The War Nerd: This Is How the Carriers Will Die
By Gary Brecher
I’ve been saying for a long time that aircraft carriers are just history’s most expensive floating targets, and that they were doomed.
But now I can tell you exactly how they’re going to die. I’ve just read one of the most shocking stories in years. It comes from the US Naval Institute, not exactly an alarmist or anti-Navy source. And what it says is that the US carrier group is scrap metal.
The Chinese military has developed a ballistic missile, Dong Feng 21, specifically designed to kill US aircraft carriers: “Because the missile employs a complex guidance system, low radar signature and a maneuverability that makes its flight path unpredictable, the odds that it can evade tracking systems to reach its target are increased. It is estimated that the missile can travel at mach 10 and reach its maximum range of 2000km in less than 12 minutes.” That’s the US Naval Institute talking, remember. They’re understating the case when they say that, with speed, satellite guidance and maneuverability like that, “the odds that it can evade tracking systems to reach its target are increased.”
You know why that’s an understatement? Because of a short little sentence I found farther on in the article—and before you read that sentence, I want all you trusting Pentagon groupies to promise me that you’ll think hard about what it implies. Here’s the sentence: “Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.”
That’s right: no defense at all. The truth is that they have very feeble defenses against any attack with anything more modern than cannon. I’ve argued before no carrier group would survive a saturation attack by huge numbers of low-value attackers, whether they’re Persians in Cessnas and cigar boats or mass-produced Chinese cruise missiles. But at least you could look at the missile tubes and Phalanx gatlings and pretend that you were safe. But there is no defense, none at all, against something as obvious as a ballistic missile.
So it doesn’t matter one god damn whether the people in the operations room of a targeted carrier could track the Dong Feng 21 as it lobbed itself at them. They might do a real hall-of-fame job of tracking it as it goes up and comes down. But so what? Let me repeat the key sentence here: “Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.
Think back a ways. How old is the ballistic missile? Kind of a trick question; a siege mortar is a ballistic missile, just unguided. A trebuchet on an upslope outside a castle is a ballistic weapon. But serious long-range rocket-powered ballistic weapons go back at least to the V-2. A nuclear-armed V2 would have been a pretty solid way of wiping out a carrier group, and both components, the nuke and the ballistic missile, were available as long ago as 1945.
A lot has happened since then, like MIRVs, mobile launchers, massively redundant satellite guidance—but the thing to remember is that every single change has favored the attacker. Every single goddamn change.
You know that Garmin satnav you use to find the nearest Thai place when the in-laws are visiting? If you were the Navy brass, that should have scared you to death. The Mac on your kid’s bedroom desk should have scared you. Every time electronics got smaller, cheaper and more efficient, the carrier became more of a death trap. Every time stealth tech jumped another step, the carrier was more obviously a bad idea. Smaller, cooler-running engines: another bad sign for the carrier. Every single change in technology in the past half a century has had “Stop building carriers!” written all over it. And nobody in the navy brass paid any attention.
The lesson here is the same one all of you suckers should have learned from watching the financial news this year: the people at the top are just as dumb as you are, just meaner and greedier. And that goes for the ones running the US surface fleet as much as it does for the GM or Chrysler honchos. Hell, they even look the same. Take that Wagoner ass who just got the boot from GM and put him in a tailored uniform and he could walk on as an admiral in any officer’s club from Guam to Diego Garcia. You have to stop thinking somebody up there is looking out for you.
Remember that one sentence, get it branded onto your arm: “Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.” What does that tell you about the distinguished gentlemen with all the ribbons on their chest who’ve been standing up on carrier bridges looking like they know what they’re doing for the past 50 years? They’re either stupid or so sleazy they’re willing to make a career commanding ships they know, goddamn well know, are floating coffins for thousands of ranks and dozens of the most expensive goldplated airplanes in the history of the world. You call that patriotic? I’d hang them all.
That’s why it’s so sickening to read shit like the following:
“The purpose of the Navy,” Vice Admiral John Bird, commander of the Seventh Fleet, tells me, “is not to fight.” The mere presence of the Navy should suffice, he argues, to dissuade any attack or attempt to destabilize the region. From Yokosuka, Guam, and Honolulu, the Navy is sending its ships on missions to locales as far away as Madagascar. On board the Blue Ridge, the vice admiral’s command ship anchored at Yokosuka, huge display screens allow officers to track the movements of any country’s military vessels cruising from the international date line in the east to the African coast in the west—the range of the Seventh Fleet’s zone of influence.
That’s the kind of story people are still writing. It’s so stupid, that first line, I won’t even bother with it: “The purpose of the Navy is not to fight.” No kidding. The Seventh Fleet covers the area included in that 2000 km range for the new Chinese anti-ship weapons, so I guess it’s a good thing they’re not there to fight.
Stories like this were all over the place in the last days of the British Empire. For some dumbass reason, these reporters love the Navy. They were waving flags and feeling good about things when the Repulse and the Prince of Wales steamed out with no air cover to oppose Japanese landings. Afterward, when both ships were lying on the sea floor, nobody wanted to talk about it much. What I mean to say here is, don’t be fooled by the happy talk. That’s the lesson from GM, Chrysler and the Navy: these people don’t know s$35. And they don’t care either. They’re going to ride the system and hope it lasts long enough to see them retire to a house by a golf course, get their daughters married and buy a nice plot in an upscale cemetery. They could give a damn what happens to the rest of us.
All day I’ve been thinking about the Navy and the fact that it has no defenses at all against ballistic missiles. The main point, the one I was trying to make in my last story, is that when something comes along like this and you’re tempted to say, “Well, they must have thought of that already, they must have some defense in mind…”-when you start talking like that, just slap yourself and remember all the other military traditions that kept going long after anybody with sense knew they were finito.
The most obvious example is European heavy cavalry trotting into longbow fire again and again. Crecy demonstrated that knightly charges were suicide against the longbow in 1346. But the French aristocracy had so much invested in prancing around on their damn steeds that it took another demonstration, at Agincourt in 1415 to even start to get them thinking about it. I’m no math wiz but I think that 1415 minus 1346…yup, that’s 69 years between catastrophes. Lessons learned? None.
These dodos always have one thing in common: whether it’s knights charging with lances on very expensive horses or top gun brats like McCain zooming onto carrier decks in history’s most expensive aircraft, you’ll always find that the worst, most over-funded services are always the ones where the rich kids go to show their stuff. Seriously: why are there aircraft carriers? For asses like John McCain to crash on. Why do they keep getting funded long after they’ve been shown up? The same reason knights were galloping around pretending that the longbow hadn’t turned half their friends into pincushions: because it was a way of life for the richest and dumbest people in the country and they weren’t about to let it go.
It’s weird the way war nerds who are up to the minute on the specs of this or that weapons system never think hard about what those specs mean. Let me tell you the example I’m thinking of here. Y’all remember the Harpoon, the US Navy’s first dedicated anti-ship guided surface to surface missile, right? Good ol’ AGM-84? A fine weapon by all accounts. You’ll remember it entered service in 1977.
Long time ago, right? Jimmy Carter, the peacenik jerk who got us in this Iranian mess, was still president, unfortunately. People still drove American cars and spoke English. Olden Times, in other words.
Well, instead of just paging through Jane‘s and drooling over the Harpoon’s range and 221-kg warhead (don’t bother lying, I spent years doing that stuff myself and I know), think about what that weapons means in terms of this key sentence from my last story: “Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.” Now put that together with the fact that the Harpoon, way back in the Disco Era, had a cool little feature called “pop-up.” And what it meant is that the Harpoon itself worked as a ballistic missile. So even in our own inventory, we’ve had a weapon lying around for decades that could have taken out all our carriers.
What “pop-up” means is-well, it’s actually kind of cool and for once I can talk my old fave, hardware, without feeling like a tool. So anyway, the Harpoon has an interesting trajectory. It’s fired from vertical or diagonal tubes on the deck or the hold of surface ships, but there are other models that can be launched from aircraft or even subs. If you’ve seen video of a harpoon launch, you see it zoom up from the tube, then slide down to fly level, just above the waves, so’s to avoid enemy radar.
But once the Harpoon’s own radar has spotted the target, does it keep flying level to slam into the side of the ship? Nope. I’ll quote from the owner’s manual: “Once a target has been located and the seeker locked…the missile climbs rapidly to about 1800m before diving on the target (“pop-up maneuver”).”
American-fired Harpoon wastes a pesky Libyan missile corvette back in 1986.
In other words, the Harpoon does a last-minute transformation from wave-skimmer to ballistic missile. If you diagrammed its flight path, seen from the side, You’d get a capital “P” lying on its back, with the loop of the “P” being the pop-up maneuver.
The reason the Harpoon was designed to hit the target from above rather than the side is simple: a ships defenses are configured to stop planes (and missiles, even though they don’t work against missiles and everybody knows it) coming in diagonally or horizontally. To repeat that sentence again–and I’m going to keep repeating it till everybody realizes what it means–”ships currently [just like in 1977 when the Harpoon entered service] have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.”
So we have the Navy’s own weapons system testifying against it: way back in Carter’s time the Navy bought a weapon that was designed to hit ships like a ballistic missile, yet now, forty years later, USN ships have no defense against ballistic missiles.
It gets worse. The Navy didn’t even want the Harpoon at all. It was only adopted because after seeing Soviet-made anti-ship missiles destroy the Israeli destroyer Eilat in 1967, a few of the more honest R&D guys at the Pentagon forced the Navy to shop for their own model. The Navy-remember, they’re just like the French heavy cavalry brass of the late 14th century, trying real hard not to think about the real world-didn’t like the idea of anti-ship missiles at all. They were the equivalent of the longbow: unmanned, longrange, un-chivalrous weapons, and you couldn’t drink with them at the officer’s club.
But the Eilat sinking was so embarrassing it forced a few hungover sober moments. Here’s the pride of the Israeli navy, the INS Eilat, formerly HMS Zealous, doing what surface ships do best: lookin’ good and being completely useless. Yes, useless. I’m sick of softplaying it and I’ll say outright: any surface vessel bigger than a patrol boat is useless scrap iron, and the story of the Eilat proves it.
It’s October 21, 1967. A few months after Israel’s big stomp of the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies in the Six Day War. The Eilat, all 1700 tons of it, has an easy mission: gunning its engines back and forth in front of Port Said to intimdate the locals. Why not? It’s the “war of attrition,” a sort of lukewarm war between Israel and Egypt, a little sniping, the odd bombing, nothing much. The Eilat is just there to say “Nyah nyah,” basically, which is about all big surface vessels are good for anyway, but what the Hell, it’s 1967, gas is still about 25 cents a gallon, and Israel is victorious everywhere, what could go wrong?
This: two Egyptian missile boats-small craft carrying big bad weapons, the only sort of surface craft that make any military sense-come out of the port and fire Styx missiles (SS-N-2). The Eilat was hit by between two and four Styx, depending on whose story you read, and sank very quickly. 47 of the crew died, and 41 were wounded. That’s an awful lot of casualties when you consider that the IDF lost less than a thousand soldiers taking all of Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Especially because the guys on the Eilat died for nothing, just showing off.
The Styx was a simple Soviet design that had been in service for years when it sank the Eilat. Like the longbow, antiship missiles were just not taken seriously because they were cheap peasant weapons, whereas if you were roaring around in an ex-Brit destroyer, you were somebody. It’s that simple. That stupid.
The difference between the Israeli navy and ours is simple: the Israelis learned their lesson and switched to smaller, lighter missile craft. No more ocean-going muscle cars to act like giant magnetized targets. The newer Israeli boats are small enough that when you lose one, like they did in the 2006 war to land-based Hezbollah surface to surface missiles, you don’t suffer 100 casualties.
That’s one way the US Navy could have gone after the Eilat went down: a fleet of smaller, lighter ships, basically ships you could afford to lose. There are some real interesting computer modeled naval war games that seem to be telling us that’s the way to invest your naval budget: lots of small ships carrying big missiles.
Another way would have been to develop an effective defense weapon against ballistic missiles. Maybe the navy tried that; maybe that’s part of what the whole Star Wars boondoggle was actually about, protecting the carriers against weapons like Dong Feng 21. I don’t know.
But it’s real clear by now that if they did try it, they failed. There is no defense. So either you go with boats you can afford to lose, or you downsize the navy radically, turn it into a low-tech anti-piracy force only used against stone-age opponents like the Somalis, or you go the U-boat route the Germans took when they realized the age of the battleship was over, sticking to subs. Because one way or another, if we get into it for real with China or even Iran, all our ships are going to subs, one way or the other.
Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to [email protected]