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Small Ships Needed to Counter Emerging Threats

September 29, 2008

Here we are once again blowing our own horn, but a recent Inside the Navy(Pay-pre-view) article further justifies our call for scrapping the Big Ship Navy in favor of large numbers of small attack ships. Earlier this month we wrote concerning Shrinking Ship Size Vs. A Shrinking Fleet:

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.

And in another post  we took issue with the ballooning cost of the the Littoral Combat Ship, the only major USN warship program coming in less than a billion each (so far):

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…

The LCS is a step in the right direction, but unless its cost can revert back to $200 million each, should be canceled outright.

And for a DDG-1000/DDG-51 replacement, we offered up this as an alternative:

As a replacement for the USN’s canceled Zumwalt super-destroyer, we would suggest the 88 ft. long Stiletto stealth craft. Advantages are obvious, specifically the cost. For one $5 billion DDG-1000 destroyer the Navy could purchase over 800 of the $6 million each stealth boats. For one $2 billion Arleigh Burke DDG, the planned replacement for the Zumwalt, over 300 of the 51 knot swift boats can be bought, significantly increasing the size and fighting capability of our  fleet.

Here then is the agreeable Inside the Navy Report:

…the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship is not a panacea, Wayne Hughes, a retired Navy captain and senior lecturer in operations research, said in a Sept. 8 interview with Inside the Navy on the school’s campus here.

“I think we’ve got to get on with building an inshore Navy, a green-water Navy component, and LCS isn’t it,” said Hughes, the former dean of the school’s Graduate School of Operational & Information Sciences. “At $500 million plus module costs, it’s not going to hack it.” The changing landscape of smaller, irregular warfare has created a landscape where the Navy must either attack first so the enemy cannot shoot at all, or “develop some smaller ships that we can afford to lose and mix it up,” Hughes said.

Hughes further supports our call for smaller warships which can return a real fighting spirit to the fleet:

“We can’t afford to lose billion-dollar DDGs, but we can afford to lose $50- or $100-million inshore combatants,” he said. “And instead of having a crew of 350 or 400, have a crew of 12. A combat crew of 12 people so that if the ship gets hit, you just save the survivors and leave the ship as a burning derelict as opposed to having to do damage control and create more casualties.”

Not to disparage the combat capabilities of our brave sailors, but we consider large high tech warships as too costly to risk in a fight at sea, affecting ship commanders with the “Jellicoe Syndrome“, also known as Next-War-itis. A commander in a conflict with big high tech warships might always be looking over his shoulder, thinking he could “lose the war in an afternoon” if his very costly battlefleet is harmed due to combat. Such an attitude made Grand Fleet Admiral Jellicoe extremely reluctant to lose any of his magnificent dreadnaughts, fearing that Japan or America might sweep in and take away Britain’s world empire if he suffered any major losses during the Battle of Jutland.

There is also a prevailing attitude within the USN that suggests “presence” is all that is required to keep the peace, and the bigger-looking the warship, the more the enemy will fear us. However, warships should always be built with the expectation that they will fight, and the more you have on hand for such an scenario, the better.

The small ship navy strategy makes sense because it has been proved tried and true during the Victorian Era and the heyday of the Pax Britannica. With the the French fleet soundly defeated by Nelson at Trafalgar in 1807, and Napoleon himself a few years later, the Royal Navy could withhold its battlefleet for rest and training, while small gunboats secured the littorals. It was tiny craft such as these armed only with a cannon and later Maxim machine guns that really established the 100 years of peace between Napoleon and World War 1.

In closing, let me ad another reason for building smaller warships, affordable and expendable, which will provide our rapidly shrinking warfleet A Return to “Choice” in Shipbuilding:

The only dynamic experiments ongoing with surface vessels that do not involved decades long procurement cycles are coming from the small ship navy, Currently being tested as future warships are the Sea Fighter, various high speed ferries, the Stiletto stealth boat, plus Scandinavian craft such as the Skjold and Visby. From these and earlier programs we have observed surface effect ships, catamarans, trimarans, hydrofoils, wave skimmers, and so on. We can only hope that the surface navy will some day see the potential of such affordable and versatile warcraft.

Our ideal Navy is one that isn’t causing undue stress on the defense budget as well as shipbuilders and would be filled with such craft, 400-500 or more if needed, backed up by long-range patrol aircraft armed with cruise missiles and ASW weapons. Attack submarines should easily defend the sealanes from any conceivable Blue Water threat, perhaps smaller and affordable boats similar to foreign AIP designs already in service with numerous allied navies.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. charbookguy permalink
    October 2, 2008 9:29 pm

    My gripe is why can’t the USN mass produce small warships as the Army did with its armored vehicles in the land battles? They did so with ease in the World War, and even quickly produced some interesting and effective littoral craft during Vietnam. But the Big Navy is all-powerful and extremely jealous of their seapower role.

  2. leesea permalink
    October 2, 2008 3:18 pm

    While the PTs armament morphed to fit the combat situation, the PBRs stayed remarkedbly the same. As opposed to the M80’s complete lack of organic weapons systems and stations. Its just a fast high tech eggshell.

    The real pity is there are so many good proven designs around which the USN refuses to even consider. I guess I should caveat that by saying the blue water navy. The brownwater navy (NECC) is buying an Americanized version of Sweden’s very good greenwater Combat Boat-90 in the whopping quantity of one or two!

    But still the need for FACs and OPVs to operate in coastal waters around the world. And what is the USN buying half billion dollar underarmed LCS in small numbers for now. dahh

  3. charbookguy permalink
    October 1, 2008 9:02 am

    In defense of Stiletto, its is just an experimental vessel and of those excellent vintage platforms you mentioned none started out so well armed until battle experience showed the way. Sadly, the USN hasn’t engaged in any major combat since World War 2, except for brief encounters during the various Gulf Conflicts.

    This is why I push so much for the Admirals to take military action against the outbreak of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. It could save the Navy’s soul.

  4. leesea permalink
    September 30, 2008 2:39 am

    While i agree with the principle of more smaller warships in conjunction with a larger mothership (not the LPD17), I am totally amazed that anyone like Capt Hughes would suggest the M-80 as an exmple. That plastic spitkit is nothing more than a hollow shell meant to go fast. I kiow that sounds like the criticism of many past boats like PT and MTB and the PBRs (which I drove). The difference is that all of those truly great boats had a right sized crew manning enough weapons to fight their way out of combat situations. None of those features are in the Stilletto! Why not use the Visby or Skjold as good examples of small stalthy attack craft? There are many many other good designs possible as FAC and/or OPV which the Navy could use successfully at sea. The ideal ship may work in greenwater but has to get there through bluewater or rely on the mothership once again.

  5. charbookguy permalink
    September 29, 2008 8:28 am

    Certainly the CVNs are key now, as the USN sees little other alternative for force projection. I think the increasing capabilities of the new robot weapon might change this mindset soon, whether it comes naturally or is forced upon us.

    Like you I think we could safely cut the number of carrier groups, especially considering the increased capabilities given to individual naval aircraft by precision bombs, providing some relief to the stretched thin shipbuilding budget.

  6. Distiller permalink
    September 29, 2008 7:02 am

    In my mind key is still the number of CVNs, resp CBG/CSGs. Too many escort hulls needed for twelve carriers. I really think that the first step to a more balanced Navy would be to cut the carriers to eight. That would free resources for ocean patrol, littoral vessels, and a bunch of other things.


  1. A Navy Shaped for New Threats « New Wars
  2. Shrinking the Navy’s “Presence Deficit” « New Wars
  3. Defending the Small Ship Navy « New Wars
  4. Reversing the Navy’s Meltdown Pt. 3 « New Wars
  5. Call for Motherships, Arsenal Ships « New Wars
  6. Saving the Navy Through Austerity « New Wars

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