Empty Oceans Pt 1
An Iraq War veteran makes an astonishing claim in the National Defense University Press. Here is Lieutenant Colonel Thomas E. Shrader, USA, Chief of Media Operations for U.S. Forces–Iraq, with the story “The End of Surface Warships“:
Just as manned aircraft suddenly rendered once-mighty battleships obsolete, we are now on the cusp of a new era in which all surface warfare ships will become obsolete. It has not happened yet, but the handwriting is clearly on the wall. Soon they will become indefensible. Why? Because ships are expensive and manned, while missiles are cheap and unmanned. Also, satellites are rapidly making every inch of the Earth viewable with the click of a mouse. In the near future, there will be literally nowhere to hide.
The author goes on detail several specific reasons for this bold assertion:
- Ships are expensive, and they take years to build. With aircraft carriers like the Gerald R. Ford “worth about $14 billion floating around in the middle of the ocean with thousands of American lives on board.” Plus the $2 billion each (with equipment?) Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships with “almost 2,000 Marines and a crew of about 1,000 Sailors and officers.”
- Missile are good and plenty. “Using $1 million as a round figure means that we could buy 2,000 missiles for $2 billion. So compared to the cost of a ship, we could purchase thousands of missiles.”
- Satellites are a game-changer. “Soon every inch of the Earth’s oceans will be visible by satellite. It will be a simple matter to find the exact grid coordinates of any ship anywhere in the world, punch the data into a missile silo, and launch a barrage of missiles to the precise location of the ship or fleet.”
- Countermeasures are Complicated and Take Much for Granted. Citing Aegis missiles, radar, and point defenses: “The problem is that they can be overwhelmed or confused by a massive barrage of incoming rounds. And even when they do work as planned, they only work while they have ammunition.”
Lt. Colonel Shrader concludes that the submarine will save us:
The solution is submarines. The unique advantage of submarines is, of course, that we cannot see them. No matter how many satellites are in the sky, they cannot see below the ocean’s surface. Nuclear-powered submarines can stay submerged for months on end. We need to exploit this capability and develop whole new classes of submarines, such as aircraft carriers, troop carriers, and cargo submarines.
All possible, but practical? He concludes with the following decisive argument:
Technology changes warfare. It makes once-supreme systems outdated and ineffective. Just as steel battleships made wooden battleships suddenly seem archaic, and just as airplanes in their turn made the steel battleships obsolete almost overnight, we are now at the point in history where cheap, easily produced missiles will be able to home in on and overwhelm any surface combat ship, no matter how big or how advanced.
The Lt. Colonel’s assertions are not unique. Previously, writing in his 1988 book “The Price of Admiralty“, Sir John Keegan devoted an entire chapter discussing the submarine, pointing to the same conclusions:
The era of the submarine as the predominant weapon of power at sea must therefore be recognized as having begun. It is already the instrument of ultimate nuclear deterrence between the superpowers, holding at risk their cities, industries and populations as its circles their shores on its relentless oceanic orbit. It is now also the ultimate capital ship, deploying the means to destroy any surface fleet that enters its zone of operations. Five hundred years ago, before the sailing-ship pioneers ventured into great waters, the oceans were an empty place, the only area of the world’s surface in which men did not deploy military force against each other. In a future war, the ocean might appear empty again, swept clear of both of merchant traffic and of the navies which sought so to protect it against predators.
The illustration of the “empty ocean” brought on by modern weapons, is also detailed in the 1998 book “The Future of War” by David and Meredith Friedman. The authors paint an ominous portrait of a world where we:
Accept the closure of the sea-lanes. In effect, this would return the world to its condition prior to the fifteenth century. The world would become fragmented into smaller regional entities with overland access limited by normal physical and political impediments, limited coastal movement, and a complete halt in transoceanic commerce. While this may seem like a postmodern nightmare or an impending return to the Dark Ages, it is not, on sober consideration, altogether preposterous, since diffused technology would mean that the nation with the least to lose from disruption and the most to gain from blackmail would have the strongest hand.
The Friedmans’ go on to suggest other alternatives to stalemate at sea, which is again building on submarine power, though unlike Lt. Colonel Shrader, they do not see this as a viable solution, and I agree:
…the enormous cost of submarine shipments would itself undermine the global economy, while the submarine itself is no longer safe from intelligent projectiles.
There is of course the primary fault of an all-submarine navy, is the obvious fact that for loading or unloading cargo, whether as submersible troops transports or logistics ships, at some point the vessel would have to surface to offload its shipment. This would see it become a target to the same weapons that are placing the surface combatants at risk today.
It is further interesting that the Friedmans’ accurately predict land based missile power as a way for a non-naval power to command the sea, 10 years before the notion became reality. Here though, they are speaking in terms of hypersonic cruise missiles instead of conventional ICBMs, but the effect is the same.
Finally, along with the missiles, plus satellites and submarines, American strategists are considering the possibility of its magnificent fleet of supercarriers, guided missile destroyers, and amphibious warships becoming wasting assets in Chinese “no-go zones”. Here is Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr.:
The implications of these efforts are clear. East Asian waters are slowly but surely becoming another potential no-go zone for U.S. ships, particularly for aircraft carriers, which carry short-range strike aircraft that require them to operate well within the reach of the PLA’s A2/AD systems if they want remain operationally relevant. The large air bases in the region that host the U.S. Air Force’s short-range strike aircraft and support aircraft are similarly under increased threat. All thus risk becoming wasting assets. If the United States does not adapt to these emerging challenges, the military balance in Asia will be fundamentally transformed in Beijing’s favor. This would increase the danger that China might be encouraged to resolve outstanding regional security issues through coercion, if not aggression.
In the followup post, I will discuss how the Navy previously handled threats to its existence, specifically that from the manned bomber of the 1930s and 1940s, when the surface navy’s doom was earlier prematurely pronounced.
Tomorrow-Rebirth of the Surface Navy.