Changing the Face of Naval Warfare
Recent reports detail Malaysia deploying a “Q ship”, really a converted containership to escort merchant shipping in pirate infested waters in the Gulf of Aden. Meanwhile, there is the $700 million LCS, America so-called “pirate buster” launched since last year and still touring US Ports while the threat to shipping oversea gets worse. She may yet face the enemies of Freedom of the Seas as plans are made for an early deployment of America’s newest warship.
Still more ominous is the picture of Chinese fishing vessels obviously in government service swarming USNS Impeccable and her sisters in the China Sea. Not since the Age of Sail has such merchantmen been used so aggressively to confront a major power, reminding us of the privateer-merchantmen of the British Fleet in the 1500s that “singed the King of Spain’s beard”.
In the future, we will have to change how we label warships. Today, what one might term a “naval auxiliary” will be tomorrow’s battleship. As an example, consider the modern aircraft carrier, today the capital ship of any respectable fleet. Yet, take away her naval aircraft, her primary reason for existence, and she becomes a defenseless, hollow shell. It is not appearance then that makes the floating airfields a warship, but the weapon she carries.
In a sense, every warship will be an aircraft carrier, or a mothership for the new robot weapons which are now dominating war on land. Unmanned aerial vehicles, guided rockets and shells, cruise missiles, all have been tested and proven on the land battlefields and will inevitably be apart of future battles at sea. They will be joined there by weapons unique to the nautical environment, such as unmanned surface vehicles (USV) and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV).
Practicality will push the change. The cost of traditional warships have become increasingly prohibitive, even for rich sea faring nations such as America and Britain. Some of this may be blamed on waste and lack of competition in shipyards wholly dependent on government orders, but even efficient European designs such as missile destroyers, amphibious ships, and submarines are suffering delays and cost overruns, making smaller patrol corvettes increasingly popular with many navies.
The only really affordable designs in traditional shipbuilding comes from the former Soviet Union and her clients, as well as China. Without concerning themselves with demanding labor unions, stringent safety measures, or even excessive crew comfort, there is little hope for Western Nations to match the East in warship price or procurement numbers unless we change the way we build and buy ships.