A Navy of Davids
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
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.