The U.S. Navy is still working out what its purpose should be in a post-Cold War world. With a new President around the corner, it is an appropriate time took look at what the Navy should and should not do, with an eye towards any restructuring of our forces that seems necessary or appropriate as a result.
Given the long lead time involved in Naval ship building, this is a decision that a new Secretary of Defense needs to attend to very early in a new administration, notwithstanding the fact that the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are more urgent priorites.
Conventional Naval Warfare
One role of the U.S. Navy is to be part of a response to hostile action by foreign naval powers. The dominant threat in this regard is the threat posed by North Korean and Chinese forces (possibly with the assistance of complicity of the Russian Pacific fleet) in the Pacific Theater.
The main scenarios of concern are an attack upon our ally Taiwan by China, an attack upon South Korea by China or North Korea, an attack upon Japan by China or North Korea, and an attack upon the Phillipines by China, in approximately that order. Another kind of attack which could occur in a variety of contexts, would be a military effort by some of all of these potentially threatening forces to interdict shipping to our allies or in the region generally.
The North Korean Scenario
The threats posses in a North Korea scenario turn out to be quite similar in character to those posed by smaller potentially hostile forces in Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and Vietnam, and is worth exploring a some length.
North Korea has about 22 diesel powered Romeo Type 031 Class submarines of about 1,830 tons each, which carry up to eight torpedos. These don't approach state of the art, their crews do not have the training of modern Western navies, and they are designed for coastal opearations (although they have a range of up to 9,000 miles at a tepid speed of 9 knots cruising speed). North Korea also has about 26 Sang-o Class submarines of its own manufacture which are about 370 tons each, have about a 1,500 mile range, and carry two torpedos.
While these submarines are hardly state of the art, a small number of cannily operated submarines with hostile intent can inflict great damage on surface ships, take a great deal of effort to locate and destroy one by one, and have a terror effect that can essentially end commercial shipping in a large geographic area until all of the submarines can be definitively proven to be located and eliminated with a single attack or credible threat of doing so. An active diesel attack submarine fleet can also keep major U.S. combatants like aircraft carriers, amphibious ships and various classes of cruise missile carrying surface and submarine combatants much further from shore than they would otherwise operate.
The difficulty of the task has been illustrated by multiple recent occassions where North Korean or Chinese Submarines have been first discovered by Japanese or American naval forces well within a range when a ship destroying torpedo could have been launched.
In addition to the submarines, North Korea has about 9 frigates (the smallest class of blue sea warship), 43 missile boats and 115 torpedo boats.
The frigates can be instantly located with radar and satellite imagery, do not have particularly advanced anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, and cannot put distance between convention U.S. combatants and themselves by retreating into shallow coastal regions and estuaries where rock outcroppings and other land features can be used for cover from attack. American forces have ample carrier based aircraft with anti-ship weapons, ship based anti-ship cruise missiles, attack submarines with torpedos, and ship based torpedos to make short work of these frigates long before visual contact can be made and likely before the frigates even have any firm idea of where the American forces are located. In blue sea combat frigates are destroyed tragets in the first hours of the war. Their use to the North Korean military is primarily their ability to interdict civilian and pirate ships, and small armed boats, that are relatively from shore.
The missile and torpedo boats are a class of ships largely absent from the Navy of the United States and many of its allies, which are common in the Naval Forces of North Korea, China, Vietnam and Iran, to name just a few. These are small craft by naval standards, generally under 500 tons with crews of fifteen people or less that are are not intended to go far from the coast of the operating country. These craft are easier to tuck away in mangrove forests or crude shelter where they can go undetected until first deployed in a conflict. They have little in the way of electronics or defense weapons or armor. But, their weapons are very potent and can do a great deal of damage to an American or allied force ship if they get through the defenses that these larger ships have in place.
An incident earlier this year in the Persian Gulf involving an Iranian boat that got close to an American ship, illustrated that it is harder to stay aware of these smaller boats, and while one at a time they are helpless, a swarm of attacking small craft with potent weapons could potentially overwhelm U.S. ships which are designed with defense against a smaller number of more powerful ships in mind.
In addition to coastal submarines with torpedos, and numerous missile and torpedo boats, a nation like North Korea can also threaten ships that come nearby with coastal ground based anti-ship missiles, and with with fighter aircraft. The North Korean air force is reputed to have about 510 fighter aircraft, about 300 intended for air to air combat, and another 210 or so intended for air to ground bombing.
As is the case with the Air Forces of all but a handful of potential military adversaries to the United States, North Korea's aircraft are in many cases in poor repair, have poorly trained crews, and are aircraft designs that are far out of date and grossly inferior to the fighter aircraft in the American arsenal and that of its allies. But, they could be deployed on suicide missions, and anything short of a 100% success rate in intercepting incoming North Korean aircraft by a U.S. allied naval force will cost the U.S. some of its ships and many of the hundreds of sailors aboard each one.
Existing U.S. carrier based aircraft, in sufficient numbers, ground based fighter aircraft, and anti-aircraft weapons are U.S. surface combatants are more than adequate to handle the anti-aircraft task in an assembled mass, with minimal casualties. And, U.S. submarines are more or less invulnerable to the air forces of a nation like North Korea.
Throughly dispatching an enemy air force, like its submarine fleet, its major surface combatants and the lion's share of its missile and torpedo boats, are all tasks that must be completed before an area can be declared safe for seabasing of troops, sea based support of ground troops, or ordinary shipping. The U.S. is currently weakest in its ability to conduct anti-submarine warfare and its ability to handle swarms of vulnerable small craft or ground source missiles with a potent ability to cause damage.
The U.S. also also comparatively weak in its ability to clear sea mines in a quick and efficient manner to make sea lanes safe for sea basing and shipping.
A Chinese Scenario
Perhaps the single great worry for the U.S. Navy, placed second on this list only because it is atypical of other convention naval warfare encounters that the U.S. Navy could face is a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, something that it routinely threatens to carry out and has tailored its military to a significant degree to be capable of carrying out. The existence of an attack would be obvious from Chinese rhetoric, radar, early warning systems, Taiwanese patrols, intelligence sources and satellite imagery. A surprise attack would be essentially impossible. But, a rapidly assembled Chinese force could leave insufficient time to marshal U.S. naval forces from outside the Pacific theater to participate in the opening hours and days of the conflict.
In this scenario, it is entirely possible that South Korea and Japan would refuse to interfere with their own forces out of concern for incurring the wrath of neighbor and trade partner China, leaving the United States to go it along along with the full force of the Taiwanese military, at least for the critical first few days.
China's fleet of submarines is similar in number of ships to, but more capable than, the North Korean submarine fleet, suggesting that the anti-submarine warfare challenge would be greater. China also has several times as many aircraft as North Korea, including a reasonable share that are more competent. And, like American surface combatants, many of China's several dozen large surface combatants have cruise missile and anti-aircraft capabilities.
On balance, the Chinese Air Force and submarine fleet could probably be defeated by combined Taiwanese and United States forces. But, that isn't the point. The point is that the Chinese Air Force and submarine fleet could keep the U.S. surface fleet a considerable distance from the action for a significant length of time, probably days, at least, during which China could try to move a large flotilla of amphibious forces to Taiwain.
In such a situation, the U.S. would have to rely on (i) anti-ship missles from distant U.S. and allied surface ships, (ii) cruise missiles based on U.S. bombers, (iii) its nuclear attack submarines, (iv) carrier based aircraft, and (v) ground based aircraft (bombers, fighters, tankers and electronic warfare craft) stationed in Japan, and to a lesser degree in South Korea and Guam and Hawaii. The torpedos and naval guns of U.S. Naval ships would be essentially useless because U.S. surface combatants would be forced to maintain too great a distance from the fighting for their own safety. Tawain would rely on its own naval fleet, which would not be at liberty to flee to a distance as U.S. surface combatants would, and its own ground based aircraft.
These military resources would need to first destroy invading amphibous ships and Chinese aircraft (to protect Taiwan itself), then Chinese surface combatants (to prevent counterattacks), and then proceed to try to mop up Chinese small craft and Chinese submarines disrupting shipping (as well perhaps as North Korean submarines assisting Chiense forces). A full fledged attack could involve over a thousand Chinese and Chinese allied aircraft, and a couple hundred ships, boats and submarines.
The U.S./Taiwanese strategy relies upon anti-ship missiles, attack submarines and combat with aircraft inflicting enough damage upon an invading Chinese force in the initial hours and days of the conflict to allow Taiwanese ground forces, relieved hours or days later by rapidly deployed U.S. Marines and paratroopers, to survive the missiles and bombs that make it through from China to Taiwan, and rout any Chinese ground troops that manage to slip through what would be the biggest convention naval battle in world history since World War II.
The extent to which the seas in the area would be safe for shipping after the fact depend upon the speed with which U.S. and Taiwanese Navy anti-submarine warfare efforts could subdue their quarry, an extremely difficult task in the case of the more modern submarines in the Chinese fleet.
The Russian Scenario
The only notable exception to naval conflicts along the pattern of the North Korean one sketched out above is the potential of widespread naval war with Russia. It is the only potentially hostile navy in the world that rivals that of the U.S. in sophistication and size. Its blue sea navy, particularly its modern attack submarines have the potential to wreck havoc on U.S. naval forces worldwide and worldwide shipping. It also has a ballistic missile submarine force (as does China although China's is much smaller).
Any threat of this kind would be one that the U.S. would handle not alone, but in concert with allies from essentially every modern Navy on the planet, including the Navies of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain and France.
I won't explore that scenario at length in this post.
Suffice it to say that the U.S. Navy was designed specifically with that threat in mind, that in the meantime that the Russian Navy has eroded in its capabilities to a greater degree than the U.S. Navy has, and that this is a threat that we will be able to meet for decades so long as we do not wholesale scrap our current fleet prematurely, even if we make few meaningful additions to that fleet.
Also, under current political circumstances, it is hard to see a plausible scenario in which a naval conflict with Russia would arise. Russia's current military priorities seem to be oriented towards reasserting itself with its immediate neighbors with whom it has land borders. One could imagine, perhaps, an effort by Russia to blockade Estonia or Latvia or Lithuania or Poland in the Baltic Sea, but even in that situation, given Russia's nuclear arsenal, conventional warfare wouldn't be a first choice for resolving an indicident like that one. Likewise, while one could imagine a naval standoff in the Pacific Ocean between the Russian fleet and the Japanese fleet over one of the disputed Northern Japanese islands off the Russian coast, escalation into conventional naval warfare also seems unlikely given the risk of nuclear escalation.
Protecting shipping against seabased criminals on the high seas has been and remains one of the purposes of the U.S. Navy. For almost a century, pirates seemed more like an artifact of history than a modern concern. But, the past couple of decades has seen a resurgence of piracy, particularly off the Coast of Somolia, and in heavily travelled trade routes in and around Indonesia.
The other purpose of the U.S. Navy is to serve as a base for U.S. troops, aircraft and release efforts in situations where the U.S. and its allies control the airspace and have eliminated whatever marginal naval forces may be in place. For example, very litle of sub-Saharan Africa has any meaningful naval force or an airforce that couldn't be dispatched very quickly by U.S. and allied force. With a handful of notable exceptions, the same is true of South America and most of Southeast Asia.
Thus, however vulnerale the U.S. surface fleet is in theory to certain kinds of threats like submarine warfare, aircraft swarms, missile swarms, and small craft swarms, once those threats are eliminated, the ocean is a place where the U.S. can set up a large military base on demand to serve just about any ground based military operation.
Sea based forces are then available to blockade a nation, to supply and relieve and provide fire support for ground troops, to serve as an air force, or to be a center for relief or evacuation operations.
The U.S. has fourteen nuclear submarines loaded with multiple warhead nuclear missiles vastly more potent than the ones used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is arguably the most potent part of the American nuclear triad (land based intercontental ballistic missiles and airbased nuclear bombs are the other two). This is because nuclear submarines which can remain undetected below the seas for months at a time are far less vunerable to pre-emptive measures to destroy them than land based nuclear missile bases or aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Also, nuclear missile submarines begin their missions to deliver missiles to a target much closer to those targets than land based missiles or aircraft carrying missiles. As a result, there is far less time for any nation that has some sort of missile defense system or deteurrent to effectively defend against this threat or to retaliate with its own missiles.
The U.S. Navy has also been lobbying hard for a role in a national missile defense system designed to intercept small numbers of nuclear missiles from rogue nations near the point of launch, and also to use the same anti-missile weapons to disable opponent's satellites. The Navy has established credibility in this effort by having a much better success rate in its trials of experimental versions of these weapons, something probably mostly attributable to the Navy's advanced and mature Aegis missile/aircraft defense systems. The Navy has proposed a small fleet of 25,000 ton nuclear powered cruisers, that would operate away from the carrier and amphibious assault groups that absorb almost all of the Navy's other surface combatants, to fulfill this role.
In contrast, the Air Force's efforts to develop anti-missile defense systems have fared poorly in testing compared to the Navy's efforts, despite the fact that the tests its doing appear to be easier because its efforts have not made as much progress, or to be far off into the future, such as Boeign 747 based laser guns, because a great deal of research and development will be required to make the planned defensive systems operational.
No one has developed any system that could provide meaningful defense against a full fledge mutual assured destroy nuclear attack from a nation like Russia. But, efforts to provide some sort of defense from a small number of nuclear missiles for city sized areas, or for isolated missile launches from anticipated launch sites (neither of which exists in any form now) seems technologically feasible.
Special Forces Support
The Navy has a role, which it shares with all of the other forces, in developing means of delivering small units of special forces troops to deployments. Four of its Ohio class submarines have been adapted for this purpose. So too can its third Seawolf nuclear attack submarine and all of its Virginia class nuclear attack submarines (currently three).
The Navy also has small craft adapted for that purpose and can deploy helicopters from almost all of its aircraft carriers, surface combatants and amphibious force ships, and Osprey tilt rotor craft from most of the larger ones.