Empty Oceans Pt 2
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.