What do destroyers destroy? What do frigates … ?

The Abbott government is copping plenty of flak (metaphor used advisedly) over its obvious politicking with respect to the construction of a new class of guided-missile frigate for the Royal Australian Navy. The project with total costs touted at $90 billion is promised to create lots of jobs in South Australia, perhaps replacing those when the same government, in its free-market incarnation, welcome the death of the car industry.

Rather than pile on, I’ll ask a question which, from past experience, I know is bound to annoy many. What are these things supposed to do?

As far as I can tell, guided-missile frigates are supposed to shoot down aircraft and missiles, but this seems, on the face of things, to be an absurd proposition. Pitting an effectively stationary boat, costing the better part of a billion dollars, against missiles (fired from land or from aircraft), travelling at the speed of sound or more, and costing a million dollars apiece, seems like a hopelessly lopsided contest.

Of course, it’s just about impossible to test this proposition. AFAIK, the only conflict in which surface ships have actually engaged in combat with aircraft using missiles was the Falklands, more than thirty years ago. That didn’t appear decisive: the Royal Navy managed a win against the air force of a Third World country, but took some heavy losses in the process. But technology has advanced a long way since then, and there’s no way of testing which side of such conflicts it now favours. So, naval advocates can make up whatever claims they like about the capabilities of the ships we keep on buying.

Of course, the fact that there has been so little naval warfare in the last 70 years or so seems to me to be a very strong argument for spending less on money on warships.

Readers will be aware that I think war is almost always disastrous for both sides, that most military spending is wasteful and harmful, but that I know this to be a minority view. Even given that, the case against spending money on navies (and particularly surface fleets) seems so overwhelming to me that I’m amazed to find hardly anyone in agreement.

192 thoughts on “What do destroyers destroy? What do frigates … ?

  1. @John Quiggin

    Hah, ha. Perhaps even a bit more sweepingly generalised than my original point, but workable.

    Somebody once said: “There will never be a military coup in the US because there is no US embassy there.”

  2. William Blum has a handy, but not exhaustive, list under his post “Overthrowing other people’s governments“:

    Instances of the United States overthrowing, or attempting to overthrow, a foreign government since the Second World War. (* indicates successful ouster of a government)

    China 1949 to early 1960s
    Albania 1949-53
    East Germany 1950s
    Iran 1953 *
    Guatemala 1954 *
    Costa Rica mid-1950s
    Syria 1956-7
    Egypt 1957
    Indonesia 1957-8
    British Guiana 1953-64 *
    Iraq 1963 *
    North Vietnam 1945-73
    Cambodia 1955-70 *
    Laos 1958 *, 1959 *, 1960 *
    Ecuador 1960-63 *
    Congo 1960 *
    France 1965
    Brazil 1962-64 *
    Dominican Republic 1963 *
    Cuba 1959 to present
    Bolivia 1964 *
    Indonesia 1965 *
    Ghana 1966 *
    Chile 1964-73 *
    Greece 1967 *
    Costa Rica 1970-71
    Bolivia 1971 *
    Australia 1973-75 *
    Angola 1975, 1980s
    Zaire 1975
    Portugal 1974-76 *
    Jamaica 1976-80 *
    Seychelles 1979-81
    Chad 1981-82 *
    Grenada 1983 *
    South Yemen 1982-84
    Suriname 1982-84
    Fiji 1987 *
    Libya 1980s
    Nicaragua 1981-90 *
    Panama 1989 *
    Bulgaria 1990 *
    Albania 1991 *
    Iraq 1991
    Afghanistan 1980s *
    S0m@lia 1993
    Yugoslavia 1999-2000 *
    Ecuador 2000 *
    Afghanistan 2001 *
    Venezuela 2002 *
    Iraq 2003 *
    Haiti 2004 *
    S0m@lia 2007 to present
    Honduras 2009
    Libya 2011 *
    Syria 2012
    Ukraine 2014 *

  3. Any nation with overwhelming power is going to abuse it. The US is no different in this regard. The best we can hope for is that the great powers will more nearly balance each other in future. The US seems to be losing its economic lead. Its military power must follow.

  4. @John Quiggin

    So I go straight to Google News, and just look at the top story. It’s about Tony Abbott saying there’s a strong case for increasing the GST. Is the US behind that?

    Is the US behind every story I see on Google News? The dispute between management and unions and the resulting disruption of train services in Melbourne? The suspicious death of a three-month-old girl in Victoria? The fire in a Paris apartment block? The explosion at a chemical plant in China? The murder of Brendan Vollmost? The encounter between a fisherman and a great white shark? The launch of a new smartphone by Huawei Technologies? The Ashley Madison hack? Julia Baird’s cancer?

    (I didn’t have to go to Google News. I could have gone to the Bureau of Meteorology. It rained in Sydney overnight. That’s an event in the world today.)

  5. @Megan

    You’re making essentially the same mistake as before if you’re confusing the statement ‘the US has been involved in many cases where a government has been overthrown’ with ‘the US has been involved in all cases where a government has been overthrown’. Your list looks like a long list, but how long would be the list of all cases over the same period of overthrow or attempted overthrow of a government?

    ‘The hits are recorded, the misses are not. Thus human nature unconsciously conspires to produce a biased reporting of the frequency of such events. If enough independent phenomena are studied and correlations sought, some will of course be found. If we know only the coincidences and not the unsuccessful trials, we might believe that an important finding has been made. Actually, it is only what statisticians call the fallacy of the enumeration of favorable circumstances.’ (Richard Feynman)

  6. @J-D

    Let’s divide these into two categories. First, there are stories with a substantial economic element (wage disputes, factory explosion, new products, websites). Given the dominant role of the US in the global economy and its role as technological leader for the past century or so, the existence of a link, direct or otherwise is pretty much guaranteed. Taking the tram dispute as an example, do you think the attitude of the Victorian government is influenced by budgetary concerns linked to credit ratings? If so, we’ve made our link. Same for the others

    I’ll skip to the end, and do the rain in Sydney. Do you believe that the global climate, including the climate in Sydney, has been influenced by the burning of fossil fuels over the past century? If so, we’re done. And anyone who doesn’t believe this has been suckered by US denialists.

    Going back to the middle, do you think social conditions in Australia are influenced by the economic developments of the past century? Need I go further?

  7. …how long would be the list of all cases over the same period of overthrow or attempted overthrow of a government?

    Good question. As the contrarian here, maybe you could suggest a few – and we can look into them to see whether “…you will find the US behind it, one way or another, either directly or indirectly”.

  8. @John Quiggin

    The statement ‘there is a link between the existence of the US and this event’ is not synonymous with ‘it is the US that is primarily responsible for this event’. The statement ‘there is a link between the existence of the US and the occurrence of this conflict’ is not synonymous with ‘it is the US that is primarily responsible for this conflict’. The statement ‘there is a link between the existence of the US and the overthrow of this government’ is not synonymous with ‘it is the US that is primarily responsible for overthrowing this government’. If the Chicxulub impact had never occurred, human history as we know it would never have happened; if I asked you to describe the causes of the transport dispute in Melbourne, would you include the Chicxulub impact in your explanation?

    If Megan’s point is ‘In a hypothetical world where the US didn’t exist, these conflicts would not have been initiated and these governments would not have been overthrown’, it may be technically correct, but so what? In a hypothetical world where the US didn’t exist, other conflicts would have been initiated and other governments would have been overthrown. That is, after all, exactly what did happen before the US existed. It seemed to me, however, that Megan was making a stronger and more specific claim, one which seemed to me not to be adequately supported by the evidence presented. If my impression was mistaken, perhaps Megan will correct me.

    For example, if the US had not existed, the burning of Washington by the UK in 1814 would never have happened, but that would not justify saying that the US burned Washington. If the US had not existed, the overthrow of Batista by Castro would never have occurred; but it was Castro that overthrew Batista, not the US.

  9. Primarily responsible for” is to selectively cherry-pick a narrow definition of “behind”.

    The more appropriate – and correct – definition (per Merriam and others) is broader and covers: “in a role of originating or supporting; as a cause or latent feature of; concerning the circumstances surrounding; in the background of; underlying.”

  10. @John Quiggin
    (and others), I’ll return to our original topic.

    Yes, aircraft are armaments platforms, and are faster than ships, but they can’t stay on station for weeks or months at a time. (Hours, maybe.) They’re also eye-wateringly expensive to keep in the air.

  11. (I should perhaps confess an interest here: the company I work for builds ships, amongst other things.)

  12. @David Irving (no relation)

    Of course aircraft can’t stay in the air for weeks or months at a time. However, if the hypothetical conflict is taking place in Australia’s coastal waters (which is consistent with Ikonoclast’s suggestion of a defensive stance), there’s no need for them to stay in the air for weeks or months at a time. They only need to be on hand.

    If you don’t see this, think about it in the converse. Suppose the conflict was taking place in another country’s coastal waters; and suppose the other country had aircraft capable of firing missiles but no ships capable of doing so. Would you conclude that we didn’t need to worry about our ships being sunk by their missiles because their aircraft can’t stay in the air for weeks or months at a time?

  13. @David Irving (no relation)

    I doubt the cost of keeping them in the air approaches the cost of building and maintaining air warfare destroyers.

    And of course, the cost of losing one of them would be trivial compared with the cost of losing an air warfare destroyer.

  14. David, a Predator drone used for reconnaisance might use 5 liters of fuel an hour. That’s about $2.70 at current aviation fuel prices while a frigate is likely to burn over 1,000 as much fuel per kilometer travelled. Because frigates tend to have crews of over 150, just paying people’s salaries will come to over $3,000 an hour. The Australian government can borrow money at around 2% at the moment, so the interest on a three billion dollar frigate comes to around $6,850 an hour. An Anzac frigate is about 30m above water at its highest point. This means it can spot things on the horizon a maximum of about 20 kilometers away. A aircraft at 10,000 meters can spot things on the horizon 360 kilometers away.

    And then if a frigate was used for “station keeping” the question arises of what possible benefit would that serve? If a frigate is sitting in more or less one spot in a conflict without air support, it is very likely to be detected and destroyed as they have no defence against ballistic anti-ship missiles. Frigates are far too expensive and vulnerable to be used for station keeping in a conflict, and if there isn’t a conflict then we don’t need a frigate.

    And I’ll mention the fact that there are planes that can stay on station for weeks or months these days. They aren’t capable of being much more than reconnaissance platforms at the moment, but the combination of aerial reconnaissance plus anti-ship missiles elsewhere means that people on board any ships that are seen approaching could more or less be murdered at will.

    I was going to describe how small drones could be combined with World War I technology to damage or disable a frigate and how there would be basically nothing the frigate could do about it, but I decided not to just in case someone out there has access to 1914 technology.

  15. @Tim Macknay

    Although given that virtually all Australian exports to China, Japan and Korea transit through Indonesian waters, as do the vast majority of Australian oil imports*

    No that is not necessary. Alternate routes from Indonesian territorial waters are economically feasible in the EXTREMELY unlikely event that Indonesia decides to withdraw from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And it’s not just extremely unlikely ever, it’s even more unlikely in the foreseeable future. Huge cost with very low likelihood of moderate economic payoff doesn’t make any economic sense.

    I suspect that the Australian government would arrive at a different estimate of the size of the cost of your ‘non-military’ solution to the hypothetical problem of which you speak.

    At least you don’t explicitly disagree that the Australian government would arrive at a different estimate of the likelihood of Indonesia withdrawing from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    And you’re still ignoring the chances of Australia being successful at using naval force to enable ordinary ships to use Indonesian territorial waters. Somewhere between Buckley’s and Nunn.

    Just sayin’.

    Nope. You’re just claimin’.

  16. @Tim Macknay

    Although given that virtually all Australian exports to China, Japan and Korea transit through Indonesian waters, as do the vast majority of Australian oil imports*

    No that is not necessary. Alternate routes from Indonesian territorial waters are economically feasible in the EXTREMELY unlikely event that Indonesia decides to withdraw from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And it’s not just extremely unlikely ever, it’s even more unlikely in the foreseeable future. Huge cost with very low likelihood of moderate economic payoff doesn’t make any economic sense.

    I suspect that the Australian government would arrive at a different estimate of the size of the cost of your ‘non-military’ solution to the hypothetical problem of which you speak.

    At least you don’t explicitly disagree that the Australian government would arrive at a different estimate of the likelihood of Indonesia withdrawing from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    And you’re still ignoring the chances of Australia being successful at using military force to enable ordinary ships to use Indonesian territorial waters. Somewhere between Buckley’s and Nunn.

    Just sayin’.

    Nope. You’re just claimin’.

    BTW, html buttons are sort-of handy but not half as good as preview.

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