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Dismantling the Fleet that Jackie Built Pt 2

August 26, 2009
Superdreadnought HMS Iron Duke (1912)

Superdreadnought HMS Iron Duke (1912)

Yesterday we began our series of post, calling for the rethinking of last century reforms empathizing the centrality of the battlefleet in modern war at sea. Such  tenets as passionately espoused by Admiral of the Fleet Jackie Fisher are still followed by major world navies today. The reforms which radically transformed the Royal Navy of 100 years ago, directly affect modern naval thought, specifically high operating tempos for even the Reserve Fleet, concentrating the most valuable assets into a battlefleet, deploying only the largest, most powerful and expensive warships possible, and rejecting the use of small, easy to build common ships that were ideal for long-range cruiser warfare.

Yes, Admiral Fisher’s way of warfare has become untenable in today’s environment of many threats, with ships today so large and expensive, only a handful can be afforded. Giant warships such as carriers and Aegis missile escorts are now called on to combat Third World seapowers and even landlocked countries for the simple fact that little or no investment is made by modern navies to contend with many small enemies. Thinking in terms of the battlefleet, the shrinking Western navies are threatened with swarming tactics utilized by these Third World powers, already in littoral regions but increasingly on the Blue Water  routes.

With the need in mind to relieve the strain on stretched-thin shipbuilding budgets, plus ease the wear and tear on ships and crew, we offer the following anti-Fisher proposals for a new era of seapower:

  1. Ending the Reign of the Dreadnought. Though the all-gun armored battleships is long gone from all navies, the mindset still lingers with today’s capital ships, the aircraft carrier. Capital ships should be the arm of decision, but not the only one or even the most important. Carriers should be relegated to a supporting arm as a silver bullet option used in only the most dire crisis such as war. It’s mantle on the world stage should be taken up by the “new cruisers“, smaller vessels spread worldwide, which are expendable, yet tough enough to hold its own until the cavalry arrives in the form of the battlefleet.
  2. Dispersing the Fleets. When Fisher took command of the Royal Navy in 1904, the fleet was scattered around the world in individually weak but important squadrons, from China to the West Indies. With the rising German threat, the dispersed vessels were recalled to form the much larger Home Fleet (later the Grand Fleet) consisting of up to 80% of the operating forces. The USN today is somewhat dispersed with six active numbered fleets—Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh, all centered around the aircraft carrier and amphibious carrier battle groups. Such a force would be adequate to counter other carrier groups, or strike at land based airpower, but seeing such adversaries are so few and far between, we would see the battlefleet return home with their place taken by numerous and flexible “Influence Squadrons”, defended by the powerful anti-missile escorts, and consisting of hundreds of small warships, that are the subject of the next anti-Fisher reform.
  3. Increase the size of the fleet. Admiral Fisher was for increasing the capabilities of individual warships, notably with the first all-big gun battleship HMS Dreadnought. The problem with this is the enormous cost of building a “perfect vessel”. When Fisher entered the Admiralty in 1904, the Royal Navy possessed a fleet of 50 battleships. After his reforms and by the 1930s, there were only 15 such powerful craft in service, but the global threats hadn’t decreased any. A more controversial idea was the scrapping of scores of elderly but still useful gunboats, cruisers, and battleships to help pay for the new superships. We see a similar fate for RN ships ongoing today  to fund new giant supercarriers, ironically near 100 years later, in a drastically smaller fleet! We can only imagine the historical service vanishing altogether soon, unless a reversal in our priorities take place. For instance, we see spartan naval platforms as more than adequate for the for the type of soft-power functions, gunboat diplomacy, disaster relief, ect which naval ships are called on to perform most often. It is also very embarrassing that the only available warship for the USN to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden are very expansive and high tech Aegis missile ships, or giant Marine aircraft carriers as large as an Iowa class battleship.
  4. Take the Navy off Hair-Trigger Alert. When the Great War started, the Royal Navy was ready. Thanks to the Nucleus Crew Reforms for the reserve fleet, the RN was at peak fighting form as it had not been for at least a century. This did it little good since the decisive sea fight between surface ships never happened, with the final act played out between submarines and destroyers. Today, the aircraft carriers with their many thousands of crew are equally ready for battle, whenever their Commander in Chief calls them. The keeping of so many thousands at constant battle readiness is highly desirable, but extremely wasteful on trained professionals as well as the ships they sail in. Smaller craft forward deployed would naturally carry smaller crews and be the Navy gatekeepers, always on watch, less a strain on the Fleet as a whole. Most wars and attack usually come as a surprise, for instance who would have thought the British in 1982 with their forces geared toward fighting Soviet Submarines in the North Atlantic, would soon be dealing with a Third World power in the South. So today’s admirals and sailors must be vigilant instead of reactionary, and stand down from the instant alerts of the Cold War, to cautious watchfulness and let the presence of many small corvettes, gunboats, and auxiliary warships be a light but constant  reminder of the battlefleet which can reach any part of the world on short notice.
Fisher's Folly, the battlecruiser HMS Invincible (1907). She was sunk at Jutland with the loss of all but six of her 1000 crewmen.

Fisher's Folly, the battlecruiser HMS Invincible (1907). She was sunk at Jutland with the loss of all but six of her 1000 crewmen.

In contrast to Admiral Fisher’s notions of what was important, we see that even auxiliary warships such as freighters or old amphibious ships would be ideal command vessels for new Influence Squadrons spread worldwide, taking the place of powerful but expensive superships. Offshore Patrol Vessels, and small patrol boats would do many of the operations we currently relegate to the battleships at drastically less cost but equal effectiveness. These weaker squadrons will be protected by a large Aegis cruiser or destroyer, or even less costly missile corvettes more suited for the shallow water environment. Three to five such craft, armed with point missile defenses like the Israeli Barak, British Sea Wolf, or even the American Evolved Sea Sparrow could be purchased for the price of a single Blue Water missile ship.

Tomorrow-The need for reform.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 26, 2009 8:56 pm

    Elgatoso-Emphasizing the word “Coast Guard.” This is our coastal police force. Though they have often supported the Navy in foreign waters, they cannot lead. Though I agree that their capabilities are exactly what is needed for this type of warfare. But the regular Navy has no excuse and shouldn’t be left off the hook. They have used small craft many times in all our wars, and the 800-1500 ton corvettes we often call for were the same size as destroyers in WW 1, and destroyer escorts in WW 2. Sizable Riverine forces supported the land operations as recently as Vietnam.

  2. elgatoso permalink
    August 26, 2009 5:05 pm

    Ongoing seakeeping duties against pirates, drug smugglers, gun runners, illegal immigrants, is a job for the Coast Guard.
    The navy shouldn’t be fighting pirates.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 26, 2009 4:46 pm

    Hudson, this is my goal, that we don’t go bankrupt. If our naval strategy is a unreasonable burden to us, then we need to change that strategy. Fortunately, modern technology is showing us they way, if our leaders will only take the chance.

  4. Hudson permalink
    August 26, 2009 1:07 pm

    There are three types of conflict the U.S. Navy might engage in. Existential wars, regional wars, and ongoing seakeeping duties against pirates, drug smugglers, gun runners, illegal immigrants, etc.

    The Navy’s contribution to an existential war would essentially be its SSBNs. One Ohio class sub could wreck a foreign country, not destroy it entirely, but cause so much devastation that the authorities would be compelled to turn inward to deal with its dead and dying population and anarchy. The country may well launch bitter counter strikes, but it would not have the resources left to invade its enemy and occupy its capital as in previous wars. This applies to China, Russia, as well as us. Civilization, as we know it, would end.

    Regional wars would involve carrier battle groups. A force of 50 to 70 ships plus allies would be sufficient here. Such a conflict against North Korea or Iran could get extremely nasty. We could expect to suffer losses but prevail, especially with additional air assets thrown into the battle. Though unlikely at this point, the U.S. might find itself in conflict with China over Taiwan. It is doubtful that we would trade more than a few ships with China in such a cause. No American president will lose Seattle or San Francisco over Taiwan.

    The ongoing seakeeping duties could be mainly carried out by frigates, corvettes (should we build them), OPVs, and the Coast Guard. The CG has a fairly robust building program. See the new Sentinel class of OPV.

    Thus we don’t need a larger Navy, but a smarter Navy. A fleet of 250 ships or less of the right type plus reserves should be sufficient. We can’t be fighting umpteen wars around the world and expect to stay afloat financially. We are probably headed for bankruptcy, as it is.

  5. Distiller permalink
    August 26, 2009 9:39 am

    The moment you give theatre or strategic BMD to Navy ships, they will grow by 50%, and the Navy will – justifiably! – want at least two dozen of them. You can’t expect the Navy to take on new and highly complex missions without having that reflect on the equipment. If the Navy shall distribute its total fleet tonnage over more hulls, then BMD has to go air and space borne.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 26, 2009 8:38 am

    OK, yes. We do need battle force capable ships, but these should be the exception not the rule. I think the USN could get by with one half to a third of the missile escorts they currently deploy, especially if all your ships are already loading some type of AA defense. I also think in the future, the missile corvette might displace the large missile battleship, call it cruiser, destroyer or frigate, in capability. But we are not there yet.

    Here are my thoughts on ABM defense: I will give the Navy credit for quickly deploying new technology using off the shelf equipment, the Standard SM-2 and now the SM-3, and updating the current Aegis technology to track and target rogue missiles. Meanwhile, the land forces have been trying to reinvent the wheel since the 1980s, and are just getting this THAAD missile into partial deployment. If I’m not mistaken, I think the USN had its initial ABM ships ready in the early 1990s.

    So kudos to the admirals, for their foresight, and I hope they won’t make the mistake of requesting massive funds for untried technology that may or may not hold some promise in the distant future. I also hope that these ships will be not be deployed enmasse, and that they will not turn the USN from its essential task of sea control, thinking they must now fight space wars. We could never deploy enough ABM cruisers to destroy all the Ballistic Missiles of all the rogue powers, so I hope we only purchase a very few of these important but still niche capable warcraft.

  7. August 26, 2009 7:24 am


    the ABM I am talking about is the CGX – the proposed five ABM focused cruisers

    on the specifics, on the other topic, something you and I have argued over in the past, is the necessity for a larger escort to be present to provide the corvettes or opvs with both a fall back if neccesary and to provide the powers targeted by such a force a ‘presence’ or a ‘sniff’ of the battlefleet that can be deployed.

    yours sincerly


  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 26, 2009 6:56 am

    Alex, good morning and I’m not sure I follow you about the need for a large escort. if you’ll be more specific promise I’ll get back to you later and also on the ABM issue! Thanks!

  9. August 26, 2009 6:11 am


    I do believe you just accepted my point about the need for a ‘larger escort’ or ‘big toy’ to be thrown into the mix of any force.

    thankyou – what though about ABM defence? would you put difference forces around those cruisers to what you would put in the ‘influence/presence’ squadrons

    yours sincerly


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