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Shrinking Ship Size Vs. A Shrinking Fleet

September 16, 2008

The US Navy’s annual shipbuilding budget for the next few years is about $13 billion, out of which we might expect 8-12 warships if we are lucky. My ideal budget would see the Navy’s share reduced to $10 billion annually and drop to $8 billion if ship designers fail to reduce the astronomical rise in shipbuilding costs. We are not interested here just in containing costs of warships, but of cutting prices and building ships for less than $1 billion or nothing.

An ideal and affordable price for major combatants like carriers or arsenal ships would run in the hundreds of millions, and no more than $300 million. Since fleet escorts (destroyers, frigates) of necessity should be plentiful, they should cost no more than the tens of millions of dollars each.

Before you scoff at my flight of fantasy, let me reveal how we can get to reducing the price of USN warships without necessarily inhibiting their combat value. In today’s procurement environment, a reduction in price of a nuclear sub from $2.4 billion to $2 billion is hailed as dramatic savings. Recently a $3-$5 billion stealth destroyer was canceled outright in favor of a $1.5 billion older destroyer, whose price we learn will rise to $2 billion.

A cap on warship size should offer immediate and dramatic savings. The vast size that US ships have grown to in recent decades far too often tempt designers with costly add-ons; extra equipment ordered during building that inflates the price and delays service entry. This has been evident in nearly all ships programs in recent years, like the LPD-17 amphibious ships to the supposedly “cost effective” USS Freedom littoral combat ship.

Notice how the size of warships have expanded greatly in the last century:

  • Aircraft carriers1940: 20,000 tons     2000:100,000 tons
  • Destroyers1900:420 tons     2000:9000 tons
  • Submarines1942:1500 tons     2000:7800 tons

Likewise have amphibious warships, first deployed in World War 2 in vast numbers and averaging 1700 tons (LSTs) now equal the size of battleships built in that era, the latestweighing in at 45,000 tons!

Now we think that modern precision weapons and modular type systems like point defense and rapid fire cannon along with unmanned vehicles can multiply the fighting power of the small warship. With this in mind our future fleet composition might look like this:

  • Motherships(UAV or missile carrier)-20,000 tons
  • Destroyers-2500 tons
  • Escort ships(corvettes, FACs, or patrol vessels)-1500 tons or less
  • Nuclear attack subs-2500 tons
  • Conventional Littoral submarines-1500 tons

#Small point defense missiles like Sea Ram could replace large Aegis radar and its necessary long range intercept  missiles, as well as rapid-fire guns like CIWS.
#Expensive quieting gear now standard on nuclear submarines might be discarded altogether, the warship instead relying on its high underwater speed, maneuverability, and extended reach of cruise missiles to avoid enemy ASW vessels.
#The more self-contained, off-the-shelf weaponry the better. The idea would be to separate the weapons system from the design of the ship as much as possible, creating the same modular concept as in the LCS, but at far less cost.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. charbookguy permalink
    September 17, 2008 1:56 pm

    Welcome to the 21st century, Strongbow. Hang around awhile, you might enjoy it. Much more like this ahead.
    Thanks for your service as well and I hope my ideas and those by others like me can produce the platforms which will keep you safe when the missiles start flying

  2. Strongbow permalink
    September 17, 2008 9:25 am

    This is my first time on the is website, but after reading this article, I have to say your assumptions seem to be completely with out merit and contain no actual corporate knowledge as a Warfighter who is and will be on these ships in the future. I curious if anyone is actually serving here or has ever served. As someone is currently serving, I could argue that our fleet is currently too small both in number and in individual size. There is great need for ships of all size, number and capability. Look at what is happening in our hemisphere with Russia and Venezula. To state that only smaller, less armored ships are needed ignores the reality of naval warfare not from the recently demostrated point of view, but from the agressors potential point of view.
    The article seems to operate on the assumption that a single size, type and capability will serve all needs. In short, what would become the ship that is a Jack-of-all-trade but Master of none. The fleet needs robust cruiser-types, low intensity FFG/LCS types, multi-task amphibs, CVN’s, plus many service/support ships. Although we have some of these now, there is great room for improvement.
    The real source of money problems has more to do with the contractor/shipyards inability to do effective business and their inherent greed as it comes to making money off of the government. Just my two cents though.

  3. charbookguy permalink
    September 16, 2008 2:56 pm

    Mrs. Davis, to me the inability for the USN to design affordable warships that take less than a decade to enter service and are riddled with faults is arbitrary and irrational. History always has a way of working these things out. Weapons systems have a life cylce whether its a hundred or hundreds of years, and just when they get too bloated to buy in any real quantities, something comes along that is lighter and easier to build in adequate numbers. I’m just trying to hurry history along!

    As I always maintain, the platform is currently less important than the new stock of precision weapons it carries.

  4. Mrs. Davis permalink
    September 16, 2008 2:27 pm

    A cap on warship size seems arbitrary and irrational. Take each of the vessel sizes for 1940 and compare them to comparable vessel size (and cost) for 1910. (I don’t have a Jane’s around or I’d do it now). Were the ships bloated in 1940? But they are today?

    A major part of the problem is that there is virtually no shipbuilding industry left in the US aside from that dedicated to military construction. This inevitably leads to a bloated inefficient industry. Why not subcontract basic maritime platform construction competitively to efficient Korean or Indian shipyards and install all the C4 and weapons systems in the US?

  5. charbookguy permalink
    September 16, 2008 11:59 am

    Bring it on West, if we can get lasers to work without having to build a 14,000 “destroyer” to power it.

  6. west_rhino permalink
    September 16, 2008 10:15 am

    To wit point defense is perhaps best handled in the future by a laser, a particle beam, a ballistic kinetic round or a tac nuke (like the old Genie AAM).

    This offers an expendable lightweight hull, innocently looking like a T-AK or other auxillary with a heliostat providing active or passive coverage, mounting a VLS in one hold and another package in a different hold with a different modality for AAW, ASuW or ASW. Think perhaps in terms of nebelwerfer or katyusha battery overwhelming, say a new construction Sino-Soviet design, not only as a tripwire alarming vampires inbound, but counterbattery in an overwhelming manner.

    I think the quieting of nukes might still have a place, particularly if one could develop a “foxer” of sorts to launch, that mimics a cavitating boat… stands as another possibility for a countermeasure vs acoustic wakehoming fish.

  7. charbookguy permalink
    September 16, 2008 9:00 am

    I new this question was coming Ken, thanks for asking!

    I am thinking the long-range AA mission is overrated. Any defensive mission which is overwhelming the offensive role of a weapons platform is making that craft redundant. In other words, a warship is built to fight as well as to defend. With Aegis we are overwhelming the fighting qualities of navy ships just to make them survivable.

    Studying recent warship versus cruise missile actions, off Lebanon, during the tanker wars, Arab/Israeli conflicts, the Falklands, the attacking missile is most often made contact with in the last few seconds of impact. Clearly the importance of automatic point defense systems like CIWS, Sea Ram, Sea Sparrow are revealed in such cases.

    LR missiles are still quite handy, but in a real war I would relegate their importance second to point defense. The idea here also is to save money on ship costs, thus getting more hulls in the water. Like more boots on the ground are essential in modern ground combatt, more hulls are what makes a navy a navy.

  8. September 16, 2008 8:30 am

    Mike, I’m not getting this. The desire to reduce cost is shared and admirable, but what missions would you have your revised fleet perform? In the era of the cruise missile, how would the fleet perform those missions without long range air defense?


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