Today’s guest is Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Captain USN (Retired), Profesor Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey CA
You have written that the nation needs a national maritime strategy for the 21st Century. Much longer ago you asserted in both editions of your well-received book, Fleet Tactics, that small missile combatants have great potential to exploit, but I see no evidence of them in the US Navy. Is there a connection between your strategic and tactical assertions?
Sic vis pacem, para bellum.
A DURABLE STRATEGY FOR EAST ASIA
It is a pleasure to contribute to Raymond Pritchett’s 5th Anniversary celebration. You will expect from me some words on the advantage of small, missile combatants in the U. S. Navy since I’ve been demonstrating their value ever since 1986 with the publication of Feet Tactics: Theory and Practice, where I introduced the imaginary new USS Cushing class, a small, lethal missile combatant. So I will first state the case for small off-shore combatants and then put them in the larger context of an American war at sea strategy.
Small Combatant Advantages
The salvo equations make the case for a more distributed fleet simply and clearly. They show mathematically that in combat between missile-armed warships, numbers are the most important property a fleet can have. Specifically they show that if your fleet has three times as many combatants as mine, then for parity in loss ratios (in other words which side will have ships remaining when all of the opponents are out of action) to overcome your numerical advantage each of my ships must have thrice the offensive power, thrice the defensive power, and thrice the survivability (“staying power”) of yours. Brief reflection shows why. If you put one of my big ships out of action, I simultaneously lose its offensive, defensive, and staying powers.
Another fact demonstrated by the salvo equations is the advantage of out-scouting the enemy and launching a first effective attack. This phenomenon was first observed in the five big Pacific carrier battles of World War II, but the reward is even more pronounced in the missile era.
Third, the salvo equations show that if ship numbers and staying power are both small, then an unstable combat situation arises in which the shift from total victory to total loss occurs within a very small swing in the offensive and defensive effectiveness of the two sides. When we must fight at sea again, then small numbers of large, offensively potent warships that have little staying power against enemy missiles are at a great disadvantage, especially in coastal waters when there is little defensive depth of fire and abrupt surprise attacks will occur—as is already evidenced by the combat record in the missile era of warfare to date.
A very good summary of salvo equation applications and some data on combat in the missile era can be found in Michael O’Hanlon’s The Science of War. O’Hanlon has described the uses and limitations of quantitative methods to analyze war, from special operations to general war, and from procurement to operational logistics.
Big expensive ships are often multi-purpose because the marginal cost of adding an additional capability is relatively small. But should a carrier, Aegis destroyer, or large amphibious ship be attacked, a similar penalty can occur. Loss of the ship performing one task results in its loss for performing all other tasks. We put 5” guns on DDGs because that didn’t cost much more, but DDGs will seldom be risked for naval gunfire support and should not be counted on for the NGFS mission. An LCS lost employing its mine clearance module is lost for use with any other module.
Small Only Became Possible in Missile Era
In the battleship era (1880-1920), big (20,000 to 40,000 tons) was necessary because only big battleships could carry the big, rifled guns whose shells could penetrate armor. When big aircraft carriers replaced battleships (1940-1970) they had to be big enough (again, 20,000 to 40,000 tons) to carry combat aircraft. Because carrier aircraft could attack battleships, fatally, out to 200 nm, they dominated a battleship’s ten-fold firepower advantage, which only reached 20 nm. In the 1970s when missiles started to replace aircraft as the principal weapon, missile ships didn’t have to be big to deliver a lethal salvo as far and as accurately as carrier aircraft. Missiles have been distributed affordably in many small vessels. First there were Soviet Osa’s and Komar’s and Israeli Sa’ar boats. Today, the PLAN’s Houbei’s of 250 tons are representative. To operate in the South and East China Seas we would have to defeat about one hundred of their boats carrying 800 missiles.
|Type 022 Houbei|
WHY DO WE CARE? A LOOK AT STRATEGY
The U. S. surface navy has not been challenged in a sea battle since 1945. The transition to the missile era went unnoticed because we were concerned—properly so—with Soviet submarines and land based aircraft, and with projection of U. S. power overseas with our own air and missile attacks and ground forces. These missions are still important, but now the U. S. Navy can also exploit missiles distributed widely in a Flotilla of small combatants as many other navies have done. On the other hand, unless one knows there is a purpose for the flotilla—where and when the U.S. Navy would employ it—then its advantages in offshore combat are moot. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the most valuable fleet combat unit was a large, efficient CVN because it could deliver many accurate strikes from a safe sea sanctuary in the most cost-effective way. An even more vital service of our Navy—carried out over a longer time—was the fast, efficient, loss-free delivery of ground forces at every scene of action. Both roles have supported American national policy by projecting naval power from sea to land, which for over 60 years has been the great reward of American naval superiority as long as we could assume sea control, and a sanctuary from which to deliver soldiers, Marines, and special forces. We could and did support and sustain ground forces—again, loss free—for as long as the operation lasted, whether for a few hours or several years. The flotilla becomes relevant when the safe sanctuary can no longer be taken for granted, especially when we observe China’s growing importance and lethal weapons become more common in other littoral waters around the world.
The famous maxim of Vegetius, Sic vis pacem, para bellum means “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” The aphorism seems self-evident if not trite, yet today amazing numbers of intelligent people do not want to face the possibility that an ambitious China will sometimes have to be constrained, for our sake and for the sake of our Asian allies and friends. If the constraint cannot be had without the exchange of fire and casualties, then we want the best possible chance that the conflict can be circumscribed and terminated before it blows up into World War III.
I will add three corollaries to Vegetius. First, prepare for war affordably. Second, para bellum with a flexible strategy to keep pace with China. Our most important national strategic need for the 21st Century is a way to influence China without either getting trapped into a big war or timidly backing off from a bullying PRC. Third, prepare for periods of cooperation, competition, confrontation, and potentially conflict, remembering that one Navy must adapt to all of these geopolitical possibilities.
What follows draws from three workshops with participants from the fleet, OPNAV, the NWC, and NPS, culminating in a paper by Jeff Kline and me which I will summarize here. The full article will be published in the Autumn issue of the Naval War College Review under the title, “Between Peace and Air-Sea Battle: A War at Sea Strategy.”
The Best Chance to Keep the Competition with China Peaceful
In February, The American Interest carried and article by Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Swartz and the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert. They provided solid justification for more closely integrating the Air Force and Navy into an Air-Sea Battle capability. We applaud Air-Sea Battle as the most effective means of preparing for the most challenging conflict: full-scale conventional war. But we propose less drastic measures in a shopping list for American leadership to respond to any and all relationships between the U. S. and China. After all, China has a voice in that relationship, and we wish to influence her to prefer peace.
A Strategy Has Ends, Ways, and Means
Our ends are to deter Chinese land or maritime aggression and, failing that, to deny China the use of the sea inside her first island chain during hostilities. The ways are four, alone or in combination, applied totally or in graduated steps to match any Chinese aggression. First, distant interception of Chinese shipping. Second submarine attacks and—note this—mining well inside China’s Seas. Third, offensive attacks by a new Flotilla of numerous small, missile carrying combatants to fight on the surface in Chinese waters. And fourth, Marine outposts in the first island chain to support flotilla operations with surveillance and sustainment and also threaten Chinese surface ships with missile batteries. The means are an evolving force structure with a better mix of conventional land and sea based air, submarines, a flotilla of U. S. and allied surface combatants, and Marine battalions equipped to detect, protect, and attack from along the edges of the first island chain.
The capacity to deny China its own waters inside the first island chain—while executing a distant blockade—provides American leadership with many graduated options before embarking on the potentially escalatory step of striking mainland China. Maritime options should be a more credible deterrent than Air-Sea Battle’s escalatory deep strikes, which are held in reserve. A strategy of maritime interdiction or blockade has been criticized as too slow-acting. But slow-acting is a good thing. A slow-impact war limited to the seas affords time for passions to cool and opportunities for negotiation in which both sides back away from an unwanted escalation into a long lasting war, with all of its destruction of lives and property, full mobilization of the industrial base, disastrous effects on world commerce, and controls at home as extensive as those imposed during the two World Wars—in other words, World War III.
A tenet of the maritime strategy is that no U. S. Navy actions will be initiated except in response to claims by China contrary to international law. Our emphasis on influence and peacekeeping embraces the notion that we stand ready to respond, should China assert hegemonic claims that interfere with the freedom of the sea and legitimate fishing and sea bed development by other states. In addition, if potential allies within the Pacific basin realize we intend to employ limited, at-sea-only, responses to Chinese aggression that lessen the likelihood of Chinese attacks on their homelands, they may be more willing to expand their partnerships with the United States. Undersea Operations
By exploiting our submarines inside the first island chain and keeping our large surface combatants well back, we neutralize China’s anti-access missile forces. U. S. and allied submarines are the lynch pin to deny Chinese subs, surface warships, logistics ships, and commercial traffic safe passage in the South and East China Seas. A combination of the following choices is open to U. S. policy makers:
- the shock destruction of a prominent Chinese warship in the way HMS Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano, making clear the Royal Navy’s intention to enforce a maritime exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands.
- mining Chinese bases or commercial ports of our choice.
- tracking and sinking all Chinese submarines at sea except SSBNs.
- sinking Chinese surface warships at sea.
- after establishing exclusion zones for all commercial shipping, sinking anything found inside them, while preserving routes for innocent friendly traffic into East Asian states.
To this existing undersea capability I want to add a new flotilla of small missile combatants that would operate on the surface in the China Seas. The Navy should draw from foreign designs and also those tested in campaign studies and war games at NPS and the Naval War College. Our workshops suggest three prominent employments:
- Conduct hit and run raids on illegitimate Chinese seabed exploitations that are contrary to international law.
- Escort vital shipping into friendly ports, especially in the South China Sea.
- Augment Japanese patrol vessels to constrain illegal interference by China near the Senkaku Islands.
During peacetime, their presence serves as a signal of American commitment, helping to motivate peaceful resolution of disputes over economic exclusion zones, while conducting many small-ship exercises and port visits with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and Singapore.
What would the flotilla look like? In rough terms we envision individual small combatants of about 600 tons that carry about eight surface-to-surface missiles, depend on deception, soft kill, numbers, and point defense for survival, and are supported by off-board manned or unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance and tactical scouting. To paint a picture of possible tactical configurations, I contemplate the smallest element to be a mutually supporting pair, a squadron to comprise eight vessels, and a deployed force of four squadrons. The entire flotilla would comprise about eight squadrons. Costing less than $100 million each, the entire force would take only a small fraction—around 4%–of the shipbuilding budget and be inexpensive to operate.
Potential Operations From the First Island Chain
Marines can be ready to establish outposts in the first island chain that border the East and South China Seas. From nearby bases, small, mobile Marine expeditionary elements can be quickly moved into preplanned locations. These outposts can be made difficult to find and even harder to attack in the surfeit of islands and coastal terrains. Marine presence implies an asymmetric maritime response to the threat of invasion of Taiwan. In the event of war at sea, Marine expeditionary forces would deny use of the first island chain by China and foster quick-reaction raids, land-to-sea missile attacks, air surveillance, and collaborative island employment with allies.
Maritime Interdiction and Blockade Operations
Though discussed last, interdiction would in most instances be our first action to indicate the seriousness of the U. S. government in response to belligerent actions by China contrary to international law or conventions. Maritime interdiction can be graduated from a small number of inspections, through seizure of select cargoes such as crude oil, up to a full blockade. The interdiction would be imposed at the Singapore, Sunda, and Lombok Straits and to the extent feasible in the Luzon Strait. Since a blockade cannot be carried out risk-free, it would operate under the cover of carrier battle groups that remain out of range of land-based missiles and aircraft. With Japanese participation, the Ryukyu Island chain would be closed to all Chinese traffic.
Wishing Does Not Make a Strategy
Our assertions in favor of developing a war at sea strategy are hypotheses. Further analysis, war gaming, and policy discussion must be pursued in the fleet and at the Naval War College. The forthcoming Naval War College Review’s essay by Kline and Hughes lists seven things to explore, but here I invite readers to comment on their own issues. Here is one example:
- How should we disseminate the change of strategy that is intended to maintain our influence in the Western Pacific? I believe for unity of effort among the U. S. armed forces and our partners in Asia, the strategy must be openly published. China won’t like it, but it is a peacekeeping strategy, not at all a manifest for aggression.
I am not a strategist. Effecting a strategy is an arcane art with wheels within wheels of negotiations and insights that I dinna ken. But if shooting ensues it is well to remember the lead essay in the Naval War College Review, Jan-Feb 1986: “Naval Tactics and Their Influence on Strategy.” In it I say that tactical readiness and training must actually win the battles that the strategy takes for granted. Or as Bradley Fiske said: “No naval policy can be wise unless it takes into very careful account the tactics that ought to be used in war; in order that the proper kinds of ships may be built and the proper kinds of organizations, drills, and discipline be devised to carry those tactics into good effect.” In other words, Sic vis pacem, para bellum.
American strategy for the Middle East is as intricate as for East Asia, but its success depends on different operations and tactics for Iran than for China. I conjecture that to constrain Iranian aggression, it is best to reverse the planned sequence of actions for China. Iran must know that our response to any aggression from missile attacks, to employment of forces on the ground, to closure of the Strait of Hormuz will be disproportionate—not at all in keeping with just war doctrine. Nor should we contemplate conducting any except special operations on the ground: no invasion by conventional forces. My conjectured strategy would start with massive Air-Sea Battle strikes that destroy the Iranian economy and—insofar as possible—the military means to close the Strait of Hormuz. Taking our time as the world economies suffer, frustration mounts, and Iran learns that we will only negotiate on our terms, meanwhile we assemble a large fleet to clear the Strait and place naval forces— small and lethal ones for the most part—inside the Persian Gulf sufficient to safeguard commercial traffic for all other nations in the Strait and in the Gulf.
The devastating strike operations might last many weeks. Reopening the Strait may take several months. Keeping peace in the Strait and the Gulf may last a long time. Hence, logistical support is also important and it will be vastly different than for East Asia. How will we sustain the operations of a flotilla of the small vessels I prefer? The answer here will only be suggestive. A CVN’s afloat manpower is about 5,000, while the total manpower in, say, forty small and lethal combatants inside the Gulf would be about 1,000. The presence of both capabilities will probably be needed, but supporting the small combatants inside the Gulf won’t dominate the effort during the time it takes to persuade Iran to make peace. Of course by far the biggest savings in delivery and support will be the absence of a presence on the ground.
I have emphasized the offshore combat force because it is the only new element of a durable, sustainable war-at-sea fleet to influence China. Nor is it new except in the U. S. Navy. We do not need to develop fancy, expensive designs that are more technologically sophisticated than those in experienced coastal navies, such as Sweden, Singapore, and Israel. We just need to learn from their vessels and tactics, get proposals for bids out, and start the competition with, say, three or four different squadrons of eight ships by each builder. Then we can develop tactics that rival those of the best coastal fleets around the world.
Here is a very brief introduction to the tactical considerations in missile combat that are different from past U. S. Navy experience. In the battleship era a fleet concentrated its fire and maintained control in a tight column. Aircraft carriers shifted to circular formations already developed before the war, but through all of 1942 American tacticians debated whether more than one CV should be inside a destroyer screen. By 1944, thanks to the power of the defense by fighters directed from CICs and much better AAW weapons, the U. S. Navy settled on three or four CVs and CVLs inside one screen and, at least under Admiral Raymond Spruance, kept all carriers together in a mutually supporting disposition. Today a networked flotilla of many small vessels has choices because it can concentrate missile fire in time and space from a dispersed disposition or concentrate physically if that has defensive advantages. The choice will probably depend on the amount of clutter (fishing boats, coastal traffic, small islands and oil rigs, and estuaries used for concealment), both sides’ methods of offensive scouting and tracking, and our command-control system’s effectiveness for coordinated engagement. If we knew the best tactics, I would not write them here for they are the stuff of surprise and victory at sea. But until we have vessels for squadron operations and have studied the flotilla operations of other navies, we can’t know the best tactics to attack and survive.
I don’t think a USN flotilla is absolutely necessary to confront China. Not yet. But coastal combatants have value out of all proportion to their modest construction and operating costs, including the cost of forward support. They give China a new and different problem to solve on the surface of the seas on which its prosperity depends. They can go into China’s Seas, fight, and sometimes die in waters where CVNs, DDGs, and large amphibians should not go and would likely die at the onset of a lethal confrontation.
Coastal missile combatants aren’t absolutely necessary in a war with Iran, either, but they will be a great comfort to our big blue water warships if they know they will not be on point while clearing and entering the Strait of Hormuz. The flotilla—along with patrol craft—is the vessels we should operate in the Persian Gulf in a Middle East crisis. Should occasion arise to show the American flag—or fight—in other cul de sacs around the world such as the Yellow Sea, Black Sea, Baltic, Aegean, or Eastern Mediterranean, flotilla vessels are a better size, cost, and capability to put at risk than carriers, cruisers, or submarines. Coastal combatants are best to cooperate effectively with partners such as South Korea, Turkey, Sweden, Israel, and Singapore, whose training and experience, I point out, exceed our own.