Are American Warships Obsolete? Pt 2
Large 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).
Nuclear 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.
Such 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.