Are American Warships Obsolete? Pt 1
Here at New Wars we offer alternatives for the US Navy’s business as usual construction programs for various reasons. The renewed need for increased numbers of ships is a primary motivating factor, to shrink the fleet’s admitted “presence deficit” in the world’s littoral regions. Another might be the high cost of ships, partly due to the dramatic increase in size of all classes of warships in the past few decades, partly because of an over-dependence on high technology such as long-range area defense weapons (because of the Navy’s obsession over land powers). According to an article in Foreign Affairs (free with register) “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets“, there is a more urgent need as the entire US Navy as now configured is at risk to destruction:
Several events in recent years have demonstrated that traditional means and methods of projecting power and accessing the global commons are growing increasingly obsolete — becoming “wasting assets,” in the language of defense strategists. The diffusion of advanced military technologies, combined with the continued rise of new powers, such as China, and hostile states, such as Iran, will make it progressively more expensive in blood and treasure — perhaps prohibitively expensive — for U.S. forces to carry out their missions in areas of vital interest, including East Asia and the Persian Gulf. Military forces that do deploy successfully will find it increasingly difficult to defend what they have been sent to protect. Meanwhile, the U.S. military’s long-unfettered access to the global commons — including space and cyberspace — is being increasingly challenged.
While the author, Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., covers the entire US military, for our purposes we will concentrate on the Navy’s vulnerabilities. The idea that our very few large warships, based around 100,000 ton aircraft carriers, 50,000 ton amphibious ships, backed up by very costly missile cruisers and destroyers of 10,000 ton each, and nuclear attack submarine of 7000-9000 tons must be used for projecting power ashore is a suicidal one. At the very least, such very costly warships will have to operate in range of land based aircraft and stealthy coastal submarines, where in last century experienced admirals avoided as much as possible, notably carrier admirals such as Halsey and Spruance. As recently as the Falklands War, the British Royal Navy took a terrific pounding from the primitive Argentine Air Force, losing new built warships to antiquated aircraft and a handful of cruise missiles and dumb bombs.
During the Age of Sail, it might have been prudent to posses an “All Battleship Navy” of only high end warships. The Royal Navy Ship of the Line could then sail close into to shore with little to fear from naval mines, or cruise missiles, submarines, or aircraft. It was only in the past century that naval strategists thought it essential to their fleet’s survival to avoid coastal areas with large ships as much as possible, creating entire new warship classes such as destroyers, monitors (also from the US Civil War), hydrofoils, mine layers and sweepers, and fast attack craft which were better suited for littoral operations than costly exquisite ships.
In 2002, as the article details, the US Navy conducted an operation titled Millennium Challenge in preparation for an Invasion of Iraq. It pitted forces, the defenders led by Marine General Paul Van Riper, armed with ballistic missiles, suicide vessels, and anti-ship cruise missiles, against an attacking USN carrier and amphibious fleet. The results were a disaster for the invaders, with half the fleet sunk and the embarrassed senior leaders calling for a “do over” in the Navy’s favor.
The Millennium Challenge exercise was a harbinger of the growing problems of power projection — especially in coastal zones, maritime chokepoints (such as the Strait of Hormuz), and constricted waters (such as the Persian Gulf). As the initial success of Van Riper’s “Iranian” forces demonstrated, the risks in such areas are becoming progressively greater, especially when the United States is facing a clever adversary. In the real world, Iran and other states can buy high-speed, sea-skimming ASCMs in quantity. In confined waters near shore, U.S. warships would have little warning time to defend against these weapons. The same can be said of high-speed suicide boats packed with explosives, which can hide among commercial vessels. Widely available modern sea mines are far more difficult to detect than were those plaguing the U.S. fleet during the 1991 Gulf War. Quiet diesel submarines operating in noisy waters, such as the Strait of Hormuz, are very difficult to detect. Iran’s possession of all of these weapons and vessels suggests that the Persian Gulf — the jugular of the world’s oil supply — could become a no-go zone for the U.S. Navy.
Any motivating factor for changing long-held theories of warfare is the realization your theories might lead you to disaster. If the ships we have can no longer survive to perform the missions and put their crews at risk, then they must be replaced, not just made more survivable. It becomes the “wasting asset” the author has revealed to us.