One of the common suggestions that I encounter is the need for a sea control ship. This is one of those concepts whose definition, and therefore capabilities and requirements, depends on the person bringing it up. Everyone seems to have a different definition.
The original sea control concept was derived from the convoy escort mission and consisted of a helo carrier which would provide continuous ASW presence. Around 14 helos on the ship would ensure that a couple were always airborne.
Sea control as often discussed today has evolved to include anti-surface and medium range anti-air in addition to the original ASW role. Some even credit a sea control ship with a Marine complement for limited land operations. The sea control ship most commonly described is a small hybrid carrier with a combination of fixed wing aircraft (Harriers, originally, and now F-35Bs) and helos with, perhaps, some AEW aircraft depending on who’s proposing the idea.
The Navy has experimented with the idea in the past. The USS Guam was set up as a sea control vessel for a time. Other countries have also experimented with the concept. Notably, the Japanese have developed the helicopter destroyer (DDH) and the Soviets developed the Moskva class which combined a bit of a cruiser with an ASW helo carrier.
A sea control ship is one of those ideas that sounds good on paper but may not be worth it in reality.
Let’s consider its function. All sea control concepts seem to have ASW as the core function with the major capability being provided by helos. Fair enough. Now let’s think through the ship’s usage in a war against a peer.
A helo carrier is not going to have much in the way of AAW protection other than RAM type short range self-defense weapons. That means that in combat it would either need to be defended by more capable ships (a Burke, presumably) or relegated to peripheral combat areas that would not expect to see major enemy activity.
An escort is feasible but removes a highly capable vessel from other duty. On the other hand, a Burke is, theoretically, ASW capable. I say theoretically because Navy destroyers do not practice ASW enough to be proficient. Still, a helo carrier and a Burke or two acting as a hunter-killer group is not a bad idea if we have enough Burkes to devote to this. Presumably, this kind of group would be effective protecting approaches to other naval groups or attempting to deny known enemy submarine transit routes or operational areas.
Without an escort, a helo carrier would be relegated to peripheral activities such as protecting distant sea lanes or sitting on chokepoints. Is this a worthwhile activity? A carrier, even a smaller helo carrier is still very expensive to build, man, and operate. If we think we can get enough benefit for the low risk then it would be worth it. On the other hand, if the risk is low it’s probably because the possibility of reward is also low.
Finally, let’s look at the more modern definition of sea control. Some people advocate a sea control vessel that is a jack of all trades. It would have fixed wing aircraft (F-35B) and helos, anti-ship missiles, and at least medium range area AAW. Frankly, I’m not sure what role such a ship would play in major combat. It would be like an aviation frigate: capable of lots of tasks but incapable of anything serious on its own. It could operate with a carrier group but would be redundant since a carrier has its own ASW helos. It could operate with an amphibious group but an amphibious group would always have a carrier supporting it so, again, it would be redundant. It might be useful as a convoy escort which, of course, is what the modern frigate was intended to be.
|Notional Sea Control Ship|
Considering the various options and scenarios, it seems as if the Japanese DDH might be the best implementation of this concept. If so, that’s not exactly the sea control concept. Instead, it’s more of a focused ASW vessel.
The very idea of a sea control ship during war is on of those concepts that is appealing when considered in isolation but fails to stand up to rigorous analysis. Proponents envision a sea control ship staking out a patch of ocean and then destroying enemy patrol craft and submarines. Voila, a secured patch of ocean at a fraction of the cost of a carrier group!
Now, let’s apply some analytical thinking to that concept. Can a sea control ship fight an enemy destroyer similar to a Burke? No. That’s not even remotely realistic. Can it fight fast attack craft (anti-ship missile boats/FAC)? Under the right circumstances, possibly. A helo, armed for anti-ship missions, can certainly defeat a FAC since very few FACs have any significant AAW capability. However, the FACs generally far outrange the detection limits of a sea control ship’s sensors. For example, the Chinese Type 022 (Houbei) missile boat carries C-80X anti-ship missiles that have a range of 60-200 miles, depending on the missile type. A sea control ship’s onboard sensors would have an effective range out to the horizon (20 miles, say). Of course, the ship’s helos could extend that range but every helo dedicated to surveillance is a helo subtracted from the ASW mission.
So, yes, if a sea control ship were willing to partially or completely sacrifice its ASW mission, it could detect and effectively attack FACs. Of course, ASW is the foundation mission for a sea control ship so detracting from that mission is a risky proposition.
Now, what about when the sea control ship is detected by the enemy and faces aerial attack from aircraft and/or missiles. The ship’s defenses would be limited to short range or point defense (RAM, most likely). This is completely inadequate for AAW. Some people argue for a sea control ship with a sizable fixed wing aviation component (F-35B, presumably). Of course, once you upsize the ship to carry both a large helo and fixed wing component, you’re no longer talking about a sea control ship – you’re now talking about a nearly full size carrier which has been proven to be almost as costly to build, man, and operate as a supercarrier but without the full size carrier’s capacities and capabilities. So, sticking with a small to moderate size sea control vessel, we see that it is completely vulnerable to air attack. An escort, such as a Burke, could be provided but, again, that takes the Burkes away from their other high end tasks and negates the very rationale of the sea control ship which is that it can free up high end ships for high end tasks. We could add VLS cells to provide a medium range AAW capability but, again, that increases the size of the ship for what would be a very modest increase in AAW.
What about ASW, the foundation mission for a sea control ship? A sea control ship with a handful of ASW helos would be as effective as a surface ship can be and, in the right scenario, could be a useful and effective asset. The problem is that helos are notoriously unreliable and high maintenance. Thus, you need several helos in order to maintain a few in continuous operation. That’s fine – inefficient but fine. Such a sea control ship sitting atop chokepoints or transit routes could prove highly effective at controlling enemy submarine activity. Recall, though, that in order to protect itself from enemy FACs the ship would have to dedicate several helos to surveillance which would not leave enough helos available for effective ASW. Unless we postulate a very much larger ship (
class size), a sea control ship just can’t carry enough helos for both
the surveillance/counter FAC mission and ASW, simultaneously. America
All of this leads us to the conclusion that a sea control ship is not an effective or efficient concept for war unless we’re willing to dedicate one or more high end Burke escorts for its protection. If we have sufficient Burkes then this becomes a viable concept. If not, it isn’t. This also suggests that a lesser Burke, say a modern frigate, might be a viable escort although the Navy currently has no plans to acquire a frigate.
Thus, the sea control ship, with ASW as its primary mission, is appealing in concept but fails when one considers the details of wartime employment unless a high end escort is provided.