Out of the Mouth of Babes
At first glance, the temptation might be to ignore the following articles out of hand. A casual read by even a novice defense enthusiast will see the lack of fact checking, sure sign of an amateur on defense matters. For instance, the following was posted in the Louisiana News Star titled “Military: Indulging in overkill?”:
I looked it up. As of now, the U.S. Navy boasts 24 carriers of all classes against nine flat-tops for all the other navies in the world on all the seas. It costs around a cool $4.5 billion to build a carrier…My question is why America needs so many carriers when we have twice the big ships of all the other powers combined, as noted, and while — with the demise of the Soviet Union — we are the only bear in the big power woods.U.S. carriers have been useful in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but the Taliban is a stateless terrorist organization, with not one carrier in its effective but stone-age arsenal. Neither does al-Qaida have a carrier.
We only have 11 dedicated carriers, and closer to that number if you count the 10 amphibious flattops which can only carry helos and Harrier V/STOL jets. Aside from this the writer makes a good case about the War in Afghanistan. So the military logic has concluded for decades to sustain a terribly expensive weapon to battle in the world’s most impoverished places. While you could argue you might need a carrier for supporting initial landings, it seems even after a few days it would be possible to establish a rough landing base for aircraft, and these need not be $100 million super fighters like the Navy deploys on its Big Decks. Then, why do you need to have so many large and expensive vessels in a fleet now desperate for numbers, against such foes?
So the argument might be you need them for a peer adversary. Well, earlier the author pointed to the fact that of the 9 foreign aircraft carriers in service today, only 1 is used by our former Russian foe. The rest belong to close allies who continuously operate alongside us in world’s hotspots. What about the Chinese threat?
It can be assumed that the People’s Republic of China is a future big power rival of the U.S. but — get this — China has not a single aircraft carrier and isn’t building one.
Actually, all signs point to the fact that China is aggressively seeking a carrier arm. If it does eventually, maybe deploy such a vessel, and painstakingly learn all the tricks of the trade the USN has developed for nearly a century, they still will have ONLY ONE, compared to our 20+. Such a drain on the Chinese budget would also be at risk from the same type missiles and submarines, the kind they may have used to intimidate the carrier USS George Washington out of the Yellow Sea last month:
Then there is the feeling that in the era of satellite reconnaissance and accurate anti-ship missiles the carrier is more and more vulnerable. Even now carriers are escorted by flotillas of destroyers and other warships.Looking deeper into the future, it’s speculated that U.S. nuclear submarines — not carriers — will be the centerpiece of the fleet. The price-tag on a nuclear sub is, by the way, $8 billion — almost twice the cost of a carrier.
The pricetag of the latest Virginia class SSN is $2.4 billion. Was the author thinking of the high cost of the USN Trident submarine, which is nearer his figure? Despite the flawed math, the point of new technology rising to threaten the Big Decks is well spoken, and experts have alluded to this, even the US Defense Secretary. What seems common knowledge to the public then, is looked on with doubt and apparent apathy by the naval leadership, who consistently have sent the 100,000 ton supercarriers, with their 5000+ crewmen into danger zones where they can have easily targeted by land-based defenses, shallow water suicide craft, naval mines, and especially stealthy diesel submarines. You see then the counter to a giant ship is far more cost-effective than using the $4.5 billion ship to strike the world’s poorest countries. The balance of power is shifting.
While possessing nowhere near America’s defense resources, Canada still can boast a rich maritime heritage, as well as the wealth and natural resources to apparently build any type of fleet she desired. Still the nation, once one of the world’s largest, struggles even to maintain a modest ability at sea. Here from Bancroft, Ontario, Sylvia Hennessy plays armchair admiral:
In 1934 the Canadian Navy had only 11 fighting ships and 3,000 men. By the end of WWII we had 400 fighting ships and 100,000 men.
Today Canada has 33 ships. Our four submarines were purchased from Britain 20 years ago. One caught fire and has been in dry dock in Esquimalt B.C. since 2004 awaiting repairs. The three destroyers are almost 40 years old and are being held together with spare parts. Our 12 multipurpose frigates are due for a mid life refit. They are 15 years old and no new ones have been ordered.
The Sea King helicopters are seldom used since they are no longer air worthy, yet the 28 cyclone choppers ordered in 2004 won’t begin to be delivered until 2012 to 2013. This leaves us 12 patrol boats and two auxiliary.
In 2007, six corvette size patrol ships were ordered for the Arctic. With global warming melting northern pack ice, many experts have predicted the North West Passage will become a commercial waterway within the next few decades. Yet I have found no where it states that these patrol boats are completed and in use.
They haven’t been Sylvia, though there are more promises from the Government that they will be built, along with new frigates and giant command ships. Except previous governments has spent the last decade making promises which never get off the ground. Meanwhile, as you point out, the threats continue to worsen against Canada’s 243,000 kilometres of coastline, the world’s longest:
How vulnerable are we? … In an era when we lock our doors, cars, and even our churches, when we hear stories of pirates in the media, and drug runners, protection of our coastal waters seems not to be a priority.
We seem to be getting weaker, the more we spend. Overseas navies, rising foes like Iran, or North Korea, future rivals like India or China, spend far less while they seem to be having a greater effect on their surrounding region. It is true we can project power like nobody’s business, but what happens afterwards, and is the ability to use naval power against land powers really as important as we make out?
Finally, and though hardly an amateur in matters of security, I still find it fascinating that it is the land-centric warriors, the Army generals who have been speaking out in Britain for need of a bigger fleet, while their admirals are focused on land threats. Here writing in the Telegraph is former Chief of the General Staff Gen Sir Richard Dannatt:
This dose of reality impacts on the aircraft carrier programme, too. At £4 billion, the two ships are not actually that expensive – but at £10 billion, the Joint Strike Fighters intended to fly off them most certainly are. This brings the whole project into doubt, and two related questions into focus. Those are: how does the Royal Navy best protect our trade routes and shipping – a lifeline on which our island nation still depends – and how is air power to be provided in support of our land forces?
The answers lie with more and smaller ships to secure the sea lanes, and land-based planes whose range is enhanced by a renegotiated air-to-air refuelling programme.
And to disavow any accusation of bias toward his service:
The Army needs to reduce immediately its holdings of main battle tanks and heavy artillery, and its presence in Germany.
So we see again someone not traditionally associated with seapower calling on the navy to perform its traditional role of defending the sealanes. This can only be done with hulls in the water, and lots of them. While aircraft carriers do perform an essential role still, this is only in support of the fleet as a whole, but how we are using such vessels against land targets, they require continuous and very expensive escorting that further distracts the navy from its primary function. But low cost patrol vessels are very handy for most of the functions required from the fleet today. However we say, “build a high end battleship for the worse case scenario“, yet they are so rare and can often be manage by newer technology as General Dannat points out.
How does the carrier-less Canadians fit also into this mindset? Well, they also build ships which are the most powerful and meant to operate with allies, such as the USN. In fact, the Americans are depending on allied frigates more and more to sail with their largest ships, to make up their own lack of funding in such craft. Ottawa has bought into the “build USA Lite” idea and are suffering the shortages now common using only high tech forces used against mostly low tech enemies.