Tuesday, October 22, 2013

You Sunk My Battleship!

The Navy is set to launch the first of three new Zumwalt-class destroyers later this week from the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. The Zumwalts, weighing in at 15,000 tons and costing $7 billion a piece are more evocative of the dreadnoughts of old than the ships of the modern Navy. Aside from being armed with the standard Tomahawk Cruse Missiles, Sea Sparrow Self-Defense Missiles, SM-2 long range air defense missiles, and two 155mm cannons that fire GPS guided shells, the ship produces enough excess power to eventually be outfitted with Boeing's Free Electron Laser Weapon system. While its fair to say that the Zumwalts can blast the hell out of anything they encounter on the high seas, their utility may ultimately prove fleeting.
An artist conception of a Zumwalt in action.
Ever since Teddy Roosevelt first sent the Great White Fleet trawling the waters of the world, the United States Navy has operated on the principles of naval strategy first espoused by Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890. Mahan believed that the oceans, what he called the "global commons", served as the great economic highways of the world. As such, he argued the nation that held naval superiority on the high seas could thus control the world's trade. Controlling the global commons however, required a large navy that could operate throughout the worlds oceans. Large fleet actions between heavy cruisers became a main tenet of his theory. The British ruled the waves with a Mahanian minded navy, the US does currently and the Chinese wish too.

However, with the US questioning its forward deployments throughout the world and cutting budgets, does it make sense for the Navy to dump $7 billion into battleships? Probably not, especially since the US can consider other strategies to maintain its dominance of the global commons.

In 1911, Julian Corbett, a British naval historian, published Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. While Corbett, like Mahan, believed that the global commons were the economic lifelines of states, he did not think large fleets were necessary for their control. Instead, Corbett believed navies could control the waves by building small, mobile ships that could conduct guerre de course, or war against the merchantmen of enemies. Sinking an enemy's merchant fleet would destroy his economy and halt his ability to wage war. The French utilized guerre de course tactics against the British in the Napoleonic Wars, as did the Germans with their U-boats in World War I and II. Indeed, the US Navy sunk the Japanese merchant fleet during World War II utilizing submarine tactics.

While it's debatable which theory is more effective (Convoys defeated German U-boats, but not US submarines), if the US wishes to draw down its forces and cut military spending, adopting Corbett's theory and a guerre de course strategy would be most effective. Instead of spending $7 billion on new battleships that may be prone to capsizing, it should build up its submarine and light littoral attack forces. Doing so would not only guarantee US dominance of the seas for the foreseeable future, but also allow the US to draw back from its expensive forward position.

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