Naval Warfare

Readers must familiarize themselves with these subtopics to understand the concepts discussed in this chapter on future naval warfare. These are linked within this chapter, but it may be easier to read them in advance.

Naval Commandos - modern precision guided munitions make them deadly 

Can an ICBM sink a ship? - ships in port are sitting ducks

DE Corvettes - stealthy coastal ships

Ship Hangars - protected piers are essential

Bait Ships - use old ships as decoys

SUBSAM - subsurface-to-air missiles can protect submarines

Jumbo Jet Bombers - long-range bombers can destroy fleets with mass cruise missile attacks 

Super 8 - supersonic 8-path kinetic anti-ship missile

Ship Counter-Battery Radar - a simple improvement

MK-71 8-inch Naval Gun - three times more firepower


Surface Ships are Easy Targets 

     The US Navy plans to fight future wars just like World War II, with fleets centered on aircraft carriers, traditionally known as Carrier Battle Groups, but renamed Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) in 2003. However, surface fleets are very vulnerable and very expensive. CSGs have a poor record of defending against diesel-electric submarines during peacetime exercises. Long-range enemy bombers that can launch dozens of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles are a newer threat. During World War II, bombers couldn't even fly directly across the Atlantic. Today's large commercial jet aircraft can fly non-stop from Los Angeles to Singapore with a full load, not to mention the possibility of aerial refueling. If naval intelligence can provide naval bombers with the location of a task force, they can launch dozens or even hundreds of anti-ship cruise missiles from well outside the CSGs defensive perimeter.  In a future war with a modern military, long-range jet aircraft with anti-ship cruise missiles will clear the oceans of surface fleets while submarines and naval commandos hunt down warships hiding in coastal areas.

USS George Washington Carrier Stike Group, 2004     Fleets of ships are still needed for amphibious and expeditionary operations, but they must hide until the oceans are cleared of most threats.  Keeping ships in port at traditional open piers makes them easy targets should an enemy employ nuclear weapons, ICBMs with conventional warheads, or naval commandos.  They may also be destroyed during attacks against port facilities. Therefore, once a conflict seems inevitable or begins, all navy ships must seek protection in remote harbors and inland waterways to hide from enemy submarines, bombers, naval commandos, and their intelligence agents roaming about with cell-phones ready to send a ship sighting report worldwide within seconds.

     All ships must get underway and out of their homeport to hide as soon as possible, even those with half crews or with required maintenance. Enemy submarines must be hunted and destroyed by land-based aircraft, submarines, DE Corvettes, and naval commandos.  Meanwhile, enemy surface fleets, airfields, ports, and shipyards are be struck with bomber launched cruise missile attacks. Enemy naval intelligence may determine the location of some hidden surface ships. However, it will prove difficult to attack these ships in their coastal hideaways protected by land-based aircraft and corvettes. Since it is difficult for aircraft carriers to launch and recover aircraft in confined areas, most carrier aircraft would operate from land bases. It is probably best to end all carrier flight operations as such activity makes their presence near shore obvious. This is not a new tactic, the German Navy spent most of World War I hiding in port.

     However, hiding in port today is a bad idea for several reasons. First, a nation with a modern navy may have nuclear weapons. Although the initial conflict may not involve a nuclear exchange, the conflict may escalate. In addition, a single naval commando with a small "suitcase" nuclear weapon can wipe out a fleet in port.  Therefore, warships must leave port and disperse among remote harbors and inland waterways away from populated areas where their presence can be detected by agents and reported. This also makes naval ports located in major cities less a target for nuclear or conventional attack. Recall that the US military justified the destruction of the large city of Nagasaki, Japan with an atomic bomb during World II because it had a naval base.

     Deploying away from homeports present logistical problems as ships rely on them for support. The solution is to rotate homeport visits to keep just a couple ships in port at a time. They can arrive late at night escorted by corvettes and pull into covered hangars with heavy security. The remainder of the fleet must remain dispersed in safe areas and move slowly about to prevent targeting. This vulnerability can be lessened by relocating naval ports to remote areas that have piers cut into mountains or protected by concrete "hangars." This is not a new idea; the Germans built "submarine pens" during World War II after numerous submarines were destroyed in port by allied aircraft. At the very least, navies must identify civilian piers at remote locations that can support warships. Many rivers are deep enough to allow warships to hide hundreds of miles upriver. 

Ubiquitous Naval Intelligence

     It will be impossible for ships to hide in the vast ocean like during previous wars. They will be easily located by satellite, reconnaissance aircraft, fishing boats, or agents near straits or aboard the thousands of commercial ships cruising the oceans. If commercial aircraft continue to operate under neutral flags, they can provide intelligence as well, which may consist of a passenger looking out of windows. Warning approaching civilian ships and aircraft to stay away from a "restricted area" only reveals the location of warships.  

     Prior to a conflict, naval intelligence can hire hundreds of part-time agents who are crewmen on merchant vessels, fishing boats, commercial aircraft, or someone with apartment view of a naval base or key waterways. Agents can instantly e-mail or telephone information and digital pictures of ship movements to a neutral nation, information that can be forwarded to the enemy nation. They may not realize who they are dealing with as the payer may claim the information is for a newspaper. Recruiting such agents is safe and easy on the Internet. How does a nation prevent anyone from using a cell phone to telephone someone inside an embassy to report intel?

     Political dissidents and naive teenagers are easy to find through websites and chat rooms.  Setting up money transfer accounts with companies like PayPal or Western Union allows them to send that person as little as $10 for a fleet status or ship sighting report. Setting up secret bank accounts for agents over the Internet is easy. This may seem unnecessary to modern navies with access to satellite imagery, but satellites are easily destroyed by a modern military force, as explained in Chapter 4.

     Another option is to set up clandestine web cams during peacetime to provide a real-time view of port or waterway activity. This can be accomplished by agents or naval commandos.  The United States has begun to install "sensors" on offshore oil platforms worldwide to thwart terrorists, but the true purpose is likely naval intelligence. Finally, agents and naval commandos aboard pleasure craft and fishing boats can track surface ships. During the Cold war, American aircraft carriers where constantly shadowed by Soviet "fishing" ships. If a CSG attempts to hide in a remote ocean area, an enemy submarine or agents aboard a fishing boat need only follow a weekly resupply ship out of a naval base to learn the CSGs exact location.

     Even if enemy satellites are blinded and enemy long-range reconnaissance aircraft destroyed, the need for a weekly supply ship is fatal. An enemy submarine can wait outside a US naval port and knock off supply ships. If a destroyer escorts each supply ship, the sub can sink the destroyer and the supply ship as they leave port. Or, the sub can follow the supply ship out to the carrier, following underneath using the supply ship to mask its presence. Once inside the CSG's defensive perimeter, the submarine can send messages to direct mass cruise missile attacks by distant naval bombers, or unleash his own torpedoes, then fire off subsurface-to-air (SUBSAM) missiles to cover its escape.

     In summary, a modern naval intelligence force should be able to locate most surface ships, especially if ships foolishly mass in task forces like a CSG. Destroying surface ships is best accomplished by Jumbo Jet Bombers, submarines, and naval commandos. Meanwhile, bombers attack the enemy's naval infrastructure, targeting shipyards, port facilities, and munitions storage areas. Ships that remained in port or were stuck in repair shipyards would be destroyed. Finally, naval commandos and submarines may plant sea mines near port entrances. This is why corvettes and minesweepers must be based at all naval ports.

Sinking Aircraft Carriers

     The US Navy pretends that it can shoot down incoming ballistic missiles with its SM-3 missiles, but those only work well in tests where the missile launch time and flight path are known. In a real war, China could launch two dozen anti-ship ballistic missiles at the same time with different guidance systems: heat seeking, radar emission seeking, radio wave emission seeking, radar image seeking, image contrast seeking, and even video controlled. By the time the SM-3s are launched, the ballistic missiles would be zooming downward at Mach 5 and our Navy would be lucky to hit any of them head on. A single hit may explode an aircraft carrier filled with aviation fuel, missiles, and bombs, alongside 6000 sailors.

     One hit below deck and the ship may blow up like an ammo ship - killing everyone! Or carriers may be sunk by a single lurking submarine, or a volley of long-range cruise missiles, or any commercial ship whose captain decides to ram a carrier in a harbor, which would cause fires and likely set off that floating powder keg. In 1969, a small rocket fired off an aircraft aboard the supercarrier USS Enterprise. This set off a series of 18  explosions, blowing eight holes into the flight deck and beyond and killing 28 sailors, with 314 injured and 15 aircraft destroyed. (pictured) Accidents happen, but amid tightly packed fuel and munitions any minor explosion caused by an attack can be catastrophic. 

     Aircraft carriers are useful, but not for sea control. They must hide until aircraft and submarines clear the seas of enemy subs and destroy enemy long-range missile sites and airbases. Then they can escort amphibious groups to support an invasion. They are also useful against poor defenseless nations, which the USA often attack. However, the USA doesn't need 11 supercarriers, in addition to the 10 large carriers used by the Marines, which are larger than our World II carriers. Shrinking to eight supercarriers solves Navy funding problems and preserves the rest of the fleet. Pulling back the super-carrier from Yokosuka and amphibious carrier from Sasebo, Japan is common sense, because it's foolish to berth a carrier for most of the year within range of Chinese and even North Korean missiles that can use simple GPS to destroy them sitting pierside.

One idea for a future warship is a second hull. The upper part of the ship (superstructure) that contains the bridge could have its own hull to serve as a huge lifeboat. If the crew must abandon ship they dash up to the superstructure. There would be a release mechanism that allows it to slide off the sinking or burning ship as its electrical and computer connections unplug from the ship. This is far safer than jumping off the side or launching small open boats. The bridge of the ship is packed with expensive computers, which could be reused.

     If admirals foolishly send carriers to secure the Western Pacific in time of war, they will suffer the fate of the mighty British battleship HMS Prince of Wales along with the heavy cruiser HMS Repulse when they sailed from Singapore to confront the Japanese Navy at the beginning of World War II. As their respected admiral executed World War I era tactics for a great ship battle, his first class warships were attacked by a swarm of pesky land-based aircraft and quickly sunk! This may be the fate of mighty supercarriers, as one retired U.S. Navy officer warned. So why do admirals insist on keeping 11 ultra-expensive supercarriers, the same number as when the Soviet navy roamed the seas? Fred Reed offers the best explanation of this madness. 

     Dr. Andrew Krepinevich assessed modern maritime warfare up to 2015. He wrote that the advent of long-range sensors and strike capabilities may ultimately shrink oceans to “Mediterranean size,” imposing severe restrictions on the freedom of maneuver of surface naval forces, similar to those faced by navies operating in the Mediterranean in World War II where naval warfare involved Allied ships fighting aerial threats. In 1940, 21 obsolete British Swordfish biplanes (pictured) attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto, sinking one battleship and heavily damaging two others with the loss of just two aircraft! Later in the war, the Axis had limited assets yet often inflicted serious ship damage with land based aircraft and torpedo boats causing admirals to avoid engagements.

    Even the Pacific, most air combat missions were launched from land bases. Experts agree that if Japan had focused production on land-based aircraft and submarines rather than large warships, the war may have resulted in a stalemate. For example, tremendous resources were devoted to the three massive Yamato class battleships. Admirals feared committing them to any serious naval engagement knowing the embarrassment should one be sunk, as will be the case with current American super-carriers. When forced to deploy toward the end of the war, all three super-battleships were quickly sunk by torpedoes from submarines and aircraft. 

     Remember that all this occurred before torpedoes and bombs had guidance systems! Japanese kamikaze attacks were the first guided attacks on ships. These were older aircraft were flown by new pilots with no experience and 81% were shot down or crashed at sea. Yet these attacks killed more American sailors than kamikaze pilots, sunk 47 ships and damaged 365 others. This tactic may not be dead. A nation may send a dozen old supersonic fighter-bombers flying mach near sea-level toward an American carrier, loaded with dumb bombs and blazing away with 20mm gatling guns. These need not even be suicide missions if pilots eject prior to impact.

Hunting Down Threats      

     If enemy ships wisely hide in rivers and coastal waterways, they will be pursued by submarines and naval commandos in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. However, an effective coastal defense force and the vulnerability of large submarines in shallow waters may result in a stalemate that can only be resolved by bringing out surface fleets with aircraft like CSGs to hunt and sink them. Before that can occur, the threat from long-range enemy bombers and large ocean-going submarines must be nearly eliminated.  This may take several weeks as enemy airbases are continually attacked by strategic forces while enemy submarines are hunted down by corvettes, aircraft, and submarines. Bait ships may deploy to lure enemy submarines out of hiding.

     It seems unlikely that expensive nuclear attack submarines would attack merchant ships since they have a finite number of torpedoes and worldwide communications instantly report their presence. They are also unlikely to risk attacking small, inexpensive corvettes equipped for anti-submarine warfare.  As a result, enemy submariners may wisely hide in deep waters and wait for fleets to deploy. However, their submarine tenders will be sunk if they deploy to support them, so submariners will run out of food after several weeks, and fuel if they are diesel, while systems begin to wear out and need repair. Diesel-electric submarines have an endurance of around two months, so submariners must eventually take action.  Patrolling near the surface to look for targets or entering shallow waters to seek out warships will make them vulnerable to detection by aircraft and diesel-electric corvettes rigged for ultra-quiet and towing a sonar array.

     One option for enemy submarines is to head home for replenishment without any combat. However, their homeport is likely to have suffered heavy damage from strategic attacks and the entrance is likely watched by submarines, aircraft, and naval commandos. Naval ports are likely to have been mined as well. These submariners would face the difficult task entering their homeport undetected, and leaving it as well.  Moreover, what is the point if they will just hide in the deep ocean anyway? One option is to secretly enter a neutral port or rendezvous with a "neutral ship" and acquire supplies clandestinely. This was depicted in the great World War II movie "Das Boot."  

     A submarine force may have secret supply caches hidden in remote islands worldwide, although such foresight generally eludes peacetime navies. Using seaplanes to resupply submarines at remote sites is an excellent option. Each submarine squadron should have its own seaplane tender that provides urgent spare parts, mail, fresh food, medical evacuation, and even a crane for loading torpedoes and missiles. Rough seas or enemy activity may deter seaplanes from landing. Therefore, submarines could rig a cable on their mast that a low flying seaplane can catch with a hook attached to a watertight cargo pallet that is yanked out of its cargo door, then the submarine hauls aboard.

     The other option is to fight, and a wise fleet admiral will wait for enemy submarines to come out of hiding to search for targets (or food) so they can be destroyed before deploying large warships into the open ocean. This strategy may seen paranoid for a large navy facing a much smaller one. Nevertheless, it is a good policy for every navy to pull all ships out of the open ocean and homeports and disperse them to remote harbors and inland waterways at the onset of hostilities, or just prior to them if possible. Even small nations can use commandos to attack ships or use a small nuclear device to destroy a fleet in port.  

     A small nation may possess just a couple diesel submarines, but if their location is unknown they are very dangerous.  In addition, today's crowded sea lanes offer many chances for merchant ships to ram warships. Fishing boats and pleasure craft loaded with explosives or torpedoes are also a threat, as the 1999 attack on the USS Cole demonstrated. Navies may find "boat bombs" just as deadly as car bombs are in the Middle East today. Likewise, modern anti-ship missiles can be launched from any civilian aircraft or boat from many miles away.

     If an enemy needs targeting information to conduct such attacks, ample sources exist prior to hostilities. Satellite imagery can be purchased from private sources or donated by sympathetic nations. Peacetime reconnaissance by air or sea is simple. A creative enemy should have several surprise naval attacks ready for the onset of hostilities. Therefore, the best strategy for modern warships is to run and hide once a war begins until bomber attacks and special operations units blind the enemy nation by destroying military command and control targets while its satellite sources are terminated. Meanwhile, pre-planned enemy attacks against warships are thwarted if no targets can be found, forcing them to return home. Warships must hide and let airpower do the job, including the destruction of enemy warships and submarines. This phase may last just a week, or many months depending on the size of enemy naval forces.

Forming a Fleet

     It is unlikely that all known enemy warships, submarines, and bomber aircraft can be destroyed by airpower, submarines, and naval commandos. At some point, a risk assessment is required to determine when a fleet should assemble for offensive action. It will be unnerving to know that an enemy submarine has evaded detection and is lurking somewhere. Several long-range jet bombers may remain hidden. In addition, enemy naval commandos may have conducted attacks and have not been hunted down. However, admirals cannot wait forever as political pressure to deploy surface fleets build, especially if friendly land forces need relief.

     This hiding and waiting period is needed anyway. A major naval task force needs time to assemble personnel and equipment at homeports, including mobilized reservists. Ships must collect personnel on leave and load stores and munitions, which is best accomplished by rotating only a couple ships into port at a time. Intelligence must be collected and an offensive plan organized. Recent enemy action will tell admirals if enemy forces are of little threat, or if they have attempted sophisticated and creative attacks on warships.  The decision to form up and bring out the CSGs will be controversial, similar to a decision to bring out the queen in the game of chess. Admirals will likely advance their pawns first, sending out groups of corvettes with bait ships to patrol hostile seas to see what they attract. The frigate USS Stark (below) attracted two Iraqi anti-ship missiles in 1987, which failed to explode yet killed 37sailors and nearly sunk that ship.

     This caution may seem unnecessary because of the dearth of naval action these past few decades. However, most combat involved overwhelming US naval force against nations with little or no naval power. The 1983 war in Falklands showed how vulnerable modern warships are to anti-ship missiles and submarines. Given the cost and construction time for modern warships, they are not easily replaced.  

     In addition, the political backlash of losing a huge aircraft carrier with 6000 sailors aboard would be immense, especially if it was the result of dismissing the enemy threat. Admirals should remember that the world's largest aircraft carrier in World War II, the new 77,890 ton Imperial Japanese Navy ship Shinano was 80% the size of a massive Nimitz class carrier of the modern US Navy. The Shinano was sunk in 1944 by four torpedo hits from a single American submarine, the USS Archerfish

     The execution of offensive naval operations ashore is discussed in the Chapters 9 & 10.  This chapter addresses ocean combat, which is best left to aircraft, submarines, DE corvettes, and naval commandos. Large warships are expensive and vulnerable, and should hide until oceans are cleared of most threats. When deployed, fleets must avoid the open ocean and use island groups as potential shields against long-range mass cruise missile attacks.

Future Cruisers and Destroyers

     The US Navy built the Zumwalt class destroyer with new technologies but they were too immature and too expensive so only three will sail. It lacks important advances such as a podded drive system (right) that provides several advantages: 1) unprecedented 360 degree maneuverability so the ship can turn on a dime to evade missiles and torpedoes; 2) bow thrusters or tugs are not needed to dock or maneuver in shallow waters; 3) no vulnerable drive shaft or rudder is needed;  4) redundant systems (assuming at least two pods); 5) damaged pods can be replaced in a day and repaired ashore. The cruise ship industry has eagerly embraced this new technology to cut costs. 

     Their complex 155mm gun is slightly larger than today's 5-inch guns but was never perfected and will probably be scrapped. The Navy could easily improve the combat power of its surface combatants by using Ship Counter-Battery Radar to fire MK-71 8-inch Naval Guns

Implications on Current Naval Force Structure

     The US Navy is out of balance. Most funds are devoted to maintain eleven CSGs to keep two or three "on patrol" for eight months at a time, ready for the Soviet Navy to mysteriously reappear. If war began with a major power, CSGs should disperse and hide anyway. In reality, the US Navy needs only eight CSGs to support amphibious and expeditionary operations, none are needed to control the high seas. They can still rotate readiness so that a CSG can arrive anywhere within a week or two, however, they needn't steam in circles to justify a deployment, which wastes fuel and wears out ships and crews for no reason other than that is the way the US Navy has operated for over 60 years.  

     Some of the savings from carrier deactivations would allow for increased purchases of naval aircraft to fill the decks of the remaining carriers. US Navy carriers now deploy with around 25% fewer aircraft due to rising aircraft costs and poor program management. The fleet has become imbalanced as the number of escorts have fallen, so each carrier is even more vulnerable, and two fewer carriers solves that problem. Long-term savings allow improvements to port security and the construction of ship hangars, or the construction of small, fortified naval bases in remote areas.  The US Navy also needs a bomber force, at least a squadron on each coast dedicated to ship attack with airborne radar escorts as discussed in Jumbo Jet Bombers. It must also develop an array of long-range sensor-guided anti-ship cruise missiles like Super 8s for these bombers to destroy surface fleets.  

     The attack submarine fleet is important, but it should continue a path down to 40. The US Navy has no real naval commando force. It has an excellent force of Navy SEAL commandos, but they have been donated to the US Special Operations command to perform commando operations ashore. The Navy must reclaim its SEALs and train and equip them to operate as true naval commandos, which includes purchasing dozens of fishing boats, pleasure craft, and seaplanes for their operations. In addition, the Navy desperately needs dozens of diesel-electric corvettes and must base minesweepers and corvettes at all major ports for port security. 

     The implications of future naval warfare for smaller navies is difficult to address as the threat each nation faces is widely different. However, unless a nation wants to maintain the very expensive capability to conduct expeditionary operations, it doesn't need aircraft carriers or surface combatants, e.g. cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. The ease in which the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine in 1983 demonstrated this reality.  This is a difficult change for navies as admirals love capital ships. However, diesel-electric submarines and jumbo jet bombers are far more effective for naval warfare, while naval commandos are the most cost effective naval force. Corvettes are valuable as they are needed in peacetime as well to protect economic boundaries and perform search and rescue. The obvious exception is if a small nation plans to support expeditionary operations as part of an alliance, that would justify a few destroyers and amphibious ships.  

Future Naval Warfare

     It is doubtful that large navies will change until a disaster shows the way. The Israeli Navy shifted to an all corvette fleet after one of its destroyers was easily sunk by anti-ship missiles launched from two Egyptian patrol boats in 1967. But even one of its small, sophisticated corvettes was almost sunk by a simple missile fired by semi-trained guerillas off the coast of Lebanon in 2006. A mass attack by anti-ship missiles from shore batteries or aircraft that sink several warships will wake up admirals. A lone submarine sinking a mighty Nimitz class aircraft carrier is also a realistic possibility. There have been many reports (large file) of American military exercises in which a submarine from a friendly nation acting as an opposing force managed to stalk and launch enough simulated torpedoes at a CSG to sink an aircraft carrier and several escorts. These were diesel-electric submarines, which are extremely difficult to detect when operating silently on electric power. If such submarines sit silently near the ocean floor, and a CSG passes within range, they cannot be detected and can sink several warships.

     In addition, modern warships are more vulnerable today since they were built with firepower in mind. Newer surface combatants are packed with dozens of large, vertically launched missiles, each with explosive solid rocket fuel and a warhead.  A hit into a pod of missiles may cause a huge explosion, like when ammo ships blew apart for unknown reasons during World War II. While aircraft carriers are larger and better armored, they are full of hundreds of high-explosive bombs and filled with explosive aviation fuel. The USS Forrestal was severely damaged during the Vietnam war after a minor fire caused a single 20mm round to fire, which set off a chain of explosions that caused mass causalities and set the ship ablaze. Large navies have not adapted to the modern world, and may not change until thousands of sailors die from obvious vulnerabilities.