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Are American Warships Obsolete? Pt 1

July 13, 2009

040807-N-0120R-063Here at New Wars we offer alternatives for the US Navy’s business as usual construction programs for various reasons. The renewed need for increased numbers of ships is a primary motivating factor, to shrink the fleet’s admitted “presence deficit” in the world’s littoral regions. Another might be the high cost of ships, partly due to the dramatic increase in size of all classes of warships in the past few decades, partly because of an over-dependence on high technology such as long-range area defense weapons (because of the Navy’s obsession over land powers). According to an article in Foreign Affairs (free with register) “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets“, there is a more urgent need as the entire US Navy as now configured is at risk to destruction:

 Several events in recent years have demonstrated that traditional means and methods of projecting power and accessing the global commons are growing increasingly obsolete — becoming “wasting assets,” in the language of defense strategists. The diffusion of advanced military technologies, combined with the continued rise of new powers, such as China, and hostile states, such as Iran, will make it progressively more expensive in blood and treasure — perhaps prohibitively expensive — for U.S. forces to carry out their missions in areas of vital interest, including East Asia and the Persian Gulf. Military forces that do deploy successfully will find it increasingly difficult to defend what they have been sent to protect. Meanwhile, the U.S. military’s long-unfettered access to the global commons — including space and cyberspace — is being increasingly challenged.

While the author, Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., covers the entire US military, for our purposes we will concentrate on the Navy’s vulnerabilities. The idea that our very few large warships, based around 100,000 ton aircraft carriers, 50,000 ton amphibious ships, backed up by very costly missile cruisers and destroyers of 10,000 ton each, and nuclear attack submarine of 7000-9000 tons must be used for projecting power ashore is a suicidal one. At the very least, such very costly warships will have to operate in range of land based aircraft and stealthy coastal submarines, where in last century experienced admirals avoided as much as possible, notably carrier admirals such as Halsey and Spruance. As recently as the Falklands War, the British Royal Navy took a terrific pounding from the primitive Argentine Air Force, losing new built warships to antiquated aircraft and a handful of cruise missiles and dumb bombs.

During the Age of Sail, it might have been prudent to posses an “All Battleship Navy” of only high end warships. The Royal Navy Ship of the Line could then sail close into to shore with little to fear from naval mines, or cruise missiles, submarines, or aircraft. It was only in the past century that naval strategists thought it essential to their fleet’s survival to avoid coastal areas with large ships as much as possible, creating entire new warship classes such as destroyers, monitors (also from the US Civil War), hydrofoils, mine layers and sweepers, and fast attack craft which were better suited for littoral operations than costly exquisite ships.

In 2002, as the article details, the US Navy conducted an operation titled Millennium Challenge in preparation for an Invasion of Iraq. It pitted forces, the defenders led by Marine General Paul Van Riper, armed with ballistic missiles, suicide vessels, and anti-ship cruise missiles, against an attacking USN carrier and amphibious fleet. The results were a disaster for the invaders, with half the fleet sunk and the embarrassed senior leaders calling for a “do over” in the Navy’s favor.

The Millennium Challenge exercise was a harbinger of the growing problems of power projection — especially in coastal zones, maritime chokepoints (such as the Strait of Hormuz), and constricted waters (such as the Persian Gulf). As the initial success of Van Riper’s “Iranian” forces demonstrated, the risks in such areas are becoming progressively greater, especially when the United States is facing a clever adversary. 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.

Victory1Any motivating factor for changing long-held theories of warfare is the realization your theories might lead you to disaster. If the ships we have can no longer survive to perform the missions and put their crews at risk, then they must be replaced, not just made more survivable. It becomes the “wasting asset” the author has revealed to us.

Continued tomorrow.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Heretic permalink
    July 14, 2009 11:10 am

    {Sees no less a personage than Galrahn drinking the “All Electric Ship” Kool Aid too.}

    {Falls off barstool drunk.}

    Okay, it’s official. I’m a *bad influence* on you people.

  2. July 13, 2009 10:54 pm

    I am increasingly thinking that the “All Electric Ship” is going to produce a dramatic revolution in how surface ships get built.

    I am drinking the same thing you are Heretic. I don’t know about Rail Guns per se, but the more I look at how “All Electric” changes previous limitations in terms of fuel and power capacity the more I think this technology is quietly going to make a significant impact. At minimum I see great potential in both large and small ships, all we need are platforms to act as test cases on both the large and small scale.

  3. jim permalink
    July 13, 2009 7:37 pm

    How useful are the 100 kw lasers? The 100 kw solid state lasers seem close to mature. The railguns still look a decade or more in the future. They haven’t hit their power goals yet, and the rails don’t last more than a few shots. So they have a few orders of magnitude to improve on with endurance.

    I hope the 100kw lasers can help with the ASCM and suicide boat threat. I don’t know if they are powerful enough yet.

  4. Scott B. permalink
    July 13, 2009 1:29 pm

    B. Smitty said : “Did you prompt Dr. Dalsjö with the “station wagon” comment?”


    Neither did I prompt Stuart Slade with this other comment :

    “The Absalon and her near-sisters are exactly what the LCS should have been”


  5. B.Smitty permalink
    July 13, 2009 12:21 pm


    Did you prompt Dr. Dalsjö with the “station wagon” comment? ;)

  6. Defiant permalink
    July 13, 2009 12:03 pm

    I wonder if they will ever get over the immense problems with the railgun system, whats the current endurance of a barrell? 2 or 3 shots?

  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 13, 2009 11:32 am

    Heretic, no offense but when I see pirates capturing these merchant vessels, turning them into auxiliary warships and capturing more merchant vessels, I think we in the West haven’t a clue what the future of war at sea will be like.

    I can see our handful of space age warships headed to sea, then being swarmed by suicide boats, or sunk by an old fashioned mine or torpedo, and then think “what a waste”. I would just love to see us have more hulls in the water, with the weapons we have today.

  8. Heretic permalink
    July 13, 2009 10:57 am

    I am increasingly thinking that the “All Electric Ship” is going to produce a dramatic revolution in how surface ships get built. I keep having the feeling that the maturing of railguns and 100kW FELs will produce that revolution in shipbuilding affairs.

    I keep having visions of nuclear powered electric cruisers that would look, in appearance, almost like throwbacks to an earlier age of gunships. They would have a railgun turret mounted on the fore and aft decks, and a laser turret (or two) fore and aft also, giving the ship a hemisphere of protection above the waterline. The lasers would provide Line of Sight defense, while the railguns are non-line of sight bombardment weapons. The idea would be to make the ship as small as is reasonable for the recoil of its guns, so as to make it easier/cheaper to produce the ships in quantity.

    The railguns and FELs would be the ship’s main armament, with guided VLS forming a backup/reserve capacity for offense/defense.

    A “partner” ship to go with surface/air defense cruiser would be a ship optimized for anti-submarine/mine warfare. That means hangar and helicopters, sonars and arrays … and essentially, a very different ship. The ASW/MIW ship might even be non-nuclear simply due to the lower load demand for electrical power on a ship optimized for ASW/MIW, as compared to the needs of “electric weapons” such as railguns and FELs and the necessary power overhead of maintaining a phased array radar system and target system for searching the surface, air and LEO environements.

  9. Scott B. permalink
    July 13, 2009 10:40 am

    And here is the solution suggested by Dr. Robert Dalsjö during the same conference in Sweden (emphasis added) :

    “One doesn’t have to be a great naval strategist or a technological rocket scientist to see what needs to be done. To begin with, stop trying to be so different, and look at what the neighboors are doing.(…)

    Denmark provides an interesting example, in several respects. In a short time, they have turned their defence around from a territorial to an expeditionary focus.(…)

    The new 6,000-ton flexible support ship Absalon is currently leading Task Force 150 off the Horn of Africa, and has prevented several attacks from pirates. She was laid down in 2003 and she and her sister were delivered and operational in 2007/2008, fully equipped and within a budget of slightly more than 3 billions Swedish kronor for both ships.

    The Absalon does not only have lots of space for equipment and people, making it a very flexible platform for various tasks. But it also carries all of the weapons system and sensors one would associate with a frigate, like a 5-inch gun, Harpoon SSMs, Evolved Sea Sparrow SAMs, ASW torpedoes, and two embarked medium helicopters. In fact, one might call her a station wagon version of a frigate.”

    In short : Think BIG, not small : bring on the STATION WAGON !!!

  10. Scott B. permalink
    July 13, 2009 10:32 am

    During a recent conference on naval strategy in Sweden, Dr. Robert Dalsjö, a Senior Analyst specializing in politico-military affairs at the Division of Defence Analysis of the Swedish Defence Research Agency, presented a very interesting paper entitled :

    “We No Longer Need a Sports Car, We Need a Station Wagon : Conceptual Challenges and Issues for the Royal Swedish Navy”

    In this paper, Dr. Dalsjö emphasized the need for such critical attributes as :

    1. endurance : the ability to operate at sea for an extended time without replenishment or service.

    2. seakeeping : the ability to operate in or transit rough waters while maintaining not only safety, but also operational effectiveness.

    3. versatility : the ability to solve several different tasks in differing circumstances.

    4. adaptability : the ability to reconfigure the ship’s capabilities in order to meet changing circumstances.

    5. air defense : not only for self-defense, but also for local area defense.

    6. interoperability : including C3I and replenishment at sea

    7. survivability : being able to take a hit from a RPG or even a SSM, without undue casualties and while remaining not only afloat but also able to operate.

    8. crew comfort : quite important during extended deployments, especially with an all-volunteer crew.

    9. free spaces : for additional elements, functions or equipment.

    10. embarked helicopter : at least one medium-sized helo.

    The Falklands War is the exact illustration of why each of these attributes is so important in the design of a warship meant to operate in an expeditionary environment.

    The mythical 1,000-ton corvette GROSSLY fails to pass the screen test, though she might (anecdotically) possess one ot two of the attributes listed above.

    The mythical 1,000-ton corvette is a DEAD END.

  11. Scott B. permalink
    July 13, 2009 10:20 am

    Mike Burleson said : “As recently as the Falklands War, the British Royal Navy took a terrific pounding from the primitive Argentine Air Force, losing new built warships to antiquated aircraft and a handful of cruise missiles and dumb bombs.”

    The Falklands War is a great example of the type of conflicts for which the mythical 1,000-ton corvette would have been GROSSLY inadequate, if not ENTIRELY inappropriate, due to her lack of endurance, poor seakeeping, austere crew comfort and limited survivability (among other factors).


  1. Carrier Alternative Weekly « New Wars

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