USN’s Ongoing Neglect of Sea Control
In the war in Southeast Asia, as in the Korean War, the enemy could not dispute US control of the seas and so the Navy’s main business became projection: amphibious landings, air strikes, and occasional episodes of naval shore bombardment. Not only did the Navy’s share of the budget shrink during those wars because the Army and the Air Force underwent greater attrition of equipment, but under the circumstances the Navy had to put a disproportionate share of the money it did receive into maintaining its capability for projection-its carriers and attack planes, its amphibious vessels, its ships with the weapons for bombardment,. Sea-control forces-anti-submarines planes and their carriers and ship suitable for patrol and escort duty-were allowed to obsolesce and, finally, retire without replacements. More damaging yet, work on future sea-control requirements-new types of ships from which planes or helicopters could operate, new techniques for combating submarines, new vessels to escort convoys, new kinds of weapons from which to fight on the surface was postponed for many years. The one exception was nuclear-powered attack submarines, which through Admiral Hyman Rickover’s special influence on Capitol Hill got built in ample numbers.
Elmo Zumwalt Jr. in “On Watch”
Last week we mentioned how the US Navy emphasizes the power projection role of expeditionary warfare above all others. Zumwalt, who as Navy CNO at the closing of the Vietnam Conflict understood this more than most, and did his utmost to halt the downward spiral of ship numbers, due to a new and very costly dependence on what he termed “superships”, often titled in this blog “Big Ships” and “exquisite warships”.
Today the size of the US Navy stands at about 280 ships, possibly an adequate number if the type of foe we will counter in the next few decades will be non-naval landpowers of the likes of the Yugoslavs, the Iraqi’s, or Afghanis. It may even be enough if we consider that the ability to “overawe” rising potential naval adversaries like China or Iran is enough, the much ballyhooed “presence” strategy and shows of force, with American superships off an enemy coastline.
If the US Navy is to engage in full scale war at sea, which is really the primary reason for its existence, then as Zumwalt contends, a few very large and capable ships will not be enough:
This task of sealing the straits-and of course coping with the substantial number of ships that would be bound to get through under the best of circumstances-is one that calls for deploying US ships around the world from the Sea of Japan to the Norwegian Sea. Thus it calls for a very large number of ships…
The sea-control mission, as I have just explained, required a large number of platforms from which weapons can be fired and planes launched, a large number of ships. In most cases seven or five or even three ships of moderate capability would contribute far more to the success of this mission than one supership…
The admiral was concerned here at the height of the Cold War with bottling the straits worldwide from which Russian subs and surface warships would transit, from Murmansk or Valdivostock, the Baltic or Black Seas. Today we are more concerned with operations close to shore and deterring or destroying swarms of small attack craft, be they pirates or terrorist suicide boats. Some have contended that the requirement to control the Gulf of Aden, where the most piracy in recent years has transpired, would require over 400 ships.
For its own version of Sea Control, the USN and others say that only very large 10,000 ton battleships will suffice. The idea here is that with all the modern technologies introduced in warfare in recent years, from stealth, to precision weapons, and advanced senors, plus improved propulsion systems, only the largest warships on earth will do, even at the price of ever shrinking numbers, with sailors forced to undertake numerous deployments, and ships worn out far too early. It seems the compromises we make to get every form of technology to sea isn’t worth the price we are paying.
Yet while the Navy is doing one thing, they are singing a diferent tune on sea control. From the Navy.mil websight we read:
Two world wars have convincingly demonstrated, however, that even modest submarines are a major threat to sea transport. U.S. World War II submariners, comprising less than 2 percent of naval personnel, sank over five and a half million tons of Japanese shipping – more shipping than was sunk by all other means combined. Their campaign was a critical factor in the industrial collapse of the Japanese war effort. At the same time, German U-boats forced the Allies to commit disproportionately large forces to defend Allied sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Had submarines been used against the United States in the Korean, Vietnam, or DESERT STORM conflicts, the timely delivery of forces and materiel would have been dramatically impeded, and military costs could have been significant.
Submarines are the quintessential sea-control platforms, with proven capabilities to hunt and kill submarines and surface ships on the high seas and in the littorals. U.S. nuclear submarines provide our only assured capability to wrest control of the sea from a determined enemy employing submarines in an area denial or anti-SLOC role. As a result, the merchant shipping of this nation, and that of allies and friends, is free to conduct the trade on which our prosperity and security so vitally depend. Even more important, the logistical reach required for worldwide power projection can be counted on whenever and wherever called for.
We will be eternally grateful when the USN’s strategy and ship procurement plans finally catch up with each other!