The Longbow at Sea
Over the course of three major battles during the Hundreds Years War (1337-1453) between France and England: Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, the longbow with its steel-tipped armor piercing arrows proved its superiority over the medieval knight. The change affected more than just military tactics, but also the entire social fabric of the Middle Ages, as such man-portable weapons in the hands of commoners helped instigate the decline of the nobility and paved the way for change during the Renaissance. Wikipedia reveals:
From the time that the yeoman class of England became proficient with the longbow, the nobility in England had to be careful not to push them into open rebellion. This was a check on the power of the nobility of England which did not exist on the European continent.
This democratization of warfare is ongoing today. While such simplified weapons as the AK-47 rifle, portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons are upsetting the balance of power on land, at sea a new threat is rising on the form of the anti-ship cruise missile. Such weapons in the hands of poor navies jealous of or simply unfriendly to richer, traditional sea-going powers should be held in greater respect than they currently are.
This longbow at sea is more of a threat in the littoral regions of the earth, though it remains a potent Blue Water killer, because of the various launching platforms available close to land such as mobile ground-based launchers, jet bombers, and small missile corvettes. For our purposes here, we will concentrate on the ships.
Individually powerful missile battleships such as cruisers, destroyers, and frigates are being challenged by these small, easy-to-build-in-large-numbers warcraft. Such vessels began appearing in Third World navies during the 1960s, thanks to the Soviet Union’s interest in alternative platforms for attacking the overwhelming US carrier-based fleet. Small missile combatants were seen by poorer navies as an antidote to the larger warships which were beyond their financial resources.
Yoking together compact but powerful missiles to heavily armed superships has become a lesson in redundancy. Giant battleships now go to sea with highly visible and complicated radar suites, and anti-missile weapons which overwhelm whatever offensive role she might possess. In other words, more capital today is spent on ship survivability just to enable it to lob a handful of cruise missiles against land or sea targets.
Yet, the navy that deploys a large fleet of corvettes with perhaps the same number of offensive missiles, instead of a handful of battleships has an advantage. Sparse shipbuilding funds used to get as many launch platforms to sea as possible, with each peculiar vessel having the equivalent firepower of a battleship, is a revolution in seapower. Funds spent on smaller numbers of large capital vessels then becomes a regression of the nation’s naval capacity.
The West considers it has solved the problem of the missile corvette with the helicopter, armed with its own short range cruise missiles. Such tactics proved successful in the First Gulf War when British and American helos used Sea Scua and Hellfire air to ground missiles to destroy Saddam’s small combatants. Before we declare “mission accomplished”, however, perhaps we should first consider the caliber of the enemy military involved and whether we can always count on our foes to be as equally inept in the next war at sea.
Instead of a smaller navy consisting mainly of exquisite ships too precious to risk in littoral waters, the surface navy will need small missile ships in their hundreds. The 600-1000 ton corvette, first mentioned by Wayne Hughes in his excellent book Fleet Tactics, and of much discussion in the naval blogosphere is naturally stealthy and easy to build due to their size. They can also carry many of the new precision weapons now allocated to the Big Ships such as the Tomahawk cruise missile. Through the use of mothership tenders, fleets of such craft will be forward deployed for extended periods (considering we currently use pre-positioning ships for supplying the ground forces, why not for the Navy as well?)
Today the cruise missile, like the English longbow of the 14th and 15th centuries, has become the Great Equalizer. On land, the old longbow upset well-established ideas of warfare as well as the foundations of the upper classes long ignorant of the concerns of the common man. The new longbow at sea gives the small ship the hitting power of a battleship, while restoring practicality, affordability, and numbers to the fleet. Like nuclear power is to the attack submarine (itself a formidable missile platform) the cruise missile corvette matches or exceeds the fighting qualities of much larger and more expensive warships, like the cruiser, destroyer, or frigate, it once held in dread.