The Navy We Have
During peacetime it is imperative for navies to concentrate on building capital vessels, for in war there is less time to field large warships which can take upward to a decade to enter service. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s much maligned comment that “you go to war with the Army you have” certainly applies to the Navy in this respect. The warships built in the 1920s and 1930s held the line for America early in World War 2, winning pinnacle battles at Midway and Guadalcanal that set the stage for victory over Japan. Likewise were the war-built ships the backbone of the fleet in Korea and well into the Cold War.
During times of sustained conflict, navies often put off the construction of capital vessels to concentrate on cheaper, easier to build general purpose warships which can be massed produced. During the First World War, the British Royal Navy deferred expanding its already massive fleet of dreadnoughts and battle cruisers, save for completing a handful of vessels too well advanced, to concentrate on destroyers and other small warships to combat the U-boat menace. Later, when the US entered the war, she adopted much the same policy, putting off plans for a “Navy Second to None” with up to 60 battleships and battlecruisers for more destroyers and sub chasers.
For the most part in the next World War, priority was given to the building of small ships by both navies ( though the US then had the great industrial capacity for capital ships as well as escorts), which now included new types of landing craft and small aircraft carriers as a new dimension in warfare. Along with the essential destroyers, frigates, destroyers escorts, corvettes, and sloops now joined the fight against U-boats. Motor torpedo boats were built to harras and destroy enemy shipping in littoral waters.
More recently we see Israel discarding her large destroyers after one was sunk by the new decider in sea warfare, the anti-ship cruise missile. She now possesses a corvette/fast attack/submarine navy that serves her needs quite well. About the same time in the mid 1960s America slowed the massive aircraft carrier and large missile escort program she began in the 1950’s to concentrate on replacing well used and worn-out destroyers built enmasse during WW 2. As she entered major combat operations in Vietnam, the Brown Water Navy was expanded to include hundreds of patrol boats, hydrofoils, monitors, and converted supports ships.
Bringing us to this current decade and a new century we observe the small island country of Sri Lanka in a fight for her life against one of the world’s most fearsome terrorist organizations, the Tamil Tigers. After rebuilding her small fleet around fast attack craft, corvettes, and supporting motherships, she now has a ring of steel around the island to smother her aggressive attackers and their nautical lifeline.
So far, since the Global War on Terror started in 2001, there has been no major expansion of the Brown Water Navy in US service. Meanwhile, the construction of capital vessels is ongoing, including the start up a new submarine class, plans for a 14,000 destroyer, a new aircraft carrier class along with 2 new Nimitz’s, various amphbious ship classes, and the continued procurement of the 9000 ton Burke Aegis ships, which we spent the entire last decade building as well. The single nod to operations in shallow seas is the so-called littoral combat ship, an advanced design with many costly and untried systems onboard that many feel may be of dubious value in its planned environment.
Back when the once great Spanish Navy entered its final stage of empire, she produced some of the largest and most magnificent warships ever built. Ships of the Line such as Santísima Trinidad which carried as many as 140 guns, were physically imposing but mainly ended their days as prizes of the British Royal Navy, the capture of which furthered the glory of England’s naval leaders such as Horatio Nelson.
Today we are pleased to hear the capture of numerous pirates by the cruiser USS Vella Gulf (CG 72) in the Gulf of Aden. Still, we have to wonder what one of our billion-dollar battleships are doing in this type of service, better suited to Brown Water vessels, which are cheaper to build and operate, and yes, even expendable if need be. The crew of the Vella Gulf should be rightly honored, but also must be a little frustrated that their advanced training in which they plan to fight peer enemies on the high seas isn’t put to better use than chasing third World insurgents in speed boats, within which might be their own version of a future Admiral Nelson.