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Sea Lines of Communication: Updated

[Admin note: My article on sea lines of communication is one of the perennial favorites on my site, and so as Obama plays sequestration politics with our military I thought it would be worthwhile to update it, as our defenses are even weaker than the force levels shown in this article indicate. The sky is decidedly not falling but our forces are being stretched, and at some point we will run out of assets, which will not be good for us, or our allies.]

Maritime Traffic, courtesy of the Naval War College

Back when I was a young man I was a member of both the Air Force Association and the United States Naval Institute. Both helped my knowledge of world affairs (and the military’s role) immensely. They are interesting organizations.

Those of you have been in (or even around) the military know what lines of communications are. That’s where orders come down but, so do the beans, bullets, and gas. The thing is countries have them too. The United States has them all over the world, and even where they may not be so crucial to us they may be to our allies.

For instance our lines of communication to Europe have always been important, they were one of the causes of winning the Revolution and were also one of the major causes of the war of 1812.

Sea lines of communication are what the navy is all about (with some help from the air force). I’ve written before about Freedom of the Seas, what is important here is that this is a defensive posture, we need the sea lanes open. The other side of this is area denial, which means you can’t use it even if I can’t either. This is what the German U-boat campaigns in both world wars and the US sub campaign against Japan were all about. This is a much easier (although an offensive and not a defensive ) mission.

Sea Lines of Communication (or SLOC, as they are sometimes called) are one of the causes of the Spanish-American War, we needed Hawaii and Cuba/Puerto Rico as coaling bases for the fleet to support the isthmian canal which we needed to be able to reinforce either the Pacific Fleet or Atlantic Fleet as required.

This is what our Carrier Battle Groups do: they defend the sea lanes and they do it superlatively. World commerce works because the United States Navy protects it, before we had this duty, it was the reason for the Royal Navy. That’s why in both countries, while honored and admired, submariners have rarely been the commanders. Yes, I know, Nimitz.  Submarine are an area denial weapon, so are the air forces.

One of the most interesting anomalies in the Air Force is that the individualistic, hell for leather fighter pilots are a defensive weapon while the anonymous bombers crews are the offense.

The SLOCs have some choke points built-in to them, During the Cold War there was a lot of talk about the Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. The reason was that much of the US’s and Canada’s war material was in North America and would constitute the follow on force in a general war in western Europe. Other ones are Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, the English Channel, the Strait of Hormuz, and the one I’m mostly talking about today, theMalacca Strait. See map.

The Strait of Malacca

Here’s the description from Wikipedia:

The Strait of Malacca is a narrow, 805 km (500 mi) stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula (Peninsular Malaysia) and theIndonesian island of Sumatra. It is named after the Malacca Sultanate that ruled over the archipelago between 1414 and 1511.

And here, again from Wikipedia, is why it’s important:

From an economic and strategic perspective, the Strait of Malacca is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

The strait is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, linking major Asian economies such as IndiaChinaJapan and South Korea. Over 50,000 (94,000?)vessels pass through the strait per year, carrying about one-quarter of the world’s traded goods including oil, Chinese manufactures, and Indonesian coffee.

About a quarter of all oil carried by sea passes through the strait, mainly from Persian Gulfsuppliers to Asian markets such as China, Japan, and South Korea. In 2006, an estimated 15 million barrels per day (2,400,000 m3/d) were transported through the strait.

That’s a lot of oil, and a lot of it goes to our friends in the region, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

You’ve noticed that there isn’t a lot of room to maneuver there, that’s a problem for us. The carriers while immensely powerful (equal to most country’s air forces) need room to maneuver, when you’re sailing into the wind at 30 knots you can cover a lot of water. but it’s doable. They are also quite vulnerable if an enemy can get close, that’s what the rest of the battle group is about. This, incidentally, has been true of capital ships forever, battleships had vulnerabilities too, chiefly to aircraft and submarines.

Anyway, the Obama administration made a lot of noise a while back about a ‘Pivot to Asia” or something like that. That could make sense since they seem to be running away from our commitments in the Middle East. But that leaves the question, With what?

Let’s take a look at a couple of charts from the Naval History Center:

U.S.Navy Active Ship Force Levels, 1917-1923

Date 4/6/17 11/11/18 7/1/19 7/1/20 7/1/21 7/1/22 7/1/23
Battleship 37 39 36 26 22 19 18
Monitors, Coastal 7 7 5 1 2@ - -
Carriers, Fleet - - - - - - -
Carriers, Escort - - - - - - -
Cruisers 33 31 28 27 10 12 13
Destroyers 66 110 161 189 68 (208rc ) 103 103
Frigates 17 17 - - - - -
Submarines 44 80 91 58 69 (11rc) 82 (7rc) 69 (5rc)
Mine Warfare - 53 62 48 50 (8rc) 36 38
Patrol 42 350 65 45 59 (1rc) 43 41
Auxiliary 96 87 304 173 104 83 82
Surface Warships 160 204 230 243 102 134 134
Total Active 342 774 752 567 384 (228rc) 379 (7rc) 365 (5rc)
Events
•  U.S. enters WWI 6 April 1917•  Bolshevik Revolution begins 28 October (Old Style) 1917•  WWI ends 11 November 1918•  Washington Treaty in force 17 August 1923.

and

U.S.Navy Active Ship Force Levels, 2007 to 2011

Date 9/30/07 9/30/08 9/30/09 9/30/10 9/30/11
Carriers 11 11 11 11 11
Cruisers 22 22 22 22 22
Destroyers 52 54 57 59 61
Frigates 30 30 30 29 26
LCS * 1 1 2 2
Submarines 53 53 53 53 53
SSBN 14 14 14 14 14
SSGN 4 4 4 4 4
Mine Warfare 14 14 14 14 14
Amphibious 33 34 33 33 31
Auxiliary 46 45 46 47 47
Surface Warships 115 118  121  123 122
Total Active 278** 282 285 288 285
Notes
•    Cost increases encourage construction of more affordable class of littoral combat ships, intended for inshore or ‘brown water’ operations in high risk environments.*     Littoral Combat Ship**     Low since 19th-century

Thus we can see that the navy is smaller than it was on the eve of World War 1 when its primary role was hemispheric defense, not the worldwide mission it has now, and only 7 ships larger than it has been at any time since the 19th century. Sure, the modern navy is far more powerful and because of the logistics train that the navy perfected in World War II much more far-ranging than the old coal powered fleet. But, you know what, our men (and women) still like to come home once in a while. They are seeing down the road still more cutbacks in their personnel. In some ways, normally the air force can pick up some of the slack but, the cuts they are facing are worse than the navy’s, and the air force maritime role is area denial, aircraft cannot control the sea (or land), they can only make it unusable for the enemy.

[Update]

You remember the other day when I published this picture

That’s the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), USS Enterprise (CVN 65), USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), and USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), all lined up at the dock at the naval station: Norfolk.5 Fleet carriers at the dock in Norfolk: USNI Photo

That’s the heart of 5 Carrier Battle Groups, we only have 11, all of which are the heart and soul of sea control, sitting at the dock in Norfolk Navy Base. Think that has a bearing on the control of our sea lines of communication? Again the administration is playing politics with national security, not only ours but but the entire free world’s. Understand this, if you understand only one thing from this site, without a strong navy, at sea and on patrol, free trade will not happen, all that stuff we buy from Asia is at risk, and that is where the world is doing more and more of it’s manufacturing. The growth rates all around the western Pacific are phenomenal but, they are far from being able to defend themselves.

The Threat:

The threats in the area of the Straits of Malacca are both real and potential. This is another area in which piracy is fairly common, the solutions are known but spottily applied. A carrier battle group for this is rather like swatting flies with a battleship’s main battery anyway. What’s needed here are small, fast ,versatile ships with helos instead of jet fighters and marines (or seals) deployed. That’s fine in an otherwise innocuous area but, there are other threats, real and potential.

The other threat is China, of course. This could be their big breakthrough onto the world stage. Blocking the Strait of Malacca could starve Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and maybe Australia and New Zealand into submission. That’s a strategic victory for China. We’ve been hearing for a while now about their development of attack drones. Like our air force, these would be an area denial weapon, they can’t control the area with them but they can keep anyone from using it without their permission. These could even be a threat to our carrier battle groups. They’re not there yet but with their expertise in cyber-warfare and stolen western technology they could get there. What are we going to do about it? It’s going to depend on what we (and our allies) have and the cupboard while not empty is surely not stocked for this scale of operations.

The coupling of defense into the budget talks has done the national security mission great harm in the last few years. Will there be enough for the challenges ahead? I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like anybody else has much confidence either. That’s always a bad way to go into the future.

Si vis pacem, para bellum

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Categories: American Values, Freedom, History, Military issues, Politics, Politics as Usual

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