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Thinking Beyond the Navy Pt 2

December 22, 2009

RFA Argus served as an auxiliary aircraft carrier in the Falklands and Gulf Conflicts, ferrying up to 18 Harriers and helicopters.

The tyranny of distance makes it difficult for our Navy to operate affordable and capable warships. Our need to sail to any point on the globe will always push up their size and cost. Today, our capable warships are spread thin. Often, we must use a ship with more capability than needed because nothing else is available. The tyranny of numbers means we simply can’t be everywhere.      

It was once common to draft civilian ships by bolting guns to their decks. With Navy crews, they were useful for scouting or patrol work. They provided numbers that the active Navy could not provide. They could not fight first-class enemies, but they accomplished missions that otherwise necessitated a conventional warship. In a platform-centric Navy, creating traditional auxiliary cruisers with limited organic capabilities would be a wasted effort.      

In a network-centric Navy, Modularized Auxiliary Cruisers would be a force multiplier, defeating the tyrannies of distance and numbers. Mission Packages tailored for specific missions mounted on leased civilian container ships and plugged into the Navy’s network to create Modularized Auxiliary Cruisers would contribute significant capabilities at low cost. We should not need to rely only on allies to achieve a thousand-ship Navy. Are we at the point where we can resurrect this traditional method for generating numbers of hulls quickly?      

Brian J Dunn      


Yesterday we posted what we hoped was a wakeup call for the traditional National Navy, that the merchant fleets forced often to defend themselves from marauding pirates might have grasped through necessity what is really important in modern warfare. When you have the Chief of the British Navy saying things like “think beyond Afghanistan“, it fails to inspire confidence that the admirals are interested in anything except refighting “old wars“.  Then there was the politician who returned home after visiting with the hardworking and aging “cruisers” in the Gulf, who are away on Christmas fending off the new pirates assaulting our commerce at sea, with the notion that more aircraft carriers were needed!      

The admirals should embrace this low tech, asymmetric type warfare, which opened dramatically a new century on September 11, 2001. Now should be the time to call for more hulls in the water, not just better hulls in the water. Our stretched budgets will no longer allow us to build enough high end vessels, nor are giant exquisite ships which we possess in quantity all that essential in low tech anti-piracy, anti-smuggling, and patrol missions. As we often point out, we have plenty of high end, conventional missile warships, supercarriers, and submarines; more than most of the world combined and amounting to over-kill, yet we possess a huge gap in the number of low end patrol ships, as well as a stark disinterest.      

In his excellent post on the subject, Brian J Dunn points to Auxiliary Cruisers as one antidote to shrinking force structures in an age of many threats. We applaud this idea and also point to a series of posts New Wars did a while back on modern cruiser warfare.      

For reasons of economy, the Navy and Merchant Marine could be more closely connected. A large container ship with a bolted-on flight deck could become a helicopter, VSTOL, or UAV carrier. With VLS, the same could be an arsenal ship, likewise an Aegis mothership. With a few guns, even smaller ships could become coastal patrol craft. Such an economical fleet would not of necessity be a substitute for traditional warships, but release them from low tech patrolling for the rare but still possible peer conflict.
In such a circumstance the National Government could maintain a less costly cadre of high end ships (especially hard to build submarines or missile corvettes), much like the 16th Century Royal Navy that fought the larger and more heavily armed Spanish Armada. The bulk of the warfleet then composed of merchantmen, all of which possessed a secondary cruiser role. During time of crisis, as in the Armada episode, the fleet could be mobilized and outfitted for war. Modern weapons such as cruise missiles, “rockets in a box”, small SAMs, ect. make such an event highly feasible.

The British armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi foiled the designs of 2 German battleships in WW 2.

Already rogue nations, from Korea to Iran are deploying off the shelf warships to smuggle arms, a form of power projection in its own right. Then of course, the pirates capture a commercial ship of any size, convert it into an instant mothership, allowing them to deploy their small vessels in oceanic ranges, once the sole domain of high endurance and large frigates and destroyers. Economically the latter deploys small craft, backed by auxiliary cruisers, which the Navy deems as incapable and unneeded.      

What can the Navy do to restore its primacy and manage the few peer threats, plus the multiplied small foes on the seas? First it must get past the ingrained notion that spartan, common platforms are incapable. While such vessels, converted or built off the shelf may appear lacking in some respects compared to an Aegis multi-mission ship, or the $700 million LCS, yet to a pirate in a speedboat, or a smuggler in a skiff, or an Iranian arms ship, it would be a battleship. We also recall what requirements the British Admiral of the anti-piracy fleet in the Gulf he specifically needed was “a helicopter, a boat, and a boarding party”.      

Low tech offshore patrol vessels in their hundreds could be had for the price of a couple destroyers. Small cutters like the US Coast Guards $44 million Sentinel Fast Response Boat also possess interesting potential for a patrol craft, and is ready now. While these ships have limited capabilities for Blue Water sailing, recall they are mainly for shallow water patrol, though Brian’s auxiliary cruiser would be ideal for this role.   

Naturally some would argue against the use of non-specialized vessels as make-shift warships, and that only specially engineered ships are fit to fight. There could be arguments against the latter as well from recent statements by the Navy, but also there is the historical evidence, as in the case of HMS Rawalpindi pictured above, who only saved her merchant charges from the 11 inch guns of the 30,000 ton  German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst by its own destruction. There are several factors in favor of auxiliary cruisers in modern war at sea. First, there are very few armored gunships left in the world’s arsenals. The power and versatility of new weapons also promote their use, as with the case of Harriers launched from RFA Argus.

 Another, more ominous example might be an innocent looking freighter which sails into a Western port armed with cruise missiles or even tons of explosive, on a one-way suicide mission. Finally there is the rise of numerous small and low tech navies. They possess few biases on the use of warcraft, especially for arms smuggling, most notably, North Korea and Iran, which dominate their oceans of influence with illegal arms smuggling with few hindrances other than the Navy, who is still desperately seeking that peer threat they are so used to countering.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 24, 2009 4:42 am

    “Mike there is a vast difference between an auxiliary and a warship.”

    Well, the enemy are using auxiliary ships today as warships, especially to enhance the performance of their small craft. So, do we tell the pirates, “please wait a decade for us to design a proper warship, than another decade to have enough in service to do any good”? WE are in an arms race with 3rd World countries, and their lack of bias against traditional warship design has put them in the lead, or at least helped their cause immensely.

    So were the escort carriers built on mercantile hulls not warships, battling U-boats and even the mighty Yamato of the IJN, something our own superships never had the honor of doing? But we aren’t saying lets build some Rawalpindi’s to send against Russia or China’s battleships.

    We are just saying, lets take some of the thunder of the insurgents at sea, who aren’t above using a converted freighter to smuggle arms or attack shipping. These auxiliary cruisers, if they battle anything, will be against other auxiliary cruisers. We are in a low tech war at sea, and the old metrics don’t apply here.

  2. leesea permalink
    December 23, 2009 6:27 pm

    Mike there is a vast difference between an auxiliary and a warship. I do not argue with the premise that ships like the Argus or Bay class can very well perform support roles. BUT I do not buy those types supplanting warships in combat.

    Likewise your premise that many small surface combatants would be usefull is true but only to a point. They must have support ships to stay on-station and to refit/reprovision between engagements. Once again naval auxiliaries or specialized sealift ship can be such a mothership IF appropirately fitted out.

    There are few warships which have all the features of an auxliary AT A REASONABLE PRICE.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 23, 2009 3:28 pm

    Matt wrote-“Your post conveniently overlooks the fate of the Atlantic Conveyor ”

    I assumed that was well known, no deception intended.

  4. Jed permalink
    December 23, 2009 1:45 pm

    Mike: “Here is a superb picture of a Harrier launching from the late Atlantic Conveyor:”

    Yes Mike, but the RFA Argus is not the Atlantic Conveyor, and the AC was itself an aircraft ferry, not even an auxiliary carrier. She delivered some Chinooks and all of her Harrier ‘cargo’ before being so sadly destroyed.

  5. Matt permalink
    December 23, 2009 8:50 am

    Your post conveniently overlooks the fate of the Atlantic Conveyor – sunk by anti-ship missile(s) in 1982.

    Fast-forward to 2009. ASMs and other ship-killing devices (mines, martime IEDs) are no longer possessed solely by first-world nations. Hezbollah demonstated in 2006 that they now have this capability by sinking an Egyptian merchant and nearly sinking an Israeli corvette.

    I think your proposed approach to putting cheap hulls “in the water” would likely end up with lots of hulls “under the water.”

  6. December 23, 2009 8:10 am

    Whoops I posted in the wrong thread. Sorry Mike!

  7. December 23, 2009 8:09 am

    The Conveyor picture is great. But the Harrier was ferrying itself off to the carriers.
    This wasn’t an actual opp. You couldn’t use vertical take-off all the time with a full weapons load it would take too much fuel. Air-taxing is used for recovery; remember the plane is a good deal lighter after the op’ making this evolution easier.

    Further you wouldn’t want to straight commercial conversion. Pilots aren’t to keen on having the ship’s superstructure bearing down on them.

  8. Joe K. permalink
    December 22, 2009 9:04 pm

    I have to laugh at your picture as if it’s trying to make a point. Of course a ship like that would certainly work with a naval air wing made of jump jets and helicopters, but not our jets (and what’s to say they didn’t have difficulty making that happen in the Falklands).

    This post touched on an issue which I have been arguing with people with regards to the Army and its supposed transition to fighting asymmetric warfare vs. conventional. Ultimately, trying to make such a move will only land the Army in failure. You cannot focus the entirety of the Army fighting solely asymmetric warfare because we don’t live in a pure white or pure black world or a black/white world. You waste too many resources on a single “brand” (for lack of a better term on my part) of enemy that you lose sight of the other ones out there.

    I would certainly agree that the Navy shouldn’t rule out asymmetric warfare when graduating the next officers from Annapolis. But you shouldn’t make asymmetric warfare the main focus. Doing that you ignore much of what can be taught over a millennia’s-worth of experience.

    Besides, every one of our military branches possesses units specifically sent to conduct unconventional warfare that our regular forces can’t tackle in addition to situations that the regulars tackle. If you wanna fight the unconventional, send them in. Don’t waste precious tax dollars and invaluable time fighting a single type of enemy since not every enemy is a guerrilla fighter.

  9. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 22, 2009 4:50 pm

    Thought some of the readers might find this link re. German Aux. cruisers interesting.

    Clicking on the thumbnails gives greater detail on the individual ships.

    Checking some of the other classes of ships also shows some other adaptations of merchant and fishing vessels.

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    December 22, 2009 4:20 pm

    I bet the the high freeboard of most container ships would make it difficult to deploy and recover boats and USV/UUVs without modification. Their generally large size and deep draft would make it dangerous or impossible to operate close enough to shore to be effective in some cases.

    They could carry and operate air assets, but the surface and sub-surface systems are best deployed on a smaller vessel, IMHO.

    Commercial ships also have no signature reduction, so any SSK with even outdated sonar systems will hear them coming from a long ways away.

    OTOH, I’m sure one could start with a commercial design and come up with a decent multipurpose vessel for use when the threat is low.

  11. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 22, 2009 3:24 pm

    If they did it right, the LCS modules could make virtually every container ship an ASW or MCM ship.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 22, 2009 1:18 pm

    Here is a superb picture of a Harrier launching from the late Atlantic Conveyor:

    If link doesn’t work, here is the main page which takes time loading on slow connections.

  13. December 22, 2009 1:14 pm

    The other (in)famous example is the Jervis Bay.

  14. December 22, 2009 1:04 pm

    “Not saying Auxilliary Cruisers carrying helo’s aren’t appropriate for anti-piracy, but as also recently noted, the various Navy’s are spending billions on anti-piracy ops of Somalia – why ? It would be way cheaper to put armed ‘contractors’ on the merchant ships that have to transit the area – this would be the real development of the historical precedent of “armed merchentmen”.

    This will be next growth market for PMCs. A section or two would suffice.

  15. December 22, 2009 1:02 pm

    Nice Argus pic. She is one of my favourite ships. Pre-9/11 I enjoyed a couple of good poke around’s down below. I even have an Argus mug which I purchased onboard. Thanks.

  16. James Daly permalink
    December 22, 2009 11:33 am

    The RN did trial Argus as a helicopter carrier in the mid 90’s, which didn’t quite work out as Jed describes. However there was one other lesson for the RN from the Falklands – RFA Diligence, the former Stena Inspector. A North Sea oil rig/diving ship, she now serves as a repair ship and has also acted as a mother ship for minesweepers.

    You could argue as well that the Bay Class Landing ships borrow much of their design from Commercial ro-ro ferries (as an aside, they are also ships that might prove useful for launching boarding parties by helicopter and fast boat).

    But in terms of fighting piracy, yes perhaps it would make sense to enable merchant vessels to repel pirates themselves rather than use a Cold War era anti-submarine frigate, which is kind of like a square peg in a round hole? If the merchant vessels were more difficult to capture, then the pirates very raison detre would disappear.

  17. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 22, 2009 11:20 am

    Mike, I would like to see a discussion of the appropriate platform (parent craft) on which to base the projected Coast Guard “Offshore Patrol Cutter.”

    25 of these are planned. This is what Coast Guard Acquisitions is telling us about the project right now.

    Decisions about the characteristics of these ships are being made now. I anticipate there will be a lot of pressure to scale back the ship because the design described is far more capable than the ships they are replacing.

    I think these could be important ships. Not only are they the largest project in Coast Guard history, they are potentially the basis for a new DE class if we should suddenly need a lot of small “cruisers” or escorts. They are also potentially exportable to a large number of navies that might be looking for ships of this size.

    What is the best compromise? What features could be reduced or eliminated? What needs to be added?

  18. Jed permalink
    December 22, 2009 9:24 am

    “The power and versatility of new weapons also promote their use, as with the case of Harriers launched from RFA Argus.”

    When did the Argus ever launch Harriers ? She was converted post-Falklands, as an aircraft ‘ferry’ – she did I think land on and launch Harriers in trials, to prove she could ferry them and they could take off, vertically, in a very light (no weapons) condition. Her secondary roles as helicopter carrier and even “Primary Casualty Receiving” ship were never particularly successful due to the problems integrating the plumbing required for the “hotel services” for large numbers of embarked marines or medics.

    Not saying Auxilliary Cruisers carrying helo’s aren’t appropriate for anti-piracy, but as also recently noted, the various Navy’s are spending billions on anti-piracy ops of Somalia – why ? It would be way cheaper to put armed ‘contractors’ on the merchant ships that have to transit the area – this would be the real development of the historical precedent of “armed merchentmen”.

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