Worse, in many cases the US doesn’t own the bases it uses and must seek permission to use the bases for staging or supporting actual combat operations. We have seen many instances of “allies” refusing permission for the US to conduct combat operations from foreign bases. What is the point of having a forward base if it’s not available when needed for combat?
Singapore, for example, is unlikely to allow US combat operations in a conflict with China, choosing, instead, to try to walk the narrow path of neutrality.
We see other countries operating small, short ranged vessels and wonder why we can’t do the same. China, for example, operates the excellent Houbei class missile boat which carries an immensely powerful anti-ship missile weapons fit on a very small hull. Iran, NKorea, Russia, and China all operate small, silent, deadly non-nuclear submarines (SSKs). Russia operates several small, powerful corvette/frigate classes.
Why can’t the US operate such vessels? Well, the factor that we overlook is that those countries are operating the vessels in their own home waters, near their own ports. Thus, range, endurance, and ready maintenance support is not an issue. In contrast, the US operates on a forward deployed basis, generally far from friendly bases. Small vessels have limited range and endurance. For example, if a small missile boat has an endurance of one week and it takes 4 days to get from the nearest base to the operating area and the same to return, there’s no operating time left for the actual patrol.
So, if forward bases are not the solution or, at best, only an occasional or peacetime solution, what alternative is there? The answer comes from our dim and distant past and is, of course, motherships. Motherships, or tenders as they were referred to in WWII, were commonly used in times gone by but have been abandoned by the Navy over the last few decades.
During WWII, tenders were used to support PT boats, submarines, and destroyers, among other applications.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the WWII tenders and refresh our memories about their functions and capabilities.
Dixie Class (AD) – This was a five ship class of destroyer tender built during the pre and early war years. USS Dixie (AD-14), for example, spent 1942-1944 supporting operations in the Solomons before moving to Ulithi during late 1944 and early 1945 and then finishing the war at Leyte.
|Dixie Class Destroyer Tender|
Otus Class (AS-20 / ARG-20) – This was a single ship class built as a submarine tender in 1940 and later reclassified as an internal combustion engine repair ship near the end of the war. Otus operated across the Pacific, as needed, and provided submarine, mine, and small craft tender services as well as engine repair. She received one battle star.
USS Argonne (AS-10) – The Navy operated several submarine tenders during WWII though not a purpose built class. Argonne was typical of the type of commercial or general ship obtained by the Navy and converted for use as a tender. The ship operated in the Solomons, Palaus, Leyte, and the Marshalls.
We see, then, that the Navy has operated both purpose built tenders and tenders converted from commercial vessels. There is no reason why the same couldn’t be done today. Tenders are not combat vessels and could be built to non-military standards based on cheap commercial vessels. Alternatively, existing commercial vessels could be easily and economically converted.
The Navy operates squadrons of Cyclones and MCM vessels which could greatly benefit from tenders in terms of time on station. The LCS has always been intended to operate in squadrons although what the Navy intends to do with them now is anyone’s guess since they have no useful mission modules. Tenders would also open up the possibility of acquiring and using SSKs.
Aside from the obvious benefits of tenders in terms of support, replenishment, repair, and maintenance, tenders can be repositioned as needed which allows flexible locating of operational areas.
Motherships are also highly useful for supporting mine countermeasure operations. This application is obvious enough that I won’t bother describing it.
Currently, the Navy has the Afloat Forward Staging Base ship which could be a mothership, though it seems a bit oversized, but seems to have no actual, specific use for it.
The Navy is so fixated on building the high end, ‘sexy’ ships that it is ignoring the various auxiliary ships that are the actual backbone of any fleet. Motherships/tenders are a force-multiplier, allowing other types of vessels to operate effectively in forward areas. We need to abandon of obsession with multi-billion dollar ships and begin building the support ships that will actually keep the fleet operating in war.