September 07, 2018

So You Want to Build a Modern Navy - Strategy Part 3

It's time to return to the basic strategy of our hypothetical navy, a subject we've discussed at some length.

Dndnrsn: I apologize for my lateness. In my role as Proofreader-General, I was occupied fighting a different war: the war against the use of "impact" as a verb. Then there was the business with an ensign who insisted on writing "utilize" in memos instead of "use." Anyway, here I am. Thinking about overall strategy and the fleet: It's been established we're a medium power with an island to ourselves. The navy should be a priority, but I think there's a good argument for having a smaller navy than the UK: we aren't playing to memories of past glory. They are, which probably leads them to have a navy larger than they strictly need. If there is a "big" war, either we're on the same side as the US, or something went terribly wrong and we're screwed. We still want to be able to do stuff on our own that's smaller. We should be able to do one small thing on our own, or contribute to multiple small things, or contribute to one small thing so as to wear down our navy less. This should be the general military strategy, not just the naval strategy. This argues for maybe one carrier and some destroyers, probably some submarines, and smaller craft.

Bean: Your absence is quite understandable. Those are wars that must be won if we are to avoid the dreadful slide of the US military into the land of powerpoints and buzzwords. Ultimately, our military power may rest on being able to deliver a clear and comprehensible briefing to world leaders while their own military men are confusing.

That said, I'd dispute the idea that our navy needs to be substantially smaller than the UK's. Yes, to deal with a given conflict, we need a navy only half the size of theirs. But about half of any navy will be unusable at any given time. It will be in the yard, or not worked up, or on the wrong side of the world and unable to get to the right place quickly. Even if we keep forward deployments a lot lower than the US does (and I fully expect to have at least one or two units of the surface fleet deployed at all times), we still will need a significant margin over the forces we want to have on hand day-to-day.

There's also a good case to be made for us trying to specialize in something, and attempting to punch above our weight there. Traditionally, most of the European navies specialized in ASW. I don't think that's quite a route we should follow, but it does leave us other options. Mine warfare is an area we might be able to generate a comparative advantage in. Everyone else has neglected it for the past few decades, and we have the advantage of a truly frightening number of citizens with expertise in computer science, robotics and AI. Being able to provide or even sell those systems could be a very valuable bargaining chip.

Alexander: On strategy, I think we'd probably like to be part of NATO, or at least working very closely along side. We may as well plan on spending 2% of GDP on defense, though we can fit a lot under that umbrella if you want to play accounting games. I'd suggest that basically all of this should be going on giving us a navy (albeit one with a big air arm and plenty of marines), given the position our country is in. We could quite possibly end up with a larger navy than the UK if our budget is the same, especially if we decide not to get into the nuclear weapons club.

Bean: Giving all of our defense budget to the Navy. I like the sound of that very much indeed.

Silly self-promotion aside, I actually think it's a good idea, or at least worth giving careful consideration. How we structure our forces shapes our options, and it's probably a good idea to think through those implications early on.

To put it simply, there are some things we may not want to give ourselves the option of doing. Land forces and land-based air tend to have serious diplomatic implications that naval forces don't. If we sign a treaty to get an airbase, then we have commitments to whoever we signed with. We can't just up and leave without repercussions. If we sign a contract to occasionally refuel our ships there instead, it becomes a lot easier to pull out when we need to.

And there's also the problem that if we have a capability, sooner or later someone will want to use it. Take major land campaigns. Whenever the US decides to invade Iran or Canada or some other third-world hellhole, it would be nice to say "Sorry, we can't commit land forces to your occupation, we're just not set up to. But we can give you a carrier for a little while, and a landing force of Marines." This is pretty much what got the US into trouble in Vietnam. Eisenhower had intentionally neutered the Army, and the Army's attempt to compete with the Air Force and the Navy lead to the idea that a major ground commitment was a good idea. I vote we avoid the problem by not having an Army in the first place.

Alexander: I think we want to have the sort of navy that makes people want to be our friends, or at least not to upset us. Obviously landlocked nations are less likely to be swayed by this kind of argument (though see the US navy/Marine contribution to the Afghanistan conflict), but they will have less impact on freedom of the seas anyway. I'm quite a fan of Bean's idea of developing mine warfare expertise, possibly because it seems like one of the many things that can be done well by remote systems operating off a mother ship, and in my eyes amphibious warfare vessels make great mother ships for helicopters, mine hunting systems, all sorts of remotely operated or even autonomous vehicles, or, of course, landing craft. This may explain some of my interest in the Kalaat Béni Abbès, as I feel even once you had a more extensive fleet you'd be able to find some place in it for that sort of vessel, whether hunting submarines as a helicopter destroyer, disaster relief, amphibious raids, counter piracy, or MCM.

Bean: I do think we have a good chance of specializing in remote/autonomous systems. I'm less certain of your specific ship recommendations. The Kalaat Béni Abbès is very much a Mediterranean design to my eyes. It's a lot of capability in a small hull, which sometimes means that your designer was really good, but usually means that the design team was really aggressive and cut out stuff you actually wanted, like sufficient berthing space and good structural standards. The lack of a hangar is a big worry on this one. That's the sort of thing you only do when you don't have really bad weather to worry about, like if you're in the Med. We aren't.

Andrew Hunter: Much of this discussion has tiptoed around saying "We should be like X, but better." I really think that is a question we should directly confront: what can we reasonably expect to be better than everyone else at? Can we? Not in terms of military specialties (ASW, mines...) but societal advantages. You and John seem to think that we could imitate the French design choices, but avoid their failures by being more politically competent. It seems plausible, but is this what you want to bet SSCistan's geopolitical success on? Or maybe we could make our place by being the best and most efficient producers of military software anywhere--I know that the F35's packages really do have a lot of moving parts and need a lot of work done, but surely you're not going to argue the American contracting complex does this particularly well. Having just left Google, should I be recruiting people for Google But For Radar Analysis Packages as our flagship civilian employer? Or is that equally dumb?

There are a lot of potential answers here, but I really do think we need to know what we are trying to be best at.

Bean: Weirdly, I think software might be a bad place to look for a competitive advantage. Military software is really hard to do right, and the web software development methodologies don't work particularly well for it. At one point, my day job was working on such an effort, and at least at that particular site, we introduced Agile to do it more efficiently. I'm afraid that an attempt to become Google for Military Software will just end in a huge culture clash, no usable software, and a lot of money down the drain. Maybe I'm unduly pessimistic on that.

We can also approach this from the other end, focusing on being the best, not at being on the cutting edge in some field, but at making cheap and effective weapons. Building on the cutting edge is hard, which drives up prices. Going through and doing a second generation of the system, with better tech and similar goals, should be easier. The Expeditionary Fighter concept is a good example of the concepts here, even if we don't end up going that way.

Comments

  1. September 07, 2018RedRover said...

    We could quite possibly end up with a larger navy than the UK if our budget is the same, especially if we decide not to get into the nuclear weapons club.

    This gets into a lot of other things, and is perhaps too out of scope for the current discussion, but nukes seem like the ultimate defensive weapon. Particularly if they go under the sea to give a reasonable counter-strike capability,* (rather than carrier or land based alternatives) you've massively simplified your defensive needs. To be sure, it's also hugely expensive to upkeep, and has non-proliferation concerns, but I wouldn't write it off either.

    There’s also a good case to be made for us trying to specialize in something, and attempting to punch above our weight there. Traditionally, most of the European navies specialized in ASW. I don’t think that’s quite a route we should follow, but it does leave us other options. Mine warfare is an area we might be able to generate a comparative advantage in. Everyone else has neglected it for the past few decades, and we have the advantage of a truly frightening number of citizens with expertise in computer science, robotics and AI. Being able to provide or even sell those systems could be a very valuable bargaining chip.

    Mine warfare does seem underdeveloped relative to other aspects of naval warfare, but I think ultimately if we want to focus on power projection, rather than being part of a larger task force, we need to focus on our primary goal first, and then see if we have enough resources and capability left over to specialize in mine warfare or whatever. Being the world's #1 mine warfare nation, or even the #1 submarine warfare nation, is great, but it doesn't allow us to project power in the way that a functional carrier group does, and whoever has a functional carrier group has a lot easier time denying our mine-layers or whatever to that area. So, carrier groups first, then whatever else we can afford.

    *The obvious and most capable deployment mode is dedicated SSBNs (which the Brits can barely afford, even with some sharing of tech and procurement with the US. The French can afford their own system, but again just barely). However, for defensive use, I think we could also look at sub launched nuclear cruise missiles or carrier based bombs/missiles. While not as capable, they still provide deterrent capability, keep the incremental procurement costs down, and allow more budget for SSNs/F-18s/cruise missiles, etc.

  2. September 07, 2018RedRover said...

    Also, if you wanted to have SLBMs, but not the expense of having a dedicated fleet of four or more SSBNs, I wonder if you could go for a sort of improved Hotel with only four or five missiles on what's basically an SSN platform?

    My intuition is that this would give you the worst of both worlds, and not really be worth it, but if it's only necessary to be able to deliver a few missiles, rather than ending civilization as we know it, then having four missiles per boat, rather than 16 or 18, may be an acceptable compromise if it's not unduly harmful to the other performance characteristics of the boat.

  3. September 07, 2018Johan Larson said...

    What do we want to be able to do? Our first priority should be territorial defense. No one should be able to shell our cities, abduct our citizens, land troops on our shores, or sink near-shore ships. Or perhaps, since we are a medium power, only a major power can do so, and even they can't do so in complete safety.

    Second, as an island nation, we should make sure no one can cut us off. Only a major power making a real effort can keep our ships and planes from reaching our nearest trading partners. This suggests some sort of sea-control ability, if our trading partners are close by, or serious escort resources, if they are at some distance.

    Third, since we expect to depend on a NATO-like alliance for protection from the biggest bads of the world, it would be prudent to make some sort of real contribution to the alliance, so we are a valued ally rather than a dependent. If we are a larger Iceland, perhaps we can be counted on to monitor the northern approaches to the Atlantic, or if we are Madagascar, perhaps we can be counted on to shut down everything from the Cape of Good Hope to the Horn of Africa on demand. Something.

    Fourth, if we are really ambitious, we want some way to effect change at a distance. That probably calls for at least a mechanized battalion or regiment that we can deploy and sustain at distance, either by sea or air.

    Of these four, I would guess that point one is fairly easy, and it's either point two or two we should be focusing on. How would a larger Iceland make sure Russia would have a hard time stopping planes and ships from reaching Halifax and Liverpool. What contribution could a wealthier Madagascar make to an alliance that the US would really value?

  4. September 07, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    The following is uninformed guessing, but mine warfare seems like it might be diplomatically easier to deploy than more direct forms of force. Mining a harbor could be spun as 'enhanced sanctions', certainly aggressive but still well below the level of actually bombing someone. Sweeping mines could be a vital contribution to a side in a minor- or even medium-power conflict with much less baggage than actually shooting at the other side. Defensive mining may be useful if, say, we wanted to back one side in a standoff over a disputed tiny island.

  5. September 08, 2018bean said...

    @RedRover

    Your intuition is correct. A combined SSN/SSBN is a really bad idea. Basically, an SSBN is a priceless strategic asset, while an SSN has to go in harm's way. And for an SSBN, cost is only going to be loosely correlated with the number of missiles carried.

  6. September 08, 2018doctorpat said...

    "Traditionally, most of the European navies specialized in ASW."

    Sorry to go off on a tangent, but is this just a textbook example of fighting the last war? World War 2, especially the Euro-naval theatre, being just about all submarine warfare.

  7. September 08, 2018Philistine said...

    @doctorpat: Maybe? But consider the composition of the Soviet Navy, which pursued a Sea Denial strategy heavily emphasizing submarines and Long Range Air over surface combatants. That sounds a lot like the WW2 Kriegsmarine, right? So given that the projected threat to the NATO navies was built around employing the same strategy the KM attempted in WW2, "preparing to re-fight the last war" actually seems pretty reasonable.

  8. September 08, 2018bean said...

    Sorry to go off on a tangent, but is this just a textbook example of fighting the last war? World War 2, especially the Euro-naval theatre, being just about all submarine warfare.

    About 50%, I'd say. Yes, the Soviets were heavily invested in submarines, as Philistine points out, but they had some different ideas about submarine usage, and a lot of the subs would have been in the bastions making sure that the SSBNs were safe. The biggest issue, though, was the near-total denial of the potential of Soviet naval aviation as a sea control threat. For reasons I can't quite understand, sea control and ASW became synonymous, and the carriers were seen only as a strike element, and attacked on those grounds. Maybe once the carriers were cut, the bombers would just magically disappear.

  9. September 08, 2018Cassander said...

    Once again, I feel we are putting the cart before the horse here, talking about what our navy look like before talking about what we want to accomplish.

    What foreign policy ambitions do we have for Novo Alexandria? Do we seek to be capable of independent, full scale military action far from our shores separate from the rest of the western alliance the way that the UK and France at least nominally do? Do we seek to be useful partners in that alliance, supplying with competent capacities in limited areas but not full fledged, self supporting forces? To simply defend our EEZ against all comers as cost effectively as possible?

    Each of those is a very different task requiring very different forces, and until we answer that question, talking about size is somewhat pointless. Frankly I think any of the three makes for interesting discussion, but you can't talk about all three at once.

  10. September 08, 2018Cassander said...

    @redrover & bean

    Bean, I think redrover was talking about building a small SSBN, not trying to combine an SSBN and an SSN on a single platform.

    A small SSBN has most of the same issues that small carriers do, a lot of fixed costs like the crew (sans the missiliers), the sonar, and infrastructure necessary to support building the hull, the reactor, and the missiles. All of these things are going to scale only slightly with size. For example, the nautilus had a crew of 105. the Seawolf, which was more than double her size and had vastly more sophisticated systems, had a crew of 121.

    On top of that, the size of your missile mandates a certain minimum size for your SSBN. the trident is 44 feet long, which is why the Ohios are 42 feet in diameter, with that boxy top. and once you're committed to a certain diameter, hydrodynamics will dictate a minimum efficient length.

    Now, the Seawolf class was 40 feet in diameter, so maybe if you were already making a large SSN you could build an SSBN out of it virginia payload module style, but such a design would probably end up sub-optimal for a lot of other reasons, excess weapons capacity, poor weight distribution or hydrodynamics, insufficient power from your reactor, etc. Unless you can design a missile that's a lot shorter than the trident, it's probably more trouble than it's worth, especially if you're going for a 4 boat fleet where you need a certain minimum number of missiles to make your threat credible and thus, a certain minimum size of ship anyway.

  11. September 08, 2018Cassander said...

    @bean

    About 50%, I’d say. Yes, the Soviets were heavily invested in submarines, as Philistine points out, but they had some different ideas about submarine usage, and a lot of the subs would have been in the bastions making sure that the SSBNs were safe. The biggest issue, though, was the near-total denial of the potential of Soviet naval aviation as a sea control threat. For reasons I can’t quite understand, sea control and ASW became synonymous, and the carriers were seen only as a strike element, and attacked on those grounds. Maybe once the carriers were cut, the bombers would just magically disappear.

    I don't understand what you're saying here. I see two ways to parse this, "[the Soviet's] near-total denial of the potential of Soviet naval aviation as a sea control threat" or [the USN's] near-total denial of the potential of Soviet naval aviation as a sea control threat". But neither of those makes sense.

  12. September 08, 2018RedRover said...

    @Cassander

    My idea was actually a bit crazier than that. Instead of having a separate SSBN fleet, equip all the SSNs with two to four SLBMs in an enlarged sail. This negates the hull diameter limitation, and because the entire SSN fleet has the missiles, you retain an effective deterrent even if each individual submarine is at a higher risk of being sunk while forward deployed. In other words, rather than building SSN based SSBNs but maintaining separate SSN and SSBN fleets, make all of the submarines SSBN-lights, but use them functionally as SSNs.

    Again, I don't think this is actually a good idea on balance, but it would give you a true second strike capability without having to build a dedicated fleet of SSBNs. That is to say, instead of the Franco-British solution of 4x SSBN and 6x SSN, you go with 12x SSbN.

    To be sure, this was be less effective in terms of total launch weight/tubes available, but so long as the idea is only to maintain a defensive second strike capability I don't think that's disqualifying. Really, the big technical question is how much enlarging the sail and adding the necessary supporting equipment* would handicap the submarine relative to a pure SSN.

    My guess is that you could carry it out technically fairly easily, but the bigger questions are strategic/tactical. As @bean said, traditionally SSBNs have been sailed very defensively and kept hidden because they're so valuable. SSbNs would require more aggressive captaining, which presents a lot of potential issues, and I think it would also have the potential to make our foes more nervous.

    *How much extra equipment does it really need though, over and above the tubes?

  13. September 08, 2018RedRover said...

    To be clear, I think the more reasonable options are either: 1. True Ohio-style SSBNs 2. Straight SSNs with nuclear cruise missiles

    However, as we have aspirations at strategic importance, but also not the historical baggage of the UK/France, we don't strictly need the full capability of option 1, and indeed whether we should be a nuclear power at all is something of an open question. Israel appears to have gone for 2, though with SSKs rather than SSNs.

    The weird SSbN/improved-Hotel option is more of a thought experiment on how we get credible second strike with an SLBM, while not committing too much of our limited resources to a separate SSBN fleet at the cost of our SSN fleet.

  14. September 08, 2018bean said...

    I talked to the nuclear minister today, and he has a solution which is surprisingly similar to RedRover's. But I'll let him explain it himself. I don't think full-size SLBMs is particularly practical. They're too big, and the cost/performance hit is large.

  15. September 09, 2018bean said...

    @cassander

    What foreign policy ambitions do we have for Novo Alexandria?

    We're definitely in the UK/France category, and I think we should be looking at similar objectives.

    For example, the nautilus had a crew of 105. the Seawolf, which was more than double her size and had vastly more sophisticated systems, had a crew of 121.

    Assuming you're talking about the modern Seawolf, that's not a good argument to use. Many of those more sophisticated systems remove the need for people. Instead of needing sonar techs to listen manually to the noises coming from outside, you have computers to do most of the work. Some of the sophistication is going to come out as reduced maintenance burden, and so on.

    I don’t understand what you’re saying here. I see two ways to parse this, ”[the Soviet’s] near-total denial of the potential of Soviet naval aviation as a sea control threat” or [the USN’s] near-total denial of the potential of Soviet naval aviation as a sea control threat”. But neither of those makes sense.

    Not so much the USN itself, but a lot of the NATO navies and politicians pretty much ignored the threat that the bombers posed to the convoys. It wasn't so much that they actively claimed they weren't a threat as that they simply didn't come up during force planning time, and "Sea Control" meant ASW. I don't really have a good explanation for this, but the Maritime Strategy was a deliberate reaction to this kind of thinking, using the carriers to draw out and kill the bombers.

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