Concept for a future naval battle fleet

This is no everyday blog post; it's the culmination of several loosely connected blog posts on naval warfare on this blog.

Something strange happened in 1906: The Royal Navy (British) got the battleship HMS Dreadnought, a revolutionary warship. It combined several innovations at once and made all previous battleships obsolete on the spot. The Royal Navy's own battleship fleet of a mid-1890's dominant design became almost worthless within few years because other powers built new "dreadnoughts" as well.

This didn't happen voluntarily; the pressure of the arms race with the German Hochseeflotte enforced such advances.

It's extremely important for Western navies to know whether such a revolution lies ahead or not. We've got a superiority in warship numbers right now - to build traditional warships just years before a new dreadnought revolution would be wasteful.

I am quite convinced that coastal missile batteries, fixed near-shore sonar installations and land-based aviation make a battle fleet unnecessary for the defence of Europe. A handful of mine countermeasures ships and submarines added to the mix would constitute no battle fleet.

The only utility of a battle fleet for Europe lies in my opinion in maritime transport protection. This protection would need to be a fourfold one; against underwater, surface, aerial and exoatmospheric (hypervelocity missiles) threats.

It's pointless to split up a fleet into a separate convoy escort and a blockading battleship effort as in earlier wars.
Air power and missiles can circumvent such a battle fleet's defences unless it's very close to the target (convoy). The same pretty much applies to submarines. Enemy surface combatants on the other hand can better be defeated by air power than by offering a risky fleet battle. The far blockade of an enemy should be done by tracking ships (by air/satellite) and by inspecting them far away from enemy bases with covert auxiliary cruisers (that pretend to be harmless cargo ships most of the time).

In short: The future battle fleet for Europe/European powers should be a convoy escort fleet in my opinion. That should fit well for those who see value in amphibious warfare fleets as well. The protection of a carrier fleet isn't much different than the protection for a cargo ship convoy either.
The historical analogy for such a convoy escort battle fleet is the employment of British battle fleets in the Mediterranean for the protection of supply convoys heading to Malta and similar convoy battles around Murmansk supply convoys - both in WW2.

There's no point in trying to hide the battle fleet as a whole because the protected (convoy) cargo ships would be very detectable by all sensors.

I don't think that a surface combatant fleet makes sense for offensive sea battle purposes in general. You could achieve much more by allocating the resources to other assets instead.

I really believe that surface warship/war boat fleets of the future would/should be defensive fleets. It makes much more sense in my opinion to spend the budget for offensive purposes on offensive land-based air power, land-based medium range hypervelocity missiles, covert warships and stealthy submarines.

My approach for a post-revolution battle fleet looks like this:

(The actual optimal shape of the outer layer of boats would be defined by variables like SSK speed, convoy speed and SSK attack range. It should look a bit different because I didn't do the operational analysis calculations for the optimal shape anyway.)

Air cover / defence / support
The air support (including fighters) and long-range anti-ship strike capability would be based on medium aircraft carriers. Small ones place too many restrictions on the aircraft types and have an inferior air wing/ship cost ratio (ceteris paribus; the reason is ~ economies of scale).
Large aircraft carriers are too expensive, though. Quantity of carriers is an advantage in itself - a battle fleet needs some redundancy. Two carriers per battle fleet is a minimum. Two carriers with 80-90 aircraft each would be far too expensive in comparison to two with 40-50, especially in comparison to more land-based air power. I feel (but cannot prove with operational analysis) that two carriers for about 40-50 aircraft and manned aircraft-sized drones is optimal for such a battle fleet. It depends a lot on the maintenance requirements, endurance and sortie rates, though.
Luckily, these considerations aren't really important. Carriers wouldn't be affected much by the naval warfare revolution that I suspect is coming. We would simply stick to the carriers we've already got.

The air defence would use the ship-to-air-missiles as backup, not as mainstay. Land-based air defences aren't more than that - I never understood why many seem trust more in "our" ship-based air defences than in land-based air defences.

Ship-based air defences can be defeated with good tactics and equipment. A successful fleet air defence needs a strong fighter element that has a longer reach, and is a very different challenge for the attacker. Ship-based air defence + fighters stands a chance even against strong attacks. Carriers are fashionable as land-attack bullying units, but their real justification is their ability to provide air cover/support/attack for fleets far away from land bases.

Some long-range early warning of air attacks could be done by land-based AEW aircraft and covert warships (using unusual frequencies for air search) in a picket line between the convoy and the enemy bases.

Anti-submarine defence
The anti-submarine warfare would look very different than we're used to. Two different layers of boats would establish a giant multi-static sonar network. The shape of the network would be defined by operational analysis. Submarines are louder when moving fast, so they would have trouble penetrating the escort layers from behind. They would have the least troubles when attacking from forward and would still need to move faster than they'd prefer to do when approaching from the flanks. The multi-static sonar network would thus extent far forward and probably have only a thin screen aft.

The outer layer would consist of towed LF sonar carrying commercial spec "boats" with otherwise only minimal (ESM, torpedo decoy, missile decoy and close in weapon system) self-defence capability and few torpedoes. They would be too numerous and too dispensable to be a worthwhile target for enemy high seas submarines (until they've been detected anyway).

The inner layer would consist of MilSpec "boats" (maybe 500 tons) with much better equipment and combat value. They would add considerably to the sensory capabilities of the fleet (radar, infrared, visual, acoustic) and these boats would also attempt to deceive incoming missiles with jammers and decoys - beyond the purpose of self-defence. These boats should attract missiles in home-on-jam mode and might therefore be built as semi-submersibles in order to avoid being hit. Such decoying is becoming difficult, though. Modern missiles analyze shapes to ID targets and are difficult to deceive.

These were the sensor units of ASW - the killing units would be different ones. I'm no fan of expensive nuclear submarines and conventional ones aren't really fast enough for the job, so the submarine killers would usually be helicopters with lightweight torpedoes. The helicopters could be based on many different ship types; frigates (FFG), destroyers (DDG), carriers (CV) and also on container ships.

Strong winds / high sea states and submarine-to-air missiles hinder the operation of helicopters and could open a window of opportunity for enemy submarines - unless there are some serious backup sub killers in the fleet.
I would equip the every "boat" with several heavyweight (long range) torpedoes exactly for this purpose. Torpedoes that didn't hit anything (false contacts, for example) could be recovered by both boats types (as done by torpedo recovery vessels during exercises) to preserve the ammunition reserves.

The role of "legacy" surface combatants
FFG and DDG are already available and could serve as helicopter base, missile silo and radar carrier. The missiles would serve their purpose as air defence munitions and as anti-hypervelocity missiles. The helicopter facilities aren't very efficient, but still useful. The powerful radars are a backup for aerial surveillance radars. FFG/DDG would be backups without procurement costs - we already have them.
It wouldn't be necessary to build new FFG or DDG even if we had a conventional WW3. Their missions could be fulfilled by container sets on container ships as well. The risk for these less damage tolerant ships and their crews wouldn't be unacceptable because it would be near-impossible to identify the auxiliaries in a convoy.
That's good news because the West has long since lost its dominance in shipbuilding.

The battle fleet would need support ships for the many small boats. Landing platform dock ships (LPD) would be ideal. They could support the helicopter force, the boats (even with dry dock repairs inside), operate many small drones (including mine breaker boats) and could be equipped as air defence frigates at the same time.

LPD frigates are a hot candidate for a major surface combatant category. They fit perfectly into mothership concepts with all kinds of small moving things (boats, UAVs, USVs, UUVs and helicopters). They're huge Swiss knifes.

Warships hide in the convoy because shepherds are more valuable than sheep
The major warships - FFG, DDG, LPD, CV - would all take a cargo ship's position in the convoy. The acoustic and electromagnetic noise of the many ships of the convoy and of the inner layer "boats" would make the targeting of major warships as difficult as a running zebra herd confuses lions in their targeting of individual prey.

Anti-ship defence
Anti-ship combat; well, I don't expect possible enemy battle fleets to be much of a threat to this convoy battle fleet. The enemy should already be decimated by land-based aviation, mines and submarines when it comes into range of the convoy battle fleet. The defence against air (missile) and hypervelocity attack would likely be useful against an enemy battle fleet's attacks. The air power of the two battle fleets would likely be decisive.
Scouting, counter-scouting, air combat (also against missiles) and anti-ship strikes would rest heavily on the air power element due to the superior range of air power.

- - - - -
Is this a battle fleet?
I expect several important and potentially decisive campaign elements in a future naval war around Europe. Attack on enemy bases, interdiction of enemy naval assets near their bases and convoying. Each can be decisive on its own and can constitute the decisive "naval" battle.
I understand this heavy convoy escort as a "battle" fleet because it serves that purpose - to stand up to enemy major naval attack forces and to defeat them. The Battle of the Atlantic was a battle fought by smallish escorts - and the major naval warfare battle against Germany in both World Wars.

One clarification: I don't think that escorting cargo ships is strategic "defence" in its core meaning. "Defence" means to me that we keep foreigners from exercising control over us (or killing us) in our country - defence of sovereignty.
To keep the sea trade flowing is an addition to this, not core defence any more, but not offence yet. It's about sustaining military power (short term) and preserving wealth (medium term).

So what's the difference to today's dominant concepts for naval warfare?

* The use of "boats" to establish and maintain a huge multi-static sonar network as mainstay of SSK detection and tracking (without giving away the position of major surface combatants).

* Uncommon tactical survivability concepts
Boats would be kept relatively dispensable and thus poor targets for enemies (who should better not discard their stealth/surprise effect in order to engage them).
The use of commercial spec ships with military equipment. The ability to hide among similar civilian ships in the convoy is their primary protection.

* The use of container sets and quickly-built (in part commercial spec) small units for a rapid expansion of naval power without the need for a large shipbuilding industrial base. The need for for MilSpec-experienced shipyards would be extremely low during a quick force buildup.

* The addition of close-in defence depth to the fleet by a screen of "boats" which bait incoming missiles and torpedoes and which also use hard-kill weapons to destroy these munitions.

* A practical concept for torpedo recovery during operations, enabling a lavish use of ASW munitions on suspected contacts.

* Much less dependence on weather-sensitive and vulnerable helicopters for ASW.

- - - - -

My view on naval warfare was being coined by the geo-strategic situation of Europe and by published technological advances.
(More) aggressive policies (than I would agree with) require a different approach, especially a fleet that would survive even if in range of much more opposing offensive power.

It's also obvious by now that I don't see much value in new frigates, destroyers or even cruisers - and likewise no significant utility in large corvettes (= weak frigates). The smallest corvettes come close to my inner layer warboat idea, though. Covert auxiliary cruisers, conventional AIP submarines, LPD motherships and dispensable "boats" are my personal favourites.

The public understanding of naval technology is always lagging by about ten years, so my information background could be considered as close to an in-service analyst's info background of about the year 2000 at best.



  1. Sven,
    I enjoyed this analysis. I haven't given convoy escort much thought, though you seem to have hit the right cords. Like you I think convoy warfare to be much different than in the past, but unlike you I think the SSKs and SSNs will be much more decisive.

    "I never understood why many seem trust more in "our" ship-based air defenses than in land-based air defenses."

    That is a good point as the USAF has been making mincemeat out of advanced Soviet SAMs for the pass few decades. If long range isn't an issue would you consider using V/STOL for your combat air patrol, or even some future UCAV armed with advanced AAMs? The latter has the benefit of persistence over the manned jet, and could reduce the size and cost of the carrier even further.

    Also a good point about not breaking up the fleet into battlefleet and convoy escort forces. Recall that the mainly ASW escort ships of the British Navy held its own and even triumphed in the Falklands War in an expeditionary and sea control role.

  2. We've got a large arsenal and should make good use of it, find its place in future warfare.

    The smaller aircraft carriers cannot operate STOL aircraft and need to use V/STOVL aircraft and/or helicopters. Spain and Italy have no choice. The French and British will likely maintain two medium STOL aircraft carriers, although the British still intend to use STOVL aircraft on theirs.

    There's in my opinion no need for huge expenditures on additional ships to meet the demand because the demand is quite small.
    Enemy air power can threaten our shipping, but the offensive use of our air power would be a superior answer in comparison to building additional carriers for defensive purposes.

    I don't see much use in UCAVs as fighters because they would end up being similarly large, complex and expensive as fighters are.
    They would likely be treated as flying (mobile) SAM batteries, but what's their advantage over simply using their AAM with additional boosters as SAMs?

  3. What if you combine some things, like electromagnetic catapults, ski jump ramp and high power water guns as emergency catapults for too slow aircrafts. Create for the aircrafts a mix of manned aircrafts with electronic warfare capabilities and two types of drones that follow strict fighter mafia concepts. Type one is a light(4tons) very simple high-g maneuverability fighter drone (replacing the F-14)that depends on much external data feed because its own reconnaisance is limited, but it can imitate other aircrafts and outmaneuver enemy missiles. Type two (8tonsd) is a ground attack craft of simple rugged construction (replacing the A-10).
    Helicopters could be replaced by simple fixed wing manned planes that can launch a rotary wing in gyrocopter style and use a very short landing and take off, while being much cheaper, faster and more enduring than helicopters.
    Put these on a 40ktons M-hull (M80 stiletto) carrier and give the carrier and other ships an arsenal of 2tons cruise missile that are launched vertically by an electromagnetic catapult. This can handle the missiles in rather quick succession in comparison to today's vertical missile launching. Adding a wet-lift instead of a dock would help using multi-purpose decks for vehicles, boats and aircrafts (including UAV) on the carrier that can be configured for differing missions and possibly even change roles during deployment.

    USVs are very useful for defense and deception as you pointed out, but I wouldn't count on them having lots of integrated computers for analyzing data. Tow several of these behind other ships (civilian and military) and release them for short sprints if required.

    You are very much a jeune école adept, but so far medium sized warships have held their ground because they offer a combined capability and resilence. Their economy of scale makes them more capable than boats while they are more numerous than the large naval behemouts. I agree that warships will become smaller with increasing percentage of payload, but I doubt they will be under 500tons displacement and unmanned. The USV will be more defensive or just self-propelled sensors of external computation centers, but they will have almost no offensive capability that remains the task of medium to large sized ships.

    Submarines will have a much larger area of destruction by utilizing guided missiles, including the ability to destroy a whole convoy with one blow. The guided missile submarines of the Ohio class are just one example, many other navies integrate guided missiles into their torpedo tubes. So it doesn't matter where the submarine is, it's a nearby platform that spells doom while you don't see it and every convoi must pass some certain hunting grounds for waiting submarines. These are far more capable today because since WW2 they have increased their capability for aerial(drones) and SIGINT intelligence gathering.

  4. My thoughts would be a bit more radical.

    Hiding the location of surface combatants is a lost cause against any near peer. You can see one with bloody google Earth and it doesn't take much of a spy network to figure out port calls.

    Surface combatants are much more vulnerable to submarines, mines, modern anti-ship missiles, and more than we give them credit for being, they are excruciatingly slow, they put all crew related to the vessel in harms way 24/7, and they are relevant in only a few particular theaters of battle in the modern world (basically, the Persian Gulf, the East China Sea, the Somali Coast, the Malachi Straits, and the Mediterranean). Allied air bases are available near all of these.

    The main purposes of a lot of surface combatants is to warehouse and deploy anti-ship, anti-sub, anti-ground target missiles. A lot of these functions ought to be transferred to patrol aircraft like the P-8 which are much less vulnerable to enemy attack than surface combatants, don't have to carry living quarters for the crew with them, don't have do carry non-flight crew with them, can respond to targets over a broader geographic area and can be shifted from one theater to the next much more quickly. To the extent that you need persistence in a location, something like a converted Ohio class guided missile submarine is much less vulnerable than a surface combatant. Surface combatants really only make sense for (1) air and troop and field hospital bases where we have none in areas where opponents don't have the capacity to strike at surface combatants, (2) escort of commercial ships, (3) anti-piracy and shipping regulation, (4) showing the flag to symbolically convey a threat in place we don't have bases, (5) transporting heavy stuff (ideally with HSV speed class transports rather than containership/freighter slow transports, and (6) anti-mine warfare. Some of those missions are well served with boats supported by motherships. Sea and air drones are more suitable than manned warships for ISR duty. Ohio class sized cargo subs for blockade running would be a welcome addition to the fleet.

    This analysis is why very few navies in the world other than the U.S. are making investments in large surface combatants. Many have only frigates. Cruisers and destroyers are rare and few. Battleships no longer exist. Aircraft carriers and amphibious assault craft that aren't American can be counted on your fingers. Most world navies have decided that the vulnerability isn't worth it, and the U.S. Navy has managed despite its vulnerability mostly because attacking the U.S. isn't a priority of most nations that can afford major surface combatants.

    1. SSGNs are ridiculously cost-inefficient, even SSGs would be so. Element of surprise could be had by containerised missiles on cargo ship, and survivability could be had with containerised missiles on armed merchantman in a convoy. Add some relatively cheap booster to get more range and you really don't need a sub as launch platform for missiles.

      In principle a supersonic radar plane (AEW, SAR, wake pattern detection) working together with a couple SSIs with VLS would suffice as a battlefleet for fleet-on-fleet engagements. Target ID (with SAR or sonar) would be tricky in face of deception and jamming, though - so this would only suffice in a sanitised naval arena where all non-friendly ships are fair game. Question would be - how would such a fleet be relevant for national or collective defence at all?