Defending the Small Ship Navy
At the Information Dissemination blog, we read the following quote from Navy CNO Admiral Gary Roughead:
“There are some folks that would say that the best way to do cooperative security is with small, cheap and benign little patrol boats operating in various areas around the world,” he said. “I would argue that the model that we have, with the Africa Partnership Station on Nashville, is a great way to do cooperative security.”
What the Admiral means is using the current battleship-centric Blue Water forces for use in its “soft power” initiatives. According to Norman Polmar at Defense Tech here is what such a mindset has given us in the past few years:
The Navy’s flip-flops on the Zumwalt (DDG 1000) and Burke (DDG 51) programs have hurt the Navy’s image and credibility of its shipbuilding program. The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, required by Congress, is unrealistic and of little value. Poor management of the Navy’s shipbuilding efforts have resulted in ship delays and cost overruns. The Navy has failed to effectively “sell” itself as a key factor in America’s political-military effectiveness, in part because of the above factors Ship numbers do count and the controversial littoral combat ship (LCS) is the Navy’s only hope for increasing fleet size. The Navy’s leadership can fix the procurement mess, but must take bold and innovative action, including demanding firm fixed-price contracts and the use of second-tier shipyards and contractors to spark competition.
Historically the small warship been essential in all naval wars, from the age of sail to today. It was small littoral craft which helped build the British Empire in early forms of amphibious warfare, and small steam gunboats which secured that Empire. More recently, in two world wars, small ships ranging from 1000-2000 tons were in huge demand and many thousands were built by the US, Canada, and the UK to combat submarines and escort the Big Ships. The very name “destroyer” was derived from the torpedo boat destroyer, without which the battleship would have been obsolete long before WW 2. In the Vietnam War, small ships, the famed Brown Water Navy intercepted Vietcong shipments on the rivers and coastal regions to help stem the infiltration of the South. The communists would use any route available to feed their insurgency, so interdicting these shallow water areas was imperative to the American war effort.
So where does such low cost and plentiful craft fit in today? Considering the high cost of large warships, the increased complexity, and shrinking numbers, small corvettes and other littoral ships might be the antidote. Considering the enhanced capabilities of modern precision weapons such as cruise missiles and guided rockets, small ships can pack a punch that rivals and makes them a threat to the Big Ships.
Trying to compare the small shallow water corvette to a giant Arleigh Burke missile destroyer would be a mistake, as we see with Admiral Roughead’s point of view. Pound for pound, a corvette such as the Israeli Sa’ar class is the most powerful surface ship in any navy. Such a craft would be a battleship in the Green and Brown Water environment, able to maneuver where Big Ships would be at risk, and support the troops closer to shore, while larger Navy warships would have to avoid such waters infested with submarines, mines, and cruise missiles. What commander wouldn’t be willing to risk a $100-$300 million littoral ship, where he might think twice with a $2 billion destroyer?
I think we can learn something from the wars of the past, in getting a glimpse of what the future entails. And if history is any guide, we will need lots of ships, some large ones of course, but very many small ones of all shapes sizes, and functions. A handful of large and costly battleships are mainly good for a constabulary force, as Western navies have deployed since Korea. But there is no guarantee in the future we will only fight land powers who don’t shoot at our carrier fleet, in fact the opposite is more likely.