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As Russia Goes at Sea Pt 1

February 8, 2010

A Russian Udaloy class destroyer sails with an American Ticonderoga cruiser. Both navies are still heavily dependent on Cold War era warships.

The Persians were not a maritime people. They inhabited the semiarid region south of the Caspian Sea and did their fighting on land whenever possible. In these land wars they were, at least for a time, nominally successful. Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire in 549 B.C. on the ruins of the Median Empire, quickly conquered the powerful and important nations of Lydia and Chaldea. His son, Cambyses, invaded and subdued Egypt. The third ruler, Darius I, inherited this empire and with it both a navy and a commitment to use it.

The navy Darius inherited was actually composed of three navies–those of Egypt, of the Phoenician cities, and of the Greek colonies in Asia Minor. The Egyptian fleet has been gained as a by-product of Cambyses’ land invasion of Egypt. The fleet of the Greek colonies had come to the Persians second hand, as a result of the conquest of Lydia, which had earlier absorbed the little Ionic Greek cities along the Asia Minor coast. The Phoenician fleet was not, strictly speaking, a Persian possession at all, since the Phoenician cities had never been formally conquered by Persia. As a good-will gesture they cooperated with their powerful neighbor in the capacity of semi-autonomous allies. As one symbol of their cooperation, they placed their warships at the disposal of the Persian ruler.

John Van Duyn Southworth–The Ancient Fleets

Power on Land, Uncertainty at Sea

A little surprise, a little smugness greeted the news that France was in serious talks for transferring a light carrier/assault ship design to the Russian Navy. Since the fall of the communist Soviet Union, Moscow has been desperate to restore to restore her fallen fortunes at sea, with the bulk of the once world’s largest fleet rusting in harbor. Even with an improved economy thanks to the rise in the price of oil in recent years, the government is bowing to the inevitable and seeking assistance from overseas to rebuild the Navy, as had the Czars in centuries past.

Need I also point out it isn’t just the former Cold War rival suffering from the realities of a new era, with resources stretched thin, and the price of land wars forcing ongoing neglect in rebuilding her own Cold War Navy. First let me point to a few headlines recently:

While it is true America’s Navy is in far better shape than many others, undoubtedly she is the world’s most powerful and effective, the signs of strain are too numerous to ignore. Even as her admirals are distracted with land threats, pumping billions into new aircraft carriers, airwings, amphibious ships and ballistic missile defense, they risk taking their sea dominance for granted, since a navy must also maintain control.

Except for a time when she was mostly confined to her East Coast past the Alleghenies, America is traditionally a land power. Despite a bias against standing armies inherited from England, she has been forced to create a powerful military heritage as she expanded across the continent. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century her people felt the need for large standing navy, but even these were mainly used to secure the sealanes, allowing for the passage of large numbers of troops, to Europe in 1917-1918, and also to the Pacific in 1942-45. During that last conflict, she even created a unique naval ground force, the US Marine Corps, unlike anything yet seen in history as far as numbers and capability, larger today than the entire British armed forces .

Naturally, land powers are principally concerned with land threats. There is probably only a single navy in recent history concerned principally with sea control and that was and remains the British Royal Navy. This has come about in recent years because of the expense of maintaining a capital-ship centric fleet, but also out of necessity because of her trade-dependent island status. Recently she has compromised this singular status for a more land centric mindset with an intention of deploying large attack carriers and a closer relationship with the Continent. All this despite that her frigates are as busy as ever.

A Benevolent Empire

America likes to consider herself Britain’s heir on the sea, but still depends on her powerful land armies forward based, more than the English ever did. Instead of a traditional Empire, she leads a powerful system of alliances and interdependency to keep rogue countries in check. This has been mutually beneficial to the dramatic economies of Europe and Asia, with even potential peer enemies such as China, Russia, and Iran prospering under the Pax American Freedom of the Seas.

America spends vast sums on her magnificent fleet of large carriers, nuclear subs, and missile battleships despite there being not a single rival at sea with anything like this historically unprecedented firepower. She continues to deploy very capable amphibious ships, even though the only opportunity to launch the Marines in a major operation against a defended beachhead during the 1991 Gulf War, she declined to use them. It is an expensive luxury when close allies already deploy such vessels out of necessity, often sending a small frigate to perform the same mission where we might send a powerful nuclear carrier and its expensive escorts.

Concerning Russia, here is a Continental power who, like America would prefer to be looked on as a major seapower. Like the US, she struggles constantly to build a significant fleet, when the real threat to the homeland is surrounding land powers, and now terrorist insurgents. If the US were to suddenly depart from its War in Afghanistan, you might see the terrorists start to infiltrate the Muslim populations within Russia’s borders, so her Army is all the more important, even in absence of a major conventional threat.

American difficulties with shipbuilding may not be funding as much as the reality her best defense lies on land. Even though she still has the world’s most powerful fleet, it is essentially useless in the presence of a hostile enemy fleet, as the Admirals insist ““The Purpose of the Navy is Not to Fight”. For this, in a major war she would have to rely more on allies, looking to Europe and Asia, Britain and Japan for the hulls required to maintain adequate control. As Russia is proving, this might be better than extinction.

Tomorrow-Future Navy, Made in Japan (or the EU)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    February 9, 2010 2:03 pm

    B. Smitty said: When the admiral said, “The Purpose of the Navy is Not to Fight”, wasn’t he just talking about deterrence? Clearly it is better to deter than to actually engage in armed conflict.

    The whole basis of arguments here and at other blogs is to take that one comment in various directions other than to think it *might* apply to the notion of deterrence…something that over time Mike has made abundantly clear gives him acid reflux.

    An idea proposed by BSmitty in the past (slowing down the build rate on the nuke Fords and then slipping in either a conventional Ford or a French PA2 styled aircraft carrier) by itself could free up enough funds to enable an expansion of the Navy around the notion of smaller vessels (be they foreign or domestic build) while still retaining the highly capable, versatile, and destructive larger ones.

    That might be only “evolutionary” change {missing the “r” so many want in front of the word} but it’d be change with a higher chance of coming into being.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 9, 2010 7:56 am

    “I would prefer to spend money on massive superiority rather than live with parity, and pay for it in blood.”

    That is a nice thought if the funds are freely available. Plus, when you base the bulk of your capability on high end warfare, you end up being weak elsewhere. Haven’t we lost enough wars by trusting too much in firepower to the detriment of tactics and attrition of our equipment? This is why we have ancient planes falling apart over Iraq and Afghanistan, and even a 300 ship navy seems a far-off dream. There has to be a balance in capability, and the low tech must outnumber the high tech.

    Because our high end forces are so capable, you can do with less. The same is not true for mediocre equipment, which must be cheap but good, and plenty. These are the lessons of warfare, not just something I made up. The navy is running in a peacetime mode and it is not sustainable.

    Another thing about Saddam. When he was thinking in conventional mode, hoping to force the “mother of all battles”, we cleaned his clock and he made our forces look pretty darn good and rightly so. Then, he turned to the traditional Arab way of warfare, which is hit and run insurgency tactics, he finally got his wish. We were almost kicked out of Iraq in defeat the last decade, all our superweapons availing us but little. Thank goodness for the MRAPs but I still say a change in tactics returned the initiative to us, after much blood lost on both sides.

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    February 8, 2010 8:54 pm

    Mike,

    Saddam saw what happened to his air force when it faced a superior opponent during ODS, so he buried what was left of it before OIF.

    On the other hand, the Argentinians put up a good showing with a bunch of antiquated Daggers and subsonic A-4s at the far end of their combat radius, without modern missiles, limited air refueling and no real CAP to speak of.

    Air parity got a lot of Brits killed. Overwhelming coalition superiority sent Saddam’s air force into hiding.

    Personally, I would prefer to spend money on massive superiority rather than live with parity, and pay for it in blood.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 8, 2010 6:19 pm

    Also Smitty said “You would rather use an opponent like the Argentinians under General Galtieri as a model”

    Absolutely! Did Saddam have anywhere the numbers of aircraft against the US and Coalition as the Argies versus Britain? It was no contest. Or a fleet of ships or submarines? I don’t want to make too much out of the Argentine forces, but they were military genuises compared to Saddaam, whose only hope was for the UN to save him, and that a slim one.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 8, 2010 6:12 pm

    Smitty wrote “Clearly it is better to deter than to actually engage in armed conflict.”

    Certainly, but there is a time for deterrence and a time for action. Considering the recent incident in the Gulf with Absalon and other ships, I would say the time for deterrence is past. Also, I was reading today how the actions of the few anti-pirates frigates there have deterred the pirates to operate elsewhere, in the Seychelles. So the strategy which worked so well in the last century is failing us.

    I agree it is desirable. My point is deterrence has failed us and something new is required. More hulls will give us greater deterrence but also action forces to control the piracy to a larger extinct.

  6. Chuck Hill permalink
    February 8, 2010 5:00 pm

    DesScorp said, “Just go ahead and give the handful of LCS vessels that are built or near-completion to the Coast Guard, and cut the USCG’s expensive and problem-ridden Bertholt class cutters.”

    The cutters may be expensive, but the problems seem to have been resolved with the price dropping for each successive ship.

    Unlike the LCS the cutters are expected to have a 30 year service life (vice 25).

    The LCSs are too expensive for the Coast Guard to operate as patrol boats and don’t have the range and endurance to operate as major cutters.

  7. B.Smitty permalink
    February 8, 2010 3:43 pm

    DesScorp,

    The LCS designs aren’t fit for cutter duty either.

  8. DesScorp permalink
    February 8, 2010 2:34 pm

    Commenting on that link about LCS problems… once again, we see that this mucked-up design philosophy has produced expensive ships that can’t fight. If you can’t even survive traditional navy sea trials…. good Lord….

    Just go ahead and give the handful of LCS vessels that are built or near-completion to the Coast Guard, and cut the USCG’s expensive and problem-ridden Bertholt class cutters. Neither LCS design is fit for naval combat of any kind, and the whole manning idea… a permanent skeleton crew… isn’t going to cut it on 6 month deployments either.

  9. B.Smitty permalink
    February 8, 2010 1:30 pm

    Mike said, “Again I must caution against using the likes of Saddam Hussein as a model for future strategy.

    You would rather use an opponent like the Argentinians under General Galtieri as a model? (since you keep pointing to the “success” of small carriers in the Falklands)

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    February 8, 2010 1:25 pm

    When the admiral said, “The Purpose of the Navy is Not to Fight”, wasn’t he just talking about deterrence? Clearly it is better to deter than to actually engage in armed conflict.

    To have an effective deterrence you have to be willing and capable of fighting.

    So I think the outrage in the Navy blogsphere over this comment is misplaced.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 8, 2010 12:57 pm

    Jed said “The amphibs were a decoy”

    No argument there, except we spend 40-50 years and multiple billions all for a decoy? Thats a stretch for justifying what maybe an obsolete way of amphibious warfare. We can and must do better without draining resources from other vital areas, especially non-Aegis escort ships.

    Yes and thank God for the British lessons at Al Faw which proves even a handful of Gator Vessels are handy on occasion. Again I must caution against using the likes of Saddam Hussein as a model for future strategy. Don’t think missile armed rogue powers would make it so easy to approach their coastlines as did the Iraqis.

    D.E. I caught the new Mistral update and replaced an older link in this post with that. Thanks!

    Elgatoso-You’re right but even the bulk of our airpower is land based!

  12. Heretic permalink
    February 8, 2010 11:56 am

    Sounds like someone’s been playing Iron Storm again …

  13. elgatoso permalink
    February 8, 2010 11:19 am

    Mike ,I beg to difer ,the US is not a land power,the US is a air based power.

  14. D. E. Reddick permalink
    February 8, 2010 10:49 am

    I just placed in Breaking News an announcement from France that they are in fact selling a Mistral class helicopter carrier to Russia. The Russians are saying that they want a total of four ships of that type.

  15. Jed permalink
    February 8, 2010 9:37 am

    Mike said: “Concerning the Marine landing, its tough to question the “what ifs?” of history.”

    Ahhh yes, but, if there is one thing the Soviets were good at it was deception operations and thats what the USN / USMC did with its amphibs in Desert Storm. The amphibs were a decoy, the NGS provided by battleships and the numbers of men bobbing around on the amphibs could not be discounted by the Iraqi army.

    Also lets face it, even with European MCM assistance, the reason the US did not storm the beaches is simple – mines ! The USN did not have the where withal to close inshore / surf line / across the beach mine countermeasures, possibly (or probably) under fire.

    Note how this had changed by Gulf War II, with the UK Royal Marines and the USMC mostly airborne (helo-borne) assault on the Al Faw peninsular.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 8, 2010 8:24 am

    Solomon pointed out “a sign of a weak and perhaps inept manufacturing base?”

    Certainly, which is the same issue troubling Moscow, right?

    Concerning the Marine landing, its tough to question the “what ifs?” of history. All I can say it was a lost opportunity and maybe for the best as I don’t think Saddam Hussein is the best choice for building future stategy.

  17. February 8, 2010 6:37 am

    Just a quick comment on your statement…

    “She continues to deploy very capable amphibious ships, even though the only opportunity to launch the Marines in a major operation against a defended beachhead during the 1991 Gulf War, she declined to use them”

    If the Centcom commander had been a Sailor or Marine then I believe that assault would have taken place. Much like the SouthCom commander focused on using an airport instead of the port facilities early in the effort so did Powell make the mistake of discounting the abilities of amphibious assault.

    One other thing Mike. The issues that you note as far as strains in the Navy— are they actually Navy centric or a sign of a weak and perhaps inept manufacturing base?

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