It’s unusual for one of the Navy’s capital ships to go it alone. Aircraft carriers and amphibious ships usually sail in the company of at least a destroyer –- and often with multiple destroyers, cruisers and frigates that screen them from potential attackers. But on her four-month mission to South America, USS Kearsarge is sailing all alone.
Is her skipper worried? “In our region, we feel pretty secure,” Captain Walter Towns tells me. Besides, he adds, “the ship has an awesome self-defense suite -– 40 millimeter [guns], .50-caliber [guns] -– so we’re designed for self protection.” Not to mention Kearsarge sports sets of both Rolling Airframe Missile launchers and Phalanx guns plus Navy H-60 choppers that can be fitted with their own guns.
Still, these are all just last-ditch “point” defenses. Against any serious threat, Kearsarge would be a sitting duck. But there is no “enemy” on this South American cruise -– at least not in the conventional sense of the word. The enemy is poverty, ignorance and desperation -– the societal ills that lie at the root of many conflicts. Kearsarge, with her hundreds of doctors, dentists and nurses and tons of humanitarian supplies, is trying to get at those roots instead of whacking at the weeds after they’ve sprouted.
The implications for the rest of the Navy are huge. Today’s “soft” threats have done what the Soviet Navy never managed to do: they’ve broken the U.S. Navy’s traditional battlegroup: that massive, overwhelmingly powerful assembly of warships sailing with enough firepower to devastate most countries. In many places ships, even lightly armed ones, can sail alone … and still be effective.
If this new trend is a factor in the shipbuilding debate currently raging in Congress, it’s an unmentioned one. The Navy wants to buy new versions of old Burke-class destroyers. Some in Congress want to buy stealthy DDG-1000s armed with land-attack missiles. But my favorite naval analyst Galrahn at the excellent Information Dissemination blog advocates buying more amphibious ships, and leaving the destroyer fleet at its current size. Inasmuch as amphibs can act alone in many regions, the balance of capital ships to escorts can shift in favor of capital ships. Maybe, just maybe, Kearsarge’s solo cruise is a sign of things to come.
Then tonight I stepped outside on Kearsarge’s observation deck to watch a helicopter take off and realized we weren’t alone at all. Schools of silver flying fish darted out the water and skipped like stones across the waves.