Navies' obsession with peacetime hull quantities


Navies tend to seek to have many (and powerful = prestigious) warship hulls in peacetime. The more ships there are, the more jobs for junior officers, the more jobs for senior officers. The bigger the navy and the more central it is to the country's policies and self-image, the more prestige do the naval officers enjoy.

The principal-agent problem clearly leads to navy officers wishing for more naval expenditures than optimal for the nation's overall best interests.

There is a particular obsession of navies (and their fanbois*) with peacetime warship hull quantities. The U.S. navy outright obsesses over made-up hull quantity requirements that are supposedly necessary. Those quantities haven't been met in decades (if ever), but neither the U.S. nor its allies were blockaded, bombed or invaded by another country. There's also an anecdote about a German inspector of the navy (highest-ranking naval officer) who publicly regretted that he couldn't commission a single new ship during his time leading the German navy. The fact that Germany wasn't blockaded, bombed or invaded and commissioning an additional ship was thus proved to be nothing but a waste of resources didn't seem to have crossed his mind.

The obsession with peacetime warship quantities goes on despite the obvious fact that air power rules the surface of the seas. The U.S. Navy itself spent more money on buying aircraft than on buying warships a few years back, but the obsession was still about ship hulls, not about aircraft fuselages or naval aircraft fuselages. Land-based aviation can wipe out surface fleets at much lesser costs than any warship or submarine fleet could, and naval aviation is clearly technically disadvantaged to already dispersed land-based aviation (land-based aviation has more capable support aircraft, potential access to OTH radar data, isn't burdened by tailhooks or strengthening for stressful landings).

The overemphasis on warships leads to a neglect of other items that could be of great importance, similar to how Western air forces neglect ballistic missiles of the Iskander-ish class and air defences. 

Another analogy is modern armies neglecting preparations for dealing with prisoners of war (too few infantrymen or other temporarily detachable troops to handle them).

I'm writing about ships that can meet the traditional cruiser role of enforcing a distant naval blockade. Submarines have marginal target inspection abilities. They can try to enforce a naval blockade close to hostile ports, but a American-Sino war might see ships slipping through Indonesian and Philippine waters. What asset would inspect, identify and possibly board or (more risky in case of error) sink them? Traditionally, this would have been the job of cruisers. The USN has no high endurance frigate fleet for the job, and cannot spare its destroyers.

A simple answer could be auxiliary cruisers equipped with a relatively simple medium helicopter for boarding actions and another medium helicopter for sinking of ships. Those helicopters would also need to have decent thermal cameras, but that's not much of a cost driver nowadays if you are willing to improvise instead of gold-plating.

It would be very easy to modify a small container ship for auxiliary cruiser tasks, including armament with 106 mm recoilless guns and ManPADS. You would need containers for electricity generators, kerosene supply, helicopter hangar, helipad, extra galley, extra mess, bunks, a control centre, radio, washing rooms/showers, munitions storage, food (cold) storage, a medical container, containers for POWs/detainees, tools+maintenance machinery+spare parts, extra firefighting capability. 

In short; you'd want to have the containers developed, prototyped, tested and improved before a hot conflict.

About the same kind of auxiliary cruiser might also be effective in use by an underdog navy, but I lack the means and knowledge to determine whether modern satellite ocean surveillance including satellite AIS snooping might suffice to make the tasks of a merchant raider too hazardous if opposing forces have land-based air power or other assets in range to strike at it.

I have not seen any navy building up such a capability even though the East Africa piracy thing would have been a perfect excuse to get it funded. This is but one of many reasons why I doubt that Western navies are serious about deterring major war or being able to win major wars. The interventionist Western countries developed their navies into bullying/land attack forces with parallel and separate nuclear strike submarines. Even the U.S: navy, which had reason to pay attention much attention to PR China for well over two decades, is not all that serious about these parts of its job.


*: Many of which appear to believe that parroting calls for more warships mixed with calls for minor changes especially regarding long-obvious failure programs turns them into impressive thinkers.



  1. Considering jobs, there's always the option to have a number of rotating crews per hull. I wonder why you didn't advocate this to solve the career problem.
    You point out that the main strike component of a navy is airborne. Small navies like the German without carriers have little capability in this regard. Is the introduction of drones going to effect changes for naval aviation by smaller ships?
    Even submarines have a drone component, how effective would the German built submarines be in commerce interdiction in a a US-China conflict since a number of regional powers use them?

    1. South Korea has nine such subs, and they would likely crawl to a small patrol area and wait for prey there. This cold be offensive patrol (close to a hostile port, risking attacks by helicopters) or along a shipping route to Japan (focused on ASW). I doubt that they would or could do more. Their long distance cruise engines are noisy diesels which require snorkels at periscope depth.

      I myself would leave the offensive part to the offensive-minded Americans with their SSNs and just deploy a string of SSIs between Busan and Kanmon Straits and support them with aircraft and sonar installations.
      The whole defensive effort might be redundant if the lane was protected with an integrated LFASS effort and aerial ASW torpedo delivery. Friendly LFASS would even make the SSIs detectable to opposing submarines. That would justify to go all-offensive patrolling with the SSIs.
      This in turn is pointless if the areas around important hostile ports are surveilled with LFASS...

      Long story short; I would only have purchased the quantity of SSIs needed for training of other ASW forces (two to four), not nine of them.

    2. Korea is a bit far away from the shipping lanes, Singapore is more interesting in this regard.

    3. Well, I meant Korean shipping lanes. They'd want to maintain some trade or at least supply influx during wartime.

    4. The busiest shipping lane is in the South China Sea, which is accessed thru straits within reach of Singaporean and Indonesian submarines, designed in Germany and Korea. In a conflict between the US and China, both sides would likely like to have these parties either on their side or in armed neutralty, guarding these waters against outside interference.

      If South Korea was in a conflict between the US and China, wouldn't they also send their submarines to South East Asia as an offensive measure? As a defensive tool these submarines don't have much value beyond what surface ships and UUVs already offer. South Korea participated in the Vietnam War, so I wouldn't discount such a role for this US ally.

    5. There's nothing significant that South Korea could achieve with offensive action against the PRC. Even sinking a PLAN SV would matter next to nothing good for SK's future.

      They would best be served to stay neutral (also keeping their shipyards from building ships for the USN if a naval race heats up) and if drawn into conflict behave like Finland in the Continuation War; advance a bit on land if possible, then signal that they're no threat to the PRC and wait till war's end.
      They should not permit the USAF to base more than mere fighters without air/ground munitions, for example.

      See, warfare isn't a game of scoring points. It's about outcomes. Much of what could be done in terms of doing damage serves no purpose.

      There's no rational reason why SK's leadership should adopt American interests as its own interests. Their job and oath requires them to pursue (South) Korean interests, and the resulting strategy would be different from a strategy devised by an American officer with full control over SK's military assets.

      South Korea would want at least some shipping to go on, and securing a lane through Tsushima strait is the most its air force and navy can achieve. Securing shipping lanes in or behind the Inland Sea is way beyond their means.

      So long story short; they have 9 subs, maybe 6...8 would be operational in the event of war, and they could be used in offensive patrols if not needed for defensive patrols. That's about all offensive action that looks sensible to me.

      They shouldn't have purchased this many subs.

    6. You have a defensive approach to security that tries to guard national interests. From a historical perspective, conflicts between political entities are very much about perceived status. This adds a boastful non-efficient dimension to acts of war. I express doubts your predictions cover that aspect well, because doing so runs counter your personal traits.

  2. Two thoughts:

    - Shipbuilding capacity is very low in most western countries so it is not like you can surge ship numbers as hostilities begin to look more likely. You either have the ships or you don't. I believe that is the reason why e.g. the Royal Navy ships are rather under-armed: as long as you have the hull you can quickly add weapon and targeting systems later.

    - A civilian hull makes for a very poor warship and I would not regard them as a viable substitute if you actually plan to risk them in combat. On the one hand, they have poor handling in bad weather and a slower speed (if you cant get to the battlefield you can't fight). On the other hand, they are not built to withstand weapon effects and even a small hit will likely result in the ship either rapidly heading towards the bottom, or rendered dead in the water because of the shock effects of the explosion destroys vital equipment such as the engine/power supply (you could shock-mount the warfighting containers though so your weapon system may still be functional).

    Having said that, you could potentially commission a bunch of auxiliary ships with military grade hulls (the hull is not very expensive compared with the weapon systems etc.) and have them perform civilian functions until they are needed for warfighting. Then you could add your warfighting containers and they could function as a sort of naval reserve force.

  3. What kind of hardware you would invest in if you were China planning to reunify Taiwan in 10 years? Is China's current build up looks like your ideas?

    I know you wouldn't like this kind of a question but I still wonder. It may help readers to understand China's motivation better.

    1. They may already have what it takes. What they need is an opportunity.

      They probably calculate that the downsides of invasion are worse than the upsides are good. Those downsides are not so much about combat losses as of political nature.