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Dreaming of the 313-Ship Navy Pt 2

September 29, 2009


The U.S. Navy has been operating on something close to autopilot since World War II, replacing old classes of ships with improved versions when the old ones need to be retired, rather than approaching naval warfare from a clean slate. All but a couple of countries in the world have navies that look very different, with very different mixes of ships and objectives, than the naval forces of World War II.

The U.S. Navy may very well need more ships, but even if it does, they may not be the ones we are building now.

Andrew Oh-Willeke
Wash Park Prophet blog

It is baffling why the Navy and many of its supporters do not associate our rapidly shrinking fleet with the type of ships we build. The strain on the force has been rising for some time so it is obvious the mindset of “bigger is better” in ship size is a deeply ingrained idea. Under Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s (CNO from 1970-1974) High Low plan to replace hundreds of war-built destroyers and light carriers with similar easy to build and low cost substitutes, only the Perry class frigates made it past the High Tech obsessed ship buyers who preferred supercarriers, supercruisers, and supersubs. Even so, by the 1980’s we only managed (almost) a 600 Ship Navy by keeping obsolete vessels from the 1950s in service longer than required, and recommissioning a few from the 1940s!

Ask anyone within and without the Navy, and of course the desire for a bigger fleet is there, even for the very modest number of 313 ships. They will even tell you how much we need to improve our Green and Brown Water capabilities (near to shore), as this is where the service needs to concentrate in the Post Cold War era.

Mention cutting the number of large vessels, what I call the 5 Battleships of aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, nuclear submarines, and amphibious ships, and you have committed heresy. Every sailors, every politician, and every seapower advocate has a favorite of the 5, and the very notion of reducing numbers for any is likened to seriously endangering the national security of the country, as well as destroying her ability to control the sealanes.

What the high tech advocates fail to realize is they are hurting the very service they seek to protect. By refusing low cost alternatives like small warships, which are so much more capable thanks to the same technology they overload our big ships with, they ensure we have a shrinking, overpriced, inflexible, and top heavy battlefleet too costly to risk in wartime, plus stretched thin and over-worked in peacetime. And if we can’t get deployments right in peacetime, what will become of us in a world war?

Inadvertently, by refusing to bend or compromise with the small ship navy, they endanger the Big Ships they love. The traditional type aircraft carrier, cruiser, destroyer, attack submarine, and amphibious ship have now reached the end of their development cycle. There is always a balance for warship procurement in terms of the balance in speed, protection, and armament which you can reasonably place on a ship and still afford adequate numbers. Considering current ship delays, drastic fall in numbers, drastic rise in prices, and poor shipyard quality, it is clear now this time is upon us, calling for a new revolution in ship design.

A temporary solution is to continue building tried and true  types from previous decades, as with the Arleigh Burke class of destroyers or the Nimitz class carriers. More likely, with budget cuts looming, these will be replaced altogether just as military aircraft are being by UAVs, and tracked armor by wheeled vehicles. In the 1990s light fighters such as the USAF now seeks would have been adequate replacements for aging F-15s and F-16s in some environments, but since they would’t have it we have turned to the UAVs. On land, the Army could have bought tracked light tanks such as the armored gun system in time for the COIN conflicts which have dominated this new century, but by refusing they had off the shelf wheeled vehicles virtually forced upon them. So it seems small warships like corvettes built from off the shelf designs will win by default, because of the budget crunch brought on by continued wasteful procurement policies.

The Littoral Combat Ship, seen as the answer to the Navy’s shrinking fortunes is actually a band-aid on a seeping wound. The misnamed shallow water vessel has itself suffered delays, cost-overruns, and weight issues, because the Navy doesn’t understand and has little interest in small ships. A vessel meant to be the size of a corvette now has the appearance of old-style frigate, and has no other purpose other than to raise or at least maintain ship numbers. This is a poor excuse to build a very expensive and poorly armed vessel meant to function as a coastal patrol boat.

The Navy of the future will be radically different in appearance, perhaps as today’s fleet might look to a Tar from the Age of Sail. Gone will be many of the familiar types created at the dawn of the last century, perfected in World War 2, and updated to fight the Cold War. In their place will be high speed catamarans, surface ships with smooth decks, Streetfighters for shallow water warfare, AIP subs which rival the underwater endurance of nuclear boats, and UAVs which can fly from submarine or surface ship.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Svejk permalink
    May 26, 2010 5:31 pm

    Whatever….We’re gonna’ debate this crap to death…..Every knuckle-head will argue for this or that special program….gotta’ keep this or that platform….this or that many ships….hulls….etc ad nauseum….
    The fact is….like SOOOOO many times in the past….our Navy has gotten WEAKER and LESS prepared during “peace-time” which according to our enemies actions is the very best time to prepare against us because….we’re HABITUALLY bogging ourselves down with ENDLESS garbage that most certainly does NOT improve our war fighting capabilities….but we (or rather the politicians….both in and out of uniform) keep right on pushin’ it…

    Perhaps….just maybe this will nonsense will stop the day after we get the living shit kicked out of us…..AGAIN….and we find our selves having to “re-learn” all the lessons we never should have forgotten in the fist place….I hope the “war-fighting” Navy can survive the “welfare nanny-state” Navy….

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 29, 2009 7:37 pm

    elgatoso-You’re going to love tomorrow’s post! I thought it was just me…

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    September 29, 2009 6:25 pm

    The arsenal ship studies looked in to increasing survivability and “staying power” through double/triple hulls and other passive modifications, but it was just meant to be a floating missile magazine.

    I started thinking about an austere, large warship after reading through Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat and some of the arsenal ship literature.

    It occurred to me that active defenses such as missiles, CIWS, guns, jamming, chaff, flares, and even high speed all require acquisition of the target beyond the defense’s “minimum effective range”. However in the congested littorals where, as Chuck said, “sorting out the bad guys from the innocent”, may entail getting dangerously close to threats, sometimes there may be no other option than being able to take hits and survive.

    Cebrowski attempted to address this by defining “survival” as survival of the battle network, where individual components are essentially expendable, as long as the overall network survived. This led him down the path of having many, small warships, so that killing any one doesn’t greatly diminish the overall network.

    Of course nobody wants to build or man “expendable warships”, so the idea grew from Streetfighter to LCS. However with this (cost) growth died the initial “survival of the network” concept.

    So I started thinking maybe we could buy back some of the staying power and survivability by going the other direction and making “austere” warships larger. “Steel is cheap and air is free” after all, and propulsion needed to push a vessel to a certain speed doesn’t grow linearly with size. The real cost drivers are the combat systems.

    Size has other potential benefits such as improved seakeeping, long range and endurance, improved crew accommodations, and plenty of margins for whatever we want to stuff in these ships later on.

    It also has a few drawbacks. Draft could be a problem in the littorals. Steel is cheap, but it isn’t free. Nor is the labor needed to build a larger warship.

  4. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 29, 2009 6:00 pm

    B. Smitty,

    Wasn’t saying Coast Guard should do all the littoral ASW only that development of the platforms required for Littoral Warfare can also be used by the Coast Guard.

    Also the current large cutter are plenty big enough to do useful ASW in the Littoral–they are larger than the LCS.

  5. elgatoso permalink
    September 29, 2009 4:57 pm

    bring back the Arsenal Ship!!!

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    September 29, 2009 4:25 pm

    DDGs and aren’t well configured for littoral ASW, thus the focus on the ASW module for the LCS. Plus, there just aren’t enough of them to go off sub hunting with all of their other duties.

    Large Coast Guard cutters would have to become a lot more expensive and larger to handle ASW in addition to their other duties. Plus, we don’t have enough of them either.

  7. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 29, 2009 4:24 pm

    And yes I would agree we still need mine warfare vessels.

  8. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 29, 2009 4:11 pm

    True, but

    1) DDGs are well equipped to deal with submarines.
    2) Until recently large Coast Guard cutters did do ASW. No reason they could not be so equipped again, especially since it is also a threat to “homeland security.”

  9. B.Smitty permalink
    September 29, 2009 3:36 pm


    Clandestine threats the LCS is meant to combat also include SSKs and mines, which aren’t typical Coast Guard foes.

  10. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 29, 2009 2:25 pm

    Once the enemy is identified we have lots of overwhelming ways to deal with them. Helicopters particularly having proven effective against small vessels.

    What we need the generic LCS to do is deal with the clandestine threats, sorting out the bad guys from the innocents, stopping piracy, smuggling, special warfare operations against us. Not surprisingly this has a lot in common with Coast Guard requirements.

  11. B.Smitty permalink
    September 29, 2009 1:56 pm

    The best weapon to use against small warships is airpower.

  12. Joe K. permalink
    September 29, 2009 1:12 pm

    “I’m still convinced the best weapon to manage small warships is another small warship. Anything larger would be for mothership purposes.”


    But that’s not the only kind of warship on the sea!

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 29, 2009 12:44 pm

    Chuck, I’m still convinced the best weapon to manage small warships is another small warship. Anything larger would be for mothership purposes.

  14. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 29, 2009 12:27 pm

    Mike, looks like Galrahn is moving toward your position.

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009
    The Day the LCS Was Promoted to Warship

    If you moved toward Scott B’s position, relative to make it bigger than absolutely necessary to provide margins for growth, sea keeping, personnel augmentation, and crew comfort. Give it diesel engines to allow long term independent operation and a 5″ Mk45 to allow it to do NGFS. Coordinate it with the Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Cutter progam and you might come up with something like this:

    3500 Tons Full Load
    Helo deck and hanger for MH-60 with RAST
    5″ Mk 45
    VLS along the sides of the hanger
    NLOS netfires
    2x30mm chain gun in remotely operated mounts
    Mini Aegis radar system
    27 knots max speed, 25 knots sustained.
    30 days 7,500 mile unreplenished endurance.
    State of the art boat handling stern ramp

    Wouldn’t be every ones first choice, but it could be relatively affordable and produced in quantity.

  15. B.Smitty permalink
    September 29, 2009 11:18 am

    Recently, I’ve wondered what we could do with an austere but large-ish warship design.

    I don’t recall the exact numbers, but in Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Capt. Hughes had tables from studies detailing the number of “1000lb bomb-equivalents” required to sink ships of various sizes. IIRC, in the corvette range, 1-2 weapons was often enough. A frigate might require 3-4. OTOH, a 15,000 tonne vessel might require as many as 9 hits to sink.

    Essentially, take the combat suite from a smaller vessel and put it on a hull large enough and hardy enough to significantly enhance survivability against expected littoral threats (e.g. AShMs, small boats, VBIEDs, mines and perhaps even torpedoes).

    For example, if you required modern frigate combat suite normally resulting in a 3-6000 tonne vessel, you would turn around and put it on, say, a 15-20,000 ton hull with double or triple hulls, enhanced shock and fragment protection, large reserve buoyancy, extensive automated fire fighting systems, and so on. Don’t go as far as making it into a battleship or anything. Costs still must be controlled.

    You could leave large, empty spaces reserved for mission modules or future growth.

    Since “steel is cheap and air is free”, the resulting vessel may not be that much more expensive than the 3-6000 tonne frigate, but could add a lot of “staying power”.

    Of course adding significant redundancy to the combat system itself might drive up prices.

  16. Scott B. permalink
    September 29, 2009 8:50 am

    Mike Burleson said : “To answer your final question of why ships have to be small to be low cost, I can only say the evidence of recent ship procurement bears witness for this.”

    It doesn’t have to be small to be low cost, and evidence of recent ship procurement actually witness for this :

    The Danish ABSALON has a full load displacement of 6,000+ tons, and at less than $250 million per unit, it doesn’t cost much more than the mythical 1,000-ton corvette.

    Furthermore, with a displacement of 6,000+ tons, something like the Danish ABSALON means that, with regards to the critical attributes defined by Dr. Robert Dalsjö, you don’t have to make the kind of sacrifices you suggest in terms of survivability and crew comfort.

    So what is it that’s so attractive in the mythical 1,000-ton corvette that makes you systematically ignore alternatives that prove much more cost effective and viable ?

  17. Scott B. permalink
    September 29, 2009 8:07 am

    Mike Burleson said : “In their place will be high speed catamarans”

    Don’t forget what Bill said a couple of months ago on the catamaran variety :

    “And given the current love affair with the various catamrans in present and future TSV/HSV/JHSV roles, the truth has yet to be fully realized that the current crop has stupendously bad seakeeping behavior in only moderately high any speed. (Read: Sea states in which they are expected to handle..routinely). In particular pitch motions (and attendant vertical accelerations forward of amidship and bow slamming) can be and often are ‘brutal’ on both vessel and crew.”

  18. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 29, 2009 8:06 am

    Scott, I know its a problem for ship designers, and you have to make compromises somewhere. The Navy has gone the route, a mistaken one IMHO, that you don’t sacrifice anything for ship survivability and crew comfort. Except they did sacrifice something which is numbers, also very important in wartime and peace, and especially for easing the strain of multiple deployments on ship and crew.

    They explain the problem away by saying ships are so much more versatile, but not really when you realize they can’t be everywhere at once and you are swiftly wearing out your high end assets because they never get a break.

    To answer your final question of why ships have to be small to be low cost, I can only say the evidence of recent ship procurement bears witness for this. High end frigates, destroyers, and cruisers all are pricing more than a billion dollars. There is very little difference in size, armament, and function in these 3 classes of ship, and the European designs aren’t much different. The final straw is the LCS, of frigate size, which can’t be bought for less than 1/2 billion, and this with its patrol boat armament.

    Which is why I propose going back to basics with warship design, and many of the corvette classes of 1000-1500 tons from overseas prove that we can build effective and durable warships which can do many of the functions the Navy insists only high end battleships can do. I may be wrong, but we know for certain the Navy is wrong with their dwindling and stretched thin fleet and its over-worked crews.

  19. Scott B. permalink
    September 29, 2009 7:42 am

    Mike Burleson said : “By refusing low cost alternatives like small warships”

    One more question, somewhat connected to the above : why does a low cost alternative have to be a small warship ?

  20. Scott B. permalink
    September 29, 2009 7:40 am

    Mike Burleson said : “By refusing low cost alternatives like small warships, which are so much more capable thanks to the same technology they overload our big ships with.”

    1) Is there any such thing as a small warship that possesses all 10 critical attributes defined by Dr. Robert Dalsjö for , i.e. :

    1. endurance : the ability to operate at sea for an extended time without replenishment or service.

    2. seakeeping : the ability to operate in or transit rough waters while maintaining not only safety, but also operational effectiveness.

    3. versatility : the ability to solve several different tasks in differing circumstances.

    4. adaptability : the ability to reconfigure the ship’s capabilities in order to meet changing circumstances.

    5. air defense : not only for self-defense

    6. interoperability : including C3I and replenishment at sea

    7. survivability : being able to take a hit from a RPG or even a SSM, without undue casualties and while remaining not only afloat but also able to operate.

    8. crew comfort : quite important during extended deployments, especially with an all-volunteer crew.

    9. free spaces : for additional elements, functions or equipment.

    10. and at least one medium-sized embarked helicopter.

    The answer is simple : there is no such small warship out there.

    2) Since there’s no such small warship out there, what is it that you’re going to sacrify if you opt for a small warship ?

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