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The Longbow at Sea

April 14, 2009

battle-poitiers28135629Over 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.

osaIndividually 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.

saar-4The 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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 15, 2009 10:32 pm

    Heretic i see the mothership/carrier analogy as well, as a rather spartan bases for its “fighters”, in this case its attack ships. recall also that the pre-war surface commanders all predicted early doom for the thin-skinned flattops in a shotting war, in which their heavily armed and armored dreadnoughts would make short work of with their 20 mile range batteries. How they underestimated the 200 mile range of the tiny but deadly swarms of fighters!

    The mothership then becomes what the carrier should be, an enabler of the true naval menace rather than a capital vessel itself. These are its own parasite littoral ships and the importance of the first should never overshadow these, which are themselves enablers of the cruise missile, or marine landing troops or whatever littoral function we place upon them.

  2. Heretic permalink
    April 15, 2009 2:29 pm

    I dunno, there’s something really … seductive … about the idea of a flotilla of Skjolds being based out of a mothership. It’s almost the same idea as an aircraft carrier … in that you have a quantity of smaller vessels/airplanes that do their important work “away” from the mothership/carrier, but their crews are “based” on the mothership/carrier so that the whole shebang can go from here-to-there without the small vessels/airplanes running out of fuel/food/crew endurance long before they get to their destination somewhere around the world.

    Oh and I’d like to point out that the 200 nmi radius of action assumption above essentially stipulated that the mothership essentially didn’t move during an entire patrol cycle. 5 hours out at 40 knots and 5 hours back at 40 knots yields 200 nmi in about 10 hours of round trip time, not including time on station. The calculus of course changes if the mothership is sailing on a particular course heading at 20-30 knots (like a JHSV is capable of doing). No matter how you slice it though, that’s a lot of water to “get lost in” if you’re playing Hide And Go Seek with an antagonist navy.

    Just don’t lose the mothership. It would ruin your day.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 15, 2009 9:02 am

    Heretic, always a good time to mention Skjold, and I probably don’t do it enough. I lean mainly toward the 1000 ton corvette, but there must be a place for such a small and deadly stealth ship in future littoral plans.

  4. Heretic permalink
    April 14, 2009 10:41 am

    Would this be a good time to mention the Skjold MTB again? These vessels displace less than 300 tons, have a crew complement of 15-16, can move at 45-60 knots depending on sea state (the latter being calm waters), and has a 20 hour/800 nmi transit endurance when running at 40 knots. Take a look at the armament(s) and try and decide if that would be something that could “ruin your day” in a hurry.

    As an offensive, blue water weapon system, the Skjold has laughably short range, making it quite unsuited for such deployments. As a defensive, green/blue water weapon system, the Skjold very clearly hangs the “KEEP OUT!” sign at the perimeter of a nation’s economic exclusion zone … to say nothing of the sheer havoc it could unleash from the protection of said nation’s littoral waters. In terms of “Bang for Buck” so long as you don’t mind staying close to home, it looks like the Skjold is an incredibly powerful vessel.

    The trick is … where’s “home” for something like this? A shorebound port is the most obvious answer, but what would a sea-based “port” for a vessel like the Skjold look like? Would it look anything like a Joint High Speed Vessel (with modifications, naturally), which could provide logistics support (food, fuel, spares, ammo, etc.) at sea, ala the mothership tenders concept?

    Would such an arrangement even allow for “hot-swapping” of crews abord MTBs like the Skjold, such that they’d be berthed aboard the mothership, but go out on patrol in the MTB? That way, you have 12 hour patrol cycles for the MTBs (leaving an 8 hour reserve aboard the MTBs) where there are two sets of crews, and you have one on the MTB on duty and one aboard the mothership recovering (eat, sleep, relax, hygiene, etc.) for the next duty cycle the next day. If the mothership is large enough to support multiple sets of MTB crews, then you can stagger the “recycle” times for the MTBs throughout the day so that there’s plenty of time for them to recover and swap crews without having scheduling conflicts for “who’s on the ramp” at any given time. This would of course, limit the patrol radius of the MTBs while based at sea to 200 nmi or less (for all intents and purposes) with little more than 1 hour time on station at that distance from the mothership.

    Put all that together, and you have a (relatively) cheap means of setting up a (temporary) base port at sea for MTBs … which can transit to other parts of the world to support forward deployments/operations in ways which could not otherwise be accomplished. Of course, at that point you have to ask yourself if an MTB such as the Skjold is a better platform for such operations than a (simple?) helicopter carrying anti-ship/anti-submarine missiles when wanting to create an offensive, rather than defensive, force that employs these missiles. Helicopters would be “faster” to respond due to their speed, but might not have the persistence of an MTB in terms of time on station. Helicopters require a lot of open space, for landing, housing and maintenance, along with a nice piece of flat deck to park on … so there’s tradeoffs in any direction you go.

    So the question is … what are you (as a Navy) trying to accomplish, and what sorts of skills (and funding, and manpower) do you have at your disposal to get there?


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