The term “littoral” seems to dominate today’s naval vocabulary. Some believe we should focus on blue-water supremacy, while others say that when the time comes to fight in the littorals, our blue-water fleet will be at great risk from anti-access weapons. How did we get into this fix? Will we soon need a littoral submarine program to protect funding for our seaborne strategic deterrent?
At the end of the Cold War, those who were ignorant of 50 years of history (and the Maritime Strategy) apparently concluded the Navy was optimized for a cataclysmic engagement with the Soviets somewhere in the Atlantic. What followed was a “new” reality: we would operate from the sea in support of operations ashore. “Littoral” quickly became a budget analyst’s weapon and marketing catchphrase. Pity the program that could not reinvent itself by inserting the word into its requirement.
In 1941 our Navy was blue-water, period. Yet we conducted coastal antisubmarine warfare and fought major engagements in the Pacific island chains. In the Mediterranean and at Normandy, destroyers scraped bottom to provide gunfire support. Would shallow-draft corvettes operating 100 yards closer to the beach have been more effective, with their 3-inch guns? What force structure (at what cost to aircraft-carrier construction) would have resulted had the late-1930s appropriations committees foreseen the U-boat offensive off our Atlantic coast or the fighting around Guadalcanal?
The German radio-controlled bomb that disabled the USS Savannah (CL-42) off Salerno in 1943 was an anti-access weapon, and the kamikaze presaged the antiship cruise-missile saturation raid. But the lessons learned did not lead to small, expendable warships. They led to the radar picket, Naval Tactical Data System, and, in time, Aegis—fortunately coincident with the maturation of the Soviet combined-arms threat. A destroyer force optimized for ASW against Soviet submarines spent years on the gun line, while missile ships designed to protect carriers in the open ocean engaged MiGs in North Vietnamese air space. In the 1980s, carriers operated in Vestfjord, Norway, in exercises to demonstrate our ability to support a ground war in Europe.
The dust had hardly settled from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 before the program to provide our surface combatants with low-frequency active sonar was canceled as a blue-water vestige of the Cold War. The misconceptions that led to the demise of this and other components of the Navy’s 21st-century ASW capability demonstrate that all we had learned during 50 years was now deemed irrelevant.
Yet the Maritime Strategy itself presumed we would prosecute ASW in the littorals. Look at the bathymetry of the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap and the Barents Sea. Submariners are not stupid; given an alternative, they will not by choice go into waters that best suit their opponent. Did we think for one minute that the Soviet Union, with an oceanographic fleet ten times the size of ours, did not understand the reverberation-limited active-sonar environment, or the directionality of ambient noise that a submarine could use to hide from a towed array?
“Littoral” is neither a force structure nor a budget hammer. It is only a word that describes one of many operating environments. Warfare in the littoral should be the strategies, supporting systems, and tactics that tilt that particular battlefield in our favor.
In his foreword to Robert F. Sumrall’s Sumner-Gearing–Class Destroyers (Naval Institute Press, 1995), Norman Friedman reminds us that “ships laid down now are likely to last a quarter century or more . . . during their lifetimes the world is likely to change in ways not now conceivable.” Further, many
will argue that size is costly, that surely we can do better by designing ships for specific missions. The lesson of the Sumners and Gearings is clear: Specific missions often change unexpectedly. How many purely antisubmarine frigates will the United States and other NATO countries lay up before their time now that the great Soviet submarine threat of the Cold War has receded?
History has shown that “blue water” and “littoral” are not either/or terms; allowing one word to drive an entire investment strategy ignores those lessons. It’s time we stopped obsessing about what might happen in some future littoral, and focus on a force structure and the capabilities that best serve the nation in any and all operating environments.