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Born To Die: Streetfighter

by Stephen V Cole

The US Navy is continuing to explore the concept of small, expendable, gunboats that would have a key role in a future naval conflict along an enemy coast. Streetfighter is designed to be small and cheap, something that can poke its nose into the kind of congested coastal waters that the blue-water US Navy hates and wants to avoid. The problem is that the smallest US warships (frigates, which are now being retired, and destroyers) are too expensive to lose, and fighting in littoral waters (where islands and bays could hide enemy ships as well as truck-mounted missiles, where submarines are hard to track, where mines are more useful, and where commercial ships clutter the radar screen) is as nasty and bloody as city fighting is to the Army. Expensive ships going into these congested areas will be bushwhacked at short range by much cheaper and smaller missile boats (and missile trucks) which can remain hidden until their targets are in range. The small Streetfighter class is intended to get into these areas and detect enemy forces (even if that means detecting them by getting sunk by them) which other units (larger ships farther from shore as well as aircraft) would then destroy. Such scenarios have been played out in many real and imaginary areas; recent scenarios have depicted a war with China in which the US tries to hunt down the Chinese submarine force which is hiding in shallow coastal waters.

The problem is that Streetfighter is designed to take casualties. For the cost of a destroyer, the Navy could buy ten-fifteen Streetfighters, and in a serious naval conflict on an enemy coast, could expect to lose many of them before destroying the enemy Navy. The alternative is to either not fight the war or to use (and lose) much more expensive ships. In the post-Vietnam era when the military fears casualties (and their negative impact on public support for the war in question), building an entire class of ships and expecting to lose half of them in a war is a tough pill to swallow. It is debatable if Generation Y will enlist to serve on "suicide boats" and whether Congress would vote to buy them. In one recent survey, a majority of Americans said they would accept 7,000 combat deaths if US troops could bring peace to the Democratic Congo, but a majority (including the same swing voters) said they would start calling for a withdrawal of troops when casualties hit 300. The Gulf War, which was won (against a blindingly incompetent enemy) with only 293 combat deaths may reinforce the idea that building ships for attrition warfare is the wrong idea. Some have proposed using unmanned aircraft and even small unmanned ships to "smoke out" the enemy hiding in such congested waters and target them with long-range missiles fired by real warships standing a hundred miles or more offshore.

The situation that the American public cannot grasp (because no one dares explain it to them) is that the next war WILL involve serious casualties in personnel, ships, aircraft, and vehicles. Taking a serious look at how to win a naval war against an advanced diesel submarine force hiding in shallow water overwatched by truck-mounted anti-ship missiles is ultimately a responsible move, but nobody wants to have to explain this to the voters. It would be entirely too easy for the other party to present the case against building attrition forces within the limits of the attention span of the public.

Casualties may not be that big a factor, however. One recent wargame (hunting Chinese subs along that nation's coast) left the retired American officers and intelligence specialists confused. The imaginary Streetfighters programmed into the computers had only 13 people on board, so sinking them did not result in the large body count that would bring American public opinion to a boil. The "Chinese" were never certain that hunting down Streetfighters was worth the bother. The datalinked Streetfighters were, however, dangerous to the Chinese Navy. Any unit which attacked one had a very high chance of killing it, but an even higher chance of being destroyed minutes later as several other Streetfighters locked in its position. Trading one Streetfighter for each Chinese submarine was a swap the Chinese Navy could not afford. Navy officers, however, became shocked at their own callousness in sending Streetfighters into an area without really caring how many were sunk before the enemy was wiped out.

Opposition to the Streetfighter concept is deeper than just avoiding casualties. In one sense, such ships exist in the small gunboats used to deploy SEAL teams, and these small ships have given the US a tough lesson. The diminutive gunboats cannot stay at sea more than a week or two (they don't even do their laundry on board) and require more support than larger warships. They are less stable in bad weather and, while tactically faster, are strategically slower to get to an unexpected war. The US shipbuilding industry has relatively little experience with such vessels and would rather make the more profitable destroyers. In a sense, the Streetfighter may come to life more as an allied warship than an American one. Smaller nations facing shrinking budgets are looking at warships amazingly like Streetfighter. The low purchase price and low personnel cost are attractive, while the operational limitations for ships that would rarely operate far from home are not really a problem. The Swedes have just launched the Visby, a stealth version of Streetfighter that could conduct operations across the Baltic in waters near, for example, Latvia.


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