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Thinking Beyond the Navy Pt 1

December 21, 2009

German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis sank 144,384 tons in WW 2. Wikipedia


Brian J Dunn at the Dignified Rant has an excellent post, Forward … to a Thousand-Ship American Navy, which he claimed “free content”. I am going to take him up on this because it is that good. Without saying he is endorsing anything I write here, I will be using his article throughout as a reference.    

Brian also says he sat on this article for 2 years before publishing it online. It seems even more timely today considering we have a Navy that is shrinking while threats are mounting. Most of these problems are of their own doing, for the failure to accept the possibility that war at sea has changed, that their mightily impressive and capable ships, which they can’t build enough of, aren’t needed for a global navy, and that numbers often are more important than individual size and firepower. Here’s Brian on “The Tyranny of Numbers“:    

Our Navy defends our nation within the incompatible and unforgiving boundaries formed by the tyrannies of distance and numbers. We struggle to build enough ships both capable of deploying globally and powerful enough for fighting first-rate opponents. Operating within a network-centric Navy, auxiliary cruisers could once again play a valuable role in projecting naval power. Using modular systems installed on civilian hulls, auxiliary cruisers could handle many peacetime roles; free scarce warships for more demanding environments; add combat power within a networked force; and promote the global maritime partnership.    

Our Navy is surely superior to any conceivable combination of potential foes, alarmism notwithstanding. Yet as a global power, our sea power cannot be narrowly defined by our superb warships able to win conventional sea-control campaigns. We have many objectives at sea. Modularized Auxiliary Cruisers could provide the numbers we need to achieve our maritime objectives. The tyranny of numbers matters to the United States Navy.    

Which leads to me my own conclusion, could established navies be obsolete in future conflict? While this may be yet in the far-off future, it seems conceivable if the National established agencies ignore ongoing difficulties in the World’s oceans, which is their domain, and actively encourage merchant sailors to protect themselves. Commercial shipping companies might be forced to deploy their own protection, something the West hasn’t seen for centuries.    

Today we have merchantmen defending themselves in the Gulf of Aden, faced as they are with modern outbreaks of piracy. While there are government warships available, the preference of traditional navies to build only high-end, highly capable warships means hulls are few and far between. With only 40 available from the combined fleets of Europe, Asia, and the Americas, they are required to patrol over 200,000 square miles of ocean off Somalia alone. Not surprisingly, a pirate attack is often over long before the stretched naval vessels arrive on the scene.    

Though extremely capable, the large cruisers, destroyers and frigates are not very practical for patrolling these great swathes of ocean. Instead more numerous ships are called for, many more as Brian points out. They would possess few special attributes seen as necessities on Cold War era types, updated to fight the War on Terror and Piracy. A gun is essential, plus a well armed crew, and often a helicopter.    

Our cruiser and destroyer surface combatants provide the bulk of our fleet and are outstanding multi-mission warships. But they can’t be everywhere. Nor are they needed everywhere. When a multi-mission ship is sent on a mission that does not need such a capable warship, we remove that ship from our pool of assets available to carry out another mission that requires a cruiser or destroyer.    

Because we are so stretched, unable or unwilling to build sizable fleets, the Navy is leaving merchant ships pretty much on their own. It is amazing to see professional officers declare before the worldwide media, what is essentially defeat in the face of the world’s most minor threats of piracy. With talk such as “piracy can only be defeated on land” and the “sea is too large to stop all pirate attacks”, we can only conclude the admirals are talking themselves out of the essential navy mission of the 21st Century, and perhaps out of a job.    

5 inch deck gun seen on the auxiliary cruiser USS St. Paul (1898).


Much of the training in small boats, anti-boarding exercises, convoy, and engaging targets at sea the merchant sailors are receiving would be of great benefit for any navy. These skills would prepare future naval leaders for real war at sea, involving the clash of ships and the defense of harbors, yet the Federal sailors are, for the most part uninterested. Amazing!    

This is not a proposal on our part, of any sort, to get rid of established navies, just an observation of the trends. I think anywhere there is lawlessness on the high seas, the government should be the first to involve itself. If not, I see the merchants taking matters in their own hands, but this is rarely an acceptable solution. If the commercial shippers show increasing independence and effectiveness in protecting the sealanes, a traditional function of sea control, the public might rightly question where our funds are going, and if the vast expense of maintaining a costly but ineffective National Navy is worth the price. Consider this then as a wakeup call.    

Tomorrow-Reestablishing the Navy’s primacy.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 23, 2009 6:29 am

    Joe K-Piracy is just a symptom of the problem. We are stretched thin everywhere. We can’t manage the pirates not because we don’t have better ships, but because we don’t have enough of them. The idea of spartan warships is to increase hulls, plus low cost vessels are totally capable of dealing with this. No billion dollar battleship, or decades long procurement program required.

  2. Joe K. permalink
    December 22, 2009 8:54 pm

    I would have to agree with the quote from Smitty’s first post regarding Somalia. You can’t just fight piracy with a restructured navy. The country and the people themselves have the most burden with stopping the pirates. And of course if our military is to serve as the world’s police force along with our allies, we need to have the will to spend the public dollars for someone else’s problems. I’m not saying we shouldn’t intervene (there is a reason we’ve been in Bosnia for 10+ years) but we shouldn’t look at this as solely a military problem.

    This isn’t a military problem, it’s a social and political problem. The Somalis will ultimately be the only ones to truly solve their piracy problem.

  3. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 22, 2009 1:22 am

    James Daly, “Chuck, the same thought occured to me recently. A Russian cargo ship was hijacked in the Baltic, transited the English Channel and was later apprehended off the Azores…”

    Al-Queda does even need to hijack a ship. I understand they own several already. That means they can take the time to make them more difficult to sink and more difficult for boarding parties to get on board and seize control of the ship:

    ATGMs and manpads
    Sealed containers or 55 gal drums for flotation
    Hidden compartments
    GPS and camera feeds to aft steering to allow the ship to be controlled
    from there.
    Improvised armor

  4. elgatoso permalink
    December 21, 2009 8:35 pm

    Off topic.Solomon have another new pt.
    Could be Austal the General Atomics of the Navy?

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 21, 2009 7:54 pm

    elgatoso-At what point can you say “enough”. In all wars, and revolutions at sea, at times there is a return to basics, where new, simpler technology helps us cast off dated ideas of war which are no longer working for us, as we see when we can’t replace these giant ships on a regular basis. We have a mindset that we can only have smaller fleets, but this isn’t working as the many varied threats slip through our greatly stretched net at sea. Technology can do many wonderful things, but can’t replace boots on the ground, or hulls in the water.

    Chuck and James-The insurgents at sea won’t wait for us to build enough pirate busters to take them on. They will use whatever resources are available, and it is just like them to use an innocent looking freighter, laden with explosives into one of our busiest ports.

  6. D. E. Reddick permalink
    December 21, 2009 7:32 pm


    That was the Malta-flagged MV Arctic Sea. She was overtaken by the Russian Navy frigate RFS Ladnyy near the Cape Verde Islands (not the Azores). Everything about that ‘hijacking’ remains murky and unclear to anyone who’s tried to follow the story.

    For Example: Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO mentioned to the press on August 17 that false information was deliberately supplied to the media in order to keep Russian plans secret. After the ship’s seizure the Malta Maritime Authority stated that the security committee (composed of Maltese, Finnish and Swedish authorities) were aware of the ship’s location at all times, but withheld the information to protect the crew. Reportedly, NATO had tracked the missing ship for some time and had been providing information to officially interested parties (including the pursuing Russian Navy). Once the ship’s -official- tracking signal had been lost then she was reportedly ‘quickly’ found. It just took the RFS Ladnyy a while to catch up with straying MV Arctic Sea. Whatever may be the truth (or hearsay, fantasy, etc.), here’s a Wikipedia article about the incident.

    MV Arctic Sea

  7. James Daly permalink
    December 21, 2009 7:03 pm

    Chuck, the same thought occured to me recently. A Russian cargo ship was hijacked in the Baltic, transited the English Channel and was later aprehended off the Azores. Problem is, none of the authorities in the UK had the faintest idea where it was at any point, and that includes when it passed through the Dover straits – all of 20 something miles wide!

    The mind boggles when you think what could have happened.

  8. elgatoso permalink
    December 21, 2009 5:33 pm

    Lexington class aircraft carrier:Displacement: Designed: 36,000 / 38,746 tons
    Forrestal class aircraft carrier:Displacement: 60,000 tons
    Kitty Hawk class aircraft carrier:81,780 tons full load
    Nimitz class aircraft carrier:103,000 t full load
    Farragut class destroyer (1934):1,365 tons
    Benson class destroyer:2515 tons full load
    Gearing class destroyer:Displacement: 2,616 tons standard; 3,460 tons full load
    Mitscher class destroyer:3,642 tons standard; 4,855 full load
    Farragut class destroyer (1958):Displacement: 4,167 tons (standard)
    5,648 tons (full load
    Spruance class destroyer:Displacement: 8,040 (long) tons full load
    The trend is not the Navy embrace small warships ,is the oposite.

  9. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 21, 2009 5:05 pm

    Al-Qaeda may use an auxiliary cruiser to attack a port a la HMS Campbelton at St Nazaire.

    Should be relatively easy since there are essentially no harbor defenses remaining.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 21, 2009 3:46 pm

    “We will never again see the oceans covered with vast fleets as in WWII.”

    Every generation always considers itself the “last”. I can imagine when Rome was crumbling in the 4th and 5th centuries, its citizens thought the end of the world was coming, yet is was just the birth pains of a new, radically different era.

    Speaking of Rome, we see in their wars with the Carthaginians, the launching of thousands of ships. Many of these were lost in combat, more to storms, only to be rebuilt again and again until the Mediterranean was secured for the Empire.

    I think that we certainly will never see same type of familiar vessels used in future warfare in like numbers, with scores of large carriers, battleships, and thousands of destroyers and their types plus unlimited swarms of amphibious craft, but we may yet see titanic naval battles, which are always prevalent as well as violent.

    Naturally the ships will be different. I think established navies will eventually embrace small warships since they are easy for enforcing laws in peacetime, and a quick build in large numbers in wartime. Small warships are also more survivable since you can build more of them, presenting a great many targets in an age when tiny projectiles at sea are so much more numerous and lethal. They may likely eschew large warships above 20,000 tons altogether, except when they requisition giant merchant ships as proposed here.

    I don’t scorn these little ship navies of the Third World, but consider them the future. All you have to do is follow the numbers of shrinking force structures in Western navies, the difficulty in building traditional hulls, as well as adequately arming them. Here is where the handwriting is on the wall. I am ready for something different. For sure we aren’t there yet, but all the signs are there.

  11. D. E. Reddick permalink
    December 21, 2009 2:36 pm


    You stated “the hybrid ship is here to stay: a gun, a few missiles, a helo or two, UAVs, room for troops.” Sounds like an accurate description of the Danish ‘support ship’ Absalom. Oh, for a while she and her crew were the champion pirate catchers in the Gulf of Aden and down along the coast of Somalia. The newer frigates of the Iver Huitfeldt class are three-quarters sisters of the Absalom class. Non-merchant ‘cruisers’ like the Absalom backed up by more combat-oriented cruiser-like frigates such as the Iver Huitfeldt class combatants might form the backbone (and firepower packed backups) of smaller and more numerous patrol forces working to control events and processes such as piracy around the Horn of Africa.

  12. Hudson permalink
    December 21, 2009 1:57 pm

    We are coming to the end of the year and one step closer to Whatever Happens Next. Soon, the Pax Americana will end, which has served us and the world so well for so long. Minor powers like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and his buddies in the waters of the Fourth Fleet want to rattle us, even topple us is they can, and reinstate one of the failed gods of the 20th Century, socialism. Maybe Chavez represents the rise of tyrant states whatever the ideology, too weak to defeat us and too strong to be stopped by gunboat diplomacy.

    Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe and elsewhere, endangering Jews and Israel, which has the power to trigger the apocalypse, long imagined by storytellers and religious prophets. Radical Islam may actually be on the wane, as the middle class in Islamic states like Pakistan rally against its extreme repression of the growth of human potential unlocked by the Modern Age. One hopes so. The bin Ladens of the world will never reinstate the Caliphate world wide, as is their aim, but they might trigger global disorder.

    One senses that the world is tiring of us and the worst, most vulgar and banal manifestations of American culture. A financially weakened and culturally divided America will no longer be able to lead the West and social democratic nations–hold the center together. China is on the rise. But China too has problems, especially its enormous population which might implode. John Woo’s recent film Red Cliff is a spectacular representation of China fighting itself.

    Maybe the apocalypse will come in rough patches, not the orgiastic violence contemplated by Herman Kahn in the early 1970s: a region here or there, while other parts of the world carry on more or less intact. The attack on the twin towers was like that: 16 acres of total destruction downtown resembling Berlin in 1945, while the rest of the city carried on physically the same as on Sept. 10th.

    We will never again see the oceans covered with vast fleets as in WWII. Ships and crews are too expensive for that nowadays. But today we have the convoy system in place in the waters off Somalia. Whatever the scenario, the Navy will be our most important service for protecting the sea lanes and American interests world wide, rescuing Americans in distant lands and striking at enemy targets around the globe.

    I think the hybrid ship is here to stay: a gun, a few missiles, a helo or two, UAVs, room for troops. Maybe it is also time again for the armed merchant vessel, last seen in numbers in WWII. We need more smaller ships, as has often been expressed at NW. The super carriers and the Burkes and Ticos inspire confidence, no small thing in uncertain times. They remind the world that someone is minding the store, riding tall in the saddle, that the Marines are not too far distant to send in, in time of need.

    For a season, at least, my thoughts turn to Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men.

  13. December 21, 2009 1:15 pm

    Restrictive ROE tie the hands of the navies. They could be patrolling up and down the Somali coast in a grey painted ferry, container ship, trawler, or bathtub and THEY WOULD STILL BE AS INEFFECTIVE; even if you trebled the number of hulls.

  14. Joe permalink
    December 21, 2009 12:07 pm

    Being handled the way it is now, the Somali piracy *movement* is going to need its Poster Child moment if you want to see world concern go beyond where it presently is & tangible action be taken. Commerce would have to be seriously impeded or an appallingly large loss of life would have to occur that shocks nations into changing their attitudes.

    Otherwise, as Smitty brings up the ratio of 27/30,000 on shipping disturbances, that isn’t going to stir anyone to “send in the fleet”, imho.

    The retired Admiral may have his own ideas on how to stop the piracy, but I still say the best way to *fight* them (if you’re going to) is to remember they can’t just beam their ships into the middle of the ocean, they have to leave a port somewhere…

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 21, 2009 11:11 am

    Thank you so much for this article, Smitty, which proves my point! This is the Navy’s moment, but they are unconcerned.

  16. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 21, 2009 11:09 am

    If we have 40 ships on patrol, we could form a cordon around Somalia, say 200-300 miles off shore and disarm every vessel that tries to leave.

    It’s got to be easier than keeping a warship within 10 minutes of every merchant ship in the Indian Ocean.

  17. B.Smitty permalink
    December 21, 2009 10:26 am

    IMHO, we need to have the political will to use the assets we currently have against Somali piracy before we start talking about restructuring the fleet.

    From everything I’ve read, counter-piracy appears to be pretty far down the priority list.

    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about,

    “Retired Rear Adm. Terence “Terry” McKnight, the past commander of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) and Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) for counterpiracy operations, spoke last week at lunch time lecture at the National Naval Museum. The admiral surprised the audience by saying that the piracy problem in the Gulf Aden is “over publicized.”

    “We are fighting wars on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan with hundreds of thousands of troops involved. Yet world attention, particularly media attention, is drawn to Somali piracy in the Gulf Aden, which is a very minor problem in the large scheme of things,” he said.

    Though more than 30,000 ships transit the area annually only 27 attacks have been successful in 2009. The ships that fall prey to the pirates are warned and counseled by the CMF in how to protect themselves. If they follow some simple procedures they can make themselves less attractive to piracy.

    “We have set up a registry for ships that are transiting the Gulf so we will know when they will be in the area. They are also provided a checklist of vulnerabilities that the pirates are looking for. If the ships vulnerability checklist suggests they might be a target, the task force will try to protect them,” added McKnight.

    The admiral said simple things make ships targets; slow moving (less than 10 knots), no lookouts, and easy access from the water. He also said that Somalia piracy is a seasonal event from late fall to early spring.

    “And, it usually happens in the morning in a specific 400 mile stretch of the Gulf,” he said.

    The former task force commander said after a review of the entire history of attacks the CMF identified the area of exposure and that is where they concentrate their protection. The task force is made up of up-to 25 warships from more than 20 nations.

    “Every nation is interested in piracy because of the risk to the free flow of commerce and the risk to crews on the targeted ships.”

    The admiral said there have been some erroneous reports about the sophistication of the piracy operations.

    “It depends on what you call sophisticated. Somali pirates are easy to spot,” he said. “If they are barefooted in a skiff with grappling hooks, rope ladders, guns and a GPS, they probably aren’t fishermen.”

    Another rumor associated with piracy is that the ransoms are being used to finance terrorism. McKnight reassured the audience that there was no evidence to support a connection with terrorism.

    The retired admiral was asked what the best way to stop the pirates was.

    “A functional government in Somalia with a rule of law, a court system, prosecutors and law enforcement,” he answered.


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