Sub Hunters Take a Dive Pt 1
Distractions From the Submarine Threat
If you wonder where the US Navy is headed in the next decade or two if she doesn’t change the way she builds ships, you need look no further that the British Royal Navy today. The first of two new supercarriers will be launched without planes for its spacious decks, while existing carrier HMS Invincible is cannibalized for spare parts. A new destroyer class meant to defend the carriers is so expensive the first Type 45 went to sea recently barely operational, receiving a stern rebuke from the British Parliament. From Marine News:
Although the Type 45 will enter service in 2009, it is a disgrace that it will do so without a PAAMS [Principal Anti Air Missile System] missile having been fired from the ship, and will not achieve full operational capability until 2011. Other equipments and capabilities which will enhance the ship’s ability to conduct anti-air warfare operations will not be fitted until after the ship enters service in some cases.
America’s Arleigh Burke class destroyer is another such technological wonder. The class now at 60 vessels and counting are probably the most effective antisubmarine escort in any navy, but this may not necessarily be good news, as we will explain.
The Destroyer We Have
The DDG-51 class was the last USN destroyer of the Cold War and were entering service just as the Fall of the Soviet Union became apparent. These were sizable ships which might have been called a cruiser in a different era. From the Navy Fact File, here are her specifications of the latter Flight IIA series:
- Length-509 ft.
- Beam-59 ft
- Weight-9,496 tons full load
- Armament-96 missiles including Standard Missile, Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), ASROC (VLA) missiles; Tomahawk; six MK-46 torpedoes (from two triple tube mounts); Phalanx CIWS), 5” MK 45 Gun
- Aircraft-Two MH-60 B/R helicopters with Penguin/Hellfire missiles and MK 46/MK 50 torpedoes.
Though a multi-mission ship, specifically the Burkes were designed to combat the deep diving and fast Russian nuclear submarines of the 1970s. The enormous weapons’ load of the giant destroyer is clear evidence of the threat the advanced Soviet boats posed to shipping. So much weaponry was loaded in the initial Flight I, there was no room left for the obligatory helicopter hangar, now considered essential equipment as a surface ship’s only long-range anti-sub weapon. The oversight was corrected in later ships as we see above, by an increase in length, adding to a jump in price for the already costly Burkes.
The enormous size and enhanced capabilities of the DDG-51 design is evidence of the Navy’s recognition that nuclear submarines have increased dramatically in effectiveness, with the traditional ASW frigate no longer adequate. There was some acknowledgment that the Perry and Knox class ships were obsolete even as they entered service, the reason for their procurement being mainly to keep ship numbers high. The idea seemed suicidal that a vessel of about 3000 tons, which barely made 30 knots, with a single screw, and only a helicopter as its main ASW armament, was meant to contend with the latest Soviet stealth boats that could sustain and often surpass speeds over 30 knots for long periods, and fire long range supersonic cruise missiles while submerged.
The Arleigh Burke Frigate
Yet even the Arleigh Burke which her impressive size and advanced weapons failed to adequately address the problem of anti-submarine warfare in many ways. The increase in size and capability while adding enormous defensive equipment such as advanced radar, some stealth features, anti-missile missiles, and even Kevlar armor in vulnerable space, her anti-sub weapons were little better than the smaller, less capable and drastically cheaper Knox class frigate! And in the initial production, as we have seen, her ASW were actually decreased by all the defensive missiles due to the lack of a helicopter.
While the abilities of the submarine have evolved dramatically over the decades, antisubmarine warfare had advanced much slower. In her ASW armament, the very costly Burkes are little better armed than an outdated frigate. With the 10 mile range of the 1960s era ASROC (developed in the 1950s, deployed in the 1960s, updated in the 1990s) such a weapon might be considered a point defense. Given the range of the average cruise missile at 50-200 miles ranges, obviously the submarine doesn’t have to get this close to strike at a surface fleet.
ASW Raises the White Flag
Giving the Navy the benefit of the doubt that the Burkes are adequate to combat submarines, then you would certainly need lots of them to convoy merchant shipping, amphibious fleets, and guard coastal ports in time of war. The problem with this scenario is the handful of destroyers will be desperately needed to defend the carrier battle fleets, much like the Royal Navy greyhounds protecting the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1914-1918, while the First Battle of the Atlantic raged. The sixty or so large destroyers we have might seem like a lot, except in wartime with numerous threats around the world to defend against, it would likely be nowhere near enough. With the lessons of the last great anti-submarine campaign from 65 years ago in mind, 200-400 escort ships would be a minimum.
Since in no way can even a superpower afford several hundred $2 billion warships, we can only conclude that the West has conceded defeat in the century-long competition with submarines. Since the 1950s, the USN has declared its carrier battle groups and submarines could deal with the threat, without there being a precedent that this would actually work, by sailing boldly into the enemy submarine -infested waters and destroying their ports of supply. Despite this “Charge of the Light Brigade” mentality of sailing Big Ships where no warship would dare sail during the world wars, this has been a convenient excuse to mostly ignore the undersea menace, while spending the bulk of precious shipbuilding funds on very large and ever fewer exquisite warships, mainly geared for peacekeeping operations or air strikes. Though a nod had often been made toward traditional ASW warfare, with the Knox and Perry class frigates, the reluctance to find an adequate replacement for these obsolete warships clearly proves the Navy’s disinterest, or their denial of the problem.
Tomorrow, Pt 2-Return of the Ship Killer