|The Swedish Visby class is representative example of a small combatant the author argues might work as part of a balanced US Navy force structure.|
Lazarus’ essay entitled Naval Supremacy Cannot be ‘Piggybacked’ on Small Ships attempts to rebut essays of Captains Hughes, Kline, Rubel and Admiral Harvey (here and here) advocating the employment of small missile combatants operating as flotillas in the littoral environment.
Technological changes underway today will increasingly challenge the way we conduct business today. The United States will have to adapt to retain its lead. In order to adapt, debates such as these must be part of a larger Cycle of Research, an ongoing iteration of wargames, analysis, and fleet exercises.
Lazarus has constructed a straw man to knock down, because no one has suggested a flotilla of small combatants can replace the big ships in the current fleet, which was designed to either dominate the open oceans or project power efficiently over the land when the sea is a safe sanctuary. The proposals favor supplementing the fleet—as have most dominant navies since the onset of torpedoes, mines, and submarines—with smaller combatants that can fight in cluttered and dangerous littoral waters without risking big warships’ great value in terms of procurement costs, lives, and multi-purpose combat capability. The small combatants should comprise only a small part of the fleet value in terms of displacement tonnage and cost but a large fraction of the fleet in terms of numbers of ships.
Lazarus argues the original authors have neglected critical concepts such as historic effectiveness, geography, strategy and logistics. Lazarus’ arguments against the flotillas are drawn from history and historic analogies centered mostly on the time periods before and during World War II. However, he neglects to address the significant technological changes which have occurred in the missile age and now in the robotics age. He also neglects the significant number of such vessels which can be employed for a modest budget and the impact of numbers in the increasingly offensive dominant environment of the ocean today and in the future. We will address each of his arguments and show why the addition of the Flotilla concept is far superior to the all big ship strategy currently being pursued by the US Navy. But in the end the United States Navy is not building a balanced fleet, but one of few large vessels risking a potential catastrophe.
Small combatants are and will continue to be the bane of capital ships daring to enter the littoral environment. Lazarus argues small combatants with capital ship killing weapons, with the possible exception of submarines, have historically never lived up to their reputation and larger ships’ adaptations neutralized their effectiveness. He cites the poor performance of torpedo boats which were only successful in night or stealth conditions. Later in the essay he returns to the topic and cites the poor performance of the US Asiatic fleet, including torpedo boats and submarines, in the opening days of World War II. What he leaves out is that the “big gun” navy neglected the Asiatic Fleet (a recurring theme) and the ineffectiveness of their primary weapon, the torpedo. Admiral Richardson has often cited the badly flawed torpedo combined with the risk adverse personalities of fleet submarine commanders as greatly reducing their effectiveness [comments before the Center for Naval Analysis in 2012]. Once both factors were addressed, the effectiveness of submarines increased greatly. The same might have been said of torpedo boats, but there weren’t any in the Asiatic Fleet.
The value of missile boats is not necessarily in their effectiveness against capital ships but in their effectiveness in sea denial missions, particularly against commercial and amphibious operations. In WWII, PT boats and other light craft were noted for their defectiveness against German and Japanese resupply efforts. Further PT boats were employed to screen against their German counter part (E Boats) during landings at Normandy.
Lazarus neglects to address the significant technological changes of modern times and differences between torpedo boats and missile boats. To start, even with advances in the range of torpedoes in WWII, they still required the boat to close well within the range of the rapid firing weapons of their targets, and the screening torpedo boat destroyers. Modern Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) are very effective when fired from over the horizon. Large warships operating with their very unique electronic signatures make it easy for an opponent to locate, track, and identify them. In contrast the small combatants are much harder to locate in the clutter of the littoral environment.
Modern missile technology has made small combatants very lethal and their continual improvement will make them more so in the future. Lazarus cites the poor performance of early missile armed combatants such as those which sank the Israeli Navy Ship (INS) Eilat, (a destroyer) in October 1967. He further points out the historic ineffectiveness of missile corvettes in the Falklands, Libyan, Iranian, and Iraqi conflicts. In particular he cites the effectiveness of air power in neutralizing these ships. In all of those cases those fleets never sailed in force or made a concerted effort to fight. He leaves out the large number of successful ASCM engagements and their increasing effectiveness over time particularly by the Israelis who were willing to fight.[“An Analysis of the Historical Effectiveness of Anti-ship Cruise Missiles in Littoral Warfare” NPS thesis by John C. Schulte 1994. (PDF)]
Another striking conclusion of the Schulte study is its historical review of the ineffectiveness of hard kill systems in combat against ASCMs. The increasing effectiveness of ASCMs, as their sensors capability increases, reinforces the already offensive dominant tactical environment of the sea.
A force of smaller combatants is far more survivable than those made up of larger combatants. Lazarus accurately notes a smaller combatant when hit with a large weapon such as an ASCM is likely to be lost, probably with all hands. These smaller combatants are more likely to take with them a larger proportion of their crew when struck, but their crews are on the order of 20 to 40 in comparison to modern destroyers with upwards of 500. When such ships, such as the HMS Sheffield were struck they lost 20 ratings and officers. He further cites the arguably flawed and biased study by Secretary Lehman stating the larger the ship (the secretary was addressing aircraft carriers, not ships in general) the less vulnerable to attack it is. However detailed analysis presented by Captain Hughes in Fleet Tactics and Chris Carlson’s Variable Damage Effects (PDF) in Naval Wargames 2008 demonstrate very vividly ships gain very little resiliency to damage as their size (and costs) grow. Further the larger a ship is, the larger its radar cross section and other signatures, increasing the probability of being hit.
Finding the ships of a flotilla is far more challenging than a cost equivalent force of larger ships. To illustrate this we will compare the cost equivalent force of one Arleigh Burke destroyer (DDG), and four Soliman Ezzat class missile patrol craft (PCM). We will assume the ability to track and detect a destroyer and a PCM are the same 50%, despite the fact the PCM probably has a smaller radar cross section. The probability of locating the entire destroyer force is 50% while the probability of detecting the four PCMs simultaneously is 6.25%. Finding, tracking and planning an engagement against four PCMs is similarly challenging.
Numbers in naval warfare matter. Lazarus misapplies one of Napoleon’s maxims regarding the value of large battalions. What Napoleon was citing was the importance of numbers in the offensive dominant environment he was fighting in. The same is so at sea. To illustrate this point we will compare two cost equivalent forces the US could deploy today. The first is a new Arleigh Burke destroyer (DDG), and the second four new Soliman Ezzat class PCMs. The destroyer costs about $1.5B to acquire while each PCM costs less than a quarter that. We will assume optimistically the DDG can take three Exocet missile equivalents to be rendered out of action while each PCM would only take a single hit. An enemy force desires to have an 80% confidence it can wipe out the entire force. We will assume the enemy has ASCMs each with a 50% probability it can hit either a destroyer or a PCM. The probability of hitting the destroyer is actually greater than that of the PCM due to its larger RCS, but we will credit its hard kill systems with making up the shortfall (though history does not support this theory). To have an 80% confidence at least three missiles will hit and take out the destroyer an opponent would have to launch at least eight. To have an 80% confidence of taking out the PCM force, an enemy would have to have sufficient confidence in striking each of the four to meet the total confidence. The fourth root of 80% is just shy of 95%. The enemy commander would have to have a 95% confidence of hitting each PCM to have an 80% confidence of wiping out the entire force. To have a 95% confidence of hitting each PCM at least once would require 5 apiece. Thus an enemy commander would have to devote 20 missiles to the PCM force, vice just 8 to take down the destroyer; a significant increase in resources and a much tougher coordination effort. Disbursing combat capability across several platforms greatly increases the resilience of a combat force and modern combat networks enable them to mass force effectively when necessary. [See Distributed Networked Operations by Jeff Cares, 2005]
The resilience of a flotilla is a strategic advantage in a crisis situation. The level of effort and coordination required to destroy the flotilla significantly reduces the first mover advantage of an opponent. Quite simply numbers matter in this kind of environment. This is what Napoleon was talking about.
With proper doctrine and preparation geography and logistics favor flotillas of smaller vessels. While in general logistics do favor larger ships, technology and ship designs have improved the endurance of smaller ships. The Sentinel class coast guard patrol boat (WPC) of 353tons has a long range endurance enabling it to cross the Pacific Ocean in the same manner as the LCS and its design makes such a journey easier on the crew. Further advances in ship stability systems, navigation, engineering, and weather avoidance have markedly improved the effectiveness of smaller vessels in the open ocean.
It is true nations operating flotillas of smaller vessels close to home gain significant advantages in the employment of interior lines of communications and logistics in both the operation and support of such a force. This is why Captain Hughes and company advocate the development of forward operating bases and related capabilities to support such a force overseas in countries under threat. Given China’s bellicose behavior of late in the South China Seas, countries in the region have been and should continue to explore the opportunity to make themselves a harder target to intimidate or attack. This hedgehog strategy reinforces the main concept behind Colonel Hammes distant Blockade strategy of local nations only having to protect themselves in a crisis or conflict. However, other maritime nations take their cue from the United States Navy and would be more likely to employ these effective platforms if the US Navy took them more seriously and trained with them.
Flotillas of smaller vessels are more survivable in the ballistic missile environment. China has developed long range missiles which can target fixed ports and airports. They have also been developing Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs) reportedly designed against Aircraft Carriers. They do not have an unlimited supply of such missiles, particularly long range versions. Therefore the ability to disburse logistics capabilities increases survivability just like that of the combat force. If the United States continues to concentrate logistics capabilities in few large ports able to take the few large Combat Logistics Fleet (CLF) ships, then it will continue to make itself vulnerable to long range ballistic missiles, similar to what occurred in WWII. PCMs have a 2 meter draft and are able to operate in a wide range of small ports, fishing villages, protected anchorages, etc. If flotillas are combined with a mobile land logistics component and the use of offshore supply vessels, they can distribute the logistics nodes and remove the brittleness of overly centralized logistics enemy ballistic missiles are designed to take advantage of. [“Rethinking Littoral Logistics” by Captain David C. Meyers and Commander Jason B. Fitch, Supply Corps, U.S. Navy, Proceedings August 2012]
Modern weapons development makes combat in the littorals too dangerous for carrier or land based aviation assets against a near peer competitor. Airfields in a contested environment are increasingly becoming vulnerable to precision strike regime weapons such as ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and unconventional forces armed with guided rockets, mortars, and artillery (G-RAM). Further ASBMs, ASCMs and other proliferating weapons are increasing the risk of Aircraft Carriers to operate in the littorals. Aircraft Carriers have an extremely large signature making them vulnerable to attack from over the horizon or the clutter of the littorals. Further the loss of a few patrol vessels is less likely to trigger existential angst to the American public than a burning aircraft carrier.
Flotillas are more survivable in the littoral environment as commerce raiders than larger ships when there is a loss of air cover. Lazarus questions the survivability of flotillas given the threats from the air cover as described in the previous paragraph. If the Chinese were to eliminate our land and carrier based aviation capabilities in their initial attack, the flotilla would be more likely to survive if operated correctly. Open ocean commerce raiding missions without air cover against an opponent who has air superiority became dangerous and ineffective in World War II, but employment of flotillas in littoral environments in a contested air environment was common then and can again work to their benefit. Properly employed to take advantage of the clutter of the littorals the effectiveness of air launched ASCMs would be greatly neutralized. Meanwhile advances in shipboard weapons such as the rolling airframe missile give corvettes an effective weapon to neutralize the flight profiles most aircraft require to employ bombs, rockets, etc. Further, combining the use of modern obscurants with missile boats’ small size will make them a challenging target in any engagement. In contrast large combatants are far less capable of hiding in the littoral environment. Due to their high profile and small numbers, they raise their profile higher by constant radiation, making them more likely to be attacked and more likely to be hit by weapons with dual seekers employing anti-radiation modes.
The current and potential proliferation of advanced cruise and even targetable ballistic missiles makes the use of flotillas even more important than ever. All ships are increasingly at risk from attacks like the C-802 which hit the INS Hanit in 2006. As described earlier, larger ships are not able to take much of a hit in relation to their size and cost. Further larger ships are more likely to be hit in such a circumstance. Left out of most discussions was the fact two C-802 missiles were fired in the INS Hanit incident in 2006. One of the missiles hit and sunk a much larger Cambodian-flagged freighter. Unalerted and not employing decoys or other electronic techniques INS Hanit was struck by only one missile. Had she been a larger ship in similar circumstances, she might have been struck by both weapons and sunk. More importantly the INS Hanit incident marks the proliferation and possibility of surprise by such weapons. This creates an offensive dominant environment, the logical response to which is numbers. Similarly Republic of Korea Ship (ROKS) Cheonan incident of 2010 demonstrated the willingness of some opponents like North Korea to attack without warning. ROKS Cheonan was struck by a torpedo which a larger vessel such as an Arleigh Burke would not have survived either. This is not the environment for a small number of large vessels. Larger numbers provides the ability of a force to absorb such an attack and still be able to respond.
The ability to produce large numbers of smaller vessels would give the United States a significant strategic advantage in a potential conflict. Having built, operated and developed proper doctrine for the use of flotillas the US would be in a position to take advantage of rapid production in the event of a conflict. Smaller, cheaper, and easier to build than their larger cousins, missile corvettes and missiles boats can be built in a much larger range of shipyards and factories, many not adjacent to the ocean, far more rapidly than destroyers and larger vessels. This would signal to a potential adversary the ability of the United States to reconstitute its forces in an extended conflict, a critical element in the calculus of anyone planning such a move.
Lazarus argues for a balanced fleet. However, the United States Navy is not a balanced fleet. It is unbalanced towards a small number of large ships. The LCS promised as a replacement for PCs, frigates, and minesweepers has too large of a signature to survive in the littoral environment of the future. Captain Hughes and his compatriots in the seminal work A New Navy Fighting Machine describe in great detail how a modest portion of the shipbuilding budget (about 10%) can produce a large number of small but lethal missile boats. These vessels, if properly employed, can have an outsized impact on maritime strategy and give the United States strategic stability necessary in a very dangerous future environment.
The United States needs to employ a cycle of analysis to properly address these issues and many others. The power of flotillas of small ships and other concepts require serious analysis and research. The alternative analyses presented by Captains Hughes, Kline, Rubel, Admiral Harvey, Lazarus and others is but one element of the Cycle of Research codified in Dr. Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming (Page 288). The other elements include extensive wargaming and fleet exercises. The iteration of cycles of wargaming, analysis, and fleet exercises conducted years after year between World War I and II were critical contributions to the success of the United States in World War II (See Kuehn’s Agents of Innovation and Nofi’s To Train the Fleet for War). The technological changes underway today demand the recreation of the Cycle of Research to prepare the fleet for the future. There are changes underway today just as radical, if not more, than occurred during that previous interwar period and they demand serious exploration.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official view, policy, or position of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.