19 March 2009

U.S. Warship Construction Cuts Planned

The U.S. Navy's surface warships far outnumber those of any possible competitor militarily. In part this is because surface warships are vulnerable militarily so that even nations that can afford them haven't built them. Aircraft and submarines are better alternatives for many military missions.

I have repeatedly posted about indications that surface warships are vulnerable to missile attacks and submarine warfare. There are active anti-submarine and anti-missile systems on every U.S. warship, but when push comes to shove, the information available to the civilian public indicates that surface warships usually lose. Tragedy has been avoided so far, mostly because we have had very few hostile military incidents since World War II with nations that have modern submarine or missile resources. The surface navy is mostly now as group of U.S. military bases that the U.S. doesn't have to receive permission to put in place, for use against opponents too militarily unsophisticated to have modern submarines or anti-ship missiles. And, recent conflicts in and around Israel have established that even well organizized non-sovereign terrorist groups now have access to modern anti-ship missiles.

Another problem with the U.S. Navy is that to get within striking range of a target, your entire self-contained force must be reasonably close to your military opponents. It takes about twenty active duty military personnel to operate an aircraft. But, when you deploy an aircraft to engage an opponent militarily, only a few of those military personnel are exposed to enemy fire from opponents with weapons that have the same range as the aircraft's. In the case of cruise missiles deployed by long range bombing aircraft, the support crew can be a very long distance from the active conflict, even the flight crew doesn't have to get particularly close, and many U.S. bombing aircraft are invisible to (or in the case of cruise missile carrying bombers can stay out of the range of) radar. In contrast, there is no such thing as surface ship stealth, and several hundred crew members must be within striking range, as opposed to one percent of that number of people for an aircraft. Submarines have slightly smaller crews (although still far larger than an aircraft) and are more stealthy than surface ships, of course.

The final problem, shared by both surface ships and submarines, but not aircraft, is speed of deployment and redeployment. Aircraft can be deployed en masse for a major engagement at Okinawa on Monday, and be in place to be deployed in a major engagement in Iraq on Wednesday. Surface ships and and submarines are hard pressed to move 600 miles a day. Their might is available only if military commanders had the foresight to preplace them, and they must be split between all the military theaters where their military capabilities might be needed. This means that, all other things being equal, it takes about a third to a half as many otherwise military equivalent aircraft to meet a global military force requirement as it does naval resources.

Increasingly, the main justification that backers give Congress for U.S. Navy construction is not that the ships are militarily useful, but that they create jobs.

Fortunately, the current administration looks likely to make major cuts in new purchases of surface ships, thereby freeing up fiscal resources for other needs.


Michael Malak said...

"all other things being equal, it takes about a third to a half as many otherwise military equivalent aircraft to meet a global military force requirement as it does naval resources"

"all other things being equal" is always a loaded term, and in this case particularly so. A Navy is more useful than an Air Force in protecting trade shipping routes. As you know, I agree that surface ships are passe, except for perhaps protection against pirates.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I'm not at all conviced that the ships in the Navy, particularly as currently configured, are better than aircraft (probably patrol aircraft like the P-8 which is replacing the P-3 and UAVs, at protecting trade shipping routes).

The Navy's surface ship resources are overwhelmingly bundled up into aircraft carrier groups and amphibious assault groups. Once those group's naval resource needs are met, there are very few warships left for non-escort duties and they aren't particularly well suited to the protection of trade shipping route mission. Because the Navy is so bundled, it can only be in about a dozen places at any time (about a third of the Navy is out of service at any given time, there are elven aircraft carriers, plus the amphibious assault groups). Each of the groups is tremendously expensive requiring around ten thousands sailors and well over $20 billion of ships, before one even considers the aircraft resources in such groups. And, the groups have a long logistical tail, since only the carriers are nuclear powered.

The one mission that the U.S. Navy does best, compared to the Air Force, ironically flows from one of its weaknesses of the surface navy, a lack of stealth. The surface navy is a convenient way to show the flag and create a credible threat of action by appearing within visible range, just off the coast, someplace where a conflict is raging or threatens to, as it did off the coast of Liberia during one of their recent elections.

Similarly, "show the flag" notions explain a lot of naval positioning of aircraft carrier groups in the Middle East, that isn't actually necessary in terms of battle capabilities of the U.S. military in the area.