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An Affordable Fleet

September 8, 2008

I rarely agree with Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter these days, who I feel is partly responsible for the mess our shipbuilding industry is in, for his support of so many Big Ticket warships during his tenure. Still, I have to laud his assessment here in this month’s Naval Institutes Proceedings mag titled “An Affordable Global Presence“. First I will discuss what I disagree with the Honorable Secretary, mainly the use of the word “presence”:

The value of presence is under-appreciated by many, for they fail to recognize the role of maritime security in support of the world economy to protect it against the vulnerabilities that terrorism and rogue nations pose.

To me, presence conjures up an older term, “deterrence”. Or to put it bluntly, “not fighting”. We know that the old Cold War strategy of deterring the Soviet Union with our nuclear missiles, or carrier battle groups has little meaning to rogue states and especially terrorist entities like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah. How dare we even think of digging up this discredited pre-9/11 mindset, just because we may not like President Bush or are tired of the long, hard fight in Iraq.

Presence is failing the Navy in the calling of its time. Missile battleships stationed off the Somali coastline has done nothing to deter a thriving new business of terrorism on the high seas, the age old practice of piracy. Concerning the surge in piracy within this area recently, the Director of London-based International Maritime Bureau declared:

“It is clear that the threat or presence of coalition navies has done little to stem the tide of attacks in this region.”

We conclude then that the strategy of “presence”, which conjures up images of navy battleships and aircraft carriers sailing far off at sea threatening the use of its awe-inspiring weapons toward any outbreak of aggression is a discredited policy, useless against Third World insurgents at sea or even rogue regimes. In its place should be a more reactive defense, which involves the use of small attack craft assisted by medium sized motherships for rest and resupply, and the frequent use of naval landing parties against pirate bases.

With that out of the way, here is where Winter and myself are in agreement:

The challenge is finding a way to meet all of our requirements in an affordable manner. Some try to sidestep the issue by suggesting that the solution is simply to add more money to the Navy’s budget. The reality is that it is unrealistic to expect the Navy budget to increase significantly at the present time.

This is a great statement which I hear so few advocating whether in Congress or the military. We spend much the same amount  or more on our armed forces these days as in past generations (Ignore the fact that the GNP spent on defense is so much smaller, around 4-5%. Our economy is so much more huge compared to past decades!) such as World War 2 and Vietnam. But for all the money spent there are so few weapons bought. Normally in the Cold War we would buy hundreds of aircraft and scores of warships yearly. Now only a handful are purchased annually to replace our battle worn fleets.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder where the Secretary’s priorities have been all these years in office, as he ordered the purchase of one giant ship after another, while littoral warfare has been virtually ignored. Not a single new small warship has been purchased, during seven years of war, while the army has bought tens of thousands of new vehicles of numerous classes and functions for the land battle in Iraq. How can the army gear its forces for mass production and not the Navy?

It is because they buy ships too overloaded and bloated to be good for anything but “presence”. They are not meant to fight but to scare away the enemy. What happens though, if the enemy decides to turn and fight? Then we will see the true worth of the weapons we spend so many billions on with so few returns.

A case in point is the Littoral Combat Ship, which Winter mentions in this article. Initially planned as a low-cost replacement for Cold War frigates plus a vessel geared for fighting in shallow seas, it was supposed to cost around $200 million per ship. The Navy initially tested some fast Australian built catamaran ferries which proved their worth during the East Timor crisis. The catamarans themselves proved highly successful and affordable, and might have easily performed the LCS role themselves, but the Navy refused to consider warships off the shelf (though they would have eagerly deployed off-the-shelf craft in WW2, recalling the highly effective escort “jeep” carriers, constructed from Liberty Ship hulls) and decided to look to industry for such radical and highly advanced designs.

Considering how few warships the American shipbuilding industry has produced in recent years, it should have come as no surprise that the LCS suffered from design flaws and cost overruns.The $200 million warships have now ballooned to almost 1/2 billion dollars each. Though lightly armed frigate sized craft,  they still cost about the same amount as more powerful European missile combatants armed with American Aegis technology.

Building a more cost-effective Fleet through wiser investment will help us with the financial challenges we face, but it is only one part of the equation. The second part is figuring out what we need to buy, how to better choose the types of ships we need, and how many ships of each type we need to build. The key question for strategists and national security scholars to consider is, therefore, the following: How do we optimally match what we buy with the most likely threats we see in the future?

Another true statement. The default position of Congress and the Admirals in the last few decades have been to simply continue purchasing updated versions of traditional designs, namely carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. The cost of updating these last century ideas for modern threats have seen them consistently balloon in price, size, and technical complications. There is very little risk taking, as recalled with the canceled arsenal ship of the 1990s which we often mention here. This radical “missile barge” would have constructed around the capabilities of the cruise missile, rather than the standard practice of seeing the new technology as add-ons to present hulls (the cart before the horse, the tail wagging the dog).

The LCS is a step in the right direction, but unless its cost can revert back to $200 million each, should be canceled outright. Even if it reaches service, because of its large size it should only operate as a command vessel for smaller craft, such as corvettes, fast attack ships, and patrol ships which unlike traditional platforms can be bought in large numbers. The watchword should be “dumb platforms for smart weapons“. A basic platform should be introduced that is less costly and complicated than current warships which can be built in large numbers, allowing engineers and technicians to concentrate on newer and better smart weapons like guided bombs, affordable missiles, unmanned vehicles, and advanced sensors.


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