Academic journal article Naval War College Review

A Case for Maneuverability

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

A Case for Maneuverability

Article excerpt

BRITISH NAVAL HISTORIAN JULIAN S. CORBETT was the first to point out, almost a century ago, a disturbing phenomenon concerning the future of the surface fleet: "The vital, most difficult, and most absorbing problem has become not how to increase the power of a battle-fleet for attack, which is a comparatively simple matter, but how to defend it."1

Corbett was referring to the newly developing threat of attack by flotillas of torpedo boats protecting their home waters. Obviously, some quite efficient answers were given to his concern as the century evolved. However, in the past few decades similar warnings have once again been voiced, this time regarding the introduction into the maritime arena of the guided missile. As with Corbett's torpedo boats, the issue is a particular constraint imposed by a newly developing threat to surface fleets in littoral waters.2 Again like Corbett, this essay will argue that the primary answer to the problem is to enhance maneuverability, as-if in a somewhat different way than-Sir Julian had in mind in 1911.

The New Kid on the Block

On the face of it, we have here simply the old problem of maintaining the fundamental balance between threats and responses-a problem as old as threats and responses themselves. For instance, surface ships found means to limit Corbett's torpedo threat at a level that imposed no significant restriction on their operations near the shore.

New ships were built with armored hulls, "screens of cruisers" were replaced by aircraft, gunnery capabilities were improved; today, consequently, torpedoboat attack-using torpedoes-is a thing of the past. Guided missiles, and precision weapons as a whole, are a totally different matter. We are facing today in the littoral the result of a major imbalance between maritime firepower and maneuverability, one that has developed since World War II and that missiles have dramatically exposed. Technically, the introduction of the missile into the maritime arena has created a differential between offense and defense, in which the latter is racing to match the opponent system-to-system but, in principle, constantly lags behind.3

Consequently, surface ships have been forced to become moving "weaponislands," while submarines now rely principally upon maneuverability for their self-defense, retaining for that purpose only their primary attack systems-and in the case of ballistic missile submarines, not even that. In other words, the surface fleet has been obliged to give up maneuverability altogether as a means to defend itself, and to depend upon firepower alone. Conversely, submarines have abandoned the option of challenging their adversaries actively, in favor of remaining stealthy.

The environment in which these radical dynamics operate features the modem coastal defense system, a new element in warfare that should be watched very carefully. It has a potential to play a significant role in the future. In fact, coastal defense systems today look disturbingly like a stationary surface fleet. They have highly developed identification capabilities, long detection ranges, and passive sensors, and they employ coastal versions of the very weapons their opponents offshore carry. Further, they have few of a fleet's deficiencies: they do not sink, they are much less conspicuous and identifiable, and they have no inherent limits of resources, supply, ammunition, or manpower.

If the foreseeable future of maritime warfare is to be one of limited, low-intensity conflicts in the littoral, then an additional observation (a somewhat dramatic one) of Corbett concerning the torpedo threat is worth quoting: "Our most dearly cherished strategical traditions were shaken to the bottom. The `proper place' for our battle-fleet had always been `on the enemy's coasts,' and now that was precisely where the enemy would be best pleased to see it."4

We are not yet, to be sure, quite that far along; the nations involved have other options, and the process is still in its first stages. …

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