Monday, February 11, 2008

The Navy is Not Built to Fight

One of the problems I have with the USN's new Maritime Strategy is its emphasis on so-called "soft power" and upon deterring war rather than actually fighting America's enemies, as we are currently doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the strategy reveals:

"We believe that preventing wars is as important as winning

In this, I fear the admirals are tapping in for political reasons the general discontent and antiwar mood of the nation in recent years. Yet, if 9/11 is proof of anything it is the futility of avoiding indefinitely major conflict with those who hate us, especially when battle is thrust upon us unexpectedly.

The defensive over an offensive mindset has been ingrained in the Navy's leadership at least since the latter Cold War period and prevails with us to this day. It is an attempt to maintain out-of-date naval platforms and strategies far beyond their relevance in modern warfare (the fleet we want rather than the one we need). Deep into the Cruise Missile Age, the USN clings to the doctrine of massive carrier battlegroups, with only a limited striking power compared to the great expense to defend them, i.e. the Aegis cruisers and destroyers, plus nuclear powered attack submarines. Of even more dubious value, are large expeditionary amphibious ships, sold to the public for US Marine peacekeeping duties, despite the fact that for over half a century the USMC has acted mostly as a land-based adjunct to the Army in all our nation's major wars.

Its attack submarine fleet, though still essential, is misused, as was its World War 2 predecessor. Now as then their primary purpose is defending the battle fleet and scouting, rather than the offensive weapon they became later on and will likely be in a future conflict at sea.

Lets examine, then, the weakness of each platform individually:

  • The Aircraft Carrier-Each Nimitz class warship possesses only 50 combat aircraft. Delete from this the defensive combat air patrol (CAP) and an offensive striking force might number 40 planes or less. In recent decades the Navy has finally disposed its its long range attack bombers (A-6 Intruders and F-14 "Bombcats"), even as land based cruise missiles, potent naval mines, and precision armed bombers are pushing the big ships further from the land targets where they're needed most. While still useful against a lo-tech Third World power, it is doubtful the continued expense of defending this platform is worth its future use in a major sea battle.

  • Aegis Warships-Aegis is the most effective and sophisticated weapons system ever deployed by any nation at sea. Yet, by design it is an exclusively defensive, adding nothing to the fighting power of the CG-47 Ticonderoga cruisers and DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers it currently operates from. Meant to protect a battle group from a mass cruise missile attack, it also adds immensely to the cost and size of the platform that carries it. The offensive power of the 9,000 ton Burke, for instance, rests on its cruise missiles and anti-submarine heloes, the same which were carried by the half cost and sized Spruance destroyers for the 1980s, and well as the even smaller and $200 million Perry class frigates of the same era.

  • LPD-17 Amphibious Ships-The crux of the Navy expeditionary warfare mission is the ability to put Marines and their equipment ashore on a hostile beachhead. The LPD-17 San Antonio class comes with its own defensive missile system plus sea-going hovercraft meant to keep the parent vessel far out to sea from any land based missile threat, the so called "Over the Horizon" strategy of the late Cold War. America maintains sizable amphibious forces on call, but has been surprisingly resistant of utilizing such forces for over 50 years, most notably during the 1991 Gulf War. With the Marines a continued part of the Army's continental strategy of distracting Eurasian threats from constructing navies, the value of such underused weapons remains dubious within a cash strapped and shrinking navy.

  • Nuclear Attack Submarines-The submarine by its very inception is an offensive weapon, designed as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries to negate the Royal Navy's unbeatable battle fleet. In practice, the USN has assigned these perfect stealth vessels a relatively subsidiary role against enemy submarines. Current plans call for using these $2 billion light cruiser size warships to tackle small diesel/electric boats in their natural environment of shallow waters, where the latter reign supreme and are near invisible to detection. A better role for these warships are to keep to the deep oceans, guarding America's sealanes and in wartime, lying in wait for enemy warships at strategic chokepoints.

Exactly 100 years ago, the British Royal Navy, as we mentioned, possessed a proud and mighty fleet of battleships, well trained and maintained. When war actually came in 1914, however, the mighty armada of dreadnoughts could do little to influence the land battle, save for a humiliating naval siege that hurt England as much as her enemies. She placed her faith then in the wrong weapons systems, while German subs sailed under her blockade, and she soon lost her place of prominence as the dominant power at sea. With no other great democracy prepared to take our place as the world's policeman, America can't afford to make the same mistake as the Royal Navy.