Why Have Surface Fleets Endured?
Image Credit: Flickr - US Navy

Why Have Surface Fleets Endured?


A quick follow-up on the Naval Diplomat's doomsaying vis-à-vis the future of surface battle fleets. An astute reader notes that prophets have been foretelling the downfall of surface forces since I was a kid in the Bible Belt, listening to sidewalk preachers screech that end of the world was nigh. Why, he asks, has the prophecy never come to pass despite the evidence in its favor? He forwarded a now-obscure 1971 Foreign Affairs article from Paul Cohen, titled "The Erosion of Surface Naval Power." Cohen catalogs the technological forces arrayed against surface fleets in the mid-Cold War, predicting that "large surface vessels" could never withstand "the onslaught of the submarines, surveillance systems, homing weapons, and the rest of the paraphernalia of twentieth-century military technology." They would go the way of the battleships — formidable combatants overtaken by changes to the threat milieu.

Why have surface fleets endured?

My offhand response is that Cohen's prophecy may have been true and we didn't know for sure. Technological progress can render weaponry moot, but there's no way to tell without pitting old versus new in the closest thing there is to a laboratory environment — namely, battle. The U.S.-Soviet maritime competition was never put to the test of combat. In Sea Power in the Machine Age, strategist Bernard Brodie points out that naval engagements take place too seldom to draw firm lessons-learned. Extrapolating from a sample size of one, or a few, is intellectually hazardous. Worse (from an analytical standpoint, anyway), there have been no fleet engagements since Leyte Gulf in 1944. We have a sample size of zero, meaning that debates over the relative merits and drawbacks of various hardware remain largely abstract.

In The Political Uses of Sea Power, published not long after Cohen's article, Edward Luttwak opined that the outcomes of peacetime maritime confrontations were decided through a kind of poll: which contender did most observers believe would have prevailed in wartime? But again, perceptions can be out of sync with harsh realities. Luttwak alluded to this, noting that relatively backward but menacing-looking Soviet men-of-war often made a more impressive sight than advanced but less imposing U.S. Navy warships. Thus the Soviet Navy might come out on top in a peacetime showdown, whatever the results of actual combat might say. Bottom line, we enter the intellectual lists armed with the best weapons available, usually technical specifications, doctrine, tactics, and the like. But definite results to tactical debates are elusive absent a real-world trial of arms.

As Clausewitz counsels, there's no escaping the guesswork quotient in military affairs. Cohen may have had it right, lo these many years ago.

Russ Stott
April 6, 2013 at 22:25

It only takes a few missles, out of many, to get through the barrier created by the battle group around these floating platorms.  War is a game of finances.  Twenty missles, each with a cost of about a million dollars, fired at a $6 billion carrier, is a good investment.  One of those missile is going to get missed – and that's the end of the carrier.  It's a numbers game and the odds are on the side of the numerous incoming anti-ship missiles. 

April 3, 2013 at 17:57

I think the power comes from the conept of fleet-in-being. The simple fact is that submarines can deny the ocean to the adversary, but cannot control or dominate the seas. They have no presence of their own. I really think the important things for modern ships is ability to be all in one platforms(US DDG-51, CG-47), or a mixtture of platforms of differing capabilities.(Russia, China). To be able to operate, control the sea, and fight effectively is the heart of the modern surface navy. People forget that technology for offensive weapon moves just as fast as for defensive weapons…..instead of armor, we have AEGIS, and improved SONAR systems.


March 31, 2013 at 11:23

Mission specific naval combatants will continue to be relevant until the day a single platform on a single orbit can identify single swimmers off Wakkiki.
Everything will be an over the horizon target then.
As to submarine’s, today’s global satellite maps today can expose the global seafloor.
Somewhere in there is every submarine on patrol inn the world..
The deciding issue may well be strategy.
The air force relies on platform based cloaking systems.
The navy relies on area based denial.

The Navy, which combines surface and air combatants apears to present a combined, superior force, properly deployed.

Tough choices.

Hale Cullom, III
March 21, 2013 at 00:40

“[N]aval engagements take place too seldom to draw firm lessons-learned…” Brodie is onto something there.

One reason we cannot be sure whether Cohen and other pundits are right about the lessened military value of surface combatants is because of other values inherent in the ships. Modern naval vessels of any description are such expensive investments in terms of procurement, maintenance and training costs; as well as being such obvious repositories of national prestige that their owners generally take good care to avoid even the possibility of damage to them or their crews.

For these reasons political decision makers and their commanders will generally tend to be conservative in the actual employment of naval power, acting in most circumstances such as to minimize risk to the force rather than damage to any putative enemy. The various ships deployed in a place by any given power may indeed have awesome military capabilities – but we may never really know — because the avoidance of risk will tend to mitigate the full utilization of these capabilities. We have seen this before — specifically in the late battleship era.

Of course, there is always the possibility that political circumstances, or a different cut of political leader than is common — may change the usual risk calculus. Additionally, there is always the possibility of a different sort of commander; aware of the possibilities of his vessels, who is more willing to accept risk to inflict damage.

major lowen gil marquez
March 20, 2013 at 07:56

The surface fleetmust be endure always in the Naval Hardware, in expeditionary doctrine, it is the decissive point to win the war over a continental war it can be a Air and Land War or Air and Sea War, this two doctines must be exercise and its exercise can be done in Leyte Gulf, Philippines as it was happen in World War II which the real scenario and the environmental reality help a lot even it will be done only in exercise, The second option for exercise can be done at the WESTERN PHILIPPINE SEA in order also to have a newest scenario battle exercise that will cater the particpation of all South East Asian Nations such Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, Brunei, and Korea, this will benefit the surface fleet Naval battle enhancement of the Sailors and Pilots…including the Commander Leadership strategic capability…

Boo Hoo
March 19, 2013 at 07:48

That is easier said than done.  In fact, no missile boat nor frigate has ever been able to neutralize an attack carrier.  It is childish opinion to think that a couple missile boats or a frigate can intimidate (for fear of damage) an aircraft carrier.  Ever heard of a carrier battle group?  An U.S. aircraft carrier never travels alone in the open sea, much less entering a war zone by itself.  A couple of mosquitoes might get a lucky strike at the buffalo, but in this case, they would be swatted out of the water.

Chuck Hill
March 19, 2013 at 03:14

In deed it is difficult to generalize from the few examples we have of Naval conflict since WWII, and even small changes in those we do have could have made the result vastly different. Looking at the Falklands.

If the Argentinians had properly calibrated the fire control on their submarine, if they had had quick acting fuses on their bombs, if calm winds had not made it impossible to launch aircraft from thier carrier, if they had received all 14 of the Air Launch Exocets they had attempted to purchase instead of only 5. The results might have been very different.

March 19, 2013 at 03:00

An intelligent and well-reasoned post…exactly the sort of thing that I come here to see…

Your analysis sounds quite similar in some ways to the Risk Doctrine espoused by Tirpitz in the run-up to WWI, though obviously different in some particulars. The only problem with this approach is that it requires increasingly robust coordination between a large number of systems in order to be effective, and these systems can be defeated in detail. For instance: Chinese ballistic missile systems used for anti-access require extensive OTH survellience/targeting systems (likely satellites and long-range aircraft) as well as complex C3I systems which are all vulnerable to disruption. The Western emphasis on large capable platforms makes these systems more resilient to such disruption, though of course they have their own vulnerabilities over time. The problem with this 'risk-based' approach is that if it is somehow neutered, the non-trivial investments rquired to make it work are more or less wasted, whereas degraded Western systems are still highly effective in many other roles. Compare the High Seas Fleet to the Grand Fleet in WWI, and you get some idea of what I mean.

March 18, 2013 at 11:06

I agree with the statements above. However, irrational Naval Doctrine, such as that practiced by the North Korean Navy for example, can have substantial ramifications with respect to surface warfare. No Navy has the assets to "tail" every surface warship of a potential enemy. Yes, there are satellites, drones, AWACs, etc., but no electronic defense is infallible. And, it is a diversion of resources and very expensive during a difficult economic period. I believe the Communist Chinese understand this en toto. Exercises, war games, etc. by the North Koreans, Communist Chinese, and Russian navies are, for the most part, not designed to "test" a potential adversary, but rather to wear the potential adversaries resources thin. They realize that NATO, for the most part, is a European/African/ Middle Eastern force, and the American "flag" doctrine is anchored to South Korean and Japan defense.

Finally, potential Western adversaries realize that short, violent attacks on surface combatants can succeed if unorthodox tactics are used, and they are prepared  for attrition, which the West (U.S.) is not. Therefore, in a naval chess game, one or two missile boats, or a frigate, can neutralize an attack carrier via attack and damage, or by simple intimidation (fear of damage) remove it as a combat multiplier.  

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief