016224In America’s arcane and endless doctrinal debates over amphibious warfare (examples here and here), one constant shines above all–the incessant Marine Corps call for large-caliber fire support from the sea.

To “big gun” fire support advocates, the little “popguns” on America’s Littoral Combat Ships, Frigates, Destroyers and Cruisers don’t seem to matter at all in shore bombardment and are uniformly dismissed as ineffective.

That’s just wrongheaded propaganda.

Guns of any caliber are valuable. Now, everybody appreciates the utility of having a massively destructive gun “on call”, but, in North Korea, Vietnam–confrontations where America really demanded fire support–gun platforms came in all flavors–from the Iowa Class Battleships down to tiny destroyers and even smaller craft.

My underlying hypothesis is that, in those conflicts, the Marines and soldiers appreciated having whatever fire support the Navy could muster, regardless of caliber.

Large caliber guns do have a certain dramatic–and functional–appeal–what Marine wouldn’t want devastating 24/7 fire-for-effect support from a majestic grey-hulled battlewagon? (And, for that matter, what naval officer wouldn’t want a chance to command that majestic grey-hulled battlewagon?)

To that end–and after years and years of pestering–the United States is addressing Marine Corps concerns with three massive “littoral” DDG-1000s, which, despite the craft’s stated fire support mission, is going to be kept as far away from the littorals as is humanly possible–but, hey, what’s a few tens of billions of dollars (and a waaay too small a magazine) to shush up the Marine Corps, right? Right?

So…now that America has procured some “good and proper” larger-caliber fire support platforms, I suppose it might be a good time to ask if there are scenarios where large caliber fire support might be less-than-useful?

Are there coastal environments where fire support from smaller vessels is more appropriate and more effective? Urban environments? Places where collateral damage is a concern? Where World War II-era bombardments just don’t work?


I’ll point to Gaza, where, again, just like in 2009, Israel is finding her tiny arsenal of all-weather naval guns (and missiles) militarily useful (well-publicized and tragic exceptions aside, of course). But it is my sense the doctrinarians of the High Church of Big-Caliber Naval Fire Support are–again–going to ignore some interesting lessons that Israel has learned in the waters off Gaza and Lebanon.

shaldag-mkiii-image1The first lesson–something that we learned from PT Boats and promptly forgot–is that a well-armed small craft, supported by good sensors and ISR–can be quite useful. Try reading this 2009 account, from a reporter aboard a Shaldag–a tiny, 15-man aluminum speedboat.

“It’s the 13th night of Operation Cast Lead and we’re sailing on Yoni’s ship some 2.5 kilometers off the Gaza coast. It is the first time a reporter has joined naval forces since the start of the operation. From the ship, capable of up to 45 kilometers an hour, we see a Tarshish naval vessel, Sa’ar 4.5, which is also part of operations against Hamas.

Since the start of the military campaign, the bulk of the credit for hitting Hamas infrastructure has gone to the air force, which has conducted hundreds of sorties over Gaza. However, the navy has also been operating since the first day of the operation, and has hit some 200 Gaza targets with its various weapons.”

The second lesson is that, properly operated by an alert, ready crew, ships are still hard to hit:

The officer said that there had been attempts to fire at Israeli naval ships, mostly with light arms and anti-tank missiles…

…There have also been attempts by Palestinian boats to approach Israeli naval vessels, and the IDF suspects that they are trying to perpetrate a terror attack similar to that carried out on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, when a small boat rammed into the vessel, blowing it up. There have also been attempts to smuggle arms via the sea into the Strip.

“All the time, there are attempts to approach us…they are dying to hurt us,” said the officer. “There is now a naval blockade so anyone who is in the sea is considered suspicious.”

A Shaldag carries little more than a 25mm Bushmaster cannon, and yet, there it is, 2.5 km from the coast, supporting ground operations, along with the rest of Israel’s innovative small boat fleet. And for those who scoff at the 25mm gun, i should remind you that smaller–quite, quite smaller–surface fires have been, ah, rather useful.

These little ships don’t just do shore bombardment either–they’re supporting a very active catalogue of amphibious operations. The Israeli Navy has pushed ahead with amphibious assault, buying LCTs (which I’ve written about before and, I might add, we hear precious little about) conducting landings on the Lebanon coast during both invasions, raids off Gaza for both invasions (naval commandos led the way this time), and commando work further afield.

Mk VI Boat-400I am sure the IDF would relish a larger-caliber naval gun platform, but I would be willing to bet that the big gun’s utility would be somewhat limited in comparison to the smaller guns aboard Israel’s smaller platforms.

Modern naval warfare–in this era of tight budgets–is about having the right tools in the right place at the right time. Sometimes–and I think more times than the maritime taste-makers want to accept–a tiny scalpel, wielded by a well-trained, gutsy crew, is much more useful than just another grand-scale, “fire-for-effect” hammer.

That said, does the U.S. Navy have the apatite for this niche mission?  Will the Navy support the provision of “low-end” fire support or will this be dismissed by a stressed Navy as an irrelevant luxury?

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imagesWe just don’t fear nuclear weapons enough anymore.

While the global fear of nuclear war has receded, the threat of nuclear war is a very real and fast-growing danger.

Lacking a healthy global uptick in appreciation of the consequences of nuclear conflict–a fear that both endows nuclear weapons with value while helping to prevent their use–the world is ripe for catastrophic miscalculation.

Time Is Short

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock has been sitting at Five Minutes to Midnight since 2012–a grim status only beaten between the rough Cold War patches of 1981 through 1988 and the frightening span between 1949 and 1960.

What’s sad is that few in the U.S.–one of the most fearful, fret-prone nations in the world–paid the latest Doomsday Clock reset any attention.

And that should worry everybody.

You don’t need to go commission a Pew Survey. It’s quite clear that atomic weapons and the prospect of a nuclear confrontation just aren’t as frightening to the average American anymore.

If anything, America’s collective shrug at the Doomsday Clock is a symptom of something larger…that we–as a planet–are getting awfully cavalier about nuclear weapons. Too many leaders out there dismiss the threat with a fatalist shrug–it’s just another threat in a world where life is often nasty, brutish and short.

Trident II

For the U.S., survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–those grim reminders of America’s real-world atomic bomb use–are disappearing.  The scary “hide under your desk” era of the Cold War is being forgotten. In the West, my generation was the last to experience collective, community-wide scares like “The Day After” and other cultural events that attempted to hammer home the reality of nuclear warfare (And it worked, too. Remember how 100 Million folks watched that show?).

Younger generations have been shaped by the COIN and Terror era, a conflict far removed from the grim Game Theory days of yore.

The errors and excesses of the Cold War are a misty, gauzy memory for far too many.

In certain circles there is a far greater apatite for applying nuclear weapons to problems–not in using nukes as savvy geopolitical tools in the comparatively subtle (!!) “Reagan-era” model–but as the ultimate hammer to solve, in an unrealistic no-muss-no-fuss way, knotty non-proliferation issues, crazy rogue leaders or any tough geopolitical problem manifesting at the moment. That’s a volatile trend, particularly when combined with the globe’s apparently greater tolerance for brinkmanship and risk-taking these days.

We Americans are getting far more focused on the immediate gratification (BOOM–Yay! The Iranian centrifuge plant is destroyed! POW–Woo! North Korea will trouble us no longer!) and neglecting the longer-term political, economic, environmental and humanitarian consequences of such actions.

Ignorance, forgotten history, lack of experience, a failure to appreciate the consequences…these are all things that heighten the risk of miscalculation.

This isn’t an exclusively American phenomenon. The rest of the world is not in much better shape.

With that in mind, there should be a far, far larger national investment in educating the nation’s public and policymakers–and, for that matter, the rest of the world–on the very real risks and consequences posed by nuclear war.

The time to do this is now. America is teetering on the brink of a Cold Warish-esque engagement with China, most of Asia is eying nuclear weaponry, the Iran/Israel/Saudi Arabia and Pakistan/India mini-Cold Wars are still grinding along while North Korea sits out there as wild card. Then there’s Russia, quietly nursing grudges and perceived slights. And then, off in the distance, is South America…

It’s a grim, scary future out there. But what is an interested and engaged American Administration to do?

empReinvigorating Nuclear Nonproliferation

New Blood Needed: First, America needs to work on completely reinventing and reinvigorating the resident non-proliferation community. As it is now, the community is dominated by a sclerotic bunch of old Cold War dinosaurs who are, as a whole, far too fond of bilateralism, looting their resident non-profits and enjoying far more comforts of the rubber chicken circuit than is healthy for the field.

Nobody would care if many of the lions of the old order disappeared tomorrow. As it is, too many of these Cold War relics are too bound by convention, preach only to the converted and have essentially marginalized themselves into irrelevance.

So we need a new cadre of nonproliferation leaders–ones that can reach out and make new audiences understand and care about the threat of nuclear warfare.

New Frontiers in Nonproliferation Needed: If reinventing the nuclear non-proliferation community is a worthwhile goal (it is!), the government needs to start taking steps that inject some life and excitement into the field of nuclear nonproliferation, extending the field into new areas. (Look, I know Iran, North Korea and India/Pakistan are great, worthwhile areas to focus upon, but they’re also old issues, with policy set pretty much in amber until, one day, a transformational crisis erupts.)

The field needs new issues and approaches to enliven it.

The avenues available to shake things up are many–for example, the Administration might try urging some of our friends to consider shedding their nuclear capability.  Sweating the UK (Does the UK really need a second-strike capability right now?) or other friends a bit over their nuclear programs (declared or not) might be an interesting way to catch people’s interest.

Engaging China in a meaningful way BEFORE the country starts recapitalizing their existing (and, I might add, a very cost-effective and strategically smart) minimal means of reprisal might be quite worthwhile. Striving to better understand the implications of old, bilateral agreements in a multi-polar world is another.

virginia_1Or, if tougher “realpolitik” standards apply, the Administration could follow the Reagan-era playbook (a playbook I believe in) and try creating change by destabilizing–by, say, really focusing on China’s nuclear short range and medium range missiles, or by openly mulling the deployment of medium-range sub-launched ballistic missiles via the Virginia Payload Tubes (yes, yes, I know there are treaties here, but it would certainly be a way to help get nuclear weapons back on the wider public agenda).

Recapitalizing Old Resources: At the end of the day, the Administration–at every level–needs to start reminding folks that nuclear weapons are woefully inefficient weapons, really only useful for killing us all very, very quickly. The Administration (this one and the next and the one after that) need to be out there, reminding us all that regional Cold Wars are unstable things and that regional nuclear war will mean not just the end of the participants, but the end of the world–or at least carry a disproportionate impact upon those countries least prepared to withstand grave, system-wide impacts (China/India/Pakistan).

That leads to the third point–to communicate threats the Nation needs to mount a wholesale recapitalization and reinvestment of their nuclear nonproliferation infrastructure. I see a lot of tools, government organizations and U.S. infrastructure built for assessing and popularizing the impact of nuclear war out there struggling for relevancy–working to find funding and relevance from Climate Change studies or other avenues–and then loosing funding because of it.

The Administration would be wise to reinvigorate funding for a number of those now threadbare and somewhat forgotten Cold War institutions–and reminding Congress that these institutions and infrastructures are anchored in national security, and that, for a world hurtling into a complex rat’s nest of multilateral mini-Cold Wars, it is vital for America to better understand and socialize the potential catastrophic consequences of such events. If modeling things like Climate Change helps build fidelity for modeling the impact of nuclear war on the survival of the United States, then, by gosh, we should do it, Climate Deniers be darned!

American security and diplomatic specialists need to get back out there and work really, really hard at re-awakening the world’s fear and loathing of nuclear weaponry and nuclear warfare. That means empowering the nation’s non-proliferation community to work on, say, consequence management–followed by wider efforts to publicize their work and get it into the mainstream.

A perfect example is in the recent Popular Science. Government climatologists modeled the consequences of a small nuclear war–and then, a few months later, helped mainstream writers translate the researcher’s dry science into accessible language everybody understands. More of this needs to happen–not less.

ThedayafterWhy Does This Matter To The Navy?

Ultimately, this is a wakeup call for the Navy. The Navy must help reinvigorate the nuclear non-proliferation community. The Navy must help educating the public and policymakers on the horror of nuclear war.

Navy engagement makes a certain amount of sense–after all, it is about helping to better define and shape the world the Navy is going to operate in over the coming decades.

It is in the Navy’s interest to have a nation fully “engaged and educated” on the threat of nuclear war and to help promote and support the growth of national infrastructures required to distribute honest, robust and public real-world assessments of nuclear risks.

The Navy must get nonproliferation right. The Navy and Administration are in the middle of generating a new set of naval strategies, recapitalizing the Navy’s portion of the nuclear triad, and struggling to determine where a limited amount of money is gonna go–and if the Navy is going to need to ask the public for funding to “operate forward” in a nuclear armed–and likely contaminated world–then, yeah, public awareness and interest in nuclear nonproliferation is gonna be an important determinant of the Navy’s future.

The U.S. Navy–unlike any other service–operates right at the front lines of nuclear nonproliferation–and not just in nuclear weaponry. The Navy advances energy, too. With the US Navy focusing on petrochemical energy conservation and energy weapons, the strategic and tactical utility of nuclear combatants may well see a renaissance. In time, the Navy may again lead the way in nuclear power plant design–and give the Navy (and nation) an opportunity to help direct the world toward nuclear power-plant designs that are safer and tougher to bend towards production of bomb-ready material.

As a lead component of America’s nuclear triad and the pointy end of the spear for eliminating other countries’ underwater deterrence, nuclear non-proliferation is a big deal for the Navy. To be healthy–and to prepare appropriately for the future–the Navy stands to benefit from an engaged public that is more aware of the real costs of nuclear proliferation and nuclear war. It makes fiscal and strategic sense for the Navy to really get engaged here.

But it is also why the Navy should be really quite concerned about America’s ambivalence over the Doomsday clock’s inexorable march towards midnight. If American taxpayers can’t muster much of a care about their national survival, they sure as heck won’t pay for much of a Navy.

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Mines Are Coming To The South China Sea

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Mine Warfare in the South China Sea is inevitable. Look at the players. On one side, we have China, a country boasting an enormous, sophisticated arsenal of mines with a resurgent Navy holding a set of offensive Mine Warfare doctrines that are simply begging to be tested. On the other, we have Vietnam, the Philippines […]

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The Coming Fight Over The Navy’s Fighting Ferries

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Military Sealift Command News: CIVMARs To Operate JHSV

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