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Reversing the Navy’s Meltdown Pt. 3

December 10, 2008

We conclude this week’s study of Chapter 6 “The Navy” by William Lind, from Winslow Wheelers anthology America’s Defense Meltdown (pdf) The author’s thoughts are in bold face, with mine coming afterwords:

Cruisers and destroyers are obsolescent as warship types. In their main role, carrier escort, they add little to the carrier’s own defenses, represented by its aircraft.

I could also add frigates to this list, but that is another story. As stand alone vessels, armed with cruise missiles and their own air-defense, such large surface combatants might be today’s battleships save for their vulnerability to modern submarines. The navies of the world have consistently ignored the threat of the new U-boats, as is their habit with each new war, that the gulf in capabilities (sub stealth, long-range weaponry, and in some cases, speed all outclassing the surface ships) are likely insurmountable without an unexpected ( and no doubt too costly) break-through in technology.

Aegis was designed to protect carrier battle groups in the North Atlantic from massed raids by Soviet Backfire bombers during the Cold War. As the U.S.S. Vincennes demonstrated, it has little utility in coastal waters, where air traffic is likely to be heavy with civilian aircraft. Its capability against low-flying aircraft and anti-ship missiles is also in doubt, as many tests have demonstrated– tests that the Navy has refused to disclose…Reformers would mothball or transfer to the Naval Reserve all or almost all Aegis ships, and build no more. Nor would they build “stealth” warships, which can easily be detected by old fashioned long-wave radars.

Think about it. In the late 1960s into the 1970s, the US reacted to the cruise missile threat by this enormously expensive and complicated defensive missile system rather than embracing the new technology and modernizing the fleet accordingly. Fortunately we were wealthy enough to do both, maintain our long-range strike aircraft in the form of giant aircraft carriers as well as long-range stealthy missiles that are nearly unstoppable and would never involve the capture of death off a pilot.

Some contend that the single loss of a million dollar Tomahawk isn’t as cost -effective as a “bomb truck” manned plane which can return again and again to a target. But if you consider the enormous resources poured into developing modern aircraft, plus pilot training, plus the decades a plane will need to be patched up since it takes so long to develop new planes, the loss of a single missile becomes irrelevant.

The best escort for a carrier is another carrier, with an air wing task-organized to defend against the particular threats anticipated in the mission. Landing Helicopter Attack (LHA) and Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships, which are classed as amphibious ships but are actually small aircraft carriers, could function usefully as escort carriers. Should other escorts be required, they would best be provided by converting merchant ships…

The price to build even a light carrier these days is around $3 billion each. The continued need for this duplication of resources with UAVs and land-based airpower makes an “escort carrier for a carrier” an unneeded and unreachable goal.

Virtually all the capabilities found in current amphibious ships are duplicated in ships in merchant
service. The Royal Navy has used modified merchant ships successfully as amphibious ships, including in the Falklands war. What the Navy now lacks are small amphibious ships, such as the Landing Ship, Tank (LST), that are suited to coastal waters.

The continued building of specialized amphibious ships have reached their limit, as proved in undeniable detail by the brand new USS San Antonio forced into a foreign port for major repairs. MAJOR REPAIRS! The exception may be in the last sentence such as constructing cheap but good LST’s for our numerous peacekeeping adventures against non-seapowers in the Third World. Notice that every US naval action since World War 2 has been in these benign threat environments, or against a suprising lack of opposition. In a future war we can longer depend that we will only face Third World adversaries who are overawed with out enormur and last-centuryship designs. Either we get serious about the threat of cruise missiles (or even jet warfare!), or we concede the littorals without a shot being fired.

Reflecting its Mahanian blue-water orientation, the U.S Navy today has few small warships suitable for warfare in coastal and inland waters. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, which recently attempted to build some, has foundered.

I see littoral ships as the “Strykers of the Sea” which can be afforded in large numbers that can do the work the Big Ships should not be doing in mine and missile infected coastal waters. The current USS Freedom dubbed an LCS is not a true littoral ship but a glorified frigate, too big to fight in the shallow seas, and not big enough for the Blue Water conflicts. True littoral ships include gunboats, fast attack craft, corvettes, mine ships, patrol ships, and low endurance cutters.

The Navy does assure us that the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines, which are 377 feet long and displace 7800 tons, are “optimized for coastal operations,” which is something of a bad joke.

Amen! Large nuke submarines are ship killers par excellence and should not be wasted in such a dangerous littoral mission.

These final statements merely repeat what I wrote above, but also introduces the “mothership” concept, which will likely dominate amphibious and littoral warfare in the future.

(Reformers) would build some appropriate watercraft (most “ships” are too big for green and brown water). Types would vary, but in general all would make extensive use of standard civilian design practice in order to avoid another cost debacle like the LCS…They would be well armed themselves, with machine guns, light automatic cannon,
recoilless rifles and in some cases mortars to hit land targets. Some coastal and most river craft would be designed to carry Marines, both as boarding parties and for minor amphibious landings.

These new craft would be formed into deployable “packages” or flotillas that would include the support capabilities they need, such as maintenance shops, fuel and ammunition resupply and barracks (many of the craft being too small to have crews live aboard permanently). In the case of coastal craft, these support capabilities would be based on a “mother ship” that would deploy as the flotilla’s home base.

The mothership is an interesting and novel idea. Think a of PT boat or submarine tender expanded to the new littoral and amphibious navy, as the future of expeditionary warfare. Various guises have been discussed but most reject a purpose-built vessel in favor of a converted amphib or merchant hull. The new Ohio SSGNs might also be in this category, especially with unmanned vehicles and even landing forces (SEALs). During Operation Iraqi Freedom (the first year), Joint Venture, a high speed catamaran ferry leased from Australia operated in this role with small special forces boats.

I would like to conclude this study with a single comment: We can buy a lot of littoral craft for the price of a single Zumwalt-class destroyer. The former is the future, the latter is the past.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    December 13, 2008 6:34 pm

    A submarine only defense is stealth, true. But that is enough!

  2. B.Smitty permalink
    December 12, 2008 8:58 pm

    A submarine’s only defense is stealth.

    Surface ships do not have stealth. Even DDG-1000 has the RCS of a fishing trawler. (or so they say)

    Once they are found, they might as well light up the radar and defend themselves.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    December 12, 2008 6:25 pm

    Consider how vulnerable the Soviet/Iraqi radar nets were during the Gulf Wars as an example. Your comment above is basically how they were forced to operate to survive the extremely effective US anti-radar countermeasures. And while this is a little different, Active Sonar works on the same principle. Check out this quote from Wikipedia:

    In wartime, emission of an active pulse is so compromising for a submarine’s stealth that it is considered a very severe breach of tactics.

    So I am thinking in a wartime situation and if stealth is as important as we think it will be, less radar is better than more.

  4. B.Smitty permalink
    December 12, 2008 11:07 am

    So you either turn off your flashlight, and hope the wolves don’t see you in the pitch black, or you keep it on, and maybe get a shot off before they pounce. Firing in the dark might make you feel better, but it won’t drive them away, and you’re unlikely to hit anything.

    Not all missiles have anti-radiation seekers. And, my guess is, even those that do can be fooled with AESA LPI tricks.

    No, the bigger problem with lighting up is that you notify every enemy listener in the area exactly where you are. Again, LPI tricks might help, but ultimately radiating is radiating, and can be detected.

    Of course we do have EO/IR and RWR passive sensors, but they have their own limitations.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    December 12, 2008 7:54 am

    But they also have a drawback such as acting like beacons announcing to every enemy missile nearby your location. Aegis is extremely noisy, which is anathema to stealth.

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    December 11, 2008 5:08 pm


    Without powerful sensors, the weapons aren’t very useful. You can have the quickest-reacting weapons in the world, but you’re still dead if you don’t see the missile until it’s to late.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    December 11, 2008 9:30 am

    Leesea. this might be a good idea save for the huge manning requirements on these large US carriers, even the LHds. Compare the 2000 sans airgroup needed to run the recently decommissioned USS Tarawa, with the 500 crew of HMS Ocean with her airgroup. Its just not cost efficient which is what ultimately sank the battleships.

    Now rather than building huge numbers of the new LCS, why not only 30 or so and use them in this role though some like Galrahn contend they are too small. But perhaps we aren’t thinking small enough for the type of small craft she would service.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    December 11, 2008 9:19 am

    Smitty-other than Aegis, yeah! Stand alone equipment that doesn’t required a huge, expensive, and highly noticeable radar suit. Since you often have only seconds to react to a supersonic missile which pops out of nowhere, these little robot defenses might be of more value anyway than the over-the-horizon stuff.

  9. leesea permalink
    December 10, 2008 9:28 pm

    I think Bob Work has hit the nail on the head by suggesting that the Navy build modern versions of the CVE based on current big deck amphib designs. What he may not like is the idea of making those same amphibs multi-mission. The force enabler in the above proposal is the VSTOL version of the F-35 which can and should fly from straight deck carriers and other surface combatants.

    Mike I think some of the cost of modern amphibs is in certain uneeded systems such as wet well docks?

    Instead of decomming older LHAs & LHDs, they should be converted for littoral mothership operations. Their designs lend them to multiple systems needed for that mission. Instead of a full load of Marines and their gear (needed elsewhere?) think about a composite airgroup of helos and UAVs. Sensors for area survielance and diretion. Missile systems enough for anti-small boat (swarms) A boat complement to include CB90s for MESF rons and a FAC on two. Materials for HA/DR performed by Seabees whose gear is in the holds. A well manned Medical Treatment Facility.

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    December 10, 2008 8:26 pm

    Active defenses like RAM? ESSM? Nulka/SRBOC? Sidekick? AEGIS?

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    December 10, 2008 8:07 pm

    Maybe some “active defenses” on warships?

  12. Moose permalink
    December 10, 2008 5:22 pm

    I’ve no problem building “Strykers of the Sea,” I just want to make sure we don’t end up using “Unarmored Humvees of the Sea” in that role.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink
    December 10, 2008 2:56 pm

    And consider the 20 nots speed of most amphibs compared to the 30+ knots of sustained steaming you get from a nuke carrier. As it waits for its “slower” escort to catchup, the bigger ship is even more at risk from air/sub/ and surface threats.

    The bottom line anyway is the carrier is more at risk from the submarine and missile than from bombers, so more fighters are of little value. What it needs are longer-range bombers of its own, like the N-UCAS.

  14. B.Smitty permalink
    December 10, 2008 11:00 am

    LHDs as AAW escorts makes no sense. A CVN is already far more capable and would end up escorting the LHDs!

    Maybe a small carrier would make sense for dispersed ASW/MIW/littoral warfare. It could provide an ASW screen for a CVBG or ESG, or could be detached to form the centerpiece of a littoral strike group.

    Even a handful of F-35Bs or Harriers would add a lot to a small task force.

    I don’t think such a ship needs to be a $>3 billion LHD. A 15-30,000 ton ship would allow us to buy more of them, and cost a lot less to operate.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink
    December 10, 2008 8:59 am

    This is the first time I had heard this proposal as well, Ken. Now the original plans for the latest Illustrious class was as carrier escorts for ASW, with the 1960s CVA-01 class as strike carriers only.

    That is a good analogy about the Cold War army structure. Back then you numbered your strength by the 16-18 heavy divisions, and I think the Corps was an operational headquarters. Today, the 44 or so combat brigades are the standard operating unit, with the even smaller battalions really doing the hard work.

    Flotillas and squadrons should displace the Carrier Strike Groups and Amphibious Groups in importance in the Navy structure. Still keep the latter but only for training purposes. Let the small ships do the hard work.

  16. December 10, 2008 8:38 am

    Oh, come on. They didn’t seriously suggest LHDs as AAW escorts for aircraft carriers? VSTOL aircraft as CAP was always a bad idea because of the compromises needed to get the vertical landing piece, and only became popularized in the public mind because the British made do with what they had in the Falklands. Do the United States wish to continue down that same path?

    On the other hand, I agree that the idea of adding small, cheap littoral craft to the flotilla makes a lot of sense. Right now the USN is like the Army of the Cold War, when the smallest independent maneuver unit was the brigade and the standard unit was the division. We need to break down and do real things with battalion and even company equivalents.

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