Thursday, April 10, 2008

Facing up to Carrier Obsolescence

Here's an astonishing comment from Martin Sieff that I've been maintaining for years:

...America's nuclear aircraft carriers have been sitting ducks for
fast-attack submarines for the past 40 years.

How can this be, you ask? Because the once maligned "pig boats" have, since the addition of nuclear power at mid-century, equaled or surpassed the once feared surface warship in speed and performance (plus they're extremely stealthy):

...neither U.S. policymakers nor the American public realize the
vulnerability of giant aircraft carriers to torpedo attacks from modern fast
submarines was demonstrated in 1968 when a fast Soviet nuclear-powered attack
submarine matched the USS Enterprise at top speed in the Pacific Ocean. That
moment, vividly and thoroughly discussed in Patrick Tyler's "Running Critical,"
was as epochal a moment in the shift of the strategic balance at sea as Billy
Mitchell's sinking of Ostfriesland.

Now that subs also come armed with ship-killing cruise missiles, many of which outrange the carrier's anti-sub weapons, there is very little the big ships can do to defeat this unstoppable force at sea. As we stated in yesterday's post, the USN since WW 2 hasn't faced any type of peer enemy at sea to test this dangerous fault in our maritime strategy. And the Navy leadership in love with the supercarrier, has chosen to ignore the threat.

Consider for a moment the havoc, devastation, and worry these fragile "Little Davids" caused the Western allies during 2 world wars. Thousands of merchant vessels sunk, many millions of tons of supplies worth billions of dollars on the ocean floor, and great and ancient empires brought to the brink of surrender. All this from warships more or less 1000 tons in weight, armed with a single light deck gun and often faulty torpedoes, who could only spend a few hours at a time submerged, and then at only a crawling speed of less than 10 knots. This is the reason so many sub attacks occurred on the surface, where the boats somewhat better speed of 20 knots allowed it to catch the surface convoy.

So dire was the new threat to the surface admirals, that entirely new classes of warships in many thousands were ordered to defeat the menace. Destroyers, destroyers escorts, sub-chasers, escort carriers, sloops, frigates, and countless others were built to contain and eventually defeat the U-boat menace, which rarely consisted of over 100 boats in commission during WW 2, and a few score at sea in WW 1. The shipbuilding resources of 3 Western superpowers were mobilized to combat the menace. Canada alone had over 400 warships in service in 1945, especially geared towards winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

Today, thanks to streamlined hulls, advanced long-range weapons, and especially nuclear power, the submarine has become much more than just a threat to the fragile and slow merchant ship. As mentioned by Sieff, the new boats easily match the high speeds of our fastest warships. Unlike their world war ancestors, they rarely ever surface, even when attacking with their deadly cargo of cruise missiles. Even slower and cheaper conventional subs which are possessed by Third World countries like Iran and North Korea have also increased in endurance, thanks to new Air Independent Propulsion, while carrying the same deadly long-range weapons of the nuclear boats.

In response to this dire threat, the West since the Cold War has carried out a wholesale dismantling of their once huge anti-sub fleets. Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, the masses of specialized ASW frigates were quickly discarded without replacement, especially in the US Navy. In their place, ever larger and more costly new battle-force warships were launched like aircraft carriers, missile destroyers, and amphibious ships, whose principle mission of Expeditionary Warfare would be untenable anyway if we lose the next Battle of the Atlantic. Just ask, if it were possible, the architects of the D-Day Landings in 1944 if you consider this an untrue statement.

The days when the surface warship roams unmolested at sea are swiftly waning.