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Added 31-3-19
Updated 9-9-23

Thoughts on Naval Warfare

Anti-Shipping Missiles

Surface warships tend to be large, slow and very expensive. Sinking or just damaging a warship can be seen as a major propaganda victory.

The sinking of the Belgrano caused the whole Argentinian surface fleet to withdraw for the remainder of the war.

The potential pay-off means many enemies are willing to expend considerable assets against such high-value targets.

Anti-shipping missile

Anti-shipping missiles (AShM) are a major threat to surface vessels.

Many countries are developing their own anti-shipping missiles, and it seems likely that those not produced by the US military-industrial complex are likely to get smarter and cheaper.

Such missiles can be launched by submarines, aircraft, surface vessels and coastal positions.

Some systems resemble standard ISO containers, so can be operated from trucks or from civilian shipping vessels. Every fishing boat or large vehicle on the coast becomes a potential launcher.

Targets such as carrier strike groups (CSG) are likely to be engaged by dozens of missiles and hundreds of decoys at once, from multiple sources. Such swarm tactics are likely to overwhelm many current anti-missile systems.

Missiles that can exchange information to coordinate their attacks already exist.

Many large ships only mount one CIWS system. Such an arrangement is likely to have gaps in the field of fire, areas that missiles may be programmed to exploit. A single CIWS system is vulnerable to malfunction, damage and sabotage. Many systems only hold enough ammunition for around twenty seconds of firing.

Many warships have decoy-launching systems that are reloaded by hand, making them of only limited use during a swarm or sustained attack.

Decoy launchers should be capable of automated reloading.

The same decoy system should be able to rapidly change the type of munition loaded. Potentially, an automated decoy launcher could also serve to launch ASW projectiles (qv).

It is a folly to spend thousands of millions on a warship and then cut costs by not providing it with adequate defences.

Support ships, amphibious landing ships, transports and all other vessels operating with a task group should also be provided with adequate CIWS, interceptor missile and decoy systems.

Missiles do not respect red crosses, so the defence of hospital ships needs to be addressed.

The vulnerability of surface ships is rightly a concern for many navies. The US Navy has suggested a concept they call “dispersed lethality”. This is intended to make ships harder to find and target, although a surface ship and its wake can probably be spotted by satellites and HALE (high-altitude, long endurance) reconnaissance.

Whatever its other effects, dispersing ships will make coordinated and mutual defence more problematic.


Until recently, the primary role of submarines was to carry torpedoes and strategic missiles.

We are now beginning to see submarines designed with a wider range of capabilities in mind.

Submarines no longer need to get within torpedo range of a carrier. Missiles provide an over-the-horizon capability.

The missile will become the submarine’s primary weapon, and future submarines are likely to carry a greater variety of missiles.

Airborne and inland targets may be engaged as easily as those on the sea surface or beneath.

Vertical launching tubes will become a standard feature on all but the smallest submarines.

New varieties of torpedo are also being developed. This includes 650mm very-heavy torpedoes, high-speed, rocket-propelled supercavitating designs and lightweight mini-torpedoes such as the LCAW and CVLWT.

Submarines can also lay mines, for example, in the path of a carrier strike group. Some modern designs of mines use homing torpedoes or underwater rockets. Self-deployed mines can travel autonomously for kilometres before descending to the sea floor. Such systems can also be used to lay mines in waters that are too shallow or otherwise inaccessible to a submarine.

Submarines will also serve as motherships to airborne and underwater unmanned vehicles (UAVs and UUVs).

Accommodations on submarines will include provision to carry detachments of special forces, frogmen, infantry ratings and/or marines.

The submarine will also have internal hangers to carry swimmer delivery vehicles (SDVs) or similarly-sized midget submarines or UUVs.

The systems described above may be used in various combinations. UUVs may be used to lay mines, or UAVs used to both locate and attack targets.

Advances in automation will allow future submarines to be operated by smaller crews, with a corresponding decrease in crowding, fatigue and a more pleasant, less stressful environment.

Shallow Water Submarine

In future, we may see less distinction between deep-water attack submarines and strategic “boomers”, both types having multiple vertical-launch-tubes. The difference will be in the missiles carried rather than the hull form, and using a single hull design for both is economically prudent. This may make it harder to establish which submarines are nuclear-armed.

Large, deep-water submarines will be complimented by smaller, cheaper, conventional attack subs. Such boats are particularly suited for the patrol and defence of coastal and littoral waters. These duties can be performed by existing diesel-electric or AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) models. A nice example of an updated design using the latest technology is shown here and above. Also see the SMX-31, Porpoise 1000 and Future Submarine Concept. A visit to the excellent Covert Shores website is recommended!

We may see such attack subs used for missions other than major warfare, such as anti-smuggler patrols. This is prudent, given that smugglers are already using their own submarines and stealth boats.

Small (20 to 30 metre) submarines in the 150 to 300 ton range will also prove useful. Such boats have an endurance of around 14 days and are well suited to local patrol, surveillance, transport and “hit and run” roles.

Maritalia Small Submarine

For defensive missions, a concept that may be revisited is the use of heavier-than-water submarines.

Effectively mobile, underwater forts, such vessels would spend most of their time sitting on the seabed, gathering intelligence. Offensive capability would be from vertical missile and torpedo tubes.

Concrete has been proposed as a construction material for such submarines, suggesting that the type be named “Stonefish”.

Submarines must be recognized as the primary offensive and defensive systems of a navy.

The Vietnam War, Falklands and Gulf War might have been very different if the North Vietnamese, Argentinians or Iraqis had been operating half-a-dozen or so diesel-electric submarines.

Many smaller nations are expanding and updating their submarine capabilities.

Increases in submarine capabilities may make the operation of conventional aircraft carrier and amphibious assault groups impractical.

Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)

The threat that even relatively unsophisticated submarines pose requires that anti-submarine warfare capabilities must be given greater priority than some navies now give them.

ASW must include allowance for smaller targets such as SDVs and UUVs.

Primary systems for ASW are submarines and aircraft. Historically, some of the most effective ASW platforms have been flying boats/amphibians.

Modern designs of amphibious aircraft, such as the Beriev A-40 and Be-200, will prove useful for maritime patrol, fire-fighting, ASW, SAR, submarine resupply, NOOTW and special-forces missions.

Air cushion landing gear (ACLG) is another option worth exploring.

Amphibians will be supplemented by more conventional ASW/maritime-patrol aircraft. Many existing designs in this niche are based on commercial airliner airframes. This introduces a degree of mimesis into patrols.

UAVs will contribute to ASW operations at various levels. UAVs are cheaper and smaller than manned ASW helicopters, facilitating greater coverage of an area of sea.

Ideally, all surface vessels in a force should mount anti-submarine torpedoes. This includes support vessels and transports, as well as “fighting ships”.

Torpedo armament for such vessels will probably will not be practical, so wider use should be made of rocket and mortar systems that can project a pattern of impact/depth charges.

Examples include the Russian RBU-6000 and Swedish Elma ASW-600. Detonation depth could be set electronically before firing.

Such rocket or mortar systems can be used in situations and at ranges that torpedoes and ASW missiles cannot. They are also more suited to attacking frogmen, midget submarines and UUVs.

Such launchers can be used against incoming torpedoes and could also be used to launch airborne decoys against missiles or underwater decoys for torpedoes.

Supercavitating ammunition for guns of 76mm or greater calibres may also prove useful against underwater targets.

Surface Fleets

Many naval theorists are discussing ways to utilize surface ships in warfare. Perhaps a better question may be “should we be using them?” and “what should we be using them for?”

Frigates and patrol craft should coordinate with submarines. Like an iceberg, most of the strength of a navy will be unseen, underwater.

What surface vessels a nation’s navy needs will depend on both geography and political stance. For many nations, the primary role of a navy is defensive. For the USA, the primary role of the navy is one of power projection.

A good approach is to build a force where both aircraft and submarines are well represented. Most nations should consider expanding and diversifying their submarine fleets.

The surface element of a navy cannot be filled by a single type of vessel. A force of frigates, for example, needs to be complimented by several sizes of patrol vessel. Offshore, coastal and riverine vessels may be needed. In some regions, an intermediate size of vessel, such as a sloop, cutter or corvette may be required. Several nations operate offshore patrol vessels based on platform supply vessels.

Many of the missions surface vessels perform are naval operations other than war (NOOTW). To reflect this, a surface ship needs to have ample provision to carry boats and helicopters. The ship will also operate UAV and UUV systems. A vessel should carry a contingent of marines or infantry ratings for boarding operations, landing parties ashore etc. Graduated levels of force may be required and close-range direct-fire weaponry should not be neglected in favour of OTH strike capability. In effect, the ship is a floating hanger/dock/barracks, providing command, control and sensor and fire support.

“We need to move from ‘luxury-car’ platforms-with their built-in capabilities-toward dependable ‘trucks’ that can handle a changing payload selection.”

Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, US Navy
Naval Proceedings Magazine July 2012

The Danish Absalon-class vessels (c 4,500 tonnes) are an approach worth careful study when considering a future frigate-class vessel. A ship can rapidly be reconfigured for various roles including frigate, minelayer, mine-sweeper, military transport, command vessel or disaster relief/hospital ship.

The Flyvefisken-class patrol vessels (c. 320 tonnes) are another interesting Danish design. Like the Absalons, they utilize StanFlex modules to vary their configuration. Roles include missile boat, ASW, minelayer and mine countermeasures (MCM).

This article suggests a dedicated NOOTW vessel. More by the same author. My preference is for Absalon-type vessels, but such “non-frigates” may be useful as an additional asset rather than instead of frigates.

Frigates and submarines may need the support of larger ships in some operations. At the time of writing, the flagship of the Royal Navy is HMS Albion (c. 19,560 tonnes). An LPD-type or JSS-type ship is a good choice for an “expedition ship”. It can handle helicopters, boats and ACVs, and carry enough troops to have an influence ashore. Some expedition ships will serve as tenders for frigates and submarines.

The anti-missile and ASW defences of such ships should be increased and improved.

We may see the reappearance of armed, multi-role auxiliary vessels along the lines of AKAs and APAs.

Amphibious Forces

“The more I consider the problem of defence the more I reach the conclusion that the answer lies basically in the ability to be able to use sea and air power freely, and to confine the enemy to a land strategy. Only in this way will the maximum flexibility be possible. The Western Alliance, to which my nation belongs, must plan to be so well and flexibly deployed that it can deal quickly and effectively with all situations, including the unlikely and the unexpected - in fact, an elastic deployment based on a maritime strategy. This demands unity and leadership. When planning defence, and deciding the best organization for armed forces, a long-term strategy is essential. I am doubtful whether the West is best served by a multitude of fixed land bases. They may in a crisis suddenly be found to be facing in the wrong direction. They tend to cramp force-mobility. They are hostages to fortune. Those which are considered essential must not be in territory where the local inhabitants are none too friendly, or may not be friendly for long - and in this last connection such bases make good propaganda for enemies of the West. Armies must go to sea. Where small forces are concerned the army must be sea-mobile, and tactically air-mobile with helicopters for movement, supply, and ground support.”

The History of Warfare. (1968) p.563-4 Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

An estimated 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of a coast.

A distinction must be made here between “amphibious landing” and “amphibious assault”. An amphibious assault may be taken to be a landing against significant opposition. Some of the means by which an amphibious assault can be opposed include:

Large scale amphibious assaults are most probably no longer practical. Modern amphibious forces must make a realistic assessment of what kind of operations are actually practical and tailor their equipment and training accordingly.

Hovercraft Landing Craft

Air Cushion Vehicles for Amphibious Operations

Although a mature technology, relatively little military use has been made of hovercraft, aka “air cushion vehicles” (ACV). ACVs are particularly suited to amphibious operations:

A range of ACVs will be needed for various purposes. A vessel of similar size to the SR.N6 would be suitable for the penetration of riverine systems and insertion of commando and special forces detachments. The Royal Marines and other forces operate Griffon hovercraft.

Naval Gunfire

The USMC amphibious assaults in the Pacific relied heavily on naval gunfire (NGF) and air-power. Modern strike groups have less ships, and less guns.

A WW2 US destroyer had at least five 5" guns and was supported by cruisers and battleships mounting 8", 12" and 16" weapons. Most modern destroyers mount a single 4.5", 5" or 130mm gun. There are few cruisers and most battleships have been retired.

The threat of anti-shipping missiles has task groups keeping out of sight of the shore, limiting the distance inland that naval gunfire can be used. Cruise missiles such as tomahawk only partially fill the niche that naval gunfire did.

Support fire needs to be accurate, responsive and timely.

Unlike the Pacific islands in the 1940s, most coastal areas are populated, complicating the use of bombardment.

There have been proposals to reintroduce 8" weapons. This may not be practical for the frigates and corvettes likely to form the bulk of many fleets.

A more practical approach would be to replace the barrels of 4.5", 5" and 130mm weapons with 155mm barrels. This would allow naval guns to use the same projectile types as have been developed for land force’s artillery weapons. This would end unnecessary parallel development programs that develop two different, similar-calibre rounds for the same purpose. Rather than creating an extended range round for the 5", make use of existing 155mm ER-BB designs that get 42 km range at howitzer velocities. Naval guns could also utilize the greater variety of ammunition types available in 155mm.

The 155mm naval guns would be “true guns”, with longer, heavier barrels than land howitzers and probably using a propellant system more suited to naval applications. A prudent move would be to make the proposed naval rail-guns compatible with 155mm projectiles. StanFlex or ISO modules mounting 155mm weapons could be used to customize a surface vessel as a gunboat.

The US Navy is currently interested in hypervelocity rail-guns. The high velocities limit their use against surface targets to line of sight or very long range.

The current emphasis seems to be for an anti-missile and anti-aircraft weapon.

To support forces ashore, the rail-gun will need to be capable of being dialled down to velocities more compatible with indirect-fire trajectories.

A better answer to the requirement for naval gunfire may be to develop a more varied range of surface attack munitions that can be used by both surface ships and submarines. This should include submarine-launched missiles or UAVs that carry homing sub-munitions. The Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) gives an interesting hint of what might be possible.

For NOOTW applications one of the most useful systems for a ship to mount is the 76mm/62 multi-purpose gun. This can be used against aircraft or against fast-moving surface targets. Ammunition to give it a greater anti-missile role has also been developed. It can be used for indirect fire where the effects of larger shells may be undesirable. The 76mm/62 could be complimented by 35mm autocannon that can also serve as CIWS.

Aircraft Carriers

In the game of “power projection”, few moves make a statement like the positioning of a carrier strike group!

Carriers are seen as a symbol of national prestige, illogical though this sometimes is. The British government has spent thousands of millions of pounds commissioning a pair of carriers when it has insufficient escort ships to guard them. The carriers can only be used with support from other navies, most likely the US Navy. Confirming a position as America’s sidekick does little for national prestige.

The Royal Navy should have invested in expanding its submarine fleet, as many other nations are doing.

The paradox of aircraft carriers is that they have become too expensive not to use, yet too expensive to lose!

In several naval wargames “enemy” submarines have scored kills on US carrier strike groups. In 2006, a Chinese Song-class submarine surfaced within torpedo and missile range of the USS Kitty Hawk. During the Falklands conflict, Argentina’s only surviving submarine, a Type-209, infiltrated the British taskforce. Only defective torpedoes prevented it sinking British ships.

Most carrier operations since 1945 have been where there was a negligible naval threat. Many nations have now invested in expanding their submarine capability.

Nations with strong land-based air-forces pose another problem for aircraft carriers. US carrier wings are based on the F/A-18 and/or F-35. Many nations have air-forces of better and more numerous warplanes.

The massive investment in aircraft carriers means they are likely to be in use for decades to come. Doubts about their vulnerability and their relevance need to be addressed.

During the Second World War, twelve US aircraft carriers and seven British were lost to enemy action. In the modern era, losing a single aircraft carrier is likely to have considerable political repercussions.

Future control of the seas will be a matter of sub-power and air-power. Exactly what form the latter will take remains uncertain.

The vulnerability of large ships has been a concern since the demonstrations of Billy Mitchell in the 1920s. A satisfactory answer is yet to appear, and it seems some navies prefer to ignore the problem.

Given their vulnerability and incredible cost, supercarriers and medium aircraft carriers may become increasingly rare.

How can a surface fleet provide itself with air-cover? How will air-support be provided to amphibious operations? How will airborne anti-submarine threats be suppressed? Using land-based air forces to support ships encounters the problems of a finite range and loiter time.

A possible answer may be the use of multiple, smaller aircraft carriers, perhaps in the 10,000 to 20,000 ton class. Smaller carriers will probably need to utilize V/STOL aircraft, UAVs and long-range missile systems. These vessels may be of a size that each only carries a dozen fixed and/or rotary wing aircraft.

The lost of one or two such vessels to a force will be less significant than the elimination of a single supercarrier. Of course, budgetary constraints may mean a force has only one or two small carriers to begin with.

It is possible that small carriers could be easily and economically produced by conversion of large civilian vessels.

Alternately, a common hull design that could be configured as either an LPD or SCS might be created.

Combat Containers

The increasing costs and vulnerability of surface combatant vessels may see some navies making increased use of adapted civilian hulls for certain roles.

A modern escort vessel only needs to move as fast as the vessels it escorts. It no longer needs to chase-down U-boats and drop depth charges over them. A modern ASW vessel will use UCAVs, missiles, homing torpedoes and rockets.

There is a long history of passenger liners being used as troop-ships.

During the Second World War the Japanese, British and US Navies converted civilian vessels into escort carriers and merchant aircraft carriers.

After the Falklands war, a concept called the Shipborne Containerized Air-Defense System (SCADS) proposed a modular system to quickly convert large RORO or container ships into an emergency aircraft carriers with ski jump, fuelling systems, radar, defensive missiles, munitions, crew quarters, and work spaces. The entire system could be installed in about 48 hours.

Naval warfare systems have advanced since the 1980s, so the concept is worth examining again.

Various missile systems and other military systems mounted in ISO containers have been proposed.

Such ISO-mounted systems have an obvious potential for converting civilian hulls into combat vessels.

Configuration and role could be customized or rapidly altered by changing containers in a similar manner to the capability offered by the Danish Stanflex system. Replacement of damaged or malfunctioning container modules would also facilitate rapid repairs and return to mission.

Such a policy may introduce an element of mimesis into naval operations. It will be harder for an enemy to quickly ascertain which ships are armed, and what their capabilities may be.

Back to the Scrapboard

By the Author of the Scrapboard :

Attack, Avoid, Survive: Essential Principles of Self Defence

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Crash Combat Second Edition with additional content.
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