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Reversing the Navy’s Meltdown Pt. 2

December 9, 2008

Here we continue our analysis on the Navy Chapter from Winslow Wheeler’s anthology titled America’s Defense Meltdown (pdf). Today we turn from the need to reform, to discussing the good and bad of Navy equipment. Author William Lind’s words are in bold print, with yours truly coming after:

A designer of the Aegis system wrote a letter to the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in which he said, “Of course, it was never designed to deal with ambiguity.” Ambiguity is a constant in coastal and inland waters.

This quote concerns the 1985 shoot-down of an Iranian civil airliner by the missile cruise USS Vincennes. More on Aegis later.

The renaissance of thinking about land warfare that began in the U.S. Marine Corps and, to a lesser extent, in the U.S. Army in the 1970s had no naval counterpart. The Navy’s aircraft carrier battle groups have cruised on mindlessly for more than half a century, waiting for those Japanese carriers to turn up. They are still cruising today, into, if not beyond, irrelevance.

We have discussed this numerous times here. The carriers have gotten so big, and costly they can no longer transform themselves for modern threats. Navy studies dictate the $6-$8 billion warships cannot get any smaller without denigrating their fighting qualities, though I wonder. Much of their fighting power, as we shall see goes into defending the vessels themselves. Navies are making strenuous and budget crippling efforts to get some type of airpower in the water. Most are failing dramatically, from Europe, to China, Russia, to India.

Submarines are today’s and tomorrow’s capital ships, the ships that most directly determine control of blue water. Only a fleet of submarines can drive both enemy surface ships and enemy submarines from the high seas, clearing the way for our own surface forces to cross the oceans with impunity… The submarine indisputably ended the aircraft carrier’s brief reign as the capital ship with the advent of nuclear-powered submarines in the 1950s, and arguably with the appearance of the German type XXI high-performance conventional submarines of 1945.

The modern submarine has now reached the point where it surpasses all other weapons in stealth and has transformed from a major threat to slow merchant fleets to an impending menace to surface ships as a whole. With great difficulty and vast industrial efforts, the Western Navies eventually managed to defeat the U-boats of the world wars, when they spent most of their time on the surface and top speed was far inferior to its surface ship ASW opponent. With nuclear power and advanced hull forms, today’s U-boats are far harder to detect, spending much of their time submerged, often have longer-range weapons, and can often run circles around the once dreaded submarine hunters.

Admiral Rickover’s legacy includes a stodgy approach to submarine design. Reformers would want to investigate alternatives, including approaches taken by other countries that have yielded smaller nuclear attack submarines. We would also build some number of small, conventionally-powered submarines optimized for shallow coastal waters. In subs as in fighter aircraft, large size is a disadvantage in combat, as it makes detection easier.

Mentioning this recently, we conclude that US subs are just “good enough”, but far inferior considering the amount of money spent to produce them. The Sea Wolf class of the 1990s was a mostly successful attempt to match Soviet high performance Third Generation boats. The Virginia was supposed to be a cheaper “littoral sub”, that ended up costing almost as much as her predecessor. We should have kept building the Sea Wolfs and eventually move to something smaller. Attack subs, as ship-killers without peer, should stay in the blue water and leave the littoral work to smaller craft as should giant aircraft carriers.

Other than some support and anti-submarine aircraft, the air wings on Navy carriers are now made up entirely of F-18 fighter-bombers. As a fighter, the F-18 is satisfactory. However, as an attack aircraft, like all “fast movers,” it is close to useless in Fourth Generation Wars and not much better for supporting friendly ground forces in wars against regional powers. That means the carrier’s air wing is useful primarily for defending the carrier, which turns each of the Navy’s $20-plus billion carrier battle groups into sailing tautologies. Their main mission is to exist.

Back to the carrier, they have become merely symbols of a nation’s industrial power, rather than its fighting prowess. How like the old battleships fleets of the last century, when far too often like commanders like Scheer and Jellicoe at Jutland, or Admiral Kurita at Samar were too fearful to risk them in battle! Notice when a nation, whether Russia, China, India, or Britain wish others to view them as major naval powers, their first inclination is to build aircraft carriers, apparently not realizing that they already have in their possession the most powerful warships ever to sail on or beneath the waves in the form of the nuclear powered submarine.

In the 1990s… An aircraft carrier was dispatched to Haiti without its usual air wing. Instead, it carried hundreds of Army troops and helicopters, of both attack and troop-transport types. So outfitted, it was very useful.

Lind seems to think this a viable use of resources, but we think that a $6 billion troop transport is a grave waste of taxpayer funds, as well as putting too many of ones eggs in a single highly vulnerable basket.

Concluded tomorrow, with more thoughts on Aegis as promised, as well as small craft and motherships.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Moose permalink
    December 9, 2008 3:00 pm

    “In subs as in fighter aircraft, large size is a disadvantage in combat, as it makes detection easier.”

    Sigh, this is what happens when your panel has a bunch of fighter pilots and no Dolphins. Seawolf’s gigantic by SSN standards and it’s the hardest to find, most effective attack boat in history. Ohios are even bigger and they are ghosts. Meanwhile, a small SSK is LESS stealthy than a bigger Nuke because even an AIP boat eventually it has to break for the surface. Technology and tactics give you stealth, not size.

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