There are certain enduring naval debates such as large carriers versus small carriers. One of these debates is the value of small missile boats versus large multi-function vessels. The leading proponent of the missile boat is Captain Wayne Hughes Jr., USN(Ret.). He has literally written the book on the subject.
To summarize, his contention is that naval combat power is better distributed among many small vessels (the missile boat) than concentrated in fewer and larger vessels (Burkes, for example). A mathematical model has been developed which factors in the various characteristics of naval warfare such as offensive power, defensive power, damage resistance, numbers of vessels, etc. The model clearly shows that the single most valuable characteristic of a naval fleet is numbers.
It is a major irony that Capt. Hughes theories are simultaneously undisputed and unaccepted. The model results are what they are. There’s no disputing them. What can be disputed, however, are the underlying assumptions that go into the model. To repeat a saying as old as computers, “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data or assumptions are flawed then the results will also be flawed even if they are mathematically correct.
|Chinese Houbei Missile Boat - Distributed Power|
Is the Hughes model flawed? I believe so. For starters, the model is based on the assumption of fleet versus fleet. It only loosely takes into account air power, for example. Consider the contention of distributed power (small boats) versus centralized (Burkes). While the salvo model reasonably models the surface versus surface action and associated factors, it does not really account for air power. The lowly helo, or any other form of air power, would be essentially 100% effective against any number of missile boats since they have no AAW capability. In contrast, a Burke would offer a significant defensive capability against air power. So, the model suggests that missile boats are the preferred force structure but a consideration of air power suggests the opposite.
Or, consider the effect of scouting. The model considers scouting but in a generic way. As such, the model predicts the value of numbers and dispersion when evaluated against a generic scouting factor. However, the model does not consider the impact of modern satellite systems, over-the-horizon radars, ESM dectection, and other scouting methods on the pre-combat scenario. If the missile boats can be tracked before they ever get into the area of operations then they are just another drone target exercise for the defenders.
One of the central implications of Hughes’ model is that the enemy who faces a distributed fleet (missile boats) faces a dilemma – does the enemy radiate to find the distributed forces and thereby reveal his own location or does he remain silent and risk detection and destruction by the distributed force. What is not considered is the third option which is to remain silent and let air, space, or subsurface assets do the detecting.
Another example… The model does not really take into account the impact of an area AAW capable ship which can extend and provide its level of defense to the ships around it. Further, CEC (cooperative engagement) effects are not accounted for.
One more … Electronic warfare is not factored except in a generic way such as an improved defensive “rating”. Things like deception and misdirection via decoys and false signals can have a huge impact on the conduct of a battle and yet are unaccounted for. Small craft have little or no capabilities to wage this type of combat.
Finally, the model deals only with the actual combat portion of the force structure issue. It does not address seakeeping, range, endurance, support requirements, refueling, supply, or any other issues that strongly influence ship type selection. The small missile boats are just “there” at the start of the battle in the model. How they got there, or even whether they’re capable of getting there over vast distances and through heavy weather, is not addressed. The combat model may suggest that small vessels are useful but the logistics and other issues may (or may not) preclude their use and this is not addressed.
Study of Hughes’ model quickly reveals that the model is very simplistic which is ideal for grasping basics or performing quick and dirty analyses, however, it falls well short of simulating actual combat involving the full range of combat assets and effects. The model is equivalent to an introductory exposure to modeling and tactics. It’s a good starting point for further, in-depth study but is not the end point. To be fair, Hughes makes no claim that his model is a full featured simulation. It is his supporters that have taken the model’s results and run with them beyond the model’s capabilities.
So, what is the takeaway form this discussion? Hughes model is too simplistic to be an authoritative answer to any question of force structure. Thus, the conclusion that distributed forces are the preferred force structure is a suspect conclusion. The model offers suggestive conclusions that merit further investigation but far more factors need to be accounted for. We have, therefore, a model which is undisputed but, because of the limitations, unaccepted and rightfully so. A more distributed force structure may well be desirable but the model does not prove it.