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End of the Surface Fleet as We know It

March 30, 2009

Recently you may recall a post here suggesting that the primary reason the USN is deploying anti-ballistic missile weapons on board its missile battleships, at great expensive considering the Navy’s other priorities, is to protect its increasingly vulnerable carrier and amphibious fleets from new Chinese “smart” ballistic missiles. Here is Galrahn posting at the USNI blog, saying something similar:

China has developed (an anti-ship ballistic missile weapon system) built around the DF-21 solid propellant ballistic missile. With a range of 2000km, the ballistic missile is intended to cover the radius out to the second island chain and sink US Navy aircraft carriers and other surface vessels. The weapon system has been given a maneuverable warhead, a complex guidance system, and adds a third stage to the ballistic missile system to add penetration capability and maneuverability.

To support this weapon system, China has also developed a series of reconnaissance capabilities ranging from satellites to signals intelligence to UAVs intended to locate US Navy surface forces and engage any ships moving into an attack zone, suggested to be inside the second island chain.

While elements of the program, including the DF-21 ballistic missile system itself, is thought to be IOC with published information now coming out in Chinese military journals, what is very clear is that the weapon system, and the supporting tracking and reconnaissance networks, are all in a steady state evolutionary development. This suggests that just as the US Navy is in an evolutionary process with ballistic missile defense, China is engaged in a similar evolutionary process for ballistic missile offense against major vessels at sea…These conditions raise several questions. Does the emergence of a new kill weapon demand a new discussion of fleet survivability? Should our traditional approach of developing counter-systems capabilities be the priority, for example, is AEGIS ballistic missile defense our best option for countering the capability being developed?

Often we get a lot of heat here on the blog for warning that perhaps we should reconsider using our very costly and over-large superships close to shore in our traditional expeditionary and new littoral missions. The main arguments against such heresy is usually “no other weapon systems can do what the carrier can do” or “no other ship is as survivable”. Also “just look at how useful large deck carriers were in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq”.

 I concede all your arguments to be true, but also that it is our own fault that we have roped ourselves in such a narrow strategy where we lack alternatives to perform these important missions. Consistently the Navy has rejected alternative weapons or platforms which might place their Big Ships in a more survivable position, because they possess an “All Battleship” only mentality.  Now we read this article where the Navy is proving very reluctant to try out an unmanned aircraft which has range over three times its traditional planes, and can stay in the air for days rather than hours, which only reinforces our idea that the wounds of the fleet are all self-inflicted.

The answer here is not to build more defensive wonder weapons and deploy them to ever more pricey and fewer superships. The modern attack submarine, which likely has been the new capital ship for decades anyway, has little to fear from aerial missile threats. Likewise will smaller attack ships of 1000 tons or less deployed close to shore be far more survivable than 10,000 ton battleships or 100,000 ton carriers. Just don’t wait until we lose one of these giants plus a few thousand sailors before we put my theory to the test.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Kurt permalink
    December 16, 2011 12:29 pm

    This DF-21 anti-ship missile is a littoral defense measure and can possibly be mounted in limited numbers on ships. But it needs lots of information support before it can strike at the enemy and so the real question is if the Chinese could win an information war against a carrier force? I doubt that because these carriers offer lots of energy for countermeasures and can deploy a fleet of deceptives. So even a spotted carrier is not dead while the act of spotting can mean that the spotters with their infrastructure are destroyed, making the country defenseless against future carrier attacks.
    If I was China I would take into account the massive investments in Africa and the strong ties to South East Asia and Iran&Pakistan and develop a system for safe convois from East Africa to the southern Chinese ports. If such a system is in place you wouldn’t have to worry much about naval blockades in case the world’s leading military power seriously disagrees with some of your decisions.
    Considering China’s peacefulness, well, just ask the Vietnamese and Thai why their ancestors left their homelands and moved south.
    Current 5 modernizations are centered on building a better military. So the relative peacefulness since Mao’s time can mean that the Chinese don’t consider their military yet sufficient for their goals. But what will be these goals? Will Chinese military intervene in Africa in order to protect growth and stability at home? Will China again use military power in a scramble for diminishing fossile fuel resources like some decades earlier and still hinted today?

  2. April 1, 2009 9:15 pm

    Life isn’t about destiny, but about free choice.

    An established power can choose wisely and decide not to wage war with a newcomer – they can even decide to become allies instead.

    Fear and other primitive sentiments can lead to martial conflict, but don’t need to among smart people.

    USSR and UK/USA/France (revolutionary war interventions don’t count),
    UK and USA (after the USA got big).

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 1, 2009 8:27 pm

    Sven, can you please give evidence to the contrary? Because history is on my side. Greece vs Sparta, Rome vs Carthage, England vs everybody!

  4. April 1, 2009 5:03 pm

    I disagree with your apparent assumption that an established power and a rising power have to clash sometime (or that Germany and Britain were probably just somehow destined to become enemies).

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 1, 2009 8:17 am

    True, pretty much everyone’s. Like a collective suicide pact. And Britain might have been better off helping the French in 1870 instead of putting off war until Germany was strong and united. But she was too busy getting rich.

  6. April 1, 2009 6:15 am

    No, the First World War was pretty much everyone’s fault.
    Some winner’s history-writing and wartime propaganda blames all on the Germans, but that’s ridiculous given the real history. Germany was the only power to blame and to force to pay reparations after the Ottoman and Austrian-Hungarian empires broke apart, though.

    Yet, Britain had enough influence to give the whole European politics a very different direction before the serious tensions and intense arms race began in 1912 (after 41 years of peace for Central and Western Europe!).

  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 31, 2009 8:38 pm

    Britain’s fault? Yeah, and Hitler admired the brits too. He was willing to share his conquests with the King, I understand.

  8. March 31, 2009 7:34 pm

    Well, maybe the British wouldn’t have had that much trouble with Germany in the 20th century if they had chosen a different policy.
    Wilhelm II was a huge England fan, the alliance system wasn’t written in stone until history had passed.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 31, 2009 7:25 pm

    I’m with you Sven, lets don’t needlessly rile them, but the same could have been said about the Germans in the last century, who economically were beginning to surpass Britain. And Britain could have said the same about America after 1918, except we have no similar ties with China, historically or racially.

  10. March 31, 2009 4:07 pm

    China shouldn’t be the issue.
    There’s nothing worth a war with China.

    North Korea is the mad missile exporter, not China.
    Pakistan is the mad nuke expertise exporter, not China.
    Israel is the mad avionics exporter, not China.

    About China; “Si vis pacem, para bellum” seems to be a very bad idea in regard to China.

    The trade connections are a great beginning; we can co-exist with them.
    They have proven not to be expansionist, to be quite rational since Mao died and to be very concerned about raw material supply and domestic affairs.
    The situation couldn’t be improved even by a military victory over China.

    There’s really nothing to gain by an arms race.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 31, 2009 3:57 pm

    Yeah Stephen! Thanks for nothing, Bill. But secret weapons rarely stay secret for long anyway.

  12. StephenRex permalink
    March 31, 2009 1:28 pm

    Major thanks to the Clintons, for selling U.S. missile tech to the Chinese in exchange for campaign cash.

  13. March 30, 2009 2:37 pm

    DTI reported about the DF-21 (without proper emphasis) months ago.

    The really confusing aspect of this story is that I heard about (at that time inexplicable) naval ATBM efforts years before the threat really became visible (on my radar).

    It’s extremely uncommon to see a reaction earlier than the action.
    The USN seems to be very aware of the threat (and its own vulnerability) since the mid-90’s.


  1. Playing China’s Game « New Wars

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