The Navy’s New Look Pt 2
Coupled with the pressure imposed by the growing “reach” of hostile navies is a second factor: the effect on the form and function of capital ships and other vessels. Here too the pattern will be repeated, to some extent, in that the nature of the capital ship will be subject to rapid and radical change. But instead of driving navies toward ever larger–and fewer–capital ships, the information age will impel development toward fleets comprised of far more numerous but much smaller vessels, replete with swift, smart, long-range weaponry.
John Arquilla writing in Worst Enemy
The Fleet Ten Years Hence
I expect a revolution in warship design is upon us, only the lack of a major war at sea in seventy years keeping dated platforms in service long past their prime. The deception in the West has been our superior airpower will be the solvent for all our fears, and no weapon will ever get close enough to sink our warships. There have been much evidence to the contrary to disprove this false notion, from Israel’s Eilat in 1966, HMS Sheffield in 1982, USS Stark in 1987, to Israel’s Hanit in 2006. The great equalizer now and increasingly in the hands of Third World, barely industrialized powers, is the guided missile.
The cost of building a modern fleet based on last-century legacy platforms is sinking and shrinking navies as fast as full scale conflict. Barring a major new war, which is certainly inevitable but not necessarily imminent, it may take yet another decade for the change to become obvious, and for fleets to get in sync with the transformations that are already influencing land powers drastically. The need for reform is already upon us, as numbers of vessels decline as do the funds to procure them, while threats mount. By 2020 it will be most evident:
- Giant aircraft carriers as the mainstay of the fleet will begin to disappear. There will probably be only solitary examples in European and Asian fleets, but the mighty US Navy will only possess a handful, none likely in full service or with complete aircraft complements. They will be brought out for the occasional brush-fire wars, but their huge expense in crew and operating costs, plus vulnerability will see their day end as surely as the dreadnoughts which they preceded.
- Their place will be taken by much smaller multipurpose assault carriers, which can carry V/STOL planes, UAVs, and helicopters, plus armed Marines and their equipment. Even these will not be needed in huge numbers and will be used only in benign threat areas because of the missiles.
- The Marines will be busier than ever, only their “second army”, heavy brigade status will be over. They will act as small raider teams in littoral operations, plus serve as armed guards and manned riverine craft such as CB90 boats. For larger operations, they can land from submarines, joint high speed vessels, or even larger sea lift ships like T-AKE, which can carry more troops while being less costly than an amphibious warship.
- Conventional submarines (SSKs) will return to USN service, the amazing abilities of the nuclear attack boat outweighed by its immense cost, advanced skills and construction complications, plus declining numbers. By 2030 at least and for the first time since the 1960s, the SSK’s will outnumber nuclear boats in the American fleet.
- The surface fleet will begin to grow enormously with the return of the flotilla. With the Navy seeing its need to be in the littorals, logically they will turn to shallow water warships, such as corvettes, patrol craft, fast attack craft and dedicated anti-mine warships. The attempt to pack all these capabilities in a Blue Water frigate, the mediocre but gold-plate littoral combat ship, will be recognized as the failure it is. Likely only 15-20 of the LCS will be built, used only in an underarmed mothership role for small craft, or perhaps as an assault transport for Marines.
- Production of large destroyers will likely cease, only because we already possess so many with no peer adversary having any one ship comparable as the 60-70 Arleigh Burke class. So these ships will linger around for sometime in various guises and with successive rebuildings. Because they are so capable, with Tomahawk cruise missiles, Aegis, and soon unmanned vehicles, they will be able to project power as no other warship since the aircraft carrier, only in a vastly less costly and visible package.
The Fleet in 2050
By mid-century, or even sooner with a major war at sea, the revolution in warship design will be complete. The Navy’s new look will be as radical as the Korean War era fleet of 1950 would be to the sailors under Admiral Togo who fought the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. The guided missile will reign supreme, displacing the need for expensive manned airpower even as it forces obsolescence on its 20th century rival.
- It could be the Tomahawk in US service will finally reach the status of “reusable cruise missile”, able to launch from VLS tubes, drop its payload, then return back to its launching point at sea. Retrieval will be by nets of some other yet-unforeseen apparatus.
- The surface capital ship will be a modular mothership on a common hull, probably of 20,000 tons light. Built in adequate numbers to mercantile standards, they will replace the carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and frigates of the last century simply by changing various payloads. They can also act as sea lift vessels, fleet replenishment ships, carry Marines or act as command ships to an Influence Squadron.
- The building of nuclear submarines will cease altogether for the reasons I gave above. Their place will be overtaken by the SSK, which will use new propulsion techniques and adapt to new hull forms in a less costly but quite lethal package. Some sort of arsenal submarine might also replace the Ohio SSGNs.
- The most numerous surface combatant will be small attack craft of around 200-400 tons, and available in many hundreds. They will likely use a SWATH hull form allowing them to traverse oceanic ranges as smoothly as a vessel 10 times the size.
- The Marines will have no separate navy as today, but will utilize USN ships already in service such as the modular sea lift vessels or even fast attack craft for beach landings.