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Are American Warships Obsolete? Preview

July 12, 2009

130432Today the small USN is facing ever greater operational tempos, with its fleet less than half the size of the 600 ship Navy of 20 years ago. There is growing concern as well that we may be facing a new block obsolescence, not of aged ships but from numerous mounting threats using micro-chip technology, with such high tech and small weapons in the hands of our enemies. In his article recent, “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets“,  Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. explains:

In the real world, Iran and other states can buy high-speed, sea-skimming ASCMs in quantity. In confined waters near shore, U.S. warships would have little warning time to defend against these weapons. The same can be said of high-speed suicide boats packed with explosives, which can hide among commercial vessels. Widely available modern sea mines are far more difficult to detect than were those plaguing the U.S. fleet during the 1991 Gulf War. Quiet diesel submarines operating in noisy waters, such as the Strait of Hormuz, are very difficult to detect. Iran’s possession of all of these weapons and vessels suggests that the Persian Gulf — the jugular of the world’s oil supply — could become a no-go zone for the U.S. Navy.

Outside of war, such an unpopular and hard to grasp claim might be disbelieved. There are other signs however which have been pointing to the demise of traditional warship design for some time, including the following:

  1. USN warships are harder to build and are consistently delayed from entering full service.
  2. Costs increase consistently over original estimates.
  3. Numbers purchased are drastically smaller than the class being replaced. (Example in the DDG-1000 destroyer if which first there were 30 planned, then 8, then 3).

By it’s own admission the purpose of the Navy is not to fight, and it hasn’t, save on rare occasions in very minor skirmishes. For almost 70 years there has been no testing of the fleet or its strategy in combat. After the swift and one-sided battle between US Navy destroyers and frigates covered by aircraft carrier strikes planes, against Iranian Navy speedboats and a frigate in Operation Praying Mantis, it could truthfully be called the largest naval battle fought by America since World War 2. The leisurely peacetime building environment of over half a century has convinced our naval leaders that a few very large, expensive multi-purpose warships can handle all our needs more efficiently and with less annual operating costs.

The problem with this theory, is numbers count in wartime, with losses often taken. Examples might be the single US carrier USS Enterprise which was often all that was available to defend the US forces on Guadalcanal in the fall and winter of 1942, after starting the war with 7 such craft including the giant USS Lexington and USS Saratoga. It was equally embarrassing that the powerful USN of 1942 was forced to ask the British Navy for help in fighting Nazi subs off its own shores in the first few months of the war, the leaders having done little to prepare to fight the insurgent U-boats even with 3 years to prepare.

Critics see smaller alternatives such as corvettes, light aircraft carriers, and conventionally-powered submarines and are immediately put off thinking such unarmored warships are unable to survive in a new war environment consisting of smart bombs and missiles. This reveals on ongoing platform centric mindset where the capabilities of the ship is put before what type of weapons it carries. The same could be said of the new unarmored carriers of the 1930’s (ironically, many of which were built on battlecruiser hulls found vulnerable in the last war) where battleship admirals would compare their gigantic superships to this thin-skinned vessel and see only impending doom. Yet, as we learned from the naval battles of the Second World War such as Taranto and Pearl Harbor, it was the slower and seemingly well-protected ship which were doomed, not the apparently under-armed carriers. Their light, lethal, and long-range aircraft allowed them to avoid threats like the powerful but very short ranged battleship guns. The aircraft themselves used swarming tactics to overcome the once invincible dreadnoughts, something before the war would be inconceivable if you compare the capabilities of the two warship types side by side.

So we think new antiship missiles will give small warships a punch that will threaten larger warships, but it will also be their size and numbers which will allow them to survive the wave of missiles which will almost certainly lead any future war at sea.

Considering then, that the US Navy puts so many of its warfighting assets in a few hulls, we can only conclude either the fleet is not seeking to fight anyone, or that they delude themselves into thinking their ships are invulnerable to destruction. Starting on Monday we will look into this strange malady affecting our fighting forces at sea, wondering if the ships we spend so much national treasure in creating, the pride of the nation and envy of the world, are worth the effort.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Distiller permalink
    July 13, 2009 2:13 am

    Speaking strictly combat, for everything but seabased aviation the submarine is already the answer. And LMCO’s immersible UAV concept shows what a submarine UAV carrier could look like. ISR, attack, Com&Relay could all be done by them, supported by orbital and land-based airborne stand-off platforms.

    Leaves the question of “presence” and non-combat operations. Big warfighting Navy has to take precedence, then those corvette/light frigates can be built cheapish, symbolic almost, since everybody will know that down below the real thing waits (or out beyond the horizon the carrier and amphib groups).
    I don’t think build a warfighting Navy on small surface combatants works. What really makes a small unit survivable is a big unit in the back. Like in colonial times an unarmed envoy was often enough to subdue whole tribes, since they had learnt if they harm that man a machine gun platoon will show up. Plays into politics and rules of engagement, of course.

    And regarding big carrier battle goups Navy: In the end it’s the old offense – defense game. What is overall more cost effective? I don’t know. Nothing will be cheap, neither a hardened surface task group, nor the orbital backbone for UAVs. In the end a state wanting to be a world power will have to be a player in all realms until a real war shows which system is worth it and which is a waste of resources. If one focuses only on one concept, it makes it easy for the enemy to concentrate on countering it. Diversity is needed for effectiveness and survivability.

    For the time being, and until other systems are developed and fielded, manned seabased aviation will be needed – big CVN with big escorts. But it might be wise not to go for questionable things like CG(X), and instead invest that money in the development of some new concepts. With so many technology driven uncertainties and system cycles measured in decades it’s not the time for systemic conservatism.

  2. jim permalink
    July 12, 2009 11:08 pm

    On the ASCM threat, there is the near term promise of laser weapons. If, and it’s a big if, we can get laser defenses to work then it does radically increase the survivability of large surface ships. Progress has been fairly dramatic in the past decade. We now have 100 kw solid state lasers. The FEL project is coming along.

    I don’t know how confident the Navy is, perhaps they believe we’ll be able to field ship self-defense lasers within 10 years which will neutralize the ASCM threat.

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