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Call For T-AKE Motherships

June 19, 2009

This from David Axe goes along with yesterday’s post on “auxiliary warships”:

Make no mistake, U.S. Navy shipbuilding is a disaster, with rampant delays, cost over-runs and poor workmanship. But the T-AKE cargo ships, built by NASSCO in San Diego, are an exception. The Navy has rewarded NASSCO by adding two more of the $500-million vessels to the original plan for a dozen — and more are possible.

Navy undersecretary Bob Work, during his think-tank days, called on the Navy to adapt the T-AKE design to a wider range of missions, beyond the traditional job of hauling supplies to deployed warships. T-AKEs could become oilers, command ships and other auxiliaries. The key is a simple, robust design, with lots of “reconfigurable” empty space, like a Lego ship.

Now the 40,000 ton T-AKE is far too large for the type of mothership design we often propose; we were thinking more along the size of a WW 2 Liberty Ship, about 10,000 tons or less, but the potential for T-AKE is very intriguing. Add to Axe’s proposal such functions as amphibious ship, aircraft carrier, arsenal ships and so on. The purpose becomes not so much what a warship can do, but what she can carry!

22 Comments leave one →
  1. leesea permalink
    June 22, 2009 2:51 am

    I’m with Bsmitty on this. NO one has defined the rqmts for a mothership, we are all injecting our opinions. Personally speaking I have seen NO set of rqmts which dictate that a warships design me used.

    IF one assumes a mothership is to be a warship, then the foreign designs mentioned are good examples. I do NOT believe that a wet well dock ship is a given, but that depends are which small craft are being supported (as he mentioned). A dockship is the low end of possibilty for mothership, not the the USN would deign for buy/charter such a cost-effective solution! I do believe a large flight deck is needed. Converting an older LPD is another possiblity especially since some are going out of commission soon. But I also believe they need conversion and the asset needs to be taken away from the amphib force.

    IF one assumes that a mothership is to be a naval auxiliary, then there are better designs existing than the T-AKE Lewis and Clark class. You all should know these ships are optimized as dry cargo and ammo carriers for station ship role. That means it does NOT have some features which have been mentioned for mothership. T-AKEs are big ships as NFAF goes, why is such a big ship needed? Why not look at a armed auxiliary as a mothership?

    Sven based on my experience with both hospital ships and command ships, the LPD17 is TOTALLY unsuited for those missions, the hull structure, internals and construction costs are out of alignment with the physical ship needs. LPD17 production should be stopped at 11 and other existing types looked at.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 21, 2009 7:44 am

    “The LCS at $220 million isn’t a bad deal”

    Oh, sure. If the price had been kept anywhere near the original estimate we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I once considered the LCS the Navy’s last hope of building reasonably priced ships that could build up fleet numbers, but now we don’t even have that.

    This was the reason I started advocating the 1000 ton corvette, as a return to basics in war at sea. Otherwise we are stuck with a giant constabulary Navy, very impressive in appearance but mostly useless for modern threats.

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    June 20, 2009 10:22 pm


    Frankly, I don’t think requirements definition is nearly as broken as our cost estimation process. Programs do make some sense when they are initially proposed. The LCS at $220 million isn’t a bad deal, IMHO. Same goes for the F-35 at $60 million flyaway. There needs to be some serious sanity checking on those numbers.

    I think the “cost as an independent variable” folks are on to something.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 20, 2009 7:08 pm

    Smitty, that certainly makes sense but aren’t all Navy ships currently built with a “well-defined set of requirements”, bringing us where we are today with a smaller over-priced, mediocre fleet?

    Would you say our ships are over-engineered? I’m just asking because I’d like to get to the root of the problem.

  5. B.Smitty permalink
    June 20, 2009 5:05 pm


    Believe it or not, we in the U.S. have budget restrictions too! :) We also have numerous, entrenched factions that do not want to give up on their programs of record.


    I’m certainly willing to think beyond traditional designs, but as an engineer, I always want to have a well-defined set of requirements first. Until we have them, I can’t realistically determine if my (or any other) design can meet them.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 20, 2009 4:06 pm

    If we could just think beyond traditional warship designs, guys. Think about it, what capabilities in a mothership could we do without just to get the new weapons to sea?

  7. June 20, 2009 3:12 pm

    Keep in mind that I’m European. We’ve got something known as budget restrictions.

    The German navy could not buy five different, specialized motherships, but possibly two versatile ones.

  8. B.Smitty permalink
    June 20, 2009 12:35 pm

    Certainly an LPD can carry a lot, but one size definitely does not fit every situation. Many UxVs are tethered to their mothership by short ranges and LOS datalinks. If you need to distribute them around an area (e.g. to clear a minefield), or even in different theaters, then more numerous, smaller motherships may make more sense.

    Also, putting all your UxV eggs in one basket leads to “tactical instabilities”.

  9. June 20, 2009 9:40 am

    “Everyone comes to the “mothership” debate with a different ideas for their mission and CONOPS.”

    I looked at ships in regard to mothership capability and the LPD caught my attention. It can easily deploy and recover underwater and surface craft up to impressive sizes.

    It has the ability to deploy everything needed for minesearching, minehunting, minesweeping and minebreaking.

    It can operate VTOL aviation up to heavylift helicopter size plus small drones (catapult launch, net recovery).

    An LPD can furthermore be used to transport and deploy marines, company to battalion strength (depending on ship size) if not used as surface/subsurface mothership.

    The payload and deck area of a LPD are furthermore sufficient to carry several standard containers – enough for hospital or command ship functions.

    My opinion about LPD and MCM is actually about ten years old, while I began to look at them as ASW motherships only this year.

    That’s how I look at it. An LPD is a really, really great platform.
    Adaptability redefined.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 19, 2009 6:48 pm

    Heretic said “if they “never” get sunk by enemy action … there’s no reason in the world not to make them as big (and as bomb magnet-y) as possible”

    Well said, too big to fail. The Navy’s version of Kirk’s “Kobayashi Maru” test where no room is left for failure. Like you I think the loss of one supercarrier and her crew would effect the entire carrier fleet forcing a drastic rethinking of our naval strategy.

    25,000 ton auxiliary warship? Well, that is better than 40,000. My point in proposing ships of such small size is a return to basics, a drastic punch in the arm to save the decrepit state of Western shipbuilding. If we find we made need something bigger after combat experience, we can go back to the drawing board. Meantime, lets get the hulls in the water!

  11. B.Smitty permalink
    June 19, 2009 5:54 pm


    I’m with you on the need for MORE carriers. My proposal is to slow down development of CVNs to a steady state of 7-8 ships, and use the money to fund development of a conventional carrier like the French PA2 that can replace the LHA/LHD as the main aviation platform in ESGs.

    That way, you could have as many as 17 or 18 real carriers able to operate any carrier aircraft in the fleet (both current and planned).

    One issue is how to recoup the lost cargo cube, vehicle square and well decks. I’m still working on that one.

  12. B.Smitty permalink
    June 19, 2009 5:45 pm

    Yikes, I need to do more proof reading before posting. :(


    I wasn’t arguing either way in the sizing debate. (And I wasn’t arguing at all about carriers.)

    Everyone comes to the “mothership” debate with a different ideas for their mission and CONOPS.

    Some talk in terms of counter piracy or other “influence squadron” missions.

    Some explore how to take down a modern, enemy A2/AD network.

    Some frame the debate in terms of a replay 0f past littoral conflicts such as Vietnam, the “Tanker War”, or the Falklands.

    My point was that we need to take a step back and define the requirements first.

    Only then can any proposals be judged.

  13. Heretic permalink
    June 19, 2009 4:44 pm

    B.Smitty … you’re both right … and missing the mark.

    An extremely critical question is being overlooked by the advocates of the “supership navy” that hold sway in the USN (and in foreign navies). In financial circles these days, there’s a phrase which succinctly describes this problem:

    Too Big To Fail

    Owing to the fact that the USN hasn’t lost a single vessel (with all hands) to enemy action in, what … half a century? … they simply aren’t asking the all important question that now NEEDS to be asked in this modern age of precision weapons …

    Which ships are too big to lose in battle?

    As I’ve said before in other threads on this blog, the “all eggs in one basket” strategy is demonstrably superior … so long as your ONE basket is safe from being taken away from you.

    Since the USN no longer has any living memory within the actively serving ranks of what it “means” to lose a vessel to enemy action, the caution against “too big to fail (in battle)” scenario is given relatively short shrift when it comes to matters of planning and building ships. After all, if they “never” get sunk by enemy action … there’s no reason in the world not to make them as big (and as bomb magnet-y) as possible.

    BUT …

    If you look at matters instead from a “we may lose a few” perspective, then the calculus of What To Buy changes … especially when you start thinking in terms of needing to replace lost hulls and having the capacity to do so. If you start thinking in terms of “too big to fail” means, in the navy context, “too big to lose when it counts the most” then it starts making sense to start spreading your eggs around in more and smaller baskets than just The Big One.

    Or to put it another way … if the USN lost even *one* of it’s CVNs right now, it would be a National Tragedy. If the USN had double the number of carriers, with 55-60% of a Nimitz capacity each … if we lost one of those (smaller) carriers it would make us *VERY MAD* rather than be a crippling blow to the entire fleet … and Navy captains would be champing at the bit and in a “let me at ’em!” mood, rather than in despair looking at a half-masted flag.

    Bigger is better … so long as everything goes your way.
    When it doesn’t … being bigger suddenly isn’t all that wonderful …

  14. B.Smitty permalink
    June 19, 2009 4:01 pm

    All of this talk of sizing is putting the cart before the horse.

    WHAT are these motherships carrying (or supporting)? And even more importantly, what are their mission requirements?

    Do they have to operate under threat from a high-end, enemy A2/AD network? Do they need (and/or their craft) need to perform ASW? Small-boat ASuW? MIW? Amphibious operations? Strike? NSFS?

    Or are we talking “influence squadron” motherships?

    If they just carry RHIBs, small UxVs and helos, then Absalon (or smaller) may be fine. If it’s carrying/supporting Stillttos or Skjolds, then it has to be a lot larger.

    Until the mission requirements and CONOPS are defined, force composition, ship type, and sizing discussions are premature, IMHO.

  15. Heretic permalink
    June 19, 2009 3:07 pm

    Back of the envelope guesstimation here … but I’m thinking something in the 25,000 ton range with well deck below and aviation capability topside (ie. flat deck space), along with cranes and plenty of cargo space would probably be the way to go Mike. Something akin to the “through deck cruisers” of Royal Navy ’82 in terms of size. Standardize and simplify the construction of the *ship* as much as you can with the express intent of stuffing it with “mission modules” (by the dozens?) and you’ll have your mass produced mothership.

    Don’t forget the “container ship aircraft carrier” studies they did in Britain where the basic idea was to turn a commercial container ship into a “jeep carrier” with a complement of 7-8 (I forget exact numbers) of Harriers surrounded by the standardized shipping containers that contained everything to turn the merchant ship into a Harrier Carrier on (remarkably) short notice.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 19, 2009 2:56 pm

    For an amphib, I think the focus should be on getting troops from one point to another, The route we are taking, we have basically some very large cruiser type ships heavily armed and armored, that also carry troops. It is telling that the USN is thinking of using San Antonio’s design as the template for their future nuclear powered CGX. How can we continue to build amphibious warships if they are so heavily armed you can only afford a handful?

    The beauty of a 10,000 ton troop ship, you can afford so many of them. In wartime you are bound to lose some no matter how well defended. Best to have many you can replace quickly and easily.

  17. Scott B. permalink
    June 19, 2009 2:55 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Now the 40,000 ton T-AKE is far too large for the type of mothership design we often propose;”

    The ideal (i.e. versatile AND affordable) mothership you’re looking for already exists : it’s called ABSALON.


  18. B.Smitty permalink
    June 19, 2009 2:19 pm


    On the 10,000 ton question, nevermind. I realize now you were referring to Mike’s Liberty Ship reference.

  19. B.Smitty permalink
    June 19, 2009 2:18 pm


    LPD-17s are a lot bigger than 10,000 tons. Were you referring to a different class?

    For a mothership based on an amphib, I’d prefer a small LHD like the Mistral or Canberra class. They have a well deck, but also much larger aviation facilities. The Canberra even has a ski jump for STOVL aircraft.

  20. June 19, 2009 2:06 pm

    I actually prefer the LPD concept for mothership functions. The dell dock is just great for all kinds of small surface and subsurface craft.
    Heavy duty helipad (and hangar) are already integral to the concept.

    That’s not only great for ASW but also for MCM (all MCM techniques can be used with a LPD mothership!).

    An area for on-deck storage of standard containers for additional adaptability is pretty much the only major change to the LPD concept that’s still advisable for a mothership.

    10,000 tons is a bit on the small side. Possible, but not optimal. You get economies of scale for the drone/heli ground crews with larger ships and the propulsion demands don’t grow much. Steel is affordable.
    A larger ship is really a much easier solution than a cramped 10,000 ton ship with many compromises and not much reserve displacement.


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