Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2
The helicopter comes to mind when considering the threat of swarms of Iranian speedboats attacking the big ships of Western navies like their highly capable and costly aircraft carriers. It also comes to mind that a speedboat, even with the very impressive performance of the Bladerunner 51 (Bradstone Challenger) recently acquired by Iran through guile would be no match for an aircraft armed with subsonic anti-small boat missiles. But is this an oversimplification of the problem, and can we consider the matter closed? Here is the question pondered by J. N. Nielsen at Grand Strategy, who discusses Tehran’s Speedboat Diplomacy:
While there are reasons to be skeptical that a speedboat with torpedoes could take on a carrier battle group, there are also reasons to be concerned. Ever since the small and inexpensive French Exocet missile sunk the HMS Sheffield on 04 May 1982 during the Falklands War (to be more accurate, the ship was hit on the 4th and sank on the 10th), it has been obvious that large and expensive warships, crewed with hundreds if not thousands of sailors, are vulnerable to relatively cheap counter-measures. While the Reagan-era defense build up took battleships out of mothballs, not least for the prestige of the Navy, the other side of the prestige of an enormous battleship is the devastation to public morale when something so formidable is destroyed in seconds by a missile with massive loss of life. It’s a David and Goliath moment.
This is looking at matters differently. While the Navy might feel extremely confident in their massively equipped and impressive warships, that size and power alone is enough to ensure safety, a rising and opportunistic nation might view them as a chance for glory. As with the David and Goliath story, such instances are replete through history. The new weapons which light and stealthy craft can deploy might be the great equalizer, knocking the massive American giants down to size. At least theoretically, but still cause for concern.
None of this is new. The Soviets focused on creating supersonic missiles (the P-270 Moskit) and torpedoes (the VA-111 Shkval) to counter US technological superiority that was often installed on vulnerable platforms. It is a lot cheaper and quicker to develop a supersonic missile or torpedo, and one can field a great many more of them, than to build a supersonic fighter or a carrier battle group. This equation still holds true. The FT story quoted Craig Hooper, a San Francisco-based naval strategist, as saying, “A small, fast boat navy is nothing more than a surprise strike and harassment force. Every time small, fast boats run into helicopters, the helicopters win.” Yet a sufficient number of small, fast boats launching a sufficient number of supersonic torpedoes could be a very serious threat to a carrier battle group. Only one torpedo would have to get through in order to cause enormous damage. The odds are on the side with the greatest numbers.
Historically, aircraft carriers have only operated in conjunction with other warships. In the few instances of combat during world war 2 and more recently the Falklands Crisis, they were kept well away from the danger zones of land areas, only just barely in range of their naval attack bombers to make an impact. They did this for survival, but also for practical reasons, allowing smaller warships leeway to perform shore bombardment, anti-submarine warfare, anti-mine warfare, and radar picket. Though some consider that the aircraft are there to defend the ships, their primary purpose is for attacking other targets. The small ships defend the carrier, as the head of the Royal Navy Admiral Mark Stanhope reminded us recently:
The carriers are about supporting effect ashore, not protecting the fleet, as at Jutland. We have got to be clear that the requirement for carriers is a joint requirement for Defence as a whole and the effect they provide is a joint effect, not a maritime effect in isolation.
But ships are about sea control, so there must be warships to defend the carriers and the rest of the fleet, to allow unimpeded access to the oceans. In the late 1800s and early 1900s navies developed the destroyer in answer to the threat of small torpedo boats against fleets of battleships. These versatile craft also proved the perfect anti-submarine vessels when the torpedo boat learned to submerge. I call for a return to Fast Boat Destroyers, which I think too will be find its place in future war at sea:
We can only conclude that to make a permanent effort against small boat threats, you would need a more sustainable platform to defend against and to launch strikes against them as well. We are thinking something along the line of torpedo boats destroyers of the early last century, which were just a little larger, faster, and more heavily armed than their torpedo-armed antagonists, which some navies were building in many hundreds as a threat to the battleship.
Plus the difference is, unlike large and very expensive frigates, which are pricing themselves into capital ship status, small corvettes and patrol ships can be purchased in large numbers, more closely matching the threat than a few exquisite and hard to build ships. The ongoing difficulties the Western navies are having managing the piracy problem in the Gulf should send off alarms that we are over-stretched, and declining.
Tomorrow-Speedboats in action.