Small Ships, Trouble and China

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Small Ships, Trouble and China

What the 18th century Gaspee incident could say about the US Navy’s role in Asia and the South China Sea.

If it’s June and you’re gazing out across the Narragansett Bay—as you do from the deck at the Naval Station Newport Officers’ Club—it must be time to raise a glass to the rebellious souls who burned HMS Gaspee in 1772. The Gaspee affair was part of a North American backlash against British revenue-raising measures following the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). That globe-spanning conflict made Great Britain ‘master of the world,’ in the words of one popular history. Indeed, Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, a denizen of these parts during the 1880s and 1890s, noted that its triumph left the British Empire the proud owner of French Canada, along with strategic positions from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.

It also left the British treasury in debt and casting about for tariff money. Parliament squeezed the colonists as hard as it could. Cutters like the eight-gun schooner Gaspee plied the many bays, bights, and inland waterways along the North American coast in an effort to crack down on smuggling. Commanded by Lt. William Duddingston, the Gaspee stood into Narragansett Bay in early 1772. As eyewitness Ephraim Bowen described it, Duddingston sought to prevent ‘the clandestine landing of articles, subject to the payment of duty.’ He ‘made it his practice to stop and board all vessels entering or leaving the ports of Rhode Island, or leaving Newport for Providence.’

Strict law enforcement raised the transaction costs from illicit commerce—cutting into profits. Then, as now, Rhode Islanders interpreted their duty to obey inconvenient laws rather casually. Around midday on June 10 the Gaspee gave chase to the packet Hannah, bound from Newport to Providence, the northernmost city on the Narragansett Bay. While in hot pursuit the warship ran aground on Namquit Point, along the western shore. When the Hannah reached Providence, skipper Thomas Lindsay informed merchant John Brown of the royal schooner’s plight. Recalled Bowen, ‘Mr Brown immediately resolved on her destruction.’ He organized a flotilla of eight longboats for a night-time raid.

Recruitment went quickly. Around sunset ‘a man passed along the Main street beating a drum and…inviting those persons who felt a disposition to go and destroy that troublesome vessel’ to join the expedition. A sentinel hailed the party as it neared the Gaspee. Answered Capt. Abraham Whipple, ‘I have got a warrant to apprehend you, G—d d—n you; so surrender, G—d d—n you.’ Whereupon one of Whipple’s men fired, injuring Lt. Duddingston. The Rhode Islanders bore Duddingston to safety while leaving one boat behind with torches. Its crew burned the Royal Navy ship to the waterline. None of the raiders ever faced punishment, despite taking little trouble to conceal their identities.

One lesson of the Gaspee incident: small, lightly armed, lightly defended craft find it easy to get into trouble when prowling foreign waters. Getting out of trouble is another matter. Think about the US Navy gunboat Panay, attacked by Japanese warplanes along the Yangtze River in 1937. Or there’s the case of HMS Amethyst, caught in the crossfire between Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces in April 1949, as the Chinese Civil War wound down. The warring armies were encamped on opposite shores of the Yangtze. A temporary armistice was in place. Communist gunners nonetheless took the frigate under fire as it passed, driving it ashore. The Amethyst absorbed over 50 hits from Chinese gunfire.

The Amethyst’s crew managed to float the ship a few days after it beached. Units of the British Far East Station essayed a rescue but were driven off. Protracted negotiations with the now-victorious People’s Liberation Army (PLA) yielded nothing. New skipper Lt. Cmdr. J. S. Kerans finally decided to attempt a breakout. The Amethyst reached the high seas in late July, 101 days after its harrowing ordeal began. The outcome for the Royal Navy was brighter than in June 1772, but it may have turned deadly had PLA commanders pressed their attack while the ship remained stranded. In all likelihood the Royal Navy would have suffered a latter-day Gaspee episode in the Far East.

These events come to mind not just because it’s pleasant to drink beer alongside the Narragansett Bay, but because of sobering news out of last weekend’s Shangri-La meetings in Singapore. As my co-blogger David Axe reports, Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced that the US Navy will forward-deploy Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore. This is striking inasmuch as they would be the first US warships stationed on the island. In operational terms, it’s less impressive. As Congressional Research Service analyst Ronald O’Rourke points out, ships built to the same standard as the LCS—‘Level I survivability’ in Pentagon-speak—‘are not expected to “fight hurt.”’ One hit could put them out of action.

And the LCS evidently falls short of even this minimal standard. It hull is too frail to withstand much punishment from undersea explosions or air or missile strikes. Worse, the threat is intensifying. Singapore falls increasingly under the shadow of Chinese weaponry, notably the land-based CSS-5 anti-ship ballistic missile that’s reportedly entering service with the PLA Second Artillery Corps. The US Navy must look to the defence of the LCS and other forward-deployed assets—lest it suffer a Gaspee incident in a contested South China Sea.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.