All You Need to Know About About Sea Warfare in the 21st Century
With over a hundred billion dollars in funding, hundreds of thousands of sailors and civilian personnel, hundreds of ships in service, thirty-one ships under construction, and over forty more on order, the United States Navy is the world’s most powerful and well-equipped maritime force in history. Challenging the US dominance, foreign powers have begun investing heavily in expanding and modernizing their militaries, with China and Russia together outspending the United States on military hardware once expenditures have been adjusted for purchasing power parity.
Before diving deep into specific military matters, I’d like to provide some background. Russia and China have laid claim to neighboring territories, prompting the United States and its allies to accelerate weapons procurement and increase troop presence in Europe and East Asia. Violations of Taiwanese or Japanese sovereignty by China could potentially lead to an all-out war, while Russian attempts to annex Belarus and Eastern Ukraine further destabilize Europe. The level of risk is unknown, but war becomes ever more dangerous as the ratio of strength between the US and its adversaries reverses to Cold War levels.
While President Trump was successful in getting NATO members to increase their defense obligations, garnering at least $100 billion in allied defense spending, NATO forces in Europe still lack the decisive edge over the Russian military. Rapid modernization has placed the Russian Armed Forces on path to reclaim their status as a first-rate power, capable of disputing control over the North Atlantic and Eastern European theaters.
In his 2017 address to the Russian Senate in Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu announced that the Russian Armed Forces had received over 30,000 units of new or modern equipment since 2012, including over 50 warships. In the same space of time, the US commissioned just 20 warships. It is true, however, that very few of these new Russian warships were major surface combatants, and a large number were smaller and more lightly armed vessels like the Buyan-M class corvette.
On the other side of the globe, the Chinese have aggressively pursued the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. These islands have been used as stations for radar, air defense, and as airstrips for military aircraft. The United States has attempted to challenge China’s militarist expansion by conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy boasts of being the world’s largest navy, using the number of ships as a metric, as opposed to more traditional and meaningful metrics such as the total tonnage fielded in their navy. While they may sound like hot air now, the PLAN has plans to field the Pacific’s largest navy by 2030. According to a detailed article from The Diplomat, China could be aiming for at least 125 major surface combatants, including as many as 60 destroyers and 40-50 frigates.
Here’s where I will be getting into specifics. For starters, anti-ship missiles are the primary medium of exchange in any surface naval engagement. These missiles are typically long-range, very accurate, and some are capable of putting warships out of commission with a single hit.
The US relies on carrier-born aircraft to carry anti-ship missiles, which allows for greater flexibility, while the Russians have traditionally built larger missiles capable of traveling faster and further, but are mounted in fewer numbers aboard their warships and submarines. China and Russia presently seek to expand into neighboring territories, allowing them to use cheaper and shorter range vessels like corvettes, light frigates, patrol boats, and diesel-electric submarines.
An American nuclear aircraft carrier (CVN) can have a couple dozen aircraft in the air at once, each carrying 2-4 anti-ship missiles. If they’re carrying the latest and greatest stealth missile, LRASM, a carrier air wing can put an entire fleet out of commission. There is no doubt the US presently holds a significant advantage over any potential adversaries.
There are a few major challenges that lay ahead, however. China plans to operate four aircraft carriers by 2024, with the first three carrying 40 fixed-wing aircraft, and the latter, the planned Type 003-class carrying 70-100. While the US will still have a monopoly on air power over the greater Pacific, China will be able to put fighters in the air over Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and other nearby parts of the Pacific with short notice. This allows Chinese bombers to have fighter escorts all the way to potential targets, increasing their survivability and tactical flexibility.
While most talk these days is about carriers, only American carriers are game changers thanks to two facts: US destroyers and cruisers are relatively incapable of dishing out firepower in surface-to-surface (not land) engagements, and hypothetical wars with China and Russia would be on their side of the globe.
Countries like China and Russia are less dependent on carrier wings since their bombers at home can quickly reach their likely targets and carry much greater payloads. The US on the other hand, needs carriers because of the Russo-Chinese ability to disable American overseas airbases with mass ballistic and cruise missile strikes.
It’s much more difficult to destroy mobile airfields that are closely flanked by several warships designed to counter large ballistic and cruise missile attacks. Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are heavily equipped with an assortment of anti-ballistic missiles which are also capable of destroying satellites in low Earth orbit, which is where many ballistic and cruise missiles receive their target guidance from.
The most serious threat in the naval dimension has been from below the waves. Submarines almost always belong to one of three categories: nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine (SSGN), nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), or diesel-electric attack submarine (SSK).
The United States does not operate diesel-electric submarines, as they have limited range and require air intake and refueling. Countries like Russia and China operate and continue to commission diesel-electric submarines for the purpose of regional control. Besides being cheaper, diesel-electric submarines have the advantage of being similarly stealthy, and in some cases more stealthy than their nuclear counterparts.
If we stack up submarine forces, the US has a large advantage in nuclear submarines, while its adversaries prefer their limited-use conventional diesel-electric submarines.
I would like to get a little into detail about submarines, considering they are the most powerful vessels in naval warfare. Most cruise and ballistic missile submarines can act as attack submarines since they carry torpedoes and have similar sonar equipment, but they would likely only take that role when a dedicated attack submarine isn’t available.
Submarines are powerful because they are very difficult to detect, and they can deliver a lot of firepower anywhere on the globe. There are two primary aspects to submarine detectability: depth, and acoustic signature. The United States has traditionally held an advantage by both of these measures, but China and Russia have recently caught up.
The US Seawolf-class attack submarine has the ability to dive to at least 2,000 feet. Recent variants of the Russian Akula-class have a maximum operating depth of 2,000 feet. The new Russian Yasen-class multipurpose attack submarine (SSGN) has a “never-exceed depth” of 1,800 feet, and the new American Virginia-class attack submarine has a classified maximum depth, likely around 2,000 feet.
Similar to the radar cross section of aircraft, the acoustic signature essentially determines at what range a submarine can be detected and identified by passive-sonar listening aboard an enemy vessel. Submarines can use active sonar, but since active sonar creates a loud acoustic signature, doing so reveals their presence and location.
A sound wave propagating underwater is heavily effected by depth. This is due to how pressure increases the deeper you go. Active-sonar can travel either far but shallow, or crosses through the sonic layer where it travels sharply downwards, significantly shortening its range. Submarines maximize their odds of remaining undetected by traveling just above or below this layer.
When detected by passive-sonar, a submarine will have no indication except for an enemy torpedo launch if it’s close enough. Modern torpedoes can usually travel deeper than submarines today, so submarines that are discovered have a hard time escaping. Of course, submarines are designed to avoid detection in the first place.
If a submarine is discovered, there are few things it can do. It can change its depth and course to force the oncoming torpedo to travel further or turn, using up its speed, inertia, and fuel. If the torpedo was launched close by, this may not be a viable option, as most torpedoes have fairly long ranges. The same tactic is used by fighter pilots to kill the energy of oncoming air-to-air missiles launched from beyond visual range.
Another tactic would be for the submarine to try and engage the oncoming torpedo with a torpedo of its own. Usually only surface warships are equipped with torpedoes that are capable of doing this. Otherwise, a submarine can try to dodge or lose the enemy torpedo. This is very challenging because torpedoes are almost always faster and more agile than submarines.
I imagine this is one of the reasons the Russian and Chinese navies are building more conventional submarines. Since they are cheaper, more can be afforded, allowing those navies to cover a large area; multiple needles in an ocean-sized haystack. If finding one large nuclear submarine is difficult, it will be much more difficult finding a dozen smaller submarines.
In short, submarines are extremely difficult to find, but once they are found, they can be put out of commission relatively easy.
Now we enter Anti-Submarine Warfare. This is arguably the most important role of navies. Without the ability to hunt and kill submarines, surface warships would have been outdated decades ago. There are several methods which fleets can use to find and sink enemy submarines.
To ensure that hostile submarines do not come within striking range of friendly vessels, ship-borne helicopters patrol with sensor equipment including magnetic anomaly detectors, sonobuoys, and dipping sonars. Surface vessels and submarines alike use towed sonar arrays, which can keep the sensors away from their own noise sources, increasing their resolution and odds of detecting more distant contacts.
In order to provide some limited defense against airborne contacts, the Russian Akula-class submarine is equipped with Igla-M surface-to-air missiles, which are most suited to shooting down helicopters.
Some surface warships are designed specifically to combat submarines, including the Russian Udaloy-class destroyer and the British Type 26 frigate. The US does not operate any dedicated ASW ships, and will be outnumbered under the sea within a decade or two if we follow current trends.
Another Major Dilemma
While it has good standing overall, the navy has fallen behind in yet another major area. Russia is soon to equip its warships with maneuvering hypersonic cruise missiles. Whether we choose to believe the Russian navy about its technically challenging feat of developing such a weapon, the implications of Russian battlecruisers fitted with 3M22 Tsirkon missiles cannot be understated.
The 3M22 Tsirkon (more commonly spelled Zircon) is the newest of Russian cruise missiles. If we are to believe the Russian military, this missile is capable of traveling over Mach 8, and has a range of 135-270 nautical miles sea-skimming, and over 400 nmi in a high-altitude semi-ballistic trajectory.
If the Petr Velikiy were to launch a dozen Zircons at an American carrier group, the result would undoubtedly be devastating. The Aegis Combat System has a reaction time of roughly 10 seconds, or about the same amount of time it takes for the Zircon to reach its target after coming over the horizon. Not only that; if the Zircon takes a ballistic trajectory, it will evade navy radars, or at least according to this article from the NATO Association of Canada.
Even if these are false rumors or exaggerations, modern Russian and Chinese electronic warfare could still make it virtually impossible for US ships to defend against large missile salvos. Decoys, and jamming could stop radars from determining the range and speed of missiles, as well as identifying which radar contacts are decoys and not missiles.
To make the problem even worse, the US can’t simply keep their fleets out of range from hypersonic missiles because the Russians and Chinese plan to equip nuclear submarines with them. A submarine could surface 200 miles away from a US carrier group, fire a couple dozen missiles, and then sink back into the ocean abyss, undetected.
It was even anonymously leaked that the Royal Navy is incapable of protecting their brand new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier from Russia’s latest weapons. The US Navy may as well be hiding the fact that their own carriers have a similar dilemma. This is yet to be known, however.
Many defense experts have written articles calling for modern battleships designed to take hits from ballistic missiles, or arsenal ships to carry hundreds of cruise missiles to overwhelm enemy navies. Countries like France and India have decided to build their own hypersonic missiles, while Japan reinvigorates its naval tradition with plans to build aircraft carriers and futuristic destroyers.
What is clear is the United States must adapt fast and invest heavily in developing new weapons and strategies to counter these blossoming threats. Soon America will not be able to defend its allies overseas, and as a result, European countries will either need to take responsibility for their defense or jeopardize their future sovereignty.
This is only the realm of naval warfare.
Cade is a student and Arizona native who has broad interests in law, defense, investing, among other things.