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Bob Gates’ Navy

April 20, 2009

At the US Naval War College on Friday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates further explained his 2010 proposal for reforming the military. As usual, New Wars is focusing on his Navy proposals:

I concluded we needed to shift away from the 99 percent “exquisite” service-centric platforms that are so costly and so complex that they take forever to build, and only then, and deployed in very limited quantities. With the pace of technological and geopolitical change, and the range of possible contingencies, we must look more to the 80 percent multi-service solution that can be produced on time, on budget, and in significant numbers. As Stalin once said, “Quantity has a quality all of its own.”

I would have put the number of exquisite platforms to low end weapons at about 90% versus 10%, considering the old Perry frigates still in service, plus the riverine forces, but he is not far off the mark here. Rationally, instead of reducing this woeful discrepancy to 80% high end, the low end should be the most numerous.

I hope to accelerate the buy of the Littoral Combat Ship, which, despite its development problems, is a versatile ship that can be produced in quantity and go to places that are either too shallow or too dangerous for the Navy’s big, blue-water surface combatants. As we saw last week, you don’t necessarily need a billion-dollar ship to chase down a bunch of teenage pirates.

The half billion dollar LCS should be counted in the “exquisite category”. As DK Brown once wrote about a British plan to build a more affordable frigate in the 1980s “The ship envisaged was too expensive to be expendable, and yet was unable to defend itself”. The same could be said of the LCS, whose only surface weapon is a 57mm cannon, with no cruise missiles on board.  Buy fewer, then, make it even more spartan in terms of armament and propulsion, and use it as a mothership for well-armed corvettes.

To carry out the missions we may face in the future – whether dealing with non-state actors at sea or near shore, or swarming speedboats – we will need numbers, speed, and ability to operate in shallow waters.

Again, this will not happen with LCS, which won’t be in service in any numbers until well into the next decade. Will the pirates taper off while we leisurely construct a new littoral navy?

  The United States must not take its current dominance for granted and needs to invest in programs, platforms, and personnel that will ensure that we remain preeminent at sea. But rather than go forward under the same assumptions that guided our shipbuilding during the Cold War, I believe we need to develop a more rigorous analytical framework before moving forward – the type of framework that will be provided by the Quadrennial Defense Review. That is one reason I delayed a number of decisions on programs such as the follow on manned bomber, the next generation cruiser, as well as overall maritime capabilities. The purpose was to develop an analytical construct through which we can more precisely determine what will be needed in coming years. To determine what kind of tactics and strategies future adversaries, both state and non-state actors, are likely to pursue.

Has Gates finally shaken off the shackles that has bound the Navy mindset since the Cold War? We thought assuredly the USN would take its own strategy from the 1990’s “From the Sea” seriously at the dawn of the War on Terror in 2001. Clearly there was a need then as now for new patrol ships to tame the wild littorals of the Third World. Yet, here we are 8 years later and not a single new ship is on the frontlines combating the pirate menace at sea, save these Arleigh Burke battleships, or huge amphibious warships which never seem to get used for the purpose they were built.

Usually it takes a war to bring any real change to entrenched traditionalism (and the Navy is historically the most adverse to change). If Gates has his way, though, change may come in time to save our rapidly shrinking and increasingly irrelevant sea service.

As much as the U.S. Navy has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet, by one estimate, is still larger than the next 13 navies combined – and 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners. In terms of capabilities, the over-match is even greater. No country in the rest of the world has anything close to the reach and firepower to match a carrier strike group. And the United States has and will maintain eleven until at least 2040.

For more perspective, consider that if the US possessed only 3 Nimitz class aircraft carriers, she would still have a naval air force more powerful than all other navies and their carriers combined. If she had no supercarriers but only the 11 Marine “Harrier Carriers” equipped with V/STOL strike planes, she would still deploy the most capable carrier force on the planet.

Potential adversaries are well-aware of this fact, which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the U.S. to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought arms race prior to World War I. Instead, we’ve seen their investments in weapons geared to neutralize our advantages – to deny the U.S. military freedom of movement and action while potentially threatening our primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.

This is asymmetric warfare at sea, of the type Germany conducted in two world wars when she chose not to fight fair, or by the self-established rules of the traditional sea-going powers of Britain, France, and the US. The allies only managed to defeat this threat at sea by outbuilding it. Could we repeat this proven war-winning strategy today?

This is a particular concern with aircraft carriers and other large, multi-billion dollar blue-water surface combatants – where the loss of even one ship would be a national catastrophe. We know other nations are working on ways to thwart the reach and striking power of the U.S. battle fleet – whether by producing stealthy submarines in quantity or developing anti-ship missiles with increasing range and accuracy. We ignore these developments at our peril.

On the whole we agree with the Secretary’s proposals, which shows a knowledge of the future of war, that is rare coming from these Cold War vets in Washington. Though we would hope he would quickly get beyond his “80% Solution” with exquisite platforms, we understand that change is a very slow process and no service its worse at this than the Navy.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 20, 2009 2:23 pm

    By my calculations you would have 60 battle force ships, each able to launch attack missiles or naval aircraft armed with precision weapons. It seems incredulous the USN doesn’t take advantage of the enhanced fighting power of modern weapons to defend against peer competitors while beefing up fleet numbers with the savings.

    No nation on earth has anything to compare with these individual superships, but they do have asymmetric naval forces such as SSKs, missile corvettes, suicide boats, ground launch cruise missiles, to hit us where we are weakest. We have few if any shallow water craft ready to go into the littorals to fight the pirates, let alone cruise missile armed powers like Iran or N. Korea. The Navy knows it took hundreds of light warships (plus the navies of 2 major allies) and aircraft to tame about 100 conventional boats in the 1940s, back when they didn’t possess stand-off cruise missiles and most often attacked on the surface.

    The Navy is overly prepared for a conventional conflict at sea very unlikely to happen, and woefully underprepared for the type of irregular enemy at sea we most often contend with.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 20, 2009 1:57 pm

    Or how about mutated frigate, Lee!

  3. Distiller permalink
    April 20, 2009 12:47 pm

    The 300 number. Said it before – it’s all tied with the number of carriers. Carriers need 4 to 6 escorts, a huge multiplier. Even if the Navy goes down to 10, it has one too many. 9 CVN as long as they require RCOH, Fords only eight since they don’t need RCOH (all-Ford not before 2055). Lincoln should not go into RCOH and instead be retired in 2015. Enterprise already next year. And then one Nimitz retired for every Ford coming in. Of course some Nimitz will be quite young, they might be given to the Europeans. But even such a move wouldn’t bring down the carrier numbers till 2030. That dogma 12/11/10 is just that – a dogma, the deployment cycles not written in stone. Below nine/eight it’s getting difficult, regardless of deployment cycles, since there are five (?) RCOHs ahead, which would during some years have the numbers drop to eight. Even without RCOH a Ford will still go into PIA/D, one is wise as a reserve since one could be lost or become FUBAR. Eight CVN at all times, plus one reserve – with less than that is very difficult to do blue water work AND support amphib ops at the same time. Working from that you end up with 32 to 48 escorts. Plus they need oilers and replenishers.

    Next the amphib fleet. That is determined by the opposed forced entry requirements of the Marines. Even though their structure is less than clear, any decent enemy will require a good number of LHDs carrying the first wave. Everything else again follows from here – LPDs, PrePos, fire support (limited by LCS, real by Burkes), limited underway escort (LCS? NFS-Burke?), littoral ASW and MIW (LCS). (PrePos is not counted by the Navy, NFS is an open sore and also not counted).

    Then the frigate side, whereby I assume that this will be whatever becomes of LCS. Secondary escort, ASW, MIW, robotic littoral work, special forces work, secondary NFS, ISR missions, maybe even instead of JHSV. 55 is quite low here.

    And the number does not include any specialized BMD cruisers. (My view is that this job is better done by a modified C-17. And with the Pentagon’s focus on new theatre terminal the midcourse beyond the Standard seems rather dead).

    Leaves the subs. CBG escort, maybe amphib group escort – one per, in serious cases two. SSBN escort – again one each. The rest for “free hunt”. Less than the current level doesn’t work. SSKs a dozen plus/minus, small ones, to scare other people in the littorals – not too expensive and crew intensive any way.

    SSBNs, the big unknown. How many missiles will post-SORT leave? Will the Air Force go again for a Midgetman to become more survivable, or close the eyes and modify Minutemen till the end of days? How many subs to be survivable? How many MIRV/MaRV on one missile? New missiles? Modified Virginia? Or again design a SSBN from scratch? My personal opinion is 18 available boats (modified Virginias) with 12 tubes each will be need to be survivable and keep deterrence realistic.

    Add it up and 300 is not far off. And if they’d count every Coast Guard, CS/CSS and sealift vessel in, they’d end up at around 450+ anyway. What could be saved? In my mind nothing substantial, save doing everything one step smaller, giving up core capabilities, which is a political decision.

  4. leesea permalink
    April 20, 2009 12:41 pm

    Mike just a short rant be back later with more:

    I would not call the LCS “exquisite” so much as “psuedo-warship”

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 20, 2009 9:03 am

    “One can argue about the exact composition, but the number stays at around 300 ships”

    I’m still frustrated that all plans for the future fleet seem to end up with only 300 ships, and the bulk of these are high end exquisite warships. Realistically, your low end ships should be the most numerous as proved in all our recent major wars at sea. More on this tomorrow.

    But if you don’t plan on fighting, then 300 Big Ships is just find.Build whatever you want like the scary warships and hope that your foes never decide to shoot back. Wishful thinking IMHO.

  6. Distiller permalink
    April 20, 2009 7:41 am

    The question of the lower conventional forces limit is not so straightforward, and one could argue that the U.S. is already below that level in certain areas – of course always under the premisis of an offensive (non-isolationist) grand strategy.

    There is lots of money to be found *within* the system. Like having 350 brigade equivalents in the ground forces (incl Guards, Reserves, and Marines) for example, which never ever will deploy anywhere (or would need so much training that one could as well take green conscripts).
    And despite having a contract army the grade of professionalism is quite low. Too many people in for the wrong reasons. Life in the U.S. Army is still quite comfortable. One could for example think of 10+5+5 years contracts, and if a soldier spends all his life in a south-west Asian dusthole, so be it.
    The Romans did so, the Brits did so. Hence overall troop levels are too high (almost 3.5 million heads for the security complex), but the number of actually deployable heads is too low.
    And then of course the whole multi-level bureaucratic and command system …

    Back to the Navy, esp the LCS-2: Does that thing have space on the foredeck aft of the gun for two or three dozen short VLS cells? They have painted something there, but I’m not sure what it is.
    And then I believe it is actually too small by 500 tons or so to even start being seen as a mothership, although I start to think it might become a quite capable ship if done correctly. Re-doing propulsion and limiting modularity to half-year yard effort, not plug’n-play.
    The real littoral work could be done by CB90 types, small Hovercraft, and robots.
    LCS-1 as a type should be dropped NOW; the shipyard on the lakes can build the LCS-2 type as well, as should other yards of similar size all around the U.S.

    For an isolationist U.S. no carriers would be needed at all, neither amphibs. Three dozen large frigates, some FACs and littoral SSKs. That’s it.

    Elsewise I see the minimum roughly at
    — 9(8) Fords with 4 (CGN) to 6 (Burke) ecorts each;
    — 18 Makin Islands, 18 San Antonios, 18 NFS/Escort Burkes, 12 to 18 Con/Ro-Tanker PrePos;
    — 64 “Medium Multi-Role Surface Combatant” (ex LCS) for all the less glamorous jobs in the Navy;
    — 12-18 Fleet Oilers (depending on the number of N-ships), 18 Fleet Replenishers;
    — 54 Virginias, 12 small SSK, 21(18) SSBN based on Virginia with 12 SLBM each.

    One can argue about the exact composition, but the number stays at around 300 ships. But that 300/313 number is warped in any case, since the 100+ strategic sealifters, and all the CS/CSS auxiliaries from hospital ships, to icebreakers and tugs, to floating docks, to crane ships, to Flo/Flos, to engineering ships, &c are not included.

    [Too long post END]


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