End of the Surface Fleet as We know It
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.