Symbolic Iron Yachts

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

A great many countries fear attack by the United States, Fred Reed says — Russia, China, and Iran, for starters — but don’t have the money to build carrier groups:

All of these have thought about cheap ways to overcome the US behemoth. Four solutions soon came to hand:

  1. Very fast sea-skimming cruise missiles, such as the Brahmos and Brahmos II (Mach 5+).
  2. Supercavitating torpedoes, reaching speeds of over 200 miles an hour.
  3. Very quiet submarines, diesel-electrics in the case of poor countries.
  4. Anti-ship ballistic missiles, such as the one attributed to the Chinese.

Any military buff knows that the Navy cannot defend itself against these. It says it can. It has to say it can. In fleet exercises against submarines, the subs always win — easily. The Pentagon has been trying to invent defenses against ballistic missiles since the days of Reagan (remember Star Wars?) with miserable results. If you have close friends in the Navy, ask them over a few beers what scares the bejesus out of them. Easy: Swarms of fast, stealthy, sea-skimming cruise missiles with multi-mode terminal guidance.

Add to the brew that today’s ships are fragile, based on the assumption that they will never be hit. Go aboard a WWII battleship like the Iowa, BB-61 (I have) and you will find sixteen-inch belt armor and turrets designed to withstand an asteroid strike. Now go aboard a Tico-class Aegis boat (I have). You will find an electronic marvel with big screens in a darkened CIC and an amazing SPY-1 phased-array radar that one burst of shrapnel would take out of commission for many months.

Now note that cruise missiles have ranges in the hundreds of miles. Think: Persian Gulf. A cruise missile can be boxed and mounted on a truck, a fast launch, or a tramp steamer. The Chinese ballistic missile has a range of 1200 miles, enough to keep carriers out of aircraft range of Taiwan. I wonder whether the Chinese have thought of that?

The one thing the Navy can’t do is to admit any such weakness:

Today’s Navy will stay farther and farther out of harm’s way, which will be wise of it, and become an immensely pricey collection of symbolic iron yachts.

So what is the cavalry doing as it eyes machine guns and barbed wire? Buying a better horse. The Navy wants the Ford class (CVN 78) super-carrier, which I think might better be named the USS Thundertrinket. What will it do that the current Nimitz-class carriers don’t? Cost more (eight billion for the first copy, plus five billion R&D. A bargain.) To the uninitiated, that may seem a lot for a high-tech crossbow, but it will put lots of jobs in Norfolk, Virginia, and send money to military contractors.

(Hat tip to Mark Frazier.)


  1. Buckethead says:

    Carriers are an odd thing. They are a workaround to two problems — the slow speed of battleships and the limited range of aircraft. In the 1940s, this was a dynamite solution — get fast moving dive bombers into the general vicinity of enemy capital ships. The carriers themselves rarely saw an enemy ship.

    We’ve maintained that solution at great expense, but for the reasons listed in your post, their days are likely numbered. No ship can outrun a missile or a plane, and nowadays planes and missiles have intercontinental range. One reason that the navy is building the LCS is that it is cheap enough to put in harm’s way — not that they’d say it like that.

    The solution is diffusion — jeep carriers with a few F35′s, or better whole swarms of UCAVs. When there’s no single target, asymmetric tactics will have less impact. There will be no Goliath for their Davids to attack. Modern communications would allow our commanders to assemble strike packages from drones and planes coming off many decks, and mid-air refueling would give them legs. And we’d still be able to push in close when we need faster reaction times or a higher tempo.

    I don’t think this solution is that far from what we’ll end up with eventually; the question is when the Navy will admit that it’s built its last fleet carrier.

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