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The ‘Thousand Ship Navy’ is dead in the water, says former Expeditionary Warfare Chief
September 23, 2013Posted by on
Back in the early part of 2007, the idea of the Thousand Ship Navy (TSN) was being thrown around circles of naval commanders like the answer to a particularly tough riddle.
Based largely on the notion that no single navy could “go it alone”, allied and partnered freedom-loving nations – along with commercial shipping companies and merchant vessels – were being eyed to meet tomorrow’s challenges by effectively merging together into a seafaring power so massive and unstoppable that Poseidon himself would slink off into the Mariana Trench and hide among the barnacles with all those other terrifying looking fish monsters.
In the words of many U.S. Government and Navy speakers, this was a concept that was “gaining traction” and for a while it seemed as though the sun setting over the horizon of our glistening oceans promised more than just another day ahead.
Of course, a few mere months later, the liquidity crisis hit and strategic budget folders landed on defence ministerial tables across the Western world. The bottom had fallen out – not just on the economy but also on the naïve suggestion that military growth would be able to continue unimpeded on a global scale.
The following year, as if to rub salt into the wound, Russia announced plans to increase production of both nuclear and conventional weapon systems – including 14 new warships – all while openly flirting with Cuba and Venezuela for fresh ties. To lump another problem into the mix, China also announced its intentions to expand its naval presence and began construction of an aircraft carrier, the first of several now being planned by Beijing.
The U.S. had already been witnessing a decline to its fleet volume over the preceding seventeen years, dropping around 46 per cent of its ships since the Gulf War as a result of going largely unchallenged at sea for so long.
One would think that now, more than ever, a united naval group would be the ideal solution to a divided and deficient alternative. Yet, in the midst of an economic crisis, the prospect of being called out to operations for extended periods of time and to take up duties at the drop of a hat is not one that appeals to commanders or bean counters alike. Add to this the fact that even scraping together those few navies willing to pitch in would still leave the force short of a grand, considering the decline of ship numbers across the board.
Still not fully deterred, the U.S. Navy – led by Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, the poster boy for TSN – hoped to leverage India as a regional partner to help entice Russia and China into the operational concept and keep the dream alive. But Defence Minister A.K. Antony had other ideas and in 2011 emphatically shot the notion down, stating that India would not join a multinational force unless it was mandated by the U.N. or unless limited to small-scale dedicated cooperation. For those counting at home, this would be the final nail.
At this point, the powers that be began to play down the idea of even needing such a ubiquitous force in the 21st Century. Most notable amongst them was President Obama who clashed with Mitt Romney (remember him?) on the issue during a televised debate last year. Romney, as we barely recall, made mutterings of building the Navy back up to at least 350 ships, comparing the dwindling size to levels not seen since 1917. Obama saw that ball coming and hit it out of the park as far as viewers and analysts were concerned, simultaneously launching “horses and bayonets” into the popular lexicon. The suggestion that modern technology could fill the gap was one that a young generation could readily identify with (because what can’t technology do for us these days?) and, regardless of fact or matter, made Mitt look like the old man on the sea.
This month, Major General (Rtd) Harry Jenkins, a former Assistant Chief of Staff for C4I Director and the Pentagon’s Chief of Expeditionary Warfare Division (N85), and the man who literally co-wrote the ‘book’ on TSN for the Navy told Defence IQ that for now, TSN is in a watery grave.
“I think it was a good scheme, but the realities today are that there probably are not enough ships afloat in anybody’s navies to do that,” said Jenkins.
That said, something of the philosophy of the concept is – and could continue to be – useful on lower-key task force missions.
“Whatever you’re going to do in this area as part of that concept would be to bring together various navies of the world regionally. A good example would be the navies that conduct counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and that area. You see the same thing where partner nations have gotten together along the Straits of Malacca and making sure that sea line stay open.
“Those operations are going to continue but the idea of trying to tie everybody together is pretty hard.”
As economies march to a slow recovery, Jenkins believes the future will provide an opportunity to see “a subset” of TSN take effect but will be largely reliant on the region in question.
“Some areas have a lot of naval capabilities [locally], others don’t have as much. A good example would be the Western African states…So while there are bits and pieces of what we called the Thousand Ship Navy out there, I don’t see that coming together at all globally unless we have a major confrontation somewhere.”
What has arisen as an alternative to fielding a huge conventional naval force is the focus and expenditure seen on more numerous amphibious assets, where tactics have shifted to the protection or takeover of targeted areas of bottlenecked waters and island chains. Such a strategy has been picked up on universally and everyone from Japan to Iran is aware of just how much control can be leveraged by simply dominating the vital lanes, effectively hitting the world in its pressure points instead of trying to club it into submission over twelve rounds.
In the past few years, the number of nations that have invested into fresh amphibious platforms seems endless, including (to name just a few) Australia, Algeria, Chile, China, the Republic of Korea and Japan – the latter of which having announced in its recent defence review that it is now on a mission to dramatically expand its marine capabilities in light of Pacific tensions.
Vince Goulding, Director of the USMC Warfighting Lab’s Experiment Division previously described this investment as “critical”.
“With fiscal realities, we need to look at what force brings the most bang for the buck, and amphibious forces allows you to operate in all three domains. They’re the only forces that offer you that. Other forces typically require infrastructure ashore to accomplish their mission,” said Goulding.
“They’re not an intrusion on a nation’s sovereignty while they’re waiting for a crisis to occur. I would say their future is very bright if people open up their intellectual apertures of what the real required capabilities for our respective nations will be in the future.”
Indeed, the value of amphibious assets has now grown beyond the traditional role of power projection long associated with them. Among the roles that they have proven integral to undertaking includes maritime interdiction, anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, all of which were demands once cited by proponents of TSN. This doesn’t even mention the benefits of surveillance range extension, fleet support, mine countermeasures and all number of other vital requirements that these same platforms can be moulded towards. Check out this infographic for a more “dynamic” overview.
The Thousand Ship Navy may never happen. But then again, history may look back on our situation and recognise that if the economic slump taught navies one thing, it’s that it wasn’t the size of the boat – or fleet – that actually mattered.
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