Military Embedded Systems

Enemy ships and the kill web


June 27, 2019

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: Since our primary enemies (Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea) have some capacity for naval warfare, it might be instructive to examine how they can confront the kill web at sea. To do that, we need to look at the hull count (total number of warships) and the total tonnage (water displacement of their fleet) for each country. Hull count will tell us how many ships they can deploy in a fight, and tonnage will tell us their range, and how large and deadly those ships are. That will give us the big picture and we can start assessing their capabilities from there.

Before we get started, I need to offer a disclaimer about the numbers I use here. They are not precise. I pulled the hull counts from one set of recent articles on the web, and the tonnage from another set. It’s not clear what each article counted and no recent articles combined both metrics. In one instance, I had to look-up the tonnage of specific ships, multiply that by the number of those ships the enemy has, and add them up. So look at the numbers used here as relative, not absolute. Let’s start off with Russia.

Just before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, their navy was formidable. They had about 1,050 warships (including 271 submarines and 312 destroyers, cruisers, frigates, and corvettes). I could not find the total tonnage for that period anywhere. Today, the Russian Navy has 360 ships that displace about 1.2 million tons of water. That works out to an average of 3,334 tons per ship for their present navy. The average for the Soviet fleet was probably well over 5,000 tons in 1990.

Today, the Russian Navy has 61 submarines and about 105 large surface combat ships. The rest are smaller patrol craft. Many of these warships are old, antiquated, and sporadically operational. Their only aircraft carrier (the Admiral Kuznetsov at 58,600 tons) was badly damaged during repairs in dry dock and may not be salvageable. And, two of their ancient nuclear-powered battle cruisers are being scrapped: the Admiral Ushakov and the Admiral Lazarev (they displace 28,000 tons each). Russia does not have the economy nor the facilities to build big ships, so both their hull count and tonnage are declining. However, they still harass U.S. Navy ships on the open seas. In early June, a Russian destroyer (the Admiral Vinogradov at 7,900 tons) came within 50 to 100 feet of the USS Chancellorsville (a 9,800 ton American missile cruiser) in the Philippine Sea. According to a recent Russian analyst's report, their navy has about 45% of the combat capability of the U.S. Navy. That estimate is overly generous, and you’ll see why in a moment.

To read more Warfare Evolution Blogs by Ray Alderman, click here.

China has 714 warships that displace about 1.8 million tons. That’s an average of 2,521 tons per ship. They have two aircraft carriers afloat (about 56,000 tons each) and one under construction. The remainder of their navy is made up of 73 submarines, 50 frigates, 29 destroyers, 39 corvettes, 29 mine warfare vessels, 220 patrol boats, and some support vessels.

Also, China has commissioned 32 new warships in the past two years. They are paying more attention to their navy than their army or air force, so it’s clear that they want to control the seas in their region. The U.S. Navy commissioned 13 new warships over that same period. From my reading, the last time China fired a shot in anger from a boat was during the first Opium War against the British in the 1840s, and they were soundly defeated. Today, China may have a bunch of warships but they are mostly small boats. And, they do not have experienced commanders or an efficient command and control system for naval warfare.

Iran has 398 warships. About 270 of those are light patrol craft and speed boats. In their large ship inventory, that have five frigates (7,500 tons total), three corvettes (2,850 tons total), 33 submarines (12,800 tons total), and 10 mine warfare ships (14,000 tons total). If you gave the Iranian navy a total tonnage of 50,000, the average is only 125 tons per vessel.

Information about North Korea’s navy is sketchy. According to the latest data, they have 967 warships consisting of 86 small submarines, about 400 landing craft, two frigates, 10 corvettes, 25 minesweepers, 30 small missile boats, about 250 torpedo boats, and 190 patrol boats. I could not find their total tonnage, only a reference that said that 80% of their navy ships are under 200 tons. The biggest ships they have are one submarine and two helicopter carriers at about 1,650 tons each. They have no destroyers or cruisers. So, their average tonnage might be 150 tons at best. The bigger question is how many of these ships are operational and seaworthy.

The kindest thing we can say about North Korea’s navy is that it’s the largest collection of vintage warships in the world. Most of these boats were made by China and Russia many years ago, and some copies were made in country. Their homemade ships are interesting: they remove the turrets and the 85mm (about 3 inch diameter) cannons from their broken-down antiquated T-34/85 Russian-made tanks and weld them to the decks of those boats. The 85mm tank cannon is the largest gun they have on any of their boats. U.S. Navy ships carry 5-inch guns (127mm).

The U.S. Navy has about 430 warships (this includes patrol boats and auxiliary ships) that displace about 4.6 million tons. That’s an average of 10,698 tons per ship. We have 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that displace over 100,000 tons each (with two more under construction), and that distorts the tonnage numbers a bit. There are 71 active nuclear submarines, 22 missile cruisers, 68 destroyers, and 16 Littoral Combat Ships (equivalent to a corvette ship). The rest are amphibious assault ships, helicopter carriers, and docking ships.

What have we learned here? Look at North Korea and Iran’s hull counts and average tonnage: they may have a lot of boats, but they are small, lightly armed, and operate in littoral waters. To cross oceans and engage in naval battle, you need big ships. Their navies are built for coastal defense, not for clashes with destroyers and missile cruisers in deep water.

Additionally, North Korean ships are all powered by fuel oil, and they have no indigenous oil resources. They must import all their fuel from Russia and China, against the present sanctions. The entire country of North Korea consumed about 15,000 barrels of oil per day in 2017, for all purposes, so their navy barely gets enough fuel to run a few ships. In comparison, the U.S. Navy consumes about 100,000 barrels of oil per day just to power their ships and jet aircraft (that figure was extrapolated from the numbers in older reports on the web). Over the past few years, Russian and Chinese tankers have been observed transferring oil through hoses to North Korean tankers at sea, clandestinely skirting the sanctions. On the other hand, Iran has plenty of oil for their lightweight navy, and they can deploy more boats for longer periods, but only close to their shores. Oil is critical in naval warfare.

Russia’s navy is obviously in decline but will continue to be a threat in regional waters with their larger ships. China is expanding their navy at a furious pace, and they constitute a threat in their regional waters and further out into deeper waters. Neither country has the ability to project power on the high seas with a naval strike group. China produces about 4 million barrels of oil per day domestically, but their economy uses about 14 million barrels per day. They import the difference from Russia, Saudi Arabia, and most likely from Iran (despite the sanctions). For comparison, the U.S. economy uses more than 20 million barrels of oil per day. Also, consider that both Russia and China use commercial fishing vessels for military intelligence gathering and patrol purposes. Those vessels are not included in the hull counts or tonnage for either country.

Furthermore, Russia and China are getting closer together in their military and political relationships. China buys Russian weapons and oil regularly, while Russia buys food and electronics from China. This economic relationship could expand: Russia could start buying warships from China and pay for them with oil, since they don’t have the money. If Russia has 45% of the U.S. Navy’s combat capability, and we give China a 40% capability, then their combined navies have about 85% of U.S. naval power. When consolidated, they could have superiority over U.S. naval forces in the Western Pacific, but only with smaller boats. The recent close encounter, between a Russian destroyer and an American missile cruiser in the Philippine Sea, suggest that there is already an informal anti-American relationship between their navies.

It will take decades for either Russia or China to approach U.S. naval power on the world’s oceans independently. But together, they could share greater naval power in a few years. To offset that possibility, America could form a naval alliance with the Philippine, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Australia, and Japan navies. However, this potential China-Russia naval marriage is rife with difficulties: China sees Russia as a junior partner economically and militarily, not an equal. A similar alliance could occur between the U.S. Navy and the navies of Saudi Arabia, Israel, UAE, Kuwait, and other oil-producing gulf countries against Iran.

As for Iran and North Korea, both are just pawns for Russia and China to use in their quest for world power and influence. Although North Korea sells weapons to Iran, and Iran sells oil to North Korea, the probability of those countries forming a military partnership is slim. They are too far apart geographically, and a partnership between atheistic communism in North Korea, and Shia Islam in Iran, will be problematic.

Hull counts and tonnage leave something to be desired in assessing what our enemies will use against the kill web at sea. So, let’s take a look at another metric: firepower. A recent report states that the U.S. Navy fleet (all ships and subs) presently carry 12,000 battle force missiles on board (anti-ship missiles and land-attack cruise missiles). The Chinese fleet carries 5,200 and the Russian fleet carries 3,300. Therefore, the U.S. Navy has twice the firepower of the Chinese Navy, and four times that of the Russian navy. By this metric, Russia only has about 25% of the combat capability of the U.S. Navy.

Plus, the U.S. Navy deploys 53 attack submarines that carry a mixture of 2,300 torpedoes and tactical missiles today. We have four cruise missile submarines (SSGN), and each one carries up to 154 Tomahawk missiles on board. The Russian Navy operates 54 attack subs that carry a total of 1,700 torpedoes and tactical missiles. The Chinese navy operates 63 attack subs that carry 1,100 torpedoes and tactical missiles. As you can see from the numbers, the U.S. Navy attack subs are considerably larger (heavier in tonnage) and more lethal than Chinese or Russian attack subs. North Korean and Iranian subs have a few torpedoes and a missile or two, but they are small and can’t carry much ordinance. However, they could accomplish a single hit-and-run mission against U.S. surface vessels in shallow waters, just before they are immediately sunk.

For your knowledge, there are about 228 submarines randomly operating in the East and South China Seas today. They are deployed by America, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and maybe North Korea. The U.S. operates 33 nuclear subs in that area. Therefore, the probability that some of these subs will inadvertently bang into each other is much higher than being attacked by enemy torpedoes.

There are other ways to assess our enemy’s naval capabilities against the kill web at sea, like deck gun caliber or ship speed or ship range, but that would be superfluous at this point. Here’s the bottom line: our enemies may have more ships (higher hull count), but their ships are small (lighter tonnage) and they have much less firepower. Even though they pose a serious threat to US vessels with their anti-ship missiles, they will be at a severe disadvantage if their ships enter the kill web.

You may doubt that last statement, but look at what happened in the Persian Gulf in early May. Iran mounted short range ballistic missiles on some of their boats, signaling a possible attack against U.S. military bases and allies in the Middle East. The Pentagon responded by moving the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group (including some attack subs) and four B-52 bombers into the region, setting-up the kill web against a missile attack. Since then, Iranian leaders have been spewing threats and rattling their sabres but their naval activity has slowed. That shows you how the kill web works, as a deterrent.

In previous articles, we explored enemy fighter jets and bombers, but only from a stealth standpoint using radar cross section (RCS) as the metric. For our next adventure, let’s deviate a little and take a look at the advances in our kill web radar and examine how it works. Lighting-up those enemy planes, and getting a weapons-quality fire-control lock on those targets, will be a lot more fun than just counting airplanes.


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