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Warfare Through a Looking Glass Pt. 1

July 15, 2008

Revolutions in warfare are an ongoing phenomena and there is no predicting when one will occur. The current Transformation is an accurate though discredited term, mainly because the US Military considers that the new computer technology only enhances the power of their last century carriers, tanks, and aircraft, rather than robot weapons themselves leading this change.

Concerning Revolution at Sea, there are few examples to go by considering the lack of wide-spread combat on a global scale as occurred in the world wars. However, we consider the single major air/land/sea war in the Falklands in 1982 to obtain all the requirements for such a conflict, despite its relative small scope.

1. Large surface ships will initially be chased into port from fear of the nearly invisible and superfast attack submarine.
2. If carriers can operate at all for dread of the latter, they will be forced to do so at the extreme limit of their attacking aircraft because of the menace of land based cruise missiles.
3. Precision bombs and missile will deny the traditional amphibious invasion, considering the mauling the Royal Navy received at the hands of the Argentine Air Force, equipped with only a handful of Exocet missiles and dumb bombs that too often failed to explode.

Yet, the right lessons were learned from this conflict by Western navies if you consider that your forces will only engage Third World militaries with few or no advanced weapons, archaic air forces, or equally ancient and timid naval power. The Americans felt the South Atlantic war justified their Big Carrier program and proceeded to build more. The British has recently jumped on the supercarrier bandwagon while reducing the numbers in the surface and submarine fleet to pay for them. Ever larger destroyers were built, about the size of WW 2 cruisers which is considered better able to survive the new sea warfare, and amphibious fleets are to be provided with an “over the horizon” capability with hydrofoils, expensive tiltroter planes and advanced amphibious vehicles so that the Marines won’t have to sail into a “bomb alley”.

So, with our current Navy, sizable aircraft carrier groups along with their expensive missile escorts and logistics ships are required to enforce American foreign and military policy around the world. For instance, blogger Galrahn reveals to us the order of battle of forces currently in the Gulf Region:

Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group

USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72)
USS Mobile Bay (CG 53)
USS Russell (DDG 59)
USS Shoup (DDG 86)
USS Momsen (DDG 92)
USS Curts (FFG 38)

And an amphibious group:

Peleliu Expeditionary Strike Group

USS Peleliu (LHA 5)
USS Dubuque (LPD 8)
USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52)
USS Cape St. George (CG 71)
USS Benfold (DDG 65)
USS Halsey (DDG 97)

Also listed are numerous anti-mine warfare ships, patrol ships and frigates of our allies totaling 19 ships. Not mentioned are the logistics supply vessels to support the above, which normally would consist of “A combined ammunition, oiler and supply ship (AOE/AOR), usually supply (T-AOE); provides logistic support enabling the Navy’s forward presence: on station, ready to respond.” according to Wikipedia.

Now all this expensive naval power and the tens of thousands of sailors in the missile age is a great drain on even a superpower’s finances. The huge price of fossil fuel compounds the problems of upkeeping such a Cold War/World War 2 system, not to mention their vulnerability to the modern cruise missile as we have detailed. Even worse, Congress is now directing the Navy to build new nuclear powered surface warships, which would solve the fuel problem but add many millions to the already outrageous price of navy battleships.

A simple solution might be for the USN to concentrate on a single nuclear powered battleship, which thanks to guided missiles can duplicate most of the mission of aircraft carrier, cruiser, and destroyer. We mean of course, the attack submarine, one of which we think can duplicate all the functions of the carrier strike group mentioned above without the need of expensive logistic ships. She cannot however perform escort missions in confined waters like the patrol craft and frigates or land sizable amphibious forces as the USS Peleliu and her sisters.

Those who argue the necessity of carrier groups might site the need for “presence”, meaning the sending of a supercarrier into the vicinity of a potential hotspot might be enough to avert conflict. To this I would contend that ordering a missile-firing submarine off an enemy shore, along with a discrete posting in the Press, would accomplish the same function without putting at risk the tens of thousands of sailors or the enormous expense of such an undertaking, or the subsequent escalation of tensions that occurs everytime the highly visible battle group makes a move. The beauty of this strategy is that the attack sub need not even be in the vicinity for this to work! How would an adversary know the difference from the near invisible undersea boats?!

We conclude that 1 or 2 nuclear attack subs with long range cruise missiles could replace an entire aircraft carrier strike group, her expensive escorts, as well as the extended and vulnerable logistical chain. Likewise a squadron of such vessels, 6-10 nuke boats including 1 or 2 SSGNs could conduct a sustained campaign on the order of a Desert Storm, in place of 3-4 carriers and 50 or so supporting ships.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. charbookguy permalink
    July 21, 2008 1:02 pm

    Good point West. The enemies of the aircraft carrier are numerous and mounting.

  2. west_rhino permalink
    July 21, 2008 12:15 pm

    Mike, one side of this that begs asking… how many rounds does Ivan or Chang have in their magazine? Was that a five round cylinder or a six round cylinder and what’s the reload time? IF OPFOR’s first round misses, it begins to look like a scene in the original Walking Tall… Buford Pusser’s just trashed the dive fleeced him and all of the club’s muscle is on the deck and in pain. He walks over to the teller cage, looks at the frail charachter that is shaking in his boots that just looked at the double barrel in the cage and says, “I wouldn’t. Your hands are shaking and you get only one shot.”

    If you’ve basically got one shot, afterwhich if you’re successful you might get to reload; I suspect it becomes a game of brinksmanship. Do the Red launch platforms survive quick counterbattery fire?

    Like that Crispian’s when Harry’s happy few were able to restring their bows, should the GPS birds be neutralized can we fight? If so, did Bill and Hill compromise it as well as they did the Nattional Reconnisance Office?

  3. charbookguy permalink
    July 17, 2008 8:46 pm

    Thanks West!
    I’m convinced that when the missiles and torpedoes start flying in a full scale war at sea, not just us parking the carrier off the Somali coast, then all our past ways of warfighting will be cast aside. Then it will be a question of what transformational hulls can we build that can survive precision war at sea and how can we get our Marines ashore with the smart bombs raining on them like hailstones.

    It will be like Crecy, as the cruise missile longbows fall on our immaculate knights of the waves. The only good thing in all this, with so few expensive hulls in the water, their won’t be too many targets for us to lose!

  4. west_rhino permalink
    July 17, 2008 2:54 pm

    How oftern have we parked a boat off a coast just to play ferret and listen to their radio, radar and any other emissions that don’t draw emcon if they don’t know that we’re right outside the room.

    No the boats don’t have the continued sustainibility for pounding the enemy or loitering ability until the tank crawls out of its hidey hole, but the precision strikes that flattened empty tents and aspirin factories while wagging the dog to divert attention from Monica, but a wiser leader accomodates a better choice of targets.

    Mike, we could go ahead and re-christen a CVN the Panay, though I doubt that it would draw the barrage of Sizzlers and 200kt supercavitating torps you envision. I have to think that a screen of post Panamax container ships might offer adequate chaff to provide a CV respite from the opposition shooting their wad with what ought to be an overwhelming Katyusha like barrage of carrier killers. The question then, for the brown shod CV proponents, is how long does it take the opposition to reload. How many caches can be toasted after the first strike that seems to be the necessity for those systems.

  5. charbookguy permalink
    July 16, 2008 12:12 pm

    Smitty, you sound like Daskro! I’ll refer you to my 8:56 posting, and add:

    What if the submarine forces the issue and drives the carriers back it to port with their unparalleled stealth and the power of cruise missiles, as many naval prophets have foreseen including yours truly? We can’t expect to fight against Third World powers sans navies forever.

  6. charbookguy permalink
    July 16, 2008 12:06 pm

    Thanks for your insights Daskro. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  7. B.Smitty permalink
    July 16, 2008 10:19 am

    SSGNs can not replace aircraft carriers.

    Subs can’t perform ISR beyond the range of their own sensors (or new short-ranged, low-capability USV/UAVs).

    Subs can’t drive off an unruly mob with a low-altitude, supersonic flyby.

    Subs can’t provide responsive, flexible fires from hundreds of miles away to troops in contact.

    Subs can’t select from a multitude of munitions – from 20mm cannon to Maverick missile to 2000lb penetrators – for each sortie. What they bring in their tubes is all they have. And once they’ve emptied those tubes they have to make the long, slow trek back to a home port to reload. A carrier can rearm at sea.

    During ODS, each carrier in the Gulf expended an average of 116 tons of ordinance per day over the 4 day ground conflict. The Roosevelt rearmed seven times during the conflict, taking on 1600 tons of ordinance. It averaged 96 sorties per day over the 43 day conflict.

    How many SSGN would it take to duplicate this level of effort? (Hint: 1600 tons of bombs is the equivalent of about 3200 TLAMs with their 1000lb warheads)

    The big problem with carriers is we can only afford a small number of them. Small numbers of high-value assets leads to tactical instability – losing one has an inordinate effect.

    If we want to replace carriers, it will have to be something that can replicate their ability to generate air sorties.

    Subs can’t do it.

    The only thing that could is long-range, land-based air.

  8. Daskro permalink
    July 16, 2008 10:05 am

    It really isn’t the same old argument because as I alluded to in my first post, I’m not arguing for the status quo, but instead against this idea that submarine launched cruise missiles are a viable alternative. The navy must work within its constraints to maintain naval superiority and a critical facet of that is the leveraging of existing assets to widen the strategic gap. As mentioned in the latest QDR combined with the executive strong-arming by Gates, the Navy is pursuing development of viable UCAV platforms which provide longer range, greater loitering time, and less pilot risk.

    On a side note, this idea of “first rate” ASW/ASuW weapon systems being proliferated to third rate powers is such a fantasy. These countries aren’t buying Harpoon Bk IIs or Exocet bk IIs or even NSMs en masse. People read about Sirens and Sunburns and all of a sudden think they’re game changers when in reality their sub-quality systems with questionable and unproven seeker/guidance systems.

  9. charbookguy permalink
    July 16, 2008 8:56 am

    This is the same old argument we’ve heard since Korea, that no other weapons systems can do the things the aircraft carrier than do. This was also once said of the battleship as well as the sailing warship and so on.

    Revolutions in warfare always happens and we make do with whatever is left. As someone one told it, ultimately it will be the cost of these giant vessels that will be their undoing, but first there must be an alternative (there always is as we look at history) and I maintain it is the submarine, possibly the SSGN.

    I think we’ve been lucky so far, seeing as how our adversaries since WW 2 have mostly been Third World states without much to speak of in sea power. Now even these third rate powers are arming themselves with first rate missiles which threaten our dominance of the littorals unless we change our way of thinking.

  10. Daskro permalink
    July 15, 2008 1:02 pm

    I’d continue this discussion off the comments section but I can’t seem to find your e-mail on your blog. While this debate hinges on scope of force projection and target environment, I will iterate that these fictional submarines using white paper weapon systems do not provide nearly the same kind robust capabilities that CSGs already provide. CSGs have the capability to engage in both air and ground targets, engage in post-weapon deployment targeting, extended loitering, and can theoretically engage in over 600 aimpoints a day (only limitation being pilot fatigue). To use the converted SSGN Tomahawk as an example of these kind of submarines you describe, one would only be to engage in 154 land-based fixed aimpoints with a limited window of opportunity. In a very limited set of conditions could I see this submarine cruise missile idea be useful, but beyond that I don’t see it useful not reasonable.

  11. Distiller permalink
    July 15, 2008 12:34 pm

    As smart or brillant an evolved Tomahawk may get some day, it is a launch-and-crash weapon, unable to return to the launching sub like an autonomous aerial vehicle launched from a carrier can. That makes it unsuitable for basically all missions except against a known enemy.

    There is no exclusive platform, as long as the submarine-flightdeck-cruiser is not built. The argument a little akin to SAM vs interceptor.

    What sure is right is the U.S. armed forces’ establishment unwillingsness to think outside the CVN and LHA/LHD/LPD scheme (Navy), or generally the unwillingness of the stars to go truly joint, which would have severe ramifications on the equipment, organisation and operations side – to the better I’d say.

  12. charbookguy permalink
    July 15, 2008 11:56 am

    I don’t think it is false at all. Are even aircraft carriers used in sustained campaigns anymore? Once a beach head is secure, don’t army, air force, and marines provide enough firepower for the troops ashore? For that matter, when was the last time the Marines stormed a hostile beach, other than against third world nations with little or no defenses? For that matter, why seize a beach when you can just fly over it with helicopters in a vertical envelopment!

    I’m not saying shells or dumb bombs are completely obsolete, just that for the opening stages of a campaign, for the emergencies when the President asks “where are the carriers”, the submarine can do it just as well, and at far less expense with little vulnerability and other baggage the carriers bring. Not a perfect solution but a pretty darn good one.

  13. Daskro permalink
    July 15, 2008 10:16 am

    I think your drawing a false dichotomy. It’s not an issue of dumb bombs vs smart bombs, but instead of which weapon systems provide accuracy & lethality at a reasonable cost. The recent conflicts show the Navy’s preference for precision guided munitions such as JDAMs, as seen by the thousands of additional kit orders they’ve put in the procurement pipe. What they’re not using is Stand off strike systems (cruise missiles) en masse. Stand off strike weapon systems have been and will continue to be relegated to high priority targets due to their incredibly high ticket price and the handful of next generation systems will continue to be in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. This is not to say they don’t have a place because they certainly do, but a more realistic future would be the use of UCAVs equipped with PGMs.

  14. charbookguy permalink
    July 15, 2008 9:43 am

    I agree with you on the sortie issue. Of course a missile sub can’t do sorties, but is such a strategy always needed in modern war, when a cruise missile is almost assured of hitting its target? And mind you I said for a sustained campaign, than numerous subs would be required including those SSGNs you mentioned.

    Missiles are also getting smaller and smarter and there’s no reason in my view the makers of a Tomahawk can’t give it the capabilities of a uav. They already can carry cluster bombs and i think that even these will get smarter, able to hit numerous targets, and allowing more bang for your million bucks.

    I’m sorry, I reject the idea that the new smart weapons can’t do close support for an extended campaign. This is the old way of thinking that you must have thousands of shells and hundreds of bombs on target before it is destroyed. Today precision rules and the olds ways of warfare are out, like it or not.

  15. Daskro permalink
    July 15, 2008 9:34 am

    Problem with this nuke sub solution is that the capabilities you describe with the use of cruise missiles just can’t compete with traditional sorties. Cruise missiles do not have near the same kind of loitering capability, are incredibly cost prohibitive, and are limited in launch quantity capabilities. It is fanciful to think the Navy will be willing to spend a million a missile when existing capabilities allow the use of smart bombs for a fraction of the cost. In fact the reluctance of the Navy to jump on board with n-ucas without Gates pushing it down their throats is testament to this.

    The name of the game will continue to be precision guided munitions.

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