Surface Forces: August 13, 1999


Spain and Britain are competing for a new contract to build six escorts for Norway. The problem is the $1.3 billion budget limit set by Norway. Spain offered to build five ships equipped with US-designed Aegis systems for that price. Britain then offered five ships with the new Integrated Weapon System carrying Samson missiles. Spain then countered with its own IWS system, saying it can deliver six ships within the budget. --Stephen V Cole

August 7; The US Navy plans to introduce the Mark-54 Lightweight Hybrid Torpedo into the fleet in 2003 for shallow-water missions. This torpedo includes the proven propulsion system of the Mk-46, the proven sonar from the Mk-50, and the Advanced Capabilities software from the Mk-48. By combining existing systems, the Navy feels it has saved money while securing a more potent weapon against shallow-water diesel submarines. It will eventually replace the Mk-46. --Stephen V Cole

August 7; The US Navy has commissioned DDG78 Porter, the 28th Aegis Destroyer and the fourth US warship named Porter. The ship is named for Commodore David Porter (famous from the War of 1812) and his son Vice Admiral David Dixon Porter (famous for many Civil War naval battles). --Stephen V Cole

Warships that Float, Otherwise Known as Targets

For thousands of years, warships moved across the seas, controlling events wherever they went. No longer. In the 20th century submarines and aircraft came along and turned the noble and ancient surface warship into something that bubbleheads (submariners) and airdales (aviators) dismissively call "targets."

It's true. Although submarines got knocked around a lot in the first half of the century, once they got nuclear power they became much harder to detect and destroy. Aircraft were the scourge of surface ships during World War II, and it got worse as the century wore on.

What's a surface sailor to do? Prayer has been frequently suggested, or a switch to a less vulnerable military career. The problem is, we still need surface ships. Even aircraft carriers, which carry those ship killing aircraft, are surface ships. But submariners regularly bring naval exercises to an end when they quickly torpedo the carriers. With virtual torpedoes, of course, but the surface sailors get the point. Submarines are too expensive to put everyone under water and aircraft cannot be everywhere all the time. So you still have a lot of surface ships out there, nervously wondering how long they will last if they encounter aircraft or subs.

But let's not get carried away, for things are not quite as dire as they seem. For one thing, the dominance of subs and aircraft is a late 20th century development. The nuclear sub did not appear in numbers until the 1960s, and has been used in combat just once (during the 1982 Falklands war, where a British sub sank an Argentinean cruiser. While subs sneak in and virtually sink surface ships regularly during training exercises, it works the other way as well. The subs take a virtual drubbing from aircraft, mines and surface ships as they close in for the kill. Because subs are so expensive, and take so long to build, you'll run out of them long before you lose all your surface ships and aircraft.

Aircraft also have problems, the principal one being the weather. Even when equipped with radar and other electronic search aids, weather at sea if often so bad that you can't even get the aircraft into the air. Surface ships have long been built, and their crews trained, to deal with the nasty weather often found out on the open water. Subs, of course, are beneath it all and have little to worry about from bad weather (except that it makes it more difficult to get a good shot at surface ships.) The other problem air planes still have to deal with is the sheer immensity of ocean areas. Our planet is mostly water, and even with all those space satellites, it is still a chore to find ships, especially ones that don't want to be found. Many warships also have formidable anti-aircraft defenses. While aircraft are cheaper than subs, they are also easier to spot and knock down.

Surface ships have also become more lethal to each other. In the last few decades of the 20th century, missiles have gradually replaced the cannon ships depended on for the last four centuries. You now have warships equipped with nothing but missiles, or little more than one or two small caliber cannon. There are missiles for attacking other ships, aircraft, land targets and submarines. The anti-sub missiles carry a lightweight torpedo that is released out where the sub is suspected to be and then searches for a target until one is found, or fuel is exhausted. While aircraft are the easiest target for the missiles, surface ships are a close second. Most modern warships have little or no armor, so one or two missile hits can prove fatal. Carriers, because of their sheer bulk, can take more hits, but only if they have some warning (to get bombs and fuel more securely stored.)

And it gets worse. Naval mines, another 19th century weapon perfected in the 20th, are most often used against surface ships. Subs are at risk as well, but are better equipped to avoid the mines altogether.

So why do we have all these targets floating around waiting to be hit? Because there's nothing cheaper to replace them. It would be nice if the bubbleheads and airdales stopped calling surface ships "targets," though.


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