Navies Looking for a Fight
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.