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Empty Oceans Pt 1

July 26, 2010

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.


25 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 29, 2010 5:00 am

    Benjamin-Sorry I missed that article! Thanks for dropping in!

  2. Benjamin Cole permalink
    July 28, 2010 8:43 pm

    I think I have died and gone to heaven! I have been telling my “conservative” friends for years that I read an article back in the 1970s that an all-submarine navy was the way to go. I read it Foreign Affairs, so long ago it was pre-Internet, pre-cell phones, jeez, I probably read the article by gaslamp.

    This is a wonderful blog, and should be must-reading for every voting citizen. I say this not because I am a liberal–I think it is time to radically cut many federal agencues, including HUD and Education. And our military, sadly, needs some serious trimming too.

    But we have reached a point where any criticism of any military program gets a knee-jerk negative reaction. And to be fair, there are liberals out there who whne about everything, even when our military does some great and right.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 28, 2010 2:59 pm

    Joey Seich-Thanks for posting the surface warships article, which made for some busy discussion this week!

  4. July 27, 2010 2:10 pm

    I think Hudson we are saying the same thing. We are just caught up transmitting our ideas through this very restricted channel.

    Got to go and read what Mike B has posted now.

  5. Hudson permalink
    July 27, 2010 10:46 am


    You’re talking more about the politically correct 80s moving forward to today and associated restrictive rules of engagement. The 80s came about when the anti-war youths of the 60s rose to power in the universities and attacked language. But the ROE in the Vietnam War were not particularly restrictive. Napalm was widely used. We live in a much different, more militant age today than the 60s–you don’t hear too many chants of “Peace Now!” Yes, there are wars between states today, for example, Georgia and Russia, but not fought to the total defeat of the lesser power. Of course, anything can happen. Must run myself.

  6. July 27, 2010 8:44 am

    I just wanted to thank you for linking to our JFQ article, “The End of Surface Warships” on the NDU Press website. It’s much appreciated and we welcome the feedback.

  7. July 27, 2010 7:01 am

    Hello Hudson!!!

    I think Mike B. was thinking I was advocating some form of fascism; I wasn’t I was saying we live in the times we live in and that times change. We live in an age now where British troops in Iraq during fire fights could only use semi-automatic fire (there was a famous incident when an MP ran around a platoon reminding them of this during a contact and telling them of the consequences if they didn’t) or some battalions were told not to sniper rifles in case this was interpreted as offensive. Whilst our enemy used the mentally ill as suicide bombers, use children soldiers and for other purposes, used places of worship and hospitals as firing positions.

    I am not sure what you are saying about Realpolitik whether you think I am not taking that in consideration. Well I do. I always wrote my papers from the realist perspective. I am old enough now to see that is how the real works. Yes there maybe a liberal or socialist veil to an event, but at the root there will be some hard self interest be that national, (party) political, or personal.

    I am busy and I haven’t time to articulate but I think you are perhaps not thinking far enough out of the box as to whether a conflict would occur between states. As I said conflict will occur at the point of crisis and be limited; rapid escalation and rapid de-escalation. This is why platforms need to be sensor heavy and there will be little need for large amount of smart munitions. I am not saying there will be a world war type scenario. As said disputes will be quickly forgotten and I think commercial activity may even continue. You should go look at whale oil in WW2; in fact look at the amount of contact (for various reasons) between all sides in WW2. Further thought a platform may project “power” because of size and capabilities a vanity project; classic “gunboat” show of force. In a way that dozen of so corvettes with a 76mm deck gun could never do.

    Anyway must press on……

  8. Hudson permalink
    July 27, 2010 12:27 am

    “As resources become scarce and the peoples of developed world become aware of their precarious position do you think liberal ideas that have driven the collective consciousness since the late 60′s will survive?”

    Interesting point, x. In distinction to the 60s, culturally, we are now living in historical times as opposed to the anti-heroic, anti-historical era of the 60s; hence, we see films or mini-series such as “Rome” or “Spartacus,” the appearance of fight clubs and even gladiatorial schools and staged non-lethal gladiatorial contests. However, that does not necessarily translate into Realpolitik and the wars we fight. Afghanistan comes to resemble Vietnam as a “quagmire,” a throwback to the 60s, rather than a Roman war of conquest and victory and a parade through the capital with captured slaves in tow.

    Our lust for events that resonate is balanced by your earlier point that we live in an inter-connected world. Hence, the U.S. and China are bound in a kind of tango that would prevent all-out war between two powers that would never occupy each other’s capital. Similarly, a resurgent Russia is dependent on its contracts to supply energy to Europe, to be a reliable trading partner rather than a towering bear thirsting for land and victory; though controlling Europe one way or the other would not be out of Russia’s orbit.

    I think we can expect bit players like N. Korea, Iran and Venezuela under Chavez, to come to the fore, for which there will be a naval response. Meanwhile, we experience vile and bloody events like the Rwandan genocide, which hardly disturb the nerve net across the globe.

  9. July 26, 2010 6:25 pm

    Mike B said “But since that is venturing into politics I will leave it there.”

    You can’t separate security from politics or politics from the economy!!!

    But I know what you mean so I won’t go down that avenue.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 26, 2010 5:18 pm

    X-I do think that many of the weapons we discuss here which are empowering divergent groups such as Third World terrorists, pirates, rogue powers, will eventually be dealt with by changes in political systems (i.e. increased security but less freedom). That is a historical answer to anarchy though not a permanent one, as we recall the Roman system. But since that is venturing into politics I will leave it there.

  11. July 26, 2010 4:52 pm

    Hello Mike B!

    I think you are forgetting we now live in a world liberal free market not a merchantilist one. We are all far inter connected to think about trade interdiction working, Armed conflict between developed powers will be brief and soon forgotten as alliances are broken and forged. We are entering a time which is a reminiscent of previous times in two ways. Firstly there will be an over arching balance of power type scenario. And we are entering an age of force preservation (a pre-Napoleonic model) for two reasons, one as you rightly point out on most occasions cost and because of the growing ubiquity of precision guided munitions across all scales. As resources become scarce and the peoples of developed world become aware of their precarious position do you think liberal ideas that have driven the collective consciousness since the late 60’s will survive? (For example do you think China will have qualms about using force to protect its mines, and perhaps farms, in Africa if there is a need?)

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 26, 2010 1:51 pm

    X wrote-“The next high end war will be fought between high end platforms at a point of crisis with very controlled escalation and rapid controlled de-escalation. It will sensor heavy. There will be little need for kinetic kills. This is the type of conflict that the USN is planning to fight.”

    Actually, this is the type they prefer to fight, but the enemy ALWAYS seeks the line of least resistance in a larger power. For Britain this was her merchant shipping. The USA might not be dependent on commerce as the Empire was, we might even survive a shutdown of the sealanes, but her allies cannot, whom we are dependent on for much of our sea control.

    I see no logic in our ongoing neglect of sea control, other than it is habitual for us until almost too late.

    Fencer-well put and I hope I explain it as well tomorrow!

  13. Al L. permalink
    July 26, 2010 1:49 pm

    The “satellites+ASMs will end surface ships” theory is ridiculous. Sure they will make maneuver more complicated, but such technological changes have alway occurred in spiraling circles.

    There are many possible ways to overcome this satellite/ASM problem:

    1.antisatellite missiles
    2.antisatellite satellites, including ones that are launched into synchronous orbit with an opponents satellite then just wait to disrupt it’s transmissions or sensors when the time is right.
    3.Decoys, including electronically generated ones
    4.As ship traffic increases world wide, hiding among the ship traffic using shrouds,top side camouflage or even q-ships
    5.signal disruption. Someone on the ground has to tell the satellite what to do,the satellite has to talk to the ground, someone on the ground has to communicate with the missile and the missile may have to receive satellite communications during flight.
    6.Signals intercept. X hear’s Y’s satellite and missilie launch system talking so X takes action by moving the ship(s), launching against the satellite, disrupting the signals, launching against the ground control station, launching against the missile on the ground, using the info for antimissile missile targeting or all of the above.
    7.MADeNS (Mutual Assured Destruction Near Space) It goes like this: X threatens or attempts to disrupt all of Y’s shipping using satellites and missiles. Y says fine if you do then we will destroy all your satellites and you’ll be back to 1956. X then says we’ll return the favor. Either a) they both launch and their both back to 1956 in which case the surface ship rules, or b) they both operate by a de facto pact (think of chemical weapons during WWII) in which they can both see each others ships but each knows a strategic launch on shipping results in an equal response, so once again the surface ship is safe.

    All of this will be aided by the fact that these observation satellites will have to be in low earth orbit (MADeNS could leave medium and high earth orbit out of the equation) where they are targetable as we now know by an SM-3 missile on a ship. That could mean that in the not too near future this becomes a tactical exchange: satellite spots ship, satellite sends signal, signal is detected, ship shoots satellite, new satellite is launched, repeat.

  14. July 26, 2010 1:30 pm

    I think we need to move away from contrition warfare against trade as a model.

    The next high end war will be fought between high end platforms at a point of crisis with very controlled escalation and rapid controlled de-escalation. It will sensor heavy. There will be little need for kinetic kills. This is the type of conflict that the USN is planning to fight. And that is why the modern escort (which can reach down to peace keeping and anti-terrorism) is the platform that will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.

  15. Fencer permalink
    July 26, 2010 1:15 pm

    Mike, I read the whole article and I think that Lt. Col. Shrader could have done a little more research before publishing it. I mean statements about how a CVN-78 is nothing but a “juicy target” for terrorists, or “During World War II… the range of a Hellcat fighter jet was about 1,000 miles”, and how during amphibious assaults “Marines can deploy the last few hundred yards by inflatable raft” don’t exactly instill confidence it his credentials. By far my favorite comment though was how cargo submarines “could be the only resupply line for heavy equipment if an enemy country or terrorist organization has eliminated our surface warships and is focusing now on our military cargo ships.” In all I think you would have done a better job writing similar, but more informed, article yourself.

    One point though is that “A2/AD” weapons have always had the tactical advantage over warships. Blockading warships must remain beyond the enemy’s reach, in the 1700s this meant cannon range, in the early 1900s submarines, now it’s the DF-21. Attacking ships on the other hand have combated this is by utilizing their strategic mobility to concentrate against the weakest point in a static defense. I think that the only reason these new weapon systems appear so formidable is because the US Navy has become accustomed to being invincible. It is not time to call for the abolishment of the surface fleet, it is time to recognize their limitations and employ them more effectively

  16. MatR permalink
    July 26, 2010 1:14 pm

    I’m of the opinion that an individual country’s maritime commerce – rather than global trade – can be crippled by the use of mines placed by merchant ships. Very cheap and hard to counter. Thiking of the Dardanelles especially, although that’s a while back.

    If not ‘q-ships’ – well, if a Gotland sub can carry 48 mines in a girdle, how many might be engineered onto a large, powerful SSN? Drop them at choke points like harbours and high traffic waterways and havoc would ensue. And, modern mines can be placed well in advance of them becoming live.

    I think that if you enjoy the luxury of SSNs, it’s possible to isolate most nations from the sea, given the right technical jiggery-pokery – if only one nation at a time ;o)

  17. Chuck Hill permalink
    July 26, 2010 1:10 pm

    The era of absolute American dominance has been an anomaly that has to end sooner or later. It has been too easy for us for a very long time. No-go zones are the norm. But they can be progressively rolled up. Satellites can be shot down. Over the horizon radars attacked, command and control centers penetrated. It can take patience and planning, but that is the norm.

    Surface ships still have an advantage over submarines in that it is much easier for them to work in teams, cooperatively with other ships and with aircraft. Subs are still primarily lone hunters or missile carriers.

  18. Hudson permalink
    July 26, 2010 11:10 am

    There is no class of ship or boat that is less expensive than the missile that can cripple or destroy it. A ship costing millions can be sunk by a missile costing thousands, or an artillery shell costing a hundred dollars, say.

    So the solution for survival at sea must be something more than ship numbers. Survival must come in the form of superior strategy (first strike) and defense: a combination of stealth, EW, decoys, maneuver, defensive fire (including lasers), and armor, off the top of my head.


  19. Heretic permalink
    July 26, 2010 10:38 am

    Nuclear Submarine AAW Suite = Steel Shark with a frickin’ LAZER BEAM on a mast mount at periscope depth!

    Nuclear Submarine ASuW Suite = Steel Shark with a frickin’ LAZER BEAM on a mast mount at periscope depth!

  20. martin permalink
    July 26, 2010 9:19 am

    I think the article fails to realise that sinking other ships is the smallest part of the Navy’s job. How many US SSN’s have engaged another ship? Answer 0 in 60 years. The navy’s main jobs are

    1. Basic sea control and embargo enforcement
    2. Power projection onto Land
    3. Disaster relief
    4. Diplomatic mission’s and flying the flag.

    SSN’s are not great for any of these missions.

    I also do not subscribe to the idea that Submarines can on there own close sea lanes. The US Navy has half the operational SSN’s in the world. Around 40 vessels. Take a scenario where US Navy SSN’s try to close the Indian Ocean.With a 3 week transit in both directions that’s maybe 8 boats at a time on station. The Germans used more than 300 subs to try to cut of the UK in WWII and took huge losses and never managed the task.. Every SSN lost (and they would be some) could not be replaced. There are only a handful of facilities in the world which can turn out the boats and even less that can make the reactors. World total SSN production is on the region of 4 per year. Any ship capable of carrying a helicopter can potentially be an ASW surface unit. There are 28,000 merchant vessels in the world many that could carry a Helio in some limited form.

    To think that a handful of SSN’s could shut down world trade I think is unrealistic. Yes they could cause losses but in times of real war losses are acceptable. They main way that U boats were defeated was to simply build more merchant men than could be sunk.

    Trying to use cheaper easier to make SSK’s to close down all trade would fair little better. Great for sitting still and defending your coast but as soon as they have to transit into an ocean even with AIP they become slow moving undefended badly armed surface ships. Given the rate that ASW helios could be built at I think that in a protracted war the result for the Submarine force would be the same as it was in WWII in the long term.

    There is also the point of crews. When your surface ship is sunk the crew often survives to fight another day. A submarine is often a complete loss. Trying to replace basic ratings would be difficult let alone experienced PO and officers to operate the fantastic nuc powered super sub as well as the immensely skilled nuclear engineers.

    Surface ships are here to stay and will always form the backbone of the navy especially in peacetime.

  21. Peter J. Brown permalink
    July 26, 2010 7:46 am

    The use of sub-hunting satellites is not generally viewed as an effective and reliable means for detecting subs, especially subs operating at great depth. That said however, satellites play a very useful role in support of new fixed and mobile hybrid sub detection and tracking networks. Submariners need to keep an eye to the sky as a result.


  22. July 26, 2010 7:40 am

    Are ships expensive? Or is it the way the modern defence industry goes about its business?

  23. Scott B. permalink
    July 26, 2010 6:59 am

    On a somewhat related matter, check the slideshow posted in the “Dept of Silly Ideas” section :

    Striker (aka Frappeur) by Rene Loire


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