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Wedded to a Smaller Fleet

March 23, 2009

Comments like this on the future of the US Navy are very discouraging:

The ugly reality is, the Navy needs to design a new major surface combatant somewhere around 10000 tons, probably very similar to the Burkes (the Navy may be calling this Future Surface Combatant (FSC) already), but with the modern technologies that have been developed over the last 30 years. This ship needs to be capable enough to meet future threats at the very high end of warfare at sea, but be cost effective enough to build between 40-70 total, meaning 3 ships annually for a price of around $5 billion annually in FY10 dollars.

090207-N-3931M-Somehow, most of our top nautical strategists within the service and without can’t get beyond the notion than only very large, expensive, high end warships can contend with our future naval threats. This despite all the evidence to the contrary that in wartime it is the small ship, whether called destroyers or frigates (speaking of their traditional ancestors of cheap but tough craft which can be built quickly and in large numbers during wartime, NOT their missile-firing, carrier escorting clones of today) corvette or fast attack craft, do the most work and are some of the most valuable ships afloat, which we never seem to have enough of.

Currently the USN has about 200 or so battle force type ships within the service, by which I mean very large warships of nearly 10,000 tons or more, costing more than a billion dollars each, designed for a Blue Water engagement on the high seas. These would include aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and amphibious ships. I include the amphibious ships on this list because they are still forced to stay well off of shore during operations, utilizing large landing craft, hovercraft, and helicopters for moving troops and supplies to the beach.

I have no problem with battleships, especially with all the noise China and Russia are making these days, its good to know we have a few high end ships to over-awe potential aggressors, the enemies of freedom. What does bother me is our single-minded focus on such ships at the expense of supporting troops on the shore, dealing with pirates that are breaking the Law of the Sea, and rogue states which regularly make a mockery of our giant warships.

Our ships are vulnerable to very low tech asymmetrical threats, especially from suicide boats, as well as older weapons such as mines and submarines. While there is no doubt America rules the oceans, she has less ability to control the littorals as almost all strategists admit is where the future of naval warfare lies.

080428-N-3625R-002The new littoral combat ship is only half the answer. She seems a much smaller, less capable, and only slightly less costly version of the battleships we build. Riddled with untried technologies and very large for a ship designed to chase pirates in speed boats, greatly delayed entering service, she has also tripled in cost and is under constant threat from Congress with cancellation. This is a very half hearted effort on the Navy leadership’s part and more bad news for those wishing for the fleet to remain somewhere near its current size of 280 ships. We rarely hope for more these days.

Almost anything would be better than LCS. USCG cutters, merchant ships converted into Patrol Ships, small corvettes bought off the shelf from our allies; whatever we could send into shallows seas at a reasonable cost and risk, without making the show of wondrous technologies, advanced hulls, marvelous weapons. Just give us a ship to fight in and let our sailors take care the rest.

Getting back to “10000 ton combatants” we seem to forget the very real danger that large ships are in from aerial attacks. As evidence, just look to the fleet at Battleship Row, 1941, as well as the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Renown in 1942  that giant “expensive” ships are vulnerable to swarms of aerial attackers. While any ship is at risk from destruction, as I have stated before small craft have shown themselves very durable, as in the Kamikaze attacks in the Pacific War, with the much smaller DDs holding their own and some, like USS Laffey surviving multiple attacks (the destroyers were most often used as picket defense, thus bearing the brunt of the attacks). More recently we see USS Stark and INS Hanit surviving missile attacks, then returning to port on their own power.

Smaller ships like corvettes and FACs, which from 600-1500 tons are the exact size of the first primitive DDs that held the line in giant battles of the Atlantic and the Pacific War. Supported far from home by motherships, they will dominate future surface warfare, while carrying UAV’s and perhaps even long range guns and missiles to support the boots on the ground. Nautical versions of Infantry Fighting Vehicles in large numbers will ferry troops to shore, displacing the need for giant and vulnerable amphibious landing ships. Such craft will be the Navy’s salvation as larger super destroyers increase steadily in size and cost, while reducing drastically in numbers.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 24, 2009 8:40 pm

    True West. “Our ships are unsinkable”!

  2. west_rhino permalink
    March 24, 2009 2:40 pm

    The current mindset seems to be that of the IDF before its first meeting with a Styx…

  3. March 24, 2009 1:56 pm

    no mike, but if you can only afford to build one or the other, the CVN is the better option mike,

    and maybe what distiller says is right but only if you have the money for both.

    yours sincerly


  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 24, 2009 11:26 am

    Alex, CVNs are not better ALL the time and in ALL situations as the Navy would have us believe, perhaps might even be a liability, especially close to shore where there are low cost asymmetrical threats.

  5. Distiller permalink
    March 24, 2009 6:05 am

    The way carriers are used has to be rethought. No more patrols and “presence” with carrier battle groups. What is needed is a frigate-equivalent of a carrier, a light carrier like the Garibaldi for UAVs and helicopters, escorted by something like a Brandenburg class frigate. Such a task group could handle 95% of the jobs out there. And deploy the CVN battle groups only if there is really war on the horizon. Back in the early 1900’s the Home Fleet also didn’t sail around in the German Bight all the time.

  6. March 23, 2009 8:12 pm


    CVN’s are better than CVs, perhaps the size is not so neccesary, but certainly the power is.

    I am sort of trying to design a concept fleet, based around 6 basic forms; Aviation/Strike Ship of about 70,000 tons, ‘battle’ escort of about 7-8000tons, general purposes escort of around 2800tons, SSN/SSK hunter subs, armed/multi-purpose auxilaries, and an as yet undefinable amphibious warfare vessel; please not all but the last two would carry cruise missiles under my system.

    yours sincerly


  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 23, 2009 7:10 pm

    Makes you wonder: do we build CVNs for today’s threats, or seek to fit today’s threat into the CVN capabilities? True, they can do so many things, but is the cost of building one, annual upkeep and enormous escorts which surpass a billion dollars themselves worth what we get in return? But we can’t even handle this piracy issue.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 23, 2009 7:05 pm

    Correct on the Spruance, Alex. Very large and (initially) underarmed, the LCS of its day! So began the tradition of very large destroyers bought in ever decreasing numbers, only about 30 to replace hundreds of war-built DDs. Though todays giant missile battleships make the Spruance look downright economical!

  9. March 23, 2009 7:16 am


    here is my answer, cancel the LCS and build something that works! the big ships are needed for the big wars, but you need the little ships for every war; this is what everyone is forgetting. Basically the seem to be talking about a new Spruance class, which if I remember correctlyw as very cost effective for its time

    yours sincerly,


  10. Distiller permalink
    March 23, 2009 6:24 am

    I think it’s easy. The Navy is basically only interested in CVNs. With, say, ten CVNs you are at 60 dual-purpose (ASW + AAW) escorts. And a full dual-purpose escort can’t be really done below 9 to 10.000 tons. Even the amphib strike groups are left with only a symbolic escort, strategic sealift with none (optimist think that SSNs will keep the SLOCs free of enemy activity). And then there is basically no money left for frigates, corvettes and FACs.

    Without a sharp reduction of CVNs and re-thinking their deployment patterns, an equal reduction of amphib assault capability (but not sustainment capability!), and a real joint-forces approach to the forcible entry problem there will never be enough money is the system to pay for all the non-CVN escort, patrol and littoral needs.


  1. Aircraft Carriers:The ‘Bigger is Better’ Myth Pt 2 « New Wars

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