European naval power requirements (for defence)

Future fleet structure debates often attract a lot of attention.

Some naval power fans simply like to see big or bigger fleets
(U.S. "313 ship navy", discussions about the future Royal Navy size).

Others argue about the high cost of individual ships (of the LCS or DD(X), for example).

Another group discusses the suitability of Western fleets in littoral (coastal) waters - how to combat small boats, for example.

Finally there's the group that raises alarm about the ASW (anti-submarine warfare) weakness of modern surface combatants, especially in regard to modern SSKs.

These groups are mixed, of course - some people got club membership cards for more than one such group.

The public discussion in English language has been saturated with U.S.Navy- and Royal Navy-related discussions, but I'm more interested in the actual needs of Europe - what and how much naval power does Europe as a whole (well, the NATO part) really need?
Most discussion participants look at single national services, rarely at an alliance or continent of co-operating nations as a whole.

Let's look at the likely missions first:

(A) Prevention of invasion
This is a most basic requirement, albeit only if there's actually a water obstacle between friend and foe. This requirement is relevant for Spain, Italy and Greece (and to a much smaller degree for Portugal, France and the UK).
The peacetime equivalent (picking up illegal immigrants) is a police/coast guard job.

(B) Protection of coastal shipping/fishery
This can be accomplished with police forces/coast guards in peacetime as well.
It's very challenging to protect coastal shipping and fishery against air attack, mine warfare and submarine attack (not relevant against fishery). Their greatest protection against such attacks is the small relevance (of small fishing boats, for example).
The relevant areas are the Mediterranean, Baltic and Northern Sea. The Black Sea is of relatively small interest.

(C) Protection of overseas trade at sea
This is extremely challenging, as was demonstrated in the World Wars.

(d) Offensive naval action against land targets
In other words; land attack gun/missile fire, naval air attack and amphibious (+ airborne) invasion/raiding. This includes the transport of troops and supplies.
These activities require a all-round defended convoy/battlegroup - a local affair.
Such activities are not really about "defence", though.

(e) Hunt for enemy nuclear weapons ships at sea
This would be the classic Cold War hunt for SSBNs. The Russians don't have many of these anymore and it's much less important for us than it was for the U.S. in the Cold War anyway. We're close to Russia and Russian SSBNs don't increase the chance for a surprise first strike against us. The decline of the Russian Navy's SSN fleet adds to the reliability of the French and British SSBN-based deterrence anyway.
We might consider Israeli SSKs (with potential for nuclear armament) as new possible targets in the future (it was an all-round stupid idea to give them Dolphin SSKs as military aid).

(f) Second strike nuclear deterrence capability
The UK and France maintain this traditionally with a few SSBN (nuclear ballistic missile submarines) and escorting SSNs (nuclear hunter submarines).

I need to note that much of this can be achieved with air power - especially by air attacks on harbours and airfields, but also by air attacks on surface combatants and with combat air patrols. That's not much more than what the general air power requirements necessitate anyway.

Another big chunk of requirements might be met with offensive sea mines (to be protected by air power). These could be laid by submarine or aircraft or we could use self-deploying mines launched from a surface ship from beyond the horizon. None of the delivery methods would be without major drawbacks - defensive mining is much less elaborate.

Some mine-sweeping and mine-hunting capability will be necessary as well.

The final defensive requirement would be ASW in European waters.
That's tricky because both surface warships and aircraft aren't fully convincing in this role - saturating the Mediterranean with SSKs (non-nuclear hunter subs) would be very expensive even if we used quite affordable non-AIP (air independent propulsion) SSKs.

Last but not least: The battlegroup requirement. UK, France, Spain and Italy are somewhat interested in having CVGBs (aircraft carrier battle groups) and naval land-attack long-range cruise missiles. This capability is much less relevant in the periphery of Europe because cheaper land-based assets could do quite the same job - it's thus no requirement for wars of necessity, but for wars of choice (in distant places). I consider this therefore as a luxury, not as a real requirement for defence.

So let's sum up; we seem to need:

air power
(some of it trained and equipped for anti-surface ship attacks)

naval surveillance capability
(surface and underwater)

ASW capability in European peripheral waters
(protected against aerial threats)

high seas ASW capability
(with anti-air defence)

some naval de-mining capability
(sweeping and hunting)

The two ASW needs are most mysterious to me.

How can we pull off ASW coverage of the Mediterranean without spending too much? Should we build this capability even though the Arab countries have almost no credible submarines yet (about one flotilla worth of modern SSKs so far)?

How can we protect the huge quantity of overseas trade in the Atlantic against the potential of ultra-silent SSKs? Convoying or not? Should we provide the valuable, large civilian ships with torpedo warning and decoy kits? Are MPAs (maritime patrol aircraft) worth the cost? Are surface warships effective and efficient ASW assets in the future?

My preliminary opinion is that offensive strategies are for us likely much more efficient than defensive strategies - even for the purpose of overall defence.
We could tolerate the damage done by a few aircraft and submarines that survive our attacks on airfields/harbours and slip through our offensive patrols (=blockades).
Typical OPFOR submarines (Kilo class) have only about 18 torpedoes/missiles. Aircraft carry usually only one to three anti-ship missiles.
To spend many additional billion € per (peace-time) year to reduce possible eventual wartime losses by a couple billion € wouldn't make sense.

A strong offensive capability (multirole fighters, offensive SSK patrols including offensive mining) plus some defensive damage control (mine countermeasures, some MPAs to saturate an area where a submarine compromised itself by attacking a target) seems to be best-suited for European naval warfare requirements.
Put a few SSBNs on top of that for the specific British and French nuclear deterrence strategies.

It looks to me as if the Europeans should relax their interest in destroyers, frigates and corvettes (which form the backbone of all European navies).
SSKs, multirole fighters and support aircraft are probably more important tools for European naval strategy than great-looking surface combatants.

P.S.: This topic deserves a long article, better even a full book.
I attempted to cover it with my perspective in a short text, which is thus full of unavoidable holes. Bear with me, please.


  1. Sven

    Okey, I understand some of your points and even agree with them; but you cross carriers + amphibious ships (with surface escorts) off the list so quickly you ignore their very useful capability; and whilst Germany does like to point out how close it came both times to winning the world wars with diesel electric subs...however they did not win, in the end the surface escorts + ASW aircraft were effective enough to maintain the supply routes.

    Added to this you talk about offensive capabilities but why then cross out the most powerful offensive weapons ever developed for naval purposes...i.e. carriers and amphibious ships. I agree with the multi-role fighters but I think having them launch from a mobile base rather than one which never moves, and is always in the same place which will be marked on maps for years before hand, would be of greater advantage.

    yours sincerly


  2. Simple: This is about "Defence and Freedom", not about "Defence, Offence and Freedom".

    Amphibious invasions and land attack in general is offensive in nature (at the very least counter-offensive).

    We can use bases on
    Canary Islands, Madeira, Southern Spain, Baleares, Sardinia, Sicily, Southeast Italy, Western Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Eastern Romania, Northern Poland, North-East Germany, Bornholm, Northern Norway, Iceland and Azores.

    That was only a list of obvious peripheral bases, long-range support aircraft could be based in more central regions and still support maritime warfare.

    Aircraft carriers: Less useful for EU DEFENCE than a battalion of air force engineers.

    They are simply not necessary to reach the coasts of possible opponents. The Russians cannot wage much war against the EU based on their Pacific Coast bases. Sure, SSNs could, but they couldn't do much. A couple of CV(N)s wouldn't help in that case anyway.

    WW2 submarine warfare in the Atlantic was only possible due to the inability of the British RAF which failed to bomb the submarine bases in Western France and Norway properly.

    The geographic access of the Arabs to the Atlantic is very limited and easily covered from Spanish territories' airbases.
    It's similar with the Russians; their navy was credible in the Cold War because it was already in large part on the sea and was able to inflict massive damage with nukes without ever returning to the harbours.

    A conventional anti-shipping sub war would require on average multiple patrols per sub (simply because we could simply stop sea trade for a few months without losing), and we could bomb bases on the Moroccan and Kola peninsula coasts to dust.
    That's much more affordable than hundreds of escort ships of questionable effectiveness, especially in a time when the potential adversaries don't prepare for such a war.

    By the way; Germany wasn't even close to winning against the UK with its sub wars - just like strategic bombing failed. Subs don't equate boots on the ground.
    It was a pointless test of resolve that diverted Allied resources and wasted huge amounts of German diesel fuel. It was also counter-productive in WW1 in regard to the USA.

    The British hype the Battle of the Atlantic up in order to emphasize their relevance in the war (and TV shows, book authors are thankful for a dramatic topic, of course).

  3. You consider EU defense a defense against territorial invasions, a rather unlikely threat.
    The more likely threat in my opinion is freedom of movement at sea and the protection/occupation of important far away places. Naval warfare is about sea lines of communication and naval invasions are just what happens when such a control utterly fails. The approach of most European navies is sensibly centered on the sea lines of communication approach they have done for centuries while Germany is still a littoral upstart that failed several times to go blue water.


  4. I find myself trying to understand why the U.S. Navy needs 355 ships and so far a good answer eludes me. I frequent a naval centric website where I've asked this question, but I receive the usual responses: maritime trade, invasion, power projection, President wants it, sea control, show the flag, etc.

    We have a 365 billion trade deficit with the Chinese yet we still spend billions on defense directed the Chinese. Land air power, missiles, mines could prevent an invasion of the U.S. and if that doesn't stop em a nuke will. Subs can control areas of the sea. More State department and less muscle flexing. If the President wants one he can buy a ship.

    But this is where I get stymied - global trade and protection of merchant shipping. You briefly address it in this post, but I wonder in today's world if a Navy is worth the money and makes a difference in ensuring free trade?