissioned and transferred to MSC in October 1980, and deactivated in September 2008.
“The first ship, Niagara Falls, sank a little bit sooner than what we had thought,” said Beaman. “We proved that an old hulk will not withstand a series of 2,000-pound bombs going through its hull. So, she went down in a matter of seconds.”
In her first firing of a live torpedo while in Canadian service, HMCS Victoria (SSK 876), the former Royal Navy HMS Unseen (S41), fired a Mk. 48 torpedo at the 581-foot ex-USNS Concord, sinking Concord 18 minutes after being hit. “That broke the target ship in half and put it on the bottom,” Beaman said.
“And then, lastly, the Australians aboard HMAS Farncomb (SSG 74) fired a Mk. 48, to sink the ex-USNS Kilauea,” Beaman said.
The ship is named after the 4,091-foot active volcano Kilauea, home of Pele, goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes in Hawaiian mythology.
“Now, we should have known that any ship that has a Hawaiian name that we’re trying to sink in the Hawaiian operating area is probably not a good thing, or that there might be something that would go wrong. We tried to get this ship towed out to where it was supposed to be three different times. We kept dropping connection between the tow ship and the Kilauea, only to have it drift inside the 50 nautical mile line, two days in a row. Murphy’s Law came into effect.
“So we thought we’d give it one more shot. We were able to get the Kilauea back, and conducted the live firing we were going to do against it. A Harpoon missile hit on the starboard side about 8 feet above the water line, and punched a nice hole in the forward portion of the ship, and then we were going to close it out with a Mk. 48 from the Australian submarine,” said Beaman.
“The Mk. 48 hit,” he said. “We had helicopters on site giving us the live feedback. Initially, the bow pitched down a little bit, because the torpedo hit in the left bow portion of the Kilauea. So the bow pitched down and rolled to the left, which took the Harpoon hole even farther up out of the water, which we thought was a good thing. It lasted a little bit longer – we were actually thinking about sending in more ordnance if required, from the air. The ship stayed afloat. We were thinking, “Wow, it’s got to be filling up with water at this point.” The 48 seemed to have done a pretty good job. And it just stayed that way for an inordinate amount of time. The two previous target ships had sunk quickly – in less than 40 seconds for one, and within maybe one-and-a-half to two minutes for the second. This one stayed afloat a long time. Finally, Kilauea righted itself, and then the bow literally broke off. Now you have the aft portion of the ship upright and floating and the bow of the ship almost at a 90-degree angle sticking straight up, disconnected from the ship. And it still wouldn’t go down.
“Eventually it sank,” said Beaman, “but, as I said, the next time we’re not going to take a ship that has a Hawaiian name to it and try to sink it off the coast of Hawaii.”
This story was first published in Defense: Winter 2013 Edition.