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A Navy of Davids

August 2, 2009

For the weaker of two belligerents minor-attack has always exercised a certain fascination. Where a Power was so inferior in naval force that it could scarcely count even on disputing command by fleet operations, there remained a hope of reducing the relative inferiority by putting part of the enemy’s force out of action. Such hopes were rarely realised. In 1587 Drake succeeded in stopping the Spanish invasion by such a counter-attack on the Cadiz division of the Armada while it was still unmobilised. In 1667 the Dutch achieved a similar success against our Chatham division when it was demobilised and undefended, and thereby probably secured rather more favourable terms of peace. But it cannot be said that the old wars present any case where the ultimate question of command was seriously affected by a minor counterattack.

The advent of the torpedo, however, has given the idea a new importance that cannot be overlooked. The degree of that importance is at present beyond calculation. There is at least no evidence that it would be very high in normal conditions and between ordinarily efficient fleets. The comparative success of the opening Japanese attack on the Port Arthur  squadron is the only case in point, and where only one case exists, it is necessary to use extreme caution in estimating its significance. Before we can deduce anything of permanent value we must consider very carefully both its conditions and results.

Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, by Julian Stafford Corbett (c. 1911)

If you put yourself in the place of modern battleship proponents (meaning supercarriers, guided missile escort ships, large amphibious ships, and nuclear submarines) you could understand their mindset concerning the supposed limitations of small unconventional ships. Examining the past use of small warships, you can rationally argue they are lighter, more susceptible to battle damage, and very easy to sink. In recent Gulf Wars fast attack craft have succumbed to relatively simple countermeasures such as missile armed helicopters and gunfire.

Back in the days when Admiral John Fisher revolutionized the British Royal Navy, giving us the modern dreadnought battleship, their were great hopes placed on another design called the battlecruiser. Really another dreadnought, with the exception that armor was reduced, and some gunpower to allow the ship to sail at very high speeds. The idea was, anything the new ships couldn’t outgun it could run away from! The problem came when battleship admirals become tempted to use the thin-skinned vessels as a part of the battleline, then disaster struck. Three battlecruisers were lost during the 1916 Battle of Jutland along with most of their crew.

Clearly the idea of a thin-skinned warship which looked like a battleship was a flawed concept, and after the war the battleship admirals understandably concluded that only heavily armored warships would survive modern threats. When new technology was added to the fast and vulnerable battlecruisers, however, it became a new animal altogether. The addition of a flight deck and flimsy but fast aircraft to the vulnerable but fast ships gave it a striking range far outside the battleship guns, while the addition of torpedoes and bombs made it a threat to the old order at sea.

Similar presumed weaknesses often pointed out toward small combatants such as corvettes and conventionally powered submarines might also be changing, thanks to recent advances in technology brought on by the microchip. Western technology including anti-aircraft defenses are now ending up in Eastern militaries, some through treachery, as with China, some through new alliances as with Iraq. Cruise missiles, which have been called here “the new decider” in sea warfare are in increasing use and wildly available on the world arms market.

New tactics might also change the perception of and the influence these apparently minor threats posses. Iran has practiced new maneuvers called “swarming” in full view of USN warships. Also where stealth material make already pricey large warships prohibitively expensive, as proved by reduced purchase of America’s DDG-1000 destroyers and Britain Type 45 anti-missile escort, small craft with such add-ons are far less costly. The Chinese have already surpassed America in the deployment of stealth surface craft, though experiments have been made with the type such as the Sea Shadow, the M80 Stiletto, the Seafighter, the Norwegian Skjold, and the Swedish Visby.

Just as advances in technology transformed the vulnerable battlecruisers into the war-winning aircraft carriers, so will modern armament and sensors increase the usefulness of the corvette, high speed vessels, and conventional submarines. Their obvious attributes: low cost, ease of construction and maintenance, natural stealth, would be combined with the deadly lethality of modern weapons

Via purpleslog

Via purpleslog

 plus unmanned vehicles, to make them new battleships in their own environments.

Stealth technology, advanced radars, precision missiles, and unmanned vehicles which are revolutionizing war on land, at sea, and in the air, but add to the already enormous cost of traditional large hulls, will be placed instead on these more affordable platforms. Smaller ESSM missiles for air defense, Fire Scout UAVs rather than large and also costly helicopters, and Harpoon missiles or its future offspring will give the same punch of a modern battleship, increasing its usefulness in modern warfare. The principle then will be “smart bombs+common platform“which will restore numbers, survivability, and lethality to the fleet.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul V. Patty permalink
    August 4, 2009 4:56 am

    “How small of a ship could have the same effective firepower of a Burke?”

    “It’s not so much as about duplicating the Burke’s firepower as duplicating its missions. For instance, no weapon can place fire down on a specific target like an Iowa class battleship, yet the Navy aircraft and small 5 inch guns on surface combatants have managed to replace this function adequately. Not the same but it works.”

    It may work, but the outcome is not exactly the same. To put it another way, I can use a bucket to water my garden, or I can use a hose.

    A smaller ship may be able to deploy and fire the same weapons as a larger one. For example, a corvette may be able to fire Harpoons just as well as a Burke, but there are significant differences. The corvette might be able to carry 2, or even 4, Harpoons, but the Burke will have 8, as well as the possibility of anti-ship Tomahawks (of which it could theoretically hold up to 90+ in its VLS cells). Physical restrictions limit the number of weapons that can be carried, and in the littoral environment, where one may be under ‘swarm’ attack, the last thing that anybody wants is to run out of ammunition.

  2. D. E. Reddick permalink
    August 2, 2009 9:19 pm

    Perhaps something along the lines of the United Arab Emirates Navy’s new Baynunah class of stealth corvettes would be a good solution. These were brought up in a discussion on Galrahn’s Information Dissemination blog several weeks ago. The following details are from the U.A.E. Navy’s webpage entry at Wikipedia.

    Baynunah class details are as follows: length: 70 m, beam 11 m, draught 2.8 m, weight 660 ton, cruise speed 15 kt, maximum speed: over 32 kt, range: 2,400 nm, endurance: 14 days, weapons: 1 Oto Melara 76/62mm Super Rapide gun, 2 Rheinmetall MLG 27 27 mm guns, 8 MBDA MM40 block 3 Exocet missiles, 4 Raytheon MK56 eight-cell vertical launchers for the RIM-162 ESSM, 1 mk49 mod3 21-cell RAM launcher for the RAM block 1A missile system. The Baynunah corvette has a stern helicopter deck with a single landing spot for a medium-sized helicopter.

    Replace those eight Exocet SSMs with eight Harpoons (or whatever succeeds the Harpoon). Also replace the two Rheinmetall (Mauser) 27 mm autocannons with 25 or 30 mm Bushmaster chainguns (as in use with the USN). And maybe replace the 76 mm cannon with the 57 mm Bofors cannon now in use with the USN (although, I do think bigger is better when it comes to naval artillery).

    Just provide a replenishment mothership (plus a multi-role FFG along to protect that mothership) and station a division or squadron (flotilla-style naval warfare, anyone) of these along the coast of a troublesome place. The mothership can provide a two to four helo det for ASW warfare in support of the corvette flotilla (along with a two helo det found aboard a FFG). Assign a couple of UAVs to each corvette for their own scouting and attack use.

    You would have four / six / eight (more?) corvettes with UAVs, helos, and a backup FFG accompanying a mothership. With ESSMs (32 shots) and RAM (21 shots) launchers the corvettes would be able to defend themselves against aircraft and missile attacks. Any enemy with FACs trying to take them would encounter Harpoon strikes and even responses from the ESSM, RAM, and cannon fire. Overkill for hunting pirates in skiffs, of course. But, in the Straight of Hormuz they might just be the proper platform for dealing with swarming attacks by small craft.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 2, 2009 8:15 pm

    Undergrad, I’m all for that!

    Hudson said “184 mil. Not exactly cheap.” Thats 10% the cost of the Burke. If we built these rather than the 60 Burkes we have built or building thats a 600 ship Navy all by itself! We don’t need this many but you get my point what we lose by building an all high end navy. And these little Davids can launch most of the same weapons at far less cost, sail in benign gunboat missions at far less cost, and build up our fleet in far less time.

    The Ambassador class sounds intriguing as well. i don’t have a particular favorite, just build SOMETHING within reason and in reasonable numbers, rather than these over-engineered building programs for a change.

  4. UndergradProgressive permalink
    August 2, 2009 3:56 pm

    We could certainly cut the tonnage and cost required to perform the bulk of the Burke missions, but what might be some off-the-shelf solutions? (The Sa’ar 5?)

  5. Hudson permalink
    August 2, 2009 3:40 pm

    How much would a fleet of little Davids cost? The figure I have found for the Visby (pictured above) is 184 mil. Not exactly cheap. The U.S. is building a less stealthy design, the Ambassador III corvette, with an 8-pack of Harpoons and other guns and missiles, for app. 100 mil., for Egypt. I don’t know how much the Chinese stealth surface craft referenced in the link above cost, but for the sake of agreement, let’s say half.

    A late model Harpoon cost app. .5 mil. Russian and Chinese equivalents probably cost less, but let’s not quibble. Let’s say, further, that in a real sea battle, under tough conditions for the missile, only one in eight launched cruise missiles hits its target and explodes. That’s 4 mil. worth of missiles for one sunk or disabled enemy ship. This means that even the Chinese FAC, at 30-50 mil. per copy is a fat juicy target considering the cost/rewards.

    The elfin Visby is even less sustainable in this harsh environment, as it’s worth firing more than 300 cruise missiles to disable or destroy it. And this is not considering the capabilities of attacking air craft and submarines. So using these very crude guidelines, it’s easy to see that no fleet of Davids or any other surface fleet is survivable against the threats arrayed against it.

    The navies of the world, of course, know all this, yet continue to build their fine frigates, carriers and other expensive warships. Why? Well, because they’re useful under less than all-out conflict. They’re pretty to look at under sail. Ah, those magnificent carrier battle groups set against the deep blue sea! Detente, anyone?

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 2, 2009 3:22 pm

    “How small of a ship could have the same effective firepower of a Burke?”

    It’s not so much as about duplicating the Burke’s firepower as duplicating its missions. For instance, no weapon can place fire down on a specific target like an Iowa class battleship, yet the Navy aircraft and small 5 inch guns on surface combatants have managed to replace this function adequately. Not the same but it works.

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear on that in the post, but the idea is to perform the mission, not exactly duplicate it.

    Concerning radar, I am not certain the huge radars now on our cruisers and destroyers helps so much, as it decreases the stealth of such vessels. The idea for Aegis is you need giant sophisticated radar to pick up aircraft and missiles at long range, and have adequate amount of time for an intercept. The problem here is most missile strikes in recent history have given very little warning time, and on occasion, no warning at all.

    Giant electronic defenses are like the armor on battleships, no matter how much you have it is never enough, so perhaps less is better, while relying on automatic point defenses instead of standoff missiles.

  7. jim permalink
    August 2, 2009 2:57 pm

    Also, long term, I imagine the power, size, and weight of many radar systems could be offloaded to space based radar or super-endurance UAVs. It would require bulletproof communications security, so maybe never actually happens.

    Super long term you could even off-load the powerplant to space-based solar and beam the power down to the ships. But now I’m in speculative scifi land so I’ll stop.

  8. jim permalink
    August 2, 2009 2:49 pm

    How small of a ship could have the same effective firepower of a Burke? What is the limiting factor going forward? Modern radars are large and require large (and increasing) amounts of power, right? Are radar and the powerplant the likely two largest systems? There’s also some minimum size needed to field the Firescouts and assorted UAVs.

    Is there any hope on the horizon for some ship-building tech breakthrough that could dramatically lower the cost and time to build a ship? I’m always surprised at how much manual work, like welding, that I see in ship-building. Could some sort of automated, robotic ship-building appear in the not too distant future?

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