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U Sank My Carrier!
By Gary Brecher
When kids play war, they end up spending less time shooting than arguing: "You're dead!" "Am not! You missed!" It just gets worse the bigger the kids. I remember a D & D'er crying when his character got killed -- wouldn't talk to the rest of us for years, still grieving for his dead elf.
The US military has been having exactly this kind of argument, played out in the world press, since last August. They're even whinier and more of a pain about it than D&Ders, if you can believe that, with leaks and counter-leaks, planted stories, and plenty of good ol' character assassination.
It all comes out of the "Millenium Challenge '02" war games we staged in the Persian Gulf this summer. The big scandal was that the Opposing Force Commander, Gen. Paul van Ripen, quit mid-game because the games were rigged for the US forces to win. The scenario was a US invasion of an unnamed Persian Gulf country (either Iraq or Iran). The US was testing a new hi-tech joint force doctrine, so naturally van Riper used every lo-tech trick he could think of to mess things up. When the Americans jammed his CCC network , he sent messages by motorbike.
But that was just playing around. They wouldn't have minded that. Might've even congratulated van Ripen, bought him a drink for his smarts, at the post-games party.
The truth is that van Ripen did something so important that I still can't believe the mainstream press hasn't made anything of it. With nothing more than a few "small boats and aircraft," van Ripen managed to sink most of the US fleet in the Persian Gulf.
What this means is as simple and plain as a skull: every US Navy battle group, every one of those big fancy aircraft carriers we love, won't last one single day in combat against a serious enemy.
The Navy brass tried to bluff it out, but they were pretty lame about it. They just declared the sunken ships "refloated" so the game could go on as planned. This is the kind of word-game that makes the military look so damn dumb. Too bad Bonaparte never thought of that after Trafalgar: "My vleete, she is now reflotte!" Too bad Phillip didn't demand a refloat after the Armada went down: "Oye, vatos, dees English sink todos mi ships, chinga sus madres, so escuche: el fleet es ahora refloated, OK?"
Everybody in this story has an agenda-starting with the retired USMC General named Paul van Riper, the hero of the story for most readers. Even the Army Times, when it broke the story, admitted that van Riper has a reputation as an "asshole" who has a grudge against hi-tech scenarios like the one the military was testing. He also has a reputation as a guy who lives for the chance to make the brass look bad in war games.
But that's what a good opposing commander is supposed to do. This van Riper may be an asshole, but then most good generals are. Patton wasn't somebody you'd want to be stuck in an elevator with. Rommel was worse; there's a story about how one morning in the desert Rommel announced to his staff officers, "Today is Christmas. We will now celebrate. Hans, how is your wife? Hermann, how is your wife?" and without waiting for his officers, to answer, Rommel said, "That was Christmas. Now-get out the maps."
And whatever agenda van Ripen had, do you really think the brass who "refloated" the ships he sunk are any more objective? Their careers are all riding on the success of this operation and they've got just as much reason to lie or fudge the results.
The story just got dirtier as it bounced around the web. The gullible types who believe everything the Pentagon tells them, decided to trust the brass -- van Riper was just a troublemaker. The paranoid types, the ones who think the CIA controls the weather, took it for granted that the whole war games were fixed from the start.
A lot of the arguments came down to the question of what war games like Millennium Challenge are about. Trusting war-nerds were saying on the web, "Well, the whole POINT of war games is to show up weaknesses! So naturally when van Ripen sank the ships, they made a note and restarted the games!"
It's a nice idea, but kinda naive. Most war games aren't neutral at all. They're supposed to showcase a new weapon or doctrine. Millennium Challenge was supposed to showcase high-tech joint-force doctrine. So when van Ripen sank the fleet, you can bet that the guys running it didn't just say, "Well played, old boy! We must make a note of your tactics in order to avert such mishaps in the future!"
What most casual readers won't get is that some of van Ripen's moves are chickenshit, and don't amount to anything-but others are so damn scary that the US Navy will be trying to live them down for years.
That trick of sending messages by motorbike is a good example of a move that gets lots of publicity and sounds smart but doesn't mean much. OK, you send your messages by bike. For starters, that means they move at 30 mph, unlike radio messages, which are almost instant. That's a huge disadvantage. And what happens if your biker gets strafed? No message-or a captured message. I'd be happy to fight an army that had nothing better than motorbikes to communicate with.
But what van Ripen did to the US fleet...that's something very different. He was given nothing but small planes and ships-fishing boats, patrol boats, that kind of thing. He kept them circling around the edges of the Persian Gulf aimlessly, driving the Navy crazy trying to keep track of them. When the Admirals finally lost patience and ordered all planes and ships to leave, van Ripen had them all attack at once. And they sank two-thirds of the US fleet.
That should scare the hell out of everybody who cares about how well the US is prepared to fight its next war. It means that a bunch of Cessnas, fishing boats and assorted private craft, crewed by good soldiers and armed with anti-ship missiles, can destroy a US aircraft carrier. That means that the hundreds of trillions (yeah, trillions) of dollars we've invested in shipbuilding is wasted, worthless.
A few years ago, a US submarine commander said, "There are two kinds of ship in the US Navy: subs and targets." The fact that big surface
ships are dinosaurs is something that's gotten clearer every decade since 1921.
That was the year Billy Mitchell finally got the chance to prove what he'd been saying for years: large surface ships without air cover had no chance against aircraft. Mitchell had made himself the most hated man in the Armed Forces for saying this, but he wouldn't shut up. Finally, thanks to the huge surplus of military vessels left over from WW I, he got his chance. A German battleship, the Ostfriesland, and three surplus US battleships were anchored off Virginia to see what Mitchell's rickety little biplanes could do to them. You have to remember how big and tough these "dreadnoughts" seemed to people back then. They had the thickest armor, the biggest guns, the deadliest reps of any weapon on land or sea. The idea that aircraft could sink them was a joke for most people. Of course, the Navy brass knew, and tried everything to stop the tests. They knew all too well what was going to happen--and it wasn't good for their careers.
The little biplanes buzzed out...and sank every ship. First a destroyer, then the huge German battleship, then all three US battleships. The Navy tried to ignore the results, but with Mitchell yapping at their heels, they finally started moving from battleship-based to aircraft-carrier-based battle groups.
The British didn't pay any attention to Mitchell's demonstration. Their battleships were better made, better armed, and better manned. With an impregnable British stronghold in Singapore and the RN patrolling offshore, what could those little Jap monkeys do?
Three days after Pearl Harbor, the British found out. A powerful battle group led by the battleship Prince of Wales and the Cruiser Repulse steamed out to oppose Japanese landings in Malaysia, and ran into several squadrons of Japanese planes. In a few minutes both ships were sinking, The Prince of Wales sank so fast virtually the entire crew went down with her. With its Naval screen gone, Singapore the Impregnable fell so fast the British still can't talk about it.
What the battleship was in 1941, the aircraft carrier is now: a big, proud, expensive...sitting duck.Aircraft carriers came out of WW II looking powerful, but that was before microchips. Now, when an enemy tanker can fire 60 self-guiding cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away, no carrier will survive its first real battle.
Carriers are not only the biggest and most expensive ships ever built--they're the most vulnerable. Because even one serious cruise-missile hit means the carrier can't launch its planes, its best weapons. They will sink to the bottom with their crews, not having fired a shot.
That was the real lesson of Millennium Challenge II. And that's what has the Navy so furious at van Riper: he blew their cover. He showed all the hicks back home that the carrier battle fleet can be sunk by "small planes and boats." As weapons become smaller and deadlier, big targets just won't survive.
The signs have been there all along. In the Falklands War, the Argentine Air Force, which ain't exactly the A Team, managed to shred the British fleet, coming in low and fast to launch the Exocets. And they did all this hundreds of miles off their coast, with no land-based systems to help.
If the Argentines could do that with 1980 technology, think what the Chinese, Iranians or North Koreans could do in 2003 against a city-size floating target like a US carrier.
If your local library has copies of Jane's Weapons Systems, check out the anti-ship missile section. The top of the line in standard weaponry might still be the old US Harpoon, but you don't need anything that fancy. Anti-ship missiles are easy to make and use, because surface ships are very slow, have huge radar signatures, and can't dodge.
We may be lucky a little while longer, as long as we take on losers like Iraq. But what about Iran? The Iranians aren't cowardly slaves like the Iraqis. They're smart, they're dedicated, and they hate us like poison. Imagine how many "small aircraft and boats" there are along the Iranian coastline. Imagine every one of those craft stuffed full of explosives and turned into kamikazes. Now add all the anti-ship missiles the Iranians have been able to buy on the open market. If you really want to get scared, add a nuke or two.
Suppose the Iranians use van Riper's method: send everything at once, from every ship, plane and boat they've got, directly at the carrier. Give the Navy the benefit of the doubt and say they get 90% of the incoming missiles. You still end up with a dead carrier.
Now try shifting the scenario to a US-China fight off Taiwan. The Chinese have it all: subs, planes, anti-ship missiles-Hell, they SELL that stuff to other countries! I'll say it plain: no American carrier would last five minutes in a full-scale naval battle off China.
Let's go back to that objection some of you are probably raising: "The Navy must've thought of all that!" Oh yeah? Why didn't the British think of it in 1940? There was plenty of evidence that battleships were nothing but giant coffins. They just decided not to think about it.
That's what the US Navy does now. There are careers here, big money, tradition. There's always been a surface navy; so there's always got to BE one. That's about as far as their reasoning gets.
One day we'll wake up to a second Pearl Harbor. Maybe not this year--fighting a joke like Saddam, the US Navy can probably getting away with sending its carriers into the Persian Gulf. But if Iran gets involved, those carriers won't last one day. If they ever approach the Chinese coast in wartime, they'll just vanish. If a carrier-based group steams anywhere near the North Korean coast...well, there won't even be enough left to make a good dive-site.
And the sickest part is that the admirals and the captains and the contractors all know it. Goddamn. Maybe we deserve what's gonna happen to us. Only thing is, it won't be the brass who die. It'll be the poor trusting kids on those carriers who'll die, the poor suckers who thought they'd get free training and a world tour, or even get the chance to "defend America." They'll die not even believing what's happening to them as the whole giant hulk starts cracking up and sliding into the water.