Skip to content

Shrink the Ship, Save the Fleet

April 6, 2010

Something in the comments reminded me of this article, titled Shrinking Ship Size Vs. A Shrinking Fleet, concerning the the size of warships, the cost of warships and how they contribute to the ever-shrinking US Navy. Though some of the ideas here from 2008 are a little dated, much of it remains current.

In today’s procurement environment, a reduction in price of a nuclear sub from $2.4 billion to $2 billion is hailed as dramatic savings. Recently a $3-$5 billion stealth destroyer was canceled outright in favor of a $1.5 billion older destroyer, whose price we learn will rise to $2 billion.

A cap on warship size should offer immediate and dramatic savings. The vast size that US ships have grown to in recent decades far too often tempt designers with costly add-ons; extra equipment ordered during building that inflates the price and delays service entry. This has been evident in nearly all ships programs in recent years, like the LPD-17 amphibious ships to the supposedly “cost effective” USS Freedom littoral combat ship.

Notice how the size of warships have expanded greatly in the last century:

  • Aircraft carriers1940: 20,000 tons     2000:100,000 tons
  • Destroyers1900:420 tons     2000:9000 tons
  • Submarines1942:1500 tons     2000:7800 tons

Likewise have amphibious warships, first deployed in World War 2 in vast numbers and averaging 1700 tons (LSTs) now equal the size of battleships built in that era, the latest weighing in at 45,000 tons!

Now we think that modern precision weapons and modular type systems like point defense and rapid fire cannon along with unmanned vehicles can multiply the fighting power of the small warship. With this in mind our future fleet composition might look like this:

  • Motherships(UAV or missile carrier)-20,000 tons
  • Destroyers-2500 tons
  • Escort ships(corvettes, FACs, or patrol vessels)-1500 tons or less
  • Nuclear attack subs-2500 tons
  • Conventional Littoral submarines-1500 tons

The argument usually is you give up capability, but I can’t help but wonder what use is technology but to make things easier. Modern weapons and sensors seem to have placed an unreasonable burden on the US Navy, forcing it to build many fewer, and ever larger platforms. As someone pointed out within the comments, considering the type of aircraft the Navy must launch from aircraft carriers, only the 100,000 ton, 1000 feet long variety are adequate. Could this be a sign of obsolescence of such planes, and that they will price themselves out of range?

Naval airpower is as important as ever, but perhaps we should be looking at other ways to launch the same bombs and missiles as these planes carry, since that is their whole point of existence. If you replace the airplane, naturally the carrier itself would be essentially useless (though I am sure someone will try to keep it around for a while past this point!).

I recall reading something from Liddell-Hart about when a stream comes up against the rock, it doesn’t just sit still, but will eventually find another way. The new path might be long and winding, but the mighty waters are ever flowing, otherwise it becomes stagnant. I think this is where we are concerning weapons procurement, with the last century fighters, warships, and tanks now so costly and complicated, that they can’t be bought in enough numbers for the many roles required of modern armies, navies, and air forces. More money available seems to worsen the problem instead of solving it. Its the cost of the giant ships and weapons that are changing minds about what is needed, and what is not. Puts things into perspective.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 3:53 pm

    Scott said “that puts the life of our sailors at risk since they fail to meet the most elementary survivability standards and start their service lives with negative growth margins.”

    True as always. When I visit ships have been down on 3 deck (and lower) I am always very aware of how many ladders and hatches I would have to navigate if the ship was sinking; let a lone under fire, on fire, in the dark, hatches jammed and so on. A bigger hull always increase survivability (if you can reach the outside world before somebody mentions the Arizona.)

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 7, 2010 6:22 am

    Here is where my line of thinking has been of late toward surface combatants, viewing the trends of technology and war at sea

    The New Battleships-Guided Missile Frigates (Combining the attributes of guided missile cruisers, destroyers, and frigates)
    The New Destroyer-The Missile Armed Corvette (High end but low cost missile escort)
    The New Frigate-Offshore Patrol Vessels (General Purpose Escort and Patrol Vessel)

    With newer technology plus numbers, I think these ships would be as capable as the very heavy super destroyers and frigates which are still geared to fight the Soviet Navy of the last century. The European navies, with their handful of high end ships, could fill up their numbers by purchasing low end OPVs and patrol ships. A helicopter equipped OPV with a helicopter could be performing the same function as the ultra-sophisticated Tromp is doing in the Gulf, garnering all the headlines. Or two or 3 such vessels working together.

    With many smaller ships, the Western fleets could reverse the trends of declining naval assets that have plagued them for most of the last century. As everyone here has noted, this has come about because of increasingly sensitive, expensive and bulky radars, missiles, propulsion systems etc. But as you see with the ongoing fight with pirates and smugglers, you don’t always need a missile battleship or nuclear submarine for sea control. So, you balance your high end vessels (which you don’t need alot of because they are so capable) with many low end ships to maintain sea control.

    But every warship doesn’t have to be a battleship, and shouldn’t. If that’s all you have then you are actually less capable because you are stretched thin and weakened, subject to destruction piecemeal, because you can’t build enough of them to be in many places at once. The tyranny of numbers rule for a global fleet.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 7, 2010 4:41 am

    “Destroyers of 2500T”

    That was one of the ideas I noted was “dated”. I do think we can do with smaller destroyers, as Guess Who? pointed out with the Burkes. I believe in the tyranny of numbers, but new technology should save us from the tyranny of size. We put an unnecessary burden on our fleet, on shipbuilders, and sailors by insisting only the largest, most expensive vessels with every capability imaginable is useful in modern warfare. It is just not so and is an death-knell to a global navy!

    But if you disperse capability among many ships, keep them together by networking, you have both capability and numbers that is required for sea control.

  4. Guess who? permalink
    April 7, 2010 2:36 am

    Ok I was well into writing a long essay regarding fleet composition when something tripped the fuse and cut all the electricity off I don’t have the time to re-write it but the point was that Burkes are a case of too many eggs and not enough baskets, wherin she has all the sensors and weapons required for a specialised AAW vessel, land attack vessel and ASW vessel under a single roof, by building slightly smaller, specialised vessels it would be possible to field a considerably larger fleet of destroyers (although this is exploiting the fact it costs considerably more to build a formidable AAW vessel than it does to do the same for an equally formidable ASW asset)

    another matter raised was axing 3 CVNs and their associated air wings saves ~5bn a year in maintenance/upkeep alone (the air-wing for 3 CVNs once training and attrition is taken into account is nearly 300 aircraft) before build costs of $8.5bn per carrier over 50 years and $100m per combat aircraft over 35 years whereas the cost of a class of ~100 GP Frigates would be ~$40bn over 35 years with upkeep of ~$2bn per year

  5. April 6, 2010 11:00 pm


    to avoid any confusion on the part of our American hosts,I would like point out that in England the term “fag” refers to a cigarette,not a homosexual.


  6. Guess who? permalink
    April 6, 2010 10:12 pm

    Destroyers of 2500T would be about as much use as a-pair-of-certain-female-attributes on a fish, 2500T, given that most numerous cost of a combatant is her sensors there isn’t much in the way of savings to be had, less steel and fewer gas turbines isn’t going to create enough in terms of raw numbers to increase fleet sizes very much (unless you’re talking in terms of RAS/Support vessels) and it will decrease capabilities a long way, a Modern Navy needs the behemoths (perhaps Leviathan is a more apt metaphor) just as much if not more than it needs the… whatever-the-antonym-of-Behemoth-is’s

    2500t is a Corvette no matter how much you tart it up and has limited practical use aside from general purpose.

    As proven by WW2 corvettes may well be (may have been at one point*) a good platform for ASW ships as more hulls in the water obviously means more sonars in the drink, although as I mentioned in a previous post the most desirable ASW commodity is an expansive number of helicopters, a corvette is less than the ideal platform from which to base even 1 10T(full size) helicopter

    Corvettes for AAW? SPY-1K (preferably SPY-1F though) would be the obvious radar choice for the USN and is claimed to be SM-2/6 capable which in tandem with more vessels would create a interesting proposal however a small ship of 2500T isn’t going to have a radar mounted particularly high, leaving her susceptible to AShM and would only be able to house enough VLS (32? 32 ESSM, 24 SM-6) with deletion of her medium calibre gun (whether that be 57mm or 127mm or anywhere in between)

    However in the age of NEC/CEC Corvettes have a valid place in the modern navy, a specialist ASW or AAW miniature might not be ideal but a GP Corvette with a hull mounted sonar, and a radar such as SPY-1K and should just about be large enough to hangar one medium size rotary or a pair of unmanned helicopters

    All of this said who said that the weight limit is 2,500T and why? suggest a Corvette of ~105M, 2500T is capable of a maximum speed of ~32kts a vessel of 120~125m, 3500~4000T with the same power would still be capable of 28~29kts (conservative estimate) with a negligible effect on cruise speed, possibly 20-30~% less fuel efficient which would prove to be a drain on costs but there would increased range and endurance that goes with the increased size thus reduced strain/requirements of RAS vessels offsets this balance perhaps even at a surplus

    in my mind the best possible use for a USN corvette would be a no-frills design, Diesel only power (Diesel electric could only be a possibility if primary design consideration wasn’t cost) with a top speed of ~24-26kts, 2000~2500T, 95~105m, 5″ gun, 2 25/30mm mounts, SeaRAM, Harpoon, Hangar for Unmanned helicopter(or 2), pad large enough for MH-60, modest EMF (20-30), RHIB/USV, containerised mission modules akin to Stanflex however without the use of specialist cells that are covered by major warships such as ASW, this vessel would be used primarily as a contingent and in low intensity ops so covering modules such as SF support, MCM etc…. Cost? anything more than $100m and there’s corruption involved.

    the crux of my point is that the cost effectiveness of corvettes is limited and that within reason (IE: a 10,000T cruiser where the platform called filled by a 2,500t corvette) cost savings to be had are made from using cheaper sensors/weapons and employment of simple constructions, powerplants (IMO Diesel/Diesel electric is the only option, Gas turbines are too expensive)

    PS: as an aside to what I wrote regarding a larger, heavier vessel having a minor effect on speed, it has been said that if France had constructed CdeG as a 55,000T carrier of ~280M with the same powerplants she would be 1kt slower

    PPS: not suggesting for 1 second that the USN has a good balance and my next post (probably after I’ve had a cup of tea and a fag) will outline what in my opinion would provide a more balanced USN fleet (with emphasis on power projection)

  7. Moose permalink
    April 6, 2010 8:34 pm

    most of the Carrier’s growth happened not in 100 but in less than 20 years. USS Ford and USS Enterprise have nearly the same exterior dimensions, full load they’ll be within a few thousand tons of each other .

    A 2500 ton SSN? You realize that’s about 1000 tons shy of the way-too-small for the 1960s Skipjacks?

    The A26 class, which will replace the A19 (Gotland) class, is about 1900 tons on paper. Even small, short-range coastal SSKs are growing. Hell, midsize family sedans are growing. If you’re building for safety, redundancy, survivability, and capability then you can’t have displacement as your primary metric.

  8. Scott B. permalink
    April 6, 2010 7:01 pm

    Hudson said : “Did the Danes bring in the Absalon of 6000+ tons at less than half of the present predicted cost of LCS ($226m per Absalon) because larger ships are inherently cheaper to build? Or because they’re Danes, and if you put them in charge of the LCS program, they could build a 3000+ LCS for app.$113m per ship?”

    To keep a lot story short, the Danes got their 3P’s right, every single one of them :

    1) Right Product
    2) Right Processes
    3) Right People

    In contrast with LCS, which got every single P wrong.

    That’s what the difference between Success (aka ABSALON) and Failure (aka LCS, both designs) should be traced back to.

  9. Hudson permalink
    April 6, 2010 5:43 pm

    Did the Danes bring in the Absalon of 6000+ tons at less than half of the present predicted cost of LCS ($226m per Absalon) because larger ships are inherently cheaper to build? Or because they’re Danes, and if you put them in charge of the LCS program, they could build a 3000+ LCS for app.$113m per ship?

  10. Scott B. permalink
    April 6, 2010 4:29 pm

    Weight limits didn’t prove exactly successful recently, did they ?

    Exhibit #1 : LCS-1

    Went into detail design at 2,250 tons FLD, then 2,840 tons FLD in August 2004, and over 3,300 tons FLD right now.

    In parallel, cost went from about $200M at the beginning of the program (objective = $150M, threshold = $220M) to well over $600M based on the latest 30-year shipbuilding plan sumitted by the Navy.

    In contrast, the Danes managed to produce their ABSALON, with an FLD of 6,000+ tons, for about $226M.

    Bottom line is that Mike B. and most reformers focus on the wrong metrics with their fixation on displacement, meaning it would yet again fail to contain costs, and result in shrinking numbers.

    Like I’ve explained so many times on this blog, Mike B. is simply trying to re-run the exact same software that lead to the LCS disaster, and boldly hopes that re-booting the system will remove all the bugs in this *transformational* software.

    Guess what ? It won’t. It will simply result in more taxpayer’s dollars going down the drain, and in platforms that puts the life of our sailors at risk since they fail to meet the most elementary survivability standards and start their service lives with negative growth margins.

    Waste money, kill sailors : that’s not what the reform should look like really. But perhaps it is just me failing to understand what *Reform* is all about…

  11. April 6, 2010 4:06 pm

    Then there is American big and American small compared to the big and small used elsewhere……

  12. Marcase permalink
    April 6, 2010 3:52 pm

    Reading these USN fleet alternatives remind me of the many-many proposals early 2004-2006. One of the interesting ones was the CNA Analisys of Alternative (DTP19), where a fleet of large common hulls of about 57,000t, would be configured as mother/arsenal ship, carrier and amphib, and a fleet of smaller combattants of about 1,000t would fill the smaller “LCS like” roles.

    A synopsis with proposed fleet table can be found here – 19 Alternative Fleet Architecture Design.pdf

  13. April 6, 2010 2:54 pm

    As for aircraft carriers there is a big difference between Fairey Swordfish and F-14.

  14. April 6, 2010 2:53 pm

    Um. But there are reasons why ships have got bigger. Take your destroyer. It is packed with electronics. The electronics need generators. Gas turbine though small in themselves need huge intakes and uptakes. Accommodation has improved. As well as uptakes there is a need to accommodate sensors, weapons (SM2 etc aren’t small,) flight deck etc. etc.

    Granted for a vessel of 8000 tons or so the actual hull volume taken up by engine machinery differs little between GT. steam, or nuclear. But where the space is used imposes dictates design.

    50% of the cost of a ship is weapons and systems not hull. You can’t slice up systems, especially sensors. And bigger hulls are simply more efficient.

    The Spanish AEGIS ships get away with being smaller because they only have one VLS. If a second VLS were to be spliced into the design they wouldn’t be far off Burke block 1 in size.


  1. Military And Intelligence News Briefs — April 8, 2010 « Read NEWS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: