Do we need a (surface) navy ?

The government has just scrapped one of the many troubled defence projects it inherited: the Sea Sprite helicopter. It may yet cancel Brendan Nelson’s Super Hornets. But with budget pressure still tight, it might be worth looking at more radical options. The obvious candidate is to abandon the long-standing tradition that our armed forces should include a surface navy.

It’s been argued ever since the development of the submarine in the late 19th century and the airplane in the early 20th (along with torpedoes and mines) that surface fleets were obsolete, being vulnerable to much cheaper attackers. This argument has been repeatedly vindicated by events, and just as repeatedly ignored by the makers of defence policy.

Update: My point is pretty much proved by this report that the Navy has dropped the ball on training and retaining submarine crews. By contrast, the general tone of many comments seems to be based on the notion “why not have it all?” with no consideration of budget constraints, let alone benefit-cost analysis.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the race to build Dreadnought-class battleships was a significant contributor to the tensions that led to the outbreak of the Great War. Yet when the War came, the Dreadnoughts on both sides turned out to be useless, meeting only in the inconclusive Battle of Jutland. The German Fleet stayed in port for the rest of war and the British Navy didn’t attack them because of the fear of submarines and mines. The real naval war was that of German submarines against British merchant ships and their escorts.

Despite this, governments around the world raced to build more and better battleships in the period from 1918 to 1939. The renewed outbreak of World War showed that battleships were only marginally useful, and highly vulnerable to air and submarine attack. Again the real naval war was one of submarines and carrier-based aircraft. The main role of surface ships was as anti-submarine escorts and as platforms for aircraft.

Since then, of course, the range, speed and capabilities of aircraft have all increased dramatically, while ships continue to travel at speeds of 20 to 30 knots. A ship can be sunk by missiles from huge distances, and the vastness of the oceans has ceased to be relevant in the era of satellites and pilotless spy planes. Submarines have greatly improved their capacity to avoid detection, but it is essentially impossible to hide a surface ship.

Since 1945, there has only been one serious naval conflict, the Falklands/Malvinas war which demonstrated all these points. The Argentine navy played real no role in the war, returning to port after the sinking of the Belgrano by a submarine. Pitted against a fourth-rate airforce (more used to murdering dissidents than to any kind of military activity) operating far from its home bases, the British Royal Navy only survived because the other side ran out of missiles and couldn’t get its bombs to explode.

Based on all this experience, it seems safe to observe first that we are highly unlikely to be involved in naval surface warfare ever again. If we are, a surface fleet will be defenceless in the absence of air and submarine superiority and redundant with it. In this context, there was an interesting piece in Prospect a few years ago which spelt out the vulnerability of surface fleets to submarine and air attack. I didn’t agree with all of it, notably the bit at the end suggesting the push for dreadnoughts leading up to the Great War was a good idea, but it confirms my general view that naval policy continues to be premised on fighting the wars of last century if not those of the century before that.

If we abandon the idea of a traditional surface warfare capacity that still leaves some jobs to be done by surface ships, of which the most significant in military terms is transporting troops and equipment, and supporting amphibious operations. But does it make sense to have a separate arm of the service for this. Wouldn’t it be better to let the army handle this job and decide what resources should be allocated to it?

Then there are various coastal patrol activities. Important as these are, they could be adequately handled by a Coast Guard, as proposed by Kim Beazley a while back.

Finally, there are the kind of long-distance operations characterized by our contribution to various operations in the Persian Gulf. We can never do this except as a small part of a US effort centred on a carrier battle group. It makes no sense to invested in ships dedicated to this kind of job. To the extent that we are obligated to support such operations, it would be better to make a cash contribution, as many US allies did in Gulf War I, or send specialist personnel.

How much could we save by doing without a surface navy? In capital terms, expenditure on large-scale naval projects appears comparable with that on the air force, while delivering a lot less defence. In terms of numbers, the navy has 13000 military staff, compared to 14000 for the air force and 21000 for the army. If we could halve the size of the navy by winding down the surface fleet, that would be about a 15 per cent saving in numbers. Overall, it looks like an option worth exploring further.

92 thoughts on “Do we need a (surface) navy ?

  1. As the post and several subsequent comments note, the traditional role of battleships is now filled by aircraft carriers, and has been since WWII. As also noted, Australia doesn’t have the capacity to operate a carrier group and shouldn’t try.

  2. Actually, only partially, the traditional C2 (flagship) function has been filled by carriers and dedicated fleet flagships, and cruisers. The heavy surface strike function has been filled by carriers, submarines, destroyers and cruisers with various missile and air-launched systems.

    The ‘AA’ (actually air defence environment) function has been shared between space based sensors, carriers and semi-specialised AA platforms: cruisers and ‘air warfare destroyers’ (actually cruisers as they have a flagship function at lower levels), while the shore bombardment function has been very widely dispersed among cruisers, destroyers and frigates.

    As Pugh notes, the BB became ‘baroque’: too much money in one platform type with too high a manpower/operating cost, so its functions were dispersed amongst other platforms.

    Finally, the CV did not functionally replace the BB in all areas either functionally or geographically, especially poor-weather areas (such as northern European waters) during WWII or after. Why it faded away in those waters post 1950 (not 1945) was because it had no equivalent opposition except the large Soviet Sverdlov force (and the Chapaev’s and Kirov’s too, of course). And those were countered by modernised WWII cruisers, which took over the ‘heavy ASuW task’ at much lower operating cost, and then later by vessels such as the RN County class light cruisers. There was a very good reason why SEASLUG had a surface-to-surface mode and why it packed the equivalent punch to a 15″ shell in that mode.

    So while in the simplest possible terms you are partially right, you missed most of it, and all the nuances. That is not intended to belittle you in any way, I am merely trying to see where your level of knowledge is.

    I do not intend to make some foolish game of this either, that would be juvenile, but may I ask you one more question: what is your understanding of the (so-called) ‘Mahanian’ maritime system, and what differentiated it from the maritime system in existence before it?

    I am asking this solely to assess your level of knowledge on this topic.

    MarkL
    canberra

  3. Coming back to the Falklands, much of what you say appears irrelevant to my point, which is that the air force of a developing country, operating at the limit of its range, came very close to beating the most powerful naval force that the world’s third-strongest naval power could deliver.

    Since you’re keen on flourishing expertise, I will quote the Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Craig, as reported by leading military historian “Six better fuses and we would have lost.”
    Keegan goes on to observe that developments since then have tipped the balance further “Aircraft and missiles have improved since 1982, counter-measures less so.” Keegan concludes that Britain probably couldn’t fight and win a Falklands-type war today.

    As I read Keegan, he would like to remedy the situation by spending a lot more money on ships and carriers. But, I think he realises that this isn’t really feasible for the UK and that’s obviously true in spades for Australia. The notions of force projection that have been bandied about here are obsolete fantasies.

  4. MarkL, if you ask a short question, and get a short answer, it’s rather silly to complain afterwards that not all the qualifications were included.

    To spell things out further, and cover some points you’ve ignored, many/most of the traditional functions of battleships have been replaced by non-naval forces, most obviously aircraft and missiles operating at steadily greater ranges.

    Coming to Mahan, I don’t see his system as being radically different from what preceded it – indeed that was part of the problem. Rather, it was a systematization of the experience of the 18th and (to a limited extent) 19th centuries, which led him to see fleets centred on powerful surface ships (battleships in his period) as vital in projecting power globally.

    To repeat myself, Mahan’s analysis largely ignored the role of submarines and of course failed to anticipate the impact of aircraft.

  5. SO: “many/most of the traditional functions of battleships have been replaced by non-naval forces, most obviously aircraft and missiles operating at steadily greater ranges”.

    How peculiar that you regard naval aircraft organic to ships and and missiles fired from ships as ‘non-naval forces’. This explains much.

    “Coming to Mahan, I don’t see his system as being radically different from what preceded it – indeed that was part of the problem.”

    Quite false. The maritime system before it was based on naval ships incapable of remaining at sea for more than a brief period, amphibiously deployed soldiers, and coastal fortresses. Read Guilmartin’s ‘Gunpowder and Galleys’ for a description of this maritime system.

    The so-called ‘Mahanian’ system was based entirely on the new ability of ships to remain at sea in any weather conditions for extended periods of time. This system began to evolve in the 14th century and became dominant in the 17th, replacing the previous system, which was some 3,500 years old.

    “Rather, it was a systematization of the experience of the 18th and (to a limited extent) 19th centuries, which led him to see fleets centred on powerful surface ships (battleships in his period) as vital in projecting power globally.”

    Again, false, but the most common misreading of Mahan (and for that matter Corbett, Richmond and Colomb)- this was Kaiser Bill’s notorious misreading. Sea Power was projected then as now by trading ships conducting either peaceful trade or carrying troops and your trade (but not the enemy’s) during conflict. The role of the fleet was to mask the enemy fleet and to throttle enemy trade through blockade so that our side could use the sea for our purposes while denying its use to the enemy. The masking function was critical, for the standard enemy response was guerre de corse, which and to be dealt with through a large number of small, cheap but individually weak naval units unable to stand up for a moment to an enemy ‘capital ship’ (line-of-battle ship in that era, usually a 60 and later a 74). Thus, by masking the enemy fleet, out sea control ships could protect our trade and use of the sea and deny it to the enemy.

    THAT is the Mahanian maritime system, very simplified.

    Thank you for answering. Your level of knowledge is at a par with most people who have not studied this area. I hope that you have learned something of the basics of this milieu. I enjoin you to read the books recommended by myself and others. This is a fascinating area, and one that goes back millennia. It is well worth serious study.

    MarkL
    Canberra

  6. To put it mildly, I’m unimpressed. In the most obvious shifting of the goalposts, you’ve made “the system that preceded Mahan” refer to the period ending in the 17th century, that is about 200 years before he wrote. At any rate, I couldn’t ask for a more complete proof of my point about fighting the war before last than your description of the Mahanian system, advocated for the 20th century, in terms of Napoleonic era ships of the line.

    And given the idea that a reference to aircraft automatically means “naval aircraft” is rather silly. I meant to spell out the point that the increased range of aircraft and missiles means that ground-based aircraft and missiles can fulfil functions previously undertaken by ships, but thought it unnecessary. Obviously this was incorrect.

  7. JQ, didn’t you even know that Mahan wasn’t trying to innovate as such in his system – though he did want the USA to apply it – but rather to codify and systematise the lessons brought out by real world experience? That he gave due credit to British experience? That this experience was accrued over nearly the previous two centuries? He wasn’t making it up from pure reason and moral superiority.

    Speaking of Paul Dibb, internal evidence also made me think he doesn’t appreciate the issues, whereas Paul Monk does. Paul Monk does seem only to have a subset sort of grasp, i.e. he doesn’t have all the answers (which is still more than I have), but if I were to recommend one Australian-oriented defence commentator who is publicly accessible, as a place to start, it would be him. He has a site of his own you can start from.

    For a broad worked example of just how sea power worked out, try reading Barbara Tuchman’s “The First Salute”, paying particular attention to the lessons of Chesapeake Bay (and compare and contrast with how, over time, sea power made it practical to subdue if not subjugate a far more hostile Ireland). That is something the ordinary intelligent reader can get to grips with (Barbara Tuchman just gets selective on the good guys/bad guys issue – read Christopher Hibbert’s “Redcoats and Rebels” to offset her bias).

    By the way, even today battleships are worth having – just – only, they are not worth building. That is, they are worth keeping mothballed, if you happen to have some around anyway (getting rid of them on cost benefit grounds would be the sunk cost fallacy). Even a decade ago they were worth keeping operational. If cost were not an object, or less important, it would be technically possible to build one today but it wouldn’t resemble those of seventy years ago much. Most likely it would be a semi-submersible of whaleback design that could run on snorkels (if not atomic), made of ferrocrete using a fusible alloy instead of cement, with armament like the old sinking guns only adapted for missile launching, point defence and what have you. It would cost far too much compared with realistic alternatives, but it would do the job of clearing the way for all those smaller vessels to do their jobs.

    “A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”
    .

  8. “I meant to spell out the point that the increased range of aircraft and missiles means that ground-based aircraft and missiles can fulfil functions previously undertaken by ships, but thought it unnecessary. Obviously this was incorrect.”

    I take it that the latter sentence refers to the part of the former sentence before the comma? Because that part is incorrect. I even heard that argument brought out as an exhibit in a familiarisation talk given by a young naval officer to my school. It was a widespread misunderstanding needing to be refuted, which he did by showing just what else was involved. Improvements in those arms have been made since then, but they still don’t do those other jobs.

  9. JQ: For the first part of your response, oh, what utter piffle. You have made it abundantly clear that you lack the knowledge to say that, and have not read any of the works you need to!

    “At any rate, I couldn’t ask for a more complete proof of my point about fighting the war before last than your description of the Mahanian system, advocated for the 20th century, in terms of Napoleonic era ships of the line.”

    Please read Alfred Thayer Mahan – I have a first edition and a pretty penny it cost me.

    You apparently do not know the title of his book, it is entitled: “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783”. You need to read Chapter 1 ‘Discussion of the Elements of Sea Power’ especially the section entitled ‘Navies Exist for the protection of Commerce’

    How is it ‘fighting the war before last’ to state that navies exist to protect maritime commerce, when this has been true through TWO maritime systems since the Bronze Age an remains just as true now as it did 3000 years ago?

    Have you worked out some way to move a small amount of material, say, 50,000,000 tons of ore, over a short distance, say 3,000 nautical miles, at lower ton mile costs that provided by a panamax? No? Did not think so. Well, sunny jim, that means that things are just as they were when Phoenicians were shipping Cypriot tin ingots from Ugarit to Cathargo, 3,500 years back. Oh, and the Phoenicians had a navy to protect that trade, too.

    Mahan looked for the fundamental trends of seapower over that period – and he certainly did not look as late as the Napoleonic period. It was too close to the time he wrote and the lessons then were less clear to his audience due to the different nature of that series of conflicts, much of his work looks at the first global war, the Seven Years War.

    Your lack of knowledge here even of basic economic facts of maritime trade really is surprising to me. For example, carriage of goods by water retains exactly the same advantages now as it did during the Dutch Wars of Punic War for that matter: ton mile transport costs 2-3 orders of magnitude below land carriage of those same goods, and carriage of larger tonnages faster than is possible by land. So navies exist to protect that competitive advantage. Nothing has changed.

    Um, you DO know when the Revolutionary Wars ended and the Napoleonic Wars started, don’t you?

    Finally, he published in 1889 – he was writing for the NINETEENTH CENTURY. This was a treatise to awaken in the US body politic an awareness that the USA was a maritime power – something you are patently unaware of. That he (and Richmond etc etc) identified the SAME series of fundamental economic and strategic structures seems to escape you entirely.

    You are seriously out of your depth and need to do some reading.

    It is just that perhaps unlike in economics, where you may well shift with various winds of economic fashion for all I know (which would merely imply that it is a poorly understood milieu with lots of theoreticians involved), seapower has truly been studied by extraordinary minds looking for the fundamental lessons involved in its practise. And this level of study has been done for *centuries*. And fundamentals just do not alter quickly. What was true of seapower when the Misenum Fleet applied the principles has not changed enormously by the invention, 2000 years later, of ships able to keep the sea. Both the Misenum Fleet and the RAN existed and exist fundamentally to protect maritime commerce.

    You have made it very obvious that you do not understand any of that at all.

    What you apparently also cannot understand is that seapower is a PRACTICAL matter far more than a theoretical one. It is very hands-on. We do it every single minute of every single hour of every single day. I find myself surprised to realise that you do not understand that the fundamental difference between a first rate and a modern capital ship is that the latter is far easier to man, and takes much *less* training to make effective as a combat system than the former. In terms of what it is, and what it does; its *effect*, there is very little difference between the two. Oh, the technology is wildly different, but so what? The effects are so similar as to be all but indistinguishable because the technology has not affected the fundamental structures of maritime commerce or sea power.

    DO some study. You have no idea of what you are talking about, and Lord, does it show.

    MarkL
    canberra

  10. Umm, I’m fully aware of Mahan’s title and ostensible historical reference. My reference to the Napoleonic era was to your comment. In my reference to Mahan, I’m talking about the large group (including Mahan himself, IMHO) who imagine(d) that the naval experience of the 18th century was a useful guide to policy in the 20th and 21st centuries (your quibble about 1889 being in the 19th century is duly noted, so feel free to include the last few years of that century as well).

    Reading the rest of what you’ve written, I agree that we’re getting down to the basics. You say nothing has changed in 2000 years, and therefore we need to go on as before. I suggest that, among other things, the arrival of airplanes implies fundamental changes.

    But you keep going on about the protection of maritime commerce. Can I ask you to spell out the threats against which we should be guarding, and how our current force structure contributes to this?

    Finally, can I suggest a change of pseudonym? It’s very difficult to take claims of expertise seriously when they are signed with a snarky attack on a retired politician.

  11. ‘Al, in my view, the greater our contribution to the alliance with the US thee greater our ability to influence US policy.’

    Has this presumption ever been compared with the historical record?

  12. For what it’s worth, sea power as used against Ireland, and in support of the British land effort against the American rebels, wasn’t focussed on trade. However, trade featured in not continuing the American effort after 1781 – it was still militarily realistic there after that, it would merely have compromised the core through economic collapse and opening Britain itself up to similar things in reverse.

  13. “I’m talking about the large group (including Mahan himself, IMHO) who imagine(d) that the naval experience of the 18th century was a useful guide to policy in the 20th and 21st centuries”

    COMMENT: Well, he ‘imagined’ right, then. His call for the USA to recognise its essentially maritime nature and to build a navy to deal with that worked, so his work hardly failed. In identifying fundamental structures of maritime trade and sea power, his work remains valid. Historical studies to identify fundamental trends and deep, foundation level structures tend to. That is why Mahan and the other great maritime strategists remain valid today.

    “Reading the rest of what you’ve written, I agree that we’re getting down to the basics. You say nothing has changed in 2000 years, and therefore we need to go on as before. I suggest that, among other things, the arrival of airplanes implies fundamental changes.”

    COMMENT: Well may you suggest that, but aircraft have caused no fundamental changes to maritime trade. Aircraft made for lots of changes at the technological and tactical levels, but that’s essentially superficial. In Mahanian terms they mostly replace frigates,and sloops. They do nothing to change basic strategy because aircraft cannot compete with ships on a ton mile basis. Therefore trade still goes by sea. Therefore this trade still requires protection, and this means surface navies.

    Oh, there are tactical changes aplenty, but in the end aircraft can only do so much. Unless based at sea they cannot really go very far or search very much, cannot maintain a permanent presence, and are horribly vulnerable. The sea remains vast, and very hard to find things on. The issue you raise here implies the need for ships like AWD, BTW.

    “But you keep going on about the protection of maritime commerce. Can I ask you to spell out the threats against which we should be guarding, and how our current force structure contributes to this?”

    COMMENT: Already answered in the references provided to you in multiple posts. Sea the Seapower Centre, RAN Doctrine and BPC/AMSA websites for these basics, which, you will note, have a few additions to what Mahan, Corbett, Richmond, Castex and Colomb all identified but which are otherwise the same. You might even look at ‘Navy News’, which carries many stories about what teh RAN does on a day to day basis. Nearly all of it is the classic trade protection function as conducted in times when no maritime war is being conducted.

    “Finally, can I suggest a change of pseudonym? It’s very difficult to take claims of expertise seriously when they are signed with a snarky attack on a retired politician.”

    COMMENT: What on Earth are you talking about? I have used this pseudonym both on this iteration of internet and in earlier generation fora for well over two decades. Why should I change it? Others ‘got’ the reference in pre-internet years (it’s an in-joke: hints, Romanise it, adjust that slightly, and link it to both a targeting process and a 1970s weapons system and add the geographical context – which is not what it looks like: it’s as intricate as the jest behind Whale Spinor’s handle), so I still see no need to alter it.

    MarkL
    Canberra

  14. My apologies on the pseudonym.

    Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have got anywhere in trying to get a clear answer from you on the trade protection function, and the references you’ve given are no more explicit. I’ve found this problem with discussions of defence spending in general.

  15. “Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have got anywhere in trying to get a clear answer from you on the trade protection function, and the references you’ve given are no more explicit. I’ve found this problem with discussions of defence spending in general.”

    COMMENT: I am reluctant to provide a list on two counts. Firstly, the data from the practitioner perspective is contained in the references provided, and there is nothing that helps educate more than having to actually find out for oneself. Secondly providing a mere list loses all the nuances and over simplifies the matter. Trade protection is quite poorly studied – there is only one person I know of currently doing work in that area in Australia and some of his work is in one of the books I have mentioned. I can put you in touch with him should you want to discuss this seriously with someone working in the field. I am knowledgeable but no expert in that field and do not have the time to trawl through the references for you. Perhaps he can. I have seen him at conferences and he appears to know his stuff – he might be a bit of an anorak, though!

    “But you keep going on about the protection of maritime commerce. Can I ask you to spell out the threats against which we should be guarding, and how our current force structure contributes to this?”

    COMMENT: Again, a mere listing does nothing for your knowledge on this matter. The current matters in this spectrum which concern the Australian government are matters identified in Australian Doctrine (see http://www.navy.gov.au/spc/amd/amdintro.html) and the eight tasks you’ll find on the Border protection Command website (http://www.customs.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=5765) :

    Which are: Illegal exploitation of natural resources, Illegal activity in protected areas, Unauthorised maritime arrivals, Prohibited imports/exports, Maritime Terrorism, Piracy, Compromise to Bio-security, Marine pollution. Note the short-sea focus.

    These demonstrate the day-to-day practical matters and government concerns in the martime trade protection spectrum. The maritime strategists already quoted cover this much better than any listing I can provide you with. Sorry, but there really is no substitute for doing the reading if you really want to understand this matter: the field is complex. Start with Hill’s Maritime Strategy for Medium Powers. The spectrum ranges from all-out conflict, with the usual threats (submarines, naval airpower, land based air power, mines, raiders – yes, still a viable tactic, surface ships, SLCM attacks on ports and land side infrastructure) through to the daily stuff you can see the patrol boats doing, fisheries work, anti-piracy, and anti people smugglers work, diplomatic work etc etc etc.

    MarkL
    Canberra

  16. That’s helpful but as you say, all short-sea focused stuff that can be addressed by patrol boats.

    The really big unanswered question is whether its worth investing a lot to prepare for an old-style naval war with an attempt to attack merchant shipping on a large scale, and if so, whether powerful surface ships would be useful in such a conflict.

  17. ‘That’s helpful but as you say, all short-sea focused stuff that can be addressed by patrol boats.’

    COMMENT: Well, not entirely. Patrol craft are quite useless across about half of our EEZ and have zero ability to even survive in Southern Ocean waters (let alone get there). So there is a need for large, seaworthy OPV. The UIT 750 series types are examples, up to 20,000nm range at 16 knots and exceptionally seaworthy.

    ‘The really big unanswered question is whether its worth investing a lot to prepare for an old-style naval war with an attempt to attack merchant shipping on a large scale, and if so, whether powerful surface ships would be useful in such a conflict.’

    COMMENT: That gets back to the point on where on the spectrum a medium power draws the line. tasks above that line cannot be done, but all those below it can be. I’d argue that from the air defence side alone, the small, cheap AWD we are obtaining are sub-par for some of the things in this region today (SS-N-27 Sizzler being a case in point). I’d also note that this project has always had bi-partisan support, indicating concurrence on the need.
    Beyond that I think I am not qualified to go. As mentioned, I have a contact who is, to my knowledge he is the only person doing serious research on trade protection matters. it is a very poorly understood field AFAIK. I queried him on that, and replied along the lines of ‘it depends. There is far more impact on a trade system from the strategic fact of attack on the system than from the tactical results of attack on ships themselves. While each loss is a permanent ton-mile loss, far more ton-mile losses are caused by the three tiers of sequestered losses generated by the response to the attacks. These are damaged ship losses (especially from weather)convoy loss, and node loss in the ports and land side transport infrastructure.’ He said that more loss was caused in British ports, for example than by all the ships the U-boats ever sank. He is published on this and apparently thought of as pretty good on the subject.

    Should you wish to discuss this with him, I can ask if he is willing to correspond. He’s a little bit quirky and won’t discuss things on blogs. As far as I know, he does not even read them much.

    MarkL
    Canberra

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s