The Impending Rebirth of the Flotilla Pt 1
Contrary to popular opinion, New Wars doesn’t possess a crystal ball where we can prophetically predict the Navy of the future with some accuracy. A close study of history can reveal the continued changes in warfare, where ships get too big, too complicated, and too expensive to procure, and must be updated or replaced in time. For this reason I have highlighted constant changes in warships design and development, and previously described the transformations of various ship-types, from carriers to cruisers, destroyers and submarines, corvettes plus frigates. Throughout this ongoing survey of 20th century sea power, you can observe how warships have a tendency to increase in hull-size and purpose, very often taking on roles not originally envisioned. Some types have disappeared, such as the battleship, the battle cruiser, the traditional cruiser, and the PT boat, their roles superseded by other vessels.
One ship-type which has yet to find a proper placement in new-century force structures has been the flotilla vessel, which I think is a glaring omission that needs answering. Every warship in US Navy force structure possesses the capabilities of a capital vessel, most having a power-projecting ability, and are extremely difficult to procure. Attempts to fit last century designs into new problems, which generally involve low-tech patrolling or riverine combat operations, has so far evaded the strategists.
A flotilla ship, in contrast to exquisite warships which may take a decade to procure, is a small escort warship, cheap and of light construction. During the age of sail, the flotilla would consist of sloops, schooners, bomb vessels, fire ships, ketches, dispatch vessels, and corvettes. Also small lighters would be used for amphibious landings, and cutters for revenue patrolling. During the age of steam, such squadrons would consist of gun boats, minesweepers and layers, torpedo boats, sub chasers, destroyer escorts, frigates, sloops, etc. Even destroyers might be listed in the group, early in the century weighing in the hundreds of tons to 1000, though by the end of the Second World War had grown considerably in size and abilities.
In the Cold War, various attempts were made by the Navy to restore the flotilla, for the purpose of a mass production fleet in wartime. With the lessons of the recent U-boat campaign so fresh, the logical conclusion was that it took masses of hulls for an effective anti-submarine warfare. In the 1950s and early 1960s various failed attempt sought to produce spartan hulls which would be useful in a future war at sea, yet still be affordable. These included:
All were considered too slow, poorly armed to contend with even the advanced German Type XXI submarines of the late war, let alone advanced nuclear boats then entering service. The later Brookes, sisters of the Garcias were armed with Tartar missiles and didn’t pretend to be a low-end escort. None were procured in the numbers of the succeeding Knox and Perry escorts, which solidified the trend for larger, more capable escorts as the Europeans were building. The decline in numbers had begun.
The Knox and Perry’s were the final attempt to build a ship for mass production, which succeeded to an extent, however they were quite expensive. All carried the now essential ASW helicopter, plus missiles which seem to distract from their primary patrol functions. They were more seen more often than not sailing in conjunction with the large aircraft carriers. Ironically, by the 1980s, a Perry FFG-7 pricing some $250 million each cost about the same as a Forrestal class supercarrier from the 1950s (before inflation)!
Meanwhile, a different revolution at sea was having more success. With the interest on land now leaning increasingly toward counter-insurgency, so did some far-seeing naval officers start thinking in these terms for their own service. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the notion of shallow water vessels needed for inshore operations received enhanced study, and the revival of the Gunboat Navy had begun. While some 80 ft PT boats were bought from Norway, the famed Nasty class, something with better endurance and seaworthiness was also sought. A 1975 Sea Classics article (via Gunboatriders.com) explains the reasoning:
Before elaborating on the ship itself, it should be understood that In 1961-62 the most immediate guerrilla threat to the United States was not remote Indochina, where we had a small advisory staff, but the bellicose Marxist regime 90 miles off our coast—Cuba. Throughout 1961 and 1962, Administration and Congressional spokesmen advocated taking direct action short of war to halt the rapid build-up of Castro’s Soviet-supplied war machine, then threatening to plant and nourish Guevara-style cells of revolutionaries throughout our southern flank.
The concept of the “Pacific blockade” or “declaration of contraband” was advanced and finally tested in the Second Fleet’s quarantine line during the October ‘62 Missile Crisis. Some 190 ships, headed by destroyers, spread 500 miles east of Guantanamo, intersecting Cuba’s sea lanes.
The core of the task force consisted of eight carriers. The destroyers on blockade barrier patrol might, on a moment’s notice, be called upon to reinforce the CVA anti-sub or anti-air screen (six Soviet missile subs were reported to be in the area).
The Second Fleet was stretched to the limit manning the picket line and would have been in a sad plight had the Soviet sub threat materialized. What was called for was the short-sea gunboat…
At the heart of these problems facing the 1960s navy were warships geared mainly for carrier escort, that could hardly be spared for coastal patrolling. Yet it was the same navy that saw little need for the earlier Dealeys and Claud Jones, which at the time seemed so less capable. This belatedly spurred the need for the Asheville’s, whose specs are here:
- Length-50.14 meters
- Width-7.3 meters
- Draft-2.9 meters
- Displacement-240 tons
- Propulsion-diesels and gas turbines
- Speed-16 knots on diesels, 35 knots on turbines
- Range-1700 nm
- Armament-Missiles: 4 × Aérospatiale SS 12M;
1 × USN 3 in (76 mm) /50 Mk 34; 50 rounds/min to (7 NM) 12.8 km;
1 × Bofors 40 mm/70 Mk 10. 4 × 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns (2×2)
Of these small gunboats it was said:
Ounce-for-ounce, the PG was the most lethal weapons platform in the US Navy arsenal during their lifetime.
Currently every major USN warship project is bloated in cost and price, especially for the type of warfare it conducts in shallow seas. Also for important though secondary functions such as disaster relief, you do not need a $6 billion aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine, handy as these ships are. The fleet is top-heavy with such ships and growing less capable in the midst of some fantastically capable vessels, as they become stretched thin and over-worked for lack of numbers. This is why I see the need for the USN to return to basics in warship design, to find what is truly important in war at sea.
Tomorrow-Lessons from the Navy’s Forgotten War.