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Navies Looking for a Fight

December 21, 2009
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I am never one who likes to say “never”. An oxymoron, I know, but the point is I wouldn’t dare say we will “never” fight China or another conventional peer enemy, but neither should we try to rush things along, as Strategypage reveals to us:

The U.S. Navy is looking for a sufficiently impressive foe to help scare more money out of Congress. The Chinese Navy (or, more correctly, the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Navy) is now the favorites candidate, for navy and defense industry analysts, to become the new Big Bad. Just how dangerous are these Chinese sailors and their ships? It turns out that, on closer inspection, not very.

It does appear that the threats from China at sea are often over-inflated to justify continuing last century projects. This is turn bolsters the few parts of the Military Industrial Complex like Lockheed, Boeing, General Dynamics, ect still remaining after the mergers after the Cold War. Though defense industries are important, it is often better that they not be wholly dependent on government projects, which inspires gross inefficiency and corruption (causing so many political figures to fall from grace). Plus, as proved during the world wars, private industry that thrives on self-sufficiency can build better weapons, at less cost, and more of them when needed.  Examples today include the Austal catamarans and Force Protection’s MRAP vehicles.

Given the sorry state of Chinese weapons and equipment, it will take them decades to even have a chance of “catching up with the United States”. And that’s apparently the Chinese plan. And it’s a very traditional plan. The Chinese like to think long term. Works for them. Meanwhile, China does not want to make the U.S. Navy angry. China is now dependent on imports, especially oil and other raw materials. Access to the sea is a matter of life or death for the Chinese economy, and the survival of the communist dictatorship. But the same could have been said for Japan in 1941. The difference is that China is not making bug trouble with any of its neighbors, and China and the United States both have nuclear weapons.

So we think we have a grace period, where we can build fleet numbers up and think beyond the naval strategies and costly building programs of the last century. Experimentation should be the norm, not the exception, but decades-long building programs and those which often double and triple in price should be avoided. Advanced hull forms like the Sea Fighter and Stiletto should be built in numbers and tested in operation like off Somalia, in a program similar to that which gave us the JHSV.

Small spartan platforms like corvettes and offshore patrol vessels should also be built, to provide employment for small shipyards, and to give sailors greater experience operating close to shore, near the population of the sea.  Today’s giant push-button battleships, like luxury combat ships, offer few such opportunities for traditional and essential seamanship. A tonnage limit should also be placed on combatants, to induce creativity in designs, rather than cost-overruns. Some suggestions include (light tons):

  • Conventional catapult carriers-45,000 tons
  • amphibious assault carriers-20,ooo tons
  • amphibious landing ships-10,000 tons
  • guided missile destroyers-5000 tons
  • nuclear attack submarines-3000 tons
  • non-nuclear submarines-1500 tons
  • corvettes-1500 tons
  • offshore patrol vessels-1000 tons

Other ways to reduce costs in shipbuilding is to rethink the use of nuclear power given the amazing efficiency of new and energy efficient propulsion systems, build off the shelf designs with little change, buy from foreign shipyards like S Korea, and replacing traditional amphibious landing ships with high speed vessels. Finally, with the astounding firepower thanks to modern precision weapons, we should reduce the number of high end warships we deploy, perhaps dramatically. Low tech corvettes and conventional subs should outnumber the Big Ships three and even four to one.

When ever you talk of cutting waste and reducing costs of ships, the admirals are ready to fight, claiming that you are “trying to destroy the Navy!” Yet it isn’t the reformers who are shrinking the fleet, and forcing it into irrelevance against modern enemies, but those who resist change.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. david permalink
    December 25, 2009 1:35 am

    On the China and India comparison … China doesn’t have anywhere near the ethnic diversity of India. The vast majority of Chinese self-identify as Han. There are minority groups, but they are small, weak, and not unified. India has no similar degree of unity.

    China’s biggest division is linguistic, but they are quite deliberately trying to standardize on the Beijing Mandarin dialect. And that effort has been fairly successful.

    Religion is always a potential source of division, one reason the Chinese rulers are so paranoid about groups like Falun Gong. The South/North divided looms large in Chinese history and China has fought some of the bloodiest civil wars in world history in the not too distant past.

    India is more like Europe as a whole than any particular European state… perhaps India will survive by becoming something akin to the EU and giving a great deal of autonomy to ethnically based Indian states.

    Human beings prefer to be ruled by people who like them, and speak like them, and believe in the same religion. Most Indians are just too poor to care much now. But the richer they get, the more they will demand self-rule — ie a ruler of the same ethnic group, who speaks the same language, and prays to the same god.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 22, 2009 5:51 pm

    Graham, you bring up some very good points, worth considering. And about using the vessel as a test vehicle for sinking our carriers, that is an eye-opener!

  3. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 22, 2009 5:30 pm


    Regardinging China’s carrier ambitions: consider the fact that the Chinese have a genius for soft power. We play Checkers & the UK plays Chess & China plays Go. I would not be at all surprised if China’s carrier play was a double feint: First, to inspire anxiety in rivals & move them to re-deploy resources inefficiently & Second, to learn how to kill carriers more effectively by having one to examine at length.

    India, I’m afraid, is not a very stable country, not is it terribly rational. They don’t NEED carriers. They have their rivalry with Pakistan & I don’t see them pursuing a particularly rational pattern of naval asset acquistion. I don’t see them pursuing a terribly rational economy or social structure, either.

  4. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 22, 2009 5:04 pm

    North Korea remains, to my mind, the most realistic threat. China has never been terribly expansionist & they struggle to maintain their own infrastructure. Would they like Taiwan back…probably, yeah. Do they have a beef with Japan…well, I can understand why. But their government is largely rational, moreso then ours, imho.

    Iran is a moderate threat. Iran has enough internal dissent to make its leaders queasy about getting squeezy & they know damn well that Israel keeps its strategic assets at sea & I seriously doubt Iran would strike at Israeli. The second-strike would be assured & be deadly. The US MIGHT not use nuclear weapons if provoked by an Iranian attack, direct or indirect. Israel would not respond to an indirect attack (clogging the Straights of Hormuz) but they would DEFINITELY nuke the hell out of Iran in the event of an equivalent strike.

    Iran is more of a soft-power threat, a second-tier Cold War competitor…but not one to be ignored.

    Russia is a soft-power threat & a potential New Cold War contributor. But I would rank this threat fairly low. Putin is ruthless, but rational. He’s old school KGB but he has his hands full with the Caucusus, former Soviet States & internal chaos. He’ll take advantage, but he’s no fool.

    It really comes down to North Korea & probably Pakistan. The populations are poor, resources are limited & the gov’ts are NOT RATIONAL. And…they’re nuclear powers with substantial conventional reources. Religion isn’t an issue in NK but it is in Pakistan.

    This is where I’d watch.

  5. December 22, 2009 1:58 pm

    “The speed with which China will catch up, overtake, and surpass the US will be surprising. 2030-2050 will see a massive reordering of world power.”

    China still struggles to clone last generation Russian stuff. Do you see US capabilities standing still?

    “India won’t be a long term challenge because there is no way the Indian Empire survives the century. It will divide along religious, ethnic, and linguistic lines.”

    And doesn’t China have this problem too?

    China is an industrial power, the West (including Japan, S. Korea etc.) are moving past this stage. You should remember financial systems are purely abstract.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 22, 2009 5:15 am

    David, I agree with most everything you said, especially about India. Supposedly she is to be the next great naval power but right now she is still getting her weapons from overseas, still deploying a 50 yr old carrier she’s been unable to replace for decades, plus having great difficulties in building even new light fighters. Thought I was in the minority in not holding too much stock in India’s “rise”.

    Concerning China’s carrier, what is interesting, every surrounding nation who is feeling threatened is building submarines to counter. This is an low cost asymmetric answer to a conventional problem and is right and proper. I fear our own Big Ships have been vulnerable to SSKs for years, even as we take it the norm to ram a supercarrier and its 5000+ crew up against enemy coastlines.

    So I say to China, keep building billion dollar plus carriers, that way she will be distracted from the real power at sea, which are still these hundred million dollar submersible torpedo boats, now with standoff cruise missiles.

  7. Matthew S. permalink
    December 22, 2009 12:49 am

    That article looks like it was written in 1998. The Chinese have caught up to us in many areas and they are having an arms race with us regardless of whether or not we want to admit it.

  8. david permalink
    December 21, 2009 8:48 pm

    The speed with which China will catch up, overtake, and surpass the US will be surprising. 2030-2050 will see a massive reordering of world power.

    To forestall that the US has to either raise their GDP growth, or lower China’s.

    It all comes down to economic might.

    India won’t be a long term challenge because there is no way the Indian Empire survives the century. It will divide along religious, ethnic, and linguistic lines.

    All the evidence shows Americans are choosing to trade off economic growth for promises of more security. So it’s highly unlikely American GDP growth will achieve its maximum potential.

    Strategically, America should convince the Chinese people to demand more economy slowing social programs and entitlements to stall Chinese growth.

    Sure, the whole world will be poorer, but it keeps the status quo longer. Just how it’s good for today’s American elites to have more Obamacare — it will slow the pace of creative destruction and keep today’s elites on top longer, even as it keeps everyone poorer than they otherwise would have been.

  9. nico permalink
    December 21, 2009 8:34 pm

    let’s not forget, it is one thing to build a carrier and a task force that goes with it and completely something else to operate off a carrier. China might able to build a carrier soon but it probably still be years before they obtain the efficiency of an American carrier……

  10. Sarcastic ShockwaveLover permalink
    December 21, 2009 8:18 pm

    Interesting article, just one thing I’ll take issue with:

    “it is often better that they not be wholly dependent on government projects, which inspires gross efficiency and corruption”

    If only dependence on government contracts inspired efficiency…I could put up with the corruption then.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 21, 2009 7:38 pm

    Mr X says “my worry is that we (that is the West) degrade meaning that they don’t have as far to catch up.”

    I completely understand that, but currently we are in overkill mode with conventional superiority, allowing these asymmetric threats to sneak up on us, recalling USS Cole in 2000. I also get the mindset that piracy or smuggling isn’t a major threat, but it is if you ignore it and allow it to breed.

    Concerning China, top naval analyst Bob Work says we have a 13 power standard against the next peer threat. Britain in its heyday only kept a 2 power standard. i think we can afford to cutback and safely rebuild in an emergency. It could be these giant conventional warships aren’t the right weapons for future war at sea, and certainly they are the wrong ones for what we use them for today, chasing pirates in speedboats. And no one since WW 2 has a single supercarrier built or building comparable to each of our 11. No, not one.

    D.E.-yeah i caught that about NK. Sure the South can handle things well enough.

  12. D. E. Reddick permalink
    December 21, 2009 5:41 pm


    Galrahn is also covering this matter over at ID.

    South Korean Waters Labeled “Firing Zone” by North

    AP: NKorea declares ‘firing zone’ in disputed waters

  13. D. E. Reddick permalink
    December 21, 2009 5:17 pm


    You may have bypassed who is actually looking for a naval conflict.

    Pyongyang threatens to fire in South Korean waters

    Seoul, South Korea — North Korea has threatened to fire shells into waters around South Korea’s border islands, in another tension-raising move analysts here say is aimed at pressing its demand for a peace treaty with the United States.

  14. December 21, 2009 3:49 pm

    Though I agree about the Chinese being no threat for the foreseeable future my worry is that we (that is the West) degrade meaning that they don’t have as far to catch up.

    Partially this is to do with your favourite the reduction in hull numbers. I am just not sure that providing the Chinese with lots of low capability targets is the way to go.

    This site gives me to much to think about.

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