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New Cruisers against the Pirates Pt 2

October 6, 2009
Boarders from the the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG 64) approach a suspected pirate mothership after responding to a merchant vessel distress signal in the Gulf of Aden.

Boarders from the the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG 64) approach a suspected pirate mothership after responding to a merchant vessel distress signal in the Gulf of Aden.

For two main reasons we advocate that Western Navies, especially the US and Britain, devote greater resources to purchasing smaller, more numerous warships. First is the advent of precision guided weapons, and satellite tracking sensors which are incredibly accurate and can easily target and destroy the most heavily armed or protected warships, thanks to accuracy and lethality unmatched in war at sea.

Then there are the numerous smaller navies, able to create warships out of commercial vessels, or updating older designs with modern weapons as the Iranians have done with their Sina class missile boats. Individually such spartan vessels appear little threat to any Western naval battleship, yet with the latter stretched from numerous wars in the Third World, while still attempting to maintain conventional arsenals that are ever harder to build and deploy, these new cruisers threaten to overwhelm the shrinking and over-worked traditional fleets with numbers and adaptability.

Future plans for older navies promise only cuts, with almost the complete disappearance of low end frigates and coastal escorts from their arsenals, the same vessels most needed for today’s threats. Despite facing few if any peer navies, the US, Britain, and their nautical allies wholly obsess over conventional war at sea by constructing ever fewer and more costly aircraft carriers, missile escorts, submarines, and large amphibious vessels. Such capable platforms in small numbers are always handy in war or peacetime, but with threats ongoing from from pirates, smugglers, and Third World Navies, an all-high tech fleet becomes so much over-kill and a waste of resources. Not that such multi-mission battleships can’t handle a pirate or smuggler on an individual basis, but taken as a whole we are witnessing the declining influence of Western seapower in many parts of the globe, mostly self-inflicted.

Misreading the Threat

The modern cruiser began to take shape around the turn of the 20th Century, from various types of protected and unprotected, armored, and torpedo cruisers, plus a class known as a “dynamite cruiser“. By the 1930s two specific types were widely used, the heavy and light cruiser, with little difference in roles or size other than loading 8 inch and 6 inch main guns respectively. During WW 2, another type known as an AA cruiser was also deployed. Wikipedia provides us with further details:

For much of 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the cruiser was a navy’s long-range “force projection” weapon, while the larger ships stayed nearer to home. Their main role was to attack enemy merchant vessels, so much so that this task came to be called cruiser warfare. Other roles included reconnaissance, and cruisers were often attached to the battle fleet. In the later 20th century, the decline of the battleship left the cruiser as the largest and most powerful surface combatant. However, the role of the cruiser increasingly became one of providing air defence for a fleet, rather than independent cruiser warfare.

Britain, with the most cruisers in the prewar era considered her Empire rested on the backs of such expensive and versatile vessels, but this proved to be an antiquated strategy. Though the surface threat still remained, it gradually subsided as technology gave power to more asymmetrical ways of war for striking at commerce, involving submarines. The antidote proved to be smaller, more numerous escorts ships, especially destroyers, but also frigates, corvettes, ect.

The Same Mistakes

Today, modern navies are again preparing for the wrong threat, concentrating on high end missile ships, confusingly calling them cruisers, destroyers, or frigates, even though they each perform the same functions of defense from air attack, with secondary surface and ASW. Most cost at least $1 billion each and in the US Navy much more than this.

All these are still essential vessels of war, no doubt needed in some numbers, but the real threat to commerce remains in the form of these pirates and smugglers. Like the submarines early in the last century, the threat from these modern day cruisers are either ignored or at least considered insignificant. Yet on many occasions they managed to humble the mighty fleets of the West, forcing merchant men to take disparate and safer routes, burning precious and expensive fuel. Others they hold up for ransom and kidnapping or robbery.

The results, however, aren’t as impressive as the fact they have made an impression at all. Here are the great traditional navies, with the best equipment money can buy and secure in their hereditary command of the seas, forced to react to the threadbare sailors of Somalia, of the world’s most impoverished states. These fair-weather fisherman turned buccaneers in their make-shift pirate craft, are building navies from scratch, utilizing ancient tactics of stealth and boarding that are surprisingly still effective in the Space Age.

Tomorrow-A new look for Seapower.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    October 7, 2009 4:40 am

    “The U.S. is by far the worlds largest importing nation. i.e. We haul more stuff in on ships across the oceans than anyone else.”

    I know. I was playing devil’s advocate and being a tad naughty. I study IR and I know the world is complex web of interdependent systems. And further I was alluding to the general sea blindness of the West’s nations. Thought just struck me that in our grandparents and great-grandparent’s when more of what we used both at home (whether home is Europe or the US) the West’s peoples took a great interest in shipping whether it was merchant or navy. Now when these same peoples depend on the sea they have little or no regard. Perhaps the West’s navies have been to successful in keeping the sea lanes safe?

    The problem with the piracy problem isn’t the choice of platform, the problem is the lack of political will to solve the problem. Perhaps when there are iPod Riots the governments of the development nations will do something!

  2. Al L. permalink
    October 6, 2009 10:22 pm

    “Anonymous-Wish I had the answer to your very good question.”
    I’ll try to respond to your question Anonymous.
    The U.S. is by far the worlds largest importing nation. i.e. We haul more stuff in on ships across the oceans than anyone else. We are also among the largest exporters. According to the U.S. Commerce Dept. in 2006 U.S. exports were 11% of GDP but yet were twice the GDP of Russia. Much of that left on ships.
    Yes Greece and Norway own a lot of ships, but the value of a cargo ship will never equal the value of its cargo over its life and there is no nation that buys and sells more cargo than the U.S. It’s not even close.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 6, 2009 7:45 pm

    Anonymous-Wish I had the answer to your very good question. Guess its in our best interest to keep propping up allies. Not sure how long the free lunch will last.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    October 6, 2009 2:40 pm

    I have just asked in comment thread to Pt1 of this article why it should be the USN and RN who undertake the lion’s share of this anti-piracy work? The Greeks and Norwegian own a higher percentage of the world’s merchant tonnage. And further perhaps “ship owners” (a simplistic term I know in the madcap world of merchant shipping) should look beyond the financial benefits of flags of convenience if they want taxpayers to pick up the bill.

    The lack of political will to cure piracy is the problem. The costs of going ashore in Somalia are being weighed against the costs of the “danger” to merchant shipping.

  5. Joe K. permalink
    October 6, 2009 12:30 pm


  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 6, 2009 12:02 pm

    Joe, don’t knock all of Wiki, which itself uses Source material, and often references US government info in the Public Domain, like this I was just reading on the USS High Point from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

  7. Joe K. permalink
    October 6, 2009 8:30 am

    Referencing Wikipedia? Yeah, that’s a credible source to draw from. I wonder how you managed to get a book published with the sources you used.

    The issue of big ships vs. small ships I think can be summed up with this analogy:

    Early on in the American Revolutionary War, the main forces fighting the British regulars were the militia. Since the British army still followed Napoleonic rules and tactics and the militia did not the militia had some success against the British. Yet, the colonists still took the time and energy to raise up the Continental Army – a Napoleonic-style fighting force. Why? Because the only way to fight the British and win was to fight in the same manner that they did. If they could beat the British on the same level it would make their victories more important and more costly to the British.

    Now, you’re arguing for a small-ship fleet who’s main effectiveness would come in fighting smugglers, pirates, etc. That might work in that sense. However, what happens when a naval power with larger, more-powerful warships, begins going toe-to-toe with the USN? The short-legged LCS and corvettes will get blown out of the water by the larger warship’s weaponry and power projection.

    Point is, you can’t build a navy of only small warships only because you set yourself up for failure against larger warships of navies like Russia or China. Same as how you can’t train the U.S. Army to fight in only unconventional scenarios because then you set them up to be run over by a large conventional fighting force.

    You certainly can’t build an LCS to replace an Arleigh Burke or a missile cruiser because A. the platform can’t support that kind of power projection and B. having to bring an LCS up to the combat level of an Arleigh Burke costs money and you’ll be running up the bill on a short-legged ship trying to pose as a larger destroyer and defeat the purpose of building a “cheaper” “alternative”.

    And fyi Western influence has been falling overall around the world; sea power is only the tip of the iceberg.

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