The Navy could benefit from several improvements to support carriers and increase offensive ability

Friday, June 9th, 2023

What does a “built-to-win” fleet look like? Austin Vernon offers some suggestions:

First, carriers will still dominate the fleet! Without air cover, you lose. The aircraft will remain the same size because of payload and range constraints whether humans fly them or not, limiting the utility of smaller carrier designs. Carriers are not as vulnerable as assumed, either. In WWII, bombs and missiles sunk only one US fleet carrier. Today’s carriers are 5x the size, yet modern anti-ship missiles and WWII munitions have similar explosive punch. The main questions are how fast repairs happen and how well the crew can put out fires. Escorts will provide warning, defense, and absorb hits.

The US Navy has limited ship-killing and land attack ability outside of aircraft and submarines. Nine F-18s, each carrying ten 1000-pound bombs, have more explosive power than a Burke-Class destroyer’s vertical launch tubes, and the destroyer must return to port to reload!

The Navy could benefit from several improvements to support carriers and increase offensive ability:

Ships That Can Brawl:

The Navy needs ships that can take a punch and have the firepower to deal damage.

Survivability needs to be a priority. Modern warships have mostly given up on armor, but there has been significant progress in armor technology in tanks that could offer a boost in survivability. Ships have more room and mass allowance than tanks, opening up more options. Battle damage considerations, especially around fire, are always critical. Sensors on current Navy ships often have more capability than necessary, are challenging to repair, and are extremely sensitive to damage. A fighter aircraft-size radar would be more than adequate on most ships, allowing for the storage of spare modules. All maintenance must be as easy as swapping modules, similar to the Army’s tanks. Ships will get hit by missiles, and some will sink or burn, but that doesn’t mean that one shot should take them out of the fight or that the crew must go down with the ship.

Stealth is another key to survivability. Any reduction in radar, acoustic, thermal, electronic, or visual signature helps delay detection and makes the ship less enticing for precision-guided munitions. Tall vertical missile launch tubes and large radars are the worst offenders in increasing signatures.

Engineering, economics, and practicality all point towards warships needing an incredible density of short-range air defenses composed of electronic warfare, decoys, smaller missiles, guided rockets, and guns. Most point defenses should have independent targeting systems for robustness. Reliability and quick reaction times matter more than interception range.

Surface warfare capability must increase, especially in the 30-150 km range. Naval guns, rocket artillery, and rocket-launched torpedos are all options. Modified-for-sea-duty M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System launcher rails could provide sustained offensive firepower at 20,000 pounds per hour per launcher, could reload at sea, and use everything from 30 km range surplus rockets to the 500+ km range Precision Strike Missile. 8″ guns could massively increase range and firepower compared to today’s 5″ guns. An experiment in the 1970s put an 8″ gun on a small destroyer, proving the concept. And there is a faction that wants to reactivate and modernize the Iowa-class ships, bringing 16″ guns back into the inventory.

These ships are only valuable if they are manufacturable. The easiest way to improve manufacturability is to remove excess features. The worst offenders are massive $300 million radars, helicopters, and vertical missile tubes. All of these systems are complex, fragile, and hideously expensive. Deleting these features or substituting simpler systems could reduce the size of a destroyer by 70%. More shipyards can build them, and the construction time and cost will decrease dramatically.

A classical destroyer, a more narrowly-focused submarine, and an anti-air-focused cruiser would be examples of needs within this paradigm. The destroyer could serve as a carrier escort or operate in independent squadrons. The Navy could build a submarine without vertical launch tubes, special forces accommodations, and other extraneous features in numbers to disrupt enemy shipping and subs. The cruiser would provide additional short and medium-range anti-air capability, especially for handling sea-skimming missiles.

Simple Support Craft:

Several support capabilities have little peacetime utility but would have insatiable demand during a high-intensity conflict. Anti-submarine patrol boats, minesweepers, amphibious landing equipment, and escort carriers for submarine hunting helicopters and scout drones are the main culprits.

These vessels don’t fight the enemy fleet directly, allowing them to be simple, small, and possibly built on commercial hulls. The main requirements are to do one job well and to be built in huge numbers affordably. The Navy’s attempt to consolidate many of these capabilities into the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has been a disaster after cost and complexity spiraled out of control.

The Navy needs new models in production to support a small number of active duty ships for training, some in reserve, and unconventional shipyards certified to produce high volumes.

Better Passive Sensors:

Controlling electronic emissions will be a matter of survival for Navy Battle Groups, especially early in a conflict. Even using radar aircraft like the E-2 can betray the general area of a carrier group. There is a catch-22 with radar. It might provide more warning of missiles, but using the radar will make the group a missile magnet. Incredible amounts of short-range air defense are helpful because the engagement ranges could be very close.

Passive sensors, like infrared cameras, to detect missiles and other combatants would make it easier to turn the radars off until a battle commences. Drones can provide over-the-horizon sensing that ship-based radar and optics can’t, increasing warning time. Bad weather can degrade the infrared and visible light spectrums, but the enemy suffers, too. Their scouts and missiles will use radar that warns of their attack.

Sea gliders, satellites, and over-the-horizon radar stations are other ways the Navy can gather intelligence, though many of these will also be early targets for the Chinese.

Air Superiority Fighters:

The Navy is in worse shape than the Air Force because they have no equivalent to the F-22. Incremental improvements to the F-35 are an option for improvement while waiting for the F/A-XX program to mature.


  1. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    The effective use of an aeroplane was as a reusable boost phase and guidance package for delivering ordnance.

    A future float-craft-o-war may be construed as a ‘carrier’ as it will likely serve as a base platform for many high efficiency air breathing platforms for ISR-Strike purposes, though most of these will of course be operated via remote control and or autonomous expert systems.

    There’s also the fact that the world’s oceans are the world’s largest stealth coating. A submarine might not be able to intercept a cloud of aerospace targets in most cases, but basically anything floating in the drink is a free target unless similarly specially designed.

  2. Cassander says:

    There’s no real point in armoring modern warships. Robust construction and splinter projection, sure, but armor doesn’t buy you much. Even a small, cheap ASM like the NSM will have a 250lb warhead. A 16″ battleship shell would carry maybe 150lbs of explosive in an HE shell, less in an AP. Modern weapons can put more boom on a target than you can reasonably armor against, especially because your sensors need to be high up in the ship to be any good.

    As for guns, the argument is incoherent. If you want longer range you want missiles, not guns. Extending the range of guns past the horizon will come at large cost in payload.

  3. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “Engineering, economics, and practicality all point towards warships needing an incredible density of short-range air defenses”

    Can’t argue with that. But the implication is that much of the capacity of the future warship and its crew will be focused on self-preservation, not on bringing harm to the enemy — a defense-ship rather than a war-ship. Is that worthwhile?

    Back to the central question: Who are Our Betters planning to fight? The only people who threaten the US directly are the millions of illegal aliens pouring over the open southern border — and no warship is going to stop that.

    Maybe Our Betters plan to sacrifice us in a pointless war of aggression against China? But it is hard to imagine any such conflict which would not escalate to all-out thermonuclear war. How would Our Betters respond to a single Chinese nuclear missile exploding in the general area of a threatening US carrier group, completely eliminating the US warships with almost no collateral damage, except a bunch of dead fish? Would Our Betters cease their aggression, or would they respond by nuking Beijing?

  4. Longarch says:

    “Maybe Our Betters plan to sacrifice us in a pointless war of aggression against China? But it is hard to imagine any such conflict which would not escalate to all-out thermonuclear war.”

    Semi-relevant link:

    This AC of UP post deals with the internal politics and geopolitics of military institutions. It is fascinating but I hope Isegoria will refute some of its claims. Whether you agree or disagree, you will probably consider it relevant to the geologic and economics of building naval fleets that can fight.

  5. McChuck says:

    I lost what little credulity I had when the author recommended eliminating helicopters from warships.

  6. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    There’s an argument to be made for using gun tubes, probably smoothbored, as boosters for high velocity guided projectiles, which provide better ‘cost-per-intercept’ than a free-flying rocket boosted munition of equivalent range by a factor of five or ten or more — along with having the versatility of multiple munition types on a common platform as well. The only thing that has even better cost per ‘shot’ is high power radio-electric systems.

  7. VXXC says:

    Who is this mysterious Austin Vernon? Why, the Mahan of our time.

    Any war with nuclear powers, and frankly anything larger than the Balkans in the Northern Hemisphere will be nuclear war, as the Russians may reluctantly be forced to prove.

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