Tag Archives: World War II

The Geometry of War at Sea: The Leyte Gulf Example

LCDR Daniel T. Murphy, U.S. Navy

Introduction 

General MacArthur’s operational idea, eventually embraced by Admiral Nimitz, President Roosevelt, and the Joint Chiefs, was to retake the Philippines as an intermediate base of operations from which to launch air strikes against Formosa, and eventually the Japanese home islands. Leyte was selected as the initial entry point to the Philippines because it had an “excellent anchorage” and was a location from which land-based bombers could reach all parts of the Philippines, the coast of China, and Formosa.1

The Japanese Imperial General Headquarters had a strong feeling that the two prongs of the American offensive would converge on the Philippines in what Milan Vego would describe as a penetration maneuver, where the attacker seeks to break up or penetrate a selected sector of the defender’s main line of position and move into his rear area.2  Japan’s most critical Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) to the southern resource area ran through the Philippines. The Luzon Strait was an especially important SLOC. According to Donald Chisolm, the southern resource area provided 75 percent of the world’s rubber, 66 percent of the world’s tin, and had initially given Japan self-sufficiency in petroleum.  U.S. anti-shipping activities through 1944 had already reduced Japan’s oil supply to a trickle. Losing the Philippines would run the well dry.3

When U.S. forces landed in Leyte, Japan had prepared a quick counterattack in the hope of forcing the Mahanian battle they had sought since Midway. To destroy the U.S. fleet and retain the Philippines, Japan’s SHO-1 plan involved a double envelopment maneuver that required careful synchronization between diversionary and attacking forces.

Lines of Operation

For the invasion of Leyte, U.S. forces had one principal line of operation and two ancillary lines. The principal line was the landing on the western shore of Leyte, under the operational control of MacArthur. This principal line included land, sea and air components. The Seventh Fleet naval component, under Admiral Kinkaid, included a Northern TF 78 under Rear Admiral Barbey which landed at Tacloban and a Southern TF 89 under Vice Admiral Wilkinson which landed at Dulag.

Prior to the initiation of the principal line of operation, the first ancillary line was initiated by Vice Admiral Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38. TF 38, which included carrier groups TG 38.1, 38.2, 38.3 and 38.4, attacked Japanese air bases in Okinawa, Luzon, and Formosa. By destroying more than 500 aircraft and reducing Japan’s cadre of newly trained pilots, this initial ancillary line of operation reduced Japan’s air capacity to challenge the U.S. movement into Leyte.

A second ancillary line was the protection of the landing operation. This ancillary line had two operational commanders. Admiral Kinkaid had tactical control of multiple Seventh Fleet components, including the Fire Support Group TG 77.2, the Close Covering Group TG 77.3, the Escort Carrier Group TG 77.4 under Rear Admiral Sprague (which included the carriers assigned to Taffy 1, 2, 3 and 4), and the PT boat squadrons assigned to TG 70.1. Also providing protection to the landing operation was Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38, over which MacArthur did not have operational control. TF38 transitioned from the first ancillary line to this second ancillary line after the initial landings were completed. Halsey reported directly to Nimitz at CINCPAC and had a supporting relationship with MacArthur and Kinkaid.  Arguably, the lack of unified command over this secondary but critical line is one of the reasons that the Leyte operation was put at risk when Halsey uncovered the San Bernardino Strait to pursue the Japanese Northern force.

Approach of Naval Forces in the lead up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf (Via history.army.mil)

The deployment of the U.S. submarines DARTER and DACE to intercept and reduce Kurita’s Center Force as it approached the operating area may be considered a third ancillary line, especially since the subs were strategic assets that remained under CINCPAC control. 

To counterattack against the U.S. invasion, Japan had one principal and one ancillary line of operation.  According to Vego, Japan’s principal line of operation was the Center Force under Vice Admiral Kurita that intended to penetrate the San Bernardino Strait and attack U.S. landing forces at Tacloban. Vego said the Southern Force under Vice Admirals Shima and Nishimura that intended to transit Surigao and attack the U.S. landing force from the south was an ancillary line.4  One could argue that the Center and Southern forces were either: (a) two pincer components of one principal line of operation; or (b) two separate principal lines. The diversionary Northern force under Vice Admiral Ozawa was the ancillary line intended to divert the U.S. fast carrier task forces to the north, so that they could not threaten the Center and Southern Forces.

As the battle evolved, Japanese lines of operation remained static. However, U.S. lines shifted between 24-25 October. Halsey created a new line of operation when he transitioned TF 38 from a covering force to an offensive force focused on Ozawa’s Northern force.  Admiral Kinkaid created two new lines of operation when he detached Rear Admiral Oldendorf to guard Surigao Strait with his battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and PT boats against the Southern Force, and Rear Admiral Sprague to defend against Center Force which came through San Bernardino.

Basing Structure and Impact on Operations

Per Vego’s definition, a base of operations should provide multiple short lines of operations.5 Before Leyte, Japan occupied what Vego called a “central position with respect to the adjacent Asian landmass and any hostile force approaching from across the Pacific.”6 Compared to the U.S., Japan had multiple relatively short interior lines of communication. The Japanese home islands were the main base, and Luzon was an intermediate base.

However, as explained by Chisolm, Japan’s combined interior lines totaled more than 18,000 nautical miles and the Luzon Strait was a significant choke point in that network. The Japanese had not built sufficient submarines or destroyers to protect those lines and they had not built sufficient shipping capacity to make up for losses due to U.S. anti-shipping efforts.7 So, although Japan had a base of operations with multiple short interior lines, the U.S. found the weak points in that base early in the war and attacked it with the submarine force. Then, in the campaigns leading up to the Leyte operation, U.S. forces eliminated several of Japan’s fleet oilers. As a result, after the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Japanese carriers returned to home waters where they could be protected by land-based aircraft and continue to train pilots. Japan’s other large combatants moved to Lingga Roads (Singapore), where they had access to oil, but less access to ammunition and less ability to operate with the carriers.

Thus, in the summer of 1944, the Japanese basing structure was already significantly weakened. If the U.S. was able to dislodge Japan from their intermediate base in Luzon, they would essentially turn Japan’s network of interior lines into a network of exterior lines, vulnerable not only to continued submarine attack, but also to land-based air attack.

Japanese shipping routes destroyed during the Leyte Operation. (Via history.army.mil)

In comparison, the U.S. occupied what Vego calls an exterior position in the theater. The U.S. mainland was the main base of operations, and Hawaii was an intermediate base. As explained by Chisolm, the U.S.’s exterior lines into the South Pacific were extremely long – more than six thousand miles from the U.S. mainland, and more than two thousand miles from Australia.8 However, the U.S. exterior lines were not as vulnerable as the Japanese interior lines. While the Japanese fleet was suffering from attrition, the U.S. fleet was expanding, and each month was able to increase the number of escort resources dedicated to the protection of shipping. And while Japan’s link to their southern resource area was becoming increasingly tenuous, CONUS-based war production was hardly resource-constrained.

Decisive Points in the Operation

Vego defines a decisive point as a geographic location or source of military or non-military power to be targeted for destruction or neutralization.9 As Vego suggests, the San Bernardino and Surigao Straits were decisive points for the Japanese heavy surface forces in their intended advance to Leyte Gulf.10 However, for Japan, the most decisive point in the operation was in the Leyte Gulf itself, where the U.S. landing force would be vulnerable and where the Seventh and Third fleets would be protecting the landings. It was there that Admiral Toyoda planned for his pincers to join in a combined action against the U.S. fleet, ideally with a Mahanian ending.

In contrast, prior to Japan’s counter attack, U.S. forces focused on two decisive points: the northern and southern landing zones on the west coast of Leyte. When Japanese forces counter-attacked, the U.S. changed focus and saw the two straits, San Bernardino and Surigao, as the most decisive points. As a result, Admiral Kinkaid massed the firepower of his surface fleet in the Surigao Strait and expected the airpower of Halsey’s TF 38 to cover San Bernardino. 

Conclusion

MacArthur’s operational idea of capturing the Philippines to create an intermediate base of operations for air strikes against Formosa and the Japanese home islands worked. Seven years after Leyte, Nimitz said “from hindsight . . . I think that decision was correct.”11  In summary, U.S. lines of operation were more flexible and less interdependent than the Japanese lines of operation. Ironically, the external U.S. basing structure, when looked at holistically, had greater durability than the internal Japanese basing structure. Also, the U.S. more effectively concentrated kinetic effects on specific decisive points in the geography, and specifically in the Surigao Strait. U.S. forces ultimately won at Leyte because they better exploited the geometry of the operating area.  

Daniel T. Murphy is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, currently serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence. In his civilian career, he is a full-time professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University. Lieutenant Commander Murphy earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, and master’s degrees from Georgetown University and from the National Intelligence University. 

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Government.

References

[1] M. Hamlin Cannon, Leyte: The Return to the Philippines, Washington: Center for Military History, 1993), 3.

[2] Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice, (Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2009), VII-54.

[3] Donald Chisolm, Leyte Gulf: The Strategic Background (NWC lecture), U.S. Naval War College, 2009.

[4] Vego, IV-64.

[5] Vego, IV-56.

[6] Vego, IV-53.

[7] Chisolm (NWC lecture).

[8] Chisolm.

[9] Vego, IV-60.

[10] Vego, IV-61.

[11] Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte: June 1944-January 1945, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1958) 10.

Featured Image: The crew of the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku salute as the flag is lowered during the battle off Cape Engaño, October 25, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

Silent Victory: U.S. Submarines in the Pacific, 1941-1945

By LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN

Silent VictoryConsim Press has published a fantastic solo player wargame in Silent Victory: U.S. Submarines in the Pacific, 1941-1945.  With game design by Gregory M. Smith, Silent Victory offers a little bit of everything for someone looking for an immersive, historical naval wargame that is easy to play yet detailed enough to be fulfilling for an advanced gamer.


“EXECUTE AGAINST JAPAN UNRESTRICTED AIR AND SUBMARINE WARFARE.”

– Chief of Naval Operations


It’s 1941 and you are a U.S. sub skipper in WWII; tasked to sink Japanese ships — tankers, freighters, personnel carriers, escorts, and capital warships — wherever you find them in the Pacific. You can play as a historical WWII sub skipper or, rather, you can simply play as yourself and choose the class of submarine you’d like to command.  You can even name the boat. When you crack open the box you’ll be impressed with how well Consim has done here.  The patrol maps, captain cards, combat mats, and submarine display mats are all printed on a heavy card-stock and the print quality is excellent.  Also included in the box are the required dice and plenty of copies of the Silent Victory patrol log sheet — important, as it is used to record the total number of tons you sink on your combat missions.

Captain Cards
Silent Victory “Captain Cards” — Play any number of historical U.S. submarine skippers. The cards are well made and display the captain’s awards, patrols, and ships/tonnage sunk.

Game Setup 

The game’s “footprint” is moderate — you’ll need a dinning room table or some floor space to lay out most of the game’s playing mats.  However, if you are space constrained, you can simply stack some of the player mats on top of one another and then retrieve them when it is time to reference a mat during a roll.  Below you’ll see my setup, and even though I had ample table space, I still stacked some of the mats (namely, the target mats which list all Japanese ships), until I needed them.  This is what it looks like:

Silent Victory Setup
Silent Victory setup takes, in my case, up to 2x3ft of a kitchen table. I decided to stack some of the mats underneath others, and I would pull them out when I needed them.

Game setup is tedious for folks playing the game for the first time.  The only reason for this, really, is that you’ll have to punch out all of the game pieces that come with the game. These include everything from Japanese ships to markers that show awards and ranks.  Future game setup is much easier if you take the time to organize the game pieces into plastic bags — grouping munitions in one, for example, and then Japanese ships in others, awards in one, torpedoes in another, and so on.

Now, before you start sinking Japanese ships, the basic setup goes like this:

1.) You decide if you want to play a historical skipper, which includes a specific submarine and starting period (you don’t have to start in 1941), to include patrols (e.g,. The Marianas, The Philippines, The Marshalls, and more). Many of these skippers already come with roll bonuses due to experience. The other option is you simply pick a submarine class and starting point (often dictated by when the submarine class enters service) and then roll dice for patrol areas, next;

2.) You’ll load out your submarine with the good stuff — torpedoes in forward and aft tubes, and ammo for the deck mounted guns on your specific submarine type. The game makers made this easy as each submarine combat mat states on the top of the mat exactly the type of torpedoes available for that submarine. For most, this was a mix of MK14 (steam) and MK18 (electric) torpedoes. Finally;

3.) Fill out your Silent Victory submarine log with the name of the sub, your captain’s name, your rank, and place your boat marker at your home port — now you’re ready to begin.

Gameplay

Once you’ve identified your patrol area, you move your submarine marker through the transit points and into the boxes located in your patrol areas. At each point, to include transit points, you’ll roll dice to see if you encounter enemy units.

North Pacific
Transiting to the Marshall Islands for patrol. Notice on the right hand side that I’ve loaded my torpedo tubes with a mixture of MK18 and MK14 torpedoes.

While transiting, you might come across an aircraft or maybe a lone ship, but this is rare as roll of the dice go. Once you enter your patrol areas, however, the possibilities of rolling an encounter increase. For encounters, you can run into warships, convoys with escorts, or unescorted ships.To the game designer’s credit, they’ve assigned different probabilities per year as to what ships a submarine skipper might encounter. For example, it was tough to find a large Japanese freighter or Japanese capital warship still afloat by 1945. 

Small Freighter
One of the game’s Japanese target mats. You’ll roll two d10s to determine which target you’ve encountered.

Next, when you encounter a Japanese merchant vessel or Japanese warship, you can attack it (you can also choose to not attack). You will roll for day or night. Are you surfaced or submerged? You then assign the type and number of torpedoes and/or deck gun shots against your target(s). Then you will roll to see how effective each shot is. If not already obvious, dice will determine a lot of what occurs in this game — damage to your ship, damage to Japanese ships, being detected, dud torpedoes, and more.  Oh, did I say “dud torpedoes?” Yes. This was a problem in WWII. It is also one of the things that make this a challenging game.

Torps
I encountered two Japanese ships during one patrol. I assigned three torpedoes for each on my combat mat. Excessive? Not really. I quickly learned that for each torpedo launched in 1943 there was a 33% chance that it would not explode or hit its target.

For every torpedo you fire, you’ll roll a 1d6 dice for a dud. Roll a 1 or 2, well, you are out of luck. It might have hit, but it didn’t explode. Dud. This happened to me at least three times in two patrols. It was a fact — the U.S. Navy had a torpedo problem. Clay Blair Jr.’s magisterial book Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan made this clear:

“…[T}he submarine force was hobbled by defective torpedoes.  Developed in peacetime but never realistically tested against targets, the U.S. submarine torpedo was believed to be one of the most lethal weapons in the history of naval warfare.  It had two exploders, a regular one that detonated it on contact with the side of an enemy ship and a very secret “magnetic exploder” that would detonate it beneath the keel of a ship without contact.  After the war began, submariners discovered the hard way that the torpedo did not run steadily at the depth set into its controls and often went much deeper than designed, too deep for the magnetic exploder to work.”

Blair notes that not until late 1943 would the U.S. Navy fix the numerous torpedo problems.

For my recent game play, I decided to play as Lieutenant Commander Slade Cutter, USN. Cutter, who originally intended to be a professional flutist, ended the war with four Navy Crosses, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star with combat “V,” and a Presidential Unit Citation. He sank over 140,000 tons of Japanese shipping. In two hours of gameplay I couldn’t come close to that number. But we had a good run. I played the first two patrol areas listed on Cutter’s captain card: The Marianas and The Marshall Islands.

SLUG: ME/Cutter-ob DATE SHOT: 07/27/1944 (Downloaded 06/12/2005 by EEL) CREDIT: AP Photo/U.S. Navy CAPTION:Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Lt. Cmdr. Slade Cutter, right, for his exploits as a submarine skipper in raids against Japanese shipping on July 27, 1944 at a ceremony in San Francisco. Lt. Cmdr. Cutter of Vallejo and Hollywood, sank 18 Japanese ships, during three successive patrols in enemy-controlled waters. Cutter was also awarded two gold stars in lieu of second and third Navy Crosses.
U.S. Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Lt. Cmdr. Slade Cutter, right. AP Photo.

To summarize two patrols and two hours of play, these were the highlights:

  • I encountered an escorted ship in The Marianas.  I rolled a dud for one MK 18 but assigned enough torpedoes to sink the freighter and its escort on subsequent rolls.
  • I encountered an aircraft.  I rolled a successful crash dive and staved off any damage.
  • I was rebased to Australia following a “random event” roll.  (These may occur once in a patrol.)
  • I refit my submarine when I rebased in Australia.
  • On my Marshall Islands patrol I encountered a three ship convoy with an escort.  I sunk all three merchant vessels, but had to finish the last merchant vessel off with the deck gun (5”) — which I assigned at the last moment.
  • I encountered a warship which I decided not to engage.
  • And I returned to base after two successful patrols and earned two battle stars, a navy cross, and rolled for promotion to Commander — which was successful.
tons
After two patrols I sunk 8 ships that totaled 28,200 tons. A few got away…

I was fortunate. During my two patrols, when I encountered escorts and rolled for detection, I always rolled “no detection.” If I had been detected, I would have had to roll for depth charge destruction. This includes flooding, damage to systems, hull damage, and sailors injured or killed. Not good. But I managed to get everyone back home after two patrols with all fingers and toes. Still, the risk was there every time I decided to engage a convoy with escorts. So, why is this game so much fun?

Conclusion

There are three reasons why this game succeeds.  

First, historical accuracy. From the problems with torpedoes, to the detailed lists of Japanese merchant and capital ships, or to the specific weapons load out of each U.S. submarine in WWII, it is all there. The makers of this game did not cut any corners. They did their homework and tried, I think successfully, to incorporate significant historical facts into the gameplay.

Second, a risk/reward based gameplay experience. Every decision you make — from the torpedoes you use to deciding if you want to attack submerged and at close or long distance — incurs risk.  There are numerous tradeoffs. For instance, you can attack from long distance submerged, but you suffer a roll modifier and risk not hitting your target. Or, you can be aggressive, and attack at close range, surfaced at night, which may increase your chance of hit but also increase your chance of detection. It just depends.  

Finally, simple game rules.  Complicated games are no fun to play. As a player, I don’t want to spend 10 minutes looking up rule after rule in a rulebook the size of a encyclopedia. In Silent Victory,  the designers have done us a favor. The rules are clearly written and extensive, and after a single read through I referred to them occasionally. But more important, the combat mat has the dice roll encounter procedures printed on it, all within easy view. Also, the other mats all have reference numbers and clearly identify which dice should be rolled for what effects. It is all right there on the mats. This makes for a fun, smooth playing experience. And finally, if I were add another reason why this game is worth your money, it is the game’s replay value. You can conduct numerous patrols and no two patrols will ever be the same.

Silent Victory is a fun naval wargame that will appeal to the novice or expert gamer – and maybe you’ll learn something along the way.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a staff officer at the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The opinions here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Return of the Clandestine Merchant Raider?

By Chuck Hill

Since before recorded history, merchant vessels have been adapted for offensive purposes by navies, pirates, and privateers to destroy enemy commerce or to launch attacks ashore. Frequently they employed disguise and deception. The UK employed Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) during the 1982 Falklands War, the Malaysian Navy has converted two container ships into pirate hunters, and the US Navy has leased ships to support special operations, but I think the last time they were used to attack commerce was WWII. By the end 1943, it appeared that technology, primarily in the form of reliable radios, plus robust challenge-and-reply procedures, a comprehensive naval control of shipping organization, and a seemingly impervious blockade of the German coast, had made this type of  warfare very dangerous, but new technology may now be working in favor of using converted merchant ships as clandestine warships.

The German Experience

During World Wars I and II, the German Navy achieved considerable success using armed merchant ships as clandestine merchant raiders. At small cost they sank or captured a large number of allied merchant vessels, tied down a number of warships searching for the raiders, and even managed to sink allied warships.

In World War I, three raiders, Wolf, Moewe, and Seeadler (a full rigged sailing ship), sank or captured 78 ships totaling 323,644 tons. In addition to the merchant ships they captured or sank directly, merchant raiders proved effective mine layers. One victim of a mine laid by the raider Moewe was the pre-dreadnought battleship EdwardVII, sunk on 6 January, 1915.

In World War II nine German Merchant raiders, Atlantis, Komet, Kormoran, Michel, Orion, Pinguin, Stier, Thor, and Widder, sank or captured 129 ships, totaling 800,661 tons. While this pales in comparison to the sinkings by U-boats, they were far more effective than the regular navy surface raiders, including the vaunted pocket battleships, heavy cruisers, and battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, that managed to sink or captured only 59, totaling 232,633 tons. The merchant raider Kormoran even managed to torpedo and sink the light cruiser HMAS Sidney, before the Kormoran herself was also sunk.

Typically, the raiders of WWII were equipped with six obsolescent 5.9″ guns and large numbers of torpedoes to allow ships to be sunk rapidly. Most were also equipped with aircraft and some with torpedo boats.  They were also equipped to change their appearance while underway.

Several of their voyages were extraordinarily long. Michel’s first voyage was 346 days. Orion’s was 510 days. Thor was away 329 days and managed to sink HMS Voltaire, an armed merchant cruiser. Pinguin for 357 days. Komet for 512 days. Kormoran for 350 days before her fatal encounter with HMAS Sydney. The ships were refueled and rearmed by supporting vessels that also took their prisoners. Raiders were also used to resupply submarines.

Perhaps surprisingly, none of these WWII raiders were underway when the war began, when they might have been most effective. They were sortied in two waves in 1940 and 1942.

End of the Merchant Raider

Despite their successes, by the time the last German raider at sea was sunk on 7 September, 1943, by a US submarine shortly after it had sortied from Japan, it had become impossible for ships to sortie from Germany and make it to open sea. Komet and a tenth raider were both sunk attempting to do so.  Three of the nine, Atlantis, Pinguin, and Kormoran, were sunk in distant seas by British cruisers. One, Stier, was sunk by the Naval Armed Guard on the Liberty ship Stephen Hopkins. One was destroyed by a nearby explosion while moored in Yokohama. Two, Orion and Widder,  survived their career as raiders long enough to return to Germany and be repurposed.

Rebirth–Weapons and Sensors, Old and New

Technological changes in the form of containerized cruise missiles, satellites and UAVs and other Unmanned Vehicles may have made the merchant cruiser once again a viable option.

Cruise missiles mean that the raider no longer needs to come with visible range of the their victim. With sufficient range and use of way points, the shooter can be over 100 miles from its victim and the missile can come from any direction, not necessarily from the direction of the raider. Plus they can now attack land targets as well as ships. The US has begun to think seriously about the threat of a cruise missile attack on the US and innocent looking container ships are a possible source.

UAVs can provide over the horizon targeting and are likely to be undetected by the target.

Satellites may help or hurt potential raiders. If they have the support of satellites, it may help them find their pray. If the defenders are sufficiently sophisticated (and they are looking in the right place) they may be able to recognize a missile launch as the first step in finding, fixing and destroying the raider.

Similarly the Automatic Identification System may help the raider or the defender. It may help the raider find targets, but it may also help the defender react more swiftly to an attack or help him identify the raider from among all the other ships in the area. There is always the possibility the information may be bogus. Unmanned Surface Vessels might be used to create false targets. We might want to plan for a system of encrypted information for contingencies. Limiting use of the systems is an option that may require careful consideration.

Mines are still potentially effective. The large carrying capacity of cargo ships means they could potentially lay large mine fields. A raider could knowing a war will start soon might lay a large field to be activated when hostilities begin. If hostilities have already begun, the raider is unlikely approach a port closely enough to lay the mines itself, but mobile mines already exist, and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles or even simple semi-submersible unmanned vessels that can lay an minefield should be relatively easy technology.

China, Perpetrator or Target

From an American point of view, China with its huge merchant fleet and large inventory of cruise missile may appear a possible user of Merchant Raiders, but their large merchant fleet and need to import may also make them vulnerable to this this type of warfare if employed by weaker nations.

We know China has a Naval Militia. that will allow them to rapidly increase the size of their naval force. China has recently said it would require its ship builders to incorporate features that would make them usable for military purposes in wartime. These requirements are to be applied to five categories of vessels – container, roll-on/roll-off, multipurpose, bulk carrier and break bulk.  What these additional features are to be, is not clear. This could mean upgraded communications, either external or internal. It could mean improved survivability, greater speed, or foundations for weapons upgrades. They may only be thinking of using these ships to support amphibious operations, but these improvements may also make a large number of ships potential merchant raiders.

China’s large merchant fleet and need to import raw materials may make her vulnerable to Guerre d’Course. In the kind of low intensity conflict we have seen between China and her neighbors, it has seemed China has had all the advantages, but if they are pushed too far, China’s neighbors might see this form of warfare as a way to push back.

Non-State Actors

There is also the possibility of terrorist organizations attempting something similar, but they are more likely to attack highly visible targets of a symbolic nature, such as port facilities or major warships. Cruise missile could of course be used to attack major landmarks. They may also be less interested in living to fight another day.

Conclusion: I don’t think we have seen the end of offensive use of Merchant vessels.

Sources:

Addendum:

Some photos of vessels that are being used for military purposes:

MSC has chartered the MV Craigside to support SOCOM requirements. It is undergoing conversion in Mobile.

SD Victoria lifts boats and supports crews for UK Special Forces (SBS and SAS).

Malaysian auxiliary warship Bunga Mas Lima

Chuck retired from the Coast Guard after 22 years service. Assignments included four ships, Rescue Coordination Center New Orleans, CG HQ, Fleet Training Group San Diego, Naval War College, and Maritime Defense Zone Pacific/Pacific Area Ops/Readiness/Plans. Along the way he became the first Coast Guard officer to complete the Tactical Action Officer (TAO) course and also completed the Naval Control of Shipping course. He has had a life-long interest in naval ships and history.

Fit to be a Frigate?

LCS 3One of the most persistent complaints about the Littoral Combatant Ship (LCS) is that it is not fit to replace the retiring Perry class frigates. LCS has been characterized as under-armed in comparison with the Perry class, and not capable of assuming the roles and missions of a frigate. In light of these criticisms it’s useful to examine what constitutes a frigate in the second decade of the 21st century. What sort of frigate does the U.S. Navy need to meet present requirements? Finally, does the LCS, in both its current form, and as envisioned in the frigate upgrade meet those requirements, particularly in armament? The answers may surprise LCS critics who continue to call for a Cold War frigate as the solution for 21st century naval missions.

The definition of the frigate as a naval combatant has been in constant flux since the end of the Second World War. It appeared in the Second World War as a British Royal Navy (RN) classification for an independent antisubmarine warfare vessel. By 1945, the term “frigate” generally meant a ship of 1300-2000 tons; less than 350 feet in length; a speed of less than 25 knots, and an armament focused on antisubmarine weapons.

The U.S. Navy substantively changed the frigate designation after World War 2 with its first generation of purpose-built aircraft carrier escorts. The demise of the Axis surface fleets, the well-established threat from air attack, and the rise of a Soviet Navy based on submarines called for a new, affordable combatant that could meet these challenges. A ship roughly 6000 tons in displacement, a speed comparable to fleet carriers, and capable of mounting significant antiair (AAW) and antisubmarine (ASW) weapons was seen as an ideal cross between the expensive, man-power intensive cruiser and the cheaper, but less capable destroyer class. The new ship was designated first as a “hunter killer” (CL) and later as a “frigate” (DL) with missile armed versions classified as DLG’s. Destroyers, such as the Forrest Sherman class and their missile-armed immediate successors, the Charles Adams class remained general purpose combatants optimized for a variety of roles, but generally less capable than frigates. Smaller combatants optimized for antisubmarine warfare remained labeled as destroyer escorts (DE’s).

This condition persisted until the mid 1970’s. U.S. frigates had approached the size and capabilities of World War 2 cruisers in the California and Virginia class DLGN (nuclear-powered) frigates of 10000 tons and nearly 600 feet in length. The traditional antisubmarine warfare escort had also grown in size and capability. Many of these ships, such as the FF 1052 Knox class were significantly larger than the 1940’s-era ships they were replacing. These changes compelled the U.S. to re-designate a number of its warships in 1975 to better reflect the changes in the frigate classification since 1945, as well as to combat a persistent myth that the U.S. had less cruiser-designated ships than the Soviet Union. The frigates were divided into guided missile cruisers and destroyers based on size and capability. U.S. destroyer escorts were renamed as frigates.

The patrol frigate, later the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class was the zenith of American Cold War escort design. The Soviet Union was expected to deploy a significant force of subsurface, surface, and aviation platforms to destroy the expected Reforger re-supply convoys crossing the Atlantic to support embattled North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Western Europe. Unlike previous escort classes, the FFG-7 was designed as a multimission combatant in order to better meet the expanding Soviet threat. It too, like the LCS,  ballooned in cost. According to a January 3, 1979 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, the cost per ship increased from 64.8 million dollars a ship in 1973, to 194 million a copy by 1979.

This general classification system of U.S. surface combatants persisted through the end of the Cold War and the first decade of the 2000’s. After 1991, however, the international definition of the frigate category again began to change. Falling defense budgets across the Western world in the wake of the Cold War’s end compelled many nations to put more capabilities into fewer hulls, often designated as frigates, as a cost savings measure. These ships now occupy a place in many European navies analogous to that of the U.S. Arleigh Burke class DDG as the primary surface warships of those nations’ navies. Japan and South Korea have made similar changes, but have retained the destroyer classification for these larger vessels. Russia maintained the Cold War classification structure throughout most of the last 20 years, but its recent frigates are smaller than their late Cold War cousins. The Chinese Navy has followed the Russian Cold War model and gradually increased the size of its frigates as general patrol and escort ships. Although there remain several descriptions of the frigate type warship, the post-Cold War ship now associated the frigate classification has generally grown into a large and capable surface combatant for many nations.

Does the U.S. Navy need a frigate as defined by these new standards? At the end of their service lives, the Perry class had lost much of their (AAW) and (ASUW) sensors and weapons. Their MK 92 fire control system, MK 13 single arm missile launchers, and medium range Standard Missile (SM-1 MR) systems were largely out of date against the growing antiship cruise missile threat by the turn of the century. They had become the early 21st century equivalent of the late 19th century colonial cruiser, whose chief purpose was to show the flag and conduct low-intensity combat operations.

The U.S. high capability combatant class is well filled by the CG 47, DDG 51 and DDG 1000 class ships. Such a mass of AAW capable ships was not in service when the Perry’s were conceived. While the U.S. Navy requires a replacement for the Perry’s “show the flag” role, there appears to be no requirement for another medium capability convoy escort in the tradition of past U.S. frigate designs. The cruise missile threat is considerable for even high capability warships such as the DDG 51. A supporting frigate similar in size and capability to current European designs could be built, but would provide little in the way of additional capability beyond present ships. It would also not be a cost effective product for low end presence missions. Unlike during the Cold War, no potential U.S. opponent yet deploys a global naval force capable of simultaneously effectively threatening U.S. seaborne communications in multiple geographic locations. The absence of this threat for now obviates the need for 21st century version of the FFG-7. If that threat develops, advances in missile and torpedo technology will require high capacity escorts like the DDG 51 rather than a new FFG-7.

The frigate needed for the present Navy is not another Cold War antisubmarine combatant, or an expensive, but less capable version of the DDG 51. It should instead be a general-purpose warship capable of multiple tasks. It must conduct low threat missions such as counter-piracy and presence operations in order to free the DDG force for offensive and defensive missions in high intensity combat. It should be able to perform escort missions for amphibious and logistics force ships for limited periods in appropriate threat environments. The addition of a surface to surface missile armament should allow the frigate to conduct limited ASUW under the Navy’s emerging concept of distributive lethality. LCS’ endurance is 70% of the FFG-7, but it’s still sufficient for extended operations in comparison with smaller corvettes or missile patrol craft. The LCS baseline platform with 57mm gun, Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), electronic warfare gear, boats, and large flight deck and hangar is an excellent replacement for the FFG-7 in low threat, presence missions. The ship can accomplish escort and additional warfare missions with the weapons and sensors provided in its warfare modules and frigate upgrade. The ship’s modular design readily accepts additional weapons and associated equipment. The frigate upgrade to the basic LCS hull has been derided as insufficient, but only if a 21st century FFG 7 is the desired product. The modifications envisioned for the LCS-based frigate meet current requirements and definitions for the 21st century frigate the Navy requires.

No would deny the LCS program has suffered significant problems over the course of its history. It introduced multiple new technologies in one platform in order to replace three classes of ship. Problems associated with this effort remain and will likely persist for some time. In spite of these issues, the LCS and its frigate variant represent the best choice for replacing the retiring Perry class frigates in their current role as presence, patrol, and low intensity combat platforms, as well as emerging surface warfare missions. The Navy does not need a 21st century Perry class frigate.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, sailorbob.com and at informationdissemination.org under the pen name of “Lazarus”.