Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The All Battleship Navy

I consider the United States Navy even in its below 300 ship doldrums as the mightiest fleet on earth, bar none! I also believe it was built to fight the wrong war.

Most dominant seapowers desire with each new conflict to refight some glorious past victory over its enemies. The British Royal Navy up until World War 1 most desired to refight the battle of Trafalgar, when in 1805 Admiral Nelson defeated the French Navy and secured its control of the sealanes for over a century.

When its Trafalgar finally came during the 1914-1916 war, instead of the decisive exchange of broadsides the English most desired, they were forced to contend with submarines, mines, torpedoes, and the first primitive aircraft at sea. Needless to say the Royal Navy was quite annoyed when their German antagonists failed to fight in the expected manner.

For over half a century the US Navy has sought to repeat its miraculous victory of 1942 against the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. Most of the same weapons that fought this brutal encounter still make up the complement of the fleet, save for having grown larger, more complicated, and more expensive. These include aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines whose role in modern sea strategy have changed very little as well.

The problem here is no other power on earth either duplicates our powerful carrier forces in number or quality of training. Potential rivals at sea like China, Russia, and Third World powers have found it far cheaper to circumvent our unstoppable battlefleet with submarines, fast attack craft, and cruise missile armed naval bombers.

For the next Midway, the USN maintains a force of less than a dozen 100,000 ton supercarriers each able to carry up 90 aircraft. To defend the carriers we also deploy about 125 cruisers, destroyers, and attack submarines collectively able to fire thousands of long range missiles in a single salvo.

Meanwhile, piracy on the high seas is surging. The unsophisticated Iranian Navy regularly humiliates the big ships of Western fleets by seizing their crews and practising suicide runs with fast attack craft. Recently the Spanish called on China to assist the West in combating these threats from Third World navies, in what has been essentially European waters since the 15th Century.

Though the all-gun battleship is long gone from the American fleet, their influence on the Navy leadership is firmly entrenched. While the principles of Alfred Thayer Mahan, America's premier naval strategist and big ship advocate was most welcome during our nation's rise to power in the last century, something better is sorely required to handle the multitude of threats in the 21st century, as the insurgents increasingly transfer their proven land tactics to the world's oceans.

With such an unmatched superiority from its powerful aircraft carriers groups and missile launchers at sea, it seems long overdue for the USN to freeze all construction on big ships for at least a decade or longer. Such an act is hardly unprecedented, as occurred soon after World War 1 when the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty halted all battleship construction until right before the next conflict. Such tremendous savings could go towards building up our escort fleet of frigates and patrol craft, thus producing a real brown water force capable of defeating the new pirates at their own game.