The Weapons We Need

Check out this article by Robert Haddick in Foreign Policy. Stealth technology may now be in doubt because of more advanced radars and computers, and so the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, favors larger ships and aircraft that can be adapted more easily because of their size. There is historical precedent for bigger weapons being easier to upgrade. The Royal Navy’s large Queen Elizabeth-class dreadnoughts were modernized between the world wars and remained first-class warships in the Second World War, but the smaller Royal Sovereign-class could not be refitted so easily, and were not as useful.

Make sure to take a look at the article itself by Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert mentioned in the Foreign Policy piece. Greenert makes some interesting points. He is also a supporter of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which has been discussed at some length in previous posts on this site. I think that the idea of modularity is a very good one, but it is not a panacea. A weapon system, such as an aircraft, that can be employed in a wide variety of roles is fantastic, as long as it does well in all of those roles. A good example is the de Havilland Mosquito from the Second World War. The Mosquito turned out to be one of the best aircraft ever made, and was superb in all the missions given to it by the Royal Air Force.

A mediocre machine, by contrast, one that performed its multiple missions in only an acceptable fashion, would not be of much use, since what you really want is a warplane that is great in at least one area, such as dogfighting or dive bombing or reconnaissance. I think that the LCS, while fine in concept, may prove to be an all-around mediocre ship that does not stand out in any area. That is not a true cost-saving, since the Navy would have, in effect, purchased a sub-standard vessel that does not compare well with other, more narrowly-focused warships. The point made by Admiral Greenert is, however, well-taken. With the pace of technological change, every warplane, ship, or tank deployed by the U.S. armed forces must be capable of being upgraded over an extended period of time to keep it competitive.

 

Marc De Santis

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Roosevelt’s Navy Book Review

ROOSEVELT’S NAVY: The Education of a Warrior President, 1882-1920

James Tertius de Kay

Pegasus Books

292 pages

2012

ISBN 978-1-60598-285-4

 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920, a position tasked with overseeing the $143 million budget of the world’s third largest navy, representing 20% of annual federal spending.
Roosevelt faced a daunting task. The core of the fleet was still comprised mainly of obsolete battleships of limited use. Germany was busily increasing the size of its navy with modern ships, and Japan, the victor in the recent Russo-Japanese War, was casting covetous glances across the Pacific. Thirteen of the Navy’s battleships, Roosevelt would claim, were unfit for operations because Congress had not authorized sufficient manpower to crew them.
The outbreak of the First World War in Europe cast naval policy in an important light, and Roosevelt, a staunch supporter of Britain, was realistic about how the war would impact America. Roosevelt was a proponent of preparedness, and helped to shepherd through Congress the 1916 Navy Bill, a $600 million outlay representing the biggest single expenditure on naval armament in history.
FDR proved to be a savvy operator. When American shipowners requested guns to protect their vessels from German U-boats, they were prevented from purchasing the weapons from the Navy because of the determined opposition of anti-war senators. Roosevelt hit upon a clever solution – the Navy would simply “loan” the guns needed, thereby not requiring congressional approval since they were not actually being sold. This set the precedent for the famed Lend-Lease Act of the next war.
In Roosevelt’s Navy, author James Tertius de Kay provides a useful insight into the formation of FDR’s thinking about naval and political power, and how his tenure as Assistant Secretary of the Navy prepared him for the great conflict of his presidency.

 

Marc G. De Santis

Littoral Combat Ship a Literal Mess

The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was meant to be a small and inexpensive naval vessel able to operate close to enemy shores. It was meant to do things that would otherwise imperil a more expensive destroyer. In an earlier post, I questioned why we were building ships that were undeniably weaker than destroyers and yet expecting them to go close to enemy coastlines. Unfortunately, it looks like the LCS is an expensive flop. This Time article says that it is underarmed, not survivable in a hostile environment (isn’t that important for a warship?), and costs two times more than originally planned.

One thing about the Pentagon is that, while it almost always overpays for its equipment, it usually ensures that it has the best stuff on the block. The F-22 fighter jet may also be a super-expensive near-flop, but when it works, it is the most capable warplane ever built. The LCS, on the other hand, which is actually two separate classes of ship, neither of which appear to be worth anything, is less heavily armed than other comparably-sized foreign vessels. The USS Freedom, the lead ship of the Freedom-class LCS, has developed numerous cracks in its hull. That is not good in a boat meant to float in water. The USS Independence, the lead ship in the Independence-class LCS, has suffered from serious corrosion problems. Yet somehow, we are paying much more on each copy than other governments do on equivalent ships.  How does this happen?

Neither ship, apparently, is built to actual warship standards, only commercial grade standards. Both classes of ship have also suffered from quality control problems. Why is the Navy buying craft that are known to be weaker, less survivable, and more costly than any others that are similar to it? At root, it may be that too much money fails to to focus the mind, and that perhaps the Navy does not fear enough the very real possibility that it will be stuck with a large complement of substandard warships.

The U.S. Navy has lately shot back over the Time critique of the LCS found on the Time website last week.   Here is the response of an official U.S Navy spokesman taking on the points made in the first article .  From this response, it appears that the ships are now being built to a higher-than-commercial standard.  Originally, however, it had not been planned to build the LCS this way.  Read both of them and be then decide whether the case for the LCS is still viable.

My primary question is why U.S. equipment always seems to cost so much more than the equivalent item in foreign inventories.  If it is a matter of consistently pushing the technological envelope, then I can understand that.  But if it is because of wasteful spending practices, which is a known and longstanding problem for the Pentagon, then a serious and thoroughgoing revision of American procurement practices is needed.

Naval Warfare: Outer Space Edition

At long last, someone has addressed the urgent question of naval warfare in space! I am not joking when I say this. Check out this article. I am a fan of science fiction, especially naval science fiction such as the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. Most SF novels use a known historical analogue of water naval combat as the basis for how they depict space-based warfare. Typically, this involves super-humongous ships engaged in battle over thousands of kilometers behaving as if they were duking it out at some far future Trafalgar. This analogy is dubious, on the grounds that modern water naval combat is itself far removed from Nelson’s day, or even from the Jutland battle of 1916. Read about the Battle of Midway for just how different things were in the 1940’s! The American and Japanese fleets never sighted each other. Damage was inflicted, almost totally, by aircraft-delivered weapons.

The nature of space battles of the future can’t truly be predicted, because we don’t know what kinds of weaponry will exist or what it will do. My money is on missiles, because they can change direction to strike at targets after they have been fired. Presumably, a laser or plasma gun will only be able to fire in a single direction. If an enemy vessel is far enough away, it will likely evade. So direct fire weapons will probably only be useful at comparatively shorter ranges, unlike a missile.

The major trend of almost all weapons since the invention of gunpowder firearms several hundred years ago is for higher lethality at greater range. Even lower lethality at greater range is still a good bet because it allows the firer to stay outside the range of an opponent’s weapons. Therefore, I think that the longest range weapons that provide the best chance of hitting the target will be the primary weaponry deployed on a spacegoing warship. I don’t envision battleships like the Yamato (yeah, Starblazers!) or the Galactica. No Star Destroyers either. For that matter, I don’t foresee even the USS Enterprise. Instead, I think most space warships will be akin to missile boats or corvettes of some kind or another – fast, inexpensive, and relatively small.

For a much more near-future examination of the potential for war in space, more science fact than science fiction, read this Time magazine piece.

China’s New Aircraft Carrier

Very few ships at sea are as impressive as an aircraft carrier. The battleships of a bygone era – USS Missouri, HMS Warspite, or Bismarck, were extraordinary vessels, but they are now vanished from the world’s oceans. Carriers also grant the navy that employs them an extraordinary ability to strike at targets well inland and out of the range of even the largest guns. To put this in perspective, the most powerful naval guns emplaced upon a battleship could strike at targets some 26,000 yards away. A carrier plane can fly to ranges over a thousand miles – more if it is refueled in the air. This is called power projection.

But a carrier is arguably the most difficult of all warships to operate. It is both a ship and an airport squeezed into a hull that, no matter how large, is going to be very cramped. Landing on a carrier requires the finest pilots and highly skilled deck crewmen. Further, even conventionally-powered carriers will have prodigious fuel needs, and nuclear carriers, while not dependent on fossil fuels, will demand expensively-trained nuclear technicians to keep their reactors running.

China has just now, with the launching of the Liaoning, entered into the exclusive club of navies that operate genuine carriers – ships that can launch and recover fixed-wing aircraft, not just helicopters. The Chinese are taking things slowly. They purchased the unfinished hull of the Varyag, a Soviet-era vessel that was marooned in the newly-independent Ukraine when the USSR collapsed. It took a long time for China then to complete the ship, a sign of both the aircraft carrier’s complexity, which is true of all carriers, as well as the need to develop the requisite technical base to fabricate the parts to make the ship more than a floating hulk.

It is interesting that China is getting into the carrier game now. While China’s maritime ambitions are nothing new, it does not appear that seagoing airpower is necessary for it to achieve its goals in the waters nearest to it, especially in the East and South China Seas. The Chinese seem to realize that the Liaoning is a learning vessel, and that it will be a while before it is truly ready for sustained combat operations.

The U.S. Navy, which is the current master of such things, did not leap into carrier warfare all at once either. The ability of U.S. carrier strike groups to operate for long periods far from base was developed during the crucible of its Second World War battles with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Getting airplanes off the deck is no small feat. Coordinating their attacks, and mastering the time and space dimensions of carrier warfare, which are so different from that of old-fashioned, gun-equipped warships which can see their targets when they fire, was not something that came naturally to the Americans. At both Midway and Santa Cruz, the U.S. naval aviators had trouble synchronizing their attacks on the Japanese.

Since the end of the war, the U.S. has retained its carriers to enhance its overseas diplomatic and military efforts. Is that what China is looking to do with its own carrier, or carriers, one day? Perhaps China feels that the only way to safeguard its interests in the Middle East and Africa is to have the ability to deploy military aircraft at sea. But Chinese carriers would be vulnerable to the same antiship missiles and other weapons that make the survivability of American carriers during a “hot” war so dubious. Carriers will be the first targets in any shooting war. China itself has deployed long range antiship ballistic missiles to strike at U.S. carriers. The Liaoning will face very similar threats when it is at sea. Apparently, China is willing to run that risk, that is, deploying a costly warship that will be the biggest target in its fleet, for the benefit of the diplomatic and power projection capability that it provides.

Without doubt, the introduction of the Liaoning will probably cause more psychological distress among China’s neighbors than it will actually affect the balance of power there. The Liaoning is not so much a game changer in itself, but a harbinger, most likely, of things to come. A carrier is not a half-measure when it comes to things naval. It is too big, complex, and costly to be just a showpiece. Barring some complete reassessment of its strategic posture, China’s navy will likely deploy other carriers in the future, to enable it to influence affairs far from Chinese shores.

Among other ominous developments, here is an article about the current situation in East Asia.  According to the author, for many of the people of China and Japan, the Second World War never really ended.   The resolution has been just been delayed a while.

 

 

 

Labor Day Warbirds

These fantastic warbirds made an appearance at the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, New York, over the Labor Day weekend:

The rarely seen North American P51C Mustang.

The Douglas A1 Skyraider carrier attack plane.

The Consolidated  B24 Liberator heavy bomber.

The Vought F4U Corsair – carrier fighter of the Pacific war.

The Boeing B17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber – workhorse of the Mighty Eight Air Force.

Marc De Santis

Japan and China Naval Confrontation

When I first began posting  earlier this year about the naval rivalry in East Asia, I judged that the “cold war” stand-off would continue indefinitely.  All countries in the region, especially China, have too much to lose if the dispute should ever turn hot.  Peace is much better than war for an economy.  But recent events centering on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands have me worried that the already tense situation could spiral out of control if the feuding nations do not step back from the brink.  All parties involved should read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.   The danger of a catastrophic miscalculation is too great.  Read about the latest flare-up here.

Additionally, James R. Holmes, flat-out the best naval writer on the web, has written a great analysis of the possible match-up of Japan and China in a naval war.

Marc De Santis