Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Navy's Dillema

We continue to provide exerts from my recent book "New Wars: The Transformation of Armies, Navies, and Airpower in the Digital Age" which you can purchase via the ad in the top corner:

Soon Britain and America will have to decide what type of Navy is to defend their respective countries into the 21st Century. Currently the powerful fleet of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and nuclear submarines are increasingly harder to build and maintain. To compensate, both nations have systematically stripped the number of smaller frigates and patrol craft, which once comprised the bulk of the fleet...

Many reasons are given by both navies for gutting their surface fleets for a few of the big ships. Often it is the need to maintain vital expertise for constructing nuclear vessels in a few select shipyards. Or the fact that larger ships are more useful and survivable in the modern war at sea.

This begs the question whether keeping the Cold War era shipyards open is for our national security, or to keep jobs, for decades dependent on government subsidies? Likewise are increasingly unaffordable and vastly technical nuclear powered ships still relevant in this age of the gas turbine, fuel cells, and air-independent propulsion (for submarines)?

Aircraft carriers and other large warships are useful vessels, especially in amphibious expeditionary warfare. Yet, with the increasing widespread use of smart precision weapons and cruise missiles, there is growing doubt whether they are more survivable than smaller ships. Despite spending vast sums in recent decades to protect the massive carriers, with wonder weapons such as the Aegis antimissile ships, the Navy has yet to face a mass missile attack on its fleet. During the Falkland Islands War of 1982, Britain lost 6 modern warships to less than a handful of cruise missiles, as well as the archaic bombers of the Argentine Air Force. One has to wonder what would have become of the Royal Navy task force had the enemy been equipped with the new smart bombs, used so effectively in the Gulf Wars, rather than old style “dumb bombs”, many of which failed to explode?

It is also uncertain if the big ships are useful enough to justify their great expense. In the Falklands, the light carriers of the Royal Navy carried Harrier jump jets which overcame the high performance fighters of Argentina, many of whose pilots were trained by Israel. There is much evidence to suggest that modern “Harrier carriers” with planes armed with precision bombs and missiles could easily replace the supercarriers, armed with hordes of fighters and bombers.

Strangely, even Britain has forgotten these hard-won lessons. Soon she will discard her veteran light carriers for 2 large deck vessels, vastly reducing her surface fleet to pay for them. America too will start her $11 billion CVN-21 carrier, and the $3 billion DDX destroyer which is really a battle cruiser in all but name. These latter ships are touted as the heirs to the valiant sub-hunters which in their hundreds defeated the Nazi sub menace, and later held the line against Soviet Russia. The DDX will not be built in hundreds, but probably less than a dozen, to make our Navy’s heart swell with pride at our vast technical expertise. The real test, though, will come in war. With some 400 submarines and counting scattered throughout the world, we can only pray our technology alone will save us.

A relevant posting from Galrahn is titled "Cancel The CVF While the Fleet Still Floats".