Building a Bigger, Better Navy Pt 1
The Quarter-Sized Navy
In wartime, you need lots of ships. In peacetime, a global navy requires many hulls in the water. The US Navy will insist even though it is less than half the fleet of the 1980s, when we had a fewer enemies, that they are justified in contributing to the decline of fleet numbers. For instance, here is a quote from a recent post we did on the Future of Amphibious Lift:
Originally intended as a class of 12, we will now get only 9, which further takes away from our already shrinking fleet in an age where the Navy is more important than ever. Wiki also notes: The (9) planned San Antonio’s will replace a total of 41 ships.
According to frequent commenter Solomon at this own blog, this comes to 1 ship replacing 4. However, we have some questions pondering the 4-1 ratio the Navy has so much confidence in:
- Can the one LPD-17 be in four places at once, as the vessels it is replacing?
- Is the LPD-17 four times as survivable as the vessels it is replacing?
- Does the LPD-17 carry four times the equipment and four times the troops of the vessels it is replacing?
Concerning the individual costs of such, we can see where this might be true, even an understatement, as we noted last week that 10 Joint High Speed vessels able to carry 10 Stryker companies could be bought for a single San Antonio! The Navy would justify the smaller numbers by lessons from decades of peacetime sailing, where its enemies have been Third World terrorists which aren’t shooting back. Such exquisite ships are too big to risk in shallow seas where they are most needed, as well as too costly and hard to replace in wartime.
Too Many Risks
One of the architects of the 600 ship Navy of 30 years ago, for Navy Secretary John Lehman once wrote that these metrics advocating a smaller fleet are faulty, even dangerous:
Our fleet today has shrunk from 600 to 270 and is heading for 150. We have cut carriers from Reagan’s 15 to Obama’s 10.
But we can’t argue with geography: The seas still cover 70 percent of the world, and our vital trade and allies are far more global than in TR’s day. With this shrinking fleet, we can no longer deter piracy and guarantee freedom of the seas.
The problem isn’t money, as Winslow Wheeler points out in a 2008 article, the fleet hasn’t been lacking funds in the past decade, despite ongoing wars on land:
Not counting $95 billion subsequently received for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy/Marine Corps “base” — non-war — budget was increased by $174 billion to $1.07 trillion.
Did this additional $174 billion reverse a central trend that has plagued the U.S. Navy for decades? Did the extra $174 billion stem the receding tide of a shrinking and aging fleet? The opposite has been the case: The U.S. Navy’s fleet of active duty combat ships has sharply declined over time. Overall, the U.S. fleet is today as small as at any point in the post-World War II period. From a 1953 high of 835 combat ships, it persistently hovers in the 21st century at about 300.
We can only conclude the admiral’s building programs are seriously flawed, and the metrics that “1 ship replaces 4” rather than making us stronger has placed us on a death spiral. Self inflicted wounds.
Return of the escorts
One answer might be to build many ships smaller. Small destroyer escorts of the world war, like the USS Buckley pictured, were at 1300+tons light what we would call a corvette today. They were very well armed for their size, and used in all sea environments during the global conflict. They were light of construction, carried the armament of a destroyer, and extremely useful. As noted, they were constructed in many hundreds in just a few years.
So build smaller ships. Stop obsessing over hull form and get a well-armed, seaworthy frame. Keep hull size down to the 1000-1500 tons frame for an escort. Then the engineers can concentrate on primary armament, making the warship a fighter, not just a wonderful seakeeper. Important true, but the first rule of a naval ship is build it to fight, and build plenty of them.
Thanks to Bob Stoner of Warboats for his help with this article.