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Empty Oceans Pt 2

July 27, 2010

Today I continue the study on the idea of the shutdown of the sealanes, and the end of the surface warship by modern weapons. Some contend that the advancement in submarines, sensors, and long range weaponry would create a catastrophic assault on the globalized system of maritime trade. During the first several decades of the 20th century, there was an equal fear that airpower might end civilization as we know it. Here are a few quotes from the early era and what Airpower Prophets saw from the potential of the new and much feared weapons:

Would not the sight of a single enemy airplane be enough to induce a formidable panic? Normal life would be unable to continue under the constant threat of death and imminent destruction.

I have a mathematical certainty that the future will confirm my assertion that aerial warfare will be the most important element in future wars, and that in consequence not only will the importance of the Independent Air Force rapidly increase, but the importance of the army and navy will decrease in proportion.

To have command of the air means to be able to cut an enemy’s army and navy off from their bases of operation and nullify their chances of winning the war.
—— General Giulio Douhet, ‘The Command of the Air,’ 1921.

Not only can (aircraft carriers) not operate efficiently on the high seas but even if they could they cannot place sufficient aircraft in the air at one time to insure a concentrated operation.

US General William “Billy” Mitchell

By land and by sea the approaching aircraft development knocks out the present fleet, makes invasion practicable, cancels our country being an island, transforms the atmosphere into a battle ground of the future. There is only thing to do to the ostriches who are spending these vast millions on what is as useful for the next war as bows and arrows. Sack the lot.

— Admiral Lord Jack Fisher


Many of the airpower theories proved correct, and the new weapons would go on to dominate the plans and militaries of the next world war, as they do to this day. Where the aerial prophets failed was in their predictions of the total elimination of armies and navies, but rather we see them transformed. While there are numerous examples of warships surviving the onslaught, for our purposes I look to the naval actions off the Island of Crete 20 May–1 June 1941.

After the disastrous British campaign to save Greece from the German blitzkrieg of the Balkans, the Allied forces under the command of New Zealand Major-General Bernard Freyberg, prepared to make a last stand on the nearby island of Crete. Numbers of troops favored Freyberg (40,000 versus 15,000), as did as seapower support from the Royal Navy. He was lacking in airpower, however, and this proved proved to be decisive. The Luftwaffe fielded hundreds of its battle hardened bombers including the much-feared Stukas, while the small RAF contingent lost its airfields and was removed early to Egypt.

Without aircover, Freyberg’s numbers availed him little and in a surprising short time it was all over. Likewise the fleet suffered greatly in the subsequent evacuations, as detailed by Ronald Spector in his book “At War At Sea“:

In two weeks, the Mediterranean Fleet had lost three cruisers to the Luftwaffe. Five more cruisers, eight destroyers, two battleships, and the fleet’s only carrier were out of action. Only two battleships, three cruisers, a fast minelayer, and nine destroyers remained operational.

Yet, still it was a remarkable action for the surface navy, despite the odds against it:

The German aircraft had scored a relatively small proportion of hits despite their overwhelming numbers and the availability of nearby bases. HMS Kipling, for example, had survived at least eighty-three air attacks in a few hours. Moreover, the German attack had been kept at bay by a relatively low-performance RAF and naval fighters.

Afterwords, and in the titanic sea fights of the Pacific War later, we see the surface navy holding  its own when there was little or no airpower. In times when there was adequate protection in the air, the warships thrived and performed invaluable service enhancing the fleet with presence and gunpower.

As we note with the prediction of the impending failure of surface seapower in the face of even more advanced weapons from cruise missiles, satellite guided bombs, and stealthy submarines, I think there will be a radical transformation of the navies into something totally different, more numerous, and wildly dispersed for survival. The guided missile at this time, which has made the submarine such a fearsome weapon of war, will also amplify the fighting power of the surface warship. Instead of making the surface ships obsolete, we will see its rebirth, and in fact are witnessing this already, as I often dubbed them “New Battleships“:

Thanks to Aegis, and along with the Ticonderoga class cruisers, armed as well with Tomahawk land attack missiles, we see these ships are restoring the independent lethality of the surface combatant, lost to airpower early in World War 2.


My conclusion is the new weapons, sensors, and strategies will empower the surface ship, making it more important than ever. Here are some final thoughts:

  • Just as aircraft sailing with the fleet allowed it to survive the airpower age, missile power with the fleet will sustain it in the new age. This will also have the effect of seeing a vast increase in surface warships since almost any vessel can deploy missiles, compared to only the largest and most expensive for manned airpower. Ship cost, size, and complication will decrease while their numbers will expand.
  • Submarines are not practical cargo carriers. They can carry cargo, as others have alluded to, just not in adequate tonnage required for modern warfare, neither would they be cost-effective. In this they are much like airpower, which over the decades has been proposed to replace ships altogether, whether airships or large C-17 transports. Amphibious submarines will only be used for small raider landing teams, though such a force may be effective in quite a few roles.
  • Amphibious warfare will also be vital. As learned in the first missile war, against the German V-weapons in the World War, the best way to defeat such weapons is to destroy their launchers. It was also proved during the Gulf War that the bombing of Scud missile sites was only marginally effective because of their mobility. Future anti-missile exercises might then involve more the use of ground troops launched from the sea and air to physically occupy and destroy such sites.
  • Ships can become invulnerable, or very nearly so. This would hearken back to the 18th and 19th centuries when the sailing ship of the lines were extremely durable ships to the weapons of the time, and very often became prizes instead. During the Tanker Wars of the 1980s, such huge vessels with their not so volatile oil cargo (hard to ignite in an unrefined state) would often continue sailing after hitting mines or after hits by Exocet missiles. So-called “water armor” has been used on various Royal Navy warship classes in the past century.
  • Return of the Sheepdog Navy. Just as smaller submarines are back in vogue, thanks in part to extreme quieting and air-independent-propulsion, so have advances in fast surface craft matured. From hydrofoils to surface effect craft, and SWATH vessels, they are far more capable and very fast, some attaining speeds of 60-80 knots and higher. With the right weaponry, a million-dollar speedboat might best a half-billion dollar submarine before it knows what hit it. Because of their size and very low price, they could be produced in huge numbers, with the potential to swarm the new U-boats. (Svenn Ortmann previously proposed an interesting concept for a “screening small ship” of a few-hundred tons that could fight submarines among other things, which got me thinking in this direction).
  • As noted with the new battleships, the flexibly and ease of handling of missiles compared to aircraft will allow more of these weapons to be deployed on many smaller warships. This will enhance the survivability of the fleet, allowing them to disperse rather than concentrate power in a handful of vulnerable and very costly hulls.
  • There will always be a need for surface ships to perform presence and patrolling, and interdiction among the population of the sea. For various reasons, the submarine is impractical for this on most occasions.
  • Small surface ships are naturally stealthy. They can also be built in varied shapes, fitted with an assortment of weaponry and propulsion types, such as SWATH, surface effect, wing-in-effect, etc. Unless there is some future break-through in underwater propulsion and hull-shape, these will remain easily faster than submarine craft, even as they are more affordable and easier to build.


16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2010 6:39 am

    I am never sure which is the better end for an old ship, SINKEX or razor blades. I think Spurances are wonderful ships. Look at the lines of that hull. Two 5 inchers. Nice big flight. Sensible dimensions.

    (Goes of to read his copy of NI’s Electronic Greyhounds…………………!!!!)

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 27, 2010 5:33 pm

    Craig-real! I just cropped off the helicopter firing the rockets. Found here:

  3. July 27, 2010 5:10 pm

    Hudson said “Japanese transport subs helped to keep the garrisons going”

    They were surviving on a (small) cup of rice a day.

  4. Hudson permalink
    July 27, 2010 4:28 pm

    Chuck Hill,

    Thanks. You are certainly right that SSNs would not sweep the seas of enemy merchantmen; far too few of the former and too many of the latter. The fear factor (“Jaws”), as B. Smitty mentioned, might restrain trade. I thought the Belgrano was sunk by a wire-guided torpodeo–you’re probably right. And you probably know that Japanese transport subs helped to keep the garrisons going, with up to 20,000 mile range runs.

  5. July 27, 2010 4:07 pm

    Campbell spoke about logistics.

    Just to put some more meat on the bones of what Campbell said for anybody passing through. The US has 175 C17. Though it can carry a M1Ax it can’t be landed “tactically” on rough strips it needs a good long strip of concrete. Once the C17 has performed this feat it will spend the best part of the week having its airframe tested. And by lifting the tank the C17 will shorten its life by a good chunk of airframe air hours. Now go and look how many heavy vehicles a formation like 3ACR has about 320 or so (not just tanks and Bradley’s.) And consider that it takes 8 ships to move EVERYTHING the regiment (roughly the size of a UK brigade) owns.

  6. July 27, 2010 3:14 pm

    Hey–Nice photo up top. Real or photoshop?

    We desperately need a larger menu of undersea munitions.

  7. Chuck Hill permalink
    July 27, 2010 2:56 pm

    Other navies do fire light weight torpedoes from their subs usually using different tubes and then the Soviets have some extra large tubes and torpedoes, too. I think at one time the US had some short torpedoes, so that they could carry two in the space of one normal heavy weight.

    For most merchant ships now you would want a large torpedo, or at least a large explosive charge, anyway. Merchant ships have gotten a lot bigger since WWII when the typical merchant ship was about 5,000 tons. One ship can now haul as much as an entire convoy in WWII. But the torpedoes don’t have to be as sophisticated as the Mk-48. The Belgrano was sunk with unguided torpedoes that dated from WWII and acoustic or wake homing torpedoes are also much cheaper than the Mk-48s. But if you are sending out an SSN, you are already spending a bundle so you might as well give it the best weapons available. You don’t want to get in a situation where you need a Mk48 and all you have is a wake homer.

    My point was that subs, SSNs in particular will never “sweep the seas clean” because their cost limits their number and the shippers will adapt. One way is to spread the risk by going to smaller ships in the hope that they won’t be worth the trouble of sinking. As much damage as the US did to Japanese commerce, they were still moving goods at the end of the war. (Certainly not in sufficient quantity to support the war effort or to feed their people, but the seas were not empty.) At that point the American subs were sinking a lot of small vessels by gun fire, something that is not an option for today’s SSNs.

  8. Hudson permalink
    July 27, 2010 2:04 pm

    A quick check of the Mk48 torpedo cost shows the remarkable figure in 1988 dollars of $3,500,000, if I understood the figures correctly–which is far more than a Harpoon. What I don’t understand is why the lightweight (and therefore less expensive) torps like the Mk50, designed for use against subs, cannot also be used against surface ships. They have a smaller diameter (12+”), so what about a collar or something like that for the sub’s 21-inch tubes? In figuring the value of a merchantman, you would also have to figure in the value of its cargo, inasmuch as you could determine that.

  9. Chuck Hill permalink
    July 27, 2010 12:27 pm

    B. Smitty said, “… thinking off the top of my head, one could envision a weapon that used a torpedo propulsion to attach a limpet mine which was set to detonate at some future time, allowing the sub to escape the area.

    “Of course such a weapon does not exist right now.”

    Very clever, I hope only our friends are listening. If it were set to explode only after the ship had stopped for a while, i.e. inport, it might also destroy port facilities.

    I have heard the navy is working on very “intelligent” very small torpedoes that can target specific points on a ship. Not sure the ability to disable rather than sink is particularly useful for a sub, but the Coast Guard could use it.

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    July 27, 2010 11:54 am

    Chuck Hill said, “SSNs have virtually priced themselves out of the commerce raider business. An SSN CO has got to think,” Is this merchant ship worth revealing my position when there may be bigger game out here? Is is even worth one of my precious few weapons?”

    It may very well be that the message sent by sending one merchant ship to the bottom might be enough to dissuade any other traffic.

    On the subject of scares weapons and revealing their position, Smaller torpedoes could be carried in larger numbers and still may be quite lethal. Also, thinking off the top of my head, one could envision a weapon that used a torpedo propulsion to attach a limpet mine which was set to detonate at some future time, allowing the sub to escape the area.

    Of course such a weapon does not exist right now.

  11. Chuck Hill permalink
    July 27, 2010 11:37 am

    SSNs have virtually priced themselves out of the commerce raider business. An SSN CO has got to think,” Is this merchant ship worth revealing my position when there may be bigger game out here? Is is even worth one of my precious few weapons?”

    And just as has happened in the past if the large targets are taken out, cargo can go into much smaller ships that can cost less than a torpedo.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 27, 2010 11:34 am

    FS-I’m not 100% sure, but I think you are right. In the initial exchange, the surface fleet likely will run for cover, but I think they will quickly adapt.

    Campbell, well put and much appreciated!

  13. July 27, 2010 10:41 am

    “… In this they are much like airpower, which over the decades has been proposed to replace ships altogether, whether airships or large C-17 transports. …”

    replace “ALTOGETHER”? Fire the idiots who would propose anything even near to this. (it’s a little akin to elimination of all surface warships….bleah; where were his editors?)

    Air transport is good for speed, and far-over-shore delivery. Not good for immense amounts of material though.
    Marine vessels carry huge loads, but are slow and need a harbor/dock/litering.
    Cargo airplanes are nice for fast delivery, if you’ve got an airstrip of some kind.
    Airships are good for moderately quick delivery, but direct to where material is needed.

  14. July 27, 2010 8:43 am

    As I’ve said in response to previous posts, I’m biased towards the surface navy since that is where I serve, so in light of that it might be no surprise that I agree with this assessment. Just like Billy Mitchell was wrong about aircraft carriers (the Navy had little trouble in WWII bringing enough aircraft to the fight), so are the submarine gurus wrong about the plight of the surface ship. In a one-on-one, the sub will win more often than not, but that is not how wars are fought.


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