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USN Future Surface Fleet

January 12, 2010

We take up our ongoing examination of a very important document from Capt. Wayne Hughes and others, now declassified and online The New Navy Fighting Machine. Today we look at the Captain’s views on future surface combat ships, with some surprising proposals:

  • The blue water surface combatants should concentrate more capability and
    tactical skill on sea control. Most should carry at least eight antiship missiles.  (No argument there! There is a distinct lack of sea control within the USN mindset, that even Galrahn now admits to)
  • When the risk of loss of blue water warships is not great, they can supplement the green water ships with  individual capabilities for inshore ASW, antiswarm, and missile and gunfire support in the littorals. (Again, no argument with this)
  • Offensive antiship missile development is getting ahead of defensive  surface-to-air missile technology, and the situation can be expected to  worsen, as more countries exploit the international arms market.  (If that is the case, why is he de-emphasizing the number of Aegis warships in his proposals? Not saying he is wrong, but just curious at the discrepancy)
  • The number of missile ships (CGs and DDGs) has become  disproportionately great, compared to the number of simpler destroyers,  frigates, and corvettes suited for blue water operations. This phenomenon is unique to the U.S. Navy. (Complete agreement. The all battleship Navy. Don’t think the combatant force should consist of only Aegis warships, as has been the case of the last twenty years as far as procurement, even more than it should be an all corvette navy without major AAW combatant ships)
  •  An affordable land attack missile corvette seems advantageous, in part  because it gives land attack a more distributed capability. A family of such corvettes is much cheaper than an SSGN and will suffice in 
    many scenarios.  (Another proposal that is baffling. If we are emphasizing sea control, why are we back to the old land attack mission which is all we plan for in the modern USN? Again, I am not discounting the idea, just have to think on this some more)
  • The smallest tactical unit should be a mutually supporting pair of vessels,  with either identical or complementary characteristics. This is easier to do with greater numbers of ships, sometimes having complementary capabilities. (Greater numbers. Absolutely! As we have been arguing lately, no matter how extraordinarily capable our present multi-mission warships are, they cannot be in more than one place at a time, nor are giant exquisite platforms needed for most situations of sea control, such as in the anti-piracy mission)

The current USN has to grapple with problems of defensive and offensive warfare, providing an adequate balance of each. As I see it, we currently lean toward the defensive side less to offensive (except in the land attack role). For instance, our current Tomahawk cruise missile has no anti-ship capability, despite the proven lethality of such weapons in modern war. The few older Harpoon ASCMs we deploy are scattered haphazardly around the fleet, with no set doctrine as far as I know of fighting a missile war at sea. We also have no supersonic cruise missiles despite their prevalence in potential peer antagonist arsenals. From the report, we see why the attacker might have an advantage, because of the following:

  1.  The development of  sea-skimming, low observable, fast-maneuvering, very high speed ASCMs
  2. Ballistic missiles with improved  terminal homing, some of which deliver a terminal spray of small explosive warheads; (An ominous possibility IMHO)
  3. Small, cheap, very numerous, autonomous “Harpies” invented by the Israelis and adopted by the PLA-N. Harpies fly out, loiter, and home on a search or fire control radar of the chosen frequency as soon as a
    target radar is detected.

From what I am reading, however, it doesn’t look like Hughes would see the fleet meekly suffering from air attack without some response. Apparently he suggests the “best defense is a good offense”, with a combination of active/passive defenses and tactics. Ultimately he contends that chances of survival increase with numbers, and this is something I have mentioned in times past by stating more numbers equal more targets, specifically forcing the enemy to worry about where are ships are rather than them passively huddled under the protective wing of airpower or even Aegis. He says:

Mathematically, it has been proven that if an enemy has twice as many ships attacking, then in an exchange of fire, the other fleet to achieve parity in losses must have twice the offensive power, twice the defensive power, and twice the staying power. The operational insight comes from observing that when a ship is put out of action it loses all three of its combat  properties—offensive,defensive, and staying power—simultaneously. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that delivering a first unanswered salvo is the best tactic when it can be achieved.

Perhaps this is my answer to the question concerning the need for TLAM corvettes mentioned above? Mr Hugh’s has less confidence in SAMs than yours truly, and provides statistics for his argument. Some of these facts I remember from his book:

  • In all naval history a SAM has shot down a ASCM once (HMS  Gloucester 1991).
  • There has been 300 missile attacks on ships since the first, and the sinking of the INS Eilat in 1967 by an Egyptian Styx.
  • The greatest number of attacks have been against large merchant ships and of these 90% have hit their target. None (?) were sunk.
  • Of the attacks against defended target, warships, 25% struck their mark. Most sank, mainly Arab light combatants.
  • Of surprise attacks against missile warships(Sheffield, Hanit, ect.), 65% hit their target resulting in the loss of 6 sunk and 16 forced out of action.

I agree with Capt. Hughes’ conclusions that over-emphasis on AAW warships is wrong, just as depending exclusively on carrier air power for offensive strike is misguided, over-costly, and a waste of resources. Currently the USN has fielded an unmatched force of some 80 Aegis warships and already has numerous more building or on the drawing board. I think this as over-kill, especially since they have neglected the low end warfare to the point of being extremely vulnerable to small asymmetrical threats. Back when we had a peer adversary in the form of the Soviet Union, America deployed a high-low navy. Today when we have many smaller threats scattered worldwide, we depend exclusively on an all-high tech navy and we are stretched everywhere. No wonder.

To maintain total surface combatant numbers for offensive action and screening at around 140, we conjecture a new blue water frigate similar to those in the other navies of the world. They emphasize sea control but  are capable of escorting large and small carriers, amphibious lift, and delivery and sustainment shipping. They carry at least eight long-range surface-to-surface missiles, a helicopter or UAVs, have a capable ASW suite, and strong, short-range hard and soft kill defenses.

To increase numbers within the fleet, he is advocating frigates of around 3000 tons which sound suspiciously like the LCS to yours truly with some exceptions. Really these are supercorvettes, but we have our doubts the USN can deploy a new frigate for an affordable price, as the USS Freedom and her sisters prove to us. Previously New Wars has provided reasoning  for why we think these ships are obsolete as a class, and question the need for a “blue water frigate” when our focus should be on shallow water warfare.

Table 2 includes 90 fleet frigates costing $400M each.

See? LCS lite, though we like the numbers provided here.

In summary, here is the new Blue Water surface fleet according to the New Navy Fighting Machine:

  • 30 Aegis warships.
  • 90 3000 ton frigates
  • 50 TLAM corvettes
  • 20 auxiliaries (motherships?)

Overall, despite some quibbling with the ship types, everything proposed here is better than the Navy we have today. A fleet mainly geared toward peer conflict (it really doesn’t have the numbers even for this), and a high tech war at sea, it ignores the real and ongoing threats out there, the frugality of modern insurgent navies which can perform wonders with very low tech assets, as well as force multiplying new technology, like ASCMs  granting spartan platforms more effect than ever before. The above fleet is flexible and affordable where the Navy’s new plan is not. Best of all, it rebuilds the American fleet numbers, the steady decline  since the end of the Cold War of which the leadership has failed to adequately address and compensate for all their costly high tech.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. B.Smitty permalink
    January 12, 2010 5:13 pm


    A 50% cut across the board in defense spending would demand a shift in U.S. grand strategy. Every service would bear the brunt.

    If it was “just” a 50% cut to the procurement budget, then, in one year, the Navy would look pretty much like it does today. Fleet size wouldn’t begin to dramatically shrink for years.

  2. Chris Bronk permalink
    January 12, 2010 3:33 pm

    Atlantic Conveyor, was scuttled and sunk by RN personnel after her double Exocet strike on 25 May 1982. While not technically sunk by the Exocet strike, the ship was nonetheless a complete w/o following the fires ignited by the two hits.

  3. Distiller permalink
    January 12, 2010 3:19 pm

    Even with a sharply reduced number of customers (carriers, amphibs) such a low number would leave no attrition and training reserves, or flexibility when ships are upgraded or repaired. But ok.

    @ Incoming: All for it! Actually thinking it’s necessary and coming sooner or later. Doesn’t mean that what arrives on the ground is also 50% less, nor does it mean that the roughly equal share of the budget between the branches would be maintained. I don’t think that anything could be cut from the Navy (without changes in U.S. grand strategy), just priorities shifted, basically as outlined in my first post in this thread.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 12, 2010 1:42 pm

    Incoming!-Good question and I know what I’d do with a 50% cut. I am more curious how the Navy would react. I would see a fleet built which doesn’t concentrate power in a few exquisite hulls. It would be larger, with crews less overworked, filled with hulls that are easier to maintain, less costly to operate, and easy to replace when worn out. Also it would be more powerful fleet, less vulnerable to surprise attacks and new weapons, because the more you disperse your forces, the greater chance of individual survivability. Also conditions will be more favorable for a second strike than a few hulls built to fight only one type of conventional peer adversary.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 12, 2010 1:33 pm

    Distiller wrote-“But the carriers and amphibs still need escorts, and 30 are way too few.”

    Not if you reduce the number of ships which need escorting, which I think is Hughes is point here. But like you I believe even small warships will need some air defense, and if it isn’t aircraft then only missiles will do.

  6. January 12, 2010 12:18 pm

    Mike love your site and read the opinions of yourself and esteemed commenters with great interest.

    I just need to ask the question of yourself and others commenting here, what would the USN look like one year after a 50% cut in US defence spending?

    Hypothetical of course but I do wonder what all the money has bought over the past ten years apart from unsupportable sovereign debt.

    Kind Regards.

  7. Distiller permalink
    January 12, 2010 11:32 am

    Neither NavSurf nor NavAir has modern, dedicated anti-surface capability. Maybe the USN should buy Brahmos? Only half joking here; but maybe the above mentioned programmes, or RATTLRS lead to something.

    The AEGIS – SM combo should not be qualified as a defensive system. Because better than sending out ships with only defensive capability, send out no ship at all, then nothing needs defending. A defensive system is a Millennium gun, a RAM, or a Mica VL and every large surface unit should be capable of defending the 3D bubble of its immediate vicinity. AEGIS – SM is an offensive, ship based airspace denial system, and should be qualified as such.

    I don’t see a corvette sized ship capable of the land attack mission. Any missile battery worth bringing to an enemy shore (taking ATACMS size) would be better housed in something like a dedicated Burke subversion.

    And I’m a little perplexed about the idea of using frigates as offensive units! How should that work? Especially with only a 3000 tons hull? Which is about 750/1000 tons too small, even for sustained defensive patrol & presence jobs.

    One just can’t discuss “surface” as a stand-alone subject, without the subs, without the carriers and amphibs. Now, the whole offensive anti-surface and anti-sub job could go to the SSNs (60 plus) and land-based strike UAVs, and the patrol & presence (and secondary escort) job to the frigates (also 60 plus) and land based patrol aircraft (manned, unmanned). But the carriers and amphibs still need escorts, and 30 are way too few. Even if the Navy would cut deep into the force structure and e.g. use the carriers only for land attack (since blue water is done by the SSNs) together with the amphibs, I really can’t see less than 50 escorts (Burkes), plus ideally another 25 or 30 land-attack/fire support Burkes.

  8. January 12, 2010 9:47 am

    While I agree there are serious issues with sea control today, I do not believe the New Wars recommended path of small surface vessels with ASMs is the way to address the issue.


  1. Is America’s Naval Supremacy Sinking? – Forbes | Everyday News Update
  2. Is America's Naval Supremacy Sinking? - Forbes
  3. links for 2010-01-13 « Budget Insight

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