Revisiting the “High Low Navy”
The Need for High-Low Ships
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. (not to be confused with the budget-breaking DDG-1000 destroyer, which is his namesake but far from his legacy) was extremely prescient in designing the High-Low Navy concept in the early 1970’s. Whereas famed naval strategist Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan knew how to create American naval supremacy as espoused in his equally famous books on the subject, Zumwalt knew how to maintain supremacy.
The Zumwalt naval plans of the late Cold War might just be the Navy’s salvation, if recalled to mind and placed into practice. His ideas would change the battleship only mentality (replaced now by the aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and super missile escorts) to counter the rising asymmetrical threats from China and Third World opponents. The High-Low concept recognized that no country, not even the USA could build such vessels only of exquisite cost and large size for long, as he wrote in his memoirs:
An all-High Navy would be so expensive that it would not have enough ships to control the seas. An all-Low Navy would not have the capability to meet certain kinds of threats or perform certain kinds of missions. In order to have both enough ships and good enough ships there had to be a mix of High and Low.
Realizing then that the High-end portion of the fleet was usually needed for times of crisis or war, it would be more sensible and economical to send low-end warships to manage the day-to-day gunboat diplomacy required of a peacetime fleet. In time of war such craft could perform commerce protection and convoy duties, guard ports, or operate with amphibious forces. Zumwalt goes on to explain:
In a wartime situation the positions of the two carriers would be reversed: the big powerful ones would fight their way into the most dangerous waters, destroying opposition beyond cruise missile range with their planes, and the Sea Control Ships would serve in mid-ocean.
The Low Navy
During Zumwalt’s tenure as Chief of Naval Operations (1970-1974), he oversaw the procurement of many new and advanced warships, which interestingly still make up the bulk of the Navy today. These include the Ticonderoga class Aegis anti-missile cruisers, eventually totaling 27 ships, the first of the Nimitz class now at 10 vessels strong, the Los Angeles class nuclear attack submarines of an amazing 51 ships, 30 Spruance class destroyers now all gone, and the giant Tarawa class amphibious aircraft carriers of 5 ships. Including these extremely capable and technologically advanced wonder ships, the CNO proposed to construct a Low End Navy to ensure that numbers as well as capability survived in the future fleet. These include the following, some of which saw fulfillment, and some which didn’t:
- Pegasus class Patrol Hydrofoil (PHM)-The intent was a class of ships shared with NATO of potentially 100. They were meant to operate in low threat areas such as the Mediterranean or the Gulf, but was misused exclusively in the Caribbean in anti-drug smuggling patrols(where the equally novel M80 Stiletto stealth boat has been exiled). Without mothership support the 6 Pegasus class that eventually got built never had a chance to prove their potential to the fullest. They were well armed for their size at 255 tons with a 76mm cannon (larger than that on the much bigger LCS) and Harpoon missiles. Speeds of 48 knots could be reached using her foils. The last of these gunboats was decommissioned in 1993.
- Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigate-Originally known as the Patrol Frigate, or FFG-7, this class of 51 (with numerous others built for allies) was the most successful of the High-Low concept and the only one to enter full rate production. Original cost was $50 million each, or about half as much as a new destroyer. Though at 3400 tons she was smaller than a high-end Spruance class DD, the Perry’s were as heavily armed with Harpoon missiles, a 76 mm cannon and two ASW helicopters. Though not intended as a carrier escort, they often operate in this function. 30 are still surviving today with plans to upgrade them for future service under debate. After over 30 years of service, apparently the Navy has found these ships irreplaceable.
- Sea Control Ship (Air Capable Ship)-Intended as a 17,000 ton supplement to larger carriers, allowing them to stay out of harm’s way for sundry duties such as showing the flag and presence operations near to shore. None were ever built but it was estimated that 8 could be bought for the price of a single giant nuclear aircraft carrier. They would carry helicopters and the new Harrier V/STOL planes then entering service with the US Marines. The SCS would have filled a gap left by the mass retirement of the Essex class ASW carriers in the 1970s.
- Surface Effect Ship-A 3000 ton advanced hull-form, the SES frigate was planned as an 80 knot vessel which would revolutionize warfare. Plans were for it to be a premier ASW hunter due to its high speed, which might also make it a mini-aircraft carrier since it wouldn’t need a catapult to launch a fighter. Some tests were performed on small SES hulls, but the whole idea was shelved in 1974. Even more intriguing was a study done by Admiral Zumwalt’s staff which estimated 35 such ships could ferry 2 US division to Europe in 3 days!
As we mentioned, except for the FFG-7 Patrol Frigate, few of Zumwalt’s Low Navy survived politicians and admirals dedicated to constructing a much smaller fleet of High-only warships. The fallout of the failure is with us today, with Navy ships and crews overworked, thanks to less than half the 600 ship fleet of the 1980s. Despite so many wondrous capabilities on our powerful warships, today we are suffering through a presence deficit thanks to the rise of new naval powers, especially in Asia but also myriad threats from rogue terrorist groups, pirates, and their supporters.
Return to the High-Low Navy
What is remarkable about Zumwalt’s 30 year old concept, is many of the designs which he proposed for the Navy of the 1970s are similar in concept to proposals now emanating from bloggers and strategists hoping to restore the USN to its glory, or at least keep it from falling further. In the Patrol Frigate and the Pegasus hydrofoils, we see future plans for small littoral ships, which can sail into shallow seas too dangerous for giant High-End warships, and as planned in Zumwalt’s day, restore vital numbers to the fleet which were lost because of careless neglect by the Navy leadership and ship obsolescence. With the Sea Control ship, we see smaller vessels able to carry V/STOL aircraft, or better still, new versions of unmanned combat air vehicles which have proved so useful in recent wars on land. Thanks to the power of new precision weapons, such craft once scorned as “less capable” are much more effective, transforming warfare as we know it, helping us to do more missions at less cost.
Finally, in the older SES frigate, we can see the ancestor of high speed vessels currently in USN and Army service with experimental craft as the HSV Spearhead and the HSV Swift 2. Such unique off the shelf warships first saw civilian service, though are not as fast as Zumwalt’s revolutionary SES. At the very least it has been proposed for such vessels to be used as fast amphibious craft, with older traditional amphibious ships being pushed future out to sea because of the rise in shallow water threats. High speed transports can then race into the landing area, off-load her Marine cargo, and race away ahead of danger.
We hope then our proposals, based on the life lessons of a great CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, might still see the light of day. The Navy’s current answer to mounting threats, shrinking inventories, and over-worked crews seems to be business as usual and obviously is a failure. Any dramatic change in warship design usually is preceded by war, much to our regret. As much as we hate to see this, it will likely take such an unthinkable circumstance of a major sea war to bring any change, much as it took the Army to come near-to defeat in Iraq before it would accept proven principles of fighting a counter-insurgency.