Defense Media Network

World Naval Developments 2011-2012

Eastern Promises

Other East Asian countries have simply decided to buy submarines. The gap between order and delivery, and between delivery and real operational capability would seem to define a window of opportunity for the PLAN. The most obvious initial PLAN operating area would be the South China Sea. Of the states that also claim all or part of the supposed seabed resources of this sea, Thailand and Vietnam are building submarine forces. A Thai submarine force does not yet exist. Reportedly the Royal Thai Navy has agreed to buy two decommissioned German Type 206A submarines in 2012 (but it is by no means certain that this purchase will be made). Vietnam has gone further, with an order for six Russian-built “Kilos,” the first to be delivered in 2013 and the rest at the rate of one per year. However, Indonesia already has a submarine force in the shape of two German-built Type 209s. Late in 2011 it bought three new submarines from South Korea. Singapore already has three of a planned quartet of ex-Swedish submarines.

Super-E prep de Gaulle Libya NFZ

French Aeronavale Dassault Super Etendards are prepped in the hangar deck of Charles de Gaulle for strikes on Libya during Operation Harmattan, the official French name for the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. NATO photo

Of other Asian countries that might feel threatened by a Chinese naval buildup, both Japan and South Korea already have substantial submarine forces. Taiwan, which might feel most threatened, has a limited and ageing force – which would still probably be quite capable of sinking major Chinese surface ships in any confrontation in the Taiwan Straits. For some time the Taiwan government has been trying to buy additional submarines, but it lost the opportunity offered by the Bush administration and may feel compelled to develop a domestic industry – which would take considerable time.

Another of the important world naval developments of 2011 was the NATO operation in Libya. It opened not too long after the British government decided to eliminate its carrier force. Yet Britain and France were major partners in the Libyan operation, which for NATO was largely a matter of air support to the Libyan rebels. Of the NATO partners, France retained a large carrier (Charles de Gaulle), but this single ship could not operate continuously for very long. The U.S. Navy carried out initial Tomahawk missile strikes and air strikes from Marine Harriers aboard USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) supported by EF-18G Growlers flying from land bases. The United States did provide vital support in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) once the operation transitioned to NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, in which the United States played only a supporting role. Italy provided land air bases not far from Libya.

French navy Dassault Super Etendard attack aircraft

A French navy Dassault Super Etendard attack aircraft is catapulted from the Charles de Gaulle. During Operation Unified Protector, one carrier was not enough. French Navy photo by Francois Marce

The surprise, for many, was that without carriers it was very difficult to provide the kind of on-call support the rebels needed. The British found that flying attack aircraft all the way to the Mediterranean was both expensive and limiting, because the aircraft had very little endurance over the battle area. Presumably those who claimed that long-range land-based aircraft offered every bit as much firepower as carrier aircraft failed to appreciate that the key issue was endurance over the battle area – because those calling for fire do not do so long in advance. They need an airplane within reach when it is needed.

It is probably too early to say why it took so long for the rebels, with so much air support, to win. It may simply be that air support has been oversold, that Muammar Gadaffi’s forces could survive by mixing with the Libyan population until the moment they struck. However, it may also be that the massive NATO air effort did not produce nearly as much output as a much smaller carrier operation might have. In that case, the Libyan rebels experienced a lot more casualties and agony than they should have, thanks to a foolish British decision a few months earlier. The British attempt to save money, incidentally, ended up costing a great deal because the long-range sorties involved were anything but inexpensive. The Harrier ground-attack aircraft the British retired were later sold to the U.S. Marine Corps, whose AV-8B Harrier is essentially the same airplane (and is operated from U.S. amphibious assault ships).

SM-3 missile FTM-15

An SM-3 missile leaves the USS O’Kane’s vertical launch system during the Missile Defense Agency’s test FTM-15. The missile intercepted its target almost three times the range previously achieved. Missile Defense Agency photo

Among the recent world naval developments deserving special mention is an increase in capability of Aegis BMD. For about 20 years the U.S. Navy has been evolving a ballistic missile defense system based on its very successful Aegis anti-aircraft system. Perhaps the most interesting lesson of Aegis development is that the system within which the missile operates can radically improve missile performance. Aegis began with the SM-2 missile, which was based on the earlier Tartar. The first Aegis ships were armed with a missile using the same airframe and motor as a Tartar with a rated range of 17.5 nautical miles (nm). Simply because Aegis could command the missile to follow a much more energy-efficient path, the rated range of the same airframe and motor using Aegis control was 40 nm.

Clearly it was worthwhile to improve Aegis performance, for example to intercept attacking missiles at greater altitudes and ranges. That was done. However, the lesson remains that often the surrounding system makes much more of a difference than one might imagine. The other lesson of Aegis was that it is often far better to evolve a missile than to develop a wholly new one. Among other things, the wholly new missile has entirely new problems and also has new aerodynamics that require radical changes in the surrounding system. If the command and control system determines so much of the overall system performance, it pays enormous dividends to make the fewest possible changes in it.

As it happened, it was not the U.S. Navy’s inherent wisdom that caused it to follow an evolutionary path; it was the sheer cost of fielding entirely new missiles and replacing large numbers of existing missile ships and systems. Several times (including early in the Aegis program), the U.S. Navy sought entirely new missiles only to find that they were unaffordable. That turned out to be very fortunate.

The ballistic missile defense missile based on SM-2 is SM-3; it adds an upper stage and a kinetic kill vehicle that guides itself into a collision with the oncoming missile warhead. Versions of SM-3 are classified according to the range (which also means altitude and speed) of the ballistic missile they can intercept. It turns out that these figures are also calculated for a ship that uses her own SPY-1 radar to acquire and track the target.

This year (in test FTM-15), a second Aegis ship closer to the target launcher first acquired and tracked that target, passing her data to the Aegis ship armed with SM-3 missiles. Simply because the second ship had much earlier warning, and because she could shape the trajectory of her SM-3 more effectively, she was able to intercept a target missile at about three times the range of one she could have intercepted on her own.

All opinions expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any agency with which he has been associated.

This article was first published in Defense: Winter 2012 Review Edition.

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Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...