Bryan Clark, Sea Control and Power Projection- The Future Surface Navy

On November 10, Bryan Clark, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, gave a presentation advocating changes in the structure and employment of the surface combatants in the US Navy. It’s a rather radical concept in some ways. In others, it’s simply a return to the traditional role of the Navy.

There are two fundamental roles for any navy, sea control and power projection. Sea control is ensuring that your fleet and merchant marine have the freedom to use the seas. Very generally, sea control is war against the enemy navy. Power projection is use of your navy to attack enemy forces and assets ashore.  Our own US Navy, in terms  of World War II, served in both roles. The Battle of the Atlantic, the epic struggle against the U-Boats, was largely a sea control battle. In the Pacific, the island hopping campaign saw the Navy in a power projection role. Of course, both theaters were not exclusively one other the other type of naval mission. You have to exercise sea control to be able to project power. And often the best way to exercise sea control is by projecting power ashore, to defeat the enemy’s base.

Clark is an interesting fellow to address the issue. In his naval career, he was a nuclear submariner. But he’s also been working as a strategic level thinker for years, and before joining the CBSA, served as a special assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations.  His focus there was at the operational and tactical level. His presentation is about 40 minutes long.


There are also two other videos, the introduction, and the Q&A session.

If you don’t wish to spend 40 minutes watching the video, Breaking Defense has a thought provoking article on Clark’s ideas, and some of the challenges.

Someone shoots a cruise missile at you. How far away would you like to stop it: over 200 miles out or less than 35?

If you answered “over 200,” congratulations, you’re thinking like the US Navy, which has spent billions of dollars over decades to develop ever more sophisticated anti-missile defenses. According to Bryan Clark, until 12 months ago a top advisor to the nation’s top admiral, you and the Navy are wrong.

Now for my thoughts on the matter.

Let’s take a look at how we came to have the surface combatant fleet we have today. Currently, the Navy has 22 Tico cruisers, 62 Burke destroyers, 28 or so Perry frigates, and a couple of LCS.  The Ticos and Burkes were conceived primarily as anti-air warfare escorts for the carrier battle groups. The Perry’s were seen as anti-sub escorts for merchant, logistics, and amphibious groups. The LCS are… well, that’s been covered elsewhere.

Prior to World War II, the cruisers and destroyers of the fleet were seen both as a screen for the main line of battleships, and as an offensive weapon to attrit any enemy screen of their own line of battle, and as weapons to attack that same line of battle. The carriers of the fleet were seen as an adjunct of the screen, primarily to provide reconnaissance and scouting, and to provide air defense over the fleet.

But by the end of the war, the air wing of the carrier was seen as the primary weapon of the fleet, both as an anti-surface warfare weapon, and for power projection ashore. It was also seen as the primary defensive weapon of the fleet. The cruisers and destroyers were no longer seen as offensive weapons, but rather as distributed sensors for the fleet, networking to provide that information to the air wing, and serving as backstops against any leakers that the air wing failed to destroy.

That focus on anti-air escort has remained with the surface combatant community to this day. To be sure, it is not the sole mission of cruisers and destroyers, but it is the driving force behind the design and construction of almost every major surface combatant class since World War II. The only other mission which the surface navy placed nearly as much emphasis was anti-submarine warfare. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that emphasis has largely been allowed to lapse. See the shedding of the entire fleet of Spruance destroyers, long before their useful service lives were over.

One of the main characteristics of the evolution of the fleet air defense escort has been the ever increasing range of the interceptors they employ. Radar range has effectively had roughly the same range since its introduction. The first interceptor used by the Navy, the Terrier missile, had an effective range of about 10-15 miles. Today, the SM-6 can theoretically engage at ranges of up to 150 miles.

Clark argues that the long range interceptor is a losing proposition, in that the SM-6 costs more than any missile it is likely to engage. Further, it’s likely that any near peer enemy can launch enough cruise missiles to simply empty the magazine of any cruiser or destroyer.  That is, if a cruiser carries 50 interceptors, the enemy only need launch 51 cruise missiles. Instead, he argues, the Navy should abandon the long range interceptor, and focus on short range interception, at about 35 miles, which means using the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). Where a Vertical Launch System (VLS) cell can only carry one SM-6, that same cell can carry four ESSM. Coupled with jamming and decoying, and with emerging laser and rail gun technologies, Clark argues that this defense would allow for sufficient magazine space to counter any likely attack, while also leaving sufficient cells for offensive weapons to destroy the launch platforms of the enemy. And he’s certainly correct that it is more effective to destroy the launch platform than to attempt to intercept every possible incoming attack.

But that revision to the missile defense doctrine ignores that any potential adversary with sufficient numbers of cruise missiles to overwhelm a cruiser or destroyer is an adversary that would be worthy of engaging with a carrier strike group. And thus we’re back to the point where the air wing is the primary offensive weapon, tasked to destroy the  launch platform. Kill the archer, not the arrows, as the saying goes. And with the air wing as the primary offensive weapon, that logically means the surface combatants are back to their historical role of defending the carrier. As to the cost argument, yes, an SM-6 does cost more than any single cruise missile it will likely engage. But that’s not the fiscal argument that matters. The real cost argument is, how much is saved by spending $4 million expending an SM-6? If it keeps a $15 billion dollar aircraft carrier from suffering a couple billion dollars in damage, that’s money well spent.

US-Chinese Tensions in the South China Sea rise

It’s now being reported that last week saw a tense incident between the USS Cowpens*, a Ticonderoga Guided Missile Cruiser, and a Chinese landing ship, where the Chinese LST forced the Cowpens to manuever to avoid collision.

From the Free Beacon:

A Chinese naval vessel tried to force a U.S. guided missile warship to stop in international waters recently, causing a tense military standoff in the latest case of Chinese maritime harassment, according to defense officials.

The guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, which recently took part in disaster relief operations in the Philippines, was confronted by Chinese warships in the South China Sea near Beijing’s new aircraft carrier Liaoning, according to officials familiar with the incident

“On December 5th, while lawfully operating in international waters in the South China Sea, USS Cowpens and a PLA Navy vessel had an encounter that required maneuvering to avoid a collision,” a Navy official said.

On the one hand, this is quite reminiscent of the bad old days of the Cold War when the Soviets routinely ignored virtually every Rule of the Road in attempts to hassle and annoy US warships. Near misses were common and even the occasional swapping of paint took place.

On the other hand, this is slightly different, as China has long asserted that the entire South China Sea is territorial waters (though absolutely no other country recognizes this, and there is no historical precedent).

It’s not as if the Chinese haven’t done this sort of thing before. In 2001 there was the EP-3E incident, when a Chinese fighter intercepted a routine US surveillance flight (fair enough) but then maneuvered so aggressively it caused a mid-air collision, and the EP-3E had to make an emergency landing in China. The Chinese soon repatriated the US crew, and eventually returned the heavily damaged top-secret spyplane.**

The Free Beacon article also describes the 2009 incident when Chinese assets harassed the USNS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance ship, operating in international waters, again, waters claimed by China as territorial, or at least as part of the  Exclusive Economic Zone.

The Chinese objective here isn’t to provoke a shooting incident. The attempt is to subtlety exert influence. Every time they can force the ships and aircraft of another nation to change their operations, they bolster their claim to the waters, and cause other nations to lose face.

In ordinary times, the US Navy is rather absolutist about the Freedom of Navigation in international waters. The Gulf of Sidra incident, when Ghaddafi claimed those waters were territorial to Libya, arose when the US Navy promptly conducted Freedom of Navigation exercises in those waters. When the Libyans came out to play, they found out they were sorely ill equipeed to challenge the varsity, losing ships, planes and SAM sites in the process.

But will our current administration stand firm in the face of the Chinese? Do more than pass a mild diplomatic note? There is cause for doubt. ADM Locklear, US Pacific Command commander, has sounded conciliatory in the face of Chinese claims. Mind you, when PACOM’s lips are moving (on a diplomatic matter, at least) the Obama administration is speaking.

One fears the current administration’s unwillingness to embrace US strength and resolve will prompt the Chinese to further engage in aggressive behavior, and continue to escalate tensions in the region.

To be sure, this is a fairly minor incident. But failure to curb Chinese actions in the region will embolden them, and increase the chances of a more serious incident, one our current administration is wholly unprepared to face.

**One wonders how the USS Cowpens would have fared were the infamous CAPT Holly Graf still in command.
*After, of course, they had plenty of time to examine every classified bit in minute detail.

Question for the Gang: What is the Most Beautiful Warship Ever?

indiana bb58

One of the great things about being able to write for this or any other blog is the ability to ask questions with the purpose of drawing out opinions and generating discussion amongst knowledgeable readers.

The question I pose today is the following:

In your opinion, what was the most beautiful warship ever built?

Defining “beauty” in an instrument of war may seem a contradiction, but to the denizens here and elsewhere who are either Naval enthusiasts or have been to sea on a warship, there is an instinctive reaction to the sight of a graceful and well-balanced vessel that exudes power and strength.

Beauty, also being in the eye of the beholder, still has some qualifiers on this first offering:

  • The ship (for this round, at least) must be a capital ship, a fleet carrier, battleship, battle cruiser, armored cruiser, guided missile cruiser, or heavy cruiser.
  • The ship must be primarily steam-powered and of steel/iron construction.

Note that neither design success nor combat record is a part of any consideration.   This is not about the most effective fighting vessel, but rather the most aesthetically pleasing.

My offerings below are not at all exhaustive, and I encourage any additional input for which class or one-off ship strikes your sense of beauty.  That said, one can likely easily spot some of my biases in my selections.  The “clipper” or “Atlantic” bow.  Funnel caps.  I could think of no pre-Dreadnoughts that were beautiful ships.  Amphibs, either.  I offer only a single aircraft carrier class, as well.  I heavily favored guns, but not exclusively.  And there are a few selections that either precede or follow major rebuilds which make the vessels all but unrecognizable from their original design.  Which is good in one case, bad in another.

And I selected no French battleships.  They tend to be ugly affairs, with tumble-home sides and oddly-spaced machinery and funnels.  Even the Dunkerques and Richeleius, while significant improvements, suffer from the truncated appearance that plagued Nelson and Rodney, which are also not on my list.

Without further ado, grouped by country, below are my considerations for the most beautiful warships ever built.  Select from them, if you like, or offer your own choices.



Bismarck-class Battleships


Gneisenau-class Battlecruisers**


Helgoland-class Second Generation Dreadnoughts


Derfflinger-class Battlecruisers


Hipper-class Heavy Cruisers**

Great Britain


Battlecruiser Tiger


Queen Elizabeth-class Super Dreadnoughts (As built)


Renown-class Battlecruisers


Battlecruiser Hood


Battleship Vanguard



Yamato-class Superbattleships


Mikuma-class Heavy Cruisers


Maya-class Heavy Cruisers



Andrea Doria-class Battleships (post-rebuild)


Vittorio Veneto-class Battleships


Zara-class Heavy Cruisers

The United States

saratoga cv3

Lexington-class Fleet Aircraft Carriers


South Dakota-class Battleships


Alaska-class Battlecruisers


Iowa-class Battleships

des moines

Des Moines-class Heavy Cruisers


California-class Nuclear Guided Missile Cruisers



Duquesne-class Heavy Cruisers


Suffern-class Heavy Cruisers

Soviet Union/Russia


Project-68 (Sverdlov)-class Heavy Cruisers


Kirov-class Battlecruisers

So there you are, some suggestions for the most beautiful warships ever built.  Fire away, either with the ones I provided, or offer your own ideas.

(Next round will be Light Cruisers and Destroyers.)

** Both Gneisenaus and cruiser Hipper were completed with straight stem and no funnel cap.  The addition of the “clipper bow” and capped funnel was not considered a significant rebuild in either class/unit.

UPDATE and BUMPED: Now with a poll added. I’ll have to teach URR how to make one before the next round. Vote!

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