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.