BLUF Review: The Last Ship, Season 2 Episode 5, “Achilles”

Bottom Line Up Front:  Hmmmm. If The Last Ship is naval porn, this one is the navy fiction equivalent of two over-excited, ignorant teens fumbling around in the back of somebody’s El Camino, trying something they saw online once.  An exciting and engaging ep for those NOT in the know, filled with tension and the “truthiness” of anti-submarine warfare (ASW). For those with experience . . . semi-painful, but not as bad as season 1’s Engineering-centric episode where they propel the ship with a parachute sail. Operators, those who have “seen the elephant” of actual close-quarters combat probably wince just as strongly during the eps with gunplay and boarding actions, but I’m just part of the ignorant hoi polloi then, so I enjoy them un-ironically.  This one?  I can mostly thumbs-up a failed attempt with good, engaging performances, sunk due to either ignorance, the desire to keep secrets, or to hew closely to established tropes, but it’s not one I’d go back to watch unless I’ve been drinking a lot.

 Summary:  (I’m mostly caught up to the broadcasts.  Episode 6 showed the night before I’m writing this, so I’m only about a day behind, but SPOILERS are contained within).  It opens with Typhoid Niels aboard the “acquired” UK nuclear ASURE/TRAFALGAR/214 class submarine (this is stupid) ACHILLES. ACHILLES is led by Sean Ramsey, former crewperson of ACHILLES and brother to Ned (Main Merc from last episode).  It seems that Bertrice’s natural immunity is more wide-spread than was believed, and all these naturally immune folks regard themselves as “chosen”, unaware that the cause of the disease is Niels’ fumbling lab-procedures and not the hand of God.  Ned doesn’t like or trust Niels, but Sean welcomes him, hoping he’s the key to eradicating the cure, since a cure allows the non-chosen to survive.  It seems that Sean, Ned, and their like-minded compatriots have pretty much taken over a plague-ridden Europe and now they want to do the same to the US — after they sink the NATHAN JAMES and recover their captured crewman and his critical info.

Cap’n Crunches CDR Tom Chandler and his CIC/SONAR ASW team are both hunting the sub and trying to stay clear of it.  Both ships spend the hour engaging in cat and mouse, high-tension maneuvering, both staying super silent while Chandler’s crew professionally hunts and Sean’s crew of mercs fights and bickers constantly.  There is a sub-plot with XO Slattery interrogating the captured merc from the SOLACE.  Juan Carlos insists he’s desperate to be free of the mad captain Sean and his even madder brother Ned.  In reality, he’s a total convert, trying to get in a position to jump overboard with a device he swallowed before being captured.  Slattery worries it’s a beacon, but it turns out to be a flash drive with the location of all anti-viral labs these immune bastards are trying to destroy.  Meanwhile, Sean and his crew tire of all the cat and mouse and fire a spread of torpedoes on the NATHAN JAMES.  Chandler counterfires and maneuvers and both attacks miss, but they lose track of the sub when it makes a daring dash through a narrow undersea canyon.

After the attack, Niels deciphers the paperwork Ned brought back from SOLACE and discovers the locales of all the secret labs.  Juan Carlos’s info is no longer necessary.  They come up to launch depth and fire all their missiles.  NATHAN JAMES, caught by surprise, is only able to shoot down 2 of the 26 missiles with their own SM-3s.  The rest get away and all the labs go off comms, their fates unknown.  Niels crows about the good fortune he’s brought to Sean, and they get away to commence their shenanigans against the US.  NATHAN JAMES ends this bout alive but beaten.

The Goods:  I really like Sean and his crew of ragtag mercenary submariners.  If you like this sort of thing, I HIGHLY recommend the ROGUE AVENGER series, written by my Stealth Books buddy John R. Monteith.  He does a much, much better series of stories about a rogue/mercenary attack sub crew carrying out missions for hire.  He’s 6 books in, with the seventh coming out in September, and no signs of stopping any time soon.  Each one is a treat, and the series in total should appeal to any true fan of The Last Ship, as would the series run by my mentor and friend Jeff Edwards.  I also love the cat and mouse game tension and finding out about the situation in the rest of the world.  The torpedo scene offers a lot of great navy action (even if its not really accurate at all).  I also appreciate the “truthiness” of this very earnest episode.  They threw in a lot of real ASW terminology, but its essentially just a word salad with no real substance.  They did have a “waterfall” display for hunting the sub, an improvement over the range-ring display they showed last week, but its basically a visual copy of something they saw on the Hunt for Red October, nothing like the actual display.

The Less Goods:  There’s just so, so much.  I re-iterate my former offer:  The Last Ship, if you need a consultant who’s a USN officer, a writer, and who LOVES THE SHOW, I work for cheap!  Let’s get to it.  If you find yourself in hostile waters against a rogue British sub during a viral apocalypse, DO NOT USE “ACHILLES” AS YOUR SURVIVAL GUIDE.  The NATHAN JAMES should have been very easy pickings here.  I get that Sean’s crew is largely inexperienced, but the physics of the situation HEAVILY favors the sub.  Submariners say there are two kinds of ships in the world:  submarines and targets, and they aren’t just talking out their butts.  First, what kind of sub is ACHILLES?  Chandler, Slattery, and Sexy LT 2 have a whole conversation where they say its a new Trafalgar or follow-on hull, type 214 or something, and they all nod sagely.  British subs are nuclear, where Types 209, 212, 214, and 216 are German diesel and air-independent propulsion hydrogen fuel cell boats.  The TRAFALGAR class is on the way out, but they do have the ASTUTE class, which would make ACHILLES fit with their naming conventions.  So let’s just say I misheard, and it’s an ASTUTE boat.  However, they then double down with talk about AIP plants, which don’t fit.  Then there’s the egregious use of “quieting” the ship, where everyone removes their shoes and sits still.  They even invoke the cliché of a crewmember catching a falling knife, as if that is what’s going to give them away.  NO.  Surface ships do have quiet configurations used during ASW, but that has to do with what systems you use to minimize transmitted noise.  We also use our Prairie and Masker air systems, which put up an impedance and anti-cavitation layer around our noisiest spaces, and makes it more difficult for subs to detect our exact bearing or range during target motion analysis (TMA), and not even that totally hides us.  TMA is how you develop a firing solution on a sub, and how they develop a firing solution on a ship.  Noise has no quality of range within the water, only a bearing.  The range is determined by watching how that bearing changes over time through the process of TMA.  You also look at how sound moves through the water.  It’s never a straight line.  Sound’s path is bent by pressure, temperature, salinity, etc, leading to convergence zones, bounce paths, direct paths, etc, all of which must be analyzed and determined with temperature profiles.  They use some of this terminology, but without any real sense of what it meant.  Now, most of the details are classified, but even a good knowledge of Wikipedia could have made it more accurate.  As far as removing your shoes to avoid discovery, the sound of water slapping your hull is much more important than boots clomping along a deck.  Now, subs do have to maintain such a level of quiet – which is why they wear sneakers.

We see how The Last Ship does ASW, and that most of the details are wrong, but how does the Navy do it?  How should it have been done (in an unclassified sense)?  Destroyers prevail against subs by not being in the same water as a sub.  They hunt them through a process using off-board sensors, ASW planes, ASW helicopters, sonobuoys, dipper SONARs, helo-launched torpedoes, vertically launched anti-submarine rockets (VLA), multi-unit screens employing active SONAR to discover or drive away stealthy subs, towed torpedo countermeasures, and — as a very last resort — over-the-side torpedo shots.  If a destroyer ever finds itself alone, within a sub’s torpedo range, and not using active SONAR, or Prairie or Masker air, without an airborne dipper helo, and not streaming countermeasures, that destroyer has already failed the ASW problem, even if you have a Tom Chandler as your skipper.  A sub is nearly invisible acoustically and wickedly hard to target.  Its torpedoes have many times the range of our over-the-side torps.  It is not a balanced, one-on-one engagement.  If this was the real world, this would have been The Last Ship’s last episode.

Aside from ASW, what didn’t work?  Well, there’s the ragtag merc crew of immune survivors.  Yeah, I’m sure the Venn diagrams of “Immune” “Mercenary” and “Trained To Run A Nuclear Sub” have a lot of overlap.  Then there’s the trope-ish run through the underwater canyon.  Yeah, not advised, especially when you need your sub to function later, and you’re trying to stay stealthy.  The whole thing with the flash drive made no sense.  How did him swallowing it make him bleed explosively?  Then there’s the missile attack at the end.  Oh boy.  An ASTUTE class carries a total of 38 weapons to fire out of six tubes.  It’s gonna take a looooooooong time to fire 26 cruise missiles, especially in an environment where a destroyer is actively hunting you and you have to stay at periscope or launch depth.  And if these were ballistic missiles, the Brits only carry 16 Trident SLBMs each.  And if NATHAN JAMES is gonna shoot down SLBMs, they can use SM-3s, but I’m not sure if they’ve ever been tested against missiles in the boost phase.  And if ACHILLES is firing cruise missiles, you wouldn’t use an SM-3.  You’d use an SM-2 and your hit ratio would be a damn sight better than 1 in 13.

Overall:  Eh.  It’ll excite the hell out of the uninitiated.  It’ll just make old salts shake their heads, but we’re not a big enough part of their viewership to warrant amending their ways.  I just wish I could love this ep as wholeheartedly as the rest of the series, especially when some active consulting could have made everything right.  Just like the painful engineering episode, this was all avoidable.  Ah well.  I still love you, The Last Ship, even when you do me wrong.

4 thoughts on “BLUF Review: The Last Ship, Season 2 Episode 5, “Achilles”

  1. You’re summation of how bad a situation NATHAN JAMES was in re: being in range of the ACHILLES without Prairie/Masker operating, without active sonar, without a “nixie” streamed, and without already having her ASW Helo aloft is spot-on. In real life this would have been the last episode.

    Maybe the crew of the ACHILLES has very few crew members that fall into the Submariners portion of the Venn Diagram set, compared to the Mercenary, and Immune portions. Maybe the Submariners are standing “Port and Starbord” watches, and have been attempting to bring the others up to speed. So she is not operating anywhere near even 50% efficiency.

    But then I have to ask why the mostly untrained crew of ACHILLES haven’t already done something wrong in operating her that has made her mission incapable? Or worse…

  2. Can you tell me how to operate a nuclear submarine with only 2 crews left. Which skills or knowledge that these 2 people need to know to run a sub and recruit more people from deep water when Nathan James lost all contact with their navy, including their base – Norfolk.

    • Most people don’t realize this, but nuclear reactor plant engineering is DEPRESSINGLY simple and easy. When I was a nuke electrician, all of our operating manuals were written in the style of Dr. Seuss. “One rod, two rod, blue rod, red rod, This one has neutrons to cram, that one initiates a SCRAM.”

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