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Lessons from the Last War at Sea Pt 3

September 16, 2009
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Task Force 38/58

Task Force 38/58

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.

Some sources:

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

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 17, 2009 4:35 pm

    Another monument to the excellence of the war-built destroyers, is the inconvenient truth that they have yet to be adequately replaced in the US naval arsenal. After the war, they continued to serve on for decades, performing essential duties while newer supercarriers, nuclear submarines, and giant missile destroyers garnered the bulk of funding. When they were retired enmasse during the 1970s, their replacements were low end frigates and giant missile battleships. There is currently no general purpose warship in US service other than the ancient Perry’s and their single shaft. The USN has been in decline in numbers ever since with the demise of the true greyhounds in US service. Today as we send our most expensive space age warships to chase pirates in speedboats, this gap in our defenses is widening.

    A further tribute, even worn out after years of service, the Gearings and others were much welcome in foreign service. The last such vessel ended its life with the Taiwan Navy as recently as 2005!

  2. Tarl permalink
    September 17, 2009 9:22 am

    Excellent comments, Scott B!

  3. Scott B. permalink
    September 16, 2009 6:24 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “So I think the last great naval war at sea which involved missile weapons not unlike the guided missiles of today should be studied closely,”

    Here is an important lesson that you’ve not mentioned so far :

    1. The US Navy used picket destroyers off Okinawa in April 1945, because, in the absence of AEW, it was the only way to cut reaction time by extending radar horizon against low flyers and decentralizing control of CAPs. Note that the picket destroyers were not the vanilla DDs, but were “destroyers with sophisticated radars and enlarged CICs” (Norman Friedman in Net-Centric War, page 59).

    2. Likewise, the Royal Navy had to organize a picket line during the Falklands War because of the lack of AEW, and again, the Royal Navy had to assign the most advanced AAW destroyers (the Type 42) to the picket line.

    No AEW means that you need radar pickets. A warship on a radar picket assignment is pretty much tied to the picket station. Being tied to a picket station means the ship cannot use its mobility to evade threats. An individual ship can be saturated, no matter how sophisticated it is. So you end up building ships for the sole sake of numbers, to raise the saturation threshold at key picket stations and/or cope with attrition. And you start to look for something to sacrify for the sake of numbers…

  4. Scott B. permalink
    September 16, 2009 5:30 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “So something has to give for the sake of numbers.”

    Of course, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider carefully what you want to give for the sake of numbers.

    The cost of a warship largely driven by such big ticket items as the Weapons / Sensors / Electronics and the propulsion. If you compare one of the mythical 1,000-ton corvette, the Israeli Sa’ar 5 and the Danish Absalon, what you’ll find out is that :

    1. Weapons / Sensors / Electronics don’t cost more on the Absalon.

    2. Propulsion costs less on the Absalon : 27,000 kW for the Israeli Sa’ar 5 (33 knots), 16,400 kW for the Absalon (23+ knots) and 32,800 kW for the Ivar Huitfeldt (28+ knots).

    On the other hand, steel is cheap and air is free, meaning that the bigger hull isn’t going to drive costs up dramatically : for instance, according to the NATO SLC study (2004), the structure (SWBS 100) accounts for about 4% of the costs for a surface combatant, and a little over 2% for an OPV.

    Now, think of what you get with a bigger hull :

    * better seakeeping
    * better endurance
    * larger aviation facilities
    * reduced vulnerability
    * flexible deck (915 square meters on the Absalon)
    * improved crew comfort
    * bigger growth margins

    etc, etc, etc…

    The morale of the story is this : THINK BIG, not small !!!

  5. Scott B. permalink
    September 16, 2009 4:40 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “If you try to add endurance-plus-seakeeping-plus armament, you end up with something like the Arleigh Burkes, 10,000 tons and chasing pirates in speedboats.”

    A ship like the Danish ABSALON possesses excellent seakeeping qualities, very good endurance, plus an armament that’s more than competitive when compared with any of the mythical 1,000-ton corvettes out there.

    Furthermore, a ship like the Danish ABSALON doesn’t cost much more than any of the mythical 1,000-ton corvettes out there.

    Here’s the catch : THINK BIG, not small.

  6. Scott B. permalink
    September 16, 2009 4:31 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “and if you concentrate on endurance alone you give up weapons load, which is what happened to the LCS, trying to place a corvette armament on a frigate hull.”

    1. The Fletchers / Sumners / Gearings compare reasonably well vs LCS in terms of endurance :

    LCS requirements : 3,500 NM @ 18 knots (threshold) / 4,300 NM @ 20 knots

    Fletcher : 4,150 NM @ 20 knots (trials) / 3,480 NM @ 20 knots (wartime)

    Sumner : 4,000 NM @ 20 knots (trials) / 3,240 NM @ 20 knots (wartime)

    Gearing : 4,380 NM @ 20 knots (wartime)

    2. LCS-1 (LM design), given her absurd overweight, will most likely NEVER come even close to the threshold.

    3. One of the biggest problem with LCS is the totally absurd sprint speed requirement, and certainly not range or armament as you suggest.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 16, 2009 4:02 pm

    “the Fletcher / Sumner / Gearing still had some not-so-insignificant deficiencies, e.g”

    Compared to what, Scott? It takes a balance of capabilities, and if you concentrate on endurance alone you give up weapons load, which is what happened to the LCS, trying to place a corvette armament on a frigate hull. If you try to add endurance-plus-seakeeping-plus armament, you end up with something like the Arleigh Burkes, 10,000 tons and chasing pirates in speedboats.

    So something has to give for the sake of numbers. If the USN had chosen quality over quantity here, would any of the new destroyers have been ready by the time of the Battle? But today our frontline patrol ships are these 20+ year old Perry frigates. Good ships but if we used Friedman’s standards in WW 2, those ancient and tiny four stacker DD’s from the Great War would have fought the entire Pacific campaign with no replacements! Yeah thats some compromise.

  8. Scott B. permalink
    September 16, 2009 3:50 pm

    Despite their 3,000+ tons full load displacement, lessons from the past show that the Fletcher / Sumner / Gearing still had some not-so-insignificant deficiencies, e.g. :

    1. Insufficient seakeeping : see for instance Friedman’s Modern Warship Design and Development, pages 72-73 :

    “In fact the Gearings were notoriously wet, and had to have their No.1 gun shields strengthened to resist sea damage.”.

    2. Insufficient endurance : see for instance Friedman’s US Destroyers, page 173 :

    “Limited destroyer endurance was a constant source of difficulties in task force operations.”

    Such not-so-exquisite attributes as improved seakeeping and increased endurance both add weight : there’s no free lunch !!!

  9. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 16, 2009 3:42 pm

    Sorry I meant to say CV vice CG.

  10. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 16, 2009 3:41 pm

    In the little movie we saw earlier it looked like the Brits are still planning on using their Sea King AEWs on the new carrier. By contrast the French took their CG back to the yard shortly after finished to make sure it could operate E-2s.

  11. Scott B. permalink
    September 16, 2009 3:35 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “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.”

    The two examples you use to illustrate your point, – USS Laffey and USS Abele -, had a full load displacement of 3,300+ tons, i.e. 3 times as much as the mythical 1,000-ton corvette that gets so much attention here and there.

  12. Anonymous permalink
    September 16, 2009 2:57 pm

    “I’ sure a lot of the Brits wished they still had the Ark Royal with her AEW aircraft.”

    When discussing this with others I often say that the aircraft the CVF should have been built around was the E2 not JSF (in which ever variant.)

    Though I was attacked by an RAF pilot who told me that E2 was crap compared with the Sea King AEW. Of course I was referring to the platform; large twin engined plane with good endurance. (I know the E2 and Sea King AEW have similar but different capabilities……….)

  13. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 16, 2009 2:44 pm

    As I noted earlier, the picket stations were there to extend they radar horizon because they didn’t have AEW aircraft. Same reason Sheffield was stuck out in an exposed position during the Falklands (except for the makeshift helo AEW). It was a necessary precaution, but it was not the preferred alternative. Just as many of the sailors on CVEs wished they were on Essex class instead, I’ sure a lot of the Brits wished they still had the Ark Royal with her AEW aircraft.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 16, 2009 10:39 am

    Ioseb-I agree completely!

    Solomon, when the Renaissance armies pulled themselves out of the Dark Ages, they didn’t make up tactics with their new advanced arms as they went along, but adapted the discipline and training of the ancient Romans as their guide when no gunpowder weapons existed . The Germans in WW 2 got their tank tactics from lessons they learned in the last world war where they had few tanks, and also from the Mongol cavalry tactics of the Middle Ages. Patton often attributed his own successful armored drive through France to Civil War Stonsewall Jackson and his famous “foot cavalry”. Later the Israeli’s borrowed liberally from the 1920s and 1930s writing of Sir Basil Liddel Hart, who was a great admirer of general Sherman’s 1864 March Through Georgia. Ironically they learned alot about warfare from their former tormentors, the Nazis.

    Finally for its own current armor successes in both Gulf Wars, the US Army borrowed liberally from the Israeli’s, the Germans, and a 19 century strategist named Clausewitz, who learned most of what he knew from Frederick the Great and Napoleon. All still very relevant today and even essential.

    So I think the last great naval war at sea which involved missile weapons not unlike the guided missiles of today should be studied closely, in contrast to the decades of peacetime theorizing where our pet ideas (often used to justify continued building of obsolete warships) have never been tested in combat. As the saying goes, no plan, however prefect survives contact with the enemy.

  15. Ioseb Jughashvili permalink
    September 16, 2009 9:12 am

    Quantity has a quality all its own.

  16. September 16, 2009 7:41 am

    Wow, you’re actually using a WW2 battle as an example of what should be done in the modern age???? We also had a Marine Corps that approached 1/2 a million men…an Army more than a couple of times larger than the one we have now etc…Technological advancement in the West is driving smaller armed forces. A smaller force dictates a more robust capability on fewer platforms. Which means that a technologically advanced Navy will have fewer platforms that are capable of carrying out more functions. You can’t stop the march of technology. You can’t turn back the hands of time.


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