Magazine article Insight on the News

Frigates: Brown Water Bargains

Magazine article Insight on the News

Frigates: Brown Water Bargains

Article excerpt

Lord Northbrook, a 19th-century member of the English Parliament, initiated the acquaintance. "I want to introduce Capt. John Fisher, who commanded the Inflexible, our biggest battleship, with 24 inches of armor and four 80-ton guns." Prime Minister William Gladstone studied Fisher for a moment. "Portentous weapons!" he finally said. "I really wonder how the human mind can bear such responsibility." Replied Fisher, "Oh, sir, the common vulgar mind doesn't feel that sort of thing."

Just as Fisher and the British Grand Fleet considered the lack of naval adversaries and the flux of new and controversial weaponry toward the end of the last century, the U.S. Navy is reexamining its role in a post-Cold War world fraught with palpable new dangers and emergent technologies. But the mind of a commanding officer of a US. combatant isn't common and vulgar. There is no accommodation for such qualities in today's high-tech, high-cost professional Navy.

The captain of a billion-dollar ship equipped with the Aegis combat data system is the only man who could lose a battle in 360 seconds -- the time it takes an air-to-surface missile to leave the wing of a hostile bomber outside antiaircraft defense and burn the thin aluminum skin of the ship's superstructure. Given this high-pressure climate, it's no wonder that captains of taxpayer-financed hardware think twice about putting their charges in the way of harm.

Two trends have affected surface combatants during the last few decades. Technological advances have brought more firepower and accuracy to the platform without increases in size or reductions in stability. In addition, combatants have become more complex while forfeiting more and more weaponry to aircraft. The Navy has tried to mollify critics by outfitting current ships with Harpoon and Tomahawk surface-to-surface missiles. Yet, American surface combatants are designed, built and commissioned with the explicit understanding that they will always be in the presence of a carrier.

For example, the new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which cost $850 million each, have incorporated the Aegis system and added an armored superstructure. However, even these ships can be overwhelmed by land-based bombers armed with air-to-surface missiles -- such as those in China's air force and numerous Russian exports.

Given the cost of Burke destroyers and Ticonderoga-class cruisers, fewer can be procured and other surface combatants must be retired or mothballed to save manpower and dollars. Ironically, smaller, cheaper platforms such as frigates possess far greater utility for "brown water" or coastal combat -- the type of conflict likely to occur in the 21st century. …

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