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The Future Navy Force Structure

April 21, 2009

081119-N-8842M-182The problem with most proposals concerning the US Navy future warship structure is that all consistently emphasize high end warships over low end vessels, the latter of which can be bought in large numbers, and are more relevant to the wars we are fighting in the Third World. In all these force structure plans, notably from Robert Work, the Heritage Foundation, and the Navy itself, for the most part are unwilling to part with present numbers of exquisite warship types, such as supercarriers, large destroyers, amphibious carriers, and nuclear attack submarines, all of which are a severe drain on shipbuilding funds, and are of dubious value in a littoral environment.

This obsession with high numbers of individually powerful battleships is a bit odd when one considers how much overkill the USN is currently deploying at sea. Bob Work admits as much in his own analysis that “US Navy’s 280-ship fleet likely enjoys no less than a thirteen-navy standard in aggregate fleet combat power“. Meanwhile the Navy says it cannot spare enough ships for an effective crackdown of piracy in the Indian Ocean area, while simultaneously guarding against aggression in East Asia, and maintaining alliances with traditional allies in Europe and South America.

080218-N-5476H-050Excessive numbers of exquisite warships fail to take in consideration advances in technology which make individual warships extremely powerful in the Modern Age. Vertical launch systems giving the USN nearly a battery of 10,000 missiles, precision guidance via GPS virtually assuring each weapon of a hit, Aegis Radar able to illuminate the battlefield for more than a hundred miles, smart bombs on carrier aircraft giving each the firepower of a Vietnam era air wing, all have combined to make the USN astonishingly capable against a peer threat (if there is such a fleet in existence).

Literally an act of Congress is required to retire a supercarrier, despite its age, the cost of maintenance, or lack of need. Today, thanks to GPS guided smart bombs like JDAM, one or 2 naval bombers can do the work that once required hundreds of warplanes as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, when unguided “dumb bombs” were the only choice. It stands to reason then that one navy aircraft carrier has the equivalent firepower of several pre-1980’s ships, and if the current force was halved to about 6 ( allowing that 3 carriers makes possible one in service) would result in a negligible decline in capabilities. She could then spend precious funds on other necessities, or at least assure each vessel possessed adequate numbers of aircraft to fill the giant ships’ capacious decks.

With a smaller carrier fleet, a reduction in the number of escorts would also be allowable. Currently the USN deploys about 80 missile battleships of the Ticonderoga and Arleigh Burke classes, all 60 or so of the latter less than 20 years old. In the Cold War, only 30 high end missile ships were required to defend 15 carriers. With less need for so many highly capable warships, we could do with much less, perhaps 25 or so.

Submarine numbers are probably right at about 50 boats. Considering that nuclear power has dramatically increased the capabilities of these undersea stealth battleships, which now surpass the performance of most surface warships, perhaps we could find reductions here as well. With the continued need for submarines today in littoral waters for surveillance purposes among others, small conventionally powered craft (SSK) might perform this dangerous role where a large Blue Water attack boat would be at risk. If 5 small subs could be purchased at the cost of 1 nuclear submarine, numbers might surpass a very sizable and extremely useful 100 boats in commission.

080428-N-3625R-001Even with the advent of the littoral combat ship (LCS) in the next decade, low end warships will still be a minority in a fleet called on mainly since the fall of the Iron Curtain to deal with shallow water threats. Increasingly these include pirates sailing in dhows to rogue states in speed boats. Numbers are definitely in demand but most experts say that even a modest number of 313 is out of reach under current shipbuilding plans. Low end ships such as corvettes, patrol craft, minesweepers, or SSKs should no longer be the exception but the rule for the future navy. Considering the individual firepower on battleships as we noted, the High End force might look something like this:

 

  • aircraft carriers-6
  • missile escorts-24
  • nuclear submarines-25
  • amphibious carriers-10
  • Total-60 High End Warships

Giving the fleet 60 battle force capable warships, each armed with either smart cruise missiles or smart bomb capable naval aircraft. Then, ample funds could be diverted to the small ship navy, the type of craft vital for the new littoral warfare. Hundreds of such craft including various types and sizes, at least 400 or more would form the bulk of the operating forces. These reasonably priced and expendable hulls would do the dirty work of the fleet that would otherwise wear out more expensive hulls prematurely.

Perhaps then in the near future the true Hybrid Warship will be born, with the firepower of a much larger battleship but the size and cost of a corvette. Until then we need a return to balance in the Navy Force Structure, which this current top-heavy fleet is a long way from.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Distiller permalink
    April 22, 2009 8:39 am

    Yea, well, thing only is that such a CONUS-based high-speed amphib assault ship would not be small. There is a study somewhere and it results in a 35.000ts ship. But I still like it as the major combat formations could be kept at home and on land. Would require some effort from the Army and airlift side to provide rapid reaction and bridge the 7-10 days gap, though, but do-able. And for peace-time in-theatre commando work a JHSV or a LCS version could do the job.

    What I do not like at all about the current amphibs is that the assault gets off the ships way too slow (and takes too long one the beach to get into fighting conditions), PLUS the LHDs need to be basically stationary when doing it, making them very vulnerable. A way should be found to get the AAVs or LCACs out of the well deck at full 20kts, and the helicopter 3D assault wave off the ship in no more than 20 to 30 minutes. All too static and slow for a computerized environment. That angle should be the main focus for any new amphib assault concept.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 22, 2009 8:04 am

    I am against the continued forward deployment of major combat units, for the earlier reasons given, and here is another:

    I think our forward presence should be light as possible, hence the call for corvettes, patrol ships, SSKs. Our Big Ships of late seem to be making more enemies than deterring them lately, and the sight of the USS Bainbridge versus a life boat was just embarrassing. The Navy’s new strategy at sea should be like the change of strategy in Iraq. Small ships should be out in the littorals, mixing it with the population like the cop on the beat, not in some giant fortresses at sea threatening to attack if things get out of hand, the battleships and carriers being the nautical version of the US Army’s “green zone”.

    I like the Surge strategy the Navy used at the opening of OIF in 2003. Back then, most of the Big Ships would be in port training, resting, preparing for the big fight while smaller numbers of ships would be forward deployed in peacetime. We seem to have gotten away from that, using the old Cold War version of presence. But as you can see with the outbreak of piracy, our handful of battleships aren’t enough and can’t be everywhere at once.

    Distiller-Concerning amphibious forces, a surge strategy from US or nearby friendly ports would work here as well. You may recall I called for using high speed vessels as transports sailing Marines from their bases directly to the beach. This would cut out the “middleman” or the current classes of billion dollar large amphibs, where the troops have to stay for extended periods as you suggest.

  3. Distiller permalink
    April 22, 2009 1:55 am

    Don’t you think it’s a not very friendly gesture to keep amphib intervention groups and carrier battle groups off other people’s costs all the time? Also the idea of keeping thousands of Marines packed onto amphib assault ships for weeks and weeks “just to be there” is not very nice to them.

    Now that it seems unsure whether either Makin Island or San Antonio will ever see more ships in their classes, it might be the right time to look again at the long-range dash option (CONUS or overseas fleet station based amphib assault ships that can do 35kts for 7-10 days).

    ISR – Presence – Combat. First can be done by HALE UAV and from orbit; second needs hull numbers and would be the peace-time job of whatever results from LCS – not really suited for major combat but enough to let people feel observed; the third category shouldn’t play around with peace-time jobs but be strictly focused on combat (blue water battle – amphib forced entry) and not be wasted on any secondary or tertiary missions in the other two categories.

    Of course it would be nice to have some more extended aerial capability in the second category, and LCS-2 might become large enough to enable that (what about e.g. with three Piasecki Speedhawks?). A Zumwalt-ish Sea Control Ship (light flight deck cruiser) a la Garibaldi would be nice but the Navy does have neither the ressources, not the will for such a class of peace-time vessels.

  4. Heretic permalink
    April 21, 2009 11:54 pm

    Again, Mike, I agree with you. My point was that there are essentially 4 blue water theaters (ie. oceans) that “need” to have a CVN “present” in them simultaneously at all times.

    Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian/Persian Gulf

    That’s a blue water requirement that in turn “mandates” a 9-10 (preferrably 10) fleet of CVNs in order to constantly have 4 deployed carriers at all times.

    Note that this point concerning blue water CVN requirements says absolutely nothing about deploying them as littoral gunboats during peacetime. I agree with the author of the “Influence Squadrons” concept, insofar as the disposition to keep the CVNs out in the big blue during peacetime with the amphibious (USMC carrying) ships kept closer to littorals. You then build blue water escorts for the blue water CVNs, and green water escorts for the amphibious/littoral groups.

    Ideally, if I were building the USN from scratch (and not having budget troubles…), I’d be wanting something along these lines …

    10x CVN
    20x LHA (or CVE, if that’s your preferred terminology)
    40x LPD

    That’s not including escorts and subs and supply and all the rest of course. What that mix gives you is:

    1 CVN per ocean
    2x (1x LHA + 2x LPD) amphibious groups per ocean

    The amphibious groups work in the littorals, while the CVNs stay out to sea in the big blue in a “deployed reserve” position (if that even makes sense). Maintaining the same op-tempo rotations as the CVNs, that then lets you have two amphibious groups working the coastlines of each of the 4 major oceans. You use smaller “jeep” carriers closer to shore in support of the amphibs, allowing you to better disperse your forces and cover a lot more territory (and do a lot more missions) which you couldn’t realistically do with just “more” CVNs alone.

    Essentially, make the CVNs the “haft” of the spear, rather than the pointy tip of it. In proper Roman pilum fashion then, the amphibious groups are the soft iron shank of the (hurled) spear of military power, with the CVNs positioned to follow through in support of any amphibious group engaged by hostile forces.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 21, 2009 9:57 pm

    Historically, you used gunboats forward deployed in the littorals, backed by cruisers over the horizon, with the battleships well offshore to fight the decisive battle. Today, we do the opposite, our battleships (the carriers) are used like gunboats, in a new “close blockade” strategy that only works as long as the other side isn’t shooting back. I am worried about the future of sea control if it can only be won with supercarriers.

    But in the future we will most likely have to contend with all sorts of missile threats in these littoral waters, where now we send our battleships. Not only is this increasingly dangerous/suicidal, it is also unaffordable if we insist on maintaining these post WW 2 Alliances. And the Navy knows this, which is why we get the “1000 ship” fleet idea, so we can keep building big exquisite warships that aren’t meant to fight, while allied navies with frigates and corvettes do the hard stuff.

  6. Heretic permalink
    April 21, 2009 9:42 pm

    each Carrier has a greater firepower than most countries’ air forces.

    Uh … THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT Mike. Only gamers (of the non-griefer variety) want to “fight fair” … while real militaries want to fight as “unfairly” as possible with all the odds stacked in THEIR favor. This is why the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming military force ever came into existence (and unfortunately fell out of favor with Rummy’s delusions of grandeur).

    So do we need an entire air wing at each crisis point or would a missile ship do?

    A missile ship is good for a first strike. Maybe a second … or even a third if you don’t expend all your missiles the first day. After that … what have you got left to sustain a campaign? A carrier can park and launch strikes for weeks on end.

    How many reloads did you bring for those VLS cells of yours?
    How many reloads did you bring for the hardpoints on your strike planes?

    How many “jobs” can a missile ship do?
    How many “jobs” can a carrier wing do?

    Would a littoral flotilla forward deployed be enough to take the place of a carrier air wing, to stand in the gap of an attack until our carriers could surge to a crisis?

    How long does it take to sail from home port in CONUS to a hotspot along the coast of east africa-india-indonesia (since they’re the most distant locations on the planet from CONUS by sea). If the answer is “longer than a week” since doing 30 knots 24 hours a day only gets you 720 nmi of distance per day and 5040 nmi per week (not including currents and tides, etc.) then you’re perhaps hanging that littoral flotilla out to dry if anyone starts shooting at them for real and you expect the CVN(s) to come rescue them.

    The idea that we must have a carrier positioned at every dike comes from a refusal to consider carrier alternatives, practically assuring us of an ever shrinking fleet.

    No … the idea that we ought to have a carrier group in every ocean comes from the idea that if we, the USN, aren’t there … someone else will be there to fill the power vacuum we’ve left behind. And when someone else fills that vacuum, we won’t have a whole lot of room/cause to object if we don’t “like” how they decide to fill that vacuum that we’ve created.

    Note that the four theaters of operation for CVNs that I listed were oceans … not coastlines. Blue water. The only exception to this that I can think of/excuse is the Persian Gulf (at least until the US can wean itself off the oil from the region) for reason(s) that ought to be obvious.

    Small ships should be forward deployed to take the brunt of an attack. The big ships are too vulnerable for this kind of dirty work in the littorals.

    This, I can agree with. Corvettes and MTBs and PCs and SSPs are the way to go for littoral work. You just need to be able to do underway replenishment so as to “stretch their legs” long enough so that they can actually reach distant shores and be able to remain on station for long enough to be really useful in an offensive (far from home port) as well as defensive (operating out of home port) stance. And the most obvious way to do that is with what amount to littoral fleet tenders.

  7. Distiller permalink
    April 21, 2009 4:33 pm

    It’s not (only) about unwillingness, it is the question of an offensive, interventionalistic grand strategy vs a isolationistic grand strategy. What you propose here falls under the second category. But then you are overgunned :-) Cancel everything, and retire all “legacy” equipment asap.

    CVN are not needed, neither their escorts; the whole amphib thing is unneccessary, also sealift is not needed any more – the U.S. aint gonna get involved anyway; the SSBN’s job can be done by the Minutemen.

    Concentrate on the U.S. littorals, get some 36 FREMM (equivalents), 24 U212, 18 Absalons, four dozen Skjolds and mine sweepers. Reduce naval aviation to BAMS and MH-60.

    Do-able? Certainly! Just elect Ron Paul.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 21, 2009 11:16 am

    Disagree since all our ships are force multipliers with cruise missiles and naval bombers. each Carrier has a greater firepower than most countries’ air forces. So do we need an entire air wing at each crisis point or would a missile ship do? Would a littoral flotilla forward deployed be enough to take the place of a carrier air wing, to stand in the gap of an attack until our carriers could surge to a crisis?

    The idea that we must have a carrier positioned at every dike comes from a refusal to consider carrier alternatives, practically assuring us of an ever shrinking fleet. Small ships should be forward deployed to take the brunt of an attack. The big ships are too vulnerable for this kind of dirty work in the littorals.

  9. Heretic permalink
    April 21, 2009 9:09 am

    Don’t have time for a lengthier comment right now.

    6 CVNs is “more than enough” for purely defensive purposes (ie. CONUS only). It’s nowhere near enough for any sort of meaningful presence “around the world” on a permanent rotating basis.

    Pacific
    Atlantic
    Mediterranean
    Indian/Persian Gulf

    Those are your four operational theaters of blue water. If you “need” 4 carriers deployed at all times, then you need at least 8 in service (one on station, one in replenishment/transit). You then need an extra 1 CVN for reserve, so the rotations to/from port to deployed station don’t get ridiculous and because you’ll probably always have at least 1 carrier laid up for refueling/SLEP at all times on a rotating basis.

    Ideally, you’d want no less than 10 CVNs and their escorts, just so the navy isn’t “running ragged” all the time and you have no real reserve in case of unforseen event(s). In a whole lot of ways, if you go below 10 CVNs, it becomes a question of “which part of the world do you abandon” … which is not necessarily wise.

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