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Toward a Balanced Navy

December 30, 2009
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Note the graphic above as the Navy’s idea of a “balanced fleet”. These future plans are top-heavy with high end, multi-purpose ships towards the goal of a 313 Ship Navy, further taking America away from a large force structure which it traditionally has been proven necessary in all its wars of the recent past. Paying for this modest fleet has been dubbed “fantasy” by Congress and others, but we will use the Navy’s numbers for the sake of argument and see where we get.

One of our favorite naval authors, Milan Vego, writing in Proceedings Magazine, gives us the details with Finding Our Balance at Sea:

In a February 2006 report to Congress, Acting Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter stated that 313 ships and 3,800 aircraft were necessary to meet all demands and face the most advanced technological challenges. This force level would be reached in FY 12.2
Specifically, the new plan envisaged the following battle force: 11 aircraft carriers, 69 guided-missile destroyers, 19 guided-missile cruisers, 55 littoral combat ships (LCSs), 48 SSNs, 4 guided-missile submarines, 14 ballistic-missile submarines, 31 amphibious ships, 12 future maritime prepositioning force ships, and 50 logistics and support ships.3 Yet the Navy will not be able reach its goal of 313 ships over the long term.

The Navy’s promised emphasis supposedly has been in the littorals since the demise of the peer naval threat from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. It plans are for new littoral combat ships to deal specifically with operations in the shallow seas:

The Navy’s littoral-warfare capabilities are expected to improve somewhat with the LCS. In 2004 the service anticipated having 13 LCSs in service or under contract by 2009, with a pending request for 6 more by 2010. But only 4 have been built or are under contract.
Recently the decision was made to choose only one of the currently developed two designs for the construction of the remaining 51 LCSs. The winner will receive a contract for up to 10 ships to be built through 2014.5 But the LCS, even if designed as the true littoral combatant, will not by itself solve the Navy’s problem of improving drastically its capabilities for fighting in the littorals.

The LCS will perform several functions in the USN, specifically anti-mine warfare, anti-small boat, and anti-submarine escort. It will be replacing the functions of three older types, the Perry class frigates, the Cyclone patrol craft, and anti-mine warfare ships. This is a tall order to be asked for an untried design, especially in shallow seas where large ships are vulnerable.


Lets return now to the Navy’s future force structure. If you look at the graph, you notice that it is heavily skewed for high end operations, traditional conventional warfare on the oceans. A low tech adversary would only have to make a splash against this top-heavy force to cause it to sway to the left or right, meaning, as small as our forces are, it is easily upset by the least disturbance. An example would be Chinese auxiliary ships harassing our government vessels, forcing us to deploy a guided missile cruiser or destroyer. Likewise are the pirates affecting this top heavy structure. Given the LCS’ delay in entering service, we are forced to use our most powerful ships to do sundry low tech escort duties, a waste of their extreme cost and immaculate abilities. It is even doubtful these new ships will fare any better than the warships we already deploy in the Gulf of Aden, which are far more capable and better armed, but more ships would certainly help.

The view that the number of platforms is not as important today as it was in the past is based largely on misplaced confidence in the powers of technology. It also ignores the ever-important factors of geography and distance. A ship or submarine cannot be at two widely separated areas at the same time. A properly balanced battle force composed of large surface combatants and nuclear-powered submarines as well as small surface combatants and advanced conventional submarines is far more effective, because it can be tailored for conducting diverse missions across the range of conflict and in all environments.
Experience conclusively shows that a much larger fleet has decisively impacted ultimate victory. In all the wars fought in the 20th century, the U.S. Navy had to embark on large construction programs for destroyers, destroyer escorts, and frigates-just the type of ships the Navy lacks today in its inventories. Small surface combatants were the workhorses of the service in both world wars and Korea. In Vietnam, the service extensively used destroyers and destroyer escorts to patrol the coast. It also had to build a rather large riverine force.

Mr. Vego offers a better force structure, one more suited for dealing with current threats, without wasting high end warships in low tech operations. It is a bigger, more effective Navy, less susceptible to the whims of the occasional rogue dictator or bold buccaneer:

These numbers are from an earlier New Wars post, but they seem to reflect his ideas accurately. Note also the reduced number of auxiliaries, since the motherships would perform this role for smaller ships in most cases (i.e., it would be a less dependent force). Plus, the lack of need for forward deploying large fuel-hogging battleship types, except under the most grave circumstances, would garner much savings, far more than the Navy’s current ambitious “Green Fleet” plans, which will more likely add to the costs of already exquisite large warships.

Also, you can see the fleet as a whole is less suitable to “upsetting”, from minor threats such as those we detailed. To deploy a single carrier group you are talking about 1/10th of the entire fleet, but a corvette or two already deployed can manage most threats until help arrives, and usually before it is required. The stretched thin anti-piracy fleet in the Gulf, with the best warships in the world but unable to stem the tide of lawlessness, should be proof that capability is no substitute for numbers.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 31, 2009 5:21 pm

    Jed said “I believe a Wave class tanker, with embarked RN helicopter, and embarked US Coast Guard VBSS team has been used as the RN’s “Caribbean Guard Ship” in the past couple of years.

    Thats just amazing to me! These are the auxilary cruisers we have been posting about.

  2. December 31, 2009 4:36 pm

    Hello Jed,

    I understand one of the biggest problems with the Bay class was the delays in getting drawings from Royal Schelde.
    Swan Hunter also performed poorly,the whole project was largely saved by B.A.E.Systems.

    Buying domestically does not require more funding,the Treasury gets about 40% tax clawback from items purchased at home.
    It doesn’t get one penny back if those things are built overseas.

    However,domestic procurement is an issue which has repercussions far beyond mere cost.
    It goes to the heart of whether an armed force is fit for purpose and hence worth paying for.
    This is something which should be well understood by a nation which sacrificed the world’s greatest empire that it’s armed forces might suckle from the teet of American industry.

    In simple terms,armed forces exist to guarantee the independence of action of a political entity – typically the nation state.
    If those armed forces are themselves subject the whims of other political entities then they are not capable of performing the primary task for which they were created and hence do not justify the expense of their upkeep.

    There are also considerations of economics and internal politics.

    Economic strength and industrial capacity are directly related to military power.
    A military which undermines those things undermines itself.
    Again the United Kingdom learned this lesson the hard way between 1939 and 1945.

    A politician has no incentive to spend money on items of equipment which create jobs in foreign countries.
    He is therefore likely to spend that money on things other than defence which do give him political benefit.
    In a democracy,it is the politicians job to benefit his constituents in return for votes is it not?
    The incestuous relationships between politicians,defence contractors and armed forces are the reason the American army,navy and air force are so much better funded than their British counterparts.


  3. Jed permalink
    December 31, 2009 3:42 pm

    Tangosix – I don’t believe the cost overruns to the Bay class were caused because of it being an off the shelf foreign design – as ironic as that would have been – but because they were then built in UK yards, instead of in the yards of the Dutch Damen Schelde group (the Bay is actually a type of the “Enforcer Class” and as such is related to Dutch and Spanish navy LPD’s).

    One thing the UK government has to accept is that if you use defence requirements as a job creation / salvation scheme, then you have to fund defence accordingly. Otherwise if it is cheaper to just buy “off shore” then just do it, in which case the RN / RFA might have 6 Bay class instead of 4.

  4. December 31, 2009 3:40 pm

    “This year the Type 23 HMS Lancaster returned from 6 months in the Gulf, spent a few months in Portsmouth and now shes out off Somalia for another 6 months.”

    Well the RN isn’t just short of ships but man power too. Civilianization of shore jobs has had a detrimental effect on retention and manpower. The cycle of sea draft and land draft has been broken. Sailors spend too long at sea. Then they are expected to deploy again in no time at all. Or have to endure periods of extended extra leave.

  5. Jed permalink
    December 31, 2009 3:38 pm

    Mike, I believe a Wave class tanker, with embarked RN helicopter, and embarked US Coast Guard VBSS team has been used as the RN’s “Caribbean Guard Ship” in the past couple of years.

  6. James Daly permalink
    December 31, 2009 3:32 pm

    In the past year one of the Bay Class took on the South Atlantic patrol, one of the Albion LPD’s performed the North Atlantic guardship duty (both of which are normally performed by a Frigate or Destroyer) and then there is the Wave Knight example. I suspect with Wave Knight she was there supporting warships in the region anyway, but still using a tanker as a platform for an RM raiding party must be a last resort anyway surely?

    Not only are we using ships in roles they are not ideal for, there is a big strain on the other ships too. This year the Type 23 HMS Lancaster returned from 6 months in the Gulf, spent a few months in Portsmouth and now shes out off Somalia for another 6 months. Supposedly the rule used to be at least 18 months between such deployments but obviously thats fallen by the wayside…

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 31, 2009 2:53 pm

    Tangosix, I agree that is still not a bad deal for 4 ships.

    James, I wonder, since I mentioned Wave Knight earlier, are these ships being used so often the fallout of the shrinking Royal Navy, with too many missions and not enough patrol ships? This to me is more proof for the dire need of numbers over capability.

  8. James Daly permalink
    December 31, 2009 2:24 pm

    My point about the Bay class ships being transferred to the RN… I can understand how tankers and stores ships COULD be privatised, but at present the Bay Class are operating as RN ships in all but name, whereas their predecessors the Round Table Class served virtually as ro-ro ferries. It would cost more to run them as part of the RN, but if the RFA were to disappear I can’t see how the Bay Class could be operated in a completely civilian manner given their taskings. Besides, wouldn’t any increased cost in running them be offset by the savings made on the rest of the RFA fleet?

    But of course, what should happen and what could happen are not necessarily the same to the UK Government and the MoD… in the current climate anything is possible to save cash

  9. leesea permalink
    December 31, 2009 1:53 pm

    I will repeat Armed Naval Auxilaries (ANA) should be in the USN!

    And I do NOT think the RFA will be privitzed or at least hope not. The RN is spiralling down the vortex to oblivion.

  10. December 31, 2009 1:48 pm


    an edit to the above post.

    “Why are the very similar Harpers Ferry class,currently in United States Navy service,also regarded as ideal motherships?:

    Should read as:

    “Why are the very similar Harpers Ferry class,currently in United States Navy service,not also regarded as ideal motherships?:


  11. December 31, 2009 1:41 pm


    the Bay Class actually cost £596 Million for four ships.
    That is about $235 Million each.
    Massive cost overruns (ironically due largely to the use of an off the shelf foreign design) are the reason only four were built instead of the original six.

    This is still less than one third the price of a Littoral Combat Ship for a vessel which is six times the size.
    Does this not suggest those who think that cheap ships means small ships are barking up the wrong tree?

    The Bay Class are designed to carry vehicles and supplies and land them on a beach with the small number of landing craft they carry.
    They have little ability to carry or support other craft.
    Why are they then regarded as ideal motherships?

    Why are the very similar Harpers Ferry class,currently in United States Navy service,also regarded as ideal motherships?:

    James Daly said:

    “I’ve a feeling that if the rumoured privatisation of the RFA goes ahead the Bay Class will be transferred to the RN proper.”

    The Royal Fleet Auxiliary exists because it is cheaper to crew ships with civilians than with sailors.
    If the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is privatised,as the Royal Maritime Auxiliary was,it will be to save even more money.
    Why then would they throw away those savings by crewing the Bay class with expensive sailors?

    Mike Burleson said:

    “I always think of the recent RFA Wave Knight incident and wish she had a couple corvettes with her at the time!”

    As has been said before,the hostages were in the custody of the pirates before Wave Knight arrived and she could not intervene without putting them in danger.
    If corvettes were present,they would be subject to the same rules of engagement.
    It might have helped if one of the ships in the area had a hostage resue team on board.
    Such personnel are in high demand and short supply but they would cost far less and be more useful than a couple of corvettes in that situation.


  12. James Daly permalink
    December 31, 2009 5:36 am

    Excellent value for money then, would have been even cheaper per unit if the RN had gone through with buying the planned 6 instead of 4. I’ve a feeling that if the rumoured privatisation of the RFA goes ahead the Bay Class will be transferred to the RN proper; their tasking seems to be more Naval than Auxiliary in any case. I hope one is at the next Portsmouth Navy Days in July so I can have a closer look!

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 31, 2009 4:57 am

    According to Alex’s website:

    88 million pounds or $142 million US. Not bad and I am an increasing fan of these ships. I always think of the recent RFA Wave Knight incident and wish she had a couple corvettes with her at the time! Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but now we’ll never know.

  14. James Daly permalink
    December 31, 2009 4:35 am

    I think the interesting thing is the Bay Class were designed primarily as second wave Landing Ships. I gather they originally had a proper Hangar planned, but this was deleted and replaced with the option of a retrofit aircraft shelter. I’m having trouble finding costings for them, but I have a feeling they’re pretty good value for money for what we’re getting out of them.

  15. leesea permalink
    December 30, 2009 9:19 pm

    Mike you pretty much got most of my ideas for a mothership. I would put that in the armed naval auxilary category. I would say better than the RFA Bay class and not as comprehensive as the Absalons. The price tag for which should be on the order of $500 mil new less if chartered or converted from foreign (I may be wishful with those numbers).

    I too have seen the Largs Bay here at Mayport, it had a very large tent-like structure for a hangar. It has the advantage of good medium lift cargo gear. A mothership perhaps need larger cranes to lift for small ships? 750 ton is currently available.

    The idea of putting larger sensor along with staff spaces and repair shops on a mothership isi the distinquishing point from the Navy’s myopic view of a tender.

    BUT so long as naval types want a warship for mothership this all goes out the porthole.

  16. James Daly permalink
    December 30, 2009 6:58 pm

    The Bay Class LSD(A)’s have been acting as mother ships recently. Ive been on board one of them and I can see the concept – plenty of room on board for an embarked force of boarding parties, large-ish flight deck (although the lack of a hangar is a down-side), a couple of Landing Craft, mexefloat pontoons and an internal dock. They’re proving to be quite flexible ships.

    RFA Diligence, an auxiliary repair ship, has also acted as a mother ship for MCM’s in the past too.

  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 30, 2009 6:52 pm

    James, the triangle has been on my mind for many months but I just couldn’t get the presentation where I wanted it. I don’t do Powerpoint, so this is crude, but effective I think.

    Lee, here is my idea of a mothership and let me know what you agree or disagree on:

    I see the mothership as a force enhancer, the multi-mission platform that the USN tries to make put of every single surface combatant. If we can place things like the aviation facilities, helicopters and UAV hangers, extra accommodations for small boat crews, high band radars, ect. you could forgo putting these tonnage and price raising extras onto surface combatants, reducing their cost and size. You could then affordably increase numbers dramatically.

    Of course you want the corvette to have some of the stuff I mentioned, but a helo pad is good enough. A short range radar, adequate. With less emphasis on sea keeping and stores, the corvette could increase its armament to WW 2 DD standards, where the surface combatant should be: a ship meant to fight!

    The mothership might also carry the extra fuel to top off these smaller ships, much like Illustrious did recently for the RN, and garnered alot of heat. The battleships use to do this all the time for their escorting tin cans. It is not uncommon.

    Like you I agree there need be no set size, though I’d stop at 20,000 tons at least!

  18. leesea permalink
    December 30, 2009 6:17 pm

    Mike I think a mothership can be either a naval auxiliary or a specialize sealift ship. HOWEVER most in the Navy do not see it that way they think motherships are by their definition warships.

    The problem with force structure analysis is it starts with how the USN categorizes ships and they do NOT include most MSC ship in their battle force fleet numbers.

    Motherships like I mentioned on the other thread can run from small OSVs under a 1000 tons to many mid-szies ships around 7500 tons to Absalon class at 14,000 tons. We don’t need one design.

  19. James Daly permalink
    December 30, 2009 4:00 pm

    The triangle is a useful diagram I think, illustrates the point very well. I’ve been trying to visualise a similar thing for the Royal Navy, what with our looming super-carriers and the FSC, but its difficult without knowing what cuts are coming next year.

  20. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 30, 2009 3:47 pm

    So, you agree with my point about mixing the mothership into the low end warship list, and not the auxiliaries?

  21. leesea permalink
    December 30, 2009 3:38 pm

    I looked at the article and triange through the eyes of a sealifter and saw this. The Navy and naval analysts are still UNDER estimating the needs for naval auxiliaries which BTW the MUST stop being mixed in with special missiion, support and sealift ships. The mere fact that Sealift ships are not separated show what little regard the USN holds our Nations merchant marine.


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