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.