Surface Forces: February 6, 2004

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Warships from Americas allies are seen more often operating with US navy task forces. Just last month USS George Washington left port with its air wing and four other vessels, including the Canadian frigate HMCS Toronto. Last summer an Argentine destroyer participated in exercises with USS Enterprise, and Toronto herself deployed with carriers Roosevelt and Stennis during a six-month operation in the Mediterranean, ending in May of 2002.

US forces are stretched thin with its many global commitments and the ongoing War on Terror, and the navy is calling for more allied participation in its operations. In the case of Canada, a long time NATO member, the possibility of integration is seen as seamless. NATO warships all carry standard communications gear, while the Internet further increases interconnectivity. 

Although allied navies lack many capabilities found in major sea powers, such as super carriers and large amphibious groups, they do possess valuable assets and capabilities. Guided missile frigates, corvettes, and fast attack craft, often seen as liabilities in the US Navy, are looked on as valuable resources in smaller navies. Since September 11, and the increasing emphasis on littoral (coastal) warfare, such light and inexpensive ships have become the weapon of choice. Slowly the Americans are doing an about face on this deficiency in its capabilities, by building new littoral ships especially tailored for coastal operations.

Frigates from Canada and other nations have proven invaluable to Americas War on Terror. Immediately following the attacks of 2001, NATO established Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean. This show of resolve by 8 European countries have been essential in interdicting terrorists on the high seas and protecting friendly shipping. A Canadian led Task Group was also created in the Arabian Sea during Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), the US war in Afghanistan. Vessels from 12 navies have assisted the Canadians in intercepting and boarding vessels suspected of transporting members of Al Qaeda from Pakistan and Afghanistan, to Arabia. In December 2002, the Spanish frigate Navarra detained a North Korean merchant ship bound for Yemen and loaded with Scud missiles. Though the ship was eventually released, its capture revealed the seriousness of WMD proliferation on the high seas. 

Allied warships also provide American sailors with valuable expertise in naval exercises. The threat from rogue states operating diesel/electric submarines in littoral waters is seen as increasing, and only friendly navies with conventional subs give the Navy the opportunity to test countermeasures. The US has not had any diesel/electric subs since the 1960s, relying on its allies to play the aggressor in naval maneuvers. This was dramatically underscored recently when an Australian Collins class boat diesel/electric sank its American nuclear-powered counterpart during a mock attack with a dummy torpedo. 

The coalition invasion of Iraq last year seemed to place a wedge in allied cooperation, yet at sea it was business as usual. Germany, one of the more vocal critics of the war, sent a frigate and tanker to the Arabian Sea. The French carrier Charles De Gaulle briefly operated in the eastern Med, in case Saddam used WMD on coalition forces. Warships from Canada and elsewhere continued to intercept and board suspect vessels, releasing American, Australian, and British ships for combat duty.

One of the surprising participants of the terror war has been Japan. Long an active partner during the Cold War and possessed with a large and capable fleet, she only recently has been allowed by law to partake in foreign excursions. Japanese support ships are seen resupplying US ships in rear areas, while her powerful Aegis destroyers provide valuable air cover. It is obvious Japan is awakening from its self-imposed isolation after World War Two, and becoming more active in world conflicts, thankfully on the side of the West.

The overstretched US Fleet is smaller than its ever been in modern times. With less than 300 vessels there is no sign of an increase in numbers in sight. These reductions in size will only make America more dependent on the navies of friendly countries, and make it less likely to antagonize them politically in the future. --Mike Burleson

 


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