Do we need a surface navy (again)

The other day I got a call from 3JJJ who had Googled the blog and found this post, arguing that we don’t really need a surface navy

Batman Forever dvd Bedknobs and Broomsticks video Pygmalion . I had a brief debate with a former naval officer and now academic, who pointed to our operations in the Persian gulf region as evidence that we need traditional naval capabilities. To my mind, this is highly problematic, as the ships we have sent there have never had to deal with any significant military opposition. (The Iraqi Navy was wiped out by air and missile attack at the time of the First Gulf War).

The emergence of piracy in the waters off Somalia provides some more striking data. The biggest single argument for a surface navy is that it is needed to defend merchant shipping. But, despite a handful of successes, the navies of the world’s great powers have been largely ineffectual in dealing with the piracy problem.

The problem is that it isn’t remotely cost-effective to deploy, say, an Arleigh Burke destroyer like the USS Bainbridge (cost $1 billion, crew nearly 300) as a platform for marksmen to deal with pirates using speedboats working from shore or launched from trawlers, which otherwise pose as innocent fishing vessels. What you need for this kind of job is patrol boats with a base somewhere in the region [1] (our Armidale class has a range of 5000km, so there are plenty of options).

To strengthen my tentative conclusions from last time, there’s a strong case for breaking the Navy up into three components
(1) The submarine force (currently in a disastrous state due to lack of crews, which may in turn be attributed to the higher status of the surface combat fleet).
(2) A Coast Guard based on the Armidale class patrol boats, which could also contribute to international efforts like anti-piracy campaigns and sanctions enforcement
(3) A sea transport service for the army, under army control. This would have the purpose of delivering troops and equipment to places like Timor and the Solomons, and overcoming any resistance en route or at the landing point.

There’s simply no need for destroyers, frigates and cruisers unless, like the US, you want them to escort aircraft carriers as part of an attempt to project military power to all parts of the world (and even for the US, the case is much more questionable than is often supposed).

fn1. Not to mention lawyers and diplomats to work out rules under which captured pirates can be dealt with. At the moment most are released, for lack of evidence and/or jurisdiction.

14 thoughts on “Do we need a surface navy (again)

  1. Oh dear. JQ, you should really have another look at the feedback you got last time. This post calls not so much for a straightforward response as for a complete education, and I simply don’t have the time or other resources to provide it. But as I suggested before, a good place to start is the Australia Defence Association.

  2. I did review the feedback and was singularly unimpressed. Arguments from authority all the way down. Trivial benefits put forward as justifications for massive costs. Confident claims that were then withdrawn or watered down to the point of meaninglessness. And so on. Your contributions, I’m sorry to say, fitted this mould exactly.

    As regards the ADA, if you could find a disinterested source to defend naval orthodoxy I might pay some attention.

  3. I’ll comment on the minor point rather than the major point. The reactions of the US captain and crew in that recent hijacking might give us some hints into the most cost-efficient way to deal with pirates attacking large ships.

    The crew were apparently drilled in a procedure which involved a lock-down of all personell into a barricaded engine room. I assume also that bridge controls and radio-room functions were over-ridden by engine-room control and communication. This looks like step 1 of an effective response.

    Step 2 might involve installation of CCTVs and adaptation and extra installation of fire-doors to serve as traps for pirates. As the pirates move through the ship they could be trapped and isolated in (pretty much by definition on a ship) heavy plate steel compartments. Small arms would be useless, grenades would be suicide and fires could hopefully br isolated and doused by the same system.

    While the planners are at it, why not add to the system a separately injectable fire retardent which also happens to be a severe skin and eye irritant?

    This won’t solve the whole problem but it may go some way to a solution.

  4. Sigh. Those weren’t arguments from authority, those were referring you to people who had got their information first hand – which made them secondary sources for the rest of us. And what is that requirement for “disinterested” but a requirement that people should not have come to conclusions? Certainly the ADA has no interest on other levels, like getting revenue from putting particular views forward.

    If I may say so, you really didn’t take on board what I wrote then at all, if you genuinely think those things. For instance, I nowhere put forward defences of costs – we never got that far in finding common ground. Also, I never withdrew or watered down what I told you – though I repeatedly tried to get the same points across in different ways, as when you misconstrued an acknowledgement of Argentinian air force capabilities as an attempt at defending their honour as part of the Junta.

    Now, I am not going to try that education again. But surely you see that this is an area in which uninformed intelligence is not enough? If you won’t take the sources suggested, how does that mean that your views here don’t need something in the way of background to carry them? By way of contrast, when I come up with issues in economics, I at least try to research them and get outside feedback rather than claiming I have come up with the truth – and then I try to present what I get in the form of enquiry rather than conclusions.

  5. PML, the problem here is that there is no obvious source of credibility and authority. The academic literature on the topic, some of which I have read, gives a fair bit of support to my view, but is outweighed in volume by the huge output of naval enthusiasts. Since there hasn’t been any significant naval warfare since 1945, there is no good way of testing the claims of naval advocates to have expertise on the subject.

    So, there is no alternative but to apply intelligence to what limited data there is, including the historical evidence which shows a consistent bias in favour of surface fleets throughout the first half of C20, and the fact that (with a few marginal and dubious exceptions)) the fleets built in the second half of C20 went to the scrapyard without ever engaging in ship-to-ship combat.

    The current failure of powerful navies to control a long-running outbreak of piracy is, in this context, a significant data point.

  6. But, but, but ….frigates and cruisers and the like look so pretty and awe-inspiring on a blue foam flecked sea with the sun behind them and clouds scudding past as they steam [do modern ships still ‘steam’?] off into the horizon to do whatever it is they do.
    Without them it simply wouldn’t be a navy and then what would would we do without admirals and the like?

  7. Your arguments about the merits of submarines vs surface ships (from memory) assumed submarines with the capabilities of a nuclear powered submarine. Nuclear powered submaries have comparable speed and range to a surface ship while travelling underwater. Conventionally powered submarines, which are all Australia is ever likely to have, are severely limited on the ocean scale distances the Australian navy needs to operate on. They cannot travel significant distances underwater and are severely limited in speed when doing so. This makes it very difficult for them to intercept enemy vessels on the open ocean. Their need to surface means enemy ships can locate them. And once located their slow speed makes it easy for enemy ships to travel around them. Unless we are talking about nuclear powered submarines then the argument does not make sense.

    The second limitation of submarines is their inability to provide air cover for other vessels. Generally submarines are pretty much invulnerable to air power. But surface transport ships are wide open to attack without some form of anti-air cover which can only be provided by land based aircraft or surface ships. Land based aircraft are limited by range. Even within range their loiter time is limited. Which means that for significant areas of operation the only way to provide air cover is with surface ships. The alternative is to leave transport ships wide open to leisurely and unmolested air attack. You can read the stories of WWII merchant seamen to understand how unpleasant that prospect would be.

  8. As last time, swio, you seem to be presenting an argument for a carrier battle group or two. Obviously, this isn’t a realistic possibility for Australia. Once this option is ruled out, your argument ends up at a point more radical than mine, that we should do without any kind of navy.

  9. For my 2 cents worth I believe the Navy ceased to exist as a true fighting force when the Melbourne was decommissioned.

    The only true air defence for surface ships is marine aircraft as was demonstrated in the Falklands. Surface ships cannot adequately defend other ships from air attack without aircraft carriers and their organic air support.

    Our Navy without this air support is already compromised therefore abandoning large high value targets such as destroyers is only a small further step.

    We should, I believe, only have either low value dispersed surface assets like patrol boats and invunerable assets like submarines or an integrated carrier battle group.

    A carrier battle group is out of our price range so I think that the only logical course is to lease one from the US or radically change our Navy around it new true role.

    Mind you the same could be said about the Air Force as well. Do we need a new air superiority fighter?

  10. John, a carrier battle group is not as outrageous as it sounds.

    We don’t need a US-style nuclear powered supercarrier; we could build another Canberra-class and purchase a couple of dozen of the jump-jet versions of the F-35 – if you’re trying to save money, you could cut back the conventional F-35 purchase, as the STOVL F-35’s would be extremely useful as close air support aircraft anyway.

    Total incremental costs would be two or three billion dollars.

    I’m not suggesting we should do this, but it’s not out of the realms of possibility that we could.

    Swio is also correct that if we were to go down the submarine-only route, nuclear submarines would be a hell of a lot more capable.

  11. As I said last time around, Ender, the lesson of the Falklands is exactly the opposite. The airforce of a fourth-rate power, operating at the very limits of its range, came very close to defeating the world’s second-strongest navy. If the Argentines had bought a few more missiles and made sure their bombs were in working order, they might well have won. And that was 25 years ago – the balance has been shifting in favour of air power ever since the first planes flew.

    A similar point applies to Robert’s argument. For a fraction of the total (incremental isn’t relevant here) cost of a carrier battle group, we, or a potential adversary, could easily afford enough aircraft to defeat it anywhere within range of land bases. Even the incremental calculation would allow 40-odd joint strike fighters.

  12. I’ll play devil’s advocate here. Weren’t Australia’s surface ships of some signficant use in the East Timor affair?

    I can see small scale operations in places like the Solomons or Fiji as being operations where we might need some surface ships. I mean ships like a hospital ship, troop transports, landing craft, patrol boats and vessels operating as helicoptor platforms and providing fire and missile support including frigates and possibly destoyers. (Do we have any destroyers these days?)

    In such cases having a few “big” ships in a “small pond” (the Pacific islands area) might have a deterrent effect that suppresses outright conflict.

    It is always possible, for example, that Fiji might become the site of a UN action to peace keep and restore democracy. Australia would be expected to take a lead role in any such action. Surface ships would have their roles and aircraft attacks would be highly unlikely in that scenario.

  13. Ikonoklast, the army needs a transport capability, as I said. What is much less clear is that it needs missile support from frigates and destroyers. If the army were making the decisions on this kind of thing we would find out soon enough.

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