Defense News website has what I’m sure they believe is an eye-opening article about the Navy not having enough escorts for convoys in future wars. (1) I have no doubt that the article will cause a brief sensation and then fade into the realm of the forgotten as all such eye-opening revelations do. Before it fades, however, commentators will, no doubt bemoan the state of the Navy and suggest that we have no hope of winning a future war.
Here … read this quote from the article. You can’t help but be alarmed, right?
“The Navy has been candid enough with Military Sealift Command and me that they will probably not have enough ships to escort us. It’s: ‘You’re on your own; go fast, stay quiet,’” Buzby [Mark Buzby, the retired rear admiral who now leads the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration] told Defense News … (1)
This sounds like just the kind of thing that ComNavOps will jump on, right? Wrong. I have zero interest in the fact that the Navy does not have enough escorts for convoys. What’s more, the lack of escorts is meaningless and – hold on to your hats for this – probably a good thing. Wait, what now?! How can a lack of convoy escorts be meaningless and a good thing?
Well, military observers and commentators have a consistent problem with their analyses and that is that they analyze from the perspective of being able to wage an instantaneous, full on war from day one. If we don’t have all the escorts we need on day one then the Navy has failed. If we don’t have all the minesweepers and minelayers we need on day one then the Navy has failed. If we don’t have all the logistics support auxiliaries we need on day one then the Navy has failed. If we don’t have all the cargo/transport ships we need on day one then the Navy/Merchant Marine has failed. And so on.
The reality is that no one has all the things they need for a war on day one. It takes time to gear up for war. Factories need to convert to war production. People need to be inducted and trained. Ships, tanks, and aircraft need to be built.
We know the Navy had thousands of ships in WWII but what did the Navy start the war with? Let’s look at, say, 1935 which was just before we began the gradual build up to war (by 1935 it was obvious that war was coming and the US began a slow build up).
Mine Warfare 26
If you subtract the ‘Patrol’ ships, whatever those are, which are probably not combat vessels, we had only 297 ships.
A 297 ship Navy??? That’s nowhere near enough to fight a full on war! That’s nowhere near enough escorts for all the convoys! All is lost! We can’t win a war with that Navy! … … Except that we did.
It just took time to build up. By 1944 we had over 6000 ships in the Navy and every convoy had escorts.
The lesson is clear. The lack of escorts, today, is meaningless. We’ll build what we need, when we need it.
In fact, the lack of escorts is probably a good thing because it means we aren’t wasting ships, crews, and budget on a task that doesn’t exist.
Now, there are some aspects to this that I will jump on.
Shipyards – The most important aspect of this is our lack of shipyards. Before WWII we had dozens of shipyards which meant we had the capacity to quickly build whatever we lacked when we entered the war. The same applies to factories. We’ve sent so much of our production capacity overseas that we may lack the factory capacity to build the required tanks, aircraft, munitions, etc. This is a very serious issue and is one that the nation should be addressing as a strategic national interest.
Institutional Knowledge – One of the responsibilities of the military/Navy should be to maintain institutional knowledge about operations, tactics, and capabilities that we may not use frequently but which we can anticipate needing when war comes. Escort tactics is an example. When was the last time you heard of the Navy training to escort a merchant convoy? The answer is never. How many escorts do we need for a given convoy? How should they be deployed to counter modern air and subsurface threats? What kind of command and control structure is needed? I have no idea (understandable) but neither does the Navy (unforgivable).
It’s not a problem that we don’t have all the escorts we need for a war but it is a problem that we don’t maintain a small group of dedicated ships that train constantly for the escort role so as to provide a fully competent training cadre when the need arises.
Simplicity – Gearing up when war comes is greatly facilitated by being able to build things that are relatively basic and simple. An F6F Hellcat, for example, is a lot easier to build quickly and in large quantity than and F-35. This is not to suggest that we revert to Hellcats but we should factor complexity into our design criteria. In other words, a state of the art but relatively simpler fighter aircraft that we can build quickly, in large numbers, might well be a better choice than an F-35 that we’ve been trying to build for decades and still can’t get right. Alternatively, we might consider a slightly second tier aircraft that can be quickly mass produced as a supplement to the overly complex front line aircraft.
Specifically, for the escort issue, we currently lack a suitable, simple, general purpose escort vessel that we can quickly mass produce when war comes. We don’t really want to have to use front line, multi-billion dollar Aegis vessels to conduct routine convoy escort where, 95% of the time, nothing happens. There’s nothing wrong with attaching a Burke to a convoy that we anticipate is likely to encounter the enemy but most convoys will not fall into that category. A simple corvette/destroyer escort type vessel is needed. We should have a few such vessels in service in order to maintain the design, train, develop tactics, and test new equipment (see, Institutional Knowledge, above).
|Convoy Escort - WWII Flower Class Corvette|
While I have no problem with the Navy’s current lack of escorts for merchant convoys, I have a severe problem with the Navy’s utter indifference to the issue. Simply telling the Military Sealift Command and various merchant groups, ‘You’re on your own; go fast, stay quiet,’ is not the answer. The answer is to maintain a small group of escorts for training and competency, have a simple ship design that can be quickly produced, and have a plan to build, train, and man those ships when the time comes.
Unfortunately, the Navy is so focused on big, shiny, expensive hulls that they completely ignore the mundane. Well, I’ve got news for the Navy – unless those mundane convoys get through, those big, shiny, fancy new Fords are going to grind to a halt for lack of parts, fuel, munitions, food, etc.
Laughing off the convoy escort issue with a ‘go fast’ admonition is irresponsible and dereliction of duty. This is yet another example of CNO Richardson’s failure of command.
(1)Defense News website, “‘You’re on your own’:
sealift can’t count on Navy escorts
in the next big war”, David B. Larter, US 10-Oct-2018,