Skip to content

Are American Warships Obsolete? Pt 2

July 14, 2009

090212-N-6538W-029Large American supercarriers, missile cruisers and destroyers, nuclear attack submarines, and amphibious ships are now so much overkill when in the past few decades the only enemy we have to fight are very minor Third World powers like Panama, Bosnian Serbs, Afghanistan, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We shouldn’t be blinded to the absurdity that we are justifying these very costly and large warcraft perfected in World War 2 and updated to fight the Cold War, now against these impoverished states whose main threat to us so far has been on land.

Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., recently used the term “wasting assets” to describe American weapons of war whose effectiveness would be limited when peer adversaries or even rising powers deploy weapons similar to our own. The enemy would not fight us where we are strongest, using ship for ship, tank for tank, or fighter to fighter, categories where we maintain advantages, but will hit us where we are weakest, in our communication system, against our commerce, or in littoral regions where we are unprepared to fight. Yet still the Navy insists it can only maintain its dominance by a dwindling number of giant and very costly ships, very hard to build and really irreplaceable if damaged or sunk in combat. Here are some examples of where such exquisite ships are wasted, yet how the USN justifies their continued deployment:

  • According to the Navy, only large deck, 100,000 ton aircraft capable of carrying 90 aircraft, now approaching $10 billion each can be used against land powers such as Afghanistan, or minor navies as deployed by Iraq or Iran.
  • According to the Information Dissemination blog, the main purpose of the Navy’s giant 25,000-50,000 ton amphibious ships in the post-Cold War era has been the evacuation of US Embassies from unstable states, notably in Africa, or disaster relief.
  • Recently in the Gulf of Aden, and USN Aegis missile destroyer was sent to manage a pirate-hostage crisis. The stand-off was settled not by the missiles of the $2 billion warships, or her strangely absent helicopters, but by 2 Marine snipers.
  • The primary function of the new 8000 ton Virginia class submarines is operations in the shallow seas, or littoral warfare. Since surface vessels are vulnerable to grounding in coastal waters, it is difficult imagining the effectiveness of one of the world’s largest submarine in such confined seas.

 Only the USA deploys naval aircraft in any significant numbers or capabilities, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon, despite what you may hear from overseas. Navies with only two or three aircraft carriers in service would be unlikely to risk such expensive and hard to build vessels in a one-to-one encounter with the US but would certainly attempt wear down her numbers by asymmetrical tactics using cyber warfare, missile attacks from land based aircraft, ship and submarine launched cruise missiles, and if the US Flattops dare enter close to shore as in the various Gulf Wars, anti-ship ballistic missiles.

Senior Chinese political and military leaders decided it would be foolhardy to challenge the U.S. military head-on. Instead, China is working to combine Western technology with Eastern stratagems, aiming to be able to seize the initiative in the event of a conflict by exploiting the element of surprise. The Chinese approach would entail destroying or disrupting the U.S. military’s communications networks and launching preemptive attacks, to the point where such attacks, or even the threat of such attacks, would raise the costs of U.S. action to prohibitive levels. The Chinese call the military capabilities that support this strategy “assassin’s mace.” The underlying mantra is that assassin’s mace weapons and techniques will enable “the inferior” (China) to defeat “the superior” (the United States).

KILONuclear attack submarines as we often argue, though more stealthy and survivable compared to surface ships, might themselves be at risk against a seemingly inferior foe. Such vessels as built by the US and Britain are now very large, fast and well armed. Put them side by side with traditional conventional submarines, and there appears to be no contest with the SSK being smaller, slower, possessing less endurance, and a smaller armament. The one advantage the small boat has is extreme quietness, which may be the deal breaker. In littoral waters a huge SSN will stand out like a sore dumb, besides being vulnerable to grounding in such a shallow environment. The SSK being more maneuverable and deadly silent while firing many of the same weapons as the larger ship would hold the advantage.

(China) is acquiring a large number of submarines armed with advanced torpedoes and high-speed, sea-skimming ASCMs to stalk U.S. carriers and their escorts. (In 2006, a Chinese submarine surfaced in the midst of a U.S. carrier strike group, much to the U.S. Navy’s embarrassment.) And it is procuring aircraft equipped with high-speed ASCMs and fielding antiship ballistic missiles that can strike U.S. carriers at extended ranges. Advanced antiship mines may constrain U.S. naval operations even further in coastal areas.

We can only conclude that the USN as currently configured is doomed to destruction if sent into coastal regions against a peer competitor like China. If large warships are still relevant to modern naval war at all, they must first be preceded by swarms of small littoral fleets not even in existence today. These would consist of many high speed vessels which can offload Marines and race out of danger afterwards. Guided missile corvettes averaging 1000 tons each would protect the fleet with point range defenses, while like vessels would carry bombardment missiles, and even unmanned aerial vehicles for air attack and surveillance missions. There would also be traditional minesweepers and patrol ships, while conventionally armed submarines would defend the force from other subs threats, perhaps also carrying bombardment missiles and small landing forces.

SwiftSuch small squadrons spread around the world, forward based with logistic motherships support or even by friendly allied bases, would be far cheaper than today’s mostly battleship Navy, filled with budget parasites whose only purpose is not to fight, but to overawe an enemy by its mere presence. Such a strategy as we have now is too costly to send against the Third World nations we most often fight, and as we have seen, too few and vulnerable for the type of major war at sea the Navy claims it is building these wasting assets for.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Heretic permalink
    July 16, 2009 9:49 am

    “So certain are you. Always with you it can not be done. Hear you nothing that I say? You must unlearn, what you have learned.”

  2. Scott B. permalink
    July 15, 2009 4:40 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “point defenses are even more important.”

    Because they are important doesn’t mean that they are sufficient, which is the point I made earlier.

    If you cannot shoot at the archer, you’re DEAD, especially in your scenario vs a near-peer competitor.

  3. Heretic permalink
    July 15, 2009 4:14 pm

    Solid-State Laser Ready For On-Board Tests

    Hat Tip: Graham Warwick at Aviation Week

    Returning to a point I made in Part 1 of this topic (and which Galrahn commented on), the “All Electric Ship” is going to drive the next (r)evolution in shipbuilding … perhaps as great a revolution as HMS Dreadnaught did in her day … and that the shipboard FEL is going to be one of the “demand” weapon technologies which drives this advancement.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 15, 2009 3:14 pm

    Thats the major point IMHO Heretic. These pirates are threatening the freedom of the seas. They are breaking the law. Allow them to get away with this and pretty soon they’ll be sailing in our home waters. The idea that “if we leave them alone, they’ll leave is alone” is a fantasy, especially when there are rich rewards in it for the lawbreakers.

  5. Heretic permalink
    July 15, 2009 10:01 am

    Again, please explain to me why the littoral MATTERS. A blue-water navy is FAR more mobile, far more EFFECTIVE, far more LETHAL in a blue water environment, far from a coast. Littorals are (radarwise) dirty, busy, cluttered environments, which works to the strengths of the asymmetric attacker, sure, but the asymmetric attacker is permanently under the handicap of threat air-assets from the blue water carrier group.

    The littoral waters of the world *don’t matter* if they are:
    1. Devoid of enemies
    2. Well patrolled/policed
    3. Friendly territory

    Failure of the above three conditions results in … wait for it … PIRACY! LAWLESSNESS! ORGANIZED CRIME! SMUGGLING!

    Do we know of anywhere in the world that pirates are operating? How about rebel factions at war (until this year) the government? Heard about any smuggling operations in the (naval) news in the last few years?

    The USN seems to be very determined to treat the littoral spaces as a “No Man’s Water” (to borrow a WWI saying), rather than as a space to secure and defend so as to be able to have unfettered access to the shoreline.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 14, 2009 9:13 pm

    A Blue Water Navy must also control these littoral waters if she wants to influence events ashore. The littorals stand between the Blue Water and the shore, and so for this essential pathway to remain open, especially in an era where coastal threats are so much more lethal because of missiles, mines, D/e subs, suicide boats, they must be fought for. Not like in the old days where the only significant naval powers were either our allies or Russia. Now we have a multitude with Iran, North Korea, China, and even the pirates.

    Another essential reason to maintain the littorals, is to keep the radicals as far from the Blue Water as possible. The Sri Lankans discovered that the Sea Tiger terrorists were smuggling in arms to continue their reign of terror, so a tight blockade was enforced. You can trace such a strategy back to the American Civil War where the Union blockade gradually tightened to contain the Confederate blockade runners, also seeking weapons from overseas.

    The Blue Water warship has no business in the Brown Water, even as the opposite is true for the brown water corvette. There is also the numbers factor. Where you might can only afford a small number of Blue Water ships, a blockade would required hundreds to ensure its effectiveness. I heard estimates of 400 ships or more would be needed to control piracy in the Gulf of Aden alone. An all battleship navy would consider this impossible, but for a small boat Navy, it would be very simple. Just build up as many small boats as you can, use some converted merchant ships as motherships, buy small boats like the Israeli Dvora or the Swedish CB90, place them in mass production: an instant littoral fleet, probably at the same cost as a Burke destroyer or 2!

  7. styopa permalink
    July 14, 2009 8:52 pm

    “Just because it is a different way of fighting doesn’t mean it is futile. ”
    Just because it is a different way of fighting doesn’t mean it’s effective, either.

    Again, please explain to me why the littoral MATTERS. A blue-water navy is FAR more mobile, far more EFFECTIVE, far more LETHAL in a blue water environment, far from a coast. Littorals are (radarwise) dirty, busy, cluttered environments, which works to the strengths of the asymmetric attacker, sure, but the asymmetric attacker is permanently under the handicap of threat air-assets from the blue water carrier group. Building gorgeous, expensive LCS units is just stupid – tantamount to setting down your gun in favor of a pair of brass knuckles; you have to be dumb enough to agree to fight on your opponents’ terms in the first place. What’s the old saying? “If you’re in a fair fight, your tactics suck.” You can have ALL the shallow-draft patrol craft you want – I’ll take carrier-launched, long-duration autonomous UAVs and over-the-horizon-launched killer missiles….and I’ll win every single day.

    Or do you genuinely think we would ever consider an amphibious operation against the PLA without absolute and total air superiority ANYWAY?

    “New threats today must be taken seriously or we face irrelevence in the next war. ..The pirates for instance pose no threat to the mainland USA, but they do threaten the freedom of the seas, which has a direct bearing on our economy. If the oil lifeline was suddenly stopped from the Middle East, who would notice over here? Everyone.”

    New threats must only be taken seriously IF they matter. http://cache.gawker.com/assets/images/4/2009/02/504x_wtf-invention.jpg is an example of an early sound-detection system for aircraft early warning – should we have gone into a crash course to quiet our bombers?
    I’d respectfully suggest that if the pirates began to actually matter – and not just as an annoyance – we’d start KILLING them, and they would soon cease to be an issue (against a military force empowered to seriously fight them, rather than hobbled with absurd humanitarian RoE).

    And by the way, your non-sequitur about Pearl Harbor notwithstanding, doctrinal laziness can happen no matter WHAT paradigm you’re chasing. Ignored or underestimated technical innovation wasn’t the cause of Pearl.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 14, 2009 8:51 pm

    Scott said “You CANNOT protect a fleet (littoral or not) with point defense systems only.”

    Why? In recent history, all cruise missiles which struck warships either was detected in the last minutes or less, or after impact. So, in such water near land based air, stealthy conventional subs, and ground lauched ballistic missiles, point defenses are even more important.

  9. Scott B. permalink
    July 14, 2009 3:49 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Guided missile corvettes averaging 1000 tons each would protect the fleet with point range defenses”

    You CANNOT protect a fleet (littoral or not) with point defense systems only.

  10. Hudson permalink
    July 14, 2009 3:30 pm

    You have stated the case very well for the reformist view in the Navy. I suspect that one way or another the Navy will make some of these changes. For example, I doubt very much that it will purchase 55 LCSs at current prices.

    One big problem for anyone who attacks our ships is the retaliation. Even if Iran, for example, should win a local victory in the Persian Gulf, it could pay dearly for every ship it damages or sinks. As for China (or Russia, for that matter), there is no reason for us to get in a serious fight with them. We are not going to trade San Francisco for Taiwan, and they are not going to step on our toes if it means losing Beijing. We will not occupy their homeland and vice versa.

    Also, the big ships can play host to smaller bots, drones, etc. Little ships cost less, but they do less too. I’d go for some cool corvettes, though.

  11. Scott B. permalink
    July 14, 2009 2:46 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “A destroyer can’t outrun a helicopter Scott, what’s your point?”

    A destroyer doesn’t have to outrun a helicopter or a missile.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 14, 2009 1:43 pm

    I love them Bill! I predict great things, not just in the amphibious role either!

  13. Bill permalink
    July 14, 2009 12:42 pm

    “These would consist of many high speed vessels which can offload Marines and race out of danger afterwards.”

    ooo ooo..like the new T-craft! ;-) amphibious..350+ ton payload capacity..45 knot+ speed over water.

    Oops..sorry. Being a ‘platform advocate’ again.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 14, 2009 10:41 am

    A destroyer can’t outrun a helicopter Scott, what’s your point?

  15. Scott B. permalink
    July 14, 2009 10:04 am

    Mike Burleson said : “These would consist of many high speed vessels which can offload Marines and race out of danger afterwards.

    Even the fastest HSV won’t outrun a missile…

  16. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 14, 2009 8:21 am

    Styopa, historically weaker powers has used asymmetrical tactics to get around traditional ways of warfighting, so what the Chinese are doing is nothing new. Just because it is a different way of fighting doesn’t mean it is futile. The Germans almost beat the British with their insurgent submarines in 2 world wars. The failure to respond to that threat by 1917 (Britain wanted to fight the old way with battleships) almost brought them to the brink of surrender until they humbled themselves into resorting to convoy. They were forced to react to the new threat or die.

    New threats today must be taken seriously or we face irrelevence in the next war. Your mentioning littoral warfare is a case in point. The pirates for instance pose no threat to the mainland USA, but they do threaten the freedom of the seas, which has a direct bearing on our economy. If the oil lifeline was suddenly stopped from the Middle East, who would notice over here? Everyone.

    On the surface, the pirates might seem like a minor threat and “beneath” a navy which in the past has fought some of the world’s greatest sea powers and prevailed. How soon we forget though that the Western navies were themselves only pirates, about 1500 years ago, and the once mighty Royal Navy, as recently as 500 years in their fight with the Spanish.

    Sure we could ignore the threat from China, and say “don’t worry”. WE could also line up all our carriers at Pearl Harbor right beside the Arizona memorial and the handful of F-22 Raptors we can afford at Hickam field, but I wouldn’t advise it.

  17. Styopa permalink
    July 14, 2009 7:35 am

    Your review begs a question in favor of some superficial answers.

    “Senior Chinese political and military leaders decided it would be foolhardy to challenge the U.S. military head-on. ”

    Think about that statement.

    If your force is of such overwhelming dominance that you compel a potential adversary to roll the dice on the development of new methods, gambling that asymmetric warfare will at least offset some of your superiority…I think that means you’re winning already.

    There’s no question that asymmetry will be coming to the naval theaters. The advancement and cheapening of technology is making the naval equivalent of guerilla warfare a logical next step for potential combatants who see the USN as a possible adversary.

    But it doesn’t logically follow at all that we need to match their capabilities, PARTICULARLY if it means giving up the dominance that forced them to those choices in the first place.

    I see a LOT of discussion about brownwater operations, and how the USN is entirely unsuited to operations in coastal waters. Here’s a hint: if you’re fighting the enemy’s coastal waters (and not your own) you’re WINNING. Blue water capability > brown water capability, PARTICULARLY if you’re talking about a force that ultimately is meant to defend the United States.

    Of course this doesn’t mean that we should ignore coastal operations. The USN needs to maximize its capability in all theaters and contexts, and not concede any battlefield to anyone, anywhere. But I think that building a littoral-combat-paradigm CANNOT draw down our bluewater capabilities, lest it cost us the gigantic, incontestable advantage that we DO have.

    FWIW, while I understand that the bureaucrats and lobbyists for the various services are scrambling for current relevance in the COIN-heavy atmosphere of Iraq and Afghanistan, I simply don’t understand WHY we’d fight in a brown water context if we don’t have to. We have the legs – even on naval aircraft – to overstep the brown-water context entirely. Even pair of ancient, crappy A4s > just about any number of patrol boats armed with sea-skimmers, if the patrol boats daren’t leave the radar shadow of the coast. A sonar-dipping helo > even the quietest electric sub that daren’t venture into the deep blue where our fleet (you know, those obsolete supercarrier task forces with a swarm of ASW assets and the inevitable attack sub(s))? stands off and exercises its will on the coastline.

    Finally, add the persistence of aerial ASW and antisurface capability now that carriers will carry a significant complement of UAVs? It seems more and more that the littoral will simply be a place for second-rate powers to waste funds investing in assets that can neither carry an attack TO the US fleet, nor effectively defend their own coastline. To me, that sounds like a good strategy…

    …for us.

Trackbacks

  1. USN Future Surface Fleet « New Wars
  2. Are American Warships Obsolete? Pt 2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: