Recent posts and discussions about Hughes small combatants and The New Navy Fighting Machine (NNFM) have inspired a lot of conversation about so-called green water combatants. These are small ships of a few to several hundred tons, depending on the particular version under consideration, and generally heavily armed, for their size, with missiles and guns. Unit costs are typically estimated as being very low, perhaps unrealistically so.
Now, before anyone starts typing out a reply purporting to show that Elbonia can build supercarriers for $19.95 or whatever your favorite example of a small combatant and the associated country is, remember that trying to obtain true cost numbers for US ships is virtually impossible and trying to compare costs between countries is pointless for a host of reasons. Further, it doesn’t matter what Elbonia can build ships for – it only matters what the
can and the US Navy has not demonstrated the ability to build anything cheaply. US
Moving on … The NNFM document offers this general description of small, green water combatants.
“Coastal combatants are heavily armed, but small enough to accept affordable losses. They should operate in tactical formations of two, four, eight, or twelve vessels. They carry no surveillance aircraft, so depend on CVLs or shore-based reconnaissance. They have small crews in combat and when put out of action the crew is expected to abandon, rather than try to save, the ship, and to be rescued by other vessels. They might team with friendly forces in constricted waters where the large blue water ships should not be put at risk, for example, operating from Turkey or Romania in the Black Sea, from Sweden or Denmark in the Baltic, from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait in the Arabian Gulf, from the west coast of South Korea in the Yellow Sea, or Colombia or Panama in the Caribbean.
They can serve as an advance force to screen blue water ships conducting amphibious operations, or protecting MSC (Military Sealift Command) or MARAD ships delivering men and materials that might be attacked while entering a friendly port.”
Well, that’s a pretty decent description of the kinds of uses proponents envision for them. The problem is that most discussion of green water combat is conceptual and fails to incorporate any realistic assessment of threats. By that I mean that the discussion describes the theoretical abilities of the ship without questioning whether there is any likelihood that those capabilities would actually be needed. For instance, stationing ships in the waters of
or Sweden or Denmark or Colombia or Panama or wherever glosses over the fact that it is highly unlikely that any combat would there that would be appropriate for such a vessel. Philippines
Consider the likely near term (because the vessel’s would have relatively short life spans) scenarios.
Consider escort duties - supposedly another likely scenario. Under what circumstance would ships need escort but only from a low level threat? High level threats would necessitate high level escorts. The escort scenario devolves into an anti-piracy type of role which any vessel with a machine gun can do. It wouldn’t require a specialized green water combatant.
The NNFM suggested the need for host country basing for the green water fleet. OK, that’s reasonable but what friendly country (friendly enough to grant us basing rights) is likely to be attacked by a low level threat that would justify stationing green water combatants there?
In short, the likely conflicts and proposed uses do not offer a reasonable real world green water combat scenario.
Now, this does not say that there would be absolutely no use for a small number of green water vessels but they would be used in peacetime patrol roles and certainly would not justify shifting the emphasis of the US Navy to a green water focus as the NNFM suggests. I find the NNFM’s green water emphasis to be conceptually and generically valid but devoid of demonstrable real world need.
If you want to debate this with me (and you know you do!), tell me what real world location you’d send green water combatants to and what real world threat they would be countering. Hey, I’m open to the concept if it serves a real purpose. If you think you have one, tell me. I’ll acknowledge it if it’s valid.