Take the Small Boat Threat Seriously

By Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

For my purposes, small boats comprise what Sir Julian Corbett called "the flotilla." In his analysis of naval tactics at the dawn of the 20th century, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy,1 Sir Julian said a navy had three mutually exclusive, mutually reinforcing components: the battle fleet, which destroys the enemy fleet; cruisers, which raid enemy commerce and protect friendly commerce; and a flotilla of small craft in large numbers, which fight for control of narrow seas.

Coastal waters became the province of small combatants at the beginning of the 20th century with the perfection of the mine and torpedo. It was unsafe for a battle fleet to enter an enemy’s coastal waters and subject itself to attacks by torpedo boats, submarines, and defensive mines. Writing in 1898, Vice Admiral S. O. Makarov, Imperial Russia’s greatest naval thinker, with droll insight said:

Up to the present [command of the sea] has been understood to mean that the fleet commanding the sea openly plies upon it and the beaten antagonist does not dare to leave his ports. Would this be so today? Instructions bearing on the subject counsel the victor to avoid night attack from the torpedo-boats of his antagonist . . . if the matter were represented to a stranger he would be astonished. He would probably ask whether he properly understood that a victorious fleet must protect itself from the remnant of a vanquished enemy.2

Only a few years later Admiral Makarov would go down with his flagship, victim of a Japanese mine off Russia’s port of Vladivostok.

A Modern Flotilla

Today, the flotilla suited for coastal operations—littoral warfare—is more complicated in composition than a century ago, comprising not only small fighting craft but also low-flying aircraft and assorted means to detect, track, and target enemy ships of all sizes. Above all, it is complicated by the addition of many kinds of missiles. The breadth of littoral waters also has increased from a few score miles to hundreds of miles. The clutter that complicates coastal operations was, a century ago, the coastal shipping, fishing boats, shoals, islands, cliffs, and inlets of the enemy’s waters. Now coastal clutter also includes a high density of electronic signals and commercial aircraft. A modern flotilla will have more elements to it and will face a more intricate tactical environment, but "the small boat threat" remains a featured component.

I propose three ways to assess the nature and extent of this small boat threat:

1. Salvo Equations

The salvo equations described in my own work (and elsewhere) can help us understand contemporary missile warfare.3 These equations have many strengths and limitations. Their lessons are general and extend beyond the littoral environment, for one does not need to know how big or small a "small boat" is to use them. Nor does it matter whether coastal or open-ocean operations are under investigation.

The equations lead to the fundamental conclusion that when there is a force-on-force exchange of missile fire, numbers are by far the most valuable attribute a force can have. They show that:
  • If you pack too much combat potential in a single warship, you face the possibility of losing much unused potential in a missile exchange.
  • If you have a fleet of multimission warships with the flexibility to perform many activities, then loss of a ship when performing one mission results in its loss for all other missions.
  • Many small enemy fighting craft complicate your effort to detect, track, target, and destroy enough of them to prevent a successful enemy attack.
  • A formation of warships armed with very powerful missiles intended to destroy another formation of large warships is ill-suited to fight a swarm of small craft, because powerful missiles are wasted in overkill while the swarm sucks the large warships dry of their ordnance.
2. A Look Back at Fighting in Littoral Waters
The preceding discussion is an application of combat science in the extreme: abstract, dry, simplified, and mathematical. The opposite extreme is looking at coastal combat as pure art, described in histories and memoirs as ingenious, multifaceted, emotional, willful, and steeped in courage.
U.S. PT boat performance in World War II was only marginally effective for many reasons—one being that the boats used the same faulty torpedoes that plagued our submarines. Another reason was that the PTs were manned by reservists who were viewed by the regular Navy as cowboys—dangerous to friend and foe alike. PT boats had few advocates in the regular Navy, and there was no serious attempt to integrate them with cruisers and destroyers, even when they were employed in the coastal waters of the upper Solomons and the Philippines. The suspicions, mediocre tactics, technical flaws, and lukewarm achievements of our PT boats are covered nicely in Curtis Nelson’s recent Hunters in the Shallow Seas.4

More instructive is the British and German experience in World War II in the North Sea, the Norwegian coast, the eastern coasts of Scotland and England, and the French, Belgian, and Dutch shallow coastal waters. The Battle of the Narrow Seas by Peter Scott is a good description, but it appeared too soon after the war.5 Better is the autobiographical narrative of Peter Dickens, describing in great detail the motor torpedo boat (MTB) attacks on German coastal shipping in 1942. Dickens carefully researched the Kriegsmarine’s archives, admitting some sobering disappointments about his own flotilla’s supposed successes. He describes the tactical challenges, experimentations, and moves and countermoves exhibited on both sides. His MTBs’ night attacks (operations always were at night in fair weather or foul) were seen as so threatening to German shipping that convoys were formed, and when the sinkings continued, the convoys sailed in daytime—only to suffer even more severe losses to Royal Air Force bomber attacks. Unlike fleet actions (which tended to be few and far between), the battle of the flotillas was, like the air war over England and Germany, in constant ferment.6

3. Combining Science and Art with Experimentation

A third way to take the small boat threat seriously is to blend science and art with a set of experiments that could begin immediately, using a model-test-model approach. The model uses any of a variety of analytical methods. It would have four salient properties:
  • Take place in a real coastal setting that can then be transferred into an at-sea experiment. A great deal of attention should be given to enemy players who are accustomed to littoral operations. Coast Guard officers are familiar with the difficulties of inshore operations, and officers of friendly foreign navies are candidates.
  • Assign one of two missions to the U.S. forces. One is to deny the enemy the movement of shipping in his own coastal waters; the other is to protect our own shipping as it moves into the port of a friendly state being supported by our ground forces. I do not think the employments most often seen in U.S. studies, namely, the delivery of air and missile strikes or the execution of an opposed amphibious assault, are the place to start. The strike scenario already is overworked and the amphibious assault is too challenging if the enemy has a respectable coastal defense.
  • Include the exact capabilities of existing U.S. forces and the imagined capabilities of enemy missile boats and coastal submarines supported by a coherent detection-and-targeting system. An air- and land-based missile threat could be added later. The tactics employed are dependent on the capabilities of both sides. Since the history of actual coastal operations is replete with tactical move and countermove, there is no reason to believe the best tactics can be discovered on the first try. The idea behind model-test-model is to improve by experimentation.
  • The most difficult (but also most important) aspect of the model or simulation is to introduce a high density of sea-bottom, surface, aerial, and electronic clutter. This will be hard to do with a map exercise or simulation. That is why the model effort, the purpose of which is to go as far as possible in developing campaign plans and tactics, must be followed by an exercise at sea, where the geography, oceanography, coastal traffic, electronic signals, and commercial aircraft will create the confusing environment that enhances the small boat threat.
Our experience to date with fleet battle experiments offers hope of valuable lessons to be learned. The difference here is the creation of a serious opponent in a force-on-force campaign that is competitive. To be blunt, the opposing forces should be sized realistically so that U.S. victory is not a foregone conclusion.

When we practiced approaching the Soviet mainland we knew we faced a formidable system of seaward defenses in depth. After many years of study, analysis, tactical development, and experimentation at sea we had a pretty good idea of what we could and could not do. We analysts believed we could make informed judgments about what constituted U.S.–Soviet maritime parity: how many carrier battle groups it would take to defend against how many Backfire regiments, and how many nuclear attack submarines we would need to reduce the Soviet submarines arrayed against our carrier battle force. In a similar vein, the object of the model-test-model process would be to estimate the size of U.S. forces required to overcome different quantities of enemy coastal defenses and make a realistic assessment of losses, when a high level of tactical skill is exhibited on both sides.

The Experiments’ Payoff

After the at-sea test, then another round of tactical development and simulation would follow in which both sides would make improvements. By the time a second sea test has been conducted a great deal should be known in three areas:
  • The composition and numbers of existing U.S. Navy sensors, aircraft, and warships it will take to gain and maintain dominance in the home waters of several levels of enemy coastal capabilities, with major attention to the small boat threat.
  • Lessons learned that will help develop Streetfighter characteristics, manning, tasks, tactics, and mutually supporting operations with the existing blue-water Navy.
  • Indications of how to develop and employ unmanned vehicles of various descriptions as companions, or eventual replacements, of Streetfighters.
I offer a paragraph from chapter 11 of Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat as a suitable summary of the small boat threat and the need to take it seriously:
A special concern for inshore warfare is a greater risk of catching a single ship napping because of the cluttered environment and the reduced battle space. I have yet to find a rationale for sending large, expensive, and highly capable warships into contested coastal waters unless they can take several [missile] hits and continue fighting without missing a beat after suffering a first attack by the enemy. It is better to fight fire with fire using expendable, missile-carrying aircraft or small surface craft. In fact, ever since the introduction of numerous torpedo boats, coastal submarines, and minefields early in this [the 20th] century, contested coastal waters have been taboo for capital ships and the nearly exclusive province of flotillas of small, swift, lethal fast-attack craft.7

1. Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988).
2. S. O. Makarov, Discussion of Questions in Naval Tactics (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990).
3. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).
4. Curtis L. Nelson, Hunters in the Shallow Seas: A History of the PT Boat (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 1998).
5. Peter Scott, The Battle of the Narrow Seas (London: Country Life Ltd., 1945).
6. Peter Dickens, Night Action: MTB Flotilla at War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1974).
7. Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, p. 290.
Captain Hughes teaches tactical analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. This article originally was given as a lecture in May 2000 at the Office of Naval Intelligence’s small boat threat workshop in Suitland, Maryland.

Published October 2000

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