The 5 Battleships
Here is an older post which I updated for my own future reference. I am using the term “5 battleships” to describe the current state of navy procurement, with what are obviously the 5 post powerful individual warship types of of any generation.
Perhaps in a zeal to prove her relevance in the modern era, the US Navy currently emphasizes the power projection/expeditionary role more than the historically more significant sea control. The lack of any peer enemy to threaten her dominance since World War 2 (save for a brief period of uncertainty late in the Cold War), has forced the fleet into expeditionary warfare, or enforcing the nation’s will on land powers. For this new mission, and to replace the function of a single type of heavily armed and gunned battleship from the last century, the Navy today possess 5 new battleships, each with a peculiar role but toward the same means. These include (info from the Navy Fact File):
- Aircraft Carriers – Aircraft Carriers support and operate aircraft that engage in attacks on airborne, afloat and ashore targets that threaten free use of the sea; and engage in sustained power projection operations in support U.S. and coalition ground forces in Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The aircraft carrier and its battlegroup also engage in maritime security operations to interdict threats to merchant shipping and prevent the use of the seas as a highway for terrorist traffic. Aircraft also provide unique capabilities for disaster response and humanitarian assistance. The embarked carrier air wing provides helicopters for direct support and C4I assets to support them and ensure aid is routed quickly and safely. The 10 Nimitz class aircraft carriers are the largest warships in the world, each designed for an approximately 50 year service life with one mid-life refueling.
- Amphibious Assault Ships – Amphibious warships are designed to support the Marine Corps tenets of Operational Maneuver From the Sea (OMFTS) and Ship to Objective Maneuver (STOM). They must be able to sail in harm’s way and provide a rapid buildup of combat power ashore in the face of opposition. Because of their inherent capabilities, these ships have been and will continue to be called upon to also support humanitarian and other contingency missions on short notice. The United States maintains the largest and most capable amphibious force in the world. The Wasp-class LHDs are currently the largest amphibious ships in the world.
- Cruisers – Modern U.S. Navy guided missile cruisers perform primarily in a Battle Force role. These ships are multi-mission [Air Warfare (AW), Undersea Warfare (USW), Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) and Surface Warfare (SUW)] surface combatants capable of supporting carrier battle groups, amphibious forces, or of operating independently and as flagships of surface action groups. Cruisers are equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles giving them additional long range Strike Warfare (STRW) capability. Some Aegis Cruisers have been outfitted with a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) capability. Technological advances in the Standard Missile coupled with the Aegis combat system in the Ticonderoga class Cruisers have increased the AAW capability of surface combatants to pinpoint accuracy from wave-top to zenith. The addition of Tomahawk in the CG-47 has vastly complicated unit target planning for any potential enemy and returned an offensive strike role to the surface forces that seemed to have been lost to air power at Pearl Harbor.
- Destroyers – Guided missile destroyers are multi-mission [Anti-Air Warfare (AAW), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW)] surface combatants. The destroyer’s armament has greatly expanded the role of the ship in strike warfare utilizing the MK-41 Vertical Launch System (VLS)…Technological advances have improved the capability of modern destroyers culminating in the Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) class replacing the older Charles F. Adams and Farragut class guided missile destroyers. Named for the Navy’s most famous destroyer squadron combat commander and three-time Chief of Naval Operations, the USS Arleigh Burke was commissioned July 4, 1991, and was the most powerful surface combatant ever put to sea.
- Submarines – Attack submarines are designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships; project power ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Special Operation Forces; carry out Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions; support Carrier Strike Groups; and engage in mine warfare. With the number of foreign diesel-electric / air-independent propulsion submarines increasing yearly, the United States submarine force relies on its technological superiority and the speed, endurance, mobility, stealth, and payload afforded by nuclear power to retain its preeminence in the undersea battlespace.
If we could only afford to have a single battleship to defend our oceans (and with looming budgets cuts this scenario is no longer as far-fetched as it seems) obviously the one most survivable and dangerous to other ships, the modern attack sub, would be our weapon of choice. The power projection/expeditionary mission is of little use if you can’t get there for being sunk. Today it appears the USN over-emphasizes its land power support role, while sinking ships is a navy’s first requirement. Historically nothing is better at this than a sub.
With modern submarines you have a near perfect stealth vessel, which doesn’t rely on advanced technologies to make it “low observable”. It is the most survivable of our entire fleet, and the most feared. They were frightening enough before the advent of nuclear and air-independent propulsion, when they spent most of their time on the surface and were very slow when underwater. Now they have matched or surpassed the performance of surface ships while retaining their inherent stealth.
There will still be a need for supporting troops ashore and operating in littoral waters, the traditional power projection role, where only surface ships will be adequate. For this function you will need large numbers of small attack ships, hardly more than a 1000 tons, and very many under that size. These would be backed by logistic motherships, themselves as low cost and small as possible, which would give the small craft the global reach they currently lack.
As stated earlier, America’s attack submarine force is her most survivable and dangerous, as typified by the new Virginia class now entering service. To maintain numbers in the fleet and control costs, a smaller nuke sub is called for which would still have the qualities I described above, perhaps with a smaller reactor. Speed isn’t a vital necessity underwater and a 20 knot sub would be adequate as long as that speed could be sustained. At about 3000 tons full load, such a small but effective submarine would still be very capable against the surface ship, and less risky to send in littoral waters than an 8000 ton Virginia.
Update-In retrospect, I think I would also keep the Burke destroyers as a second battleship, or capital vessel within modern USN. These are highly sophisticated and not unaffordable if you aren’t spending vast sums on a prohibitive attack carrier arm. 1-3 destroyers, forward deployed, armed with cruise missiles for land attack, carrying their own air defense in the form of Standard SAMs could do most of the expeditionary functions a carrier, without the latter’s increased vulnerability to anti-ship ballistic missiles. All surface vessels are vulnerable, but there are a lot more destroyers to go around, presenting plentiful targets for an enemy to contend with.