11 December 2006

The New Galley Warfare?

I've always been interested in galley warfare, more than any other kind of naval warfare. During the confirmation hearings of Robert Gates to be the new Secretary of Defense, my ears pricked up when I heard him refer to the Littoral Combat Vessel. Now, if you take a map of a sea area, and superimpose a grid on it of some defined area - one mile squares for example - you can quickly see where littorals arise. I once did it for southern England and Wales, and basically there are three large areas, in the mouth of the Thames the Solent and in the Bristol Channel. Smaller areas can be found around Poole, and the south coasts of Devon and Cornwall. However, in the Mediterranean, especially around Greece and Asia Minor, there are lots. Thus, galley warfare could be thought of as another name for littoral warfare.

The first ship of this type, the USS Freedom (LCS 1) was launched on 23 September 2006 at its builder in Wisconsin. It displaces 3,000 tonnes, on a length of 377 feet, which is bigger than a J-class destroyer of the Royal Navy during the Second World War. These seem to be more of a sea control ship in narrow waters than actually reflecting the nature of combat in a littoral area.

A galley in the Mediterranean was predominantly a means of delivering fighting men. While some fleets, notably the Athenians and Carthaginians, relied on maneuver to ram and sink enemy vessls, boarding and capturing tactics were far more common throughout history. (Click on the link for "The Agony of War Under Oars" for a good description of Athenian galley tactics in the context of the crew's experience.) Furthermore, what is often overlooked is that galleys are effectively amphibious warfare ships. Their large crews can easily take up arms and fight ashore, in a relatively short space of time. Guilmartin's book Gunpowder and Galleys highlights this, and I view the Periclean strategy in the Peloponnesian wars as one to be analysed in terms of amphibious warfare, not sea control.

To move toward a galley model, the Littoral Combat Vessel needs support from something more like a floating armored personnel carrier or even an armoured cross-Channel roll-on, roll-off ferry. This would imply a heavy dual-purpose gun armament (firing both armor-piercing and high-explosive) or rocket artillery and the ability to carry a large number of men, such as a platoon or even a company of marines. Given the likely scenarios of naval combat facing the US Navy in the foreseeable future, this seems an interesting avenue for further prototypes to explore.

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