Saturday, September 22, 2007

21st century navies, fraught with danger

Robert Kaplan describes a scenario where the U.S. continues guarantee open access to the sea lanes through cooperation more than intimidation.
[The] twin trends of a rising Asia and a politically crumbling Middle East will most likely lead to a naval emphasis on the Indian Ocean and its surrounding seas, the sites of the “brown water” choke points of world commerce — the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, the Bab el Mandeb at the mouth of the Red Sea, and Malacca.

These narrow bodies of water will become increasingly susceptible to terrorism, even as they become more and more clogged with tankers bringing Middle Eastern oil to the growing middle classes of India and China.
The surrounding seas will then become home territory to Indian and Chinese warships, protecting their own tanker routes...

[The U.S.] should take advantage of the rising risk of terrorism and piracy in order to draw the Chinese and Indian Navies into joint patrols of choke points and tanker routes...

Because we remain the only major player in the Pacific and Indian Oceans without territorial ambitions or disputes with its neighbors, indispensability, rather than dominance, must be our goal. That, continuing deep into the 21st century, would be a stirring achievement. |Lost at Sea - NY Times| (emphasis added)

For nearly a century, surface navies have been branded obsolete and the arrival of the submarine was declared the death knell of the surface navy. Yet, ships endure...

World War II submarines were actually diesel boats that had the ability to submerge to attack or flee and run on batteries, but weren't full time submersibles. It's only with the advent of nuclear submarines that the navy has realized true submarines, boats that can stay underwater almost indefinitely.

It is certainly true that surface navies are vulnerable to a wide range of threats. A recent article at Defense Review suggests that the u.S. should not be building bigger carriers due to the difficult of protecting them.

Bottom line, if we get into any kind of serious beef with ANY country that has a decent arsenal of these weapons, our aircraft carriers will most likely be destroyed and sunk within minutes. They're just too big, too slow, and too visible to survive, even with all their onboard and offboard networked defenses. The fact is that high-speed, sophisticated precision anti-ship weapons technology is cheaper and can therefore outpace our ability to protect our big, slow carriers. In the end, war is a financial transaction. Russian helicopters cost a lot more to produce, field and replace than Stinger missiles, and U.S. Aircraft carriers cost A LOT more to produce, field and replace than even the most sophisticated anti-ship weapons.

But, here's the kicker: The enemy might not even have to rely on the above-discussed weapons to sink our carriers. Back in 2002, the U.S. Navy conducted a training exercise called "Millenium Challenge 02", which was designed to showcase high-tech joint-force doctrine. Instead, it ended up showcasing the ability of the Opposing Force (OPFOR) Commander, Gen. Paul Van Riper, to sink two-thirds of the U.S. fleet with "nothing more than a few small boats (fishing boats, patrol boats, etc.) and aircraft." Here's how Gary Brecher a.k.a. "War Nerd" described Gen. Van Riper's naval combat tactics, and the ramifications (i.e. big-picture significance) of the resulting carnage to our warships:

"He kept them circling around the edges of the Persian Gulf aimlessly, driving the Navy crazy trying to keep track of them. When the Admirals finally lost patience and ordered all planes and ships to leave, van Ripen had them all attack at once. And they sank two-thirds of the US fleet.

That should scare the hell out of everybody who cares about how well the US is prepared to fight its next war. It means that a bunch of Cessnas, fishing boats and assorted private craft, crewed by good soldiers and armed with anti-ship missiles, can destroy a US aircraft carrier. That means that the hundreds of trillions (yeah, trillions) of dollars we've invested in shipbuilding is wasted, worthless." |U.S. Aircraft Carriers Vulnerable to Attack?: The Ticking Time Bomb - Defense Review|
I think surface navies will always be important to a nation's ability to extend its power throughout the world.

But the world is becoming a more dangerous place and it will be increasingly risky for any nation to interfere with the affairs of others.


dr said...

I'm about 99% sure that the most recent sinking of a capital ship was during the Falklands War in 1982. I'm also pretty sure that no US Navy capital ships have been sunk in action since WWII (I couldn't find any reference to losses in Vietnam other than river patrol boats. In Korea, five ships were sunk, all of them minesweeping tugs of some sort)

And yet, the US Navy has inflicted a lot of damage with its navy in those years. Which is all by way of saying that I think the supposed vulnerability of the surface navy is part hype and part misunderstanding of the mission.

Neal R. Axton (USA) said...

You make good points. However, I think missiles and munitions have improved radically since 1992. And information-centric warfare has evolved almost entirely since 1992. The addition of GPS alone is a huge boon to munitions.

I think that the lack of surface vessel sinkings can be attributed to the fact that we've had very little all-out warfare since 1945.

Most warfare has been either a limited war, an insurgency, or proxy wars.

If the US and China were to go to war, it would be a whole other story, I think.

And, as you point out, there's a huge difference between a blue water navy and the brown water navies that we use in rivers and such. But the Persian Gulf is a small (volatile) body of water.

I agree that there's a lot of hype out there, but that doesn't mean we ignore the vulnerabilities of surface navies.

On the other hand, trying to convert all our ships to submarines is a ludicrous pipe dream.

dr said...

I think that the lack of surface vessel sinkings can be attributed to the fact that we've had very little all-out warfare since 1945.

But this is really my point about misunderstanding the mission. The people who talk about the vulnerability of the navy are, as you note, frequently urging us to build a submarine fleet. But submarines, while useful in an all-out war against a nation with a surface navy, aren't particularly effective at the principal mission of the US Navy.

That mission is to project power against overmatched foes. Our navy, like the British navy in its heyday, is an instrument of imperial control. It makes sense for those who wish to resist our imperial ambitions to build submarine fleets. It would make less sense for us.

Neal R. Axton (USA) said...

Put that way, I totally agree with you.