Earlier this month I took in a briefing by Professor Paul S. Schmitt of the US Naval War College, as part of a brown-bag lunch series by the Military Operations Research Society, on the wargaming activities of Newport’s Halsey Alpha program. We have heard all this before in many places, but Schmitt put their lessons learned most poignantly, as I will now summarize. After watching multiple American precision bombing campaigns since the end of the Cold War, potential adversaries have built lots of long-range, maneuvering weapons with smart, even “brilliant” seekers. The result has been a remarkable growth in the potential for effective and survivable long-range strike, with higher likelihoods that launchers ashore will survive, that guided weapons will penetrate, and that the weapons will hit home, from greater ranges. The tactical implications are clear. Fixed facilities have become quite vulnerable, so conventional counter-value warfare has become much easier. For mobile forces, the competition is between the hiders and the finders. Rough terrain and deep oceans provide some sanctuary, but if you’re otherwise in the open, on the sea surface, or in the air, you’re vulnerable. Once found, it’s hard to hide again.
The Russians know all of this, even if they’re pretending otherwise. As Dmitry Gorenberg recently wrote for War On The Rocks, Russia’s newly approved naval doctrine is totally unrealistic, and for two reasons. First, even if the Russians could figure out how to reliably build and operate large, ocean-going warships, the embarrassing cruise to Syria of the carrier Kuznetsov shows that they can’t afford to maintain the ships they have today. Second, they needn’t build that kind of fleet, “given the essentially defensive nature of the Russian Navy’s actual primary missions.” As such, the declared doctrine is possibly a total ruse. What the Russians are actually doing is building modern corvettes. The latest in service, of the Steregushchiy class, displace 2100 tons, but carry hangars for submarine-hunting helicopters, and vertical launch cells for thousand-mile precision-guided cruise missiles. Given that the Russians greatly value maintaining a bastion in the Barents Sea for their ballistic missile submarines, the former is particularly important. Given the restrictions of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, by which Moscow still claims to abide, the latter is important too. Given that these ships are not intended to operate beyond land-based air cover, their reliance on just close-in air defenses is acceptable. In turn, that allows a ship far smaller than a modern anti-aircraft cruiser (destroyer, frigate, whatever) to still pack a potent anti-submarine, anti-ship, or land-attack punch.
For years, European navies have instead been ordering ships built for wars they are unlikely to fight. In contrast to the latest Russian constructions, the Franco-Italian Aquitaines and Bergaminis (FREMMs) displace 6000 tons, and the British Darings (Type 45s) 8400 tons. As a result, they’ve been ordering rather few ships, and any single loss would present a major diminution in overall combat capability. Britain, for one, does need powerful air defense afloat, of some variety, if only to defend the Falkland Islands. In 1982, this was accomplished quite well by the rather modest carriers Hermes and Invincible. Since then, while Argentine capabilities have collapsed, Britain has in contrast doubled-down, building two super-carriers, and almost all the rest of its fleet domestically, mostly in the high-cost yard at Scotsoun. The exception has been the four forthcoming Tide-class tankers from South Korea. As I wrote well back in 2013, the price advantage was astounding. Perhaps worst about the Darings was that a wholly new air defense system was designed for a class of six ships. Paying for all of this, without reefing back on its bloated shore establishment, has left the Royal Navy with more admirals than warships, which is insane.
Enough about out-of-area operations. Exactly what air force any of these European ships will face over the Bay of Biscay or the Mediterranean is not clear. For as Air Chief Marshal Sir Steven Dalton put it back in 2011, “on the periphery of Europe,” land-based fighter-bombers will always be more cost-effective than aircraft carriers and their escorting anti-aircraft ships. In the unlikely event that they ever did face a large, competent, and hostile air force flying from the south, the experience of the Second World War provides a reminder of what would matter in that campaign: no fleet then ranged freely without air cover. Since then, the technological balance has shifted further against surface ships. In the operational context of a “mature precision-strike regime,” as Andrew Krepinevich of the CSBA wrote in 2015, one could effectively call the Mediterranean a large lake. In that context, the Baltic is a rather smaller lake: at its widest, just 120 miles across. Anti-ship missiles like Saab's RBS-15 Mark 3 can fly from one side to the other. In a review of the CSBA's study for Breaking Defense, Sydney Freedberg termed any waters like those a “No-Man’s Sea”. As I related back in March 2016, even Syrian launchers with Russian supersonic anti-ship missiles may make the Med a matter for stealthy warplanes, not obvious warships.
Of course, stealthier warships would help too. Call Kockums in Malmö for those: in 2015, after fifteen years of effort, the Royal Swedish Navy finally formed a flotilla of five 640-ton Visby-class corvettes. Consider this in the context of “Seabus,” that mythical “giant pan-European shipbuilding company,” long-sought to compete more effectively with yards in South Korea, Japan, and China. If European advocates of that consolidation had managed to have their way, where would have gone the kind of innovation that produced the Visbys?
There are other exceptions to this pattern of overspending and overbuilding for the wrong wars. Norway's Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates displace 5300 tons, so that they can carry Aegis combat systems to the North Cape, but the ships were built in Spain by an experienced yard. The Danes have the admirable but affordable big frigates in the Iver Huitfeldt class, but they buy the hulls from the Romanians, who build them much more cost-effectively. Denmark's similarly-hulled Absalons are known as yet an even more clever concept. With the frontend of a frigate and the backend of an assault ship, Abaslon and her sister ship Esbern Snare were distributing lethality before that was a thing. What else is needed to deny Europe’s enemies access to its littorals? In general, smaller, more numerous ships, because they will suffer losses in combat against the Russians, or anyone else. Ocean-going submarine-hunters will still be needed keep the sea lanes open. Whether those are frigates, cruiser-sized helicopter carriers, or robo-corvettes with flying masts like DARPA's Sea Hunter remains to be determined.
This kind of thinking has made for a great start, and the recent lesson is clear: navies whose governments will admit flexibility in designs and in their construction are doing just fine. Europe less needs consolidation in shipbuilding as innovation in naval warfare. The Americans will continue building enough super-carriers, anti-aircraft cruisers (destroyers, frigates, whatever) and nuclear-powered submarines for the whole alliance. The export potential for ships of that size from American yards will likely remain zero. European naval-industrialists will continue to have much the run of the market if their governments keep thinking small and affordable.
There is one other point to be made. If China or North Korea attacks Alaska—which actually lies within the NATO area—then Article 5 will likely again be invoked. If you’ll not be sending troops, you’d better be sending ships, unless you want to give any administration in Washington reason to wonder again about the point of the alliance. The war could be brutal out there, so build some ships you won’t mind losing.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.