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The Navy Adverse to Nautical Threats

November 3, 2009

The amphibious transport dock ship Pre-commissioning Unit (PCU) New York (LPD 21) navigates off the coast of Long Island prior to her arrival in New York City.

I came across this article written by a West Point graduate John T Reed, titled “Are U.S. Navy surface ships sitting ducks to enemies with modern weapons?” While I don’t agree that all surface ships are obsolete (just make them smaller, easy to replace, and plentiful), the author makes some valid points concerning our Big Ships, for instance:

This debate has been going on since General Billy Mitchell. He committed the heresy of pointing out that a plane could sink a ship with a bomb or aerial torpedo. The Navy swore it was not true. Mitchell was court martialed. Later, he was honored by having the B-25 bomber named after him, got the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, was on a USPS stamp in 1999, and received other honors—all posthumous…The fact is that the surface Navy is obsolete in modern warfare. Its budget and role should be drastically reduced accordingly. It is a sort of blue-water coast guard and a provider of floating island air bases (carriers) for actions against militarily-backward countries…

On page 48 of Sea of Thunder, Evan Thomas’s excellent book about the ‘last great naval battle,” the 1942 Battle of Leyte Gulf, he mentions that bringing one’s carrier within range of shore-based bombers violated naval doctrine.

That last statement is an argument we make all the time, that the Navy has little business taking its giant Blue Water fleet close to shore, but if it does have to go, it should be proceeded by many small warships geared especially for that purpose. Such vessels should be agile enough to keep on the move, small and of low profile to avoid pop-up cruise missiles, and also plentiful to create many targets in an age of many threats. Small ships like corvettes are likely more survivable in this age of modern weapons, and those same type weapons which are computer controlled and satellite guided make such craft more lethal than ever before.

Speaking of land wars, the Navy does seem to have an aversion for combating nautical threats of late, for instance:

  • Large deck aircraft carriers are justified principally because of their efficiency in deploying airpower against land powers, from Korea, Vietnam, to Iraq and Afghanistan. The strategy against the Soviet submarines was to catch them in harbor before they could deploy to sea!
  • The helicopter is often cited as the principle deterrent to small boats and submarines.
  • The presumed effectiveness of fixed sonar sites like SOSUS, and air dropped sonar buoys for detecting submarines is given for why the Navy doesn’t need a large ASW escort fleet as in previous decades.
  • The Navy designed its latest class of submarines, the Virginia’s to sail close to shore to spy on continental enemies.
  • We are told that the War on Piracy can only be won on land.
  • The Navy has it’s own private air force and army.

So if the USN is only concerning itself with land and air threats these days, who will fight our future naval wars?

Anyway, please read all of John’s article which is very long and informative. Also full of plain talk despite his impressive credentials. We appreciate common sense ideas here, being an unprofessional blog, and whether you are professional or not, know you are all welcome!


28 Comments leave one →
  1. Sail Bad the Sinner permalink
    November 18, 2009 10:51 pm

    So Mike, lets look at the Gulf of Aden/Horn of Africa. At the moment we have probably the most international naval force in history (US. Australian, French, British, Chinese , Indian etc) chasing a bunch of scrawny criminals in speedboats, hiding behind a failed state; Somalia. This has come about because the pirates don’t care whose ship or cargo they capture for ransom. The traditional solutions revolve around starving the pirates of prey by using alternate routes, or running protected convoys through the gulf, sinking their ships and killing/capturing their crews, destroying their bases and generally speaking making it a low profit operation! Alternate routing is not practical, convoying could be done but would require a lot of management co-ordination with the Suez Canal to avoid congestion. Sinking and killing pirate crews in a regular and consistent manner would require a semi permanent naval presence such as fast rapid reaction craft like the LCS (I prefer LCS 2 because it is more fuel efficient(particularly at lower speeds 25-30kts), 2 helos means one can be shuttling crew and supplies while the other is ready to shoot the pirates (they hate helicopters!) what we need is a mother ship which, if semi permanent, could be located at a point between the LCS and a suitable local base e.g in Kenya, Saudi, Gulf States (ideally if you would have 2 helo hops Base>JHSV/Mother>to LCS.

    Since at the moment there are so many Navies present and the vessels using the route are either on route through Suez or to the Gulf then an anti piracy levy should be imposed at these points and used to pay the costs of the protective force alternatively the marine insurance agencies could raise a general anti piracy levy and pay to contributing navies (sounds like a real job for navy!)! In any event we need to look at creative solutions rather than ideologically based ones!

    Fixing Somali needs to be on the agenda but is part of the bigger picture of getting Africa to fix itself economically and culturally (post colonial) this is “happening” (China is starting to play an increasingly important economic role) the US, Europe, Middle East, Brazil and India all should help as well.

    Yes the big threat to navies are there costs however as indicated in the case of being an energy supplier to China there are economic returns a well and we need to see these better articulated in economic and defense policy frameworks within the US. It seems to me that the US needs to commence rebuilding its economy by focusing on its global competitiveness so that it can shift away from just being a consumer nation to a highly competitive export oriented one as well. The British Navy of the nineteenth century was built around commerce in the 21st century being big economically is not good enough to use a tough metaphor being obese does not mean your either strong or fit to compete!

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 6:44 am

    Thanks Sail Bad for your comments!

    I am all for working with allies, and I think we have a pretty good system going, especially in the Gulf where the threats to shipping are stark. That said, i don’t see any nation basing shipbuilding strategy on the presumed support of allies, even close ones. I see the 1000 ship Navy advocated by Roughhead and others, as the USN way of avoiding real world problems, like the piracy. Over here we are obsessed with high tech conventional warfare, and the desease is affecting these same allies, including Australia. We threatened to be overwhelmed by Third World threats using First World weapons, with decreasing fleets and rising enemies.

    Australia has its own problems with manning issues, placing too small crews on very large ships. Now there are planning even more large naval battleships in defiance of all logic. Like the USN, such craft which we build to fight the next Midway or Trafalgar, usually ends up sailing into shallow seas fighting pirates or smugglers in speed boats. Of course, planning for future wars is very important, but not while you are ignoring present ones, or decreasing ship numbers in favor for some future obscure conflict.

    Even more than China, i see the worse threat to Western navies is impending bankruptcy.

  3. Sail Bad the Sinner permalink
    November 8, 2009 8:56 pm

    A key component of US Naval strategy in a world of sinking budgets is close co-operation with allies, Australian co-operation with the USN is about as close as you can get without Navy wives getting jealous! This is a role model for other naval forces and greatly enhances the projection, presence and intelligence of US naval sea power. How many places in the world can the USN anchor of a capital city and conduct live fire exercises? A: Not many! A USCG was stationed of the Western Australian capital city of Perth in the lead up to Iraqi Freedom and trained with Australian SAS guiding bombing runs using live rounds!

    The important element is of course having friends and Adm. Roughhead should be commended for his focus and attention to the detail of good relations with a range of navies not the just the old stalwarts (UK, Australia, Japan). Friends of the US are becoming harder to come by particularly since the collapse of the USSR 20 years ago. The current bogey man is China, how does China threaten the US? Answer: By not threatening! By focusing on economic competition, by lending the US economy nearly a $1 trillion and feeding US addiction to consumer goods bought with credit! This is not part of grand plot but simply giving the US what it wants! An interesting fact; by ~2030 more than 80% of all people serving the People Liberation Army (PLA) of China and nearly 100% of officers with be single children born of parents who are themselves single children (this applies also to the broader population but even more so in the PLA where compliance with the one child policy is more strictly monitored). Ask your Admirals, Generals and the Commander in Chief how they would feel commanding a force in which every fatality meant the end of a family line! They would, I suspect, like the Chinese, become incredibly keen to avoid casualties! This simple fact compels China to defensive roles (reliant on high tech) as they politically cannot afford to lose many lives e.g by invading Taiwan and having to hold it against resistance!

    I see the US fleet as maintaining its Nuclear Powered Carrier Groups as core for Air Command and Control but with smaller vessels (including from allied navies) doing the expeditionary work in squadrons under this umbrella with refueling and resupply capacity provided by High Speed Mules (sorry about the landlubber metaphor).

    The major tactical challenge to protect shipping in the context has been and remains against long range diesel submarines (similar to the Collins Class). Diesel subs will proliferate over the next 20 years. Note it is through training with Australian diesel subs that the US has become aware of this vulnerability, Collins class subs have sunk carriers and a host of other USN vessels in exercises!

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 5, 2009 6:45 am

    Tarl, that is very interesting. It’s a new kind of war at sea, but also not so new.

  5. Tarl permalink
    November 4, 2009 11:42 pm

    Alas, the North Korean freighter had been previously captured and was being used, unmanned, for target practice.

    Australia uses fighter to sink drug ship
    SYDNEY (AP) — A North Korean cargo ship seized after being used to smuggle heroin into Australia was sunk Thursday when the Australian air force used the vessel for target practice.

    The Australian Federal Police said the freighter Pong Su was towed out of Sydney Harbor earlier this week, then destroyed Thursday by a bomb dropped from a F-111 jet fighter and sank 140 90 miles off the coast of New South Wales state.

    The vessel was seized in 2003 after being used to smuggle in more than 275 pounds of heroin.

    It had anchored off the southwestern Victoria state town of Lorne, while the drug haul was carried ashore by dinghy.

    Last month a jury cleared the ship’s captain and three officers of involvement in an international drug ring. The crew also have been cleared of drug charges. Charges against the remainder of the ship’s crew were dropped in 2004.

    It was not immediately clear if the North Koreans have been deported.

    Four men who were involved in transporting the drugs from the ship to the shore pleaded guilty to drug charges. Two have been sentenced to 22 and 23 years in prison and two more are awaiting sentence. Their nationalities were not released.

    The Australian government and U.S. State Department have said the case reinforces suspicions that the North Korean government deals in drugs to prop up its failed economy. The reclusive communist state, however, strongly denies such allegations.

    Police commander Frank Prendergast said the sinking of the ship showed Australia’s resolve to fight drug trafficking.

  6. Hudson permalink
    November 3, 2009 10:07 pm

    Re Australian air power and interdiction: If I am not mistaken, there is a video on YouTube showing an Australian flown F-111 bombing a North Korean freighter at sea. That’s right, bombing it and sinking it right before your very eyes–an act of war. I never read about it, heard about it, saw it any where else. But there it was, along with the rest of the world, on YouTube.

  7. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 3, 2009 8:54 pm

    To echo Sail Bad the Sinner, Australia provided a much modified American built LST that was effectively the mother ship for American PCs and Coast Guard Cutters protecting the Iraqui oil platforms.

  8. Tarl permalink
    November 3, 2009 8:16 pm

    naval air was only intermittently effective in Viet Nam. The bad guys were pretty skilled & had good ordnance & SAMs. Gun support was VERY effective.

    If only the VC and NVA had been courteous enough to stay within 10 miles of shore!

    Aside from our submarine fleet our real power projection is really pretty limited.

    Say what? The USN has more Marines, more amphibs, more ability to strike from the sea than anybody, and indeed, than everybody else put together.

    Other countries & entities that don’t like us so much observed the efficacy of the plan & eventually started coming up with ways to starve us.

    Uh, who is that, exactly?

    Small ships like corvettes are likely more survivable in this age of modern weapons,

    No they aren’t. One hit and they’re done.

    Such vessels should be agile enough to keep on the move,

    Compared to aircraft or missiles, there is basically no difference between a “small, agile” ship and a “large, ponderous” ship.

    Speaking of land wars, the Navy does seem to have an aversion for combating nautical threats of late

    What nautical threats???? There aren’t any!

    So if the USN is only concerning itself with land and air threats these days, who will fight our future naval wars?

    As soon as there is a future enemy who will fight a future naval war we should concern ourselves with this. Until then, let the Navy exploit command of the sea and strike the land. The ability to influence the land is, after all, the purpose of fighting a naval war and defeating your enemy at sea.

  9. Sail Bad the Sinner permalink
    November 3, 2009 7:56 pm

    While many aspects of naval warfare are changing, the basic role of naval forces to protect seaborne trade have not. By way of example The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has over the past few years conducted some interesting exercises such as escorting large commercial (bulk) vessels leaving Australia for either China or South Korea/Japan. Exercises involved the use of mine hunters, ASW and submarines (Perth to South Korea is a very long way for a diesel sub!). Coincidently over the same period Australia has won over US$60 billion in new energy supply agreements to North Asia. Neither Indonesia or the Gulf States (the usual competitors) have the capacity to provide naval escorts. If large naval platforms are vulnerable then large bulk shipping which accounts for the majority of world trade is even more as we see off the Horn of Africa, Sumatra Straits approaches to major canals etc. So trade and naval capacity can and do go together. Let us also not forget the role of Allied navies in enforcing the embargo against Iraq and or of keeping the Straits of Hormuz open, tracking North Korean weapons shipments etc. Smaller ships such as LCS-2-USS Independence with dual helicopter operating capacity , ASW, air defense/attack capabilities will have growing roles and with a High Speed Resupply/Support vessel in squadron will prove increasingly useful not just in littorals but also blue water. For countries dependent on foreign energy buying from a supplier with a naval escort capacity makes good strategic sense, we (Australia) will always need a long range blue water and littoral capable navy. Our Navy since 1991 has never, outside of WW I&II, been busier. Roles have included mine clearance, escort, deployment into East Timor supporting the UN, continuous deployment in the Gulf since 1991 (rig protection, anti smuggling, escort etc), Tsunami relief, Solomon Islands stabilization, Pacrim deployments, submarine surveillance, border protection, fisheries protection (close to Antarctica!)rescuing yachtsmen in the Southern Ocean etc. An effective Navy is a powerful asset in the modern world!

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 3, 2009 6:16 pm

    Not surprising that an Army guy is totally biased against the Navy, but he did raise some good points, as did Gen Mitchell who the author brought up. The general was right about the impending dominance of airpower. He was wrong that it would drive all navies from the high seas. He was wrong then about the aircraft carrier and many types of warships were at risk to destruction. Even battleships could survive air attacks under the right circumstances.

    Matthew, I freely admit my bias against large warships, which was the reason I posted this article. I think we should take seriously the rising threats of the guided missiles, and it amazes me our answer is putting more crewmen on a few very large targets. It is almost as if we are placing very large bullseyes on our mighty, and mighty expensive warships with giant signs saying “Sink US!” Do we have to make it so easy for some future missile armed foe?

    Lets build a bigger fleet. Lets try many new different types of hull forms, keeping them small and as spartan as possible to ensure we can build enough of them. If the Navy is right that warships like our Aegis battleships are so much more capable, why do we need a fleet of only such vessels? Lets return diversity to the fleet, having more confident in our technology and our sailors for new ideas.

  11. Hudson permalink
    November 3, 2009 5:30 pm

    Matthew S, I agree with you about the San Antonio class. They should mount some 57mm or 76mm guns and VLS. They do have quite an airlift capacity. The Sea Knights and Osprey don’t carry more than .50 (S.K.) plus troops–the ships’ main mission. But that’s not to say that the ships couldn’t host Sea Cobra and other helos with dipping sonar and torps or Sea Skua, etc.

  12. Anonymous permalink
    November 3, 2009 5:17 pm

    “Western ships do have what amounts to a peacetime armament”


  13. Anonymous permalink
    November 3, 2009 5:16 pm

    “It’s not the oceans I worry about…well, a little, now that medium-range SSKs are a viable threat & they’re cheap as hell.”

    Owning SSKs is one thing; being affective in using them another!

    I think you are being a tad pessimistic in your outlook for the US. And extremely optimistic in your outlook for the bad hats.

    Evidence would suggest economic sanctions alone are ineffective. (Well my first class paper on that topic last semester argued that anyway. ;) )

  14. Matthew S permalink
    November 3, 2009 2:55 pm

    interesting article though biased. Western ships do have what amounts to a peacetime armament. Russian ships seem to have a more appropriate defensive armament. They have a layered defense consisting of CIWS, short and long range missiles and cannon. A ship the size of a San Antonio Class warship really should have more armament than 2 Rams and 2 30mm guns. Its even worse for the British Ocean class and Albion class ships that only have CIWS.

  15. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 3, 2009 1:40 pm

    I don’t have quite the faith in PGMs that Mike does, I think. I’m not saying that they’re not bad things. They can be very useful for certain missions, but there are a lot of situations were a large quantity of unguided or sorta-PGM munitions can be much more effective. The latter are way cheaper, easier to use, easier to use in bulk & you can build ’em bigger & fire lots & lots of them until the enemy goes away. ;)

  16. Hudson permalink
    November 3, 2009 1:25 pm

    For anyone in the NY area, the USS New York (pictured above) will be berthed alongside the USS Intrepid Air Sea Space Museum at Pier 88 until Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

  17. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 3, 2009 1:24 pm


    It’s not the oceans I worry about…well, a little, now that medium-range SSKs are a viable threat & they’re cheap as hell. The problem is everyone knows how the US fights & has known for decades & has prepared for our highly predictable tactics. Aside from our submarine fleet our real power projection is really pretty limited. Globalization has eliminated the digital & satellite advantage & we can’t get close to shore with a traditional task force unless we want to get hosed. The Other Guys won’t fight the way we want them to. Most substantive potential enemies will practice sea denial & economic/informational warfare. I suppose you could call that the Gorshkov doctrine.

    Incidentally, economic warfare has already proved VERY effective against the US (and the old USSR, incidentally–the CIA sorta taught it to the Islamicc freedom fighters & forgot that they hated us as much as they hated the Russians: Whoops!).

    The US strangled Japan in WWII primarily by attacking their economy with our submarines. The carriers were flashier & very useful, but it was the subs (and, well, the nukes) that really did Japan in. We starved them to death & cut off their material. Other countries & entities that don’t like us so much observed the efficacy of the plan & eventually started coming up with ways to starve us.

    To paraphrase from John T. Reed (borrowing himself from his business school background), the bad guys are doing a much better job then we are answering a simple B-school question:

    What business are we in?

    We’re kinda confused on that one these days.

  18. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 3, 2009 1:15 pm

    Of course, as Mike will remind us, precision guided munitions (PGMs) have increased the capability against point targets since then. Area targets are a different question.

  19. Anonymous permalink
    November 3, 2009 1:07 pm

    “So true Chuck, but it is so concentrated in a few over-worked platforms. Despite its enormous appearance, it is very fragile.”

    Without reducing this to p*ssing contest the USN could wipe the oceans clean. I am Brit by the way.

  20. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 3, 2009 12:56 pm


    I came across this same piece some time ago, Mike & had a couple of interesting exchanges with Mr. Reed. I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, either, but I like the way he thought–like the bad guy, that is. Reed was a Ranger in Viet Nam as I recall & if memory serves me his units were excessively effective because they were very creative. They didn’t fight the way they were told to fight. They fought they way that worked. This is why spec forces units generally kick ass. They’re not necessarily tougher or bigger or faster then the other guy but they ARE smarter & unpredictable.

    Honestly, naval air was only intermittently effective in Viet Nam. The bad guys were pretty skilled & had good ordnance & SAMs. Gun support was VERY effective. The Vietnamese typically refused negotiations unless the 16″/50s were WAY off-shore. The 8″/71s were almost as deadly. The 8″/71 was a much lighter projectile but the guns on the Des Moines class were semi-automatic & could throw 10-12 rounds per gun per minute out to 20 miles or so. That’s 100 or so 8″ rounds coming down on your butt every minute.

    I could do without that.

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 3, 2009 12:55 pm

    Chuck said “Fact is we currently have about half of all the effective naval combat power in the world”

    So true Chuck, but it is so concentrated in a few over-worked platforms. Despite its enormous appearance, it is very fragile.

  22. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 3, 2009 10:58 am

    Fact is we currently have about half of all the effective naval combat power in the world and our allies have most of the rest so there is no prospect of a war at sea any time soon.

  23. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 3, 2009 10:56 am

    “…he mentions that bringing one’s carrier within range of shore-based bombers violated naval doctrine.”

    The Navy proved that wrong repeatedly toward end of the war.

    In fact what happened was that the Navy would concentrate crushing superiority at a place of their choosing and simply annihilate all the shore based air power at that location, then move to another location and do it all over again.

    Beside, the Army better hope the Navy is still viable, otherwise they will never be able to fight outside this hemisphere, because you sure can’t support an army by air power alone.

  24. November 3, 2009 9:28 am

    I kinda liked the one where he said that Leyte Gulf was fought in 1942… lends tons of credibility to his rant.

  25. Joe K. permalink
    November 3, 2009 8:29 am

    Not to mention General Billy Mitchell wasn’t court-martialed because he proved planes could destroy ships. He was court-martialed for insubordination after accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.”

    That’s different from proving them wrong.

  26. Joe K. permalink
    November 3, 2009 8:23 am

    It’s bad enough he doesn’t define what “modern enemies” actually means. I can’t figure out if that vague and ambiguous term is to describe enemies that use small boats (which isn’t a solely “modern” occurrence) or enemies that use high-tech more prominently or whatnot.

    Overall he is horribly misguided and makes criticisms or accusations which are based heavily on bias and not hard facts and the few bits where he actually sounds intelligent are few.

    Why don’t you get actual people from the US Navy to talk about the Navy?

  27. Scott B. permalink
    November 3, 2009 7:39 am

    John T. Reed wrote : “On May 4, 1982, a French Mirage jet owned and operated by the Argentinian Air Force fired a French Exocet missile at the H.M.S. Sheffield, a British Navy destroyer. The missile did so much damage that the British decided to scuttle (sink) rather than repair the ship.”

    1) The Exocet missile that hit HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982 was fired by a Mirage ? How about a Super Etendard instead ?


    2) The British decided to scuttle rather than repair HMS Sheffield ? How about HMS Sheffield was damaged beyond any repair and rolled over and sank in the morning of May 11, 1982 instead.

    At least two enormous factual mistakes in the first paragraph of Mr. Reed’s *paper*, both of which could easily have been avoided with a 30-sec. fact-check : what does that tell YOU ?

  28. Endre permalink
    November 3, 2009 6:07 am

    Sorry, but I have problems taking his arguments seriously – he makes clearly flawed conclusions based on very thin or strongly polemic “evidence,” which is often wrong, and seems to ignore the facts that do not conform with his theory. And how he can claim that nuclear propulsion is “outdated” just because it uses steam (??) is beyond me.

    I am all for debate regarding the modern role and utility of naval power, but crusaders such as Mr Reed add little or nothing to the table.

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