Thinking Beyond the Navy Pt 2
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.
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.