Lessons of the Cheonan Sinking
I keep wondering how long the US Navy will continue to think it can send a few very large, overly-expensive and very visible warships up against an enemy coastline, all in defiance of the “distant blockade” rule of 100 years ago. This was put in effect by battleship navies, notably the British Royal Navy, around 1911 in recognition of then new shallow water threats, such as naval mines and torpedoes, especially those which could be launched from the then-new submarine boat. This was also before the still-revolutionary warcraft carried long range cruise missiles, and super-cavitating torpedoes. Read the following story from Human Events by James Zumwalt on what might have sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan:
As to the type of torpedo, there are two possibilities—a “heavy torpedo,” with which all North Korean submarines are known to be armed, or a “supercavitation torpedo,” a devastatingly effective weapon known to be possessed by countries with interests adverse to the U.S. South Korean sonar men are better trained to identify the acoustics signature of an incoming heavy torpedo, which is easier to detect, than a supercavitation torpedo, which requires special adjustments to the sonar system to do so.
But both torpedoes are deadly—the supercavitating even more so as its design incorporates a law of physics loophole that makes detection and escape by a targeted ship virtually impossible. And, as of today, no defense exists against it.
So if the smaller warships especially geared to seek out and destroy small elusive craft in shallow waters are at risk, what chance does our larger ships have? For about 70 years the United States have been building the world’s greatest constabulary fleet, with the intent to keep land powers so occupied that they cannot build a navy to rival us. Though Russia bankrupted herself attempting just that, it was never clear what she would actually do her awe-inspiring fleet, now mostly rusting in harbor. Twenty years after the demise of this threat, America is still set on its goal for a high tech littoral navy, but no clear sign of what it will do against someone contesting her seapower, such as a submarine fleet.
The submarine is a sea-denier, while the fleets of America, Britain, and Canada are historically sea-enablers. These ABC countries depend on the Freedom of the Seas to transport troops to world hotspots in defense of allies and treaties. Their very livelihood is built on unimpeded maritime trade, and the defense of merchant shipping is crucial, though nearly a lost art. The continued success of Somalia pirates on commercial shipping in the Gulf points to long-neglected training in sea control techniques.
If you have read the recent CSBA report on Air/Sea Battle, you get the idea that the admirals and generals will have to work hard to be able to utilize its unmatched superiority in naval airpower and amphibious forces in the future. The Navy thinks technology will solve the problems of the submarine and other sea-deniers, and there are some promising advances in this area. UAVs almost certainly will lead the fight as will satellites, which we are told, can track enemy submarines as they sail from port. Most likely, the most essential ASW fighters will not be so new, such as other submarines, and old fashioned escort ships–cheap, off the shelf, and lots of them.