Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Questioning the need for a "Gator Navy"

If we accept the reality that all surface warships are at risk in this new age of precision bombs and cruise missiles, then we must inevitably include amphibious warships in this category.

We have only a single instance in the Missile Age to base this conclusion, but it is a most revealing one. The 1982 British Invasion of the Falkland Islands holds many lessons for modern seapower, not the least of which is the seizing, securing, and holding of a defended beachhead. The fact that the Royal Navy, Army, and Marines succeeded in this very difficult endeavour doesn't alter our conclusion, that the World War 2 style of amphibious operations is obsolete.

The few cruise missiles which the Argentine defenders possessed wrought havoc among the assembled vessels of the Royal Navy at San Carlos, not to mention the threat the new weapons posed to the British aircraft carriers which would provide essential naval air cover. The two flattops Hermes and Invincible were forced to sail at the extreme range of Argentine airpower, thus minimizing the combat radius of the defending Harrier vertol jets.

Old style "dumb bombs" also nearly defeated the assault. Fortunately most of the Argentinian pilots dropped their bombs at too low an altitude, causing comparatively little damage than what might have occurred. The few effective airstrikes occurred when the cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor ferrying supplies and helicopters for the landing forces was lost after being struck by two Exocet missiles.

Here is where the "What Ifs" of history comes into play to doom the modern amphibious landing. What if the Argentines possessed a large supply of cruise missiles, as they are so prolific today? What if the British Task Force had to contend not with "dumb bombs" but modern laser guided and even newer fire-and-forget JDAM weapons currently in widespread service with US forces and her allies? There can be little doubt the Royal Navy amphibious forces that barely succeeded in getting the troops ashore in the face of strenuous political and military factors would have failed completely without a major change in tactics.

The United States possesses a similar force as the British save in the size of and quantity of vessels. Except for the new helicopter carriers, which is a major increase in capability, plus fast hovercraft replacing slower landing craft, the US Marines follow basically the same tactics as their forbearers in World War 2. The Navy justifies the continued existence of such expensive and vulnerable warships on the success of numerous bushfire wars during the Cold War, and ongoing into the current War on Terror. With the exception of the Inchon Landings in 1950, occurring previous to the Missile Age, America has yet to launch a single major amphibious landing on a defended beach. Without exception the enemies she has faced during this time period have been Third World foes who had little in the way of sea forces and in which the USN had unchallenged air superiority.

It is difficult to understand why even in this very desirable environment the opportunity wasn't taken to test our superior and extremely costly amphibious fleet on any occasion. We don't think this is a matter of timidity on the part of our warriors (My Gosh! These are US Marines!). Perhaps, though, it is an acknowledgement by our naval leadership of the vulnerability of this strategy in modern high-tech warfare.

We have, then, this magnificent and greatly underutilized Gator Navy. Oh, we might be assured of the advantage such a capability gives us for disaster relief operations, showing the flag, or humanitarian missions, but couldn't such important but sundry duties be performed as effectively and at far less a cost for our stretched-thin shipbuilding budget by Navy frigates, gun boats, or hospital ships? Warships are built to fight and if they can't perform this essential function for our country then all else is useless.