The Small Surface Combatant and the South China Sea

Information Dissemination continues its symposium today with an interesting post from CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.), a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, regarding options for a confrontation with China. A well respected naval tactician, CAPT Hughes argues, among other things, that the US Navy should field a flotilla of small, missile armed,  surface combatant vessels in the area, based out of a friendly foreign port.

Flotilla Operations
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.


I’m generally in favor of the Navy fielding a small surface combatant. Quantity has a quality all its own. And a survey of the fleet of 1945 shows that enormous numbers of our stupendous fleet was actually composed of very modest craft, such as the 173’ PC class subchaser. They weren’t the most potent ships, but their presence allowed them to perform secondary missions, freeing up the main body of the fleet for offensive operations. 

Further, in certain restricted waters, many of the shortcomings of smaller vessels compared to large blue water combatants are less important.  CAPT Hughes first portion of the post addresses the impact of losses on a flotilla composed of multiple small platforms versus a task force centered around a handful of high value platforms. In engineering terms, the loss of some low end vessels from a numerous flotilla might be termed “graceful degradation.”  That is, if you have a force of 8 or 16 small combatants, and lose two or four, the fundamental capabilities of the force remain, even if their total capacity has been substantially reduced. On the contrary, if you lose, say a Tico class cruiser from a task group, the fundamental capabilities of the group in terms of command and control and offensive and defensive power may be fundamentally changed.

One of the temptations when thinking of ship design and procurement is to pose the question of what to buy in terms of  a ship class is to consider “force on force.”  For instance, if you look to buy a small missile armed combatant, the great temptation is to look at the adversary missile boats, and build one to counter it.  CAPT Hughes is wise enough to note that this is the incorrect approach.  Mining the ports enemy boats operate from, and leveraging other weapons platforms such as tactical air make more sense.

China will likely use its small combatants to deny swaths of the South China Sea to major US surface combatants, constricting their freedom of maneuver that is one of the key advantages of a naval force. Still, they’ll suffer from the fact that a blue water naval force can exploit its mobility to concentrate and strike at the time and place of its choosing. The defender, on the other hand, has to defend all places at all times, diluting the effect of its large numbers of smaller combatants. Further, massing the fires of a number of small combatants is a real challenge.  One or two missile boats attacking a carrier task force with anti-ship missiles is a manageable threat. Fifteen or twenty boats launching 8 missiles each becomes a much more problematic threat. The challenge for the Chinese would be to detect and localize any US force, and then mass the missile boats within range without them being destroyed, and then coordinating the actual attack in time and space. That’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.

So what roles might a small US missile combatant perform in this scenario if not as a direct counter to Chinese missile craft? First, they could perform close escort for friendly shipping, either merchant traffic, or ships from the logistical force. Second, they can block key chokepoints denying mobility to Chinese forces. Just as the Chinese might wish to constrain our maneuver, we would seek to channelize theirs. Third, our small combatant could attack Chinese merchant shipping (or alternatively, blockade them from free passage in international waters). Fourth, distributed vessels serve as distributed sensor nodes in the information domination campaign. Finally, just upping the number of combatant vessels in the theater of operations complicates an opponent’s operations, forcing them to devote resources to ISR and sea control that they otherwise would be able to apply against the main body of a US fleet.  A study of US PT boat operations throughout World War II would likely show other useful roles and missions, as well as the limitations, of such a force.

I’m not entirely sold on CAPT Hughes reasoning here, or even his proposal for a flotilla of small combatants in this scenario (and be sure to read his thoughts on an Iranian scenario as well). But it strikes me as quite depressing that CAPT Hughes and many others in private forums and quasi military forums such as the USNI blog are able to cogently explain a tactical or operational scenario, propose the platforms and tactics to support them, and spark an open, frank discussion of the role of seapower and US power in the world. Contrast that with the current Navy and DoD leadership inability to give a rational explanation of what the LCS should be and how it should be used (or the F-35 or any other number of programs).

It is to weep.

10 thoughts on “The Small Surface Combatant and the South China Sea”

  1. I think he’s right. Back in the early to late 70s the Navy was thinking of a “sea control” ship that was basically a baby carrier that would distribute aviation assets with smaller escorts. It was a throwback to the WW2 hunter killer groups built around a CVE such as Gallery commanded in the Battle of The Atlantic. I thought it made some sense in a low AA threat environment, but not in littoral ops.

    I think the idea still has merit for ASW work. Don’t know about much else, but if we built them we’d prolly find other uses for them.

  2. Good for hit and run..really short “legs”, would need something/where to refuel and rearm, do general maintenance and re-supply. Ships get good “milage” at slow speeds, eat fuel up at high, just like a car. Kinda dumb to worry about oil platforms when there’s that whole fleet sitting there, not to mention all those aircraft that would eat a small boat up. With 600 tons you won’t get much room for weapons.

  3. Between the carrier-killing DF-21, the J-20, their small patrol boat and their carrier, the PLA built the navy Zumwalt wanted. The USN is building a steak navy on a ‘burger budget. We can’t afford the LCS or the “Zumwalt” class ships. Not as they are fitted out. History repeats as tragedy then as farce.

  4. “…based out of a friendly foreign port.”

    This seems to me to be the Achilles heel of the strategy. Are there any foreign ports that are close enough that we could rely on if push truly came to shove? Seems to me that any port basing these would become a magnet for Chinese missiles. Of course, this line of thinking shows the futility of planning for a war with China. Galveston is technically within range of Chinese missiles.

  5. We started making ASHEVILLE PGMs in 1963, so we had a soulution 50 years ago. A small fast attack craft, that could be built by the hundreds, like 173′ PCs. I sometimes wonder if the fact that they were built in WI, at Peterson Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay was not a handicap for them, as Wisconsin is not really known as a defence contractor state, and other states with bigger Congressional delegations glommed onto the money for projects that would benifit thier states contractors.

    1. I’m thinking more a Corvette sized ship would be useful, rather than a PC or PG. But I’m open to persuasion. A flotilla of PC/PG type vessels supported by a tender (converted merchant of some sort) would be more useful in either the Arabian Gulf, or the Caribbean, to my thinking.

    2. A bigger ship would be more capable, and be able to stay out in sea states that a smaller one could not, but you can get a whole lot more of the ASHVILLE sized ones, and ASHVILLEs self deployed to VN during that war, so a similar sized one should work in the South China Sea.

      On the other hand, if we could also get a corvette, ASHVILLEs could keep the Carribean and the Persian Gulf in line, and free the corvettes to counter the ambitions of the PLAN. The class ship of the USN FLOWERs had what is still one of my favorite names for a warship, PG 62 USS TEMPTRESS. ( the Load HEAT ship?)

      We still need to start making NANSENs under license as DEs, though.

      1. One of the greatest shortcomings the Navy currently has is the lack of a modern, high speed, anti-ship missile. The Harpoon is a great missile, but increasingly vulnerable to defenses, and the SM-2, fired from Aegis platforms, is hindered by its Line of Sight range limitations.

        A medium range (50-75nm) autonomous supersonic SSM should be a priority for the USN, but it isn’t.

    3. But making one of those would take money better spent on diversity!
      A ship capable of launching 20 beyond line of sight missles to kill some of those PLAN missle boats ypu posted last month, the evil looking ones, would be tremendous asset. But I doubt if our political masters will see the need for one, even after China conqours Tiawan. Certainly not when we have a arrogant fool like Clinton as SecState, and a dupilcitous liar as President.

  6. When you build a ship, you have to account for the mission: 1) range of operations (endurance) 2) weapons loadout 3) sensors/comms) 4) electrical generation (what it takes to power the weapons/sensors/comms and hotel services). this will determine the size of fuel tanks and the main powerplant and generator, and last, but not least, the size and shape of the ship.

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