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Small Answers for Big Problems

January 24, 2010

Some readers are growing weary of my continued mantra of “smaller is better”. Understandable since New Wars does harp often on small warships, light armored vehicles, UAVs, and other cheap but good weapons more relevant to our current wars. Even more tedious, in my opinion, is the constant delays and shipbuilding woes that emanate from the fleet these days, as Eric L Palmer points to with this article titled “Navy fleet in high demand

“Over the past decade, we have seen a decline in the number of ships in our inventory,” said Adm. Patrick Walsh, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet. “However, the demand signal for those assets has steadily increased to support efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, counter piracy around the Horn of Africa, assist with security requirements in the European theater, and respond to humanitarian crisis about every 60 days, on average.”

The Navy has 287 deployable ships. Now 49 percent are under way and 40 percent are on deployment. In the early 1990s, a typical day in the Navy saw 25 to 30 percent of the fleet under way or deployed.

The fleet being smaller than ever, it is also busier than ever. The consistent solutions have been “lets build fewer platforms, but make them bigger and more complicated to get more work out of them”. We then have one warship replacing four, one fighter replacing dozens, and so on. So I have to question whether the Navy’s large ships which they assure us are so capable, are really up to the task set of a new era of warfare? It’s not just me but as ELP explains:

Using an expensive dollars-per-hour, big crew cruiser to do anti-piracy and other low level work is a big business plan problem. Many kinds of U.S. Navy missions; anti-piracy/security, disaster relief and so on, don’t require gold plated solutions. Frigates, corvettes, Mistral class flat-tops all the live-long-day will do.

The blogger also reveals how warships often go to sea greatly undermanned. With small warships, you already have reduced manning. Today we deploy an all-battleship-navy, on a small navy budget!  Aircraft carriers also regularly go to sea with fewer airplanes than they can carry, yet we insist on building them bigger (more on this tomorrow).

Another blog post by War News Updates reveals to us “The Sad State Of US Navy Shipbuilding” and the following headlines:

Navy reports widespread problems on Northrop’s Gulf Coast-built ships — Daily Press
Navy finds faulty welds on Northrop Grumman ships — Sacramento Bee/AP
Widespread problems found on LPDs, other ships — Navy Times
LCS=Lockheed Cannot be Serious! — New Wars
The Three Biggest Challenges Facing U.S. Naval Shipbuilding — Defence Professionals

These are just from the past week! The last report from DefPro holds the popular assumption that the problem in shipbuilding is “money, money, and money“, yet with 2010 Navy Budget of $171 billion, this is hard to grasp. Less than 10% of this actually goes to shipbuilding, it is true, but the rest goes to maintaining a fleet consisting of the worlds largest warships, with more tonnage than 13 navies combined and about 50,000 crewman massed in only 11 USN warships. Thats 15% of the total Navy manpower!

It isn’t just smaller warships and cheaper weapons we want to see. It is a return to basics, a return of simple warfighting and shipbuilding skills, and most of all a bigger fleet of reasonably priced warships. It’s all about the tyranny of numbers and no matter how good your technology, it can’t be in more than one place at a time, or in other words, you can’t do presence if you aren’t present! So if we adopt the idea that less capable doesn’t mean incapable, we see small platforms for what they truly are:

  •  Easier to build, with fewer construction faults.
  •  Cheaper.
  • Require less manning which means more savings.
  • Often more rugged, possessing fewer high tech components.
  • They can take battle damage easier, easily repaired,  far easier to replace if lost.
  • You can buy a lot for the price of a single supercarrier, superfighter, or heavy tank.
  • With numbers you also see less wear and tear on equipment, less over-worked crews.
  • Produce dramatic savings in operating costs especially fuel usage.
27 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2013 12:35 pm

    Yes! Finally something about rhetorical devices powerpoint.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 27, 2010 4:20 am

    Keith, thanks and that means a lot. Sometimes you feel like you’re by yourself, and the worse critics seem to be people I agree with! Yes its all about the numbers, not trying to build the perfect vessel.

  3. Keith permalink
    January 26, 2010 9:31 pm

    Mike, I’m with you. The stretched thin, overburdened Navy we have today, which is only getting smaller, cannot meet the demands placed on it. Over the two+ years I have been reading New Wars there have been many well articulated arguments against what you propose. But as persuasive as they are, they all seem to overlook one fact…it’s about HULLS IN THE WATER. (It doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway – less capable doesn’t mean incapable.) Nothing that your detractors have said addresses this issue.

    It should be obvious that we are top heavy with large, multi-mission, very expensive platforms. Adjustments have to be made in order to meet our commitments. That is a simple fact that can’t be argued away.

    Don’t give up; keep banging the drum!

  4. Scott B. permalink
    January 26, 2010 10:47 am

    Scott B. said : “NOW, I’m starting to feel REALLY discouraged. :-((“

    Just kiddin’ ;-)))))

  5. Scott B. permalink
    January 26, 2010 10:47 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Speaking of “one trick pony” Scott, here you are advocating a single warship class, that’s supposed to be an answer to all our problems.”

    That’s a complete misrepresentation of what I am proposing and have been trying to explain for about 9 months on this very blog.

    Heck, I even seem to remember that I conceded not so long ago the need for small specialized vessels.

    But hey, whatever…

    NOW, I’m starting to feel REALLY discouraged. :-((

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 26, 2010 9:06 am

    Speaking of “one trick pony” Scott, here you are advocating a single warship class, that’s supposed to be an answer to all our problems. this is a continuance of the military practice of “do everything nothing well” platforms. This is another LCS, whereas in the past you had numbers, focused mission platforms, You had balance. Where is this different from where we are today, shrinking, filled with technically deficient platforms, and over-worked crews?

    There is no single answer, except we need diversity in platforms. Absalon could very well work as well as you say, and price as cheap as you say, but something will always come along to match us, so you can’t bet the farm on a single package, which you’re stuck with for decades.

    Bring on the Absalons, but also the corvettes, patrol boats, aviation ships, and destroyers. You might get away with a small inadequate fleet filled only with Blue Water battleships in peacetime, but in our next war at sea, the enemy aren’t going to fight the way we want them to. Historically, they NEVER do.

  7. Scott B. permalink
    January 26, 2010 7:21 am

    Mike Burleson said : “But even their navy doesn’t see these as stand-alone vessels but have corvettes, missile frigates, patrol boats. In other words, a balanced fleet.”

    The Niels Juel are on the way out, soon to be replaced by the Ivar Huitfeld-class frigates. The expeditionary capabilities of the Danish Navy will therefore rely on the Absalons (2 of them), the Ivar Huitfeldt (3 of them) and the ARKs (4 of them).

    The patrol boats are solely meant to operate in the Danish home waters, and the Flyvefisken-class force has been downsized to 10 units following a decision made in 2005, with further custs expected in the not-so-distant future.

  8. Scott B. permalink
    January 26, 2010 7:13 am

    Mike Burleson said : “I’m happy the Danes can build these great ships at bargain prices (still not convinced the USN could).”

    Funny how you’re pessimistic only when it comes to the ABSALON, and at the same time seem to take it for granted that a Visby could be built in the US for about $200 million.

    And, by the same token, assume, without much evidence, that the Visbys built in Sweden cost only $180-220 million, which is a grossly underestimated figure IMHO.

  9. Scott B. permalink
    January 26, 2010 7:09 am

    Mike Burleson said : “The idea that “1 ship replaces 4″ is as much sustaining the stretched thin navy as the costs of these ships. Giant multimission ships can’t do sea control by themselves, neither do they have any business in littoral waters unescorted.”

    I’d hate to sound blunt with such an exquisite host, but what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense, for a variety of reasons, for instance :

    1) At the risk of repeating again what I said a couple of posts ago : “If they are low costs as open source litterature strongly suggests, than you can procure them in adequate numbers, which defeats your *handful of ships* argument.”

    IOW, your stretch thin argument doesn’t hold water.

    2) You systematically make it sound like the only choice is between a one-trick pony and a do-it-all swissknife, while, in the real world, these are merely the extremities of a continuum. Incidentally, if you take a quick look at some of the mythical corvettes you’re advocating, what you’ll find out is that NONE of them is the kind of one-trick pony you seem to favor soooo much these days.

    Why this ability to accomplish more than one mission suddenly becomes EVIL with a warship like ABSALON is a bit of a mistery.

    I could continue forever, but I have the unpleasant feeling that your position in this discussion is purely IDEOLOGICAL. When such a thing happen, it becomes very difficult to have anything but a very SUPERFICIAL *exchange*.

    I’m sure we’ll get a new chance another day.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 25, 2010 8:23 pm

    Still doesn’t address the mindset Scott, even if they price $100 million each. The idea that “1 ship replaces 4” is as much sustaining the stretched thin navy as the costs of these ships. Giant multimission ships can’t do sea control by themselves, neither do they have any business in littoral waters unescorted.

    I’m happy the Danes can build these great ships at bargain prices (still not convinced the USN could). But even their navy doesn’t see these as stand-alone vessels but have corvettes, missile frigates, patrol boats. In other words, a balanced fleet.

  11. Scott B. permalink
    January 25, 2010 7:07 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “You can’t afford enough of them”

    At the risk of repeating what I said 4 posts ago in this thread :

    1) I’d be happy to examine whatever source(s) you may have on the costs of the Absalons; so far, you’ve not been able to post anything tangible that might challenge the numbers that are publicly available.

    2) If they are low costs as open source litterature strongly suggests, than you can procure them in adequate numbers, which defeats your *handful of ships* argument.

  12. Scott B. permalink
    January 25, 2010 7:05 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Plus, littoral waters are very dangerous for a few ships weighing 3000, 5000, 6000 tons ect.”

    At the risk of repeating myself again and again :

    Do you realize that one of your favorite 1,000 tons corvettes, the Israeli Sa’ar 5, has a navigational draft of 15 feet ?

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 25, 2010 6:27 pm

    Don’t get me wrong Scott. I still believe we need multimission platforms, large ships which can perform many functions. But because of the expense we can only afford a few of them, since the tyranny of numbers still holds true. Plus, littoral waters are very dangerous for a few ships weighing 3000, 5000, 6000 tons ect. To combat small warships you need other small warships, which is the lessons of the World Wars that we consistently have to relearn with each new conflict.

    Large warships acting as command vessels, troop transports, or for securing the Blue Water, are indispensable. But for the shallow seas you can’t maintain control with battleships alone. You can’t afford enough of them, plus their obvious strength of firepower and staying power are at a disadvantage here where mines, stealthy d/e submarines, aircraft, and fast attack craft are lurking. This is their domain.

    So we use these large multi-purpose frigates as motherships, we send them into the shallow seas with patrol ships or corvettes, where they can joined forces and better maintain control. But neither can do without the other, like a carrier without its planes. It has to be a team effort and the reason we are failing against the pirates and are stretched everywhere is we are thinking like a team. One wants motherships (multimission vessels) and the other just corvettes, and neither will bend.

  14. Scott B. permalink
    January 25, 2010 1:47 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “I consistently put forth numerous alternatives, from Sea Fighter, Stiletto, Visby, even Coast Guard cutters.”

    Sea Fighter, Stiletto, Visby : the PPT smokescreen will soon finish to evaporate (much of it is already gone anyway).

    Once again : if you don’t change the software, no matter how many times you’ll reboot the system, you’ll end up with the exact same bugs at each iteration, which, at the end of the day, will cause your system to crash miserably.

    Want reform ? Change the software : THINK BIG, not small !!!

  15. Scott B. permalink
    January 25, 2010 1:37 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Even if the “station wagon” comes anywhere near the low cots you insist, it still advocates a mindset that you can do many functions with a handful of ships.”

    1) I’d be happy to examine whatever source(s) you may have on the costs of the Absalons; so far, you’ve not been able to post anything tangible that might challenge the numbers that are publicly available.

    2) If they are low costs as open source litterature strongly suggests, than you can procure them in adequate numbers, which defeats your *handful of ships* argument.

  16. Scott B. permalink
    January 25, 2010 1:30 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “What you are advocating is another single purpose do it all warship, as an answer to many naval functions.”

    Because the kind of one-trick pony of a (war)ship you advocate is an IDEOLOGICAL NONSENSE, doesn’t mean that what I have in mind is a *do-it-all* warship as you seem to suggest.

    Either you misinterpreted some of my posts, or you simply missed quite a lot of them.

    Thank God, I don’t get discouraged that easily… ;-))

  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 25, 2010 1:12 pm

    Scott, I don’t think it is ideology so much as logic. What you are advocating is another single purpose do it all warship, as an answer to many naval functions. Note that I have never advocated a single class of warship which the Navy needs to rebuild numbers. I consistently put forth numerous alternatives, from Sea Fighter, Stiletto, Visby, even Coast Guard cutters.

    The multi-mission mantra is the problem, not the answer. Even if the “station wagon” comes anywhere near the low cots you insist, it still advocates a mindset that you can do many functions with a handful of ships. It is the death of the navy which exists for hulls in the water, presence, and controlling the sea lanes. But going back to basics with small escorts will take us where we need to be.

  18. Scott B. permalink
    January 25, 2010 9:48 am

    Mike Burleson said : “And the Pentagon, Lockheed, and China stood up and cheered!”

    Mike,

    I’ve explained sooo many times on your blog what the “THINK BIG, not small” meant that I am hoping wholeheartedly that your response is merely fainted rhetoric for those in your audience that may not be familiar with my POV.

    As I’ve explained so many times in the past, your *small is beautiful* mantra is an IDEOLOGICAL posture and doesn’t provide any tangible answer to the strategic and operational challenges ahead for the US Navy.

    That you may be so WRONG on virtually every benefit you seem to expect from a *small platform* is the best evidence of that.

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 25, 2010 6:11 am

    Scott B said “THINK BIG, not small !!! : that’s the way to go. The only one.”

    And the Pentagon, Lockheed, and China stood up and cheered!

    Shrinking is not a shipbuilding strategy, and that is what the all-battleship navy has given us so far.

  20. Scott B. permalink
    January 24, 2010 5:36 pm

    Walthrop said : “The risk is that if it does not work, we’ll be left with a smaller less capable fleet for much of the same cost. This is what I believe your supposed solution will produce. Exhibit A is the LCS.”

    That’s what I’ve been trying to explain for some time now, without much success obviously…

    Anyway, I’ll try again : if you don’t change the software, no matter how many times you’ll reboot the system, you’ll end up with the exact same bugs at each iteration, which, at the end of the day, will cause your system to crash miserably.

    THINK BIG, not small !!! : that’s the way to go. The only one.

  21. Scott B. permalink
    January 24, 2010 5:32 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “we see small platforms for what they truly are:

    1. Easier to build, with fewer construction faults.
    2. Cheaper.
    3. Require less manning which means more savings.
    4. Often more rugged, possessing fewer high tech components.
    5. They can take battle damage easier, easily repaired, far easier to replace if lost.
    6. You can buy a lot for the price of a single supercarrier, superfighter, or heavy tank.
    7. With numbers you also see less wear and tear on equipment, less over-worked crews.
    8. Produce dramatic savings in operating costs especially fuel usage.”

    With the exception of #6, you’re wrong on every single count

  22. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 24, 2010 3:22 pm

    Mrs Davis said “more opportunity for more officers to command a ship.”

    Yeah! Essential warfighting skills. So few officers get it these days.

  23. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 24, 2010 3:19 pm

    B. Walthrop-I still say I’d rather fail with a ship costing $50 million, than a $5 billion boondoggle like the DDG-1000. We are failing with the current programs, if you look back to the articles listed in the post. We must be long overdo to take some chances regarding shipbuilding. It beats extinction as someone said.

    Lee asked “Relative to what?”

    The fuel savings you get from a 1000 ton vessel compared to a 10,000 ton destroyer or 100,000 ton capital ship?

  24. leesea permalink
    January 24, 2010 2:11 pm

    Mike while I am inclined to accept your premse I am NOT sure of your conclusions: Let me run down them

    * Easier to build, with fewer construction faults – NOT necessarily there can be building problems on any size ship to wit the USCG streched cutters.
    * Cheaper – individually what about in total programmtics or SAR terms?
    * Require less manning which means more savings. – More smaller hulls may mean more total crewing?
    * Often more rugged, possessing fewer high tech components. Not necessarily by any means! Ship “strength” has many many factors NOT related to size.
    * They can take battle damage easier, easily repaired, far easier to replace if lost. Survivability is in the design and specs regardless of size. USCG cutters for instance are not as survivable as warships but they can be
    * You can buy a lot for the price of a single supercarrier, superfighter, or heavy tank. Yes indeed
    * With numbers you also see less wear and tear on equipment, less over-worked crews. Yes I agree
    * Produce dramatic savings in operating costs especially fuel usage. Relative to what?

  25. B. Walthrop permalink
    January 24, 2010 1:34 pm

    You’ve been caught up in the siren song that smaller will be less costly. This may be true, but in all likelihood is just a bunch of pablum to throw out to the masses.

    The cost drivers are capabilities, and if you mean to constrain capability growth during the acquisition process by imposing size restrictions on vessels your prescription might work. I don’t think that it will, but for now I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

    The risk is that if it does not work, we’ll be left with a smaller less capable fleet for much of the same cost. This is what I believe your supposed solution will produce. Exhibit A is the LCS.

    You’re going to have to provide a whole lot more detail to convince me that a larger fleet of smaller ships will be lest costly. Let’s see some numbers, because the numbers that Wayne Hughes used in the recent NPS paper that you have referenced recently are laughably incorrect(on the very low side).

    V/R,

  26. Mrs. Davis permalink
    January 24, 2010 12:33 pm

    I agree with your analysis and would add an important advantage of smaller ships; more opportunity for more officers to command a ship.

    More on that in a moment, but a quibble with the headline; our problems aren’t big. That’s why we don’t need big solutions. Though in anticipation big wars are always expected to be short because of the terrifying weapons, they always end up being long because of the big stakes. When we get in the next big war, we’ll have plenty of time to build big solutions. We’ve still got two big oceans and plenty of untapped capacity. Remember the North Carolina, which can be viewed as the beginning of our WWII procurement, was authorized in January 1937, five years before we entered a four year war.

    But we do have a big problem whose solution may be small. How many officers hold the rank of Commander or Captain who have never commanded or captained a ship? Perhaps Congress should mandate that in order to hold those ranks one must have commanded a craft of at least 500 tons. For technical officers such as medical, a technical rank could be established, but with different names and insignias. Then we might, just might, have a command structure more attuned to the naval warfare and less attuned to procurement. One that actually believes the purpose of the Navy is to fight and defeat our enemies.

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