The Lessons of Concentrated Saturation Firepower
The mathematics of warfare has always underpinned the outcome of battles and wars.
In 1805, Nelson's fleet was slightly smaller than the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, but he contrived to shape the battlefield to his advantage by concentrating his ships firepower on a specific sector of the engagement. First, he relied on the poor gunnery of the ill-trained enemy who had for years been blockaded in port, to allow him to close in on his enemy without significant damage to his fleet. Then he broke the enemy's line in two places, and in so doing could fire down the poorly protected transoms of the enemy's ships, wreaking havoc on their gun decks to devastating effect. Having isolated two thirds of the enemy's fleet as the van continued sailing, he relied on the superior rate of fire of the English ships, to devastate his opponents from the leeward side, a position from which they could not escape but ultimately only surrender.
During the height of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon unleashed his mass cavalry under Marshal Ney who was known as the bravest of the brave. Seven times they surged and tried to gallop through the British infantry squares without success and not one square broke under the successive charges. Why you ask, how could infantry resist an all out cavalry charge? Because if an infantry regiment had 600 men and formed into a square of three ranks then each side was 50 men shoulder to shoulder, this width equated to 16 horses packed stirrup to stirrup charging one face and enduring a rate of fire of some five rounds a minute. Thus assuming a full gallop and an effective range of the Brown Bess musket of 175 yards when fired in a volley, 16 French cavalry men would face a hail of 300 musket balls. If they were not killed by the barrage, then the horses would hesitate at the 150 glinting bayonets facing them as they charged and veer off to the sides of the square. Thus as long as English discipline held then so did the English squares as the maths of war held sway.
The lesson from both encounters was very clear. Concentrated higher rates of fire from a well trained disciplined force will overcome any enemy, either in offence or attack. It is this military reality played out many times over history that is at the tip of the spear of points in history where power shifts from one empire to another.
The Twilight of Pax Britannica
Britain’s relationship with the sea was a product of its island home and its ratio of coastline to the internal volume which defined the ratio of sea folk to land folk and its balance between the meritocracy of the navy and hierarchy of the army. In time Britain came to not only rely on the sea but to dominate the world's oceans. The Golden age of the British Empire’s power is known as Pax Britannia. This was the period from Trafalgar in 1805 to 1906 when Britain's Navy ruled every corner of the world's oceans. Not only did it possess the most technologically advanced ships and capable naval mindset, but it also met what’s known as the two power standard. Having the size and power to take on and beat the combination of the next two nations navies simultaneously. Although to the outside world the Royal Navy seemed unassailable until the start of WW1, the twilight on Pax Britain commenced in 1906 with the launch of HMS Dreadnought. The first in a new all-powerful class of battleship that levelled the naval playing field and started a naval arms race with Germany. Simultaneously the submarine was also being developed and with it the ability to choke off maritime supply lines into Britain in future wars. Whilst we typify this arms race as the Dreadnought Race, in reality, it was a revolution in naval warfare that encompassed submarines, the use of torpedoes as big ship killers, more powerful guns and centralized gunnery technology that concentrated fire on targets in a more destructive way than ever seen before at long range. In addition, air power started to play its part in reconnaissance. Thus naval warfare completely changed in a matter of eleven years from the pre-dreadnought battle of Tsushima in 1905, to the battle of Jutland in 1916. In the final stage of the battle, it was Admiral Jellico’s ability to concentrate massively superior firepower on the German fleet that decided the action in little more than two minutes of devastation. However in the end, despite all the new technology, it was a numbers game, combined with Britain's geographical advantage that allowed the Royal Navy to contain the German challenge in WW1. However, in so doing other naval powers such as America came to the fore and Britain’s naval power commenced its relative decline.
Revolutions in military affairs have most often been adopted more swiftly by the challenging protagonists seeking to overturn the balance of power. Thus during the early years of WW2 the royal navy still believed that the battleship was the queen of the seas, rather than the aircraft carriers which it had pioneered. Upon reflection, the British empire was founded on the power of the battle ship. So at some subconscious level, it was associated with the very nature of the British Empire. One might argue that the destruction of HMS Hood by the Bismarck represented a deep psychological blow to the British people, even though, like its sister ships in the battle of Jutland, as a battle cruiser it was hopelessly outclassed by a new battleship such as the Bismarck.
The delusion that battleships owned the oceans was finally shattered when the Japanese sunk HMS Renown and one of Britain’s most modern battleships HMS Prince of Wales in short order, as it attacked British interests post Pearl Harbour. Escorted by only a couple of destroyers and without land-based air cover, they were dispatched in short order as their light anti-aircraft protection was saturated by the Japanese air attack. Thus the lesson was that any ship could be sunk by aircraft and the greater the numbers of aircraft employed the more swiftly that saturation would be achieved and the ships inevitably destroyed.
The Rise Pax America
The routes of American sea power go back to its origins as a colony of Europe, and its reliance on trade with the old world. Success in the American War of Independence relied on the French fleet to defeat the Royal Navy and leave its relatively small army isolated and at the mercy of General Washington’s army. Indeed the founding fathers recognized the reliance of this new nation upon the sea, not only specifying the need to raise an army but to maintain a navy to keep its sea lanes open.
The American Civil War, Spanish War and then WW1 all catalyzed the development of American naval power that was ultimately focussed on overcoming the Royal Navy as written about by the great American naval strategist Manheim. Until post WW1 as new challenges appeared on the horizon. By the early thirties as a rising naval power, America was like the Japanese, swift to embrace the power of the aircraft carrier to project power into the pacific war zone. Indeed all of the major pacific naval battles involved aircraft carriers. As the war progressed warships in the pacific region bristled with anti-aircraft guns, some of which were by now radar-controlled, which together with kamikaze attacks, were able to inflict significant damage through saturation attacks which overwhelmed the defenders.
Whilst the lessons of the kamikaze attacks stayed with the US Navy, it is arguable that the Royal Navy had really incorporated the brutal lesson of ships vulnerability to air power by the start of the Falkland’s War. The principal anti-aircraft destroyer at the time was the Type 42 destroyer with its sea dart missile and engagement envelope of 30 miles 55 KM. Launched from two twin launches it could put four missiles in the air if the attackers were at a high level, but at low level the ground clutter made target bastions very difficult and the kill ratio dropped to 2/19.Thus the primary air defence ships of the fleet were very vulnerable to attack, unless protected by Type 22 point defence frigates with sea wolf missiles, which could kill multiple incoming targets even at low level such as except missiles. The lesson was very clear that the Royal Navy had been exceptionally lucky to survive against a second tier air force and that a new solution had to be found. The result was the type 45 air fence destroyer which is arguably the best design of its type in the world and the preferential escort of American aircraft carriers. The balance of power had finally moved back in favour of the air defence of ships at sea.
Simultaneously during the Cold War with the USSR, the WW2 Battle of the Atlantic carried forward its own lessons. A USSR navy was seeking to shut the supply routes from America to Europe much as Germany had tried to do in both world wars. It sought to use submarines and surface fleets with land-based planes to launch saturation attacks against its NATO enemy with mass cruise missiles attacks. The answer was the development of a highly able anti-submarine warfare capability by the USN, the Royal Navy and its NATO allies that could contain the Russian submarine threat. Combined with the development of a new class of Aegis Class USA warships in the form of cruisers and destroyers, that like the type 45, could counter saturation attacks with anti-missile missiles. By the end of the cold war, the balance of power was firmly in the hands of the US Navy and PAX America was preserved.
The Twilight of Pax America
Post Cold War, to the majority of the world Pax America seemed unassailable for decades into the future. However, the 594 ship USN was soon to go into swift decline and the peace dividend took its toll. Then Post 9/11 America was drawn into two land wars that sucked in national energy, money, and resources and most importantly distracted America from its connection to its true power base: The control of the world's seas. America tried to expose a new 1000 ship navy concept that interwove a web of alliances between rising regional naval powers that were aligned with American interest. However self-interest always came first and all the program did was to encourage a new global naval expansion, that further weakened Pax America.
Today the USN that should be 305 ships actually constitutes 276 major combatants that are aging, overworked and as a result, far less capable than the numbers suggest of sustained combat operations. Additionally, the US marine corps so vital to effective power projection from the sea, is also in a similar super strained condition. Notably, like Britain pre-1906 the USN is essentially structured on a similar basis as it was at the end of the cold war and has not begun to adapt the revolutions in military affairs that are being catalyzed by the new expanding navies that seek to undermine America global maritime influence.
Americas two main challenging powers have seen their opportunity and have been working hard to close the naval capability gap over the past two decades. Russia is now a significant naval treat with the potential to close off the Atlantic to commerce with its powerful submarine fleet. A Russian fleet whose technological cold war deficits have been rapidly narrowing, such that the US naval and its allies would be hard-pressed to contain it. Meanwhile, in the seas around China, the PLN has managed to build up its regional force structure such that it has become a no go zone for the USN. This has been achieved with the combination of Chinese submarines (even though relatively noisy) combined with the militarization of the south china seas with interconnected island bases and undersea sonar systems, coupled with conventional ballistic missile ship killers and a new breed of 1200 nm anti-ship missiles, some of which are hypersonic. These extended engagement ranges of 1200 nm were specifically designed to push back US carrier battle groups who without effective in-air refuelling for its planes need to operate at about 640 nm from their target set. The net sum effect of the Chinese revolutions in military affairs combine to create the inescapable conclusion that based on the old British two power standard, PAX America has now passed into the twilight.
Whilst today the American navy could destroy its Chinese counterpart in an open conflict, in so doing the USN would leave whole sectors of the worlds ocean un policed, allowing the Russian and Iranians to create their own leverage in a time of crisis. However, there is no doubt that America would now be mortally wounded if it had to face down China’s PLN, and its sea power would be irrevocably damaged with the ensuring losses. The PLN is employing the strategies of Nelson at Trafalgar and Wellington's Waterloo squares to create a localised concentration of firepower against the USN in the seas surrounding China, out to the two dash line.
Thus to deter Chinese and Russian aggression the USN needs new mass. This means immediate investment in new ships well beyond the 355 targets set by the USN. With Trump's support, new technologies such as long-range anti-ship missiles, and lasers and rail guns to counter saturation attacks are required. It needs to apply the concept of distributed lethality across its fleet of combat and support ships. This means that every ship in the fleet should carry weapons systems of self-defence and offence in the combat zone. At the same time, it needs a fleet of smaller screen ships to precede the larger combat units and expand the defensive umbrella radius. Lastly whilst large carries have their place on the battle line, it is time for the arrival of the F35B and to introduce large numbers of smaller ultra stealthy escort carriers of some 45,000 tonnes with CAT BAR planes that can forward deeply into high-intensity combat zones. In addition the US marine Corp. needs an enhanced ability to deploy from 500 miles plus fast invasion forces deployed by hovercraft and V-22 Ospreys, to decrease the risks of opposed landings.
The Pushback of Pax America
Not only do US maritime forces need to restructure and adapt new tactics to face new treats , above all else they need numbers to face down the mass missile attacks that China and Russia who are relying on the expansion of their global maritime power. China currently possesses the world’s greatest ship building capability, as did America in WW2. Thus America will have to urgently ramp up its ship building program to new levels of (wartime) productivity if it is to keep pace with China. American allies will also have to play their part. Today Japan, India, South Korea and Australia are all ramping up their naval investment. Only Britain and France have failed to follow suit and need to do so swiftly to counter the regional Russian threat and release the majority of Americas combat units to focus on containing China.
Thus the third great industrial naval arms race is afoot, and its remains to be seen, despite Trumps good intentions of building a 355 ship navy, if America will manage to keep pace with its challengers, sufficiently to deter the next major conflict when commodity prices sky rocket in 2025-27. Never forget that when two sides hold technological parity as China and America will do in the years ahead, numbers and the concentration of firepower will be critical to the outcome, as to whether China’s aggression can be deterred into a peaceful outcome.