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The Navy Between Crises

May 27, 2009

carriergroup1The US Navy as currently configured is obsessed with fighting land threats. At great expense it has deployed an awesome arsenal geared toward the “deep strike” against continental powers. At one time, this mission was the sole domain of the aircraft carrier with its aerial bombers, but now modern technology has provided increase opportunity for the admirals to ignore the principles of maritime strategy, that of securing and defending the sealanes. As examples, the fleet possesses long-range weapons such as:

  • Naval aircraft for strikes 400 miles inland or more with aerial tanker support.
  • Tomahawk land attack missiles 900 miles average.
  • Advanced Gun System with 155mm ammo out to 100 miles range.
  • Standard SM-3 missile for Ballistic Missile Defense 270 nautical miles.

carriergroupWe fear this single minded “over the horizon” strategy is putting the fleet at risk from asymmetric threats which threaten to sink our ships. In a shooting war at sea these will include missile firing surface ships, nuclear and conventional submarines, aircraft, and suicide boats.

We feel the Navy should concern itself less with threats from continental powers, normally the domain of the Army and Air Force, and more with coastal and Blue Water threats. For land operations, it should limit its involvement to beach and shallow water areas, except in cases of extreme crisis. As we often insist, large warships are vulnerable to low tech weapons in littoral waters, especially when it is distracted by long-range enemies.

An ideal fleet, with a reasonable weapons composition would reject the deep strike mission. In its place shorter range point defenses would be deployed to defend its immediate airspace. These might include the following:

  • Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) in VLS with a range of 30 miles.
  • Sea Ram 11-cell missile launcher with a CIWS radar about 4.7 miles.
  • Phalanx close in weapons support (CIWS) with a 20mm cannon 1-5 miles or Goalkeeper, with a 30mm gun.
  • Harpoon Block III 50 miles.
  • NetFires (NLOS-LS) with 15 containerized missiles, 25 miles for the precision attack missile.

We have seen that the current fleet composition based on the aircraft carrier is good for crisis management, always on call forward deployed in case of attack against ourselves or our allies. What happens though, when the crisis is over, and is the Navy prepared to go the long haul in wars of attrition, if deterrence and shows of force fail? Taking cues form the Army’s “train as you fight” mantra, it should also be ready to perform traditional sea control duties such as anti-submarine warfare, convoy, blockade, anti-mine warfare, and so on. Such sundry but essential functions of sea services must be considered if America ever fights another major war at sea. If history is a guide, we certainly shall.

Thanks to Robert Stoner for the technical help.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 31, 2009 6:30 am

    The Advanced Gun System will be the main armament deployed on the USN’s new DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyers. Currently both are under joint development, and according to this article, the AGS is on schedule when the destroyer is delivered in 2014.

  2. elgatoso permalink
    May 31, 2009 1:10 am

    “Advanced Gun System with 155mm ammo out to 100 miles range”.It is alreadt deployed?

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 28, 2009 4:22 pm

    “the Navy simply will not “alter course” until it hits something”

    Sad but true and historically accurate, it is often called the most conservative of the services. Hope than industry can pick up the pieces as it did for the Army vehicles after Iraq 2003, only it is much harder and takes longer to build a ship so we are looking at another 6+ years of war before we could hope to turn things around.

  4. Heretic permalink
    May 28, 2009 3:50 pm

    The “all your eggs in one basket” is a very successful strategy … so long as no one is either stealing, or even contemplating stealing, any basket you might happen to own. The simple fact of the matter is that the USN is building ships it can neither afford to lose, nor afford to replace. Good thing it’s “not the Navy’s job to fight” as it sails around the world, eh?

    Another simple fact is that the Navy simply will not “alter course” until it hits something. Whether that “something” it hits is financial limitations/ruination, a shooting war or a Lighthouse Joke has yet to be determined.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 28, 2009 8:39 am

    Alex, I still think smaller and more numerous platforms would make the transition to conventional warfare as it is already ideal for counterinsurgency. In contrast, the fewer, larger and more technically complicated platforms are hard pressed to manage a more agile foe while maintaining its traditional Blue Water mission. So the admirals scratch their heads and fume over not having enough shipbuilding funds for new platforms, all the while mocking the very weapons which could save the Navy, smaller corvettes, high speed vessels, patrol ships, and even conventional submarines. But our potential enemies such as China and Iran on a smaller budget diet aren’t so naive or particular.

  6. May 28, 2009 5:27 am

    in the wars in Aghanistan and Iraq you are not facing hardened bunkers – you are hitting houses and trucks, in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq you have unchallenge air supremacy, in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq you have nothing like the problems you did in yugoslavia – and remember the serbs managed to shoot down an F117 – so I do not think the odds are as easy or simple as you like to make out Mike

    yours sincerly


  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 28, 2009 5:06 am

    “I don’t think there is an alternative to the carrier for tactical inland strikes against mobile targets.”

    This is a mistaken assumption Distiller that the Navy feeds us to and ensures we have a smaller fleet. There are ALWAYS alternatives if we dare try them I think now would be the time to take advantage of the enhanced capabilities of UAV’s and new precision arms. The idea that one or 2 jets, or a cruise missiles, or a UAV can destroy a target where it took an entire carrier air wing as recently as Vietnam, seems to cry out for a second look at the need for giant and budget draining big-deck carriers. Notice that in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan you don’t hear about “squadrons of UAVs” taking out targets but individual planes which seem the most effective way to use these capable new craft. Saving money and saving lives without putting 100,000 ton battleships, their thousands of crewman at risk, wasting our so much of our conventional power on these barely industrialized back water countries.

    With many more and smaller launch platforms, spread out and tending to their own defense, we wouldn’t have to concentrate so much on defending the giant warships, standing out like a sore-thumb in the new precision missiles and GPS tracking environment. By increasing the threats the enemy has to contend with, lets make them worry about defense for a change, while we go on offense.

  8. Distiller permalink
    May 28, 2009 2:03 am

    Shouldn’t be an either-or choice. Fleet action vs land attack. Inland reach is necessary, it transforms the fleet into an active/offensive tool and from a tactical into a strategic. If you look at 90% of the Euro-fleet you see ships that are passive/defensively tasked and merely shipping around with enough sensors/effectors to protect themselves. Not very efficient use of resources. No, the Navy got the land attack part right.
    Plus: The classic fleet blue water action angle is covered by subs anyway.

    And I don’t think there is an alternative to the carrier for tactical inland strikes against mobile targets. Even if UAV can do the job one day you still need a platform to launch and recover. Aside from the carrier displacement debate and medium vs superheavy I think all large combatants should *seriously* upgun their self defence capability to a point where they don’t need outside assistance (= escorts) to fend off a direct attack. That means full aerial and underwater awareness of its immediate surrounding and a full suite of aerial and underwater sensors (networked onboard/offboard), electronic countermeasures, decoys, and effector/interceptors.

    With the Navy structure that seems to be out there on the horizon the percentage of ships with passive/defensive tasking has to be drastically reduced. If for example the carriers and amphibs could take care of their own protection more of the Burkes could be equipped for heavy land attack (from ATACMS to Tomahawk), or less would have to be built and the money used for a proper frigate programme, or for to get the carrier air wings in shape again instead.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 27, 2009 5:08 pm

    Alex, what I smoke in the privacy of my home is my business. LOL

    Now, the Navy would have you think that only large deck carriers can do these jobs such as land strike, except historically this is not the case. It is a good strategy as long as you can afford it, but becoming increasingly suicidal thanks to the land based missiles you mentioned, as well as cruise missiles, aircraft, mines, stealthy submarines and suicide boats. We’ve been pretty lucky so far but placing all our offensive hopes on a few vulnerable flattops is a dead end strategy.

    If the USN keeps building ever fewer and costly defensive ships, like the SM-3 cruisers, pretty soon we will have no funds left for troops, submarines, armored vehicles, and small ships which do the most fighting in wartime. So far, I don’t see how much good our missile ships and giant carriers are doing preventing piracy or stopping the N Koreans from becoming a rogue nuclear power. Perhaps some SEAL snipers infiltrated in country to take out their leader might do more good here as well, at far less expense and to a great relief for the world.

    After the last NK missile test I mentioned the US missed an opportunity to make good use of the billion dollar Aegis ships by shooting down her missile, which she was using threateningly against the free world. I think now you are seeing the fallout of this mistake. So we create these very costly high tech militaries and never use them except against very poorly equipped foes like the Iraqi’s or the Taliban who pose little risk of retaliation against our homelands.

    I’m not saying we should start war with these awesome and high tech wonders, just that why build them if we never use them? As a bluff or a threat? Didn’t work against Saddam, isn’t working against Iran or NK. I say, scrap the lot and spend the savings on the troops, the British and ours!

  10. May 27, 2009 3:15 pm


    what have you been smoking lately? whilst I agree with you that navies need a far better close range support for dealling with asymetrical littoral threats; but abandon deep strike to the airforce and the army is stupid; when the US went in to afghanistan it was the USN which provide the majority of the support, the same with Gulf 2. Ideally I would argue deepstrike, whether UAV or Manned combined with a mobile platform that can go anywhere with complete freedom on 7/10s of the worlds surface is the ultimate; far better than bases which don’t move and are therefore easy to take out in first strike.

    plus in defence of the SM-3 it is the only ABM system which even looks like it works at the moment; and with the Dong Feng 21 under development it might well be the neccessary ace for future conflict.

    as someone who is British rather than American, I wish the RN had the range of capabilities (and slightly larger quantity than it does now) that the USN had – it would really help Britain keep doing whats its politicians, public, and allys expect us to – punch far and above our weight.

    yours sincerly



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