Belmont Club

Sea Power vs The Earthquake

Information Dissemination says that the Pacific Fleet and the JMSDF (Japanese Navy) are establishing a Sea Base off northeastern Japan from which to conduct rescue and relief operations in the coming days. The Sea Base concept was used by the Navy after the Haitian earthquake disaster, to permit at-sea search, rescue and recovery operations independent of immediate land support. Describing how it applied to Haiti, Digital Journal wrote:

The idea of the ”sea base” is that it will not be reliant on the meager resources in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince. The city’s airport is small and outdated, roads and railways are vastly inadequate and there is no emergency infrastructure. With the ”sea base” anchored off Haiti, the US forces can stage further relief operations independently.

In the case of Japan “the US contribution of this sea base will be centered around the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), USS Preble (DDG 88), USS McCampbell (DDG 85), USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), USS Mustin (DDG 89), USS Tortuga (LSD 46), and USNS Bridge (T-AOE 10)”. En route are  USS Essex, a large amphibious assault ship, USS Blue Ridge, the U.S. Seventh Fleet command ship, USS Harpers Ferry, a dock landing ship based in Sasebo, Japan, and the USS Germantown, an amphibious dock landing ship.

From there both the Japanese and US Navies can help out without burdening the facilities ashore.

Seapower exploits the fact that the sea represents the cheapest way to move vast quantities of material great distances. The US Navy, in particular, has developed ways of carting around its own airports, docks, field hospitals, communications facilities, barracks, warehouses and fuel depots — and maintaining them in the face of resistance. Originally conceived for the purposes of maritime warfare, these same capabilities are superlatively effective at providing assistance when the supporting infrastructure breaks down. The USN has been doing this so routinely since World War 2 that the world often forgets how prodigious this capability is.

The advantages of the sea were known more than a hundred years ago. Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote, “notwithstanding all the familiar and unfamiliar dangers of the sea, both travel and traffic by water have always been easier and cheaper than by land. … This advantage of carriage by water over that by land was yet more marked in a period when roads were few and very bad, wars frequent and society unsettled.” The greater the turmoil on land the more useful the sea becomes.  In times when catastrophe destroys roads, ports and airports ashore; or when unrest makes travel  by ordinary means a doubtful propositions, there’s always the Navy, which can move and protect bulk shipments at speeds and volumes only freight trains could match.

The debate over establishing a “no-fly zone” in Libya highlights just how difficult it is to obtain an international consensus, and therefore arranging concerted action. The Stars and Stripes lists out what forces would be used for such an operation. Without the US, most scenarios would require European forces to rely upon the possible use of bases in Cyprus, or in Italy, with known close ties to Khadaffi or staging areas in North Africa itself.  All such arrangements would be hideously expensive and complex. The British Royal United Service Institute described what it would take to establish a “no fly zone” over Libya.

As well as contextual issues there are realistic constraints on the implementation and benefits of a NFZ in Libya. At over 1.7 million sq. km Libya is about 33 times the size of Bosnia and is bordered by six nations with largely limited infrastructures. A similar sized area around Bosnia encompasses western and central Europe, a region replete with the infrastructure necessary to mount a major air policing operation. North Africa is simply unable to provide the level of basing support enjoyed by NATO air forces during the air campaign over Bosnia. Furthermore, whilst airfields in Cyprus, Italy, Greece, Turkey and possibly southern France might have realistic utility supporting a NFZ over Libya, bases in other European states which were used during the air campaign over Bosnia are too far from Libya to be of practical value in mounting a persistent NFZ.

To indicate the size of a comprehensive air campaign, Operation Deny Flight involved an armada of approximately 200 aircraft. Although it is extremely unlikely the current crisis in Libya would ever demand a similar commitment of forces, and limiting a NFZ to areas under Qadhafi’s control would significantly ease the logistic, operational and tactical difficulties to be overcome, the substantial air effort required to conduct a NFZ between 1-3 hours flying time from mounting bases is largely unrecognised and should not be discounted, especially if the NFZ was seriously contested.

Finally, if Gaddafi relied on helicopter gunships to attack his people a NFZ might be of variable utility. Helicopters are not restricted to operating from paved airfields, when airborne they can be more difficult to detect than fighter aircraft, their ability to land almost anywhere creates additional NFZ difficulties and, unlike fast-jets, they can be readily confused with civilian air traffic (e.g. humanitarian helicopter flights). Stopping helicopters from repeatedly breaching a NFZ is therefore difficult and it must be recognized that it may not be possible to prevent all bombing, rocketing or strafing of the Libyan people by use of a NFZ alone.

A no fly zone is wasteful policy and even more wasteful if you have to fly from negotiated basing. It is less so when  you can do it without reference to anybody else — supposing President Obama ever wanted to act unilaterally and not at the service of the “United Nations”. Even when carrying out bad policy sea power has its advantages. The reason the USN is so useful to Washington’s politicians is that its ships are American sovereign territory, and the seas they control very nearly so. In contrast non-maritime powers must regard the “seaboard is its frontier”, to paraphrase Mahan, and regard anything  beyond the horizon as subject to the veto of the USN.  That is what makes navies so influential, both in times of trouble and in peace; in times of quiet and natural calamity.  Most of the time nobody remembers that the Navy exists, but when they need it, they all thank God that it’s there.

Below, a 100,000 ton+ carrier does high speed turn tests.

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