We talk about individual weapons and sensors but almost always in isolation. The more important question is how will the overall ships perform? The Navy is experimenting with independent surface action groups. How will they perform in combat? What will happen when they meet an enemy surface action group? Let’s have a little fun and speculate about future naval combat. Specifically, what is a future naval surface battle going to look like?
Well, at one end of the predictive spectrum, it may be a combined arms action with airborne, satellite, and subsurface surveillance contributing to the situational awareness and various air, land, and sea networked forces unleashing an exquisitely timed concentration of firepower on the opposing force – at least, that’s the Navy’s rosy view.
At the other end of the spectrum, the opposing naval forces will be operating under a no man’s sky with only sporadic, if any, surveillance available and few, if any, other forces available for added firepower when the two “blind” forces stumble across each other, since all other forces will be tied up with their own, immediate concerns while the opposing air forces hammer back and forth at each other, largely uncaring about the naval situation beneath them, until they can establish aerial supremacy – at least, that’s ComNavOps’ and history’s realistic view.
So what happens when these two forces meet? What will the resulting battle look like?
Let’s start by stipulating that the surface forces will consist of a few to several destroyer type ships, typical of modern navies.
Each side will have the same type of short range UAVs that may offer some “early” detection. We’ll assume that both sides simultaneously detect each other at around 30-50 miles distance.
An anti-ship missile exchange will ensue. Of course, the US Navy has no anti-ship missile, currently, but we’ll assume that this hypothetical battle occurs far enough in the future that the USN has the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) or an equivalent. Neither side will have enough anti-ship missiles (ASM) to overwhelm the other’s defenses. The ships will have a relative handful of ASM’s each, unsupported by any electronic support or penetration aids. The ASM’s will be going up against the other side’s Aegis-type defenses. Odds will favor the defenses. One or two ships may be damaged. Perhaps one ship from each side will be mission killed or sunk. This will leave both sides with their anti-ship missile inventories exhausted and their AAW inventories severely depleted. Will the remaining ships choose to use their remaining, precious AAW missiles in the much-hyped anti-ship mode even though they can’t do much damage or will they elect to save them for the AAW role they were intended for since the commanders will have no idea whether the enemy has any anti-ship missiles left? The prudent commander will save his AAW missiles. Thus, we now have two surface forces, largely intact, headed towards each other and out of anti-ship missiles.
Why do I assume that the anti-ship missile exchange will be inconclusive and largely ineffective? After all, aren’t many people scared to death of large, heavy, supersonic missiles? Well, the answer is that the historic database on anti-ship missile effectiveness is pretty bleak (1). Anti-ship missiles have just not proven to be effective in combat and until there is evidence to the contrary, I’ll stick with actual data. Interestingly, there are as many proponents of impenetrable AAW defenses as there are unstoppable anti-ship missiles. One of the two sides is wrong and history says it’s the unstoppable anti-ship missile that is overrated.
What happens next?
Assuming neither side veers off, a naval gun battle is what happens next.
Now, here’s what it could look like.
Both sides have roughly similar naval guns, meaning 5”. Burke class ships have a single 5” gun each. Ticonderogas have two 5” guns. The Type 051C, 052B, and 052C destroyers carry a single 4” (100 mm) gun. The newer Chinese Type 052D destroyer and the upcoming Type 055 destroyer carry a single 5” (130 mm) gun. Interestingly, the older Sovremenny type destroyers carry 4x 5” (130 mm) guns and would offer a significant advantage.
Firing would begin around 12 miles or so with a significant probability of hits occurring around 5 miles.
Structural damage would be light. The 5” gun is not a ship sinker. However, exposed sensors and weapons would be quickly damaged and destroyed. Modern 5” guns are mounted in weatherproof, unarmored housings and, hence, are quite susceptible to shrapnel damage. Guns would be quickly put out of action. Sensors would be quickly damaged and degraded which would significantly decrease the accuracy and rate of fire of the surviving guns. The ships would have to continue closing to make up for the loss of accuracy and the gun battle would devolve into an extremely close affair. Neither side would be able to sink the other’s ships and the result would be individual ships breaking off and withdrawing as casualties mounted and effectiveness diminished. The net result would be a gradual, mutual separation and withdrawal.
What could tip the balance is a couple of lucky, early hits that incapacitate the other side’s guns either via damage/destruction of the guns or damage to the sensors of the fire control systems.
The other aspect to this gun battle that bears discussion is torpedoes. All destroyers carry torpedoes. Both side’s ships typically carry 6 lightweight torpedoes (two triple tube launchers) intended for anti-submarine use but they presumably have an anti-surface mode. The US Navy’s torpedoes have a range of around 6 miles. Presumably, the Chinese and Russian versions are similar. Thus, as the ships close in their gun battle, a second, parallel torpedo exchange could take place. Given the lightness of construction of modern warships (US warships, at any rate – I don’t know about Chinese and Russian ships), torpedo hits, even from lightweight ASW torpedoes, could prove to be the ship sinker weapons that the 5” guns are not. Again, victory could go to the side that achieves the greatest success in the torpedo phase of the battle.
Another aspect that could significantly impact the outcome is the presence of external support. While we ruled that out for the purposes of our scenario, it is fair to note that the
will likely be fighting far from any air or naval
bases and external support will be unlikely.
In contrast, any likely enemy will be fighting in their home waters and
will have an abundance of external support in the region, if not readily
available. Thus, the odds that the enemy
will actually benefit from external support is much greater than the odds that
the US will. That’s
a significant factor to consider as the US heads down the LCS-reliant surface action group
Admittedly, one can reasonably debate my vision of a future naval battle but recognize that it is based on logic and what little actual data there is so if you want to argue, you have to account for the actual data regarding ASM performance and ship construction practices (lack of armor and structural strength, for example). Finally, remember that this is a for-fun mental exercise. Don’t get too twisted up about it!