Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Evolving Threat

It’s occasionally instructive to look at the nature of the threats the Navy faces and how they have evolved over time.

During the Cold War, the threats were fairly well defined.  The Navy faced primarily a submarine threat augmented by a reasonably robust aviation based cruise missile threat.  Soviet subs were numerous, seemingly everywhere, lethal, and rapidly improving in performance and quieting.  In response, the Navy developed and refined ASW tactics and practiced them in the real world on a continuous basis.  Likewise, the Soviet long range bombers (Tu-XX) carrying cruise missiles constituted a serious if somewhat intermittent threat.  In response, the Navy developed Aegis, Tomcats, and a variety of AAW tactics to deal with the threat.  Again, the Navy practiced those countermeasures in the real world and on a continuous basis.

Well, the Soviet Union is gone (notwithstanding Putin’s efforts to resurrect it) so how have the threats evolved?  Here are the main threats from each of the likely enemy countries.

China – Mines constitute the main threat to the Navy.  China is believed to have hundreds of thousands of mines and the regional geography lends itself to numerous chokepoints, ideal for the employment of mines.  Combined with the Navy’s near absence of effective MCM, mines are clearly the major threat to Navy operations in the A2/AD zone. 

A secondary threat is anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.  China’s missiles are lethal although their effectiveness is compromised by a lack of long range targeting capability.  The media-famous DF-21 ballistic missile, the “carrier killer”, is the prime example of this.  It is a missile that, on paper, is quite lethal but, in reality, is quite limited by an inability to provide effective targeting.

A lesser but growing threat is China’s submarines.  While currently few in number and questionable in effectiveness, the submarine fleet is growing rapidly and the quality is improving steadily.

Iran – The restricted waters around Iran make mines the biggest threat to the Navy.  A secondary threat is land launched anti-ship cruise missiles.  The small craft swarm threat is only a threat prior to the outbreak of all-out hostilities.  After that, US aircraft can quickly deal with small craft.

North Korea – NK has nothing that constitutes a realistic and effective threat to the Navy.  Yes, they have a few small and mini-subs but while those might threaten an individual ship, they do not threaten the Navy as an operating force.  Mines could be a threat but it is unlikely that the Navy would seek to operate in any area suitable for mining (meaning that amphibious assaults into NK would be unlikely).

Russia – The main threat to the Navy is aviation.  Russia has large numbers of capable, modern aircraft of all types.  Mitigating this threat is the fact that AAW is the Navy’s strength. 

The Russian submarine threat is real but the available numbers are insufficient to constitute a major threat although this may change if Russia continues to rebuild its sub fleet.

What do we learn from this?

We see that mines are, far and away, the most serious threat the Navy faces.  With this realization, it is inexplicable that the Navy has allowed their MCM capability to atrophy almost to the point of non-existence and certainly to the point of near total ineffectiveness.  Consider that if an enemy such as China or Russia were to lay even a token amount of mines in a couple of US harbors, the Navy would have insufficient MCM resources to clear and maintain the homeland harbors while simultaneously clearing tens of thousands of mines from overseas operational areas.

We also see that since the Cold War ended we have seen a shift away from constant, real world practice of tactics to today’s situation where realistic tactics are only occasionally exercised.  We have lost our tactical proficiency through lack of practice.  Contrast the Cold War era Spruances that conducted actual ASW tactics against Soviet subs on a daily basis versus today’s Burkes that conduct a scripted ASW exercise once a year, if that.  It’s no wonder that the Spruances were the most effective ASW vessel the Navy ever had.  Of course, the same applies to the Los Angeles class ASW effectiveness versus today’s Virginias.

Recognizing the threats, what is the Navy focused on?  Presumably, it would be MCM.  Instead, it is AAW (Aegis) and ballistic missile defense (BMD).  While there is certainly a need for AAW, the almost total focus on AAW to the exclusion of MCM and ASW is, frankly, baffling.  Further, BMD, today’s pet focus of the Navy, is arguably not even most effectively performed by ships and, if it is, may well be better performed by a dedicated BMD vessel or a combination of a dedicated radar and fire control vessel that simiply uses Burkes as shooters.

Thus, the Navy’s developmental and tactical path seems not to be in sync with the threats we face.  We need to stop our haphazard procurement programs and PR type training exercises and start getting serious about growing to the actual threats.


  1. Nice piece, serious subject.

    Mines are a funny subject. Really they can only be used to temporarily deny access.

    Even with just 10 MCM it is just a matter of time ( assuming you have air ASW and ASuW areas covered ) until they can open a corridor.

    This can seriously hamper your efforts. But mines aren’t going to win you any wars. And laying them exposed your assets to attack, so you’re not easily going to be mining Norfolk harbours.

    Where mines come into their own is in amphibious landing, where you just can’t hang about all day.

    So what you’re talking about here is an enemy’s ability to resist Assault right ?

    To this end we can consider the massive proliferation of SSK, excellent in shallow coastal waters and choke point, and much more of an aggressive threat than the mines they may well be laying.

    Their use in Blue water is let’s just say debatable.

    USN ASW bothers me the most therefor.

    And if we consider SSN with its reach and capability this could be a critical issue. (As the natural counter to a CNV is an SSN)

    I’m interested in you saying most Burkes just get a scripted yearly drill. I was under the impression USN ships regally took part in NATO North Sea exercises hunting the best Germany and Norway have to offer ?

    1. Ben, to repeat the famous quote, the seat of purpose is on the land. Mines are not terribly effective at hindering ships on the open ocean unless you can predict where they will be/go (like navigational chokepoints which the South and East China Seas are full of - hmm). On the other hand, ships cruising randomly around in the open ocean aren't particularly effective at influencing events ashore (the seat of purpose), cruise missiles notwithstanding. In order to influence events on land, ships generally need to approach land to conduct amphibious assaults, air strikes, blockades, boardings, fire support for ground forces, etc. Given that the enemy can fairly reliably predict where the areas of interest on land are, mines can be laid in the areas where the ships must approach/pass.

      I'm not sure you appreciate just how slow mine hunting is and how few MCM resources the USN has. The rate of advance of the LCS MCM is around a square mile per day. Ships drift faster than that!

      We can do sweeps that are faster but they're also far less thorough. Are you willing to bet a $14B Ford carrier on a navigation lane that has been swept "fairly" clear?

      As an historical sidenote, you may recall that during Desert Storm the Marines faked an amphibious assault that was credited with tying down Iraq divisions. What you may not know is that the feint was never a real threat because of the mine threat. The Navy assessed that it could not reliably clear the mines in the area. The feint was, originally, intended to be an actual assault but was relegated to a fake due to the mine threat.

  2. Interesting. I didnt know that.

    I dont know many details of the LCS MCM capabilities. The pump jet and hull form arnt going to be quiet. And the metal hull is going to set off magnetic influence. The laser helo thing didnt really pan out. Do we know what is working ?

    Last i heard they were thinking about SeaFox i think ?

  3. As a Chinese military watcher for the better side of eight years now, I can't say I've seen any major Chinese naval exercises involving offensive mine warfare as a central component, nor any major articles or studies touting them as a central key component of the Chinese Navy's strategy against the USN. And even if mines are a key part of Chinese Naval strategy, it's not like they can effectively pepper them out up to 1000km from the Chinese mainland -- any closer and USN carriers can still conduct missions. Not to mention mine warfare also poses limitations of movement on China's own naval forces. Mines would be very useful in a Taiwan contingency to mine the ROCN's naval bases, but that's about it.

    IMO, if one wants to assess "evolving threats" to the USN in any China context, it is impossible to divorce air power and long range missiles from naval vulnerability. Air superiority is still king in the western pacific, and the ability to control swathes of sky to position your ISR assets (UAVs, MPAs, and AEW&C etc) will provide a massive boost for either side in a naval confrontation via providing targeting information... so therefore the ability to contest the air against opposing fighter aircraft, and long range land attack capabilities to prevent opposing aircraft from taking off, are arguably the most important things to look out for.

    I.e.: the Chinese military's growing capability in fighter aircraft, strike aircraft, as well as AEW&C, EW and SIGINT planes, and long range missile forces (LACMs, conventional IRBMs) should be among the most "upstream" concerns for US's pacific forces, and the US navy as well, as that battle will determine who gets the starting advantage in a naval war.

    1. Rick, you might want to review the Gulf "Tanker Wars" and the effect that mining had on both commercial and naval operations. Remember, it only takes a single mine anywhere in your operational area to reduce an Admiral to a quivering mess. No one will risk a $12B carrier against "just a few mines".

      Can you imagine the panic that would ensure if a Chinese sub (or any other delivery system) managed to plant even a single mine in a US harbor? The harbor would be shut down and every MCM asset we have (all twelve of them) would be recalled. Then, we'd not only have to thoroughly sweep the affected harbor but every other harbor against the possibility, however unlikely, that they were mined as well.

      The psychological impact of mines on operations is every bit as great as the physical impact on a ship.

      Finally, consider the natural chokepoints that abound throughout the first island chain. Mining those points would effectively halt any US naval movement into or out of the area. Again, only a handful of mines would suffice and China has thousands.

    2. Well... even if a Chinese sub is somehow able to mine a USN naval base undetected, that does not prevent the USN from still being able to operate supercarriers to attack the Chinese mainland from open water where mines are far less effective, say 1000km away. The USN isn't exactly going to be sailing a CSG or SAG into a natural chokepoint anyway.

      Not to mention the sheer number of USN destroyers and cruisers that can be loaded with VL tomahawks, means they can also fire off a load of ordnance against Chinese targets from over 2000km away. Hell, technically even if a naval task group is trapped in a naval base in the westpac, if they're armed with VL tomahawks, they are still quite combat effective.

      There's no doubt that mines could impose a significant complication against USN operations, but I think you're overestimating the ease to which the Chinese could set mines in an undetected way, and overestimating the detrimental effect that the threat of mines would impose against useful USN operations against the PLA -- mostly because the USN doesn't even need to venture into the first island chain to contribute to an air-naval war.

    3. Unfortunately that would probably be about as far as an F18 could reach in a Air-to-air role... So it's not going to carry bombs that far...

    4. I agree that we need more and better MCM, but I am curious: If China mined all the nearby chokepoints, wouldn't they cut off most of their own trade? If an actual invasion of their mainland were imminent, it would be worth it, but that seems unlikely.

      Was Iran not badly affected by mines in the Persian Gulf? I am not sure what their naval trade dependence was at the time. In their case, you can picture scenarios of invasion of their mainland, which is a much more realistic fear than the Chinese would have. They would temporarily shut down sea trade to save their skins.

  4. "A lesser but growing threat is China’s submarines. While currently few in number and questionable in effectiveness, the submarine fleet is growing rapidly and the quality is improving steadily."


    USN currently has only slightly more total subs (72) than China (67). However - 10 of our boats are SSBNs versus only 6 SSB/Ns for China. These wouldn't play much of role in tactical fight, so subtracting them out narrows margin even further (USN: 62, PLAN 61).

    Now consider that any fight would likely be much closer to Chinese mainland than US and one can surmise that China will likely have a significant advantage in numbers due to shorter transit times.

    Quality is a conditional statement. The modern diesels which make up a large proportion of PLAN are arguably as capable/stealthy as an SSN in the right water column.

    All that being said, our ASW forces (P-8A, MH-60Rs, DDG) are much more capable of countering PLAN submarine force than the reverse. And at least on the air side, ASW training has picked up quite a bit since leaving Iraq/Afghanistan. Overland ISR is less in demand.

    Note that if Japan's ASW forces are added to a potential conflict - things look even worse for the PLAN. Japan is very, very good at ASW.

    1. The 72 USN boats include 14 SSBNs not 10. So the correct ratio of "tactical" boats is 58 to 61 in PLAN favor.

  5. How good are the Chinese at minehunting/minesweeping? I consider that a more important question.

    V/R TA

    1. China is much more vulnerable to mining than US. Most of their energy comes via maritime.

      Building a US offensive minelaying capability (via air or submarine) should be a priority.

    2. As Murphy said: mines are equal opportunity weapons.

      If China were to attempt a "short, sharp war" vis-à-vis Taiwan, using sea mines as part of an anti-access strategy, they would also be risking their own merchant fleet's access to the global commons. Geography matters. China's maritime approaches are constrained by strategic chokepoints. If they make it troublesome to get in, it will be troublesome to get out.

      Further, because of the geography of the SCS, the US could use mines as part of an Offshore Control strategy, advocated by Dr. T.X. Hammes. As Hammes points out, short, sharp wars against near peers are ahistorical. His theory is widely debated, but the approach seems more logical than trying to blow through mine fields, ASCM, MRBM & SAM rings on day one. Most critics tend to be advocates of expensive penetrating weapons programs.

      Like any SCS conflict, a Hormuz closure would have major global economic impacts. However, since the US is increasing domestic production of oil and China is increasing imports from volatile areas like Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Venezuela, a gulf closure may be more of a vital national interest to China. Would China go to war with Iran if the Strait was closed?

      V/R TA

    3. Anon, I assume you read the recent "Offensive Mine Warfare" post? We no longer have a credible mine laying capability. China has little to fear from us.

      You're correct that we should make offensive mine warfare a priority but there are absolutely no signs of that happening. Hence, my question about why it is important for China to have a MCM capability.

    4. V/R, again, I remind you that the US has no significant offensive mine warfare capability.

      I also note that the Chinese are engaged in a massive oil pipeline project with Russia to bring oil overland from Siberia. Perhaps the Chinese have anticipated the effects of war and are planning for them?

    5. "Can you imagine the panic that would ensure if a Chinese sub (or any other delivery system) managed to plant even a single mine in a US harbor? The harbor would be shut down and every MCM asset we have (all twelve of them) would be recalled. Then, we'd not only have to thoroughly sweep the affected harbor but every other harbor against the possibility, however unlikely, that they were mined as well."

      "The psychological impact of mines on operations is every bit as great as the physical impact on a ship."

      Per you own words, the U.S. doesn't need significant offensive mine capability, just one mine in the AOR will reduce every Chinese admiral to a quivering mess, right?


    6. TA, not quite. The Chinese don't view losses the same way we do. We would do anything to save one man and have done so repeatedly in our history. Our reluctance to get our own personnel killed motivates our fear of mines. To the Chinese, if losing a few ships and thousands of sailors/troops accomplishes an operational goal, that's fine and they wouldn't hesitate to accept the losses. Yes, mines are something for them to factor into their plans but they're hardly the fear that we consider them to be.

      Also, we're risking $14B carriers and multi-billion dollar escorts. They're risking much cheaper ships (though they're on the more expensive curve) and, again, don't consider the risk to be unacceptable like we do. To a large degree, the expense of our ships make them unriskable in combat.

    7. History has shown that American Sailors and Marines will go in harms way when required, and will again.

      Critics said triremes were too expensive to risk. Men of War, ironclads, dreadnaughts, battleships, aircraft carriers...

      By your calculus, we should just disband the military and be assimilated by the superior culture. If we believe every life is sacred, and they will absorb any loss to achieve an operational goal, then there is no way to win.

      CNO - you're suffering from a massive case of occidentalism. Good luck with that.


    8. CNO. I think you are confusing the Chinese with the Borg!!!

      The PLA has zero combat experience since 1976 - so not sure we can project anything regarding their willingness to take casualties.

    9. 1976 should read 1979. Point remains the same - PLA haven't been involved in a shooting war in close to 40 yrs. A lot has changed in Chinese culture since then.

    10. "By your calculus, we should just disband the military and be assimilated by the superior culture. If we believe every life is sacred, and they will absorb any loss to achieve an operational goal, then there is no way to win."

      You need to pay close attention to what I'm saying and do some critical thinking about it. I did not say that the Chinese are immune to cumulative personnel losses. I said that they do not value the individual and thus are much more willing to take losses. They still value the overall unit, as it pertains to accomplishment of goals. However, even there, they'll accept the wholesale loss of units if it achieves the goal. Consider the human wave attacks they used in Korea.

      As far as winning, a couple of things matter to the Chinese that offer us a path to victory. The preservation of the ruling elite is of vital and obvious importance to their leaders. Also, and to repeat, the individual is unimportant but the whole matters. Wholesale loss of life with no corresponding gain will affect their economy and industry just as it would ours. Finally, consider the relationship between industry and military and see if that doesn't suggest a path to victory.

      Feel free to debate the ideas but do so respectfully.

    11. "The PLA has zero combat experience since 1976 - so not sure we can project anything regarding their willingness to take casualties."

      "A lot has changed in Chinese culture since then."

      The Chinese attitude towards the value of the individual has not appreciably changed. Female infanticide has been practiced for 2000 years and has been documented as recently as the late 1990s and probably continues today. Chinese human wave attacks in Korea demonstrate the fundamental attitude towards the individual. You posit that their culture has changed. Have our fundamental beliefs about the value of human life changed since the Korean War? No. Why would you think that a wholesale change in their attitude has occurred?

      One of the flaws in western society is that we tend to view other countries through the lens of our own beliefs. The Chinese must value human life because we do. Well, they don't. To persist in that inaccurate view hobbles us when it comes to international relations and military conflict. We need to recognize reality even if it's repulsive to us.

  6. The question is what will happen in a couple of decades from now?

    - China's economic growth is slowing, but it's likely to overtake the US at some point - probably the US + Japan combined too. It already has in PPP.

    - The LCS might consist of a considerable number of ships in the USN fleet. That does not bode well.

    - It's likely the Ford class, F-35, and new SSBN will be budget busters too, requiring either more money or a reduction in the amount bought.

    - The US economy is also stagnant right now.

    That I think is a huge problem.


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