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Five Signs the Surface Fleet May be in Trouble

November 19, 2008

gotlandTom Clancy’s fictional blockbuster from the 1980s, Red Storm Rising detailed a world war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Clancy’s description of the struggle for a new Battle of the Atlantic between Western anti-submarine warships and Russian nuclear attack boats would not have seemed out of place in the First and Second World Wars, save for the use of long-range cruise missiles. Due to the marvelous advancements modern submarines have undergone especially in the realm of propulsion, quieting, and armament, the next war at sea will hardly see these new U-boats cowering in fear while they are depth charged from vengeful surface ships, as in an old war movie. In fact, the hunted has now become the hunter, and listed below in detail are the reasons why:

  1. Modern submarines are faster-This is fact in most cases as some nuclear powered boats have been clocked at 40 knots. This is especially true for Russian subs, including the astonishingly swift Alfa class. Also ominous is the fact that nuke subs can maintain their high speeds indefinitely, thanks to their nearly inexhaustible atomic fuel source, while even the best gas turbine warships in the surface navy would be hard-pressed to keep up. Specifically, there are no nuclear powered surface escorts dedicated to ASW in the West.
  2. Submarines are immune to cruise missiles-Primary motivator of the current ship design in the US Navy in the 21st century has been the cruise missile threat. Hence vast sums are spent on ships to make them more stealthy, as well as arming them with super sophisticated Aegis radar and costly anti-missile defenses.The submarine, whose domain is under the sea where missiles can’t go are under no such threat. In fact they are further enablers of the missile’s new power over the surface ship.
  3. The submarine’s “aircraft” are faster than the ASW escort helicopter-The primary antisubmarine weapon on board most surface ships is the helicopter, which has a range of 300 or so miles and a top speed of 200 knots. Cruise missiles on American and Russian submarines have a similar range but are of immensely higher speed averaging just under supersonic to Mach 2. The last time America tried to give the surface ship an opportunity to even match the cruise missile’s performance, was with the fast and long-range Sea Lance (successor to the very short-range ASROC-15 nm) from the 1980s, that was canceled.
  4. Too Many Battleships in the Fleet-In an increasingly budget conscious Congress, as well as a Party in power known for advocating defense cuts, billion dollar warships with few purposes in war or peace might be ripe for cuts. Surely the modern submarine, as the deadliest, stealthiest, and most survivable craft in the fleet will have little to fear in future downsizing plans.
  5. Too Few ASW Escorts-During the epic WW 2 Battle of the Atlantic, it took the combined might of three navies including America, Britain, and Canada (the latter with an almost 400 warships) , literally thousands of ships to defeat the German U-boat arm. This was when the primitive diving boats spent most of their time on the surface, were astoundingly slow, and could only spend hours submerged while being depth charge relentlessly by Allied surface ships and aircraft. Today, surface ships are highly specialized vessels which can only be bought in small numbers and take years to procure. Today the mighty anti-sub escorts of the West amount to only a handful (Canada has less than 20 and Britain 23 and shrinking) while, as we have seen, the menace from the new U-boats is greater than ever.
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