Politics & Policy

Why a Big-Ship Navy Can’t Win the Wars of the Future

Arleigh Burke-class destroyers underway in the Pacific. (Photo: US Navy)

China’s increasingly aggressive declarations of territorial claims in the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands, combined with its building up of armed artificial islands as bases from which to exert military power, are shining a spotlight on the declining size of the U.S. Navy. Of particular concern is our lack of coastal, or “littoral,” naval assets.

In littoral areas as elsewhere, the post–World War II U.S. naval supremacy to which we have become accustomed can no longer be simply assumed. This supremacy allowed the U.S. Navy to execute countless thousands of fire-support missions and carrier-aircraft sorties without the loss of a single surface combatant of over 1,000 tons. (The handful of warships lost to enemy action have largely been very small vessels struck by mines.) During this anomalous period, our surface warships have been able to attack land targets with near impunity from the safety of what some have described as the “sanctuary at sea.”

If the Cold War with the Soviets had ever gone hot, the view of the sea as a safe sanctuary likely would have been shattered. But it did not, and the opponents we faced in actual shooting wars were incapable of seriously challenging our navy. The downside of this fortunate state of affairs is that we have at least two generations of navy and civilian leadership that have operated in a world in which the rule has been: “Our ships don’t get hit” — and the rare occasion that they do is viewed as the exception that proves the rule.

However, the emergence of regional peer naval competitors such as China, resurgent Russian militarism, the proliferation of inexpensive diesel-electric submarines, increasingly lethal land-based threats, a shrinking navy with under-maintained ships, and a rapidly evaporating technological advantage are threatening U.S. maritime dominance, particularly in the increasingly dangerous littorals.  

Littoral waters, which, broadly defined, also include key shipping choke points, make up roughly 16 percent of the world’s seas and are of critical strategic and tactical importance. As defined by the Naval Postgraduate School’s recently created Littoral Operations Center (LOC), they are near shore waters where “hydrography, geography, commerce, fishing, mining, boundaries, maneuver and sustainment issues converge, complicating both the Offense and the Defense, and placing exceptional demands on naval, aerial, and land forces that must operate, fight, and influence events there.”

Unfortunately, our navy’s current fleet composition falls short both in the type and number of ships necessary to project decisive force into contested littoral waters. This critical shortage will not be met by continuing to spend ever larger sums to buy ever fewer expensive, large-displacement, multi-purpose warships and multi-billion-dollar nuclear-attack subs. The challenge can only be met by building smaller-displacement, green-water ships capable of taking the fight to the enemy’s coastal waters, while radically improving our sea-control and sea-denial capabilities.

To this end, the LOC, based in Monterey, Calif., focuses on developing tactics and technology to enhance the U.S. Navy’s integration of “land, air, sea and undersea operations along the world’s coastlines.” Captain Wayne Hughes, a retired naval officer, Emeritus Dean for the Naval Postgraduate School, and one of the center’s founders, recently published a paper in Proceedings magazine advocating building smaller single-purpose coastal combatants and questioning the wisdom of relying almost exclusively on large multi-purpose surface combatants such as the Arleigh Burke–class destroyers. U.S. Navy commander Phillip Pournelle, also in Proceedings, expresses a number of similar concerns about a navy built around large ships, warning that “in an age of precision-strike weapon proliferation, a big-ship navy equals a brittle fleet.”

“What’s needed is a revamped force structure based on smaller surface combatants,” Commander Pournelle argues.

They are right to be concerned. Each 9,000 ton Burke-class destroyer represents an investment of about $2 billion when fully outfitted. Though these ships are called “destroyers,” they are more like cruisers in their size and capabilities. At over 500 feet long, while relatively maneuverable for a ship of that size, they are thin skinned and shockingly have less than half the range of World War II–era cruisers of similar displacement. Placing a Burke into hostile littoral waters puts at great risk a ship the Navy relies on for multiple roles including fleet air defense, anti-ballistic-missile defense, anti-submarine warfare, and land and sea attack capabilities.

Though it is true that Burke-class destroyers are fitted with multi-layered passive and active defenses, it is also true that, to date, not one of our Aegis Combat System–equipped warships has actually successfully shot down an incoming enemy missile. While passive defensives, such as chaff and high-tech fog, can be effective, it is a mistake to think that the Burke’s expensive, complex, and sophisticated Aegis platform forms some kind of Star Trek–like force field around our ships. Naval analysts understand that even under the best conditions some percentage of missiles — “leakers” — will get past the ship’s layered defenses.

Further, when it comes to asymmetric attacks such as the one successfully prosecuted against the USS Cole in the port of Aden in 2000, international maritime law and our own rules of engagement could allow potential enemies to slip within our effective detection and engagement range. Coastal waters and skies are often cluttered with commercial ships and aircraft, ultra-quiet diesel-electric attack submarines, fishing vessels, pleasure craft, and more: These are far from ideal environments for ships designed for long-range engagements. In such conditions, Burke-class destroyers are unlikely to be able to react quickly enough, greatly increasing the chances of a successful enemy attack.

Littoral Combat Ships USS Independence and USS Coronado (US Navy)

Enter the idea of smaller, highly capable, highly maneuverable missile attack ships. For what each Burke-class destroyer costs, we should be able to buy more than ten of these smaller single-purpose missile ships. This is a way of implementing in the Navy a time-proven principle more often associated with ground wars — “dispersion of forces.”

Smaller, harder-to-see, and harder-to-target missile-attack ships of 600 tons or less can attack land- and sea-based targets, execute ongoing sea-control operations and, after two or three weeks on station, withdraw to refuel, resupply, re-crew (if necessary), and rearm. Crew sizes of 25 to 50 could vary from mission to mission. For a fraction of the total displacement and cost, a squadron of eight of these ships could provide the kind of sea control and tactical situational awareness impossible for a single Burke-class ship or even the Navy’s new 3,500-ton Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs). While smaller than a Burke, the Navy’s much criticized LCSs are still relatively large ships that bring very little firepower to the littoral force given their $700 million price tag (including a mission module). For the cost of an LCSs mission module, a small littoral combatant can be purchased that would have more than enough firepower to sink the lightly constructed, under-manned LCSs. The small green-water combatants being proposed by the LOC will actually do the jobs that the Littoral Combat Ship, originally touted as costing $200 million, was supposed to do. Despite the name, the LCSs are ill-designed to fulfill the Navy’s needs.

With more shallow-water ships, the Navy’s ability to conduct anti-piracy, anti-smuggling and search-and-seizure operations would be greatly expanded. Along with their own considerable firepower, these green-water ships, through the Navy’s cooperative engagement capability, would be able to direct missile launches from their larger blue-water cousins lurking farther out to sea. And while a surprise attack could destroy or mission kill one of our large multi-role blue-water ships, a successful ambush of one of our smaller, less expensive green-water combatants would leave the rest of the squadron intact and fully mission capable. Further, the finer-grain sea control that more ships and more eyeballs bring to the battlespace would make it harder for the enemy to execute a surprise attack in the first place.

Can the Navy realistically build a new class of ships in a reasonable amount of time? Partnering with friendly nations to jointly build or buy variations of existing littoral warships would allow us to start commissioning these smaller surface combatants in a matter of only a few years. The LOC has identified a simplified, cost-reduced version of Sweden’s 600-ton Visby-class corvette or Indonesia’s new Klewang-missile corvette as possibilities for jointly building or buying. And, in a nod to just how far China has come in the last 20 years, the LOC also has identified the 200-ton Houbei-class attack boat as an inspiration for building a larger fast-attack ship of 500 to 600 tons that has greater endurance.

Swedish Navy’s Visby-class corvette HMS Helsingborg

Each of these ships could be configured to carry eight or more long-range missiles capable of attacking ships and land targets. In addition to their guns and a lethal complement of missiles, they would have active and passive defenses that, coupled with their smaller visual signature, smaller radar signature, and superior maneuverability would make them far from defenseless. In coastal waters their smaller size makes them much harder to spot than longer, wider, taller warships such as the Burke, the Zumwalt-class “stealth” destroyer, and the two variants of the Navy’s LCSs. Depending on the specific ship and the configuration, the cost of these small littoral combatants should be in the $80 million to $150 million range, perhaps less for the Klewang-class corvettes. While not intended to replace big blue-water combatants like the Burke, littorally focused ships need to be a bigger part of our navy’s force structure.

Combining these missile-attack ships with modern diesel-electric attack subs would give the Navy a cost-effective force that could operate in a near-peer competitor’s home littoral waters. At about $400 million each, five or six of these air-independent-propulsion–equipped diesel-electric subs (SSPs) could be purchased for the cost of one $2.6 billion Virginia-class nuclear-attack sub (SSN). The slower, shorter-legged SSPs would not supplant our SSNs, but when forward deployed into shallow littorals and crewed by our navy’s superbly trained submariners they would have an edge over our own excellent SSNs.

Another component sorely lacking in our current fleet composition is small littorally focused anti-submarine/anti-mine warfare ships that can lay down a web of inexpensive multi-static, networked sonar buoys.

Regardless of what steps we take toward the goal of building what could be called a Littoral Action Group, it is a fantasy to think our navy will not have ships taking damage and ships being sunk when going up against peer or near-peer competitors in littoral waters. Historically, that is the harsh reality of naval conflict, and any lessons to the contrary we think we have learned in a few decades of shooting wars against vastly overmatched opponents should be taken with a grain of salt in future engagements against real naval powers. Consequently, any plan to maintain maritime supremacy that does not include a force structure capable of absorbing significant ship losses is irresponsible and puts our nation’s ability to meet our maritime obligations at risk.

If the United States wants to remain the dominant naval power it has been in the past, it needs to boost its ability to operate in contested littoral waters. Over the last 20 years, vendor-driven ship procurement, coupled with the premature retirement and destruction of dozens of powerful warships (our surface-warship reserve fleet is almost non-existent), has resulted in a navy far less powerful than it should be relative to the vast sums of money invested in it. The quickest route to gaining relevant, cost-effective naval power is by investing in affordable, smaller, green-water ships as a complement to our bigger blue-water ships. Doing so will give us many times more bang for the buck than we have been getting with ships like the Navy’s LCSs and the futuristic Zumwalt-class destroyers. Most important, it will help reverse the decline in U.S. naval power. If other nations can develop and field small, lethal littoral combatants that are more than a match for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship — and for a fraction of the cost — then we should expect and demand nothing less from ourselves.

— Mike Fredenburg holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, a Masters in Production Operations Management, is a regular contributor to National Review and a past contributor to the California Political Review and the San Diego Union Tribune. He was the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute of San Diego.

Mike Fredenburg Mike Fredenburg is the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute of San Diego.

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