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Building the Threats Based Navy

October 21, 2008

 Browsing the Navy’s new shipbuilding budgets for the next few years, it is plain that despite a new century with new threats and new wars our country’s sea service has changed very little in the past 60 years, save perhaps in size. Except for the littoral combat ship, which itself is a somewhat faster and less-well armed version of an old destroyer escort, this same budget wouldn’t have appeared out of place from the late 1950s on.

Yet in a new anthology put out soon by the Center For Defense Information titled “America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for the New President and Congress”, William Lind (in the Chapt. 6 synopsis), offers a better way:

Fourth Generation War demands the Navy shift its focus from Mahanian battles for sea control to controlling coastal and inland waters in places where the state is disintegrating.
Submarines are today’s capital ships, and the U.S. Navy must remain a dominant submarine force while exploring alternative submarine designs…

Cruisers, destroyers and frigates are obsolescent as warship types and should be retired; their functions assumed by small carriers or converted merchant ships.
The Navy should build a new flotilla of small warships suited to green and brown waters and deployable as self-sustaining “packages” in Fourth Generation conflicts. (The Navy’s current “Littoral Combat Ship” is an apparently failed attempt at this design.)

Basically what I see here is a fleet based around the threats rather than one built for the type we wish to fight. Are we still bound by the old “Atlantic lifeline” where frigates and Aegis destroyers defend our merchant marine from the new U-boats? Mahan is still important, as battlefleets will be necessary in any future war at sea, but just what kind of battlefleet is called for? Does it have to be the biggest and scariest warship we can conceive or might it be many small ships as Lind advocates here, a network of attack ships which individually are weak but when combined together make up an awesome force. Hundreds of warships in a battleline isn’t a new thing. Consider the ancient galley battles, or closer to our own era the Anglo-Dutch Wars. And it is a hybrid fleet, conventional and asymmetrical: In ones or twos the small craft fight the pirates. Combined as a whole, they make up the battlefleet.

I doubt we’ll see merchant battleships anytime soon, but what about the same craft as converted motherships for these light attack boats? Lind also says that submarines are the new battleships, considering as I think that when the blowup comes at sea with the new weapons and sensors, the perfect stealth warships might be all that is left. Of course it hasn’t happened before, with no full-scale war at sea fought in the missile age ( the minor ones should give us clues, though), but the very possibility that we may be building the wrong ships for the wrong war should alarm us. I don’t think it a coincidence that the Virginia class submarines are the only US warships coming in on time and under budget. I am convinced the problems we have building overly-large and complicated battleships is a silent warning that they may have passed the point of further development. We must keep the lifeline open for our Army/Marine Expeditionary forces, but I think what we currently depend on is wishful thinking, that we will never have a sea war with a peer competitor so we keep using the same tired tactics of WW2. There has to be a better way

Like Lind, I am convinced the submarine is the new capital ship and likely has been for some time. As an example, what battle had to be won in WW 2 before the allies could launch its invasion at Normandy? It was the U-boat battle to insure that the lifeline to the troops would not be severed. In the First World War, the Germans couldn’t defeat the Royal Navy with its own battleships, but the submarines nearly did. With each new war we must take into account the rising capabilities of the U-boat. As Mahan himself has said:

“Free supplies and open retreat are two essentials to the safety of an army or a fleet”

The submarine is also a pure hybrid vessel, able to attack and run away, but with new weapons is certainly a match for the old hunter/killer tactics from the wars. The weapon which can sink all the other ships at its leisure wins in the end. Whatever our own ideas of warfare, it is the weapon that decides strategy, not us. Sinking ships is first, and everything else is secondary. Not saying the flotilla ( littoral ships, gunboats, minesweepers, motherships) isn’t important. Just that without Trafalgar the British Empire would never have been secure enough to send the gunboats to the world’s littorals, thus making the land conquests whole. America won its “Trafalgar” at the end of the Cold War, and the motherships will complete our control of the oceans, but it is not a start, it is an end.

This is why you can also say the amphibious ship (mothership) is today’s dreadnought. But if we suddenly lose control of the Blue Water, and I think it is secured more by our attack submarines than anything else, then we lose the littorals. Currently we are using our giant Aegis battleships like gunboats trying to scare pirates. This would not happen if the Soviet Navy was still with us, sending their nuke subs and perhaps surface ships to defend their Somali “allies” (hypothetically). We are currently enjoying some breathing room, able to send our biggest warships up against an enemy coastline with little fear. In this age of precision weapons, I’m not sure how long we get away with this with the prevalence of cruise missiles, naval mines, even suicide boats. And yes send in the motherships, board the pirates, sink their boats. Send in the Marines and burn their bases. But lets not forget who has their backs, the silent service, the TLAM launchers, the only really stealth warships which have little to fear from such weapons.

Based on a conversation with an Armchair Admiral.

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