How the US Navy’s First Battle vs China May Look Like
The Navy has announced its intention to construct a multi-tiered fleet of unmanned vessels to supplement and, to a significant degree, replace the Burke class destroyers. Incredibly, this has occurred with no substantive validation of the concept.
This is very reminiscent of the commitment to an entire fleet of LCSes without a Concept of Operations (CONOPS) and before the first was even designed. With that in mind, let’s examine how the Navy’s vision of future naval combat might play out.
As always (and always ignored by readers!), this is NOT intended as a complete and realistic combat simulation. It is an ILLUSTRATION of various concepts in a more entertaining format.
The First Battle
The #8 MDUSV (Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel) controller nodded slightly in satisfaction as he surveyed the picture and sonar display on his console. The situation was shaping up nicely. The MDUSV anti-submarine and surveillance screen of 14 vessels plus the two specially modified EA-18G Growler communications relay aircraft were arrayed to the sides and front of the carrier and its two Burke escorts (the last Ticonderogas had recently been early retired by the Navy to free up funding for the unmanned fleet) plus the four LDUSV (Large Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessels) arsenal ships and he and his fellow controllers aboard the USV control ship were receiving a steady flow of sonar, radar, and EO/IR data which, so far, had proven more than sufficient to detect and ward off the occasional probe by the Chinese as the group made its approach to Taiwan.
Two Chinese patrol boats and a few ‘fishing’ vessels had been easily detected and dispatched with Naval Strike Missiles (NSM) from the LDUSVs. A few Chinese long range patrol aircraft had also been driven off and one, that had approached just a bit too closely, had been shot down by a Standard missile launched from a LDUSV and controlled by a Burke.
Indeed, it appeared that the Navy’s vision of a multi-tiered unmanned fleet paired with just a few high end Burkes was paying dividends. The Navy had gone all-in on the tiered, unmanned fleet concept and replaced (allowed to retire without direct replacement) many Burkes with combinations of unmanned vessels. While many naval analysts had been uneasy about reducing the number of Burkes in favor of the smaller, more distributed, unmanned vessels, the argument for the unmanned vessels – mainly budget related – had prevailed. The individual unmanned vessels were far less capable than a Burke or even a frigate but in the aggregate the unmanned vessels offered more capability, better distribution of risk, and more complication for the enemy … at least, that was the theory. Unbelievably, the Navy had never bothered to test the concept before wholeheartedly committing to the new fleet structure. The concept was being put to the test now, though, in real combat.
The carrier group’s approach to Taiwan hadn’t been completely one-sided, though. A pair of F-35s had ventured a bit too far forward and been ambushed by four Chinese J-20 stealth fighters resulting in one F-35 shot down and the other damaged but able to recover back on the carrier.
Predictably, the war had begun with an all-out Chinese assault on Taiwan and Chinese forces now occupied most of the militarily significant sites on the island. Chinese aircraft were now operating out of hastily repaired airbases and Chinese naval forces were screening the eastern side of the island from the expected American counterattack.
The carrier group had been tasked with sweeping the seas on the eastern side of the island and taking station there to establish local air superiority for the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) amphibious assault force that was following a day behind. The United States had chosen to stand with Taiwan and this was the first response and first battle between China and the US.
Following the newly established amphibious assault doctrine, the MEU would be sent ashore at various points along the Taiwanese coast to establish sea control which would allow the unhindered landing of the main, follow on Marine and Army forces – again, an untested and unvalidated concept. First, though, the carrier had to do its job and set the stage.
As the MDUSV controller settled back in his chair with a satisfied shifting of his weight – you had to learn how to meld with these chairs because they weren’t designed for comfort! – the thought crossed his mind that it was a bit surprising that there had been no submarine contacts yet. He’d have bet that the Chinese wouldn’t allow the carrier group to approach without challenge and the Chinese had a pretty impressive collection of both nuclear and conventional submarines. Still, he wasn’t going to complain and, likely enough, the subs would show up eventually and when they did, the MDUSVs and their controllers would be waiting.
At the same moment the USV controller settled back, an airborne controller aboard an E-2 Hawkeye leaned forward, peering intently at his screen. He had just noticed several faint, intermittent contacts, far beyond the MDUSV ASW screen. After a few more minutes observation the contacts began to solidify and the controller made the call. Small, high subsonic, wave skimming contacts – small anti-ship missiles, undoubtedly – were approaching the MDUSV screen vessels.
What the controller didn’t know was that the Chinese had long ago detected the communications activity between the MDUSVs, their communications relay aircraft, and the control ships and pretty much pinpointed the USV locations – certainly well enough to launch anti-ship missiles with active seeker heads. Line of sight (LOS) communications were not as secure as the US Navy believed.
With its vast sensor laden ‘fishing’ fleet and a host of various other air and land based sensors all peering intently at the eastern sea off Taiwan, it had not been difficult to pin down the exact location of each MDUSV. While short burst LOS transmissions were very difficult to detect, the continuous, high volume, high bandwidth transmissions required to transmit sonar, radar, and EO/IR data in real time offered plenty of opportunity for the sophisticated, computer aided Chinese sensors to detect and localize the MDUSV communications.
No single Chinese sensor could directly and completely ‘see’ any individual LOS comm link, however, the plethora of sensors managed to pull together enough bits and pieces to assemble an accurate picture of the communications nodes which were the MDUSVs, the relay aircraft, and the USV control ships. It was somewhat analogous to the multistatic sonar detection techniques employed in ASW.
With so little warning and with the MDUSVs so far out in front of the Burkes and LDUSV arsenal ships, there was no time to engage the incoming missiles. The MDUSVs would have to face the missiles on their own. Unfortunately, the MDUSVs had no defensive weapons nor even any electronic countermeasures. It had been determined, correctly, that the minimal defensive weapons that a MDUSV could mount would provide no effective defense and would only drive up the cost of the vessels thereby making them less expendable.
The Chinese anti-ship missiles rapidly closed on the helpless MDUSVs. With four missiles allocated to each MDUSV there was little the MDUSV controllers could do but to try to turn their vessels head on to the incoming missiles in an attempt to minimize their radar profile and break lock. Unfortunately, the MDUSVs were not very maneuverable and their box-like superstructures were decidedly not stealthy and all the vessels were hit. Of the 14 screening vessels, 8 were blown to pieces and sunk outright, 3 were severely damaged and mission killed, and 1 was damaged but, miraculously, still afloat and functional.
As this took place, a waiting ring of Chinese subs noted the time and, as planned, surged forward at high speed towards the carrier and the remaining escorts. The carrier’s location had been extrapolated from the MDUSV locations and knowledge of US Navy tactics. In other words, if you knew the location of the USVs, you could pretty accurately surmise the location of the carrier.
In addition, the Chinese had, for years, been laying their equivalent of a SOSUS seabed listening array throughout the South and East China Seas and the arrays had no great problem picking up the noise of an approaching carrier.
With the MDUSVs out of action the ASW responsibility fell on the two Burke escorts, alone. The LDUSV arsenal ships, of course, had no ASW capability. Unfortunately, the Burkes only rarely trained for ASW operations and, even then, only in highly scripted exercises that served no purpose other than checking a training box on a list. The situation had gotten even worse with the advent of the MDUSVs which had been given the responsibility for ASW. AAW was the training priority for Burkes, not ASW.
Now, though, there was no choice. The Burkes, warned by the sudden acoustic ‘appearance’ of the surging Chinese subs at multiple points around the compass, attempted to localize and engage the subs. However, the Chinese subs, using a variation of the tried and true US Navy tactic of sprint and drift, were able to close on the Burkes and the carrier with impunity. No sooner would a Burke begin to localize a loud, sprinting sub then it would cease its cease its high speed run and another sub would ‘pop up’. Being completely inexperienced and largely untrained in submarine and ASW tactics, the Burkes were ineffective to the point of helplessness. The Burke’s helos were frantically directed and redirected from one transient contact to another with no time to properly find and fix any sub’s location.
In relatively short order, the submarines began reaching optimum attack points and spreads of torpedoes were launched from, essentially, point blank range. The outcome was inevitable. The carrier was hit by at least seven torpedoes and its fate was sealed. The first battle of the Chinese War would end in disaster for the US fleet.
Here are some issues/questions from the story:
Does it make sense to place defenseless unmanned vessels far out in front of a battle group where they cannot be supported?
Does it make sense to assign a vital function, like ASW, to defenseless unmanned vessels far out in front of a battle group where the entire function (ASW) can be eliminated in a moment, due to lack of support?
Are we so sure that our communications will be undetectable?
If MDUSVs are going to be our front line of ASW, what asset will do the actual attack since the MDUSV has no helo or weapons?
The MDUSV ASW sensor is fairly short range, being limited in power and size. Is it wise to depend on only short range ASW sensing, given the long range of submarine weapons? Are we wise to continue to ignore the long range ASW role that the S-3 Viking filled?
Is it wise to replace Burkes with small, individually weak, unmanned vessels? Yes, this is the Navy’s stated plan.
Source: Navy Matters