Lessons from the Last War at Sea Pt 3
One of the simplest initial lessons we get from the Battle of Okinawa, fought from March through June 1945, is the importance of the “small boys”, the 200 radar picket destroyers. These tiny but tough vessels bore the brunt of the Japanese Kamikaze attacks, as well as the casualties that ensued, and spared the battle line of carriers, battleships, cruisers, and troop transports much suffering and damage. The success of the small ships can be seen by the fact that none of these larger warships were sunk during the campaign, though some endured tremendous damage and loss of life, notably the USS Franklin. Author Hanson Baldwin later honored them so:
But to the small boys, the spitkits, the tin cans-the little ships of the radar picket line-belongs a special glory. They bore the overwhelming share of death and destruction; they were the thin and bloodstained line that stood between the Sons of Heaven and the dominion of the East China Sea.
The importance of adequate numbers in a Navy can be seen as well from this battle. Despite the considerable losses taken by the escorts on the picket line, others could be called on from around the globe to take their place. Had the battle raged even longer, the presence of the sunken and damaged would have been ably and bravely represented by these substitutes. In a recent conflict involving small craft, this vital lesson was relearned at great cost. In an interview Nitin Anant Gokhale, the author of the book Sri Lanka: From War to Peace tells us:
Earlier, the navy used to be their weakest link. It had large boats that used to come under LTTE suicide boat attacks. When such a boat went down, it was a loss of about 40 lives and $15 million.The (then) naval chief Karannagoda said ‘Let me take them on at their own game.’ He started building smaller boats. They were called arrow boats. The navy started adopting the LTTE’s swarming tactics. The air force too.
Of course, Western warships are even larger, and potentially risk much greater loss of life. Yet, the idea that small ships cannot endure significant battle damage, a common mantra among ship designers today, is easily discredited, by the courageous examples of the small boys. Tin cans such as the USS Laffey gave back greater than they received and lived to fight again. Others like the USS Abele under terrific air attack, did not die easily, taking several enemy planes with her before succumbing to the odds. Such sacrifices spared the bigger ships in their important role of supporting the land invasion.
Sadly these crucial lessons, that smaller ships exist to protect the larger vessels, seems to be forgotten in today’s Navy, where the massive Aegis missile ships, and the supercarriers rule. Such giant and multi-billion dollar warships in ever shrinking numbers now must face the new Kamikazes, in the form of the anti-ship ballistic missile, cruise missile, and even suicide boats, without a picket line to blunt this even worse foe at sea. Long gone are the Gearings, Sumner’s, and Fletcher’s in their many hundreds, or their replacements in fewer numbers the Knox frigates and the Spruances. All that is left are the aged Perry class without any adequate replacement planned other than the oft-delayed, underarmed, and overpriced littoral combat ship, doubtless never appearing in adequate numbers any time soon.
It is also true that the British armored carriers of the Illustrious class gave a better showing than the wooden flattops. Where the flimsy American decks might be knocked out of action or out of the war from a Kamikaze attack, the RN ships would simply shrug off this and continue fighting. Still, there is always some compromise to be made in adding any weight and the construction of exquisite ships. The smaller hangars on board British vessels meant fewer aircraft could be carried. Also the quality of these the Fleet Air Arm did deploy, the Seafires, the Barracuda, and the Firefly’s, were greatly inferior to the rough and rugged US Hellcats, Helldivers, and Avengers. Finally, the British could only afford 6 such costly and hard to build vessels while America commissioned 24 of the deadly Essex’s.
The lesson here is, there is no perfect defense. Though ships can always be improved, you should never compromise on ships’ numbers. When entering a conflict against a desperate foe, you should always be prepared for causalities. The essential question should not only be “can we do better”, but also “are we prepared to prevail, come what may”. The Kamikazes tested the US Fleet to the uttermost, and likely some peer adversary will do so again. We can take this great lesson them from Operation Iceberg, of 64 years ago that still holds true today:
“It is ironic that the last and greatest naval encounter of World War 2 should not have been a contest of technology but a contest of wills”
Ronald H Spector
But the Big Ship proponents, the naval aviators, the nuclear engineers, and the computer technicians have managed to do what the Divine Wind in all it’s fury failed to do. They have pushed the once indispensable small boys, the greyhounds and their modern equivalents the light frigates and corvettes, out of the acquisition process, confident that size and technology alone will save them. In contrast are the lessons from the last war at sea.
The Age of Steam Pt 2-John Van Duyn Southworth
Power at Sea: The Breaking Storm 1919-1945-Lisle A. Rose
Shield of the Republic-Michael T. Isenberg
Battles Lost and Won-Hanson W. Baldwin
At War at Sea-Ronald H Spector