Is finding hostile surface warships really all that decisive?

A few days ago a Foreign Policy article was stressing the importance of finding the enemy in modern naval warfare. The author was -despite the diplomacy-themed publication - no foreigner to military theory. He was co-author of RAND's swarming study, which I think I already quoted and referred to on this blog. It's neat.
I intended to write about the article all along, so here it is.

The emphasis surely resonates with me, as I emphasise elusiveness for survivability and surprise a lot, but the author also creates a wrong perception or two in my opinion:

(1) The importance of elusiveness is a new, modern thing:
[...] the distilled essence of naval operations today: the hider/finder dynamic.
(2) Smaller means more elusive:
The most valuable vessel [...] that is, the one that is hardest to find and hit -- is also the smallest combatant.
I disagree with (1) and don't think (2) is worth being proposed. 
Let me take you on a tour:

Exhibit (a): A text on the survivability of carrier battlegroups of the late Cold War era, in face of the huge and elaborate Soviet navy and naval and strategic aviation assets.

by Andy Pico, 1999

USN CVBG, 2000

Exhibit (b): A summary of the U.S.Navy's fleet problem series of experimental exercises involving aircraft carriers.

by G.J.Walsh, 2011

which includes as a primary source quote:
Evident to Reeves and to the carrier commanders who followed in his footsteps, was the reality that in any future engagement involving aircraft carriers at sea, the first carrier to locate and bomb the other would determine the outcome.
which provokes additional questions*, but also shows the great importance of scouting at sea; to find the enemy first was already considered to be decisive back in the 30's.

Similar points an be found in much of naval history, even disregarding submarines. Just think of the difficulty of finding and intercepting the Spanish Silver Fleet on the Atlantic Ocean, of hunting down privateers outside of their bases, of military commerce raiders, the great importance of cruisers/frigates/corvettes/Avisos and the likes as a screen of eyes for the battleship line, supposed to enable getting into contact with the other battleship fleet and supposed to buy the time for deployment into a battle line.

Hughes goes to some lengths in several chapters of his Fleet Tactics book about the role of scouting, sensors and so on. It's really a lasting, not a modern topic.

The littoral (supposedly) combat ship wasn't meant to be stealthy to actually hide in the Persian Gulf or close to Taiwan's shores: That's simply not a realistic expectation. 
I personally have been suspecting that radar stealth for surface ships has been about making hits by active radar-guided missiles less likely among lots of chaff and jamming. The ship itself is rather easy to find for the launch platform's sensors; even a ship with an invisibility cloak would still be detected easily by wave pattern analysis (with radar) or by its cavitation (by sonar) once it moves faster than about 5 knots.
The only trick needed is to have the ship-seeking sensor and its platform close enough for this (unless it's a satellite). That's not hard close to land bases, but more so on the open seas or in adverse weather conditions (with their detrimental effect on sensor ranges).

To find the other warship has been a challenge on the open seas for a long time, but it's hard to prove that this problem was ever much-related to ship size.

The British had lost contact with the huge Bismarck until the German admiral on-board sent a lengthy radio report believing the ship was still being on British radar (RDF) screens.
Difficulty in finding ships was always more related to weather conditions or with their distance to relevant land bases than with their size.

Moreover, the "finding" part may actually become easier, making it less of a feature of modern naval operations than of historical ones.

Mr. Arquilla also generated a false impression of the role of LCS (which really is just a cost-inefficient frigate). The original, actually thoughtful, idea which led to the LCS was to have many small ships not to hide them, but to make them unworthy of an attack. They were supposed to saturate relevant maritime areas with their presence and relatively short-ranged sensors, and an atatck on them would not have been too bad becuase the crew was meant to be tiny. Furthermore, their destruction by for example a submarine would necessitate that the attacker compromises his position - and said (much more valuable) attacker would then be counterattacked and destroyed.
The USN deleted all daring thought from the concept and added a lot of farce and spin in order to get a replacement for Oliver Hazard Perry frigates (to preserve officer billets and the bureaucracy's size) and the shipyards just added a lot of costs.

Mr. Arquilla, your work on swarming was more interesting and useful.

S Ortmann

*: Among other questions, it raises the question how they anticipated to wage war at sea at all if they were so sure about he vulnerability of surface warships. Ground-based air power would be able to survive a first strike and retaliate against the carrier and other warships in their paradigm. This excluded naval actions close to peer power land bases. How exactly did they envision to execute War Plan Orange in such a paradigm?

edit: Rewritten on day of publication because the original version was confusing.


  1. Naval warfare is about protecting or endangering sea lines of communication.
    Sea lines of communication are not only ships doing almost all global transport of tonnage/mile since millenia cheaper than land transport. They include the transmission of messages (sailing 24h hours with impressive daily distances) via udnerwater cables. Just take a look how our global internet is actually connected. Other than underneath the waves, much of our communication is just above the waves via satellites. Most of earth surface is water covered, on water you can easily haul large equipment anywhere and find a suitable position to attack the satellites that are 100+kilometers above earth surface.

    All sea lines of communication enter specific hubs, harbours. The smaller a naval vessel is, the more hubs it can use until you arrive at amphibious warfare vessels, such as the Viking longships or military hovercrafts, and trading boats that can beach anywhere.
    Size and corresponding access to a selection of harbours restrict all kinds of ships. At the same time size enables to stay at sea for longer time and thus cover longer distances while watching out and exercising sea-control. The usual combination is a large long endurance vessel with much smaller boats for landing (the LDP, LHA, LHD and some LST are a specialized development of these).

    The volume of a ship grows cubic in 3 dimensions, while water resistance grows square with 2 of the 3 dimensions and detectability on the surface grows linear in 1 of 3 dimensions with increasing height and proximity becoming 2 dimensional (as seen from above). A 100,000 tons displacement aircraft carrier has just a six times longer detection range than a puny 500 tons displacement fast attack craft. The carrier has 200 times the size traded for 6 times the detection range. The carrier does use the size increase for much larger own sensor with a detection range in comparison to the fast attack craft far beyond the 6 times detectability increase. This creates a battlezone around the carrier, where it does see what a smaller craft doesn't see.
    The problem with these big ships are threefold:
    They cover a large area, but just one area at a time.
    Increased size makes vessels more expensive.
    A naval vessel just requires destruction in one dimension. As such the 6 times increased detectability correlates with a 6 times increase in required destructive effort. A countermeasure has always been to heavily armour large warships and reduce their payload and range, while having the armoured giants limited to few ports.
    A workaround for the limited ports has been resupply at sea that extends operation time at sea, but is not capable of fully supplying non-nuclear vessels to the same degree as a harbour.

  2. The tradition in naval warfare had small ships doing escort duty for the merchant fleet or operating as raiders. Medium sized ships were hunter killers in that small ship environment and acted rather as raiders than escorts. The big battlefleet Mahan is associated with had a specific position close to a harbour where it mattered most. "A ship's a fool to fight a fort", but if a fleet of large and extremely powerful warships can hold at a distance close enough to a harbour, this harbour is blockaded. The large ships need surveillance and coverage support for this task, but they enable to kill in droves any attempt by lesser(small to medium) vessels to rid the waters adjacent to the harbour of the blockade fleet. Harbours are the hubs of sea lines of communication and few of them enable to handle the largest and most efficient transport vessels (that are difficult to construct with a stable hull). You can never end traffic by boat, but large merchantmen need more sophisticated and rare facilities. And that's where Mahan's battlefleet comes into play. These giants are not too far from another shore out at sea and the only way to challenge them has been something that can go out there - another battlefleet.

    Hypothetically, you can move the distance at which battlefleets can be stationed without fighting a fort (the fort has a heck of an advantage in cost efficiency for fighting value) so far out, that the sea-control enhancement by the battlefleet losses much of its value. Every kilometer gained in distance translates into square kilometers for safer sea lines of communication. sea lines of communication get the more vulnerable, the more concentrated they are, thus the danger equally diminishes square per linear increase in power projection range by a fort.
    An early attempt to increase the range of forts were floating batteries, a hybrid between ship and fort. The latest developments at that are labeled area-denial and often associated with China.
    It was the US that pioneered a fleet of upper medium sized ships (like the USS Constitution, nicknamed Old Ironside) that were very effective hunter killer frigates, but they had no chance to break the British bloackade very close to the US harbours. If the US had better floating batteries or other area denial measures, they might have had enough room around their harbours to operate their commerce with security in the further away distances at sea depending on their superior frigates.

    It is possible to achieve freedom of navigation without a superior battlefleet and navies have always strived to project the asymmetric advantages of shore and forts far out to sea. A successful land based projection of sea power does require rather modest oceanic assets to maintain the security of sea lines of communication. Sea battles can be avoided as long as there's not a rapid development of vessel speed (like in the pre-WWI era).
    More modern vessels tend to have a disproportional advantage in naval combat because they developed in multiple ways (fire control, armament size).
    If going for a naval arms race, for a strange reason people focus on old and operational hulls, while the biggest threat are the ones that can be made when hostilities break out. You still need a trained crew to man them.

  3. The detection problem at sea is just like the old race between defensive armour and penetrating weapons. There are breakthroughs on both sides, but they only get unbalanced during short time intervals. In modern times, armament and resilence to enemy strikes has been traded for decreased detectability (stealth and long distance striking). We might get a new balance if detection gets easier with more resilence, missile defence and even longer range strikes, but that's it, no change to the fundamentals as long as we have no new strike concept (like aircraft carriers versus big-gun battleships).